Wednesday, March 31, 2010

File Compare made easy and fast

File comparison is not a trivial programming task, so I have learnt to rely on the efforts of others. The text editor I use, EditPad Pro, has great line-by-line comparisons, and in many cases that's all I've needed. Until recently.
I successfully managed to screw up a perfectly good working program, DataMover, and have spent several days fixing it again. Now that the dust has settled, I have the luxury of going back and looking at an older version of the code to see all the changes. The screen shot above is an example of some of the changes.
I discovered ExamDiff (the free version) some time ago, and its icon has been on my desktop for some time, where I can drag and drop files that need comparing. The free version only does line-by-line comparison, so today I tried the "pro" version, which highlights the actual changes along the line, as shown above. Click on the image to get a better view.
It's awesome! Had I been in less of a hurry some time ago, I would have experimented and found out all the awesome extra goodies that ExamDiff Pro could do. This is going to save me a lot of time, not to mention confusion. I have happily paid the $35 to register the product. I should have done this months ago.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

WebHost4Life breaks FishWisePro web site for 12 days

FishWisePro is a web site that provides information on all known species of fish. It is published by the author of, Dennis Polack. I have been privileged to help Dennis by developing the web site pages that extract the data from a SQL database and display it for the user.
We chose WebHost4Life last year because they offered enough disk space and database space to support a large database such as this. Now they have "transitioned" the site to their "new platform" and predictably it doesn't work.
I visited the site today only to discover the site is completely blank. Fortunately the data upload is going according to schedule, because we reorganised the database structure, and I re-generated all the data support pages to match the structure a week ago. I wonder how long the site will be down this time?
Update 28 March (day 1): I logged ticket no 6883865 and called international long distance to the USA to their "support" number. So far all I have is the following boilerplate response:
Thank you for contacting Support.
We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you.
I have checked your website and I was able to duplicate the issue. I have asked a member of our team who specializes in website issue to review your account. You should be hearing from this specialists within 24-48 hours. If you have any questions in the meantime, please let us know and be sure to refer to the link for the quickest service.
Thank you for choosing WebHost4Life, we appreciate your support.
Bryan Smith
Customer Support
So basically they haven't admitted it but they have screwed up and now I must wait for 2 days for them to look into it. I'm willing to bet it takes longer than 48 hours.
Update Tuesday 30 March (day 3): as expected, the issue is not resolved, so I have changed the front page on the old platform in the hope of embarrassing them into changing to the new platform. My wife calls this "guerilla warfare". I call it revenge. As soon as they let me edit the files on the "new platform" I will be able to fix any errors, or at least tell them what's broken. Right now they are just wasting everyone's time.
Update Thursday (day 5): It's now 5 days since they stuffed it up, and finally we are on the new platform after much begging and pleading. Overnight they screwed up the site again, redirecting everything to a blank page. But at least now I have access to the files so I can repair the damage. The migration is 34 days late. Not bad for a 2-bit hosting company.
Friday 2 April, 14h20 SAST (day 6): I came in to the office to work on the web site (it's a public holiday in SA) and was greeted with an HTTP error 503. Basically that means the web server is broken. Last night the SQL Server was broken or flaky. Today its backup wizard doesn't work. They are obviously having a great time in the server room. I wonder how many days it will take to fix?
