Archive for June 2, 2009

Assorted News 21 :)

Assorted News 21 🙂

In this edition:

Generic News

A Free Photoshop?
OpenOffice getting better
Wireless Antennas coming soon


What is a CAPTCHA?
How to handle lots of email?
Cheap way to back up email.
What is Google Desktop?
Breeding Puppies and Yellow Dogs?

Stories & General Banter

Sick Palm
Sick Car
Mechanic for a day
Remote Assistance Suicide
Blinky the Television Frog

Note: This newsletter written under the influence of day 2 of suspected common cold *sniffle* 🙂 Might as well try to do something useful while physically avoiding people… Calling it a cold is apparently a myth – see

A Free Photoshop?

While helping out a customer whose computer had died, taking with it much of her data, I sought out a freebie Photoshop compatible replacement. One of the results was a program called Fotografix, free but beta from (Beta means they might not have ironed all the bugs out of it yet.)

It’s surprisingly tiny, less than 1MB, so will probably download in under a minute. It supports layering and the clone stamp tool, which for me at least are the two most useful Photoshop tools.

Also, if you haven’t got Picasa yet, it’s a good program to grab too as it makes photo repairs very easy. It also has the clone stamp tool, but they call it a touch-up tool. You can use it to remove spots from people’s faces, remove people and objects from photos. It’s free from

There are many other free image editors, online and offline as well – See for downloadable ones and for the ones you can use via the Internet as an example.

OpenOffice getting Better 🙂

Many people are still quite surprised when they go out and buy a new computer and then find that either it didn’t come with Word and Excel, or it did but they suddenly stop working after 60 days or 25 runs. This often prompts people to borrow their friend’s Office CDs, but that often doesn’t help because for most versions, Microsoft only allows up to three installations. A few have used copies from the Internet that worked fine since they didn’t have the activation feature; but more recently are suddenly finding blue stars in the bottom corner of their screen saying ‘if you don’t buy a legit copy we’re going to put messages on your screen so everyone knows you have a cheat copy.’

This leaves you with a few options

1 – Spend your $200 to $1,000 on a nice shiny new copy of Office 2007; and maybe have to relearn where all the buttons are.
2 – Kill the blue star by running MsiExec.exe /uninstall {B148AB4B-C8FA-474B-B981-F2943C5B5BCD} followed by RemoveWGA.exe from or similar, then next time the yellow shield icon shows up choose custom, and untick the Windows Genuine Advantage and Office Genuine Advantage options. (They confer no advantage, and slow older computers down at boot time.)
3 – Dump Microsoft Office and grab OpenOffice 3.1 instead.

OpenOffice has improved significantly over the last few years, and will now do what most people want. (It will do pretty much everything except for macros, Outlook, etc ) It’s just over 100MB to download, so not particularly small; but if you want it on a cd, let me know and I can leave a copy at CT Electrics or 120 Markham, or mail. Download from

One tip however is that if you do use it, and then want to email files to people who don’t use it, you might want to change it’s default setting to be “save as Word 2003” format.

Wireless Antennae coming soon…

With the help of some of you, I trialled a couple of prototype antennae for Exetel. These worked quite well; with the furthest customer being connected with one roughly 32 km from Guyra, replacing a troublesome Satellite connection. As a result of these successful trials; and others besides mine, they have ordered a large quantity of them, and will be retailing them for about $55 each. (Much better than the $140 I’ve been getting them for locally!) They also plan to be advertising on regional TV stations in July through December, so that’ll be interesting. More info at

What is a CAPTCHA?

A CAPTCHA is one of those hard to read words (or series of letters and numbers) that you might find when trying to sign up for some online service. Basically, the idea is that humans can generally work out what they are, whereas computers can’t. Some classic examples are at

The idea of course is that this prevents SPAM and other nasties as it prevents robots from signing up and then using the new account for nefarious purposes. Naturally, being the Internet there are always ways around these problems. In one novel case, a spammer who also happened to run a porn site, wrote a program that would say something along the lines of “complete this captcha to view the next picture” or something along those lines. The captcha however was copied from some other website; and when the customer decoded it the result was then handed back to that other website and a new spam account was created. The viewer unwittingly solved the puzzle for the spammer.

How to handle lots of email?

