Category Archives: Whitepapers and Articles

Booting DOS from a USB flash drive

**UPDATE 2014/02/21: Times have changed and you might want to check out the Rufus utility I mention here as an alternative to these technical instructions.**

USB flash drives also called USB keys, pen drives and an assortment of other names can make quite handy reusable boot disks. Today I found myself in need of a DOS boot disk to upgrade the firmware on some hard drives and CD/DVD drives but didn’t want to burn a bunch of bootable CDs or try to find a USB floppy disk drive. I remembered that most newer BIOSs including the one on this system support booting from USB drives so I thought I would investigate that as an option. Unfortunately I found that, being an afterthought, boot support is not an easy thing to do and presents several challenges.

First and foremost is that while there is some information on how to accomplish this on the Internet, there is comparatively little and what information does exist is not as clear or definitive as would be useful. Secondly, there are a number of different methods and tools for accomplishing this and not all methods work with all BIOS implementations of bootable USB. For example, USB flash drives may be booted as fixed disks, floppy drives or USB-Zip drives each of which requires different methods of preparation and the requisite support in the BIOS. Both of the methods I will describe hear treat the flash drive as a fixed disk which seems to be the best method if your BIOS supports it and appears to be becoming the standard for new BIOSs. While these methods are based on readings of other guides and howtos I was unable to find something as simple as I describe here so this method was developed on my own though research based trial and error (and lots of reboots) over the better course of a day.

In its simplest description booting from a flash drive as a fixed disk works almost exactly like booting from a hard disk does. The BIOS invokes the boot sector and master boot record (MBR) on the flash drive which loads the operating system kernel. It would initially seem that it should be no problem to make this work, after all DOS based operating systems worked this way for years. The trick is getting the boot sector and MBR on the flash drive. In ye old DOS days when you wanted to install DOS from a floppy disk onto a fixed disk it was common to invoke the FDISK and SYS commands to create a MBR, boot sector and copy the required system files. The problem is that in most cases the USB flash drive is being prepared from within a recent copy of Windows such as Windows XP which no longer has these commands available for this use. On the other hand if you booted DOS from a floppy disk or bootable CD and had access to FDISK and SYS you would not (normally, without drivers) have access to the USB flash drive to install the files.

After reading the information that was available on the Internet I determined it would be reasonably easy to create a bootable DOS USB flash drive in Linux and possible, yet convoluted and confusing to do so from Windows. I wanted to avoid requiring the use of Linux because the average user of such a drive may not have access readily available to a Linux system. Most of the solutions for creating the drive in Windows either used a creation utility from HP (questionable availability and suitability) or a slew of command line utilities and requiring a floppy drive (or emulator) which seemed like an unnecessary and complicated hack to me. The solutions I present may require you to download a few software packages from the Internet but each only requires one command line utility and should be fairly straightforward. As an added bonus all of the software is free and open source.

Note that these methods were specifically designed for installing FreeDOS, an open source DOS. Similar methods may work for installing MS-DOS, DRDOS or other DOSs; however you will need to obtain the boot sector (probably either from source or via extraction from a floppy disk or disk image) and system files specific to your version of DOS. I recommend using FreeDOS whenever possible as it is generally compatible and provides many additional features not found in vintage DOSs.

The first method described is the FreeDOS direct booting method. The advantages of this method are that the drive boots directly into FreeDOS and requires no files on the flash drive root other than the FreeDOS system files (kernel.sys and The disadvantage is that you must download an additional software package and FreeDOS is the only OS you may boot from the flash drive.

The second method is the SYSLINUX chained booting method. Advantages to this method include more configuration and customization options and the ability to boot floppy disk images and/or other OSs from the same flash drive using a boot loader menu and chained boot loading. None of these enhancements are covered here, this document will only help you get FreeDOS up and running, for information on booting other OSs from the same drive see the SYSLINUX documentation. The disadvantages of this method include three additional files in the flash drive root (can be moved into other directories, see SYSLINUX documentation) and a slightly more complicated (though transparently so) boot process.
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Vector Graphics and You

If you’re intertested in technology and subtle trends or in digital art you should know about vector graphics. Essentially vector graphics are filled line art. The difference between graphics like this and photographs (raster or bitmapped graphics) is that a bitmapped graphic stores a line as a series of XY coordinates (pixels) that are some color value while a vector graphic would store the line as a vector starting from some XY coordinate and ending at another XY coordinate with some color value. While usually being less photorealistic there are several distinct advantages to the vector graphics format.

The major advantage, and the one we’ll concentrate on here, is the ability to scale vector graphics to any size without pixalation. Obviousy this is a tremendous advantage when working on digital publications which might be printed on any size paper or displayed at any resolution on a PC.

