Monthly Archives: August 2005

How open is open?

While Google Talk will use the Jabber protocol, there are concerns over network interopability, with Jabber Australia President (and Geekrant reader) Jeremy Lunn questioning how (and if) Google Talk will work with existing networks.

Meanwhile, the extremely popular but extremely proprietary Skype has opened up… just a teensy bit… with an API to let developers hook into Skype a little more easily. Doesn’t mean other clients will be able to use the Skype protocols, or extend Skype support onto new platforms, mind you.

Annoying Outlook bug

I’m sure this bug has been around for years, possibly back as far as Outlook 98: When reading an email, Ctrl-R is the shortcut for Reply. When writing it, it’s a shortcut to right justify the current paragraph. Even when you’re writing a plain text format mail which has no right justify.

If it was using the same shortcut keys as Word, you could left align it with Ctrl-L, or centre it with Ctrl-E. But neither of these seem to work. Not that it matters greatly, since being plain text, it loses the alignment during transmission.

Mails behaving badly

(Originally written 1997)

There’s no doubt about it, electronic mail is a truly wonderful thing. Using it, I can sit at my desk all day sending trivial messages to my friends, colleagues and family, whether they’re across the world or across the room.

But I have the feeling that some people just don’t quite “get” e-mail. There are people out there who, it seems, don’t quite use it in a logical way. Or at least a way that I think of as logical, and I generally consider myself to be a reasonably logical person, although some of my friends would beg to differ.

This illogical use of e-mail especially seems to be the case in the corporate world, where so often few objections are made to the over-enthusiastic obliteration of time, disk and paper resources.

Take, for example, those people who for no good reason, will not read e-mail on a screen. Yes, there really are people in the world who have to print out all their e-mail onto what remains of a dead tree before they’ll read it. In fact, I knew a guy who, having to clear out his e-mail, printed it all out onto paper. I’m not sure what he did with it – perhaps he hired a truck to take it home, or bought a new filing cabinet to store it all in.

Maybe it’s just me, but doesn’t printing out the mail defeat the purpose somewhat? Once it’s on paper, okay, you can read it, but after it’s filed away somewhere, how are you ever going to find it again? If it’s still in the e-mail system, you can file it, sort it, search for it, reply to it, forward it, and even chop out a bit that contains a really good idea and send it to other people claiming that you thought of it. Not that I’d ever do that, of course.

Another thing that some people do is to send every single message, big or small, important or trivial, as “high priority”. High priority on mail systems doesn’t actually send the message any faster; it simply flags it to the receiver to try to indicate what is important and what isn’t. I’m not sure why these people flag them all high priority, but I’ve seen them do it, and I think it’s almost a subconcious thing. They write their message, and clicking on the high priority icon or button seems like second nature – it’s just something you do before you click Send.

At one job I had, we used an e-mail system that allowed an “extra extra high priority” flag to be set. I got my mail program to automatically bump messages with this flag down a priority point. What could possibly be THAT important? The building burning down? The imminent arrival of the Queen Of England? Chocolate biscuits in the biscuit jar? I don’t think so. News that important never travels by e-mail.

People in corporations also tend to send mail to far too many people. Okay, so there are the times when everybody might need to know about a meeting or something. But sometimes it’s just something that’s come down the line from above, and they feel they have to tell absolutely everybody they can – no matter how irrelevant it is.

Some people feel like they have to make elaborate use of attachments, because they think, for whatever reason, that their message has to be written in Word, or some other application. Most of the time when I get an attached Word document in my mail, I open it and find a message that is completely plain text. No bold or italics, no superscript, no fancy fonts, nothing!

Fact is, these attachments increase astronomically the amount of stuff being flung around the network. You can see the LAN and Mail Administrator guys sweating every time that somebody does something like this.

At one job I was at, someone decided that everybody needed to see a new freeware screensaver that he’d got hold of. Did he put it on a shared drive, then notify people where they could find it? Heck no. He mailed it – all 7 megabytes of it – to everybody. A masterstroke, I’m sure you’ll agree. It clogged up the entire mail system for hours, as I recall.

But the ultimate in irony was a document somebody wrote detailing how to use the mail system in such a way as to avoid overloading it. It was a beautifully prepared masterpiece, with colourful illustrations throughout, and the file came out to about half a megabyte. [At the time, a lot.] The author then sent this to all 200 people in the organisation, once again, clogging up the mail system.

So there you have it, a whole range of ways to misuse your e-mail system and harrass your Mail Administrator. Which will you choose?

Halo movie

BBC: A film version of popular video game Halo is being made by two Hollywood studios, its developers have confirmed. (IMDB page for the movie.)

Let’s hope it’s a bit better than the usual standard of video game to movie conversions.

Australian postcode data

Writing systems back in the old days, it used to be that occasionally one would need to validate suburb/postcode data, or provide users with a choice of suburbs in a particular postcode, and you used to have to go talk to Australia Post to get hold of that data. It was an administrative hassle, and so updates tended to be infrequent, because really, who has the time?

In these enlightened times, they have it freely available on the web. No registration, no delays, just download. Aussie Post, you rock!

For those dabbling in postcodes worldwide, the Universal Postal Union has an index of post office sites, as well as information on the various postcode formats in use. Jakob Nielsen did a column recently on dealing with international names, addresses and measurements.

Windows 95 turns 10

Windows 95 welcome - from www.guidebookgallery.orgHappy birthday, Windows 95 — ten years old today. (Thanks to Malcolm for the reminder)

Looking back, Windows 95 was a big step forward for the Windows world, marking the first modern version, and certainly the first that is still usable today. Windows then trailed MacOS by a long way, and it felt with Win95 that the big gap was made much smaller.

