Monthly Archives: February 2008

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MacBook Meccano

Imagine that you are the parent of two small children and a beaker of milk gets spilt very close to (and splashes over) your shiny new MacBook.

After turning it upside down, shutting it down, removing the battery and wiping away all the obvious spillage you might want to check that there is no liquid inside the machine.

If you were to find yourself in this situation, you might find the ifixit do-it-yourself instructions for Mac and iPod repair very useful (or the Apple Service Source guide for the MacBook).

If you are lucky, it may turn out that the spillage hasn’t made it past the upper cover and into the internal workings of the machine. Phew!

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Top quality service from Crucial memory – and a new Mac memory advisor tool

I’ve written before about and, yet again, I have been blown away by the competitive prices and speed of service.

In the early hours of yesterday morning I ordered 4GB of RAM for my new MacBook. With free shipping, it came to a bargain price of £72.83 (Mac:Upgrades are currently selling the equivalent Kingston RAM for £83.82). The free shipping is for an estimated 3-5 day delivery but it arrived this morning – just over 24 hours after placing the order! Mac with 4GB RAM installedA few minutes later I had the RAM installed in the MacBook.

Some people will say that you need to use OEM-specific RAM because it’s the best available. Nonsense. If third party memory was unreliable then major OEMs wouldn’t be prepared to sell it and Crucial is a division of Micron – one of the largest memory manufacturers in the world.

Most of my computers now have Crucial RAM inside and I’ve had no problems. There is only one notable exception – when I upgraded my Dell Server a few weeks back, the Dell memory was horrendously priced but they would also sell me the equivalent Kingston RAM if I wanted it. Some people have reported problems with value memory (e.g. Kingston ValueRAM) but this was the full-quality item. Ironically, I only bought from Dell to keep things simple – whilst I was waiting for the memory to be shipped the price for equivalent RAM at Crucial dropped to a lower level.

There’s one more thing I wanted to mention – Crucial now have a memory advisor tool for MacOS X. You could always browse by manufacturer to find memory for a Mac but this makes the process even simpler, querying the computer to see what model it is, how much RAM is already installed, and exactly which components to buy.

Apple Memory upgrades from Crucial

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When Apple’s connectors don’t connect

A couple of weeks back I wrote about Apple’s lack of clarity over delivery times when ordering a new computer. Well, my MacBook finally arrived yesterday (and like it very much) but tonight, I got ready to hook it up to the TV using a combination of my Apple Mini-DV to DVI and DVI to Video adapters only to find that the “spade” on the male DVI connector on one adapter is is too large to fit the female DVI connector on the other! Arghhh! I also have the same problem if I try to connect it to a DVI to VGA connector.

These are all Apple products (i.e. it’s not as it I’m trying to use a combination of cheap components to cut corners) but it seems that I need to buy a third connector – a Mini-DV to Video connector – for the rare occasions when I want to watch digital video content on my aging 32″ TV.

Thank you Apple – for yet another example of the fabled Apple design taking precedence over practicality. As a friend pointed out to me, Apple probably doesn’t want me using two connectors together as it will spoil the aesthetic effect. Shouldn’t that be my choice?

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Freeing digital downloads from the shackles of the BBC iPlayer

I’ve written before about my concerns with the BBC iPlayer but nevertheless, it is the only legal way to download BBC programming to my computer that I am aware of. Since I wrote that post, iPlayer has been improved to include streaming content for unsupported platforms but that doesn’t allow for offline viewing (catching up on TV episodes on the train, for example).

Well, there is a workaround and, as I figure that I am a BBC licence fee-payer and the content has been downloaded legally, converting it to watch it on another device is at least morally acceptable – even if the BBC may not agree. After all, it’s not as if I’m sharing the resulting files with other people. Based on my initial tests, it seems to work well – at least with the version of Windows Media Player that my iPlayer machine is using (v11.0.5721.5230).

All it involves is taking one copy of Windows XP, with a working BBC iPlayer installation, and running a couple of utilities to identify the keys to the Windows Media Player and remove the DRM from the .WMV files that make up the iPlayer content (by default, this is held at %allusersprofile%\Documents\My Deliveries\iplayer_live). The resulting file(s) should play in Windows Media Player without DRM restrictions – and, critically, will also play back on Windows Vista or MacOS X (using the Windows Media Components for QuickTime).

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Performing an Active Directory Health Check

A few months ago, I was in a situation where I needed to perform a health check on a customer’s Active Directory (AD) infrastructure in preparation for guiding them through the process of migrating directory objects between forests. I’ve worked with AD for years – and am reasonably familiar with the various utilities – but didn’t really have a formalised method for reviewing its health and the political climate was such that I didn’t want to be the one who had missed an obvious diagnostic (no pressure there then!).

