Monthly Archives: October 2006

Synchronizing Thunderbird and Pocket PC

One of the things I’ve missed out on by using the fantastic Mozilla Thunderbird email client has been the ability for me to synchronize it with my PocketPC. Because I use an IMAP email server this didn’t really present a problem as far as email goes but it has left me dead in the water for a calendaring solution.

For a while I tried using the calendar solely on my PocketPC but because I don’t have my PocketPC with me everywhere I go that didn’t last very long. In the end I resorted to using a great open source php web-based calendar program. This allowed me to access the calendar from anywhere and sync it with calendar programs on my PC using the iCal standard. Unfortunatly the PocketPC doesn’t support iCal syncing so again I was dead in the water and could only use the calendar when I had web access.

Recently I ran across the open source FinchSync project which claims to be “a tool for synchronizing contacts, appointments and tasks from Mozilla email and calendar products with a Pocket PC or SmartPhone”. While I’ve been too busy to get it up and running it yet looks like a promising solution that might actually allow me to use my PocketPC device as a calendar which would come in handy from time to time. FinchSync is cross platform and allows syncing over IP so you don’t even need to be running it on the PC you normally dock the PocketPC device with.

More free e-books

In addition to some of the other free e-book resources I’ve mentioned in the past is this latest addition. It seems that renowned computer book publisher, O’Reilly has put some of their out of print books and some books that have been written under open licenses up on their “Open Books” website for free download.

I wish that more publishers would do this. It really makes sense, especially with older books. Once a book (or a paper or conference proceedings for the more academic among us) goes out of print it can become quite difficult to get ahold of a copy. If I were a publisher I would make my catalog available for free on the internet but provide links for people to purchase print copies (even of out-of print titles, doable with new short-run printing technology). After all, if it’s really a useful or interesting book most people still want a paper copy, in effect you’re letting the book sell itself. Of course if the book is junk you won’t sell very many copies but I don’t especially have a problem with that.

The difficulty of finding solutions

I have a need to host some websites. After a bit of research my first thought was that I would use a virtual private server configured with one of the many free control panels (Ravencore, DTC, VHCS, etc.) In my quest to find a reasonably priced VPS company I located a fantastic resource for comparing VPS plans: There you’ll find a searchable index of various VPS vendors and their plans so it’s easy to find one that fits both your requirements and your budget.

After playing around with a few different VPS vendors I discovered a few things. First, those free web hosting control panels are extremely difficult to install. Take it from someone who has been using *NIX for years, custom compiles Linux kernels with patches and has never had a problem installing web software. I spent hours trying to get a variety of these control panels working on two different VPS hosts with no luck. These things are a nightmare! If you’re asked to install one either run the other way as fast as you can or prepare to spend a lot of time playing with it to make it work.

Secondly, I discovered that most of the inexpensive VPS plans are incredibly difficult to work with and have questionable reliability. When they work, they work great but that seems to be a big problem. Most of the less expensive VPS vendors do not have a web control panel where you can do simple tasks such as re-install your server (useful after trying to install a web control panel which screws it all up, see above) or re-boot the VPS. Some of these vendors don’t even offer console access to your VPS meaning if you shut off the Ethernet port you’re simply out of luck until tech support gets around to restarting your VPS. In short, the problems compared to dedicated servers with physical access show the immaturity of this technology which has great potential.

That said my suggestion if you’re interested in VPS is twofold, first go with a provider using Xen as opposed to Virtuozzo or some of the others. It seems to be the most stable and prevents overselling of RAM which can be an issue with less scrupulous hosting companies. Secondly, be aware of the problems and pitfalls you can have with VPS and spend a month testing reliability before making a server active. There’s a lot of potential here for something between shared hosting and dedicated servers, the market just hasn’t shaken out yet.

Based on my difficulty with getting the hosting control panels to work on a VPS server and a shortage of time on my part to work through it I decided to move to a simple reseller plan from one of the shared hosting companies. This makes my life simpler, if less flexible, by moving the locus of control for most of the server functions to another company, e.g. they need to keep the OS up to date and make sure everything is functioning. The downside is I need to start from square one searching for a hosting company. I’ve had experiences with a few of these shared hosting companies in the past and you really have to watch out for sleezebags. There are a lot of fly-by-night operations promising lots of unlimited stuff (bandwidth, space, etc) for very little per month. Stay away! Usually they have lots of fine print, things aren’t what they seem and if nothing else the company will soon go out of business leaving you high and dry. Two of my favorite sites for finding shared web hosts are HostSearch and FindMyHost, again be aware that many of the host search companies are untrustworthy and skew results to favor advertisers or are actually owned by hosting companies pushing you to sign up with them.

Even with respectable sites such as these it’s much more difficult to find a good reseller account than a simple web host. I’m especially difficult because my specialty is mail servers and I’ve found many hosts (and even ISPs) that have a poor understanding of running mailservers (which manifests itself in poor mail performance and spam filtering) so I tend to want to know quite a bit about their server setup before making a committment. This information isn’t available on the typical webhost’s website so it usually involves contacting the host and waiting for a response which sometimes never comes.

By now you’re getting the picture that the webhosting business is quite a nasty place which is fairly accurate. Even big personalities can be caught off guard by a problematic host such as this weekend when Leo Laporte’s network of sites went mostly offline due to a hardware failure (somewhat understandable, if poor planing) but stayed offline for several days because of inaction on the part of the host (bad move, especially for such a visable network of sites). As for me I’m hosting the sites temporairly without the benefit a control panel on one of my dedicated servers while I continue to search for a respectable, but not overly expensive reseller host.

IAX Softphones

In the past I’ve used the multi-platform iaxComm program to test IAX VoIP links with a PC but I’ve since discovered two more IAX sofphones. IDEFISK and Kiax are both multi-platform IAX softphones.

At first glance IDEFISK actually looks somewhat similar to iaxComm but with a more polished look and some more advanced features such as mail program plugins, the downside is that it is not open source and some features are only available in the paid version. On the other hand Kiax looks more like an instant messaging program than a softphone, but is entirely open source. Actually it is remeniscent of Skype or the Gizmo project.

Strike Three!

It seems we can now add Lenovo/IBM to the list of companies affected by bad laptop batteries. Details on the recall are available at including a small program you can download and install or a place to enter in your battery’s serial number that will tell you if your battery is one of those affected.

When you really need to know whois

If you do much work with domain names you’re probably familiar with the whois system, at least the pretty web-frontend that is. It’s really useful for more than looking up who owns a domain and what the associated details are. If you access a real whois server such as the Verisign-GRS whois you can look up things like what IP is associated with a given nameserver or details about a specific registrar. Of course this all seems rather unimportant until you’re trying to track down why DNS records aren’t resolving correctly only to find out that the ns record isn’t pointing at the correct server.