Fighting with computers

Computers are not always friendly.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

eBay scams

I was looking for a new 12x zoom camera with image stabilization. I turned to eBay to see if I could find better deals and, specially, more offer than you might get from local retailers. I settled with a reputed seller from Hong Kong, and I paid almost the same as the list price from a local seller but the deal included an extra battery and a 1GB SD memory.

In the process of looking for a deal on eBay, I detected numerous problems on listings of various products (i.e: digital cameras and USB flash storage). I reported my findings to the Spanish branch of eBay but to date, four days later, I've got no answer from them. I did the same thing to Safe Harbor and I've got an automated reply, but some hours later I could see that some of the users accounts had been cancelled.

After searching a bit on the 'net I can see that a common scam is to sell fake flash storage (either USB or SD or any other format). The trick is that the storage actually works, but it only contains a small amount of the listed capacity. Users buy the unit and after the initial tests it seems to work ok. The units report the fake capacity to the operating system, though after the user stores files that exceed the real capacity (not the reported one) all stored data is corrupted. Depending on the case the seller might be already missing or he may claim you've got a defective unit. Beware if you see a "too good to be true" deal on these devices.

How to spot a potential scam? To be honest I have to tell you that eBay does a good job about writing clear and straightforward guidelines on this. However, users sometimes might not have read it. The most clear sign that should put you in defensive mode is when seller ask for a wire transfer for payment. Next, you need to pay attention to the seller's feedback, not only on the number of feedbacks he's got but also if they were coming from sellers or buyers. Does he often sell the type of goods you are planning to buy from him now?

On the other hand, be also aware that accounts might be hijacked, so a crook could be using the account of another, decent eBay user, so look for sings reassuring you this is not the case.
But on top of that bear in mind you can always walk away. I guess you rather prefer negative feedback from a dishonest seller instead of losing some hundreds of your hard-earned money.

I think you can find good deals on eBay, you can also find items not available on your own country too. But be aware that products shipped from another country might have an import tax only the buyer is aware of.

I've bought a few items on eBay and I've bitten the dust once (DOA wireless router). I was naive enough to believe the seller was trying to help me out to fix the problem while he was just gaining some time so I could not file a complaint on time. After that time passed I've never heard from him anymore. Does anyone need a nice door-stop?

Update: Five days later, eBay Spain sent me an email telling me that as my user account was registered as US resident then I better should talk to No mention to the ongoing scam operation I was warning them about. They seem to care more about following the company's rules than preventing fraud. At any rate, five days is quite a large reaction time (It took less time for my camera to be shipped from Hong Kong).

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Ubuntu 6.06 LTS five months later

After some months of use I think I can provide you my impressions on how this Ubuntu thing behaves.

I used to be a SuSE Linux user since 8.0 and then, after 10.0 I had several minor issues with some hardware. I decided to give Ubuntu a go and since then I have succesfully migrated six different systems desktops to it. I have also installed more than four other copies on several relatives computers. The net result is all of them are happily running.

I have been consistenlty using Ubuntu on a daily basis since mid-June and I'm very happy with the result. I was familiar with KDE and I am now using Gnome and I cannot complain either. It just works, though I am sure some of the days I needed to pull one or two tricks out of the many on-line forums about Ubuntu (like getting 3D acceleration on some ATI cards). If you use Ubuntu Dapper Drake I can recommend you this site.
My advice is: try it out. If you do not like you can get a refund. Till now it Ubuntu is the only distro you can get the CD shipped to your home for free.

However, if you do not have Internet access your experience might well be not half as good as mine, because Ubuntu installs from a CD that contains only a small set of applications. Most of the rest has to be pulled out of the 'net.

Update: Just when I thought it still might take a while, Ubuntu 6.10 is just realeased.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Genius G-Note 5000

Some days ago I saw this nice gadget on the website of a distributor. I thought it might be a good idea: A notepad you take with you, you write as many pages as you want and, when you are back home you can download all your handwritten text or drawings.

