Friday, July 20, 2007

Moving over to CNET

As of July 2007, I do my blogging at CNET. The blog is called Defensive Computing and it's a continuation of this blog.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Comments on David Pogue Article

David Pogue is not a computer nerd. I mean this neither as a compliment nor an insult, just a statement of fact. I mention it because when reviewing computer "things" his mind set is different from that of a computer nerd.

Mr. Pogue plays with toys and writes about it. This is certainly useful, as far as it goes. I read his columns and have learned things from them. But without an IT background, Mr. Pogue is limited in what he can add to the discussion above and beyond what is in front of him. That is, he can't put things into perspective. It's one thing to say what a device or service or software is, but quite another to say when/where/how to use it. (I can describe a scalpel, but you don't want me operating on your appendix).

With this in mind, let me try to put his article in today's New York Times, The Cartridge, Updated, Catches Up to Data, in perspective.

The article reviewed three removable cartridge devices that are fast and hold lots of data. In general he liked the devices but felt the cartridges were too expensive.

What he failed to mention is that each of these removable cartridge drives is a single point of failure. That is, if the drive itself dies, you lose access to all your data.

Experience tells us that computer backup devices have a limited shelf life. It is all but guaranteed that in a year or two none of the devices he wrote about will still be on the market. And, it goes without saying, that hardware breaks. So anyone planning on depending on these things, needs to buy two - one for now and one for the future when they can't be replaced.
In addition, the drives should be stored in different physical locations.

And if you are really going to depend on them, a case can be made that you need to buy three drives. In other words, you need to treat the backup hardware itself just like the data. Backup. Backup. Backup.

Switching focus to the cartridges, two of them have no track record. Mr. Pogue mentions the "click of death" that haunted previous backup devices from Iomega and notes that their current product, the Rev, seems to have stood the test of time. An excellent point and one that should make anyone wary of the two newer products.

If one of the newer products sounds appealing, let me suggest making a couple phone calls. DriveSavers and OnTrack are the companies of last resort when it comes to extracting data off hard disks. Call them to see if they will extract data from a Rev, GoVault or RDX cartridge. If not . . .

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Improving WiFi Reception: An Improved Answer

In the Wall Street Journal on May 17, 2007, Walter Mossberg answered a question about improving WiFi reception. I think his answer could be improved.

He starts with "A more powerful router might help..." I am reasonably familiar with WiFi wireless networks and the power ratings for routers are not a standard topic. Even finding the power rating for a router is probably going to be difficult. While a stronger signal should help reception, anyone reading this needs to be informed as to what constitutes a low, medium and high power ratings for routers.

He also says "You might look for a new router that features a technology called MIMO...".

While true, this is not really the point. The point is to get a pre-N or draft-N router. They all use MIMO, something a non-techie shouldn't need to know. There are many important facts about Pre and Draft N routers that he failed to point out such as: their effectiveness varies greatly, there have been at least five (by my count) generations of "early" N routers, to get the best performance you need to pair an early N router with a matching WiFi adapter and, unlike WiFi G, there is no interoperability between brands.

Then he says "There are also various boosters and repeaters that can be used, though some of these require more technical expertise to install than most folks have."

If it takes technical expertise then its not a suggestion for the audience Mossberg claims to serve. A much better suggestion, and one that does not take technical expertise, is to buy a better antenna and connect it to the existing router. There are omnidirectional antennas that transmit the signal in all directions and directional antentennas for use when you only need the better signal in a single direction. Also, this would serve a heads-up to anyone buying a new router - get one where the antennas can be removed and replaced by better antennas should the need arise.

Then there is what Mr. Mossberg did not say.

The first and easiest step is to change the channel. The G flavor of WiFi uses a single channel, numbered 1, 6 or 11 (I'm simplifying this a bit). If your neighbor has a strong signal on channel 6, for example, it will interfere with your network if you also use channel 6. Determine the channels used by the strongest signals near you, then configure your network to use a different channel. Windows XP does not display the channel used by WiFi G networks, but pretty much all other WiFi software does.

Finally, the router is not the only end of the network that can be improved, so too can the network adapter in the computer.

You might try a USB based WiFi adapter because it lets you move the adapter around to get the best signal without moving the computer. I forget the exact spec, but USB wires can be pretty long. Then too there are PCMCIA (a.k.a. PC Card) network adapters that have very large antennas.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Bad Dell Tech Support

A client, who had been dealing with Dell technical support, came to me with his Dell Inspiron 1150 laptop that no longer ran. The machine came with Windows XP SP1 and after installing Service Pack 2 it slowed down. Then while trying to download the post-SP2 patches it hung.

The first thing Dell had him do (in response to a different set of software problems) was restore the machine to its factory fresh state. There is a hidden copy of Windows on the hard disk for just this purpose and you invoke the recovery program with Control-F11 during system startup.

That worked, the machine was restored. But problems continued.

Next, Dell had him do a clean install of Windows from a Windows CD. This worked too, but the machine had no software on it other than Windows itself and only ran at 640x480 screen resolution.

He wanted the pre-installed software, so Dell tried to restore again to the factory fresh state. But the restore refused to run. Control-F11 no longer invoked the restore program. At this point he came to me.

The only real problem was the incompetence of Dell technical support.

Dell mistake number 1:

Restoring the machine to factory-fresh state requires a special Dell-specific Master Boot Record (the first thing run by the computer after the BIOS has done its job). It turns out that a clean installation of Windows XP updates the Master Boot Record and wipes out the fudges Dell put there. This breaks the Control-F11 feature. So Dell tech support told him to do something that made it impossible to later restore to factory-fresh state - and they didn't know this. When faced with the problem of not being able to restore the machine, Dell support said he must have wiped out the partition.

The story continues:

The main problem after the first recovery back to factory-fresh state was the machine running very slowly. Extremely slowly. This happened after installing Windows XP Service Pack 2 (again, the machine shipped with XP Service Pack 1).

After I restored the machine to factory-fresh state, I un-installed all the junky software that Dell pre-installs on their consumer machines. Then I installed Service Pack 2 and the machine slowed to a crawl. Using Process Explorer I could see the huge amount of cpu being used but there was no one culprit. I turned off all auto-started programs and all optional services to no effect. The "Explorer" process was using alot of cpu time.

Since no applications were running and cpu usage was still very high, it had to have been SP2 that caused the problem. I remembered that when SP2 came out some vendors created updates for their computers that had to be applied to make them SP2 compatible.

Long story short, installing the Dell updates for SP2 that applied to the Inspiron 1150 fixed the cpu usage problem. The machine ran ten times faster than it had been.

Dell mistake number 2:

Ignorance of the above. Dell created updates for SP2 for this machine and yet tech support never suggested installing them when faced with the problem of SP2 slowing down the machine.

Dell mistake number 3:

In searching for the relevant updates to this machine, I entered the service tag at Dell's support site and was presented with a long list of updated software and drivers. A very long list. Too long. It included driver updates for many hardware devices that this machine did not have. For example, there were updates for four or five different optical drives. It was up to me to research the actual hardware and find the appropriate updates.

