May 28, 2008
It's that time of the year again
Where has this year gone? It's end of May, going into June. You know what that means? You accountant friends get pre-occupied. Your business owner friends start navel gazing wondering whether to keep running on the track or stepping off. People and clients you've not seen in ages give you "hello" emails asking whether you could do this or that before the end of the financial year... Goodies appear for office purchase to beat the end of year closing of accounts.
This is also the time when autumn in Melbourne gets confused as to whether it is acting like spring or growing up to be winter. Yes, and the over-warm and then over-cold, put that on, take that off jacket thing we all do. Easier to catch a cold than a train and pass the echinicea please.
Forum traffic at the Bleeding Edge seems to be up in terms of interest and postings - people are dropping by to compare notes about the current generation of internet safety products, since Charles wrote about that
armourall (oops, Online Armour thing).
I've just come face to face with a USB virus in the Flash. I've now got a stick that's pretty much off limits to my production desktop until I figure a way of getting some files out without getting infected. The Symantec corporate product installed on the student lab PCs did detect it once but didn't kill it fast enough for it to hop onto my stick and other machines in the lab (which also run the same product) don't seem to be able to protect themselves from the virus hopping off my stick.....
As they say, more details in the next issue.....
Keep warm, take care.
Preserving cash: it's your Choice
We can't help but wonder if the Australian Consumer Association, which publishes Choice, hasn't been absent without leave in the battle between the consumer and the corporate forces invading our increasingly strained finances.
Here they are hitting the media today with some advice on smart shopping, neglecting to say that their supermarket survey was published almost a year ago. Given the savage price increases that have occurred since then, their figures are completely irrelevant ... although it's still true, as Choice discovered then, that you save an awful lot of money buying from Aldi, rather than Coles or Safeway.
Coincidentally, today's Metro Life&Times section in The Age has a similar survey (which unfortunately we couldn't find online). They found a basket of nine essentials (bread, milk, free-range eggs, spaghetti, chees, cereal, biscuits and tea bags cost $21.68 at Aldi (any Aldi, due to their national pricing), and $36.81 at Coles Northcote, $33.58 at Safeway Fitzroy, and $37.45 at IGA Fairfield. That represents savings of between a staggering 72.7 per cent in the case of IGA, to 55 per cent at that particular Safeway.
Choice's survey was more exhaustive. They compared the prices on 33 items at 111 supermarkets around the country, and put Aldi cheapest at $55.70, Coles next at $97.47 and Woolworths/Safeways most expensive at $105.43.
In our opinion, the ACA should have been out there campaigning on behalf of the consumer - possibly, you know, around election time - to get both political parties to do something about the shameful rip-offs that have resulted from the obscene supermarket duopoly that our legislators so blithely tolerate.
We don't think we're being unfair to the ACA when we suggest that what they're doing, instead, is trying to sell their own product: Choice. We've had an online subscription to Choice for years, but frankly we're disappointed by the ACA. They seem to us to be well-mannered poodles, rather than what the consumer needs right now: a, snarling, snapping attack dog. For one thing, they only do a supermarket survey every three years, for God's sake! They should be doing one every month, and jumping all over Kevin Rudd every time the results come in.
And where the ACA advises consumers to negotiate with banks and telcos, well, what precisely do they recommend they negotiate? The only way to negotiate with a telco, in our opinion, is to switch over to VoIP, and to get all your mobile calls onto a capped plan ... you know, the ones that Telstra doesn't tell you about, but which we've been writing about for ages.
May 27, 2008
Death by alarm clock
There's something reassuring, isn't there, in the fact that the Travelodge motel chain actually has a Director of Sleep? We'd love to see his job description. Obviously one of his tasks is to organise surveys, which do, as a matter of fact, have a soporific effect. On journalists, at least.
The latest survey indicates that British customers have abandoned the alarm clock, and now prefer to be woken by their mobile phone. No doubt there are many reasons for this, including the fact that they're easier to set than the average alarm clock. The Bleeding Edge spouse, for instance, still can't adjust the time or set an alarm on our admittedly rather complex clock, after three years of trying. Her favourite waking up routine is to get Bleeding Edge to set the alarm, sleep through it until Bleeding Edge groans, gets up to turn the thing off, wakes her up, then tries to get back to sleep himself.
This could be a clever precaution, according to a sleep researcher - or possibly more accurately a waking-up researcher - who reports that alarm clocks can cause heart attacks.
As a matter of fact, we've found that we now rely on either the mobile phone alarm, or more recently, the Apple iPod Touch. It seems to have the right balance between rousing one from slumber and triggering a myocardial infarction.
May we inquire as to your personal preference? What's your favourite waking up device?
Safer online banking
You might like to know that if you happened to take our advice and buy yourself a copy of Online Armor, you would have been protected from the latest scam aimed at ANZ Bank's online customers.
The phishing exploit sends out bogus emails aimed at convincing ANZ customers their account has been suspended, and directing them to a bogus site that collects their registration number, name, password, phone number and email address.
An ANZ spokesman warned that "Under no circumstances should [users] click on the link, reply to the email or provide any of the requested details. Always ensure that you only log on to ANZ internet banking by typing http://www.anz.com into the address bar, rather than following links to the ANZ website. Disregard any emails that advise otherwise."
Unfortunately, no matter how many times people are warned about this, these emails seem to excite some deep-seated flaw in human nature. If you make it a point to activate banking mode in Online Armor before you do any online financial transactions, you can't go anywhere dangerous.
May 22, 2008
Tall Emu kicks your firewall down
The business case for the Bleeding Edge Outroduction Agency is clear and compelling. Over the years, through various introduction agencies — magazines, Web sites, indeed this very column — people meet and fall in love with fetching applications and then refuse, despite appalling abuse and serial infidelities, to abandon their now toxic relationships.
Who knows what misery these people go through as a result of these attachments? They apparently feel that once having been conjoined, they must remain so, despite all evidence of an irretrievable breakdown of the relationship.