It also seemed to be the first time that an OS got attention from the mainstream consumer, with a humungous advertising campaign. From memory (and rumour) the discussion between Microsoft and the Rolling Stones went something like this:

MS: Can we use “Start me up” for our campaign?

RS: No.

MS: We’ll give you $12 million.

RS: Okay.

Windows 95 finally made Wintel machines usable, in a way that Win3.1 and 3.0 just couldn’t. Maybe it was the long filenames, maybe it was the taskbar and Start menu, maybe it was the Plug’n’Play (though it was very dodgy compared to what we have now), maybe it was the preemptive multitasking (which is still very dodgy).

Under the hood it finally rid us of problems with very limited resources, and it killed the 3rd party TCPIP stack market dead, by including it out of the box. (Despite claims later from Bill Gates during the anti-trust trial that Internet Explorer was integral to Windows, it didn’t include IE unless you bought the separate MS Plus pack.)

It was slow, it was buggy, it trailed Apple by five years, it crashed after 49.7 days of uptime. But it was a great leap forwards.

PS. Thanks to an open-source x86 emulator, Win95 can now run on a Playstation Portable.

Google Talk

Google have launched Google Talk, a chat service that uses GMail logon/password for authentication, and supports instant messaging and voice.

It uses the XMPP protocol for instant messaging, so other clients can connect (including those on non-Windows platforms that their client doesn’t support yet), and they say they will support SIP in future for voice.

Now… why wasn’t this included with their Desktop sidebar? That would be one killer helper app. Not that I’m convinced the world needed another IM network.

Google Desktop V 2

Go download the new Google Desktop Search and run it in side bar mode.

I’m playing with it now and it’s pretty cool. It offers way too many things I’ll never use or simply don’t need (photo slide show, ‘web clips’ – come on, just call it RSS and be done with it, no weather for non-US cities, ‘what’s hot’) and some nifty features (check the Quick Find feature and the Outlook integration along with a great little scratch pad) in a download that now works with VET anti-virus programs.

MSN Desktop Search is a far more elegant search application and much more focused – it searches your stuff, and searches it well but for sheer geek fun Google delivers.

Backup, backup, backup

I was sick at home for a couple of days last week, and while pottering about the house blowing my nose, found some old floppy disks. I decided to move all their data onto CD, and in the process found some old articles I wrote in 1997 for an abortive gig as a columnist for a US-based magazine. Some of them are still relevant, so I’ll re-post them here every Monday for the next few weeks.

In the computing world, stories abound of people losing large chunks of work. This never used to happen, because people used to use far more reliable, but arguably less productive, methods of working. Like paper. Okay, so if all your work was on paper, you could lose large chunks of it, but this tended to be because of something disasterous – an enormous fire, perhaps – and in that situation, life and limb is going to be the first priority, not your work.

Modern technology however, has brought with it a multitude new and exciting ways of losing all your work. Hard disks can crash, or develop errors. They can be accidentally formatted. Your files can be moved, deleted, corrupted, overwritten. This is why you need to take very good care of your files. Back them up regularly, or the day may come when your work is lost and you don’t have any way of recovering it.

A few years ago, I was working writing software for a big company. My colleagues and I had performed a true miracle of coding, and had delivered a piece of software that would change for the better the lives of hundreds of people working in that particular bit of the company. Okay, so it wasn’t going to solve third world hunger or bring world peace, but we were very pleased with it.

One Friday afternoon, I was looking on our shared network drive at the files that made up our masterpiece, when I noticed something odd. Some of the files and directories that I expected to be there, weren’t. I looked again. More were missing. They were disappearing before my very eyes.

I, not to put too finer point on it, panicked. I sent a system broadcast message asking anybody who might be listening “Why are the files on N: disappearing?” I looked again. The files stopped disappearing, but most were already gone. The phone rang. I answered it.

“Uh oh”, said the quavering voice of the LAN Administrator on the other end of the phone. He had been given the task of clearing up one of the file servers. He had used a utility’s PRUNE command to do it. A flawless plan. Just one small snag. Wrong server.

No problem, right? Go to the backups, right? Wrong. It just so happens that the LAN people at this place had been a little lax in the backups department. For about 3 months. Yes, THREE months. It was when we realised this that we decided to call this day “Black Friday”, and we spent most of the rest of the afternoon moping around the office looking miserable. You can bet that if there had been supplies of alcohol available, they would have been consumed quite rapidly.

As it happens, there was a consolation. I had copied many of our more important files onto my hard drive, a mere three weeks before Black Friday, “just in case”. Three weeks’ work lost wasn’t exactly a cause for celebration, but it was better than three months’.

I didn’t feel vengeance towards Mr Pruner. Mistakes happen. What wasn’t forgivable, in my book, was the conduct of his boss, whose responsibility it was to ensure that the backups happened, so that when mistakes like that happen, the files are recoverable. It’s just as well that he’s substantially bigger than me, otherwise murder might have been committed that day.

The moral of the story is this: Make sure your files are backed up. Frequently. Double-check that it’s actually being done. Triple check, even. If someone else does it, make a spare set yourself occasionally. If you don’t, then make sure there’s plenty of alcohol in the office fridge. Because when Black Friday hits you, it might be the only help available.

IE’s float/margin bug

I’m at home today working on a new WordPress site… just came across the glorious IE Float/Margin bug. Thankfully there are a couple of workarounds, one involving putting an extra Div around the troublesome ones, the other involving a harmless display: inline attribute.

I also note that when wrangling with a CSS file and WordPress, continually tweaking, uploading the tweaked file, then re-loading the browser page, Firefox handles it fine and refreshes completely. IE doesn’t; sometimes it’ll only do a partial refresh, and chokes on something, which in my case means my navigation bar disappearing until I re-load via a link. Very odd.