Archive: Windows

Hello.

I’ve been wondering a bit about the way technology news is still ghettoised. I don’t mean news about the latest rubbish web 2.0 start-up with a ridiculous name. I mean quite important stuff. Security problems and the like.

Take what happened last week. A patch to fix a major flaw in the DNS was released. It is pretty important stuff. But the only mentions of it have been ghettoised in the darkest recesses of the technology sections, cordoned off in yellow and black tape with “warning: geeks only” written on it.

I don’t watch the television much these days, so I might be wrong. But I saw no mention of it on the news. I heard no mention of it on the radio. You certainly don’t hear people talking about it on the streets or in pubs.

You might think, “So what? Security update for X, Y and Z are released every day. You can’t have the news reporting it every day.” But something extra happened with that security update that was released last week: it crippled many users’ computers. Including my parents’ computer.

It is just as well I was still able to use my computer to try and find out what the problem was and how to workaround it. It turned out that ZoneAlarm threw a hissy-fit after Windows XP had updated and prevented users from accessing the internet.

In fairness, the BBC reported this on their website — but that’s not very useful if you’ve got no internet. Perhaps there are still people scratching their head about why they’ve not been able to access the internet for the past week.

The problem is twofold. One, the mainstream media seems quite averse to any technology story unless it’s to do with [say this like a caveman] “GOOGLE” or “APPLE”. Or “GOOGLE”. Simply, if you want to find out anything meaningful about technology you have to really know where to look for it.

And this brings me on to the second part of the problem. The people who don’t know where to look for information are also the most vulnerable users. There are people who, for whatever reason, can’t be motivated to take proactive measures to prevent themselves from the various security issues that inevitably arise when you use the internet.

I have a friend who bought a new computer a few weeks ago. The other day he complained to me that his new computer has already got spyware on it. The thing is that it’s not difficult to protect yourself really.

I’m not really a computer expert in the slightest, but I know the basics of how to protect myself — essentially keep all your software updated with the latest patches and don’t click any dodgy links. I don’t think it’s really a difficult concept. And — touch wood — these basics have worked for me. Since I got my own computer early last year I’ve never had anything worse than a tracking cookie on my computer (as far as I know — I just know that this is an invitation for my computer to explode under the weight of pop-ups tomorrow…).

But even simple measures like these that anyone can take are difficult to get through to some people. So many people still treat computers with awe. It is sometimes easy to forget how foreign computers are to many people.

I remember a couple of years ago when there was a really bad signalling failure on the train line into Edinburgh. Basically every train was cancelled. An old lady pointed to the automated departure monitor and asked why it said a list of trains towards the bottom of the screen were still listed as being on time.

This is what she said in protest (as though it would make her more likely to get on a train to Edinburgh): “I thought computers were wonderful things that never ever went wrong.” But even my basic knowledge of how computers work told me exactly why the trains were still listed as being ‘on time’ — because they hadn’t even departed from their start station, so hadn’t passed any sensors and weren’t technically late at all. The computer was none the wiser for obvious reasons.

This can be put down to the old issue that people in their thirties and younger have been using computers for almost all of their lives and understand what a computer is good for and what it isn’t. Youngsters who have lived with computers all their lives understand how a computer works, but for many people older than that computers just work by magic.

The thing is, that divide between young and old is not so clear cut as I used to think. I was listening to iPM yesterday and there was an interview with Clive Sinclair. He pointed out that back in the 1980s computer users really understood computers because they had to in order to get them to work. Today’s youngsters growing up with computers generally don’t understand computers at all.

So we come back to my friend who is the same age as me and has a problem with spyware. I have had a few conversations with him where I have tried to persuade him to use Firefox. For him, the internet is the internet and he doesn’t understand how one browser can be better than another. Even though I have told him about all the superior features and better security that a browser like Firefox or Opera can provide, he persists on using Internet Exploder version bum point poo.

Many people, through ignorance, don’t take the simple measures to keep themselves safe on the internet. I’ve had a look at the stats for this website to see what bad browsers visitors to this site are using.

In the past month, an amazing 20% of visitors used Internet Explorer 6. This is a web browser that was originally released seven years ago and last updated four years ago. It is notorious for its security problems. The more up-to-date Internet Explorer 7 was released almost two years ago.

