27 April, 2009

Setting up PCs for multiple users

For the past six years, I've been dealing with Windows XP machines that get a lot of use from a lot of people. They sit in school tech labs. They sit in libraries. And they sit in classrooms. Some of them get three hundred people on them in the course of a month. That's three hundred different users logging on multiple times, looking to run different programs and print papers on networked printers. And the way XP works (and it's the same with Windows Vista), that means that there are 300-plus profiles on these computers, tucked away in a folder called Documents and Settings (or in Vista, Users). 

If you don't set up the default profile right, you'll spend hours each week dealing with frustrated clients. There are no printers installed. They can't find a program they need, even though you know it's installed. Double sets of icons appear on the desktop. Items in the Startup menu run twice. I know administrators who have struggled with these issues for 18 months or more, and still don't quite have a protocol in place.

Here's the protocol I use for my labs. And trust me...I keep my volume of frustrated clients down to an absolute minimum.

The first step in setting up a new corporate machine is to create a new user. Installer is a good name for him, as an administrator for the local machine and for the domain-based network it will hook up to. 

When logged in as Installer, you install all the programs you want each user to have. You set up the icons, desktop pattern, screensaver, Internet Favorites, and Startup menu options that you want every user on the computer to see. And set up all the network printers you want the machine to be able to print to. 

As a final step, run all the new programs once to see if they kick up registration or other configuration windows the first time you use them. If you see such a pop-up window, make sure it won't appear next time (because if you don't, every new user on that PC will suffer). When that's out of the way, you've completed the time-consuming but obvious steps. But your job's not over.

While you're still logged in as Installer, open My Computer and disconnect all the network drives (select them, and open Tools, Disconnect Network Drives). Your network log-in scripts will map the drives again, but if you don't remove them, network users without access to these drives will be able to see them but not connect to them. It's tidier and more secure to make sure this doesn't happen.

After disconnecting the network drives, restart your computer using a local administrator account. Go into My Computer, and navigate to C:\Documents and Settings. You should see a few folders there, including Installer, Administrator, All Users, and maybe Default User (this last one's a hidden folder, but you'll see a faint outline of it with the right settings.) These folders contain the files that set up user profiles on this system. If you see any other profiles, delete them.

After this, you need to copy the Installer settings to Default User. To do this, right-click on My Computer, select Properties, click on the Advanced tab, and then the Settings button. Click to select the Installer profile, then click on Copy To. In the Copy To dialog box, click on Browse and navigate to C:\Documents and Settings, then click on Default User and click on OK. If you do it right, you'll see a warning about overwriting a profile. Click OK.

Theoretically, your work should pay off now. But just to be absolutely sure, log on to the computer and the network as a regular user (don't use your regular log-in if you're a network administrator, just to be thorough.) Windows XP should create a new profile for you that's exactly the same as the one you made under Installer, except that your network rights and the drives you can see will be different.

The next just-to-be-sure step is to fire up a program. Anything from Office 2003 or 2007 is good, since it's a particularly finicky program for multiple-user systems. If you're not asked to register or set up the program as a new user, you're golden. If you are, you need to log back on as Installer and rerun the Office installation. Then you must delete the user profile you had the trouble with and try again.

Confused yet? Don't blame the messenger. It's just another day in the life of a system administrator dealing with Windows XP Professional. And we all have days like that, don't we?

Your word processor is no typewriter

I learned how to type before I had a computer. In fact, I traded in my quill-sharpening kit for a manual typewriter and learned how to type at night school. I was a graduate student at the time, and yet the bun-wearing schoolmarm in charge actually shouted at me in front of the class. My crime? Typing Shelley's poem "Ozymandias" from memory when I'd finished the repetitive exercises she'd given me.

So it is with some pleasure that I state that all typing teachers in that era were irredeemably wrong. In fact, they have caused more trouble and expense to computer users than anybody will ever know. As someone who's spent the past 20 years digging up digital documents and correcting them for publication, I can state this with some authority. Without exception, well-trained typewriter typists make messy digital documents. Oh, their documents may print out all right, but their redundant spaces and tabs make any attempt to edit or change a font an exercise in frustration.

