Software 2014-2015: Useful Small Apps and Utilities

These aren’t quite as grand as the other tools in my previous post- but they’re all FREE or low cost and, whilst they often blend in to the background, are “daily uses” for me:

  • Peazip – OK, 7zip will do the job too- but Peazip manages to at least make zips look slightly less early 90’s by adding a tiny bit of interface charm whilst avoiding any unnecessary bloat.
  • Minibin by E-Sushi – I like my desktop clean – so I remove the recycle bin (which I rarely dive in to- thank you shift-delete!) but that leaves me without a way to empty the bin – forunately minibin offers an easy system tray tool which does exactly what I need!
  • Cmder – a new install this year but a great CMD line improvement for Windows – if you spend a lot of time at the command line you owe Cmder a quick try (portable too!).
  • Mouse without Borders – Synergy never behaved quite the way I wanted it to and, when I last checked, it jumped up from free to a paid for application and didn’t seem worth the risk given my past experience- in my hunt for an alternative I found Mouse Without Borders from Microsoft Labs – and fell in love! Easy to install, reliable, and with clipboard sharing (which I rarely use, but useful to have!), it makes my desktop and laptop mouse/keyboard work seamlessly.
  • Greenshot – the best, free, screenshot utility for me – it’ll happily let you snap multiple screenshots to a file make it easy to build a walkthrough or similar.
  • Syncovery – An easy backup application with lots of flexibility without being bloated – this is SyncToy on steroids and so ideal for my purposes.
  • Jing – An odd choice, you might think, for someone with Greenshot – but where Jing comes in to it’s own is in video capture- thanks to a tidy upload function this makes videos easy to build and send in moments- perfect for quick “how to’s”.
  • Amazon Music – Windows Media Player, for better or worse, has been a solid media player for it’s robust library system (iTunes and Songbird have both failed me performance wise with larger music collections) but Amazon Music might just have surpassed Media player due to a slicker UI and fast library searches.
  • FileZilla – Simple FTP (Cyberduck gets an honorable mention) – some quirky design elements make it less than perfect but rarely do large batch jobs fail or connections drop which makes FileZilla perfect for the job’s I task it with.
  • Freemake – Video Convertor is (once you carefully select your install options!) the easiest video conversion utility I’ve ever seen- it takes moments to chose your options and get the output you need.
  • VLC – still the best video player. Nothing further to add!
  • Windirstat – and, to a lesser degree, space sniffer, both other great visualisations of disk space usage which makes finding large files/disk space vampires that much easier to find.

Useful Software for 2015

Avoiding the tradition of many blogs that use the end of year to capture the best X of the last year, I’m posting an article on my top software tools/essentials that not just helped me get through 2014 but I expect to keep me productive in 2015 too:

