29 March 2007

Random Ramblings: Nothing Earth Shattering Happened Today

Sigh, I don't have anything earth shattering to write about yet. I'm afraid it's going to take a while to get my writing engine rev'ed up again. But rather than remain silent, I thought I'd recap some of the software I'm (still) using.

In previous posts, I had written glowingly about John Haller's Portable Apps. The good news is that I'm still using them - more than before in fact. Portable Firefox (or more correctly now, Firefox Portable Edition) is still my mainstay. Internet Explorer is still lurking about (v6 not v7 thank-you), but I estimate that I use it only about 1% of the time now - i.e. when I absolutely need to.

And I hardly ever need it. Firefox's extensions have made things a lot more interesting. IETab has saved me from calling on IE countless times, Cookie Culler helps me to keep my cookies down to a minimum, FireFTP has mooted the need to use a standalone FTP client (even Portable FileZilla!), and FoxClocks helps me keep track of what time it is in Oregon, so I don't wake up my daughter in the middle of the night with a phone call.

I've just started to fool around with Greasemonkey, or more specifically with the wealth of scripts available. My GMail screens look a lot more interesting these days, and frankly, it's useful for playing (harmless) practical jokes on people.

In the area of email, I've stopped experimenting with this email client and that email client (The Bat, Pocomail, Sylpheed, etc.) and have totally given up on trying to get Eudora to work properly with GMail. So good-bye to Eudora too, but then it's planning to reinvent itself anyway. So now it's just Thunderbird (Portable Edition) and web-based GMail.

And thanks to JH, Portable VLC, 7Zip, Gaim, etc. are also in my stable of must-have apps.

Come to think of it, I've grabbed portable software from other sources as well. I use OperaTor when I need to web browse stealthily (for some strange reason I like it more than TorPark which is based on Firefox). I've dumped Azureus in favour of µTorrent when I need to do BitTorrent downloads. I use the one-file SIW instead of Aida/Forest/Sandra/PC Wizard for hardware/software inspections. And more often than not, it's FoxIT's Reader that gets called on to load PDF files, instead of Adobe's rather obese Acrobat Reader.

Even apps that weren't meant to be portable, I've tried to "portify" with pretty decent results. I don't need to install my file manager PowerDesk any more when I put it on another computer (although I do need to re-config it). Ditto for FastStone's Image Viewer, Capture. Finally, my text editor of choice, EditPad Lite was designed to play it both ways. To be portable or not to be portable, that is the question. Guess which way I have it?

21 October 2005

Random Ramblings: OpenOffice v2

Well, the official release of OpenOffice v2.0 is finally out. As I had been using the v2.0 beta for quite some time now, I wasn't expecting much difference. But frankly, I was pleasantly surprised by the speed of the final release (the removal of debugging code probably had something to do with this). From an uncached standing start, Microsoft Word 2000 took about 5 seconds to load on my humble computer versus 7 seconds for OO Writer (with QuickStart pre-loaded). Admittedly slower, but not terribly significant IMHO. Meanwhile, Word took only one second to load a .DOC file versus 7 seconds for OO Writer. This sizeable difference can be explained by the fact that OO Writer had to "import" the file first. When I saved the .DOC file to an OO native .ODT format, the loading time dropped to about 2 seconds. Again, slower but nothing that would cause me to tear my hair out.

Maybe this will get my buddy Petch more inclined to use OO - he complains about how slow it is to load - but I doubt it. I suspect he'll look for another excuse not to use it. For the record though, in our computer room, OO is installed on all of our computers except for ONE - HIS, where MS Office still lingers. This has more to do with the fact that sometimes we REALLY need to run MS Office and less on kindness on my part. But since I have at least one OO encrypted file that he has to access, he's forced to use OO every now and then anyway.

I must admit though that I still use Microsoft Office 2000 on my day-to-day computer at home - although it has LONG shared space with an OpenOffice installation. This is simply an "if it ain't broke, don't fix/change it" situation, and it's one reason why I never moved up to Office XP or 2003. Nor do I plan to move to the next release of Office either, EVEN if MS finally decides to support OpenDocument. And EVEN if they decide to stop using activation - something I terribly detest. Hell should freeze over before they backtrack on this though.

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."

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 ...

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 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.)

26 February 2005

Random Ramblings: Firefox v1.01 Update

I've been wondering for a LONG time now when the next version/update of Firefox would be released - what with all the reports of odd behaviour after its official v1.0 release. Anyway, it came out today, I downloaded and installed it, but otherwise, didn't notice anything different on my end. I suppose I should be grateful for that.

06 January 2005

Post Database: Firefox Questions Redux

I re-wrote and expanded upon yesterday's blog entry for submission as a letter to the Post Database. Here's how it reads:

"In the December 22 issue of HelpDesk, there were a few questions regarding Firefox. One, by Robert Legrand, questioned why Firefox's default starting page shows up in Thai and asked how it could be changed to English. The cause of this behaviour is that Firefox's starting page uses Google. Google checks your IP address to determine which country you're accessing it from and then "helpfully" provides web pages in the language of that country. Since reader Legrand is no doubt "calling" from Thailand, he gets a page with Thai text. This isn't a problem unique to Firefox though - Internet Explorer (IE) can manifest this problem as well when accessing Google.

