Thursday, July 17, 2008

Thank you Fedora.

So about 3 weeks ago, I started having some serious issues with my system. The system would start acting very strange and then eventually spontaneously reboot itself. By acting strange I mean that the system would work fine, until it started working in continuous short bursts following short periods of complete inactivity.

I have Corsair RAM in my machine, the kind that has the activity LEDs on it, and these LEDs were also acting strange, again showing the unusual burst of activity pattern followed by pauses of inactivity. I immediately thought this might be memory related so I left Memtest 86+ (available free through the link) running for the night only to discover that my memory was likely just fine.

So after a long week of arduous troubleshooting I narrowed it down to the SATA drive I was running the OS off of. Looking through the drive's S.M.A.R.T info revealed that the drive was failing (SpeedFan gives you a nice breakdown of your drive info). I also have 2 other IDE drives in my machine which up until now I have been primarily using for storage. I backed up one of them on an external drive and installed XP on it hoping my defective drive would last long enough for me to back up my most important data.

The good news was that once XP was installed all of the problems immediately went away (confirming the role of the SATA drive in the problems I have been having), and I also managed to grab some of the most important data off the defective drive for backup. I figured I could breath easy for now and get the rest of the data off later on. Well in retrospect that was a mistake, as the next morning when I woke up, the drive was gone.

Now you would think this would be the end of the story, except that a week later, upon waking up, I discovered that my system was hung and required a reboot. After restarting the system I found out that my dead drive had come back to life. Needless to say I was exhilarated, in the sort of way that I rarely am upon waking up. However, my excitement at the thought of having my data back did not last long, as I had quickly discovered that while the drive was available, it was not accessible and neither was the data in it.

Not intent on giving up, I decided to try my best to get that data off even if it took me all day (the data I'm referring to was mostly composed of pictures - 3.5GB worth of family pictures that while not crucial, certainly had a lot of sentimental value - especially since many of them were not backed up anywhere else). So on I went running CHKDSK and Western Digital diagnostic utilities, wasting many hours with absolutely no luck. I then decided to give Linux a shot. So I downloaded Fedora 9 Live, burned the ISO and booted into the OS. Thanks to some instructions I found on a blog post by Rodney Fletcher, I was able to determine the commands to mount an NTFS partition in Linux and decided to see what would happen. Unfortunately, while I was able to mount my external drive without a hitch, trying to mount the defective drive ended up repeatedly hanging the live OS. About to admit defeat, I booted back into XP only to discover that whatever Fedora did while trying to mount the partition on the defective drive, allowed me access to the partition's content. Overjoyed, I started frantically grabbing the data and copying it to my external drive. Everything seemed to be working well except that a minute or so into the copying process, my computer resumed the strange burst behavior it was exhibiting with the old XP, which also stopped the copying in its tracks.

After rebooting and trying again a number of times without any real success, I noticed that just as the strange behavior started, Windows was outputting an unusual message, notifying me that a delayed write action had failed on the defective drive. I thought about this for a while and I could not figure out why would anything need to be written to the drive during the copying process. I never actually figured that out but I did come up with an idea and a plan to solve the problem. I realized that reading from the drive seemed to be working just fine, until something attempted to write to it, at which point the strange behavior commenced. I realized that if I could make the drive read-only, perhaps the problem can be avoided and I can get my data off the drive. The only problem is that Windows does not support making a partition read-only. So off I went looking for freeware that might do the job.

Unfortunately I could not find such software (an idea for an open source project perhaps?), but I was able to locate a shareware by the name of HDGuard which among other things allows you to designate a partition read-only. I jumped through some hoops and managed to download their 30 day trial version. After a simple install, a bit of configuration and a couple of reboots I was finally able to get my files off that dreaded drive.

So to conclude:

Thank you Fedora, thank you Rodney Fletcher, thank you HDGuard, thank you TeraCopy (a great free program that replaces the dreaded Windows copy utility) and thank you Western Digital for having relatively long warranties and a relatively hassle free RMA service (and sorry for the unusually long rant!).

Saturday, July 5, 2008

New PluginWatcher extension release (v1.1)

An updated version of the PluginWatcher extension (version 1.1) is now available for download from the Mozilla add-ons website. It is currently in the sandbox, awaiting approval from an editor.

