Ubuntu Linux?

On my post from earlier this week, Marc left a comment about Ubuntu Linux. To be honest, the name had always for some reason steered me away. Not that I have any problems with tribal themes, but I guess I had some kind of strange irrational attachment to SuSE Linux, which is still just a slight bit away from being what I can transition to.

I decided to take a look at Ubuntu. As a Windows user, I’ve heard Mac users talk about how their system "just works", and I was curious to see that statement on Ubuntu’s page. I figured I had nothing to lose, so I began downloading the iso image. I burned it, brought it home and began installing it on my "combat laptop". A friend and former coworker of mine had taken a contracting position in Iraq and took this laptop with him. It had already survived being dropped. While there, he made enough money to buy a nice new laptop, so upon his return and learning that I’m attending U of Phoenix, which he graduated from, he let me have it. My old Toshiba Pentium II laptop just couldn’t keep up. He also gave me an iMac G3 that has become sort of a toy to me. I’ve upgraded it to OS 9.2.2 and Office 98 for Mac. It’s still a little slow and underpowered, but I use it for surfing while my main laptop is busy. Anyway, since this Pentium III Compaq laptop was given to me (I got a new one for Christmas), had survived a combat zone, and lots of abuse in it’s life, I call it my Combat Laptop. I figure it will make a nice test bed.

The first thing I noticed when I put the Ubuntu CD in is that it came up in Gnome. At first, I thought I downloaded the wrong CD, but I saw an install icon on the desktop. At present, it is going very slow, so I went to have a look at the page. I’m impressed with the download page. It’s laid out very well with only the current version in i386, Power PC, and x64. I scrolled down a little farther, and found alternate configurations. I read and realized that the image I was downloading was for machines with at least 192 megs of RAM. My combat laptop has about 180, so I’m downloading the image for machines with less than 192 megs, as well as the PPC image for machines under 192 megs (mt iMac only has 32).

I’ll burn them tonight after I get home from church, and hopefully I’ll have some time to play with them this weekend. Thanks, Marc for suggesting Ubuntu.

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The World’s Most Useful Program

If I were in a position to give away an award for the most useful program, it would have to go to the creators of SpyBot Search and Destroy. The program I’m talking about is not even a program that you can download separately as far as I know, but it has long since become one of my favorites and a system essential. It is now one of the first programs I want to install when I sit down on a system.

I’ve always found it to be very annoying when a programmer decides that he or she knows better than you about how a program should run. One of the most annoying things about the Windows platform (I have no idea if Mac and Linux have this problem) is how many programs automatically install in your system tray, often without your consent. iTunes installs a service called iPod Service. I don’t even have an iPod! What good does this do me? Real Player likes to install in your system tray, as does Quicktime and Weather Bug. What is even worse about this is that no matter how many times you run msconfig to take these programs out of your startup, the next time the program runs, it’s back in there. Part of the program’s initialization routine is to reinstall itself in startup, which means that you have to go back in and take it out.

Weatherbug is the worst. It’s a very useful program, but it really bogs down my system when it starts up. But every time I run it to check the doppler radar, it’s back in my startup. Sometimes you can work around this by using alternatives. Real Player, for instance, can be replaced with Real Alternative, which is all the fun without the bloat. When I took programming classes, I was taught to document heavily and to keep my code lean and mean. Apparently, this mentality hasn’t permeated companies such as Microsoft and Real Networks, who insist on making their programs more bloated with each update.

Back to the topic: annoying and arrogant programs that won’t stay out of your startup menu. The best way I have found to stop this is to download Spybot Search and Destroy. During the setup, you’ll be given a screen asking you what services you’d like, ie. desktop icon, quickstart icon, etc. At the very bottom is the option to run a program called Tea Timer. This is pricelessware! This program’s worth cannot be measured by our understanding of money. What Tea Timer does is sit in your system tray (this is the ONLY program that should belong there) and watches for any attempts to modify your registry or startup. Anytime a program attempts to do this, you’ll get a pop-up window telling you what process is trying to do what. You can permit or deny. This way, when you watch a Quicktime file, you get a pop-up asking if it’s OK for Quicktime to change your startup. You can tell it "NO!" The same goes for Weather Bug.

This program is most likely meant to watch for spyware, but I have found this to be a highly useful function of the program.

Of course, it can get annoying. Every time you install a program, even legitimate ones, you’ll get all kinds of notifications about changes to your registry. You just have to read carefully, but to me this is worth it.