People have evolved all sorts of strategies for managing their email. Most people new to computers tend to panic when they have more than 100 messages stored in their inbox, fearful that it might slow down their computer or worse.

Here’s my general advice.

1 – Don’t bother deleting.

With the exception of obvious spam, you never know when you might need the email again. Also, emails take up such a pitifully small amount of space on a modern computer. For example I haven’t deleted any emails for the last 9 years, and in total they take up about 4,500MB. Compare that to the size of the average computer which is usually at least 80,000MB and more commonly 320,000MB, and you can see that there’s no risk of filling up the computer with email. Not even close; so it’s not worth your time to sit there going through one at a time if you have any significant number of them. Also, you just never know when you might need some email from three years ago when someone contests a will, an account, or something…

2 – File them periodically… 🙂

Email programs aren’t perfect, and it is true that if you have too much email in the one folder the program may slow down and crash. This is particularly true of Outlook, and less so of Outlook Express. (From memory the limit’s about 2GB.) To prevent any one folder from getting too big, I generally recommend setting up sub-folders every 3-6 months and moving the relevant messages. (For example, Inbox 2009-01-03, Sent 2008-09-12) In the special case of Outlook, you might need to follow the option of “Auto-Archiving Old Messages.” Newer versions of Outlook will usually warn you if something goes wrong anyway.

3 – Search them…

All emails have some form of search feature; so rather than setting up folders for each person you can usually just say show all messages where sender is santa claus for example; and they’ll all come up. Some programs, like Thunderbird, will let you save these searches too so you can just click one button to see all the emails from whoever it was. Alternatively you can use something like … –>

What Is Google Desktop?

Google Desktop is a program people often end up with but don’t want, so I often remove it for people as it can slow computers down a bit. However, it can be useful in some circumstances.

What it, and other programs like it, do is when the computer is not busy; they look through all your files making a note of all the words in all your emails, documents, web searches, etc. This means that later on you can type in a word to search for and it will immediately throw up all the documents, emails, files, web pages, etc that it can find with that word in it. It’s much faster than most email program’s built in search.

Note that you might already have something similar on your computer. Windows Desktop Search is supposed to do the same thing, but Microsoft has a tendency to make a dogs breakfast of search; and it’s one of the reasons that Vista is so slow. Nero has a similar feature; and so do some specialised programs like Copernic. (I was up until recently a Copernic Desktop Search customer until they threw up one of those flashing ‘you have won a laptop’ type spams in my search results. It turns out Google Desktop Search is kinder to my system, more intelligent in it’s indexing anyway.) So, if you’re a busy computer user with lots of files and emails, it might be worth trying. (I recommend you do a minimal installation unless you also want all the fancy sidebar stuff they try to include.)

One warning: When you search for things in Google Desktop, the results often look very much like a Google search on the Internet – I’ve had a few panicked phone calls in the past from people who suddenly thought their entire life history was on the internet!

Cheap way to back up email.

The next problem of course is what happens if your computer blows up, or is stolen. You lose all your emails. If you’re wise, you’ll back them up before that happens, but many people don’t bother. Or how about if you go on holiday to New Zealand, and realise you need an email that has something important in it. Well, here’s a relatively easy way to solve this problem for the future. Once again, it involves Gmail.

In short, set up a gmail account, then set gmail to retrieve your email from your current address via POP3, but to also leave it on your ISP’s server. That way it will silently collect all your email from that point on, but you’ll still get it as you always have on your computer too. Then, if something bad happens to your computer, or you get stranded in Honolulu, your email’s all there waiting for you.

The one challenge here is that most people don’t know what their email password is and you’ll need it to set up the retreival at gmail. Fortunately there’s some tools on the Internet that will crack them for you. (Search for mailpv.exe for example.)

Breeding Puppies and Yellow Dogs?

