Friday, March 13, 2009

Word 2003 crashing when trying to format lists

One of our users was having Word crash on her every time she accessed the Bullets and Numbering… function in Word. The problem seemed intermittent at first but eventually became 100% consistent. We checked Office Update but the site reported that we were all up to date on that front, so there was no possibility of downloading an update that might fix the problem. An internet search uncovered a solution to the problem, the problem being a corrupt "List Gallery". When you access the Bullets and Numbering… function, Word shows you a gallery of list styles so you can preview them all and pick the one you want. Over time, Word tries to adapt this gallery so that the defaults match the styles you most frequently use. However, this adaptive behaviour is kind of flaky and poorly implemented, so if you are working on a lot of documents from a bunch of different people and spend a lot of time fixing broken and mis-formatted lists (as this user often does), the gallery itself eventually fills up with the broken and mis-formatted list styles you happen to be working on. In this case it got so bad that Word itself couldn't even handle the garbage and it crashed every time it had to display the list gallery. To fix the problem (source):
  1. Open Registry Editor (go to Start, click Run, and type regedit)
  2. Navigate down to the HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Office\11.0\Word\List Gallery Presets key (What look like folders in the Registry are actually called keys)
  3. Right click on the List Gallery Presets key and Delete it
When you next start word, click the Format menu and choose Bullets and Numbering — the List Gallery will now display with all the simple, clean defaults it had when you first installed Word.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Automatically sort social networking notifications in your Gmail

If you're like a lot of people nowadays, notification emails from Twitter and Facebook and their ilk have rapidly overtaken your "real" personal correspondence in terms of sheer bulk. It's not spam, but if you want to still get these emails then you could probably use a way to deal with it more efficiently. What I do in GMail is use a filter. Any email from social networking sites is given the "social" label and archived, but left unread. This means the email never lands in my inbox with the rest of my mail, but I can still quickly see if there are any new messages and read them separately if I like. In GMail, go to Settings, then Filters, then click Create a new filter at the bottom. Use the following text in the "Has Words" field:
from:{ }
Set it to "Skip inbox" and "Apply label: social" (or whatever label you choose to create for the purpose). Make sure you add in any domains of social networking sites you use that aren't already incuded above! I'm not the first one to figure this out and everyone has their own method, but I thought I'd leave it here for anyone who might find it handy.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A look at project management platforms

I had a question from Stephen, and thought I'd post my response here for public benefit and/or comment. The core of the question:
I am very interested in what happened in your quest for a good project management system. I started comparing Basecamp and SharePoint today, and I found some of your comments on a Joyent forum at In that forum, you mentioned looking for a SharePoint alternative in Basecamp, then being totally turned off by Basecamp's lack of functionality (too much eye candy!). Well, I am very interested in learning what happened next in your search.
I think Basecamp or activeCollab could work well depending on your needs — I have experimented with activeCollab, which is a canned solution (but no longer open source) you can host yourself, and might be just what you are looking for. It looks like it has come a long way since its beta testing days. As far as what actually happened in my quest, we ended up sticking with SharePoint because we were sort of invested in it and there was no other self-hosted solution that worked well for sharing large amounts of files with the permissions control we needed. It all comes down to, what do you need more? A communications and scheduling tool? Or a document management and sharing tool? Basecamp and activeCollab do the former — Basecamp is cute and works well for small projects, activeCollab looks like it would scale better for larger projects. Sharepoint could be both (though it does neither thing well) if everyone using it is an employee of the same company (because Sharepoint user accounts are linked directly to domain or local user accounts, which people would already be likely using to access other internal services like Exchange or network file shares), but administering it for “outside” users is problematic at best for that very reason: you have to make every user of Sharepoint also a user somewhere on your internal corporate network. Where most solutions break down for me is the perfect storm of requirements that any engineering firm runs into: the need to share large groups of large files with a large number of people from different companies, with a fine-grained level of control. That last requirement is a particularly hard one — take it out and a simple FTP site will do. (In fact, a lot of contractors do just that.) One tool that does just file sharing that I was interested to see was BigFileBox. One of the founders told me it had been designed with A/E firms in mind (see my comments, and the founder's response, on the forum here). The only thing that precluded me from pursuing it was our requirement for hosting in-house. Also, engineering reproduction firms like ERS Digital/PlanWell have their own hosted platforms that can be tailored to anything requiring this kind of high-volume file sharing with versioning, fine-grained permissions, access tracking, etc. At the extreme end of this group is AutoDesk's BuzzSaw, which (last I checked) is prohibitively expensive for small- to mid-size firms. Other than that, there is this list of project management software, but I of course have not experimented with any of those in depth. I don't get the impression that industrial-quality file management is a big component of any of them, however. Finally, the biggest part of any solution is getting people to use it. If you can discern what your users really want (e.g., mainly want to shuffle files around, or track schedules), then it is probably better to find a tool that scratches just that one itch really well. Whereas more "comprehensive" products often require an overhaul of everyone's workflow — if you are in a position to "sell" that and get everyone to buy in on it and actually open up their browsers and use it every day, so much the better.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Drive mapping using "NET USE" Fails.