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How I Deal With Spam

I wrote a post last week about how to deal with corporate spam, which is the same thing as regular spam but with fewer carbs. Just kidding on that part. Spam is a worldwide epidemic that is making telemarketing seem less annoying by comparison. It is disgusting to me to think that spammers sell lists of our email addresses back and forth to each other for millions of dollars. Spam is taking over the web. Spammers are starting to put up blogs and visit discussion forms. Another blog of mine, http://czigan.net/cblog routinely gets spam trackbacks from spam blogs on Blogger. I’m not sure how prevalent the spam trackbacks are, but I’m suddenly happy that Blogger doesn’t have that feature.

Have you ever used a so called spam filter? I’ve tried several. I had one a friend gave me. I’ve tried Spam Bayes, and I even used the Norton Anti-Spam that came with my laptop (it has long since been uninstalled along with Norton AV and Norton Internet Security). I don’t know if anyone has successfully used a spam filter, but I’ve never had much luck with them. They are supposed to be able to identify messages as supposedly spam and put them in a spam folder. They’ve never been very effective, however. Real spam gets let through and legit messages get put in the spam folder, no matter how many times I’ve told the program that anything from that email address, or even domain, is not spam. I normally uninstall spam programs and I’ve given up on them altogether.

I have found a way to deal with Spam that takes less time and doesn’t cost anything. You can use Microsoft Outlook or not. What I’ve found is fairly effective. The first thing I recommend is to get Google’s Gmail. Gmail has the absolute best server-side spam filter I have ever seen. I don’t even use my Comcast email account anymore. Yahoo is horrible at filtering spam. I will get the exact same spam message from 1000 spammers, hit the spam button every time, and yet Yahoo still will not filter it out of my email list as it comes in 20 times a day. Gmail, however is an amazing spam filter. It’s not 100% effective but it’s at least 99%. One out of 1000 spam messages might get by it, and that is something I am willing to live with. You can use Gmail all by itself. When I had laptop problems from Office 2007, I couldn’t download email to my laptop through Gmail’s pop access so I just read my email online. I came to like this and now that I have Outlook working again, I’m not so sure I want to continue to use Outlook for email.

The next thing I do in my spam strategy is set up Outlook. This is less essential if you are using Gmail, but it it still useful. This strategy does require a little bit of patience up front but it will pay off in the end. In Outlook, click on Tools->Options and you should open to the Preferences tab. If not, click on the tab. Then select Junk-email. You can set the tolerance to any level that you like, but I’ve found the best way for me to do this is to click the radio button for Safe Lists Only. This is where the time investment comes in. Every single email that is downloaded to Outlook will now go into your junk email folder. When you see that you have messages in your junk folder, go to that folder. I normally use the preview pane when reading email because I don’t like to mark a message as read until I’m absolutely sure that either no action is required by it or that I have taken any and all actions that are required by it. However, do not use the preview pane in the junk email folder. Turn it on and off as the message requires, for instance, if you’re sure the message is safe but you want to view it to verify. If you’re satisfied with the message, click "not junk" on the toolbar. You’ll get a pop up message asking how you want to deal with the message. You can tell it to add the sender to your safe senders list. Once the sender is on the safe sender’s list, any email from that sender will automatically go to your inbox. You can also set up rules. For some reason, some newsletters never seem to come from the same email address twice. Microsoft likes to use a different address for every newsletter, making it very hard to keep their newsletters out of a spam folder.

This strategy is not 100% effective, but over the years I have found it to be the best way to handle spam in my Outlook inbox.

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Hell’s Kitchen

I think I might have heard of the reality show "Hell’s Kitchen" before, but I’d never watched it. I used to hate all reality TV, but I have come to enjoy shows like "The Apprentice" where the contestants at least have to do something productive to win, rather than sit around a house and stab each other in the back for money. This show was similar in that the cast had to work, but talk about being 180 degrees out. The chef made me look back on my boot camp days with fondness. Compared to him, my company commanders were teddy bears. Actually, R. Lee Ermy (Gunnery Sargent Hartman in Full Metal Jacket) would probably have told him to watch his mouth. That show had more bleeped out words than "South Park".

From what I gather, it is a lot harder to own a restaurant than I could have imagined. Apparently the winner will get to own a restaurant in a very high class resort. The chef is doing a pretty good job of weeding out the candidates with his drill instructor language and references to their skills or lack thereof. I might have to look up more about this show on the internet.

All in all I did enjoy it, and I will probably watch again.

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How To Set Your Windows XP Start Menu To Sort Alphabetically

One of the many annoying aspects of Windows XP is the fact that for whatever reason, the Start Menu will not organize your applications alphabetically. It will sort them in the order that they were installed. This can get annoying, however, because when you’ve been on a system for a while and installed a lot of programs, you might have a hard time finding one of them. I’ve tried to manually order my start menu through My Computer, but this is only temporary as you’ll most likely install more programs after that.

