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Archive for the ‘Tech’ Category

I’m a genius

I’ve been working as a webmaster for one of my non-technically inclined clients since the start of 2011.

It’s not a straightforward effort. I didn’t design the site but inherited it. What I got was a mess.

From what I could tell, the original design crew created the site in standard sophisticated HTML. At some point, they started to migrate the site into WordPress.

There are two problems there. Firstly, they did not complete the site’s migration. I took charge of a mess that is half in the WordPress CMS and half in the original HTML format. My clients have been loath to pay for a new site design so my job is to keep what’s there running smoothly.

A second issue lies in the WordPress design. They produced what I have to work with in WordPress 3.0.1 and created a custom theme based on the Twenty Ten theme.

I’m not sure how or why, but any attempt to upgrade WordPress beyond version 3.0.1 irretrievably breaks the site. The custom theme stops working. To restore it, I have to upload a copy of the WordPress installation that I keep on my hard drive for just such emergencies.

The current version of WordPress is 3.9.1.

As I recently wrote to my client, it is and isn’t a problem to keep the site on 3.0.1.

It is a problem because site security is not as strong as it could be – on the other hand, that does not really affect much. There’s no crucial info to lose. A bigger problem is that the versions of plugins that do things like slideshows and animations and archiving are also outdated and often are no longer supported. Any changes to the site moving forward will have to rely on technology that’s a few years old and there’s no guarantee that I will be able to find something that works.

It isn’t a problem because it’s working fine now, although I can’t apply updates that might automatically take care of issues that I have to figure out manually. And a redesign will consume time and money to essentially rebuild the Web site from scratch on modern technology.

So that’s the background. I don’t have to actively do much work. My clients only update the site every few months. Between updates, I don’t really do anything. My biggest project to date was to install an online store/shopping cart plugin but mostly I add posts, remove old info, etc.

That what I was doing last weekend. My job was to remove an old post and refine a more recent one with updated info and a slideshow. Easy enough. But the slideshow wasn’t working. (The site used the ILC Slider plugin, which is no longer available. It’s the precursor to AllSlider by the same author.)

Now, when I say the slideshows weren’t working, it’s not as straightforward as it sounds, and here I need to explain more background. When I use the Preview function on an edited post, the preview that shows up uses the unadulterated Twenty Ten theme. I never get to see what it will actually look like in production on the custom theme until I push the update into production. (Feel free to cringe, coders.)

So, the slideshows would work, sort of, on the preview page but not in production. Once pushed live, the slideshow would sit there, holding one image like a picture frame. The interactive controls would detect a hovering cursor and change colour but would not do anything when clicked.

There was another problem to deal with in the preview. The slideshow worked, but would not properly frame two of the 12 images. I decided to deal with this first. I resized the original JPEGs to slideshow size (500 pixels across) but that didn’t help. I tried changing the names of the files – no dice. And then I noticed something. The two images that were misbehaving used the .jpg suffix. The ten that worked used the .jpeg suffix. Once I changed the .jpg to .jpeg, the slideshow worked perfectly – on the preview page. It still shouldn’t play in production.

I checked the rest of the site’s slideshows. They weren’t working either. That meant there was some sort of systemic error. Something had changed since I had installed the previous slideshows. It wasn’t the site’s PHP code, but what was it? Had someone remotely deprecated ILC Slider? Were other people having this problem? This called for a Google search.

There was no support for ILC Slider, since it no longer exists. Offical support for AllSlider requires a paid licence to access. I was left skirting the edges, looking for clues.

And I found one, written by the plugin author: “It’s not caused by the plugin, but when a JavaScript fails in a page, all the remaining scripts are stopped….”

I checked the calls the site’s pages were making for JavaScript. I found two: and

That second one leads to nothing. I changed it to link to and all slideshows worked again.

I don’t know if a WordPress update would have fixed that. I don’t think so. I suspect that ILC Slider is at fault. Either way, I’m sure that some update would have prevented this from popping up.

Bonus tech frustration:

I also added an embedded Twitter feed to the site. No matter what I tried, I could never get the feed to show up as more than a simple text link in the two browsers I use, Safari and Chrome. No amount of research or plugins could fix my problem, but I did find many complaints about the same thing.

