Whenever I get a new machine (at work, at home, anywhere) I'm always
astounded by the sheer amount of time it takes to get it up and running. I
don't mean just the basics, I mean a fully-functional platform that is set up
just the way I'm used to, right down to the folder display settings in Explorer
and the toolstrip I always like on the right side of the screen.
I mean, seriously, there's gotta be a better way to do this. The following
applications are just the basic things I need to be efficient:
- Windows XP Professional, drivers, settings
- Mozilla Firefox, extensions,
- Thunderbird, profile
- Microsoft.NET 1.1 and 2.0
- Visual Studio 2003 and 2005
- ReSharper (one version
for each), import settings, resolve keyboard conflicts
- GhostDoc (one
version for each)
- Gaim, profile import
- Latest JRE (java runtime environment)
- RssOwl, profile import
- Total Commander, plugins,
- Microsoft Office, OpenOffice.org (Hebrew version)
- SourceGear Vault client
- CDBurnerXP Pro
And that's just to get me through the day. It doesn't include all the
multimedia and development tidbits, like:
I reckon the net installation and customization time is over 10 hours
(some installations can be done in parallel, some can be deferred to a later
time). That is a lot of time to spend on just setting up your machine.
The problem with using Ghost or some similar software is that I get a system
without all of my current data (profiles, files, documents etc.), and as for
virtual machines, they're simply not fast enough yet for constant use (at least
on my modest home desktop or laptop).
... there's an online video of 8088 Corruption that is an absolute must-see.
Trixter, you rock!
1. Ever since I bought my car several months ago I've been looking for a
decent audio platform to put on it. My primary concern was support for the
excellent Vorbis audio codec - this is the
codec I use most often in my music archive due to its superiour quality (I spent
hours and hours comparing best-case rips encoded with LAME [MP3] and Vorbis and have found
Vorbis to be the better codec - I'll write another post about that if anyone's
interested), smaller footprint and patent-free nature.
Although Vorbis (and its container format OGG) has seen lackluster support
from hardware vendors since its introduction in 2001, the past two years have
seen thoroughly improved support for the codec -- most portable players
(including oblique Chinese models) now support Vorbis just fine. Cars, however,
are a completely different issue: there are exactly four car-oriented products
that support Vorbis (the Vorbis wiki contains a complete list)
and I wouldn't settle for 'just' an MP3 player. For a time I was considering
building an ITX-based car computer, orevaluated products such as the PhatBox;
eventually I settled on a more mundane in-dash CD receiver called Yakumo
Hypersound Car. The decision was mostly based on the cost of the more exotic
solutions and the much higher risk of someone trying to break into my car.
The Yakumo is very difficult to get; you can either get it from
Amazon UK (but they don't deliver electronics overseas) or from certain
German vendors. I eventually ordered the unit from a very efficient
eBay shop and it finally arrived last week.
Anecdote: Israeli tax is murder; not only did I have to pay the
16% European VAT (having bought the unit from a German reseller), which I may or
may not be able to get back, and the €40 shipping fee; on top of that I had
to pay an additional 15% customs tax and 16.5%
Israeli VAT, and that's on the shipping too! So bottom line, a €96 unit cost me
close to €200, shipping included. That's an insane amount of money to pay just
for the privilege of buying something you can't get in your own country, and
even if you could you'd probably be forced to pay the local importer handsomely.
And imposing a tax on the shipping fee should be proper illegal.
Installation was a breeze (any experienced technician should be able to
do it in 20 minutes; I'm not an experienced technician so it took close to an
hour with my dad helping out), and with everything hooked up I inserted a
freshly-burned CD, held my breath and... woah! Iris playing in my car in gorgeous
Vorbis! That alone was worth the price of admission. I do have some qualms with
the device, though, primarily the lackluster display (yeah, OK, blue
backlighting has been out of fashion for at least a couple years) and the
awkward navigation (you can't easily navigate by album), but considering the
very reasonable initial cost of the unit, which also comes with an SD
card-reader, USB port for mass storage devices and remote control (!) and the
so-far excellent sound quality which easily rivals the generic JVC CD receiver I
this product comes highly recommended. Update (after a short period of constant use): I do NOT recommend this product.
2. I just got my second Microsoft
Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 (a.k.a Ergo 4000). It has replaced the
trusty Model M; we'll see if it lives up to the hype. I actually got one last
month, but returned it the same day because Hebrew character engraving looked as
though they were hand-drawn by a five year-old with severe ADD.
