Recently in Computer Stuff Category

As a follow up to this post, I have found by way of Scary Yankee Chick's comment that Deb's computer problems were being caused by a bad update to the McAfee Antivirus suite. The update blocked all access to the Internet. I had to uninstall and reinstall McAfee and the problem went away.

Thee McAfee website has a workaround to reinstate network access and to force a new update to fix the problem.

Open Office Lives!

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As the dozen or so of you regular readers of Weekend Pundit know, I am not a great fan of Microsoft Office, particularly Office 2010. (I won't bother going into all the reasons I dislike it, but if you want to know why, you can read my original post on the matter.) It is for this reason I have been using Open Office for a number of years now. It also helps that it is free.

Imagine my dismay when my dear brother informed me about a year ago that Sun had dropped all support for the Open Office platform. Not that the news made me stop using it as it had been such a good office suite, but I despaired of finding another suite like Open Office.

Imagine my surprise when a couple of weeks ago I saw a notification telling me an upgrade for Open Office was available for installation.

I clicked on the notification icon, downloaded and installed the upgrade.

When I fired up Open Office 3.4.0 for the first time after the upgrade I noticed something new on the opening flash screen: where it had once mentioned Sun it now said Apache Open Office.

That works for me.

Back In Business

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Deb called me on her way to work this afternoon, telling me the news.

My new monitor was here!

Once I got home I unpacked it, checked it out for any damage, swapped it in for the malfunctioning monitor, then hit the power switch on the UPS, computer, and monitor.

And once more the Official Weekend Pundit Main Computer System is whole!

Now I've got to package up the 'old' monitor and drop it off at FedEx so it can make its way back to the manufacturer for repair/refurbishment.

It's nice to be back in business with my own machine.

Tech Support Hell

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After spending an hour and a half on the phone with tech support yesterday convincing them that the Official Weekend Pundit Main Computer's monitor was indeed malfunctioning, they decided that it needed to be replaced (under warranty, of course). I received confirmation via e-mail today that a 'new' monitor is on its way. (By new, they mean a reconditioned monitor. If I had to guess the 'new' monitor probably had the same problem and they've since upgraded the firmware for the microcontroller that runs the monitor.)

Since I'm too cheap..uh...frugal to spend any more money on something I already own, I declined their offer to ship it overnight or second day for a not-so-small fee. I'm willing to wait a few extra days for it to arrive.

Microsoft Bitch Session

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It's been no secret that I have recently purchased a new computer to replace the old Official Weekend Pundit Main Computer, a 6-year old machine with an Athlon 64 CPU, 1GB of RAM, an ATI video card, and two 100GB hard drives. The old machine runs Windows XP and Ubuntu Linux. It also makes use of interesting and useful programs like Firefox and Thunderbird (both from Mozilla), Open Office, Lview (image editing) and Snaggit (image capture and editing), and a host of other utilities and fun stuff.

While the machine was never perfect, it did its job and did it pretty well.

The new machine has a multi-core 64-bit AMD CPU, 8GB of RAM, a 1.5TB hard drive, and an ATI video card. It runs Windows 7 Professional (64-bit) and I have plans to add Ubuntu Linux this weekend. I doubt anyone can argue against the fact that in so many ways it is better than the old machine.

It has been an interesting but carefully paced adventure, using Windows 7. So far there's little I find I dislike about it, and those things I have found less than optimal (in my opinion) are minor annoyances. It boots quickly, it runs quickly, as do all of the programs I have run so far. Some of that I have to attribute to the hardware, and some to the software. But I do have a major complaint, and not about the hardware or the operating system.

It's that damnable Microsoft Office 2010. To put it into simple terms, it SUCKS. (Yes, I know I've written about this before, but after struggling with Office 2010 at work, and now at home, I can't say enough bad things about it.)

First, I want to remind you that I am a techno-geek. I live, eat, and breathe electronics and optics. I have a pretty good handle on programming (usually used to test something we've designed to make sure it works the way it's supposed to), but I'm no code wizard. I use computers at work and home every day. I understand user interfaces to the nth degree because the equipment my employer builds and sells lives or dies by the ease of use of the equipment I help design. If the user interface stinks it doesn't matter how good the piece of equipment it goes with performs. (I've seen and used too many of our competitors' equipment that have been well designed and perform well, but are difficult to use because the user interface requires the owner to open the user manual to figure out how to turn the darned thing on.) A poor user interface will cause more dissatisfaction with a product than buggy software or barely adequate hardware.

All of that being said, the user interface on Office 2010, and its predecessor Office 2007, is awful.

I don't care what the folks at Redmond, Washington say, the new interface has failed. It is not intuitive. It requires seasoned users to spend lots of time trying to figure out where Microsoft moved the features they've been using for years (this is a major indication the user interface design has failed).

