Get an Image 0

When you go online, visual experiences are some of the most powerful. Video speaks louder than audio alone. Blog postings with pictures tend to have a better impact on readers than text alone.

This holds true to your profiles as well. As you can see on my own home page, I have an icon image that I use for my online profiles. Mine was done for me by a web-comic artist (Woody Hearn of GUcomics.com) and wasn’t free, so not everyone will be able to have this kind of profile picture set up for them. That’s not to say you can’t have anything!

Even if you’re not paying for someone to make a profile picture for you, that’s no excuse for having the default “person” or “egg” icons that services like Twitter and Facebook provide. You need to change the default profile image to something that represents you, as soon as you can.

Now, this doesn’t mean you have to draw it yourself, or even use a real photo if you’re uncomfortable doing so. You just need to get something in there that is not the default icon that brands you as a new user.

For example, the image at the top of this post was created by John Kovalic (who writes Dork Tower, another online comic). He did it to show just how easy it is to create simple, but powerful user icons without a lot of technical expertise.

Here’s a few more of his icons – that he’s made available to anyone who wants to use them, free of charge:

With just a few clicks in some simple graphics programs (that you most likely already have free of charge on your PC or Mac) you can create a cute, funny icon that is clearly not the “default user” graphic.

So why don’t you want the default icon?

1 – it brands you as a “newbie” – a person who just started and has no clue what they’re doing. Even if that’s true, you probably don’t want the world to know that if you can avoid it =)

2 – It’s unprofessional. If you’re using Social Media for your job, the last thing you want is others discounting your opinion because you didn’t change the default user icon.

3 – Spammers use the defaults. Spammers create dozens of spam accounts at once, therefore they tend to not even bother to change the icon (after all, the accounts are going to get blocked pretty quickly). If you keep the default icons, many folks will instantly suspect you of being a spammer.

So get an image! Build it, buy it, or borrow it (make sure you have permission to do so, though).

Photo Credit: John Kovalic

Why You Should Not Auto-DM on Follow 0

I’m noticing more and more of this lately, and figure it’ll make a good topic for my first “Do’s and Don’ts” column.

Many folks – even those who have been working with Social Media for a good amount of time – will DM every new follower on Twitter with a message. Usually it’s a “thank you” with a request to follow them on other networks.

I’m very much against this for a few reasons:

1 – Twitter is about public conversation and social sharing. Yes, there are some times you need to DM a person. Usually it’s to give out an email address or phone number or some other information you don’t want the world seeing. Links to your Facebook profile and fan page are *not* private information.

2 – It’s annoying. Most of us get DM’s on our mobile phones or via email in addition to our Twitter clients. That means that I’ve got alerts going off to tell me that you’re looking for me to follow you on Facebook.

3 – It’s useless. The vast majority of people I know will specifically NOT follow you anywhere else, and many will immediately un-follow you on Twitter, for doing this. In other words, you’ve done the exact opposite of what you were trying to do with the DM.

Now, this isn’t to say you shouldn’t say hi to your followers. You absolutely should! But do it with an @Reply instead of a DM. This allows more than just your new followers to find you on other networks, and opens a public conversation, instead of a private message.

You’ll note that if you try to send the same message (e.g. “Thanks, follow me here and here and here, too!”) to dozens of people, Twitter will stop you. They’ll attempt to keep you from posting the identical message to multiple people, and lock you out as a spammer if you keep trying.

So, if it’s not acceptable to send a message to each person in an @Reply, why would you do it in DM’s, where you’re being annoying in addition to getting flagged as a spammer?

Talk to your followers, share that someone followed you with your network, share your other networks with your Twitter followers. Just reserve DM’s for their intended purpose – sending one person information that you don’t want the entire world to hear.

Photo Credit: brainware3000

Please Standby 0

Howdy all. Due to some technical difficulties, I had to revamp the site. The content you’ve come to know and love will be back shortly!

Linux is coming to Azure 0

Well, Microsoft has been busy while we were all enjoying the holidays!

For those who aren’t in the know about Windows Azure, that’s the name that Microsoft has given to its nascent Cloud platform. Right now, the only publicly available components are SQL Azure and Azure Storage, which host SQL databases and cloud-based data storage, respectively.

