BlogSpot is blocked in Thailand… once again!

BlogSpot blocked in Thailand againOnce again the ISP’s in Thailand are at it – All BlogSpot based blogs are being actively blocked here. This came to my notice about 5 days back when I tried to access a friend’s blog and got a Network Timeout. I gave up thinking it was some temporary ISP hiccup – but the situation has continued to be the same for past 5 days. My suspicion was confirmed when I came across this forum thread today. Reports are pouring in from internet users around the country regarding the block.

The last time this had happened was around the middle of last year (May 2007). The ban was subsequently lifted sometime in June 2007. The reasons cited were political – which is understood, following the military government’s out lash against any liberal blog on politics that dared to speak favourably about deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

I’m scouring for further reports to figure out which all ISP’s are playing along, but I can say for sure about the one I use – i.e. TRUE INTERNET. By nature I believe it’s a simple domain block and the blogs can still be accessed using web-proxies, though apparently this is punishable by law (if caught). The BlogSpot blogs which use their own domain are still accessible.

As for the reason this time – I’m totally clueless.

Does anyone have any further information on this to share with us?

How to send executable (.exe) files as attachments in Gmail

Encrypted Email AttachmentGmail (and many of the major free email service providers) normally don’t allow you to attach executable (.exe) files and send them over to someone, because of security reasons – i.e. by barring this file type, they restrict the spread of various Worms and Trojans to a large extent. Even script files like .bat are blocked. This holds true even if you  rename such files, zip  them all up and try sending – because even zipped archives can be scanned.

However, there are genuine cases where you DO need to send over such files to your contact in a hurry, but due to the restrictions you’ve to opt for third-party file-hosting solutions like RapidShare or Box.net. And… invariably every time you’ve wished how convenient it would have been if you were able to zip them all up and send along with your mail. Would have kept everything in one place and to the context.

Well… here’s a quick tip that’ll put you right on track. As I’ve pointed out earlier zip files can be scanned and renamed .exe files can easily be caught by examining the file header. So how do you go about it?

Have you ever utilised a feature called Encrypt in WinZip? This is meant for storing sensitive and confidential data in the archive and locking it up with a password. What WinZip essentially does is to employ a industry standard encryption algorithm (you can take your pick) and entirely encrypt the contents of the archive using your password as the key phrase. The encryption renders the contents of the zip file unreadable and such encrypted files cannot be scanned properly by Gmail – thus letting your executable files slip through normally. All you need to do is send along the password in your mail to your recipient – so that he/she can successfully unzip the archive and extract the contents.

WinZip Encrypted Email Attachment

This trick hold true for almost any zipping software (other than WinZip) – for these days 99% of them come with the option of encryption. Say bye bye to attachment hiccups. Give it a shot yourself and see 🙂

Update: Google’s grown clever and now can see through this. However, if you use 7-Zip instead of WinZip you can still pull this trick off. Thanks to ces for providing this tip.

Create one-click disk images of USB Sticks & MP3 Players with USB Image Tool

Have you ever felt the need of backing-up your flash drive entirely? I mean keeping a backup of the stuff you’ve got on your USB Disk maybe as easy as just copying it all off to a folder on your hard drive – but how about a nicely compressed single-file image… something similar to the partition backup images created by Norton Ghost, Acronis TrueImage and the likes?

Here’s this tiny (97KB compressed) freeware utility named USB Image Tool that lets you do just that – minus the bulk and complexities of the above mentioned programs. The tool helps you create exact images of your USB memory sticks or MP3 Players (which are mounted as USB drives). Talking of MP3 Players – think of the ability to alternate between pre-defined sets (images) of music with the help of this tool.

Here’s a quick run-down of the features…

  • Create image files of USB drives
  • Restore images of USB drives
  • Compressed image file format (using XZip 1.3 routines)
  • Display USB Device information
  • Maintain a list of your favourtie images
  • Single click backups and restores through an extremely simple interface

USB Image Tool Screen-shot

The tool requires .NET Framework 2.0 to operate  – so make you sure have it installed.

Incidentally, if you are still in the habit of using those frail little floppy disks, you can very well take the help of DiskXS – a similar tool by the same author, to create backup images of your disks before they decide to give up on you.

Get USB Image Tool here.

iSpring Free: Convert your PowerPoint presentations into Flash for sharing on the web

If you’ve ever wanted to share PowerPoint presentations on the web but cursed at the lack of of a way – iSpring Free can do it for you for free! It’s this really cool plug-in that inserts itself into PowerPoint and provides you with a button that creates a flash-based sideshow at a single click.

iSpring Free

And not just that – in case you wanted to incorporate flash animations / movies into a normal PowerPoint presentation, iSpring Free can do that for you as well. The free version doesn’t offer much in the way of choices – for that you’ve to go Pro. iSpring Pro offers a horde of custom transition effects,  animations, sound syncing, embeddable hyperlinks, custom slide-show player etc. However, for our daily use, this is by far one of the best options.

