DIY – a few tips

Someone holding a Bosch electric drill

These last few weeks I’ve been doing some DIY on the new house and thought that you might appreciate a few tips that I’ve learned.

  1. When drilling through bathroom tiles make sure that the drill isn’t set to the ‘hammer action’ setting.
  2. While preparing to drill through bathroom tiles — say for example in a shower cubicle — don’t stand in the wet cubicle shower tray in your bare feet while asking your wife to hand you the corded electric drill because invariably she won’t. Instead she’ll instruct you to first dry out the shower tray and then put on a pair of rubber-soled shoes.
  3. While drilling into a door — for example to add a coat hook — make sure you don’t drill all the way through the door as this doesn’t lend itself to a professional-looking finish.

And this one isn’t a tip just an observation: Unibond’s Ultimate Anti-Mould Shower and Bathroom Sealant (Ice White) smells like salt and vinegar flavour crisps.

Hoax e-mails and PC security

Computer mouse in chains

This week I received something in my e-mail inbox that I’ve not had in a while: a hoax e-mail ‘kindly’ forwarded to me by a friend or family member trying to help me and ensure that my hard drive wouldn’t be destroyed by the latest terrible virus.

Olympic Torch hoax

The hoax e-mail sent was the Olympic Torch hoax, had the subject “Please forward this warning to all of your contacts” and said

Importance: High

Be alert during the next few days: Don't open any message with an attached file called "Invitation", regardless of who sent it. It's a virus that opens an Olympic Torch that "burns" the whole hard disk of your computer.

This virus will come from someone who has your e-mail address; that's why you should send this e-mail to all your contacts. It's better to receive this message 25 times than to receive the virus.

DON'T open it , permanently delete it and re-start your computer immediately... This is the worst virus announced by CNN, it's been classified by Microsoft as the most destructive virus ever. The virus was discovered by McAfee yesterday, and there's no repair yet for this particular virus. It simply destroys the Zero Sector of the Hard Disk, where vital information is kept

How to spot a virus hoax

Virus hoaxes usually arrive in the form of an e-mail with instructions to pass this message on to all your contacts and they are often constructed using the same structure as the message above:

  • Opening paragraph about this dreadful new virus, what it does and why it’s the worst virus ever created.
  • More detailed information about how you will likely receive it (probably via e-mail) and why you should send this warning on to all your friends.
  • Information about what to do about it if you receive it (usually delete it and reboot your PC).
  • And a few references to some well-known IT companies to add weight to what they’ve said. Frequently mentioned are: AOL, CNN, McAfee, Microsoft and Norton/Symantec.

Anti-virus (AV) software companies do not send out warning e-mails (unless you’ve specifically signed up for a newsletter from them) asking you to pass on these details to your friends. AV software companies rely on two things to help you keep your PC clean of infection:

  1. that you ensure your anti-virus software is kept up to date, usually by recommending that you leave the software to automatically and regularly check for updates online — they regularly release updates that target the latest viruses, trojans and malware
  2. recommending that you practice a safe-internet routine whenever you are downloading files and/or e-mail attachments

If you receive a similar message that is warning you of the latest virus threat then please first check the Symantec Hoax site to see if your e-mail message is listed. The purposes of these e-mails is to create a sense of unnecessary panic and for you to spam your own friends!

Anti-virus software

If you don’t already have anti-virus software installed on your PC then I can thoroughly recommend AVG Anti-Virus Free 7.5.

I’ve been using it on my laptop for a few months now, and on my games partition on my main PC. One reason I like it is because it doesn’t hog system resources like other AV products do (such as Norton AntiVirus). The TweakGuides Tweaking Companion for Windows XP has an excellent walkthrough on how to optimize AVG for your system.

Another great thing about AVG, if you have a slow internet connection, is that the update downloads are generally very small. Yesterday’s update was 500 KB, today’s only 8 KB. So users still relying on a dial-up connection would be fine.

Anti-Spyware, Anti-Trojan

It’s often not enough to simply rely on your anti-virus software these days. I regularly scan my systems with AdAware SE (anti-spyware) and A-Squared Free (anti-trojan).

A regular scan once a week should be fine. Unlike anti-virus software and firewalls, you may install and run more than one package. I also allow the ZoneAlarm spyware scanner to run regularly, and Spybot Search & Destroy. The TweakGuides Tweaking Companion (mentioned above) also has a good section on using this software, I recommend that you download it and give it a read.

Firewalls

I also recommend that you make sure that you have a firewall running. A software firewall is an application that acts a bit like a bouncer for your network connection. It monitors all the in and out traffic making sure that only authorized traffic gets through.

