Sunday, October 31, 2010

This Year’s Jack O’Lanterns

Yesterday the girls and I made Jack O’Lanterns.  I had them draw out on a sheet of paper how they wanted theirs to look.  Alexandra wanted “funny” while Amanda wanted “scary.”

They came out pretty good, if I do say so myself.


Alexandra’s is on the left, Amanda’s is on the right.

VMware Training and a New PC

Last week I attended a five day course on installing, configuring, and maintaining VMware vSphere 4.1.  My employer purchased an "all you can eat" license earlier this year, and I've been asked to implement it on one of our networks.  Since I have no prior experience with vSphere I asked my boss for training.  It turns out that we had some training credits which expire at the end of 2010, so I was able to register for this couse at no cost to my department.

I am very impressed with vSphere, as well as VMware's vSphere Client management program.  I find it well designed with a very good user interface.  It runs on Windows only, unfortunately.  I wish they had an OS X client.  At work I have a Windows 7 VM inside Paralles Desktop on my MacBook Pro which I can use.  I also recently setup a four year old Dell Precision Workstation 470n which I scrounged.  It's running Windows 7 x64 with 4 GBs of RAM so it runs much more smoothly than the VM on my laptop.

As a side note, the VMs I have running inside of Parallels Desktop have gotten a lot slower recently, especially the Windows 7 VM.  I am thinking of dumping PD and installing VirtualBox.

Because vSphere is basically a means to run other OSes as applications on a host I decided I wanted to have a way to refamiliarize myself with any number of OSes on a system at home.  To that end, yesterday I did something I haven't done in 12 years: I bought a new desktop PC running Windows.

For the past 10 years or so I've built my own machines.  I have two tower cases which are well designed and which have been used in several incarnations of motherboards, CPUs, and operating systems.  However, I just didn't feel like putting together a new PC, especially since I can now buy a very powerful system for under a grand.

So, yesterday I did some searching on Microcenter's website and purchased a PowerSpec B707 mini-tower system for $699 plus tax.  The basic specs are:

1. Intel Core i5 - 655K 3.2 GHz dual core CPU
2. Intel DH55TC motherboard with integrated video (VGA and DVI), sound, Gigabit LAN.
3. Samsung 1 TB hard disk
4. 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi (which I have disabled since I have an Ethernet connection)
5. DVD+/-RW drive
6. Media card reader
7. 300W power supply
8. Windows 7 Professional 64 bit
9. 4 GB of DDR3 RAM (expandalbe to 16 GB)

Because I bought the system with the idea of running other OSes inside VMs I wanted to increase the RAM.  I found an OCZ 4 GB kit (2 x 2 GB DIMMs) at Microcenter for $69.99 less a $20 mail-in rebate, so added that to the cart.

Microcenter allows you to place an order on their website and arrange for in-store pickup in 18 minutes, if they have the items in stock at your local store.  I did that and was in and out in about 10 minutes.

The PC came with a cheap Inland USB keyboard which I'm using currently but will probably replace due to the mushy feel.  It also came with an Inland mouse which I left in the packaging, in favor of the Logitech mouse I already had.  The machine didn't come with a monitor which was fine, I'm using an Acer AL2016W 20" widescreen LCD display that I bought last year.  I'm using the DVI port and it looks good.

The PowerSpec box came with no crapware installed which was a pleasant surpise.  It did include a trial version of ESET NOD32 antivirus which I removed in favor of MS Security Essentials, and also an installer for MS Office 2010 Starter Edition (lobotomized versions of Word and Excel supported by ads).

The machine is quite zippy for my uses: web browsing, light office use, as an SSH client, and to run VMs inside VirtualBox.  I haven't really pounded on the box yet but so far the CPU usage is minimal most of the time and I'm only using about half the 8 GB RAM that's installed in the system.

So far I've created VMs running Ubuntu 10.10 and Windows XP Pro SP3.  I unfortunately need the XP VM to run a VPN client which doesn't work in Windows 7; I hope to lose that particular need in the next few months.  My next VM will probably be Windows 2008 Server R2.