  • Windows 8.1 – Many may disagree, but Windows 8.1 has proven to be a solid operating for me – crash free, robust, and fast, Windows 8.1 rarely gets in my way- which is exactly what I want out of my operating system. I will confess that the App Store is awful (to the point that I’m only likely to enter it once a quarter) and I remain frustrated with the mess of Control Panel and settings locations – but these are minor gripes that just remind me of what I feel should be the core operating system experience- a reliable core upon which applications run, with good hardware compatibility, and a UI which takes a back seat and lets me focus on my work- which 8.1 (and, indeed, 10 by all impressions) does well.
  • Microsoft Office 2013 – In a world filled with competition (at last) for productivty apps and webapps trying to catch up, Microsoft Office for me remains the best application for producing good quality documents in a small amount of time. Between the neat UI, easy access to formating options and powerful functionality (Excel in particular) it’s hard to find fault with the product- especially now subscription offers and low cost editions are becoming cheaper. I’d love to say I like Google Docs or Open Office, but both applications lack a lot of the smart features I use day-to-day and just plain messy in places which stops me making the leap – and I suspect the status quo may last for a few years still.
  • Microsoft Visual Studio – Another Microsoft app but I won’t apologise for this in the slightest- I’ve yet to find my perfect IDE (Sublime Text get’s a honourable mention as my go-to-editor on the move)- but whilst Visual Studio is overly heavy for a lot of tasks, it’s still a great toolset for rapid application development.
  • Adobe Creative Cloud – Again, another industry standard application (much loathed for similar reasons)- Creative Cloud is finally affordable to “the norms” interested in digital imaging without the hassle of piracy or a rather large bill. And now that I can afford to buy it, I’m hooked- Photoshop is simply the best tool for so many jobs (again, like Office, other apps often lack the full featureset or have obscure interfaces for normal functions) and the rest of the suite are solid offerings – plus I can’t resist mentioning some of the amazing research and app releases Adobe have managed this year that push the boundaries of graphical apps (intelligent fill, edge finding, etc).
  • Evernote – The web app (which I’ll cover in another post) now surpasses the design of the Windows app (which was only recently tidied up) but the Windows app remains useful for offline knowledge base posts with quick search and easy tagging- with the web clipper (which is light years ahead of the OneNote equivlant – come on Microsoft!) it’s a brilliant tool for idea capture.
  • VMware Workstation / Virtual Box – Being able to run a virtual machine sandbook, or a development machine which roams with me everywhere on a USB drive has changed my life and comes highly recommended for the same reason!
  • Google Chrome – Between the plugins and non-intrusive toolbars, Chrome is my perfect browser – a window into the World Wide Web. Bookmark syncing, search within the settings (where is that in ALL other applications?) and good rendering/compatibility are all icing on the cake. This last year I’ve had a few stability issues but FireFox, Safari and IE have also failed to make any functional improvements to make me want to shift so I suspect Chrome will stay with me for some time to come..
  • Unity – OK, it crashes too often for my liking, but when it’s running, it’s a solid game development tool which has allowed thousands of indies to get into 3D gaming- thank you Unity (although don’t scare me again this year with news of possible buyouts!).
  • Steam – I’m trying to reduce my Steam addiction this year… but Steam still deserves a mention as a solid platform – although discovery of new games is going to become harder and harder in 2015 and beyond.

I’m hoping to do a follow up posts on “mini-apps”, webapps and mobile apps soon – as well as my wishlist for 2015 too – so keep checking back!

Getting Productive

Many people will be starting out this new year with a resolution to be more productive or start blogging more regularly (both of which are on my list of things I want to do!) and a fair subset of this group will have found copious quantities of research on the topics of productivity and writing – but, if you’re anything like me, I all too often find myself in a sea of fascinating productivity methods to waste time on! This year, I wanted to try something different, based on a lot of posts I’ve been trying to “meta-parse” from Ramit Sethi over on “I will Teach you to be Rich“- I really like Ramit’s writing style and approach to productivity and earning as he deploys a “scientific” or experimentation method to determine what works for you – because, as we probably all know by now, no one thing will work for everyone. I don’t want to turn my own blog into a productivity site – but I did want to capture some of the tools and methods that a geek can be deploy to enhance the strategy of getting productive through testing what works:

  • Notes Applications: Between Evernote, SimpleNote, Notepad and OneNote (to name but a few!) we’ve never had a better range of tools to help us to take notes – and, just as scientists of old (Da Vinci springs particularly to mind) would jot down observations as they test a hypothesis, so should you – with online notebooks your notebook can be available whenever you need it and can be searched and referenced even easier than a traditional notebook (although I do still love a nice Moleskine book!).
  • Timers – Pomodoro timers, stop watches, RescueTime, etc all offer you the chance to time or set target times to your productivity hours- some people require targets to get going, others like measuring productivity success – fortunately, again, you’re spoilt for choice with applications galore for tracking and targeting your work efforts!
  • Social Networking – Peer pressure can be a powerful force which you can leverage to motivate your efforts – from posting your productivity stats, to making sure others know what your up to and help you reach your goals (there’s plenty of sites out there that use this “group coach” method now too to make it even easier).
  • The Web: The web is full of “past research” which you can tap into for productivity (and round ups of round-up sites are readily available – e.g. http://www.thegoodwebguide.co.uk/best-sites/self-motivation/14764) so don’t be afraid to do a bit of digging- just make sure you apply a cap (time, depth of links, etc!) to this too otherwise you run the risk of losing your productive hours.

