29 December, 2008

My top Firefox Add-ons

I was reading Webware's Seth Rosenblatt's post, Futzing with features: Firefox add-ons in 2008, and it made me think about the Add-ons in Firefox that I use on a daily basis. Here my top 10, in ranked in order of value to me:
  1. RoboForm: More than an Add-on, more like a toolbar in itself, RoboForm stores all my passwords. If I could only have 1 Add-on, this one would be it. Read my blog post from January 14, 2007, to learn about the powerful features of RoboForm.
  2. NoScript: When visiting a new site, you never know what you might find. NoScript allows me to view the site first without Javascript, first -- letting me decide whether I want scripts to run or not. This is definately a tedious way to surf; on the otherhand my browser and desktop are much more secure, too.
  3. IE Tab: Sometimes you just have to look at a page using Internet Explorer -- for those times, I use IE Tab.
  4. Download Statusbar: With download status bar, I don't have to bother with a pop-up window everytime I download, instead I have a small icon in my status bar.
  5. Tiny Menu: This Add-on allowed me to combine toolbars, freeing up some real estate. With Tiny Menu I went from 5 toolbars to 3 without giving up any functionality.
  6. TwitterFox: Without TwitterFox, I wouldn't be using Twitter.
  7. FoxClocks: So I can easily tell what time it is in Tokyo (and other parts of the world).
  8. Delicious Bookmarks: Another toolbar. Without Delicious Bookmarks, I wouldn't be using delicious.
  9. Forecastfox: Let's me see the current weather and forcast right from my Status bar.
  10. Web Developer: A menu and toolbar with various web developer tools.
When I look at this list, it is the top 5 that keep me from switching from Firefox to another browser such as Chrome or Safari. What features keeps you on your favorite browser?

19 December, 2008

iTunes / iPhone buggy

The iPhone is the phone that everyone wants to love. Unfortunately, Apple makes that difficult at times. The 2.2 upgrade was the first error free upgrade I've had. But now I ran into another problem.

I had added a new, 2nd drive to my PC as my media was consuming so much space. With that, I moved my photos and videos to the new drive. With photos, it was easy to point iTunes to the new location, but unfortunately for the videos it wasn't.

iTunes uses a custom database (itl file) to store its media index and creates an xml file for a backup. If the itl file should become corrupt, it will rebuild with the xml file. If the itl file is non-existant, it will start over. Based on some various guides I found online, I used search and replace and updated the location for all the videos, and then I caused the itl file to be corrupt. iTunes read my updated xml file and rebuild the itl database file and I seemed to be back in business. Ahh, not so fast.

Apparently iTunes does not back up any of your iPhone apps, as when I synced, they were all pulled off of my phone -- no more apps -- bye, bye. Fortunately, iTunes does store each app on my hard drive, so I was able to drag them back into iTunes and get them back, though now all unorganized and missing all the saved data.

Lesson? The iTunes environment is still version 1. The iPhone? It's still in beta.

17 December, 2008

Another Internet Explorer vulnerability has experts recommending you switch browsers

The BBC and other news outlets reported yesterday on the latest security vulnerabilities within Microsoft's Internet Explorer. What makes this report different than a lot of others is that we finally are hearing recommendations to actually switch browsers.

Right now it sounds worse than it is, but nevertheless, the risk is there. Experts claim that 10,000 websites have been exploited but that is only 0.02% of all Internet sites. The typical warning is to stay away from potentially nefarious sites such as bit torrent indexes and pornography, but as you may recall we have seen threats show up on more popular social sites such as Facebook and MySpace (see Worm virus from Facebook and MySpace).

Bottom line, no browser is completely safe all the time, but you can reduce your own risk by choosing your websites carefully, and by using a more secure browser such as Firefox or Opera. Google's Chrome and Apple's Safari are also options, though I don't believe they are as battle-hardened as Firefox and Opera.

15 December, 2008

Online planning tools

Remember collecting names and drawing for your holiday gift exchange? And when you got your own name, you had to pick again. Of course if you were last, then it was even more of a problem. Or how about the last potluck where you had 12 desserts and no salads or appetizers. Good thing everyone likes dessert.

Well with a new crop of online planning tools, these problems don't need to keep repeating themselves. For your next gift exchange, try Elfster; and that potluck, try LuckPotluck. These are just two of many new planning tools available in this web 2.0 world. Enjoy!.

