09 November 2005

Random Ramblings: FTP Clients

Over the past decade, I've really only used two FTP clients. If I'm on Windows machine and want a GUI interface, I invariably grab Ipswitch's free/light WS_FTP LE, a program that has been around for ages. I've even bought the commercial version of WS_FTP over the years, but I've always gravitated back to the free version. I especially like the fact that I can carry and use it anywhere I go simply by copying it to any portable media large enough to hold it (only 1MB needed). No re-installation is required once you've done the initial installation.

More often than not though, I tend to just fire up command line ftp, usually the DOS version but also the Linux version when I'm using such a system. Command line ftp is actually where I started, so even though it may seem clunky, it's like an old friend to me and my fingers seem to be able to remember the most basic commands I need to use (get, put, mget, mput, ascii, binary, dir, prompt, etc.).

Just today though, while I was visiting John Haller's website, I caught sight of his most recent "Portable App": Portable FileZilla. I've never used FileZilla before, but given its open source heritage, I felt it was worth a try. And given it's a portable app, I can carry/use/copy it to whatever computer I use just as easily as with WS_FTP. My opinion? Well, its interface its a bit messy compared to WS_FTP, but I suppose I can get used to it. One thing I especially like is the fact that it can simulatenously download in multiple streams, which seems to speed things up. Shades of PnP!

I'm not 100% sure yet if it will replace WS_FTP LE, but given that it's only a slightly larger 3.5MB, it's tentatively found a home on my thumb drive. Only time will tell if it succeeds in kicking out the original tenant.

04 November 2005

Post Database: Full Bore DSL Speeds?

In the November 2, 2005 issue of Post Database, James Hein wondered why he wasn't getting the full bandwidth that he was "being charged for" (or more precisely, the 2.5 Mbps that his employer signed up for). The explanation lies in a practice called "sharing". Unbeknownst to many, you the customer are rarely alone in using the DSL circuit that you signed up for. Quite the contrary, more often than not you will be sharing your (sic) circuit with a dozen or more people.

Occasionally, but not always, ISP's will issue a disclaimer to this effect. For example, Ji-Net states this (grammar and comprehensibility notwithstanding): "Package DSL has been shared bandwidth. The speed may reduce by 10%-20% as a result of the OVERHEAD from the IP or traffic in the Internet".

Sharing is usually cited as a ratio. Most corporate packages implement sharing at about 1:5 to 1:10; i.e. 1 link shared by 5-10 customers. For home packages, this ratio is much greater and can range anywhere between 1:20 and more than 1:100. I won't name names here, but I suggest you ask the sales/customer service department of your ISP since there's no easy way to determine this ratio otherwise. Obviously, it's not something that ISP's wish to advertise because of its negative implications. Besides, keeping mum probably gives them flexibility in adjusting sharing ratios at a later date as well.

This sharing may explain why DSL prices began plummeting and why throughput could be suffering as a result. To be fair though, you get what you pay for. It's hardly likely that any ISP could make money providing you with a dedicated link while charging less than Baht 1,000 a month. Also, before you get too indignant, be advised that this sharing practice is hardly unique to Thailand.

Finally, in light of the above, I would suggest that you take into consideration more than just speed and cost while evaluating/comparing DSL packages. In addition, I would also look at: a) link speed/# shared users (a measure of performance), and b) link speed/# shared users/monthly fees (a measure of performance per unit cost).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.)

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.

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.

10 January 2005

Random Ramblings: Some Broadband Benchmarks

At work, we were asked by the home office to run a set of benchmarks. Just for the hell of it, I decided to throw in some benchmarks that I took at Broadband Reports as well. Here are some results I got (using the "Speakeasy" test site). Please keep in mind that the sample is too small for me to conclude anything. Also, the results will vary significantly depending on the time of day they are run. Still, in my opinion, the results are interesting.

Test Site, ISP, Rated Speed Time of Day
Ji-Net (128K corporate link) 09:00 104 104
Ji-Net (512K home link) 06:00 418 190
True (256K home link) 18:30 173 117
TA Easy (56K modem) 10:30 27 25
Asianet cyber-cafe, Times Square (speed?) 11:00 318 358
CAT cyber-cafe, Don Muang (speed?) 06:00 115 312
Marriott Hotel, U.S./Oregon (speed?) 20:00 571 595

I still have two lingering questions:

  • Is True slower than offerings by other ISP's? My buddy Petch believes that it is because he says the "number of customers assigned to each port" is greater (10 for True vs 5 for Ji-Net). The above numbers "seem" to suggest this, but I need more samples to confirm this.
  • Are corporate links faster than home links? Again, they should be because the "number of customers assigned to each port" for corporate links is supposed to be only 1 (or thereabouts). Besides, corporate accounts are scads more expensive. Case in point: the 128K corporate link above is rated 4 times slower yet is 4 times more expensive than the 512K home link.

