Archive for May, 2010

Optimizing Window Layouts in a Widescreen World

Posted in Blog, Random, Tech on May 27th, 2010 by Matt – 5 Comments

Slashdot posted this link to a preview of the next KDE release. Its a nice upgrade from previous versions. Looks great.

KDE 4.5's upcoming look

Functionally this is the same window design that's been around for ages. Specifically the title bars at the top of the windows.

Title bars have been there doing nothing since since the first versions of Mac and Windows. Their original use was to help get the idea of a "windowed" interface across to early use. It's an idea that no longer needs these vestigial appendages.

Their location obviously works, as every popular operating system currently uses this layout. But in a world where 90% of monitors sold are in the 16:9, 16:10 or other wide-screen layout, its a terrible inefficient use of space. Why do we need a bar that spans the complete width of the window dedicated to (usually) just 5 words and 4 buttons? It's absurd. Some programs are taking it upon themselves to remedy this issue. Apple's Safari browser tested the idea in their beta versions, but abandoned it for the full release. It was a brilliant implementation, and I'm not sure why they didn't go with it. Just look at the efficient use of screen real estate.

Safari's Tabs on Top in the Beta.

The Windows OS can't break away from title bars. Too many corporate users with too much reliance on the old ways. However, Window's programs can ditch the bar. Paint.net recently updated their UI, but they didn't displace the title bar. Their design lends itself to ditching the title bar, and I think they should. Here's my horrible mock-up.

A Paint.net mock-up without the title bar.

KDE has a great opportunity to break the standard. It's users are generally technically savvy. They understand the concept of a window. They don't memorize button locations and blindly rely on them. The programs in the Linux environment adapt quickly to  change. Go for it KDE, innovate. You've got my support.

Disable Java's New Security Warning

Posted in Blog, Tech, Troubleshooting on May 25th, 2010 by Matt – 2 Comments

The most recent release of Java (Version 6 Update 20) has added a new "feature" that offers a yes or no box to "Block potentially unsafe components from being run".

 

Annoying little box

Many of the web apps we run internally here at the office are apparently made up of half unsigned and half signed code, which is causing everyone with the most recent version of Java to get this pop-up. There is a solution. Open the Java settings under the Control Panel. Go to the Advanced tab. Expand the Security section then the Mixed Code section. These options control weather that dialog is displayed.

 

Java Control Panel Settings

Setting that option to Disable verification will remove that pop-up. Yes it's a security risk, but I'm fairly sure that disabled was the default level of security of the previous Java versions. I'm sure the pop-up does provide some extra security, but in an environment where each vendor rolls their own crazy web apps and the updates are few and far between, this is more of a hassle than security.

Unfortunately this setting appears to be controlled by a file under each users profile. Specifically C:\Users\username\AppData\LocalLow\Sun\Java\Deployment\deployment.properties . I can't think of a way off the top of my head to push this setting via group policy. If someone comes up with a solution, please post it in the comments. Until then we will be sticking with Java 6 Update 19 for our environment.

Keyboard Volume Control Without Multimedia Keys

Posted in Blog, Random, Tech on May 19th, 2010 by Matt – 7 Comments

Here at the office we have the privilege pain of using the most basic Dell keyboards. We're also allowed to listen to the radio at a reasonable volume from nine to five while we collate. The problem is, I want to be able to control the volume of my computer quickly to turn down those annoying web-ads. Having to click over to the sound icon in the task bar and adjust the volume down is not acceptable.

The culprit. No media keys.

Under Windows XP I used a nice little program called VolumeTouch (looks like the original is gone, thats the only link I can find) that allowed me to hold down the ctrl+shift keys on my keyboard then scroll my mouse wheel to adjust the volume. I recently updated to Windows 7 and discovered the program has not been updated to work with any Windows system newer than XP.  After some Googling I found a better program.

3RVX Skinnable Volume Control and Display

What the program lacks in name it makes up for in functionality. As well as supporting XP, Vista and windows 7, 3RVX lets you set any mouse or keyboard combination for hot keys to control the volume. Which is a big improvement over VolumeTouch's limited list of options. I've currently set my Windows Key + Mouse Wheel up or down to control the volume level.