Other computer vendors do a better job of this. They have software that handles the finding and installing of the correct driver updates. Even if writing software is too hard, how hard can it be to maintain a hardware inventory by service tag and only display the appropriate driver updates? Too hard for Dell it seems.

A huge thank-you goes to Dan Goodell for writing the DSRFIX program that zapped the MBR and made Control-F11 again invoke the recovery utility. It was a life saver. Dan has documented this in great detail. See his Inside the Dell PC Restore Partition. Thanks Dan.

You could consider Dell's lack of documentation about this and their not creating a similar program, their fourth mistake.
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Friday, May 4, 2007

Can't Trust Gmail - Too Many False Positives

I have had a Gmail email address for about two years (more or less). But, as they say in baseball, three strikes and you're out. I will never again give it out to any person or place that I actually want mail from. It's now a sacrificial lamb, used only for website registrations at sites I don't really want to receive mail from.


False positives. Three to be exact. As documented on my Computer Gripes site, Gmail has classified important legitimate email messages as spam three times.

If you use Gmail as webmail, this may not be a big deal to you. But I have Gmail auto-forward email to another account. Messages that Gmail classifies as SPAM, I never get. And since I don't use the Gmail website, I don't review the SPAM folder. And even if I did, it collects about 30 or more SPAM messages a day meaning that unless I review it often, it would be easy to lose a needle in this haystack of SPAM.


May 4, 2007. I purchased lobsters from The company sent three email messages as my order went through the various stages of fulfillment. Each message was classified as SPAM by Gmail. The price of the order was, to me, significant and I got quite a scare when I thought my order was lost (it was a gift that had to be delivered on time).

November 5, 2006. I was transferring a domain to the registrar As part of the transfer process they send an email message to the Administrative contact of the domain. Gmail flagged this message from DirectNic as SPAM. They are a reasonably large registrar, so they no doubt send a lot of legitimate emails every day.

October 2, 2006. I own a computer from a company called Velocity Micro. In the past I have communicated with the company using my Gmail account without incident. Recently however, Google started labeling all messages from as SPAM.

All three senders are very legitimate businesses. More legitimate than Gmail itself.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Debugging a wired Internet connection

Last updated: June 11, 2007
Most Internet connection problems occur using WiFi, but a wired Ethernet connection can also fail. These are some debugging steps to take when an Ethernet based Internet connection isn't working.

Some of this is techie, but I'm working on expanding the explanations of the various steps to make them usable and understandable to more people.

The assumption here is that the router and broadband modem are different physical devices, but the concepts are the same even if they are integrated into a single device.

Technical Background (Added May 6, 2007)

If you are not a techie, this section should provide enough background for you to understand the rest of the steps and procedures.

Computers on the Internet address each other by number. People, of course, address computers on the Internet by name. The "thing" that translates names (, into numbers is a huge system called DNS (Domain Name System). When you can't access a computer on the Internet by name, the problem may be network related, preventing you from in reaching the computer -or- the problem may be in the DNS system. Every request for a computer by name involves an under-the-covers call to the DNS system to translate the name into a number. These calls into the DNS system happen so quickly, you don't notice them.

Network computer nerds don't call the numbers assigned to computers on the Internet numbers, instead they/we use the term "IP address". Simply put, every computer on the Internet has a unique IP address.

Further confusing things for normal folk is the fact that IP addresses are not written like normal numbers. The format used is something like "". That is, there are four sets of numbers separated by periods instead of commas. IP addresses come up often when debugging Internet connection problems.

You can see the magic of IP addresses by using them to access a web site. For example, you can get to my web site with

To translate a domain name into an IP address your computer makes a request to a computer run by your ISP called a DNS server (a large organization may run their own DNS server computers). This is so important that the standard is to have two available DNS server computers, in case one breaks. I mention this because you must be able to talk to the DNS server of your ISP to reference anything on the Internet by name (referencing a computer by IP address does not involve DNS at all).

For a computer plugged directly into a broadband modem, make a note of the IP addresses of the two DNS servers provided by your ISP. In Windows XP: Control Panel -> Network connections -> Right click on the appropriate connection and get its status -> go to the Support tab -> Click on the Details button. While there also write down the IP address of the default gateway computer.

A computer on a LAN, plugged into a router may be configured to use the DNS servers of the ISP -or- it may be using the router as its DNS server. In the latter case, the router simply passes the DNS request on to the DNS server of your ISP and then passes the response (an IP address) back to you. If your computer(s) is using the DNS servers of your ISP fine. If the router is being used, then log into the internal website in the router and try to find the IP addresses of the DNS servers of your ISP. While there, also make a note of the IP address of the "Default Gateway" computer.

Terminology: Broadband modem refers to either a cable modem or a DSL modem.

Ahead of time

Planning for connection problems should go a long way to debugging them when they occur.

Make a cheat-sheet documenting the normal state of the lights both on the broadband modem and the router. That is, note which lights are normally on, off, blinking, green, orange, etc when things are working. Keep this on paper right next to the router so it can't get lost.

Have a list of some website IP addresses handy (feel free to use the one for above). There is a simple way to learn the IP address of a given website: open a DOS/command window and type "ping" without the quotes. The IP address is after "Reply from". The IP address of a website can change over time, so its best to have a few on hand.

Make a note of your DNS server IP addresses and the IP address of the TCP/IP default gateway. The default gateway is the machine between your ISP's internal network and the outside world and may be very handy in narrowing down the problem. Keep it on paper next to the router.

Write the routers IP address and the userid/password for the internal router website and keep it on paper next to the router.

Have an extra router and extra Ethernet cables.

Place an icon in the system tray (a.k.a. notification area, the bottom right corner of the screen, just to the left of the time) for your network connection(s). This tells you at a glance whether Windows thinks the network is connected or not. In Windows XP you do this with: Control Panel -> Network Connections -> Properties of the network connection. Turn on both the checkboxes at the bottom of the General tab (put an icon in notification area when connected and warn me about limited or no connectivity). If there is a red X over the network icon, Windows knows there is trouble. Hovering the mouse over the icon when all is well, provides some useful information.

Have two web browsers available. The only way to tell if your web browser is the source of the problem is to try and access websites using a different browser from the same copy of Windows. Needless to say, Firefox users already have two browsers. For IE users, I suggest the portable version of Firefox available from Portable applications don't have to be installed, thus minimizing their impact on the system. In other words, Windows doesn't know it's there. Portable applications exist totally in a single folder (making it easy to move them from computer to computer).

When it breaks

Start clean: turn everything off and leave it off for a minute. Then turn on the broadband modem and wait a minute for it to talk to the outside world. Then turn on the router and wait a minute for it to talk to the modem. Then turn on your computer.

Look at the lights on the broadband modem and router to see if they are normal. If the lights on the modem are not in their normal state, then call your ISP. Some ISPs will help with the router, some won't. The lights being wrong in the router only matter if the lights in the modem are normal.

Check the network icon in the system tray. If it has a red X over it, then Windows knows there is something wrong. Try disabling and then re-enabling the network connection.

