Archive for March, 2011

Back from the dead

Screenshot of Ubuntu 8.04.

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Spent much of the weekend and a fair bit of Monday, a couple of weeks ago trying to persuade a laptop to work…

A practically venerable Evo laptop suddenly decided that it didn’t like Youtube and refused to play anything declaring each time that the flash player had crashed and I need to refresh the browser, a phrase in IT terms akin to “turn it off and turn it on again and see if that help?” I didn’t!

To be fair it’s a very old machine, AMD Athlon XP 2000+ 512 RAM shared with graphic and 40gb storage. Pretty ancient – the theme set should probably be velociraptors!

Youtube is not a site I spend a lot of time at; watching teenagers attempting to castrate themselves on a skateboard or dancing Meercats not really having much appeal, but at the time I had been clutching my notepad and rewinding frequently in an attempt to understand another aspect of this IT Kabala they call Joomla 1.6 so the timing was not good.

I started to investigate. After a bit of experimenting I found that non-Youtube sites were fine. All very puzzling! Reinstalling flash did nothing and trying various Firefox plugins and handlers just seemed to make the problem worse.

I decided to reinstall….nope. Ubuntu 10.4 would not even let me have a decent Gnome desktop! Probably a badly burnt disk, but I didn’t have the time to burn another one and suspected that it was actually more of a hardware issue with the latest version of even Ubuntu demanding more than an old machine could handle. This needed a rethink.

Tucked away in my collection of distros was my Ubuntu 8.04 LTS custom CD. A partial roll-your-own of Ubuntu 8.04 with lots of added goodies that I had put together using Remastersys. I had some doubts fearing RAM or power supplies issues which would have been way too expensive to deal with in a machine of this age. However I crossed my fingers (realised that this would make inserting the CD difficult) uncrossed them and tried. Synaptic had demanded 840 odd updates which came as no great surprise but in the end I had a working laptop which was more than 8 years old and had seen heavy use. Youtube worked fine, DVD played and MP3 did their thing from the admittedly tinny speakers.

I never did find out what the problem was? My guess is an update for Linux Mint the previous distro had conflicted with my hardware, some modern driver that definitely didn’t want to play nice with my ancient rig. But its comforting to know that Linux gives you options and if all else had failed I am sure one of the lightweight distros like Puppy, DSL or Feather would have loaded.

Aw well now back to what I was doing when this problem started on Saturday….ho hum!

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Notaclu (Very) Limited

Microsoft Word 5.5 for DOS

Image via Wikipedia

Here’s a little story aimed at that rare creature, the managing director or CEO of a company who wants to get to grips with its information technology, read the article below and see if any part of it rings a bell:

Welcome to Notaclu

Notaclu is a small not for profit company on the outskirts of London. It employs 30 staff, mostly on part-time contracts and depends for revenue on successfully pulling in grant money and it’s relationship with lots of outside agencies some public sector, some private sector

Notaclu has internet but not for all the staff, because some “don’t need it!” Likewise not all staff are on email because the need for them to have accounts is not clear. Notaclu generates vast amounts of paper documents.

Notaclu has a website, but no one has updated it in a long time. Some of the links are broken and contacting people is a form that finds its way to the part-time IT bod who then prints it and passes it on as needed. The site is static and no not particularly well put together.  It also uses proprietary formats like MS Word in download format for forms and applications.

Notaclu does not like staff to use Facebook because in the past they have been criticised on that platform for some of their actions. It not really aware of Twitter or Linkdin or similar other site. But is aware that social networks might help them in their constant quest for money.

There has been talk of a blog, but no one is sure how to progress that.

Notclu computers were second-hand when bought (a mixed bag of Dells and odds and sods bought when a bigger firm upgraded and are now more than five years old with the company alone and showing their age. Minor problems are commonplace. The company use an outsourced company to deal with the larger problems since their dedicated IT guru was made redundant due to lack of funds.

There is no RAID on the server, the additional drives failed some months back and there was no money to replace them. Essentially documents find their way to a shared drive but there are no permissions installed, one click could delete everything.

There is no intranet and staff wanting policy information either wade through the hard copy or the equally tortuous hundreds of individual word documents on the shared drive.

OK so very few companies would survive if they were Notaclu. But once fictional company is made up of a number of companies I have been involved in assisting in the last five years with several having many of the problems listed above. So if anyone reading that thought, “he is talking about my company” then they should read on.

What can I do?

Email: if your staff are not on email, get them on it now and make sure they can access it from home. Check out Gmail or one of the many excellent webmail applications out there. Use email to update staff on new events, changes and anything they need to know. Good use of email alone will aid change management in the way that a hundred meetings will not since the member of staff has time to digest content and ask questions in the way a time constrained meeting will not allow.  Many phone have competent email clients.

Internet: This is a no brainer, get staff to spend some time on a computer as part of their admin function, train them to check those sections of the net you want them to see. Even if they only spend a few minutes on the company Intranet a week, you will save time in meetings and and questions.

Website: It may help to think of your website as your newspaper or advertising hording for the internet. You want lots of people to be able to see what you are offering but they will only be able to do that if a) your stuff can be seen and b) they find it worth the effort to come back which in net terms means they will want to see at least a little that is new.  Google search placement makes it essential that a website generates new content. More content and plenty of links to your site from other well-regarded sites will put you high in the ratings for your chosen search term. The trick is to choose a term relevant to your company. Its one of the areas where Notaclu struggle, being number 1 for a search for the name of the company may not be of much help if everyone you want to link with is doing searches based on a service or paradigm.

Intranet: Get one! Put every policy you have, all documents you want people to see and every piece of paper that might be needed to do your work. Encourage staff to visit and flag new and changed documents. Find a space for staff to comment, install a bulletin board. It’s an axiom that in a good company the right ideas will find their way to the right people but a little help never hurt.

Proprietry formats. Microsoft Office may be on plenty of machines, but anyone contacting you is not going to want to mess around filling out and snail mailing a form when they would expect something online and far more immediate. Check out Jotform for a good online system or build your own.

If your Face fits?: If you decide not to use Facebook that is fine, but be clear why you have opted for that. Chances are your competitors are using the social network. Anyone looking to deal with you could well do a search for your company Facebook page as a first point of call. You may regard it as a pain or some excuse to avoid work, but it’s got a lot of people on it. Trying to crack a youth orientated market, looking to bid of young people funding. The people with the cash may check you out on FB first!

If you are worried that staff might spend all their time on Facebook then frankly some managers on the top floor need to talk to one another very seriously.  It should be pretty obvious if your staff are busy fighting Mafia Wars rather than working. Let your peple use their lunch break to browse the net and Facebook, it won’t cost you a penny and you may even get a reputation for being a cool company to work for. As a bonus a switched on web savvy company is more likely to have staff defend it if someone tried to criticise you elsewhere and chances are they will cover a lot more ground that you or your IT staff can.

Blog off! Too simple! There are any number of off the peg blog solutions for blogging. Since we are where we are, I think I would recommend WordPress.

WordPress is very versatile can be made to look like a website and for me hits a number of the blog buttons.  Easy to use; plenty of themes; good configurations options; plenty of users and useful addons. (Big thanks to Zemanta at this point as well for their content addon which takes the hard work out of finding links.)

Serves you right! OK, IT geeks amongst you will probably have been most worried by Notaclu’s attitude to data. Our well meaning buffoons simply do not have a clue. They have data on individual machines and data on a server neither is backed up. The day the server dies is the day the company director losses a lot of weight fast!

Lots of little companies rely on flash drives and CDs to back up data and while this might work its not strategic. It’s easy to set up your machines to have a network connection to shared space on a drive and simple to back up all this data – if that is what you want. You may think you are fine with a single back up solution but suppose you had a fire tomorrow; suppose your single hard drive failed. How much could you restore?

Offsite storage is your friend if you in any way at all value your data. If you think you can manage without a backup then take a close look at your data – policies, records, minutes, videos, photos. Can you manage if they vanished tomorrow?

Your basic requirement is an off site solution backing up everything essential and no older than say 24 hours. Cloud storage is your friend here look for inexpensive options which mark changes in the saved documents to save you time and expense. If you have a decent amount of storage as part of your web package dedicate some for essential backups. If all else fails, at least dump some of the key stuff on DVDs or some largish flash drives and get it off site. Its far from ideal but at least you will not be completely lost if and when that fire happens or that electrical problems blows the fuses and your server.

There we have it, senior staff take note, Notaclu may be the modern version of a firm of insane Luddites, but unless you can cheerfully  you have all of the above covered then you may want to think about your application for Notaclu….got a stamp?