08 January 2005

Random Ramblings: Google Mail

It's a bit embarassing, but I may be the last person in my family to get access to Google Mail. But thanks to Bill Thompson, I now have my very own account. Google Mail's web interface is nice and peppy, but the inability to create traditional mailboxes ("Labels" are used instead) and the fact that certain common functions are hidden from sighe are a bit disconcerting. Oh well, I suppose it's something I have to get used it.

Speaking of "something new to get used to", I was playing with Google Mail's POP3 option today. Unfortunately, it doesn't work with my old Eudora v3.x owing to the lack of certain SSL features. But at least it DOES work with Eudora v5.1, which is what I use when I'm forced to use something newer. One helpful note: when using Google Mail's SMTP server (smtp.gmail.com), you have to set Eudora"s "Secure Sockets When Sending" value to "Required Alternate Port". However, when you use your ISP's SMTP server, it may be different. With my Ji-Net, I have to set this to "If available, STARTTLS".

Anyway, I now have Eudora v5.1 running on my thumb drive, the same way I set it up with my v3.x - i.e. just copy all of the program files onto the thumb, copy the data files on top of it, and then make one or two configurations changes pointing to certain file locations. Interestingly, Eudora v5.1 doesn't seem to take much more space than my previous v3.

Sigh, it looks like my Eudora v3.x days are numbered. It wouldn't be so bad if I could only change those ugly toolbar icons (alas, I don't think I can) ...

10 December 2004

Random Ramblings: Thunderbird v1.0

Thunderbird v1.0 came out yesterday and needless to say, I immediately downloaded it for my collection. What may be a bit unexpected is that it's STILL NOT to my liking. While I cheerlead for FireFox a lot, Thunderbird just doesn't strike my fancy. Why? First of all, I find its setup rather confusing. Secondly, unlike with Internet Explorer, there are a LOT of good, free email clients to choose from (or you can just use webmail). Thus, there's no overrding need to run away from Microsoft Outlook and into Thunderbird's arms.

Perhaps my biggest reason for keeping Thunderbird on the sidelines though is that it still lacks two very important features that my current email client (an ancient Eudora v3.0.5) possesses:

  • Portability - Not in terms of the number of platforms it supports (Eudora loses hands down on this point because it only runs under Windows and Macs), but rather the fact that my Eudora program files take up but a mere 5MB (not counting the message files). This allows me to carry it around with me on my thumb drive wherever I go. Add to this the fact my Eudora can be literally COPIED (not just installed) wherever I want it and it can be run simply by clicking the main executable file. No profile nonsense to contend with.
  • Flexibility - I can put my mail files anywhere I want and instruct Eudora to run with those files. For example, I can easily set up multiple email accounts for several people on a single computer/single login. While recent versions of Thunderbird can do this as well, I find the procedure to be awkward and unintuitive. Given that I'm no neophyte, this is a serious drawback in my opinion.
Does this mean that I don't recommend Thunderbird? Nope, rather I'm just neutral about it because I don't use it - and as things currently stand, probably never will. Granted, it has a lot of nice features that my oldie Eudora will never have. But for me email has always been something very simple - send mail, read mail, file mail, delete mail - so I don't really suffer from feature envy.

24 November 2004

Random Ramblings: One Firefox Problem Solved

Okay, I've sort of fixed one of the Firefox problems I complained about the other day: the one about Firefox using the localized version of Google to do searches and as a result displaying some Thai text. My fix still relies on google.co.th rather than google.com, but at least the results are entirely in English now. Here's what you do:
  • Point Firefox to https://www.google.com. If you're based in Thailand, chances are you will be taken to www.google.co.th. The line of text below the Google logo and above the input line should be in Thai.
  • Around the middle of the page, you should see something similar to "xxxxx Google.co.th xx : English", where xxx are Thai characters and "English" is a link.
  • Simply click the "English" link (note: NOT the "Google.com in English" link below that).
  • After you do this, nearly everything should be in English now, except for a line that reads: "Google.co.th offered in: xxxxxxx". This is merely a link that allows you to revert back to Google's Thai mode, which is where we were originally.
  • Doing this also places two cookies on your system, at least one of which Google uses to remember your language preferences.
That's it! When you now use the Firefox search box at the top/right corner of the screen, all results should be in English - at least until you clear Google's cookies. If you do this for any reason, simply repeat the process above.