You would expect Firefox users to be smarter, right? Not always. In the past month, 243 Firefox users that visited this website were using a version of the browser that is considered unsafe (which I defined as 2.0.0.14 and below). This included 19 people using 1.5.0.12, 11 using 1.0.7 and 8 using 1.5.0.3. Most amazingly, 4 visitors were using Firefox 0.9.1, a browser that has been out of date for four years. I dread to think what kind of security problems these users have been getting themselves in.

It got me wondering. If this many people are using dodgy browsers, how many people are still trying in vain to unsubscribe from spam emails? How many don’t know that even viewing an image in an email alerts a spammer that your email address is active? You could go on.

I don’t mean all this in a preachy kind of way. I completely understand why it is difficult for people to keep up to date with all the security issues that arise. I just find it really frustrating that simple awareness issues are not, well, made aware to people.

Things don’t get much more ubiquitous than the internet. It is impossible to imagine that someone growing up today will not be a regular internet user in some form or another. And there are real dangers on the internet that aren’t to do with [say this like a caveman] “PEDOPHILS” and “CYBER BULLIES”. But the media reports on made-up dangers like “KNIVES” and “YOOFS” and “KNIVES” as though we are on the verge of bladeageddon.

Yesterday I was listening to Digital Planet. They had a chap called Stefan Frei on reporting that around 60% of all internet users are using an out-of-date browser. He had a really smart way of thinking about software security. You should think of software as being perishable, just in the same way as foodstuffs. You wouldn’t eat a mouldy slice of bread, so why would you use a browser with a huge security hole in it?

It’s a really smart analogy that should be spread far and wide. It’s just frustrating that the place I heard it was on Digital Planet, which is probably listened to mainly by people who already know that they should be updating their browsers.

Yes, I’ve decided to give the blog a new look again. I couldn’t wait to get this up, but it’s not quite finished. I still need to do a few tweaks here and there. (Surprise surprise, it looks a bit guff in Internet Exploder.) But it’s quite late now and I can’t bring myself to switch it back to the old theme, so I’m throwing caution to the wind and leaving it up.

I’ll update this post later some time in the afternoon explaining the thinking behind it all. In the meantime, if you spot any problems or if you have any suggestions, please leave a comment.

Update: Okay, so now I have the time to post a bit about what I’ve done here.

Perhaps the first thing I should point out is the fact that, regrettably, some URLs have changed. Permalinks to posts and the like should still work perfectly. But you’ll notice that I’ve moved the pages in the navigation panel around a bit. I’ve also reorganised the categories (in fact, I haven’t quite finished that yet).

Speaking of categories, I have finally created a ‘media’ category. It never quite made sense for media posts to be listed under ‘entertainment’, particularly if I was writing about some kind of media coverage of a serious story. So I’ve gone ahead and separated them, and now television, radio and newspapers are listed under media. As such, some category URLs have also changed, so sorry about that if you had them bookmarked or something.

So why the change? Well, I am still very fond of the old design. It will probably make a reappearance somewhere — possibly on another blog. But perhaps I will release it as a WordPress theme for others to use — if I can find the time to make the appropriate tweaks to it.

Despite my pride though, I was always aware that a lot of people were not very keen on the previous design. And it has been there for almost a year. (Maybe this change will become an annual occurrence, a doctorvee Christmas tradition.)

Common complaints were about the dark background (apparently an acquired taste) and the bright links. So I’ve decided to swing back to a white background and rather more muted colours, if you can call green muted.

This is also the equivalent of growing a moustache to try and signify that you are growing up (not that many people grow moustaches these days, but you know what I mean). The previous design was deliberately jazzy and distinctive. But since then I have become a can’t-get-away-from-it adult. And in the next few months I will hopefully be finished with university.

So that means ditching the childish neon colours and adopting a serif font. I have spoken before about my devotion to Verdana, but I am afraid I have become rather tired of it. It is suffering from Times New Roman syndrome.

You know. It’s become a ubiquitous, default font. As such, it is used in so many pieces of ugly design. We have all stumbled upon badly thrown-together websites written in Verdana, just as we see too many passive aggressive notes written in Times New Roman.

I had become very keen on the recently redesigned websites for Times Online and Guardian Unlimited. Both use plenty of Georgia, so I was going to use that. Besides Times New Roman, it’s the only core serif font anyway.