I was reading through a book on Windows XP tweaks, and found the solution to this problem. It’s not even that difficult, which only feeds my conspiracy theory that Microsoft gets a cut of all of the books that are written showing users how to fix UI problems that shouldn’t even be there. Who the heck EVER thought it was a good idea to organize your start menu in the order that programs are installed? That only feeds my conspiracy theory that Microsoft programmers don’t actually use the Microsoft products that they release upon the rest of us (no, I’m not that paranoid; I’m just having some fun with this but it is plausible).

Here is what you do, which will take less time to explain than my 2 paragraph introduction above. You must edit your registry, which means that you *might* want to create a restore point or back up before you do this. I didn’t.

Click Start and then Run. Type "regedit". When the registry editor opens, click the plus sign to expand "HKEY_CURRENT_USER". Then navigate down the tree in this order: Software->Microsoft->Windows->Current Version->Explorer->Menu Order. You’ll see a folder labled "Start Menu" (on both of the systems that I tried, it was "Start Menu2". Right click and select delete. Answer yes. Click Start, programs, and look at the beautiful new User Interface (UI) where all of your programs are now sorted alphabetically just like they were in Windows 98.

I’ve done this on 2 systems, one XP Home and the other XP Professional. It worked on both.

Let’s Talk About Listening

We often hear about communication and how important it is. There are some places, however, where communication does not seem to matter. I had to take my car in for service today, and I observed something that really got me to wondering.

I drive a 2001 Kia Sportage. It’s a decent toy SUV, and I’ve enjoyed the 2 1/2 years I’ve had it. Lately I’ve noticed a rattling from the undercarriage that has gotten louder. Sometimes I wonder who is more annoying: me or the people with the bass set too loud on their car stereos. I think there should be a law that nobody should have to listen to your music in traffic. In any case, I finally broke down and called the Nissan dealer where I bought the car and booked an appointment for this morning. I worked late last week to flex the time in case the service took a while. It turned out to be a heat shield that was loose. It wasn’t even covered by my so called "bumper to bumper" warranty, but the job took less than a half hour so they only charged me $44.

I’ve never been one to sit around waiting rooms. I noticed the dealership had 3 desks set up with a network jack labled "High speed internet access". Had I known that, I would have brought my laptop and a network cable, but I didn’t know that. They didn’t provide wireless, or else I could have surfed with my Pocket PC. I figured rather than watch whatever ABC calls their morning show on the waiting room TV, I’d walk around the showroom. It was raining all morning, so I couldn’t walk around the lot. A salesman asked if he could help me. I told him I was waiting for service, but my wife and I had talked about trading the Kia in for something bigger. I had very tight and specific requirements, but if he was willing to listen I’d talk. Why I have not learned that car salesman CAN’T listen, I don’t know. I shared with him what we were thinking about. My wife and I typically buy a used car. She likes lower mileage. When we bought that Kia, we bought it because it was about 3 years old and only had 21000 miles on it. It was a very good price and everything worked out. In fact, our payment is about $170 a month. We’re comfortable with that. We live on a single income so my wife can be home with the kids, and our other car is long since paid for.

I told the dealer what I was looking for and what we had to work with.

  • 4 wheel drive- we like that in the winter and in very bad rain. It’s come in handy. It also helps the car hold it’s value.
  • Seating- we have two small children, and so the back seat in the Kia is taken up by two child seats. If we have another child or we want to take somebody else out with us, we can’t use the Kia.
  • Payments under $200.
  • About all the downpayment we have is the equity in the Kia.

Now at this point, if the car salesman were "honest", he should have just laughed at me and told me to get lost. I would have. We’ve been watching used Dodge Durangos, and there are just getting to the price range where we could trade the Kia in and keep our payments at the same level. We’ll wait a while though. Rather than laugh at me, the salesman handed me an umbrella and we walked out to the used car lot that they have across the road. He pointed out a few cars like the Tahoe (like that would fit our price range) and mentioned a Hummer they have coming in today. He also asked if I’d be interested in a lease, to which I said "no". Several years ago, a Navy buddy of mine and I were talking about a friend who entered into a really screwy lease. I was asked to come up with an acronym for LEASE, to which I thought a few seconds and came back with "Losers Easily Are Sucked into Extra payments". After we got back in the showroom, he went in the back and came out and said they have an Xterra that might work. He took my keys to have my car appraised and we went for a test drive in the Xterra. He kept saying that he could see me in that car and could see me going home in it. I think they teach them that in car sales school.

After we got back, he went to work out the finances. After carefully explaining my requirements, do you think the dealership came back in the ballpark? Do you think I drove an Xterra to work today rather than my Sportage?

Here is what they came back with:

  • They’ll pay off the Kia
  • They’ll drop the price of the Xterra from $17something thousand to $16 something thousand.
  • I put down $1800.
  • Payments at $409 for 60 months or $399 for 72 months.