These are the top four typewritten crimes against word processing:

Crime 1: Entering two spaces after a period. Typewriters couldn't adjust letter spacing, so typing teachers taught students to hit the spacebar twice so it was easy to see the end of a sentence. Word processors handle spacing automatically, so there is no good reason to do this anymore. In fact, it looks terrible.

Crime 2: Hitting the Tab key to indent a line. This terrible habit was the only way to do it with a typewriter. It's a waste of effort now that you can pre-format your document. If you have a document with a hanging indent (where each line except the first one is indented), it's a labor-intensive nightmare, especially when you need to make corrections.

Crime 3: Using combinations of tabs and spaces to line up text. Ever heard of word processed tables? You will. Read on.

Crime 4: Hitting the Enter key twice to space out paragraphs. Once again, a waste of effort. One that I occasionally commit, but really shouldn't.

So how do you do it right?

When you open your document, set the page layout right away. In Microsoft Word, press Ctrl+A to select the entire document, then pick Format, Paragraph. In the Indentation section, under Special, select First Line. Under Spacing, select the Auto option under Before. If you need to double-space, select that here too.

When you want to make two or more columns, don't use tabs. Instead, create a table with the right number of columns. In Word, select Table and Insert, and make the columns right. Then when the table appears, drag to highlight the whole thing, and select Borders and Shading. Click on None to ensure you won't see the lines on the table when you print it out.

How to Clean Up a Mistyped Document

Of course, if you correct a document that's already messed up, it will look even more of a mess. So you need to know a few clean-up tricks using the search and replace tool. In Microsoft Word, you open the dialog box with Ctrl+H or the Edit, Replace menu. Tidying up the two-spaces-after-a-period crime is easy: In the Find What box, enter a period and two spaces. In the Replace With, enter a period with one space. Presto!

Tabs and paragraph returns are harder to replace automatically, because you can't hit a Tab or Enter key in a search-and-replace box. But you can enter the code for these characters: ^t and ^p. Hold down the Shift key and press 6, and you've got that caret symbol (^). Follow it with a P for paragraph return or T for a tab.

Undoing the tabbed indent crime becomes easy, then. In Find What, enter ^p^t. In Replace With, enter ^p and click the Replace All button. Undoing the double-return crime is also easy: replace ^p^p with ^p and click Replace All.

Now, inspect your document. You may find a few indents made up of spaces. These can be removed by replacing ^p followed by a space with plain ^p and hitting Replace All several times, until Word tells you there were no changes made.

About the only residual problem I've ever found after going through these steps are blocks of data that used to look like tables and weird page breaks because people hit Enter five or more times to get over the page.

Page breaks are best handled in Word by holding down the Ctrl key and pressing Enter. This inserts a page break symbol.

Copying blocks of data out of "tables" made up of tabs is requires a little-known Alt key trick: Hold down the Alt key and use the mouse to draw a selection box around a column of text. Once you've selected what you need, cut it and paste it into a real Word table.

Now you've unlearned all the bad habits you learned from typing teachers, make sure the next generation doesn't commit them: Buy your kids a $30 copy of Type To Learn 3 from Sunburst Software (www.sunburst.com). In fact, if you still hunt-and-peck, buy it for yourself and try it out for a while. It's better for your wrists than online gaming, and it's kind of fun too. Best of all, it's guaranteed not to shout at you for typing poetry when you're done with your exercises.

06 April, 2009

Easter Eggs we have loved: The Hall of Tortured Souls

If you were ever a fan of the exploration and FPS game Doom, there's something tucked away in Excel 95 that you will flip for. It's called the Hall of Tortured Souls.

The Hall is a 3-D walkthrough environment, where the arrow keys control movement. These instructions will get you into the hall:

1. Open Excel 95 with a blank worksheet
2. Go down to row 95 (that Windows 95 branding strikes again)
3. Select the whole row
4. Tab over to column B
5. Go to Help/About
6. Hold down Ctrl + Alt +Shift and click on the Tech Support Button.
7. The Hall of Tortured Souls window appears.