14 December, 2008

Photos on the 'Frig

With the low cost of color ink jet printers, most of us have one. I like to buy the manufacturers photo paper and collage frames, to display some of the better pictures I have of my family. Often in this process I print more photos than end up in the collage; I've now found a use for those extra photos.

Take your refrigerator magnets and tape them to the back of the photos. Now instead of the tacky magnets (or throwing them out), I have more photos of the family. Using a scissors, you can cut the magnets to place at either side of a larger 4 x 6 or, cut the photo to better fit the magnet.

11 December, 2008

New PC? Buy basic and build out as needed

Gizmodo's Prof. Dealzmodo takes a similar approach to buy PCs as I do. Buy a low-end machine and then buy third-party components if/when required. You can read the Gizmodo article to get an idea, but I'll also throw in some of my own thoughts.

First, you must get at least 2 GB of RAM. If you can still get Windows XP, then you can stop at 2 GBs. If you are stuck with Vista, add at least 1 more GB -- if you add 2, giving you 4 total, 0.5 GB will go to waste unless you go with a 64-bit Vista. This introduces potential compatibility problems with older hardware and games, so likely you will want to stick with the non-64-bit versions.

For monitors, it's likely you already have 1 or more. If it's time to get a new one, look for 3rd party deals. Sometimes running 2 side-by-side can be more effective than one large display -- putting them at an angel can be easier to view than turning your head from side to side (avoid the 30" displays).

In terms of a video card to drive that monitor, if you are getting a laptop, you must buy what you need at time of purchase. For desktops, you can pick it up through a 3rd party. Video cards have come a long way due to gaming. Unless you're a hardcore gamer (which would make this blog mute), getting a 12 to 18 month old card should be sufficient and much cheaper. If you do some gaming, such as 1st-person shooters, I would look for 512 MB minimum -- letting your budget determine whether to get more RAM. If you do little to no gaming, 256 MB would probably be just fine. The other item to look for is the number of outputs. If you are going to run 2 monitors, make sure you have 2 outputs. Likewise, digital is the predominant output now -- make sure your video card and monitors take the same output/input. (You can get digital to analog converters to support older monitors.)

Input devices, mouse and keyboard -- you should already have ones that meet your needs. Buy these independent of your PC, if and when you need them. Don't pay extra while you order your new PC.

For audio out, unless your an audiophile, what you get standard should be good enough. Like the input devices, buy what meets your needs independent of the PC, them move them to the new PC as required.

For networking, all your PCs should have wired 10/100 ethernet connections. If you're running wireless and buying a laptop, you should be covered too. For desktop users who want to go wireless, buy an 802.11N ethernet card from the same manufacturer that makes your router -- it will likely always be cheaper to buy it third-party and add yourself. This is the safest way to make sure you will be compatible. If you want the fastest throughput, though easier, do not get the USB version, buy the add-on card version.

So far we've covered video, audio, and networking that may all require additional slots in your computer. Be sure to validate that the new desktop has slots to accept this add-ons.

Remaining are your media devices, harddrive, CD/DVD, and perhaps blue-ray. For all of these, they are going to come with the machine regardless, so do some comparison shopping to see if you should get bigger/better from the PC manufacturer or 3rd party, as typically if you replace what comes with the PC, you're going to have unused parts left-over -- this can actually lead to higher costs.

To dig deeper into the harddrive, if you buy small and add a second in the PC box, now you have to manage 2 drives. If you're doing a lot of picture or video editing, this is probably desirable, for the rest of us, probably not. With that in mind, I would likely just get the largest drive I can from the PC manufacturer. I would still get a 2nd drive, but I would make this either a USB or network drive and use this for backup -- mirroring my data from my primary drive. This can be bought through a third-party and configured to run backups while I'm asleep.

One last though on harddrives. If you are running a home network, you can always add some storage capacity to your old PC and configure it to be centralize media storage and/or backups for the entire family. This is a completely different topic that can be discussed at some future time.

There you have it... my recommendation for buying a new PC. By the way, my current home PC is a 3 year old Compaq that I have added better video, preferred keyboard and mouse, additional RAM, a wireless network card, and more harddrive storage. My next upgrade will come after Windows 7 is released, and I will at least keep the video card, keyboard and mouse, likely the wireless network card, and my external backup drive. Oh, and my speakers -- they are about 6 years old.

