01 October 2005

Random Ramblings: More on E-Learning, Portable Firefox

Coincidences. In the aftermath of my post of MIT's OpenCourseWare, there was an article in this week's Post Database on the Thailand Cyber University (TCU). This Thai e-learning site is attempting to be a clearinghouse for free courseware. But it's just getting started, as evidenced by the statistics posted on its front page:
  • # Students: 3,655
  • # Instructors: 192
  • # Lessons available: 121
  • # Courses available: 0
  • # Participating universities: 5
Of course, it's unfair to compare newly established TCU with MIT, which has been in existence since the mid 1800's. But it may be worth keeping tabs on if you're interested in this sort of thing.

* * * * * * * * * *

One more thing I didn't mention in my recent posts on John Haller's portable apps. While my emphasis was on installing the software on removable media such as thumb drives, it should hardly come as a surprise that the program can also be installed on regular hard disk partitions. But why would you want to do this? After all, you can always install the regular version of Firefox on your hard disk.

Well, not always. There ARE indeed situations where/when you CANNOT install the regular version of Firefox. For example, under more the recent versions of Windows, if the logged in user is defined as a regular "User" (as opposed to a "Power User"), you won't be able to install programs into C:\Program Files. Granted, you probably won't find yourself in this situation with your OWN computer (chances are, you'll be an "Adminstrator", not a terribly good idea either for that matter). However, if you are using a "public" computer, such as one at an Internet café, a hotel, an airport lounge or something similar, there IS a VERY GOOD chance that this and other security measures have been put place to prevent you from installing programs and from doing things that can mess up the system. For example, access to the "Run" command and Windows Explorer may have been removed.

Since none of the Portable apps require installation - merely extraction - it's more difficult to prevent you from installing it on the desired hard drive. Of course, the whys and wherefores come into play again. Why would you want to install a program on a computer that the proprietor presumably wishes you not to? Answer: For speed and convenience; maybe also to minimize the chances of leaving your thumb drive connected for lengthy periods of time and thus, risk getting infected by who knows what arise.

OK, not a major point. But I just thought you'd like to know that you have the option of doing this.

28 September 2005

Random Ramblings: Portable This, Portable That

Two weeks ago, I wrote about John Haller's Portable Firefox. At the time, his website was down, but it's back up now. I happened across it when I was looking for some portable apps and discovered that besides Firefox, he's also developed portable (Windows) versions of Thunderbird, Sunbird, Nvu, AbiWord - and the thing I'm going try next - OpenOffice!

While I have OpenOffice installed on most of the computers I work on, it would still be nice to ALWAYS have it available on a thumb drive wherever I go. A huge difference between Portable Firefox and Portable OpenOffice though is that OO weighs in at a hefty 91MB (for the stable v1.1.4 and 116MB for the v2.0 beta) compared with a mere 7MB for Firefox. Clearly, a 256MB thumb drive or greater is advisable if you plan to play around with this.

Another interesting thing you can do with Portable Firefox is to cross-dress it in Internet Explorer clothing. The howto can found here. But actually it's pretty easy. What I did was to download and extract Portable Firefox to my thumb drive. Next, I downloaded the Portable Firefox Internet Explorer Profile and extracted it to the Portable Firefox profile directory. Lastly, I downloaded the Firefox Internet Explorer Icons Pack and extracted it to the Portable Firefox\firefox directory. That was it! NO installations, just plain extracting. Fire up Portable Firefox and voilà - it looks like IE from top to bottom. Click Help > About though and the truth is revealed.

Of course, I doubt if many diehard Firefox users are going to do this - save to use it as a party trick or to pull the wool over the eyes of unsuspecting computer newbies. The author himself asks the question: "Why? In the name of all that is good and righteous... WHY??" - and answers his own lament as follows:

"Since a couple people seem to think I must be going over to the dark side, let me give a few reasons:

  1. Because I could. Because it was there.
  2. As a challenge to see how fully Firefox could be altered to look like IE without actually hacking any code.
  3. To show how easy it is to make Firefox look the way you want it to.
  4. To hopefuly get a few people to realize that "I like the way it looks/feels" is not a good reason to keep using IE."

25 September 2005

Random Ramblings: MIT OpenCourseWare

While visiting the Creative Commons website (Lawrence Lessig's et al's brainchild), I clicked on the "Education" link to browse what's there. That in turn led me to the Massachusett's Institute of Technology's OpenCourseWare site. OCW is billed as "a free and open educational resource for faculty, students, and self-learners around the world." If you've always wanted to attend MIT (I did, but alas, they didn't want me to), this is a great chance to take some of their courses - especially if you're too busy or simply past the age of hobnobbing with kids in their late teens.

As the blurb above states, the courses are free - and what's more, they don't even require registration. Available are both undergraduate AND graduate courses in a wide range of discplines. The courses come with a syllabus, reading list, assignments/problem sets, lecture notes, and/or even exams (gak!). What you don't get though, is access to MIT instructors. Rather, if you wish some interaction, there's usually an online forum of other students taking the same course where you can shoot the bull.

Before you get too excited about the implications of OCW, it should be noted that taking these online courses cannot/will not/will never count towards an MIT degree. But at least you will get the satisfaction of having taken MIT caliber courseware. I'm impressed and gratified that an elite institution such as MIT would release its courseware in such a way. Having gone back to school a few years ago, I know the social awkwardness of such an undertaking, the frustration of have overpriced bookware forced on you, and the utter boredom of having to take certain required/prerequisite courses despite having significant life experiences. Thus, such alternative means of knowledge building is appealing to me.

The extent of computer knowledge available free on the Internet is already breathtaking and still ever growing. Hopefully, when other institutions of learning take the same road as MIT, a universe of academic knowledge will become available as well.