Update Saturday (day 7): According to ticket #6902824 the problem was resolved after 22 hours, but the site still isn't working. So now we have had to reopen the ticket. That means the site has been unusable for pretty much an entire week.
I'm not the conspiratorial sort, but I get suspicious about the slow progress in fixing these problems. Especially when they offer a special "Premium Support" option for an additional $29.95 per month. Read between the lines in this sales pitch:
All of your support will be delivered by a team of North American-based Premium Agents.
You'll have access to a customized online Support Console that you can use and route online requests to our Premium agents.
All of your requests will be expedited. So if your Premium Agent needs assistance fulfilling your request, our Tier II agents and Engineers will give it special priority.
Does that mean I'm not getting support from North American-based agents at present? Does it mean that "normal" support requests don't get priority? The usually say that I should expect a response within 24-48 hours, and in the "how did we do?" survey they ask if the problem was resolved within 72 hours.
What Makes a Premium Agent?
The most experienced agents, those with the longest tenure at WebHost4Life;
Agents with the highest internal quality scores, based on audits conducted by our Management Team;
Customer Favorites! Premium Agents consistently receive high customer-satisfaction ratings from customers like you.
In other words if you pay four times the "Advanced Hosting Plan" you get the "A" team who are not nearly as useless as the current "B" team. Spot the ripoff. Now there is talk of a class action lawsuit in the USA, and a community action group of current and past WebHost4Life customers.
Update Sunday (day 8): It is now 8 days since the site was transferred, and the "B" team still insists on trying to stuff up the site. I have finally fixed it myself. Hopefully they don't break anything else.
Wednesday 7th (day 9): The site is down again, and remained flaky the whole day. It either gave out partial pages or refused connections completely. I had to report the problem twice, because the first "help" chat agent refused to log the fault. Ticket #6918854 says they are still "researching" the problem. It took them 5 hours to start working on the issue.
Sunday 11 April (day 10): Site up and down again, refusing connections. Error page not working, stats not working. So far I have been in contact with their abysmal chat line 17 times in 2 weeks. Total time wasted: in excess of 24 working hours. Cost: at least $1200, excluding phone calls and bandwidth costs.
Monday 12 April (day 11): Site still refusing connections some of the time. I wasted 3 hours this morning trying to make a simple change to the site. It seems that there is some kind of delay between uploading the new pages and being able to see them. Stats seem to have been fixed. Error page is still broken. I chatted to a "sales" agent this afternoon and asked her the difference between the "old platform" and the "new platform". She got an error visiting the new platform. Theoretically it should be the same speed or faster than the old, but it isn't. Informal testing shows it to be 30% slower, if it works at all.
Update: one of their "Escalated Support" people said he was getting fast load times (within 1 sec) measured using a Firefox add-in called "lori". Here are my results:
"Old platform": Time to first byte: 5.8 sec, time to completion: 43.8 sec
"New platform": Time to first byte: 17 sec, time to completion: 63.9 sec. Depending on how you do the maths, that's anything from 45% to 193% slower on the "new" platform.
Wed 14 April: The refused connections problem seems to have been solved, thanks to the efforts of a competent technician in the "Escalated Support" department, but the server response times are patchy, from being really fast to painfully slow. At least it works, sort of. Maybe I'll get to keep my job. We are still a long way from their mission statement:
Delight customers and help them succeed by profitably delivering superior solutions and an outstanding customer experience.

