Jul 28 2005

VNC over RDP

Jeffrey Larson

If you use Windows XP a bunch you have probably heard of Remote Desktop (Connection). This is Microsoft’s implementation of remote control software, they have built in right into the Windows Operating System. Microsoft has implemented the Remote Desktop Protocol by utilizing their Terminal Services within the OS. What this means is that when a remote connection is established a new user session is created. This is pretty much how the Fast User Switching Feature of Windows XP works as well. Although it may seem handy to have a separate session to run programs and such, it means that you must open and close your commonly used programs (even those you like to keep running all the time) each time you connect. There is also the issue with license and Microsoft Windows. The EULA for Microsoft Windows includes a clause that states something about only being able to use one session at a time. There is actually a limit in the Remote Desktop software that will Log off the current user (actually in front of the computer) if a remote user connects.

VNC — which stands for Virtual Network Computing — is a technology similar to Microsoft’s Remote Desktop. VNC was originally developed by AT&T but is now open source. This solution allows the you to view the screen and control the keyboard/mouse input remotely as well. Modern implementations of VNC use hooks to capture the video that is displayed on the screen, this data is then compressed and sent out on the network to the attached client. This means that whatever is on the screen is shown to you remotely, none of this logging off users and creating new sessions. So if I have a program I run all day and like to check on the status of it, I can log in to my computer using VNC from anywhere, and check on it, without shutting down or restarting the program.

My current VNC flavour of choice is UltraVNC. UltraVNC gives me a stable remote desktop connection with a bunch of added features: optional encryption, file transfer, chat, connection optimization (compression/speed) and more. UltraVNC is currently at version 1.0.0. It is one fine piece of software. There are a couple of other cool add-ons that can work with UltraVNC too: NAT-to-NAT, Repeater, and SingleClick. I have played around with SingleClick (SC) which allows me to provide online technical support to those who I have distributed the software (the image thumbnail shows how this tech support software looks). You can read more about the others on the UltraVNC website. An added bonus from UltraVNC is the fact that the user authentication system can be integrated into Windows such that you can use the Windows users and passwords for authentication… smooth!

The one thing that UltraVNC doesn’t provide that Windows XP’s Remote Desktop does, is remote audio. I find this to be an almost useless feature anyway. I don’t really see the lack of this feature as a detriment to the UltraVNC product.

I’ve trialled products like Radmin and PcAnywhere but was unsatisfied. I think UltraVNC is the best solution for your money… oh did I mention that it’s completely FREE? I love open source freeware!

Jul 28 2005

DebugMode Wink Tutorials

Jeffrey Larson

Have you ever needed to help someone with configuration or use of a particular piece of software? Ever wanted a quick way to make a movie for your family or friends, they could follow along instead of writing out word instructions that didn’t seem clear?

For me, one thing being a computer engineer means is being the guy in the family that can help you with your computer stuff. I give help where I can, teaching people shortcuts for using their programs and setting up applications, and so on. I have used a couple tools to make videos for such a thing but it has always been quite time consuming to get the videos just right, in order to avoid confusion.

Recently I found an application by DebugMode called Wink. This program makes it really easy to create Tutorials and Presentations for using/configuring software. Wink renders Flash movies that can be simply displayed on webpages. The movies can also be saved as Windows Executables if you prefer.

I’ve created a sample tutorial to show you what Wink can do. This tutorial demonstrates how to set up a new mail account in Microsoft Outlook Express. Click on the thumbnail below to view it. Note that this sample presentation is about 1.5 MB so it may take a moment to load.

It should be noted that this sample presentation took under 10 minutes to create.

It’s amazing how easy this software is to use.

Jul 26 2005

The Art of Breaking

Jeffrey Larson

For those of you who have never heard of Thousand Foot Krutch, they are one killer hardcore band. They sound like tight rhythm, they strum rock and sing truth. TFK is from Toronto Ontario. I know they played at YC this past May, although I had to miss it much to my displeasure.

Their new album has just been released. “The Art of Breaking” (http://www.artofbreaking.com).

You can listen to 7 of the tracks from the album on the website. Sounds pretty good no?

I first heard of TFK from my friend Matthew Bonthoux. He told me a couple tracks to check out and I dug them. Those were off their first album which wasn’t easy to get because it was on an independant label. There bigger label release was Phenomenon which rocks. I have yet to get out and purchase this new album, but I’m gonna make sure I do. Thanks Matt for sharing TFK with me.

Jul 24 2005

Europe Trip Planning

Jeffrey Larson

I for one am not much of a planner. I do however take a long time to think about the decisions I make. Sarah and I have got a couple Lonely Planet guides for Spain and the Mediterranean. Our tickets have been purchased in full and we’re now just coasting along, waiting for our departure to get closer… can’t wait!