These people are clearly the software world's equivalent of devout Catholics. They need an external agency, much like the Catholic Marriage Tribunal, which can examine the circumstances of a marriage for potential "defects of form", and make a canon law declaration of nullity, allowing the parties to continue to receive the Sacraments after a divorce.
A couple of incidents in the past week or so alerted us to the need for the Bleeding Edge Outroduction Agency. The first was a post on the Bleeding Edge forum in which a reader declared that he'd been using the email client The Bat! ever since we'd recommended it in a column. The program had recently come out in a Vista version, but since that release, could no longer be set as the default email client in Windows XP.
We went through our columns using our favourite desktop search application, Copernic, and discovered that it had been roughly six years since we'd publicly abandoned The Bat!. We'd announced our formal separation in a column published in October 2002, shortly after we began using the powerful IMAP email features of FastMail.
Obviously the reader had missed our version of a Catholic annulment, or possibly a Papal dispensation.
Then we received an email seeking our latest recommendations were for a firewall, anti-virus and anti-spyware applications. The reader had been experiencing slow start-up times using Windows XP Home edition, and wondered if his existing complement – the Sygate free firewall, CA Anti-virus, Windows Defender and Spybot — were at fault. Our first suggestion for him would be to turn off the Windows firewall, which he had running in tandem with Sygate.
But in mid 2005 we'd announced that we'd stopped using the Sygate firewall when Norton —one of this column's bete noirs — took over the company.
We'd used Zone Alarms free firewall until late last year, when we'd begun recommending the free Comodo firewall.
More recently, however, we've been very impressed by a firewall called Online Armor. Based in Sydney, it has quickly developed an international reputation. With Comodo it's the only product to score 100 per cent on the firewall ratings table at the highly reputable matousec.com.
Online Armor reinvents the firewall category, adding new layers of protection inherited from its origins as a guardian against bank phishing, and hijacking of Web browsers. It can detect the presence of keystroke loggers lurking in the background to capture sensitive financial information. In "banking mode" it can restrict your browser to genuine secure banking sites, and it detects and resists any Website or other tampering. You can examine the list of features.
The irony is that when Tall Emu offered the product to Australian banks, to protect their users from the growing problem of Internet fraud, they simply weren't interested. The banks suggest common anti-virus and malware programs provide adequate protection, but they manifestly do not. The fact that they might have had a cheap, infinitely safer alternative but rejected it, suggests our banks are neglecting their duty to online customers.
Happily, the fact that Tall Emu was forced to reinvent its product as a firewall has resulted in a compelling security solution.
The 9.6MB download searches for any dangerous processes on installation, then checks your Start menu and startup applications against its database, alerting you to the ones it doesn't know about, and prompting you to allow them Internet access, or block them.
You can run the program in three modes: standard, advanced, or banking mode. Standard mode provides excellent protection with the minimum of inconvenience and bewilderment that too often follows a firewall installation. Unless you really know what you're doing, we'd recommend you don't use advanced mode. You can engage banking mode on demand with a hotkey combination.
There are three versions: a free one
which still gives you access to Banking Mode, a paid edition which we think is worth the investment of $US39.95, and one which bundles the Kaspersky anti-virus program. As we've written recently, we like Kaspersky's anti-virus capabilities, but we've found slow updates make it unusable. Our current recommendation is NOD32.
Tall Emu expects to have a Windows Vista version within weeks.
The Bleeding Edge Outroduction Agency now officially declares your firewall marriage null and void. You have our permission, indeed our encouragement, to switch to Online Armor.
May 20, 2008
Watching and listening to Authors
At the forum, our supremo CPU recipe maker is also a supremo in the kitchen. Here's a heads up on an Authors (and others) lecture series at Google. There's a book called My Last Supper being discussed by a photographer who took the Chefs' photos. There's Noam Chomsky, the other Steve, Steve Wozniak. In the list of videos are talks by Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Lots of seeing and listening fun for the cold, hopefully wet days in Melbourne.
And the tender Mêlée starts
As I sorta predicted, when initiative comes to implementation, strange things turn out. In this MIS Australia article, PC invasion in schools, it appears every vendor and his dog is panting at the 1.2 billion dollar project. As expected ASUS will trumpet their EEE PC (what more could you ask for those small and nimble fingers). But like anyone can have a shot providing stuff to spend on. VMWare even hopes to sell virtual PCs - howaboutthat?
But wait, there's more. Aside from that slosh of money thronging through the schools, don't you get 750 dollars to spend on your dearest Secondary School Protégé come July 1?
Look for it - we might even see our poor international students dripping in the winter rain, selling "you gotta sign up for this, offer valid until my transport comes to take me" broadband deals. Hmm, Sudoku on a Nintendo DS, does that count? It must improve junior's Math skills somewhat.....
A breath of a bargain
It's probably all those years digging for ways to cut our readers' computer, internet and telephony costs that has made Bleeding Edge such a diligent avoider of those high mark-ups that the casual purchaser seems happy enough to pay. Or perhaps it's the fact that our great grandmother came from Glasgow.
This morning, for instance, we walked up to Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, to buy a packet of some nasal tapes called Breathe Right, that we recently discovered. If you've got any nasal blockages, before you go to bed you wash your nose with soap and water, stretch one across your nose, and they open your nasal passages. We're not sure of the physics, but they do seem to work. We've found them very helpful.
Anyway, the pharmacist tried to sell us a box of 30 of the things for $44.95. We could hear an echo of great-grandmother's broad Glaswegian accent as we declared, "That's an awful lot of money for some plastic strips!" The pharmacist suggested that we might instead like to buy a packet of 10.
"But wouldn't the price per strip be even higher?"
"Well, no, thank you. We'll see if we can get a better price."
We know that a lot of people feel that if they dared quibble like that, one of the fierce gods of shopping would descend on them and rip their tongue out, but we've never had any repercussions. Usually just a bewildered look on the face of the shop assistant, or the occasional "Suit yourself!"
