Category Archives: blogging

10 Mac alternatives to Windows utilities

I’ve been spending an extended time on the Mac in order to explore Snow Leopard. As far as possible, I’ve done all my work on the Mac since its release. The trial will be over soon … but in the meantime I’m sharing notes on some of the utilities I used for tasks I normally do on Windows, in no particular order.

1 Capturing screenshots

On Windows I press PrintScreen or Alt-PrintScreen (for the current window), then paste into an ancient copy of Paint Shop Pro 5.0 for trimming and re-sizing. No, it’s not PhotoShop, but it loads in a blink.

For the Mac I use Ctrl-Command-Shift-3 (whole screen) or Ctrl-Command-Shift-4 (selectable area) which adds a screenshot to the clipboard. Then I use the latest Preview, which has a File – New from Clipboard option. I love Preview – it has tools for further trimming and resizing, and when you save it shows the file size as you select different formats. Since I often want to minimise the size for a web page, it’s ideal.

2 Secure file transfer

I avoid FTP for security reasons, so on Windows I normally use WinSCP for secure file transfer.

On the Mac I use Fugu, and of the two I prefer it.

3 Word processing

On Windows I use Microsoft Word. On the Mac I mainly use NeoOffice, which actually felt a bit nicer than its parent, OpenOffice. I also spent some time with Word 2008 (good for compatibility, but slow) and Apple’s Pages from iWork 09. One nice feature of Pages, for journalism, is the stats window that shows the word count as you type.

4 Web browsing

I used Safari, in order to get the most complete Apple experience. I’m getting to like the Top Sites feature, though it’s hardly essential, especially the way it shows at a glance which pages have changed.

5 Sound editing

On Windows I use Audacity. On the Mac I use … Audacity, though for some reason I found it slightly less smooth.

6 Playing FLAC

Apple is still stubbornly refusing to support FLAC in iTunes or Quicktime. My solution was Songbird, a great alternative, which supports FLAC straight out of the box, or rather download.

For converting to FLAC I used MacFLAC, though I found it less than robust. I missed dbPowerAmp (Windows).

7 Remote desktop

I find Remote Desktop invaluable for managing servers. On the Mac I used the official Remote Desktop client, which worked well though it falls slightly short of the Windows version (perhaps this is a policy!).

8 Twitter

I use Twhirl on both Mac and Windows, an Adobe AIR application. One oddity (getting picky): the font spacing is slightly better on Windows. In the word Blog, for example, there is too much space between the B and the l, but only on the Mac.

9 Email

I never thought I’d say I missed Outlook, but I did. The thing is, after much experimentation I’ve found a permutation that works really well on Windows: 64-bit Windows and Outlook 2007 SP2 in online mode (only for a desktop, of course).

On the Mac I use Mail, but I’ve found it less than satisfactory even though I run Exchange 2007 with all the required configuration.

10 Blog authoring

On Windows I use Live Writer, which is superb.

On the Mac I write posts (like this one) in the WordPress online editor. I don’t like it as much, but it does the job.

11 Bridge

Now this one is a problem :-). I find JackBridge ideal for those moments when I need a break from work. It won this year’s World Champion computer bridge contest.

The Mac is not so well served, but I have trialled Bridge Baron and found it not bad at all.

More RSS madness from Microsoft – this time it’s Live Mail

Once upon a time I was enthusiastic about the “common feed list” in Windows. I thought there was all sorts of potential for sharing and synchronizing content across the network. When it was introduced, Microsoft called it the Windows RSS Platform, though it gets installed as part of IE7.

What’s curious is that even Microsoft doesn’t seem to use the platform in the way it was (presumably) intended. I opened up Windows Live Mail 2009 today (I use it only occasionally as a newsgroup reader), and was puzzled to see 6724 unread feed items.

What’s going on? Well, I use the IE7 feed list and access it either in IE7 or in my own home-brew reader, which uses the COM API to the common feed list.

Windows Live Mail had grabbed the list of feeds and made its own copy of all the data. Am I sure? Yes, first because of this suspicious option in Live Mail:

“When deleting a feed here, also delete it from your Internet Explorer feed list” – implying synchronization, not a common database. Note also the jargon; the Live Mail folk clearly think of this as a feature of IE, not a feature of Windows.