Over the last couple of weeks, however, Redmond has announced that the upcoming Azure VM Role will support many other applications that can run in a Windows 2008 R2 Virtual Machine – which was expected – and also Linux Virtual Machines. This last bit was quite unexpected to many, but a welcome holiday gift from Microsoft.

Mary Jo Foley broke the news, and has a great write-up of the potential Azure VM structures, in her article from January 2nd.

Azure is going head to head with major cloud service providers like Amazon (AWS, EC2, etc.) and RackSpace; so offering Linux capabilities is a welcome move. Without Linux support, Azure was risking becoming a niche platform that would only be useful for basic Windows operations and Microsoft SQL databases.

Azure VM will be based on the Windows Hyper-V technology platform, extending that platform into the cloud. Today, Hyper-V and Hyper-V Server are slowly gaining ground in the corporate datacenter, but have not fared well against the major players like VMware. Since most cloud rollouts will be net-new implementations, Microsoft has a much better chance of becoming a large fish in a small pond by rolling out a solid Infrastructure as a Service (Iaas) platform with the Azure VM initiative, joining the Application as a Service and Database as a Service platforms already in Azure.

Now, there’s no official release date for the Azure VM Role, but it is in beta as I write this, so it does look like it will be launching at some point this year. How much of an impact Microsoft makes in the Cloud world is still to be seen. But, with the addition of multiple OS support, Azure just took one giant leap toward becoming a major player in the cloud space.

On the Subject of Bloat 0

VM’s take up space. They use resources like RAM and CPU cycles when they’re online, and they use up storage no matter if they’re online or not. As VM infrastructures get bigger and bigger, so does the amount of resources that they consume.

In the modern datacenter, this has contributed to a theory called bloat, where VM resources balloon larger and larger over time. In many cases, this bloat isn’t being caused by active resources, and that’s where problems can occur quickly.

As VM’s are provisioned and used, the active resources they take up are necessary for the VM system itself to function. You have 10 servers that each use about 50GB of disk, 2 processor cores and 4GB of RAM, etc. The problems start when those servers are no longer needed.

You upgrade to a new CRM system. The old CRM system’s VM’s are – of course – shut down after the migration. As usual for any updated system, the old system is kept dormant for a period of time, just in case you have to either go back to it, or retrieve data that didn’t make it through the migration process for some reason.

Now it’s six months later, and the old system is all but forgotten about. But the VM’s that made up that old system are still there. Since they’re not physical machines, and since they’re not using RAM and CPU power, it is all to easy to simply forget they exist and leave them on the VM hosts that they formerly ran on. That means that a set of storage is not useable, because it’s being held by the – now-non-functioning – CRM system VM’s.

As more applications go through this life-cycle, more dormant VM’s are left sitting on the VM hosts, eating up more and more space and other resources (VM network ports, etc).

So, a few times a year, go through all the dormant VM’s and make sure they really need to be on the VM systems at all. If they don’t, clear out the space (after taking a backup, of course) and free it up for other systems within your active pool of VM’s.

There will always be some dormant VM’s that need to stick around for various reasons, but any that do not need to remain on the VM hosts are doing nothing but sapping space and taking up time during maintenance runs.

Dealing with bloat effectively can mean the difference between having a smooth running system with plenty of space, and having to buy a new storage device because you ran out of room for no valid reason.

One of the Big Boys Reminds Us They’re Still Here 0

It’s true that many of us consider VMware and Microsoft and Citrix to be the parents of virtualization technology, but those of us who have been in the digital world for some time know that they’re standing on the shoulders of giants.

This week IBM announced that they would begin supporting Windows applications and instances within the zSeries mainframe platform.

Now, there isn’t a lot of information contained in the press release as to how they will do it, but if IBM follows form as they have in the past, it will be a Windows-capable card in a zSeries chassis. That means that they zSeries (which runs Z/OS) will be able to manage and at least partially control Windows servers that use system resources housed within the zSeries itself.

The mid-tier platform from IBM – the iSeries AS/400 systems – can already do this, using a hybrid virtualization approach. The physical hardware that the Windows OS installs to is a card that sits within an iSeries chassis, but all other resources are contained within and managed by the AS/400 platform itself in much the same was a physical network interfaces, volumes and other resources are presented to a hypervisor-based VM instance.