22 September 2005

Random Ramblings: Addicted to War

At the risk of imparting a political air here (oh hell, why not), yet another book I picked up at the Hawthorne branch of Powells was Joel Andreas' "Addicted to War: Why the U.S. Can't Kick Militarism" (AK Press, 2004). FYI: This 3rd Edition has been updated for the current war over Iraq.

This isn't a "book" in the traditional sense of the word - it's almost completely illustrated and flows in a comic strip-like fashion (although it's hardly comical, of course). No doubt, the illustrations are intended to make the content easier to digest than if it were presented in a textual tome. Points raised by the author are often documented by end-notes, and quotations from protagonists are used to proverbially hang themselves. The emphasis of the book isn't entirely on military matters though. In fact, the author does a good job of weaving a social/political/economic/historical context of how U.S. policies evolved over time.

The book's website can be found at: https://www.addictedtowar.com. If you subscribe to this side of the argument, you will find a wealth of links to other, like-minded websites. It's here that I found Common Dreams, a place that I frequent now.

P.S. Apparently there is a Thai translation of "Addicted to War" - either already finished or in the works - published by an outfit called "Open Publishing" (?). I'm still trying to track it down, but the company doesn't ring a bell. If anyone has any clue as to who they are, I'd appreciate hearing from you.

19 September 2005

Post Database: Identifying Unknown Music CD's

There was a letter to Post Database's Helpdesk last week (September 14, 2005) asking how one can identify songs on unlabelled music CD's. Wanda gave a logical answer for CD's containing MP3's, but left up in the air what to do with regular music CD's. Actually, there's a very simple solution: just install any music CD ripper that's capable of looking up Gracenote's CDDB music database or something similar like freedb. The ripper will attempt to identify the CD by looking up these databases and provide information on the artist, album title, date released, song titles, etc. This works best with popular commercial music CD's; local music CD's may not be sufficiently documented in these databases.

I know for a fact that this works with CDex, although you will need to enter your email address first before CDDB will work. Another more adventurous alternative is to download and run Apple's iTunes. You can run this even if you don't have an iPod, although naturally you can't use of all of its features. iTunes, aside from everything else is does, is still a multi-purpose media player, ripper, etc. It defaults to ripping to AAC, which while still a lossy format, should still be an improvement over plain vanilla MP3, especially if you rip at 160Kbps or higher. Unfortunately, not many hardware music players support this format besides the iPod. The same holds true for software players, although the full (but still free) version of WinAmp CAN play these AAC/MP4 files without a problem.

Note: Music files downloaded from the iTunes Music Stores, while still in AAC format, are encrypted and won't be playable on WinAmp (unless you know what to do them). But that's another story.

17 September 2005

Random Ramblings: Firefox v1.5 Beta 1

In case you missed it, the beta for the next level of Firefox (1.5 beta 1) is out. I don't always try or use beta releases, but I decided to try it this time. Immediately, most of my extensions and themes stopped working, since most of these hadn't been updated to handle the new beta release yet (most only supported the "Deer Park" alpha release).

If you like to play with the latest, greatest builds like these, there's an extension called Nightly Tester Tools that tricks Firefox into letting these extensions/themes continue to run. Or to be precise, TRY to run. Often, the root cause of the extensions' failure to run is simply a flag that limits the Firefox versions on which they are cleared to run. On the other hand, though, there might be REAL incompatibilities lurking out there. Anyway, if you're interested, try this at your own risk.

FYI: I currently have Nightly Tester Tools installed on my Firefox v1.5 beta 1, and have noticed no problems with my extensions yet, and only a slight cosmetic problem with my Noia 2.0 (eXtreme) theme. Khun Kongkeat promises to update this later this month, so it shouldn't be long before I get a fully debugged version.

Whoops, just noticed - also the loss of the vertical scroll bar. Oh well ...

16 September 2005

Random Ramblings: More Books

Another book that I picked up in Portland was J.D. Lasica's "Darknet: Hollywood's War Against the Digital Generation" (Wiley, 2005). While the subject matter should be self-explanatory from the title of the book, it's the numerous stories told inside that's truly revealiing. Basically, the book posits that there is an insidious movement afoot to strictly control the use and proliferation of digital content (well, analog content too). The result is that laws permitting fair use of copyrighted material are being weakened by laws such as the "Digital Millenium Copyright Act" (see: https://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DMCA and https://www.anti-dmca.org) and by hardware vendors who are either in cahoots with or being arm-twisted by special interests to implement measures that work against the best or fair interests of consumers.

Like anyone who is fascinated by electronic gadgets and who doesn't have many other expensive habits/sins to cater to (fast cars, wine, women, song), I've bought and used more than my fair share of these new fangled digital toys (game consoles, MD players, iPod's, Tivo/ReplayTV PVR's, DVD recorders, etc.). I can also attest to having bumped my head more than once against what I consider to be unreasonable limitations on usage. Given this, it's probably best to be aware of this creeping trend towards absolute control while there's still time to do something about it.

For more/related information, check out the author's/book's website at https://www.darknet.com. While the site has snippets from the book, it's no substitute for a full and thorough reading of the book, which I highly recommend.

14 September 2005

Random Ramblings: Powells Books, Moodle

Actually, one of the reasons (excuses, excuses) that I was away from Wobble for so long this time was that I was in the U.S. for 10 days. While in Portland, Oregon, I spent many an enjoyable hour spelunking around the reknown Powells Books. There are 6 Powells locations in Portland and I managed to visit 5 of them (more by accident than by design). If you're in Portland and love books, this is a fascinating place to visit. Its main "City of Books" store is MUCH, MUCH bigger than the run-of-the-mill Barnes & Noble or Borders strip mall stores. The closest thing I've seen to it are the twin building Barnes & Noble flagship stores in lower Manhattan, New York City (not sure if they're still around though).

