Sunday, December 31, 2006

It's the Special Gifts....

I have really mixed feelings around Christmas time. The whole season gets kinda, well, stressful for me. Lavie might call my demeanor something a little less choice.

I love the idea of the holiday season; the contrast between warmth inside and cool outsides, visiting with friends and family, thinking of the perfect gifts to give my family members, the rich food menus. But those are the same things that add a bit of stress to the mix. And work is usually more pressure filled as well due to staff taking off so we have less coverage on the response desks.

Every Christmas Eve our family gathers around and reads a few Christmas stories before bed. Lavie usually reads "The Small One" and I read "The Gift of the Magi." I really like the theme in both that giving from the heart is what counts most...not the size but the appropriateness of the gift chosen.

Alvis got showered (as only children often are) with music, manga, and DVD's, a PS2 game and about a bazillion things "Disney's High School Musical" related.

Alvis and Lavie picked up some manga and anime for me (yeah!) as well as my most favorite gift of all, a small golden box filled with Godiva chocolates. I don't know why, but that was the best gift ever!

Alvis and I gifted Lavie with a bit of jewelry and more manga. I also finally got her the "Sad Girl in Snow" throw that I've been wanting for her from MegaTokyo.

But the gift of honor this year was Lavie's tea-set. Direct from Japan.

Honored GSD visitor Harmon suggested I try looking into the products offered by Japanese Green Tea Hibiki-an, a small family-run tea leaf farm in the Kyoto area. Harmon seemed pretty enthusiastic and their product selection (including the tea sets) were very well put together. Lavie collects tea sets and likes the simply beauty of Japanese items, so it seemed a "perfect gift".

This would be my first "overseas" I was a bit nervous...especially this close to the holiday season...but I just had to do it.

I picked out a tea set and placed my order. Within an hour I had received a confirmation email and again when it was shipped the following day. Hibiki-an suggests that delivery timeframe's are usually within a few weeks tops...except if customs has an issue. So I was hopeful it would make it in.

Imagine my surprise when less than a week from Kyoto the neatly wrapped parcel was in my postal box. Wow! The outer shipping wrapping was nicely done and the customs shipping label was on it in Japanese characters. I really wanted to open it to inspect it, but knew Lavie would be even more I left it "as is" and wrapped it up again in the holiday paper.

When Lavie unwrapped it she was amazed and confused by the customs label and the Japanese return address sticker. Once she got the overwrap off, inside was a delicately wrapped box with a beautiful craft element--kinda like a "bow" but amazingly better. Inside were her teacups, neatly wrapped cloth coasters, a serving teapot, a tea-storage tin, and a bag of the freshest green-tea we had ever seen. The aroma was amazing.

Lavie was stunned (as were we!). It was simple, beautiful and perfect. She carried it to all the relatives places as we made our Christmas Day rounds and it was the centerpiece at each stop.

I did good. (Thanks Harmon!)

So to the dear folks at Japanese Green Tea Hibiki-an--blessings! Service and quality was amazing and the product couldn't be better. More orders from Texas are guaranteed to follow in the new year!

Japanese manners and service is something that I don't think most Americans can relate to. I make it a point to provide the best customer service on the job to my "customers" and try to treat the service-workers we come into contact with with respect and appreciation...but Japan does indeed seem to strive to take it to the next level.

Mike and Nicki over at the Japan Years blog recently posted about a customer service experience overseas in Japan. Where else in Japan could you order a concert ticket and get it delivered the same day, with two delivery attempts to the customer finalizing at 8:00pm and find the ticket was bubble-wrapped? Man we got a thing to learn.

Heck. What kind of country tasks it's Ministry of Environment with publishing a guide for its citizens on how to fold and carry items in a Furoshiki?

I submit to you: How to use Furoshiki [Japanese Ministry of Environment] (FYI--with a little bit of patience and modification, these can be used to make some awesome alternative gift wrappings next Christmas.

Or the story when Sushi-cam Jeff lost his wallet in Japan--full of cash--and how he got it back. Amazing.

Just goes to show truly is the smallest things that can bring the biggest joy...when served properly.


Full Disclosure - GSD and the Microsoft Ferrari laptop giveaway.

In the interest of my few regular blog readers I feel compelled to make the following statement regarding Microsoft's deployment of AMD "Ferrari" laptops to bloggers:

I didn't get one; Damn-it.

If some maintenance worker in the bowels of Microsoft's Redmond facility happens to stumble across my blog...and can add my name to the next shipping list, I'd be glad to accept one for "long-term-testing and evaluation" purposes.

Wink-wink-nudge-nudge. Say no more! Say no more!

So there you go, just in case you were wondering....


Sysinternals Tutorial Videos on Fighting Malware

Alex Eckelberry of Sunbelt Software beat me to it, but I found these two wonderful tutorial videos a few weeks ago on how to fight malware.

Both are from Mark Russionovich (Microsoft Sysinternals), creator of the slew of must-have free utilities for sysadmin's including three big-boy sticks: Process Explorer, Process Monitor and Autoruns.

His first video "Advanced Malware Cleaning" reviews a malware infection process, and then illustrates how to use Sysinternal's tools to clean the system of malware.

The second video "Advanced Windows Troubleshooting with Sysinternals Process Monitor" is a great introduction to the latest stallion to join the Sysinternals stables: Process Monitor. He guides the viewers through the basics in using Process Explorer, how Process Monitor compares to the tools Filemon and Regmon. Then he explores file system and registry issues troubleshooting before looking into processes and threads. Mark concludes with data mining and saving and logging events.

These tools and techniques are among the foundations I use when approaching and assessing a hostile machine at work. They give a great window into just what is going on. Armed with that knowledge, I can then make a targeted and effective attack on the malware and begin the recovery and sanitization process.

Having these videos is a great introduction into the power of these tools--from the Master himself!

(System) Locked File Deletion Utilities

Making its debut: Malwarebytes' FileASSASSIN 1.02 (freeware) utility. This is another tool to use in trying to delete locked files from your system.

