Saturday, January 22, 2011

Google Instant bugs - and no good way to report them...

Ever since "Google Instant" was released by Google, the search box occasionally just disappears in Firefox:


This seems to happen right around the moment when Google Instant directs Firefox to a new URL and I happen to be pressing the back button on my Logitech G500 Mouse.

Which is, by the way, a very nice mouse for gaming and general-purpose use for us right-handed folks. Left-handed folks are, unfortunately, so neglected by computer equipment manufacturers.

Anyway, I'm not sure why this bug happens.

There is also another annoying bug with Google Instant that happens when I'm typing quickly. It switches from the main page to the Google Instant page. The search box is there with my search but complete search results refuse to show up and clicking the search button does nothing. Starting over and running the exact same search causes search results to show up.

Google is one of those companies that doesn't publish their e-mail addresses anywhere. I do have a few direct e-mail contacts but none of them are exactly appropriate for reporting bugs with their core product (search).

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Two ways to make your computer faster that no one thinks of.

I've been using Windows for a really long time. As have many other geeks/nerds. I've seen my share of "Registry Cleaners", speedup tools, and tips from other people. All these things don't work. They really don't. You might get a temporary "boost" in certain areas, but a month later you'll be experiencing enough seemingly unrelated system problems that you'll end up reinstalling Windows.

People always tell me their computers are slow and want to know how to speed it up. Today, I'm going to show you two ways to truly speed up a Windows-based computer and keep it lightning fast.

First, fire up that slow computer and launch Task Manager. Go to the "Performance" tab, and look at the amount of memory being used. If the amount of memory being used exceeds 80% of the amount of available physical RAM, that means that portions of the OS and other programs are being moved to what is known as "swap space". Swap space is where the hard drive is being used to temporarily store bits of other programs to the hard drive so the current program being run by the OS can execute. Since the OS switches "rapidly" between programs to give each one a chance to execute some code, it is likely that the OS will start falling behind very quickly and the entire computer grinds to a halt as each program starts using swap space.

The hard drive swap space is there as a buffer so that the OS doesn't crash. It isn't meant to be used for extended periods of time. In fact, always running on swap will lower the life expectancy of the section of the hard drive where the clusters for swap space are being stored, causing premature failure of the drive.

The solution to this problem is to eliminate running programs you don't need running. This is actually a lot harder to do than it sounds and reinstalling the OS is the sometimes the fastest way to accomplish that task. Google is your friend here but it isn't easy to decide what to remove and what to keep even after searching. I'd love to recommend uninstalling anti-virus software because it is all unnecessarily bloated software but, unfortunately, most people need protection from themselves.

The second thing that can drastically speed up a system is eliminating useless entries from the "System path". This hearkens back to the bad old DOS days from which Windows was born. The system path is buried on all Windows OSes as an "Advanced" feature. On my Windows 7 install, it is located in: Start, Control Panel, System, Advanced System Settings, Environment Variables, System Variables, "Path". The most basic system path on Windows 7 is:

%SystemRoot%\system32;%SystemRoot%;%SystemRoot%\System32\Wbem

When Windows looks for a file, it will check first in the current working directory and then every entry along the configured user and system paths before giving up. Every addition to the path increases lookup time exponentially. If you run any sort of monitoring program (e.g. SysInternals Process Monitor), it becomes apparent that Windows performs extraneous lookups quite frequently and fails to find anything more often than not. Fewer paths = faster system. However, be careful when removing paths as any application that depends on the path may suddenly stop functioning. Again, the only way to easily remove a path is to just reinstall Windows.

It is fairly common knowledge that a fresh Windows install is fast. People blame the Windows Registry for bloat, so someone came up with a "Registry Cleaner". These have incredible risk of damaging your system in unknown ways and most don't work as advertised anyway. I never use them and never have problems.

