Monthly Archives: August 2007

Uncategorized

Watch out for OCS filtering file transfers

I’m working on an Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007 pilot right now and have started to use Office Communicator 2007. I’m really impressed (and will write something soon about the whole unified communications setup – including voice and e-mail integration); however two things that tripped me up were the addition of a _ prefix on URLs to prevent them from being clickable (just something to bear in mind when sending instructions to someone via IM) and the filtering of attachments during file transfers.

Neither of these are new features but the file transfer filtering caught me out twice when I thought someone had sent me a Windows registry (.reg) file (it had been turned into a text file contain the text “This attachment was removed.”) and then when another colleague sent me a compressed folder (.zip file) containing an ASP.NET website that I needed to deploy, only for me to find that even though the compressed folder had the complete file structure in its index certificates (.cer/.p7b files), .vb and .js files had all been removed and were not available for extraction.

I’m pretty sure that this behaviour can be changed if required (I’m not sure if it’s granular enough to change on a personal/team/company/public basis) but nevertheless it’s something to be aware of.

Site notices

Mark’s (we)Blog 2.0

Just under six months ago, I changed hosting providers and moved this blog from Blogger to WordPress. Ever since then it’s been tagged as Mark’s (we)Blog [v2.0β] but the time has come to remove the beta tag… after all I’m just one bloke doing this in his (limited) spare time so things are unlikely to ever be “finished” to the standard I would like!

So, after a few months of running the site on WordPress, were my initial impressions valid? Was it all worth it?

Yes, I think. It’s been hard work getting everything working the way I like it – I’ve had to edit every single post, categorising them and correcting markup issues (my own fault for not writing decent XHTML in the first place, although in the case of embedded video clips I’ve actually had to regress to a non-compliant solution).

Then, as I’ve edited every post there have been hundreds of pingback comments to approve (remembering to update the date and time on the comment to match when the post was originally published).

Editing the template to suit my needs has been great fun (and has really helped bring on my CSS skills) – Andreas Viklund (who wrote the original template) was very helpful in providing me with his original photograph so that I could produce a larger version (with help from my friend Alex) after I increased the width of the content. Alex also helped me out with a cell spacing issue on the few occasions where I used tables (in a semantically correct manner) with a little-known piece of CSS (<a href="http://www.webdeveloper.com/forum/showthread.php?t=2798">border-collapse: collapse;</a>).

One of the great things about WordPress is the extensibility of the platform – there are hundreds of plugins available and it’s these plugins that have allowed me to extend the functionality of the site, adding features such as external link highlighting, category tagging and control over meta tags (although I have stopped using others, such as Adsense-Deluxe as I found I could achieve the same result by editing my WordPress template) – at the time of writing, this is the list of plugins that I’m using:

There were also some other sites that provided advice/material for the site’s development (but not plugins):

There’s also really good support documentation for implementing code changes such as conditional tags (e.g. to allow sponsors’ advertisements to only appear on certain pages); however getting meaningful responses on the WordPress support forums can be pretty sporadic.

Of course, there is a downside to running on a self-hosted platform (cf. WordPress.com, Blogger, etc.) – I need to patch the software myself. Luckily, my web hosting provider uses the Fantastico system for installing popular applications (including WordPress) and I can use that to apply updates too (although even Fantastico is not immune from some issues… as I found when I upgraded to WordPress 2.2 – more on that in a moment).