The "case of the missing Google logo" however, had a different turn of events. At first, I thought my Pop-Up Alt extension was the cause of this - but perhaps not entirely. If you were to click the "Google.com in English" link alluded to above, you will find - yep, no logo! Does this also occur under Internet Explorer? No, it doesn't. But then it doesn't on my older versions of Firefox, nor with an old copy of Mozilla (v1.4.1) running on my Linux server either.

22 November 2004

Random Ramblings: Firefox Observations

After much procrastinating, I finally installed Firefox v1.0 on my mainstay computer, which until now had been running v0.9.3. Actually, I had Firefox v1.0 PR installed on my second, test computer, but I didn't use it much except for my short-lived FirefoxIE testing.

Since I've been saying a lot of positive things about Firefox lately, I figured it's time that I report on the bad stuff as well:

First of all, once I installed v1.0, I noticed that the Google search box (top/right corner) did its search using the Thai version of Google. While I can read Thai, I can imagine non-Thai's living in Thailand having a problem with this. While not everything is in Thai, I can imagine the frustration of someone not being to read every little bit and the added frustration of not being to do anything about it. This problem didn't manifest itself with v0.9.x or even v1.0 PR, but it does with the real McCoy v1.0. Because this annoys me as well and I'm definitely going to try and find a fix.

Second, when I tried to go to the English version of Google, the big Google logo in the middle of the page upped and disappeared. Very ugly, man After spending some time investigating this, I discovered that the problem wasn't due to Firefox after all, but to an extension I installed under v0.9.3 called "Pop-Up Alt Attributes". The purpose of this extension was to display a pop-up hint containg the text of the alt attribute whenever you move your mouse cursor over an image. Internet Explorer and Netscape do this as a matter of fact, but for some reason, Firefox doesn't. Interestingly, there is a heated discussion at the Mozilla Development Forum, with the traditionalists arguing that Firefox's failure to pop up the text of the alt attribute is INDEED the correct behaviour because the alt attribute was NEVER intended to display a hint. Rather it was designed to provided a textual description whenever the image doesn't display for some reason. Since I was using Firefox to test out my website and wanted to display some strategic hints, I added this extension. But it has now been removed. At least until I find a similar but less buggy extension.

Third, an icon appearing next to one of my bookmarks on the toolbar refuses to display itself, no matter how I fiddle with it. Again, I'm stumped on this, but will likewise try to fix it.

On the plus side, one very nice thing I discovered (by accident) is Firefox's ability to open multiple web pages with a single action. My bookmark toolbar not only has the usual links, but also folders containing links. The other day, while right clicking on a folder, I accidentally chose "Open in Tabs". What happend was that ALL of the links saved under that folder opened themselves up in tabs. Very nice and very convenient! As I go to a number of websites every day to read news, I now copy these bookmarks to a folder and open all of them up with only 2 mouse clicks. By the way, this feature also existed in v0.9.3 - and probably earlier too.

(P.S. Phase 1 of the website is finished and you can partake of it at https://www.tprthailand.com. Be kind though. Yours truly, doesn't make a living designing websites.)

15 November 2004

Article: Spyware Testing (Part 1)

I've just written a full length article, that details results of some spyware testing. By the way, if the article sounds like I'm writing for someone else, you're right. I actually wrote this with an eye for a reprint in Post Database.

04 November 2004

Random Ramblings: Learning Website Tricks As I Go

Things have been a bit slow of late with my Wobble writings. The reason is that after 6 hours straight of doing website development every day, I'm a little bushed (no pun intended). Nonetheless, here are some updates to stuff that I've recently talked about:
  • Petch and I finally got our scrollable/zoomable map working. Thanks to ZoomifyerEZ, the scrolling and zooming was actually the easy part. What was considerably more time consuming was creating the map. It took a full day of working with Adobe Photoshop and Corel Draw before I gave it my seal of approval. If you're curious to see what it looks like, check out here. You can scroll and zoom using the toolbar, or you can scroll by moving your mouse and clicking and holding the left mouse button. (Note: It may take a few seconds before sections of the map are downloaded into memory whenever you scroll or zoom.)
  • Before I made the final decision to use ZoomifyerEZ, I continued my search for other products with similar capabilities. Noteworthy is a program called "Loris Vector Map Engine" (LVME) put out by a Lithuanian company call Loris. LVME is more narrowly oriented towards map making, and not just maps that one can scroll and zoom, but interactive maps that can display and hide map objects on demand. If you're in the business of creating city guide websites, this could come in handy. The software sells for US$69, which isn't terribly expensive I suppose if you're making money with this.
  • One thing Petch and I noticed while creating text-oriented web graphics is that the TrueType fonts that come standard with Windows and/or were added by Photoshop or Corel Draw leave something to be desired. These little deficiences may not be very apparent when you're using office applications, but they were very apparent - and annoying - to us in our graphics work. The solution was to obtain a "better" font, such as those designed for use on high-resolution typesetters. We finally settled on a Univers font from Linotype, a company of great reknown in this industry. The next question was where to get it from. After searching the usual back alleys of Bangkok, I finally decided to open my purse strings and bought it from MyFonts, a font clearinghouse that shows up often when you Google for fonts. The price was US$21, hardly the cheapest thing in the world, but thankfully we only needed to buy one, and in the final analysis, the improvement was worth it.