3RVX includes some beautiful skinning options for the on-screen volume display that fade in and out appropriately.With options that mimic the Mac on screen volume display and others that have a more Windows feel.

3RVX includes a plethora of settings like dual monitor support, where to display the volume OSD and fade in and out settings.

It's a beautiful little program that makes life without a multi-media keyboard much more reasonable.

The Ultimate Beginners Guide to Usenet aka Newsgroups

Posted in Blog, Tech, Tutorial on May 18th, 2010 by Matt – 4 Comments

What is usenet?

Usenet launched in 1980 as an alternative to the BBS boards of the day. Usenet provided a distributed decentralized discussion board that could be expanded to host many users. This was counter to the common BBS boards that generally were a single server that everyone could connect to. Usenet was designed to only host text content (7-bit ascii), but some enterprising users found that if you encode a binary file into ascii you could upload it and share it with everyone. Enough history, today binary uploads on usenet dwarf simple text posting. And if you're reading this you're more interested in the binary files than the text.

How is usenet different from torrents?

Torrents work via peer to peer (p2p). Lets say we had a group of computers that all want a complete copy of a file. A couple computers have the complete file, a couple have only a piece of the file and others have none of it. Everyone in the group talks to everyone else to get the pieces they need untill everyone has a complete copy. Everyone uploads, everyone downloads. Everyone is a peer and everyone is equal.

Usenets works via a combination of peer to peer and peer to server. As far as you and other usenet users are concerned, usenet works only peer to server. You connect to a single server who sends you everything you want. There are a core group of servers that share back and fourth amongst each similarly to torrents. A user needs only to have an agreement with one of these servers to download from.

Usenet Topology, from Wikipedia

Everything on usenet servers are hosted in a category grouping structure. The category group names start with a main subject then drill down by more specific subjects each separated by periods. Examples: comp.os.linux.misc would be a group about miscellaneous Linux Operating system discussion. sci.physics.relativity would be group about scientific discussion of the physics of relativity. Almost all of the files that are now uploaded are upload to the alt.binaraies.* groups like alt.binaries.movies.hd would be hd movies.

Files uploaded to usenet are usually cut into many individual pieces called rar files. They also come with repair parts called par2 files. If you download a whole set of rar files, but one of them was bad. You can use the par2 files to repair the rar files. Sometimes this is done automatically by the software you use to download. This is covered more in-depth below.

The usenet process.

  1. Determine what you want to download.
  2. Use an indexing service to find the files on your usenet server, or browse with the usenet client software to find the files.
  3. Use client software to download the files from your usenet provider.
    (These will be in the format of .rar and .par2 files)
  4. Repair and extract the files you download.
    (This is sometimes done automatically by your client software)
  5. Enjoy your content.

Requirements to access usenet.

An agreement with a server or host. You used to be able to get free usenet access from your ISP, but in the past few years most ISPs have ditched this in favor of cost savings. Now you're going to have to pay someone for the privileged to connect to their servers.

A client program to connect to your providers servers and actually download the files.

And optionally, a service that will provide you with listings of whats currently on usenet.

Differences between usenet providers?

Every provider is going to give you "access" to usenet, but what really matters are the features they offer.

Retention: Usenet posts don't last forever and different servers keep the posts for different periods of time, mostly measured in days. These periods range from a month up to almost two years. The more popular providers offer longer periods of retention.

Speed: Each service offers a different number of connections to their server. I admit this is odd, why they don't simply offer xx MB/s of download speed I don't know. Using my current usenet provider each single connection goes 130 kb/s. So I only need 10 connections to max out my internet connections download speed. Every good provider offers 10-40 connections. So unless you have some crazy internet connection odds are any package will max your internet download speeds.

SSL: Encryption is a newer feature to usenet. Many ISPs are doing a lot of "traffic shaping". This means they take the obvious high-bandwidth applications and slow them down. For example, usenet and torrents. Using SSL to encrypt your connection means the ISP can't tell what you're sending and receiving to their servers. Meaning they may avoid throttling it down since a lot of businesses send important encrypted traffic.