I’ve also learnt some tricks along the way and I think it’s only fair that I post them here:

  • Firstly, after importing a large number of posts, I wanted to change the author. I can’t do that in bulk from within WordPress; however I did find a reference to using PHPMyadmin to run a SQL query and change the author for all posts on the database matching certain criteria – the query I ran in the SQL tab was UPDATE wp_posts SET wp_posts.post_author = "2" WHERE (((wp_posts.post_author)="1"));, where “2” is the ID of the new author and “1” is the ID of the current author.
  • Another day, after making a mistake editing the comment submission code, I found that all of the new comments were being attached to one post. I needed to move the comments to the correct posts by browsing the wp_comments table and editing the corresponding comment_post_id.
  • I also wanted to display the allowed (X)HTML for comments and didn’t know the correct function call (it’s &lt;?php echo allowed_tags(); ?&gt;), then, to change the tags that are allowed, I needed to edit the kses.php file (and will need to keep that updated after WordPress upgrades).
  • I’ve also found that, although I had my permalink structure set to /%year%/%monthnum%/%postname%.htm in order to maintain the links from the old (Blogger) site, the postname is defined by the slug and the slug must be unique for the entire site, so some posts have had -2 added to the end of their name (I used .htaccess redirects to manage this but didn’t spot the changes until after Googlebot had reported the links as not found).

It’s not all been plain sailing though.

  • For example, I found that not all of my comments had been transferred from the old site and had to copy and paste the missing ones manually, then go back and edit the author details, date and time. Then, there was a period of about a month when I couldn’t generate pingbacks (nor could certain friends leave a comment) – it turned out to be caused by a single comment which was accidentally dated in the future and once that was changed everything jumped into life.
  • Then, there is the blog spam, thankfully handled pretty well by Akismet although I no longer have time to check for false positives.
  • The built-in WordPress search function does not seem to work as well as the Google Search facility that I provided on the old site. I hoped that adding the full text search for the related posts plugin (ALTER TABLE `wp_posts` ADD FULLTEXT `post_related` (`post_name` ,`post_content`)) would improve this but it doesn’t seem to have helped.
  • Also, after the WordPress 2.2 upgrade, I noticed that characters like the UK currency symbol (£) were appearing as odd characters – a simple edit to the wp-config.php fixed that issue (commenting out define('DB_CHARSET', 'utf8'); and define('DB_COLLATE', '');) – further explanation of this fix can be found at My Digital Life although I haven’t been brave enough to convert the character set and collation yet.

I got there in the end – all the posts have categories assigned and I’m pretty sure that most of the CSS bugs are fixed now so am glad to say that the site is out of beta. Out of beta – but never finished!

So, that’s v2.0 but what next? Well, there are a few bugs that I’ve not yet fixed:

  • The print stylesheet does not work consistently across browsers
  • Some graphics are wider than the main content column and need to be resized.
  • External link identification is not accurate with .co.uk sites (and Internet Explorer places the external link icon in the wrong place)
  • Some graphics used for tracking page impressions (for advertisements) need to be removed.

I may also provide options for alternative themes (I particularly like Dean Robinson’s redoable theme), I’d like to sort out the poor searching, there are some accessibility and user experience enhancements that I’d like to implement and I’m bound to spot more snazzy plug-ins to add to the site. I’d like to use my own photos in the masthead and I also need to do some code optimisation as the page load times are a bit high and my bandwidth usage is rising faster than planned (more visitors are a good thing and ascomi are always happy to help out when I get close to my bandwidth limit but I’d like to bring it back under control).

I always like to hear from people who use the site – feel free to contact me and suggest enhancements, or to provide feedback/bug reports on the site.

Now, if only I could think of a better name than Mark’s (we)Blog (which was only ever intended as a working title and more than three years later it still hasn’t been replaced)! Any ideas? How about “Confessions of an infrastructure architect: echo $HEAD > dev/web”?

Uncategorized

Quick guide to getting video content onto an iPod

Apple iTunes can play back a variety of video formats but the iPod (5th generation) and Apple TV each have their own limitations and only play videos that are created in specific formats. I understand that not all codecs will be available for all platforms but I’m a techie and it’s taken me a lot of time to work out what can and can’t work on my iPod. And yes, the the iPod may only have a 320×240 pixel QVGA screen but it can play back at larger resolutions using the iPod AV cable (or another cable if you can get it to work) – it might not look great on a high definition display but I only have standard definition TVs and it’s perfectly good enough for them (sure, there are a few compression artefacts but I get them with satellite TV too).

