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?

11 November 2005

Random Ramblings: Backing Up Your Thumb Drive

I have most recently become the proud owner of a 1 GB thumb drive. I finally splurged on a biggie because I keep so much stuff on it. For example, I have John Haller's Portable Firefox, Portable Thunderbird, Portable Open Office and Portable FileZilla on it. (In fact, I have FIVE email programs resident on the thumb: Portable Thunderbird, Eudora, TheBat, PocoMail, and Sylpheed because I'm doing some SSL mail testing at the moment.) I also have my todo list on it, my fnancial data (encrypted of course), and the website I created and constantly maintain. If I could figure out how to put my blogging software (i.e. Thingamablog) on it and make it work, I would do so as well, but there are still some technical details to work out first.

It didn't take long for me to become fearful about what would happen if my thumb drive died. Granted, thumb drives are lot sturdier than other removable media, but then they can still die. I'm just not sure when this will happen because I haven't used a thumb drive long enough to find out. Thus, I soon wrote a quickie batch file that I run once a day that syncs everything on the thumb drive to my hard disk.

Of course, I'm the easy one. My wife manages to have (at current count) FIVE thumb drives and presumably she has less time and/or inclincation to make sure her thumb drives are adequately backed up. I finally decided to do something about this. But ugh, five batch files for five thumb drives? What if she gets more drives, and what if she makes a mistake and chooses the wrong batch file, and copies the wrong thumb data overwriting another thumb's backup?

While waiting for a red light to change in traffic recenty, I figured it all out. The result is a single, generic and customizable batch file that can handle all five thumbs (or more, with some minor tweaking). It's nothing fancy, but it does work. This is what it looks like:

  @echo off
  set THUMBD=f:\
  set BAKDIR=d:\thumb\
  set MARKER=none
  if exist %THUMBD%_black_ set MARKER=black
  if exist %THUMBD%_white_ set MARKER=white
  if exist %THUMBD%_blue_  set MARKER=blue
  if %MARKER%==none goto nomarker
  robocopy %THUMBD% %bakdir%%MARKER%\ /mir
  echo The %MARKER% thumb drive has been backed up ...
  goto end
  echo Thumb drive not recognized - nothing backed up
  set MARKER=
  set THUMBD=
  set BAKDIR=
  @echo off

There are a few things you have to do to make this work. First, you have to edit lines 2 and 3 to indicate what drive letter your thumb drive appears as and where the backups should be saved (don't forget the trailing backslash!). In my wife's case, each thumb drive is differentiated by color, so I have a line for each color (lines 5-7). Second, I have to create/copy a "marker" file called _Black_, _White_, and _Blue_ into the root directory of each thumb drive. I also made these files Read-Only to help prevent/reduce the chances of their being accidentally deleted. Third, you have to avail yourself of a program from Microsoft called "Robocopy" (i.e. "Robust Copy Utility"). This is a very useful DOS backup program that's part of Microsoft's Windows Resource Kit. A version for Windows 2003/XP can be downloaded for free from here. (Incidentally, this version of Robocopy also works under Windows 2000.)

If you try running Robocopy without any parameters, you will be innundated with a whole slew of options. Not surprisingly, this program isn't meant for use by home users, but it CAN be a network administrator's best friend. In fact, I use it every night to backup several gigabytes worth of data on our file server at work. Anyway, I'm only using the /MIR option which creates a "mirror" of a folder elsewhere. Or put it another way, it synchronizes the data on the thumb drive to a backup folder on your hard disk.

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."

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.

07 January 2005

Random Ramblings: Microsoft's New Spyware Tool

I downloaded Microsoft's new spyware removal tool today - perhaps for the last time. A bit surprisingly (or maybe not), Microsoft recommends that it validate your copy of Windows to make sure it's authentic before it takes to you to the download page (hmm, I wonder why). Yes, I'm running an authentic copy of Windows, but no thanks about the validation. I get frisked and groped enough at U.S. airports to have to go through this rigamarole with my software. And no wonder I avoid the newest versions of Microsoft software like the plague.

At the moment, validation is optional, but in future it's looks like it will be mandatory. (Scuttlebutt has it this program will eventually morph into a full blown antivirus package. So it should generate continued interest for some time still, at least from some quarters.) Sigh, I feel sorry for those people who are too scared to shy away from Microsoft wares, even when there's perfectly decent freeware alternatives out there. But I guess you get what you deserve.

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.