Try unplugging and replugging all cables.

Try using a different port on the router.

Try using a different Ethernet cable.

Look at the the Ethernet wire at the point where it enters your computer. If it can talk to the router at all, there will be a light or two right next to the plastic connector. And when I say right next to, I mean a few molecules away from the plastic connector. If you see a blinking light then the hardware is working, at least at the lowest level, which is Ethernet.

Also try another computer connected to the router. This will tell you if the first computer is the problem or if the router is.

If the router appears to be the problem:
Try directly connecting to the broadband modem - after turning on your firewall program.
Try an alternate router

If Windows does not see a problem with your network connection, then turn off the firewall program that is running in Windows. Also shut down any anti-Spyware and anti-virus programs. In fact, shut down any and all programs that you can. The general idea is simplify, simplify, simplify until things work again.

Try to access the website inside the router (we saved the IP address of the router for just this reason). This should tell you which side of the router is the problem. If you can get to the website in the router, then you will be prompted for a userid/password. No need to actually log-in.

If you can get to the website in the router, then try accessing websites by their IP address. If websites work by IP address but not by name, then the DNS system is the problem. Your ISP should help with DNS problems, but one thing you can do is wipe out the temporary cache that Windows maintains for DNS. From a Command window (a.k.a. DOS prompt) enter this command: "ipconfig /flushdns". Then try accessing websites by name again.

Also, there are times when one type of Internet activity is blocked but others will work. To narrow down the problem, try email (using software on your computer, not a webpage), FTP, ping, tracert, etc. both by name and by IP address.

If you can get to the router but not the outside world, then log in to the website in the router and:
-Reboot the router.
-Turn off logging and UPnP and remote administration in the router.
-Make sure the firewall is on in the router.
-Update the router firmware.

You may be able to get out of the router, but not to the Internet at large. That is, you may be getting trapped in the internal network of your ISP. To see if that's the case, try ping and trace route to both your normal DNS servers (both of them) and the default gateway. Do this by IP address, not by name. If you can't get to these machines by IP address, the problem is not DNS and not the Internet. In this case, your ISP should be able to help as they are on the hook for access to their DNS server machines and their default gateway machine.


Friday, April 13, 2007

Helping Henry Waxman

Representative Henry A. Waxman is chairman of a House committee investigating the use of political e-mail accounts. This was written up in article today in the New York Times: Missing E-Mail May Be Related to Prosecutors by Sheryl Stolberg April 13, 2007.

The article says that Carl Rove and other White House "officials" maintain separate e-mail accounts for government work vs. political work and that Democrats in Congress suspect that the political accounts may have been used to "conduct official work without leaving a paper trail." And then the article gets more specific:

"...documents also revealed that a deputy to Mr. Rove, Scott Jennings, who works in the White House Office of Political Affairs, had used his Republican National Committee e-mail account, ending in, to communicate about the dismissals with a top aide to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales."

Given a domain name (such as any competent computer nerd can learn where emails to that domain are being sent. It may help Mr. Waxman find any missing email messages. :-)

Email messages sent to recipients at get stored on one of these two computers:

The IP address of the first email receiving computer is The machine resides in Chattanooga Tennessee (latitude: 35.048100, longitude: -85.283302) and is registered to Smartech Corporation. See for yourself.

The IP address of the second email receiving computer is and it is also in Chattanooga.

Background: Every computer on the Internet is assigned a unique number which us nerds call an IP address. It is actually a 32 bit binary number, but for ease of use is always written in decimal with periods in the middle of it.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Passing off opinions as fact

In the Wall street Journal on March 27, 2007 there was an article on page C12 called Microsoft's Brighter Vista. The point of the article is that while Vista is not selling well now, it may sell better in the future. The sub-title is “Soft Start for the System May Yield to Strength Ahead As Chip Glut Pares PC Costs”.

The starts out saying that Vista sales have been slow because Windows XP works well enough and hardly anyone will upgrade an existing computer from XP to Vista. Fine. But then regarding the “improvements” in Windows Vista the article says:

Those that are important, such as easier searching and stronger security, do justify using Vista on a new PC….”

This is a matter of opinion all the way around, yet it is presented as fact. Whose to say which "improvements" are important and which are not? Who's to say what justifies Vista on a new PC? There is no one right answer and no consensus amongst us computer nerds. A non-technical business person, no doubt the standard WSJ reader, comes away with the wrong impression.

Also, changes in Vista from Windows XP are referred to as “improvements”. Is this a press release or an investment article? Sounds like a press release. Anyone who has used a computer knows that not all changes are improvements. Whether a change is an improvement is a matter of opinion. Again, opinion being offered as fact.

And speaking of facts that may not be facts, the article says that “20 million copies of Vista have been sold since the January launch”. I have seen this number disputed by someone more familiar with the details than I. However, whether the number is in dispute or not, since it comes from Microsoft, which has an obvious motivation to paint a rosy picture, it should be taken with a grain of salt. Yet, the authors state this number as fact without mentioning the source of the 20 million number.

The article predicts a wave of PC buying due to lower prices and that these sales will boost Vista since “most PCs now come with it loaded…”.

This gives the wrong impression. Pretty much all personal computers marketed to consumers come with Vista (think Kool-AID). However, Windows XP is alive and well in computers marketed to businesses. They still buy XP because of reasons explained below and they have the clout to get what they want. After all, no one would turn down an order for thousands of Windows XP computers.

The reason they say "most" and not "all" PCs come with Vista is that anyone can buy a new PC with Windows XP pre-installed, a fact that I fear too-few people know. In my opinion (note: this is not a fact) opting for XP instead of Vista is the right way to go (more below). If nothing else, it's the path of least resistance. And there are other choices in new computers besides XP and Vista: the Mac and Linux.

Since the point of the article is that Vista sales may take off, the reasons not to get Vista on a new computer are omitted. There are many such reasons:

  • Software incompatibly
  • Hardware incompatibility
  • Inevitable bugs in new software
  • The learning curve

Heck, just two days after this article appeared, Walter Mossberg answered a reader question in the same paper that started with: “I have just bought a new Dell Vista computer. None of my backup software now works”. Join the crowd guy. In his response, Mossberg complained about the lack of Vista-compatible drivers.

The choice of OS on a new computer brings up an interesting point. Since XP has been around for so long, will it be this generations QWERTY keyboard? That is, will it be a good enough, usable standard that everyone is familiar with, so much so that changing to something else, even something marginally better, just isn’t worth it? We’ll see.

The authors, Robert Cyran and Edward Chancellor don’t work for the Journal itself, they work for an organization that claims on its website to offer “punchy, relevant, timely opinion to the world's financial elite.”

One of the credited authors has a background covering the pharmaceutical industry and a degree in economics. The other specializes in finance and investment. Perhaps not the best backgrounds for offering opinions on the pros/cons of a computer operating system.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Don't Forget a PS/2 Port

Keyboards and mice used to connect to computers via a PS/2 port. Its round and resembles an S-Video port. Now, most keyboards and mice connect to a computer using USB ports. The problem with USB ports is that you need a working copy of Windows to use them.