I’ve been fighting with video incompatibilities for a few days now and think I’ve pretty much got everything sussed, so, here’s my quick guide to getting video content onto an iPod (some of the software mentioned below is Mac-only and so Windows/Linux users might need to search for something else… sorry).

  • Firstly, (courtesy of Apple’s frequently asked questions about viewing and syncing video with iTunes and iPod), iTunes is your friend. Not only is it the centre of the Apple digital experience but it can convert files to iPod or Apple TV format. Simply select the video or audio content that you require, right- (or Ctrl-) click and select convert selection for iPod or convert selection for Apple TV as appropriate. This seemed to work for much of my video content that has come from an eclectic mix of locations using a multitude of codecs (the main changes seem to involve converting from QuickTime movie file to MPEG-4, using a low complexity profile and the H.264/AAC codecs) although I have a few files that seem to have lost their audio track along the way. For these files, I used iSquint to retry the conversion and it seems to have got around whatever the encoding issue was. Using iSquint’s default settings, content is resized to either 320×240 or 640×480 (depending on whether the output is optimised for iPod or TV) but I did find that by using the option to Optimize for TV there was a noticeable increase in the picture quality, even though the source file was only 320×240 (obviously the quality will not increase from the original but, when viewed on a TV, the 640×480 version that was optimised for TV had a noticeably clearer picture with fewer compression artefacts than the 320×240 version that was optimised for the iPod).
  • The tip above for converting content to an iPod/Apple TV format seems to be non-destructive, which is good but does require some management to ensure that only the correctly formatted content is synchronised (in order to avoid errors like the one shown).iTunes error message explaining that some of the videos in your iTunes library were not copied because they cannot be played. Also, note that the duplicates may not appear in the same location as the originals – some of my video podcasts have relocated themselves within iTunes to the movies section and whilst the video type can be changed (between movies, music videos and TV shows), I’m not familiar with any method to move the content into iTunes’ podcast section. Some video podcasts are available in alternative formats via different RSS feeds, but that’s a nuisance where you might want to watch a high-definition version on the computer but still have it available on the iPod when out and about. Consequently I have multiple copies of podcasts like Systm, where I have both the small QuickTime and large QuickTime feeds in iTunes and different episodes marked as played in each. I’ve yet to find a way around that particular issue and it is relatively minor.
  • Assuming that it is legal where you live, applications like HandBrake will rip DVDs into a format that can be transferred to the iPod via iTunes and videos look surprisingly good on the iPod screen (yes, really – certainly good enough for entertainment on a long train/plane trip). Add to that the potential to use an iPod connected to a TV and it’s an easy method for watching video content in the living room, hotel or even hooking the iPod up to a screen in the car to keep the kids amused without spending lots of money on an expensive in-car entertainment system (I haven’t tried it yet but I may do soon). Encoding video (and re-encoding via an iTunes conversion) is time consuming and also the quality will degrade with each conversion, so it pays to get it right first time – I had some difficulties using the previous version of HandBrake to rip a DVD using the HB-iPod preset but version 0.9.0 seems to be working well for me (although if it doesn’t work, some advice suggests ripping to disk before performing the conversion, using a tool such as Mac the Ripper). If the content is already on the computer, then QuickTime Pro may help with the conversion (although iTunes is based on QuickTime so I recommend trying the conversion in iTunes first).
  • Finally, for content producers, Apple provides a tutorial about creating video for iPod.

These techniques have allowed me to transfer most of the content that I want to access on the move to my iPod. There are a couple of issues to iron out (as mentioned) but I’m a lot further forward than I was a few days back. Please leave a comment if you can add to the advice.

Waffle and randomness

Is this the latest method of boosting profits at bigcompany.com?