As of this writing, two of the more popular usenet providers are AstraWeb and SuperNews. Each offering unlimited access for ~$10 a month post retention from 400-600 days, SSL encryption and enough connections to saturate even the best internet access. Everyone has an opinion as to which provider is better, ask around.

Choosing a usenet client.

Usenet clients actually do the connecting and downloading from your providers servers. They're the piece of software you'll be spending most of the time on. Some people swear by one program or another, but for the most part their actual functionality is very similar.

Some clients will allow you to browse usenet posts while others will only download files. Some clients will extract and repair the files you download while others will require you to use a different program for this. And lastly, some are free and some are not. Heres a list of some of the more common clients.

Windows Clients:

Grabbit: It's free, can browse usenet for posts, can post and it can repair and extract.
NewsLeecher: Costs $20, can browse for posts, can post and can repair and extract. Has a better built in search and better interface than Grabbit.

Mac Clients:

Unison: Costs $29, can browse for posts, can post and can repair and extract. This is IMO the best usenet client available under any platform and well worth the money.

Platform agnostic:

sabNZBd: Its free, works on Windows, Mac or Linux, can only download files, repair and extract. Some people swear by this, I personally prefer the other clients. sabNZBd is basically a website you set up on your local machine that handles all the downloading and extracting for you. You can even set up DNS access to have your machine download files no matter where you are.

Once you download one of these clients you'll need to enter the server settings of the usenet provider you chose earlier. This usually involves giving the program the name of the server, the address of the server, your username, your password and how many connections that server will allow you to make at one time.

Finding files to download.

If you have a usenet client that supports it, you can simply browse through the various groups and drill down till you find what you want. This is tedious, and since there aren't any specific rules about which things belong in which groups, it can be hard to find what you want. Most everyone chooses to use an index searching site.

There are two main categories of sites. Free and pay. The only difference is the pay sites usually have reviews of the files so you know you're downloading what you wanted and not malware. Recently, there's been a rash of password protected uploads on usenet. These files include links that want you to fill out a bunch of free trials on shady sites before they will give you the password. Using a pay search with file reviews can avoid these. If you get stuck with a passworded crap file, check out JimBeer's site.

Common free sites: BinSearch.info Newzleech.com NZBIndex.nl

Common pay sites: NZBMatrix.com NSBsRus.com

All these sites do is index the content on usenet, then offer you a list of these files so you can pick the ones you want. Usually you check mark the files you want and click "Create NZB". This creates a .nzb file that you download and open with your usenet client.

Whats an NZB file? Its similar to a .torrent file. An .nzb file contains a list of the files you want and the usenet groups that they're in. They're like maps for usenet.

Downloading files from usenet.

This is the easy part. Open the .nzb file you got earlier and the program should begin downloading.

Repairing and extracting downloads from usenet.

This is an area that usenet is really different from any other downloading service. Most content uploaded to usenet will be in multiple pieces. The benefit is that if any one or two pieces are broken or corrupt, it's much simplier to download or repair those small pieces rather than a single large file.

When you download something from usenet, you'll download a set of files like this:

moviename.rar.part1
moviename.rar.part2
moviename.rar.part3
and
moviename.vol01+02.par2
moviename.vol03+04.par2.

The .rar files are just your big single file cut into a bunch of little pieces. The .par2 files are repair files. Let's say you download all of those files and only moviename.rar.part2 was broken. With other services you'd have to re-download everything or try a different file, but since you have the .par2 repair files, you can fix that file so that all that downloading didn't go to waste.

Most newer usenet clients do all of this automatically for you. You'll never even have to worry about it. However, I personally like to disable the automatic repair and extract function of the usenet clients and use third party utilities. The third party utilities usually faster and offer a better view of what files are broken if I need to re-download a single .rar.part. Here's a list of various repair and/or extract software for Windows and Mac.

Windows:
QuickPar Repair with par2 files only. It's pretty much the only decent software for .par2 files on Windows. Fast and works great.
WinRAR Extract rar files only. Its the best at what it does, extracting content from .rar files. Between these two programs you should be set under Windows.

