New malak.ca internet connection

www.malak.ca is hosted by myself on an old desktop computer in my bedroom, using my home internet connection. The general specs are:

  • Dell Vostro 420 Series (64bits) — BIOS date of October 24, 2008
  • Intel(R) Core(TM) 2 Quad CPU @ 2.66GHz (with hyperthreading), with a clock speed of 333MHz; L1d cache 128KiB (4 instances); L1i cache 128KiB (4 instances); L2 cache 6MiB
  • 8GB (4 x 2GB) memory, clock speed 800MHz
  • HD: 240GB SSD (OS and blog)
  • External USB hard drive: 1TB (static website data and other stuff)

Currently, it is running Fedora Linux version 37 Workstation Edition. Using the Server Edition for such a small, home-grown vanity project seemed unnecessary given a comfort level with the Workstation Edition and, since at its core, the two editions are subsets of the same OS. Ultimately, missing packages from one edition compared to the other are a “dnf install” command away. (As for a longer-term distro, I have always been a Red Hat user, so Debian or an Ubuntu LTS release aren’t interesting to me, while the new community respins of RHEL have neither captured my imagination, nor do they hold sufficient appeal anymore on a technical level.) Hence, I started from the Edition with which I and my brother (the technical heavy-lifter) are familiar, which allows for the (admittedly rare) use of a GUI as needed.

The filesystems are with ext4 on the boot partition of the SSD, as well as on the external USB hard drive; I use ext4 because I’m used to it, but can’t truly say I know, or can recommend, one filesystem from or over the next. UPDATE: I checked the filesystems and … the boot partition is ext4, and the SSD’s data portion seems to have defaulted to BTRFS; there you go, proof I don’t know much about the differences between various filesystems and their comparative advantages and disadvantages. 🙂

I have been hosting my personal website at home since at least December 2017 on a few used computers (I think the current computer is at least the fourth since transferring my website from a friend-of-my-brother’s web hosting service):

  • December 2017: IBM ThinkCentre, circa 2003 era and running CentOS 7.X (retired due to a suspected thermal event)
  • Sometime after 2017 and until April 2020: A Core 2-duo circa possibly 2010 era, running various current Fedora versions up to version 31 (repurposed due to power issues)
  • April 2020: IBM ThinkCentre, circa possibly 2006 or 2007 era, running Fedora 31 to Fedora 37 (retired due to unknown problems causing constant reboot cycles, which were not fully investigated)
  • The current 2008 era computer installed in February 2023: Dell Core 2 Duo, 2008, (described above) using the same SSD and therefore instance of Fedora 37 from the previous IBM ThinkCentre

But to wit, since hosting www.malak.ca myself, it has always been on my home internet service, a DSL line with a (now-)paltry 6.05MBit-ish down and, what, 0.67MBit-ish up capacity, which for reasons beyond the scope of this post had not been upgraded for (best I can remember) over 20 years.

Time marching on and the increase of devices in the household meant that while still minimally usable and just functional, the internet connection regularly became inadequate for daily use, and barely usable for things like weekly simultaneous videoconferences (and with slightly-more-than-tacit rules of “no other internet usage during said weekly dual videoconferences” and the like.) The slow internet access, especially the slow uplink, affected a blogging project started in late 2020 showing pictures of the preparation of my recipes from my collection by limiting photo sizes not only as a good idea for reasons of netiquette, page layout and formatting, but as an outright necessity given the limited upload capacity (thank you WordPress for lazy-loading!)

Well, last week we finally upgraded the internet package to cable with 120MBit down and 20MBit up. Interestingly, we had had a cable modem for a few years in the late 1990’s until it became quite unusable and made a switch to DSL; as a side note, a box, some equipment inside it, and some cable wiring from that period were still attached to the outside of the house, not having been removed at the time, and were still compatible and usable when we got the install last week.

As such, www.malak.ca now has decent upload speeds!

malak.ca hardware upgrade

This is a quick note (mostly to myself) to say that the computer hosting www.malak.ca — the website hosting this blog — has been switched out and replaced.