My client asked me to modify the size of the feed, though, which threw me. He was seeing it? I fired up Firefox, and there it was. But I only use Firefox for troubleshooting. I don’t surf with it or modify… – oh, crap.

I use Ghostery in Safari and Chrome to cut down on cookies and ads. Embedded Twitter feeds will not work without cookies or tracking or something. Once I set Ghostery to allow the Twitter Button tracker, I saw the tweet feed. Oy.

The Chrome bell

I hate clutter, especially in my menu bars.

I use Safari and Chrome browsers on my Mac. Why two? It’s easy to hide the windows of one while I’m working on a project on the other. There are plugins/extensions on each that I like to use for some sites, like WME Toolbox (Chrome only) on the Waze map editor.

Chrome bellA few days ago, I noticed a greyed-out bell icon in my menu bar (see image at left). Clicking on it revealed that it was a drop-down menu for Chrome notifications, installed without my permission and taking up about a centimetre of valuable menu-bar space.

The standard OS X way to remove unwanted menu-bar items is to hold down the Option and Command keys while dragging the offender of the bar. That wasn’t working.

So I did a little research and here is how you get rid of it:

  1. Open Chrome.
  2. Type chrome://flags in the address field and then scroll down to Enable Rich Notifications. Alternately, you can type chrome://flags/#enable-rich-notifications in the address field to go right to it. Or just copy that string from this post and paste it!
  3. Change the setting for Enable Rich Notifications to “Disabled”.
  4. Quit Chrome.

The next time Chrome boots, your bell will no longer appear.

But here’s the weird part: I tried reversing the above steps to get a screenshot of the bell for this post, but the bell never reappeared. I’m not losing sleep over that, but that is weird.

Another unusual point is that the bell just showed up for me a few days ago, while many people have been complaining about it since last October. It may have something to do with the fact that I’m still using OS 10.8 instead of 10.9 (Mavericks), or maybe it has to do with my use of Google Notifier.

Google Notifier is a small application that sits in your menu bar and tells you when you have new mail in your Gmail account – at least, it used to. It also lets you set all browser mailto links (i.e. e-mail links) to open in your browser’s Gmail account instead of an e-mail client. I really dislike Apple’s Mail application and I haven’t found anything I like better than Gmail’s Web interface, so I strictly use that (in Safari) for dealing with all e-mail.

Google Notifier is no longer supported and it no longer tells me when I have mail but it still works to redirect e-mail links so I still use it. You can get it at MacUpdate.

LogMeIn Free replacement

This news is a week stale, but LogMeIn has decided to can its free service. Cute how the announcement is titled “Changes to LogMeIn Free”.

Users are particularly miffed that the Jan. 21 notice informed users that the service would abruptly end on, yes, Jan. 21. That linked TechCrunch article discusses as an alternative, but that is another LogMeIn product and is free only during 14-day trial.

I’ve moved to TeamViewer, which is free for private use. Note the unnecessary, snide dig at LogMeIn in their standard installation instructions.

Chrome Remote Desktop was another option, but that would force the people to whose computers I log in remotely to help to have Chrome running.

Streaming US media

Having been prompted by the wife to investigate how to access the American version of Netflix and by Child 2′s usage of the same, I did a little digging.

There are many options out there. Unblockus is popular and convenient and it costs $5 a month. The advantage of Unblockus for me is the ability to install its DNS addresses right on the router, thus allowing every device on our network – including the PS3 – to access geo-blocked American media. When you access one of the chosen services, your browser would ask you which geographic location you would like to use. I’m not sure we would get that choice with Netflix on the PS3.

Child 2 was using Hola, which comes in ad-supported free and pay versions. Hola is actually peer-to-peer software and I suspect it of driving up our bandwidth using Child 2′s laptop. Regardless, it is browser-based software and as such may not always work with browser updates or even your browser of choice, like my preference to use Safari.

I settled on a free alternative, Media Hint. There’s another hobby-project called Tunlr that works with DNS redirection, the same approach that Unblockus uses.