30 October 2004

Random Ramblings: Instant Messaging for the Non-IM'er

Instant messaging (IM) has never been my cup of tea. As with telephones, I feel IM'ing to be disruptive and intrusive. Other people, of course, DO use/like/rely on IM. My kids are a case in point - no doubt they'd feel lost with it.

Recently, someone in the U.S. who coordinates with the test prep company I work for requested that all of his contacts get signed up to IM; specifically AOL's AIM. Argh!!! I have a personal hate-hate relationship with AOL and wrote about it some time ago. Anyway, after procrastinating for as long as I could, I downloaded the latest AIM v5.9 and proceeded to install it on one of my spare computers. Sigh, AOL is still up to its old tricks. Even when I unchecked all possible things it wanted to do/install, the program still left its ugly footprints all over the place. To make a long story short, I proceeded to sign up the person who will have the misfortune to use it and then uninstalled the program as quickly as I could.

Not surprisingly, many of the students at the office are IM aficionados and they can't resist installing it on our computers when they don't see it available. ("It" in this case is MSN Messenger though, not AOL's AIM.) For a long time now, I've wanted to install a less onerous IM client, which eventually led me to Gaim. Gaim is one of those programs I love - it's free and it runs on multiple platforms (Windows, Linux/BSD, Mac). It also works with the most popular IM protocols (MSN Messenger, AIM, ICQ, Yahoo!, IRC, etc.) and in fact is capable of logging into such disparate IM networks simultaneously! If I were an IM freak, this would make me incredibly ecstatic! Since I'm not, it only makes me incredibly impressed!

Although I've been aware of Gaim for a while now, I've never tried it before this because it was having compatibility problems with a recent MSN Messenger upgrade. More than 6 months have passed since then and the latest Gaim v1.02 proved to work flawlessly (at least to my eyes) with both Aim v5.9 and MSN Messenger v6.2. Better yet, it's one of those nicely behaved programs - it doesn't linger around in the system tray when you exit it, it doesn't display any commercial content, and it doesn't nag you about signing up for any paid services.

Still, switching from AIM/MSN Messenger to Gaim may not be quite so simple in the real world. While I should be able to get our new AIM user to switch to Gaim, getting my kids to discard their beloved MSN Messenger will be infinitely more difficult. Oh well, one step at a time.

23 October 2004

Random Ramblings: BitTorrent

I got started with BitTorrent a bit late. For those who haven't heard of it or tried yet it, BitTorrent is a quasi-P2P file sharing system that actually performs better when more people are using it - which is the opposite of what occurs with traditional client/server paradigms such as ftp. BitTorrent gets it speed from the fact that fragments of the file you want are downloaded from multiple sources simultaneously. It works best with newer, popular files since these have a higher probability/incidence of being downloaded at any one time.

When I was still in the U.S. and had access to a sweet little 1 Mbps cable modem, I tended to download big files such as ISO's using plain FTP. Under the best of conditions, it would take me only an hour or so to download a single 600-700MB ISO. And even if it took longer with slower or congested sites, I could just let the download continue overnight while I slept.

Upon returning to Thailand, such luxuries vanished into thin air. Even when I finally had ADSL broadband installed in my home (512K downstream - no slouch), the prospects of downloading ISO's was daunting. Thus, when I decided to obtain the new Fedora Core 2 (FC2) Linux distribution, I reluctantly reverted to my old habit of buying from Cheapbytes.

After I placed the order (it takes about 2 weeks to arrive here), I decided to search Google to see where FC2 was available for downloading. I figured I might TRY to ftp a single ISO just to see how long it would take. No harm - if it took too long, I could just abort it and wait for the Cheapbytes CD's to arrive by mail. Many of the Google search results referred to BitTorrent, and realizing that I didn't REALLY know what BitTorrent was all about, I read up on it. I then proceeded to download a Windows BitTorrent client and gave it a try with a smallish test file. Lo and behold, it worked!