Last night, I was able to access the site normally and remotely while out to dinner at the home of some friends. This morning, in trying to ssh into the machine to do a routine manual software update, the connection kept timing out and disconnecting. Some quick diagnostics along the lines of “is the machine plugged in?” and a few reboots to watch was what happening — about as much as it would allow me to do, in fact — revealed that for reasons unknown, it was rebooting, going through a grub page, booting up, showing the Fedora logo, and, after the logo disappeared but before the login prompt appeared, a bios message came on the screen indicating a signal loss, and a reboot would begin again.

I tried a few past kernels in the grub menu, including the rescue kernel, and checking the bios, to no avail. Bringing up the text display of what was going on during the bootup was hard to access since I was scratching my head wondering “What’s the keystroke to do that again?”; same for getting the console. No matter, other things needed attending to in the moment, and I moved on.

Fortunately, my brother-in-the-know was coming within the hour, and I sent him some messages about it. He offered to bring an old junk-computer-which-wasn’t-quite-junk-yet I had given to him a while back and which he wasn’t using, at least not yet. After describing the problem to him and offering my rough diagnosis — either there was a corruption somewhere in the software, causing the reboots, or, during the reboots software commands invoke a (presumably faulty due to old age) physical hardware system or circuit, which caused a problem leading to the reboots — both of which, particularly the latter, he thought may have had merit.

My brother brought the old machine. Before installing anything, he first checked the OS SSD from the server (which also contains this blog’s database) in a USB caddy, then he checked the external data drive holding the rest of the static website and my backups, again by USB. Data on both units were in good condition. We finally went straight to replacing the machine by transferring the SSD and external drive to the new old machine, and here I am typing up this memo to myself.

The machine’s specs?

Dell Vostro 420 series; 8.0 GiB; Intel Core2 Quad Q9400 x 4; Mesa Intel G45/G43 (ELK) video card, with lots of USB ports, a networking card, and other things many people including myself take for granted.

And since the 240.1 GB SSD is the drive from the previous machine, it is still running the same instance of Fedora and the LAMP stack with WordPress, suffice it to say that I’m up to Fedora Linux 37 (Workstation Edition) 64-bit on it, and running up to date LAMP and WordPress software.

In fact, as I am finishing up this post, the machine is being updated!

malak.ca — Server Hard Drive Upgrade

This is just a little note to mention that malak.ca has been down for the past 28 hours or so for an upgrade only planned as of a few days ago, when the site had been hanging for anywhere from a few hours to a few days, and diagnostics suggested that the hard drive may have been on its last legs.

A new 256-gig SSD was ordered and installed in the IBM ThinkCentre I claimed from a pile of computers to be shipped off for disposal in 2017 but only actually started using in 2020, with the intention of essentially setting up things as they were beforehand, with only an under-the-hood change of technology.

Here are a few highlights:

  • A backup of the blog database was created, and saved on an external drive;
  • The external drive, used as a backup for my other computers and the location of the static parts of my website, was separated from the machine, which was then powered down;
  • The old hard drive was physically removed;
  • The SSD was connected;
  • Fedora 34 workstation, which had been previously downloaded and installed on a USB key, was installed on the SSD yesterday evening (I’m currently still running on F33 for my desktop, laptop, and one of my worldcommunitygrid.org nodes)
    • The desktop for F34, on the core 2 duo, is faster, although some of that is due to the SSD, of course;
    • Interesting to see the dock moved from a vertical position on the left to a horizontal position at the bottom;
    • I find it interesting that at bootup, the activities screen appears to be the default;
  • This evening, the web server was installed;
    • Although we had planned to use php-fpm to separate permissions, but since this is a single domain box, we used a simple virtualhost;
  • MariaDB was installed;
  • The re-registration of my redirections for things like www.malak.ca with noip.com to account for the dynamic nature of my IP address was done;
  • The re-registration for my Let’sEncrypt was performed;
  • Various linux kung-fu tricks were performed, and magical linux incantations were uttered, and the setup was complete;
  • The external drive was reconnected;
  • The blog was restored from a backup.

The system is peppy, and this blog, which is hosted on the SSD instead of the external drive (as is the rest of malak.ca), loads somewhat more quickly.

As usual, great thanks go to my brother whose herculean efforts were at the core of the setup. Thank you!

Hotel WiFi Passwords — 2018 edition (aka what a snore fest)

Yet again, I am in a hotel using their wifi. Again, after being asked during check-in if I wanted wifi access, I was curious about how their wifi password would stand up to any kind of security test as they handed me a slip of paper with the information.

Sigh, it is a terribly obvious password that would only barely pass a “security by obscurity” test by virtue that by and large, people don’t have wifi guessing software with standard dictionaries ranging from a normal library dictionary to a hacker dictionary that anyone’s 11 year old could probably compile, certainly with the help of their friends. In fact, while there are no doubt dozens, no hundreds, no thousands of “obvious” word combinations that would meet the following criteria, it in fact is obvious that it is intended to be very easily remembered by an overwhelming majority of people, be they a typical everyday-anyone-off-the-street person, or a tech savvy person, or a forgetful person, or children, or “even your mom” (I am trying to delicately refer to my mother, who is both not tech savvy in the least, and very experienced in life, if you take my meaning.)

Back in 2015, I was on the subject again, having been impressed at least that the wifi password given to me appeared to be auto-generated at check-in, and obviously not susceptible to simple dictionary attacks.

I started this rant on hotel passwords in 2009 during a series of business trips in which I was at a lot of hotels, and was frustrated for the innkeepers that their wifi would have been so easy to steal for the cost of a night at the hotel and a series of repeaters in the bushes.

Since then, however, I came to realize that my concerns were a bit overrated. Firstly, the potential of signal theft in that fashion was only really was useful for neighbours of the hotels. Secondly, the technical aspects of providing multiple repeaters and power cords down the street (or as the case may be, through the woods) make the cost, both financial and in terms of maintenance, somewhat impractical beyond a few hundred feet.

This is based on some personal experience of the legitimate variety: Since about 2011, my neighbour at the cottage has had internet provided through, I believe, line-of-sight microwave service; it includes VOIP service to provide telephone service, which apparently is prioritized within the router setup. He kindly gave me the wifi password. After about a year, I installed a wifi repeater so that it could be useful within the house, since there was only about one location within the house within a usable radius of the neighbour’s router (a solid two to three hundred feet away); fortunately, I could plug in the repeater at that location. I have since also been giving him some money annually in appreciation.

What have I found?

The repeater is useful. It itself provides constant signal, although it has been susceptible to things like weather, tree foliage, and the like. And, unfortunately, the general service seems to be susceptible to the same, plus things like mountains, and probably the dozens of customers just on my lake and neighbouring lakes. (Yes, people keep on complaining, and no doubt the suppliers’ techies just shift “prioritizing” their services to each successive round of complaining customers, at the expense of the rest of their customers.)

But to wit, the quality of service, at least on the repeater we have, is only barely useful for things like YouTube and the like under the best of conditions; the speed drop from beside the router to our repeater is such that we were able to demonstrate to our neighbour that even if we were consuming such services, we could not be the source of the fluctuating service affecting his internet service (see above.) In any case, by and large we respect a request from him that we not use it to stream video and download large files, since his usage is also metered.

My brother has been wanting to improve our end of the signal for years by setting the repeater near the edge of the property, closer to our neighbour, with things like “waterproof boxes”, electrical extensions, and Ethernet cable through the woods a bit, and then hanging in the air above the clothesline. I have been responding bah humbug, it seems far too susceptible to the elements. As a former geocacher, the notion of a “waterproof” container left out in the woods is no simple feat, and even were it to remain locked, it — and the power cable, and the Ethernet cable too — likely would become susceptible to the elements in short order, and not worth the maintenance effort. It seems to be a challenge beyond most commoners such as myself and even I suspect my brother, more along the lines of the phone company or electric utility face on a daily basis. Remember how annoying it is when the power goes out or the telephones (landlines or cell network) don’t work? Why do they have local teams on the ready 24 hours a day to deal with this? Such outages are regular due to trees falling, water infiltration, and the like.

Is it really worth going to all this trouble in order to have a series of repeaters going down the street for free wifi? I doubt it would be useful to any real degree except to demonstrate proof of concept to your friends for bragging rights.

So … does it really matter how easy it would be to hack a hotel’s free wifi?

