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Correct Spelin

Story location: Home / computing /

Oh the irony. This captcha appeared on my website earlier this evening.

Ironic Captcha

No electricity = no wifi

Story location: Home / Blog / house /

I was using my computer at home this morning when the Internet stopped working. I noticed the wifi icon on the computer was flashing so I thought the router had briefly dropped the connection. Emma pointed out that the electric clock had gone off, so for some reason our power was out. I then noticed that all the neighbouring wifi networks had disappeared from the wifi menu, and I could also hear some nearby alarms going off, so it then became clear that the power had gone down for the nearby area and not just our house.

It's an automatic response to switch on the room lights when we get up, which I immediately did, then suddenly realised how stupid that was.

Our oven has mains-powered electric ignition so I had to light it by hand to bake the baguette for my sandwich. We don't have any long matches or special long lighters for lighting cookers, so I had to reach to the back of the oven with an ordinary cigarette lighter, while carefully turning the gas on. The gas makes a fairly loud 'whooshing' noise, which made lighting it a little scary but I managed without losing too many arm hairs (unlike Emma last week when she lit the grill, and the automatic lighter didn't seem to want to work at the time).

Almost but not quite...

Story location: Home / computing /

This morning I received an email claiming to come from Facebook. It claimed that they were implementing new security measures and I would have to update my account.

It all looked very authentic, right up until the bit at the bottom of the message where it said:

This message was intended for xxxxxxxxxxx @ trapperindustries.com.

I don't remember setting up a company called Trapper Industries, which appears to sell deactivated weapons and military hardware. I guess the email wasn't intended for me after all.

Speeding up an old computer

Story location: Home / computing /

I have a Compaq desktop computer which I don't use very often. It used to be my main machine but I now mainly use it to back up data or the scanner which is attached to it.

It has been running infuriatingly slowly recently so I decided to reinstall Windows, using the 'System Recovery' option which replaces the contents of the hard drive with the 'factory fresh' copy of XP.

The computer now runs quite quickly again. Boot-up time has been reduced from over 4 minutes to 38 seconds. The computer had so much software installed, and a lot of rubbish would load on start-up. The desktop actually used to appear after 2½ minutes but it was a further 2 minutes before you could open any windows or run any programs.

Clicking on files and opening windows is amazingly quick now. There used to be several seconds of disk-thrashing and a long wait when the "Start" button was clicked. Now the menu appears pretty much instantly. I had started to wonder whether my old computer had always been this slow, and I only thought I remembered it being fast when new, but no. It is back to being quick and responsive again.

Problems with Open Office

Story location: Home / computing /

I have been an occasional user of Open Office for a few months. Most of the time is seems to be fairly usable but there are a few niggles.

  • Embedding videos into Impress is a bit clunky. I don't know whether it is a problem with my version but they play as soon as the slide appears, irrespective of any pauses or 'on-click' actions I set up.

  • Every time I run Open Office, I get the "R6034" error, informing me that the application has tried to load the C libraries incorrectly. Again I don't know whether this is just my machine or whether it is a common problem. A brief ATFG (Ask The F_ing Google) doesn't help.

The Mysteries of Windows Printing

Story location: Home / computing /

Yesterday I tried to print some documents using the networked printer in the department. The first time I tried this, it was about half an hour before I went to retrieve the print-out. When I got to the printer there was no sign of it, but the document had gone from the printer queue so I thought it might have disappeared due so some sort of error.

Later in the day I tried to print something else. I can see the printer from my office door so I watched to see if the lights on top started to flash. Nothing happened so I deleted the document from the print queue and decided to use the other printer, which is down the end of a long corridor. This other printer worked ok. Nobody else had problems with the first printer so I suspected my computer and thought a re-boot might help.

This morning, after turning my computer off overnight, I tried to print something out using the first printer again. I sent the document to the printer and watched for the flashing lights. The printer leapt into action so I walked over to retrieve my print-out. I was surprised to find it had printed out the missing document from yesterday morning as well as the document I had just printed.

I don't know where this first document was hiding. It can't have been in the printer because other people had successfully used it after me. It wasn't visible in the printer queue of my computer. For some reason it only started to print when I decided to print something else, so it looks like it was hiding somewhere in my machine. Very puzzling.