If Windows won't start up, us computer nerds often run diagnostic utilities, many of which are DOS based and run from a bootable CD disc. I just had to run the Sea Tools hard disk diagnostic program from Seagate on a computer with hard disk problems. But I couldn't. The DOS based utility would not recognize a USB keyboard and the computer had no PS/2 port to plug in a different keyboard.

The morale of the story: when buying a desktop computer, be sure to get at least one PS/2 port. If the computer is termed "legacy free" this is a bad thing, not a good thing.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

WSJ article on running Windows on a Mac

This is a review of an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on March 20, 2007 called Apple Opens Doors by Running Windows by Nick Wingfield (only available to subscribers). The subtitle is: Ability to handle Microsoft operating system may help macs make some inroads.

The article says that you need to buy a copy of Windows to use on a Mac. However, it does not say which version(s) of Windows. There are many versions of Windows as we all know, except apparently the author, who repeatedly refers to "Windows" as if it were a single thing without different versions/editions.

To fill in the blank, the Parallels virtual machine lets you run pretty much all versions of Windows on the Mac, even Vista. In fact, it also supports many versions of Linux and even other Operating Systems such as OS/2. The Boot Camp feature from Apple is very different. It only supports Windows XP Home and Professional. No Media Center edition. No Vista. In fact, it only supports the SP2 versions of XP. And, it only supports the more expensive "full" version of Windows XP, not the cheaper "upgrade version". As of March 23, 2007 CompUSA was selling the upgrade version of XP Home for $100 and the full version for $200. The upgrade version of XP Pro was $200, the full version was $300.

The article refers to VMware as new "virtualization" software and refers to Virtual PC as older "emulation" software. They are, in fact, both virtualization software and compete directly. Not to be too nerdy, but they both do emulation.

The article says both Parallels and VMware on Macs take advantage of Intel chips to make it easier to run Windows. A little of this is true, but it gives the wrong impression.

First, from the user point of view, the process of running Windows is the same whether the software takes advantage of Intel chips or not. There are new features in Intel processors specifically designed for virtual machine software. And giving hardware assistance to virtualization software is also done by new processors from AMD. If you have one of these new processors, and a version of virtualization software that is capable of exploiting the new features, then your virtual machines will run faster. What is made "easier" is the programming job of VMware and Parallels as the processor can now do some of the work the software used to have to do.


OK, we're running both Windows and the Mac OS on the same computer. Can they share files?

What about the copy of Windows you run on the Mac? Does it have to be a new copy? Can you take the existing copy on an existing computer and run that on the Mac? If this interests you, read about the transporter feature of Parallels.

The terms Host Operating System and Guest Operating System are not used, let alone defined. They are necessary terms when discussion virtualization software.

What about Linux? Articles on Macs and Windows never mention Linux. Likewise, articles on Linux and Windows never mention Macs. Readers need some perspective.

Windows on a Mac was possible way back, before the switch by Apple to Intel processors. The company that actually developed what is now known as Virtual PC was Connectix. Microsoft bought them out and wasn't very interested in software that ran on Apple computers.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Done With D-Link

I will never buy another D-Link product again. Neither will any of my clients. They have been added to my Axis of Avoidance.

I say this based on an experience with an external USB WiFi network adapter, model DWL-G120. In brief:

On the first computer I tried it on, the adapter wouldn't even install. The first response from D-Link tech support was typically useless. I expected that. On the second computer, the software crashed while being installed. Still, on this machine at least, I did get Windows to recognize the adapter and Device Manager to say it was functional. But, it wouldn't connect to any WiFi network.

Then it turns out the adapter does not support WPA encryption despite the fact that the retailer (NewEgg) and D-Link both say that WPA is supported. I'm returning it to NewEgg based on this mis-representation.

Registering the adapter was also miserable. The online registration application doesn't work well, the questions they ask are extremely personal (like how much money do you make and what are your hobbies) and the registration web page is specifically designed to trick you into giving permission for them to spam you.

And uninstalling the D-Link software on the second machine was also a problem.

At my site, I've documented all the details about my DWL-G120 experience. But, in a nutshell, avoid D-Link.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

More bad advice from Walter Mossberg

In the March 8, 2007 Mossberg Mailbox column in the Wall Street Journal, a reader asked how he could make sure that no one could piggyback on his WiFi wireless connection. Walter's response was:

"Turn on the password feature in your router, and don't tell anyone the password. You'll usually find the password setting in the installation software that came with the router."

Not quite.

When discussing wireless routers, there are two passwords. I can just imagine the poor reader of the newspaper changing the wrong password and thinking he is safe. False security is worse than no security.

The first password is needed to login to the router itself. Routers have internal websites that you use to make configuration changes, and access to the internal website requires a userid and password. This password has nothing to do with WiFi wireless signals/connections.

By the way, this password should be changed when a new router is installed because all the bad guys know the default passwords. I have an earlier posting on this blog about how important it is to change this router password.

The password that prevents someone from piggybacking on your wireless connection is referred to in all the technical literature as a "key". If the reader looks around the internal router website or the router documentation for a "password", he won't find this. All references to "passwords" refer to the first password, not to the key.

Not to get too technical, but this "key" relates to an encryption standard, either WEP (bad) or WPA (good) or WPA2 (good). And there are good keys and bad ones, an important concept omitted from the response.

So, which password was Mr. Mossberg referring to? Did he have the right concept and use the wrong term, or did he have the wrong concept and use the correct term? Beats me. The PC industry is too new to have a concept of malpractice, but if the shoe fits...

Update: On March 15, 2007 Mr. Mossberg issued a clarification. See Securing a Wireless Network. Certainly a step in the right direction, but...

Quoting: "To enable the encryption key, use the router's setup software to turn on security".

There are multiple mistakes in this sentence.

You enable encryption, you do not enable the encryption key. Encryption is the lock, without the lock, having a combination does nothing.

This ignores the fact that the older type of encryption, WEP, has multiple keys/passwords. Only the newer type (WPA) has a single key/password.

Once the router is working, there is no need to use its setup software. Instead you log in to the internal website in the router to make changes.

You don't "turn on security". What he meant to say was you turn on one of the three types of encryption. Routers have multiple types of security, a point he makes later. Mac address filtering, for example, is a security feature having nothing to do with encryption. So too, disabling remote administration, turning off UPnP and not broadcasting the SSID.

Quoting again: "On newer models, the strongest security system is called WPA..."

WPA is not a security system, it is an encryption system (see above). And, the strongest system is actually WPA2, not WPA.

There is a big omission here: for WPA and WPA2, the length of the key/password is critical. Short is bad, long is good. To encourage long keys/passwords you sometimes see references to a "pass phrase". This means the key/password can be an entire sentence. And it should be. A very long key/password is not an ongoing typing annoyance because it only has to be entered once on each computer that want to access the WiFi network. If your WPA key/password is "dog" or "rose" you have no defense at all from a determined bad guy.