There are quite a few online services like SlideShare which convert as well as host the slide-shows for you – but then again, there’s a question of branding. All such hosted presentations come branded with SlideShare’s logo. With iSpring Free you’re totally free to brand it the way you like…

BSOD revisited

Here are two extremely funny renditions of the infamous Blue Screen of Death (BSOD) that is such a part and parcel of the whole Windows series… I dug them up from this site today.

Banging on the BSOD

BSOD after downloading 99%

Have fun !

A quick remedy to speed up / resume your file copy process in Windows

The default file copy method in Windows (any given version) is severely handicapped. First and foremost – it’s SLOW. The probably the worst part of it is that there’s no way to resume on error. Supposing your file copy operation throws up an error (say, due to some problems while reading the source) – you don’t have any method at your disposal to get rid of the problematic files/folders and resume with the rest. On most occasions the error will cause the entire source file list to be deselected and you’ve to start right from scratch !!

This gets particularly nasty when you’re copying a particularly complex selection of files and folders. Upon aborting it’s invariably that same Ctrl / Shift + Click routine all over again. This is where two nice little freeware utilities can help you go a long way. Both the tools create hooks onto the default copy operation of Windows and automatically takes charge whenever you’re copying or moving files.

The first one is TeraCopy – a freely downloadable tool from Code Sector. I came to know about this tool while discussing about CubicExplorer. Now that I’ve brought it up, CubicExplorer is this awesome , feature-rich tabbed file explorer that I’ve been using for a long while now. It can do about a hundred different things that you’ve always wished in the default Windows Explorer but never got. This brings to light a very important question – has MS entirely stopped on furthering the development of their file explorer?? Through all these versions of Windows I never saw a single change except for the eye-candy! Anyway, more on CubicExplorer later – as it deserves it’s own post. Back to the topic.

TeraCopy Compact View
TeraCopy – Compact View

TeraCopy Expanded View
TeraCopy – Expanded View

Here’s what TeraCopy can do for you…

  • Copy files faster. TeraCopy uses dynamically adjusted buffers to reduce seek times. Asynchronous copy speeds up file transfer between two physical hard drives.
  • Pause and resume file transfers. Pause copy process at any time to free up system resources and continue with a single click.
  • Error recovery. In case of copy error, TeraCopy will try several times and in the worse case just skips the file, not terminating the entire transfer.
  • Interactive file list. TeraCopy shows failed file transfers and lets you fix the problem and recopy only problem files.
  • Shell integration. TeraCopy can completely replace Explorer copy and move functions, allowing you work with files as usual.
  • Full Unicode support.

None of the features, I believe, require any further explanation. Code Sector has a Pro version of the same too – available for a nominal licensing fee – but with a horde of extra features.

Point to be noted here. While TeraCopy does significantly boost the file copy speeds – this is applicable only to the larger files and folders. There’s this added overhead of firing up TeraCopy’s engine (everytime you copy/move a file), which actually degrades performance for smaller files and folders. At least that’s how it behaved on my system.

Now comes the other contender – Copy Handler, the free and open source sibling of TeraCopy. I came across this much later although it came as a very pleasant surprise. It can do everything that TeraCopy does, PLUS MORE. It’s simply packed to the core with tonnes of features and tweaks.

Copy Handler - Small View
Copy Handler – Small View

Copy Handler - Full View
Copy Handler – Full View

And here’s a list of the main features…

  • Copying data at rates up to 6-7 times faster than standard MS Windows copying (when copying data from one partition to another on the same physical hard disk).
  • Allows full-control over the copying/moving process by pause, resume, restart and cancel features.
  • Fully customizable – over 60 detailed options – from setting language (multiple languages) through auto-resume on error, shutting down system after copying finished to very detailed and technical (customizing copy/move thread – buffer sizes, thread priority, …) ending on sounds on specific events.
  • Multi-lingual support – with more new languages appearing everyday, since the translation process is quite easy.
  • Provides detailed information about copy/move process (current file, buffer sizes, priority, progress by size and visual bar, status, current and average speed, time elapsed/left etc.)
  • Can automatically resume all unfinished operations when system restarts.
  • Limits the number of simultaneously processing tasks (copies/moves) thus reducing system overhead. Instead, tasks are set into a queue and are processed in order it was inserted into queue.
  • Integration with system – adds additional commands to context menus of folders and drag & drop menus.

Phew! That’s quite a list of features. I wonder what the creator(s) haven’t thought of including yet! I used these tools for a week each and my conclusion is that Copy Handler does perform a lot better than TeraCopy – both for small and large files. And with all the tweaks you can make it turbo-charged – which isn’t really possible with TeraCopy.

