This isn’t a real blog post. Rather, it’s a quickie digital Christmas card from me and my family to you and yours. Let me briefly extend the best wishes of the season to one and all, with hopes that everybody has their wishes fulfilled, and at least one pleasant surprise to digest. This goes double for the small people, who tend to take Christmas far more seriously and much more to heart than we big folks do.
And of course, I hope everybody gets his or her fair share of treats and sweets today, with access to friends, family, and all the good cheer you can stand. Thanks also to everyone for helping make this blog a success, and for your many excellent comments and insights. Once again: best of this festive season to one and all.
— Ed and Gregory (pictured above), plus Dina (who makes it all happen and keeps it worthwhile) Tittel
Anybody who’s followed this blog for any length of time knows that I’ve fought my battles with both Vista and Windows 7, in terms of making my production PC stable and reliable. Today, I’m very happy to report that my production machine has finally achieved and held a 10.0 Stability Index for at least three days at a time, and that the latest hiccup in my reliability and problem history is my own fault: I neglected to hook up my USB keyboard after swapping in some new system components recently, and was forced to shut Windows down as a result (on 12/10/2009 as shown in the following screenshot):
Here’s what I had to do to get myself into this situation of relative calm and proper operation:
- Troubleshoot the Dell AIO 968 printer’s default behavior to install itself as an XPS print device rather than as a native print device (this forces all print documents to be reformatted into an XML format, which the printer can output, but which also caused the Print Filter Pipeline Service, aka printfilterpiplineservice.exe, to crash regularly and repeatedly).
- Switch from Spyware Doctor with Antivirus to Norton Internet Security 2010 (to quell repeated daily crashes of the pctsSvc.exe notification tray program for the former program, after trying unsuccessfully to get the nice folks at PC Tools to help me solve the problem over a period of 30 days).
- Clean up my MS Office 2007 installation (which involved replacing an older PPT Viewer application with a newer version at Secunia PSI’s recommendation, then applying nearly a dozen Windows Update files that appeared in response to this change). This solved some repeated issues with Word and Outlook that had been entirely mysterious up to that point.
- Avoid installing toy or test progams on my production PC. As somebody who writes about software and utilities a lot, I’ve had to learn to resist the temptation to install them on a production PC, and to install them on a test machine instead — preferably within a VM so that they can’t mess up my test machine’s runtime environment, either.
- Groom the drivers on the production PC to make sure they’re all current, correct, and working well with Windows 7. For that purpose, I’ve used Phoenix Technologies’ DriverAgent Web site and my own ever-increasing understanding of how to fiddle with Windows device drivers. It usually takes me a month or so following a new OS install or system build to get everything working to my complete satisfaction.
To see what I was dealing with, here’s the Windows 7 Reliability Monitor’s graph from the day I installed Windows 7 RTM on my production PC (8/9/09) to today (12/22/09) where you can see my many and literal “ups and downs” in getting this system working properly:
I thought I had things licked the week of August 30, but found out the next week that I needed to alter the default configuration from installing the Dell AIO 968 printer drivers, then had to canoodle my way through the other issues mentioned in the preceding list until mid November. Everything else since then has been self-inflicted, and is part of my normal pattern of Windows system behavior: keep things running, make the occasional mistake or a change that alters stability for the worse, diagnose it, fix it, and keep on keeping on.
[Note: For the benefit of the sharp-eyed and incurably curious, the glitch that appears on 12/9/09 in the first screencap in this blog resulted from cancelling a hung Windows Explorer operation when I attempted to perform a search while the indexer was active. Rather than wait for the indexer conclude its operation and then complete the search I used Task Manager to shut the running instance down. This cost me a trivial 0.02 stability index points, but still shows up as an application failure glitch even though it makes no visible impact on the stability graph.]
I subscribe to lots of Microsoft email newsletters, including the Technet Flash. This morning I found the latest issue in my inbox when I logged onto my machine. And although this newsletter doesn’t always deliver an overflowing cornucopia of goodies, it usually contains at least one or two items worth digging into more deeply. This morning, however, I found an embarassment of riches that I imagine lots of readers will find worth chasing down:
- Windows 7 Tip of the Day: daily nuggets of information on how to make better use of the Windows 7 environment and its capabilities. There are numerous interesting items available here, with more to come on a daily basis.