I wrote up the fix to this problem in a blog entry (24-Nov-2004) on my website (/index.html). But to recap: go to https://www.google.come (which will redirect you to https://www.google.co.th) and then click the first "English" link you see (in the middle of the page). This will create a cookie that sets a language preference and will cause Firefox's default starting page to display in English only (plus displays of any subsequent Google pages), as long as the cookie remains.

A second query by "A Reader" wondered why Firefox seems to generate network activity every 15 seconds or so, while IE doesn't. I don't have the perfect answer to this question, except to say that based on packet analyses, Internet Explorer does in fact exhibit this behaviour as well, albeit to a lesser degree. As a matter of fact, with NO browser loaded, network activity still occurs. My complete response to this issue is rather technical and is best read in my 05-Jan-2004 blog entry. Suffice to say though, it is my GUESS that this is NOT anomalous behaviour as long as you're sure that adware or spyware isn't running on your system.

One final Firefox-related comment. Recently, Wanda Sloan wrote that IE tends to be more "forgiving" than Firefox. In some instances, this is true - IE will sometimes gloss over badly coded HTML and display it in a palatable way, while Firefox is much more of a stickler for standards and won't bend over backwards for you. Another dimension to this is the fact that IE - like Netscape before it - often runs roughshod over standards and unilaterally creates conventions that it expects the rest of the industry to slavishly follow (or not - they don't care). Unfortunately, the designers of Firefox often refuse to play along and you get websites specifically coded to Microsoft standards that display badly under other web browsers (not just Firefox).

That's why I continue to keep IE handy as a backup browser - and recommend that other people do so as well. Indeed, I need it to access EGV's new website, which now complains that my Firefox doesn't have Flash installed (excuse me, but it does). Of course, it doesn't complain when I use my Flash enabled IE. Go figure."

05 January 2005

Post Database: Firefox Questions

In the 22 December 2004 issue of Post Database's HelpDesk, there were a couple of questions regarding Firefox. One, by Robert Legrand, questioned why Firefox's default starting page shows up in Thai and asked how it could be changed to English. A "no brainer" way to fix this is to point Firefox's home page to another (presumably English) page. But of course, this just skirts the issue.

Looking a bit closer, I noticed that Firefox's starting page actually uses Google. The solution to this problem is actually identical to the Thai/Google problem that I described in 24-Nov-2004 blog entry. That is, go to https://www.google.com (which actually takes you to https://www.google.co.th) and then click the first "English" link you see. This will create a cookie that sets a language preference and will cause Firefox's default starting page to display in English only - as well as displays of other Google pages (as long as the cookie still exists).

A second query by "A Reader" wondered why Firefox seems to generate network activity every 15 seconds or so. Turning off automatic upgrade checks for both Firefox and Firefox extensions alleviates this problem to an extent. You do this by going to: Tools > Options > Advanced > Software Update and then unchecking the boxes in front of "Firefox" and "My Extensions and Themes".

But it doesn't eliminate all network activity. And contrary to what "A Reader" found, I discovered that both Firefox AND Internet Explorer (IE) tend to tickle the network at intervals. To take a closer look at what sort of packets were flying around, I installed a freeware packet sniffer called "Ethereal" to determine how many packets were being detected by my network card and what kind of packets they were.

For the record, I ran Ethereal with Firefox v1.0 and then with Internet Explorer v6 SP1 (i.e. separately), with automatic updating turned off and with both browsers pointing to a static HTML file on my hard disk. Ethereal reported that over a 15 minute period, the number of packets detected with Firefox running were indeed greater than for IE by a factor of about 50% (82 vs 52 packets). While 82 packets over a 15 minute period averages out to about one packet every 11 seconds, it should be noted that some packets would occur ANYWAY even if NO browser were loaded (61 packets were detected when no browsers were running at all).

The protocols of the packets found in both the Firefox and IE runs were similar (i.e. ARP, BROWSE, DNS, HTTP, LANMAN, NBNS, NBSS, SNMP, TCP) and nothing seemed amiss to my not very trained eyes. My GUESS therefore is that the network activity detected by "A Reader" isn't unusual, especially since IE manifests the same activity - although I still don't have an explanation why Firefox is more "chatty" than IE. Still, it should be emphasized that on a typical computer, numerous programs generate network activity for perfectly valid reasons. Of course, it is also possible (especially in these times), that adware or spyware are sending or retrieving information for less valid reasons as well.

03 May 2000

Random Ramblings: Open Source Readings

There was a letter from someone named "Brian" in Post Database's Helpdesk today about Open Source readings. Mentioned was Red Hat CEO Robert Young's "Under the Radar". Linux aficionados of course know that THE definitive article on this subject is Eric Raymond's "The Cathedral and the Bazaar", which is a contained in a book of the same name published by O'Reilly and Associates (https://www.ora.com). If you wish to save a few Baht, ALL of the articles in the book (and more) are available from Eric's website at https://www.tuxedo.org/~esr/. Have a look.