And, WPA is not a single thing. There are multiple types of WPA and the people Mr. Mossberg claims to write for need to be told this. Simply put, home users want WPA-PSK. This is also called WPA Pre-Shared Key and WPA Personal. They do not want WPA with a RADIUS server.

Finally, anyone serious about WiFi security should turn off the WiFi network when not in use. There is an option in the router to turn off the radio transmitter that is the wireless network. No hacker can break into a network that doesn't exist.

Mr. Mossberg is loose or sloppy with words/terminology. When nerds are talking amongst themselves, they can be sloppy with terminology because they all understand anyway. But when writing for a non-technical audience, it is important to be very precise when describing something technical because they don't know the ropes.

And there is no excuse for making technical mistakes, something the editors at the Journal share the blame for. Apparently no one reviews his work.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Axis of Avoidance

The world of politics has an "Axis of Evil." While no computer company is evil in the George Bush sense of the word, there are companies that are consistently bad news. Let me suggest an IT Axis of Avoidance:

  • Microsoft
  • Dell
  • Symantec
  • Sony
  • America OnLine
  • D-Link
The less you have to deal with these companies, the better off you will be.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Windows Vista - Ask the right question

Ask not if you are ready for Windows Vista.
Ask if Vista is ready for your applications.

Home routers can be dangerous. VERY dangerous.

Most home users with a broadband connection have a router that sits between the cable or DSL modem and their computer(s). If that is you, read this carefully.

On second thought (thanks Leo) everyone should read this posting because the simple question of whether there is a router in your home/office sitting between you and the Internet is not the trivial question it used to be. Way back, broadband modems (cable and DSL) were separate pieces of hardware from routers. No more. So even if there is a single box between your computer(s) and the outside world, it may very well be both the modem and the router.

NOTE: This problem does not affect you if you have a single computer directly connected to a broadband modem that is only a modem and not also a router. Good luck figuring this out. It also does not effect dial-up users. It is very likely to apply to small businesses (large businesses probably have qualified techies configuring their routers). Both wired and wireless WiFi connections are equally vulnerable.

Just by looking at a web page, you can lose your life savings.

Let me explain. A malicious computer program can live inside a web page and run automatically when the page is viewed. This new type of malicious software will modify configuration settings in your router such that when you type in the name of your bank to go to its website, you will instead end up at the website of a bad guy imitating your bank. You enter the userid/password for your bank and the next day there is no money in your accounts.

Nothing is more dangerous than this on the Internet.

Every router has a website built into it that is used for configuring the dozens of options. To make configuration changes you log into this website with a userid/password (the router also has a default IP address that can be used to access its internal website) . For the malicious program to make changes to your router, it needs to know the userid/password. This is only possible if the default password was not changed when the router was installed. That is, if a good computer nerd installed the router you are safe. If your router is still using the default password, change it now!

How can the malicious program know the default userid/password for your router? How can it even know which router you have? It doesn't need to know your exact router model. There are only a handful of companies making the most popular routers. The default userid and password used by these companies is well known. All the program has to do is try them all. It's not a long list.

If you don't know the userid/password to log into your router, I can't stress how important it is to find out. In addition, you also need to know the internal IP address of the router so that you can access it with a web browser.

Let me re-state the problem to hopefully scare you into action. If you enter "" into your web browser (or use a Favorite/Bookmark) then everyone knows you will go to Citibank's website. But, if you are the victim of this attack, it will not be true. You may end up at a website that looks exactly like Citibank's but is designed for the sole purpose of stealing your userid/password. Even worse, you may end up at the real bank website, but the bad guys could have set themselves up in between you and your bank. Thus, they see everything you enter and all seems perfectly normal because you are, in fact, actually dealing with your bank's website. Just not directly.
Not to pick on Citibank, they are just used as an example.

Computers on the Internet have a unique number assigned to them. They talk to each other using these numbers (us nerds call them IP addresses). Words and letters and names such as or exist solely for the convenience of human beings. There is a huge system on the Internet called DNS that translates domain names into their corresponding numbers. Every time you ask for a website by name, your computer first contacts a DNS server machine to translate the name to the unique number. This happens so fast that you don't notice it.

The way this attack works is by changing the DNS server computers you use for translating names to numbers. Thus if should translate to, the DNS computers of the bad guys would instead translate it to (the numbers are just for illustration) which just so happens to be their identity theft website. Think of it as having a total stranger translating spoken languages. You can never be sure if the translation is accurate or not.

Adding to the danger of this attack is that it's undetectable. That is, anti-virus and anti-spyware software will not protect you. No files are put on your computer. In fact, no changes are made to your computer at all! Still worse, to review the settings in your router to see if anything has been changed, takes a computer nerd. Its too techie for normal people. As I said, this is as dangerous as dangerous gets.

Technically, this type of attack is known as pharming. Phishing refers to tricking a human being to go to the wrong website. Pharming involves tricking your computer to go to the wrong website.

The malicious program is written in a programming language called JavaScript. JavaScript programs live inside web pages and are executed by your web browser when you view a page. They are not executed by your operating system. This is not a Windows problem, it affects Macs and Linux too (any OS in fact).

You can disable JavaScript in your web browser, but it's not practical as so many web sites require it. You might however, consider using two web browsers and having JavaScript turned off in one of them and use this browser when visiting iffy websites. The Firefox browser has an optional NoScript extension that turns off JavaScript by default and then easily lets you enable it on a site by site basis. It's a very popular extension.

The following is a bit techie.

You can, and should, also protect your router by changing its IP address. This doesn't offer perfect protection, but does make it harder for the malicious software to find your router.

Another way to protect yourself is modifying the TCP/IP settings on your computer so that you don't get DNS services from your router. Let me explain:

Typically when your computer needs to translate a domain name to a number (IP address) it asks the router to do this and the router, in turn, talks to a dedicated DNS computer run by your ISP. A large organization may run their own DNS computers. The whole point here is that the bad guys can modify the router to talk to their DNS server.

Every ISP runs at least two dedicated DNS computers and they will be glad to provide their IP addresses (it's probably listed on the website of your ISP, this isn't a secret). My point here is to configure TCP/IP on your computer to talk directly to the DNS server of your ISP and avoid having the router acting as a middleman. Thus, even if the router is talking to a bad/compromised DNS server computer, you are not asking the router to do the DNS name-to-number translation.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

It's good to be a monopoly

For quite a while now Microsoft has been releasing bug fixes once a month, on the second Tuesday of the month. Techies refer to this as Patch Tuesday.

They used to release bug fixes as needed but that generated too much bad publicity - there were frequent high profile bug fixes. Don't think it's the publicity? Then why were bug fixes renamed "patches" and then renamed again to "updates".

Now the bad guys have learned to use Microsoft's avoidance of bad publicity to their benefit. They start exploiting newly found bugs the day after Patch Tuesday. This way, they get a full month to wreak havoc before Microsoft issues a fix. At least a month, sometimes more. While the cat's away the mice will play.