28 October 2004

Random Ramblings: Command Line Nero

I've been using Ahead Software's Windows-based CD burning software Nero Burning ROM for quite some time now. The versions that I've used (v5.x and v6.x) were/are the full retail packages, not the limited, "Express"-only versions that come bundled free with numerous brands of CD writers. Nero has performed nicely over the years for me, with my only real complaint being the lack of a decent (or even a half-decent) manual. Their online FAQ's and forums alleviate this problem somewhat, but personally I'd still prefer a comprehensive manual, even if it were a PDF file on the program CD.

Like most people, I use the GUI version of the program. Wait, does that mean there is a non-GUI version of Nero? Indeed there is and I found out about it quite by accident (no thanks to their lousy manuals). At work, we back up our file servers using Windows 2000's NTBACKUP utility. This program is scheduled to run daily during the wee hours of the morning. Most system administrators (including us) run NTBACKUP as part of a batch file that probably does other things as well. After the backup file has been created, we then manually burn it to a DVD-R using Nero. This is done 2-3 times a week.

One day, I made a casual remark to my co-worker Petch that wouldn't be it great if we could have our daily batch file burn the DVD-R for us too, so that we wouldn't have to wait 1/2 hour for this to be completed? Immediately, a light bulb switched on in my head and I surmised that a command line version of Nero MUST exist! And indeed it did, as a quick Google search confirmed. Meet Nerocmd.exe, the command line version of Nero. The full Nero v5.5 and v6.0 packages certainly have this, but I'm not sure if the limited/bundled versions does as well.

As is par for the course, written documentation for Nerocmd is non-existent. The only thing that was available to help me get started were a dozen pages of help screens when you ran the program without any parameters. Through trial and error, I got it to run properly for both CD-R's and DVD-R's. For what it's worth, this is what the command looks like in our batch file:

    nerocmd --write --real --drivename G --iso BakDCYK --dvd --disable_eject --enable_abort --no_user_interaction d:\Backup.bkf
This tells Nerocmd to perform a REAL burn (as opposed to a simulated one), that the DVD-writer is on drive G:, that the media format is ISO9660, to use a volume name of "BakDCYK", not to eject the DVD tray when it's finished, to allow the program to be manually aborted if necessary, not to wait for any responses from the user (i.e. to automatically assume the defaults unless instructed otherwise), and to burn the file named D:\Backup.bkf. Remove the --dvd parameter and this command will write to a CD-R instead of a DVD-R. Change/add a few parameters and this will work with CD-RW's and DVD-RW's also. Add a parameter file and you can backup a disparate collection of files, rather than just one or a wildcard of files.

Okay, I admit that this ain't pretty, but it does make my life as a sysadmin a bit easier. And assuming that you periodically back up your data onto CD's or DVD's, you too can create a similar batch file that can be scheduled to run or manually run with a single click of a shortcut.

26 October 2004

Random Ramblings: Windows Shutdown Revisited

No doubt, every mother's son has written about shortcuts to shutdown Windows. I myself have written about the subject twice (see this and this). But given that 4 long years have past and given that it's such a valuable time saver, I've decided to revisit the subject again.

First of all, if you habitually click the Windows Start button > Shut Down > Shut Down to turn off your Windows computer (or something similar depending on your flavour of Windows), you're wasting time and energy. Be honest - would you accept a free CPU that would load your word processor 3-4 seconds faster? Then, why not save yourself those same 3-4 seconds by setting up an equally free shutdown routine.

If you're using Windows 9x, there's a well known trick to create a shutdown shortcut (i.e. C:\Windows\Rundll.exe user.exe,ExitWindows). Since I don't use Windows 9x anymore, I'm going to focus on Windows 2000 and above instead. My favouite shutdown utility of all time is Andrej Budja's Shutdown v1.0, which was designed for Windows XP, but also runs under Windows 2000. Not only have I been using this practically every day for the past 4-5 years, I've also installed it on several dozen computers that have crossed my path. It has all of the basic features that you'd expect from a shutdown utility (i.e. normal shutdown, forced shutdown, timed shutdown, reboot, logoff, etc.). And simply put, it works!

Here's a quick howto to set up a shutdown shortcut on your desktop:

  • Download the program and copy Shutdown.exe to, say, your Windows system directory (e.g. C:\Winnt).
  • Right-click on your desktop, choose New > Shortcut and browse to where you saved the program.
  • Running Shutdown.exe alone will only display a help screen - you have to add a parameter. If necessary, right-click the shortcut you just created and on the Target line, add a -u at the end of the command.
  • While you're there, click in the field next to Shortcut Key and press S. This will allow you to run the program by pressing Ctrl-Alt-S. This is useful is you want to shutdown your computer without using a mouse.
  • Still on the same screen, set the Run option to run the program Minimized.
  • Finally, click the Change Icon button and browse, for example, to a DLL that contains lots of icons. I normally use the yellow, diamond shaped face in C:\Winnt\System32\Moricons.dll, but to each his/her own.
  • Finally, OK your way out of the setup screens and you're done.
  • You can now shutdown your computer by double-clicking the shortcut you've created or by pressing Ctrl-Alt-S.
Once you start using this, you'll never go back to the old, multi-click routine again. Happy Shutting Down!

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.

19 October 2004

Random Ramblings: Graphic File Viewers

For a long time now, I've been using ACD Systems' ACDSee graphic file viewer under Windows. It's a convenient tool for browsing photos taken with digital cameras and it also does a more than satisfactory job of basic photo editing (rotation, cropping, light/color balance, sharpness, etc.).

As with many programs I use though, I "stopped" at version 3.1 (circa 2000), even though ACDSee is now up to version 7. In actual fact, I've tried most of the versions post-v3.1 (and even paid for some), but didn't really like what I saw. In my opinion ACDSee, like many programs, has grown into a multi-headed hydra and is now far from the lean and mean tool that I need/want. If ACDSee were free software I wouldn't mind quite as much, but the frequent upgrade come-on's always make me think twice. In fact, if I had upgraded every time since my initial v2.x purchase, I would have paid for the program many times over by now.

Needless to say, ACDSee is NOT the only graphic file viewer around. Probably the best known freeware alternative in the Windows world is Irfan Skiljan's IrfanView. While I've tried Irfanview a few times and the program does seem capable enough, I was never comfortable enough with its interface to switch from ACDSee.

Pierre Gougelet's XnView is a recent discovery for me, and while it still hasn't supplanted ACDSee, at least it now co-exists with ACDSee on my computer (no doubt waiting for the day when I dump ACDSee). XnView at least "looks" like ACDSee and its usage is "relatively" intuitive for me. (I say "relatively" because below the surface there's a lot more horsepower than ACDSee v3.1 possesses.) More important, it's freeware AND it's available on a wide variety of platforms (Windows, Mac, Linux, Unix). Being able to use the same program on Windows and Linux is always a big plus for me

XnView supports an incredible range of graphic file types, including such oddballs as "Acorn Sprite" and "ZX Spectrum Hobetta" (of course, you may not consider these such oddballs if all you used were made-in-U.K. computers.) For me though, XnView's most useful feature is its ability to handle scripts. All graphic viewers, for example, tend to display photos in landscape mode. XnView allows you to create a script that can rotate batches of photos to portrait mode. This script can be saved, loaded and then executed with a single click. Furthermore, a combination of enhancements may be scripted, not just one. These scripts can even be run from a batch file, thanks to a companion program ("NConvert").

Clearly, XnView is a powerful program and admittedly there will be a learning curve before one can understand and master its more esoteric features. But I can do this bit by bit while waiting to cut loose from ACDSee.

18 October 2004

Random Ramblings: File and Archive Managers

I started using a file manager early in my (micro)computing career. Even though I've always liked using DOS (I still do) and am a fast touch typist, I also like the convenience of pointing and clicking to copy, move or delete batches of files. I still remember that during my short-lived CP/M days, I used something called Cweep, while during my DOS days, I used a program by Ken Flee called QFiler. Ironically, the program is still around today and I even downloaded a 9-year old update even though I don't use it much these days.

When Windows 9x became the mainstream operating system, I chose to use a program called PowerDesk instead of Microsoft's built-in Windows Explorer. (Note: I wrote a short piece about PowerDesk back in 1999.) PowerDesk is still around too even though it has migrated from Mijenix to OnTrack to finally (?) end up in the hands of VCOM. And yes, I still use it (the free version at least). I should point out though that there are a plenty of Windows Explorer replacements out there, including many free ones, of which PowerDesk is just one. I recommend that you find one that you like.