10 December, 2008

Head tracking for mere pennys

Carnegie Mellon University student Johnny Lee has demonstrated a break-through in low-cost head tracking devices. In his video, he demonstrates how a 2-D image on your computer can appear 3-D.

Johnny Lee has also developed a low-cost video whiteboard that is now being used by schools around the world.

I find it amazing what our young people are able to do with the building blocks of the 21st century.

Way to go Johnny!

How do your tech picks stack up?

Business Week has released their top 20 and bottom 5 tech products of 2008 -- how do your picks compare to their picks? The top of the list is the iPhone App Store. As I mentioned in a prior post, this is not the first App Store, but perhaps the most popular. Though I do like the concept, I find it hard to be released at number 1 with the restrictions Apple places.

The Blackberry Storm beat out the iPhone. Having not used the Storm, I can't give it a fair comparison. I do know that I like my iPhone much better than my last smartphone, a Blackberry.

The MacBook Air made it an number 5. Here's another one I don't agree with. I doubt many Windows-to-Apple switchers would be happy with this as their first Mac product, with its missing connections and under-powered performance. It may be a fine product as a netbook, but at the price point, it's only for those with disposable income. Perhaps switching palces with number 10, the Sling Catcher would be better.

Chrome, Firefox, and Twitter all made it within the top 10, which seem appropriate. Twitter is definately a break-through product, creating a new niche, while Chrome and Firefox have turned the browser wars back on.

I think the Wii Fit and Roku box probably should have been in the top 10, replacing some of the smartphones. With Apple opening up the smartphone market last year, this years offerings including the iPhone 3G are just me-too products.

Speaking of me-too products, the G1 Android phone made the bottom list. Yes it is a "me-too", but it hardly qualifies as a bottom feeder, Google has demonstrate the potential of an new open-source smartphone platform. They deserve at lease enough kudos to get off the bottom -- this is like getting an "F" for giving a speech in middle school by a nervous kid; getting up and trying is worth at least a "D".

Other products that qualified for the bottom 5 included Vista and HD DVD. But again I think another error in placement is the Tesla Roadster. Yes, too high of price for the average consumer, but innovative and promising. It doesn't seem to make sense that the MacBook Air could get #5 while the Tesla list listed in the bottom 5 -- where's the consistency?

What do you think? Agree or disagree with Business Week? With me?

Easily change the default program for a specific file type in Windows XP

I recently found that my Word and Excel files were associated with another program and I wanted to change them back. Windows XP as with prior versions of Windows allows you to do this through Explorer, but it's time consuming and easy to do wrong. Here's the quick and easy way to associate a file type with an application.
  1. Right-click on a file of the file type (e.g. "My-Word.doc")
  2. Click Open With...
  3. Click Choose Program... (last option in the list)
  4. Choose Select the program from a list and click OK
  5. Select the program you want associated to the file type
    If you don't find the application program you're looking for, click Browse... and locate the programs .exe file
  6. Click the box next to Always use the selected program to open this kind of file
  7. Click OK
This opens the file in the program you chose and the icon of the file will change to the programs icon.

Microsoft reports a new vulnerability in WordPad Text Converter for Word 97

I suspect this will only impact a very few people, but the threat is real. If you are viewing Word 97 documents using WordPad, because you do not have Word installed and you use one of the following OSs, then you're at risk.
  • Windows 2000 Service Pack 4
  • Windows XP Service Pack 2
  • Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1
  • Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 2
Unfortunately, unless you get a Word file in the new .docx, I don't know how you easily tell different Word versions apart. If you fit into this category of having a vulnerable system, I would suggest not opening any Word documents sent to you, unless you know very specifically what the user has sent.

If you are unsure of the source, but you still want to open it, at least go through the extra work to make sure it was not created in Word 97. To do this:
  • Right-click the Word file
  • Click Properties
  • Click the Summary tab
  • Scroll down to the Application Name and make sure it does NOT read Microsoft Word 8.0
If you really must open it, find a free Word alternative such as OpenOffice. If you are unable to install an alternative such as OpenOffice and you fear you may open Word 97 documents by mistake, you can always disable the WordPad Text Converter for Word 97 file format.
  • Go to the Command Prompt (Start >Run... > cmd)
  • Enter the following: echo y| cacls "%ProgramFiles%\Windows NT\Accessories\mswrd8.wpc" /E /P everyone:N
Again, this is only a reported vulnerability -- there has not been any reported systems being compromised as of yet due to this. And, this vulnerability should only impact a very few systems -- check the top of this post to validate whether your system is impacted.

