Category Archives: Microsoft vs Linux

Windows and SSDs

So, having had such good results with the SSD I put in my ageing desktop, I decided to get one for my ageing laptop too. I did the copying a bit differently – since the SSD was 50GB smaller than the spinning rust it was replacing, a straight dd wasn’t going to work. In any case, it’s a bit boring waiting hours for blank space to be copied across. There was only 30GB of actual data.

I connected both drives to another machine – I couldn’t get hold of a SATA caddy to have them both on the laptop – and again, booted to SystemRescueCD. This time, though, I used GParted to copy-paste the boot partition, made an empty NTFS “main” partition and used rsync to copy the contents of the old C: drive to the new. Much faster to just copy the data. Some quirk of ntfs-3g or rsync seems to have lost the “hidden” attribute from some files, but otherwise it all worked.

You’ll have realised from my mention of NTFS that this laptop runs Windows. The purists may call me a traitor to Linux, but having at least one Windows box around is useful for all sorts of things, and this is mine.

The final annoyance was that Windows refused to boot from the new drive:

A required device is inaccessible

It did however prompt me to boot from the Windows CD and hit repair, which worked. Given how rapidly it worked, I can only assume Microsoft write the UUID of the drive to the boot sector or some such, as a tedious anti-piracy measure.

The SSD magic definitely seems to have made this laptop usable again – previously it was slow to the point of being unusable and you could hear the disk crunching inside it. Hopefully the SSD should give battery life a slight boost and be more robust against being dropped or jolted too.

Since I’m now all SSD’d up, I’ve got my desktop running DBAN to erase the old mechanical hard disks I’ve replaced. Did I mention how handy having a network boot server is?

A narrow escape

Let’s be honest about this. Looking back, I should have known better. Nevertheless, as I describe the problem that ate far too many hours of my weekend, judge for yourself whether I was entirely to blame for How It Went…

The problem

A friend of mine has a laptop. It’s about five years old, and it runs Windows XP. This means, inevitably, that it’s a mess. My personal metric of measuring how rodgered a machine is by the number of icons in its system tray gave it a ten, and that’s pretty nasty. Nevertheless, until last Friday, there was nothing wrong with it that an uninstall fest followed by a defrag wouldn’t have fixed.

Enter the Internet Man

Last Friday, a chap called round to set up some broadband for my friend, who’d previously been on dial-up. I’m not going to name the ISP concerned, since it gives me more freedom to say nasty things about them, but suffice to say that they’re big enough that they really should have done better.

Their engineer fixed the simple(ish) problem with wiring which was stopping the broadband from working, and what he should have done at that point was connect the laptop to the router (less than six inches away on the same desk) using the supplied ethernet cable, and left. What he actually did was shove the supplied CD in the drive, which helpfully installed a few hundred megabytes of crapware onto the machine, then hooked it up to the broadband via wireless. Then he left.

Despite the above totally unnecessary shoving of stuff onto it, the laptop struggled manfully on (system tray count now up to 12) and seemed superficially fine.

Enter Dragon Naturally Speaking

My friend makes extensive use of Dragon NaturallySpeaking, a voice-recognition product which seems to knock the socks off everything else on the market when it comes to actually coping with different accents. And it was here that the problem first manifested itself: trying to use Dragon to voice-control Internet Explorer caused it to crash with an error message along the lines of the one described in this Microsoft knowledgebase article.

Enter the sucker, stage left

At this point, I fetched up, and agreed to see if I could fix the problem. Although the above KB article looked ideal, being the first hit on Google when I exercised the too-useful-to-be-documented Windows feature of “Ctrl-C copies the text of the active dialog box to the clipboard”, the hotfix it supplies claimed to be already present in service pack 3 of Windows XP. Just about the only virtue of this laptop was that it was fully up to date on patches and service packs, so what now?

Don’t press that button

Being rather short on ideas at this point, I decided to fire up the nearest thing broken Win32 boxes have to a magic bullet, namely System Restore. The machine refused to roll back to any of the restore points at first, but restarting into safe mode fixed that, and it was soon rolled back to the Friday, at a time before the problem occured.

Unfortunately, Dragon now seemed completely broken, giving the error message described in this support article. And no, of course there were no backups, I hadn’t taken one before I started, and my friend is no different to most of the non-geeky people I know in not backing up, except for dragging his holiday snaps onto CD once every six months.

To their credit (and they’re about the only players in this story to be awarded any), Nuance’s suggestion in the article of how to manually restore the user files for Dragon did work, after I rolled back the fatal system restore [or rather, didn’t, because it didn’t seem to have made a pre-restore restore point. Fortunately picking one from the Saturday seemed to work].