Another use of this box will be for me to evaluate various remote control applications.  I have GoToMyPC, LogMein, and TeamViewer in mind.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Microsoft Office for Mac 2011

Sunday night my work email account got migrated from an Exchange 2003 server to a bright, shiny, new Exchange 2010 box.  One downside to this is that WebDAVS access is no longer supported, so Monday morning I had to upgrade Entourage 2008 to Entourage 2008 Web Services Edition.  This went pretty smoothly.

In general I've been pretty pleased with Office 2008.  I'm a light user of Word and Excel, and a very light user of PowerPoint (i.e., I only open up PPT when I can't avoid it).  My primary app in Office was Entourage for my email and calendar.  With WebDAVS enabled I was able to securely check my email without having to use our VPN.  Compared with Outlook on Windows, Entourage's support for shared calendaring is somewhat lacking.  Also, I was unable to search our Global Address Book without either being on the corporate network or being VPNed in.

Monday afternoon in the day I got access to Office 2011 and installed it on my MacBook Pro.  The biggest change between 2008 and 2011 is that Entourage has been replaced by Outlook, an application missing from the Mac since Office 2001, IIRC.

Back before I moved to a Mac for my primary platform, I loathed Outlook on Windows.   In prior positions I've supported Outlook 97, 98, and 2000.  I've used those versions as well as 2002 (AKA Outlook XP).  For me it was always a slow, buggy app with an interface I didn't particularly like.

But so far Outlook 2011 is mostly working well.  We've noticed one bug when trying to schedule meetings when a participant is still on the Exchange 2003 server.  Specifically, the times shown on that person's calendar will be off by an hour.  Until everyone is migrated I'll just use Outlook Web Mail for scheduling meetings.

One thing I thought was interesting was that Office 2011 installed alongside 2008.  This is a very good feature, allowing easy rollback.  The Office for Mac team also did a good job with the migration features for Entourage to Outlook.  Outlook imported my Entourage profile seamlessly, including the server configuration and account info.  It took about 10 minutes to import my profile and setup connectivity to the server.

Outlook allows me to search our Global Address List remotely even if I'm not VPNed in.  This will be nice.

Another feature greatly anticipated by many people wanting to switch from Windows but stuck because they rely on Outlook was the lack of an easy way to migrate emails from Outlook .PST files.  Well, Outlook 2011 can read .PSTs, though it stores messages, contacts, etc. in a different format.  This will be useful for a few of my coworkers.

As for the interface, either the Outlook Mac interface is greatly improved cf. the last version I used on Windows, or my reaction to it has mellowed.  It's actually pretty decent.  Likewise, the rest of the Office apps share the "ribbon" interface introduced with Office 2007.  A lot of folks hated the ribbon but I actually like it.  So far I haven't used either Excel or Word very much so I don't know how they'll compare with the 2008 versions.

I'll post follow ups if I run into any weirdness.

Firefox 4 Beta 6

Today I installed Firefox 4 Beta 6 on my MacBook Pro and a Dell Precision Workstation running Windows 7 Enterprise.

My initial impressions are favorable.  The user interface has been revised and is now somewhat Google Chromeish.  The default toolbars are minimalist and tabs are displayed on top the address bar, rather than below it.  I prefer having the tabs below the address bar so I'm happy to see that it remains an option.

Compared with Firefox 3.6, FF4B6 seems to load pages faster on both OS 10.6 and Win7.  This may in part be due to some of my extensions not being supported in FF4 yet.  However, FF4 is supposed to offer speed improvements.

I used FF4B6 for most of the day and didn't run into any noticeable issues.  We'll see how it goes with more use but so far I'm pleased with it.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Dropbox on Android Phones

A few months ago I mentioned that I started using Dropbox for backing up some of my critical files, and syncronizing them between my MacBook Pro and my MSI Wind netbook.  I recently installed the Dropbox application on my Droid and was impressed with it this morning.