This one feels a bit different but is so far extremely comfortable; I'm
astounded that no other keyboard features a cushioned hand-rest like this
one, it makes working with the keyboard infinitely more comfortable to the point
where I don't know how I managed to live without it all these
years. I've used Microsoft Natural keyboards for the last ten years so the
ergonomic ("split") design is one I'm very familiar with. There are some
differences though - some keys are aligned a bit differently and require
different finger movements, but so far I seem to be getting used to the layout
very rapidly. The tactile feel of the keyboard is also different from the
Microsoft Natural Elite I've been using these past few years ('till I switched
to the Model M); it's softer and at first seems slightly less responsive (during
the first couple hours of working with the keyboard I was very prone to the
classic manglign-of-the-last-two-lettesr syndrome) but as soon as you adjust the
strength with which you depress the keys it becomes very natural (no pun
intended). Unlike my dad's crappy Microsoft Desktop Multimedia keyboard
this one has the f-lock enabled by default, and so far I haven't touched the
extra keys or zoom slider. At $65 it's not cheap but not prohibitively expensive
either (unlike the $80 Logitech
MX1000 mouse I use).
So far, so good. I'll post further comments on the keyboard when I've used it
for a while.
I was doing some research on how to use a certain component we were given as
part of a project. It is a COM object written with ATL; I referenced it via
interop and everything seemed to work perfectly. Until we integrated it
into the main codebase, that is. For some reason the same code would barf on any
call made to a method/property of a legacy ADO Recordset object; an instance of Recordset is passed by reference to the COM object,
which initializes it to certain values. For some reason any call to the Recordset instance after the COM method call would result
in a NullReferenceException being thrown by the
Oddly enough, tests on the research codebase (on my own machine) now proved
to generate the exact same error; considering I had written and tested the code
merely two days before, I was disinclined to believe the code to be at fault.
Something told me to look into the interop assemblies - we sign every
COM/ActiveX import in the project with our own keyfile using a script which runs
tlbimp/aximp - and reverting to the VS-generated interop
assemblies did indeed resolve the issue. I couldn't find any solution using
Google (a Groups search provided a similar
issue with no solution offered). Finally I stumbled upon the following quote
Primary Interop Assemblies have another important use. Interop Assemblies
often need modifications, such as the ones shown in Chapter 7 to be completely
usable in managed code. When you have a PIA with such customizations
registered on your computer, you can benefit from these customizations simply
by referencing the type library for the COM component you wish to use inside
Visual Studio .NET. For example, the PIA for Microsoft ActiveX Data Objects
(ADO), which ships with Visual Studio .NET, contains some customizations to
handle object lifetime issues. If you created your own Interop Assembly for
ADO using TLBIMP.EXE, you would not benefit from these
Since the ADO COM object was automatically imported along with our
proprietary objects this got me wondering what sort of "custom optimizations" I
might be missing out on. A quick look in the knowledgebase article on the
didn't prove very effective (short of a vague statement about "the ADO PIA helps
to avoid certain problems with ADO and .NET COM interoperability") but I decided
to try it out anyway; I removed the preexisting reference from the project,
added "adodb" from the .NET tab in the Add References dialogue (you
could look it up manually in the GAC, but why would you?), fired it up
- problem solved.
As an anecdote, referencing an external library with tlbimp's /reference
command line parameter (particularly the ADODB PIA from the GAC) did not stop it
from generating the imported library anyway. Just go ahead and
I saw this joke and couldn't help myself. Sorry, it won't happen again.
Or rather, help me to help them
I keep filing bugreports (which are usually fixed by the next release) and feature requests, but in order to get attention the feature requests need votes. Have a look at these two feature requests and vote (or comment) if you think they're important. If not, tell me why:
Additionally, build 215 is out.
Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Firefox
(this is a Dr.
reference, in case that wasn't
There are some fundamental principles of UI design
most developers have not taken to heart. Developing a
good UI is hard, designing one is excruciatingly
hard. A good UI designer needs to have a very
developed sense of how a typical user thinks; it is
therefore a commonly held belief that most
programmers make lousy UI designers because they
can't "stoop to the level of the non-technical user" (a slightly less rehearsed mantra is that developers are users as well and are susceptible to the same problems with crappy UI, although possibly a little more forgiving).
