Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Firewalls and Other Single Points of Failure

Last Friday night, we installed a new firewall to replace our "unsupported" Symantec model.

A Bizarre Sense of Timing
Curiously, we'd been complaining to Symantec for years about several of their systems and had been slowly ripping and replacing. Our complaints over their lack of interest in the firewall they sold us had been fairly strong over the last six months but had met with limited responses.

I got a call out of the blue on Friday afternoon from "upper" management telling us that they were now committed to sorting out the firewall for us.

I had to tell them that their firewall only had three hours of life left. I didn't feel guilty though. I don't think that anyone should be willing to tolerate a lack of service.

A Simple Swap-over
We cleverly timed the firewall swapover project to coincide with a weekend where there was a scheduled power outage. This meant that instead of having one firewall (point of failure) on site, we had two.

We spent a while reviewing the rules and it should have been a simple swap-over of cables. It should have been....

but it wasn't.

At first the firewall wouldn't connect - to the internet. Fine, it's a reasonable assumption that you'd need to cycle power on the router. The problem... well, since we had backup for the firewall, it follows that the router becomes the single point of failure.

The router didn't come up properly - all lights remained solid. We tried a number of power cycles but it steadfastly refused to come up.

Luckily it was a managed router and we were still well within our time limit for 24x7 serivce.

The Helpless Helpdesk
We rang our ISP's helpdesk but went through to another state - Victoria. Apparently they couldn't raise anyone in their Sydney office and the technician suggested that they may have left their 24x7 helpdesk to go for "Friday drinks". (sigh). They promised to get in touch as soon as possible.

We got a call back over 90 minutes later and received the incredibly technical description that "your router has fried".

Great! It's a managed router, so kindly deliver a new one... Right???

Wrong! Sorry, we're fresh out of routers. (It felt like we were in Monty Python's Cheese shop sketch). We were told that it was unlikely that they'd be able to come up with a router before Monday.

"Ok" we said, "not what we were hoping for... what time do your techs start on Monday?". I think we were all stunned by the response of 9am. (I'm a 6.30am starter myself).

We then started trying to negotiate, suggesting that if we could buy a replacement router over the weekend, we could install it ourselves if they'd give us the relevant passwords and settings. "Sure", they replied, "but it will cost $350 to change you from a managed to unmanaged router". We figured that this was an acceptable cost and told the technicians. They quickly killed the idea by telling us that they wouldn't be able to give us any connection info.

We were stuck.

Luckily, we had one of those "super-tech's" onsite at the time, you know the type who like to open all their equipment just to see where the motherboard was made... He decided to open our "fried" router and prod around for bloated capacitors. There were none.

Of course, one of the big rules about electronic equipment is that sometimes, when it's hot, it just wants a bit of nudity. With the cover off and the circuit board exposed, we plugged the router back in - it immeidately hummed into life.

The Power Outage
So now we had a working firewall and connection but an impending power shutdown lasting up to 6 hours... would the equipment come back online? Would the motherboards cool down and pop all their solder? I had to wait until Sunday to find out.

On Sunday morning, I arrived at work and started switching all the equipment back on. Desktops, Printers, etc... it all came back... all except the computer room that is.

It turned out that the building's power had flipped a fuse, so I had to call the electricians back. Once fixed, everything, even our very sick router, came back.

I was going to suggest that the moral of the story is that you need to have more than one piece of hardware that matches the spec of devices which are single points of failure but I think the moral is really... whenever there is an opportunity for the single point of failure to make its presence known... it will.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

How to Use Your Blackberry to Listen to Talking Books

We've already looked at how to use the Blackberry as an e-book reader but what about when you're feeling particularly lazy? Talking books are the answer.

You can use the inbuilt Blackberry Media Player but since it has limited capabilities, particularly for browsing (unless you use trickery), I prefer to use the free xPlayer.

Recording your Book from an Existing CD
If you've already got a talking book on CD, you can simply record it using Windows Media Player's RIP facility. These instructions refer to Windows Media Player 8, but you can use other versions and indeed other "rippers".

  1. Insert the CD into your CD-ROM Drive
  2. Click Cancel on the AudioCD Autorun Prompt (it's safer to do things manually)
  3. Start Windows Media Player
  4. Click on the Library Tab, then the Little Arrow beneath the word library, this pops up a menu.
  5. On the Menu, select More Options... This will display a dialog box.
  6. In the Dialog box, click the Rip Music Tab.
  7. Look at the Location to Rip Music to. This usually points to your personal profile on the PC. You might want to change this do a good size drive and more accessible folder (eg: D:\RIPS)
  8. Now Click the Filename button; Talking books need to be read in exact order, otherwise they won't make sense. You need to makes very certain that Track Number is included as part of the filename - so tick this box (Note: You probably won't want this on music, so remember to turn it off again later). On talking books, you probably won't want Artist information, just Song title - but again, you'll want to change this setting back later for Music CDs. Click Ok to close this box.
  9. In the format drop down, you need to choose either MP3 or Windows Media Audio. If space is a major issue, then Windows Media Audio is probably the best choice as it makes smaller files. Personally, I prefer MP3 because it's a more standard format and will work on more systems.
  10. Finally, you need to select an audio quality. Note that the higher the quality, the bigger the file. (an estimate is displayed at the bottom of the dialog box). I tend to stick at around 192 kbps for music but you could probably drop to 128 for a talking book without too much trouble.
  11. Click OK when finished.
  12. Now, click on the RIP Tab
  13. Look at the bottom of the screen to make sure that the album isn't playing (windows has a habit of automatically playing CDs and this can significantly add to RIP times).
  14. Make sure that all the tracks on the CD are ticked
  15. If you're ripping a multi-CD set, make sure that the album title says Disc 1 (or whatever disc it is) at the end. If it doesn't, right click on the title, and choose Edit. Add the disc designation - This causes the files for each disc to be stored in different folders and prevents mixing up of tracks on discs.
  16. Click on the Button marked Start Rip (very bottom of the screen). If you can't see this button, you can click on the arrow at the bottom of the Rip Tab and choose to rip from there.
Ripping will start and will take a little while depending on the speed of your computer and CD Drive - in my case, a CD rip took under 2 minutes.