Why don’t you give both TeraCopy and Copy Handler a try – and share your views with us?

Chawt: Send unlimited free SMS (text messages) worldwide

Just came across this new free service named Chawt which lets you send unlimited SMS (text messages) to any mobile phone across the globe (to over 160 countries). The service is brought to you by a company named Breathe Mobile. The site seems brand new (domain registration is as recent as 10th June, 2008) and the creator(s) have taken a very minimalistic (read bare bones) approach to the interface – the primary stress has been placed on functionality. The service is Singaporean judging from the registrant’s name.

Chawt Screenshot

On accessing the site, you’re greeted with a basic login/registration form and not much else. Registration is painless and involves filling up your details (name, login info.) and your mobile number. This is  absolutely necessary for verification and completion of the registration process, for they send you an activation code at this number and you have to fill-in that number at a post-registration screen to activate your account. So you need to have your own mobile phone to be able to avail their services.

Once activated you can login and start sending messages right away. There’s a 80 character limit to the each message, but one shouldn’t grumble since it’s coming entirely free.

So what’s the catch? Well, this is a totally ad supported service. Each message you sent will carry a simple advertising text at the end. It’s non intrusive so try sending one to yourself now.

The messages get sent super-fast. I tried it on 2-3 different mobiles and on an average it took  around 2 second between hitting Send to that distinctive message beep on the phone. Surprisingly, the activation code took a while (around 10-15 seconds) to reach. The messages the sent using the mobile number used for activation – hence, recipients can reply directly to your phone. As for those simple text ads, they were present in the form of self-advertisements, which tells us that their ad inventory is yet to roll.

Overall, a super-fast, no-frills service that gets the job done with a 100% score, though lacking big-time in the eye-candy department. I guess that’s going to come later on once the service is established a bit. This one should prove to be a very good alternative to MobiK – the free SMS service which, despite all the eye-candy and big promises vanished away to nothingness (the MobiK domain now redirects to a site called bed.travel).

Why don’t you have a go at Chawt and share your experience with us?

Quick Tip: curreX version 0.9 released (with Flash Widget support)

Another quick announcement. I just released another version (0.9) of curreX – the Ajax based Currency Converter widget for WordPress.

Starting from this version, curreX also includes a Flash based widget and provides you with the option of selecting between the HTML/JavaScript version and it’s Flash counterpart from the widget configuration panel of WordPress.

A quick preview of the flash widget can be obtained from here. I’m pretty bad at creating snazzy graphics in flash – so it’s going to take a while to make the widget look nice. The current version is fully functional though.

As always, I’m open for any questions / comments / bug reports.

How to display FeedBurner Feed Subscriber Count on a custom graphical background

Feed CountHere’s a nice trick I learnt a couple of days back. I wanted to display my feed subscriber count in a way that would match my site’s theme. I was tired of the vanilla feed-count display provided by FeedBurner – probably because you can find it on almost every other site these days (and I wanted something unique). So I got down to designing one on my own and I’m going to show you how to do the same for your site.

I won’t go into any lengthy (step-by-step) discussion on creating the graphical background – that’s something that’ll be your call. But I’ll teach you the core idea – fetching the feed-count from FeedBurner’s server using their API and displaying it on your site.

The Graphical Part

First and foremost, you need to decide on what kind of a display you want – small or large, dark or light. For example, I chose to display mine on a black background with medium sized font (see my RSS box at the top of the page). Depending on your background, you’ll need to either create or find a suitable RSS icon. You can find some excellent tutorials on creating feed icons here, here and here. Alternatively, you can download a whole bunch of free icons from here.

As a starter fire up your favourite graphics editor (Adobe Fireworks for me). For simplicity’s sake we’ll follow the same approach as I did with my feed-count box. Draw a black rectangle with rounded corners. Place your feed icon in a suitable place. Then draw another smaller rounded rectangle inside the earlier one, but with a lighter stroke colour (say white). This will be the container where you display your feed-count. You can throw in some fancy glow / shadow effects as you like. We should get something that approximately resembles the following image.

Feed Count Container Graphics

The image shown above was created with Fireworks and is an editable layered PNG file. If you’re using Fireworks, you can very well download this one (Right Click on it > Save Image), use it as a starting point and add/edit/resize it according to your preferences.

The Coding Part

You need to ensure that your web-host offers cURL (as an extension of PHP). By default, 90% of the web-hosts do – so you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. Secondly, the FeedBurner Awareness API (for your feeds) should be turned on. If you have been using the Feed Count feature of FeedBurner – then it IS already turned on. If not, you can login into your FeedBurner account, select the Publicize tab for the appropriate feed and activate this service. Once you’ve made sure of these two factors, we can progress to the actual coding.

Here’s the code you’ve going to need.