I also took a look in:

C:\Users\USERNAME\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows Live Mail\Your Feeds\

and there is was, a copy of all the entries in X-MimeOLE format. The real common feed list, by contrast, is stored in:


It is not quite as bad as it first appears. When I chose to sync the feeds in Live Mail, the unread items synchronized with those in IE7. I am also hopeful that the data is only retrieved from the Internet once. though it is hard to be sure. A quick experiment suggests that if you delete a feed in IE7, it stays in Live Mail, though it no longer updates (one or other of these facts could be a bug). If you delete a feed in Live Mail it is deleted from IE7 unless, presumably, the box in the dialog above is checked.

The Outlook team made a similar error, but worse, because the feeds end up messing up your Exchange mailbox as well.

So why doesn’t Live Mail simply present a view of the common feed list, like my home-brew reader? Well, maybe the API is not robust or fast enough. The solution then is to fix the common feed list, not to do all this error-prone synchronization.

The whole thing would make more sense if the feed list was synchronized with the cloud, so that I could also read my feeds on the Web, in the style of Google Reader. Despite the name, Live Mail seems thoroughly bound to the desktop. It is simply an update to Outlook Express.

2008 on IT Writing: browser and OS stats, plus what you’ve been reading

There were 780,000 unique visitors to this site in 2008, according to my stats, up from 650,000 in 2007.

OS stats

Windows 80.5% (down from 82.1%)

Mac 4.2% (up from 4%)

Linux 4.1% (up from 3.5%)

Browser stats

IE 51.5% (down from 58.8%)

Firefox 25.3% (up from 20.5%)

Opera 4.1% (up from 3.2%)

Safari 2.8% (up from 2.5%)

Chrome 0.6% (new, not available all year)

Most read 2008 posts

Note: some of the most-read posts in 2008 were published in 2007 or earlier, including Outlook is slow, RSS broken (complete with 188 comments), and Annoying Word 2007 problem – can’t select text (248 comments) – both examples of users searching for fixes to problems with Microsoft software.

From 2008, these were the 10 most read:

Fixing wifi on Asus Eee PC 901 with Linux

Vista SP1 vs Server 2008 as a desktop OS: more comparisons

Why I can’t use Microsoft Live search for real work (I now think some of the problems mentioned in this post are to do with inappropriate localization)

More Silverlight, Visual Studio setup hassles

VirtualBox is amazing, 50% faster than Virtual PC on my PC (intriguing as a recent review I saw claimed that Virtual PC is actually faster than VirtualBox).

CNN Daily Top 10 spam shows failure of user education

Changing the motherboard or storage controller underneath Windows XP and Vista

What’s new in Delphi 2009

Counting Primes in Flash and Silverlight (see also tests for Alchemy, JavaFX and Chrome)

Debugging PHP code to fix a WordPress problem

and finally

Thanks for reading in 2008, and Happy New Year. I may do a more general review of 2008 if I can find the time before it is too late!

WordPress company acquiring IntenseDebate, makes a blog into a forum

I was glad to see on Matt Mullenweg’s blog that Automattic, the WordPress company, is acquiring IntenseDebate. I’m not actually familiar with the product, but the features it promises address an obvious deficiency in WordPress: the comment system. IntenseDebate adds features including comment threading, reputation points, comment widgets, and Twitter, FriendFeed and email integration.

I’ve been conscious of several comment-related problems on this blog.

I have a few posts that have tons of comments. Most of these are about technical problems which affect a lot of people: they Google the problem to find the post. Once a discussion gets beyond about 50 posts it is hard to find the most useful content quickly. Examples:

Annoying Word 2007 problem: can’t select text (210 comments)

Outlook 2007 is slow, RSS broken (186 comments)

Fixing wi-fi on an Asus Eee PC 901 with Linux (60 comments)

Adobe CS3 won’t install (79 comments, hope CS4 is better!)

At this stage, the blog has become in effect a forum. Of course there is already excellent forum software out there; but it is no good telling people to go away and use a forum instead; maybe it’s OK that blogs and forums are becoming almost the same thing (most forums can also be used as blog feeds).

Sometimes the comments are more interesting than the original post, particularly when someone close to the subject of the post replies. I suspect such comments do not get the readership they deserve, because we are all busy and just scan the headlines. A comment widget might help with this.

An aside about reputation points. These are pretty much essential when there are lots of comments; sites like slashdot depend on them (though in that case you have to be a moderator to score comments). That said, it is an imperfect system. My posts on The Register are now scored by readers (though most seem not to bother); and I’m not sure whether they primarily measure the quality of the article, or the extent to which the reader agrees. As with Wikipedia, these things promote the wisdom of the crowd; overall it is more healthy than not, but the crowd is not always right.

WordPress permalinks broke my RSS feed

I am beginning to regret my pretty permalinks. Apparently it broke the RSS feed for some subscribers. The problem was caused by a combination of factors. When I started this blog, I used a different blog engine; and when I migrated to WordPress I fixed it so that the old feed URL still worked. Moving to pretty permalinks broke that feed, although the normal WordPress feeds still worked. There was no error; the feed was just empty. The reason it broke is … something to do with redirects. Fixed now.

Apologies if this affected you – I have not been as quiet as you may have thought.

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Pretty permalinks improve stats reporting

Last month I reconfigured this blog to use WordPress pretty permalinks. I didn’t rush to do this because I don’t mind the default, where the post is identified by a numeric url argument. The new permalinks do look nicer though, and some claim they help search engines, though I haven’t noticed any impact on traffic. The old links still work as well, so nothing got broken.

One advantage of the new arrangement is that awstats does a better job of reporting page views. I can now easily see which posts are the most read. I thought that might be the newer posts, but it is not. The two posts most read last month, by some margin, are both on why Outlook 2007 is slow. The next is one on trouble installing Adobe CS3. Clearly, these are very common frustrations; users hit Google and these posts have a high ranking for these particular subjects.

I value these stats. They tell me (as if I did not already know) that Microsoft has a significant problem with Outlook 2007 performance; and that Adobe needs to work on its installer for Creative Suite. Web 2.0 is great for product feedback.

A real-world account of Google Adsense – and it doesn’t look good

Advertising is “the economic engine that powers the Web”, according to Microsoft’s Ray Ozzie. Google’s rapid ascendancy, enabled by advertising revenue, is the primary evidence for this. That said, Rick Strahl’s post on Google advertising highlights several problems with Google’s approach. It is about Adsense, the mechanism by which third-party sites (like this one) host Google advertising. When someone clicks an ad, Google gets paid, and an undisclosed percentage of the fee goes to the site owner.

Strahl runs a small business and uses Google both as advertiser and web site owner. He’s puzzled by the stats he’s gathered at both ends. As advertiser, he says that 30-40% of his hits come from link parking sites, plus another 10% which have no referrer, and reckons that these hits are worthless and in many cases possibly fraudulent. That’s up to 50% of wasted ad spend. Google tells him there is no way to opt out of link parking sites, other than by excluding specific sites; but since there are thousands of such sites and they change constantly, that is impractical.

At the other end, Strahl sees frequent deductions from the clicks on his own site, presumably on the basis that they are fraudulent or accidental (such as robot clicks). In fact, deductions from his site, which he controls and which has good, genuine content, appear to be far higher than those from the link parking sites which have no real content at all. In other words, Google seems happier to make deductions from what it pays to him, than from what he pays to Google.

He’s also curious about the ad bidding process, which always seems to end up charging him the maximum possible.

It’s possible that he has some of this wrong; but there is no way to audit Google’s figures:

In the end it feels like black magic. Google (and other advertisers as well to be fair) control the process so completely that if there’s any foul play either on Google’s part or for cheating publishers that contest clicks on the other end there’s almost no real way to tell that it’s happening and unless you have the time to keep very close tabs on it there’s no way to follow the money all the way through – on both ends. And who has that kind of time?

I find this unsurprising. The pay-per-click model has always seemed to me far too vulnerable to abuse, especially bearing in mind all those botnets. Who pays for any fraud? Not Google, but Google’s customers, the advertisers.

Some level of click fraud is inevitable, but Google’s willingness to let any old worthless bot-driven link parking site run Adsense ads is a disgrace. This stuff poisons the web, because it provides a financial incentive to post junk.

Advertisers can opt-out of Adsense, by disabling the “content network” for the ads they place. If enough advertisers do this, Google will take note.

Disclosure and to add a personal note: I am an Adsense publisher, though not an advertiser. I also use Blogads, which to my mind has a better business model for advertisers, since they specify exactly which sites they wish to use. In addition, I get to approve each ad, whereas with Adsense I have to take whatever comes. The snag is, Blogads is tiny in comparison to Google, which can seemingly always supply ads for my site.

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Fixing Server 2003: reprise after two and a half years

Sometimes the Internet reminds me of Tony Hancock’s Blood Donor. You post advice when you have it, and take it back when you need it.