We had to go to Aldi, and then to Victoria Market to pick up some fish - wouldn't dream of buying fish at South Melbourne or Prahran markets, by the way - so we called in at Priceline. They didn't have stock, but they referred us to the Priceline Pharmacy in Bourke Street, near the corner of Elizabeth. Sure enough, they were selling 30 Breathe Rights for $29.50 (or $29.95). We bought two packets to tide us over, then went on the Internet.
At ChemistDirect we found them for $26.95. We ordered four packets, which with $6.95 postage, was slightly cheaper than Priceline. But for immediate needs, we'll be adding Priceline Pharmacy to our list of money-saving destinations, of which Aldi is probably No. 1. Did anyone notice in this morning's Age the shocking difference in the prices Woolworths-Safeways charges Australian customers, compared to its New Zealand outlets? For shame! No wonder Aldi's market share is steadily climbing!
May 17, 2008
Installing Windows XP SP3 on AMD CPU Machines
Over in the forum Bazcaz has linked to an excellent article by Jesper Johansson on the issue with AMD CPU based Windows XP PC's rebooting after installing Windows XP SP3. I had the pleasure of meeting Jesper here in Melbourne at a Microsoft Security Event a few years ago and the quality of his post on his personal experience and fixes/workarounds are a testament to his talents.
Microsoft are also offering 'Free unlimited installation and compatibility support' until April 14, 2009 so if you have an issue after or during installing Windows XP SP3.
I noted in the forum that the Windows XP SP3 beta testing program had ended abruptly and to quote myself:-
I pounced (or prodded) others to jump into Vista SP1 as quickly as possible as right up until release this product was being actively tested and used and bugs/issues were being filed against the product. XP SP3 has had I would say a lack of testing over the past 6 weeks and typically it is the testers that bring compatibility issues to Microsoft due to the wide diversity of machines and hardware configurations it gets tested on.
May 16, 2008
The frugal approach to media centres
These are momentous times in the Bleeding Edge cave. We have apparently discovered, somewhere within our emotional DNA — after decades of doubting its existence — a frugal gene.
There couldn't be a better time for the emergence of this until now dormant phenomenon, given those dramatic increases in the prices of wheat, rice, vegetables, meat, milk, electricity, petrol etc., which of course necessitate rises in interest rates to control inflation by stimulating further increases in the prices of wheat, rice, vegetables etc. We can't help but wonder, these days, if our economic managers have been secretly taking lessons from Robert Mugabe.
Unfortunately, not having been invited to outline our economic rescue plan to the 2020 celebrity summit, the rest of the nation is going to have to fend for itself. Only you, dear readers, will have the chance to avoid the soup kitchen and the food queue with the Bleeding Edge frugal gene maintenance plan.
No doubt many of you will have already followed our example and traded your expensive, fuel-guzzling, environmentally irresponsible automobiles for a motor scooter — a strategy we first mentioned 18 months ago. We've already saved many hundreds of dollars on fuel and maintenance costs and parking and tolls since we sold the Edgemobile, an ageing Mazda MX6 which had developed an expensive infatuation with the local garage proprietor.
The fact that we now weave a path around the lines of frustrated drivers who experience the benefits of our government's transport planning – we can't help but wonder whether Robert Mugabe might be involved there too – and generally park on the footpath outside our destination, means we also have much more time to think about other ways of satisfying the frugal gene.
We've been putting some of that time to good use in learning more about Linux, which is an essential plank in our strategy for providing readers with sufficient extra cash in the coming years to buy the occasional loaf of bread to share with their starving neighbours.
As we would have explained to Queen Cate and her courtiers at the 2020 celebrity summit, we can no longer afford to contribute such vast sums of money to Microsoft, sundry software millionaires and the hardware manufacturers who've been profiting from the ever-increasing demands that the Windows operating systems make on hardware. For that matter, we can't go on contributing to Apple's profits, the most recent of which was announced just last week, adding another $US1.05 billion to the company's coffers. That means we have to make a national shift to Linux and the open source software movement.
Readers may recall that about a year ago we made our first significant investment in Linux when we bought an Australian Dragon media centre. Assembled by Mike Williams, at Torquay-based Better Access, it uses the free Myth TV-Knoppix "portmanteau", Knoppmyth. Before that, we'd used Linux mostly as a firewall, although we did play around with SuSE, and more recently, the past few versions of Ubuntu.
Having the Dragon in the lounge room has gradually introduced us to the sheer power and peace of mind of Linux and open-source software. The Dragon has handled all our television viewing and recording in HD or standard definition, and all the DVDs and CDs and music and digital image storage and viewing jobs we care to throw at it. It never crashes, and it does everything we ask of it with so little fuss that until recently we completely overlooked its important contribution to our new frugality. We've since added a permanent Ubuntu box, on which we run a growing number of free, powerful Linux programs.
The experience has convinced us that failing to come to terms with Linux and open source systems is a financial extravagance that many more computer users will have to tackle if we're to avoid a miserable 2020, or possibly even 2010.
Compare our experience with the Knoppmyth box with that of the average Windows Vista user. We bought the top-of-the-line model at the time: an Intel Core2Duo D6320 CPU, dual HD TV cards, 500GB SATA hard drive, digital sound card, DVD drive etc in a small, amplifier-like Silverstone LC17 case, which, with the Dutch-designed Nexus NX-4090 400-watt power supply was virtually inaudible.
The price for that configuration has dropped from around $2000 to $1649 in roughly a year. But now we could have almost the same basic functionality – the ability to record two HD channels simultaneously, in the Better Access Bunyip, which costs $999. You'll only get an 80GB hard drive for that price, and we'd recommend adding another $50 or so for a more practical 320GB, but even then, you'd be well ahead of the hardware costs for a PC capable of running the Windows Vista media centre editions, which add another $319.95 for the Ultimate version, or $259.95 for Home Premium. Along with the higher price tag, you'll have to accept fewer features and more restrictions on the use of digital media.
Among numerous other advantages, the ad-skipping features you gain with the Linux version are far more useful, you can get a free electronic program guide for all channels, and you can access the drive over the Web to record programs etc. It works perfectly well as part of a Windows network, using the Samba networking protocol originally developed by an Australian programmer, Andrew Tridgell.