Powells has a specific store that's dedicated to technical (including computer) books. While there, I picked up Jason Cole's "Using Moodle: Teaching with the Popular Open Source Course Management System" (O'Reilly, 2005). (OK, I also picked up two high school math books, so I could help my daughter with her homework. Hey, how can I be expected to remember trigonometry at my age?)

If you're wondering what Moodle is, it's "course management" software, something often used to manage online courses, but can also be used in conjunction with regular classroom courses. The best known of this genre of software are Blackboard (which my wife used as an instructor when she taught at the University of Oregon) and WebCT (which I used as a student when I took an online course at the local community college).

What makes Moodle interesting "for the rest of us" is that it's free and open source, which Blackboard and WebCT are DECIDEDLY NOT. But the abovementioned book is hardly the definitive work on Moodle - rather it's more of an introduction - a fact that an Aussie lass chimed in when I was browsing the book at Powells. However, I figured that if I spent some money on the book, that would provide me some incentive to spend time getting it to work properly.

With this in mind, I was prepared to spend some serious time installing it under Linux. On a hunch though, I did a Google search to see if anyone had hacked together a Windows version (hey, even Apache can run under Windows these days). Oh joy! Not only did a Windows version exist, but it came complete with an idiot-level, turn-key installer that also installs PHP, Apache and MySQL which Moodle requires. For more information on the Windows Moodle, see https://www.goohio.com/moodle.

Granted, I wouldn't dream of running a serious Moodle system this way, but then I'm not in the market to do so anyway. Meanwhile, I have a quick and easy way to immerse myself in Moodle's waters.

13 September 2005

Random Ramblings: Software Freedom Day, Chantra

Drat, I missed Thailand's Software Freedom Day (see also: https://www.softwarefreedomday.org). By the time I looked up the place/time on their website it was already the night of the big day. If nothing else though, I managed to download the CD ISO file for Chantra 1.0. Thankfully, it was a pretty speedy download, given that the hosting site was apparently in-country.

I was curious what Chantra was. Unfortunately, Firefox tends to display Thai in rather small fonts and I was too lazy to re-jigger it. Bottom line: Chantra is a collection of free/open source software for the Windows platform. In that regard, it's similar to the likes of TheOpenCD and GNUWin II, which I already had in my download collection.

What I found particularly interesting though, is how many of the featured programs I ACTUALLY use day in, day out (i.e. OpenOffice, PDFCreator, Firefox, BitTorrent, Gimp, VLC, PuTTY), not to mention those that I had used or tried in the past (7-Zip, Gaim, Audacity, Nvu). It's good to know that I'm not walking this road alone.

11 September 2005

Random Ramblings: Back Again, TOT vs TA Broadband

Sigh, the prodigal son returns from another walkabout. Lots to talk about, lots to write, but alas, lots of cobwebs on the writing wheel as well. Double sigh.

Before I went off the air, I mentioned that I had signed up for a new Ji-Net TOT 2 megabit ADSL line. As of today, it's still running but gone is my previous Ji-Net TA 1 megabit line. Not bad, twice the speed at half the price. But of course, given that no lunch is ever free, a few bugaboos arose that somehow didn't find its way into the ISP's advertising.

With this new broadband link, I decided to get a new SMC Barriacde 7904BRA DSL modem/router (M/R) as well. My previous M/R was made by Micronet of Taiwan, and while it worked pretty well, its features were pretty basic. Worse, it had a very irritating habit: after a length of time, its web interface became inaccessible. Granted, the M/R still worked, but I could no longer log into the router. The only way out was to reboot the M/R.

As we've used SMC Internet routers at work without any problems, I went ahead and got one for myself. It wasn't long before I noticed that the SMC would occasionally "hang". The simplest remedy for this was to unplug/re-plug in the A/C plug, but the problem persisted. I finally decided to take a closer look at the SMC's log and to my surprise found that the link was being dropped and reconnected every hour or so. As this unreliability was getting on the family's nerves, I decided to revert back to the Micronet to see if it worked better with the new TOT link. Meanwhile, because my TA link was still active (it takes 30 days to terminate the service), I decided to switch the SMC M/R to my TA link for comparison purposes.

Results: The TOT link continued to disconnect every hour or so, regardless of which M/R I used. But at least the Micronet managed to gracefully reconnect itself every time - something the SMC managed to do MOST but NOT ALL of the time. Meanwhile, the SMC worked flawlessly on the TA link. Why? Because the TA line only disconnected itself infrequently (i.e. every day or two). Why the difference in the disconnect times? I still don't have the answer, but given that I was using the same ISP in both cases, the only conceivable reason must be related to the underlying telecoms.

Performance-wise, at least, the 2 Mbit TOT link DOES feel faster than the 1 Mbit TA line - at least for general web browsing and http and ftp file downloads. With BitTorrent downloads, though, I was aghast to find that I was getting no better than 20 KB/sec download speeds, a fraction of what I got with my previous TA line. As it turns out, the problem was due to the specific file I was trying to download (i.e. a Whitebox Linux DVD ISO). When I switched to a different torrent download (a CentOS Linux DVD ISO), the download speed improved to a more reasonable 90-100 KB/sec. A bit slower than I had hoped for, but at least respectable. Interestingly, a Fedora Core 4 BT download, only clocked in at 50 KB/sec, a bit surprisigly given that it had more seeders than CentOS. Oh well, as if I don't have enough problems to deal with.