Let's review:

  • The bad guys exploit bugs for a month
  • Microsoft limits bad publicity to one day a month
Guess who loses in this arrangement?
It's good to be a monopoly.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Walter Mossberg Wrong Again

Walter Mossberg is the computer columnist for the Wall Street Journal and is not qualified for the job. There are many examples of his lack of qualification and today offered another. Someone who wanted to buy a new computer but did not want Vista asked him if it was possible to wipe off Vista and install Windows XP (read column).

The answer is yes and Mr. Mossberg said the answer is yes. But the question assumes that every new computer on the planet is sold with Vista. This is not true now, it won't be true in the near future and I'm fairly sure it won't be true long term.

Consumer machines come with Vista. As Mr. T used to say: I pity the fools. However, computer companies also sell PCs for use in businesses and they can be purchased with Windows XP. I think you are much better buying XP as opposed to Vista, but that's another story (and one where Mr. Mossberg again shows that is unqualified when it comes to computers).

Large corporations won't use Vista for a long time for many reasons. One is that their current machines can't run it but, most importantly, because they employ some qualified computer nerds that know not to depend on a new Operating System for at least a year or at least a service pack. Probably longer. No computer company is going to refuse orders for hundreds of XP based machines from large companies. Thus, you can depend on being able to buy a machine with XP for quite a while.

There is another advantage to computers targeted to businesses; they come with much less "junkware" pre-installed. Despite the tiny font for this sentence, its a big advantage.

I have said this many times: You don't read PC Magazine for Mutual Fund advice and you shouldn't read the Wall Street Journal for computer advice.

February 20, 2007. Mr. Mossberg responds:

As much as you might enjoy the thrill of pointing out alleged errors in newspapers, my answer to the question posed by my reader was 100% correct. In fact, your email (and blog post) said: "The answer is yes and Mr. Mossberg said the answer is yes."

Your email suggests I should have gone beyond answering the question and instead questioned the question itself, which is not what I do in these short Q&As. Plus, you are seriously confused about my role. I write for consumers, and only consumers (people you dismiss with the snide comment: "I pity the fools.") I don't write for IT people or techies (a group to which you say you belong.) So your advice about what businesses and computer nerds do, or should so, is irrelevant.

February 21, 2007. Regarding Mr. Mossberg's comments:

Saying "As much as you might enjoy the trill of pointing out alleged errors..." is making this personal which it never was. Regardless of any pros/cons about the messenger (me) any discussion should be on the facts.

Not that is matters in this regard, but I don't enjoy pointing out errors. They sadden me. My profession is letting people down. I run and the theme there is one of disappointment, not one of anger.

Regarding: "Your email suggests I should have gone beyond answering the question and instead questioned the question itself..." Yes! Absolutely. That's what experts do, they advise people who are not experts, even advising them when they are asking the wrong question. But, in too many respects, Mr. Mossberg is not an expert.

Mr. Mossberg claims to write for consumers. Well, consumers are often better off buying personal computers targeted at businesses. I have always advised my clients to do this to avoid the ton of pre-installed software on consumer machines that gets in the way (at best), slows down the machine, makes the operation more confusing and makes Windows less stable. Someone went so far as to write a utility dedicated to uninstalling the "junkware" from Dell machines, Dell being among the worst in this regard. The fact that buying a business oriented machine lets you get XP instead of Vista just makes this even more important.

Sidenote: There are four regulars (myself included) on the Personal Computer Show on WBAI. Recently a caller needing to upgrade Windows 98 machines asked if he should go with Vista or XP. We all, immediately, said to get Windows XP. The four of us never agree on anything, but this is was a no-brainer. I mention it, in part, because recently Mr. Mossberg advised his readers to wait for Vista and avoid getting Windows XP. Between the four show regulars there is over 100 years of computer experience.

Mr. Mossberg implies that all consumer machines ship with Vista. Most do, but not all. Lenovo sells new desktops with XP (as of yesterday) as does Velocity Micro. HP does too in the outlet section of their web site. But again, focusing on a consumer targeted PC is a mistake in the first place.

My line about "pity the fools" is joke, referring to something Mr. T used to say. Apparently, it didn't come across as intended. I'm a consultant and almost all my clients are consumers. I do indeed feel sorry for consumers who have little or no training with computers and often get bad advice. And documentation in the field is a disgrace. A brutal disgrace. Heck, even billions-in-the-bank Microsoft doesn't ship Windows with a manual.

Not to pick on the Journal or Mr. Mossberg, I'll modify my motto: You don't read PC Magazine for Mutual Fund advice and you shouldn't read any newspaper for computer advice.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

What Makes a Good WebSite?

Think of this as a Buyers Guide to a Good Web Site. Obviously, much of what makes a "good" website is subjective, but the items below are not and are easily measured.