Mac:
MacPAR deLuxe
Repairs with par2 and Extract from rar files. I wish it was also for Windows. Its a fantastic all-in-one solution. I have had it choke on password protected rar files before.
UnRarX Extract from rar only. Not fancy or graphical but gets the job done and supports passworded files better than MacPAR.
The Unarchiver Extract from rar files only. I've never used it before but stumbled on it while researching.

Huge Success!

That should set you well on your way to usenet. It can be daunting at first, but once you understand it, there's nothing better. I encourage people to take the time to really understand usenet. Use that client and browse through the various alt.binaries groups. There is a lot of content that none of the indexers get to. A lot of stuff hidden away. Don't forget, usenet is not one-way. You can post. Trudge over to the "Big 8" sections of usenet and discuss. If you would like a file posted, ask. Odds are someone will post it for you. I hope this helps you get started. Feel free to pass it on or post a question.

http://www.nzbsrus.com/

Simple Instructions to Clean Fake Anti-Virus Malware

Posted in Blog, Tech, Tutorial on May 14th, 2010 by Matt – 4 Comments

I've been getting more requests recently to clean these fake anti-virus or anti-spyware hi-jack programs off of computers. I don't mind the business these programs generate, but most people don't realize how simple these infections can be to clean. Here's a process that I've been distributing for users to try out before paying for professional assistance.

One example of the many variations of fake anti-virus programs.

First, download this program: SUPERAntiSpyware Portable Scanner. If your computer won't let you access this site, you may need to use another computer to download the program file. Put the program on a thumb drive and plug it into your infected computer.

Try to run the program. If the program fails to run it's possible that the malware is actively blocking it. If the program won't run we need to boot into safe mode.

To get to safe mode:
Restart your computer and tap the "F8" key while it turns on.
You should get a text screen with options.
Use the arrow keys to highlight the "Safe Mode with Networking" option.
Log in if neccasary, choose administrator if available.
Run the program from the thumb drive.

SuperAntiSpyware Portable Scanner

One you've started the program there will be an option to "Check for Updates", run that first. After it updates, click "Scan your Computer". Leave the settings at their default and click "Next".

The program will now scan your computer for malware. When it's finished scanning, it will show a list of things it found, hit Next or OK once or twice and it will automatically remove everything it found. Reboot your computer when asked.

Your computer should be clean now. If you find that you can't access the internet after being infected check this setting: Go to Start > Control Panel > Internet Options > Connections tab > LAN Settings > uncheck "Use a proxy server..." > check "Automatically detect settings" > Click OK > Click OK. That should restore your internet connectivity.

Lastly, a word about anti-virus. In late 2009 Microsoft released Microsoft Security Essentials Anti-Virus and Anti-Malware. I highly recommend it for two reasons. One, it works as well as any other commercially available anti-virus and its saved my butt a couple of times. Two, its free. Most users say "I have Symantec Anti-Virus, I don't need anything else!" or McAfee Anti-Virus, but they don't realize that as soon as your pay subscription expires, that stuff is useless.

Microsoft Security Essentials

The steps to install MSE are easy. First, uninstall any current anti-virus products you may have. If you have any issues removing a Symantec or Norton product use this program. Second download and install Microsoft Security Essentials. Its that easy and makes one less thing to worry about. Once you've updated to MSE, you'll know that any time you see a anti-virus warning window that does not say Microsoft, that it's fake.

If you ever have a doubt about a security pop-up, DON'T CLICK ANYTHING! They can fake the close buttons to actually run their bad stuff. When in doubt just shut down your computer. It will save a lot of headache in the long run.

Administration While Running as a Limited User

Posted in Blog, Tech, Tutorial on May 12th, 2010 by Matt – Be the first to comment

Around here we have a policy that administrative accounts cannot have web access. This prevents many of the common malware and virus issues. At first I spent a lot of time logging in and out of my machine, going from admin to regular user. Then I set up a spare computer that I could remote to to run administrative commands. Then I spent some time using the run-as command, typing my password every time I wanted to do something. Now I have a solution that lets me run as a limited user and still run administrative commands without any extra work.