Since the download was small, I didn't really appreciate how fast it was. A better proof of concept was to attempt a download of one of the FC2 ISO's. Unfortunately, the only FC2 "torrent" file that I could find was a download of the complete FC2 distribution that comprised 5 CD's in all (note: the last 2 CD's are only partially full, so the entire set is equivalent to "only" 3.5 full CD's). Gulp, a 2.3GB download! Oh well, what the hell, I can always abort it. 17+ hours later, I had a full set of FC2 ISO's in my hands - more than a week before my Cheapbytes order would arrive! This averages out to about 4 hrs/CD. If you want to know how fast this was, compare this with a regular FTP download I made of OpenTLE v5.5 LiveCD (i.e. "Talay", the Thai Linux), which I obtained from NECTEC's FTP site. That ONE CD alone, took 13+ hours to download, notwithstanding the fact that the download took place purely on Thailand's higher speed local links!

While 17 hours may seem like an awfully long time to have your computer locked up, it wasn't so for me because I had my Linux file server do the downloading (while my Windows client was left free to do whatever I do with it). A nice thing about BitTorrent is that you can easily stop and re-start it and BitTorrent will seamlessly pick up where it left off. I was ready to do this if the download started eating up all my internet bandwidth, but in actual fact, the impact on the other computers on my network was barely noticeable!

In actual practice, I can schedule things so that the bulk of the downloading is done during non-/low-usage hours. For example, I could start a download at night when everyone's gone to bed. The next moring everyone goes off to work/school and by the time everyone returns in the late afternoon/early evening, more than 15 hours of downloading would have already passed. If I wanted to, I could stop the download when everyone started using the internet again, and restart it again that night. But as mentioned, the impact isn't so great, so I don't even need to do that.

Not everything is available for BitTorrent downloading though, and even when it's available, it can be MUCH, MUCH slower to download than I've reported. But if I want something bad enough, I can always wait while it downloads in the "background". Some things I still have to obtain via ftp, while for other things such as the flavour of Linux that I'm using (K12LTSP), the only way to get updates is via the officially sanctioned "rsync". rsync selectively downloads by comparing the contents of files and its speed is somewhere between BitTorrent and regular ftp. It took more than 10 hours to upgrade K12LTSP v4.0 to v4.01 (both are Fedora Core 1), but it took almost 2 days to upgrade from v4.01 to v4.1 (FC1 to FC2). This slowness may have also been due to heavy rsync traffic given that v4.1 had been out for only a week.

20 October 2004

Random Ramblings: Zoomable, Scrollable Web Graphics

The other day, while browsing the website of Imperial Queen's Park Hotel (IQPH) in Bangkok, I was blown away by a map showing the location of their hotel (I was planning to attend an education fair there and wanted to know how far it was from a BTS station). The map, displayed in a small window, was not only scrollable, but also zoomable. Of course, I’ve used Yahoo!, MapQuest, and Rand McNally maps before that allowed you to scroll and zoom, but these tended to re-map slowly. IQPH's map, on the other hand, scrolled and zoomed almost instantly. Impressive!

The source code of the web page hinted that this bit of magic was accomplished by Macromedia's Flash (but of course!). And mother of all coincidences, at that precise moment, I was working with Petch to create a map to post on the company's website. Initially, we were going to use a regular, static map. But having seen this little eye-opener, we were strongly motivated to do something similar.

Unfortunately, the IQPH map page didn't offer any further leads. Doing a bit of Googling, I managed to find a product called Zoomifyer that performed similar tricks. (I was going to put up a demo here, but Zoomify's website already provides numerous links showing how its customers use the product, so it's best that you visit there instead.) And especially nice, Zoomify provides a functional, free version of their product called Zoomifyer EZ.

Zoomifyer works by breaking down a large graphic file into smaller pieces. When you scroll a Zoomify'ed graphic, these pieces are brought into view one by one. A bit of re-rendering may be required, especially at zoomed levels, but this technique allows you to view a large/high resolution graphic in pieces without having to (slowly) load in the entire graphic at the outset. This works nicely for maps, since you can scroll to adjacent areas to get your bearings.

On a related matter, Eric Fookes incorporated Zoomifyer technology into his Easy Imager product. Aside from being an image enhancer (reminiscent of the graphic file viewers I recently wrote about), Easy Imager is also especially adept at building "photo albums" that can then be posted on websites. Typically, these albums display thumbnails, which are then clickable to display each photo in all their glory or Zoomify'ed. A picture being worth a thousand words, I recommend that you check out the sample photo albums on Fookes' website. Also, check out JAlbum, a free, multi-platform photo album-making program that runs under Java. Unfortunately, JAlbum is currently incapable of performing any zooming or scrolling.