If you are contemplating reinstalling Windows, also consider installing what are known as "Portable Applications" or "Portable apps". Portable apps are designed to be run from a USB thumbdrive so you can take them anywhere but they can be "installed" locally too. More importantly, though, is that they don't affect a Windows installation in any way unless you connect it up yourself. A portable application doesn't touch the Windows Registry or put files on the system. You could have hundreds of portable apps "installed" and the performance of Windows will remain the same. Plus, you have the option of taking your applications with you wherever you go. In addition, by using portable applications, every portable application used is one less application that has to be installed when Windows is reinstalled in the future and the data also travels easily between computers. It is a win-win scenario to use portable apps.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Dedicated Hosting just got affordable...

It used to be, in order to have your own dedicated host, you had to plop down hundreds of dollars a month. Today, I noticed that 1and1 has a fantastic deal on dedicated hosting for $60/month on a permanent basis - this is not one of those 6 month deals. Cloud hosting and virtual hosting are, in my opinion, no longer competitive with this deal.

I use dedicated hosting myself and absolutely love it. Most people opt for shared hosting, which introduces them to a world of hurt. If you have multiple websites, shared hosting gets expensive really fast. Plus shared hosting has significant downsides:

- No control of the server. You are at the mercy of the hosting provider and their settings.
- Web hosts cram hundreds, possibly thousands of websites onto a single box. Your website is not alone.
- Greater risk at getting hacked because someone else on the same box got hacked.
- You risk getting kicked off the hosting provider due to "too much CPU, RAM, or other resource usage".

A dedicated host is great because you control the server, what goes on the server, and can chug CPU, RAM, and hard drive all you want. It is your box.

The key aspect of ANY server is bandwidth. Bandwidth is usually most web host's trigger mechanism for "there is a problem" and you get booted. 1and1 offers the most bandwidth of all the various dedicated hosts out there (1TB per month) before that trigger mechanism - although, instead of getting the boot, they just charge per GB past that point. 2GB RAM is a bit skimpy though to run, say, the resource hog known as WordPress. However, that's plenty of RAM for Barebones CMS.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

How to get unblocked from Hotmail/Live

For the past couple of weeks, I've been trying to get my domains unblocked from Hotmail/Live. I set up a new domain for Barebones CMS (barebonescms.com) and put forums on the site and forgot to add a SPF record for the domain. A couple weeks ago, Hotmail/Live servers decided that e-mail from barebonescms.com was invalid and therefore refused delivery. Due to the holidays being crazy, I was unable to get around to dealing with the problem.

Then I discovered that Hotmail/Live was actually blocking ALL e-mail from my e-mail server regardless of domain. This sent me on a search to see how I could get unblocked. Of course, the first step was to fix my DNS records to add a SPF record. SPF-aware mail servers should really be assuming a default of:

v=spf1 mx -all

Or:

v=spf1 a mx -all

That way, most of us don't have to fiddle with silly things like this.

The next two steps to getting off the Hotmail/Live block list is to go here:

https://support.msn.com/

And request to join both the "SenderID" and "Junk Mail Reporting Partner" programs. Those are the minimum required to get off their block list. Of course, because of Internet delays revolving around e-mail and DNS, it can take 24+ hours before any changes are to be made to their servers and then another 48+ hours to take effect.

During this process, I ran into a couple nifty little tools that everyone who runs an e-mail server should be using:

https://www.senderscore.org/

Sender Score is a pretty accurate measure of how much e-mail volume a specific IP address is churning out. The score is calculated based on anonymous ISP data. Hotmail/Live appears to use this information to determine the reputation of a specific IP address, which is likely used in their spam filter to determine whether to accept the message, drop it in the spam folder, or simply reject the message altogether. The graph they display is really nice for determining trends for a specific IP but is otherwise meaningless.

The other nifty tool I ran across is Microsoft Postmaster Smart Network Data Services. This tool is a little more difficult to set up but you can see issues regarding the specific IP address associated with a mail server. For example, if someone reports an e-mail as spam or Hotmail/Live detects a virus coming into their servers from a specific IP, that information is made visible using that tool.

All of this takes time to complete. By the end of this week, though, my own situation should be cleared up. Hopefully this helps someone else. The moral of this story is: Don't forget to set up SPF records on new domain names.