// Get FeedBurner Subscription Count - using FeedBurner Awareness API
function get_feedburner_count( $uri, $display = 'true', $format = 'true' ) {

	// Construct URL
	$apiurl = "http://api.feedburner.com/awareness/1.0/GetFeedData?uri=" . $uri;

	// Initialize the Curl session
	$ch = curl_init();

	// Set curl to return the data instead of printing it to the browser.
	curl_setopt( $ch, CURLOPT_RETURNTRANSFER, 1 );
	// Set the URL
	curl_setopt( $ch, CURLOPT_URL, $apiurl );
	// Execute the fetch
	$data = curl_exec( $ch );
	// Close the connection
	curl_close($ch);

	// Parse XML
	try {
		@$xml = new SimpleXMLElement($data);
		$fcount = $xml->feed->entry['circulation'];
	} catch ( Exception $ex ) {
		// echo 'Caught exception: ',  $ex->getMessage(), "n";
		$fcount = "?????";
	}

	// Display or Return, Formatted or Unformatted
	if( $display ) {
		if( $format )
			echo number_format( $fcount, 0, '.', ',' );
		else
			echo $fcount;
	}
	else
		return $fcount;

}

If you’re wondering where you’re going to add this code without messing up your theme – almost all modern WordPress themes have this file named functions.php, which contains the functions essential for registering the sidebar, tweaking specific WordPress routines etc. You can add this code to that file and it’ll be made available for calling from anywhere inside your theme.

The function is called get_feedburner_count() and accepts three parameters – two of which are optional. Here’s an explanation of the parameters…

  1. $uri – This is a mandatory parameter. If you don’t specify this one, the function won’t be able to fetch the feed count. The URI is the name you chose to represent your feed on FeedBurner. For example – my feed url is, http://feeds.feedburner.com/ChaosLaboratory. That makes my URI, ChaosLaboratory. This is what needs to be specified here.
  2. $display – This is an optional parameter. It takes up the values true or false. I have modelled this function on the lines of the general WordPress template functions – which means that the function is able to either display the feed-count directly, OR return it to you for further processing. If you don’t specify any value here, it’ll default to displaying the feed-count.
  3. $format – This too is an optional parameter and takes up either true or false. By default it is set to true. This tells the function to pass the feed-count through another formatting function, which adds a digit-grouping comma to it for every thousandth place. The formatting occurs on Line 31 of the code and you can modify that line to reflect any sort of formatting you want.

A typical call the function can look like,
get_feedburner_count( 'ChaosLaboratory' ); – this will print out the formatted feed-count directly

OR

$fcount = get_feedburner_count( 'ChaosLaboratory', false, false ); – this will fetch the raw (non-formatted) feed count and store it in a variable called $fcount. This doesn’t print the figure directly to the screen, but leaves it at your disposal for further processing

OR any variation thereof.

Now, we need to apply some styling to that background image we created so that the feed-count is aligned properly.

Note: I applied the styling on an anchor (link) tag, since I wanted to make the whole image clickable, so as to provide a way of subscribing to my feeds too. Here’s an example…

a#feedcount {
	display:block;
	width:120px;
	height:26px;
	margin:0;
	padding:5px 10px 5px 0;
	background:url(images/bg-feed.png) no-repeat transparent;
	color:#D6D6D6;
	font-size:2em;
	font-weight:bold;
	text-align:right;
	text-decoration:none;
}

Points to note here: On Line 1, I’ve declared display:block. This is necessary, since the a tag by default is an inline element – which means, it collapses to the exact width of the text contained in the anchor. This is not desirable here as we’re attaching the background image to the a tag, and we want it to adapt to the exact proportions of it (specified in Lines 3 & 4). I’ve aligned the feed-count text to the right (Line 11) and used a padding of 10px on the right (Line 6) so as to leave a comfortable gap from the right edge of the graphics.

The code-block above can be added to your template’s stylesheet file or in the header.php within style tags – depends on you. For me, I prefer to keep all the styling in one place, i.e. the stylesheet file.

Adding it to your template

Now that we’ve got all the code in the right place, it’s time to add it to the template. Open up the appropriate file (header or index) – where you want to display the feed-count and add the following lines…


	< ?php get_feedburner_count( "YOUR_FEED_URI" ); ?>

And that’s it! That should display your feed count with the custom graphical background and make the image clickable too, to act as a feed subscription button. The final effect should look like the following…
FeedBurner Feed Count with Graphical Background

Any questions / clarifications, feel free to write back.

Quick Tip: curreX v0.8 released

Here’s a quick tip for those who have been plagued with problems while using curreX v0.7 (the Ajax based Currency Converter Widget for WordPress). I’ve released a new version v0.8 yesterday, fixing most of those issues.

Please grab a copy from here or the WordPress plug-in repository and update your installation to fix all the earlier problems.

If you run into any problems with this version, there’s always the official curreX support forum.