There's a good source of information on Knoppmyth at mysettopbox.tv, including the information you'd need to build your own. But if you're not a skilled assembler, and you lack a good understanding of Linux, the pre-assembled route is a better alternative, in our opinion.
Knoppmyth is essentially a collection of scripts which automate the setup of the open source MythTV home theatre package, and additional utilities, on a full Linux platform, in the form of the Knoppix distribution of Debian. Mike Williams has contributed to those scripts, and put together a selection of additional scripts that automate all the procedures necessary to get the best out of a Linux media centre in Australia. All of them are, however, publicly available. That commitment to an open exchange of knowledge is one of the great things about Linux. While it is unfamiliar territory for the average Windows user, all the answers are out there on the Web.
A good starting point – if you don't want to invest in a Knoppmyth media centre — might be the Puppy Linux distribution developed by Perth-based Barry Kauler, at puppylinux.com. It's a fast, tiny, but powerful operating system that gives you all the applications you need for daily use in a tiny package. You can run it from an 85MB live CD or USB key. The whole thing usually loads completely into RAM.
The colourful world of laser printers
We can't remember precisely when we decided to become our own colour printing company. It was possibly about the time we discovered how expensive it was to have large quantities of coloured brochures printed. Or perhaps it was just after that, when we watched those expensive brochures quickly go out of date, due to the eternal opposition of the planned, or optimal world, and the real world, which unfortunately is the one occupied by the Bleeding Edge spouse's business.
A lot of people must have noticed the same thing, because according to Hewlett Packard, one in every two laser printers sold these days is a colour model. When you can buy a basic colour laser like Hewlett Packard's LaserJet CP1215 for around $300, it's not surprising.
What possibly is surprising for a lot of people who do buy basic colour lasers is how expensive the little things can be to run. For one thing, they often ship with "starter" cartridges, with roughly a third or a half the toner of normal cartridges. It tends to give the unwary quite a nasty shock when the well quickly runs dry. For another, as a general rule, per page costs improve in direct relation to the initial hardware cost, so a more expensive printer could end up being a wiser purchase in the long run.
It can be all but impossible to make accurate calculations, unofortunately, due to the curiously elastic nature of printer manufacturers' mathematics. Printer maths could be a worthy topic for a thesis, possibly by consumer protection authorities. They have a curious tendency towards wild inflation (print speed, output yield) or startling underestimation (cost per page etc.) The only consistency is that they always favour the manufacturer, and mislead the consumer. We suspect they're the same mathematics used in the planned or optimal world.
What is clear is that colour lasers are much more economical than inkjet printers. The cartridges cost more, but they produce thousands more pages … although not as many pages as the manufacturers suggest in their specifications.
The advantages of colour laser printers over inkjets are real, however. Laser prints are less likely to smear, and they do a better job of printing fine details in graphics. While inkjets produce much better photos - a function of ink technology as much as resolution - the colour laser output is perfectly good enough for newsletters and business documents.
That, of course is how the Bleeding Edge Semi-Commercial Printery came into existence. The ability to turn out impressive documents and promotional material in small print runs justified the investment even for a small business.
Typically, we took the cheapest possible way out of the dull world of monochrome printing when we picked up a reconditioned HP Colour LaserJet 2840 network printer, scanner, copier and fax unit at Grays Online for about $600 delivered – about a third of the new price. (We're told that HP is running a cash-back offer right now that allows you to buy a new one for roughly the same price.)
The purchase introduced us to a whole new world of fascinating new problems. We discovered, for instance, that while our bargain printer was happy to churn out perfectly acceptable colour documents from most of our
applications, Adobe Acrobat files seemed to cause it immense embarrassment. We could tell this from the fact that every PDF file we sent to it came out with a red wash that we interpreted as the digital
equivalent of a blush.
It took quite some time to work out the cause, which turned out to be one of those oh-so-common collaborative efforts between different companies. In this case, Hewlett Packard and Adobe adjusted a feature that was designed to correct one problem – a white background appearing as yellow for instance – to create another: a white background printing as red.
To fix it, you have to select “Printer Setup” from Acrobat’s File menu, and under Advanced, turn off “Discoloured Background Correction”.
What we also discovered was that the LaserJet 2840 is an extremely noisy printer. Not only does it create a racket whenever it’s asked to produce any work, it also regularly starts itself up at odd hours, for a little session of brass band practice.
There a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, it's a so-called carousel printer (we swear we can hear the little horses going around and around inside), which uses complicated mechanics to rotate the cartridges in the printing process. In-line printers, where the toners are lined up in a straight line, and the paper takes a direct path across all four toners, are faster, less prone to failure and vastly quieter.
The solution we came up with was to stick the 2840 in a well-ventilated cupboard, but we're less than impressed with the HP Toolbox software, which seems to give the 2840 disturbing fidgets at regular intervals.
Another issue with the LaserJet 2840 – and for that matter all colour laser printers in the small office and low-end of the workgroup range, is that colour printing is undeniably addictive. The Bleeding Edge Institute for Computer Sociology has identified this phenomenon in the past, and dubbed it "Colour Creep". Colour Creep means that once you start printing with colour, you quickly discover a latent, all but uncontrollable desire to print or photocopy everything – absolutely everything – in colour.
We found, when one of the colour cartridges convinced itself that it was empty, fitting it out with three new colour and one black cartridge would cost us roughly what we'd paid for the entire system, and we were well short of the yield suggested by Hewlett Packard.
We suspect that we're going to opt, instead for refills, which are considerably cheaper. We'd be interested in readers' experience with refilled colour cartridges. Do they effect the output, or compromise the printer?
We're also looking at a couple of more expensive alternatives: the HP LaserJet CP3505dn, and the Xerox Phaser 8560. We'd welcome reader experiences on those or competing models. We know you're itching to send us some coloured presentations on the topic, but really, a simple email would do.
May 15, 2008
EPU or Eeyuew?