  • Consistent Navigation: All the links, menus, buttons should be in the same place on every page.
  • Printable Pages: All too often web pages are chopped off on the right side when printed. There is no excuse for this. Printer friendly versions of each page can either be maintained separately or reformatting for printing can be enabled for an entire site with an alternate style sheet. Either way, test printing with all the popular web browsers on Windows and on a Mac. In addition, I like to insure that each printed page always displays it's URL (web page address) either at the top or at the bottom. The web browser usually puts it there, but things can go wrong with that.
  • With or without "www": The web site should be usable both with and without the leading three Ws.
  • Page titles: Each page should have a unique title. If you would like people to find the website when searching by location, add the city and state to the titles where appropriate.
  • Liquid Design: The width of a good web page will adjust to fit its container (thus the term liquid). That is, if it's viewed with a resolution of 1024x768, the page will be 1,024 pixels wide. If viewed on a monitor with a resolution of 1280x600, the page will be 1,280 pixels wide. This means less vertical scrolling for the user, a good thing. Not only do narrow sites look silly on wide screens, but they indicate the site designer isn't up to the harder task of the liquid design. The choice of fixed vs. liquid design tells you a lot about the person who designed the web site. If it has a fixed width, get someone else to do your website.
  • Text size: View the website in Internet Explorer. Then, from the menu bar, select View -> Text Size -> Larger. The text on the site should get larger. If not, nag the webmaster to change things so it does. Some people, after all, wear glasses.
  • Adjust to larger text size: If the text does get larger, review a couple pages to insure that various sections of text don't overlay themselves or images. The best test is to use the Internet Explorer "Largest" text size. Also test in Firefox with View -> Text Size -> Increase.
  • Text is text: The use of images of text should be minimal. It is certainly justified for a logo, but probably not in other cases. For one thing, pictures slow down the loading of the website (in two different ways). Also, the text in an image doesn't resize.
  • Statistics: If it's your web site you should be able to easily view stats on its usage.
  • Speed: Pages should load quickly. This means a few things. First, the size and number of images can't be excessive. Defining "excessive" is admittedly a judgment call. Second, if there is a server side database, performance needs to be reviewed. This may mean a dedicated server vs. shared hosting or it may mean changes to the indexes on tables. Finally, the whole world is not yet on broadband, so test page load times on a dial-up connection.
  • Customized Error Pages: The most common error on a web site is a "Page Not Found." A well done site will intercept this error and display a friendly message on a page that looks like all the other pages on the site. A poorly done web site shows a default, ugly error message on a page with no formatting at all. Creating customized error pages is easy, there is no excuse not to have them. One website that deals with Page Not Found errors well is Woot (see example). A site that does not do this well is Trusted Reviews (see example).
  • Feedback: There should be an email address for feedback about the website. Preferably this will be on every page, but at the least, it should be on the Contact Us page.
  • Page Footer: And, speaking of every page, the footer should include the last update date and some contact information.
  • Firefox: Since Firefox is the second most popular web browser, check that web pages display correctly with it. Frequently increasing the font size causes layout problems, but this is fixable. Also, Firefox has an excellent error checker. That is, it logs the errors it encounters when rendering a web page. Some of these errors are important, some are not, but there is no reason for there to be any errors. To use it, Click on Tools -> Error Console. Clear out the old error messages by clicking the "Clear" button at the top (red X). Then load your web pages, one at a time and see what, if any, errors are generated.
  • Adobe Acrobat PDF files: Whenever a link on the site goes to a PDF file rather than a web page, this should be made very obvious to the user before they click on the link. In general a web site is for web pages, not for Adobe Acrobat documents. The use of PDF files should be minimal.
  • JavaScript: A common mistake web developers make is assuming everyone uses JavaScript. In both IE and Firefox try to view the website with JavaScript turned off. It should still function, even if some features don't work. If features of the site absolutely require JavaScript then the site has to check for the presence of JavaScript and when not found, explain this to the user in simple language. (updated May 21, 2007)
  • New Window Links: Sometimes links open new browser windows rather than load the target page in the current browser window. Any such link should clearly indicate that it opens a new window.
  • Directory Browsing: If you go to a valid directory on the website you should never see a list of files. For example, a URL such as should produce either a web page or an error message saying that directory browsing is not allowed. Test all the sub-directories this way and verify with the webmaster that directory browsing is disabled.
  • Screen resolution of 800x600: Webmasters generally use new hardware and software, but there are still people who view the Internet through 800x600 glasses. They should not have to scroll horizontally to see the entire page.
  • Other web browsers. Other operating systems: Lazy web developers only test a website with Internet Explorer on Windows. Maybe they will test with Firefox on Windows. But you're website is going to be viewed on Macintosh and Linux computers with different web browsers. At you can see how your home page looks when viewed with many different browsers on Macs, Windows and Linux. As of May 2007 it's in Alpha testing (which comes before Beta testing) - in other words, don't expect too much from quite yet.
  • Last updated June 21, 2007
If you paid someone to make a website and it does not have the above characteristics, take your business elsewhere.

If you can.

This last point is the most important of all. Every domain is registered in a big master file in the sky. Whoever did the initial registration, in addition to paying the bill, also got to chose who owns the domain. Us nerds call this the "Registrant". If someone built a website for you they may have registered the name and made themselves the Registrant. If so, it's not your domain, even though you may be paying for it. Paying for the web site hosting has nothing to do with the owner of the domain.

The companies that register domains are called "registrars". At the website of any registrar you can look up the "registrant" for a domain. GoDaddy, which advertises during the Super Bowl, is a registrar. One that I like is Directnic makes this query particularly easy, just enter a URL in this format:
Behind The Scenes

These reports are designed for techies, but can still be useful for anyone in evaluating a website.

Go to and get their opinion of your website. Your site should get a green check and the message "We tested this site and didn't find any significant problems." If not, ask the webmaster to make whatever changes are necessary. If your site has not been evaluated by Site Advisor, enter it into their system and check back in a few days.

Go to Google webmaster tools to verify that your site is indexed by Google and to learn the date they last indexed (a.k.a. crawled) your site. (added June 30, 2007)

Go to SiteUpTime to test how fast your website responds to someone in any three cities of the four they offer: New York, Chicago, San Francisco and London. (added December 17, 2007)

A free service for monitoring the availability of your web site is available from BasicState. (added March 10, 2008)

Go to for information on your web site, domain registration and more. This link does an analysis of, simply replace "" with your domain name. (added February 25, 2008)

Go to Exploit Prevent Labs to get their opinion of your website. You can enter your website address at the bottom of their home page, then click on the Scan button. (added June 15, 2007)

At you can get a free DNS server analysis. Simply put, DNS servers are in charge of telling the world everything about your web site and about your domain. For example, they are the final link in the chain for finding a website. The important point here is that configuring a DNS server computer is complicated and this website offers a free report on how well the DNS servers servicing your website are configured. Anything in red is an outright error, anything in yellow is a warning. Talk to your webmaster about fixing anything in red in this report. (added March 29, 2007)
Posting viewed: times since June 1, 2007

Friday, February 9, 2007

Office 2007 Gripes

These Office 2007 gripes were added to my site today.

As a starting point, I used this article by Paul Boutin in Slate: Microsoft's Office 2007, the most annoying computer upgrade since Windows 95 (January 30, 2007). Cruel words from someone who, in general is pro-Microsoft.

  • Mr. Boutin argues that Office is Microsoft's real monopoly, not Windows and offers pricing as proof. The cheapest upgrade to Vista is $100, the cheapest upgrade to Office is $150, but that's without Outlook, which adds another $100 to the price. Ouch.
  • Quoting: "Upgrading to Vista is mostly painless but not necessary, while upgrading to Office 2007 is painful but inevitable."
  • Quoting: "Office 2007 ... seems to go out of its way to make your transition as difficult as possible. By default, the Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files you create won't open for people who have older versions of the software." Needless to say, Microsoft has free software to let you deal with files created in Office 2007 even if you don't have Office 2007 installed. But, there is no Mac version.
  • This is my favorite point in the article. Quoting: "My home office has two computers, a Mac with Office 2004 and a PC running Office 97. I've never needed to upgrade for work." Even techies see no reason to use the latest versions of Office. Mr. Boutin still uses the brutally old Office 97, I use Office 2000 and I've been told by the computer reporter for a major newspaper that he too still uses Office 97. Non techies take note.
  • Quoting again "First reaction: They changed everything! Office 2007 deletes the old toolbars and menus at the top of the screen and replaces them with the Ribbon, an overlapping set of tabs that regroups each application's functions". Every article I've seen on Office 2007 has gripes about the new user interface and the hubris of Microsoft in not offering a fallback to the older familiar interface.
In summary, Office 2007 is expensive, hard to learn because of major user interface changes and less compatible with the rest of the world that has standardized on the file formats used by the last few versions of Office.

For argument sake, assume that the new file formats are an improvement and the new user interface will eventually make you more productive after spending the time and effort to learn it. Even then, Office 2007 is analogous to new keyboard layouts. The current layout of keys on a keyboard and typewriter date from ancient times and are inefficient. So what? We all use it, we're used to it and the world has much invested in it. It's a standard. Even "better" layouts have no chance of getting adopted. This is what should happen to Office 2007 also. My guess is that sooner or later Microsoft will release a patch for Office 2007 that lets people switch to the "classic" interface. Think clippy.