Obviously, to the hotel and any costs incurred, of course. The reduction in service and inconvenience that in principle such a signal theft may cause to the hotel and its guests? Of course. And, any illegal activities in which such illicit users may be engaging (kiddie porn, spam, financial fraud, etc.), of course it matters.

But, is anyone beyond the immediate neighbours going to bother with the series of repeaters and power lines through the bushes and/or down the street, possibly spanning several blocks and neighbourhoods?

I have to say “Poppycock!”

PS The “snore fest in the title” was not meant as a pun, but realizing that it unintentionally is — well, I like dumb jokes and puns, especially the dumb ones. 🙂 So, keeping it is intentional.

New World Community Grid Node

I started volunteering some of my extra computers’ idle time for the World Community Grid in December, 2013.  Unfortunately, the machine in question, a used computer I’d bought about five years earlier and, after having been used as a desktop for a few years, had been converted to being a server under CentOS, died from a “thermal event” nine months later.  It had completed 713 results and earned 419,591 points.

In 2016, I found a P4 3.4GHz machine, installed CentOS 7 on it, and then the BOINC infrastructure.  I assigned it to the World Community Grid and 100% of its capacity to the project.  From when it began in September, 2016 to today, it has completed 4,540 results, and earned 2,568,590 points.

In 2017, I finally converted my old netbook (32 bit atom processor) to CentOS 6 and did the same thing.  From when it began in April until today, it has completed 261 results, and earned 133,073 points.  (What a difference in capacity that 3.4GHz 64 bit has as compared to 1.6GHz 32 bit!)

Over the past few months, I have been collecting up a number of old machines which have come my way, including some IBM ThinkCentres from the Windows Vista era.  So far, my brother and I haven’t been able to get them running properly, and we will probably end up using them for spare parts.

In the meantime, we acquired two more computers.  My brother wanted / needed a replacement computer for his aging media server, an old reclaimed IBM ThinkCentre I’d gotten for him a few years ago.  I, in the meantime, wanted to add another node to the World Community Grid (of course, working at 100% of capacity.)

I chose CentOS 7 for this build, like I did for my other nodes, for what I consider to be the obvious reason that I want to pretty much forget about the computers and just relish in the numbers on the World Community Grid website — I don’t want to be re-installing every year!

The install went well enough, although it was long enough process for the base install, as compared to my laptop and desktop.  I will rule out the comparison to my laptop since the SSD and physical drive don’t compare at all.  As for the desktop and node, I’ll chalk up the difference mainly to processor speed and general architectures:  A 2015-era four core i5 running at 3.4GHZ vs a 2010 era Pentium dual-core E6500 running at 2.93GHz (no HyperThreading).

What was really long after that was the yum update after the initial install — about 650 packages!  In the process of the updates, I tried a few things like web surfing, and the gnome desktop became unstable; I ended up with a flashing text screen.  I finally rebooted, and tried to downgrade to an older kernel in GRUB, to no avail.  I tried the rescue kernel, no avail.  Under both situations, I couldn’t pull up a terminal with Alt-Ctrl-F2.  A quick check under a Fedora live environment was a waste of time, since I didn’t really know how to diagnose things; however, I was able to mount the CentOS drive.

There was some flirting with the idea of installing Fedora 27, but I don’t want the re-installation mill on this machine (or any of my other volunteer computing nodes) every year — although, seeing my brother upgrade from Fedora 25 to 27 through the GUI go as smoothly as a routine DNF upgrade is making me wonder if the point is moot.  (Note that CentOS 7, based on Fedora 19, is still using YUM, while Fedora has been using DNF since version 22.)

Finally, I restarted the install of CentOS, this time doing a minimal text install.  Things were a touch faster.  Then I did a yum update, with only about half as many packages to update.  After that, I installed the Gnome Desktop on the machine. (Here’s my archive.)

I continued with the installation of the Fedora EPEL repository (as root “wget http://dl.fedoraproject.org/pub/epel/epel-release-latest-7.noarch.rpm”, then “rpm -ivh epel-release-latest-7.noarch.rpm”).  Installing the BOINC infrastructure was easy:  As root “yum install boinc*”.