Charles writes about the grab by motherboard manufacturers to appear green and energy saving. Now that the global warming concept or least catastrophic option is a done deal in many parts of the world and Oz, lots and lots of tech and non tech companies will jump on the bandwagon, putting all kinds of warm (er, not the right word?) marketing phrases to their products. Even toothpicks and rubber bands could get in the act.
My myopic (well, I wear multi-focals so I'll wear the flak if people call me short sighted) proposals for energy saving?
- Stop the multi-Megabyte framework and cpu cycle eating libraries in Java and .NET framework. Use tight, small, fit libraries like those we used in desktop bound apps (Borland C++ library, Microsoft VBRUN*.dll)
- Stop the everything has to be GUI, everything has to out Mac the Mac deal with Vista Aero Glass and Compiz Fusion requiring energy eating 3D GPU cards to produce "eye candy" (the phrase "candy" says it all") that eat more energy and have more computation power than the first Pentium . Ok, you wanna play 3D DirectX 10 games, that's cool (er, wrong word again?) buddy, just don't take the Microsoft Office crowd with you.
- Bring back enhanced non graphic programs for business work (Paradox/DOS, Lotus 1-2-3/DOS, Microsoft Word/DOS) - Borland and Microsoft had it to such a fine art (no need to write heaps of C declares to say "hello world", you just asked for a Window and your got a Handle). Some end users and plebs couldn't tell me whether they were running Windows GUI or an enhanced DOS app - they did not have sufficient vocabulary or discrimination to describe the screen - that was how good it was.
- Shut off the "More CPU speed is good" philosophy. Transmeta Crusoe, VIA Eden are sluggish on Windows GUI. Well, see how fast they would run on an enhanced DOS App.
Do you know how we started? We ran this 27,520 byte .com file called Visicalc. That's not a typo. That's bytes, not kilo, or mega or giga. It's now available for free here - it will take oh, ages (well, under a second maybe?, that's long isn't it?) to download over your 56k baud POT modem - take it for a drive and convince yourself. It, uh, has no .dll dependencies and does not need a 3D graphic card nor a quad core processor. It will and does fit on my measly 128k flash drive with 128k of space left over for data.
Agree? Evangelise. SAY NO TO GUI NOW!
Now, excuse me while my Microsoft Windows XP PC gets awfully busy whilst it downloads a pending Patch Tuesday bunch of stuff from Redmond - heating up as it goes along, blazing an energy trail that spans the globe as the data is delivered.
Asus motherboard scandal
The top end of the motherboard market is likely to be blown apart by accusations that Asus has quite blatantly lied about the power-saving capabilities of the Energy Processing Unit (EPU) in its new motherboards, to say nothing of bizarre suggestions that a journalist may have been involved in commercial espionage with Asus against its biggest rival, Gigabyte.
Asus has claimed power savings of up to 80.23 per cent from EPU boards, but Gigabyte executives told Tom's Hardware that the EPU figures quoted by Asus are complete fabrications, and the EPU is "a fake". They claim Asus has made no changes via firmware, design or component changes, and in an act that if true, can only be interpreted as gross cynicism if not outright fraud, simply changed the numbers on product advertisement and packaging. Gigabyte accuses its rival of "playing numbers marketing" and "cheating end users."
Asus claimed its EPU motherboards trumped the power-saving performance of Gigabyte DES equivalents, but according to Gigabyte, Asus made up their tests. Gigabyte claims its rival provided incorrect comparison figures and graphs to the public.
Several motherboards were compared: Asus P5E3 Deluxe, P5E3 Premium and Gigabyte’s EP35-DS3L. According to Gigabyte’s testing, its own boards had significantly higher levels of efficiency at system start and during fluctuations in load. During all loads, Gigabyte’s DES system bests the EPU system with figures ranging anywhere from 4.1-percent to a whopping 17-percent difference at maximum savings settings. In fact, Gigabyte claims that Asus’ EPU system "cheats" by lowering certain system frequencies by small amounts to reduce power consumption, instead of actually providing better power throughput. In the EPU "Walk Mode," which is its most efficient mode, Gigabyte claims that Asus’ EPU does its trick by down clocking 10-percent and dropping Vcore voltage — possibly affecting CPU stability.
Worse, Gigabyte claims Asus is fooling its customers by using poor-quality capacitors in its motherboards that are not manufactured in Japan, and are known to be likely to blow under load. Gigabyte uses top components, specifically those from Chemico or Fujitsu.
We suspect the scandal is going to result in a fascinating defamation suit. If Gigabyte is wrong, the damage to Asus would be immense, and any trial lawyer would be licking his lips.
Bleeding Edge has a good deal of respect for Gigabyte motherboards. We've generally favoured them in our quarterly specifications for the workhorse PC, although from time to time we've gone for an Asus alternative. We've always regarded Asus as a premium supplier, and been particularly impressed by their Eee PC, which we're seriously tempted to upgrade, now that it's available with a slightly larger screen and more memory.
We still like the Eee PC. But we're no longer quite so confident about the quality.
We can declare right now that our opinion of Asus has been dramatically lessened, and we'd be very reluctant right now to switch our recommendation from Gigabyte. If a company has such a poor opinion of its customers that it would deliberately hoodwink them, what does it say about its products and services?
As for that espionage angle, could it be that the journalist might have been researching this story? No mention there that the EPU is a controversial issue, or that Asus components have been called into question.
May 14, 2008
VBA is dying, long live VBA
For a long time, we've wondered when Microsoft Office would take the big step. The step from being a classic, overburdened, over-rich, super-sized desktop application to being an overburdened, over-rich, super-sized .NET framework app. (Oh sure, it might suddenly become a Ray Ozzie, pay-as-you-go, dribble-from-the-web Google Office type thing. Sure...) Someone even hinted that Microsoft had lost the cookbook way back in time.
Anyway, the second question Microsoft Office fanboi often ask is how long VBA has to live. It is a question that fascinates them as much as the Windows XP fanboi are with how long the retiring gent will soldier on for.