02 August 2005

Random Ramblings: Linux Wallpaper

Even though my mainstay computer has been and still is Windows (at least for the time being), I've been using Linux wallpaper for the past 6-7 years. If nothing else, it's a reminder that I should be doing something else with my time. With the recent rebuild of my Windows computer, I forgot to copy my Linux wallpaper over, and rather than taking apart my computer to connect a 2nd hard drive to copy 3-4 files, I figured that I would go Internet spelunking to find my favourite wallpaper instead. Incidentally, my favourites show Tux with an umbrella walking in the rain (reminiscent of the years I spent in rainy Oregon), Tux sucking on a Windows XP juice carton, and Tux lounging in a bathtub reading a Linux rag.

Needless to say, I DID find what I was looking for - and tons more as well (several years have past since I went to looking for these). One site in the Czech Repbulic that has A LOT of wallpaper is Linuxsoft.cz (hint: click on >NÁSLEDUJÍCÍ to move to the next page). I've even found a new favourite: Tux playing the Kill Bill cast (Gogo, Elle and the Bride herself). Alas, Tux is no match for the real Uma Thurman, but you can't have everything!

01 August 2005

Random Ramblings: Windows Here and There

It's been a Windows sort of day around here. My mainstay machine, which has been running Windows 2000 Pro for more than 2 years now, has been acting "funny" of late. I can't quite put my finger on it though. My anti-virus and spyware checkers don't report anything amiss, but the sensors in my gut are definitely getting bad vibes. And when this happens, it's always a good idea to do what your intuition tells you to do.

Granted, a whole lot of drudgery goes into a clean install. I have an installation checklist that's almost 4 pages long and past installs have usually required a full day's work. But admittedly, Windows does run nice and spiffy when it's fresh and clean, and given that I've procrastinated for two years now, I figured it's time to pay the piper. At least Windows 2000 is better than the Windows 9x family, where I've found yearly overhauls to be necessary.

This time I promise to document my Ghost backups a bit better (I have a dozen of such files, but don't remember EXACTLY what each one comprises). Good reason to throw out these 10+ gigabytes of backups as well. I also have to remind myself to visit the "ickier" sites on my second computer, not to mention playing with test programs on that computer as well. At least I'm not throwing out my comptuer as news sources say some people are doing when they get ovewhelmed by viruses or spyware.

29 July 2005

Random Ramblings: Networking Here and There

Sigh, for the past 2 weeks I've been busy with networking tasks, both at home and at work. At work, we're looking to install video projectors in a few classrooms and I thought it would be a good idea to provide connectivity via wireless at least in the beginning (it's cheaper/easier than laying more cable). We've had a Wifi connection there for almost 2 years now, after I bought a D-Link 802.11g access point (AP) for use at home and relegated my older D-Link 802.11b AP to the workplace. We never advertised its existence and no one has really used it on an ongoing basis, except for the occasional visitor who had a wireless-equipped notebook computer with him/her and to their surprise found that they could surf the Internet while waiting for their children to finish class.

During a recent visit to Panthip Plaza, Petch and I discovered that a 3Com 11g wireless AP could now be had for a relatively affordable 3,700 Baht. Another IT-knowledgeable friend had long recommended using the likes of 3Com rather than the cheapo D-Link brand, but at the time I figured it was difficult to justify the cost differential. Given that we were going to be use wireless at work SERIOUSLY now and the price was no longer a disincentive, I purchased a 3Com Wifi unit without hesitation.

Before installing it at work, I took the opportunity to test it at home first. My home D-Link unit always had coverage limitations - I could never get access to all points on my bottom floor and the top floor was totally out the question. Well, the 3Com did a bit better than the D-Link on the bottom floor, but the top floor was still no go. Oh well, on to work. Tests there likewise found a moderate improvement over the existing D-Link, but again the improvements were incremental rather than monumental. I guess you get what you pay for.

At home, I also just switched Internet broadband packages. While most people opt for True Corporation's broadband package, I had long used Ji-Net's, which unfortunately has been costing me twice what True charges. (Note: Both of these packages need to be piggybacked onto a True/TA telephone line.) Recently, we installed broadband for someone who only had a TOT line. Discovering that Ji-Net had a 2 megabit TOT-based package that costed only 1/2 as much as their TA-based package, we decided to give it a try (they needed it in a hurry and it was less of hassle than requesting a new TA telephone line). The results were pretty good.

With that experience under my belt, I decided to change my Internet service at home as well - dumping my Ji-Net/TA 1 megabit link in favour of a Ji-Net/TOT 2 megabit link - at HALF the cost. I also took the opportunity to retire my Micronet ADSL modem/router, which had some shortcomings I found difficult to live with. First of all, it lacked the ability to save its configuration settings to a file. In my opinion, this is a unforgivable. Furthermore, after running for a while, it invariably prevents me from accessing its web-based configuration screens, short of resetting the unit by unplugging it. In its place is now an SMC router (which we use at work). While still one of the low-cost home varieties, I like it manageament features a whole lot better.

I also took the opportunity to do some drudge-work: upgrading the firmware of all my routers and access points, saving configuration files to a safe place, documenting IP addresses, login names, passwords, and re-juggling my IP address map table. Everything worked like clockwork except for the D-Link which decided to hang after its firmware ugrade. A simple reboot didnt help - only a factory default reset would do. Of course, I failed to save its configuration file before this happened. Who says I don't stupid things?

By the way, how goes my 2 megabit link? Well, like the 3Com vs D-Link Wifi, the difference is relatively minor. Granted, while the link speed from my home to my ISP has doubled, the speed from my ISP to the rest of world remains unchanged. And giiven that most of the websites I access tend to be of the overseas variety, the improvement wasn't bound to be earth shattering. But at least I've cut my costs in half. More importantly, I am now able to report more authoritatively on how well the less-travelled TOT broadband route works.

27 July 2005

Random Ramblings: Reader Emails

One of the consequences of my recent "walkabout" was that I forgot to check mail that was sent to Wobble. When I finally did that last week, I found several hundred spam emails, plus a handful of emails from readers of Wobble. For those who wrote me (as opposed to those who spammed me), my sincere apologies and herewith are my return comments.

