Category Archives: Software

Pet Peeve: Version Transparency

I have a possibly odd habit: I like to keep an up-to-date archive of the software I normally install on my Windows boxen. I maintain an SMB volume on my file server, exported to my home network via Samba, into which I file various installers and updaters. This makes bringing up a new machine — which I’ve been known to do from time to time — a minor rather than a major annoyance. Almost everything I want has already been fetched, and is available for retrieval at gigabit speeds.

This brings us to the second-most-retarded thing on the internet: software downloads without versions in the filename. (What’s the first-most-retarded thing on the internet, you ask? Why, e-commerce forms that require you to enter credit-card numbers “without dashes or spaces”, but Steve Friedl‘s got that one covered.)

When I’m looking at your web site, contemplating a set of download links, I should be able to tell at a glance whether or not the software bundle you’re offering me is newer than the one I’ve got. If you had the foresight to embed the bundle’s version number into its filename, this is a trivial determination for me to make. If you haven’t, then I may wind up downloading another copy only to determine that it’s no different from the one I have. This is waste of time for me, a waste of bandwidth for you, and a pointless annoyance to us both.

Names like “iTunesInstaller.exe”, “stable.tar.gz”, and “” tell me nothing about the vintage of the software whose acquisition I’m contemplating. I am baffled that outfits which are by any other measure under the operation of the extremely smartApple, the folks behind, and Sysinternals, to name but three — haven’t figured this out yet. It makes me wonder whether I’m not in truth the one who’s missing something. But until someone offers me definitive proof that this the case, though, I’m going to continue waving my fist at the sky and acting cranky over this one.

Tabs Open Relative

Tabs Open Relative is a nifty and fairly-new Firefox extension that causes new tabs to appear adjacent to the tab from which they were opened, rather than after the last opened tab. There’s slightly more to it than that: it’s more accurate, although perhaps not more enlightening, to say that it makes the tab bar feel like a nested collection of queues, rather than a single large queue.

It’s actually harder to describe than it is to simply start using. Once you see the subtle-yet-intuitive way it alters tab-spawning behavior, you’ll get it immediately, and wonder why Firefox didn’t always work this way. The low version number of the current release, 0.1, belies the extension’s polish: I’ve yet to see it behave other than I’d expect it to in the course of its operation.

Another of its virtues, in my estimation, is a conspicuous absence of anything to configure. There’s nothing to do after installation, no new Options pane serving up a dizzying array of checkboxes, or any other kind of flimflammery to impress upon you what a sophisticated new piece of software you’ve just wired into the guts of your browser. It does its job, and dispenses with any flashy attempts to dazzle you. More software should be like that.

If I’m going to praise a Firefox extension, I also have to deliver a big, fat raspberry to the Firefox Extensions area of the Mozilla site, whose search functionality places second only to Penny Arcade‘s in the race for “worst ever”. Don’t believe me? Try searching for an extension whose name you already know. C’mon — I dare you!

An Open Letter to Blue Note, Sony, and EMI

Diehard jazz aficionado Volkher Hofmann is mad as hell, and he’s not going to take it to the register anymore.

Read it. All of it. It’s a thing of beauty. Years from now, when the scavengers are picking over the bones of the major labels, we’ll look back and say, “This was it. This was the moment when they passed the point of no return, the beginning of the end. When people who spent thousands of dollars on, and arranged the rest of their lives around, recorded music decided that they’d finally had enough, and were no longer going to be apologists for a bunch of indifferent, cash-grubbing corporate tools.”

Firefox 1.5

…was released yesterday. So far, I see no radical differences from its predecessor, which in this case is a good thing. You can now reorder tabs by dragging-and-dropping them, which is neat, and the preferences dialogs have been substantially re-organized for ease-of-use. Also, there’s an option to capture new windows opened by web sites as tabs instead. Given how annoying and distracting I find it when sites insist upon opening new windows, I suspect that this may become my favorite feature in short order.

Details and downloads can be found at Firefox’s home.

Time, Time, Time

I’ve mentioned that PC clock hardware is a raging piece of shite, right? Ah, yes, I see that I have. Good. Then I don’t have to repeat myself. I just need to elaborate: it’s even worse than I realized. I thought that the uncorrected Linux box was in a bad way, but one of my Windows XP boxen appears to be gaining minutes a day. I’m hesitant to use a gratuitous explosion of profanity like “holy fuck” in a public forum, but little else comes to mind that’s capable of fully conveying my astonishment.

So: weekly synchronization with an external time server is clearly not going to suffice, and more-frequent synchronization might be considered rude by the target servers’ owners — especially since I’ve got my own perfectly servicable stratum 3 server at home. It’s therefore time for me to figure out how to make Windows talk to said server — often enough to keep its own sorry ass in some reasonable approximation of sync.

A bit of Googling later, I discover that there are Registry keys you can tweak to both add a server and change the polling frequency. I’ll have to play with them.

Some of these values may be more-easily manipulable using the command-line w32tm utility.

If all else fails, I can have the machine run its own instance of ntpd slickly packaged by the good folks at Meinberg. I’m sort of hoping it doesn’t come to that, though.

Sony: Pigfuckers

Mark Russinovich, one of the more badass ninjas of low-level Windows programming and the co-maintainer of the excellent Sysinternals website, recently discovered, while testing his rootkit detector, that Something Unwholesome had made its way onto a system that should by rights have been clean.

Upon investigation, he discovered that he’d inadertently installed it himself when listening to a DRM-encumbered CD, the ironically-titled Get Right With The Man.

This discovery has led to a media furor and very visible tug-of-war, chronicled on Russinovich’s blog, with Sony and Sony’s purveyor of DRM technology, First 4 Internet. First 4 Internet’s programmers clearly don’t understand the nuts and bolts of deep-down Windows programming nearly so well as Russinovich, leading to their advancement of some blatantly false assertions which Russinovich has proceeded to casually blow out of the water. It’d be amusing if the stakes — to wit, users’ right to use media they own on computers they own without worrying that one is going to try subverting the other — weren’t so high.

Russinovich is one of my heroes; his autoruns is on my very short list of absolutely essential Windows utilities. And yet there’s a certain irony lurking just under the surface here. Free-software advocates have argued, sometimes stridently, that proprietary systems are to be avoided because they tilt the balance of power away from ordinary users and towards the Powers That Be. This episode would seem to offer evidence that even extraordinary users like Russinovich are at risk of being bent over the barrel for as long as they choose to be serfs in someone else’s kingdom. Live by the sword, die by the sword, I guess. I suspect it’s too much to hope that the experience will lead him to focus his considerable skills upon free software, but it sure would be nice.

Tim suggested that I make T-shirts declaring “SONY ARE PIGFUCKERS” as an alternative to having the phrase tattoed across my chest. I replied that I could probably cover my costs by selling a few. I’m not sure about an exact design, though.

iTunes Gift Certificates

There are two ways to purchase an electronic iTunes Music Store gift certificate: through the Apple Store, and through the iTunes application itself. Never, ever, do it through the Apple Store.

If an e-mailed gift certificate you purchased through iTunes is accidentally deleted, inadvertently tagged as spam, or otherwise lost, voiding and re-issuing it through the iTunes application is trivial. If the same thing happens to a gift certificate you purchased through the Apple Store you are, not to put too fine a point on it, shit out of luck. You will have to contact Customer Service by e-mail and detail your woes, after which they will credit your account with the amount spent and you can try again.

I have to admit that I expected better — much, much better — from a company which has made usability a cornerstone of its brand.