And that last one brings me to one final point – be wary of tool OVER USE – don’t just use a tool for the sake of using a tool and be careful – there are hundreds of tools out there but that means there’s plenty of scope for you to exhaust your time testing them all! So work out your assessment criteria and evaluation criteria before working out your best toolset!

File Integrity Monitoring – Handling Unexpected Changes

With last year’s security breaches reaching new heights in the general media, security of IT assets has never been more important. Many of you will know I’ve recently moved into an IT consultancy role in the security sector, and I wanted to start a series on various security processes that can be adopted to improve your security profile.

File Integrity Monitoring is a key part of most good security practices – but how do you manage FIM? From scripts that notify on critical file changes to full product suites dedicated to FIM and on to data leak protection products, there’s various tools that will enable you to achieve FIM but few businesses share their practices for how best to manage the products once they’re in place – so just what should you do when your FIM product highlights a change – and just how robust a process do you have around your FIM alerts?

Of course, there’s no one system fits all – customisation to your business needs is essential, but at it’s most basic you’ll have:

  • Alert
  • Assessment
  • Response

Each of these can phases can be further broken down and additional steps and processes and documentation added to give you a robust system – consideration might need to be given, for example, to when alerts should be generated (priorities, owner of the system, etc), to whom should the alert be sent, and by what means (email, SMS, IM could all be used, and in each case you may want to have resiliency).

So rather than get bogged down in ALL the possible customisations for now, let’s take a look an example workflow which I’ve proposed to a client recently – I won’t use anything product specific, so it’s easy to adapt to your own needs with some minor changes depending on your logging tool – and may even make you think about how to enhance or customise your logging in the future:

  • Initial Detection: Unexpected Change detected. Email notification generation.
  • Initial Assessment: Assessment of initial Information captured by FIM product (Timestamp, Owner, File Path, File Contents (if applicable)). If unidentified proceed to secondary analysis, otherwise go to step 7.
  • Detailed Data Capture: Add additional data if possible from Tripwire Enterprise by expanding the monitored path, monitored elements (hash, etc) to get a better picture of the source of the change.
  • Security Analysis: initial threat verification achieved through AV scans, etc.
  • Application Assessment: Use other tools to identify the associated application (SysInternals, etc) to evaluate the
    1. Source Application (what application triggers the change)
    2. Source Application Event (what EVENT within the application triggers the change)
    3. Exception scenarios (in what cases that the exception doesn’t occur).
  • Vendor engagement (if file generation is classified as a bug, or errant/unexplainable behaviour and deemed to be sufficiently undesirable)
  • Revaluation and rule tuning/configuration as required.

As you can see, even a basic workflow should include detailed assessment and response steps- I’ll go on into greater depth on each of these in a future post.

Part two: Raspberry Pi “Ambilight” Build

I’m going to continue my “how to” build for my custom “ambilight” media center using a Raspberry Pi. The first step for me was realizing I’d be sent a regular SD card, rather than a micro-SD card- #sigh# – here’s the various parts:

The Kit

Fortunately, I’ve got plenty of Micro-SD cards – I’ve used an 8GB one I had from an old phone – if you want media locally on the SD card or more breathing space I’d suggest you go down the 16GB route – but 8GB should do the trick for most needs as you can access media via the network or a locally attached USB drive (although I found USB detection a bit hit and miss).