Then I found an eBook which turned out to be a fantastic investment – Andrew Abbate’s Digital Shortcut to Performing an Active Directory Health Check. Published by SAMS and supplied in Adobe PDF format (protected with digital rights management), this book gave me a refresher course on the tools and their use, then describes how to carry out the health check, interpret the data, and fix the problems. Sure, it won’t tell you everything you need to know – but it certainly gave me enough to apply the rest of my skills and knowledge to get to the bottom of the issues we were experiencing.

This eBook is available via the Safari online library; however googling also turned up copies available for purchase and download from a variety of online stores – I bought a copy for $9.99 at eBookMall.

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Passed Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer exam 70-296

Last week I wrote about having scraped through the first of two exams needed to update my MCSE from 2000 to 2003 and this morning I passed the second by an equally narrow margin.  Whilst I’m pleased to have passed the Planning, Implementing and Maintaining a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Environment for an MCSE Certified on Windows 2000 exam (exam 70-296), and am similarly glad that I found it challenging (i.e. worthwhile), I did sail a little close to the wind – and that wasn’t for lack of preparation either. So what happened?

I’ve worked with Windows NT since 1995, been an MCP since 1998 (and MCSE since 1999) worked with Active Directory since NT 5.0 beta 2 and generally have a fair amount of Microsoft Windows Server design and implementation experience in a variety of organisations.  Even though I’ve remained technical, it’s inevitable that as I progress in my career, I spend more time managing and less time doing – meaning that I do not have a huge amount of recent operational or administrative experience.  So, in order to upgrade my MCSE I needed to refresh my knowledge of the key concepts without re-learning everything from scratch.

With that in mind, and the impending withdrawal of the MCSE 2000-2003 upgrade exams, last summer, I bought a Microsoft Press Training Kit entitled Upgrading your Certification to Microsoft Windows Server 2003.  It’s a weighty tome and includes evaluation software, eBooks and a readiness review suite from MeasureUp.  It’s actually a really good purchase but, at 1100 pages and almost 2.5kg, I found it too large (physically) to keep lugging it around with me and, despite the title, it seems to be targetted at people who are setting out on the MCSE path for the first time.

Then, a few months back, I used an practice test from pass4sure to help prepare for MCTS exam 70-624.  I passed the exam, but the software was Java-based (and the installer failed to recognise that my system already had Java installed and tried to install it again), was full of bugs and, at $79.99 for just 53 questions, I felt that it was very poor value for money.  So, when uCertify asked me to review their PrepKits I was interested to compare them with my previous experiences.

uCertify kindly provided review copies of the PrepKits for exams 70-292 and 70-296 and, from the moment I installed them, I could see that the quality was way above my previous experience.  No buggy installer – these went straight onto my Vista system with no issues, and I was greeted with a professional interface.  Unlike the pass4sure practice tests, there were a few hundred questions (albeit with a fair amount of repetition – I calculated about 15% appeared in multiple practice tests) and tests were available as pre-defined practice tests, adaptive tests, custom tests (for example, just the questions that have previously be answered incorrectly), or an interactive quiz.  There was also a complete run-down of the exam objectives and other study aids including flash cards, study notes and articles.  Finally, the software allows the ability to view test history and to evaluate readiness using the built-in reporting tools.

uCertify PrepKit

I set to work on the practice tests, and found that there were two possible modes – test mode (with feedback at the end) and learn mode, whereby a fairly detailed explanation was available on request after answering each question.  For some of the questions, I did not (and still do not) agree with the answers provided but the tool also includes the ability to provide feedback to uCertify and on at least one question I could view the feedback that others had provided.  I also spotted quite a few grammatical and spelling errors – one was even in the interface itself so occurred on multiple questions.

Even though the general quality of the PrepKit software is high, there are some very obvious bugs.  On my Windows Vista system I found that if I paused a test and then cancelled the pause, the clock did not start counting again – but that was actually useful because in learn mode there is not a lot of time by default (58 questions in 60 minutes) to take in the information.  I also had a problem whereby the software lost my exam history – a minor annoyance, but it did effectively prevent me from retesting using just the questions I had answered incorrectly.

So, the software generally is not bad – it has a few issues but no show-stoppers.  But what about its effectiveness?  Taking exam 70-292 as an example, I saw my scores increase but I do wonder if, due to the repetition of the questions, I was actually learning the answers to the PrepKit tests rather than applying the knowledge gained in order to answer the question correctly (the difference may be subtle – but it is significant).  This was particularly evident when I moved on to the PrepKit for exam 70-296, where there was some repetition of questions from the PrepKit for exam 70-292 (unsurprising as the exam objectives also overlap) and I consistently scored above 80% (with most tests above 90%).