Once you're there, The C and D keys tilt the point of view down and up. You can walk through walls, but you need to be careful, as walls without windows can trap you inside the wall when you plough into them.

There are three levels, each with four rooms, and three pools you can walk across. On the bottom level, you appear to reach a solid wall, but behind it is a a zig-zag path. You get to the path by typing a cheat code, excelkfa, a nod to the Doom all-power cheat code IDKFA.

But there are no demons to blast into oblivion, so to many gamers, it lacks punch. When you're done exploring, X out of the box and quit Excel. You can always go back another day.

Easter Eggs we have loved: Word 2

I don't know what you were doing in 1991, but Word for Windows 2.0 was crushing its competition--literally. Hidden away in Microsoft Word's About box were six crudely animated stick figures who jumped up and down on a green monster carrying the banner WP. That was obviously short for WordPerfect, and judging from the victory dance and firework display after the WP Monster had been bounced below the baseline, the little guys were the WinWord programmers.

1. Start Word for Windows 2.0 with any new document--even Document1.
2. From the Tools menu, select Macro, then Record Macro.
3. Enter the macro name SPIFF, and either press Enter or click the Edit button.
4. In the Macro box, delete the lines Sub Main and End Sub and the blank lines between.
5. Close the menu and save the changes.
8. Open the Help menu, then click About Microsoft Word.
9. Click once on the Word logo icon in the upper-left corner.

...and enjoy a couple of minutes of monster-bashing. You can replay the session by repeating the last couple of steps. BUT don't forget this crucial last step: Don't save the global changes to the glossary at the end of your Winword session. That will affect changes to your Spiff macro.

Easter Eggs we have loved: Excel 4

At the top of the Easter egg list for sheer mean-spiritedness, we have Excel 4.0. Microsoft's coders weren't content with being poised to corner the market on Windows-based spreadsheets back in 1992. They wanted to hold the leading DOS-based spreadsheet--Lotus 1-2-3--up to public pillory.

So Excel's developers programmed an animated Easter Egg that showed the Excel for Windows logo bouncing onto the screen, leaving screen redraw artifacts everywhere, then breaking open and letting bugs out all over the screen. Along comes the Excel logo, which bounces 1-2-3 offscreen, and displays the caption "No Problemo." Ouch!

If you happen to have an old Excel 4.0 lying around, here's how to reveal the animation:

1. Open a blank document and select Options, Toolbars.
2. Click on the Customize button, and in the Categories list box, select Custom.
3. From the top row of icons, select the Solitaire icon and drag it onto your regular toolbar.
4. Click on OK without assigning any command to the button.
5. Click on Clsoe to get rid of the Customize dialog box.
6. Maximize the worksheet.
7. Press Ctrl+Shift, and click on the Solitaire icon.

You can replay this animation any time in this or subsequent sessions by opening a new file and repeating the last two steps.

Holy Week! It's Easter Egg Time!

Now that we're into the week leading up to Easter, the time seems right to examine the old programmer's exercise, the software Easter egg. Once upon a time, these little hidden treats were tucked away in most programs, and revealed little jokes or snippets of information for enthusiasts to swap. Microsoft vocally stopped including them in the late 1990s, and all their competition on the PC platform seems to have caved in and gone corporate on us too.

Well, thank goodness Mozilla still operates like a real software company. Their Firefox 3.0.3 has some lovely bits of vintage hacker humor stuck away, and they're easy to release.

In a new browser window, enter the address about:mozilla and press Enter. You'll be treated to pseudo-biblical verse touching obliquely on money-grubbing companies that make other browsers, and how the old Mozilla browser became Firefox:

Mammon slept. And the beast reborn spread over the earth and its numbers grew legion. And they proclaimed the times and sacrificed crops unto thefire, with the cunning of foxes. And they built a new world in their own image as promised by the sacred words, and spoke of the beast with their children. Mammon awoke, and lo! it was naught but a follower.

from The Book of Mozilla, 11:9(10th Edition)

A more recent and funnier Egg touches on a few science fiction nerves. In the Address bar, type in about:robots and press Enter.