The developer-oriented UI trend is most obvious with open source software,
but it is actually exacerbated when we're talking
properietary, even if free, software. An open source
tool that is essentially really good but has crappy
UI will eventually attract someone who is actually
capable in that department. Take a look at Eclipse,
OpenOffice.org, The Gimp etc. - although based on a
more or less solid foundation, these tools were
practically useless a few years ago and have only
become mainstream when they made leaps and bounds in
usability. An even better example is Firefox;
although I was personally attracted to Firefox on
merit of its technical achievements, I was only able
to sell it to friends and relatives becaues it is
infinitely more usable than IE and just as free (I
mean come on, does anyone doubt why Opera never
A proprietary program however, even if
fundamentally sound and useful, can only grow better
by the efforts of its owners. Even the most obvious
bugs can never be fixed by a 3rd party. w.bloggar is a
classic example of this; the last version was out in
January and, despite being fundamentally stable and
usable, has huge flaws which the author never fixed,
instead allowing the software to stagnate. I reckon a
lot of you, at this point, are thinking along the
lines of "hey, you get what you pay for; you
should be thankful that w.bloggar is free, let alone
supported!" In a way you are right, but also
dead wrong. As far as I know Marcelo (the author of
w.bloggar) isn't seeing much money from his work on the software; what money he does get is from donations.
So why not release the source? Donation systems seem
to work for high-profile open-source projects at
large, why not for w.bloggar? At least that way
someone can fix the bugs that
(for me) turned w.bloggar from a useful tool to a
constant cause of frustration.
To get to the point, I wrote a blog entry in
w.bloggar (specifically the one about missing tools), published it and went on with my
work. At the end of the day I left the machine
running (as I always do when I'm not leaving for days
at a time) along with w.bloggar. Why'd I leave
w.bloggar open, you ask? Simple: one of these glaring
bugs I mentioned is that w.bloggar does not retain my
preview template options (CSS links and so forth),
and it's a pain in the ass to enter them manually
whenever I want to edit or write a new post. Anyway,
w.bloggar has a "Clear Editor after Post"
option which in my case was disabled. This means that
whenever w.bloggar finishes uploading a post, it retains the
text and changes its internal state so that
subsequent clicks on Post update the same entry (as opposed to creating a new one). So what basically happened is that when I came in today and wanted to write the note on OpenOffice.org, the previous post was still "live" on w.bloggar. Usually at that point I click on New (which shows a nice, useless warning dialog) and get on with it; this time I guess I was distracted, just shift-deleted everything and proceeded to write. When I next clicked on Post and got the "Post so-and-so-GUID updated successfully" notice I knew I was up the creek: my earlier post was overwritten with no prior warning, no delay and worst of all: no backup.
Which brings me to my first point: w.bloggar sucks. Bugs (like not retaining options and the most defective HTML syntax highlighting known to man) aside, this is a huge usability problem - a user can (and evidently will) inadvertently erase his/her own work and have no way to recover it. The undo buffer is not even remotely deep enough; there are no dialogs to warn you that you're about to update a live post, and there are no backups-shadow copies-anything of published posts if you do not actively save them. Worst of all, there is no-one to mail, no bug tracker, not even a forum (the forum link on the w.bloggar site is broken). My first resolution for 2006: make more effort on PostXING and help Chris make it actually useful.
Now that that's out of the way, time for some damage control; w.bloggar is useless in recovering the lost content, dasBlog does not maintain any sort of backup (side resolution: implement shadow copies into dasBlog) and considering how cheap my hosting package is I seriously doubt my ISP would help me recover yesterday's daily backup (assuming there even is one) without significant trouble and/or cost. The only option that comes to mind is the browser cache; in case it isn't obvious from the title (and the large "take back the web" icon on the right), I use Firefox. Going over the cache files manually proved futile as most of them seemed to be binaries of some sort; some research showed me that you can access cache statistics by navigating to about:cache; from there you can access an actual dump of the in-memory and on-disk hashes. Looking at the on-disk cache via about:cache?device=disk and searching for something useful, I found a cache entry for the editing page. Clicking the link did not prove readily useful (the actual content is not displayed), but the information displayed shows two important details: the file location and the content encoding (in this case, gzip). This explains the strange binaries I found in the cache! A quick decompression via the excellent 7-zip and I had my content back. Second point of the day: Firefox has once again proved its mettle. Firefox rocks!
Coninciding with the release of OpenOffice.org 2.0.1
, the OOo.il team
has released a Hebrew version based off of the 2.0 codebase! It is sponsored (ironically) by the Israeli Ministry of Finance
I haven't really tested this version but I do hope it's all it's cracked up to be. Time will tell.
Every developer has some glaring omissions from his/her toolbox. I just found one of mine: Chris Sells' XmlSerializerPreCompiler
. I honestly don't know how I managed without it thus far.