A lot of people recommend using the built-in Windows XP firewall. I’m a little more cautious and as a long-time user of ZoneAlarm I’ve bought the ZoneAlarm Pro firewall which also adds extra e-mail and spyware monitoring capabilities. There is also a free version, which I’ve used very successfully.

Your surfing habits

One of the most important things for helping ensure that your PC does not become infected with malware — and I can’t stress this enough — is YOU! A few tips:

  • Get into the habit of regularly scanning your PC for malware (spyware, trojans, viruses). Put it into your diary, if you must (I do!).
  • Do not immediately open e-mail from recipients you do not know, especially if they have attachments. If you have an anti-spam filter then use it. The built-in one for Microsoft Outlook 2003 is excellent.
  • Get into the habit of manually scanning any download (downloads from websites, instant messenger contacts and especially from e-mails.
  • If you are in any doubt whatsoever about the security status of the file then delete it immediately and empty your Recycle Bin. If it was a genuine file from a genuine friend then they can always send it again if it was important.
  • And remember, please don’t spam your own friends! If you get a suspect e-mail check the Symantec Hoax site or simply search Google for a few of the keywords contained in the e-mail (such as Olympic Torch virus).

I hope that helps a few readers. And my e-mail inbox!

Creating a new toolbar in Windows XP

Desktop screenshot

Here’s something that a couple of people recently have asked about when they’ve seen my desktop, either on my laptop or on my home PC. Many of you may know about this; this is posted for the benefit of those who don’t.

You may see from the screenshot above that I have an extra toolbar on the right-hand side of my screen, which holds icons for my most commonly-used programs. The toolbar is always on top, meaning that when I’m running a maximized application (that is, full-screen), such as Outlook, the toolbar is still visible on the right-hand side of my screen.

The reason I do this is three-fold:

  1. I like to keep as few icons as possible on the desktop and Quick Launch bar
  2. It is quicker to access these applications from my new toolbar than via Start > Programs
  3. It is less system resource hungry than using an application-equivalent such as the Microsoft Office 2000 toolbar or Lotus SmartCenter.

Here’s how to do it.

1. Create a new folder

Create new folder

The first thing to do is to create a new folder. On my laptop I created this on the C drive, e.g. “C:\ShortcutsToolbar”. On my home PC I have 10 partitions, so have created this on drive H. It doesn’t really matter where you create it, so long as you remember where it is and it doesn’t get in the way of other applications.

2. Copy icons into the new folder

Folder of icons

Next, copy your favourite icons from the Start menu into the new ShortcutsToolbar folder. You can either right-click Start and select “Open All Users” and drag and drop icons from there, or hold down Ctrl and drag the icons from the Start menu itself.

If you know at this stage which order you’d like them to display, from top to bottom, you may rename them with a numeral prefix, e.g. 01 MS Money, 02 Psion SDK, 03 DigiGuide, etc. That way the icons will by default appear in numerical order.

As a rough guide a 1280 x 1024 pixels resolution screen will accept 25 icons, a 1024 x 768 pixels screen will accommodate 18. Don’t worry if you don’t fill up the toolbar at this stage, you can always drag icons onto the toolbar at a later stage.

3. Unlock the Taskbar

Lock the taskbar

Next, right-click on an empty part of the Taskbar and if there is a tick against “Lock the Taskbar” click on it once to unlock it.

4. Create a new Toolbar

Create a new toolbar

Right-click the taskbar again and select “Toolbars > New Toolbar…”. This will bring up the following dialog box:

New Toolbar dialog box

In this box browse to the location of your ShortcutsToolbar folder, select the folder and click OK.

5. Reposition new toolbar

Shortcuts Toolbar on Taskbar

Your new Toolbar will be created on the Taskbar. Click on the new toolbar and holding down the mouse button drag the toolbar off the Taskbar. You’ll be left with a free-floating box called ShortcutsToolbar, like this:

Free-floating Toolbar

Click and hold the title bar of this new window (click on the words ShortcutsToolbar) and drag the window until it docks on the right-hand side of the screen.

Docked toolbar

It’s not perfect yet, but we’re nearly there.

6. Customize toolbar

Toolbar options

Right-click on the newly docked toolbar to make the following adjustments:

  • View > Large Icons
  • Untick Show Text
  • Untick Show Title
  • Tick Always on Top

If you have not already determined the order of the icons by renaming them with numeral prefixes you can now reposition the icons using the good old fashioned drag-and-drop method.