For me, PowerDesk has also proved to be a convenient tool to deal with zip archives. Unfortunately, it doesn't handle other types of archives as well - and given that program development has been glacial for so long, I don't expect it to improve much in the near future either. Most people may not have a need to use anything other than zip files, but being a DOS/batch user, I need an archiver that can handle long file names from the command line (no zip utility existed to do this at the time I was looking). That brought me to a program called ARJ, specifically the Russian open source fork of ARJ, not the commercial one. That in turn, led me to another Russian freeware archive manager called 7-Zip. 7-Zip was attractive because not only did it handle ARJ, it also supported its own native, high-compression 7z format, CAB, RAR, plus many Linux archive formats such as GZIP, TAR, CPIO, RPM and DEB.

With many programs that I use, I sometimes draw a line and say "no more" - meaning that I'm not going to bother trying newer, similar programs. I had expected 7-Zip to be one such program, but Charles Hodgson alerted me to a new freeware program called TugZip that changed my mind. Both 7-Zip and TugZip have little quirks that still bug me, but if I had to recommend one or the other, I would give the nod to TugZip because whatever 7-Zip can do TugZip can do more. In fact, I've started replacing 7-Zip with TugZip on my computers.

One last point. With more and more file managers being able to handle archive files natively, archive managers are likewise adding the ability to act as multi-paned file managers as well. This is certainly true of 7-Zip and TugZip. I may not be tempted yet to ditch PowerDesk and to start using TugZip as both a file manager and an archive manager, but I could if I wanted to.

11 October 2004

Random Ramblings: Tiny Web Servers

These days I've been reading up on PHP, a server-side scripting language that's ubiquitous on non-Windows servers (Windows servers tend to offer ASP instead). The impetus for this was the need to implement on one of our servers a PHP program that was developed elsewhere. While the program did require some minor customization, it wasn't very difficult to implement since all I had to do was to upload it to our internet host which already had PHP installed.

The problem with doing it this way is that it's inefficient to upload and test program changes on our internet host (which is thousands of miles away). It would be much faster to run a tiny PHP-capable web server on a computer on our local area network. Actually, we have at our disposal a Windows 2000 Server with Internet Information Services (IIS) bundled, as well as a Fedora Core 2 Linux server with Apache. The problem is that both IIS and Apache are fairly "big" solutions. What I wanted was something small that I or anyone else could develop and test on wherever we were (and on practically any machine). That's what prompted me to look for a PHP-capable "tiny web server".

This really didn't take a lot of research on my part. I've known about AnalogX's SimpleServer:WWW for a while now. While SimpleServer runs under most any version of Windows, it can also be used for more arcane things like remotely installing Linux, which is what I used it for last. The problem is I couldn't find a way to make SimpleServer work with PHP - which is NOT to say that it can't be done given several hints to the contrary. Anyway, scratch that for now.

While getting ready to download the latest release of PHP from PHP's website, I noticed that Xitami was one of the servers specifically supported by PHP. Xitami is actually an old friend. 5+ years ago I was attracted to it by the fact that it was open source and available on a multitude of platforms. Anyway, it didn't take much effort to get PHP to work with Xitami, and I now have a local server on which to run the aforementioned PHP program. I also have a convenient platform for further study not of only PHP, but also MySQL which I'm also itching to learn.

09 October 2004

Random Ramblings: Firefox

More than two years ago, I said that I was back to using the Opera web browser. Well, sorry, but Opera was supplanted by Firefox not long after that. Actually, I started using it when it was still called "Phoenix" (and thereafter "Firebird", and now "Firefox") and was at version 0.5. I was actively working with Linux at the time and didn't particularly like Mozilla. So, Bill Thompson recommended Phoenix to me and I've been using it ever since (although ironically, I'm back to using Mozilla under Linux now due to laziness on my part).

Firefox has progressed nicely over the past two years, although it still gags on some websites, prints badly on others, and its Thai font rendering is a bit small for my tastes. But I love how it blocks pop-ups, I love having a Google search box close at hand, and I loved using something that up until recently, was outside the mainstream and not in someone's cross hairs.

A few addendums:

  • Firefox's recent default theme is awfully ... nay, painfully plain. So, I opted for the "Noia 2.0 (eXtreme)" theme by Kongkeat Kuatrakull (apparently a fellow Thai) instead. To each his/her own, of course.

  • A while back, I had trouble getting Firefox to work properly with Yahoo. The "fix" back then was to fool Yahoo into thinking Firefox was another, more palatable browser. To do this, I used Chris Pederick's User Agent Switcher, which allowed Firefox to masquerade as Netscape or Internet Explorer. (Note: Opera has this capability built-in). This Yahoo incompatiblity seems to have been resolved as I no longer need to do this smoke and mirrors routine any more. But it's a useful trick to have up your sleeve, in case you run into those Internet Explorer-only websites.