So, after two hours feeling my friend’s anxiety at the thought of having to retrain the speech recog from scratch – not a pleasant accompinement to the sick, swoopy feeling we get when we know we’ve just permanently erased some irreplaceable data – we were back at square one with the original problem. One last shot in  the dark, disabling the ISP’s nasty extensions to IE, seemed to fix the issue.

So who do we blame here? Laptop vendors, for selling machines so laden with rubbish before they even leave the factory that DLL hell seems assured the minute they meet with real life usage? Or, we could blame the idiots who seem to write the nasty unsigned drivers for most hardware on the market. We can definitely blame the ISP’s engineer for installing the crapware, but perhaps he’d been trained to, and anyway, why do ISPs think we need a CD full of crap to supplement the TCP/IP standard that’s been around for several decades? Is it really asking too much of Johnny User to plug in a cable or enter some Wifi passwords in to the applet that’s sodding well supplied with Windows, thus making the poorly writtten replacements from laptop manufacturers and ISPs alike completely superfluous? We could also blame Microsoft for making system restore not clever enough to cope with software like Dragon. Or possibly blame Nuance for not fixing or documenting what has apparently been a known incompatability for several versions of Dragon*.

Certainly, we can blame me. I clearly need to have “I will not agree to even slightly ‘fix’ someone else’s computer without taking a full disk-image of it first” tattooed across my forehead. I also clearly need to reimmerse myself in the happy world of properly written software which I’m lucky enough to earn a living in and try to forget the horrors of the last 48 hours.

* The most useful reference I could find on Google was this page. The Nuance KB doesn’t mention system restore. Then again, perhaps their customers simply don’t know this is the cause of the issue, or don’t get round to reporting it. It’s not like I have.

Spotify on Linux problems?

Dear lazyweb, does anyone else find that Spotify mysteriously hangs at the “logging in” stage when run under Wine? This suddenly happend on both my Linux boxes after it had been working fine for weeks.

Various posts on the Ubuntu forums suggested firewall issues, but nothing had changed, and Spotify continue to work on Windows on both machines.

In the end, I applied the nuclear fix of

$ mv ~/.wine ~/.wine-with-broken-spotify

and reinstalling Spotify from scratch, which worked. Might not be so handy for anyone with other apps under Wine, though.

Windows XP loses its crown

And Ubuntu gets seven out of ten

Last week, it was clear my parents’ ageing XP box needed some attention – in fact, let’s be honest, it had been crying out for a zap-and-reload since last year.

This time, though, I was determined. With my sister safely moved off onto her new laptop, there should be no reason not to migrate the box to Ubuntu. The only things in use on it were Firefox, Thunderbird and Openoffice…so how hard could it be?

Five days on, I’m in a position to report that the answer is “harder than it should have been” – here’s what happened:

Problem 1: Audio CD autoplay

Dad wanted the machine to start playing his CDs automatically when he put them in, much like Windows does. Seemed perfectly reasonable to me, as I blithely assured him it’d be a matter of a few mouse clicks.

It wasn’t.

Much Googling and swearing later, this hack (fifth comment down) seems to do the necessary, though I had to bump the sleep interval to six seconds.

Problem 2: No matter how close KPatience comes, it’s not “real FreeCell”

…largely because, despite generating the same deals from the same numbers as the Windows version, it counts every loss of the same game number as a loss in the stats, whereas the Microsoft one counts them as one loss.

Fortunately, freecell.exe runs fine under wine, so copy it across and save yourself the bother.

In conclusion

Other than the above minor niggles, all seems well, and hopefully the machine should now do a few more years’ trouble-free duty.

So, as the title of this post says, Windows XP has now been deposed as my OS of choice for “real people”. Whoever would’a thought it?

Update, 18 July 2009

I forgot to say that probably the most impressive feature of the switch was that Ubuntu flawlessly detected and printed a test page on our trusty old Epson Stylus C62. That’s the sort of slickness we like to see.

Conficker shows us the future – and it sucks

Let’s be honest, shall we: if you’re reading this, you’re probably the sort of person who’s been where I was last week: on the recieving end of a phone call from a friend/relative/friend of a friend/friend’s relative, enquiring if you could help them with a “computer problem”…

In this case, it all seemed pretty simple: the chap on the other end of the phone was rightly concerned that his second-hand Windows XP box had come without any antivirus software installed.

“No problem”, I blithely replied, “just install the free edition of AVG“.

And therein began the difficulty: no matter how carefully I spelled it out, the chap insisted that visiting the URL for AVG’s site resulted in a 404 error. Other sites were visible, but not that one. Emailing the link produced the same result, and so, thoroughly puzzled, I agreed to a site visit the next day.

Sure enough, from both IE and Firefox, the machine would not display pages from avg.com. Further experimentation revealed that most of the other antivirus vendors’ sites were similarly blocked, along with microsoft.com.

