Writing ... or Just Practicing?

Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Image-inary Complexity

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    Like most computer geeks, my needs are simple and few - a quad core box with a big disk, a decent connection to the 'Net, plus occasional injections of coffee and cold pizza. My daily bread-winning tasks generally involve only three applications: Outlook, Word, and Internet Explorer. Perhaps, when I feel exceptionally expressive, Visio might have an airing; though it's generally limited to a few boxes and arrows in boring colors.

    However, even though I spend most of my time buried deep in some crosscutting technology or structural architecture implementation, now and then I have to come up for air and get involved with documenting stuff that users can actually see. Which means I need to be able to capture screenshots of UI applications, and then massage them into a state that makes them suitable for inclusion in our documentation. For more years than I care to recall, I've used Paint Shop Pro for this. I started with version 2, and gradually upgraded to version 4. With the various fixes and updates, installing it involves three steps: install version 4.0, install the upgrade pack to version 4.1, and then install the 4.1 to 4.2 upgrade pack. It's a pain, but fairly quick and only required when I buy a new machine.

    But now I'm on 64-bit Windows 7. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but increasingly I'm finding "issues" with programs that I know and love; amongst them, Paint Shop Pro. Trying to install it just gives an error message saying that it is "not compatible with this version of Windows". Maybe the code does something evil I never knew about, or Windows simply considers software that old as not worthy of a shiny new operating system. Or it could just be the way it had been compiled. A colleague mumbled something about byte alignment (and I even managed to refrain from making dentist jokes).

    Anyway, the result is that I needed to find some other tool that can do screen capture, cropping, resizing, basic editing, color reduction, and basic filtering (such as sharpen and de-speckle). So, in some unaccountable fit of wild optimism, I went online and purchased a copy of the latest version of Paint Shop Pro - now called "Corel Paint Shop Pro Photo". I've been using it for a few weeks, yet I still haven't figured out how 90% of it works. Even the simplest task seems to involve three extra mouse clicks and a search through the help file.

    I've purposely avoided trying to learn programs such as Corel Draw and Adobe PhotoShop in the past because they were way too complex for my simple requirements. But they've managed to stuff so many things into the new version of Paint Shop Pro that it bears almost no relation to my old version. I suppose over time I'll come to appreciate the powerful features and additional capabilities. Maybe I can get a job moonlighting as a photographer just to recover the cost. But what's really annoying is my own inconsistency. I've regularly grumbled about how software is becoming so simplified that even stupid people can use it; yet here I am moaning about an application that actually does give you complete control over every aspect of the process.

    And what makes it worse is that - after spending $100 - I discover that the version of Paint included in Windows 7 does pretty much everything I need.

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Sock It to Me

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    I was rather concerned to discover this week how little I know about socks. I have a colleague who is a sock expert - even to the extent of knitting her own in a most startling range of textures, colors, and styles. But it's not a topic that I personally considered to be vital information for life. OK, so I've been wearing them for more than 50 years, but - other than when playing rugby or being a boy scout - I've stuck with just plain boring black ones on the grounds that the daily foot adornment process then consists of simply grabbing any two from the sock drawer and putting them on.

    So you can imagine the shock when I watched my wife pairing up a pile of freshly laundered socks to see her carefully examining each one for the almost indiscernible "Pringle" logo and then dividing them into two separate heaps. Fascinated by the process, I eventually had to ask what she was doing. "I'm separating them into left and right ones", she informed me - with one of those "isn't it obvious" looks. Oh dear - it seems that I've I've been wandering around the world blatantly displaying my hosiery ignorance to all. Image the embarrassment when I realized that everyone has been able to see that my sock logos were facing the wrong way.

    But I suppose it's only another indication of all the stuff I really ought to know about, but haven't managed to keep up with. I've been reading about some of the exciting new features being punted for future (post 4.0) versions of ASP.NET and the .NET Framework, and with horror realized that I know almost nothing about many of the exciting new ones that were introduced in version 3.5 - never mind version 4.0. In the years I spent as an itinerant author and conference speaker, I specialized in ASP.NET. But since becoming a full time p&p-er, and spending what seems like my whole life delving into the internal workings of Enterprise Library and Unity, I've trailed way behind. Yes, I know about AJAX and MVC, though most of my practical experience with them was creating custom implementations to achieve the same result before .NET 3.0 even appeared.

    This fear of being left behind is common in our industry, and often the "new and scary stuff" turns out to be reasonably easy to grasp when you actually come to play with it. Most is evolution rather than revolution, and existing knowledge generally smoothes the path for getting up to speed. As an example, I've been somewhat slow in learning about WCF, but a requirement to implement some services with custom instance contexts for a recent project meant that I had to catch up quickly. Expecting to spend a frustrating week on it, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I had something working after only one day's concerted effort.

    Maybe it's just an irrational fear of being overwhelmed. If you read Scott Guthrie's blog, you probably saw this post that, amongst other topics, discusses the constant changes occurring in the technology industry. It's certainly worth reading - even if his group is one of those responsible for the irrational fears! Make sure you read points "d" and "e" in the first section. And I especially liked his comment that "you will rarely win a debate with someone by telling them that they are stupid".