Functions that used to take one or two clicks now take up to seven. It doesn't matter if the interface is customizable if it takes the user a long time to figure out how to do so. And like earlier versions of Office, it tries to do things for you even when you don't want it to. But with 2010 it's even more annoying, if that's possible. Undoing something it has 'fixed' for you is more difficult (the old Control Z or the Undo button doesn't always undo it whatever it is it did for you).

I get the impression that the folks at Microsoft spent a lot of time and money asking users what they liked and disliked about Office some time after Office 2003 was released. The problem is that I think they asked the wrong people. It seems to me the changes they made were more at the behest of power users, those few folks who will use the 90% of the Office features no one else does, assuming they even know they exist.

Another fail: the 'ribbons' that have replaced the long-used toolbars take up a lot more space on screen. I mean a lot more. I now have less usable working space on my screen than under Office 2003. This is supposed to help productivity?

I've been playing with the crippled version of Office 2010 that came installed on my new machine and it has merely confirmed what I've seen at work. I hate to say it, but whoever thought a redesign of the Office interface was a good idea should be FIRED. Whoever actually designed the new interface should be FIRED. Whoever it was that tried to sell this godawful UI to the public as "the greatest thing since sliced bread" should be FIRED.

I know if I had created a user interface for a piece of our equipment as awful and defective as the one on Microsoft Office 2010, I would have been FIRED, and I wouldn't have blamed the company for doing so. I would have fired me, too.

So until Microsoft fixes the piss poor user interface on Office, I'll stay with Open Office at home (and even if they do I'll still stay with Open Office). Unfortunately I won't have a choice at work.

Getting Things Squared Away

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Tonight's previous post was a cheat, I admit. That doesn't make it any less profound. But I have an excuse, sort of.

I've been spending time configuring the new Official Weekend Pundit Main Computer, transferring files over from the old computer, and getting things squared away on both.

So far my biggest problem has been getting Thunderbird to actually run on the new machine as it keeps telling me it can't connect to my ISP's mail server. If that's the worst thing that happens while I'm getting everything the way I want it, then that's just fine with me.

As I mentioned earlier, the new machine is by no means a bleeding edge computer, but it does have a lot more horsepower than the old one, along with about 10 times more storage space on the hard drive and eight times more RAM. It's also using 64-bit Windows 7 and will also use the 64-bit version of Ubuntu Linux, once I get the second hard drive mounted.It makes for a pretty quick machine for some operations. For others there's no difference, such as download speeds from the Internet.

The old machine hasn't been set aside yet as there are still a number of files and programs to be moved to the new one.

Seamless Computing

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It's another Tech Tuesday.

This time around we're talking about truly seamless computing. This video gives a demonstration of what may become routine in the near future as most of the technology to perform seamless computing is already in use.

There was a WGBH/BBC series that ran on PBS in 1992 called The Machine That Changed The World which was all about how computers came to be and became such a big part of our lives. One point that was brought up by someone from Xerox PARC was that eventually computers would become ubiquitous. If we haven't already reached that point (and I think we have) we will soon enough. Seamless computing might be that last little bit to ensure ubiquitous computing becomes a reality.

On Its Way

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The first half of the new Weekend Pundit Official Main Computer arrived earlier in the week, that being the new LCD monitor. I wasted no time removing the old 19" CRT and replacing it with the new monitor. It was far better than I had thought it would be, with even illumination and crisp, clear images.

Poor Minnie misses the old monitor as she is used to jumping up on top of it and keeping warm from the heat generated by it. Imagine her surprise when she tried to jump up on the new monitor and there was nothing but thin air behind the screen!

A check just a few minutes ago on the FedEx tracking website shows the second half of the new Weekend Pundit Official Main Computer has made its way all the way from El Paso, Texas to Willington, Connecticut in four days and is presently on it's way to a FedEx facility closer to The Manse. With the holiday intruding upon normal business hours, it looks like FedEx's estimated delivery date will be correct, which means it should arrive here shortly after Labor Day.

Woo hoo!!

"It's Dead, Jim"

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I knew it was coming, but hoped the inevitable would hold off for just a little while longer. Today was the day the inevitable happened.

The Official Weekend Pundit Main Computer bit it.

I got home from work, took care a few things in the kitchen, went into the office and turned on the computer.

Nothing happened.

Press the power button again. Nada.

So I opened the side panel of the machine too see if there was anything obvious, like a loose connector or some other loose thing that shouldn't be. Nothing. I saw the 'Power Good' indicator was on, meaning all the power supplies were operating, but the machine wouldn't start. The fans didn't start. The drives didn't spin up. Nothing.

The computer was dead.

It wasn't a surprise as I'd been having problems with it for months. I did the smart thing and backed up all the data files on to DVDs and a spare hard drive just in case. (Since this failure isn't drive related I should be able to pull everything off the main drive and onto another computer. The back ups I made won't have the most recent data on them.)

I can't really complain as this machine has been in constant use for six years. It had a few minor upgrades along the way (A new video card after the first one died. An additional hard drive and second DVD-RW drive. Additional memory.) All in all it did its job with few hiccups.