The dialog box that pops up touches on robot lore from The Day the Earth Stood Still, I Robot, Blade Runner (are replicants really robots?), The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and Futurama. And it doesn't get much better than that.

03 April, 2009

.Mobi isn't half of a Melville classic

In 2006, I first stood up in front of the domain world (from my now-collapsed platform as CNET’s On the Dot columnist) and issued a challenge:

Call me Ishmael. Go ahead, I dare you. Call me Ishmael, because frankly I'm at sea when it comes to understanding what the sponsors of the dot-mobi domain space were thinking. The mere dot-com, dot-net, and dot-org suffixes were not enough for them. They needed something that sounded epic, a whale of a good idea, and so they came up with their own top-level domain: .mobi. But beneath the surface lurks, well, not very much, really.

Now, almost three years after the sun rose on the .mobi domain, my opinion holds fast.

If you've missed the dot-mobi story so far, here's a quick summary: Back in May 2006, the sponsors of a mobile top-level domain (mTLD) began sunrise preregistration of domain names with the delightful-sounding dot-mobi suffix. The sponsors included all the big mobile players: Ericsson, Google, Microsoft, Nokia, Samsung Electronics, T-Mobile, and Vodafone. The idea was to create a forum just for mobile users, serving up pages specially designed for mobile platforms.

A noble idea, for sure, but most people believe that a top-level domain (TLD) is not really the proper forum for this.

If you've missed the TLD story so far, the dot-com, dot-net, and dot-org domains were designed in the early 1990s to create separate spaces for separate entities--specifically commercial enterprises, networks, and nonprofit organizations. Other top-level domains appeared in the years that followed: dot-info and dot-museum, for example, for all-information sites and museums.

The waters became muddy almost immediately. Individuals and companies rushed in and registered domains at will, either not knowing or not caring what the TLDs really mean. To domain registrants, a d0t-com was a way to brand themselves on the Internet, and if a dot-com wasn't available, a dot-net or dot-org would suffice. And when it came to later waves of d0t-whatevers, a museum is both an information source and a nonprofit, so surely dot-info and dot-org apply to them just as much as dot-museum does. The result? Most museums just use dot-org domains.

Of all the best-known top-level domains, only dot-edu and dot-gov seem to have remained pure.

By 2004, the point of the top level domain space was so lost to the world at large--including ICANN, the body that's supposed to regulate it--that two really bad ideas appeared: .mobi and .xxx. At the time, the creator of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee strongly condemned them both. The notion of a .xxx red light district was utterly impractical to enforce, and little more than a springboard for political posturing. But Berners-Lee reserved his real disapproval for the .mobi idea: It actually undermined one of the fundamental points of the Internet: It's supposed to be device-independent, so restricting a top-level domain to a single class of devices is just plain wrong. And if the Founder of the Web disapproves of something that much, people should at least think about it.

But that didn't happen. After all, philosophy has not been the driving force behind Web development. It became market driven almost immediately, and remains that way. So what are Web content providers to think? Should they register dot-mobi domains to protect their trademarks? Or should they concentrate on making mobile-friendly sites and promote their wares or services or ideas in some other way?

That’s up to them, of course, but I have my own opinion.

The real way to attract mobile users to mobile Web services is to design your Web site well for a handheld device. Having spent months at a time launching and relaunching Web sites over the past fifteen years, I can hear the collective groan from Web creative teams. But as every tourist board knows, if you want the visitors, you have to make the destination appealing.

As things stood in 2006, the Net came in a limited form to mobile users. But many Web developers put in the effort to attract people by creating really mobile-friendly sites. Reuters mobile, Google News mobile, BusinessWeek, and the BBC looked fantastic on a BlackBerry.

Google news also did a good job because it stripped down the news pages from outside sites into a mobile-friendly format. Mobile Web search also had strong showings from the XHTML version of Google, the Answers.com mobile, and the WAP version of Yahoo.

With the real work of integrating more advanced Web services, such as Web mail, IM, contact address books, calendars, and photos, Yahoo did yeoman’s work with its Yahoo Go for Mobile portal services, albeit in mid-2006 reaching only Symbian OS phones in the Nokia 60 series and available only via Cingular.