Other similar tools: Locked Files Wizard (freeware), DelAny (freeware), DelLater (freeware), Unlocker (freeware), WhoLockMe (freeware), Force Delete (freeware), and Killbox (freeware).

I keep all of these tiny apps handy on my sysadmin USB stick...just in case!

Happy Hunting!


Making Windows Defender work with Windows 2000

Back when Microsoft's answer to malware was known as Microsoft AntiSpyware (formerly GIANT AntiSpyware) and it was in Beta status, it was quite compatible with Windows 2000 operating systems.

This was a great boon to the corporate/enterprise environments as it carried a certain clout with the Microsoft title behind it. It was pretty rugged and did a decent job of cleaning and protecting malware from workplace systems.

We installed it on many of the systems in our corporate environment--particularly on those where we had to make "repeat" visits due to user behavior. It was a great compliment to our anti-virus software. is often the risk when one comes to lean on Beta software, when Microsoft finalized it's release as Windows Defender, support for Windows 2000 was dropped and only Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 was offered.

This was quite the bummer for many faithful users as it worked quite well on Windows 2000 systems in its previous incarnation.

So what's a poor sysadmin to do?

Well...turns out if you are willing to do some can hack it and get it to install quite nicely on a Windows 2000 system!

How To (with credits to DosFreak):

  1. Download Orca (Microsoft's MSI editor) and install it.
  2. Download Windows Defender.
  3. Use Orca to open the Windows Defender msi setup file.
  4. Find the "Launch Condition" item.
  5. Find the "VersionNT > 500" value and cut it out.
  6. Save the modified file.
  7. Run the installer.

As before, you must have the GDI+ file from Microsoft installed on your Windows 2000 system for Windows Defender to work.

More basic information on Orca from Macrovision on how to modify MSI packages.

KB255905 - More detailed information on Orca from Microsoft on how to edit Windows Installer files.

The Orca tool is a really neat utility for understanding and exploring MSI packages. Even if you don't need to do the Windows Defender to Windows 2000 compatibility "fix" noted may end up being a tool you'll be glad to have in the future. ask...Might running a "hacked" anti-malware application on a non-supported operating system cause potential Bad Things (tm) to happen. Well...Yep! But then again, if you are fighting malware on a system, it might be the next best thing before doing a system reinstall anyway!

Nor could I advise an enterprise-wide deployment of such a modified tool; but it might be good for targeted Windows 2000 systems.

You've been warned.


Saturday, December 30, 2006

"New" Blogger Template Resources

Making the move from my "classic" Blogger template to the new template has not been as easy a process as I hoped.

Although the "classic" template code worked just fine, it would not allow me to post directly to it from my (now mandatory) blogging tool, Windows Live Writer.

Additionally, the new Blogger system seems to prefer XHTML code and CSS sheets over the standard HTML code. Just as I was getting a handle on HTML and basic CSS, wammo.

Luckily, I like a good puzzle and Google is a great resource to turn to. In hacking out my new template, I came across the following items that might be good for any "beta" Blogger out there to spend some time at, before making the jump.

Basic Blogger Resources to Know

First it would be a good idea to acquaint yourself with the newer elements under the "New" Blogger system.

Blogger Layout Guide - This page reviews the basic "elements" that make up the new Blogger template system. If you are a "drag-n-drop" blogger, then you really will like the new Blogger. Adding design elements are pretty intuitive as are rearranging them very simply.

Widget Tags for Layouts - Once you graduate past this, you will be wanting to add do some more "hands-on" management of the "widgets" that make Blogger tick. These are the items you are dragging and dropping. This page goes into good detail on how they are structured. I'm still re-reading it but the trick is understanding them in terms of nesting levels. These forum posts by Stavanger at Blogcrowds are also good reads on the subject: Blogger Beta Widgetry and Save your Beta Widgets.

When you switch over from a "classic" template to a new one, you begin by picking one of the "updated" two-column Blogger layouts. If you have certain side-bar items, it will attempt to convert them into appropriate widgets. This sometimes works better for some elements than others. Some are just rendered useless.

Under the new Blogger Template tab, you have four new selection items: Page Elements, Fonts and Colors, Edit HTML, and Pick New Template. The first "Page Elements" is where you have a GUI drag-n-drop builder to manage your template. "Fonts and Colors" gives you some nice GUI tools to change your template element (texts, headings, links, etc.) colors and formatting. What is really nice is that if your template is standardized, it will pick up your color scheme and offer complementary colors for you to use. My template is just "non-standard" enough to not allow that feature to work. Edit HTML tab allows you to download a copy of your template, upload a template file from your local hard drive, as well as hand-code the template. Widgets are collapsed, but may be "expanded" in the template code for additional tweaking. Finally, you can always revert to your original "classic" template if you get things too out of whack. The final tab lets you select new templates.

Third Party Template Sources

As I have mentioned, Blogger does not (currently) offer any three-column layouts. I really prefer this format as it helps us bloggers with lots of "extra" content able to compress it instead of leaving a never-ending column of elements.

I came across a number of web pages and blogs that have free three-column templates that are compatible with the new Blogger system.

Gecko&Fly - This site has a number of beautifully crafted Classic and Beta Blogger Template Designs for you to select from. There are still more classics than betas but it is great place to begin.

Hoctro's Place - This blog site has a number of wonderful elements going for it. Hoctro has a good number of clever "hacks", code helps, and custom widgets to check out. He also has 8 "ready-to-use" three-column templates that require almost no effort to get up and going on your blog. This guy is good!

Blogcrowds - This is mainly a forum for blog templates and helps. There is other stuff here as well. But one of the real gems is the three-column templates for the new Blogger that Stavanger has spun together. You must register first (free) to access them, but Stavanger's work is well worth looking into if you need a three-column Blogger template. That's where I found the new Blogger three-column code for Andreas04 template.

Going your own: How to build your own three-column Blogger template

If Stavanger's work hadn't been spot-on for my needs, I would have been faced with the real possibility of having to hand-code my own three-column Blogger template out of the closest two-column Blogger default template I could find. If you decide to go that route anyway, there are some helpful tutorials on the web to walk you through this.