A few things I have learned this week

Story location: Home / Blog /

I have been using Skype to talk to Emma while she's away for the week. I started by using the USB microphone which came with Guitar Hero but earlier today I found out that my laptop has a built in microphone. I can't find a mention of it in the user manual. For some reason Dell have decided to keep quiet about it.

I saw the Diet Coke advert with Duffy riding her bike and singing. It is an awful pile of !"#*%. Her voice sounds terrible.

A cup of hot chocolate, thickened with cornflour, makes a quick and easy chocolate custard.

And talking of hot chocolate, I tried a chocolate peanut drink, by stirring a couple of spoons of peanut butter into a mug of cocoa. I couldn't really taste the peanuts properly, and since I only had crunchy peanut butter in the house, the lumps didn't fit with the rest of the drink.

The annoying marquee tag

Story location: Home / computing /

I regularly use a few forums (fora?) and one of the other members has started using the <marquee> tag in his signature. It's rather annoying to have text whizzing across the screen while you're trying to read something.

With Firefox it's possible to disable the marquee tag, so the text doesn't move. There is a file called userContent.css which is located in the chrome subdirectory of the Profiles folder, which in turn can be found hiding in the C:\Documents and Settings\<username>\Application Data\Mozilla\Firefox\ directory (at least that's where it is in Windows XP).

Load this file into a text editor, or create the file if it doesn't exist. Add the line:

 marquee { -moz-binding: none; }

then restart the browser. The annoying marquee text will no longer move.

Update: On the mac, the profiles folder lives in the Library/Application Support/Firefox subdirectory of the user directory. With newer versions of Firefox, this can be found by clicking on Help->Troubleshooting Information

Funny Google Background Colours

Story location: Home / computing /

I recently changed the default background colour on Firefox from white to grey so that I could check the transparency on some images before uploading them to the site. I didn't bother to change the colours back because I didn't think I needed to. I expected that these days most web pages would define a background colour if they needed one.

The normal google home page looks ok but some of the other pages seem to expect the default white. The Google logo and icons appear with white backgrounds but the rest of the page is defiantly grey.

Google with grey background

New CAPTCHA for comments

Story location: Home / welcome /

I've modified the comments system to use the reCAPTCHA system, rather than my home-made one which relied on the user to count the number of animals in a photo.

reCAPTCHA helps digitise old books by letting people type in words which are a challenge to OCR systems. More information can be found by clicking on the link above.


Not impressed so far. Only an hour after installing the reCAPTCHA, I received 2 spam comments. Under my old system I rarely got any spam comments. I'll give it a day and if it stays like this I'll put the old CAPTCHA back.


Two hours later and another spam comment. I'm putting the old CAPTCHA back. I had hoped that reCAPTCHA would work. I didn't expect to get more spam with it installed.

Trying to prevent image theft 2: Watermarking images

Story location: Home / computing /

Yesterday I mentioned using the .htaccess file with Apache to prevent people hot-linking images. That would only be a temporary solution, which would stop current hot-links from working. Any future image theft would involve people downloading images and re-uploading them somewhere else.

See more ....
One way of stopping that is to add a watermark to each image. There are a lot of websites explaining how to do that manually in Photoshop or Gimp, but I needed a simple way of adding a watermark to several hundred images.

I had heard about Image Magick and thought it might have a way of doing it. There are instructions here explaining how to do it.

The images on my website are spread across a lot of directories, so I wrote a small perl script to watermark all the images in a directory (including subdirectories):

# use ImageMagick to add copyright watermark to images

use File::Find;
use strict;

my  = "jpg|png";    # file extensions to apply watermarks to
my /computing = "/images";      # directory holding the images
my  = "/copyright3.png";    # full path to watermark image

sub processFile{
    return if ($_ !~ /.*\.[]/);
    my  = ::name;

    `composite -dissolve 10% -tile  "" ""`;


The /computing and `` variables should hold the full path for the directory and watermark file. You'll need to produce an image with a transparent background for the watermark.

Changing the 10% value gives a ligher or darker watermark, depending on how obvious you want it to be.

Trying to prevent image theft 1: Using .htaccess

Story location: Home / computing /

I've had a problem recently with people stealing images from my website - either hot-linking them or re-uploading them to other sites. My first attempt to stop this was by modifying the .htaccess file on the web server, telling it to only allow image requests from recognised places.

See more ....
This works because most browsers send a 'referrer' value which tells the web server where the request came from. If I display an image on my site, the referrer should be 'mikedowney.co.uk', which would be allowed. Requests from other sites would be disallowed.