I’m starting to wonder if I’ve uncovered their latest method of boosting profits for a large UK-based retailer with an international presence. As much as I dislike the company in question, I’m familiar with their product range and they considerably less expensive than where I would prefer to shop. Every couple of weeks I place an order with bigcompany.com* and it feels like every time I have to ask for something to be refunded (not counting the normal substitutions, which they always deal with at the point of delivery). At this point I’m faced with calling them (at my cost, admittedly local rate, but last time I tried, I was placed on hold for 22 minutes before I gave up because the call had cost more than the mistake was worth) or e-mailing (and, confusingly, the order confirmation comes from customer.services@bigcompany.com but the online customer service desk is at online@bigcompany.co.uk!).

We’re not talking large sums here – typically between 1 and 3.5% of the guide price for my order but if extrapolated over many customers (who may or may not notice the error) the figures could potentially become quite large.

Order date Order value (guide price) Value of error Potential increase in bigcompany.com’s revenue (if I hadn’t spotted the mistake)
3 July 2007 £116.14 £1.94 (meat which went off before it’s use-by date, despite being refrigerated from the point of delivery onwards) 1.67%
17 July 2007 £215.22 £6.41 (mistakes with substitutions and multiple charges) 2.97%
14 August 2007 £180.46 £1.85 (missing bag of potatoes) 1.03%
29 August 2007 £113.98 £3.99 (missing box of breakfast cereal) 3.5%

To be fair to bigcompany.com, they always respond with an apology and a refund but at what point does a series of mistakes (which I may or may not have noticed) become a pattern? And when does a pattern of mistakes become accepted business practice?

Of course, this post is based almost entirely upon speculation (together with my customer experience) and I’m sure that such a reputable retailer would not seriously consider defrauding its customers but I don’t imagine there are many online businesses that could sustain such a poor inventory/delivery/billing effort.

* Name changed to protect the potentially innocent. Despite the preceding paragraph, I don’t fancy being sued for libel and the retailer in question’s resources to pay for legal representation are almost infinitely more than mine, so I’m avoiding using their name here; however bigcompany.com is a pseudonym for the online business of an extremely profitable company.

Uncategorized

Connecting iPod with Video to the TV

A few weeks back, I was given an iPod with Video. It’s a huge step up from the iPod Mini that I had before – not least because of it’s video capabilities (which mean that I can store a few films on the iPod for playback in hotels/planes/trains etc. but I’ve been struggling to get it to output a decent signal to my TV. Apple sells an iPod AV cable to take the 3.5mm headphone socket output to red/yellow/white RCA (phono) sockets but I have a perfectly good cable that came with my Sony video camera so I wanted to avoid spending £15 on the Apple cable. After trying the well-publicised hack for using a normal cable with the connections swapped around I had a picture, but no matter how I tried it was always black and white (ironically I could get some faded colours with NTSC, even though my TV is PAL!).

Then last night I was in Tesco, where I visited the “Apple Store” (note the quotes as the Tesco Apple Store is not a patch on the real thing) and picked up the Apple iPod AV cable. Not only is is a much better quality product (the cables may not be as good as the Cambridge Audio interconnects that I use for my audio-visual equipment but they are a lot better than the thin black leads supplied as standard with most equipment) but it cured my black and white issues – I can now watch films (and video podcasts) in colour without the hassle of connecting a computer to the TV.

Uncategorized

Scrobbling audio at Last.fm

I hate it when websites gather more information about me than is necessary and more than a few sites now have nonsensical entries in their marketing databases as a result; however I have found one site recently that I’m more than happy to give information too – because I get something in return. You see, as I write this, I’m listening to a mixture of laid back beats, chilled house and trance, recommended to me by Last.fm (incorporating audioscrobbler). It’s being streamed to me over my Internet connection, free of charge, based on my musical tastes. How did it find out what I like? Well, I have a client application on my computer, which hooks into iTunes and each time I synchronise my iPod, play a track in iTunes or listen via the Last.fm website it “scrobbles” my recently played tracks to my profile.