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Broadband router install

Linksys WRT54GL Wireless-G Router

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Getting yourself on broadband is nowhere near as difficult as some people would have you believe. Provided you have a PC with a network card installed (essentially any machine built in the last 15 years or so) you should not have any problems.

Read more

Just browsing…part 1

Internet Explorer Mobile Logo

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Time was when getting on the net meant using Internet Explorer. You may have been around for Netscape Navigator or toyed with the various AOL offerings, but then along came the new kind on the block, Firefox, and promptly knocked old IE out of the park. IE came puffing and panting from behind. But there are other browsers out there so lets have a look at some of the lesser known competitors in the so called browser wars.

Konqueror: one for the Linux fans here. Konqueror used to be standard for Linux machines on KDE and may still be if Firefox is not cresting the tape first. It’s a nice browser but in my experience lacks decent flash integration however if you are using PCLinuxOS or other KDE environment chances are it’s there somewhere so go play.

Epiphany; Epiphany is a Gnome based browser, the Gnome version of Konqueror. It’s light responsive and well worth a trial. This browser got me out of some problems with streaming audio back in the days of Ubuntu 6.04 so I have maintained something of a soft spot for it.

Aurora: Aurora is another lightweight browser. Its come in handy as the installed browser for low powered systems using DSL and Puppy Linux.

More next time

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What a tangled web we weave….?

Toshiba Rupo, Japanese word processor

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There are many sites out there with sage and expert advice for the would be website builder. This article focuses more on the things you should not do when building your new site and although I have to confess to having a my tongue firmly in my cheek all the advice is based on real life. Only the names have been changed to protect the, innocent…ahem…

1. Don’t try to build your site using Word/Publisher/Open Office/Powerpoint! Assuming this is your first try at site building the temptation may be to see that Word outputs to HTML or that Publisher offers a “web publication” or Open Office can do HTML. The fact of the matter is that what you need is a HTML editor, try Kompozer if you are looking for something free and useful.

2. Your camera may be able to handle 10 mega pixel images but you website won’t! If the plan is to add images they need to be optimised for the web. Smaller images will download faster than large one and really large images, 2 megs or more will resolve across the screen with agonising slowness while your visitors curse you to the deepest pits of hell or more likely go elsewhere.

3. Not everyone has MS Word. Despite Microsoft’s attempted dominance of the world word processing market, there are a few heretics out there, like me, that prefer to use a non-MS word processor. But any word processor document is not really a good idea. For one thing do you really want people downloading your stuff which can then be edited – think about it! And for another for some time now when it comes to download docs Adobe’s PDF format has been king. Little hint here. Open Office and Libre Office but output your document to a PDF at literally a click of a button and they cost my favourite price – free!

4. The missing link. Its easy to set up a simple page or couple of pages and have yourself up and running with your site. But if that site grows you’ll soon find you have problems. If each page contains a link to each and every other page, the moment you change one page you need to change the others. In simple HTML, there is no way other than to edit each and every single page. Time consuming and dull. If you need anything more than a couple of pages of easily formatted HTML then it’s time to think again – see below…

5. And finally, why bother? Ten years ago, if you wanted to get on the net then a website was pretty much your only option, but nowadays there are so many other ways to get yourself “webbed up” that frankly a webpage built by you from HTML is probably the last thing you want to do. Consider some of these as alternatives

  1. Google sites: easy to use web site creation which integrate seamlessly with other elements of your Google account. Simple to use and the finished results are usually quite professional.
  2. Jalbum: Online photo web site. Sign up, upload your pictures, choose a theme and away you go. The storage allowance is generous but you may find yourself changing your collection unless you opt for the paid account.
  3. Blogger: want to ensure your word of wisdom find their way into the electronic world? Sign up for a Blogger account. As with Jabum, choose a theme and away you go. Blogger comes with lots of interesting addons and entry creation is just a matter of typing in the box.
  4. WordPress:  Similar to Blogger but more favoured by the professional, WP themes can be tweaked at HTML and CSS levels and some theme will effectively offer you a pre-formatted website. Like all the others, the basic account is free.
  5. Facebook: Combining some of the more useful elements of photo storage and blogging. You can be on the web in seconds with a FB account. Chances are many of your family will be as well (if that is why you want a web presence) If you are out to sell than Facebook will be only one weapon in your arsenal and hopefully you will be treating this article with some amazement. So there you have it 4 things to avoid and 5 ways to get yourself on the web. Enjoy!
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