But while I was designing I visited Modern Life which uses Cambria. It is basically the Vista version of Times New Roman, but lovely. I fell in love and decided to use the font on my blog. But as far as I know Cambria is only available on Vista, so for everyone else it is still Georgia.

A funny thing about Cambria is that it appears to be extraordinarily small, so the font size is rather large. But there’s nothing wrong with that I suppose.

Headings and some other bits and pieces are in Helvetica where possible, although Windows users (including me!) will have to make do with Arial. I know it’s a bit clich├ęd, and rather too ubiquitous, but you never grow tired of it. I do love Helvetica so I was keen to use it when I decided to give the blog a cleaner design.

I suppose now is a good time to talk about the general inspiration for the redesign. I was tempted to go back to a clinical, Helvetica-led design when I first saw screenshots for the new beta version of Delicious. Delicious is a very apt word. Mind you, the end result on this blog has ended up looking very little like the Delicious screenshots.

A more direct inspiration has been the beautifully-designed Lokesh Dhakar website. In fact, parts of this blog’s design have turned out to be embarrassingly similar. I first came across his blog when I read this guide to different kinds of coffee and it instantly struck me as an excellent design.

Layout-wise, I very much went for the ‘less is more’ approach. This has meant compromises in places, but I’ll go on to that. The main change is that I’ve moved away from a three column layout to two columns. I had read somewhere that multiple columns just confuse people, which makes sense. So it’s back to one sidebar.

I was keen to get everything lined up nicely with each other. This does make it look quite neat, but one problem is that the main column is quite close to the sidebar. The solution was to have a neat line running along the left of the sidebar, although I’m still not sure if it is enough. I toyed with using full justification, but decided in the end that the cons outweighed the pros.

Despite the intimate position of the main column and the sidebar, the page is wider than before. Making good use of the space available and all that. As such, the design only really works if your screen is at least 1024 pixels wide. But the same was true of the previous design. And people with smaller screens make up around 3% of this blog’s visitors. Sorry to those 3%, but the rest of us just get masses of white space.

On to the content. One thing you’ll notice is that categories are now taking pride of place above every single post. They used to be hidden away, only appearing in the sidebar of single post pages.

The reason I’ve made them more prominent is because over the years I have become more and more guilty about the fact that this blog is a bit of a ragbag of different topics. And the Formula 1 posts in particular are beginning to overshadow everything else. So having the category as the first thing of every post is just a heads-up for everyone, so that you know what the post is about and you can easily skip the posts you aren’t interested in.

Another new addition is subtitles. I saw this on a few other blogs and really liked the idea, so I’m going to give it a go. Inspired by this article, I did it using custom fields, a feature of WordPress that I have never really explored before.

Gone from the top of the post, however, are the date and the comments link. The date still appears there on single posts, but I am thinking of including them everywhere again. I already feel a bit lost without them (although I didn’t use dates much on any of the designs I used before the previous one).

I am also open to putting the comments link back up there, although the link still appears at the bottom of the post as expected. Any comments on this would be appreciated.

I have also taken the plunge and decided to add a ShareThis button, despite what I wrote about it a few months ago. I’m still experimenting with the position of this, so any ideas would be welcome.

Over to the sidebar. I’ve reduced the amount of stuff that’s there to a bare minimum. The latest comment is still there as I like to highlight the great discussions that go on in the comments, which is really what blogging is all about.

Twitter is still there, although I’ve reduced it to just the latest update rather than the last three. Delicious too has been reduced to just the five most recent links. I normally post to Delicious more often than five times a day, so this might be a bit odd. But there is method to my madness.

I made a decision a short while ago that this blog should concentrate mainly on original content. That’s just the way the blog has evolved, and I don’t really like to fob people off with YouTube clips all the time.

But it’s good to highlight interesting websites and videos. After all, that was the original meaning of the word ‘weblog’, celebrating its tenth anniversary this week. So I will create another home for them. Probably a tumblelog, but I will get round to that later.

The other prominent feature on the main page (and, indeed, every page, the big whore that I am) is adverts. An early version of this design had the adverts appearing in a garish green colour scheme, but I screwed my head on enough to revert to a more sane grey version. I am ridiculously proud of having the idea of paying homage to Associated-Rediffusion, which wouldn’t really have worked with the green scheme.