Correct SD card

Putting the Pi into the case is nice and easy – it’s a drop in place job with no screws- and it’s easy to get full access to all the GPIO ports for additional accessories (and, as you’ll see soon, grounding the lights).

Pre-case

The case was the bit I was most unsure of – it was a “lazy” decision to go for a kit- but the case was a perfect fit for my needs as it still had a little bit of space above it to allow for cables to be passed through without much hassle:

Pi in case

Finally, we have the lights- no sexy packaging for these – but we’re all set to start using them. My set up was tested initially on a 40″ Samsung TV, but the ultimate home for these was to be a 32″ set – bear in mind that the size of TV is a factor that needs to be configured in the software so a few basic measurements will be required before you are up and running.

The Lights

With all our parts ready, my next post will cover the hardware build process.

The Raspberry Pi Ambilight alike you can put together in the UK

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For Christmas this year, I decided to put together an ambilight a like using Raspberry Pi- you’ll find a number of similar projects on the internet, but almost all require exceeding expensive components or items you can’t easily source in the UK- so I’m putting together a quick series of articles to take you from purchase to building and on to tweaking so you can build your own.

I’ll start with the shopping list:

  • Raspberry Pi – I grabbed this starter kit from Amazon: http://goo.gl/brmBU5 – it’s a good deal and comes with a nice little case that still gives you the scope to pass cables through for the lighting array.
  • 3M Hooks to mount the lights on the back of the TV- easy to use, can be removed without much pain too- you’ll want a heap of these (we used four packs for perfect positioning) depending on the size of your TV- forunately they’re pretty cheap but very robust- http://goo.gl/SBOjcr
  • Many other posts on this topic suggest not using the on board USB to power the lights- but I was running in an environment which lacks power points (Xbox 360, Kinect, Amp, Blu ray player, speaker bar, network hub, PoE and TV in a minimalist stand doesn’t lend itself to spare power points!)- http://goo.gl/tDsjR2 will get you up and running and I haven’t yet identified any power issues.

For the final bits (the very important lights and power)- I had to leave the comforts of Amazon- I had a fight to find any one who didn’t ship from China and had mixed reviews (check out Amazon for plenty doom and gloom orders)- fortunately I found a great site:

  • WS2811 Waterproof (IP66) 12mm LED String Digital LED pixels Adafruit Compact for – £22.99 – these are a bit bulkier than the strip lights you can order, thus require more effort to position, but have a string of lights made things a lot easier as there was no need to cut strips and reconnect them- this saved me a LOT of time.
  • Female DC jack Connector plug 2.1mmx5.5mm plug for cctv camera – so you can get your power to the lights – solder free!

I’ll be back soon with some photos and the build steps, and then we can move on to the software side of the equation!

Sharepoint 2010 on Server 2012 R2

Sharepoint 2010 on Server 2012 R2

Sharepoint 2010 is not anywhere near as easy to love as Sharepoint 2013, but there’s plenty of places still running 2010 so if you need to create a quick lab setup it’s tempting to throw in a quick installation now and again- fortunately, Microsoft are happy for you to run it on Server 2012 (so you don’t have to go entirely back in time!)- Http://blogs.technet.com/b/stefan_gossner/archive/2014/05/03/sharepoint-2010-sp2-and-windows-server-2012-r2.aspx 

but there are a couple of gotcha’s I ran into the other day – namely the points outlined in the link above- which I’ll highlight some key phrases from for ease of reference:

Starting May 1st, 2014 SharePoint 2010 SP2 slipstream media on VLSC and MSDN can be used to install SharePoint 2010 on Windows Server 2012 R2.

Only SP2 slipstream installations are supported on Windows Server 2012 R2 – you cannot first install RTM or SP1 and then SP2.

Also be aware that OS in place upgrade is NOT supported with SharePoint 2010. You need to perform a fresh installation of SharePoint 2010 SP2 slipstream on top of Windows Server 2012 R2.

