Category Archives: IT

Useful Utilities

Here’s an assortment of Windows utilities  that I’ve found very useful.

fre:ac – free audio converter

I use fre:ac to rip CDs to MP3s. But, more importantly, to combine multiple MP3s into one file. This is especially useful for CD audiobooks with multiple discs. Also helpful for multipart audiobook MP3 downloads. Game of Thrones in 28 parts? No problem. Combines them all into one giant GoT file.

WinSCP – File Transfer Utility

When I want to transfer files (ex. game ROMs) from my PC to my Raspberry Pi, I use WinSCP. It can use the FTP protocol, but I run it under SCP. Wonderful to use. Don’t let all the toolbars and icons get you confused. Just hide 99% of them like I did. Makes transferring files to and from different OSs a breeze.

Floola – iTunes Replacement

I have a selection of older iPods which we use for audiobooks and assorted portable music. I’m not a fan of iTunes (memory issues, bloat, constant update reminders, fucked-up syncing, and general hatred of being locked into an ecosystem). This is a simple problem that will read, write, and update your iPod. I’ve been using it to manage audiobooks on a 3rd gen Shuffle. Works great. And, again — unlike iTunes — you can pull your music OFF of the iPod, too.

Handbrake – Video Converter

A long while ago we ripped a bunch of DVDs (to VOB format). I’ve been using handbrake to convert them to MPEGS for our PlayOn / MyMedia server. Works like a charm. Unlike some other / older converters, I’ve not had problems with audio sync and whatnot. Great piece of software.

Calibre – eBook Management

If you have a Kindle, you need to have Calibre. I read a lot of books from my public library, but don’t want to be hassled with return/due dates. Download in epub format, run through Calibre, have Calibre load right to the Kindle. Easy as pie.

Honorable Mentions

7Zip — My primary ZIP tool.
Audacity — Audio file editor.
Bulk Rename Utility — Absurdly complicated, but handy to have.
Win32DiskImager — Reads and writes images. Use it for backing up SD cards. Also handy for loading images onto SD cards (ex. when creating a Raspberry Pi card).
Paint.Net — Powerful image editor/creator.
Primo PDF — Print to PDFs for free.
WinDirStat — Helps me hunt down big files for disk space cleanup.
WinMerge — Helpful dev tool. Compares two files (text is best).


Phone Phun

So, we moved into a new house in late December. We’re on a bit of a hill, which is nice. The downside is that the cell phone towers are on the other side of the hill. So, my Tracfone works fine on the deck, but not so well in the office, where I need it. I have a Nexus 4 on T-Mobile, and that works, but the last thing I need are more phone bills.

Some background: About two years ago I got sick of paying monthly cell phone bills. I hate the phone and really only use it for business. So, I need a phone, but use very few minutes. That’s why I went with pre-paid. For about $150 a year I get all the minutes I need. (And since I just talk on my phone, I didn’t need any data.)

The problem with pre-paid, of course, is the ever-changing numbers. I didn’t want to port my number to a provider, then cancel, and have to re-port, etc.

So, I ported my primary (and quite old) phone number to Google Voice. The nice thing about Voice is that you can then set up auto-forwarding to any number/phone you want. Even better, you can have it forward to multiple phones at the same time. This worked fine. Until the new house and the flaky cell service (which is funny, given it runs on the AT&T “we’re supposed to be everywhere” network).

For the past month I’ve been making do with having Google Voice ring both of my phones. I just picked up whichever one I thought would work better. Fine, but a little annoying.

So I looked into VOIP — with the key factor being cheap. I ran across OBI, which is a device you hook into your network. Then you plug a regular phone into it. So, $40 for the OBI 100 box and $12 for a cordless phone — a cheap test, since my T-Mobile bill for the Nexus is $50 a month.

The beauty of the OBI is that it has Google Voice integration built in. So, I plug the box in, do the setup, and tell Voice to forward calls to my cells and to my Chat account. (You don’t really use Chat, that’s just how it hooks in.)