Now that I mention it, here's a short (?) list of tools I constantly use as a developer, at work and elsewhere:
- I've said it once and I'll say it again, JetBrains' ReSharper is absolutely indispensable to any serious .NET developer. It's worth every penny.
- Roy Osherove's The Regulator is so far the best regular expression IDE around. It has its issues, though, so I can't wait for version 3.0. Best of all, it's completely open source!
- My XML IDE of choice is Stylus Studio, which I find preferable to Altova's XmlSpy. Both cost mundo bucks though.
- Enterprise Architect combines the UML powerhouse features of XDE with near-Visio ease-of-use. It's not perfect (not even remotely) but is definitely the best modelling tool I've used to date.
- Cygwin whenever I need anything from the GNU realm (in particular GCC and Unix-oriented open source tools).
- NDoc is the best thing since sliced bread. I use this open-source tool whenever "hardcopy" design/code documentation is required, or whenever I want to provide an MSDN-like reference to an API.
- GhostDoc saves many a pointless keystroke. Just Ctrl+D and you're 50% into your XML documentation. Brilliant in simplicity and absolutely stable. Best of all, it's free...
- Total Commander has replaced Servant Salamander as my Norton Commander clone of choice. I still can't understand how people manage to be productive without an NC-type file manager.
- NUnit comes in handly when writing test and test-driven code. I'm not a big fan of TDD (to be fair, I never got the chance to try TDD hands-on on a large scale project), but whenever it comes up it's practically synonymous to NUnit. Make sure to install TestDriven.NET as well.
- One of the best debugging and reverse-engineering tools around, Ethereal, also happens to be open-source. I can't even begin to count the number of times this tool has saved my ass.
- The single most comprehensive tool I've ever come across is the ubiquitous Google. Make good use of it...
- I use Process Explorer, psexec and pskill from SysInternals about 20 times a day. Mark deserves knighthood (or maybe half the kingdom) for making these tools.
- Any .NET developer would do well to know Lutz Roeder's classic Reflector. It is as indispensable as the .NET framework itself.
- XMPlay and Sennheiser HD600. Music is life.
I hate ugly hacks, but sometimes you're left with no choice. I was hacking away at the XML schema for one of our projects, and eventually settled on a neat solution. Imagine the following scenario: your system stores its configuration in XML format; the configuration defines several types of events that can occur, and all these events share the same actions. What's the most efficient way to go about it?
Borrowing a page from the object-oriented software design book, I decided to create an abstract BaseActionType. It will include some basic self-describing information (lets suppose I'd like to have an action category; I would simply add an element to the base type and override the value in each subclass.) Each subclass would describe a different type of action, for example a SendEmailActionType would extend BaseActionType, override its category with a fixed value and add fields such as server, subject etc.
Unfortunately, it appears that XML Schema only supports one of two modes of derivation: derive by extension or derive by restriction, whereas what I in fact require is a hybrid of the two. xs:extension will not allow you to override values, whereas xs:restriction will not allow you to define new elements. This is a problem I used to encounter all the time when creating XML schemas, and today it finally pissed me off enough to find a solution. I was really stumped for a while, but eventually noticed that one of the examples on the XML Schema specification was:
<xs:element name="size" type="xs:nonNegativeInteger"/>
<xs:element name="unit" type="xs:NMTOKEN"/>
It got me thinking: how can they be restricting a type while adding elements? Then it hit me - this is in fact a restriction on an xs:any particle! Here's the solution I came up with:
<xs:element name="Category" type="CategoryType" />
<xs:any processContents="strict" minOccurs="0" maxOccurs="unbounded" />
<xs:element name="Category" fixed="Synchronous" />
<xs:element name="Server" type="xs:string" />
I reckon developers who are more experienced with XML than I am already knew the answer, but since I've been using XML far more intensively than the average developer and was repeatedly stumped by the same problem I hope someone finds this useful.
Update (January 2nd, 10:26): My technological enthusiasm has an annoying tendency to turn into a display of naïveté. Specifically, the hack above seems to work just fine for Stylus Studio (any maybe other technologies, who knows?) -- but isn't really accepted by the .NET SDK xsd.exe tool. There are two issues here:
- The tool fails to recognize fixed="value" attributes for enumerations ("Schema validation warning: Element's type does not allow fixed or default value constraint.")
- The tool does not recognize restriction of xs:any ("Schema validation warning: Invalid particle derivation by restriction.")
I haven't been able to work around these limitations (yet), nor have I the time at the moment to research into XML Schema and find out if these features are supposed to be supported. In the meanwhile I'm reverting to another solution.