There are a number of different programs and file formats for working with vector graphics. Probably the most widespread is the Adobe Illustrator program which is the workhorse of the industry. Other examples are Corel Draw, Macromedia FreeHand and the Macromedia Shockwave/Flash programs, but those are primarily used for animation and web-based work only. On the file format side you have the proprietary .ai (Adobe Illustrator), .swf (Flash), .dcr (Shockwave), .cdr (Corel Draw) and on the standards (with varying degrees of openness) side you have .wmf (Windows Meta File), .cgm (Computer Graphics Metafile) and .svg (Scalable Vector Graphics). SVG is what we’ll be concentrating on here as that seems to be the way the industry is moving.

Scalable Vector Graphics is an open standards markup language for storing vector graphics. Things like this which aren’t ritzy or of interest to the general public tend to have long adoption curves. This is certainly true of SVG which was started in 1998 and is just picking up steam. SVG is supported in at least some way by most of the major players these days including Adobe Illustrator. Interestingly, SVG supports animation as well so as more toold are developed it might be possible to see SVG supplant Shockwave/Flash as an internet animation standard. Starting with release 1.5 of the popular Mozilla Firefox browser SVG support is built in and no additional viewer or plugin needs to be downloaded. Unfortunatly, Internet Explorer still requires the download of a (free) plugin.

Another advantage of SVG is that, being an open standard, there are a variety of tools to choose from. The most popular seems to be Inkscape which is a (more focused) fork of the Sodipodi group, both of these tools are cross-platform and open source. Recently commercial software publisher Xara has released an open source version of their software named Xara Xtreme and is supposedly working with the Inkscape developers to create an even better and more complete open source solution. One of the older supporters of SVG is Skencil, but they seem to have fallen behind Inkscape. Of course recent versions of Adobe Illustrator and Corel Draw also support SVG although they are not always 100% compatible with some of the other tools. Many tools have also been created which allow you to convert older formats such as WMF to SVG.

While it may not be exciting, revolutionary or an overnight change SVG is starting to gain momentum as the format of choice for vector graphics. If you are designing a logo or other line art I would get a copy of it in SVG format as some insurance against file format obsolescence. Although vector graphics are not as widely supported by consumer applications as raster graphics that seems to be changing as well and the numerous advantages of vector graphics for simple artwork and diagrams should prove successful in the long run.

a year later: an overview of multiblog software options

Those who’ve been around for a while may remember my article on blogging software from last year. Actually I got (and continue to get) quite a bit of attention from that article including syndication from Lockergnome. The past year has been an interesting one in the blogosphere. As I predicted there was a lot of outrage about MovableType “going commercial” but at the same time the company has continued to grow including the purchase of LiveJournal. How can this be explained? What has happened since then? What’s going on with blogging software now?
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An Open Letter to ABC Affiliates

I recently read about a letter written by the ABC affiliate association president to the head of ABC. It seems that the affiliates are upset about the recently announced licensing of ABC’s ‘Lost‘ television program for distribution via the Apple video store. I must say that I am both disappointed and underwhelmed by this predictable letter from threatened affiliates.

For years networks have relied on so called “appointment viewing” of their shows but this model does not seem to interest the iPod wearing, Xbox playing, Tivoing and all too busy generation of today. The time where the family would gather around the radio each week to listen to the latest installment of Fibber McGee, Burns & Allen, Jack Benny and Richard Diamond. Today our lives and the lives of our children are filled with work, school, sports, music lessons, debate team, play practice, scouts, yearbook, medical visits, twenty-four hour grocery shopping and all the other things every American family wants to partake in. We no longer clear our schedules to watch a TV show. Empowered by timeshifting technologies such as the programmable videocassette recorder and the digital personal video recorder many of us now watch our favorite shows on our own terms. Meanwhile television stations and networks have been neglecting the radical shift in viewing habits hoping they would just go away. I applaud ABC for recognizing this is not the case. Rather than be preempted by the rising star of the audio and video podcasts such as This Week in Tech, DigitalLife TV, Systm and others ABC has taken the lead by taking the content to the consumer in the format they want.

This is smart on the part of ABC for a couple of reasons. First, they have jumped ahead of the other major networks by cutting this deal early on. Secondly, they have started a trend of paying for mobile video content. Think about it, if consumers can get used to paying for mobile TV content this early in the game ABC will have paved the way. It’s much easier to do this now than after consumers become accustomed to free content such as the podcasts mentioned above. If subscription supported mobile video content becomes the norm ABC will have gone a long way towards making sure it stays a relevant player in the video production and distribution game for some time to come.

Of course, all this progress comes at the expense of the affiliates and they know this. You’re affiliate probably won’t be going off the air today or tomorrow but with this deal they see the writing on the wall, traditional TV distribution will eventually die. Of course they would like to prolong that as much as possible. What I would have liked to see instead is a commitment to local programming by the affiliates. People are still going to want their local news, sports and weather. What if the affiliates decided to embrace this personal media empowerment and worked a deal to offer mobile audio, video and on demand web versions of their local newscasts? Some of the affiliates have played with web video but it’s clear the main business is still the broadcast news. By adopting a system like the video podcasts mentioned above local stations could offer news updated throughout the day that viewers could download to their media devices and watch or listen to on the train in to work, over lunch or on the trip home.