DSCN4212 (Small)

And, amazingly, it works! My incoming work calls ring the office “land line” phone and my cells. So, if I’m out-and-about, I pick up on the cell. In the office, I pick up the office phone.

Another nice thing is that the incoming and outgoing calls, when run through Google Voice, are free. So, now 99% of my calls run on VOIP for nothing.

And if my cable service / internet goes down? No problem. Voice will just route/ring to my cell.

I’ve been using it just a short time and have been very happy with the call quality. Much clearer than any cell networks. And, I’m looking forward to getting another old school MaBell phone for the office. It’s always nice to slam down the receiver after an annoying call!

Update: One other thing I should add. You can make OBI to OBI calls directly, too, through their network. No need for Google Voice. Or, instead of Google Voice, you can choose a VOIP provider for your network. But, considering the Voice calls are free in the US, that’s the cheaper bet.

The OBI to OBI is interesting because you could set up a device and phone at someones house (assuming they have broadband). Then they can make calls to you for nothing. (You just do **9 and the 9 digit OBI device number.) Great for avoiding land-line “long distance” / toll charges.

Dragging Myself Into 2014 — SSD Upgrade

So my primary work machine, now three years old, started to get really, really cranky. I’d previously given up on Chrome (slow-slow-slow and lock-ups), did IE for a while, but even that pooped out. Uninstalled everything I could, and it helped, but not much. So, time for a rebuild.

Of course, this all happened at the busiest time of the year for me.

I don’t do much heavy lifting with my PC, so it seemed a shame to scrap it and get a new one.  I didn’t want to just re-format the hard drive, as then I’d surely come across something that I didn’t have backed up. (And yes, I do use CrashPlan and have all my data on an external drive. It’s mostly just software on the OS drive. Though I get sloppy sometimes.)

Luckily, being way behind technology, SSD — those nifty solid state “hard drives” — have come down greatly in price. So I snagged a Samsung 120 GB drive for about $75. Since they are meant for laptops, I spent a whopping $7 on a drive tray / converter (to put the 2.5″ laptop drive into the 3.5″ desktop drive bay). With tax, about $85 instead of shelling out hundreds for a new desktop PC.

Being a cheap HP Slimline form factor, it’s a pain to get at the hard drive. But, the on-line instructions we’re too bad. And in a little while I got the old drive out and slid the new SSD in there. Fit like a charm. And it was a good opportunity to vac and blow out all that dust that’s been building up.

After that, it was the usual re-install everything routine. And patch. And patch. And patch.

I could have used the software that Samsung includes to image the old drive onto the new, but my whole problem was a screwed up OS environment, so it was best for me to crush and rebuild. You can also get a kit version from them which includes a dongle to connect the SSD via USB. Probably not bad for USB 3, but my older machine only has USB 2, so that would have taken ages anyway.

Once I got everything patched and installed (at least, the 90% of stuff I need to get going), I used the handy Windows 7 image creator to save off a clean image to my external drive.  It also creates an emergency boot CD. At least next time I won’t have to do too much re-installing (but at that point, it will probably be time for a new PC anyway).

For any stuff that I didn’t have on my external hard drive (like the Desktop and My Documents crap), I used CrashPlan to restore. Worked like a charm. I was able to restore from my local server, so got 50 MB/sec restore speeds. Not too bad. (Server has gigabit, but PC doesn’t.)

Between a clean OS and the SSD drive, the PC is working pretty darn well. Well worth the investment in time and a little money. Plus, since the SSD has no moving parts, and is tiny, the PC is running cooler and has better air flow. A nice bonus.

So, if you’re looking at rebuilding an older PC, I’d highly recommend going to SSD. Between SSD for the OS and Apps, and an external HD for the data files, it’s a pretty decent setup for those on a budget.




Mitigating IT Disasters

People who paddle have an old saying: There are two types of people. Those who have capsized and those who will capsize.