OK, with those gotcha’s out the way (and presumably you’ve dug out the correct media!) – you’ll want to dive straight in… only to find the pre-req wizard, which previously kindly guided you through the install quickly, doesn’t play ball (at least in my experiences to date) with 2012 – fair enough I guess – throw in some extra 2012 .Net problems and you’ll find the whole “supported on” element not quite as easy as you might like- so I put together a quick deployment powershell “script” (set of commands really) here to grab your relevant patches, pre-reqs, and install alongside the relevant OS roles and features (some of these aren’t strictly requirements, but useful IMHO for Sharepoint deployments):


# Install Pre-reqs for Sharepoint 2010 on Windows Server 2012 R2!
# No log files written except the defaults
# Set up some bits – install path
mkdir C:\source
#Identity Foundation
Add-WindowsFeature windows-identity-foundation
#Microsoft Sync Framework Runtime 1.0 SP1 (x64)
wget http://download.microsoft.com/download/E/0/0/E0060D8F-2354-4871-9596-DC78538799CC/Synchronization.msi -outfile C:\Source\MSSnyc.msi
C:\source\sync.msi /q
#SQL
wget http://download.microsoft.com/download/c/2/8/c28cc7df-c9d2-453b-9292-ae7d242dfeca/SQLEXPR_x64_ENU.exe -outfile C:\source\sqlexp2008.exe
C:\source\setup.exe /QS /ACTION=Install /FEATURES=SQL,SDK /INSTANCENAME=MSSQLSERVER /SQLSVCACCOUNT=”NT AUTHORITY\Network Service” /SQLSYSADMINACCOUNTS=”Users” /AGTSVCACCOUNT=”NT AUTHORITY\Network Service”
#Filter Pack
wget http://download.microsoft.com/download/0/A/2/0A28BBFA-CBFA-4C03-A739-30CCA5E21659/FilterPack64bit.exe -outfile C:\source\filter.exe
C:\source\filter.exe /q
# IIS
DISM.EXE /enable-feature /online /featureName:IIS-WebServerRole /featureName:IIS-WebServer
# ASPNET
DISM.EXE /enable-feature /all /online /featureName:NetFx3
DISM.EXE /enable-feature /all /online /featureName:NetFx3ServerFeatures
DISM.EXE /enable-feature /all /online /featureName:IIS-ISAPIFilter
DISM.EXE /enable-feature /all /online /featureName:IIS-ISAPIExtensions
DISM.EXE /enable-feature /all /online /featureName:IIS-ApplicationDevelopment
DISM.EXE /enable-feature /all /online /featureName:IIS-ASPNET
DISM.EXE /enable-feature /all /online /featureName:IIS-NetFxExtensibility
DISM.EXE /enable-feature /all /online /featureName:IIS-WindowsAuthentication
add-windowsfeature Web-CGI
# IIS Manamagement Compatibility
DISM.EXE /enable-feature /all /online /featureName:IIS-ManagementService
DISM.EXE /enable-feature /all /online /featureName:IIS-IIS6ManagementCompatibility
DISM.EXE /enable-feature /all /online /featureName:IIS-Metabase
DISM.EXE /enable-feature /all /online /featurename:netfx4extended-aspnet45
# net Framework 3.5 Service Pack (NB: this presumes D drive has the Windows Server 2012 media inserted!)
# AS a side note, this plays up if you have KB2966828 installed (at time of writing) so instlal before updating or uninstall! so the next line will check if it’s there for you!
Get-Hotfix | where hotfixid -eq KB2966828
dism /online /enable-feature /featurename:netfx3 /all /source:d:\sources\sxs
# Chart Controls
wget http://download.microsoft.com/download/c/c/4/cc4dcac6-ea60-4868-a8e0-62a8510aa747/MSChart.exe -outfile:C:\Source\MSChart.exe
C:\source\mschart.exe /q


I hope that helps someone out there!