Category Archives: Tech

Revisiting virtual desktops for Windows

It must be something about the slightly warmer air in Spring time because the last time I looked at virtual desktops for Windows was almost exactly two years ago.

Back then I tried an app called Desktops and mentioned VirtuaWin in passing but I honestly don’t remember why I stopped using Desktops and barely remember using it at all.

I installed VirtuaWin last Friday and I’ve been using it over the weekend and it’s a fine replacement for the same Linux functionality I used for many years. I have browsers in desktop 1, MTPuTTy in desktop 2 and I’m experimenting with xchat and Skype in desktop 3 so if you ping me on either of those and I don’t react it’s probably because the status bar icon doesn’t flash.

There’s also Dexpot but I’m in no hurry to try it just yet.

Privacy: Don’t let Gmail show images by default

Recently Gmail started caching all images sent to its users and by default will now display them when you look at your email. At first glance it seems like a good idea. It protects your IP address, stops the sender dropping cookies in your browser and possibly speeds up image loading for you. What it doesn’t do is stop the sender knowing that you opened the email. Your privacy is at risk if you enable this. Marketing efforts just became a lot easier.

A carefully crafted image filename will let the sender know that a particular user viewed his spam email, even if Google host the file on their own servers. Google has to fetch the file from the sender’s server and that will contain a number or string identifying that user.

http://example.com/logo.jpg?email=joe@example.com

As soon as that image is opened by Google the sender knows they have a valid email address.

How easy is it to track usage? It’s simple! I wrote a plugin in 2007 called blog voyeur that could track visitors who viewed my blog through RSS readers if they had left comments here. (I’m not using that plugin any more, don’t worry, your anonymity is safe!)

The documentation on the new settings says as much but I doubt many people will look there.

In some cases, senders may be able to know whether an individual has opened a message with unique image links. As always, Gmail scans every message for suspicious content and if Gmail considers a sender or message potentially suspicious, images won’t be displayed and you’ll be asked whether you want to see the images.

Gmail does a good job of spotting spam but legitimate email can contain these tracking images too. I get promotional emails from companies I’ve dealt with. I would much rather they not know when I open or even if I have opened their emails. If I wanted them to know, I’d tell them.
So, when you see that popup informing you that images will be displayed, click on Settings and disable image loading.

disable-images

3 months free Backblaze cloud backup!

Argh, I just handed over $95 for 2 years worth of Backblaze cloud backup and now they’re offering 3 months free if you sign up through this link before March 31st! It’s to celebrate World Backup Day, something I’m all in favour of since backups saved the day in 2008 when an external drive died on me.

BTW, both those Backblaze links are affiliate links but I’m a happy customer and I’m currently backing up over 700GB of data to the cloud. 681GB of that is 13 years worth of photos! My upstream bandwidth is horrendous but I still managed to upload 50GB over the last 20 days. At this rate it’ll be a few months before everything is uploaded but the backup hasn’t really impacted on my day-to-day work. Websites and videos still download and display promptly which surprised me. Uploading anything from here usually makes everything else crawl. I told the backup client I wanted faster backups too!

backblaze-performance

It’s not all sunshine and roses though. The client has an exclusion list of directories so it’s easy to exclude directories you don’t want backed up. Sensibly, it doesn’t backup “Program Files” or other system directories by default. However, I’d rather have an include list because on this machine I really only care about my photos, some documents and my Thunderbird mail directory and I know where they live. It’s a small quibble and probably one I’ll soon forgive when my machine goes belly up and I’m desperately looking for a secure cert or the settings for some obscure program!

Backblaze Pod

Curious about where your data lives when it’s in the cloud? That’s a Backblaze Pod there, and it has a raw capacity of 135TB but this post goes into a lot of detail about it and how it’s made. This slightly tongue in cheek post then explains why you don’t want to do this at home!

So that's where all my photos are going
So that’s where all my photos are going

Further on the subject of backups, you should really listen to this episode of The Naked Scientists podcast. This interview with Leo Enticknap, University of Leeds deals with backups but also file formats that scares me. I hope the Canon CR2 raw format is durable enough that it can be read in a few decades, or I may consider converting those files to DNG (which is probably just as likely to be unreadable in the far future TBH).

Try Backblaze, they have a 15 day free trial (or if you’re reading this before March 31st, use this link to get 3 months free) where you can upload data and perform restores to see how well it works. It’s a reasonable price for peace of mind and convenience. My photo archive currently resides in 3 drives on 2 separate computers (using rsync, Samba, Synkron and cronjobs to sync daily) and that won’t change but having an offsite backup like this gives me some confidence in case some local disaster should happen!

So, sorry for the affiliate links but Backblaze is a great service and I hope I’ve made you at least consider duplicating your important files somewhere before it’s too late.

Hibernate your Windows 7 Desktop

Windows 7 on desktop machines doesn’t have a hibernate button. It does have a sleep option which in fact is a “hybrid sleep”, a half way house between hibernation (RAM copied to disk) and sleep (RAM kept alive by a small voltage).

Hybrid sleep is a good compromise but I really prefer to have the machine turned off but I like to keep the state recorded. I need hibernation and that’s where this FAQ came in. It has a good explanation of the different sleep states, how to enable hibernation and most importantly, what to do when your machine won’t stay in hibernation (chances are your mouse is waking up your PC).

It didn’t mention “powercfg -h on” which I found recommended on several forums like this one. Odd. I ran that from an Adminstrator’s cmd shell so I can’t say for sure if it’s required or not any more.

In a nutshell:

  1. Turn off hybrid sleep in the Power Options advanced settings.
  2. In your mouse device properties disable the checkbox that allows it to wake up the computer.

Also, if you right click on the Shutdown button you can change the default action to Hibernate, sleep or any of the shutdown options. When updates are to be installed it changes back to “Shutdown”.