We’ve been told that we can’t miss Venice, nothing like it. I’m trying to figure out what other places and stuff I want to see while there. We’re thinking about training mostly, but we still need to figure out how many days of travel in order to buy our EuroRail passes.

Tentative plan to train from Madrid south, head over to Morocco for a bit just to check it out… since it’s so close to the southern tip of Spain; then head up the Mediterranean coast. Once we hit Barcelona, we might grab a ferry of some sort over to Genoa, Italy. We want to hit Cinque Terres for sure, read some neat stuff on it… and friend Kyle Johnstone suggested it too.

Planning on seeing Mom and Dad Marttunen somewhere in Italy for an overseas rendezvous. Sarah wants to check out the Aeolian Islands (they are between the mainland of Italy and Sicily). Rome for sure, since we’re flying out of there. Thinking a couple little day tours in the big cities but other than that just checking it out on our own.

I’ll let you know more when we figure more out. Anyone have any suggestions for stuff we shouldn’t miss?

Jul 18 2005

Summer Hikes

Jeffrey Larson

Sarah and I have been on a number of hikes lately. I decided to show you almost exactly where we hiked using Google Maps. I’m going to continue to update this posting as more hikes are completed.

Click a hike to show it on the map:

Please note that the path taken for each hike has been approximated.

Jul 15 2005

Accessibility: Web Standards vs Hacks

Jeffrey Larson

Web design is a lot of fun. I’ve been coding websites for some time and while HTML has remained fairly static, my design philosophies have not. Although I would love for this post to be details about a new way to design better web sites — it isn’t.

Back when I marked up my first piece of HTML I used a really loose version of the HTML 3.2 standard, although back then hyper text processing was pretty elementary in 3rd generation browsers. Layouts were all tabled or framed… content mixed in with markup.

Instead of presenting a new solution, I put forth my dilemma. I have coded web pages using web standards compliance, holding to syntactically correct code and markup (see W3C), but I have also coded webpages using as many hacks (standards non-compliant tricks used to just get stuff working) as necessary in order to get them working/displaying consistently in the majority of browsers.

Example of standards compliant design: http://www.hillsofjapan.com/
Example of hacked for consistency design: http://www.jeffothy.com/

Both of these design tactics are used when the audience of the website is not known; what OS do they use? what web browser? what screen resolution/color depth? etc.

Standards compliant design fails when it comes to users who still use outdated browsers (which are not usually standards compliant in their hypertext rendering). Another drag of standards compliant design is that even the newest browsers (Mozilla Firefox 1.0 and Microsoft Internet Explorer 6) are not consistent in how the standards are interpreted and implemented: this means even standards compliant design may fail to render consistently and that also means broad ranged testing is required.

Hacks for consistency have there own problems as well. The method is basically trial and error, aside from being able to have a thick book of tricks that make certain code render one way in one browser and render a different way in another browser. BUT, once you’ve got a design that you’ve tested to work in all (or most) of your audience’s browsers you still have to worry about new versions of browsers coming out and breaking what these hacks seemed to fix.

I know I am not the only one with this dilemma. Many many times I’ve caught myself trying to make a perfectly consistent page using any browser I can get my hands on. After long struggles with the code I often think, why am I trying to make this page work on these old browsers who barely anyone uses?

I have grown to truly hate websites which are “optimized for” Internet Explorer or 1024×768 screen resolution. This usually means the site looks like crap when using my preferred browser or a different screen resolution. So here’s one of the reasons I aim to make the code/markup I write work in as many browsers as possible. Backward Compatibility is a great fundamental. I mind less if there is a nifty feature or two supported in one browser but not in another, however, site layout, look and feel *need* to be cross-browser compatible.

These days, standards compliant websites are usually coded using validated XHTML and CSS. One of the frustrations I have when developing with XHTML/CSS is lacking consistent control over layout. Many things that seem quite simple using tables and traditional HTML 4.0 can become challenging brain-teasers when going with CSS.

Google has developed a number of web applications that are cross-browser compatible but are definitely not standards compliant. Being such a large scale web company, there audience is diverse, and as such, the applications they develop need to work almost everywhere, if not everywhere. Google Maps for instance supports a handful of newish browsers, but is explicit in stating that it does not support all. Aside from the simplest of designs, websites that want to use certain features cannot support all.

I think I need some comments here. Remind us why we shouldn’t code a website using “old technology” (tables in HTML4.0) even though we know that for the most part, newer browsers support it through backwards compatibility.