To Ronald in Chiang Mai who suggested that I go to https://www.google.com/intl/en/ to get an English Google page instead of maintaining an easily lost Google language preference cookie, I agree - except that I find the loss of Google's colourful logo a bit disconcerting. As a way to help retain the Google cookie, I now avail myself of a Firefox extension called "Cookie Culler" which allows me to protect selected cookies, while automatically purging all others when I quit Firefox. So far, it works well.

To Dr. Klaus from Germany who revealed that a manual for Nerocmd (i.e. Nero Burning ROM's command line tool) does indeed exist, thanks for the info. Unfortunately, I never found the manual that was supposedly file attached. Instead, a manual for Nero proper (alas, in German which I cannot read) came in an earlier email. If he wishes to resend the manual (in English, thank-you), I would be glad to have a copy. Until then, I'll just continue to study the help options for what I need to do.

To Khun Tom who apparently wrote from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, asking why IE was shrinking Thai italics, well, you answered your own question. Thankfully too, since I'm not much of a web programmer/designer. Besides that, thank-you for your kind words about my writings.

The good news is that I've changed how future correspondances will be handled. Rather than checking Wobble's email separately, I've decided to route all Wobble mail directly to my regular mailbox now. While this may sound foolhardy (no, I'm not in love with spam), it's not (at least so far, it's not). Hint: It involves the use of Gmail. I'll write more about this in a future posting since it's a whole story unto itself.

20 July 2005

Random Ramblings: Booting Linux from a USB Drive

Soon after I posted my July 9 blog entry about using Live CD's with public computers, Bill Thompson alerted me to a product called The Portable Virtual Privacy Machine ("PVPM"). This is a Linux implementation that runs entirely from a thumb drive. While I've known that such things existed (albeit not this particular one), I didn't put much emphasis on it in my piece because the Post Database letter writer apparently didn't have access to his own computer and thus would have no easy way to create such a device.

Coincidentally, Wanda Sloan highlighted PVPM in Sloan Ranger this week as well. Given all this, I figured I'd better take a closer look. After an 86MB download, I unzipped the contents into one of my thumb drives. I then ran it under a Windows 2000 machine with a 1.7GHz CPU and a Windows XP machine with 2.0GHz CPU. How did it turn out? In a word, the performance was horrible - absolutely unusable. This is hardly surprising given that a Linux emulator is running under Windows.

Bottom line: I still believe that a Live Linux CD is the best solution for public computing. Until proven otherwise, of course.

18 July 2005

Random Ramblings: Airline Quality

I tend to fly overseas a few times a year - usually with the family, but occasionaly alone. When I fly alone, I like to experiment with different airlines - in case I find a new/good one that I can save a few Baht on with the family later. A few months ago, I flew the low cost airline Air Asia for the first time, mainly because it had the best price/schedule flying into/out of Penang. Granted, you get what you pay for, but all in all I didn't find it so onerous, even though my return flight was delayed for two hours. Put another way, I would consider using it again if the price was right (the price was fairly discounted as it was post-tsunami). Of course, I would consider taking other no-frills airlines that are cropping up as well - such as Tiger Airways, JetStar Asia, Valuair, etc.

For the past few years, I flew All Nippon Airlines for most of my Pacific/interncontinental trips. As a lesser known brand, the flights tended not to be full, and I was even able to eke out a last minute booking late last year when other airlines were booked solid. The stewardesses are nice, don't bother you, or act like Nazi matrons like the stews on some first-world airlines, while the food and the entertainment systems are above average, but although hardly stupendous. The worst thing about it, at least when flying from Bangkok to the U.S. West Coast, is that there's an interminable 10 hour wait in Narita. Flying Business class makes this less painful, since they have a decent business class lounge (two in fact), replete with munchies. Furthermore, they give each passenger some spending money in compensation for the long wait, which you can use for buying stuff at their duty free stores or to spend on a day-room at the airport. Since I have kids, they love flying this way, as they get oodles of "free" (sic) spending money.

Still, I'm starting to get a bit bored with ANA. My next intercontinental flights are going to be on Asiana Airlines and/or Korean Air. While I've certainly "heard" of Asiana and actually flew Korean Air once decades ago, I wanted to do as much prior research as I could lest I kick myself for making the wrong choice. Fortunately, there are websites that provide technical information, reviews and user feedback on a gamut of airlines and airports. My favourite is the SkyTrax website at https://www.airlinequality.com, while AirlineGuide.com at https://www.airguideonline.com isn't bad either.

17 July 2005

Post Database: The Ins and Outs of Software Licenses

In the July 6, 2005 installment of "Computer Currents", James Hein wrote about his friend's trials and tribulations in obtaining Microsoft software here in Thailand. While I'm hardly a Microsoft insider, I have had the opportunity to purchase Microsoft software over the years, both on a personal and a professional basis. As such, I thought I'd offer a few observations.

(Caveat Emptor/Mea Culpa Department: Although most of my observations are based on what I know/believe to be fact or are from personal experience, I do occasionally make educated guesses. I've tried to make it clear when I do though.)

1) As a general rule, Microsoft doesn't sell directly to end-users. (I believe exceptions are with gargantuan accounts who require direct Microsoft involvement.) Instead, it relies on layers of resellers and dealers (I may have the terminology wrong here, but hopefully you get the point). The top layer resellers each focus on some segment(s) of industry. If you're a corporate or institutional buyer, chances are you'll deal with this level of reseller. On the other hand, if you buy boxed software from a store, you're buying from a dealer who's further down the "food chain".

