Archives for: "October 2008"

Backup much improved in Windows 7

As many of you are aware although the backup in Windows Vista was easy to use - it had no control over exactly what you wanted backup. The only controls were things like pictures, documents, recorded TV etc, and of course if you've got lots of php files and things like that in your documents folder you had to select the other files option, which would pretty much backup everything on the system - resulting in extremely large backup files.

Using NT Backup on older systems my backups would work out at about 15GB, with Windows Vista 60 or 70GB wouldn't be uncommon, times that by 3 machines and that soon fills your hard disks. Luckily I didn't have to put up with this for very long, as Windows Home Server came out in the same year which handles backups brilliantly.

In Windows 7 however the team responsible for backup have clearly listened to feedback and added much more control back over backup, without making it too complicated for people to actually use.

Then if you want more control over it you can, by including or excluding locations and specific file types.

Google looking a little tired compared to Live Search?

So here is Google's search page today, as on many special occasions they have their custom logo on show.

During the summer the Live Search homepage started featuring new images every day, using the entire frame, previously there had been a gradient here instead, on the image were a bunch of hotspots which pointed to related search results.

Is it me or does Google still look a little too 1990s compared to this?

Before you mention performance, on Live Search the image is loaded in the background, so it doesn't slow down the loading of the page itself, once its ready it fades into view, its actually quite a nice looking effect.

The only downside is its not available for the UK version yet, which means I hit the US site everyday just to see what they've got on there. Let's get that sorted please, there's only been a few days where I could say that specific image only really applies to the US market, like when they have images of sporting events for example. But the rest transfers over well.

From a search point of view, I use Live Search for my normal stuff these days, with a good success rate, especially since IE8 now shows suggestions for searching in the search bar at the top as you start typing (like on the actual search pages themselves - well excluding the UK sites again). The quality of the results is pretty much the same now, I find myself only hitting Google when I've got a more technical query that needs a bit more work, like error messages and things like that where Live Search isn't quite there yet.

New build of WorldWide Telescope released

Have just been throwing my must-have applications onto my Windows 7 system and came across a nice surprise. There's a new build of WorldWide Telescope available. Here's the official blurb for those who haven't already tried it out:

Immerse yourself in a seamless beautiful environment.

WorldWide Telescope (WWT) enables your computer to function as a virtual telescope, bringing together imagery from the best ground and space-based telescopes in the world. Experience narrated guided tours from astronomers and educators featuring interesting places in the sky

I notice the website has had a bit of an overhaul, that there's several new sky surveys available, that it now has a 3D fly-around mode for viewing the Solar System and the Milky Way, similar to Celestia, and according to the little tip of the day box that popped up it now supports Xbox 360 controllers, but as it's gone 4 in the morning I'll have to wait until tomorrow and see if its got better support for 120 DPI systems and see if I can see anything else that's new.

Microsoft Introduces Windows 98, Ending 95 Brand

It's nice to see the New York Times continuing to publish nonsense, this time from John Markoff:

Microsoft Introduces Windows 7, Ending Vista Brand

The Vista brand? Here's a tip, Windows is the brand, Vista is the version of Windows.

Alternative headline: Microsoft introduce new version of Windows, and gives it a new name.

Microsoft introduced what it said would be a slimmer and more responsive version of its Windows operating system on Tuesday, while unceremoniously dropping the brand name Vista for the new product. [...] The new version will instead be branded Windows 7.

What did you expect them to call it Windows Vista SE or Windows Vista R2? Damn, they should of called Windows Vista Windows XP R2!

Heck why bother "unceremoniously dropping" any of the version identifiers? Let's call Windows 7 Windows 1.0 2.0 3.0 3.1 3.11 NT for Workgroups 95 95 OSR2 NT 4.0 98 98SE ME 2000 XP Vista 7!

What planet is this guy on? Any excuse, even something as pathetic as this to bash Microsoft.

New Taskbar for Windows 7

Couple of screenshots from the PDC build of Windows 7:

New calculator, obviously but check out the Taskbar. Now Quick Launch has been merged with the rest of the Taskbar.

Hovering over these icons will show all windows that are open with that particular application. Best of all, it will also show individual tabs within applications so if you've got 20 websites open in Internet Explorer you can jump to a tab from the Taskbar.

What is Windows Azure?

There seems to be a fair amount of confusion out there regarding Windows Azure which was announced today at the PDC. I know vague marketing speak like this doesn't help much:

Build new applications in the cloud - or use interoperable services that run on Microsoft infrastructure to extend and enhance your existing applications. You choose what’s right for you.

And...