Heres the end result:

Running as a limited user with a Admin level window

That's a limited user account logged on with an admin level window running. Anything launched from that window will have admin level authorization.

You might say "No big deal. You just used "run-as" on an explorer window." Indeed I did, but go ahead, try it on your machine. Didn't work did it? This had me stumped for ages. I could get this to work, but none of my coworkers could.

Here's how to get it to work:

First, we need to set both the admin and limited user accounts on the computer to run the explorer windows in separate processes. This is the key that lets you have side-by-side explorer windows with separate credentials. While logged on as each user, open up explorer (Windows + E) > Tools > Options > View > Check the box next to "Launch folder windows in a separate process".

Now we can set up the shortcut to spawn the window. You can, of course, have this launch just plain a plain old explorer window to "C:". However, when I want to run something as admin, it's usually in my administrative tools list. So here's the shortcut I use:

First, right-click and make a new short cut. Set this for the target for the shortcut:

C:\WINDOWS\system32\cmd.exe /c runas /user:domain\admin "explorer C:\Documents and Settings\All Users\Start Menu\Programs\Administrative Tools"

Set the name to whatever you want. I use "Admin Run". Now lets give it a pretty icon. Right-click the shortcut >properties > Change Icon >then paste this in the "Look for icons" line and hit enter:

%SystemRoot%\system32\wpabaln.exe


Now whenever you click this newly made shortcut, you'll get a command prompt for your admin user password. Once you've authorized you'll get an administrator level window with all of your admin tools.

Just add shortcuts into your all users Administrative Tools list for those programs you'll also need to run as admin. I also added links for windows explorer:  (%windir%\explorer.exe) and for the command prompt (%windir%\system32\cmd.exe) considering how much I use them.

Now you too can run as a limited user account, yet still get administrative tasks completed without wasting a ton of time logging in and out or using run-as and typing your password all the time.

Why I'm not buying StarCraft 2

Posted in Blog, Gaming on May 11th, 2010 by Matt – 12 Comments

I spent countless hours playing the original StarCraft. A buddy and I would stay up till the wee hours playing; our computers connected directly via over the phone dial-up. Our games were more often then not ended by our parents yelling at us to get off. We were tying up the phones, "What if someone had to call us in an emergency?!".

Get StarCraft 2 at Amazon.com

Since StarCraft 2 was announced I'd been desperately trying to get into the beta. Last month, when GameStop started offering beta keys to all pre-orders, was the first chance I had to play.

I put some serious time in. The game is solid, it feels like an old friend. Even in beta form SC2 has more polish than most games that have been released for months. Game companies could learn a thing or two about attention to detail and release quality standards from Blizzard. Of course, Blizzard having a cash cow like World of Warcraft probably helps.

Even with all the quality, I won't be purchasing StarCraft 2.

Three weeks I've been playing StarCraft 2. Lately when I think about sitting down for a game, I start making up excuses.

"Why play? Your odds of winning a game are 50-50. What's the fun of that?" Blizzard can take some of the blame here. They're new matchmaking system dynamically moves you up and down the ranks until it finds you a home. A home where you lose exactly half your games. I understand the competitive mindset that the StarCraft franchise has earned, but what percentage of the gamer base really plays for the competition?

"Why play? Your next game is going to be just like your last. Build a SCV at x level supply, a supply depot at y, get those reapers and attack." Competition is what its all about. You don't want to lose do you? As with any game, certain builds are more effective than others. If you don't use these builds then you're asking to get steamrolled.

You might say: "This is a beta!" Indeed it is, but the bones of the game are there. Blizzard isn't going to change any of the basic game play characteristics now. They're just looking to fine tune the balance.

You might say: "You're forgetting all about the single player game!" This is true. The short teasers of the single play story do look amazing. Is the story $50 amazing? I'm leaning towards no.

in ur base, killin ur doodz

This series of small complaints pile up to a bigger issue. The fun and novelty of the game wear off fast. Its great fun for your first dozen battles. Then the "correct" builds start to become your bread and butter. You get mad when someone wins with "cheese" tactics. Eventually when you think about playing, you realize it's more stressful than fun.

