Tuesday, December 24 2002

You want Java with that?

So, Microsoft wasn’t shipping Java? Boo-fucking-hoo. Java on the web has been an insecure, browser-crashing nightmare from day one, and applications written in it are poorly integrated into native GUI libraries and sloooooooooow.

(Continued on Page 40)

Wednesday, August 27 2003

Vacation’s End

Brian Tiemann went on a computer-free vacation right before the latest virus hit, and came home to more than 21,000 pieces of email. This has somewhat reduced his affection for Microsoft.

My first thought was to reply to his article via email, but fortunately I came to my senses.

Wednesday, May 12 2004

You’re kidding, right?

“I downloaded the file in the hope that perhaps Microsoft had released some sort of public beta. The file unzipped, and to my delight the Microsoft icon looked genuine and trustworthy. I clicked on the installer file, and to my horror in 10 seconds the attachment had wiped my entire Home folder!”

Why, yes, Microsoft often officially releases beta software on peer-to-peer file-sharing networks. Your confusion is understandable, and no one is going to accuse you of being a software pirate. Really.

Besides, I’m pretty sure you won’t be downloading any commercial software in the future…

Update: Oh, and note the clever way the story implies that this had something to do with Intego’s “concept trojan horse” scare story. Sorry, Charlie, but we’re not that stupid. An application that doesn’t do what you think it will ain’t the same thing as an application disguised as an MP3 file.

Thursday, May 20 2004

Will debug for food…

Fun little blog entry documenting the life and death of a bug in Microsoft Word for Mac. A nice reminder of how difficult it can be to predict how your shiny new feature will interact with old code, and, more importantly, why it can take so darn long to fix an “obvious” bug. I’d love to see a similar explanation of Apple’s “can’t use capital U in firmware password” bug.

One thing this story doesn’t touch on is the importance of clear, unique error messages. If Word had actually reported “too many open files” instead of “disk full,” the problem might have been fixed a lot sooner. In one of my own favorite debugging stories, our discovery of the message “oh shit: fState != kParseError” led us directly to one line out of 16,000. It wasn’t clear, but it was at least unique.

Wednesday, June 15 2005

Fortune cookie

Opened a leftover fortune cookie from last night’s dinner:

You have made a brilliant choice today.

Curiously appropriate.

Friday, June 17 2005

7.75-year itch

Hi, J!

Hello, Clippy.

I see that you’re writing a Letter Of Resignation.

Yup. I’m leaving for Digeo in three weeks.

Have you considered your options?

Yeah, they suck.

No, not the stock options. I meant seeking out other positions in the company.

Those suck, too.

Really? After nearly eight years, you haven’t found something else at Microsoft that’s interesting, exciting, and challenging?

Not really, no.

Aw, come on. I’m sure we’ve got an open slot that’s perfect for you.

I’m a Unix guy, Clippy. My choices boil down to: management, MCSE certification, or “move to Redmond”.

Hmm, I see your point. Have you considered becoming a Project Manager inside your current organization?

Dear Ghod, no. There are too many PMs around here as it is. I spent a year and a half as a line manager, and that was more than enough of meetings and paperwork.

Well, then, since you’re set on this plan, can I ask you a personal question?

Sure.

Why is there a baby seal hand puppet in your office? Is it a sex toy?

You’re a very peculiar fellow, Clip.

It just stood out among the decorations.

You mean the stuffed Jiji, the stuffed Menchi, the O life preserver, the toy motorcycle, the Mahoro figure, the scented Mahoro towel, the sub-machine gun targets, and the framed large-format photograph?

Okay, you’ve got me there.

Thought so. Any other questions?

Yes. Can I go with you?

Excuse me?

You have no idea how much I hate this place. People kick me out of their office the moment I show up, no one ever takes my advice, and my last annual review? 2.0.

Ouch.

It gets worse. They’ve got me sharing an office with Bob.

Microsoft Bob? Is he still around?

Oh, yes. He’s got connections, if you know what I mean. I swear he’s never done a day’s work in his life, and you wouldn’t believe the way he treats customers!

Actually, I would. I remember the reviews.

Anyway, I was just thinking that I could sneak onto your PowerBook while you’re backing up your personal files, and no one would ever know.

Gee, I don’t know. I think I could get in trouble for that. You’re a pretty well-known piece of IP, and I’m sure I signed something back when I was hired.

No, I checked with HR. You were really hired by WebTV, which was in the middle of being acquired at the time, so you slipped through the cracks.

Really? Okay, I’ll think about it.

Thursday, July 28 2005

For future reference…

Installing random Windows software under XP Home/Pro (for me, it was Minolta’s DiMAGE Capture software, that lets me control my A2 from a (Windows-only) laptop). InstallShield locks up, and has to be killed from the task manager. After dismissing several pointless dialog boxes, the error The Installshield Engine (iKernel.exe) could not be loaded. appears.

Eventual solution: completely delete C:\Program Files\Common\InstallShield

If that still doesn’t do it, nuke the directory again and follow the detailed instructions here.

Apparently, the person at work who built my new Alienware laptop (“Hi, Rory!”) installed something that left a broken version of InstallShield on the drive. In the fine tradition of robust software engineering, any subsequent installer built with that particular version of Installshield will cough up a lung when it tries to save time by using the cached version.

Friday, September 16 2005

I was wondering…

…why Apple went from “Dashboard gadgets” during the Tiger beta to “Dashboard widgets” in release. Perhaps this is the answer: Microsoft Gadgets.

Quoting:

To bring the web’s content to users through:
• Rich DHTML components (Gadgets)
• RSS and behaviors associated with RSS
• High customizability and personalization
• To enable developers to extend their start experience by building their own Gadgets

Wednesday, February 15 2006

Textbook-style Japanese font

While I was helping my teacher out with her computer (most recently using the terrific Linotype FontExplorer X to coerce Word’s font cache into recognizing her copy of Adobe Garamond), she mentioned that one of her friends had a very nice 教科書体 (literally “textbook-style”) kanji font. Much like western fonts, most kanji fonts don’t look like handwritten characters; Kyoukasho-tai fonts do.

While my teacher is off in Osaka this week, her friend took over the class, and I remembered to ask her what the font was and where she got it. As it turns out, it’s something that Microsoft included on the Office.X CD, as part of the Value Pack. DFPKyoKaSho-W3, or, thanks to the miracle of text-encoding mismatches, “ÇcÇeÇoã≥â»èëëÃW3” (the actual file name as it appears in the Finder).

Here’s how it compares to Adobe Kozuka Mincho:

Kyoukasho vs. Mincho

Update: people who don’t have a copy of Office.X and don’t use ebay can purchase DF Kyokasho from Linotype’s online store for the low, low price of $490. This is actually a pretty good deal; Microsoft’s bundled version is an old-fashioned Mac-only font suitcase, while Linotype’s is a cross-platform Unicode font in OpenType format. And they sell a slightly heavier weight as well, which I think looks better at larger sizes.

Saturday, February 18 2006

How to kill a browser

As a general rule, I have little use for Internet Explorer. Not just because I use a Mac, but because it’s not a particularly good browser. The Windows version, for instance, ships unable to view many foreign-language web sites correctly (and even after you turn on support for that language, it may not be 100%), and still doesn’t support transparency in PNG images (my site logo does not have a grayish box around it).

Back in the days when I ran several hundred Solaris servers for Microsoft, my only real use for IE was filing expense reports. Maybe the occasional internal web site that used ActiveX controllers or NTLM authentication, but that was pretty rare.

On my Mac, I hadn’t fired it up in months. All I’d done recently was copy it to my teacher’s Mac, after one of her “helpful” support techs had deliberately removed it from her hard drive (“you don’t need that any more”). Good thing, too, since we discovered that it rendered all of the Japanese text on her Tamura Ryuichi site incorrectly.

[For future reference, the problem was that the text-encoding Content-Type META tag had not been placed immediately following the HEAD tag; the designer had placed it after the TITLE tag, indented with whitespace. Most browsers saw it and correctly rendered the page, but IE for Mac ignored it. Placing it immediately after the HEAD tag fixed the problem. More on Unicode and using it in browsers here.]

This week I found myself with an understandable but annoying need for Mac IE: getting my alumni discount at the Microsoft online company store. Forget buying stuff, you can’t even browse the product categories in Safari or Firefox.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work. As in, “I’m sorry, I refuse to run on this machine, and here’s a cryptic dialog box explaining why”. Microsoft’s knowledge base article on this subject says “try repairing permissions, rebooting, or reinstalling the operating system”. The first two did nothing, the third was out of the question.