The part of the design I am most worried about is the comments. For some reason, I always find the comments section the most difficult to design, and this time was no different.

I decided to move the comment author information to the left of the comment rather than above. Part of this was to get the full size of the Gravatar displayed, which would take up too much room if you have it above. It is also a layout familiar to message board users, so no real issue there.

There is a problem, however, if somebody has quite a long word in their name. In a recent example, Bellgrovebelle is cut off, although there are worse examples. Thankfully, these are quite rare and hopefully not too distracting.

As has already been noted by Ollie in the comments to this post, there is an inconsistency between the sizes of the Gravatars and the Identicons. I’ve not worked too hard on this yet, although my attempts so far have only produced pixellated-looking Identicons. I am working on it though.

Other features I’m thinking about adding to the comments section are favicons and OpenID.

In the pages (about, archives, etc.) I have also removed a lot of stuff that I didn’t really consider important any more. I’m thinking of completely uninstalling the post popularity plugin as this blog now has a post ratings system which I prefer. As for the other stuff, see if you can work out what’s gone. I doubt anyone will be too upset.

One last thing. I am using some icons from the Silk set by Fam Fam Fam. I’ve still not quite finished this aspect of the design, as I’m not sure which bits should have icons and which shouldn’t.

I think that just about covers it. Sorry this post went on for so long. I would be grateful to hear any comments or ideas. And of course, if something seems broken then please let me know about it!

A few days back I wrote about a neat Windows Gadget that tells you how the trains are running. I was quite enthusiastic about it then, but it turns out I didn’t know the half of it!

Here are some of the neat features that I have discovered since I wrote that post.

  • Colour coding: trains running on time display the expected arrival time in grey. Slightly late-running trains are in yellow, while very late-running trains are in red.
  • If a train is cancelled, you certainly know about it. The background turns red, and it displays in bold writing: ‘Cancelled’. Clicking on it gives you the reason for the cancellation.
  • Service disruption alerts. A little envelope with an exclamation mark appeared. I clicked on it, and it displayed the following message:

    Train services between Edinburgh and Dunbar, and between Edinburgh and North Berwick are being disrupted due to a derailed freight train.

This Windows Gadget certainly isn’t a half-arsed effort. The information it conveys is incredibly detailed.

If you are a user of Windows Vista, you will no doubt be aware of Windows Gadgets. For the uninitiated, they are basically tiny little applications that run on your desktop (you might also know them as widgets or, in the world of Facebook, applications). You will also be aware that none of the sidebar gadgets in existence are actually useful.

Yeah, there’s that massive oversized analogue clock. And there’s that calendar that doesn’t do anything except tell you what the date is. Then there is the RSS reader that only allows you to subscribe to certain Microsoft feeds. The only really useful one that came as a default on Vista is the post-it note style thing. But apart from that, unless you really like currency converters, there was not much to get stuck into.

There isn’t even anything decent among the third-party efforts. The only good one is iTunes Accessory. Almost all of the others are banal and pointless.

This always struck me as a bit weird. After all, there seem to be a lot of good widgets available for Mac OS X. And even when you look at the wonderful and varied ways that Facebook Applications have been used, the world of Windows Sidebar Gadgets is startlingly stagnant.

But yesterday I discovered a truly useful and surprisingly well-executed Gadget made by National Rail Enquiries. Once you install the gadget, you simply type in your start station (and, optionally, your destination station) and up pops a list of how the trains are running. Essentially, it is the live departure boards feature of the National Rail website, just sitting there in the corner ready for me to glance at.

I already put it to good use yesterday, in my little game of chicken (what’s the latest train I dare to get?). I couldn’t decide which between two trains I should get. But when the earlier one started to run late, I decided I had better stay on the safe side and get the earlier one.

The gadget could do with a couple of extra features. Clicking on a journey brings up a larger screen with details on the expected journey times — but only from your station onwards (eg., I get a table of all the stations between Kirkcaldy and Edinburgh Waverley). But I usually like to see how the train has been running at stations prior to Kirkcaldy to give me a better idea of the journey’s history. I always get the impression that the journey estimates are a little on the optimistic side, and I’d rather like to see the cold, hard facts of how the train has actually been getting along.