Media Hint works in the browser, but also at the system level in OS X, which is how I have set mine up. Here’s how:

  1. Open System Preferences. Open the Network settings pane.
  2. Click on the connection you are using, which will almost certainly be either Wi-Fi or Ethernet.
  3. Click on the Location drop-down menu and choose Edit Locations…
  4. Select your default location (Automatic, unless you’ve renamed it). Click on the gear icon and choose “Duplicate Location”.
  5. Rename the location you just created to something more obvious, like “US TV”. Choose it to activate it and click the Done button.
  6. Click the Advanced button. Click on Proxies in the header.
  7. Activate the checkbox for Automatic Proxy Configuration. In the URL field for Automatic Proxy Configuration and paste this URL:
  8. Click the OK button. Exit System Preferences, saving changes if it asks you to.

Now, to switch between being local and appearing to be in the US, click on the Apple menu and then click on the Location menu. Switch between them whenever you want this way.

I haven;t checked, but there should be a way to use Media Hint this way in Windows, too. Or you could opt for Tunlr.

Bonus whine:

Who at WordPress decided that Goth was a good look for version 3.8? Blecch.

Magical pants

When once upon a time I was a DM for the game we then called AD&D, I invented in my campaign a magic item called the pants of sloth (and I italicize according to Wizards of the Coast style). These magical pants were a tartan pair of what are now commonly called pyjama pants and they increased the natural healing rate of a character as long as this person did nothing but veg out.

Because I was (am?) an anal-retentive DM, I kept track of things like long-term healing and these pants came in handy in my campaign, even though when I submitted them for inclusion in Dungeon magazine, the editor I was working with (Dave Gross) replied with “Oh, I don’t think so….” It may have been the name.

They say that truth is stranger than fiction, and I would have loved to see Dave’s comment were I to submit for consideration a real pair of magical pants I just learned about.

The Icelandic nábrók, or necropants, will grant you everlasting wealth as long as you don’t mind digging around in a(nother) man’s scrotum for coins. Here’s the transliteration of the audio track available at the Strandagaldur Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft.

One of the most difficult feats mentioned in Icelandic grimoires and folk tales is undoubtedly the nábrók, literally “necropants”. This is another tool to gather wealth by supernatural means.

To begin with, the sorcerer has to make a pact with a living man and get his permission to dig up his dead body and skin it from the waist down. The skin must be completely intact with no holes or scratches. The sorcerer then steps into the skin, which will immediately become one with his own.

A coin must be stolen from a poor widow either at Christmas, Easter, or Whitsun and kept in the scrotum. It will then draw money from living persons and the scrotum will never be empty when the sorcerer checks.

However, his spiritual well-being is at risk unless he gets rid of the necropants before he dies. If he dies with the pants on, his body will become infested with lice as soon as he passes away. The sorcerer must therefore find somebody that is willing to take the pants, and put his leg into the right leg before the sorcerer steps out of the left one.

The pants will keep on drawing money for generations of owners.

The audio does not mention that in addition to the coin, the sorcerer must place the nábrókarstafur sigil in the scrotum.

The museum has a pair of the pants on display and the Web site has the sigil.


Stream wireless video at home

We don’t own a dedicated TV streaming device. We do have both a Wii and a PlayStation 3, and we get Netflix through those. We subscribe to Videotron’s Illico digital cable TV and also have a grey-market DirecTV dish and PVR, with the Showtime package and no broadcast networks.

We’re well-served in content, even if we still haven’t made the leap to a flat-screen television – yeah, we still have a massive CRT set.

The kids monopolize the TV but I don’t mind. I’ve become accustomed to time shifting. The kids have filled up the PVR with Adventure Time and other Cartoon Network staples, though, so most of my time-shifting involves downloading TV-show torrents.

Boy, this is long-winded.

I usually watch video on my computer but sometimes a subset of the family will also want to watch what I download, either together or at separate times. Until this past summer, I’d transfer shows to a USB memory stick and plug that into the PS3.

I knew there had to be a better way to move video from my hard drive to our TV, but I figured we needed a streaming device like a Roku, AppleTV, or the new Google Chromecast. I had it completely backward.