While in Coffs recently, a laptop that belonged to a family friend died, and needed a new hard disk. Being quite an old laptop, with very little memory it was always rather slow running XP; so I tried Ubuntu on it. (Ubuntu is one of the free alternatives to Windows, perhaps the best known ‘unix’ version out there.) Unfortunately it avidly refused to work properly on that laptop – it didn’t know how to use the screen properly so all the writing was blurry; and spending an hour trying to fix it using arcane nerdy commands didn’t help. Whilst hunting down solutions, one of the websites had suggested that Puppy Linux might be a better option for older computers. Ten minutes later I had downloaded it, burnt it onto a CD and the laptop was being a happy puppy 🙂 You can see what many puppies look like here:

Puppy, like Ubuntu, can be run straight from a CD which means you can try it out without having to actually load it onto the computer. So, if you have an old computer that has become too slow for Windows, but you’d still like to be able to use it to write letters, send email, use the Internet, listen to music etc and be virtually immune to viruses as well; it could be worth it to try throwing a puppy through the window 🙂 (For most older computers, the biggest problem is that the virus scanners are now so huge because they have to be able to recognise thousands of viruses, so by running something that can’t get viruses in the first place, you get a big performance increase.

Occasionally of course, puppies need a little training when you first get them; so if you have trouble with the conversion I might be able to help.

And Yellow Dogs??

I was recently almost offered a collection of old Apple iMac computers – you know those ones that look like a cross between a bowling ball and a fish tank? That didn’t happen in the end, but it did prompt me to check if there was any way to turn them into puppies as well. Not quite it turns out, but there is an alternative which is to turn them into Yellow Dogs 🙂 See

The advantage here is that it should mean that you can take your aged old mac that is slow, out of date and crash-prone on the Internet, and convert it into a relatively up to date virtually virus proof PC for checking out the Internet and doing office work. There are probably some disadvantages too but I haven’t had the chance to find out yet. If you do first, let me know 🙂

A Sick Palm 🙁

The PDA (electronic diary) that I have up until today carried with me everywhere for the last 3-5 years took a turn for the worse a month ago, dying completely on the trip to Coffs where I also met the dead laptop. I stripped it down, cleaned it’s innards and reassembled it and it came back to life for a bit; but would regularly freeze, often generating some pretty colourful patterns when it did so.

It seems that it is suffering from having been bent too many times – something that’s a risk for any wide flat consumer device.

This has meant transitioning to an alternative system. Ideally I’d grab a new Palm Pre when it is released in June, but it’ll probably be too expensive at this stage to justify; assuming it’s even available in Australia. An Android device might be a more affordable choice. Apple is another option but I don’t like their closed nature; so for the time being I have moved most of it over to the Nokia E51 phone, which is reasonably competent but a pain for data entry. (A pocket bluetooth keyboard might fix that.) There’s sure plenty of choice now for a smart phone / PDA.

The other annoyance is that the Palm was my MP3 player for podcasts while driving. (Podcasts are great for keeping us IT people informed of what’s new while driving.) Almost all other MP3 players fail compared to the Palm because they don’t have an option to make the volume even over a podcast. (For example, Merrick and Rosso podcasts have very loud ‘wipe’ sounds between segments compared to the volume of their voices. Radio stations even that out, but podcasts are raw. These are annoyingly deafening when driving.) For the time being that problem was solved with a 10+ year old Toshiba laptop running Windows 2000 and Foobar 2000 set to eq+20dB and Hard Limiter. I have dubbed it the “poor man’s iPod” 🙂 It’s working well, which is more than I can say for… –>

A Sick Car.

Well, technically two of them. A couple of months ago the Kingswood was suddenly garaged when it started making a new unhealthy noise that sounded like a dying universal joint. Since it was coming up for Rego I needed to get it fixed, so I took it in and it was diagnosed as having no gearbox oil – a fair explanation for weird noises when decellerating in gear. Rego passed with new tyres, so it was taken home, cleaned and kept aside for when it was needed. This as it turned out wasn’t too far away because …

… a few days later while driving the Nissan in Armidale, I got that ‘weak brakes’ feeling, shortly thereafter accompanied by the brake light coming on. Drove straight to RepCo and bought some more brake fluid. Topped up the empty container under the bonnet, but found little improvement; so decided I better swap back to the Kingswood until I had time and suitable weather to bleed the brakes and find out where the fluid went. (Or get them done elsewhere.)

… a couple of days later the Kingswood reverted to it’s unhappy self, but worse this time. I was driving home up hills and coasting down them to avoid the nasty noises. The whine from the front left wheel bearing came back too, along with a new mysterious juddering feeling when braking from 10MPH to 0 – too fast to be an unbalanced drum. In short, it was not a happy car.

Mechanic for a day.