But I can’t complain too much. As I said, it is just amazing enough that such a useful gadget has finally been made, and by National Rail Enquiries of all people! I get the feeling that it is going unnoticed (apparently it’s been around since July, and I’ve only just found out about it). If you are a regular train user and have Windows Vista, you probably ought to install it.

I’ve been fiddling around with Gadgets again, and I have to say I stand corrected about the weather gadget! I hadn’t realised that dragging them away from the sidebar actually makes gadgets more functional. I now know that Sunday will be cloudy and Monday and Tuesday will be rainy.

There are some other cool gadgets that I’ve installed. Multimeter is a gadget that is just like the Microsoft gadget that tells you CPU and RAM usage, but it uses bar charts rather than antiquated dials.

iTunes Accessory is a very nifty gadget that displays what is currently playing in iTunes. It allows you to skip tracks, pause, mute and suchlike. So now I don’t need to keep fidgeting with windows just to pause a track. Nice.

I’ve not kept it on my sidebar because I don’t post packages very often. But if you do, I think Postage Calculator (UK) is very impressive. If you haven’t got your head around the Royal Mail’s new pricing system, just plug in the weight and size of your package and this will tell you how much it will cost to send. Simple but brilliant.

But this is the one that has really bowled me over. BBC Radio Player allows you to listen to any of the national BBC Radio stations (including digital stations, naturally) without the hassle of firing up your browser and trudging through the BBC website. Such a simple interface as well, and it works perfectly.

What I’d quite like to see is a Meebo gadget. I love the idea of Meebo, but I don’t like it taking up a tab in Firefox.

Hello there! Sorry I haven’t posted for a few days. I’ve been too busy getting over this new PC thing what I got with Vista on it. On the one hand it’s a bit silly to get Vista so early as it’s going to have so many little problems to begin with. On the other hand, I’ve been waiting to get a PC of my own for ages and it always seemed a bit pointless to get a new PC when the new version of Windows was just around the corner (ha ha ha).

The upshot of it is that I’ve got a computer that’s slightly ridiculous. Here’s how it happened. It was the cheapest one on Dell’s website. The choice of speakers was either two really crummy looking ones that looked like they would disintegrate if you touched them; or a ridiculous 5.1 system. 5.1 system it is then. Bwoom.

I also misjudged the size of the monitor. I guessed that 19″ would have been just about the same as the old monitor I used, just a bit wider. Maybe it is, but it’s too bright or something. I’ve even turned the brightness down, and I’ve moved the whole lot to a desk that lets me sit further away from the monitor, and I’m still squinting a bit and getting a bit of a headache.

Also, all of these lines of text are now ridiculously wide. This is making it difficult for me to judge how big these paragraphs are, which is probably why they are all bigger than normal. I guess I should just resize my browser window, but I’ve always liked to have everything maximised.

Anyway, that’s all boring. The purpose of this post is to talk about the gadgets (widgets to you and me) that come with Vista by default. I mean, they are all potentially useful, but some of them seem to fall short of their potential. Take the calendar gadget for instance. As far as I’ve been able to work out all it does is show you today’s date and then it shows you a little calendar of all the dates in the known universe.

Flick over to the start menu and you find an application called Windows Calendar. Nice! Does it sync with the calendar gadget? Not as far as I can tell. So right now I’ve got a calendar in my sidebar, but I can’t put any events on it. In other words, it’s a bit useless.

Then there is the weather gadget. Yes, it knows that Kirkcaldy exists! Result. Er, but hang on. Can I not get this to give me a weather forecast? Apparently not. It can only tell me what the weather is right now. I could really just look out the window to get the same information this has given me. More than anything else, it serves as a permanent reminder that I probably should really be outside and not sitting indoors getting pale in front of a computer. But I bought Vista as soon as it released ferchrissakes. This is like McDonald’s asking me to go swimming before I eat a Big Mac.

I know that you can download other gadgets and that better ones are bound to come out soon enough. But I really wonder why they bothered. Both of these are potentially very useful gadgets, but they lack any functionality whatsoever.

Normal blogging will resume soon! Possibly.

Update: I forgot about the RSS gadget, which would be really good — if you could choose an RSS feed that wasn’t from MSN!