My theory about learning the answers rather than learning the key concepts that are required to answer the questions correctly appears to be born out in my results from the real exams.  The Microsoft NDA prevents me from discussing their content but I do have to wonder if, when I can consistently score above 90% in a practice test – even with the final test – which is intended to be more difficult than the vendor exam – how come I barely scraped a pass score in the real thing?

So, to summarise – do I think the uCertify PrepKits are worth the money?  Probably. Will they prepare you to pass the exam? Possibly.  Microsoft/Prometric are currently offering free exam insurance (Second Shot) and, in any case, uCertify offer their own money-back guarantee but, based on my experience, the PrepKits form just one part of an overall preparation strategy – and my usual method of re-reading course materials and writing my own notes seems to work better for me.

You can try the uCertify PrepKits for yourself – and I’d be interested to hear how people get on.  Demonstration versions can be downloaded for free and access to the full PrepKit is unlocked with a license key costing around $59.99 with discounts for multiple purchases.  It’s worth noting that the uCertify PrepKits are not just for Microsoft certifications either – there are PrepKits available for a variety of vendors with further details available at www.ucertify.com.

[Update 20 February 2008: You can get 10% off the uCertify PrepKit of your choice using the discount code MARWIL]

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IDE/SATA to USB cable for temporary disk access

After last week’s near-catastophe when one of my external hard disks failed, I found that the disk itself was still serviceable and it was just the enclosure that had inexplicably stopped working. So, I put the disk into an identical enclosure that had been sitting on the shelf since my previous data storage nightmare, only to find that enclosure had also failed (whilst not even being used).

IDE/SATA to USB cableAlthough I have recovered the data to another drive, my new MacBook has yet to arrive and so I wanted to hook the disk back up to the original machine and sync my iPhone with iTunes (I was running out of podcasts to listen to in the car), so Maplintonight I bought a IDE/SATA to USB 2.0 cable from Maplin, allowing me to connect 2.5″ or 3.5″ IDE (PATA) or SATA disks to the USB port on any computer without a caddy.

It doesn’t look pretty and I wouldn’t recommend using it for too long as the drive gets very hot but it will certainly suffice as a temporary measure and the ability to support either PATA or SATA drives means that the cable should continue to be useful for a while yet.

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Website development tips and tricks

About a year ago, I started the redevelopment of this site to use WordPress as my CMS, in the process aiming to make the site XHTML and CSS standards-compliant. It was a big job and, as this blog is really just a hobby that I put most of my spare time into, it took some time. For the last year I’ve had a draft post part-written about some of the things I found along the way and now, as I’m about to embark on another facelift (let’s call it markwilson.it v2.5), I thought it was about time I finished that post – or at least published the collection of notes I made during the development of markwilson.it v2.0. I hope some of the information here is useful to others setting off on the same route and, of course, if anyone knows better, feel free to leave a comment.

First of all, sizing my text. No pixel sizing here – I use font-size:medium; for the body and then percentages to resize text elsewhere (ems would achieve the same result as percentages but this method was recommended and avoids potential issues with Internet Explorer). Then, in order to keep the text size pretty much consistent across browsers, I set the font-size:76%; on the #wrap. Using a font-size of medium as a start point is probably not essential – that’s the default for most browsers anyway but it does at least give me a known start point. I could go further and implement the A List Apart hack for Internet Explorer (IE) 5 on Windows but, as IE5 users accounted for just 0.13% of my visitors in the last month, it really doesn’t justify the effort (I’m waiting for the day I can say the same about IE6 but that’s some time off yet).

I do most of my development using Mozilla Firefox (on a Mac), then test on Safari (MacOS), IE6/7 (Windows) and Mozilla (Linux). I’m afraid that I don’t bother about other browsers (except some compatibility testing for mobile browsers) but that covers the vast majority of visitors. I also test the site with the page style disabled (to check that document flow is correct and that site is still usable) and repeat (with style applied) to see the effect of the site without images, and without scripting. Basically, if it all degrades well, then I’m happy. The only downside (for me) of browsing without JavaScript support is the absense of Google AdSense or Analytics.

When trying to work out what is working, and what is not, the accessibility-checking favelets can be useful but I actually prefer Chris Pederick’s Web Developer extension for Firefox. When I first came across this handy extension, I thought Chris’ name was familiar and from his resume I see that we were both working at ICL at the same time in the late 1990s… maybe that’s it). Incidentally, the Web Accessibility Tools Consortium (WAT-C) has produced toolbars for IE and Opera.

Validating XHTML and CSS using the W3C tools is good for checking out the quality of your code (but you do need to keep checking back – I’ve just noticed that some of the third-party code I’ve added has broken my XHTML). For blogrolls, an OPML validator is available.