The world of broadcast media is changing but that doesn’t mean the affiliates need to be left out in the cold. Instead they should be banding together and working out a plan for offering RSS based local audio and video content to the consumer. Make it inexpensive or free and advertising or sponser supported. Whining will get them nowhere, if they don’t change with the times they will be left behind. On demand internet media has arrived for geeks and before long everyone will be on board, either that or they’ll be “Lost” themselves.

Technology Brief: Scanning over Networks

This is something I wrote last week for a client, perhaps someone else will find it useful as well… -Ben

Technology Brief: Scanning over Networks
Date: March 18, 2005
by Ben Franske

Executive Summary:
Four main technologies may be used for sharing a scanner over a network, each with unique pros and cons. Because scanners have been traditionally deployed as standalone devices most if not all solutions for using them in a networked environment are less than optimal. Further complicating the matter is the fact that many of the inexpensive new scanners do not use, or use a heavily modified, TWAIN driver interface that has been the standard for a number of years. Mixing PCs and Macintoshes can also add a twist to this problem.

The scanner sharing technologies explored in this document:

  • Shared Scanning Workstations
  • USB Servers
  • Sharing Software
  • Network Enabled Scanners

Traditionally scanners have been designed as standalone devices and a solution commonly used is to setup a “scanning station” complete with PC where employees can scan in documents and save them to a network share, return to their desk and further manipulate the image as needed. Obviously this is the least expensive solution and the most straightforward which explains its popularity. On the downside, you need to dedicate space for both the PC and scanner. There is also the issue of how logins to the scanning workstation should be done (shared login, domain logins, etc). This method also requires the intermediate step of saving the document as an image before manipulating it, rather than using TWAIN to directly import it into your application.

The second major technology for sharing scanners is the use of a USB server device. In a situation such as this the USB scanner is connected to an external USB server device such as the Digi International AnywhereUSB or the Keyspan USB Server, clients can connect one at a time to the scanner and must disconnect before the scanner is available for another person to use. In general the Digi International product is considered a more mature commercial product and the Keyspan a newer consumer/SOHO device. The major benefit to this model is the fact a PC is not required at the scanner location. The downside is that only one person can connect to the scanner at a time and if someone forgets to disconnect it is unavailable to everyone else and the scanner must be USB as opposed to SCSI. Because this method essentially adds new USB ports to the computer (simply extending them over Ethernet) each PC is required to have the scanner drivers installed, but the scan can be imported directly into the application as if the scanner was local.

Thirdly, some software exists that allows you to share scanners over a network. Specifically, Umax includes it with some of their scanners though that is pretty rudimentary software. Third party software such as RemoteScan will also work with any TWAIN scanner. With a setup such as this the scanner remains tied to a scan server computer that could be either a dedicated PC or the most frequent users PC. This is much less expensive than a dedicated network scanner, but is fairly new technology and relatively untested. It remains to be seen how the interfacing between the scanner driver, the scanner, and the client computer is done. It should be noted that Macintosh OS X does support native scanner sharing through the “Image Catpure” application preferences and the Rendevouz technology though this only works sharing between Macintoshes.

Finally, some manufacturers make network enabled scanners which are designed for built in scan servers similar to print servers commonly found on business class printers. HP has discontinued their network scanners (eg. Scanjet 4si/5) in favor of “document sending” machines which are more like fax machines with Ethernet jacks, not photo quality, Xerox has made a similar move. As far as I can tell Afga, Kodak and Umax the other major players in the photo-scanning arena do not manufacture networked scanners. HP, Lexmark and Brother all make multifunction devices that can be networked and include the ability to scan, but again this is not usually a very high-resolution scanner. One manufacturer with a viable high-resolution network scanner is Epson. The Epson GT series of scanners is specifically designed for group environments. The GT-30000 includes a built in scan server while the GT-15000 requires an optional network interface card. In addition to the GT series the Epson Expression 10000XL scanners can also use the optional network interface card.

Obviously the best solution from a technology standpoint is a scanner designed for use in a networked environment such as the Epson GT-30000. Of course, the greatest downside to a solution such as this is the sheer cost of a true network scanner. As of this writing the GT-30000 is roughly $4000, the GT-15000 plus the network card coming in at just under half of that and the 10000XL somewhere in the middle. The next best solution would likely be the RemoteScan software followed by the USB server or a dedicated workstation.

Online Resources:
Remote-Scan Software
Sharing an Imaging Device in OS X
Sharing a UMAX Scanner Over a Network
Epson Scanners
Keyspan USB Server
Digi International AnywhereUSB

The Next Big Thing In Blogging Software

Note: After you finish reading this be sure to check out my year later followup to this article.

John Hiler has an excellent article on blogware at Microcontent News that has some good information about the history of blogging software. It also talks about some of the different software packages that you can use for blogging. Unfortuatly it was written in 2002 and a lot has changed since then. I hope to do an update of sorts with a little narrower focus on tools for a personal site. Owen also has a breakdown of the features of many content management systems but this is a lot of information. It’s great for looking at features, not so great for making a final decision.
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