I searched for ways to get this done, and the consensus choice is Plex, a media server you load on your computer. It’s absolutely free. Plex is fairly easy to install; once I had the courage to ignore some error warnings, it went seamlessly.

You find your video files through Plex’s Web-browser-based interface. Plex handles TV series and movies differently so you’ll want to separate those into different folders if you don’t already. Once it’s set up on your computer, Plex will search the Internet for covers and background info for all of your titles so that the end result looks darned professional. The only issue I had was that Plex misrecognized an old TV documentary and so downloaded the wrong information. I had to manually override that.

But once my set up is done, all I had to do was choose my new media server on the PS3, and boom – all my files are available in a pretty menu. I’ve had rare network hiccups that make me reload a file I’m watching, but that’s barely worth mentioning. I haven’t looked for the server on our Wii but I assume it would be easy to access there.

I was so pleased with my success that I tried to set up Plex for someone with an AppleTV. Oh, Apple…. True to form, Apple maintains a closed ecosystem on its AppleTVs. You can only get what they want you to get and that doesn’t include media files on your computer – unless they are in iTunes. Previously, I had advised the AppleTV user to convert all her downloaded video to MP4 format and then to drag it into iTunes. It works, but not for all video files and it’s kludgy. Plex is more elegant and easier since it will play anything your computer can, from .aac to .wmv.

Apple left a loophole in the AppleTV software, however. The device’s data streams are encrypted – with the exception of its Trailers channel. Some clever coders exploited this to force AppleTVs to access Plex through that Trailers channel. It seemed to work great…until Apple closed the hole with its most recent AppleTV software update.

Now, there are still workarounds and I found the appropriate code and files and followed the instructions to what I could best discern was a T, but I spent four hours trying to get this AppleTV to see Plex without success.

So I can’t recommend an AppleTV. Roku comes with Plex access by default but you still have to install your own media server for it to work. I’ve read that Roku boxes are not the most stable, although perhaps the company’s new line-up will fix that. If you have a newer TV with Google Play, a LG Smart TV, or a Samsung TV that can use that app store, you can also get the Plex client directly.

The Google Chromecast dongle is HDMI only and has a Plex client in development. It’s a $35 device, only available in the US for now.

If I had to design an home media-server installation from scratch today, I’d start with a used Wii. It’s less expensive and more reliable than a dedicated streaming device. And it plays games. By the end of the year, I might opt for a Chromecast if the TV has a spare HDMI input.

Weird Mail issue

I recently dealt with an quirk of Apple’s Mail application for a client. I found a workaround, but I have no idea exactly why it’s happening, or how to prevent it from happening. That bugs me.

My client receives an e-mail newsletter from an industry group. What he gets shows up like this:


It’s a standard formatted e-mail. The raw e-mail comes in two parts. The first is simple text, and the second is HTML. It’s ugly, inelegant HTML, with layout driven by nested tables, but it works.

A problem arises when my client forwards this e-mail to others. It shows up like this:


The text is there. It’s just the same colour as the background. Notice that the justification of some of the paragraphs has also changed.

When asked to forward this e-mail, Mail does so, but it adds this before the HTML of the newsletter proper:


Mail adds that little text through some, yes, HTML. And that HTML is what (I assume) screws up the styles of the newsletter.

As far as I can tell, there’s no way to get around this while using the “Forward” function. My workaround takes advantage of Mail’s “Send Again” command. That doesn’t add anything to the message and conveniently can be applied to messages that you yourself didn’t send the first time.

Bonus funny:

I’ve been freelancing for a company that adds subtitles to movies, which is more complicated than you think it is because of competing standards. There’s also a procedure to verify foreign dialogue.

The other day, I was working on Darren Aronofsky’s “Pi” along with two goyim. Each of us covered a third of the movie, which contains a bit of Hebrew and Yiddish, but I was responsible for knitting all three reports together. One of the foreign-dialogue notes one of the other titlers left for me concerned a Hebrew word. His remark cracked me up, and it will amuse anyone who is familiar with Chabad and its tactics:

Teffillin. A type of Jewish phylactery? Appears to be used in the context of a drug.

Apps and Applications

Thanks to “Blackadder the Third” for the influence of title alliteration. Thanks to me for the crappy execution.