Repeat this procedure for any other CDs in the set, though you won't have to repeatedly set the defaults.

Getting the files onto your Blackberry
Note that since these files can get large, you might want consider adding a MicroSD card to your BlackBerry for additional storage.

  1. Connect your Blackberry Handheld to your Computer
  2. Start the Blackberry Desktop Manager Software
  3. Double-Click Media Manager
  4. In the Right hand panel...
  5. If you have a media card, double-click on this, otherwise, you'll have to use the device memory.
  6. Create a new folder (Right-Click and Choose New Folder) - Call it something obvious like "Talking Books"
  7. Go into the new folder by double-clicking on it.
  8. Note: If you've finished with books in this folder, you can right-click on their folders and choose Delete. This is a good habit as it keeps your storage free.
  9. In the Left hand panel, browse to where Media Player saved the files from the talking books (eg: D:\RIPS). Go down until you see the folders for your current book (eg: ending in Disc 1 etc..) but don't open them (except perhaps to check their contents).
  10. At the folder level, Click on the folders and then click on the Arrow to copy the folders to your blackberry. Depending on memory and the size of the book, you might only be able to fit a couple of CDs on at a time.
  11. Once the copy has finished, close Blackberry Manager
  12. Disconnect the Blackberry from the computer using the "safely remove hardware" icon near the system clock - (Hopefully people do this - if you don't you could corrupt your BlackBerry)
  13. When it says that it's safe to remove hardware, then disconnect the USB plug.

Playing Back the Files
  1. Connect Earphones to your BlackBerry and to your head (otherwise it gets embarrassing).
  2. Open the xPlayer application
  3. Click the Menu button (Blackberry Button)
  4. Choose Clear Playlist (in case there's already stuff there)
  5. Click the Menu button (Blackberry Button)
  6. Choose Add Folder
  7. Browse to the folder - possibly SD Card then Talking Books - Stop at the folder level, don't go into it.
  8. Click the Menu button (Blackberry Button)
  9. Choose Select
  10. All of the Files in the folder will appear in the MP3 Player.
  11. Click the Menu button (Blackberry Button)
  12. Check very carefully that it says Shuffle ON (this means that you could turn the shuffle on, but it's off at the moment). Leave it off.
  13. Choose Play
  14. You can now put your blackberry back in the holster and continue to listen to your book.
When you press the ESC key, or when a call comes through, the player will stop.
To resume interrupted play, Click the Menu button (Blackberry Button) and choose Resume

Finding FREE Talking Books on the Internet
So far, I've only talked about ripping from existing CDs but you can find free Talking Books on the internet.

There's a big talking books conversion project at Project Gutenberg - Note that some of these are computer read, so they may lack a bit of expression.

There are other audio book sites which offer free samples, though some will need you to do free registration before you can download anything;

There are also a lot of fan-fiction sites around for example;
Doctor Who: http://www.westlakefilms.co.uk/season27.html

I'm sure that if you look up your favourite science fiction TV Series or movies, you'll find something.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Finding my feet in Social Networking

I've had quite a bit of trouble figuring out what to do with some of the new social networking tools. I joined Facebook and Orkut at more or less the same time and for a while, I found Orkut easier to use. The problem with Facebook was that I was being inundated with application requests. Orkut didn't send me quite so many and it also integrated better with Google's set of apps.

Now however, I find that I'm leaning more towards Facebook. There are a number of reasons for this but the Blackberry interface and the greater popularity of Facebook certainly play a major role. I've quickly learned to completely ignore all of those application requests, pokes and other things but respond to requests for friends. Why? Well, I'm not into popularity contests but once you've added a friend, it's easier to find them if you want to talk later. Interestingly enough, I've found that a lot of people on Facebook don't actively check their messages - or maybe they just don't want to talk to me :-).

The thing that really changed my mind though, was the availability of some decent Facebook apps.

This is a book database where you can flag books that you've read, books that you'd like to read and books that you own. You can also give books ratings or reviews. This app basically puts you in touch with other people who liked the same books or who are reading the same book as you. I'd love to see more of this type of app - iMovie, iMusic anyone? There's bound to be something out there that does those jobs too. I'm looking at flickster, but it doesn't seem to be suitable so far.

Delicious, Digg and Stumbleupon
Now these add a lot of value since they expose your social bookmarks. I'm seriously considering specialising on these sites - ie: Deciding that Digg is only for my Computing news, StumbleUpon is only for Entertainment etc.. This would enable me to separate my list of bookmarks out into interest groups.