I had a user today who couldn't access our file server over our VPN. Like most Windows-based companies we have a batch file that users run after the VPN connection is made, which quickly maps all the network drives using the net use command. VPN problems are annoying too since, by definition, these problems only occur when users are working remotely, and all diagnosis & solving has to be done over the phone. Anyways... The VPN client showed that it was, in fact connected, so no problem there. A quick use-check of other services (email, intranet) confirmed that the problem was on his client and not on the server. I then scrutinized the execution of the batch file itself by adding a pause command at the end so we could see what was going on before it finished executing and closed. It seemed that each net use command failed with this error:
'NET' is not recognized as an internal or external command, operable program or batch file
So evidently, it simply couldn't find the net program, which is weird, because it is a standard Windows command. The file net.exe was located right where it should be (in C:\Windows\system32). This is where a knowledge of the old DOS days still comes in handy even in the 21st century. DOS had a system setting called the PATH, which told it which folders to look in when the user typed in a command. The PATH environment variable persists in Windows' use of command-line programs to this day, and when the command prompt tells you it can't recognize a file you know is there, you can be sure the PATH has become messed up somehow. To view and change your PATH setting:
  1. Right-click My Computer and hit properties
  2. Click the Advanced tab
  3. Click the Environment Variables button at the bottom
  4. In the list at the bottom, click on the Path entry
The first thing in that string should be C:\WINDOWS\system32;C:\WINDOWS; and — wouldn't you know it — in this case it wasn't. It turns out the user had had to run a "repair installation" tool for AutoCAD the day before, and apparently this tool had replaced the Path setting with it's own value instead of simply adding its value on to the end as it should have done. The result was that the Windows and system32 folders, where all the standard commands reside, was no longer on Windows' own list of places to check for commands & programs to run. To fix: select Path (still in the window shown above), click the Edit button, and paste the following string into the beginning of the "Variable Value" field (do not replace the entire string):
Then click OK to close out of all the dialog boxes, no need to restart. After doing this, the net use command worked properly and the drives all mapped without a hitch. Final note: this problem was caused by the installation repair tool in Autodesk Architectural Desktop 2005. Newer versions of this software may have fixed the problem, but it is the kind of thing that any program could easily get wrong, causing the same issue and possibly breaking other aspects of your usage as well.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

"No Audio Output Device Is Installed" - Vista Error

So, just tonight, my laptop suddenly decided it had no sound. The speaker icon in the tray had a red X over it and hovering over it produced a little error message: "No Audio Output Device Is Installed". This is of course surprising since I'd had audio before, and no service packs or new drivers had been installed anytime recently (they were all up to date already). A look inside Device Manager confirmed that I did in fact have drivers installed and they were working properly. A little searching confirmed that this issue was not uncommon. I finally tried the first likely fix I found, buried in this CNET post, and it worked. Essentially, the problem is the result of some kind of conflict between the modem and sound card drivers. I uninstalled both drivers in the Device Manager (do not select the option to"remove from system" or anything like that if given the choice) and restarted the machine. After the restart, Windows found the both devices and automatically reinstalled the drivers for them, and everything was working perfectly. Yay!

Getting GMail themes for your domain email

It's been, what, almost half a year now, and Google Apps accounts still don't have the Themes feature available. I want GMail to host my domain's email but, silly me, I want themes too. Well, I think I found a way. I'll have two email accounts. First, a normal, free GMail account which will be the main one I use for accessing email, since it has themes. And secondly, I'll have another account in Google Apps, hosting the email for my domain. This account will be set to just forward everything to the first account. The first account will be set to simply use the domain email address as the default "From" address when sending email. So all the mail I send will still appear to come from my domain. Now, if you already have a Google Apps account you've been using as your primary account, this is not an ideal solution unless you are ready to migrate all your prior email over to the new, free GMail account. But for someone like me who is migrating to GMail for the first time, it might be just what the doctor ordered.