Since the release refers to the zSeries Windows capabilities as “hybrid,” it may very well mean we’ll see the same approach to OS virtualization on that platform as well.

It may not be the hypervisor systems we’re used to calling “virtual” these days, but IBM has been doing it for longer, and doing it with a greater degree of stability, than modern approaches.

Just goes to show that as soon as standards are developed, someone will come in an prove that one definition cannot cover an entire topic.

Permissions repair, even if you use Full Disk Encryption 0

Not all that long ago, I laid out directions for doing a Permissions Repair of Mac OS X Snow Leopard. With Lion, Apple introduced Full Disk Encryption (FDE), which makes the process slightly more complicated.

Of course, you can still open Disk Utility (in the Utilities folder in Applications), and choose to Repair Disk Permissions that way. It works well, and isn’t a bad way to do routine maintenance once a week or so, but it doesn’t fix every one of the various permissions errors that crop up through normal use.

That’s because running Repair Disk Permissions from *inside* the booted OS will mean that some permissions cannot be altered (the files are in use, locked, etc.). Again, normally, this isn’t an issue, as those permissions won’t cause slowdowns or hiccups under normal circumstances.

But what happens if you notice that your Mac is acting slower than usual, apps are malfunctioning, etc.? First, check the usual suspects. Does the app need to be reinstalled? Will a reboot (first unchecking the window persistence checkbox) fix the problem? If not, then you should do a full permission repair.

First, print out this post, because you’re going to have to boot into Recovery Mode, and that means you won’t be able to get online to read the rest of the instructions.

Next, reboot your Mac, holding down the CMD and R keys from the moment the system starts (you hear the start-up BONG sound) until you see the status spinner on the white-background startup screen. Once you see the spinner, let go of the CMD and R keys.

This will boot you into Recovery Mode. If you have FDE enabled, it will also ask you to unlock the volume with your usual password. You’ll then see the spinner again, and within a few moments the Recovery Options wizard will pop up. Choose Disk Utilities and click Continue.

Once Disk Utilities is open, and if you’re using FDE, go to File in the Menu Bar and select Unlock Disk diskname – where diskname is the name of the hard drive that contains your Mac OS system. You will need to provide your normal Administrator password to unlock the volume.

In the Disk Utilities window, click on the disk/partition where Mac OS is installed (not the physical volume name, just the partition name) and then click Repair File Permissions in the lower portion of the right-hand window. After that, all you need to do is wait.

You will nearly always see several permissions being fixed, this is perfectly normal and does not indicate that anything bad or malicious has been going on. Normal OS operations occasionally cause permissions to get set incorrectly, and this process fixes those errors.

Once the process is done, you can simply restart your machine from the Apple Menu and boot up normally.

You’ll find that a permissions repair can help to correct a lot of strange issues that you might be seeing on your Mac, so doing this once a month or so is not a bad idea at all.

One important note, I have found that using a 3rd-Party keyboard is not a good idea for this process. My keyboard (a Microsoft Natural Keyboard) doesn’t seem to be recognized by Mac OS when a boot is happening, so I can’t hold down CMD and R. Any of the Apple keyboards (bluetooth and wired alike) seem to work just fine, so I keep one handy just in case.

Traveling with a Mac 0

‘Tis the season for traveling. Christmas, Chanukah, the Winter Solstice, doesn’t matter why you’re going from here to there, but chances are you’re doing some going. Chances are, you’re also taking along some form of mobile computing device, and for many of us, that means a laptop.

So what are some things to keep in mind when traveling with your trusty MacBook, MacBook Pro or MacBook Air?

✈ Battery life is good, but still short. Even the newer MacBook Air models can only go about 5-8 hours on a charge, less for the more power-hungry MacBook Pros. If you’re on a really long flight, especially if you’re watching movies or doing other high-disk-activity actions, you’re going to need a power solution. There are some battery bricks sold on online retailers that you can plug a regular plug into, but always double-check to make sure they’re safe with your country’s power specifications. Also check with your airline to see if they’re allowed on the plane – you’d be surprised.

Some planes also offer power, but it may not be through a standard type of outlet. Be sure to check with your airline to see what kind of adapter you’ll need.