The Azure™ Services Platform (Azure) is an internet-scale cloud services platform hosted in Microsoft data centers, which provides an operating system and a set of developer services that can be used individually or together. Azure’s flexible and interoperable platform can be used to build new applications to run from the cloud or enhance existing applications with cloud-based capabilities. Its open architecture gives developers the choice to build web applications, applications running on connected devices, PCs, servers, or hybrid solutions offering the best of online and on-premises.

Basically, like an operating system running on a single computer it manages all the hardware in it, talks to disks handles networking etc. A developer then writes against the operating system, not having to worry about writing drivers to talk to the network, hard disks or dealing with memory management or outputting video onto the screen - that's all handled by the operating system.

Windows Azure expands this, so the operating system also manages any number of servers and all the hardware in between.

At the moment you write an application, and then have the hassle of trying to balance it all between lots of individual servers if you need any scale.

Windows Azure deals with this, and blasts the application out to more servers if extra capacity is needed and scales it back down when its quiet. All you need to do deploy your existing application and include a manifest stating how Azure should deal with it, how many servers you think the baseline should be etc etc. Essentially this allows IT personnel and developers to concentrate on the application and less dealing with the platform and all the hardware that happens to be actually running the application.

At the moment it is a Microsoft hosted service, and it is currently a Technical Preview (which traditionally comes before a beta), however there is no doubt in my mind that within a few years this will be a platform Microsoft will license for hosting providers.

What does it look like on the ground?

There are two key components, the fabric controller which manages the servers, and deploys applications to the individual servers and the a piece of software called the agent which lives on the individual servers, this checks the health of the server, makes sure the application is running, can restart it if it needs to and reports back to the fabric controller.

Simple, right?

So less nonsense about giant evil databases in the cloud please, or Skynet for that matter.

Update: Channel 9 video here which explains it in more depth.

Why you should never disable UAC

Question: These UAC prompts are annoying, can I get rid of them somehow?

Answer: Disable UAC.

WRONG.

If any so called "expert" gives you this advice, ignore it.

If you don't like the prompts you should put UAC into silent mode, it should never, ever under any circumstances be disabled by normal computer users.

Microsoft exposing the ability to disable UAC in the UI came quite late in development, as late as one of the release candidates if my memory serves me, much to my disappointment. Previously it had been hidden away on one of the tabs on mcsonfig. Now anyone can find it on the User Accounts page in the Control Panel.

Pros of disabling UAC:

  • No more prompts?

Cons of disabling UAC:

  • All applications run with full privileges.
  • Internet Explorer loses protected mode, and also runs with full privileges!
  • Compromised applications can change anything on the system, with no prompts.
  • Application state can be lost as applications look for data in Program Files.
  • Requires a system reboot.

Pros of silencing UAC:

  • No more prompts.
  • Applications continue to run as standard user.
  • Internet Explorer runs in Protected Mode, and has fewer rights than a standard user.
  • Applications writing data into Program Files get redirected to appropriate user locations.
  • No reboot required.

Cons of silencing UAC:

  • No more prompts?

The biggest non-security problem comes about because many users disable UAC when they're setting up their machines, when installing their software, many older applications will happily write to Program Files as they're running with full rights to the machine, they'll store their data, and config files there, or in system locations in the registry.

This is a disaster waiting to happen, when UAC is re-enabled the applications will suddenly lose all of its config information and whatever else it has saved into Program Files as UAC redirects them to where they should be writing their data, in locations writable by standard users, such as ProgramData or AppData. Many applications will however happily recreate their information with the default settings. Some however will break horribly, I've run into situations where applications won't uninstall or install because its state has gotten so muddled due to the user disabling and enabling UAC over and over. They had to be manually removed from the system and then reinstalled.

How to put UAC into silent mode.

Go to Control Panel -> System and Maintenance -> Administrative Tools -> Local Security Policy (alternatively you can launch by typing secpol.msc in Start Search).

From there navigate your way to Local Policies -> Security Options.

There will be an option for 'User Account Control: Behavior of the elevation prompt for administrators in Admin Approval Mode'. It has three options, 'Prompt for consent' (default), 'Prompt for credentials' (requires the user to enter a password as well) and the last one 'Elevate without prompting' (which I call silent mode).

If you're running a home system without the Local Security Policy options you can also make the change by changing the registry. Run regedit from Start Search, and make your way to:

HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Policies\System

Look for 'ConsentPromptBehaviorAdmin' the default option is 2, while 1 prompts for a password and 0 elevates without prompting.

Windows "7" officially named

And its going to be....

[insert drum roll]

Windows 7.

Just don't forget to bump the kernel version up to 7.0 too. Its still 6.1 in the pre-beta builds at the moment.

Registry cleaners - a waste of time and money

I recently came across somebody posting on the Microsoft support groups who had problems with one of his input devices misbehaving. It seems one of the things this person tried to do to resolve this issue was to purchase a registry cleaning application. I won't name the specific one here.

The registry is a part of your computer where Windows and other applications typically store their settings. It is essentially a database, and it is critical to the functioning of your computer.

What these so called "registry cleaners" claim to do is to fix "errors" in the registry. One example this particular piece of software uses is "software you regularly instal (their typo not mine) on your machine is rarely accompanied by uninstall utility and, even when it does, fairly often it leaves broken Windows Registry keys behind".

Well other than the fact that most software does have an uninstaller, the language is overly alarmist. A lot of application uninstallers will leave orphaned (we don't call them broken) entries in the registry. However this is no cause for concern, those registry keys don't do anything, and due to the database like nature of the registry cause no performance impact.

They also claim "This software program will inform you on where the registry errors are located and it will eventually: Eliminate 100% of your PC Errors".

When you hear something like that your scumbag alert should sound. If I had a power surge and my PSU blew, how is this software going to repair that? If I've got blown capacitors on my motherboard how is this software going to fix that? It can't.

This sort of nonsense is so typical of the registry cleaner hard sell. Not only that I can count six download links to the software on their front page. Yes six, they really want this software on your machine. What they don't tell you is the price of this software, they'll wait for you to install it let it do a free scan, then they'll come up with a bunch of so-called errors you have and offer to fix them for a price.

There are registry cleaners from more legitimate sources, such as Windows Live OneCare, who have a free online scanner, which will also fix issues it finds for free too. However do you really want to put your computer at risk? If one of these scanners failed in some way they could take down your system.

My advice is, unless you have a specific problem that can be traced to the registry, and you have a specific address for a key in the registry, and specific instructions on what to do with the key. Leave the registry alone. Certainly never buy software that claims to "clean" it.

Financial system in crisis

The following article is from the October issue of the Yeovil CLP newsletter, due to how rapidly the situation is developing I've decided to publish it here too.

The current situation we see in the financial system is no accident. For years we were told that the invisible hand of the free market will sort out the difficulties that market economies face. We see short term profits and bonuses put before long term stability as a result. Instead of financial companies looking at what they were doing when they were shifting such high risk debt around they just assumed the market would sort it out, and as long as they could sell the debt packages onto another company and make a bit of money in the process everything would work out alright.

However things didn't go alright and the US subprime mortgage market collapsed when somebody realised all this debt wasn't worth anywhere near as much as it was believed to be, as a result the system ceased up and financial companies found themselves lumbered with the high risk debt with no way to sell it on.

Over the last few months we've seen those who oppose regulation, such as the government in the United States face up to reality as they are forced to get involved or watch the world financial system suffer more setbacks. The most obvious examples being the takeover of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, leaving almost half of America's mortgages under the watch of the US government.

Even the Tories are gradually facing up to the realisation that the financial market cannot be allowed to operate unrestricted – at least during the bad times. One can only imagine what sort of state we'd be in now if the then Shadow Chancellor Oliver Letwin got away with his plans to scrap the Financial Services Authority because of what he called their “intrusive regulatory regime”. Only last year was the Conservatives' policy commission on the economy saying “We see no need to continue to regulate the provision of mortgage finance”.

Of course what really matters now is what we can do to lessen the impact of these events. The Left Economics Advisory Panel is campaigning for:

1) Nationalising the banks and establishing democratic control over banking decisions, ensuring democratic representation on boards, ending the bonus binges, controlling executive pay and share holder rewards.

2) Cutting interest rates significantly and immediately, restoring democratic control over key economic decision making by not only widening the remit of the Bank of England beyond ensuring price stability to advising on the wider economic health of the country but also reverting the bank's role to being one voice amongst many others to be taken into account.

3) Securing people a home by converting repossessions to social rentals so that people have a 'right to stay' in their homes and embarking on a massive council house-building programme.

4) Enhancing security in employment by ensuring people have a say over the future of the companies by strengthening rights and representation at work.

5) Bring fuel bills under control with price controls on the consumer price of gas and electricity, so that people are not being forced to choose between heating and eating this winter, with the threat of nationalisation if needed.

This is the sort of programme we need implemented to protect the public and ensure long term stability. Not half-hearted nationalisations like Bradford & Bingley where the tax payer is lumbered with the bad debt, while other banks pick up the profitable parts of the business. Chancellor Alistair Darling informs us all options are being kept open, we'll see.

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