The Xterra was a 2002 with a stick shift. It was a very nice ride. The dealer also told me that it had a 4.0 and got 21 to 28 MPG.  A friend of mine has an Xterra. I remembered him telling me that he wished the 4.0 liter engine was available when he bought his, but it didn’t come out until another model year. I didn’t know what year he bought his car though. I asked him later and found out he has a 2002. He also reports gas mileage of nowhere near the dealer’s reported mileage.

So what do you think I did? Find out in part II.

Just kidding. If I thought I had enough regular readers, maybe I’d keep you in suspense and do a part II, but I won’t. I politely declined, reminded him that my family is on a single income and we would prefer to keep our payment lower.

Now I am not disparaging their efforts to work out a deal. I thought that this was a very good deal and if I’d had more to work with I would gladly have accepted it. However, I listed my requirements and they can be compared with this offer. When we bought the Kia, the experience was very positive and this dealership did a very good job, which was why I was willing to purchase another car from them.

I’m not sure why car dealers do that. I would much rather be laughed at and told to get off of the property than spend an hour test driving and being told that a deal can be worked out along the lines of what I’m looking for when even I know that it can’t. I pretty much figured that was how it would end up, but I did have a slight spirit of optimism despite my past car dealer experiences. I guess it has been demonstrated that no matter how much the customer lowballs the dealer, after the test drive the customer will find a way to make a $400 a month payment when he originally said he could only do $200.

I decided a long time ago that a car is nothing more than an appliance. It’s a very nice appliance, but many of us treat our cars like an extension of our personalities. I realized that it’s just a $20000 toaster, and I treat it accordingly. As cool as the Xterra was, I walked away and drove my Sportage home. I can enjoy it once again without that darn rattle.

As an anecdote, here are a couple of my worst car dealer experiences:

  1. When I was 21, I found out I was promoted to E-5. I decided for some reason that I should get a new car, even though the truck that I had at the time was going to be paid off in 6 months.  I went to a Mazda dealer outside the base to look at the ’95 Protege. I told the salesman I’d only do it if the payments could be kept where my truck payments were, which was around $170 a month. He kept telling me it was no problem at all. Later, in the finance manager’s office, I was told the payments would be $350. Why did the salesman tell me over and over again that it would be no problem? I couldn’t afford that, but out of pride I ended up buying a ’93 MX3, which I drove for 10 years until the moonroof seal started to go and the fuel pump went. That car served me well for a decade. I always said that I couldn’t have been screwed into a better car.
  2. A few years ago, my wife and I bought a 1999 Ford Windstar from a dealer. When we got home, we were looking at their website and we saw a Windstar that looked just like ours listed for $2000 less than what we paid. I printed the page and ran outside to check the VIN, and sure enough, it was the same car. The dealer said that a 3rd party manages their website and they can’t be held responsible for false information. Sure. That Windstar didn’t last too long, and we ended up trading it in for the Kia that I drive now. (That dealer, Cherry Hill Subaru, is no longer in business. Serves you right!).

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My Desktop Computer Is Back In Business

I haven’t had much fortune with desktop computers lately. In fact, I have 3 carcasses laying around. I had a 1.7Ghz Athlon, but it developed a problem that is most likely in the power supply, but there was another problem right before the power supply completely failed. There was a single, rapid beep. I took my wife’s old 1Ghz Athlon and used that for a desktop system, until it’s power supply failed. A friend gave me a Gateway that wasn’t working and said it was mine if I could fix it. I couldn’t.

I haven’t been without a computer. I have two notebooks that I’ve been using, plus an old iMac G3 (Rev. D) that is more of a toy than anything. I like the mobility of notebooks, but there is just something nice about having a desktop system to call home base. I have a WinTV and the hard drive space is nice for recording shows and watching them when I can. It’s also nice to be able to back up the laptops to the hard drive space on the desktop. I can also download and process video from our DVC camera and burn to a DVD.

I sold my Dell Axim and took the money to a computer show. My wife found an eMachine at Wal-Mart for under $300, but was decided that I should see what I could find at the computer show. It’s been a long time since I’ve made it to one. I went with my father in law. There were some awesome deals. One vendor had Windows XP Pro for $99, but my budget didn’t cover that.

I looked around at the available hardware. I found a 400 Watt case for $31. That’s a good deal, considering that the computer store down the street from me wanted $69 for a 350 Watt power supply for my 1.7Ghz box. I found a good deal on a P-4 2.6Ghz and motherboard, I bought 512 Megs of DDR RAM (I still have 256 from my other system) and I bought the 400 Watt case. All told, I got a much better deal than that eMachine at Wal-mart.

I can’t wait to get it put together and running.