I’ve been using the service for a few months now and still can’t get my head around just how useful (and varied) it’s many features are – so I’ll point you to this review by Steffie for a better idea of just what Last.fm can provide for your listening pleasure. For a review from a more mainstream media source, try CNET. Meanwhile, Steve Krause looks at the differences between Last.fm and Pandora – another popular music recommendation site that is often referenced alongside Last.fm but which, as Steve explains, is fundamentally different in the way it determines its recommendations.

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably wondering how sites like Last.fm can stream music free of charge whilst others wrangle with the complications of DRM-protected content. Well, that’s because it’s not just a free online music library – whilst you can hear “radio stations” based on your preferences there is no choice in what is played next and if you do search for a particular track then only a 30 second sample is played. As for the viability of the site (a question that should be asked of many “web 2.0″ sites) – it’s viable enough for CBS to buy it (for $280m – and hopefully not just to shut it down). The theory is, that if I like what I hear, then I’ll buy some more music and to some extent that’s feasible. If I enter the name of a well-established band then I’ll probably recognise the names of similar artists (those who like Kylie Minogue may also enjoy Madonna or Britney Spears – or, closer to my tastes, if I like Faithless then why not try Groove Armada and Moby, etc.) but for something more obscure (e.g. The Age of Love), then I’d never have known to try something by Kamaya Painters, The Thrillseekers or Nalin & Kane. As for CBS, they get access to a huge database of musical tastes (whilst others are relying on a combination of software and intuition to predict their next hit).

Uncategorized

Microsoft’s MacBU is moving in the right direction, just not fast enough

Office for Mac product iconsA few weeks back, I wrote about the frustration of working (or rather not be able to work) with Open XML documents on a Mac. Some wag even pointed out on a recent podcast that Apple beat Microsoft to provide support for its own document formats in the new iWork 08 application suite. I hear good things about iWork and it’s very reasonably priced (especially when compared to Microsoft Office) but I work with Microsoft Office 2007 on Windows and need something functionally equivalent for the Mac so I’m sure I’ll be getting a copy of Office 2008 for Mac in due course (attempts to get a beta invitation have failed dismally). There is light at the end of the tunnel though – since my original post, the MacBU has released a (time-limited) beta of the Microsoft Office Open XML File Format Converter for Mac, so that at least gives me something to work with for now (the previous version was only for Word documents).

Mac RDC logoAnother new product from the MacBU is (at last) a universal binary version of the Remote Desktop Connection Client for Mac. I’ve been beta testing this and whilst it’s far more stable on an Intel Mac than the old version, it still doesn’t seem to offer something that I need – support for multiple client connections. I’ve provided feedback on this (others were less charitable in their contributions). In the meantime, I’ll be sticking with CoRD.

It seems that the MacBU is releasing new products but at an almost glacial pace. I don’t care that it’s been 4 years between Office releases – there was a similar gap for the Windows product – but surely the file format converters could have been ready when Office 2007 shipped on Windows. Similarly, based on what I’ve seen with the Microsoft’s RDC client for the Mac, it’s not exactly worth waiting for.

Uncategorized

How Windows PowerShell exposes passwords in clear text

I’m attending a two-day Windows PowerShell course, delivered by my colleague Dave – who I know reads this blog and should really think about starting his own…

I’ve written before about Windows PowerShell (twice) and I think it’s a great product, but it is a version 1.0 product and as such it has some faults. One (which I was horrified to discover today) is that this product, which is intended to be secure by default (for a number of good reasons) has the ability to store user credentials in clear text!

All it takes is two lines of PowerShell script:

$cred=get-credential <em>username</em>

(the user wil then be prompted for their password using a standard Windows authentication dialog)

$cred.getnetworkcredential()

(the username, password and domain will be displayed in clear text)

Some people ask what’s wrong with this? After all there are legitimate reasons for needing to use credentials in this manner. That may be so but one of the fundamental principles of Windows security is that passwords are never stored in clear-text – only as a hashed value – clearly this breaks that model. Those who think there is nothing wrong with this argue that the credentials are then only used by the user that entered them in the first place. Even so, I’m sure this method could easily be used as part of a phishing attempt using a fake (or altered) script (digitally signing scripts may be the default configuration but many organisations will disable this, just as they do with signed device drivers and many othe security features).