This rang faint bells with me – viruses have been blocking such sites for years – and full of confidence that I was going to be able to pull off a quick fix and look like a genius, I pulled up the C:WindowsSystem32Driversetchosts file, expecting to find a bunch of domains being redirected to 127.0.0.1. What I actually found was nothing which shouldn’t have been there.

So then I broke out the usual tools: Spybot, Rootkit Revealer, a manual installation of AVG via disk from another machine, HijackThis … several hours of the machine wrongly being pronounced clean later, I remembered reading that Microsoft’s OncCare sometimes managed to disinfect machines other products didn’t.

I downloaded the free trial (via another machine as the Microsoft site was being blocked) and fired it up. Its first quick scan found nothing, but it also recommended installing Internet Explorer 7. I think it must have been the running of the Microsoft malicious software removal tool during the IE install which finally disinfected the machine to the point where a full OneCare scan found and removed the last of what it proclaimed to be the Conficker worm.

More Windows-savvy readers might well be saying at this point that I should have recognised the Conficker symptoms earlier. The truth is, though, that after nearly three years using Linux on my machines, it’s starting to grate to have to find my way around Windows and fix knackered installs thereof, and I’ve been cheerfully avoiding articles about the latest threats in the Windows world, smug in the knowledge that it’s not my problem any more. .. until the phone rings.

It turns out that the aspect of the infection which had me confused the most – the blocking of the AV sites – is achieved by hooking into the relevant windows API calls and tampering with their behaviour. The question has to be asked, though – why the hell is it possible for code running as a limited user – or, come to that, any user – to intercept API calls like this?

Asside from the still-woeful state of its security, Windows really does feel prehistoric to me now – no central mechanism for installing and updating software, leading to every app having its own updater (launched at startup for maximum slowdown of the machine, of course), no decent command-line, and all the nonsense of antivirus, antispyware and anti-everything-else.

It must be ten years since I started getting the phone calls from people with broken machines, and yet it’s still happening. I saw the future of home computing last week, and it was a broken Windows box. Time to think the unthinkable and start installing Ubuntu as the standard remedy?

Getting serious about email

The epic tale of how my new mail setup was born

My personal email has been on a rough ride over the years: from a reasonably nice (Microsoft based!) school email setup in 1999, which sadly got removed when Windows 98 was introduced, I went through three Hotmail accounts. I had a brief flirtation with GMail, but not being all that keen on the means of delivering advertising, I ended up back on Hotmail.

Registering dnorth.net last year at least ensured my email address would no longer change, but the technical capabilities of the two mail servers holding the mail still left much to be desired: flaky, unreliable spam scoring, no facilities for server-side filtering/sorting, sheer lack of customisability…

Last week, I finally did something about it. At my disposal was my VPS, running Debian Linux 4 (‘etch’). On the wishlist were:

  • Accurate server-side spam scoring with SMTP-time rejection of the most obvious spam
  • Sender verification
  • Sieve filters for server-side sorting into folders
  • All mail stored on the server and accessible over secure IMAP

Thankfully, none of the above is too difficult: some pretty good instructions are Out There for most of it. The ones I used were:

Please remember, I am not responsible for the content of external sites (e.g., the links above), nor can I accept any responsibility for the consequences of acting on the points below…

I ran into a couple of issues:

  • Permissions on the .sievesource files generated by AvelSieve – I needed to chmod g+w on /var/lib/squirrelmail/data and chown it to www-data:www-data in order to reach a state where Exim could read the file, and Avelsieve could write it.
  • Exim4’s native sieve implementation only has the core features in it, not the extensions defined in RFC 3431. I dodged the issue by matching the number of *s in the X-Spam-Score header using string matching, rather than numeric checks on the X-Spam-Score.

All in all, though, it’s working a treat. Email perfection at last!

Redesigned again, new toys and multiple monitors

So, as those not reading via one of the planets will be aware, I’ve rolled out the fourth (or is it fifth?) new theme for this site since May 2007. I’m definitely more pleased with this one than any of its predecessors, and intend to stick with it for a good while.

In other news, I blew £160 on new technology for my desk this week: specifically, a new 4GB USB pendrive to replace my ailing 256mb one, a 250GB external hard disk for my backups, and best of all, a 19 inch TFT monitor to act as a second screen for my laptop.

All of the above were very reasonably priced over at Dabs, and the £100 inc delivery cost of the monitor in particular came as a very pleasant surprise.

This is the first time I’ve given multiple monitors a serious go under Linux (specifically Kubuntu), and KDE certainly puts Windows (at least up to and including XP) into the shade here: a taskbar on each monitor? Yes, it can do that. Separate background images per monitor (without silly hacks involving stitching image files together)? Yes. Only show the buttons for the windows on this monitor on this monitor’s taskbar? Certainly, sir.

It’s only been two days, but I’m already wondering how I ever managed without a secondary screen. It certainly made finishing the new theme for this site a lot easier.