Using my Droid, I took a picture of a screen to record a firmware revision.  I figured that I would then email it to myself.  Instead, when I went into the Droid's picture gallery and selected the "Share" menu, not only was I given the opportunity to send it via email, MMS, Facebook, Twitter or Picasa, but to add it to my Dropbox.  I chose Dropbox and by the time I was back at my desk, the photo was in my Mac's Dropbox folder.  Compared with email or MMS, this eliminates the steps of addressing and sending an email.  And it's certainly more convenient than digging out a USB cable to connect the phone to my computer.

A basic 2 GB account is free but if you refer someone you'll get an extra 250 MB of space, up to 8 GB total.  You can also get a free 250 MB by 5 of the 6 tasks listed in the "Getting Started" tab viewable when you login to your Dropbox account on the web.

{Blantant self promotion.}If you're interested in this sort of product and want to try Dropbox, please click on my referral link, here.  I could use a little more space.{/Blatant self promotion.}

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Monster Hunter Vendetta

The mailman just brought my copy of Larry Correia's latest release, Monster Hunter Vendetta, the follow up to his debut novel Monster Hunter International.  I'm expecting MHV to kick as much ass as MHI.

Now, off to the back porch with some port, a cigar and MHV.  Any productivity for the rest of this afternoon is highly unlikely.

Update 10/13/10:

Monster Hunter Vendetta rocks.  I liked it even better than MHI.  Great villain, some extremely funny comic relief, and it sets up future books in the series.  If you like guns and monsters, buy it now.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Range Day

We had a beautiful Fall day here in SE Pennsylvania today, and I got to spend it at the range.

I brought three rifles with me: an Arsenal SA M5 AK, Century Arms VZ-2008 Sporter (VZ-58 clone), and a Century Arms C93 Sporter (HK-93 clone).

I've had the SA M5 for several years.  It is an AK with a milled receiver, made in Bulgaria, and chambered for 5.56x45mm.  I needed to zero the rifle, since I had recently reinstalled the original rear sight in place of a Mojo peep rear sight.  I also wanted to test out two new 30 round magazines and a CNC Warrior flash hider.

As expected the rifle shot well although I did have one misfeed with an older 20 round mag.  The new 30 rounders worked fine, as did the flash hider.  The rifle originally came with a muzzle brake, which I'd replaced for awhile with a Bulgarian 24mm flash hider mounted via a 14mm to 24mm adapter.  That added too much weight to the muzzle, so I replaced it with the CNC Warrior Norinco Type 84-style flash hider.

The ammo I shot in the Arsenal was Prvi Partizan (PPU) 55 grain M193 Ball.  In my experience, PPU makes quality ammo.  I was able to keep my 100 yard groups about the size of the bull on an SR-1 target.  The rifle should be able to do better but for me the open sights with a short sight radius is the limiting factor.  However, one of these days I'll have to try some ammo with heavier bullets, since the rifle has a 1:7" twist, which should shoot well with bullets up to 77 grains.

I bought the VZ-2008 a couple years ago.  It's based on the Czech VZ-58 assault rifle but of course semiauto-only.  My initial experience with the VZ-2008 was problematic.  The receiver is parkerized and the finish was bit thick, so much that the first time I had it out to the range I had to "mortar" the rifle open after about half the shots.  Since then, I've smoothed out the rifle's innards by polishing them with Flitz and putting a few hundred rounds through the gun.  When I last shot it a couple months ago it ran fine.

Today I put 60 rounds -- two full magazines -- through the VZ-2008 and had no malfs.  The last time I shot the VZ, the stock was really whacking my cheek, so I decided to see if installing a muzzle brake would help.  CNC Warrior makes a copy of the Czech military brake, so I ordered one last month.

The new brake definitely lessens recoil and muzzle flip.  As expected, it greatly increases muzzle blast.  Overall though, I find the rifle more pleasant to shoot with the brake so it's staying on the gun.  It did affect the rifle's zero, dropping the 100 yard point of impact by about a foot.  I didn't really have time left at the range to futz with the sights, so rezeroing will wait until my next range trip with the rifle.

As with the Arsenal AK, my usable accuracy with the VZ-2008 is limited by the open rear sight and short sight radius.  I got about 6" groups at 100 yards.