The new version primarily adds the ability to customize PluginWatcher's UI while also introducing a number of changes to the core of the extension. In the UI department it now also offers a second panel, displaying the plugin activity expressed as a percentage of utilization. The biggest change, however, is in the way the extension calculates the plugin load on the system - that algorithm has now been refined and it should prove to be significantly more accurate. This release also addresses some of the packaging issues that were observed with the previous xpi; mainly it provides a much cleaner and smaller xpi file, containing only the files that are required by the extension.

I also plan on releasing version 1.2 of the extension soon, as I already have a number of ideas for possible improvements. If you care to try the new version, it can be downloaded here (since it is still in the sandbox, you will need a Mozilla add-ons account to install it). Feedback is as always welcome.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Spring cleaning

If you ever had to clean up your drives of all the junk that accumulates there over the years, you know this can be a time consuming, less-than-fun task to go through. But if you are using Windows OS, there is a very simple and effective (and open source) tool to help make this into less of a chore. Its called WinDirStat and it provides you with a meaningful visual representation of whats taking up space on your machine.

This is what my drive looks like after getting rid of the biggest space offenders:

The big gray block on the left (highlighted in white) is the post cleaning free space I have gained (approx. 65GB freed).

Get all the info here!


I am not a MAC user but was made aware of a similar program for OSX called Disk Inventory X. You can find out about it here!

Hat tip: Lukas Blakk.

And of course we can't leave the Linux community behind... so if you are using a Linux distribution you can use a similar application called KDirStat, find out about it here!

Hat tip: James Boston.

Linux minefield and plugins

If you are as unfortunate as me and need to work with plugins (like Flash) running on a fresh build in Linux, this post could save you hours of frustrations. The problem is that the automatic plugin installer that comes with Minefield doesn't realize that it was built as opposed to being installed, and so when it fetches the required plugin it ends up installing it in the default location -- "/usr/lib/mozilla/plugins". Unfortunately this is not the location where Minefield looks for the plugin .so files. In order to actually install a plugin on Minefield you will need to first locate and then copy the .so file to Minefield's plugin directory -- "/mozilla/?ObjDir?/dist/bin/plugins". Then restart Minefield and you should be in business!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The story of one Hotmail and a Blackberry

If you are the owner of a Hotmail email account and a Blackberry (I own neither, but my uncle had the former for years and acquired the latter a couple of weeks ago to get his emails faster) you may have already tried forwarding your mail from one to the other, perhaps because the person at the store told you it works with *all* web mail services (as was the case with my uncle), merely to discover the sad truth: it doesn't!

Open source to the rescue. After a bit of looking around I found this great little POP3 server proxy called FreePOPs. What this great little program does, is it allows you to retrieve your free web mail messages with any application or device that supports the POP protocol (including a Blackberry). The best part is that it works with most popular free web mail providers out of the box (and some less popular ones too) and it is extensible, so in theory support could be easily added for almost any service. It's also very light and very much in the background.

While this is an easy way to get your Hotmail messages on your Blackberry, it can also be used to get them in your Gmail inbox. Gmail's options include retrieving emails from a different account that supports POP3 access. The only downside with Gmail's POP retrieval is that you don't get to control how often it checks - which at times could mean as long as an hour between checks. Still, it sure beats paying for Hotmail Plus just to be able to forward your mail.

Pesky email problems like these are all too common, which is also why I'm posting this up in the hopes that this might be of some use to people out there looking for a similar solution.

You can find a download link for the program as well as more info right here.

PW Core/Extension Docs Up

So PW Core is finally in the tree and is available in nightly builds as of April 24th, 2008. The extension is also up and running on Mozilla's addons website and can be downloaded here.

I have also created draft support documents for both PW Core and the extension:

PW Core

PW Extension

As always, your feedback is appreciated!


The article on PW Core has been generalized and moved to MDC. Find it here.

Also, thanks to Cesar, my extension went public on AMO. See link above for download page.

Friday, April 18, 2008

PW v1.0 and Final OSD700 note

Well this certainly feels a little strange. I am now technically a CPA graduate - but its not really sinking in yet. PW v1.0 is done and I must admit I'm very happy with the end result. It has certainly come a long way since last September. You can find all the info on this new release on my wiki as always.

Now I would like to thank the many people who have been a part of my journey and helped me along (in no particular order):

Dave (humph), Chris (ctyler), Robert (roc), Mark (mfinkle), Mike (shaver), Gijs, Armen (armenzg), Cesar, Andrew, Lukas (lsblakk) and Ted (for his extension making script -- really useful!!).

Thank you all and I hope I'm not forgetting anyone!