What lurks beneath

In the past three years, none of the sites that worked at creating the first mobile-friendly content profited much from the dot-mobi domain. And the ones that did smelled a bit too fishy for my taste.

Take the domain auction site Sedo for example. They took their cut on the auction that sold Flowers.mobi for $200,000 in 2006. A year later, they took an even bigger cut from the sale of Music.mobi ($616,000), Games.mobi ($401,500), Sports.mobi ($101,000), Movies.mobi ($82,000), and Videos.mobi and Photos.mobi ($51,000 apiece).

Who’d sink that much money into a mess of domain name, and why? The who is Alvaro Albarracin. The why, according to his 2007 blog entry: "I am not planning on developing these names, I am planning on selling these sometime in the near future."

So the .mobi domain space has become the equivalent of the tulip bulb in 16th century Holland: a commodity with no intrinsic value except as a token in the game of Speculation.

In short, the .mobi domain space amounts to another gambling forum. And as every gambler knows, the house always wins. The house in this case is the people who administer the domain space:

- The registrars take your fifteen bucks in registration money
- ICANN that takes a cut of that
- and the real money, and it is really big money, goes to the group that created the dot-mobi domain space

That last group comes off looking pretty unethical. Even if you assume there's nothing wrong with marketing-fueled free market speculation, it's ony ethical if you play fair. But they really didn't. Not content to create a spurious domain space and take administration fees for running it, they reserved the really lucrative names for themselves. They didn't allow speculators to register high-profile names like sports.mobi; they put a hold on generic names they deemed attractive and staged auctions to sell them off to the highest bidder.

Here's an example of the kind of press release they sent out to announce their scheme:

DUBLIN, Ireland and WASHINGTON, D.C.– September 23, 2008 – dotMobi – the company behind the .mobi internet domain designed to help consumers find mobile-friendly content – today announced a special online auction for 200 highly desired premium .mobi domain names including actors.mobi, bands.mobi, blackjack.mobi, boys.mobi, cellphones.mobi, doctors.mobi, games.mobi, homeloans.mobi, house.mobi, model.mobi, quotes.mobi, racing.mobi, stamps.mobi, vip.mobi and xxx.mobi.

As part of its ongoing series of unique methods of allocating Internet domain names, dotMobi is working with Sedo, the market leader in online domain name auctions, to launch the auction on November 5, 2008.

Doesn't anyone know what conflict of interest means anymore? This release would be a damning piece of evidence, if anyone cared enough about ethics to prosecute a case against these profiteers. It's not as evil as the kind of Ponzi scheme that sank Wall Street, but something about the whole .mobi scene smells like bilge water to me.

Or perhaps I'm being a bit too jaded. For all I know, the may be some good in the dot-mobi space. There may be dot-mobi sites with real value for those who are communicating or disseminating information or entertainment to the masses. Do you have any favorite .mobi sites? Do you think I’m being the other half of Herman Melville’s magnum opus? If so, you know what to do. Call me "Ishmael". Go ahead. I dare you.

01 April, 2009


I got Slashdotted!

My retrospective on operating systems we have known and loved and said goodbye to--a Computerworld.com feature called Gone But Not Forgotten--got picked up at the den of tech ennui, Slashdot, and commented into oblivion. It was a marvelous experience that reminded me of being a Sysop on a Ziff-Davis forum on CompuServe in the early 1990s. I've always enjoyed the posturing of the techier-than-thou crowd, and it's good to see that it's still in full force.

In fact, responses to the article broke down in the standard distribution pattern from the old forum days:

10 percent liked the article and it prompted an interesting side note they went on to share

40 percent disagreed with the premise, the research, the choice of author, and the management of the magazine, because the article didn't reflect their personal hobby horse...which they went on to share (at great length). 

10 percent thought that Microsoft was the root of all evil

5 percent thought that the writer was clearly in league with Apple.

10 percent agreed

5 percent disagreed

10 percent pointed out legitimate errors or statements that could be interepreted as errors

10 percent pointed out errors that weren't there because they hadn't read the article carefully.

It's nice to know that some things never change.