If your judgment is so poor as to actually purchase Office 2007, keep it to yourself. It's a step below tatoos.
FYI: You can see Office 2007 for yourself with a test drive that runs inside a web browser.
FYI: Microsoft created free training videos for Office 2007 and 2003.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Online radio stations

RadioAs the old commercial used to say "Try it, you'll like it." Clear Channel makes HD Digital Radio stations available from all over the country. While not completely interruption free, there are no commercials and just a few station promos. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Old versions of Flash hang around

Secunia, a software security company, has a cool utility on their web site called the Software Inspector. It examines the software installed on your machine and reports whether it is vulnerable to known bugs (more commonly referred to as vulnerabilities or security holes).

I was shocked to see that Adobe's very popular Flash software (formerly from Macromedia) never gets uninstalled. My computer, although it had the latest and greatest version of Flash installed, also had four old versions of Flash, each with known bugs. Disgracefully sloppy work from Adobe.

The Secunia Software Inspector is nice enough to tell you the exact location of these old versions of Flash. Mine were all in folder

The current version, 9.0.28 is file Flash9b.ocx. File Flash9.ocx is an older buggy version of Flash version 9. I also had two versions of version 8 and even a copy of Flash version 6 on my machine. I deleted all the old versions.

The only problem with the Secunia Software Inspector is that it is a Java applet. Applets are much like ActiveX programs and Flash itself, they run inside a web page, you don't have to download them and install them. But Java is the least popular of these competing technologies and many Windows computers don't have Java installed.

This wouldn't be a problem except that Secunia does not test your machine first to see if you have Java installed (and it has to be a recent copy of Java, old ones won't work).

What to do? Visit my Java Tester web site to see if you have Java installed and, if you do, which version of Java it is.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Dumb Article on Dumb Terminals

There was an article today in the Wall Street Journal called Dumb Terminals Can Be a Smart Move (this is one of the very few articles that the paper makes available for free on their web site). As is typical of most computer articles in newspapers the technical information is, to be kind, incomplete.

For starters, this long article fails to mention Citrix, for a long time the dominant player in this field. Citrix is to thin client computing as Xerox is to copiers. Also omitted is any mention of the server versions of Windows and the specific feature (terminal services) that enables thin client computing. It is impossible to give the reader a reasonable understanding of the subject of thin client computing without some discussion of the server side impact.

The article gives the impression that dumb terminals are cheaper than PCs which is not always true. Back a few years ago when I was more familiar with this subject, many dumb terminals were more expensive than new low end computers. This is still true today. The HP model pictured with the article is $200 - sort of. HP says this price is "applicable to the lowest-price configuration for this model; prices for this model with the features displayed here will vary." Wyse doesn't list prices on their web site and only sells through resellers - a sure sign that it's expensive. Neoware is up-front about their prices. Their Linux based models range from $260 to $1,100, their WindowsCE models range from $360 to $1,050. They also sell Windows XP embedded models for $480 to $1,150 and thin client notebooks start at $750, roughly the same starting price as real notebook computers.

Much of the article is about how "dumb terminals" are cheaper, but it avoids the server side costs, which are huge. The software to run applications remotely is expensive and complicated to set up. The techies in charge need a lot of training to get up to speed (a hidden cost). And then there is the hardware cost for very high end servers.

There are downsides to thin client computing that are not mentioned in the article.

For one, network access to a server running your applications is critical. Should there be a networking problem, employees do the crossword puzzle until it's fixed. Also, just like with mainframes, many users compete for resources on a single computer. If the machine is not configured right, or suffers a problem or is hogged by one user doing something resource intensive, multiple users feel the pain. In fact, the whole idea of thin clients is a throwback to the mainframe model of computing - with both its pros and cons.

Another downside, user psychology, is mentioned in the article, but there is more to say about it. Resistance to thin clients comes from users that can no longer install software. Instead they can be limited to running just approved corporate applications. This sounds great for security and for keeping software up to date (think Windows Update) but if a user wants or needs other applications, they have to fight with the computer techies to get approval. It's easy to see how this may not go over well.

Artists are another problem not mentioned. Thin clients are not appropriate for people dealing with photographs, videos or any type of graphic work. These applications require high resolution, lots of colors, fast response time and lots of cpu horsepower.

The article quotes a Gartner employee as saying: "It's a paradox. People want their cake and eat it, too. They want the security, they want the consistency ... but they want the functionality of a PC." There is no paradox at all, the techies want security and consistency while end users want normal PC functionality.

Quoting the article: "... the basic terminals appear to offer improved security. Because the systems are designed to keep data on a server, sensitive information isn't lost if a terminal gets lost, stolen or damaged."

While true, this is far from the whole story. Thin client devices have ports for connecting all sorts of external devices that can be used to save files. As with a real PC, a person can stick a thumb drive into it and copy all manner of files.

The article gives the impression that the choice is either standard personal computers or thin clients/dumb terminals. This couldn't be more wrong. Almost every Fortune 500 company uses software from Citrix to run remote applications. As described here, the application is installed on a server computer running special, expensive software and remote users with real PCs access these application servers over the corporate LAN or the Internet. In fact, I'm pretty sure that the Wall Street Journal itself uses Citrix software in this way.

Some applications run normally on a personal computer while others are run remotely on application servers. The remote applications are run using software from Citrix that is either installed on a personal computer or accessed via a web page. This is a hybrid approach and one that is much more common than exclusive use of thin clients.

I have no idea what this sentence in the article means: "H-P, of Palo Alto, Calif., last week announced that a line of its slimmed-down PCs, which reside in the data center and enable users to connect through a thin client or other devices, was being made available in Europe, Canada and China for the first time." Nothing about thin clients/dumb terminals has to with PCs residing in a data center, it's all about high end servers in the data center. And if the PCs are in a data center, who cares about their height and width?

The article discusses a thin client laptop that connects wirelessly to "the network". Which network? The LAN of a company or the Internet? It doesn't say. And which wireless; WiFi or a wide area data network such as EV-DO or WiMax or HSDPA or UMTS? It doesn't say.


By the way, you can get a feel for running remote applications at a site that Microsoft set up to let people try/test drive the Vista operating system. I found it slow, but your mileage may differ.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Dell computer printing problem

I just added a new Dell gripe to my site. A relative couldn't print on his computer, all the printer definitions disappeared. He couldn't add a new printer definition due to an error with the Print Spooler service. The event logs had many errors, too many for a phone call.

I remotely controlled his machine and found that the Print Spooler service wouldn't start because it depends on the LexBce Server service which wouldn't start because it was disabled. Turns out LexBce is Lexmark printer software that Dell pre-installs. Thanks for nothing Dell. This machine had no Lexmark printers attached to it.

The real problem is why the Print Spooler depends on Lexmark software if there are no Lexmark printers. Or put another way, the real problem is Dell. I enabled the LexBce service, started it, started the Print Spooler service and all was well. For more, see the computer gripes entry.

Just starting

This blog will be for personal observations on all things computing. It's an adjunct to my existing personal site ( and my site.