I launched the BOINC manager from one of the pull down menus, and, to my surprise, it actually worked out of the box, unlike previous installations.  Someone must have updated the packages. 🙂  I added the World Community Grid website information, and my account and password.

Voilà!  At 12:00 UTC the next morning, my machine had already submitted FIVE results, and earned 2,429 points!  And, at 00:00 UTC as I’m completing this post, a total of EIGHT results, and 4,638 points!

More on hotel passwords

Back in 2009, I was ranting about hotel passwords and the lack of any serious consideration most gave to their wifi access,
Hotel internet access passwords — Here’s a case for Captain Obvious
and Well Hallelujah! Big Brother has finally acted!

Well here I am in 2015 writing again on the subject. As you can guess, I’ve used plenty of motels and hotels in the intervening almost six years. As you can guess again, I’ve pretty much given up on my rant since then. And, as you can guess yet again, I’m currently sitting in a motel, using their WiFi.

And can you guess what comes next?

Well, when I checked in, they asked me “Would you like WiFi access?” which tipped me off to ask about whether or not the passwords are auto-generated each time someone checks in. Of course the poor lady was bewildered by the question, to which I responded, “Don’t worry, I’ll have the answer to my question when you hand me that ticket.” And whaddya know, it had a wifi access code that was obviously created on the spot after she’d clicked once or twice on her keyboard and looked at the screen before writing on the ticket. Not too too strong at only five alphanumeric characters, but it wasn’t a dictionary word. The sign in page said that the code was case-insensitive. My untrained eyes would guess it would only come up in a brute force attack, if someone were willing to try all 60,466,176 possible combinations, assuming it’s just the 26 letters in the alphabet and the 10 digits, with no special characters, and they only give out codes five alphanumeric units in length. Of course this ignores the fact that only the “currently active” codes are, well, active, that the system probably has some kind of maximum tries per period of time per mac address, and the like.

Of course, it would probably be cheaper and easier to rent a room, but then I don’t really know how easy or difficult

Of course this story’s postcript is that when I entered the code, it didn’t work — so I called to the front desk to report this and ask for a new one. Whaddya know, Big Brother not only has finally acted, he keeps records — the nice lady asked “Is it such and such?” I answered “not quite, here’s what’s written.” Turns out, the handwritten part of the code that said “U1” sure looked like a “W”.

Hallelujah, indeed.

Having to find multiple levels of internet access — oh, fun!

Disclaimer: I am musing on the challenges I faced while trying to secure reliable internet I required during a recent set of business trips, and the process of developing various solutions to these challenges. These challenges are, in a general fashion, typical of the routine logistical challenges I face when in-the-field, and no doubt of other field technicians. In no way am I trying to reflect negatively on my employer, who for the purposes of this entry shall remain nameless.

I was recently on a couple of business trips, depending on an iPad as a critical part of the execution of the contract. This trip was to a small city of 25,656 (according to Wikipedia), big enough to have plenty of internet access points, cell phones, and cell phone data. As far as I was concerned, in fact, I was in a mini-mini version of Montreal, home for me, to those who haven’t figured it out yet.

The way the iPad is set up, wifi internet access is required to transfer building plans needed to do the work to the iPad, and transfer back files and data collected from my field work. I have made no bones mentioning to some key people heading the overall project that this is a potential Achilles’ Heel to the execution of the project, since, at least in the overall project’s fringe locations sufficiently beyond population centres, internet access would be a spotty luxury at best. My trips were at least symbolically close enough to the edges, underlining the potential problem.

One of the first challenges I found was that the iPad didn’t seem to play well with the internet supplied in the motel (DataValet); although I did manage to get it to work once, it proved a bit too frustrating to get working reliably. A colleague confirmed that he’d had similar problems getting Apple products to connect to DataValet. I had no trouble getting my personal computer running Fedora 21 Workstation to work with DataValet: In fact, besides not recalling having trouble over the years connecting to wifi that wasn’t specific to Linux or Fedora, I would actually say that the experience was even easier than in the past, since the daily leases seemed to automatically renew, although it seemed to insinuate itself by a “convenient” automatic popup window. In parallel, my work Windows-based machine also worked flawlessly throughout with DataValet, although if I remember correctly, I may have had to occasionally open up a browser in order to renew the leases.