BeautifulBeta: Adding a second sidebar to your Blog - part 2 - This is actually a "standalone" post to walk you through manually adding a second sidebar to an existing Blogger template. It is very clear and the comments section has a great deal of additional discussion on the subject.

Blog U: Fluid 3 Column Blogger Template - Here is another great post that discusses how to change a "fixed" 3-column layout to a "fluid" one that changes according to each viewer's screen size settings. It gets into some of the mechanics on how to pull it off and does a great job showing how all the element items work together. A good supplemental read on the subject is George Mikos's post documenting his Blogger template in great detail.

Blogger Tips, Tricks, and Hacks

OK, so you decided on a new template. You plucked up the courage to get ready to migrate you "classic" Blogger pages to the "new" Blogger. Just a few more suggestions.

The Real Blogger Status blog - Take a while looking over some of the more recent posts on this page. There is a wealth of useful information you should be familiar with before you begin migration. This is especially true if you have multiple blogs!

Blogger Tips and Tricks blog - Right now the top post is a tip on how to jump the line and begin migration (if you haven't already been offered the chance). Another choice tip: How to get rid of the border in images uploaded via Blogger Dashboard.

Hackosphere blog - Ramani's blog has a number of nice tips and good content and his sidebar has some useful linkage to chase around for more material.

BeautifulBeta blog - Previously mentioned. Dig around on Hans' site. He offers some clever Widget installers and hacks.

Blog U - The posts are great, and for added resources explore the sidebar offerings for cross links regarding Blog Tweaking, CSS/HTML, and Blog Templates. Good stuff awaits those who look.

Final Thoughts

Once you get your template converted, the new GUI'ish "page elements" can be easily used as you transition from your old "classic" Blogger code to the new code format. Some good tips: Use the Picture element to add a picture. If you place it in a sidebar, be sure to select the option to "size to fit". The List element is great for making simple static lists of items--likewise use the Link List element to quickly add and organize important links. Want to just add some static text--maybe for a custom bio element? Use the Text element. Use the Labels element to display the newly added feature of labels. In the new Blogger, you can add labels (aka categories or tags) to each post. Then the Label element will list them for easy access! It was about time for that one.

But the kitchen-sink element that will greatly aid your transition must be the "HTML/JavaScript" element. With this element you can add standard HTML script to your new Blog. It allows you to do the editing in HTML or Rich Text format views. It saved me a bunch of time getting my sidebar items worked out (for now). As time goes on and I get more proficient in the new Widgets I'll gradually convert them over. This one alone is great to use.

If you are very sharp, you might also notice that Blogger is now using Picasa Web Albums as their image host--if you are uploading images to your blog from the post editor.

And if you use Google's Analytics...don't fall into the trap of adding your JavaScript code in there. You want to place it in the body of your blog...near the bottom, right before the </body> tag.

Hopefully with a bit of research and a good measure of patience you can make a smooth transition to the new Blogger system.

It really can be your friend.


Making needed!

I think I have my "New Blogger" template almost completed.

I was up until almost 3am this morning working on it.

Then I got up again at 9am and continued on.

At around 9:30am I gave up and briefly reverted back to my original template as I couldn't get the three-columns to behave nicely (either in Firefox or IE7).

So I started from scratch and just started playing with the CSS margin settings, body sizes, and alignments.

Somehow I stumbled upon the trick!

Next was getting the embedded images in the thinner side-columns to not whack those column elements out. That took more work, but now I think I have it down.

I have a bit of fine-tuning still to do, but am amazed that it actually looks better (to me) in IE7 than in Firefox! That was a surprise.

Windows Live Writer is posting fine to it again.

I also will probably get around soon to changing/activating the links to the right in the header body. Just haven't made any final decisions yet.

I can't decide if I should set the text alignment in the main post body to "justify" or "align-left."

Also, I've got to figure out how to get the images (like in the Fan Service Bonus section) to hot-link again. The XHTML code for the images is a bit different in those widgets that HTML. I upload a cropped/downsized image to Blogger, then code it with a direct HTML href link to the page. That way I don't steal bandwidth, but visitors can still click directly to the artist's source page. But that's not working right now the way I have the image reference coded. (sighs). I have to manually set the image size values of them so they don't blow out the side-columns again...and all my hard work!

Hope you enjoy the new look. I am really excited now and think it looks much more polished and easily read.

Please leave me your feedback! I'm really interested in knowing what you think!


P.S. I promise to post those "how-to" links I've found. Right now, Alvis is begging for a round of PS2: Lego Star Wars II. It's a really fun game! Even Lavie is itching to get into the action!'s a mess now

OK. I never should have gone and just "rashly" converted my Blogger blog to the new Blogger without understanding all the issues I would be getting into.

The new Blogger uses "widgets" for page elements. That is messing with the little bit of HTML coding I had mastered.

New things to learn....

I've got a number of good links down related to all this new Blogger stuff. Will post them soon.

So for tonight, I'm leaving it like this.

My plan is to finish backing up my template elements and "converted widgets".

Then I will work on migrating to the new three-column layout tomorrow.

It should look something like this template (I hope) when I am done: Andreas04 by Andreas Viklund as converted by Stavanger over at


At least I've got Windows Live Writer able to post directly to my blog again....

--Hang in there gang! I promise when I get done with all this, I will have a ton of useful links for all you Bloggers considering jumping into the New Blogger conversion waters.


Friday, December 29, 2006

Ah...that's it....

So I've been blowing off a few more quality hours with my family trying to figure out the issue with why Windows Live Writer (WLW) won't post to my newly converted Blogger page.

Seems it doesn't like my blog template code for some reason under the new Blogger.

I'm not sure exactly why as WLW (seemingly) worked great under the old BloggerBeta system and I haven't really made any changes to the original template. Posting within Blogger itself to the old template works great, just not via WLW.

So I loaded Alvis's blog into WLW. She converted her blog to the new Blogger system a few weeks ago and recently did some nice GUI based template changes. Guess what. WLW posted just fine.