  • I use Firefox to open Word and Excel files on my Samba file server. (I realize that this isn't safe to do on the internet, but we're talking about a local area network here.) For some reason, I couldn't get Firefox to automatically open Excel files, despite the fact that Word files opened without a peep. I eventually learned that I had to teach Firefox how to handle this MIME filetype. But how do you do that - there's doesn't seem to be a way to do this within Firefox proper? The solution was to use the Mime Type Editor. Incidentally, the MIME type for *.xls files is application/vnd-ms-excel.

  • Like many people who have recently discovered Firefox, my sidekick Petch now swears by it. Not surprisngly, what turned him was the recent spate of problems with Internet Explorer, and perhaps the work he had to put in to install numerous patches and anti-spyware programs on almost two dozen computers. Anyway, he now installs Firefox on every computer that crosses his path, and even went so far as to hide IE's shortcuts on the computers at work. I'm not sure if I would have gone THAT far ...

  • Recently, Bill Thompson alerted me to FirefoxIE, a project that provides a makeover for Firefox to make it look and act like Internet Explorer. I just gave this a try and got mixed results. Frankly, even if it had worked out perfectly, it would still be a pain to perform these manual customizations on multiple computers. Clearly, a more automated solution is needed. Thus, I'm going to put FirefoxIE away for the time being, because after all, I don't mind using Firefox in its current form anyway.

21 March 2003

Update: Windows Clients for Linux Servers

I've solved the problem with SSHDOS that I noted in my Windows Clients for Linux Servers piece and have added an Update Notes link re: what I did.

My plans now are to write a Part II to the piece, dealing with some additional clients, such SSHDOS, VNC, Cygwin ssh and XFree86 (if I can get them to work), and something about using WinaXe with XDMCP. As I finish each piece, I'll add them to the original article's Update Notes, and once EVERYTHING is finished, I'll split them off, brush up the writing a bit, and re-combine then as an official Part II.

20 March 2003

Article: Windows Clients for Linux Servers

I've just finished writing another lengthy article on Windows Clients for Linux Servers. Sigh, I need to learn to write short stuff for a change.

10 March 2003

Wobble: DOS/Windows/Linux Cribsheets

FYI: There are two new links in the left purple band, being cribsheets for DOS/Windows and Linux. They're really for my personal use, but in case they're of any interest to anyone, be my guest. These days I've been updating them several times a week.

07 March 2003

Random Ramblings: DOS File Managers et Alia

While I'm in the neighbourhood of Mother Russia, for those of you who were brought up with Symantec's "Norton Commander" for DOS or who use "Midnight Commander" on Linux's command line, there's a program from a Ukranian programmer named Vsevolod Volkov called "Volkov Commander" that updates this DOS classic, adding stuff such as support for long filenames, FTP, archivers, etc. The program can be downloaded from: https://www.egner-online.de/vc/en/commander.shtml. For lack of a better word, it is "testware" and can be used for free until the real version 5 comes out (which it hasn't for a LONG time now).

For Windows buffs who want to run Norton Commander under Windows (and frankly, I'm not sure why you would), the person to see is a Swiss guy named Christian Ghisler. Originally, his program was called "Windows Commander" harking back to the Windows v3.1 days. The program is now called "Total Commander" and can be downloaded from Ghisler's website at: https://www.ghisler.com. TC is shareware and will cost $30 to own.

06 March 2003

Random Ramblings: Boot Disk, Max Format

Recently, I've been working on a DOS TCP/IP boot disk that I can use to install Windows "across the wire". Due to reasons that will be clearer in a future article, I was forced to use the DOS that comes with Windows 98 instead of MS-DOS 6.22 which is more compact. Because the former takes more space than the latter, I was scrambling for each K of disk space I could muster. This led me to wonder if there was software that could format higher capacity diskettes that were still be accessible by standard means.

A product called "MaxFormat" from a Russian company called Alkonost Software (https://www.alkonost.com) seems to fit the bill. It can create 1.68 MB DMF diskettes in a format similar to Windows distribution diskettes. These diskettes can even be made bootable. A trial version of the program is available for testing from their website.

21 February 2003

Updates: Opera

Some long delayed update notes to an article I wrote on the Opera web browser several years ago.