    Even if you are a sock expert...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    In Search Of An Up-to-Date Definition

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    Maybe we've just been lucky with car insurance. When somebody reversed into the side of my wife's parked car some weeks ago, our insurance company sorted it all out with one phone call, got the car fixed within a week, and even aggressively pursued the other insurance company to get the excess we paid refunded. Somewhat different to a friend's experience where their budget insurer led them a merry dance for several weeks, and left them severely out of pocket at the end. After paying the premiums for years, they suddenly discovered they were barely covered for anything.

    But I've just had a similar experience with virus and malware protection. I've suffered over the years with the well-known issues surrounding many of the mainstream AV packages, such as instability, incompatibilities, and hassle installing and removing them; though newer versions have resolved a lot of these problems. Mostly I've tended to use packages such as CA, Norton, Avast, and AVG. However, since becoming a 'Softie, I've been forcibly migrated to the arms of our own threat management suite, Forefront.

    We have our own custom installer for Forefront, which connects the client application to the backend big iron that hosts the management infrastructure; and on my corporate domain-connected machine it seems to work fine. But installing the stand-alone client on other machines has been an interesting revelation in how we depend on stuff that may not actually be doing anything. For example, I just clicked "Update definitions" in Forefront, and it says I have the latest definitions installed. Yet when I go to the Malware Protection Center it tells me that there have been five new versions since then, and my current version is at least two days out of date. There are over 90 new threats identified since the version I've got installed. But clicking "Update definitions" does nothing.

    Mind you, I suspect it's partly to do with the fact that it keeps trying to send packets out through some weird ports, and my network firewall just bats them back again. The log full of connection errors would tend to confirm this, and probably not being able to talk to its big iron is not helping the situation. Though it's not just Forefront that seems to have had issues - the Windows Defender installation on a couple of Vista machines suddenly decided some months back that it was fed up downloading updates, and just stopped doing so.

    So, on all of these machines, I've switched to the new Microsoft Security Essentials package, and so far it seems to do what it should - though I notice that scans and definition updates only seem to spring into life when the machine is reasonably idle. My wife has a habit of switching on, doing her email, then immediately powering off again, and I generally find I need to turn the thing on while she's out to get it up to date. Last week it suddenly started flashing red and complaining that the definitions were a week out of date. Yet it refused to do anything about it despite being left it in peace for an hour to do its internal housekeeping. It looks like it doesn't attempt to "catch up" if it missed a scheduled scan by running one as soon as possible afterwards (which you'd assume it would do). And when you start a manual scan, it doesn't automatically download the latest definition files first. So even if my wife had decided to click the "Scan now" button - and, let's face it, why would she - it would scan using definition files seven days out of date.

    But what really annoyed me was that my locked down Web browser machine, which runs 24 hours a day and is mostly idling, suddenly popped up a warning that Forefront had out of date definitions. On investigating the stored definition files, it seems like it hasn't actually updated since November! Yet the Windows event log is full of blue "information" entries describing how hard it's working to protect my machine. So then I looked at the virus definition updates in my local Windows Software Update Service (WSUS), which religiously downloads Forefront updates every night (all 80MB, and there's usually three of them).

    Amazingly, all of these are marked as "Not Applicable" for all of my machines. Obviously Forefront, unlike Windows Defender, doesn't look in WSUS - but goes direct to somewhere else. I wonder how much bandwidth I've wasted in the last year downloading these. That reassuring green tick in WSUS for the machines, which I assumed meant I was fully patched and up to date, means nothing in terms of malware and virus protection. It seems like every machine on the network needs to download its own copy of the definitions every time. But maybe that's better from a security perspective.

    So now I'm migrating all of the non-domain-joined machines to Security Essentials, and my daily task before using each machine is to click the "Update" and "Scan now" links. Maybe the dev team for Security Essentials will help out by adding an option that you can set so it will download definitions and scan immediately if it missed a scheduled one. And one more thing guys, how about allowing us to schedule a mixture of scans? A quick scan every day and a full scan every week, for example.

    Then, after all this fun, I decided the next morning to have a more thorough look at the "dangerous" software installed on my wife's laptop and my Web browsing box. I have to say I wasn't prepared for the horrors I found. On the laptop Firefox was still version 3.0.6, Flash was a year out of date, Adobe Reader was two whole versions past its sell-by date, Shockwave at least two minor releases out of kilter (it was only recently installed), and Java a whole version number adrift. On my Web browser box Firefox was still an old version 3.5 release, and Adobe Reader required the latest updates (which I've actually been telling friends and neighbors to make sure they install on their home machines).