That told me that the issue was indeed not with (directly) WLW, but how WLW is interacting with the new Blogger and the old template code .

Unfortunately, none of the default new Blogger templates are three-column layouts. I tested a two-column layout but it didn't look very nice at all.

So I'm leaving the old template in place for now...I have a number of fresh Google search results on this issue to look over and play with in the morning.

Looks like some more template changes are coming for this blog....(sigh).

So, word of advice: Any of you faithful readers who haven't yet converted your (old) Blogger template to the New Blogger system....don't be too frightened to make the jump...but beware...there be some small monsters in those hills you might have to fight if you have a customized Blogger template.


Quick Post Holiday Post...and who sent us THAT gift?

Just a quick post for now. I just converted my Blogger page the other day to the new Updated Version (finally) and want to make sure it is working ok.

It took about an hour to complete the conversion, and only a few template "tweaks" seemed to have been required to put it back in order again.

However...the new Blogger system now doesn't seem to let me post to it from Windows Live Writer anymore. I keep getting a strange error...even after updating WLW. More on that later...I guess...

We survived the holidays...barely.

Got a nasty present during the past week.

I came down with a horrendous bout of the flu. Lavie hauled me in last Friday to the doctor's office half-dead. I don't remember the rest of that day or the following Saturday at all. No memory. It's a void. Sunday I came 'round again.

Then this past Wednesday, Lavie came down with it.

We think Alvis actually had a very mild form of it the weekend two weeks earlier.

Both Lavie and Alvis had their flu shots in November so they weathered it none too badly.

He-man Claus refused (again) to have his flu shot and got the worst end. I generally avoid the flu shot, figuring I'm in prime health and would rather have the full-on flu so my body's immune system can be better I have no-one to blame but myself.

Lavie was so sweet...she didn't fuss at me once about it.

Anyway....looks to be a wet weekend and I think we will be nesting in this extended weekend. Expect a bit more posting!


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Firefox Minefield 3.0a2pre ?

I just got my nightly Minefield (Firefox 3.0 development version) build update. Build version now is reporting as 2006121904.

It shows as version Minefield 3.0a2pre.

The default page it is attempting to render after the upgrade is at

and was currently displaying a Mozilla 404: File Not Found page.

Does this mean that Firefox 3.0 Alpha 2 is just around the corner?


See the previous post about updates coming out today to versions Firefox, Firefox and Thunderbird


Monday, December 18, 2006

(Imminent?) Firefox Updates and Opera Boosted

Just a quick post. I'm "making" sugar-cookies tonight for Alvis to take to school tomorrow.

Mozilla is likely getting ready for an imminent update release for Firefox and Firefox --via Ryan over at CyberNet News.

Firefox looks to fix 183 bugs alone.

Currently Mozilla now is dishing up a FTP download of RC3, so if you are brave, go for it and fill up your plate.

These should be considered major updates. I expect that they will be offered via the Firefox Automatic Update check (if you have it enabled). If not, you can always go to your toolbar in Firefox and check "Help," then "Check for updates..."

While unlikely that these will seriously break any of your favorite extensions, there is always that risk.

Meanwhile, that other well known and loved browser alternative, Opera, has now just been released at version 9.10.

Of note: it now incorporates built-in fraud protection. Opera does a quick "whitelist" check to GeoTrust and a "blacklist" check to the Phishtank. --via download squad

I haven't used Opera for a very long time, but it remains a polished browser with a large fan-base.

So, IE 7, Firefox 2.0, or Opera 9.10 -- developers are working hard to make sure you stay safe and protected this holiday season!

ph334 t3h ch33r, indeed!


Saturday, December 16, 2006

Firefox and fixing PDF madness, + Bonus Firefox Links

As I surf the web, I'm finding more and more links that are not HTML pages, but actually PDF files.

For anyone who doesn't know what a PDF is, it is a "Portable Document Format" file that is able to be exchanged and opened/viewed by users of different office productivity software and or operating systems. It's a very easy and handy way to exchange reports, memos, brochures, whatever without worrying too much if your end-user has the right office software to view them with.

Anyway, all too often I will click an unmarked link in Firefox and my browser will seem to lock up. Eventually I will discover this is because the link was actually to a PDF file.

The apparent lock-up is caused by two primary, sequential activities: first, Firefox must download the PDF file to the local machine cache. Depending on the connection speed and file size, this can take a second or minutes. Second, it must launch the appropriate software application to view the PDF file. And finally, it usually will end up opening the file in the PDF reader Plugin in a tab in your browser window.

In most cases, this means the ubiquitous "Adobe Reader" application. It remains a big mean dog in the middle of the yard. It is free, it is supported by a large number of operating system platforms, and it works.

But it is a big application (download file for Version 8 is 27.5 MB) and can take forever to load up, even on pretty beefy systems. And maybe you just don't like having to depend on a big mean dog in your yard.

As for the download time, we can't really fix that. But we can quickly and easily fix the rest!

First Step,

Instead of the big mean dog, lets find a better PDF reader pet: the free Foxit Reader 2.0.

It is very small (a 1.5 M download) and consists of a single exe file at 3.5 M. It launches blazingly fast and is able to handle annotations, conversion to a text file, and supports form filling.

Download the file, and unpack it somewhere handy.

Second Step,

Adjust Firefox to use Foxit Reader to open PDF associated files. (Note this is written for Firefox 2.0 but you should be able to get the gist to adjust earlier versions in a similar manner.)

In Firefox, click on the "Tools" then "Options" menus.

Next click on the "Content" tab.

Now click on the "Manage" button under "File Types" section on that tab. You will get the "Download Actions" window.

Carefully look through the list and locate all the extension file types that are currently associated with Adobe Acrobat Document and are opened with "Adobe Reader".

One at a time, select each of these specific items. Click on the item to highlight it, then click the "Change Action" button.

In the "Change Action" dialog box, under Use this Plugin, it should be listing "Adobe Acrobat". Lets change that!

Click the radio button "Open them with this application" then click the "Browse" button and browse to where you saved the FoxitReader.exe file you unpacked. Select it, and click the "Open" button to save the change.