Add to this challenge, my employer’s local office didn’t seem to have wifi, or at least, assuming that it *was* there as a hidden network, my work computer didn’t automatically connect to the corporate wifi when not plugged in to the corporate network, which it normally does at my home office.

My first solution was to fulfill a purpose of my having asked for a company smart phone in 2014: Create a hot spot using the data plan on my work phone to do data transfers when not in a wifi zone that works well for the iPad. However, it seemed, between the picture-heavy data and the fact that the iPad seems to do automatic background backups when hooked up to internet — a feature to which I initially had a (negative) knee-jerk reaction that nonetheless actually was useful at one point and since — my phone appeared to run out of my data plan for the month, as evidenced by the sudden stop of internet connection through the phone while still operating just fine as a phone. Having quickly checked the phone’s data usage logs and determining that I’d certainly gotten to the neighbourhood of the limit I believed I had (2 gigs), I assumed that the phone’s contract had a limit set by my employer to turn off the data plans until the month rolls over in order to avoid overage charges. I later learned, upon my return home and standing in front of the IT tech responsible for the corporate cell phones, that the problem was presumed to be an unusual set of settings probably set by some esoteric app (of which I have have very few, esoteric or otherwise, on my work phone), or possibly a SIM card problem, which turned on off the phone’s data capabilities, and that in any case the company has no such policy to ask the cell service provider to turn off a phone’s data access when it reaches the limit of “included data” in the plan, until the rollover date. The lack of internet on the phone is “solved” by resetting the phone to factory settings; I should get instructions on how to do it in the future should I be faced with the problem again. 🙂

This led to a second solution: I used my personal phone to create a hotspot and consumed a bit of my personal data plan, which didn’t bother me too much, at least until it were to involve overage charges. Not that I checked, but based on the little amount of time I used it, I’m sure I never got into that area.

The next solution also created another challenge due to a flub on my part: My client finally gave wifi access to the iPad at her various locations; however, I should have requested that she also enable my work computer, since I had a secondary need for internet given that I developed a need to produce or modify extra plans several times once arriving at some sites, and as such a need to transfer the plans off the computer and onto the iPad.

Finally, I realized that when I have wired access, I had yet another solution available to me: I could set up my linux laptop to create a wifi hotspot. This was rather easy, at least under the current gnome version in Fedora 21 and I believe has been for quite a while under the gnome 3.0 series, and probably before too. Unfortunately, this was wasn’t a solution at the motel since it only had wifi and no wired access, and I didn’t have an external wifi receiver with a cord to provide the wired internet and free up the wifi card.

Here are some screenshots of how easy it is to setup a wifi hotspot under Gnome 3:

step 1

step 2

step 3

step 4

step 5

Feeling a bit curious along the lines of “shouldn’t this be relatively easy under Windows, too?”, I checked on my work computer, and while it seemed possible, and indeed my brother once did it for me with his Windows computer, it was not obvious at all; in fact, I gave up after about four or five click-throughs with little end in sight.

Hence, at the local office and having set up my laptop to create a local wifi hotspot, I’d created a mildly-amusing-to-me setup on my temporary desk, plugging in my personal laptop to the corporate network, running a hotspot using its wifi card, and using my work computer normally over wifi as well as doing data transfers from the iPad.

Back at home and at my home office, I mention my difficulties in getting internet access to my supervisor (who isn’t a computer techie type), who thought that creating a hotspot under Windows couldn’t be done, or at least he didn’t realize it could be.

Further discussing this with him, I explained the situation saying “I don’t mind trying to find other solutions — that *is* my job — but after not having two A Plans (the motel internet not working for the iPad, nor having wifi at the office), then suddenly not having a plan B (the company cell phone internet not working), having to depend on my personal phone’s data plan, then having to depend on the client’s internet access but not having enough access for all devices, and finally coming up with a part-time solution to replace one of the A-plans — using a second of my personal resources in the form of my personal laptop — there’s a problem here,” to which he agreed.