Over at The Daily Dose of Excel, Dave Kusleika pondered about its decline. He thinks he sees a glimmer of hope for VBA on seeing that the next Office for Mac will re-institute VB scripts. I giggled when a certain J-Walk said in the blog comments:
Actually, the timing is perfect. When Microsoft retires VBA, I will follow. Maybe VBA and I can take up golf in our old age.
May 13, 2008
Computer Magazines on one hand and the Forum in the other
We were talking the other day, about the monthly computer magazines. I ventured the opinion that they were getting really "yesterday".
The computer books have been disappearing from the suburban books shops for some time. Once, on the train to Melbourne City, you would see blokes with open Novell CNE and the Microsoft MCSE books. Later, that gave way to a few CISCO references. Now, they're almost all gone, replaced by time poor executives or students making red circles on A4 proposals and printed email.
I get the feeling that computer magazines in Melbourne have also been trimming down. One would wait eagerly for APC, PC User and the ilk, even hmmm, PC Update.
Recently I flipped through some pages of the remainders.They appeared to be pedantic, boring, earn-your-keep written jobs. A few topical discussions - except that their news impact would have been one month old - if you follow popurls and our bleeding edge forum, topics retain context and freshness for only a few days. Lots of tips on how to make Vista like Windows XP and vice versa - again, although some tips are indeed worthy, most of them would have been in web community bookmarks for a long time.
On the other hand, digital photography mags are becoming more prominent - especially those catering for Adobe Photoshop or dee ess el arrrs.
So, is this the end of the road for the formerly flourishing IT magazine business? Or will it re-invent itself? What's your EWAG?
Those of who work in the Bleeding Edge Centre for Digital Autism are forced constantly to deal with the vast gulf — the tragic failure of communications — that so often separates the individual and his or her computer.
Just this past week, for instance, our professional intervention was sought in at least four cases that had reduced the victims to despair and bewilderment.
There was the letter from Neil in Black Rock, for instance, informing us that "I have on file my blank A4 letterhead produced from Word. Is there any way I can bring up a copy of the letterhead onto Word and type a new letter directly on to it?"
The information that would have made life so much easier for Neil and his computer was already at his fingertips. All he needed to know was how to use Word templates. But the connection between letterheads and templates is by no means obvious, even if it did occur to you to type the word "letterhead" into the Word Help dialogue box. While that search term does bring up information on templates, the connection isn't at all obvious to the inexperienced.
We directed Neil to some information on templates and some further reading on using Word to create letterheads, but it was clear to us that Neil lacked sufficient understanding even to realise how deep his problems really were.
In a covering letter, he'd explained that he'd attempted to communicate with us by email, but he had received the following message: "Microsoft Office Outlook does not recognise 'bleedingdge.com.au'."
We could see immediately that Neil had not yet grasped the fundamental difference between a Web browser and an email client, and had tried to send us an email via the Bleeding Edge blog's Web address, which generally appears at the bottom of these columns.
In these cases, Bleeding Edge knows that we have to refer the patient to a specialist: the Melbourne PC User Group. It provides the sympathetic ongoing care and advice that these people require. While we would normally have referred Neil to Melb PC's application form, we decided that in his case, it was better to provide him with the phone number: 03 95678000.
The same thing applied in the case of the young woman who sought our advice over "a box" that kept popping up on her PC. Like so many computers that pop up similar boxes, the poor little machine was trying to reach out to her, but her owner was so sadly enclosed in her own world that she had simply ignored it. She was incapable of even remembering just what the message in that box was.
We asked her to write the message down when next it appeared, and relay it to us. The message, which some of you may have also received, was this: "Error. Could not find the file 'flash.ocx'." We were pretty sure that her screensaver had been trying to tell her something. It had almost certainly been programmed to use a file called flash.ocx, but Adobe had changed the name of the file.
We suggested she use Windows Explorer to navigate to the c:\windows/system32/macromed/flash folder or alternatively do a search and find a file called flash9.ocx, or flash9b.ocx, and right click on it and select "copy". She could then right click in a blank area of the folder window and select "paste", which would give her a file called "Copy of Flash9.ocx" or whatever the original file name was. She could then rename it to "flash.ocx".
We never heard back from her, and we suspect that she was completely bewildered by the instructions. We hope she took our advice and joined Melb PC, because it was highly likely that one day, one of those boxes she was in the habit of ignoring would be quickly followed by a potentially disastrous crash. She had no backup, and no knowledge of how to make one.
There are, however, some boxes that users should completely ignore, and one of our calls for help that week included one from someone who'd failed to distinguish between a benign box and a malevolent one. He'd been browsing the Web when a box popped up and informed him his computer had 34 viruses .
He'd done precisely what this box suggested, and paid $50 to install the "helpful" program, XP AntiVirus. Although it looks like something that Microsoft might have offered its customers, in fact XP AntiVirus is one of a selection of rogue software that displays false results as a tactic to scare victims into purchasing the software. Once installed, it's difficult to get rid of, despite the uninstall option in the Add/Remove Programs section of Control Panel. We referred the victim to the removal instructions and suggested he would have been much better off spending $60 on a Melb PC membership.
As for the person who spent a large sum of money buying a completely new PC with a fast processor, 4GB of RAM and Windows Vista Ultimate when his existing PC slowed down dramatically after he'd updated the ZoneAlarm firewall, we decided it was probably better not to tell him that the problem was almost certainly caused by ZoneAlarm, and his old PC was probably still perfectly adequate. We suggested instead that we knew some helpful people who might be able to show him how to talk to his computer.
Whazup, Windows XP?
Our much appreciated and conscientious forum regulars have been hard at work, putting an ear to the ground, listening for moves from Microsoft on Windows XP. Martyboy has been wondering whether he should go the Vista Ultimate Edition, given the impending retirement of Windows XP from sales channels in June 2008.
Based on the formal Microsoft Product Lifecyle, mainstream support ends on 14th April 2009 and extended support ends on the 8th April 2014.
In a product this widely deployed and used, Windows XP's getting hard to put to sleep. It has been reported that the Asus EEE PC will have special dispensation to sell with Windows XP Home till 2010.