IT is the same way. It’s not if you’ll lose data, it’s when you’ll lose data. In bigger projects I have access to large scale solutions, like mirrored drives, multiple mirrored sites, and backup media (ex. tapes). In the past, all that stuff has been costly and a pain to setup. But, these days, there’s no excuse for everyone to have their stuff backed up.

First, some things you should never, ever, trust:

  • The “cloud”.
  • Any hard drive.
  • Any computer.
  • Any array (ex. RAID).
  • Any piece of software.

Hard drive and computer failure is commonplace. We’ve all had them go bad. Big disk arrays, supposed to keep you safe, have a nasty habit of getting corrupted in the middle of a rebuild. The cloud is fine and all, but what if your provider goes belly up? How many IT companies do you know that have offered the same service for years on end? Not many. And what happens where your data aren’t deleted, but get corrupted? Either by a hardware/software failure, or a just-plain “oops!”. You need to undo. Quick.

I learned a very valuable lesson over Y2K: your two most important systems are Billing and Source, in that order.

How does an individual protect themselves? And, more importantly for me, how does a independent IT consultant work protect their livelihood, without spending a boatload of money? Remember, the key is Billing and Source. If I can’t bill, or lose my bills, I can’t eat. If I lose source, I can’t eat. Important stuff.

Source Code Control

First off, without question, have a machine setup to be your source code repository. I happen to run VisualSVN on a Windows Server I have. Then I run TortoiseSVN on my development machines — Tortoise allows me to check in/out files to the repository. Anything important gets put under source code control. This includes actual source, database schema, invoices, documentation, test files — you name it. Everything I need for a client’s project.

Create a new invoice? Check into SVN. Update an Access database? Check into SVN. Create a new build for the client? Check into SVN. Disk space is cheap. Use it.

External Hard Drives

On my local dev machine, I have a big external hard drive. That’s where I keep all my client data. I put NOTHING but the OS and Program Files on my computer’s internal hard drive. All data, databases, source, etc are on that external hard drive. If you run eSATA it’s just as fast as an internal drive. Plus, when your computer goes poof! you don’t have to pull drives or try to recover an OS drive that happens to have data. I unplug the external drive and plug it into another computer. Though that’s not even that important, since everything is is SVN, so I can pull down the files from there.


I run a lot of stuff on VirtualBox, the free VM Host. I do this mainly because clients are on different builds (like a bunch of different versions of Access). Plus, if a machine goes poof! who cares? I boot up the VM on another host. Not to mention the ability to snapshot the VM before doing something major — if the upgrade fails, just revert to the snapshot.


I use CrashPlan, and pay the annual fee for cloud backups, because you never know when a disaster (like a fire) will strike. But I don’t trust them to stay in business forever, so I have a multi-destination backup plan in place. Here’s how it works:

My primary Development machine backs up locally, on an hourly basis, to two places: The CrashPlan Cloud and to my Local Server. If I have a fire, I can get the backup from the Cloud. Otherwise, I can go right to my local server. My Local Server also backs up hourly, to an external hard drive attached to it, and to the Cloud.

The great thing about CrashPlan is you set it and forget it. No fiddling. No goofing around. Just configure and let it do its thing.

Backups of Backups of Backups

By now you can clearly see how crazy I am about backing things up. Let’s take an example of an Access application I maintain for a client.

  • The primary file is sitting on an external hard drive attached to my development machine.
  • The file on that external hard drive gets backed up automatically to the Server and Cloud hourly, regardless of whether I use SVN.
  • I use SVN religiously, and often, so I’m committing a lot (very important for Access, since you have to commit the entire DB).
  • The server backs up  the SVN repository automatically, to its external hard drive and to the Cloud.

So, for that Access app to get completely destroyed, the following would have to happen:

  • External dev HD fails.
  • External server HD fails.
  • Internal server HD fails.

Which could certainly happen in the case of a physical disaster, in which case I’d pull the backups of SVN and the original files from the CrashPlan Cloud.

And why backup both SVN and the primary files? Because never trust anything completely. SVN could go nuts, and then where would I be?