Category Archives: Real Life

Weapon Grade Cheese

When my wife recently ordered a few packs of rye-bread mix and two german breads from the German Deli London she also bought some Harzer Roller cheese. Blimey, this stuff is really vile!

When my wife unwrapped it for the first time during our Sunday breakfast the smell was already evil. But when she unwrapped it again this morning my eyes filled with tears.

But I guess that cheese can be useful. My wife put some of it on the bread she wants to eat for lunch at work. And I bet she’ll get a nice one person office this afternoon. 🙂

Merry Christmas and would you please fix my computer?

Every family has a computer expert. His (or her) job is to help the rest of the family with all their computer problems. Everytime the family computer expert is visiting he (or she) needs to get through a list of things which need to be fixed.

You might have already guessed that I’m that expert in my family. When my wife and I visited our families in Germany for Christmas I had a considerable to-do list. Our first stop was at my parents -in-law’s house where my old Power Mac G4 required some upgrades:

  1. Install an external Firewire harddisk and backup the system.
  2. Update Mac OS X Tiger to version 10.4.8.
  3. Install new version of QuickTime and iTunes.
  4. Install the latest security patches.
  5. Install updates for iLife 06.
  6. Install the latest Xcode tools.
  7. Install up-to-date pkgsrc packages.
  8. Provide a GIMP icon to my father-in-law’s dock.
  9. Install new OpenOffice templates.
  10. Install Virtual PC and finally retire the old Windows 98 PC.

The preparations started at home:

  • I installed Virtual PC on my Power Mac G5, created and configured a virtual machine and installed Windows XP SP2 in it.
  • My wife updated all the OpenOffice templates and created a second set of templates for the new 19% VAT rate in Germany.
  • I found a somewhat outdated distribution of GIMP for Mac OS X on the web and combined the included Mac OS X application environment with the latest GIMP pkgsrc package.
  • Finally I copied all the necessary software and data on the external harddisk. Downloading all of it would have taken days because my parents-in-law don’t have broadband.

We arrived at the 23rd of December and I started the rollout on the next morning:

  1. I connected the external harddisk, installed Carbon Copy Cloner and cloned the internal disk before starting with the updates. You never know …
  2. Installing most of the updates worked without problems. Just double click on the disk image, launch the installer and reboot … quite frequently. Using the online update is much nicer because you get away with a single reboot.
  3. The updates for iLive 06 did not work. They are for newer versions of all the programs and unfortunately not cumulative. I tried the online update over the V.90 Internet connection which was a real pain. It took a few minutes just to figure out what updates were available. The online update offered patches for the old iLife 06 programs but it would have taken hours to download them. I therefore decided to give up on these updates. But the online update did at least confirm that all the security patches were installed.
  4. Installing most of the remaining software (e.g. GIMP) worked like a charm.
  5. Installing Virtual PC was all that still needed doing. Because Virtual PC 7 doesn’t work under Mac OS X Tiger properly until you apply the patch with the latest update. I already knew that from trying it out on my Mac and simply ignored the Restart your computer button, installed the patch immediatley and rebooted afterwards. Mac OS X complained about incorrect permission of /Library/StartupItems after the reboot because Microsoft’s installer screwed up (exactly like on my Mac). Mac OS X fixed the permissions and rebooted once more. I stopped the installer from creating a virtual machine using the bundled Windows XP Professional, installed the prepared virtual machine instead and fired up Virtual PC. I was relieved when Windows XP booted after a small change to Virtual PC’s configuration. Finally I taught my father-in-law how to start Windows XP now and he liked the new solution much more than accessing the old Windows 98 PC via TightVNC.

At the 25th we left my parents-in-law and drove to my older sister’s house. Much nastier problems were waiting for me there:

  1. Increase the size of drive C: because it is full and Windows complains about that fact all the time.
  2. Check that the all the several dozen Windows XP security patches are installed.
  3. Check that the virus scanner is working and up-to-date.
  4. Make sure that the friend who set up my sister’s A-DSL and WLAN did a proper job.
  5. Help my sister with her problems with iTunes.
  6. Try to get the game working that my nephew got as a christmas present.
  7. Check the harddisk of the old Windows 98 PC for data which needs to be preserved. Wipe the contents of the harddisk afterwards because the PC will be sold.

It took me most of the 26th to sort out all of these problems because Microsoft Windows was involved. I wish my sister would have listened to me when she bought a new computer and purchased an Apple PowerBook. But she could get a Windows notebook cheap via her job and took that offer. 🙁