But it was getting slow. Keeping it up to snuff was taking more time and effort. Storage capacity on the hard drives was dwindling away and would have required a major upgrade. It was probably going to require a complete re-stage (back up all data and reinstall the OS, run all of the OS updates, then reinstall all of the programs). I wasn't looking forward to that at all. And that was on top of all the problems I'd started seeing some time last winter.

And now it's dead.

So it looks like I'll be shopping for a new machine starting first thing tomorrow.

Posting may be a little spotty until I get the new machine as there will be three of us sharing the same computer for the time being.

Last month I mentioned doing battle with a pernicious bit of computer malware that wanted money in order to make it go away, conning the unwary computer owner by offering to clean the list of viruses its 'free' scan showed were infecting the computer. I called it an extortion virus because its creators wanted money in order to make it go away.

Now I hear about yet another extortion virus out there doing something very similar, but this time the malware mimics a progressive hard drive failure and offers to 'fix' it...for a fee.

Gee, isn't owning a computer fun?
On Saturday I came to the aid of a damsel in distress.

Today, it was doing battle with a computer virus.

It appears one of the computers at our small business had problems with bogus virus warnings popping up. Something called XP Anti-virus 2011 kept warning us about all kinds of trojans, keyloggers, and other sundry malware on the computer in question, advising us the only way to rid ourselves of them was to subscribe (and pay for) a copy of this XP Anti-virus 2011. It looked as if it was from Microsoft, even displaying a replica of the Windows Security Center app. But what this supposed anti-virus program was doing was trying to extort cash from gullible computer owners in order to shut it up...until the next time they wanted money.

One of the side effects of this virus was disabling some of our regularly used programs, including one that allows us to track our customers patronage and generate business statistics for use in making projections for the coming months and quarters.

This virus was so persistent and well ingrained that our standard anti-virus app, which shall remain nameless, didn't even touch it. And from what I understand many of the other anti-virus suites were just as vulnerable.

It took quite a bit of research to figure out how to get rid of it, including how to shut it down so the programs capable of purging it from our system would run. A number of third-party programs used to shut down malware processes, including one of my favorites called Rkill had no effect on it at all.

In the end I had to kill the process by creating a file that would prevent the virus from starting when the computer rebooted. I found that file here (I used Method 2).

Once the virus was disabled, I downloaded and installed one of the freeware applications capable of purging it from the system and repairing the registry. (I used Malwarebytes Anti-Malware application.)

All in all it took almost 2 hours to get rid of the virus, with the longest part trying to disable the virus long enough to allow installation of the program used to purge it.

From reading some of the forums, it appears this nasty little beast installs itself by a number of means, including links on fake e-mails. Probably one of the more common fake e-mails is one supposedly from UPS, FedEx or some other parcel delivery service informing you of a package en route to you. The e-mail includes a link to 'track' your package, but when you click on it it downloads and installs the virus while your web browser shows you some kind of message saying the server is busy or has timed out.

And so it went for me today.
This ought to make us feel our privacy is in good hands:

Confidential data found on junked New Jersey Computers.

Taxpayers' Social Security numbers, confidential child abuse reports and personnel reviews of New Jersey workers nearly went to the highest bidder after the state sent surplus computers out for auction.

Nearly 80 percent of surplus computers in a comptroller's office sample had not been scrubbed of data before being shipped to a warehouse, according to an audit released Wednesday.

"At a time when identity theft is all too common, the state must take better precautions so it doesn't end up auctioning off taxpayers' Social Security numbers and health records," Comptroller Matthew Boxer said.

Ya think?

This type of equipment requires careful handing to make sure all the confidential data on the hard drives has been erased or otherwise destroyed. Just hitting the 'Delete' key doesn't do the trick. A program like File Shredder or Shredit should be used to ensure all deleted data is truly gone for good. Or the drives should be destroyed by using a drill press to drill through them (and the internal platters), making sure the data cannot be read.

Someone got sloppy, lazy, or stupid, allowing state-owned computers to go up for sale without making sure the drives had been wiped clean. Identity theft is tough enough to deal with without state government making it easy for the bad guys to get that kind of information.

When 2 - 1 Doesn't Equal 1

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When is 0.01 not 0.01?

When Microsoft Excel says it's really 0.009999937.

I found out the hard way that's what Excel has been doing to data I've been analyzing at work. I kept getting inconsistent and outright incorrect results when I was trying to generate a histogram, used to show the distribution of the measurement errors in a circuit. This little problem kicked my butt for over two hours towards the end of my work day. What's worse is that when I went over results I'd charted last week and the week before I realized the same thing happened with those as well.

The only way around the problem was to manually enter the data values rather than using a formula to generate them. (I can see a formula causing rounding errors, but not when the formula is straight forward arithmetic and all the numbers entered have only two decimal places.)

I haven't tried this using Open Office Calc yet, but I'll be curious to find out whether this is specific to Excel or to spreadsheet applications in general.

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