2) Most of the big software companies (including Microsoft) sell software in either of two ways: a) as "boxed" software that usually comes with physical media and documentation, or b) as "software licenses" - i.e. pieces of paper that acknowledge your right to use whatever software in whatever quantities that was paid for. For more information, check out: https://www.microsoft.com/licensing/programs/open/default.mspx.

3) Microsoft software sold in Thailand has been sourced from Singapore for as far back as I can remember. Apparently, Singapore is a major manufacturing and distribution point for Microsoft software in the Southeast Asian region (and maybe even farther afield). Thus, it's not surprising that Microsoft software in Thailand should come from or at least be routed through there.

While in-country resellers and dealers do keep boxed software in stock, I doubt that they do so in any great quantity owing to the stocking costs involved, the limited volume of demand, and the sheer range of products in Microsoft's stable. More often that not, they'll just stock the most popular items and place orders for everything else - hardly a surprising business strategy.

Software licenses are dealt with in a different way. For one thing, there is no physical "stock" of licenses. My guess is that the process of generating a software license involves the customer placing an order with a reseller, the reseller forwarding the order details to the in-country Microsoft office, who then forwards the order to a Microsoft regional office (perhaps Singapore or perhaps even directly to the U.S.). Once the customer's information is duly recorded in a licensing database and the transaction approved, the license flows back down to the customer. This multi-step process takes time - three weeks is mentioned in the article. (Incidentally, I have a Microsoft re-order in the works and have been waiting for 3 weeks already as well.) In this day and age, this may seem agonizingly slow, but then again, consider how much longer it takes for a new magazine subscription to start!

Purchasing software in this manner is different from walking into a store and buying a box of software off the shelves or ordering software from a reseller or vendor who has it in stock and can deliver it in a matter of days. In the latter case, you can expect instant or near-instant gratification, but you can also expect to pay A LOT more for it as well.

4) Is there a comprehensive price list for Microsoft software? Of course there has to be one, but I suspect few local buyers ever get to see or access it. For me, this isn't a major problem since I've always been able to get an approximate price over the phone with my reseller, and it never takes more than a few hours to get an "official quotation" faxed to me (probably the time to get a higher up's approval for the pricing and/or the time to generate/send the fax). If I were to wager a guess, my reseller accesses a secure Microsoft website where they obtain the most current prices.

Why doesn't Microsoft publish this or at least make it publicly accessible? I suspect: a) the sheer number of Microsoft products makes this list cumbersome to distribute and update, especially in paper form, b) I'm sure it can be argued that digesting such a massive/complicated price list would be daunting for us mere mortals (sort of like airline pricing), c) Microsoft products are always priced in US Dollars, but always quoted in local currency - thus, prices can change at a moment's notice, d) there MIGHT be regional differences to the prices of some products, something Microsoft may not wish to highlight, e) the same products are often priced differently depending on how they're sold. I have a sneaky suspicion that f) limiting access to the prices also provides a modicum of "flexibility" when it comes to adjusting prices.

Actually, if you need a ballpark figure, U.S. retail prices are easy to come by. Just go to Amazon.com, Buy.com, any office supply website, any computer mail order website, and do a search. Sometimes these prices are discounted, sometimes they aren't. Sometimes they clearly state what the list prices are and what THEIR prices are. Of course, these aren't necessarily Thailand prices (which tend to be higher due to import taxes, shipping costs, etc.), but with some experience you should be able to guesstimate what the Thailand prices would be by multiplying it by some factor.

Even U.S. volume/licensing prices can be determined, albeit they're a lot harder to find. One website that conveniently lists prices for the various types of "Open Licenses" (e.g. business, academic, government, charity) is https://www.wasatchsoftware.com. These prices are practically identical to the prices quoted to me locally (at least the academic prices), which seems to confirm my supposition that licensing prices are based on a global/common US$ price list.

5) Are there differences in prices offered by resellers/dealers? My guess is "No" and "Yes". "No" in that I assume resellers are required to use the official Microsoft price as a guideline and sell only within a set range. "Yes" in that they probably have some leeway to reduce prices - taken from THEIR profit margin, I would think. If this is true, whatever differential exists probably isn't too significant, although I've never verified this because I've only dealt with one reseller at a time over the years.

However, price differences between boxed software and software licenses CAN be substantial. (This is especially true: a) if you're not a business, and b) compared with prices of local boxed software.) That's why buyers who are prepared to buy at least a minimum quantity (5 units at the outset, but just 1 unit for additional orders) opt for volume pricing. Given that this is a licensing scheme, it doesn't involve physical media per se, although you are permitted to buy or not buy these at your discretion.

James seems perplexed by this, especially by Microsoft's supposed suggestion that his friend to get a temporary copy from Panthip (believe me, I've heard this as well). This may seem odd in light of Microsoft's oft heard exhortations to avoid software of this ilk (due to legality issues, due to fear of viruses, due to lack of support, etc.). But if I may play devil's advocate for the moment, I think the bottom line is this: as long as you pay the Microsoft piper (or your pound of flesh, depending on how you look at it), no one cares any more where you get your software from. Can't update to Windows XP SP2 because you're using a Panthip CD key - that's your problem.

Re: James' incredulity that software could be purchased without media, again I emphasize that this is a licensing scheme. If you were to license 20 copies of a given software, you don't really need to keep 20 copies in your possession to prove you're a legal user. Rather, your licenses can be verified simply by accessing Microsoft's eOpen licensing website (https://www.eopen.microsoft.com). No doubt, Microsoft prefers that end-users track/maintain licenses this way - when it comes to audits, it's far less laborious than counting physical disks, determining their authenticity, matching COA's (some of which are stuck to computers), and maintaining lists of CD keys.

In practice, when licensing software, one usually buys just one copy of the physical media and then one legally makes as many copies as needed, up to the quantity licensed. In fact, we order a single media set, copy a working set and then stick the originals in a safe. There's almost no paperwork to deal with, only one CD key per software product, and no product activation!