Yesterday, I did something to a Mac I’ve never done before and it left me with a sick feeling in my stomach. Behold:


I have some work that requires me to use proprietary software that’s Windows-only, so I had to. I chose VMware over other options because I have a friend who works there, so I figure high-quality tech support will be easy to access.

I had a bad experience with tech support recently. Our old router was dropping connections and somebody on our wireless LAN has been occasionally uploading way more data than normal. I installed DD-WRT on the old router, a Cisco/Linksys WRT54G v.6. Version 6 of that router is crippled with minimal RAM compared to earlier models so the installation left no room for the tools I’d need to install to monitor bandwidth by user. Plus, it kept dropping connections.

By the way, yes, Wi-Fi routers can wear out despite a lack of any moving parts. Probably.

So I bought a new Netgear router and put DD-WRT on that. I tried and failed to install a Linux bandwidth monitor program on it and I felt the best thing to do would be to start anew, with factory settings. I tried to reset the router according to the manual, but it just wouldn’t reset. It did, however, stop working.

I called Netgear tech support and spent an hour with a clueless person. He was trained to follow the script he was given, which was to test the router and repair its Internet connection. He wouldn’t comprehend that I was asking him to help me reset the router. He also wasn’t comfortable with using Macs, so he made me dig out Elvi’s Windows laptop and use the unintuitive networking tools on that. My post-call assessment was not kind – although at some point in the process, the router came back to life, although with DD-WRT and not the native Netgear firmware. I said thanks and goodbye.

Oh, yeah. I’ve also moved up to Mac OS 10.8 Mountain Lion. I forget why.

Anyway, in the upgrade I discovered that my favourite text-editing program, Tex-Edit Plus no longer worked. I’ve been using it for close to 20 years, and I lamented its loss – until I visited the site to learn that an updated version will work on Mountain Lion. Huzzah! It’s shareware, and recommends you pay $15. I paid $50 a long time ago. It’s that good.

I started this post with the intention of noting some apps. I suppose it’s time to get around to that.

I continue to have a torrid love affair with Waze. I’m obsessed with mapping for it. I pretty much singlehandedly filled in everything between St-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Drummondville. On to Trois-Rivières! It’s not healthy.

I’m also using Lose It, which is an app that lets you record what you eat and exercise you perform. I got on a scale in late December and saw 178 on the readout. That’s too much. I set a goal of getting down to 155 lbs by May, roughly a pound a week. Lose It set my daily caloric budget at 1,752. Right now, I’m bouncing between 172 and 174 so it seems to be working.

What I like about Lose It is its bar-code scanner. Scan what you eat and it tells you what it costs in calories. What I don’t like about Lose It is that it is aimed at people who eat prepackaged foods. It’s sometimes difficult to find home-made foodstuffs in its list and of course food made from scratch doesn’t have a bar code. Nevertheless, I’m sticking with it, and to my budget.

Another I want to praise is actually kind of boring. Battleship Destroyer HMS turns you into a gunner on a Royal Navy frigate in World War II. It’s simple and it gets dull after a while, particularly if you stick to the free version. The amazing thing about the game, and this is not unique, is that you can play in gyroscope mode. Instead of using screen swipes or buttons to move, you move the smart phone to view the world around you. Want to swivel your gun turret? Turn around. Want to aim high? Lift the phone toward the sky. It’s surprisingly immersive.

The final app I want to mention is Spaceteam (iOS only). Developer Henry Smith knocked this off to train himself to code iOS apps and has an unexpected hit in his hands. You can only play it face to face, and multiplayer is mandatory. Every player has a control panel and is sent a list of commands. If they cannot use their own control panel to fulfil the command, they must ask/shout at the other players to do so. That’s the whole game. It gets hard, especially when you lose the labels on the controls.

We have a game night scheduled with friends tonight. I wonder if I can use Richard III to whip up some enthusiasm for Kingmaker.

The progressive Conservative copyright bill

Lost in the news blitz of Tuesday’s American elections was the establishment of the copyright provisions of Bill C-11 as active law.