Jovially, he did however suggest that “in the next leg of your travels, I happen to know that if you can go to the local library, they have free wifi”. This made me realize that if necessary and if possible, I could also try the free wifi at the local Tim Hortons (a popular Canadian chain of coffee and doughnut shops), assuming that there is one in the remote town where I’ll be visiting next.

Which has me really thinking about the problem:

– not all the field techs in the company have smart phones with data plans, and as such not able to create a needed hotspot in order to enable the execution of a project;
– not all the field techs have personal smart phones with a data plan, nor should field techs in general be required to use their personal data plans, let alone go into overage charges, in order to enable the execution of a project;
– at least at first glance, it doesn’t seem to be a quick and easy thing to turn a windows machine into a hotspot in order to enable such work — and I don’t want to hear from the peanut gallery on this one, since I *know* that it *can* be done; my point is that at first glance, even a moderately savvy user such as myself shouldn’t have to say “It’s easy under Gnome 3, why isn’t it about as easy under Windows? Boy it’s a good thing that I had my personal laptop with me!” (On a side note, usually the stereotype is that “Windows is easy, and Mac easier, but isn’t Linux hard?” 🙂 )
– and, only a limited number of computer users are using Gnome 3, where it is easy to set up a hotspot if you either have a wired connection to the internet, or two wifi cards on your computer. (I’ll have to check with my brother, who uses XFCE on one of his laptops, which is on a technical level identical to mine, to see how easy it is under that desktop; obviously, it’s technically possible; I imagine it’s just a question of how easily different desktops enable the functionality.)

Which leads me back to the above-mentioned problem of “what do you do in remote, small villages where you don’t have a corporate office with wifi, motel / B&B internet access is spotty at best, there’s no cell phone coverage, and there are few if any public wifi spots like a restaurant or a public library?”

I just hope that the library’s free wifi isn’t provided by DataValet. 🙂

Free PDF splitters, and other crippleware

Yesterday I downloaded a PDF splitter to use on my MS computer at work. And I got bitten, hard. I wouldn’t exactly call it crippleware; most people expect even crippleware to be minimally useful. This piece was not.

I shall quote the message that I sent to their support email addy:

I am writing to let you know that your free trial download for the PDF splitter is not a useful piece of software at all, for the simple reason that it intentionally and flagrantly renders the split documents useless by inserting the “watermark” — a large message spanning the diagonal of the page, in cherry red characters, saying “in order to remove this message please visit our website” — across every page of the document.


Were it to put a far more discreet message along the top or bottom, this might be tolerable however ugly it would be; however, it is hardly of any value to anyone wishing to take advantage of the “15 free uses” or somesuch in order to evaluate the software before deciding to purchase it; in fact, I expect that most people downloading the evaluation copies are immediately turned off by this malfunction.

Obviously, I don’t expect a response from them, at least not a useful response. Obviously, I would never have bought the software to begin with were I to have had a good experience using the software — I admit it, I’m cheap.

And sure, I should have thought things through a bit better and (as I mention below) install Ghostscript to do the job. Sure, I was in a bind and embarrassed myself and my employer in front of the client.

So of course, the following reactions come to mind:

– What, the programmer(s) wanted to show off their skill at insering “watermarks”, and that are ugly to boot?
– Or did the programmer or company put more thought into the dollar signs floating in front of their eyes than, oh, I don’t know, producing a piece of software that someone may actually wish to buy?
– Or did the Marketing Department convince the programmer’s supervisor that the watermark had to be put in?

And on a personal level:

– I should install ghostscript and run:
“gswin32c -sDEVICE=pdfwrite -dNOPAUSE -dQUIET -dBATCH -dFirstPage=m -dLastPage=n -sOutputFile=out.pdf in.pdf”
– I should stop trying to delude myself that there won’t be an ever increasing number of useless PDF tools out there that require you to buy the product before getting a true evaluation copy;
– When using my work computer, stop using a Windows mentality, and apply a thing or two that I know how to do under linux.

Of course in the short term, what I did was speak with the secretary very nicely, who has Adobe Professional to split the file, and she did.

My point should be clear: If you want to sell your software, go right ahead; I won’t be buying it anyway. And if you want to give away a trial period during which people can, well, try the software, go right ahead; I may try your product during the trial period. But why give a free trial period (in the case above, 15 operations) that reflects poorly on the company and actually annoys your potential customers?