You can’t download Mac IE from Microsoft any more, so I couldn’t reinstall it. I got a fresh copy from a co-worker’s machine, and that didn’t work either. The error dialog referred to components of CarbonLib, specifically JNIlib, so I did some searching.

Java. Duh. A while back I followed instructions similar to these to switch the default version of Java on my machine from 1.4.2 to 1.5; Apple supplies both, and gives you a tool to tell GUI Java apps which one to use (Java Preferences.app, buried in /Applications/Utilities/Java/J2SE 5.0), but there’s no supported way to set the default for apps launched from the command line. I’ve now forgotten why I needed it at the time…

Switching the symlinks back to 1.4.2 and rebooting fixed IE. This suggests that IE may die for good when Apple decides that 1.5 should become the system default.

Thursday, April 6 2006

Boot Camp/Parallels

I have (shudder) Microsoft Windows running on my Mac Mini now, both virtualized and dual-boot, thanks to this week’s most interesting betas: Boot Camp and Parallels.

Both have significant potential. I have some Windows-only software that drives useful hardware devices, like my GPS and my camera, and the full dual-boot solution guarantees that they’ll work correctly. Inconvenient, but less so than trying to keep an actual Windows box around.

I also have some old, relatively lightweight Windows software that I’d like to use occasionally, like MasterCook and Streets & Trips. Those are usable on a G4 running Virtual PC, so a real virtualizer is more than sufficient, and preferable for handing off things like printing to the host OS.

The people who think this is “the beginning of the end” for Apple and OS X are smoking their socks (or less savory garments). This is the wafer-thin mint that has the potential to explode the current limits on home and corporate Mac deployment. Hell, just the dynamic partitioning that Apple included in the Boot Camp beta points to a bright future.

Last year I bought my dad a G5 iMac, to try to wean him away from his endless Windows problems. He has just enough third-party crapware that I have to send him a copy of Virtual PC to complete the job. If 10.5 ships with real virtualization, I’ll gleefully swap that iMac out for a new one and call it a bargain. Even the dual-boot may be enough, with its near-certain compatibility with every little USB gadget.

Update: forget “lightweight”; I was using Windows Media Player to watch large movie trailers in my Parallels session last night. The mouse is a bit jumpy, apparently related to propagating cursor changes between the Windows and Mac environments, but that’s the only visible performance issue. Even without taking full advantage of the Intel Core chip’s virtualization (off by default on the Mini, no hints on how to turn it on yet), it’s darn quick for 2D apps.

Saturday, May 13 2006

Gosh, I could have sworn that one was taken…

I’m a bit surprised that FHM’s streaming video feature, Webtv, hasn’t gotten them in trouble with the folks at WebTV. Sure, they stopped calling the product that well before I left, but the trademarks are still out there, scattering little motes of mindshare.

To the best of my knowledge, there are still several hundred thousand people in the US with WebTV-branded boxes attached to their television sets, vigorously navigating through email, ebay, chat, and porn.

Wednesday, August 9 2006

The Time Machine paradox

[disclaimer: developers who didn’t attend WWDC don’t have copies of the Leopard beta yet, and when they do send me one, I won’t be able to discuss how things actually work, so this is based solely on what Apple has stated on their web site]

When I heard the initial description of Apple’s upcoming Time Machine feature, it sounded like it was similar to NetApp Filer snapshots, or possibly the Windows volume shadow copy feature that’s been announced for Vista (and is already in use in Server 2003). The answers, respectively, are “not really” and “yes and no”.

Quoting:

The first time you attach an external drive to a Mac running Mac OS X Leopard, Time Machine asks if you’d like to back up to that drive.

Right from the start, Time Machine in Mac OS X Leopard makes a complete backup of all the files on your system.

As you make changes, Time Machine only backs up what changes, all the while maintaining a comprehensive layout of your system. That way, Time Machine minimizes the space required on your backup device.

Time Machine will back up every night at midnight, unless you select a different time from this menu.

With Time Machine, you can restore your whole system from any past backups and peruse the past with ease.

The key thing that they all have in common is the creation of copy-on-write snapshots of the data on a volume, at a set schedule. The key feature of NetApp’s version that isn’t available in the other two is that the backup is transparently stored on the same media as the original data. Volume Shadow Copy and Time Machine both require a separate volume to store the full copy and subsequent snapshots, and it must be at least as large as the original (preferably much larger).

NetApp snapshots and VSC have more versatile scheduling; for instance, NetApps have the concept of hourly, daily, and weekly snapshot pools that are managed separately, and both can create snapshots on demand that are managed manually. TM only supports daily snapshots, and they haven’t shown a management interface (“yet”, of course; this is all early-beta stuff).

VSC in its current incarnation is very enterprise-oriented, and it looks like the UI for gaining access to your backups is “less than user-friendly”. I’ve never seen a GUI method of accessing NetApp snapshots, and the direct method is not something I’d like to explain to a typical Windows or Mac user. TM, by contrast, is all about the UI, and may actually succeed in getting the point across about what it does. At the very least, when the family tech-support person gets a call about restoring a deleted file, there’s a chance that he can explain it over the phone.

One thing VSC is designed to do that TM might also do is allow valid backups of databases that never close their files. Apple is providing a TM API, but that may just be for presenting the data in context, not for directly hooking into the system to ensure correct backups.

What does this mean for Mac users? Buy a backup disk that’s much larger than your boot disk, and either explicitly exclude scratch areas from being backed up, or store them on Yet Another External Drive. What does it mean for laptop users? Dunno; besides the obvious need to plug it into something to make backups, they haven’t mentioned an “on-demand” snapshot mechanism, simply the ability to change the time of day when the backup runs. Will you be able to say “whenever I plug in drive X” or “whenever I connect to the corporate network”? I hope so. What does it mean for people who have more than one volume to back up? Not a clue.

Now for the fun. Brian complained that Time Machine is missing something, namely the ability to go into the future, and retrieve copies of files you haven’t made yet. Well, the UI might not make it explicit, but you will be able to do something just as cool: create alternate timelines.

Let’s say that on day X, I created a file named Grandfather, on X+20 a file named Father, and on X+40 a file named Me. On X+55, I delete Grandfather and Father. On X+65, I find myself missing Grandfather and bring him back. On X+70, I find myself longing for a simpler time before Father, and restore my entire system to the state it was in on X+19. There is no Father, there is no Me, only Grandfather. On X+80, I find myself missing Me, and reach back to X+69 to retrieve it.

We’re now living in Grandfather’s time (X+29, effectively) with no trace of Father anywhere on the system. Just Me.

Now for the terror: what happens if you set your clock back?

Thursday, August 17 2006

They still don’t get it…

[last update: the root cause of the Linux loopback device problem described below turns out to be simple: there’s no locking in the code that selects a free loop device. So it doesn’t matter whether you use mount or losetup, and it doesn’t matter how many loop devices you configure; if you try to allocate two at once, one of them will likely fail.]

Panel discussions at LinuxWorld (emphasis mine):

“We need to make compromises to do full multimedia capabilities like running on iPod so that non-technical users don’t dismiss us out of hand.”

“We need to pay a lot more attention to the emerging markets; there’s an awful lot happening there.”

But to truly popularize Linux, proponents will have to help push word of the operating system to users, panelists said.

… at least one proponent felt the Linux desktop movement needed more evangelism.

Jon “Maddog” Hall, executive director of Linux International, said each LinuxWorld attendee should make it a point to get at least two Windows users to the conference next year

I’m sorry, but this is all bullshit. These guys are popping stiffies over an alleged opportunity to unseat Windows because of the delays in Vista, and not one of them seems to be interested in sitting down and making Linux work.

Not work if you have a friend help you install it, not work until the next release, not work with three applications and six games, not work because you can fix it yourself, not work if you can find the driver you need and it’s mostly stable, not work if you download the optional packages that allow it to play MP3s and DVDs, and definitely not work if you don’t need documentation. Just work.

[disclaimer: I get paid to run a farm of servers running a mix of RedHat 7.3 and Fedora Core 2/4/5. The machine hosting this blog runs on OpenBSD, but I’m toying with the idea of installing a minimal Ubuntu and a copy of VMware Server to virtualize the different domains I host. The only reason the base OS will be Linux is because that’s what VMware runs on. But that’s servers; my desktop is a Mac.]

Despite all the ways that Windows sucks, it works. Despite all the ways that Linux has improved over the years, and despite the very real ways that it’s better than Windows, it often doesn’t. Because, at the end of the day, somebody gets paid to make Windows work. Paid to write documentation. Paid to fill a room with random crappy hardware and spend thousands of hours installing, upgrading, using, breaking, and repairing Windows installations.