It's also interesting to see the point at which each of the different market segments (home, SOHO, educational institutions, quasi and government sectors, corporates) would bend over and bury Windows XP.
In the meantime, Service Pack 3 was just released 6th of May 2008, this month. Raoul, Mr. David, Jucarbi, Bazcaz, Blackwatch, have been sifting through the leaves, this Melbourne autumn.
Mr. David has found out that with Service Pack 3 slipstreamed, the Windows Activation ogre is now more genial. He (ogre fellow) will allow you to run in trial mode for 30 days, just like his brother, Vista.
We're still poking at Service Pack 3 with a long stick, us being Microsoft diehards - we know how MS are like with inscrutable no-can-does. Uh, if you have Windows Updates set to automatically download and you've got one of these oldie single processor machines, you might see some slowdowns as Sevice Pack 3 trickles down the tubes.
So, how's things? Going to import Vista from the US when AUD reaches parity with USD? Join in the chat, you're always welcome.
May 12, 2008
SMS - the purest form of rip-off
The founder of Vodafone, the late Sir Gerald Whent, is reputed to have described the SMS message as "the purest form of profit ever invented". They cost the networks close to zero to send, because they use the control channel which SMS systems use to listen for traffic (the original idea was not to charge for them at all) and the mathematics are obscene. If you used the total message length you'd be sending a tenth of a kilobyte (.13671875 Kbytes) of data, which means you're paying roughly 1c for every 7 bytes of data or $1,497.97 for a single megabyte.
But the most graphic illustration of the concentrated greed they represent came from a calculation done for the BBC 4 Dispatches show a couple of weeks ago (our ownrapid calculation, which could be wrong, suggests it would cost more than $500,000 to download a show like that via SMS, rather than by Bit Torrent). They got a scientist to work out the real cost of transmitting a megabyte of data back to earth from the Hubble Space Telescope: $174. If the scientists were forced to use SMS, it would cost four times as much. That, however, is at the British SMS rate of 5p per text message. If they were using an Australian network, they'd be paying six times as much. If you could somehow get all your friends into deep space, you'd save a heck of a lot on texting.
Australia: training ground for consumer abuse
Wouldn't it be nice if our shiny new Rudd Government did something about the pitiful neglect of consumer rights in this country? The latest example of the ease with which the Australian public can have its entitlements shredded by a succession of corporations is the fact that eBay Australia decided to beta test its plan to force its customers to use its subsidiary, PayPal, to make online payments for purchases where else ... but in the land where the concept of the fair go is an ironic cliche, with the legislative force of a frige magnet.
From June 17, eBay Australia says customers must pay for items directly from a PayPal account, or Visa or MasterCard transactions processed by PayPal.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has given eBay until May 23 to respond to concerns over the exclusivity deal, but you'd be kidding yourself if you thought it was acting in the interests of consumers. It's the competition aspect it's worried about. I wonder, in fact, if the ACCC these days isn't focused too much on business competition, rather than consumer rights.
Here's the other thing that had me gasping for breath. The ACCC has been spurred by submissions from the Australian Bankers Association, the Reserve Bank of Australia and the Australian Securities and Investment Commission. According to the bankers, "the proposal would limit the choice of eBay buyers and sellers "without justification for doing so". The hypocrisy of Australian banks, who have milked consumers in a way no other country would tolerate, invoking concern for consumers deprived of choice is peerless, isn't it?
But if eBay gets knocked back, it won't be because of the impact on consumers, it will be because the banks and big business want to nip anything in the bud that might cost them revenue.
This is a country where government authorities tend to play the role of rangers in a native reserve dedicated to the welfare of the big game hunters. The wild life might get to vote, but once the park rangers are in office, it's the big game lobby that has all the influence.
A US eBay executive acknowledged that the Australian move, which according to the company is designed to reduce disputes and restore trust in the marketplace - too bad it's going to cost them more than other payment options - is a likely model for similar action overseas.
The truth is eBay almost certainly wouldn't dare to introduce such a model in the US or Europe. American and Continental consumers are likely to savage them. They'll see what they can get away with here first, and then tone it down a little bit for the American market.
It all takes me back to years ago, when Microsoft tested its proposal for charging for technical support on the bunnies Down Under. You might find it hard to believe, but in those days, tech support was free.
Microsoft's then marketing director, Tony Fraser, told me about the plan, and asked me how I thought Australians would react. I assured him that there would be a massive consumer backlash to his plans. Tony thanked me, and went right ahead. He knew a lot more than I did about consumer behaviour in the computer industry. There was no backlash. There wasn’t even a whimper.
I viewed Microsoft’s proposal as the last straw for the consumer. They were paying huge sums for software that was full of bugs, and the only possible justification for the mark-ups, it seemed to me, was the cost of providing support. Now they proposed to charge for that too?
There is no doubt in my mind that had Australian consumers mounted any sort of resistance to its proposal, Microsoft would have revised its plans. But somehow, the Australian computer community still hadn’t had enough of this shabby treatment. They meekly allowed Bill Gates’ representatives to establish an international nursery for institutionalised neglect by the computer industry.
In the years since my conversation with Tony Fraser, I’ve often puzzled over the reasons for this meek acceptance of behaviour which in Europe or the US would have had the consumer lobby foaming at the mouth. I think it's part of the national character. The average Australian won't stand up for his rights. He doesn't really expect to have any. Look at the way Telstra treats its customers. It routinely charges more for less, bundles "gotcha's" like having to pay for Big Pond uploads as well as downloads into the fine print, then when it is forced by compeittors to offer capped plans, not only makes its capped plans less generous, not that they're actually really capped, but in our own experience, and judging from that of people we've talked to, keeps their existence a secret.
Qantas has similar contempt for its customers, who think that because the airline still calls Australia "Home", it's giving them mates' rates, rather than exploiting their affection for a non-existent ideal.
Did anyone at the 2020 celebrity summit suggest that the country might benefit from some education and support programs that gave the Australian consumer a bit more backbone? Rather than continuing the tradition of the Howard government of helping the bullies mug the victim?