Of course you can do this with a cheap scanner without having to recourse to buying any new hardware (provided you already own an scanner). However, what I was looking for when I learned about this product was a tablet for drawing.

The Genius G-Note series does both: You can use it off-line to write more than 100 pages in the built-in 32MB of flash memory and it can also be used online as a mouse substitute (or companion). I feel much more comfortable when writing and drawing with a pen than with a mouse.

The unit came with some Windows software which was ok. Without any software the tablet looks like a USB flash drive to your system where each page drawn shows as a different file. Filenames are numbered (i.e. BK-01-001.DNT, BK-01-002.DNT and so on). File format was unknown but a quick look at it suggested a sequence of waypoints representing what you drew was used. Included software allowed you to export either to PDF or JPEG file formats.

Four AAA batteries power the tablet and two button batteries power the black and red ballpens included with the unit. The color of the pen is kept on the archives, so the system output will look exactly the same what you wrote on the page. I am not yet sure how long batteries last, but manufacturer claims you can get 80 hours out of a battery set. The tablet unit also has several buttons to allow you create a new empty page, to delete a given page and to select the current page you want to be writing on.

Before trying to reverse-engineer the .DNT file format I thought it would be a good idea try to pull the information from the manufacturer. Of course I did google for that first, but my quest drew zero results. So I checked the "About ..." option on the software that came with the unit to learn that UC-Logic was the maker of the program. I looked for their support email address on the net and I sent them a message asking for the info. To my surprise, my message was answered promptly and I was provided with a two-pages long word file with all the details on the file format they use. It took me two hours of test to get a perl program that successfully converts a .DNT file to a .SVG file I can later manipulate with Inkscape. I keep each stroke as a different polyline.

Here you have the perl code. And, I almost forgot, the G-Note 5000 retails at $99, so I think it is a very good deal.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Free software is not only for geeks

I've recently learned that the software taught at the Fine Arts School at the university I am with is based on three comercial programs: Adobe's Photoshop, Macromedia's Freehand and Microsoft's PowerPoint. The three are nice pieces of software in my opinion and I am aware they are used by many companies.
What troubles me is that students are left either bankrupt (Photoshop €1.042, Freehand €520 and PowerPoint €338, which totals €1.900) or having to get a pirate copy of the software.
With all due respect I think they could teach the same concepts (which I guess are the very basics as it is an undergraduate course) using the free counterparts The GIMP, Inkscape and OpenOffice's Impress. These programs have a similar functionality (ok, maybe just 90% of the others features) but are available for free for almost ANY platform, including Windows, Linux and Apple's OS X.

For those unfamiliar with the software world, let me put an example: If we compare the software industry to the food industry, then we may think of a program as a recipe. There are many recipes that are freely available, you learn them from your mom or your spouse, you write them down and you share them with other people. There are also cookbooks, with many recipes not invented by the books' authors. Cookbooks are sold for a profit (most of the time). Still, there are some recipes that are kept secret. Maybe a chef developed a new delicious dish but has kept the details secret. What about the recipe for Coca-Cola soft drink? It is suposed to be a trade secret and as such it can be protected by our legal system.

In similar terms, there are programs that are sold for a profit, usually called proprietary software. These programs are not sold but licenced to the customers. Most of the time licenceses strictly forbid any copy of the software to non-paying customers (or should I say users?). There are other programs that are free, called free software. Free having here two meanings: They are available without paying any money and, secondly, you are free to copy them to other people or to modify them.

There is always this doubt on whether something I am paying for can be as good as something you get for free. Well ... it depends. If you think about getting a new car, I am not aware you can get one for free unless it is an old wreck from your uncle. In other contexts, paying can bring in a new orientation, for example, paying for sex may not be as good as sex you are getting for free (the example is not mine but from Linux creator Linus Torvalds). In the case of software programs there are good and bad ones in both the free softare and the proprietary software worlds.

The programs I mention as alternatives to the ones proposed by the school are certainly more than good enough for any undergraduate level, unless you want to specifically train your students on the use of one particular brand name of software (which can be a legitimate goal too).