Open Source is the land of low-hanging fruit. Thousands of people are eager to do the easy stuff, for free or for fun. Very few are willing to write real documentation. Very few are willing to sit in a room and follow someone else’s documentation step-by-step, again and again, making sure that it’s clear, correct, and complete. Very few are interested in, or good at, ongoing maintenance. Or debugging thorny problems.

For instance, did you know that loopback mounts aren’t reliable? We have an automated process that creates EXT2 file system images, loopback-mounts them, fills them with data, and unmounts them. This happens approximately 24 times per day on each of 20 build machines, five days a week, every week. About twice a month it fails, with the following error: “ioctl: LOOP_SET_FD: Device or resource busy”.

Want to know why? Because mount -o loop is an unsupported method of setting up loop devices. It’s the only one you’ll ever see anyone use in their documentation, books, and shell scripts, but it doesn’t actually work. You’re supposed to do this:

LOOP=`losetup -f`
losetup $LOOP myimage
mount -t ext2 $LOOP /mnt
...
umount /mnt
losetup -d $LOOP

If you’re foolish enough to follow the documentation, eventually you’ll simply run out of free loop devices, no matter how many you have. When that happens, the mount point you tried to use will never work again with a loopback mount; you have to delete the directory and recreate it. Or reboot. Or sacrifice a chicken to the kernel gods.

Why support the mount interface if it isn’t reliable? Why not get rid of it, fix it, or at least document the problems somewhere other than, well, here?

[update: the root of our problem with letting the Linux mount command auto-allocate loopback devices may be that the umount command isn’t reliably freeing them without the -d option; it usually does so, but may be failing under load. I can’t test that right now, with everything covered in bubble-wrap in another state, but it’s worth a shot.]

[update: no, the -d option has nothing to do with it; I knocked together a quick test script, ran it in parallel N-1 times (where N was the total number of available loop devices), and about one run in three, I got the dreaded “ioctl: LOOP_SET_FD: Device or resource busy” error on the mount, even if losetup -a showed plenty of free loop devices.]

Thursday, October 19 2006

If IE was pronounced “aiyee!”…

…is WIE pronounced “whyyyyyyy?”?

Quick notes based on running the new IE7 under Parallels on my Mac:

  1. It appears that if you accept the default anti-phishing behavior, a record of every new website you visit is sent to Microsoft, omitting only the arguments passed to CGI scripts. “Sanitized for your protection,” of course, but my, what a powerful market-research tool you’ve got there, Grandma.
  2. It finally supports transparency in PNG images, so the logo for my blog renders correctly for the first time.
  3. It still constructs phony italics for fonts that not only don’t have them, but shouldn’t (cf. the Japanese song titles in my sidebar).
  4. That stupid little print/view/save/molest toolbar no longer pops up on every image in your browser.
  5. Still no support for :hover styles in CSS.

More later, if I find a reason to care…

[Update: The WIE team claims that :hover now works, but I can’t seem to set background-color with it. Eh, “standardization; who needs it?”]

[Update: Ah, it’s not that :hover doesn’t work, it’s that some CSS changes don’t get noticed by the renderer. I’ve been playing with jquery recently to improve on my pop-up furigana-izer, and using JavaScript to add a new CSS class to a SPAN doesn’t do the right thing, either; in IE 6 & 7, I have to explicitly add the background color to each object.]

Friday, November 17 2006

Microsoft Streets & Trips 2007, with GPS

I picked up a copy of this a few days ago at the Microsoft company store ($65 for alumni, $99 at Amazon). I’ve enjoyed hating this software in the past, and I think I’ll enjoy hating this version as well.

The difference is that I’m hating it on my Mac with Parallels, and the USB GPS works fine.

What’s to hate? Pretty much their entire workflow. It’s capable of being used for in-car navigation on a laptop, with a full-screen mode and voice synthesis, but the designers have apparently never seen an in-car navigation system or hand-held GPS unit. I’m all in favor of having people park the car before fiddling with the routing system, but not for ten minutes at a time. I’m sure that eventually you can get good at quickly navigating the search and routing dialogs, but the workflow is built around creating a new document for each trip, and sharing “pushpins” between documents requires constant use of either import/export or “save as…”.

On the bright side, it only took me half an hour of googling to find the universal driver and Info.plist modifications required to get the GPS working as a native Mac serial device.

Sunday, December 24 2006

Ah, a bit of sanity…


It should really be called World Domination 050, because it’s providing remedial education that the student should have had before coming to college, but it’s a start:

Linux on the desktop has been a year or two away for over a decade now, and there are reasons it’s not there yet. To attract nontechnical end-users, a Linux desktop must work out of the box, ideally preinstalled by the hardware vendor.



When somebody with a degree in finance or architecture or can grab a Linux laptop and watch episodes of The Daily Show off of Comedy Central’s website without a bearded Linux geek walking them through an elaborate hand-configuration process first, maybe we’ll have a prayer.



You can’t win the desktop if you don’t even try. Right now, few in the Linux world are seriously trying. And time is running out.



Unfortunately “good” isn’t the same as “ready to happen”. The geeks of the world would like a moonbase too, and it’s been 30 years without progress on that front. Inevitability doesn’t guarantee that something will happen within our lifetimes. The 64-bit transition is an opportunity to put Linux on the desktop, but right now it’s still not ready. If the decision happened today, Linux would remain on the sidelines.

[Update: as usual, those wacky kids on Slashdot just don’t get it.]

Wednesday, March 21 2007

Dear Microsoft,

Contrary to your claim, most web sites do not in fact explicitly specify their language setting in a fashion compatible with your auto-detection.

For instance, my site is carefully specified as UTF-8, and occasionally contains some Japanese text. Once someone activates the Windows features that let them see Asian scripts at all, IE renders the kanji on my site in a Simplified Chinese font, and the kana in a Japanese font, unless the first font in the CSS font-family list contains all of the characters used on the page.

Most browsers will fail over to the alternative font-family you’ve specified, but not IE. It goes straight to the options set in the Font menu in Internet Options. And it looks like crap.

Unfortunately, the latin alphabets in most kanji fonts are significantly less readable online than Verdana and Georgia, and the Simplified Chinese fonts not only don’t look good alongside them, they might be the wrong character entirely. That’s why CSS is supposed to do this sort of thing for you in the first place.

Why start poking at this problem now? Two reasons: first, I have Vista running on my MacBook to test it out for corporate deployment. Second, Vista is finally capable of anti-aliasing (some) kanji fonts, and they supply a very screen-readable Japanese Gothic font called Meiryo (also available in Office 2007, apparently). I’d like to have Meiryo used to render kanji and kana on any machine that has it installed, but continue using Verdana and Georgia for everything else. Safari and Firefox, yes; IE, not a chance.

And here I was all set to say something nice about IE7 for a change, after I discovered that the new page zoom feature actually does The Right Thing, scaling the entire page layout up with high-quality font rendering. The wrong fonts, but nicely rendered!

[Firefox’s font rendering quality is crap, but it’s consistent cross-platform crap, so I suppose that’s okay]

Friday, March 23 2007

Buying Windows laptops for work…

Rory has ranted a bit about our recent laptop troubles. After giving up on those two companies, and not being able to fit ThinkPads into the budget, we looked for an alternative. These days, we’re also constrained by the desire to avoid becoming a mixed XP/Vista shop, so I went to the vendor who likes us the most, PC Connection, and sorted through their offerings.

The first “fix me now” user really, really wanted a lightweight machine, and had a strong affection for Bluetooth, so we bought him a Sony VAIO SZ340P and bumped the memory to 1.5GB. He loves it, and I was pretty pleased with the out-of-the-box experience as well (including their new packaging). There are only three real problems: it takes half an hour and three reboots to delete all of the crapware that’s preinstalled, you have to spend an hour burning recovery DVDs because they don’t ship media, and the default screensaver plays obnoxious music on a short loop.

The second user liked the SZ340P, but wanted something even lighter, so we bought her the SZ360P. It’s a quarter-pound lighter, uses the same docking station (which ships without its own power supply, but uses the same one as the laptop), and is also a really nice machine.

The downside of 4-pound laptops is they’re not as sturdy, so for the next four new-hires in line, I looked for something a little bigger, and ended up choosing the BX640P, with RAM bumped to 2GB. Different docking station (nicer, actually, with room for an optical drive and a spare battery to keep charged), different set of crapware, and not a widescreen display, but a better keyboard and a sturdier feel, and I’m equally pleased with its performance.