  1. Resizing the harddisk partitions was easy. I booted the notebook of my Partition Magic 8.0 CD-ROM and it took only a few mouse clicks and a quarter of an hour before drive C: had 8GB of free diskspace.
  2. When I checked whether recent security patches were installed I was shocked to find out that no patches had been installed for several month. The reason was simple: the old Windows 98 PC had always reminded my sister to install patches when she connected to the Internet via ISDN. But Windows XP decided that automatic updates were good enough and scheduled them at a time when the notebook is never turned on. Thank you, Microsoft! Half an hour and several reboots later the system was somewhat safe again.
  3. The situation concerning the virus scanner was alarming, too. The expensive Enterprise virus scanner required a special update server to get new virus signatures. But that update server is only available at my sister’s workplace and she hadn’t taken the notebook there for half a year. Because my sister doesn’t use that notebook for work anyway I replaced the virus scanner with the free version of AVG 7.5. AVG only needs a plain Internet connection to get new virus signatures.
  4. The next thing I checked was the WLAN router’s setup. WLAN encryption was enabled fortunately but it only used the weak WEP algorithm. I tried to switch to WPA or WPA2 using the installed WLAN Quick Setup software. But despite mentioning that an insecure WLAN can cause legal trouble the software only offered WEP encryption. Using a browser to access the web interface of the router (a Zyxel product) I found out that it does support WPA. I connected our Apple PowerBook to the router via ethernet, enabled WPA, turned off WEP and tested the secure WLAN setup with the PowerBook. When I wanted to configure the Windows notebook to use WPA Windows XP’s Wireless Network manager was refusing to let me make any changes. It turned out that the WLAN Manager, another great piece of software distributed with the router, had taken control of the WLAN setup. And it did of course not support WPA. I removed all componets of that software and Windows XP’s Wireless Network manager worked again. After deleting the open WLAN network provided by a friendly neighbour from the list of preferred networks I could finally get the Windows notebook to connect to the WPA protected WLAN of my sister’s A-DSL router. It worked fine for five minutes until another friendly neighbour turned on his or her A-DSL router with another open WLAN using the same channel. After picking a (at that point of time) unoccupied channel the WLAN finally worked secure and stable.
  5. Looking at the information provided by Windows XP’s Device Manager we figured out why the game wouldn’t run. The chipset graphics had stolen 64MB of the main memory and the game wasn’t willing to start with the remaining 448MB. My wife switched off the notebook, opened it and found out that the second memory slot isn’t used at the moment. Upgrading the notebook to 1GB of main memory should therefore be straightforward.
  6. Dealing with the old Windows 98 PC wasn’t as easy as I had hoped, too. I wanted to copy my sister’s old e-mails to a USB stick but Windows 98 (Second Edition) doesn’t provide any drivers for such hardware. After getting the PC to use the DSL connection (the ethernet was connected to the router, but it still wanted to dial out via ISDN) I was able to find a driver via Google. The next problem was that Outlook Express refused to export the e-mails without a Microsoft Exchange Server. I therefore manually copied Outlook Express’ data directory to the USB stick.
    Now the fun began: I booted Linux using a Knoppix CD and ended the miserable existence of Windows 98 using the dd command. Because I definitely didn’t want to reinstall Windows 98 (my sister couldn’t find the CD anyway) and was too lazy to install NetBSD I tried out the Ubuntu DVD I received with the latest issue of the c’t and installed Linux on the machine. The Linux installation will probably be nuked by the future owner anyway but is good enough to prove that the machine is working.
    After importing the old e-mails on the Windows XP machine (which didn’t require an Microsoft Exchange server for a change) my work was finally finished.

That’s the end of my christmas family IT support story … for this year. What nice (or naughty) computer problems did Santa Claus bring you for christmas?

Old Habits Die Hard

As part of my effort to reduce the complexity of my IT infrastructure at home I’m currently reviewing which parts of it I really need and which I don’t. My intention is to have to spend less time in front of my computers at home. And if I spend time in front of them I want to do things which I enjoy rather than routine work.

One of the things which I reviewed was whether I really need to have a news system on my server at home. I’ve been running an own news system for a long time. It started with running the Universal Message System on my Amiga many years ago (probably in 1993). Echomails from the FidoNet were the first newsfeed into that system.

A few month later I got Usenet news (and Internet e-mail) via an UUCP uplink operated by another student from the local university. After I bought my first PC in 1995 and installed NetBSD on it I discovered that the bundled Taylor UUCP performed much faster and more reliable than the UUCP software I was using on the Amiga. So I decided to let the PC handle the UUCP connections. But because I still wanted to read Usenet news on my Amiga using IntuiNews, a GUI client for UMS written by Markus Stipp and me, I needed a way to exchange news between the Amiga and the PC. And so I installed Cnews, a news system for UNIX under NetBSD.

A year later my Amiga developed a hardware problem which made it very unstable. I therefore decided to use one of my NetBSD PCs as my main mail and news client. After quickly replacing ELM with Mutt as my e-mail client I begun using Knews for reading news. And Knews didn’t like the primitive NNTP daemon provided by Cnews very much. I decided to install INN as news server which seemed like a bold venture back then. If I remember correctly I spent indeed hours to get INN to compile (luxurious things like configure scripts where not known at that time) and run under NetBSD and to configure it afterwards. But when I was finished I had a nice and fast news system and Knews finally ran smoothly.

Knowing how to administer an INN installation turned out to be useful. At times I looked after four INN installations (work, major customer, home and the uplink for home) which fortunately didn’t require much effort after the initial installation. But after changing my job and my ISP for my home Internet connection only a single INN installation remained. And I’ve kept that INN running to this day.

But I recently wondered whether I really need that INN on my server. My current ISP provides NNTP access to a large news server which even offers german language newsgroups. And while feeding NetBSD mailings list into newsgroups seemed like a good idea initially it didn’t work out too well. I usually forget to start a newsreader to look at them and when I do there are often too many messages to handle. And running a news server also requires somebody providing you an uplink for it. The Individual Network Berlin e.V provided me with that service in the last few years. But because they have to cover their expences and I had to pay the a monthly membership fee.

Saving money and work by stopping to stopping to maintain by own news system? That sounded like I great idea and I started to shut the INN down by termination my membership of the Individual Network Berlin e.V. and asking the administrator of my backup news uplink to pull the plug. But in all that enthusiasm I also felt a bit of a loss. It was like throwing away a worn out piece of clothing which was once your favourite thing to wear. You know that it is the right thing to do but a part of you don’t want to let it go nevertheless.
I guess it is just that old habits die hard …