Fortunately at this time it was about midday and work was not too busy, but I did have more to do in the evening. So, I spent the next 3-4 hours doing the one person limited tools brake bleed shuffle – a relatively simple process but time consuming since for each rear wheel it takes 10-15 pumps of the pedal to clear the lines with new liquid. Since it’s normally a two person job but Molly was not likely to learn how to press a brake pedal, it involved finding a pipe long enough to hold the pedal down and wedge between the pedal and the door latch, then 80 trips around the car to alternate between pedal down, nut close, pedal up, nut open.

The back left brake cylinder appears to have been the cause of the leak, with gooey evidence in the brake drum. It’s quite a minor leak but a leak none-the-less so I’ll have to get it replaced soon. Some fancy skid work on the driveway proved the brakes were working again so it was a quick hand wash and back to work at 5pm 🙂

I’ll have to take the Kingswood back in later next month to get these issues sorted out, as having a working car is rather important in my job 🙂

Remote Assistance Suicide?

No, I didn’t help someone kill themselves! I did, however, inadvertently kill a computer.

I have a number of customers spread out all over Australia, and using I am able to repair most software issues from the comfort of my own home, car, park bench…

One customer rang complaining of some malware-like behaviour; so it was a relatively simple process to download MBAM and get rid of the bugs. However, it seemed prudent to also take care of the queue of updates that Microsoft had kindly sent. I started this update and then left them to it.

About 30 minutes later I get a call to say the computer’s broken – won’t start. Then not long after another call saying it’s working now but all our files are gone. I soon located their files and worked out they’d run the factory restore option which, while usually effective, has pretty bad consequences such as all office programs not working, personal files sometimes being deleted, and the Windows Installer system dying completely, preventing you from installing new programs. So they packed it up and freighted it.

Once I had it, I found out what had happened. It was a bug I’d heard of months ago but not yet encountered – a nasty trap that Microsoft and / or Compaq had accidentally laid.

Her computer was one of the comparatively rare ones with an AMD processor instead of an Intel one. (AMD is Intel’s biggest competitor.) When Microsoft released their Service Pack 3 update via that yellow shield update system you see near the clock, they had not tested it thoroughly and the result was that if it was installed on some AMD computers, the computer would not be able to start again. It required a savvy person to either use recovery console or another program to remove the offending component, as per

It was a relatively simple fix in the end, but an example of how sometimes Microsoft can really stuff things up for you! Although to be fair I think the problem is partly related to Compaq as well, from memory. (Not that others are much better – Ubuntu suicided on my laptop after an update for example.)

I gave them a sizeable discount on the whole operation, and made a mental note to check for AMD processors before doing such a thing remotely again.

Blinky the Television Frog 🙂

In a previous newsletter I talked about GB-PVR, the free program that turns your computer into a TV with the advantages that it can be programmed to record the shows you like automatically. (We rarely watch live TV now, as it’s better to watch later and skip the ads.) Anyway, the downside with this system is that the TV shows tend to be 2-4GB in size each, and it doesn’t take too long to fill up a standard hard disk drive. (120 shows on a 320G Hard Disk) As there are a number of shows I want to watch later, like Scrapheap Challenge, the lack of space can become a problem)

So, for $229 I bought a 1,600GB drive – nearly 5 times the size of the previous drive. That’s the same as more than 1,000,000 of those square floppy disks people used to use, all fitting into a block of metal only 15 by 10 by 2 centimetres!

Since computers are my hobby as well as my job, I’m quite happy fiddling with such things; and one problem with the previous drive was that it was in a USB case and would struggle if it was taping two shows while watching a third show, possibly because USB wasn’t fast enough; so this time I decided the new drive better go into the computer’s tower. The only problem then is that I have become accustomed to glancing at the old drive to see if it was actually recording or not – since the light flashes. The computer case, a Dell 5150, has a light that’s so tiny that it’s not visible from the couch. So, enter Blinky, the Television Frog.

Picture at

Some careful rewiring of a circuit board inside the Dell, with three resistors, some shielded cable to prevent transients, and about 2 hours of mucking around; and blinky was born – the tractor headlights blinking whenever the computer’s busy doing something. (I guess technically it should be Blinky the TV Tractor, but meh.)

And on the subject of silly pictures – here’s how to melt your cold butter at a roadhouse…

So that’s it for another newsletter. I guess another day off tomorrow with this silly cold, then back to work Thursday 🙂

Cheers, Mike