6) James' article mentions that his friend was required to pay up front for the software he ordered. If he placed his order with a dealer, I wouldn't be surprised at all. If he ordered from a reseller in the name of his company, that would be a bit more unusual, but still understandable if he hadn't had a previous relationship with the reseller. Remember, what the reseller is ordering/buying on the customer's behalf is a piece of paper imprinted with the prospective buyer's name. If the order gets cancelled, the reseller may end with something he can't get resell elsewhere and may not be able to return to Microsoft either. Presumably, once you're already "in the system" and have a history of purchases with your reseller, this requirement might be relaxed - but it all depends on the reseller.

* * * * * * * * * *

All in all, James' friend did the right thing (although he may not have known it at the time). It wouldn't have made sense to buy a boxed version of his Windows 2003 Server. Besides being nearly impossible to find in stores (it would have to be ordered), it would have been expensive to purchase at local retail prices. Besides, he would have had to go through a reseller anyway since Client Access Licenses (CAL's) aren't sold in boxes - you have to go the licensing route for this.

With his proposed purchase of server software + CAL's, he should have had no problem meeting the minimum buy-in point for Open Licensing. And with his software licenses recorded on eOpen, he doesn't need to deal with original program CD's and doesn't need to fear losing or damaging them either. He has a single CD key for each software product (not for each PIECE of software), and doesn't need to go through the detested activation process during installation.

As for his up front payment and lengthy waiting time for fulfillment, granted those may have been surprising, but they were just part of familiarizing oneself with the modus operandi of obtaining software licenses.

15 July 2005

Post Database: NOD32 Anti-Virus

For quite a while now, I've noticed that many Helpdesk readers tend to use free anti-virus solutions such as Grisoft's AVG and Alwil's Avast! I love using free software myself, but after trying/using these programs, not to mention the biggies such as McAfee's VirusScan (VS) and Symantec's Norton Anti-Virus (NAV), I've settled on what I consider to be a good compromise: Eset's NOD32 ("NOD" for short).

Why did I abandon these AV freebies and AV biggies? The freebies were knocked out of contention due to a question of trust. After all, what are the free versions of AVG and Avast! except feature-reduced versions of commercial programs offered by their respective companies. While I can justify the use of feature-reduced programs for many applications, I believe it penny-wise/pound-foolish to use a less-safe AV program.

Shouldn't this be a prescription to stick with the biggies only then? Not necessarily. In fact, I had used VS and NAV for years before I was tempted by the freebies. One major annoyance of the biggies is that their performance hit on your computer can be fairly significant. Furthermore, after a period of free updates, you'll be forced to pay a pretty penny for an annual update subscription (at least $25/year). This is above and beyond the original cost of the software itself (about $50).

My choice of AV programs was also influenced by my role as an administrator of several dozen computers at a company I help out at. From a licensing standpoint, the freebies couldn't be used in a corporate environment anyway - you HAD to buy the commercial versions. This put the freebies into the same boat as the biggies - too big and too expensive.

So far, I haven't addressed the question of virus fighting effectiveness. Using the results of Virus Bulletin (https://www.virusbtn.com) as a guide, the freebies - in fact, their commercial versions! - tend to have less than stellar performance, at least historically. Among the biggies, NAV performs the best, but even it isn't the top performer.

Which finally brings me back to NOD. I've known about NOD for years before I started using it in earnest. Previously, the need to re-license it every year was a bitter pill to swallow, but my mind was changed when NOD officially came to Thailand a few years ago. The "Home" version is now available for a mere 250 Baht/year. This was a significant discount over the regular $40 buy-in and $27 renewal price for buying NOD through regular channels.

Why do I like NOD so much:

  • It's very affordable. Granted, it's not free, but at 250 Baht/year, the home version costs as little as a 1/4 tank of gasoline. The corporate pricing is more expensive at approximately 1,000 Baht/year/computer, but it also includes the ability to do "local" updating (i.e. only one central computer downloads updates from the Internet - all other networked client computers update from this "mirror" at LAN speeds). With NAV, this feature is only available on the considerably more expensive Corporate Edition. But even NAV's standalone version is more expensive than NOD's corporate version.
  • NOD is VERY light on your computer. The performance hit is very small, even though it defaults to updating its definitions HOURLY (you can change this if your Internet connection is slow).
  • There is only one version of the program - no "lite" versus "full" versions. Granted, there are home and corporate versions - not to mention cross-platform and specialty server versions - but the virus fighting features are essentially the same. The corporate version simply adds hooks for local updating, remote administration, etc.
  • Lastly, and most importantly, its virus fighting capabilities are top notch. (Note: When browsing Virus Bulletin's test results, I suggest you look at both current AND past results.) And I can vouch for this: in the past year, I've never had to lift a finger whenever a new virus scare arose. This is also why I install it on every computer I'm asked to fix/reinstall/build.
  • If there is a downside to NOD, it's the fact that it's rather techie and filled with tons of configurable options. Its interface is hardly aimed at the casual user, but fortunately, it works pretty well "out of the box", in an "install and ignore" mode. Also, it's not really an anti-spyware tool, even though the latest version 2.5 has added some adware/spyware detection capabilities. Unfortunately, it's too early to tell how well this works.
The Home version of NOD can be obtained from SE-ED and B2S book stores. For the corporate versions, contact NOD Thailand through their website at https://www.nod32th.com. Free 30-day trials of all versions can also be downloaded from there.

11 July 2005

Random Ramblings: Saving Webmail Login Credentials

As readers of Wobble may know, I've used Firefox for some time now (although I don't use it exclusively - I also use Mozilla-based K-Meleon nearly half the time because it's faster). For me, one major annoyance of Firefox has been its apparent inability to save login name/passwords for common webmail programs such as Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, Google Mail and my own web mail server (well, maybe not all of these). Actually, the root cause of this is that many webmail programs arm twist web browsers NOT to remember the login credentials.