✈ Portable isn’t always small. While a MacBook Air will easily slip into the seat pocket in front of you, that 2002 17″ MacBook Pro will definitely need to go under your seat or in the overhead.

✈ Even without moving parts, it’s still an Electronic Device according to the FAA. You will need to make sure your gear is turned off for takeoffs and landings. You’ll also need to make sure to remove it from your carry-on and place it in a bin to go through the security screening. This goes for iPads too, at least at many airports around the US.

✈ Bring power adapters. If you’re traveling internationally, you’re going to need a power adapter. Apple sells lots of different power supplies for different countries, or you can purchase compatible adapters at most electronics stores and online.

✈ Bring a USB charger. Portable Macs are famous for a lack of USB ports. You don’t want to use up a port just to charge a gizmo, so bring either a USB hub (self-powered or fully USB powered, but not “unpowered”), or a USB charger. There’s lots of chargers to choose from, some come with mats to kep your gear from moving around, others are just unconnected USB hubs that offer power, but that’s it.

✈ Get a case or sleeve. You spent a ton of cash on that shiny, aluminum portable. Spend a few more bucks and get a good case or sleeve to keep it in. Even in your carry-on, it’s going to get bumped around a little, and you really can’t get dents out of that unibody aluminum frame, no matter how hard you try.

Finally, if you want to be everyone’s friend while you travel, pick up a small, portable power-strip. I have one that turns a single power outlet into three, and has two additional USB ports for charging through. I have to tell you, when I plug that thing into an airport or coffee-shop wall outlet, I’m suddenly EVERYONE’S friend!

Of course, you can also take the train whenever possible. It takes longer, but there are outlets at most seats and you can stretch out more. Either way, travel smart, travel safe, and enjoy the holiday season!

Is that drive really bad? 0

External hard drives can be funny things. Sometimes, they’ll throw up errors for no apparent reason, and sometimes those reasons – though not immediately apparent – will destroy your data.

So how do you tell the difference between the occasional USB connection hiccup and the imminent failure of a hard drive?

Natively, it’s a bit difficult, but doable. Internal drives have S.M.A.R.T. monitoring software, but USB drives can rarely use that form of monitoring, so troubleshooting is much more complex. All Mac OS installations have a suite of disk tools installed by default in the Utilities folder, and you can start there.

In the Utilities folder, open Disk Utility and click the hard drive in question in the left-hand column. Note that there are disks and volumes. Disks are hardware devices that hold volumes. Volumes are sections of a disk that contain data. Even when you’re creating a disk with only one volume, it still holds a volume (the volume just takes up all useable space on that disk).

Once you click on the disk, you’ll notice that most of the right-hand section of Disk Utility is greyed out, but the key tools are available here. Click First Aid, and then click Verify Disk. This will do a check across the disk to make sure that there are no major errors, and report back if everything is ok, or something looks wrong.

If you do find some issues, you can try using Repair Disk to fix them. If the error is logical (i.e. not a physical fault on the drive itself), this option can often fix the problem and get you back to normal. As always, try to back up everything off the drive before you begin. Repair Disk is meant to be as non-invasive as possible, but it can and WILL overwrite data if it finds errors.

If the Verify comes up clean, but you’re still having problems, then there could be a physical issue going on. They come in two flavors: minor hardware hiccups and bad sectors/blocks.

Hardware hiccups can be caused by a lot of things. Check that the power supply is firmly plugged in first. I know this sounds stupid, but you’d be amazed how many times I thought an external USB drive was dying, but in reality it was just that the power cable came loose and was shutting off the drive every few minutes.

Also make sure that all cables are security seated both at the drive and on the Mac itself. I have found on more than one occasion that a USB cable worked itself lose at either the drive or hub end. Of course, checking to make sure the USB hub is working – if you use one – is also a good idea. Try plugging other devices into the hub and looking for errors or problems.

If the hardware seems ok, but you still have issues, then it’s possible that a block or sector on the drive has gone bad. This is rare these days, as most internal and external drives will automatically mark a bad sector and simply not use it anymore, but bad sectors/blocks can indeed still cause havoc if the drive doesn’t – for whatever reason – realize they’re actually bad.