- MS Office 2010 Deployment tools: links to an Office Environment Assessment Tool that can scan your current Office capabilities, and provide advice on how to prepare for Office 2010 migration. Also an Office 2010 Compability Inspector that can measure existing Office apps up against the 2010 object model to point out potential conflicts.
- Links to a virtual lab for Deploying Windows 7 Using the Win7 WAIK to help IT professionals better understand and learn how to use its OS deployment capabilities.
- Pointers to some useful Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP) resources, including the MDOP Zone where you can learn more about all kinds of MDOP capabilitis, and a recitation of the Top 7 Pain Points that MDOP Can Address.
And if you want to get similar info in your inbox from time to time, please login to the MS Web site, and sign up for you own regular delivery!
Yesterday, I delivered the eulogy at my Mom’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery where she was interred with full military honors, including a funeral service, a procession to the gravesite with horse-drawn caisson and marching band, and a deeply moving interment ceremony with the flag folding and expressions of gratitude for my Mom’s service to her country from a representative from the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The ceremony itself was impressive enough, but the level of appreciation conveyed by the nearly 50 uniformed military personnel involved was even more impressive. As I spoke with the Monseignor who delivered the funeral service and the gravesite ceremony for Mom, he told me “We have 32 funeral services to perform today. I’m sorry, but we can give you only four minutes to help us all remember your Mom.” And indeed as we moved through the cemetery I saw at least three or perhaps four other services underway and I assume the honor guards from the various service branches stay busy all day, every day. I can’t express my appreciation for the honor paid to my Mom any more than I already have.
Here’s how I used my four minutes:
Hello. My name is Ed Tittel, and I’m here to talk about my Mom. Let me start by thanking all the friends and family here for this ceremony.
Why are we here today? Let’s try two important things: to remember, and to celebrate. We’re going to hang onto all that we have left of Cecilia Katherine Kociolek Tittel by remembering what we can of her life, and we’re going to celebrate because she made the world a better place by her passage through it.
As her son, I see this woman as a very special person—my Mom—but as a student of humanity I also see that she filled many roles throughout her life. First child, then parent, then finally grandparent. Also, daughter, sister, wife, and friend. Professionally, she was a student, then a student nurse, a registered nursing professional, a military nurse, a school nurse, and finally, a private duty nurse.
Here are the things I remember best and most fondly about my Mom, Cecilia K. Tittel:
- A tremendous zest for life, with a strong appetite for new place, people, and experiences. She always loved to travel, and visited as much of the world as she possibly could.
- A fabulous cook and entertainer with a great ability to put people at ease and to fill them up with choice food and drink. Most of what I learned about food and hospitality came from her.
- A person with a great sense of humor and a love of the absurd, who delighted not just in jokes and wordplay, but also in clowning around and horseplay as well. I remember some of the crazy head gear and socks she would don for Christmas, and all I can do is laugh.
- The years we spent as a family in Germany, mostly in Heidelberg, still bring back sweet memories of travel year around to interesting places, never-ending activities, and spending time with friends and family. In many ways, I think that period represents her “good old days” as well.
How can you say goodbye to someone who’s been a part of your life since the day you were born? In my case, I say it reverently, and sadly, and with some relief that the pain and confusion that Mom suffered during her final years is finally over. I’m sorry she’s gone, but I will always be glad that I knew her and that she exercised so much influence on my life and outlook. I imagine each one of you here can say something similar. I hope you’ll join me in wishing her well and in saying “So long, it’s been good to know ya.”
That’s it for today’s blog, as I continue to remember Mom and celebrate her life with my family in northern Virginia.
For the past 5 years, Microsoft has made a policy of releasing non-emergency patches and security fixes on the first Tuesday of the month. The idea is to limit the frequency and standardize the interval at which organizations — especially, larger ones that must pick up, test, and decide whether or not to deploy these things within their in-house infrastructures — must deal with changes and additions to Microsoft operating systems, platforms, and applications. It’s a good idea, and a useful way to help manage the ceaseless flow of patches, fixes, and changes to an always-shifting software landscape.