After doing a search on the Internet, I found a solution to this and it's made using web mail much more convenient. The secret is to use something called a "bookmarklet" (which are little snippets of Javascript code) to help Firefox remember passwords. I got my "Remember Password" bookmarklet from https://www.squarefree.com/bookmarklets/forms.html. To save the bookmarklet, just drag it to your bookmarks toolbar. To use it, go to your webmail login screen and then click the "Remember Password" bookmarklet. A window should pop up that saying "Removed autocomplete=off ....". Next, enter your login information as usual, after which your browser should ask you if you wish to save your form information. Say "Yes", and the information will be duly saved. The next time you visit this link, the form fields (i.e. the login information) should be filled in for you automatically - which is the way it should be, thank-you very much.

To recap: Always use the Remember Password bookmarklet BEFORE you're prompted to enter login information. (Apparently, this doesn't work when the login is accomplished via a pop-up window; it needs a regular HTML page.)

10 July 2005

Post Database: Slow Modem Disconnects

In the July 6, 2005 installment of HelpDesk, reader Monton wrote about delays in disconnecting from a modem-initiated Internet connection. No mention was made as to what version of Windows was being used, but if he's using Windows 2000 or XP, I have a few additional ideas.

IF he's also: a) experiencing slow logins (e.g. it takes a minute or more for the login to be authenticated after the modems handshake), and/or b) he's using a large "hosts" file, there are two things he can try.

First, replace the large hosts file with a much smaller one (e.g. the default hosts file that comes with Windows, that's less than 1KB in size). Second - and this is probably the better solution, especially if he intentionally chose to use a large hosts in the first place - disable the DNS Client service. To do this, run "services.msc" from Start > Run, look for an entry called "DNS Client", double-click it, click the "Stop" button, and then in the "Startup Type" field, choose "Disabled".

If this doesn't work or if other problems arise, revert the DNS Client service back to its original settings - and alas, wait for another solution from somewhere/someone else.

09 July 2005

Post Database: Internet Browsing from Public Computers

In the June 22, 2005 installment of HelpDesk, George Masaoka asked whether there was any way to safely use computers in Internet cafés for such things as online banking or online buying. Clearly, this wouldn't be an issue IF one could be certain that Internet café computers were clean of viruses and/or spyware.

The best way to ensure this is to ignore the operating system installed on the Internet café computer and to boot/run/operate from a known/clean environment instead. There are a few ways to accomplish this, but by far the easiest involves the use of a "Live" (i.e. bootable) Linux CD. Even if the computer were infested with Windows viruses or spyware, the chances that the "Live" Linux operating environment would (or even could) become infected is next to zero.

A few caveats though. First, you may need to learn your way around Linux a bit. For this particular need though, it shouldn't be too difficult - just find the web browser (these days, probably Firefox) and run it. Second, if your target websites require Internet Explorer you're probably out of luck. In this day and age though, this should be less of a problem (all of the Internet banking/credit card websites I use work pretty well with Firefox). Third, the Internet café computer MUST have a CD drive, and it must be configured to boot from the CD device BEFORE the hard disk (granted, this isn't too unusual a setup). Lastly, and more problematical is the fact that booting from a Live CD will override any usage/time metering that may be running under Windows. As long as you can come to an amicable agreement with the Internet café proprietor on how to calculate your time used, this shouldn't be a problem either.

Two related matters. First, is it possible to create a Windows "Live" CD? The answer is: "perhaps". If the name "Bart Lagerweij" means anything to you, you'll probably suspect that it IS indeed possible - even though it would hardly be a simple undertaking and may not even be legal as per Microsoft's EULA. I suggest you ignore this possibility.

Second, is there any way to create a pristine "bubble" all the while running the (presumably Windows) operating system installed on the Internet café computer? In my opinion: probably not. Granted, you could reduce your risks by running a lesser-known web browser on a thumb drive, or you could use the likes of the "Anonymizer" service (https://www.anonymizer.com) to minimize the risks on the Internet side. But you would still be at the mercy of any malware that exists on the local computer. Short of installing anti-virus/anti-spyware software and then going through the cleansing process on every computer you intend to use (assuming you were even allowed to do so), this too is an untenable option.

Having said all that, if you frequent Internet café's, I would still recommend that you to look into the possibility of running your own web browser from a thumb drive. Chances are most Internet café computers aren't likely to have any web browser other than Internet Explorer. Worse still, said computers aren't likely to be fully patched against Windows or IE vulnerabilities. A better alternative would be to run a safer web browser on your own portable device. Introducing: "Portable Firefox". Portable Firefox is designed to run from writeable, removable storage device such as thumb or Zip drive. It's not an officially sanctioned/supported release of Firefox, but it IS based on official Firefox builds.

Portable Firefox was developed by John Haller and is available from his website (which unfortunately is currently inaccessible). Alternatively, it can be obtained from the Major Geeks website at: https://www.majorgeeks.com/download4424.html.

Final note: Portable Firefox is also excellent for use on school/university computers that may not have Firefox installed. It's also an awfully useful way of having your bookmarks handy wherever you go.

08 July 2005

Wobble: Return from Walkabout

Long time readers of Wobble know that every now and then I "go walkabout"; i.e. I disappear for a lengthy period of time. This is what happened to me for the past few months. Anyway, I'm back - or at least I think I'm back - and have a few pieces of writing up my sleeve, with many more in my head but unwritten still. These will be posted in the coming days.

P.S. One minor benefit of being away for so long is that the Thingmablog blogging software that I'm using has been updated twice to version 1.0.1. At least it's now out of beta.