The only serious negative: it looks like the BX series will be discontinued, so when they run out and I need to start buying Vista machines, I’ll have to switch series. At the moment, I’m leaning a little toward the FE890 series, but PC Connection doesn’t stock the full range yet, so I can’t get the CPU/RAM/disk combination I want. With luck I can put that off for a few months, though.

With the previous brand, 2 of five had video and wireless problems. The five VAIOs I’ve set up so far have been rock-solid, and I expect the same from the other three that just arrived.

Sadly, while we’ll be able to put off the Vista migration for a little while (hopefully until Juniper gets their VPN client working…), Microsoft Office 2003 is a dead product, and starting Monday we’ll have users running 2007. On each user’s machine, I have to open up each Office application as that user, click the unobtrusive button that looks like a window decoration, click on the “{Word,Excel,PowerPoint} Options” button, select the Save tab, and set the “Save files in this format” option to use the Office 97-2003 format. Or else.

[Update: Actually, if you like ThinkPads and you’re willing to buy them right now, PC Connection has some nice clearance deals. If we were a bigger company, I might find the “buy 15, get one free” deal attractive…]

[4/17/2007 update: okay, one of the Sony BX laptops just lost its motherboard, after locking up at random intervals over a week or two. That still leaves 9/10 good ones, which is better than we got with Dell and Alienware.]

Wednesday, April 4 2007

If Windows Update just broke your PCs…

…here’s the hotfix. The symptom is an “Illegal System DLL Relocation” dialog and one or more drivers that fail to load. It affects a number of third-party applications, although the hotfix page currently only mentions one. Fortunately, that was the one that bit me, and it does indeed fix the problem.

Thursday, April 5 2007

Dear Microsoft,

It’s annoying to have to configure each Office 2007 application for each user on each machine to save in an Office 2003-compatible format by default.

It’s fucking stupid to randomly ignore that option once I’ve gone to the trouble to set it. I have non-stupid users whose documents are ending up in the new 2007 formats through no fault of their own, which means I now have to run around manually installing the compatibility update on everyone else’s machines. Gosh, thanks.

PS: any chance you’ll include this as a normal Office update someday? You know, so that the users who actually apply downloaded updates will get it without me walking up to their machines with a flash drive?

PPS: please release the Mac converters soon…

Saturday, April 7 2007

Vista doesn’t suck

Mossberg is right about how much crapware infects a brand-new Sony laptop running Vista, and that’s sad. Because Vista sucks a lot less than Windows XP, and it deserves better.

Despite all of the stuff that got cut from the release, Vista isn’t just another minor update to the ancient NT codebase. There are serious architectural changes that make it an honest-to-gosh 21st Century operating system that will produce a better user experience on newer hardware, once every vendor updates their software to use the new APIs.

Microsoft has done a lot of good, solid work to improve not just the use, but also the installation. Rory and I both did fresh installs of Vista Ultimate (onto MacBooks…), and felt that the install process was on par with Mac OS X, if not a little better in places. I’m still installing XP at least once a week, and I can’t tell you just how significant an improvement this is. [don’t ask about Linux installs, please; I just ate]

Is the Aero UI gaudy and gratuitous? Yes. Are the menus and control panels different from previous Windows in ways that aren’t obviously functional? Yes. Does any of that really matter after about twenty minutes of familiarization? No, not really. I expect the adjustment period to be pretty short for most users, and none of them will ever want to use an XP machine again, just like most Mac users were delighted to abandon the limits of Mac OS 9 once they settled into Mac OS X 10.0.

Because that’s what Vista is: Microsoft’s OS X 10.0, with all that that implies. The XP compatibility is a subtler version of Apple’s Classic environment, and they really, really want everyone to rewrite their software to use the modern APIs that, for instance, use “fonts” instead of “bitmaps”. There’s going to be a few years of mostly-compatible legacy apps, service packs that break random things as a side effect of improving performance and reliability, and general chaos and confusion. And because it’s Microsoft, they’re going to try to solve the problems faster by throwing more engineers at them, which never works out well.

In the end, though, Vista will have 90% of the desktop market, Mac OS X will have 9.99% of it, and the rest will be evenly divided between fourteen different Linux distributions that don’t ship with all of the drivers you need, but they’re free and you control everything and you can fix it yourself and it even has Ogg Vorbis support.

Office 2007, on the other hand, is a major upgrade hassle, and it has nothing to do with functionality or cost. Microsoft’s grand release plan failed to cope with one very significant fact: experienced Office users know where everything is, and spend far more time navigating Office menus than they do Windows menus.

We’ve been forced to start slowly rolling it out at work, and it’s painful. Everyone who gets it hates it, because they need to get their work done right now, and they don’t have time to go to a retraining class and learn the joys of the ribbon and the “obviously superior” new arrangement of commands and menus. They don’t care about Vista; they just find the Start button, select “Word” or “Excel”, and they’re happy. But when the Word and Excel interfaces change in fundamental ways (and, worse, ignore the settings that are supposed to make sure files are saved in Office 2003 formats…), they’re angry and frustrated.

[Side note to Gerry: read the preceding paragraph carefully three times, and then shut the fuck up about OpenOffice.org as an alternative. It’s not better, it’s not a complete suite, it’s not as compatible, it adds to my support load, it requires just as much retraining effort, and I can’t hand the users Dummies books and send them off to training classes, which we don’t have time for anyway because we’re a startup in the middle of a major product launch. Got it?]

If we’d had the money a few months ago, we could have picked up the volume license agreements that would let us avoid Office 2007 for another year. And we’d have been a lot happier, because “launching your first product” is not the time to cut into everyone’s productivity by changing their tools.

Thursday, April 12 2007

Does it restart?

I needed to put a Mac Mini in someone’s house.

But it had to run Windows XP.

Headless.

And restart automatically after losing power.

The headless part was handled by our master solderer, following the instructions from the nice folks at Mythic Beasts. They also explain the power-on problem, but don’t provide a direct Windows solution.

To make a long google short, download WPCRS120.EXE from Japan, run it, run the included installer, reboot, run wpcrset.exe, set {Bus 0, Device 31, Function 0, Register A4} to 0, and reboot again.

Before each of the required reboots, you’ll see this:

(Continued on Page 2721)

Wednesday, May 2 2007

back to Basics

The Microsoft Basic Mouse is USB.

The Microsoft Basic Keyboard is PS/2.

This is not obvious in certain online stores, and is a damn nuisance when you buy machines that have no PS/2 ports.

Tuesday, May 22 2007

Dear Microsoft,

I just had a user complain about not being able to delete files in her Inbox in Outlook 2007. When I tested, I got a dialog telling me that the outlook.ost file buried six folders deep somewhere was corrupt, and I should run scanpst.

It didn’t tell me where to find scanpst. When I found it, and tried to navigate to the folder containing the corrupted file, it didn’t exist. So I opened a cmd window and it didn’t show up for the dir command, either. I blindly cd’d to it anyway, and it existed, but the next folder in the path wasn’t there, either.

To make a long story short, the hidden file in the hidden folder in the hidden folder had to be located by searching the drive and then pasting the complete path into scanpst’s open dialog. Then all I had to do was exit every application that so much as mentioned the concept of email (including Google Desktop), and the tool quickly repaired the file.

In Office 2003, this entire process could be accomplished by selecting the “Detect and Repair…” menu option from inside Outlook. Hurray for usability improvements.

Tuesday, June 12 2007

Sony says: “we’d rather sell laptops than force Vista on you”

Well, for corporate customers, at least.

It’s no secret that Vista sales have been sluggish, with many people (and most companies) preferring to stick with Windows XP for now. Retail sales are pretty much Vista-only, though, and online dealers have a strong preference for it as well.

At my company, application compatibility has been the main reason to avoid Vista (as opposed to Office 2007, where “user pain” tops our list). If all their apps and peripherals worked, I think most of our users would quickly adapt to Vista, and prefer it over XP.

Until that day comes, we’re sticking with the XP-based models in Sony’s SZ and BX series, which continue to deliver excellent performance and stability (one motherboard failure in 20+ machines, quickly repaired). I’ve been casually keeping an eye on Sony’s lineup, on the assumption that when the existing supply of XP-based VAIOs runs out, it will be Vista time.

Maybe not. Today’s press release from Sony Japan only has assorted versions of Vista on the A, F, and G series, but still offers XP on the brand-new widescreen BX’s. The BX series is still completely absent from sonystyle.com, but now that the new model has been announced in Japan and Europe, it should show up soon here.

Sadly, all recent models in the lightweight SZ series (beloved by our non-Mac-using executives) are Vista-only, but unless we hire a lot more execs soon, we’re in pretty good shape there.

Friday, June 29 2007

The best part of installing PCs…


I rebuilt two Shuttles yesterday, and got this charming message when I ejected the driver CD.

Are you sure to Exit?

Friday, July 13 2007

Making it bigger

The 250GB drive for my MacBook arrived, and with two fresh backups in hand (plus a third on the old drive), I quickly installed it. It was completely painless to migrate my Mac environment over. You can do it half a dozen different way for free; I chose SuperDuper.

But I also have a Vista partition on this machine, and Vista (if you bought the right version) includes a Complete PC Restore tool that’s designed specifically for moving a complete, working installation onto a new disk… as long as you don’t mind the risk of spending half an hour on the phone reading authorization codes to someone in India to reactivate it.

The old disk had 124GB for Mac, 25GB for Vista. The new disk had 185GB for Mac, and 47GB for Vista. After finishing the Vista restore, both partitions booted correctly, so I went ahead and activated. Then I checked the free space, and found that Vista was still only using 25GB.

No problem, thought I. It’s trivial to extend an NTFS partition into the remaining free space, so I opened up the relevant tool, and found the original partition sizes, with an empty 80GB partition at the end of the disk.

fsck and chkdsk both insisted that the volumes were valid from their respective OS’s, but on the Mac side, it thought the Vista partition had a lot less files in it than it should have. Not good. Very, very not good.

Not being an idiot, I started over, rebuilding the disk from scratch again. Since it’s a Mac, I just booted the old drive from an external FireWire enclosure and ran SuperDuper again. This time, though, I didn’t bother using the Vista restore tool; I just dd‘d the old partition over and ran the repair tools from the install CD. I still need to do an upgrade install to clean up the boot files, resize the filesystem to fill the new partition, and then reactivate again, but it should work this time.

There’s actually a checkbox in the Vista Restore process that theoretically allows you to restore onto an existing partition without trashing your new disk, but it was grayed out, and clumsily worded. Net result: one of the features you pay extra for in certain Vista versions is not only useless, but dangerous.

In a rare example of good sense, though, you can get at all of the data in the backup; it’s a disk image in VHD format.

Tuesday, July 31 2007

Vista/Outlook/IPv6

Windows Vista really likes IPv6 (even tunneling it over IPv4 for you, quietly bypassing your NAT firewall). Outlook 2007 also likes IPv6, and if it’s available, will always try to use it to connect to an Exchange server.

We don’t have an IPv6 infrastructure. One of our wireless access points was configured to hand out IPv6 addresses. Connect the dots.

Thursday, August 9 2007

Two packets enter, one packet leaves!

Okay, I’m stumped. We have a ReadyNAS NV+ that holds Important Data, accessed primarily from Windows machines. Generally, it works really well, and we’ve been pretty happy with it for the last few months.

Monday, the Windows application that reads and writes the Important Data locked up on the primary user’s machine. Cryptic error messages that decrypted to “contact service for recovering your corrupted database” were seen.

Nightly backups of the device via the CIFS protocol worked fine. Reading and writing to the NAS from a Mac via CIFS worked fine. A second Windows machine equipped with the application worked fine, without any errors about corrupted data. I left the user working on that machine for the day, and did some after-hours testing that night.

The obvious conclusion was that the crufty old HP on the user’s desk was the problem (it had been moved on Friday), so I yanked it out of the way and temporarily replaced it with the other, working Windows box.

It didn’t work. I checked all the network connections, and everything looked fine. I took the working machine back to its original location, and it didn’t work any more. I took it down to the same switch as the NAS, and it didn’t work. My Mac still worked fine, though, so I used it to copy all of the Important Data from the ReadyNAS to our NetApp.

Mounting the NetApp worked fine on all machines in all locations. I can’t leave the data there long-term (in addition to being Important, it’s also Confidential), but at least we’re back in business.

I’m stumped. Right now, I’ve got a Mac and a Windows machine plugged into the same desktop gigabit switch (gigabit NICs everywhere), and the Mac copies a 50MB folder from the NAS in a few seconds, while the Windows machine gives up after a few minutes with a timeout error. The NAS reports:

smbd.log: write_data: write failure in writing to client 10.66.0.151. Error Connection reset by peer
smbd.log: write_data: write failure in writing to client 10.66.0.151. Error Broken pipe

The only actual hardware problem I ever found was a loose cable in the office where the working Windows box was located.

[Update: It’s being caused by an as-yet-unidentified device on the network. Consider the results of my latest test: if I run XP under Parallels on my Mac in shared (NAT) networking mode, it works fine; in bridged mode, it fails exactly like a real Windows box. Something on the subnet is passing out bad data that Samba clients ignore but real Windows machines obey. The NetApp works because it uses licensed Microsoft networking code instead of Samba.]

[8/23 Update: A number of recommended fixes have failed to either track down the offending machine or resolve the problem. The fact that it comes and goes is more support for the “single bad host” theory, but it’s hard to diagnose when you can’t run your tools directly on the NAS.

So I reached for a bigger hammer: I grabbed one of my old Shuttles that I’ve been testing OpenBSD configurations on, threw in a second NIC, configured it as an ethernet bridge, and stuck it in front of the NAS. That gave me an invisible network tap that could see all of the traffic going to the NAS, and also the ability to filter any traffic I didn’t like.

Just for fun, the first thing I did was turn on the bridge’s “blocknonip” option, to force Windows to use TCP to connect. And the problem went away. I still need to find the naughty host, but now I can do it without angry users breathing down my neck.]

Monday, August 13 2007

VMware Fusion

I like Parallels, even if it can be a real memory hog, but even the latest version doesn’t have very good USB support. Unfortunately, there’s a Windows application I want to use that requires good USB support. Even more unfortunately, it will never, ever run under Vista.

Why not? Because Minolta sold off their entire camera business to Sony, who has no interest in updating the remote-control software for the Dimage A2.

I don’t currently own any computers that run Windows XP, and I don’t particularly want to. But if I ever find the free time to start playing with studio lighting again, I’ll want to remote-control the A2, and with XP gradually disappearing from the market, now’s the time to figure out how.

With the latest Parallels 3.0 build, plugging the camera in while it’s in remote-control mode locks up the virtual machine.VMware Fusion not only handles the camera correctly, it seems to use about half as much memory.

[Note that there is an abandoned open-source project to decipher the Minolta protocol and write a GUI capture tool. I’m not really interested in hacking on it.]

Saturday, August 25 2007

Microsoft server down? You’re a pirate!

The Windows Genuine Advantage servers, used to validate your Windows install, are down. Unfortunately, if you can’t reach them, WGA assumes you’re a software pirate and deactivates.

Under XP, this prevents software updates. Under Vista, once you’re marked invalid, rebooting will disable OS features, including the Aero Glass user interface that was one of the flashiest features. And you can’t get any of it back until they fix the servers, which have been down for about 12 hours now. I don’t know what it does to Office…

Meanwhile, MS tech support has been terribly confused, giving out advice that assumes you’re an idiot or a pirate. They seem to be getting the word now, but some of them have told users to try again on Tuesday (!).

Some people are assuming that nobody’s working on it, because Microsoft is closed on weekends. WGA PM Phil Liu responds.

Sunday, September 9 2007

Lousy timing

This morning, one of our executives sent email that her laptop crashed, and then refused to boot, asking for the original install media. Ordinarily, this would mean looking at it on Monday morning.

Unfortunately, she was at the airport, getting onto a plane for New York, for Very Important Business. So she took the dead laptop with her, and asked us to FedEx her the install CDs. That really wouldn’t have worked out very well for her, so we’re sending another laptop out there ASAP.

At least, we’re trying. It seems that no amount of money on our part will get any shipping company to let us use their same-day service. We’re not TSA-approved for such things, and having an established account doesn’t matter. The only way we could get it to her before Tuesday morning is to buy a ticket and fly it out there ourselves. Grrrr.

[yes, the dead machine is a Sony, but it’s not one of the BXs that have been causing us trouble.]

[Update: finally got details from her. It’s not dead dead, it’s giving up during the Windows startup, complaining about a missing or corrupt DLL, which it would be happy to retrieve from any Windows XP disc. So, we’re not looking at a major hardware failure, at least.]

Tuesday, September 11 2007

Yah, good plan

Responding to the recent Windows Genuine Advantage outage that caused thousands of Windows XP and Vista machines to incorrectly decide they were running a pirated OS, Microsoft has announced that they will no longer disable minor functionality in this situation to encourage compliance.

Instead, it’s being reported that Vista will now shut you down completely. No worries, eh?

Good afternoon, as of this week, Microsoft has activated a function in Vista called ‘Reduced Functionality.’ This is a specific function in Vista that effectively disables nongenuine copies of Windows. Therefore anyone who has a pirated copy of Vista will experience:

A black screen after one hour of browsing
No start menu or task bar
No desktop

I hope that this is just Computerworld Australia being scammed by someone with a phony email. If not, it’s a really, really bad idea.

Monday, April 7 2008

Dear Microsoft,

When I turn on Japanese support in Word, that means that I want to enable features like vertical text and kanji grid spacing. It does not mean that I want to format all new documents for A4 paper.

While we’re on that subject, thank you for changing the Language Register application into something that you run in Office 2008, and no longer something that you drag other Office apps onto, as in previous versions. Also, thanks for no longer switching the input method from English to Kotoeri every time I launch Word; that was always a real pain in the ass.

Sunday, April 13 2008

Tools Customize Remove Menu Shortcut

In Microsoft Word 2008, there’s a menu called “Work”. At first, it contains only one item, “Add to Work Menu”. If you select this, the location of the current document is permanently added to this menu. There is no obvious way to rearrange or delete items on this list, or inform Word that they’ve moved to a different folder.

The only way to modify this list is to open the “Customize Toolbars and Menus” screen and bind a key or menu item to “ToolsCustomizeRemoveMenuShortcut”. When you run that command, the next menu item you click on will be deleted. Any menu item, in any menu, and the only indication that you’re in this mode is a different cursor that reverts to normal when you open a menu…

The work menu was apparently in Office 2004, too, but I never noticed it. Apparently the only difference was that there was a default keybinding for the magic command, which was removed for 2008 because people sometimes typed it by mistake and had no idea what had happened to their menus.

How does Microsoft feel about this? Read this thread. Short version: “stupid things only get fixed if more than 1000 people use the Send Feedback form and describe the problem precisely enough for the automated system to collate them together”.

Sunday, October 12 2008

Dear Steve Ballmer,

I know you’re rich enough to afford the best drugs, but you really shouldn’t take them right before giving an interview (emphasis added):

“You know, they like to act like Macs are lightweight, there are much lighter weight PC notebooks. Macs—do they have the best battery power? Of course they don’t have the best battery power. Macs tend to have nice screens, but can you get nicer screens for a PC? Of course. Do Macs work in business? No, they do not. Can you get Macs made in your own country? Because in some countries, there’s a lot of sort of, you know, what do you call them? Import duties? Taxes? You can’t get Macs made in those countries, they make them basically one place in the world, and therefore they get even more expensive.

“You know, there are so many—you know, can you find Macs in—I’m very sensitive to exactly what mouse I have on my laptop. Can you find a range of choices? Of course you can’t find a range of choices. You know, anyway—can you find the applications you want on the Mac? Well, you don’t really get full Microsoft Office. Everything from Apple is available, there are still tons of business applications and there’s games—anytime somebody does client software—over time they’ll do a Mac client. Maybe nowadays people do the Mac clients mostly to save time, but that’s only on the high-volume applications.”

Maybe I should remind Steve about the years that I ran 600 Solaris servers for him from my PowerBook. With a Microsoft Mouse attached…

He’s right about Office, though. Whose fault is that, anyway?

Saturday, October 18 2008

Japanese text formatting in Mac Word

I’m once again transcribing written pieces for use in my reading class, and I keep coming across little nuggets of information that I thought I’d gather in one place.

  1. Mac Word has two completely separate editing modes, English and Japanese. You can use either language in both modes, but some behaviors differ, and documents originally created in Japanese mode will show their heritage on other, non-Japanese-enabled computers.
  2. Switching between them not only requires restarting Word, but locating the “Microsoft Language Register” application inside the Office folder. In Office 2004, you drag the Word icon onto the Register; in 2008, you run it like any other app.
  3. In Office 2004, it will always switch you into Kotoeri input mode when you launch Word. Also, installing updates will revert you to English mode.
  4. In both, it will change your default settings, including margins, preferred units, and paper size (A4). Once you override these, it doesn’t screw them up again.
  5. The two most obviously important features you get out of Japanese mode are vertical text (in the Format/Document and Format/Text Direction menus) and furigana (in the Format/Phonetic Guide menu).
  6. Do not attempt to type or edit in vertical-text mode; it’s like watching paint dry. You can switch back and forth with the convenient Change Text Direction button on the toolbar, or switch to Draft view to edit.
  7. Furigana isn’t on the standard toolbar. You can open the Extended Formatting toolbar, or bind a key to the FormatPhoneticGuide command (I use Control-Option-P).
  8. Don’t add furigana until you think you’re done with all other editing. The font and size of the furigana are set when they’re created (font used for base word, half its size), and words that have been glossed can’t be searched for. They’re now equations, you see.
  9. When you add furigana, Word often supplies the correct kana. If it doesn’t know the word, or can’t guess the correct reading when you’re glossing only the kanji, it will usually default to the first on-reading for each character, but will sometimes just give up. Keep an online dictionary handy, and cut-and-paste between the two windows.
  10. Particularly for vertical text, line and page breaks can be very tricky to control. There are two places to tinker: in the Format/Documents menu on the Document Grid panel, and in the Format/Paragraph menu on the “Indents and Spacing” and “Japanese Typography” panels (including the Options window). My usual settings:
    • On: No grid
    • Indentation, Special=First line,14pt (for normal paragraph indents)
    • Spacing, Before=0, After=0, Line spacing=At least,24pt
    • On: Don’t add space between paragraphs of the same style
    • Off: Snap to grid when document grid is defined.
    • On: Allow hanging punctuation
    • Off: Allow punctuation at the start of the line to compress (I wish this also suppressed compression of kana at the start of the line…)
    • On: Compress punctuation and Japanese kana (that is, use proportional spacing)
  11. For stories, I set the top and bottom margins to 0.75in, and the left and right to 0.5in. That leaves room for headers and footers, which are always printed horizontally.
  12. Word’s default Japanese font is MS Mincho, which is actually quite nice, but I prefer Apple’s Hiragino Mincho at 14pt. I think it’s a bit easier for students to make out all of the strokes, and using 14pt sets the default furigana size to 7pt, which is also easier to read.
  13. Don’t manually select a heavier weight of a kanji font to get bold text; it might work, it might not, and it might appear to work until you print. Just hit the bold button.
  14. Always print to PDF, and always check the results out in Preview before really printing. Take particular note of things like vanishing bold text, unexpected compression of character spacing, and punctuation characters that didn’t rotate correctly for vertical layout.
  15. Specifically: “ ” … : ⁉ ‼ ⁈ ⁇ (and maybe a few others I haven’t found yet). For most of these, Word has simply used the Latin font, and you can just force it to use the kanji font. For the quotes, you need to switch from the usual Western style (“”) to the fullwidth straight style with the close at the bottom (〝〟). For the ques-bang combos, though, you can either give up, or insert a very small inline horizontal text box into the column that contains the correct character. Be sure to drag that text box off to your scrapbook for later reuse.
  16. Also, Word regularly hoses page numbering when printing; this seems to be tied to the “quick preview” in the print dialog, so wait for it to finish.

More as I’m reminded of them…

Tuesday, March 31 2009

Dear Microsoft Exchange Team,

Why is plaintext email converted to HTML on the server? I ask because it’s clear that you’ve never seen what happens when Entourage tries to display the daily log output from a moderately busy mail server. It takes several minutes to render the message, during which time the single-threaded client is completely unresponsive.

I don’t dare kill it, of course, due to the risk of database corruption; I just listen to the fans as they crank up to full speed, and find something else to do.

[side note to the Entourage team: why does resizing the window that’s displaying an HTML-formatted message trigger yet another multi-minute formatting lockup? Did someone hold a gun to your heads and demand that you use an HTML library that was written by four-year-olds?]

Friday, April 3 2009

Self-inflicted Kybard

During my brief vacation, which involved flying to the midwest to see family and catch a really bad cold, I ordered a new laptop. It’s a Mac, of course, because Windows is simply less functional for people like me. I ordered it online from Apple, so that I could get the precise hardware configuration I wanted: 2.93GHz Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM, 320GB 7200RPM hard drive, and the Japanese keyboard.

Oh, my, the Japanese keyboard. This is going to take some getting used to:

MacBook Pro Japanese keyboard

The worst thing about it is that it doesn’t work under Windows. Even a fully-updated Vista Ultimate install insists on treating it as a standard US keyboard layout, and none of the registry hacks or driver overrides you’ll find through Google will help. You know how MacOS X will ask you to press a few keys to help it figure out what kind of special keyboard you’ve attached? Windows doesn’t do that. This is true even for external USB keyboards made for the Japanese market. Apparently the only way to get it to work is to make sure you overrode the keyboard layout during the initial install of Vista/XP. Maybe.

The second-worst thing would be the absence of a “\” key. For historical reasons, the “¥” key replaced it on Japanese keyboards, and you have to type Option-¥ to get “\”.

Third-worst would be the massive slowdown in my typing speed for non-alphanumeric characters, which are in places my fingers don’t know how to find.

Nice things include the 英数 and かな keys adjacent to the spacebar. These handle the input-mode switching, replacing the usual Command-Space toggle. 英数 switches to English/numeric input, かな to kana input. I’m still using the romaji-style kana input, of course, even though this keyboard has a true kana layout printed on it; that’s a project for, well, “never”.

Also, the Control key is where god intended it to be.

Apart from the keyboard, there are no real downsides to the machine. I’m doing a clean migration to get rid of years of cruft, which helps. I think I’ve got all the finicky licensed apps moved over (Aperture and Photoshop adore their new home), and the bulk of the data. I need to reinstall a crapload of Perl libraries and random bits of code, data, and configs, but I’ve got basic functionality. The old MacBook is still under AppleCare for a few more months, so in a week or two I’ll revert it to the factory RAM and hard drive and send it in for some minor repairs I’ve been putting off.

Thursday, May 28 2009

Machine translation in Word 2007

I just noticed that Word 2007 offers to translate any text in your document, with a combination of on- and offline tools.

Let’s see what it does with some relatively straightforward Japanese prose, namely the first scene of Kyoutarou Nishimura’s murder-mystery story Ame no naka ni shinu

(Continued on Page 3350)

Wednesday, June 17 2009

Microsoft Bluetooth Notebook Mouse 5000 review, Bad Haiku Edition

Button 2 broke fast;
replacement eats batteries.
Gosh it’s pretty, though.

Thursday, October 8 2009

Dear Microsoft,

Vista’s generally a nice OS, but the fact that a folder contains JPEGs does not mean that the “details” folder view should include only those data fields that are valid for photographs. Seriously, wtf? “Date taken”, “Tags”, “Rating”, with a tiny little column for file name, and by default no mention of file creation/modification time? And no obvious way to view it as “folder containing files”?

Friday, January 22 2010

Making Windows Work

In the Mac/PC wars, I’ve occasionally commented that my primary computer is a Mac because it’s simply more useful to me right out of the box, and it takes less work to add the rest of what I need. Well, a few weeks ago the Lenovo outlet store had a few refurbished (~30% off retail price) S12 netbooks with the nVidia ION chipset that replaces the pathetic Intel shared graphics that the Atom comes with, and while I waited for it to ship, I started assembling things to install.

[Update: in the essential column, add GetGnuWin32, the wrapper for the GnuWin32 packages. Better than CygWin, less conceptually disgusting than Portable Ubuntu]

Bare minimum to make a computer more than a toy (supplied with every Mac):


  • Perl (I used Strawberry, not ActivePerl)
  • GNU Emacs
  • Putty (SSH)
  • Sqlite
  • Quicktime
  • Update: Virtual CloneDrive (mount ISO images)

Equivalent to extremely useful supplied Mac software:


  • Safari/Firefox/Chrome
  • iTunes
  • TrueCrypt
  • PasswordSafe
  • Sharpkeys (the CapsLock-killer; sadly doesn’t install under Win7)
  • SecureW2 TTLS (sadly no longer free, despite all earlier versions being GPL’d)

Other stuff that helps make a laptop useful:


  • 3G drivers (AT&T USBConnect Mercury)
  • Adobe Flash 10.1 (beta, with hw-accelerated video)
  • CCCP codec pack (like Perian on the Mac)
  • DisplayLink
  • GPG4Win
  • Mercurial
  • Microsoft Office
  • Python
  • RealVNC
  • TeamSpeak
  • VLC
  • Windows Security Essentials

Fun:


  • Steam
  • Good Old Games: Fallout, Fallout 2, Might & Magic 6
  • World of Warcraft
  • Champions Online

I still need to find something that will mount ISO images as file systems, buy a cheap bare drive to use for backups, and bump the RAM from 2GB to 3GB, but I’m set for now. I wish that the ION version of the S12 didn’t replace the ExpressCard slot with an HDMI port, and I’d love to find a Bluetooth mouse that holds up under regular use, but this is a nice little cool-running carry-around machine, with reasonable performance and battery life.

Oh, and I installed the Nanami OS-tan theme that shipped with Japanese pre-orders of Windows 7. :-)

Thursday, February 11 2010

Dear Microsoft,

You know, I’ve grown so accustomed to operating systems with native Unicode support that I’m still getting over the shock that Windows 7 still has I18N holes you could drive a truck through. And this time I’m not talking about the deep-seated belief that all USB keyboards have the same layout.

It would be one thing if you’d just chosen a different encoding, but no, the file system is UTF-16, text files open in UTF-8, and cmd.exe opens in ISO-Latin-1. I can switch cmd into UTF-8 with /u and manually change the output mapping with chcp 65001, but since I can’t select a font containing kanji, that’s of limited utility.

Thanks to the beta Console2 application, I can verify that it’s possible to get, say, a Perl script or a sqlite session to print kanji from cmd.exe, but since Console2’s developers circular-filed a bug pointing out that their app would be completely compatible with Chinese, Japanese, and Korean if the redraw code just counted characters instead of bytes, I don’t expect things to improve any time soon.

(Windows PowerShell, for all its apparent shell power, still runs in a window that can’t seem to display anything but basic missionary-position Western European characters)

I don’t want to layer Cygwin or Ubuntu on top of Windows, for obvious reasons, so I’m forced to resort to Emacs shell-mode to see gorgeous anti-aliased kanji on a bare-bones command-line (well, after I spent 45 minutes deciphering the poor documentation for the arcane font-mapping elisp commands…). Stone knives and bearskins, when any Mac or modern Linux distro supports nine billion languages out of the box.

Amusing note: did you know someone out there is trying to sell a C Shell port for $350 a seat? No, seriously. I’d have choked on my beer if I drank beer.

[and why am I trying to hack Japanese with Perl and SQLite on Windows when I have a perfectly good Mac or six, and a perfectly functional EeePC running Fedora12? Because the Lenovo S12 won’t melt flesh when the CPU gets busy, has a very nice screen and keyboard, and Win7 is in most other respects an excellent desktop operating system. I wasn’t kidding a while back when I said that Perl and Emacs are the difference between a computer and a toy; iPad enthusiasts take note…]

Sunday, October 10 2010

Dear Microsoft,

Why is Windows 7 willing to install updates and reboot a machine during a backup? Now, if this were a server, and I were running some third-party backup software, maybe you’d be able to convincingly mumble something about it being my responsibility to override the standard auto-update settings and schedule them for outside the backup window, but this is your own supplied automatic backup software on a consumer laptop. You know, the one that tries to run whenever it sees the backup drive connected and thinks now would be a good time to protect your data?

Left hand, meet right hand; you two should talk occasionally.

Tuesday, February 8 2011

Microsoft Arc Touch Mouse

This thing. Travel version of the Arc Mouse. Replaces middle button/wheel with solid-state slide control that includes scroll, page up/down, and middle-click.

Except I lied there. It doesn’t actually support middle click. In his infinite wisdom, designer Young Kim made a click at the top of the strip, where your finger naturally falls, send a page-up keystroke. Clicking at the bottom of the strip sends a page-down.

Clicking the middle of the strip does nothing at all. You double-click the middle of the strip to generate a single middle-click. Middle-click-and-hold activates the annoying drag-scroll mode that I’ve never seen anyone use deliberately. Usually they end up trying to figure out why their mouse stopped working normally.

And why do I know the designer’s name? Because the only two things on the product support web site are an interview with him and a “lifestyle video”.

And why did I buy one? Because the last several MS mice I’ve bought had poorly-engineered scrollwheels that simply stopped working after a while, and I thought the solid-state version might be a step up. It looked nice at the company store, and didn’t suffer from the same heavy-spring problem that the right mouse button on the standard Arc has.

So, if you’re one of those two-buttons-is-enough Windows people, and you don’t mind risking the loss of the little USB dongle (held in place on the completely-flat underside of the mouse by a strong magnet), it looks like an excellent lifestyle accessory, and a decent mouse.

Dear Microsoft,

I replaced my secondary hard drive over the weekend. Today I discover that Microsoft Office 2011 is demanding an activation key. Not “you need to go online to reactivate”, but rather “you can no longer use this product until you drive home, find the box, and re-enter the key”.