TechRepublic blogger Justin James makes an interesting observation in his “It’s Microsoft Patch Tuesday: December 2009” blog, however. He observes quite correctly that Microsoft has started to release some of its security patches labeled as “nonsecurity patches” which flies in the face of group policy or Windows Server Update Server (WSUS) settings to push critical security updates quickly onto corporate networks, while moving other updates thorugh a more measured test and deploy cycle. Any time labeling is incorrect, automation based on such labeling can fall prey to various errors or failures in deployment as well.
Also, James observes that there has been an increasing tendency for MS to release more patches and updates on the fourth Tuesday of each month, as well as the first Tuesday. A quick look back at the updates that MS has released shows that some update activity has occurred in four out of the past five months on that day of the month — something I hadn’t noticed until James shared that observation.
He admonishes Microsoft to return to their standard practice, and to limit its updates to Patch Tuesday except for critical security updates with potentially damaging or dangerous consequences. I concur. What do you think? Post a comment here, and let me know…
On November 2, 2009, I blogged about the Windows 7 USB DVD Download Tool, then available from the MS Store. In the meantime, a bit of a fracas has erupted around this tool because Microsoft violated the GNU General Public License when it included GPL code in the product but then released that tool under a non-GPL (closed source) license. This is a big legal no-no, so as soon as this came to Microsoft’s attention, they apologized, recast the license to meet GPL requirements, and moved the download over to their CodePlex Open Source site, where the revised version is now once again available for free download.
In the meantime, I confirmed you cannot use the tool to build a Windows XP install DVD. By experiment, I was able to demonstrate to myself that this tool works only with Vista and Windows 7 ISO files. I also discovered an informative blog at Rafael Rivera’s fascinating Website “Rafael’s Within Windows” (worth some exploration over the holidays for those interested in Windows internals and some extra time on their hands). FWIW, Rafael also explains why the tool doesn’t work with some ISO images (including the aforementioned XP ISO) — namely, it checks for certain image elements called Anchor Volume Descriptor Pointers (aka AVDPs) at both the head and tail of the ISO file. The tool checks for an AVDP in both places, and when it doesn’t find both where it expects them to be, it emits the following error screen:
The reason why I already love Rafael, is that he not only points out the problem which may be simply described as a failure to put the tail-end AVDP in the right location in those ISO files the tool won’t handle, he also provides a tool to patch the ISO image so it will work with the Windows 7 USB DVD Download Tool. And, he’s submitted a patch to the CodePlex project for the tool so that this oversight will be fixed in the next upcoming release (whenever that may be: I can’t find any info on this).
So, if you’re going to use this tool, and want to extend its functionality to other ISOs besides Win7 and Vista, grab Rafael’s tool to fix those ISO images so the tool will work properly with those files. Enjoy!
On my home network, I use Secunia Personal Software Inspector (PSI) on all of my Windows machines to make sure they keep up with the latest and greatest updates to the OS, Microsoft Office, and other applications — especially those from Adobe (all kinds of tools and browswer add-ins), Sun (Java), Firefox, and Google (Chrome) all of which have been subject to frequent and sometimes dramatic security updates of late. Lots of companies I know and work with use the business equivalent, Secunia Corporate Software Inspector (aka Secunia CSI) for the same purpose.
Last night, I got a notification to check on my PCs from Secunia, which sends out notification e-mails any time a registered machine’s known software components or OS require updates to maintain proper security. Because yesterday was Patch Tuesday for December, 2009, this came as no surprise at all. What did comes as a surprise this morning when I got around to checking was that a handful of unexpected items popped up in the alert list. I’m pretty serious about fixing such things because ultimately, the goal is to maintain a solid set of green bars across the entire Secunia Historic Development chart, which looks like this:
As usual, I tackled the numerous items whose status changed from secure to insecure since my last regular weekly scan to bring my system back into full compliance. This morning, there were five such alerts: one for Adobe Air, two for Adobe Flash, one for Google Chrome, and one for the MS Office PowerPoint Viewer 2007. I was able to dispatch all of them pretty quickly by installling the upgrades or patches for which Secunia helpfully provides links in its item detail info, except for PowerPoint Viewer 2007. That link took me to Microsoft Update which cheerfully informed me that no updates were needed. Hmmm…
I immediately jumped up onto the Secunia forums (staffed by a crack group of staffers and volunteers) and found a thread that prescribed the right approach to this apparent mystery:
- Visit the Microsoft Download Center and download the PowerPoint Viewer 2007 version .