Having moved to a hosting provider where I have access to the server logs, the first thing I noticed was the volume of errors like this one:

[<em>timestamp</em>] [error] [client <em>ipaddress</em>] File does not exist: /usr/home/<em>username</em>/public_html/favicon.ico

I added a favourites icon file to my web server’s root folder and instantly saw a drop in the number of errors (there are plenty of online generators available but I used Favicon Maker – largely because the site looked good… I find it remarkable how many people offering web design tips don’t appear to have looked at their own site recently… although I do realise that there is a difference between design and code and I also realise I’m leaving myself open to criticism here too). I also added this line of code because not all browsers will look for the presence of the favicon.ico file:

&lt;link rel="shortcut icon" href="http://example.com/favicon.ico" type="image/vnd.microsoft.icon"&gt;

Incidentally, Information Gift has a useful summary of how various browsers treat the favourites icon.

On a similar note, I recently added a 57×57 apple-touch-icon.png file to the site to support webclips on the iPhone. It may be a minority platform but it’s one I use!

A few more resources that I’ve found useful whilst developing the site include:

Last, but by no means least, I’d like to mention my buddy Alex, who provides the hosting service for the site and is also my first port of call for any WordPress/web development advice.

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Passed Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator exam 70-292

Phew! That was close. I passed the Managing and Maintaining a Windows Server 2003 Environment for an MCSA Certified on Windows 2000 exam (exam 70-292) yesterday afternoon, but only by the narrowest of margins. Microsoft’s NDA prevents me from commenting on the contents of the exam but after my last Microsoft certification (which was unbelievably simple) this one was much more difficult.

I’m also aiming to take exam 70-296 over the next couple of weeks – to complete the update of my MCSE from 2000 to 2003 before that is retired (and therefore make transitioning to the Windows Server 2008 certifications a little more straightforward).

I guess administration is not something I do a huge amount of (I’m a consultant and I know the technology but more from an implementation perspective) but I did invest a fair amount of time in the preparation and so I think it may say something about the quality of the revision materials that I used… I’ll reserve judgement on that until after I’ve taken the next exam but watch this space.

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Delays when purchasing Apple hardware

After the disappointment that was Macworld 2008, last weekend I decided to bite the bullet and buy an Apple notebook. A MacBook Pro would be great, but it is also an old design and very expensive, so I decided to buy a MacBook.

My employer is a member of Apple’s employee purchase programme (EPP) so I bought the computer from the UK online Apple Store (EPP discounts are not valid in brick and mortar stores). Somewhere in the purchase process I’m sure that I was quoted 3-5 days for delivery (24 hour shipment for non-customised orders) – right up until the order was finalised, at which point it got a lot longer.

I also purchased some accessories (a mini-DVI to DVI adapter and iPhone headphone adapter) but that’s not really customisation. Is it? Apparantly is is, at least according to Apple. Checking the site now, it seems that adding accessories like this increases the ship time from 24 hours to 3 days.

My order was shipped within 48 hours but is currently estimated to take 11 days for delivery. I could walk from my house to Apple’s UK distribution centre in Leicestershire and back in that time (most couriers that come to my door have a nice big diesel van to make it faster for them…). I was confused, especially as the shipment status page has displayed “In transit to final destination – carrier details to be updated shortly” for a couple of days now and I’d expected it to be with UPS/DHL/insert-name-of-courier-here, allowing me to track its progress (and to make sure I’m here to sign for it).

So I called Apple and it turns out that my Macbook is not from stock in the UK. It’s being made in China. Shipping within 24 hours is all very well but when it’s shipped from the other side of the world it’s kind of irrelevant. Meanwhile, this was not clearly communicated to me at the time of order (I might have foregone my EPP discount for the sake of picking one up from a store) – making me a very dissatisfied customer – particularly as if I decide to cancel or return the order it will cost me another £60.

Apple has traditionally enjoyed a loyal fanbase and, more recently, has increased market share by encouraging many consumers to switch to their product range. I know that in my case the original decision to buy an Apple computer was based on style and the surity that if I didn’t get along with MacOS X, I could always install Windows on the Intel hardware. I’m now buying my second Mac and am extremely disappointed by the service I’ve received. It’s not as if the MacBook is inexpensive either – from a cursory glance around it seems that comparibly specified PC notebook from another vendor can be purchased for significantly less money and other major OEMs are happy to talk to me about product roadmaps so I know I’m not buying a white elephant (no chance of that with Apple).

It seems to me (and to friends who have experienced Apple’s customer service of late) that, as Apple grows its market share, attention to detail on the things that matter most to customers declines. Maybe that is just a reality of capitalism. Maybe it’s a reflection on corporate American business practices. Or maybe Apple have just taken their eye off the ball (again).

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