I adore StarCraft and wish I had a solution to bring casual gamers like myself into the fold. But I'm not sure it can be done with SC2. Ironically, If it weren't for the beta, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to test drive StarCraft and realize it wasn't for me. I'm not worried about the game's success, it will be hugely successful without my dollars. I'm worried about future games and weather I'm still the target audience.

Chrome Extensions, Enough to Replace FireFox?

Posted in Blog, Tech on May 10th, 2010 by Matt – 7 Comments

When FireFox was released most users adopted it for the speed and standards support. But with Opera and Chrome now running circles around it in speed and standards, why is FireFox's user base still growing?

Extensions, extensions, extensions. While FireFox still holds the lead in sheer volume and variety of extensions, Chrome has caught up enough for me to make it my primary browser.

Lets take a look at the some of the most popular FireFox Extensions, a few extensions I can't live without, their Chrome alternatives and the pros and cons of each.


AdBlock: Unquestionably the most "must have" add-on for any browser. Surfing the web just isn't the same without it.

Chrome Alternative: AdBlock
While the Chrome version of Adblock renders up ad-less pages, it's still downloading those ads in the background. If you're running ad-block to reduce your bandwidth usage, the Chrome version of Ad-Block may not cut it for you.


NoScript: Extra security and speed while browsing by blocking JavaScript, Java and other executable content. Stops most of the webs worst browser attacks cold in their tracks.

Chrome Alternative: None
While there are built-in options to only allow javascript only on sites you specifically allow, at this time the necessary functions to enable this sort of blocking aren't available in Chrome. But don't despair, according to the NoScript developers these functions will show up eventually.


FireBug: Web development tools integrated right into FireFox. Shows download times, HTML, CSS, scripts and live edit any of them.

Chrome Alternative: None Needed (for small values of none)
Chrome includes a dev console that mimics 90% of the functionality of FireBug. To access the developer console at any time in Chrome press Control (Command on Mac) + Shift + J.


GreaseMonkey: Modify any website to look better or perform better. Add functions that were not previously available.

Chrome Alternative: None needed! Most GreaseMonkey scripts will install themselves directly as extensions in Chrome. Not 100% compatible, you'll just have to test to see which extensions work.


FireGestures: Mouse gestures for FF. Switch to a new tab, open a tab, close a tab or create your own commands. Opera has this functionality built-in.

Chrome Alternative: Smooth Gestures
Exactly the same functionality, exactly the same performance.


Unlinker: Take a list of unlinked or linked image URLs and in one click have those images load on the page.

Chrome Alternative: SB Unlinker
Same functionality. Only down-side is instead of the unlinking function residing in the right-click menu like FF, it resides in a button in the navigation bar. Functionally its perfect.


Download Statusbar: Skip FireFox's native download window and use this much more streamlined and still functional add-on.

Chrome Alternative: None needed!
It's almost as if Chrome stole the idea from Download Statusbar. As they say; Imitation is sincerest form of flattery.


Smooth Scrolling: FireFox has this built-in, but for some reason the Chrome developers didn't feel the need for it. I'm such a stickler for smooth scrolling that this one lack of feature prevented me from using Chrome at all for quite a while.

Chrome Alternative: SmoothScroll
It does exactly what it says, and because of its customization is better than FireFox's scrolling.


A few of the extensions available for both FireFox and Chrome:

Xmarks: Bookmarks and Password Syncing. Password syncing not supported on Chrome currently.

Cooliris: Transforms your browser into a full-screen 3D Wall for searching, viewing and sharing the Web.

Stylish: Lets you easily install themes and skins for Google, Facebook, YouTube, Orkut, and other sites.

Web Developer: Adds a menu and a toolbar with various web developer tools.

With these extensions Chrome has all of the flexibility plus an extra dose of speed versus FireFox. I've taken the plunge and am now using Chrome as my primary browser. The next version of FireFox is aiming to take back the speed crown by incorporating a lot of the features that makes Chrome so great, running tabs and plugins as independent processes being one of those.