Click "OK" to make the association to Foxit Reader stick.

Now repeat on the next extension file type for PDF's in the list. In my Firefox, I had to do that association change for the following extensions: PDF, FDF, XFDF, XDP, and XFD. You may have more or fewer than these.

When you are all done, click the "Close" button and then the "OK" button to close out the Options window.


NOTE: This is very different from changing the PDF default file associations on your Windows system. You can do that as well if you really like Foxit Reader (either from within Foxit Reader or in Windows), but I don't mind Adobe Reader when I'm doing "office" document work, it just irritates me when I am surfing the web. These changes will only set Foxit Reader to open PDF's from within Firefox.

This helps in two ways.

First, when you click a PDF link in Firefox now, the browser will download the PDF in the background, but not take focus away from the tab you are already on. Your browser will remain light and free to continue surfing at will.

Second, when it had completed downloading, it will almost instantly open the PDF in the Foxit Reader application, outside of the browser window. I like that a lot.

Taming PDF madness on the Web

It also helps to know ahead of time that the link you are about to click is a PDF file. Maybe you don't want to bother with PDF links.

Firefox has two handy Add-ons that can give you a heads-up while you are surfing:

Link Alert - This Firefox Add-on will change your cursor to an appropriate file-type icon when you over over a link. It can identify links that will result in, new window spawn, secure site, email link, JavaScript, Word, Excel and PDF file document, zip files, applications, text files, images, RSS feeds, and lots more. Really helpful tool for safe and informed web-browsing.

TargetAlert - I prefer this one myself. (Go to the developer's website to get the version for Firefox 2.0 versions.) In contrast to Link Alert, it places a small, icon next to web-links on the pages if they will take you to a PDF document, leaving a secure site, opening a new window, or other actions. I like this one because it has the option to load them statically next to the links as the page loads or (the default setting) change your icon when you hover like Link Alert.

Either way, you have some nice options now to be informed about what will happen when you click that link.

A Final PDF tip

Lavie recently called me up at work and asked me if I knew of a way to convert a PDF document to EMF format instead. I don't know why someone would find EMF more beneficial than PDF already, but whatever. I pointed her to the freeware application: Cool PDF Reader.

While not quite as nice as Foxit Reader for PDF viewing in my opinion, its real power and value is in its ability to easily convert PDF files to BMP, JPG, GIF, PNG, WMF, EMF, and EPS formats. This alone in a tiny and free application makes it worth the time to download and keep handy. No installation required. It's a single EXE file. That's it!

Check it out.

Bonus Firefox Linkage!

Full Map Firefox Add-on - One of my pet peeves with Google Maps is that it is never big enough! That side area of text always cramps my style when I am doing some virtual sight-seeing. With this Wicked Cool extension, you can expand the Google map view to cover your entire browser window. I don't know how I lived without it! Did I mention how Wicked Cool this is?

TIP: Once you have downloaded and installed the extension, restart Firefox, then customize your toolbar to find and place the Full Map icon on your toolbar. It doesn't appear by default.

X-Mas (Light) Firefox Theme - A pleasant and well done theme to add some Christmas cheer to your Firefox browser. Nice and subdued, not over the top at all. Spread the holiday cheer for a few weeks in Firefox.

Firefox Update releases delayed: New release date for bug fixing looks to be Thursday, December 19th.

The Burning Edge - If you have been playing with Mozilla's "Minefield" nightly trunk build version (on it's way to being spun off into Firefox 3.0) you may be curious as to what's happening in all those nightly fixes. In most cases, it is not obvious at all on the user interface surface. But be assured, big changes are going on under the hood. The Burning Edge is a blog that documents developments in nightly builds of Mozilla's Firefox development trunk version. Not for everyone, but I find it interesting to read.

Firefox (Gran Paradiso) Safe Mode - Many Windows users become quickly aware of having to execute the "Safe Mode" feature of Windows when Something Evil happens with Windows from time to time. Mash that F8 key kids! Firefox also has a handy way to deal with problems. Flux Amm recently posted in the TechBlog comments about how he ran into trouble using a non-default theme in a test-build release version of Firefox. I hadn't been having any problems until the other day using the Orbit Blue theme in the alpha versions. But then disaster struck. What to do? I couldn't load Firefox Minefield at all! I was trapped?

What? Me Panic? Nope.

I launched up my custom Minefield profile in safe mode using the following command in a command-prompt box: C:\Program Files\Minefield\firefox.exe -p Minefield -safe-mode and flipped the theme back to the default version. I then restarted Minefield and was back to normal browsing.

Your command line path may vary depending on where you installed the firefox.exe executable. Also note the "-p Minefield" switch...I use a different profile for each of the three versions of Firefox I run, this is instructing Firefox/Minefield to use my profile for Minefield.

Mischief managed. Nice "hack" to know.

See you in the skies,

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Microsoft Patching - On the Grand Scale!

Most all (home) tech support geeks are faced with confronting the problem of handing Microsoft's Windows Updates.

(Did you get today's offered updates?)

In the enterprise environment I'm sure we are all using Group Policy, Windows Server Update Services, or even manually configuring Windows Automatic Updates to download and apply patches to the systems, right?

Then again, there is the old standby...going to Microsoft Windows Updates website, running a manual check. Then you can pick and choose, download and install. This generally isn't too painful a process...providing you've got a broadband connection and have been keeping up with the Update Joneses.

You can also manually download the updates yourself, if you know where to look and which ones to get.

But what to do when Uncle Albert calls you to come over to his house in the boonies to help set up his "brand-new" XP system? You show up, and Uncle Albert's pc has a bare hard-drive, he has a XP setup disk, and a dial-up modem. Well, up until recently you have had very few choices. Chances are you are looking at a very large group of updates. Load the system, slap on a firewall, break out the brewskies and sit back and wait for the updates to trickle down the dialup pipe.

Sure, you can download the biggest ones and keep them handy on a USB stick or CD, but it can still be a lot of work collecting all of them

Until now!