- Install that version, then re-run Windows Update. Presto! Five new downloads appear: a PPT Viewer SP1 plus various miscellaneous updates (KB954038, KB951550, KB951955, and KB934395). I selected all of them for installation, but KB934395 came up as “unnecessary, not installed” in the aftermath.
- Re-run Windows Update again. This time, you’ll get PPT Viewer SP2, plus another set of patches (KB970059, KB969618, and KB972581).
Only then will Secunia give a clean bill of health to PPT Viewer. Of course, I’m grateful to get secure and stay that way, but I’m a little irked that my inclusion of MS Office Updates in my Windows Update configuration turned up nothing on its own beforehand. I’m also a little puzzled as to why downloading the PPT Viewer from Microsoft triggered additional Windows Update activity even though it purports to be the same version I already had installed on my Office-equipped machines.
But because this situation took me by surprise, and so many enterprises run MS Office and probably also haven’t gone through this maneuver, I wanted it to broadcast it to the largest possible audience. Consider this blog a notification that PowerPoint Viewer 2007 (included by default with most versions of MS Office 2007) needs a security update, and a description of what’s involved in adressing this not-completely-straightforward maneuver. Even Secunia didn’t do that directly, so I hope this qualifies as a “public service.” As a devoted Windows-head, I found it interesting and unusual enough to be worth figuring out and fixing in any case.
Gosh! I love Ed Bott (as a Windows maven that is: I’m a happily married man ;-). His commentary on the IDG story that broke on Monday, 11/30 is right on the money and lays the situation out in stark, harsh, no-nonsense terms. As did most other Windows followers, I saw the initial story early Monday morning, as I was getting ready to hit the road for a business drive to the Houston area to visit with a consulting client. I read and re-read the story, and found it maddeningly unclear and devoid of any factual information whatsoever. I remember thinking at the time that I had better keep track of this, and wanted to wait for somebody convincing and reputable to weigh in before getting too excited about it. I also remember thinking “Here we go…again!” anticipating lots of anxiety and controversy. I was right about that, but for all the wrong reasons.
For those who don’t know, a Black Screen of Death (often abbreviated as KSOD, so as to distinguish it from the equally infamous BSOD, which stands for Blue Screen of Death) denotes the situation where Windows crashes, the screen goes black, and the PC essentially turns into an inert lump of circuitry. What distinguishes a KSOD from a BSOD is that the black screen simply denotes a dead Windows computer, crashed so suddenly and drastically that Windows can’t even post a failure message before giving up the ghost. A blue screen, on the other hand, is the background against which the white text of a Windows STOP or crash error message appears, to tell you something about what was up as that crash occurred. Hence, a KSOD is about the worst kind of Windows crash there is, because it doesn’t even proffer post-crash diagnostics to help determine what caused (and how to fix) the problem.
As it turns out the company that made the claim and associated that claim with a couple of Windows updates was dead wrong. They couldn’t prove, nor could others confirm, any causal relationship between a KSOD and the offending updates. Subsequent investigation led to Microsoft denying responsibility (as they should have) and ultimately to the reporting company retracting its contention and apologizing for any “inconvenience” occasioned thereby.
As Ed observes in his Wednesday (12/2/2009) blog, nobody from the reporting firm contacted MS in advance to ascertain the validity of their claim, nor did they do the due diligence to demonstrate a consistent and repeatable situation in which the KSOD could be produced. To make things worse, numerous well-known Websites and publications picked up this news and ran with it without doing likewise. While empirically inclined researchers and reporters (and Microsoft) were trying to reproduce the results without success, other media outlets were going nuts, essentially spreading what proved to be a baseless rumor.