7. Lock the Taskbar

Lock the taskbar

Right-click the Taskbar and select “Lock the Taskbar” once again.

8. That’s it

And that’s all there is to getting a customized, always-present toolbar for launching your favourite applications. There are a few icons that I always, always have on the toolbar, while there are others that get changed depending on what I’m doing. I also have developed my own guidelines for determining what sits on the ShortcutsToolbar, what sits on the Desktop, the Quick Launch bar and which icons are pinned to the top of the Start menu.

Similarly, you don’t have to have the toolbar on the right-hand edge of your screen. You could dock it to any other sides (top, bottom, left or right) or simply keep it docked to your Taskbar, as shown in step 5 above. Whatever suits you best, make it yours.

Desktop screenshot

Another quick tip: take a screenshot of it, just in case you need to reinstall Windows or you have to recreate the toolbar again sometime. That way you can always be sure of the order of the icons. You’d be surprised how quickly you get used to certain icons in a particular location. I’m often getting caught out moving between my laptop, home PC and work PC.

UPDATE: Removing a toolbar

Create a new toolbar

To remove a newly created toolbar, simply right-click the Taskbar, click on Toolbars in the context-menu and then click on the toolbar you wish to remove, clicking on the ticked item will de-select it.

This will simply remove the Toolbar from display, but the underlying folder will still be there so you can easily restore it at will.

XAMPP, WordPress and the login mystery (featuring ZoneAlarm Pro)

I got up early this morning so that I could get a couple of hours of web development in before Jane rose and we had to get involved in Operation Clear Kadesh.

Which was a nice plan … but it has just taken me 90 minutes to work out why I couldn’t login to my new installation of WordPress on my local PC running the XAMPP all-in-one Apache/PHP/MySQL server.

  • XAMPP package 1.5.3a installed beautifully – CHECK
  • XAMPP Control Panel is working – CHECK
  • Apache server is running – CHECK
  • MySQL server is running – CHECK
  • phpMyAdmin is allowing me to access it – CHECK
  • mod_rewrite Apache module is running – CHECK
  • WordPress installed ok – CHECK
  • Can I login to WordPress … NO!

Thinking that it may be a problem with the XAMPP installation I uninstalled version 1.5.3 and upgraded to 1.5.3a. No joy – same problem. After much prodding, tweaking and peering under the bonnet while sucking on my teeth and saying helpful things like “You see … it’s the parts, innit!” I discovered that the problem lay in my over-zealous firewall, ZoneAlarm Pro.

I discovered this by turning off the firewall completely and lo and behold! I could at last connect. I switched the firewall back on and once again the burly, dinner-suited gatekeeper of my PC barred me from logging in to my own local WordPress installation. After more tweaking and systematically turning off the ZoneAlarm settings one by one I finally narrowed the issue down to the “3rd Party Coookies” setting in the Privacy settings (Main tab):

Zonealarm Pro Cookies panel

Switching off “Block 3rd party cookies” and “Remove private header information” immediately did the trick, allowing me to immediately login to my local WordPress installation under the XAMPP Apache server.

I offer this to you in case you’ve encountered the same problem and couldn’t work out what was going on. Switching off the firewall is often one of my first actions when trying to diagnose web-related problems. Often its well-intentioned desire to protect me from all things nasty also prevents me from accessing exactly the thing that I do want to use. I just wish I’d tried it earlier this morning.

Staying organized while moving

It’s “Move-Day minus 1” before the packers return to load everything else into the back of a lorry and drive it safely over to Fife, and we’re getting organized (you may have guessed that already from previous blog posts).

What still needs to be done?

Living Room list showing what to dismantle or remove, what to pack, and what to clean.

Something we’ve found helpful as we’ve been dotting between rooms is a list blutak-ed onto the door of each room where we can indicate what still needs to be. What still needs to be:

  • Dismantled or removed
  • Packed
  • Cleaned

That way we can see where we are with the whole process, and keep on top of things. Once a task has been completed it gets scored off. Simple!

Download

If you’d like to do the same when you move I’ve saved my signs in PDF format, which you are free to download below:

Rooms at Destination

An A4 sheet that reads Living Room.

Something else that we found useful when we moved in here three years ago was to prepare A4 sheets with the name of each room for the destination property.

When we get into our new property in Cellardyke we’ll attach a sheet to each of the doors (again using the marvellous blu-tak) indicating the removals men which room was which: kitchen, lounge, dining room, bedrooms, etc.

Download

If you’d like to do the same when you move I’ve saved my signs in PDF format, which you are free to download below: