Friday, January 11, 2008

isoskata, heteromera

Categorize this one under handy utilities. (Personally, I'm putting it under the default (and only) category, which is "All Posts.") If you're a computer tweak-thumper and/or a bit torrent maniac, you've probably run into an ISO file or two in your time. If you aren't or haven't, an ISO file (with the extension ".iso") basically represents a CD or DVD--or what is also known as an image.

The first time I encountered an ISO file was after I had downloaded a very boss torrent--one I was very excited about finding, much less downloading (which, of course, since it was rare, took about three days). When I opened the download, I found an ISO file. After a bit of a freak-out, I hit Google to find out what the hell this thing was and what software I needed to deal with it. Early research suggested that I should burn it to disc with an optical disc authoring application.

As an official card-carrying geek (OCCG), I had to resist. Physical media? Who uses that anymore? ("I question your technology!") I mean, think about it. I've got a file on my hard drive, and I'm supposed to burn to CD so I can make it accessible to my hard drive? It's already on my freaking hard drive, for Pete's sake!

Fortunately, I found DAEMON Tools Lite. This lovely little (and free!) application lets you access an ISO file like it was a disc in an optical media drive. (In tech lingo, the process is called "mounting a drive," but since both Brain and I work in this blog, it's naturally a loaded (ahem!) term and probably best avoided.) Not only is the app cool, I'm saving the cost of a CD-R disk, a whole $0.37!

So now you can use your ISO file. But, have you ever wondered where ISO files come from in the first place? (Maybe your parents didn't have that little talk with you.) Well, the answer is an application like ImgBurn. This free app creates an ISO file from a CD or DVD, as you've probably guessed. It will also burn files and images to disc.

Okay, this is all very straightforward, but think about what you can do if you throw in an external hard drive and some blank optical media.

Sick of having to deal with all the software boxes, cases, and sleeves? Can't find your installation media when you want it? Create an online software library and put the discs away. (Make sure you write down the license keys first.) Keep installing the same three small applications over and over? Rip the discs to ISO files, burn the ISOs to a disc (or copy them to a USB thumb drive), throw it in your laptop bag, and use DAEMON Tools to mount the images whenever you need them.

I use these tools to manage my installation media, but you could probably use them for other purposes--though, I would be surprised if there aren't any gotchas with copyrighted stuff. I don't know... I just like the idea of being able to create virtual physical media and physical virtual media. (Hey, if it ain't baroque, don't fix it!)

we are the same person

Heya! Since Brain and I are the same person, we likes the tech gear. So, he's gonna tell you about stuff too. How cool is that?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

why working in IT rocks

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a meeting at work about virtualization and how this will be my company's strategy for reducing hardware costs. I could go on about that topic, but that's not where I'm going with this.

Over the course of my six weeks with SharePoint, I've concluded that I really need a test environment I can play around with. The only other option would be to use the live server, and because I was raised correctly, I know better than that (even if Microsoft doesn't--DON'T get me started). I talked to the manager-across-the-hall about it, and we agreed that requesting a virtual machine would be the way to go.

We use VMWare Lab Manager to create and run our virutal machines. This is the process you must follow to get to the point where you can even use Lab Manager:
  1. Submit a Lab Manager login request to Support.

  2. Get your manager to approve the request.

  3. Enroll in and take an 30-minute online course about Lab Manager on our internal education site.

  4. Get authorized to the policy server, read the policy document about Lab Manager, and sign an agreement, stating that you have read and understand the policy.

  5. Get access to the virtualization team's SharePoint site, and read two documents stored there.

  6. Communicate to Support that you have completed the course, signed the policy agreement, and read the additional documents.

  7. Wait for Support to create your login and inform you of it.

  8. Log into Lab Manager and watch five videos about how to use it.

Now you're set to create and/or use a virtual machine! Naturally, with a process like that, I wasn't exactly chomping at the bit to get set up. The manager I talked to said that the process can take several days--even weeks.

This is the part about why working in IT totally rocks. Yesterday afternoon, a support manager came over to my cube and told me that they had a request from a product tester for a SharePoint virtual machine that he could use for his testing. Support doesn't have anyone who knows anything about installing SharePoint, so she wanted to know if I'd be willing to set up the VM for him--oh, and by the way, he needs it by Monday. I said, "Sure, I can do it. But, I don't have access to Lab Manager." She got kind of a frantic look, and asked me if I had at least taken the online course. "Nope, but I have some time now."

Thirty-five minutes later, I was logged into Lab Manager and playing around with my first virtual machine. Needless to say, the process had been expedited a bit. I didn't cheat--I went through all the steps, but turnaround time on their side was rather amazing. Oh, and I didn't have to wait very long to get access to the SharePoint site. ;-)

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

smashing windows

Since I started working more frequently with Microsoft products, I've been running into all kinds of problems. Most of it is my fault--I tend to approach technology from the standpoint of how it should be, not how it actually is. Apparently, one gets into a lot of trouble applying this approach to Microsoft software.

For example, Windows gets very crabby if you have a mix of Office 2003 and Office 2007 products installed. If you happen to discover this the hard way like I did, good luck fixing it! It seems reasonable to me that uninstalling the Office 2007 components, rebooting, and re-installing Office 2003 components would be a good fix. Nope. How about uninstalling everything remotely connected with Office, rebooting, and installing Office 2003? Ah, no. You, my friend, are fubar'd--just like me. This is the sort of thinking that gets Microsoft software all screwed up--what the hell were you thinking?

Later, I tried installing SQL Server 2005. The installer bombed on the MSXML 6.0 installation and then refused to install any SQL Server components or tools. However, it kindly installed the SQL Server documentation and Visual Studio components--which both take an immense amount of disk space and offer no functional happiness. I uninstalled everything SQL Server (odd how you can install multiple components from one installation wizard, but then you need to manually uninstall each component--if you're lucky enough to know which those are). The strange thing was that I already had MSXML 6.0 installed on my system. When I downloaded MSXML 6.0 and separately tried to re-install it, I was told that the administrator had prohibited that action and I was not allowed to install the software on my system.

I found this error message quite strange--because I no longer work at IBM. (If I still worked at IBM, I wouldn't have batted a lash.) Before firing off a snotty note to the help desk, a quick Google showed that the message was a bit on the misleading side. As near as I can figure, my MSXML 6.0 installation got hosed somewhere along the way and didn't want to uninstall or re-install.

In both cases, I needed a strong-arm uninstaller. You know, the kind of uninstaller that REALLY uninstalls a product--as opposed to the Windows uninstaller, which doesn't. Fortunately, that kind of uninstaller is out there, you can get it, and somewhat surprisingly, Microsoft provides it.

So, the upshot is, if you're having problems installing or uninstalling Microsoft software, you will want to check out the Windows Installer Cleanup Utility. Notice it's available from Microsoft Support. This is because Microsoft would like you to believe that you might not actually need the tool. Don't listen to them, you do. Just make sure you read the support article before you use it.

The Windows Installer Cleanup Utility helped me fix my two problems. It removed all Office components from my system so I could re-install cleanly. A quick wave of the utility wand banished MSXML 6.0 from my system so that the SQL Server installer could set it up itself.

Now I have a whiter, brighter smile! Thanks, Windows Installer Cleanup Utility!

Sunday, January 6, 2008

it's raining again

Yeah, I haven't been doing very good with this side of the blog, so to make up for it, I want to tell you about two little desktop applications that I love to use: Rainlendar and Rainmeter. (They're made by a person/group named "Rainy," which is where the name comes from.)

Rainlendar is a skinnable calendar that sits on your Windows desktop, and it has saved my keister on several occasions. If you're as non-organized as I am, you've no doubt encountered what I call "the boot nightmare." You're booting up your computer in the morning. Suddenly, you break out in a cold sweat. "Am I supposed to be in a meeting right now?" To find out, you have to wait for the boot, for your mail client to open and replicate, and then for your calendar to open--and now you're 10 minutes late for said meeting, if it isn't a figment of your imagination.

Rainlendar is light, and if you have it set to start when Windows starts, it'll probably be the first thing to appear on your desktop after a boot. A quick glance at Rainlendar's event list will tell you when/where you have to be--and you can be on your way long before your mail client starts. There's even a built-in to-do list for handy little things like "Make sure you're wearing pants before you go to the meeting."

Rainlendar 0.22.1 (with aerial RL skin)

There are two distinct versions of Rainlendar. I've used the old version (0.22.1) for years, and can attest that it's in no way buggy--and there are a ton of great skins for it. The new version (2.x) (which also is available for Linux) comes in two flavors: Lite (free) and Pro (not-free). Lite is more or less similar to the old version, although you can't use the old skins with it, and there aren't a lot of new skins out there. Pro costs €15 (around $22) and includes support for shared calendars, and synching to Outlook and Google Calendar. I haven't used Pro myself--I have few enough meetings that manually entering them into Rainlendar isn't too onerous. (<edit> The old version does include an Outlook plug-in that is not enabled by default. Works great!</edit>)

You can get Rainlendar skins from the product site, from WinCustomize's Rainlendar gallery, and from deviantArt's Rainlendar gallery. Keep in mind that most of the skins you see are for the old version--if you aren't sure after reading the writeup, it's probably meant for the old version. Most authors of new skins will explicitly state that their skin supports Rainlendar 2. When you download a skin, extract it to the Skins subdirectory in the product installation. Then, either restart or refresh Rainlendar (right-click and select Refresh) for the skin to show up under Skins in the right-click menu.

My favorite old skin is aerial RL and my favorite new skin is Vitrum.

Rainmeter is a light, skinnable system monitoring application for your Windows desktop. Although it is primarily used to monitor system resources (like CPU, memory, disk, etc.), it's really more like a gadgets/widgets framework. (This is especially true since many skinners are using Rainmeter, because of its easily scripted interface, to create Windows Vista sidebar clones for XP.) You can find "skins" that support RSS and weather feeds, control various media players, check your e-mail, and so on.

Rainmeter product development has been discontinued, but you can still download it from the old Rainy's site. Really, if you want desktop gadget functionality without all the memory overhead of the more commonly known frameworks (such as the Vista sidebar, Google Gadgets, and Yahoo! Widgets), it's hard to beat Rainmeter. The downside is that there aren't a lot of great Rainmeter skins out there--your choice is rather limited, and you often end up having to tweak a skin to get what you want.

The best places to find Rainmeter skins are deviantArt's Rainmeter gallery and's Rainmeter gallery.

After getting used to Windows Vista and my sidebar gadgets, going back to XP on my work laptop was difficult. On Vista, if the system seemed a bit sluggish, a quick glance at the sidebar would tell me if my CPU, memory, or network bandwidth was pegged. To stop myself from bringing up XP Task Manager every ten minutes, I installed Rainmeter, downloaded the Bars-English skin, copied the CPU meter and hacked it to display my second CPU, and I was in business.

Rainmeter (with Bars-English skin, modded)

Monday, November 19, 2007

dock software

One piece of software that I've found quite helpful is an application dock. Recent versions of Mac OS has this concept, but not Windows so far. Windows does have the Quick Launch bar, but its features are much more limited.

The product I use is Stardock ObjectDock. There's a free version that gives you a zoomer dock (the icons in the dock enlarge when you mouse over them). For $19.95, you can purchase ObjectDock Plus, which gives you tabbed docks in addition to the zoomer.

Object Dock zoomer

I've got Plus, and I love it. I have a zoomer on the right side of my screen for my frequently used applications. At the top of the screen, I have several single-tab docks. These act like little drawers that slide out when you mouse over them. Each drawer contains a different category of applications, like office apps, media players, games, development tools, and so on.

Object Dock Plus, drawers of tabbed docks

The fun part of ObjectDock is that the background is skinnable and you can get custom or themed icons for it. My favorite place to get icons and backgrounds is the WinCustomize ObjectDock Gallery. (I think you need to register at the site to download stuff, but it's well worth it.) If you don't want to register, deviantArt also has an ObjectDock category and generic dock icons.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


For part of this blog, I hope to be able to capture a unique opportunity I have in the realms of geek knowledge. I'm a Java/web programmer who worked for IBM for nine years. I recently accepted a job with SPSS working with Microsoft SharePoint--a product about which I knew nothing when I started the application process. Why would they hire me? Good question. I don't know the answer. :-)

Anyway, since I interviewed for the job, I've been doing research on Microsoft technologies, considering that I have no experience with anything but Windows and the Office end-user suite and I'm going to have to use these technologies in my new job.

What I'm discovering is quite fascinating. It isn't that MS technologies are so terrible or so wonderful--they seem to be much as I imagined them, with strengths and weaknesses just like everything else--but it's more about learning about the Microsoft paradigm and how it differs so drastically from what I'm used to. More on this later.

I would also like to talk about software and websites I've found. There's a lot of great stuff out there I know I couldn't live with out--or, at least, I wouldn't want to try. There's also a lot of sad stuff out there, too.

Anyway, I'm a Java geek in a strange land, and this is all about my journeys.