SANS-ISC points us to a new utility offered by heise Security: Offline Update 3.0

It's very clever.

Read the accompanying article carefully. Then download and unzip the file. Then run the application. You can pick from updates for XP / 2000 / Server 2003. You also need to specify if you want to download the English or German version of the patches. You can download all three sets or just two or even one. Depending on your choice you must then decide to have the patches bundled in a CD or DVD ISO for burning. A script will open up a WGET session which will download all the critical security patches for the selected OS(s). What is really cool is that the downloads occur directly from the Microsoft download servers, so you know you are getting valid update files. Once the downloads are completed (not too long assuming you are using your broadband connection) the program rolls them up into a handy ISO file. Then use your favorite ISO burning application to burn them to your CD/DVD media.

Place the burned CD/DVD in Uncle Albert's pc and an autorun file will kick it off. Give it an affirmative, and it will begin to apply all the patches to the system. No downloads to wait for! Sweet!

Drawbacks...well, since the program doesn't check the system update catalog, it doesn't know which updates are already on the system---so it puts them all on, even if they are already present. Not a big deal, but good to be aware of. The program actually uses some text files in the structure to decide which patches to download and install. So with some fairly easy tweaking you can add more or remove the ones you don't want. Also, it does create a temporary updating user profile on the system with Administrator rights to allow the updates to be installed. It is deleted at the end of the update process. Depending on how you feel this is either a great thing or a deal-breaker. Finally, you will still need to run one final manual Windows Updates session to verify that you catch and apply any additional updates that the script doesn't get.

Benefits...a very automated update process, almost all updates on a removable media disk, limited time lost waiting for updates to download and apply. Not a bad deal. Oh yeah, did I mention that it is free?

Read the whole 4-page article from the publisher to get an good idea of what is going on.

Another alternative is Autopatcher.

This gem has been out for some time. It is highly polished and packed with goodies.

Like Offline Update 3.0 it supports XP / 2000 / 2003 Microsoft systems. Unlike Offline Update 3.0, each OS can be selected in Full, Lite, and Update versions.

The Full versions come with all the usual updates, and then the developers toss in a ton of "extras" like desktops, system tweaks, Windows Power Toys, additional application updates, the whole kitchen sink. You appear to be able to decide at installation which ones you want to add and which ones you don't, so you still have some installation control. The Lite version strips out many of the additional items and tweaks. Finally, use the Update version to patch a system you have already run either the Full or Lite version on, as it will just include the latest updates. get some extra download items that you may not want. Like before, there doesn't seem to be a check for the existence of pre-installed patches already on the system, so you will get overwriting again. Also, the developers have already downloaded and packaged the updates already, so unlike Offline Update 3.0 which downloads directly from the Microsoft servers, you will have to trust the developers as your source. You decide. just need to make a single package. That's it. Burn it to a CD/DVD or it looks like you can even copy the downloaded file to flash media if it is large enough to hold it. The installation options looks a bit more selective as well.

Nice work!

Two other slipstreaming alternatives:

RyanVM's Windows XP Post-SP2 Update Pack - Quoting from the developer's site "This pack is designed to bring a Windows XP CD with SP2 integrated fully up to date with all of the latest hotfixes released by Microsoft since SP2's release. It accomplishes this task via direct integration, where files on the CD are directly overwritten by the updated files."

I haven't played with this one yet, but it appears to be a slipstreaming process. You can also add in additional features via modules.

Another very slick tool is nLite. Quoting the developer's site again, " nLite is a tool for permanent Windows components removal and pre-installation Windows setup. After removal there is an option to make bootable image ready for burning on cd or testing in virtual machines. With nLite you will be able to have Windows installation which on install doesn't include, or even contain on cd, unwanted components."

nLite Features

- Service Pack Integration
- Component Removal
- Unattended Setup
- Driver Integration *
- Hotfixes Integration **
- Tweaks
- Services Configuration
- Patches ***
- Bootable ISO creation

* - Textmode (CD Boot) and normal PnP
** - hotfixes with white icons, *KB*.exe, including update packs and Internet Explorer 7
***- supports generic SFC, Uxtheme, TcpIp and Usb Polling patching.

Also in works from the same group...vLite. For Vista deployments

So, now you know of quite a few solutions for bulk-patching systems.

These also might be dead useful for you corporate/enterprise sysadmins as well. Instead of constantly updating images with current patches or slipstreaming, just keep a Offline Update 3.0 or Autopatcher disk handy and bring the deployed image up to date, without the download delay times. Sweet!

These solutions aren't for everyone. These can help manage the bulk patch updating process when you have a very "young" system. By being able to apply these critical service patches before you even need to put the pc on the Net, you can help improve the system security and cut down on the chance of it being open to a vulnerability. And save a fair amount of your time in the process. looks pretty cool and can impress Uncle Albert (and save his beer).

Not a bad deal!

See you in the skies.


Saturday, December 09, 2006

Mostly Mozilla Madness...

It's no secret I really like using Mozilla's Firefox web-browser.

I also use Mozilla's Thunderbird email client.

They are really great and fit the way I use the web.

On my system, I currently have Firefox version 2.0 as my daily browser.

I also have installed Mozilla's "Minefield" next-generation nightly trunk-build.

Now comes word that Mozilla has released Firefox 3.0a1 (Alpha). Unlike "Minefield" this one is named Grand Paradiso.

As the release notes page linked above clearly states: "Gran Paradiso Alpha 1 is being made available for testing purposes only, and is intended for web application developers and our testing community. Current users of Mozilla Firefox should not use Gran Paradiso Alpha 1."

Yeah. I had to get that one installed as well.

So, what do I think? I'm looking forward to the final release version of Firefox 3.0, hoping it is trimmer, lighter, faster and will include the "Places" bookmarking reorganization that got stripped out of version 2.0.

"Minefield" build is very stable and I haven't had very many problems with it at all. "Gran Paradiso Alpha1" is working nicely also. But neither seems remarkably different, or faster, or better at the user experience level to make me recommend them yet and switch from primarily using Firefox 2.0. That said, I'm sure the developers are working hard under the hood and am eagerly awaiting the final versions.