Google Maps seems to need to learn that some streets go East AND West

I think that Google Maps is overlooking a basic function: In the real world, people sometimes go east, and sometimes go west.

Yesterday for the third time in a couple of years I relied upon Google Maps for directions and was sent to the wrong place. Caveat Emptor strikes again.

In Montreal, east-west streets which bisect St. Laurent Boulevard (which, no surprise, goes sort of north-south), start their numbering in both east and west directions from there. Hence you can have two equally valid addresses on a given street, given the proviso that one is designated as “East” and the other “West”. (Hey! It’s Captain Obvious!)

Fortunately, the address I was looking for was 151; during an hour of going around the neighbourhood looking for parking around “151 Laurier” (East as proposed by Google Maps), I found out that that address wasn’t a dépanneur that sells a huge variety of microbrewery beers, and looked like it never was, and finally decided to go further down the street looking for similar businesses. I suddenly had a V-8 moment and realized “Ooops what about 151 Laurier WEST?” I high-tailed it in the opposite direction and found the business in question. And to my disappointment, they were out of the particular beer I was seeking — Weizenbock, by La Brasserie Les Trois Mousquetaires, which has replaced my previous definition of ambrosia, Trois Pistoles by Unibroue.

Twice before I have had similar experiences:

About a year ago, while in Western Canada in completely unfamiliar territory on a business trip, I had looked up a client’s address, and not knowing about any local east/west splits that addresses on the Trans-Canada Highway may have in that locality, I tried to find the address, on the east end of town, that Google Maps had provided; I was about 45 minutes late by the time I finally managed to suspect that my client’s address was a “West” address and got there.

And just to quash any participant in the Peanut Gallery out there about to say “Aha well when using Google Maps you should know that in such cases they’ll always send you to the East address, so be sure to always check both!” a couple of years ago I had looked up a local address for client, and Google sent me to Gouin Boulevard West here in Montreal, a solid 45 minute drive away from my client’s Gouin Boulevard East address.

Now the Peanut Gallery may have a point: In the real world, people sometimes go east, and sometimes go west. And when it comes to using a free online service, you get what you paid for. As such, when looking up an address on any online service, one should notice “Hmmm this is an east-west street which may bisect such and such a street and as such have East addresses and West addresses; I should specify both east and west in my address search.”

But I wonder how many other people place enough faith in Google that under such circumstances — such as when they don’t know that there’s an East and West of a given street — they would reasonably expect in the case that a street has valid East addresses and valid West addresses (and likewise for North and South addresses) that Google’s response page would come back with “Did you mean (A) 151 Laurier East, or did you mean (B) 151 Laurier West?” Certainly Google seems good enough at asking such a question when you slightly misspell a street or city name, or decides that it doesn’t recognize the address you supply and provide you with half a dozen options, as often spread across the country as spread across the city.

Cool (or mundane) computer trick impresses co-worker

I managed to impress someone at the office this week with a cool (read mundane) computer trick.

I got a call from the secretary, who is a few seconds’ walk from my desk, asking for a scanned version of my hand-written signature. I replied that on my computer at home I have it, and I could easily get it within a few minutes; she replies that it would be faster for her to just walk over with a piece of paper for me to sign, which she would then scan and play around with.

And this is where I began to impress her: By the time she got to my desk with said sheet of paper, I had already VNC’d into my home server’s desktop and was in the process of doing the same from the server to my main computer’s desktop (gotta finish the process of giving it a static IP and setting it up so that I don’t have to go through my home server. 🙂 ) I finished logging into my desktop, and looked in the likely directory, and voilà ! I fired up my home email client, and within a couple of minutes, she’d received my scanned signature.

Beyond the fact that the Gnome desktop is set up standard to do VNC — and the fact that I installed TigerVNC instead of using the standard Gnome Remote Desktop Viewer — too bad that I can’t really claim that this is a cool Linux trick, since my computer at work is Windows, and you can set up Windows boxes to “pick up the phone” too ….

She was still impressed, though. And it took about as much time as the whole process of signing a piece of paper, scanning it, cropping it, etc.