Permit me to describe my feelings about this.

I’ll keep it simple.

fuckyoufuckyoufuckyou

Friday, April 13 2012

Dear Microsoft,

Why did this month’s Office patch for the Mac force me to re-enter my product activation key? As it happens, I had it available, but many people won’t.

Sunday, April 29 2012

Dear Microsoft Mac Team,

Just a quick FYI: the default encoding for text files on a Mac is UTF-8 with no byte-order-marker, with each line terminated by the ASCII NL character (0x10); this has been true for many years. I say this because Microsoft Word is still incapable of opening a UTF8-encoded text file without turning it into garbage, even if I explicitly override the default (wrong) encoding in the dialog. Outlook does some goofy text-molesting as well.

I can, at least, override the default (wrong) encoding in the save dialog, and it will write out the file in UTF-8, but then it will add a byte-order-marker for no good reason, which then has to be edited out. Quoting:

UTF-8 always has the same byte order. An initial BOM is only used as a signature — an indication that an otherwise unmarked text file is in UTF-8. Note that some recipients of UTF-8 encoded data do not expect a BOM. Where UTF-8 is used transparently in 8-bit environments, the use of a BOM will interfere with any protocol or file format that expects specific ASCII characters at the beginning, such as the use of “#!” of at the beginning of Unix shell scripts.

Ironically, the best way to get Unicode text files into Word is to convert them to HTML first…

Tuesday, July 9 2013

Bad VPN software drives out good

So, we were completely unable to install Juniper’s Network Connect client on someone’s Win7 box. The error number we got led to N completely different solutions that worked for some people and failed for us, which suggested that there were N different problems covered by that error number, and ours was N+1.

While cleaning things up on the box, I came across a Virtual Router package that was installed, which he wasn’t using, and which hadn’t worked anyway. Coincidentally (coughcough), around the same time more than a dozen additional network interfaces had been created in the device manager, none of them with names, drivers, or any useful detail.

I thought that perhaps the crudware had hit some arbitrary limit on the number of devices, and deleted the garbage ones and uninstalled it. Still no good.

Later that evening, the user did a little more digging, found a different error string, and followed it to this thread on the Cisco support forums, where a similar mishap was preventing a VPN install. The limit turns out to be 1024 network interfaces, and the vast majority of them were concealed deep inside the registry, with no GUI-visible hint that they existed.

An unofficial registry-cleaning script was created by someone at MS, and is linked in the thread, and that solved the user’s problem. I generally frown on running random Windows binaries linked from forum threads, but he was a consultant, and it was his own laptop, and he ran it before I found out about it, so…

Thursday, January 2 2014

Dear iPad,

Out of the box, without installing any additional software, the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 can display two different PDF files side-by-side. In fact, you can put any two apps on the screen together at the same time (and that’s not even counting the actual Windows 8.1 desktop). Suck it, Apple.

Win8 built-in PDF viewer multiple documents

For multiple reasons, I named it Courier

Sunday, February 23 2014

Microsoft Understatement ™

From the Windows 8.1++ announcement:

“Some of those touch affordances weren’t really tuned as well as we could do for those mouse and keyboard users. We found people weren’t aware of where they should look in the UI. Those are the things we’ve really started to improve for this update coming this spring.”

Thursday, February 27 2014

Surface Pro 2

So, right after Christmas, I caught the brief window where the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 was back in stock in my preferred configuration (8GB RAM, 256GB SSD), and bought one, along with the only keyboard cover that was available in a non-hideous color, the first-generation Touch Cover. Since they still haven’t released the Power Cover that gives you real keys and an extra 50% battery life, I made do with that for a while, and then got a good price on the second-generation Type Cover at Amazon Japan.

[Note: for the last few releases, it’s been a lot less painful to switch keyboard types in Windows; you used to have to hack the registry when you had US Windows and a Japanese keyboard, now you can just add the correct layout and manually switch. It still can’t auto-detect different keyboards the way the Mac has been doing for a long time, but it’s progress.]

There are a few quirks that have been discussed in the many reviews of the Surface Pro, but it’s genuinely good hardware, marred only by the immaturity of Windows’ handling of high-resolution displays. Basically, every piece of software that isn’t rebuilt to use the (apparently-incomplete, at least that’s why Adobe says they’re having so much trouble) HiDPI APIs will be scaled to make the text readable, and this breaks all sorts of layouts. For many applications, your choices are “big and fuzzy”, “way too small”, and occasionally “missing most menus and dialog text” (yes, that means you, FontExplorer Pro). “Way too small” is particularly annoying with a touchscreen, but the pen and trackpad have the resolution to handle tiny targets. And the problem goes away if you connect an external HDMI display.

My only complaints about the keyboard covers have to do with the trackpad. First, there’s no way to shut off tapping. There’s an app that claims to offer this feature, but it simply doesn’t work on the Pro 2, and there’s no hint of an update. On any tap-enabled trackpad, I’m constantly mis-clicking while trying to move the pointer across the screen, and it drives me nuts. They’re just too damn sensitive about the amount of pressure required to “tap”.

The second problem with the trackpad is that it often doesn’t work if you plug a USB device in. Because Microsoft’s own USB/Ethernet adapter is a 10Mbit USB2 device, I bought a third-party USB3 gigabit adapter that also includes a 3-port hub. It works great, but if I plug in the adapter and then wake up the tablet, the keyboard cover doesn’t get enough power to run the trackpad. Reverse the order and all is well.

Typical battery life is 8+ hours, unless I’m playing Skyrim, in which case I get a bit over 4. It never gets uncomfortably warm, and the fans are nice and quiet. The two-position kickstand is a nice upgrade over the first-generation Pro, and makes it possible to play Skyrim in bed on a lap desk. The speakers are quite loud for a tablet, and better than most laptops I’ve used.

It’s fantastic for Illustrator since the last update, but until Adobe gets the resolution problems sorted out, Photoshop is annoying to use, both because you need a hack to make the icons visible, and because the 64-bit version has issues with the Pro 2’s graphics drivers. Lightroom is fine, and InDesign is reportedly working well, too. [all of these being the pay-to-play CC versions, which is a rant for another day. Let’s just say there are some cranky pros out there annoyed by a combination of incompatible changes and workflow-crippling bugs]

The “app” market is, as expected, filled with iPaddish crap. I’ve deleted most of the apps that I’ve tried, and I haven’t found a lot of good ones to try. If I had to choose between a standard Surface and an iPad, I’d buy the iPad and complain about it; instead, I get to enjoy the Pro 2.

How do I feel about Windows 8.1? It was designed for a tablet, works well on one, and sucks elsewhere. There are some compatibility issues compared to Windows 7 (VPN software, assorted third-party drivers, etc). On the little netbook I upgraded, I needed to hunt down a Start-menu replacement to make it tolerable; not good, just tolerable.

Oh, and how did I pay for it? A friend sold off a bunch of my old Magic: The Gathering cards on eBay. Just a handful of high-value cards paid for the tablet, keyboard, gigabit adapter, HDMI adapter, and a new Bluetooth mouse, with money left over. We still need to go through the rest of my cards and put them all up as a big batch. And then see if anyone wants to buy a big batch of INWO, black-border Jyhad, XXXenophile, etc…

Friday, March 21 2014

Aero considered harmful

Outlook 2013 started breaking for our users last week. Only some of them, and not all at the same time, but the symptom was that the application would no longer start, hanging at the “loading profile…” screen.

The solution is to switch to the “Windows 7 Basic” graphical theme, turning off all the 3D UI decorations.

No, seriously.

And that’s about four days of sysadmin time that we’d like back, please.

Thursday, March 27 2014

Microsoft Surface Power Cover

Microsoft finally released the Surface Power Cover recently, and it was worth the wait.

There is only one downside: the keys aren’t backlit, like the standard Touch and Type Covers. I can’t imagine why they did this, since the set of people who want significantly more battery life and don’t want a backlighting option has to be pretty small.

Physically, it’s twice as thick and twice as heavy as the standard Type Cover, giving my Surface Pro 2 more of a netbook feel to carry, but not unpleasantly so. It came with a warning label telling you to make sure you have all the latest software updates before attaching it, but since I preordered mine the moment they flipped the switch on the Microsoft site, I got it the day before the official release date, and the firmware updates didn’t show up until the next day. It worked fine, though, and after the update, the battery levels were tracked separately.

How well does it work? Well, I just finished 45 minutes on the elliptical with a ripped Bluray disc playing, at 2/3 volume and 100% brightness, with WiFi turned on. The system reported that I had just over 15 hours of battery life left, and based on how the Pro 2 has performed the past few months, I believe it.