May 11, 2008
The dread Norton LU1825 error ... and Miranda Jetlagg
Regular readers will be aware of my contempt - there's no other word for it - for Norton AntiVirus, and purely by association, anything else that comes out of the Symantec camp.
The company seems adept at making bloated, resource-hogging programs that plague users with problems, and generally prove difficult to remove. The continued market leadership of Norton's is living proof of the power of advertising, just as Big Pond continues to prove that bleeding money from consumers while offering them less than the competition doesn't necessarily give a company a bad name. We suspect that the Norton and Telstra advertising agencies tap directly into a little-known masochism impulse that exists in the unconscious of the average consumer, compelling them to give themselves a hard time.
The following email from "Miranda Jetlagg" which lobbed into our Inbox last week, indicates the sort of thing we're talking about. The LU1825 error, by the way, is one of those typical Symantec Live Update faults that can drive a victim insane. Miranda's well on the way.
Whoever Miranda Jetlagg is, she's a scream. The email was headed "I'm So Cyberly Challenged, I Bought the Wrong Windows For Dummies Book!" And it continued thus:
Dear Bleeding Edge,
The above sentence is true.....I DID buy the wrong version of "Windows for Dummies".
Do they make one called, "Windows for F__kwits"?
Therefore, it was with huge relief I stumbled across your Bleeding Edge column. As a publicist in the music biz I'm meant to be on the cutting edge. However my cyberskills, (or lack thereof) are consuming my time and credibility.
I've just spent (wasted!) an hour trying to find the Melbourne PC User Group you mentioned in yesterdaze column.
I gooooogled it, followed the link but got lost in the pages. By the end I'd forgotten what I'd started. Welcome to my world.
Can you direct me to a simple fix-it-all solution for an extreme idiot. I noticed Tinyurl reerences and it seems I want one of everything!.
But my major priority right now is my Norton's, and I ain't talking motor bikes. I actually purchased the whole shebang, including System Works (oh no, it doesn't!). After some initial problems, I decided to stick to the basics and just take advantage of their security.
That was OK ... until last week. I check for udates daily and suddenly, for no apparent reason, the update wouldn't download. I spent hours online with their remote help, ironically not remotely helpful at all. Followed all their instructions to fix Error "LU1825", downloaded and run the symKBFix tool, but it will not activate (I can relate!).
When I click the 'Next' button as instructed, nothing happens.
I suspect the fault's at their end - a similar situation arose with the SystemWorks. Eventually they fixed it at their end and apologised for the inconvenience.
So in bleeding desperation, I turn to Bleeding Edge. One word sums it up ... "Aaaaaargh!!!"
i'd love to uninstall the Norton's and download the free AVG program instead. I used to use that one and it never fought back. But bfeore wasting my hardly earned more than $100, I'm turning to you.
What can you advise? Norton's sent me an email encouraging me to go through the entire remote process again, but once again the "Next" button didn't react as they said it would. And I simply don't have the time to repeat failure. I'm so desperate for cyber solutions I'd be happy to pay for solutions. So far my solutions have only bought more problems.
OK, this is getting way too untechnical but is a fairly good example of how I spend my cyber time. I repeat, "Aaaaargh!"
Can you help a desperate woman? The computer goddess didn't!
My advice would be to rip anything from Norton from the PC and re-install AVG. (I do hope she completely uninstalled AVG before installing Norton. I'd also advise her to ring Melbourne PC and have them fax her the membership form. If anyone needs their services, it's Miranda. (I did include the phone number in the column, but Miranda clearly isn't thinking too clearly these days.)
Do you have any advice for her?
May 10, 2008
Who're you gonna call?
While we were shooting Autumn photos today, we chanced across an RACV man.
He was changing the back tyre for a client - both of them were in good spirits, he welcomed a photo as long as "my mug isn't in it". I guess in the following months, he'll have all kinds of requests for dead battery resuscitation, start up problems and so on.
It's a pity that we don't have an RACV equivalent for rescuing people from Windows BSOD or malware. We've got the redoubtable Bleeding Edge Forum though, and our stalwarts will brave Melbourne weather to type a response (no liability, Service Level Agreement implied, though.)
Seems like people just have to resort to worshipping amulets and things.
A Fair(y) Use Tale
Long time no blog. I've been enamoured with my other interest, photography. Been participating at the forum but otherwise got diverted from IT blogging here. Dear Charles gave me a yell and we were wondering how to re-invigorate this blog. He's been active in attempts to re-vitalise the Melb. PC User Group and as usual, he has a finger on the pulse of lots of tech things.
I was gonna write on a new, simple way to reduce the number of clicks needed when you save or open a file in Microsoft Office and Windows but my bro. just pointed me to an interesting YouTube video on copyright. It's a blast.
May 06, 2008
Melb PC and me
This is a (very small) preview for Bleeding Edge visitors, and an explanation for my recent silence. As I posted earlier, I joined the Melb PC committee to do something about the blog, rather than just being critical (not that I'm apologising for being critical, but it was becoming increasingly apparent that the workload on the much-reduced committee was simply too great.)
Since then then the project has blown out, and now involves overseeing the complete re-organisation of the entire Web site. I've prepared a proposal which goes to the committee tonight, and assuming it's accepted, it's going to be pretty busy around here.
It's a massive task, and it won't happen unless we can gather a lot of support from all sections of the group. I think it's absolutely essential if Melb PC is to survive. If you're interested in the group's future and you have some spare time ... What are we talking about? Who has spare time these days? ... If you're prepared to help, let me know.
The plan is by no means complete, and I'm sure the group will be prepared to consider any suggestions, so if you have ideas, I'd love to hear them. I think we have an opportunity to do something that will create a fantastic community resource online, extend the influence and the reach of Melb PC, and be a lot of fun to be involved with.
For instance, I'd love to get the team which has done such a brilliant job on the Bleeding Edge forum involved. They know a lot about building a community, and managing a forum, which will be an essential element of the re-development.
More details after the meeting.