This should work with most sites hosted on an Apache server. I added the following lines to the .htaccess file:

RewriteEngine on
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} !^$
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} !^http(s)?://(www\.)?mikedowney.co.uk [NC]
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} !^http(s)?://(www\.)?google.(\.)? [NC]
RewriteRule \.(jpg|jpeg|gif)$ /image_error.png [NC,R,L]

The first line tells the server we are using the RewriteEngine to change how some URLs are handled. The next 3 lines specify which referrers are allowed to link to images. We have:

  1. Empty referrer. This is because some browsers may not correctly fill in the 'referrer' line when requesting images.
  2. This website - it would be pointless to disallow me from showing my own images.
  3. Any of the google servers - so that the google image search will work properly. The (.)? bit at the end should match different countries, such as google.com or .co.uk etc.

The final line gives the file types this applies to and the file to display if it matches. In this case, an image with an error message.

Previewing Posts

Story location: Home / computing / blosxom /

The Blosxom blogging system doesn't have a built in way of previewing posts before making them publicly visible. There are various plugins available but for me they seemed to overcomplicate things.

I have been using the Blosedit post editor which includes a preview option but if any Blosxom plugins are used to alter the page appearance (such as Markdown or photo galleries) then the page won't display correctly.

My solution requires the entriescache plugin to keep track of posted stories. Normally, any stories will only show if entriescache knows about them. I set the delay variable to a high number eg.

$delay = 9999;

to stop the index from being rebuilt unless I say so. This means that I can add new posts without them showing, until I tell it to rebuild the index.

To display all posts, not just those in the index, I made the following change to entriescache:

sub start {
    # Force a reindex
    $reindex = 1 if (CGI::param('reindex'));
    return 0 if (CGI::param('preview'));
    return 1;

Entries are written as normal, then they are viewed by adding ?preview=yes to the end of the URL. If am I happy with the entry, I put ?reindex=yes instead.

This method can also work with the wikieditish plugin too, by adding:

<input type="hidden" name="preview" value="yes" />

to the form in the foot.wikieditish file.

The Crap Supercomputer

Story location: Home / computing /

I was searching for some information about the Cray Y-MP computer. The article I found was a PDF scan of an old paper. The OCR seems to have got slightly confused. I didn't realise there was a Crap 2 computer or a Gay Y-MP.

The Crap-2 computer

Why I hate DRM

Story location: Home / computing /

I have never had a positive experience with DRM (Digital Rights Management). I can appreciate why content producers use it, to restrict unlimited copying of their copyrighted materials, but in my experience it just doesn't work.

Part of the problem is that it relies on proprietary (and possibly untrustworthy) software which often demands a specific computer setup. The original version of the BBC iPlayer insisted on Windows XP and the latest version of Media Player. Pretty much the same configuration was specified for Channel 4's 4OD system. Despite my computer complying with all of the requirements, neither system would work on it. I never managed to work out why. I eventually managed to get iPlayer to work on my new laptop.

See more ....

At least the BBC now let you watch episodes on-line, using Flash and streaming, but XP/Media Player are still required if you want to download episodes. Downloading or streaming is usually only available for a week after broadcast, but downloading has the edge because you then get 28 days to watch the episode, which is handy if you don't have time to watch an episode straight away.

My main gripe with DRM is the complete lack of control I get. I cannot copy episodes to a portable media player, so I can only watch them on my laptop pc (which I can't connect to my TV) rather than on my Creative Zen (which I can).

I have had TV episodes 'expire' and refuse to play, despite the download library claiming I had several days left on the 'licence'. The worst experience was with music I downloaded from the '3 Music Store'. All of the music files were infested with DRM and somehow the licence files managed to get corrupted. All the files I had downloaded during the last year or so suddenly refused to play. The backup licence also failed to work. One good thing about the 3 Music Store is that it allows you to re-download the files at a later date. This only worked if I downloaded the files on my other computer, but at least I managed to get the files working again.

I will never consider buying any music or video which contains DRM (the '3' files were downloaded as part of the monthly allowance with my phone contract). There is no way I'll pay for music where somebody has the ability to deny me access to it. I'd rather buy a CD or DVD which should work on different machines, won't force me to upgrade my computer before playing and would be less likely to suddenly stop working.