It was like that last night. I am following my own advice and weeding out any instances where username/password combinations are transmitted in plain text. Occasionally I send mail via Exchange as an SMTP server, so I’ve now configured this to use TLS (Transport Layer Security).

All went well until a fatal reboot produced event 32777: The LSA was unable to register its RPC interface over the TCP/IP interface. This is nasty, and causes a host of further errors which pretty much kill networking on the box. I have no idea what provoked it.

Fortunately I’ve had this before – two and a half years ago. Last time I used the blunt instrument of a repair install, but by going back to my earlier post and reading the comments I was able to apply fix this quickly:

  • Change the logon of the RPC service to Local System, as a temporary fix to networking
  • Make changes to local security policy (domain controller policy in this case): Add Adminstrators and Service to the Create Global Objects and Impersonate client after authentication in User Rights Assignment
  • Change the logon of the RPC service back to NT AUTHORITY\Network Service

All very obscure and the kind of thing you have little chance of working out for yourself. It is all to do with changes made by Server 2003 SP1 which appear to break important stuff in some circumstances.

Why not Server 2008? All in good time.

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2007: the most commented posts, and a bit of blog introspection

Here are the posts that received the most comments on this year:

Vista display driver takes a break (220 comments)

Outlook 2007 is slow, RSS broken (173 comments)

Annoying Word 2007 problem- can’t select text (101 comments)

Why Outlook 2007 is slow- Microsoft’s official answer (95 comments)

Adobe CS3 won’t install (35 comments)

Delphi for PHP first impressions (33 comments)

Irony: Outlook Web Access more usable than Outlook (29 comments)

Audio in Vista- more hell than heaven (25 comments)

How to speed up Vista- disable the slow slow search (24 comments)

Adobe AIR- 10 reasons to love it, 10 reasons to hate it (24 comments)

Ubuntu Desktop not used in business (21 comments)

Miguel de Icaza on ODF vs OOXML (19 comments)

Visual Studio 6 on Vista (16 comments)

Microsoft Silverlight vs Adobe Flex (16 comments)

Vista vs XP performance- some informal tests (14 comments)

Slow Outlook 2007- the comments keep coming (14 comments)

This is mostly down to Google, everyone’s favourite source of tech support. The most commented posts are about problems with Windows and Office, and reflect the number of people searching for a solution who land up on this blog. Only a tiny proportion of readers actually post a comment, so the top few posts above are evidence of a large amount of frustration.

I highly value the comments, especially when they form a reply or clarification from the organization which is the subject of the post – like this one from Zoho.

A few more stats

FireFox usage has increased from 14% in 2006 to 20% in 2007.

The biggest source of incoming links is

The five top search keywords are: 2007, Outlook, Vista, Slow and .NET.

A bit of introspection

I enjoy doing this blog and web site, though there are a couple of frustrations. One is that I have more material than I get time to write up. Another is that while the ads on the site pay for the hosting, they don’t do much more than that, and I would like to find a way to make web self-publishing viable.

I also muse over whether the range of subjects here is too broad. I post in three broad categories:

  • Software development
  • Problem solving
  • Anything that interests me in the tech world

Most of the subscribers to the blog probably want what is in the first category, especially as it is in this area that I can supply the most original content, sourced from interviews or conferences. The problem solving posts find a different readership via Google. My good intentions to narrow the focus more towards programming fall away when I have some other topic I want to write about, though I do keep it strictly to tech-related topics.

Update: fixed the list (missed a few)

.NET history: Smack as well as Cool

Microsoft’s Jason Zander comments on my piece on the early history of ASP.NET:

  • The CLR was actually built out of the COM+ team as an incubation starting in late 1996.  At first we called it the “Component Object Runtime” or COR.  That’s why several of the unmanaged DLL methods and environment variables in the CLR start with the Cor prefix.
  • There were several language projects underway at the start.  The C++ and languages teams both had ideas (Cool was one of them), and in the CLR we wrote Simple Managed C or SMC (pronounced ‘smack’).  We actually wrote the original BCL in SMC.

He says these are corrections though they seem more like supplementary information to me. I don’t have any inside knowledge of this history other than what people who should know say to me (though I do also have my own recollections of what was said publicly). He may be reacting to the idea that the CLR came out of the VB team, which Mark Anders kind-of implied.

One of the reasons I love blogging is that multiple authors can have a crack at getting the facts right. A great personal example is when I asked the question Who invented the wizard; and a good candidate came forward over a year later. If you see something inaccurate or misleadingly incomplete on this site, please do comment or let me know by email.

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