Try copying everything from the drive to another drive or set of drives if you can. If there is a bad block or sector, this process will result in the drive un-mounting itself with no warning. Power the drive off and back on, and move on to the next section. If that process works, copy everything back to the drive. If both operations succeeded, but you still get other odd behavior or other problems, then the drive is most likely failing and should be replaced.

If you do have a bad block or sector and the system dropped the drive but it came back online, you may need a new drive, but there’s still a chance you can get around it. Back up everything you can off the drive. I can’t stress that enough, because we’re about to wipe the thing clean. Copy everything you possibly can off of the disk to other storage before proceeding. That means copying everything you can off ALL volumes on that hard drive, even those that seem ok. You have been warned.

Back in Disk Utility select the drive (not the volume) that you want to attempt to fix. Go to Erase, and near the bottom click the Security Options button. Move the slider to the first position away from “Fastest” on Lion, which will show text stating that the system will write zeros over all data on disk. On Snow Leopard, chose the Zero Out or 1-Pass option. Click OK.

Click the Erase button, and read the warning that comes up carefully! This will totally destroy all data on the hard drive, and consumer data-recovery tools will be unable to get it back. Make triple-sure you have the right drive and that you backed up everything you could.

As the Erase operation goes through the process, it writes zeros to each bit on the disk. This will force any bad blocks and sectors to be recognized on write, and hopefully flagged as bad so they won’t be used anymore.

If that process works without errors, then you can use the disk again. If the Erase operation fails, then the disk has indeed gone bad, and must be replaced.

Since disk errors can happen without warning, keeping regular backups is the only true way to be sure you can always get to your data. If there is a problem, you can troubleshoot, but sometimes disks die, and only a backup can get you back up and running.

What is CAPTCHA? 0

Spam is a major issue on social networks, blogs and forums these days. Spammers have even resorted to hiring “human bots” to troll websites and post comments and postings just to get their site links a bit higher on search engine results.

To try to combat the problem, many sites have resorted to CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart). This technology is simply the use of some manual test that a human being would have no issues passing, but a computer would be unable to complete correctly.

Generally speaking, the test takes the form of a series of letters and numbers that are rendered as a graphic (like in the picture above). A human has no issue typing the letters on the screen, but a computer can’t, since the computer only “sees” the image as an image, not as a series of characters.

The test gets its name from the work of Alan Turing, a computer scientist who spent a great deal of his life trying to figure out if a machine could ever think exactly like a human. The result of that work helped win World War II (he helped build the Ultra machine used to break the German ENIGMA code generator system); and also helped create a series of tests to see how “human-like” machines could get.

The so-called “Turing Test” is still used today against advanced computer systems. A human operator sits in an isolated room and sends a series of questions to both another human and to a computer. The operator then tries to determine which is the human and which is the computer based on the reactions, responses and answers they get from both subjects. If the operator cannot correctly identify the computer, it is said to have passed the test.

And so, in order to try to weed out automated computer systems trying to post spam to blogs, networks and forums, tech professionals often implement CATPCHA tests to block them.

While the idea is great in theory, the benefits to CAPTCHA are severely limited by several factors these days:

– Spammers are hiring human beings in depressed economies to answer CAPTCHA tests and post nonsense to forums and blogs, bypassing the test for a few cents per dozen posts.

– People with visual disabilities (such as being legally blind or color blind) have issues passing the tests. This is either because the CAPTCHA provider didn’t include an audible test with the visual one, or because the CAPTCHA itself is in non-contrasting colors that are difficult to read for someone who is color blind.

– The CAPTCHA’s themselves have become so intricate and complex that real humans can’t answer them correctly either. I’ve seen math problems, characters so twisted around they’re unreadable, so many intersecting lines that you can’t read the characters, etc.

– Computer systems are getting complex enough that they can actually pass the CAPTCHA.

While you will still see CAPTCHA on many websites, and while they still have some use in the overall war on spam, you should probably avoid forcing a CAPTCHA test for your blog or website.

Instead, require administrator interaction before a blog comment can go live, require registration before a forum can be posted to, and use other techniques that will help keep spammers away from your postings. Many content management systems (such as WordPress) allow you to permit those who’s comments you have allowed in the past to post without having to get permission each time; for example.

If you find a CAPTCHA that is unreadable, unusable, or both; let the site administrator know that they need to fix it or remove it.

Photo Credit: plindberg