08 December, 2008

Use a Formula in an Excel Column, Bar, Line, or Pie Chart

When you create Excel charts, you can populate the title with a formula. You might find this helpful to display a total quantity, such as in this example. Suppose you have 30 students and you are displaying their grade distribution in a pie chart.

Here's what you do. Steps 1 - 4 set up the data; step 5 creates the Title formula; step 6 creates a pie chart.
  1. In the first column, skip the first line (A1) for the Title (we'll come back)
  2. In rows 2 - 6 of the first column (A2:A6), add the letter grades, A - D and F
  3. In column 2, rows 2 - 6 (B2:B6), add the number of grades of each type
  4. In column 2, row 7 (B7), sum the number of grades to get your student total
  5. Now go back to the first cell (A1) and add the following formula: ="Grade Distribution, " & B7 & " students"
    • B7 is the same cell we put our total in, in step 4
    • If you want to format the value contained in B7m remember the TEXT functioned discussed in an earlier post
  6. Create your pie chart
    • Highlight the data, cells A2 to B6
    • Click the Chart Wizard
    • Select Pie
    • Click Next
    • Click on the Series tab
    • Click on the mini-cells graphic to the right of Name
    • Click on A1 and press Enter
    • Click Finish

To recap, it is the Series Name field in a pie chart that also serves as the Title. The Series Name field can be entered manually or refer to any cell, and the cell may contain a formula. This same technique will work for Column, Bar, and Line charts as long as your are only looking at one set of data (like you do with a pie chart).

04 December, 2008

Worm virus from Facebook and MySpace

05-Dec-08 update: Webware posted an article describing the Koobface virus coming from Facebook.

I just received an email from our corporate IT department, as they are temporarily blocking Facebook and MySpace due to a worm infected file.

The method of infection is:

There is a prompt to update your flash player when visiting one of these sites . This executes a worm that infects explorer.exe and other critical operating system files. To date there is no easy method to clean an infected system. The IT staff is working to clean the 20 odd systems that have been affected to date.
I'm not sure how real it is, but it serves as a good reminder to make sure updates are coming from known URLs.

03 December, 2008

The Interent fails for Sprint and Cogent customers

If you're a Sprint or Cogent customer, relying on them for your Internet connectivity, you're probably already aware of this article from Scott Woolley of Forbes. In late October, due to differences between these companies, Sprint severed the Internet backbone connection between them. The result was customers on both sides not being able to reach all parts of the Internet.

The feud goes back several years, with what appears that Sprint is being a bit of a bully. It is common practice for the Internet backbone carries to exchange traffic between them for no cost. The rationale is that it benefits both companies' customers and the traffic is even enough both ways where there is no profit to be made by one company or the other. In this case, "...Sprint stood to gain $1.5 million or so in annual revenue, which would add .004% to the company's $40 billion in annual revenue." (Note that this was based on Sprint's billing justifications; there's nothing to say this was a fair and reasonable rate.) $1.5 million seems like a lot of money, but what was the financial impact to the customers of Sprint and Cogent? And to Cognet that has revenues in 10s of millions, it's a much greater impact. Again, Sprint is being a bully, not even taking into account the impact to their own customers.

To make a long story short, when an agreement breaks down between companies, users suffer. Not just the subscribers to those services, but customers trying to reach websites of companies that subscribe to the services. The Forbes article draws the conclusion that perhaps the unregulated backbone connections is very dangerous for all Internet users and the FCC should be stepping in.

In my opinion, all aspects of connectivity to the Internet need to be looked at -- this is just one more item to add to the list of Net Neutrality. The Internet is important enough to the people and companies of our country that government needs to step in and make sure it is treated like a utility -- like water and electricity. Whether urban or rural, whether rich or poor, all people of the U.S. should have uninterrupted Internet access at a reasonable speed and a reasonable capacity. What is reasonable is a topic for another time, but if it takes government to keep these connectivity arrangements together, then they need to add some regulation and oversight to it.

Find electonics recyclers near you

It's not uncommon during birthdays and Christmas to get new electronic gadgets and have the need therefore to throwout the old gear. Before you throw them out, consider the toxic metals that you may be adding to our landfills. Instead go to Earth911.com and find a recycler near you.
In addition to electronics, you can search for locations that will take paper, metal, hazardous materials, plastic, and more. So the next time you need to dispose of electronics or other materials, start with Earth911.