    The reason is, of course, that none of this stuff auto-updates when you are running as a non-admin user. OK, so you can't run Windows Update as a non-admin, but it does do it in the background automatically. Firefox grays out the "Check for updates" menu option, so you might think all is well and it's looking after you in the background. Nope - you need to log in as an administrator to be able to click the menu link, and to actually perform the update. The same seems to apply to Adobe Reader, though it removes the "Check for updates" link rather than disabling it. And what about Flash, Shockwave, Java, and all the other weird extensions that seem to be indispensible for Web browsing these days? How do I check if they're up to date? In the end, I just logged in as an admin, went to the respective sites, and installed the latest versions over the top of what was already there. Though there's probably some I missed because I've never heard of them before...

    I guess it's interesting to ponder over whether software should update itself automatically. Obviously the O/S needs to in order to protect the less technical users (the computing majority). But should other programs do this? For example, I wouldn't expect my text editor (TextPad) or picture editor (PaintShop Pro) to do this. I run versions that are well out of date on some machines because they do what I need and I can't justify buying and learning a new version. But stuff that exposes me to risk, such as Web browsers, email clients, and the associated browsing junk, surely should auto-update - at least to resolve security vulnerabilities.

    OK, so maybe there's a problem with them not being able to access the system if the updates aren't delivered through Microsoft Update. I did read a couple of blog posts that suggested the answer is to give all user accounts write and modify permission for your Program Files folder tree, but I'm not convinced that's a great plan. Though whether it introduces more risk than running out of date browser and Web software that has known vulnerabilities is an interesting question.

    Maybe I'm just naive, but why doesn't software that may expose you to risk simply pop up a warning when it's out of date but can't automatically update? I suppose there's the risk that users could be fooled into trying to install some malware that pretends to be an "essential update for your system". The problem is that the current situation seems to be full of holes, and maybe it's no wonder that viruses and malware continue to flourish and spread. Still, hopefully after this round of updates I'm covered for the time being.

    Or until somebody reverses into the side of my server cabinet...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Cum On Feel The Noize

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    Why is it that the U.S. manufacturing industry seems unable to make anything with an electric motor in it that works without generating enough noise to wake the dead (or, at least, the sleeping)? Its 2:00 AM in the morning, so the bathroom light has been turned off for more than three hours. And I'm not much in the mood for a Margarita, so I can quite happily manage without a constant supply of ice cubes. Though, as it's about 40 degrees (F) outside, I would like to have some heating please...

    Yes, as you may have guessed, I've done the 22 hours end-to-end trip to the Mother Ship again, and am comfortably ensconced in a not exactly salubrious hotel room just outside Redmond for a couple of weeks as we get ready to toss the first Beta version of Enterprise Library 5.0 out into the arms of the baying public. And it's certainly fortuitous that I remembered to bring my airplane passenger earplugs within me.

    In my little rented room, there's an air conditioner/heater, a large fridge/freezer, and a bathroom extractor fan. It seems like it's totally impossible to stop the bathroom extractor fan running - even if you turn out all the lights and sit in the dark for an hour. And the ice-maker in the freezer is designed to make clattering noises even when it's turned off and not actually making any ice. The fridge, freezer, and room heater motors are also obviously interconnected. As one switches off another one starts so that, together with the ever-active extractor fan, they provide a fascinating and ever-changing combination of whirring, clattering, rumbling, humming, and rattling noises.

    OK, so I come from a somewhat backward area of the world (England) where we don't believe in air conditioning, and we have a gas boiler hidden away in the garage rather than electric fan heaters, but - as a civilization - we have advanced far enough to have a fridge, a freezer, and bathrooms with extractor fans. The fridge and freezer in our house are more than ten years old, yet still only emit a very faint hum. And the extractor fan turns off after five minutes. Even the central heating pump, located in cupboard next to the bedroom, generates an only just perceptible whirring noise.

    Yes I can unplug my hotel room fridge at night (a procedure I've carried out during my last several stays here), and shut the bathroom door. But, even though I come from what we in England call "Oop North", where we're supposedly hardy enough to withstand the cold, I'm not hugely keen on waking up in the morning with icicles on my eyebrows like you see on those polar exploration documentaries. In fact, in relation to the geography of the UK, I really live in the North Midlands - so I'm nowhere near as hardy as many of the other more remote inhabitants of our tiny island group.

    It's a well-known fact that Geordies go to local football matches in mid Winter (and in Russia when they're playing away) wearing just a Newcastle United tee-shirt. And the people of South Wales go shopping at Tesco in their pyjamas in the middle of the coldest Winter nights (see this BBC News story if you don't believe me). Meanwhile, Scotsmen quite happily run round on top of hills throwing cabers as part of the Highland games wearing (supposedly) just a kilt as a nether-regions windbreak.

    Mind you, I did bring my MP3 player and noise-reducing headphones with me, so maybe I should just go out and buy one of those "relaxation" CDs. The sounds of waves breaking on a distant beach, or birdsong, or whales serenading each other hundreds of miles apart, perhaps. I suppose I could even go the whole hog and buy a DVD of a roaring log fire to play on the TV in the room, just to complete the effect of a nice cozy retreat away from home. Though the crackling noise would probably keep me awake.

    Oh, and this week's title? Check out this page.

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