C’mon: Windows is thorny and difficult enough for real, without introducing additional rumor and innuendo to make things worse. The moral of this story: panic and mayhem never help solve real problems, but they can reproduce themselves nicely while the prospect of danger or failure appears immanent. Kind of like malware, but even more like an Internet hoax. Which, thankfully, is all this situation turned out to be.
As I work with Windows from day to day, I often find myself looking at the way things work inside that OS and wondering why some things can’t be improved. Recently, I’ve tech-edited a book on the Python-based Django Web development environment and have been digging into the Windows Preinstallation Environment and the Windows Automated Installation Kit (aka WAIK or Windows AIK). Both of these projects have required me to edit the Windows path variable, which defines an ordered list of directory specifications that Windows searches when you tell it to find something. In short, this is the capability that lets you enter cmd.exe into the Search box in Vista or Windows 7, and that resolves that request into C:\Windows\System32\cmd.exe which is the actual complete specification for that file.
Alas, editing the path variable in the default Windows environment remains a bit irksome. You can do it at the command line, using syntax like
path = %path%;C:\Example to add a directory spec at the end of the path, or by reassigning an entirely new path value when you want to change the search order. Or, you can click the Windows logo and Break keys at the same time to launch the System window, and then do the following:
- Click on Advanced System Settings in the task area at the upper left of the System window to launch System Properties.
- Click the Environment Variables button at the bottom right of the System Properties window to open the Environment Variables window.
- Scroll down in either the User or System variables panes inside the Environment Variables window until you see the path entry, then click Edit.
- This opens an Edit System Variable or Edit User Variable button, where you can inspect and edit the value for that variable in the Variable value: textbox therein, as shown here:
The problem, of course, is that it’s not unusual for a path variable to get pretty large in Windows (mine is currently 257 characters long, and I’ve seen longer) but the textbox area for display accommodates only around 40 characters. That makes scrolling back and forth inside that box something of a pain. I won’t bother to complain about the vagaries of editing the value at the command line, because the best way to do that already does so eloquently: run cmd.exe, type
set at the command line, use multiple inline editing commands to grab the path variable value, paste it into a text editor for manipulation, then reverse the process to reassign its value.
Fortunately, there is a much better way to do this. Freeware called Redmond Path from Redmond Lab .Net is available to improve and simplify editing path variable values. A single screenshot tells the whole story here.
Click the plus sign to create a new value, or highlight and click the red X to remove an existing value. Highlight a value, then use the up and down arrows to change its place in the search order. All values appear in order as individual entries in a vertical list and can be managed as such.
Simple. Easy. Effective. Free. Why doesn’t Microsoft do it that way?
Although Microsoft does not support an explicit migration path from Windows XP to Windows 7, longtime migration toolsmith Laplink Software, Inc. does offer some interesting options for its PCmover product in this regard. The most interesting and affordable of these is its PCMover Windows 7 Upgrade Assistant product: for a mere $19.95 you get a one-shot move tool that will not only transport your accounts, settings, and preferences from the old OS to the new one on the same PC (as Windows 7 itself also will, thanks to its Windows Easy Transfer utility), but will also migrate most applications from XP to Windows 7 that run under both operating systems.
For those who wish to move from an older PC to a newer one as part of their migration, more advanced Laplink products will be necessary. PCmover Home will handle that task across a network link for $39.95; PCmover Pro includes a USB transfer cable and adds support for domain logins and other workplace-centric features for $59.95. For organizations considering large-scale migrations, Laplink also offers PCmoverEnterprise, which includes its own configurable migration wizard, your choice of various install mechanisms (USB drive, other portable storage, network drive), pre-activate licensing, and post-migration reporting. Pricing varies by quantity: Laplink charges $42 per seat for 10-pack PCMover Professional licenses which sets an upper per seat bound, and mentions on its pricing page that the Enterprise version is available for “as little as USD $10 per license” and thereby sets the lower per seat bound as well.
For a great description and analysis of this product set, check out RJ Dudley’s review “Laplink PC Mover Upgrade Assistant: Almost Perfect.” Note also that he was unable to migrate his Visual Studio 2008 license from XP to Windows 7 using this tool. That makes it one of the few programs I’ve heard of so far that doesn’t make the transition as it probably should.