Some Of The Features Planned For Firefox 3 via CyberNet News.

Latest Firefox 3 Nightly Passes The Acid 2 Test via CyberNet News.

Download The Newly Released Firefox 3 Alpha 1 via CyberNet News.
Mozilla also has Firefox RC1 now available for download via FTP. This is a release candidate, so don't download and install it over you current Firefox 2.0 version unless you are really brave. It is a good sign that some current bugs may get squashed soon.

One of the handy things Firefox does is offer to retain web-site login user-id's and passwords. This is handy, but as this Slashdot article points out---contains a bug that cause it to use the same credentials within the same domain. The post links to some of the issues related to this. So use those password enhancements of Firefox with caution!

Thunderbird 2.0 Beta appears to still be on track for a mid-December release. It also has release candidate 2.0b1 available right now for FTP download. My current version of Thunderbird is at (build 20061025). According to this post over on CyberNet News, Thunderbird 2.0 will contain new tools for organizing and viewing e-mail such as tabbed messages, custom folder pane views, and improved junk mail filtering.

Speaking of Junk Mail...

I really love my GMail account. It does a magnum job of filtering out the span. I did some tweaks to cut-out the image spam and now only once a month or so do I find a spam message that has gotten into my inbox. That is truly awesome.

We also have a Time-Warner broadband e-mail account and that account gets no spam at all. Zero. In many ways I am a little disappointed, as I'm not able to test the Thunderbird spam filters!

Two weeks ago I remembered that I still had my MSN email account from when we were MSN dialup account users (ahh the good old days!). I dipped in there to see what was going on.

Now I know why I was so happy to leave MSN as my ISP provider.

My inbox had over 1400 messages. I hadn't checked it for at least 6 months. Maybe longer. It was filled with phishing attempts, Nigerian bank fraud offers, "medications", prescription deals, etc. Packed full! That was my inbox. MSN email does seem to claim to have a spam filter, but only 5 messages were in it. Granted, those get deleted automatically on an ongoing basis, nevertheless, it was overwhelming to see that many messages. While we were MSN users, we got so much spam in our account I had to set a filter to send everything but names in our address book directly into a "holding" folder to keep our inbox free. Because of the nice interface, it took me almost a half-hour to delete all those messages.

Did you notice...

Originally, the application elements we added to Firefox were called "extensions". Somewhere along the way to Firefox 2.0 they began being referred to as "add-ons." I still generally call them extensions, but am finding it hard to keep from going over to the dark side and change to "add-ons."

Firefox Add-ons page.

Internet Explorer 7 Add-ons page.

I've looked around the IE7 Add-ons and am generally unimpressed. Their collection doesn't seem to offer me anything really that helpful, and there are more than a few Add-ons that are actually "to purchase" kinds. Ick. Granted, besides the fact that I'm pro-Firefox, I have a strong aversion against IE add-ons due to the many hours and machines I've spent time with at work cleaning malicious Browser Helper Objects (BHO's) out of IE. Now I'm not saying any of these listed on the IE page fit that bill, but I'm not at all sold on them for IE.

But, if you must: Must Have Add-Ons for IE7 via IEBlog. and IE7 Tweaks.

Then again, I'm not mad-crazy enough to go and install 200 Firefox extensions like Ryan did: CyberNotes: 200 Firefox Extensions Installed At One Time!

A Suite Set of USB housed applications

The PortableApps folks have released their "PortableApps Suite". This is really cool.

See, the idea is you can carry a suite of must-have Windows applications around on your USB stick so they can follow you from pc to pc. Before, they offered the portable applications, but only on an individually packaged basis.

It comes in Standard, Lite, and Base versions. The main difference is the number of applications "pre-loaded" in the suite.

The Standard Edition comes with:

...the integrated PortableApps Menu and the PortableApps Backup utility along with a set of custom icons, an autoplay configuration, folders and a quick start shortcut.

In addition, the packages include:PortableApps Suite (Standard Edition): ClamWin Portable (antivirus), Firefox Portable (web browser), Gaim Portable (instant messaging), Portable (office suite), Sudoku Portable (puzzle game), Sunbird Portable (calendar/task manager) and Thunderbird Portable (email client) and runs comfortably from a 512MB drive.
Not bad! Sure, you can roll your own, but for someone just getting their feet wet in this portable app way of life, this is a great way to go!

PC Repair Seeker--Beware!

Reason #1 why as a desktop and network support technician I am grateful to work in a "corporate" environment, and not in a storefront pc-repair shop. (This is also probably the reason why I get so many calls from family and friends to help out on pc repairs.) Sure, these are just probably a few bad-examples in an otherwise hard-working and industrious selection of pc-repair technicians....probably.

Fixing Dad's XP Windows Updates Problem

While I was up in Tyler visiting my Dad's family over Thanksgiving, I had another chance to take a crack at his XP Windows Updates problem.

I finally got it resolved.

Here is what I did:

1) Manually downloaded the Windows Installer 3.1 Redistributable (v2) and installed it.

2) Manually downloaded the Update for Background Intelligent Transfer Service (BITS) 2.0 and WinHTTP 5.1 (KB842773) and installed it.

3) Rebooted the system.

4) Dumped the contents of the local Automatic Updates DataStore and Download folders,

5) Reregisterd the DLL files that are associated with Cryptographic Services (Method 4).

6) Rebooted the system.

7) Ran a check for Windows Updates. Found them, downloaded them, installed them.

8) Rebooted and checked again. They were all applied and none were now found needing installation.

Of course, Dad was still a little gun-shy to turn Automatic Updates back on, so we still left that off and he just manually checks monthly.

Not bad repair work! Even with turkey and dressing on the stomach and tryptophan on the brain.

See you in the skies,


Christmas Tree Hunting...

What a whirlwind of activity around the Valca home, these past many weeks.

Lavie noticed I hadn't been on any of our home pc's for some time and asked when I posted last. When I looked, I couldn't believe it had been that long!