For several years, the combination of phrases “copyright law” and “Conservative government” in an article have provoked anxiety and confusion, and that stems from a series of bills the Conservative Party introduced to Parliament in 2005-2007. The foundation of the government’s approach was the American DMCA, which Canadians generally found abhorrent.

After public consultation and further thought, the Harper government introduced Bill C-11 and passed it this past summer. It is a direct descendant of its ancestor bills, including the almost reasonable Bill C-61.

Canadian copyright guru Michael Geist explains the evolution and bullet-points the features of the Bill C-11.

There are major changes from previous bills. One of the most notable is the establishment of parody and satire as legal uses of copyrighted material. This was the case in the US, but not previously in Canada.

You may now use any material that is public and online for educational purposes. This is an expansion of previous fair-use provisions and, boy, is it broad.

One contentious remnant of the old bills has been effectively neutered if not eliminated. It remains illegal to break a digital lock in order to make copies of media (although you are allowed to possess the tools to do so). Although restrictive, this provision is tempered by the cap on statutory damages for breaking a digital lock for non-commercial reasons. The most a guilty individual can be forced to pay is $5,000. That’s not even going to cover a company’s legal fee for a case, so unless a company is driven by revenge or example-making rather than profit, the cap is essentially permission to copy for non-commercial purposes.

All in all, Bill C-11 is an enlightened approach. It’s not perfect, but what is?

I squished a bug

When I’m not being paid to write, edit, or research, I do home/small-office IT support for Macs. I love doing it. It’s the puzzles that intrigue me. This week, I had a doozy.

A client bought a new Mac Pro to replace her old one. The migration of her old account to the new Mac went pretty well, with only a few wobbly moments – for some reason, her old iPhoto 6 replaced the new version that came on the new Mac.

Once that was done, she had me install a (legal) copy of Microsoft Office 2011 on the new machine to replace the Office 2008 she’d been using on her older Mac Pro.

The first installation (and subsequent updates) seemed to go flawlessly, until it was time to open the Office applications. The splash screen would come on but before any document or blank template would load, the application would crash, with this error (in this example, for Word):

Microsoft Error Reporting log version: 2.0

Error Signature:
Date/Time: 2012-10-26 01:40:50 +0000
Application Name: Microsoft Word
Application Bundle ID:
Application Signature: MSWD
Application Version:
Crashed Module Name: CoreFoundation
Crashed Module Version: 744.12
Crashed Module Offset: 0x0000b849
Blame Module Name: MicrosoftMenuLibrary
Blame Module Version:
Blame Module Offset: 0x000133ec
Application LCID: 1033
Extra app info: Reg=en Loc=0x0409
Crashed thread: 0

And that would be followed by a dump of incomprehensible codes and threads.

I did a bit of research and learned that this was a known problem. The primary recommended step is to delete all Microsoft Office preference files. I did, but it didn’t help.

Next, I deleted every trace of Microsoft software – including preferences, receipts, and fonts typefaces – from the new Mac and reinstalled Office. No dice.

I spent nearly two hours on the phone with Microsoft tech support. The nice lady, via a customized LogMeIn client, also wiped everything clean and reinstalled Office, with as little success as I had. We did learn, though, that Office worked fine for a pristine new user on the Mac Pro. There was obviously some conflict with something in the migrated user account. With that information, Microsoft told me to call Apple tech support.

Apple found a few cache files that Microsoft tech support hadn’t dealt with, but it didn’t help. While on hold while my call was being bumped up a support level, something occurred to me. My client is a graphic designer and has nearly 1,000 fonts typefaces, some of which she’s had for decades. I disabled her migrated fonts typefaces, leaving only the system fonts typefaces and the fonts typefaces Microsoft installs for Office.

Ta-dah! The Office applications worked!

There is nothing more tedious than going through fonts typefaces looking for a problem – but it’s a puzzle and I love it. Especially when I solve that puzzle.

The problem is that there was a an old version of Georgia font typeface in her ~/Library/Fonts directory. That was in conflict with the native OS X version of Georgia and and version Microsoft may have installed itself.

I deleted several duplicate fonts typefaces, but it was the removal of Georgia that fixed the problem. Well, either that or GillSans.

Take that, megacorporations what can’t figure out what I did.

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