Their customers think otherwise.
Thursday 15 April (day 12): last night these bright sparks enhanced my outstanding customer experience by deleting the SQL database. I wonder what else they plan to break?
Friday 16 April: It turns out they didn't delete the database, just took it offline for 12 hours. That means the database servers will only be 99.863% reliable this year, even if nothing else goes wrong.
Saturday 17 April: Discovered that the Visitor Stats last updated: 04/13/2010 4:55 PM EDT, which was a day before the SQL servers had their glitch. So there are no visitor stats for 13,14,15,16 and 17 April. Their standard response:
I was able to duplicate your issue. In order to investigate further, I need to escalate the issue to one of our technical specialists. You should be hearing from this specialist within 24-48 hours.
They also changed the stats settings to use AWStats instead of Webalyzer. I wonder why they did that?
Mon 19 April: Today's "outstanding customer experience" is the discovery that the FTP service has been randomly refusing connections all weekend. And another day's worth of server logs is missing. I'm really not looking for these problems: I note them as I bump into them, that's all.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Tax Collectors and Sinners

I used to think that when the bible refers to "tax collectors and sinners" it implied they were different, but after recent dealings with the incomprehensible bureauractic nightmare called the South African Revenue Service, I have to conclude that the term refers entirely to the people who work there. They aren't the only government department where thinking about what one is doing or saying is not required, but their actions (or lack of them) have the biggest impact on me.
Take for example my current tax nightmare. In 2006 I applied for a tax amnesty, which covers the years up to 2006. This was lucky for me, since I hadn't submitted returns for 2002-2005, due to overwork and general disorganisation on my part. So the amnesty made it unneccesary to file the returns, which saved me a lot of paperwork and headache.
Six months after the 2006 tax return and amnesty was filed, SARS decided to estimate my 2002-2005 returns anyway. Huh? BTW, they got the figures wrong, but that hasn't stopped them demanding payment of these estimates, even though they are covered by the amnesty. Plus interest, of course.
And the amnesty section hasn't finalised the amnesty application yet, so until they do, the other amounts are still payable. And they have said they won't waive the "capital" amount, only the interest before 2006. There wasn't any. Confused?
In January I got a phone call from the "collections" department wanting to know why I hadn't paid the R250,000 they had sent the summons for. (FWIW, that figure represents pretty much a year's gross turnover after tax, so I don't exactly have the money floating around in my cheque account). Summons? What summons? These are usually delivered by hand by a Sherriff, or nailed to your front door. No, they claim to have sent it by post (i.e. snail mail). Our postal service is notoriously unreliable, but the other mail from SARS seems to get through. I'm sure it never even left their building. I plan on explaining this incompetence to the judge.
Their "collections" approach seems to be that I must pay the money first, and if they decide I didn't need to (fat chance) then they can refund me. Since they have never ever sent me a refund cheque, I doubt if they will start anytime soon.
Enquiries to their "help" line have generally been fruitless. Most of the time one can tell after a few minutes of the person on the other end has any idea of what is going on. Usually not. At which point one simply has to hang up and try again.
No one can explain what happened to the money we have paid since 2006, or which tax year it has been allocated to. They also can't explain when the 2008 or 2009 assessments will be done, or if they have been done. And the "tax calculator" part of the Sars eFiling system doesn't work for 2009 or 2010, and when I asked about it they said that "it only does an estimate, which could be out by approx R15000 either way".
Fortunately we have found a group of accountants who seem to understand the nature of the beast, and we will now have to pay them to deal with SARS, who have been hell-bent on wasting my time and putting me out of business. Fortunately the accounting fees are tax deductible, but only as expenses. If I could deduct their fees from the amounts I actually have to pay SARS, then the government would be out of business. Sigh.
A word of advice: if you have to visit any government department, take a good book so you don't notice how long the queue takes. I recommend any of the Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, because they are so bizarre that whatever comes next won't seem to be as odd as it would be on a normal day.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Backups? Who needs backups?

I make backups. Regularly. I have learnt the hard way, and rescued years of data as a result, in spite of two laptop hard drive failures. I have all my emails going back to 2001. Still, in the last two years I have wasted two weeks of valuable programming time as a result of bad backups. Ten years ago I threw away an entire day's worth of intensive programming by overwriting a file. That's when I developed Zippy. It has saved me from countless disasters simply by creating zip file backups on my hard drive. I also use an external hard drive to archive copies of important files, using SyncToy. And I have purchased Acronis TrueImage Home. But what happens if/when this drive dies or gets stolen? It sits next to my desk so it's not exactly a secure backup. Fortunately I am also a regular listener of the Security Now! podcast. So I started hearing about Carbonite, and after my last fiasco I decided to splash out and spend $54.95 (ZAR 431.77) for Carbonite's backup service for a year. And because I used the offer code in the podcast adverts, my subscription is renewable in May 2011. And If I install it on my wife's machine as well I get 50% off by using a link in the purchase receipt. South African readers will probably drool at the screen shot above. So far I have backed up nearly 6GB of data, with another 7GB to go. For most "broadband" users in South Africa that's double their monthly 3GB cap, and wireless/3G users are lucky to have a 1GB cap. Fortunately I have a bigger cap, and it is possible to manage the backup process better to restrict the size of the backup. If you have an "unlimited" data connection, consider yourself extremely lucky. You have no excuse for not doing backups. Carbonite is simple to install, easy to set up and works quietly in the background. It just gets on with the job, without interfering with normal work. You can pause it or stop it completely for a while, and restrict the hours when the backup runs. I haven't figured out whether it makes incremental backups of my Outlook data files, but I suspect that it does. Now I can sleep better, knowing that my most important files are also backed up automatically "in the cloud".
Update: M-Web has introduced "uncapped" shaped ADSL, so on Saturday I upgraded my R299 5GB account to a cheaper R129 uncapped 384kbps account. Finally SA enters the 21st century. Update 4 April: All the files are now backed up. It took a while but there were some big ones to do, particularly Outlook email archives and database files.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