Thanksgiving passed us like a roaring locomotive. Lavie and I have been swamped at work with special projects and technology challenges. Alvis dropped one long-distance boyfriend, then asked another longtime boy-friend at her school to be her boyfriend, was on top of the world, then got dumped three days later.

It is really Christmas time?

I saw indications that it was indeed that time a few weeks before Thanksgiving this year. It never fails to amaze me as the commercial ramp-up to Christmas continually progresses further before Thanksgiving each year. Before long we will be seeing holiday decorations during the summer.

But for this post, let's talk trees.

Last year, I promised Lavie we would get a new Christmas tree. Although we have been "real" tree folks when we were newlyweds, a few years after we got married, Lavie's parents handed down one of their artificial trees to us.

It was from Houston's "Christmas Tree" store. That store has long since closed down, but as a kid growing up, it was magical. Giant rooms filled year-round with Christmas trees, holiday decorations, and the like. It was almost like going to Santa's Texas hideaway. Amazing. I recall they first bought it when Lavie's niece was born. That would make it around 18 years old.

It was a beautiful tree. Dark needles, dense branches. One year it struck me as being kinda hour-glass shaped in the branches. So I took all the branch-rings off the center poles and laid them all over the living-room floor. I then carefully re-ordered them on the pole to give it a "traditional" cone shape. It was amazing we put up with the mis-match for so long. Lavie's dad would also tell the story how the top section was actually from a different tree than the bottom. Something about this "Franken-tree" was very endearing to us. After many years, Lavie's dad treated us by having it permanently strung with lights. That was a wonderful gift as well. I hate stringing lights on a tree.

I'm not sure what happened, but last year came and went without it being replaced. We actually picked one out that we liked but never went back to buy it. Our cherished tree was shedding its artificial needles worse than a real tree starved for water. It was time to go.

So this year I had to fulfil my promise. We set a date two weeks ago to go out and find it.

I did some pre-work before that date. I did some heavy web-searching at the major stores and got some good leads. I was amazed to find so many "upside down" Christmas trees this year. I honestly hadn't even heard of this until I was on-line, but am told that this is a new trend. Umm..yeah.

Being somewhat more conservative, we were sticking with the green-trees, not the all white ones. We also were looking seriously into finding a "slim" tree. That would work much better in our living-room and give much more flexibility to us in placement.

So the date for our family foray in tree-replacement began.

I had gotten up early and sadly but lovingly placed the old tree out on the curb for pickup. I also found my old slalom water-ski in the far back corner of the storage shed and put that out as well. I figured the ski would be gone before the tree was picked up. It was in great shape, but too small now to carry my, um, "adult" weight.

There was no going back. I had committed our family now to finding a new tree in time for Christmas.

Unfortunately Lavie came down with a migraine and couldn't go. Against our protests, Lavie shoved Alvis and I out the door. We told Lavie we would just scout them out, and unless something special was found, wouldn't come back with anything.

We went to a few places that looked good on the web, but in person the trees just didn't work. Finally, a few hours later we found one. The price was right. The height was right. It had dual types of leaves and needles. It wasn't a slim-style, but more in-between that and a really wide-bottomed tree. It was pre-lit with white lights. Alvis was impressed! She was no longer begging me to just go home and take the old tree off the curb and put it up for another year. We matched the stock number showing on the tree and found the box and were on our way home!

Much later that night when Lavie joined the land of the living, she inspected our prize.

"Why did you get the colored lights? They are pretty but don't we usually like white lights?" (She is so tactful.)

"Umm. What dear?"

A close family inspection of the (still unopened) box found it clearly labeled as being "multicolored" lights. Hmmm. That wasn't what was expected.

Upon the objections of both Lavie and Alvis (it was getting pretty late) I loaded up the tree and was back in route to the store.

I explained to the customer service desk what had happened and that I would like to see about exchanging it for a white-lit tree (if possible). I was hopeful I could, but if not, things might be complicated. See, with the purchase of the tree came a free $25 store gift card, which Alvis had already spent on-line. This might get dicey. Would I have to pay for the gift-card if I couldn't exchange them?

I went back to the display area where we got it and there was the display model we had seen and the sign. However now I noticed that while the model tree clearly had white lights, the sign on it (with stock number) was for the multi-colored light model. I didn't see any boxes with the clear lit one. Hmmm. That explains things...time to ask for help.

I found a store elf and after some puzzled looks, got her to understand the issue. She snapped to and quickly sent another helper-elf to the back. Sure enough, they had a clear-lit model. Whew!

So I hauled it back to the customer service desk. Now things got crazy.

See, the white-lit one was something like $4.00 cheaper than the multi-colored lit one. Even though both boxes clearly had the same price marked on them.

Then there was the issue with the free $25 gift card.

See they had to give me another one of those as well. Really. Even for an exchange.

I explained to the clerk that I was just trying to exchange them, and since I had already gotten a $25 gift card, it didn't seem right to give me another one (yeah, I'm kinda honest that way). She checked with a manager and the manager explained that since the computer (register) was recording a new qualifying purchase going out, they had to issue me a new $25 gift card as well.

Reading the incredulous look on my face, the manager shrugged and explained that this was how the computer sale was set up.

Leaving the store, I quickly worked out that under this policy, it would only take a few exchanges to recoup the entire price of the tree. Wow.

Sure the store made a mistake by putting the wrong stock sign on the tree, but I really should have checked the box description before walking out. That was my mistake, but because of it, I ended up coming of out of the store with an additional net gain of $29 on the same box-priced tree. Isn't America great? And that doesn't count the first $25 gift-card we already got and spent. That was like a total of $54 off the original price of the tree.

Oh well.

The tree went up. Lavie and Alvis decorated it the following day and it is looking very warm and cheery.

Thus begins the holiday season here in the Valca home.

I can't wait to see how the rest of the month will go.

Oh, and the old-tree I put on the curb? It was gone by the next morning...hopefully in a new home shedding all over them. Too bad they don't know the story it already has hung on its branches. And the water-ski? That sat for three more days until the garbage truck came by.

See you in the skies,