The VZ-58 is a neat rifle, often mistaken for a Kalashnikov.  They look similar but the only thing the VZ shares with an AK-47 or AKM is the chambering, 7.62x39.  Nothing else is interchangeable, including the magazines, unfortunately.

The VZ has a milled receiver but weighs about as much as most stamped receiver AKs.

The AK uses a long stroke gas piston operation, while the VZ-58 has a short stroke design.  If anything, mechanically, the VZ-58 is closer to the WW2 German STG-44.

Most 7.62x39 AK magazines are made from steel, while the VZ-58 mags are aluminum.  The VZ-58 has a last round bolt hold open and a charger guide on the bolt carrier.  With the bolt locked back and a magazine in the rifle, you can load the mag using SKS stripper clips.  The AK has no last round bolt hold open.

Things did not go as well with the C93, my new HK-93 clone.

Before buying the C93 I'd read up on them on several online forums.  Reports were generally good.  However, I am finding that my rifle is short stroking with every shot.  This turns it into a heavy and awkward straight pull bolt action rifle.

After buying the C93 last week I field stripped and lubricated it, and measured the bolt gap, which was in spec.  I used the same PPU M193 Ball in the C93 as in my Arsenal AK.  I figured if the rifle's mechanism required a break in period it would do better with full 5.56 NATO spec ammo than .223 Remington spec loads, or worse, Wolf steel cased ammo, which is noticeably underloaded.

But even with the PPU M193, the C93 fails to eject empties.  When I manually extract and eject the cases, they looked OK -- no swelling, just the typical sooty striations typical of HK roller locked rifles.  All of the empties, except one, extracted easily.  One empty required a bit more force to extract.

I haven't had the chance to field strip the C93 since returning from the range.  When I do I plan to check for any spots where it appears internal parts might be binding.  I'll also make sure the chamber is clean and will try to see if there are any burs.

Hopefully I'll get to try the C93 again soon.  Next time, I will probably try some Lake City XM-193 Ball, just in case the rifle works better with it.

Functional issues aside, the C93 is extremely pleasant to shoot and seems to be accurate.  Compared with my Colt AR-15A2 Gov't. Carbine or even the Arsenal SA M5, the C93 is heavy.  Also, in my experience the HK roller locking system soaks up a lot of recoil.  To me, the C93 has even less felt recoil than an M1 Carbine.  If the C93 doesn't start functioning OK the next time I try it, I'll have to send it back to Century to get fixed.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Some Mac Consulting Today

This morning I went over to a client's home to do some work on his Macs.

He has an older Intel iMac which was still running OS 10.4 Tiger.  He was without a backup system for it, so the last time I was there I recommended he upgrade it to OS 10.6 Snow Leopard and getting a USB hard disk to setup as a Time Machine drive.

The first thing I did after arriving was to connect the Western Digital Elements 640 GB USB drive, copy over the Documents, Desktop, Pictures, and iTunes folders.  (It's a bad idea to upgrade an OS without first backing up all of your data.  Upgrades often go awry.)  Once everything copied over, which took about 40 minutes, I popped in the Snow Leopard disk and rebooted into the OS X installer.

After about 45 minutes the iMac was upgraded to OS 10.6.3, so I then ran Software Update and grabbed the 10.6.4 update, along with several other updates.  This took another 20 minutes or so.

With that squared away I reconnected the WD hard disk and configured Time Machine to use it as a backup disk.

While the iMac was getting backed up before the upgrade I took a look at his Mac Mini.

The Mini had been setup to do Time Machine backups to a Western Digital My Book external drive via FireWire 800.  It looks like the drive is toast, since when I was there a couple weeks ago I'd reformatted it.  Time Machine worked OK for about 4 days then started failing.  Today, it kept crashing the Finder when I connected it.  I even connected it to my MacBook Pro and reformatted it, but it still gave errors.  He's going to try to return it and get another USB or FireWire disk.

Finally, while there I also installed a hand-me-up 8 GB iPod Touch from his daughter to the Mini, and upgraded the firmware from 3.x to 4.1.

Not a bad way to spend a few hours and make some extra money.