WebHost4Life domain registration fiasco

Readers of this blog will know that I recently registered in order to give customers a voice. How ironic that my own hosting provider has dropped the ball with this web site.
On 4th February I asked to register a second domain name, and paid the required US$30. Five weeks later the domain still has not been registered. After a month they asked me to resubmit the domain registration information, and pay another US$30, even though they have failed to refund the first one, or register the domain.
My support log ticket is very repetitive:
Dear customer,
We apologize for the inconvenience. I have sent an urgent message to our senior staff check the actually issue. Please wait our reply.
How long am I expected to wait? Considering the .com domain name took a few days to register, I can't see why it would take 5 weeks to register another one with the same contact details.
Update 9pm: Here's the latest gem:
Dear customer,
According to the notes of the domain registration department, it seems that there is issue of this order. I will forward to the domain registration department again. We apologize for the inconvenience. Thanks.
Wonderful. They think there might be some kind of problem. Looks pretty much like all the other replies. Unbelievable.
Now there is talk on Twitter of a Class Action Lawsuit because of their hosting migration problems. Some sites have been down for 6 days. Ouch!
Update 12.30pm (i.e early Thursday morning): It would appear that the registration of the domain name was completed on Tue Mar 09 03:59:11 GMT 2010 but this didn't show up when I did a domain name search, nor did it work when I tried to go to the URL. Now it is working, so there is just the matter of a refund to sort out. I wonder how long that will take?
Update Friday: After 2 days of zero activity, I contacted the help chat line and they have now promised to request a refund. It seems that their "support" system has broken down completely.
Update Saturday: It took the intervention of Ernie Lopez to wake them up and actually tell me that a refund was on the way. I guess any communication from the responsible department is clearly out of the question. A simple message when the problem first arose would have prevented all of this. I guess they just don't see the need to talk to their customers.

Another Perfect Disk

"Raxco Software has launched the latest version of its award-winning PerfectDisk disk defrag and optimization product family. The new version 11 has been received with rave reviews from the largest Beta test in PerfectDisk history, with thousands of enterprise, SMB and home users around the world participating. PerfectDisk 11 includes several enhancements and new features to help users keep their PCs, laptops and servers running at optimal performance.
"Enhancements in PerfectDisk 11 include improvements to SMARTPlacement, PerfectDisk’s patented optimization strategy that optimizes drives and eliminates most fragmentation before it occurs, and more. You can see a complete overview of enhancements at Evaluation copies are available at the PerfectDisk 11 Download Center.
"In addition, the virtual set of components (PerfectDisk 11 vSphere, PerfectDisk 11 Hyper-V and PerfectDisk 11 VMware Workstation) will be launched in Q2."

Information supplied by Sherry Murray at Raxco. I plan to publish benchmarks in due course.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

FBI chief states the obvious over cyber-threats

FBI director Robert Mueller says cybercrime by militants, foreign states and criminals pose a growing threat to US security. Hollywood could have told him that long ago, after decades of producing movies that show terrorists of assorted shades targeting government and private computer networks.
But Mueller has to say these things every so often - that’s his job. He claims groups such as al-Qaeda primarily use the Internet to recruit members and plan attacks, and have shown a clear and present interest in gaining hacking skills by paying for outside expertise, as well as using techno-savvy members to pursue their aims.
He’s also worried that foreigners want American weaponry, intelligence and high-technology, and use state hackers and mercenaries to gain access to government and business networks. He might have added that al-Qaeda and other groups have long shown a gross appreciation for new-media, by beheading captives live on the Web. And Google could tell him something about online attacks.

... from The Daily Maverick short takes.

Monday, March 08, 2010

The news: explained and relevant

I am not easily impressed by news sites, particularly South African ones. Noseweek is terrific, but too narrow. The Mail and Guardian has good cartoons, but often fails to explain what is going on. The Times is interesting, but the quality is a bit dodgy: too high on the hype, too low on the content. And I used to work for The Star, so I know what goes on in news rooms.
Sarah Palin gave the word "maverick" a bad name, along with "hockey moms". This is a pity, because The Daily Maverick is a great news site. I first discovered them on Google news when The Star published a front page lead on the lifestyle of Julius "fork and knife" Malema. Their analysis and subsequent follow up stories were timeous, relevant and well written. Usually you get to choose only 2 out of 3.
Today I wanted to find out how well "Invictus" and "District 9" did at the Oscars. Not too well, but the Daily Maverick did a good job of explaining what did happen without all the breathless gushing and irrelevant waffle that usually characterises Oscar stories. This is definitely a site worth adding to your daily news reading.