After searching Microsoft Connect and being surprised that I couldn’t find any previous feedback on this I’ve raised the issue as a bug but expect to see it closed as “Resolved – by design” within a few days. If it really is by design, then I don’t feel that it’s a particularly smart design decision – especially as security is tauted as one of the key reasons to move from VBscript to PowerShell.

Waffle and randomness

Byte Night 2007

Byte Night
NCH

For one night on 5 October 2007, I’ll be giving up my warm duvet and comfortable house as part of Byte Night 2007 – the IT industry’s annual sleep out in support of young people who are coping with life after care or facing homelessness.

I’ll be joining around 250 IT professionals and senior executives sleeping out next to London’s City Hall and Tower Bridge to raise money and highlight the problem of youth homelessness.

Given that we live in one of the world’s richest nations, I find the following statistics to be pretty shocking:

  • An estimated 77,000 children and young people aged under 18 run away overnight each year in the UK.
  • There are an estimated 32,000 homeless 16-21 year-olds in Britain.
  • A third of young homeless people have tried to commit suicide.
  • Each year, 10,000 young people are physically hurt or sexually assaulted whilst sleeping rough.
  • Most runaways are aged 13-15 but a quarter are under 11.

By joining in on Byte Night, I can help to make a difference – with your support.

The cold, rough, night in London will all be worthwhile if I succeed in raising £2,000 for NCH, the children’s charity. Since its inception in 1998, Byte Night has raised over £1.5m for NCH youth homeless projects.

Please sponsor me by visiting my online fundraising page at http://www.justgiving.com/markwilson-bytenight07. You can pay by credit or debit card, and the money will go directly to NCH, the children’s charity. Where supporters are UK taxpayers, the charity will automatically receive 28% extra in Gift Aid, which makes Justgiving the most efficient way of sponsoring me.

(Normal technology-focused blogging will resume shortly but I wanted to highlight this important issue – in any case, as Byte Night is exclusively for IT professionals, I think that falls within my technology remit!)

Uncategorized

How not to upgrade from Windows Server 2003 to Windows Server 2003 R2

I just upgraded a server from Windows Server 2003 (with SP2 installed) to Windows Server 2003 R2 (SP2 slipstreamed).

It wasn’t exactly smooth, because I didn’t RTFM… (it’s my home server, it’s Saturday afternoon, it should have been trivial and I don’t have a lot of time to spend planning this… a perfect demonstration of the need for proper planning that I stress to my customers). If you want to avoid my cowboy IT guy approach (i.e. insert disk 1 and upgrade from running copy of Windows – what could possibly go wrong?), check out Microsoft knowledge base article 912309 before starting the job (I didn’t).

Because I didn’t do it properly, I had some issues but I imagine there are plenty of others who will try what I did and may now be googling to get out of a few holes. This is what I did – your problems may differ depending on your configuration:

  • When my screen reverted to 4 bit 640×480 colour (but Device Manager said my display adapter was working fine), I ignored the problem. After a reboot, I was back to my usual display properties.
  • My machine (which is a domain controller) complained that it couldn’t install the R2 components until I had updated the Active Directory schema. I followed the instructions (run <em>opticaldrive</em>:\cmpnents\r2\adprep\adprep.exe /forestprep) and then restarted R2 setup with <em>opticaldrive</em>:\r2auto.exe (I could also have used <em>opticaldrive</em>:\cmpnents\r2\setup2.exe).
  • Changing directory permissions (that’s what adprep.exe did) will break certain applications – in my case WSUS and Virtual Server (i.e. those apps that rely on IIS). I’m still working on that issue and will blog something when (if) I fix it.
  • The upgrade also wiped out at least one of the configuration changes that I made in the registry – in this case enabling IP forwarding.
%d bloggers like this: