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Computing At Chaos Manor:
December 18, 2007

The User's Column, December 2007
Column 329, Part 2
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.


Merry Christmas to All!

The Users' Choice Awards and Annual Orchids and Onions Parade

We are open for nominations for the Chaos Manor Users' Choice Awards, and the annual Orchids and Onions Parade, which appear in the column in mid January. Please put the words "User's Choice", "Onions", or "Orchids" in the subject matter and send to me at jerryp@jerrypournelle.com. Your message should have the name of the product or company, some link to it so that readers (and for that matter moi) can find it, and your reasons for the nomination. In general short is better than long, but take as much space as you think necessary.

I will accept anonymous nominations, but unless anonymity is specified your message may be quoted either in the column or the mailbag.

The Outlook Story

Part Three of my November column describes some problems I had with Outlook, and what I did about them. After that column came out, I got a good bit of mail questioning my sanity: why would I continue using Outlook?

I've given that some thought. The simple answer is ‘inertia'. Outlook is a bit clunky, and really hogs computer resources, but it does work, and it does a lot. It keeps my calendar and task lists. It's a contact manager, and not only keeps my address book, but also my subscriber list and data. Of course I'd be better off if I had created a regular data base to keep the subscriber information, but I didn't, and it would take several days I don't have to transform that list to something more "modern".

Most importantly, Outlook stores my mail. I get a lot of mail, and Outlook has rules that help me organize it, but of course that's not enough to let me find anything after a few days. Outlook has a built in "find" function, but it's slow and clunky, and I gave up on that a long time ago. Indeed, I was about to give up on Outlook when Microsoft brought out the Windows Desktop Search function. This is a search engine that builds an index of all the files on your computer – and that very much includes all the mail stored in Outlook's .pst files, both active and archive.

Outlook stores its files in a proprietary and unparsable format called .pst, and those files can get very large. Outlook works much better if the .pst files aren't allowed to get larger than a gigabyte, and smaller is better. Fortunately there are ways to partition them into separate files, and I do that. Windows Desktop Search can look into those .pst files. As a result I can search tens of thousands of letters ranging from recent to many years ago and get almost instant results. It's safe to say that without Windows Desktop Search I'd have abandoned Outlook a long time ago.

Imagine my dismay, then, when Windows Desktop Search began telling me that it could not find any email files. I did a couple of tests on items that I knew were in email, and yep, sure enough, the search engine said it could find nothing matching those criteria. I opened Windows Desktop Search, looked at the various options, and told it to rebuild the index. I was informed that this would take several hours, which was all right with me so long as it did the job.

Alas, it didn't. When the rebuilding was done, Windows Desktop Search still didn't believe I had any email files.

For You, There Is No Escape

At this point I sent a panic message on my web site: did anyone know how to get out of Outlook? And if I did, what would I replace it with?

The problem, you see, is all that mail, years worth of it. More often than you think I need to access some old mail. Outlook with Windows Desktop Search made that very easy: but if I wasn't using Outlook, what would I do? How could I even access, much less find, that old mail?

One reader said he had just done this: he exported all his mail into Outlook Express (which despite the similarity of names, is an entirely different program with different file storage systems) and then imported the mail from Outlook Express to his new mail program, which I think was Eudora. That sounded like a lot of work. Easy enough to do, but it would take a long time, and when I was done I'd still have to come up with new programs to do what Outlook was doing.

I could use Filemaker to build a data base of subscribers; some of that would automate, but the various notes I have made, and the subscription history, would have to be entered by hand. More work.

I'd have to come up with an alternate mail handling program. There are a number of candidates for that. Too many. More time. I'd need a new calendar program. And I'd have to get used to using all the new stuff – and just now I have more work to do than I have time for already.

Outlook with Windows Desktop Search has been Good Enough for a long time. If it could be made to work again, that would certainly get me past this heavy work schedule and give me time to do some research on just what I'm doing next. For that matter, it really would be Good Enough if I could figure out what causes the latest spate of problems.

Update Jerks Me Around

I used Control Panel / Add Or Remove Programs to uninstall Windows Desktop Search. Fortunately I was dealing with a Windows XP system; if I had this problem on a Vista system I would have discovered that the Vista Control Panel doesn't have an Add Or Remove Programs item. That turns out to have been renamed to Programs and Features; and of course it never occurred to the geniuses who designed Vista simply to leave both links in there, because Vista and Office 2007 don't do things that way. Oh. Well.

Anyway, I was able to uninstall Windows Desktop Search without problems. After I did that, my Windows Live OneCare began complaining that I needed to update my system. OK, I went to Microsoft Windows Update, and sure enough it said there was an urgent update to be installed. When I told it to make the installation, Surprise! It was Windows Genuine Advantage! Just what I needed, to take fifteen minutes off from what I was doing to reinstall this! Wow!

Once that was done I was able to go back and find Windows Desktop Search, and download that to be sure I had the latest and greatest. The version I have is 3.01; the only way I know that is that I went to Control Panel / Add or Remove Programs, and it tells me it's Windows Desktop Search 3.01; if there's a "help – about" for the program or equivalent, I don't know where it is. Naturally, going to Microsoft Help and searching on Windows Desktop Search gives the traditional result of looking for Help with Modern Microsoft: nothing useful whatever.

Opening Windows Desktop Search shows a "Help" item, but going to that gives two options: "Is this copy of Windows legal?" and "About Windows". The second item tells me that my copy of Windows is Build 5.1 and Service Pack 2; it doesn't tell me why I would look under Help in Windows Desktop Search to find that out, but I suppose it made sense to some brilliant programmer. Presumably if I work hard enough I can find something that tells me more about Windows Desktop Search and how to use it, but I don't have time to go looking for it.

Now in its defense, Windows Desktop Search doesn't need a lot of Help: using it is pretty intuitive so long as it's working. (Of course when it stops working you won't find any Help, but Microsoft Windows users have become pretty accustomed to that.)

Uninstalling Windows Desktop Search had also erased the index files, so when I reinstalled the program it got right to work. At this point Outlook's pigginess and the Search Indexing feature seemed to fight: while the index was rebuilding, my system locked up twice. By locked up, I mean that it was entirely unresponsive to mouse or keyboard, and the only recovery was by hardware reset.

The remedy to that situation was simple: don't open Outlook until Windows Desktop Search has rebuilt the index. I told the indexer to pause for an hour, went through my dozen pst files and did File | Data File Management, selected the first of the pst files listed there, used the Settings button, and chose Compact Now. I did that for each of the dozen .pst files. Then I closed Outlook. When you close Outlook, it doesn't really go away: you have to go into Task Manager and find the process ‘Outlook.exe' and halt it. One that was done I copied the entire C:/Documents and Settings/Jerryp/Local Settings/Application Data/Microsoft/Outlook folder over to my laptop.

I do this often enough that I have a batch file to do it. The batch file reads ...

XCOPY "C:/Documents and Settings/Jerryp/Local Settings/Application Data/Microsoft/Outlook" "O:/Documents and Settings/Jerryp/Local Settings/Application Data/Microsoft/Outlook" /e/s/d/y

... in case you want to build one; in my case the O: is mapped to the C Drive of Orlando, my Lenovo t42p ThinkPad. The "" marks around the path names are necessary because XCOPY is a DOS program that doesn't believe in spaces in file names. The four switches make the operation run smoothly without stopping the operation to ask questions.

Once those files were backed up, I left Outlook closed, told the Windows Desktop Search to begin its indexing again, and busied myself with other errands for a few hours. When the Indexing was done, I used VOPT to optimize the hard drive, gave the indexer another half hour to get used to that, and opened Outlook again.

The result was what I hoped for: everything works just fine. When I put in a search string and tell Windows Desktop Search to confine itself to email, it instantly returns from a few to thousands of items, sorted from latest to earliest, and includes items from every one of the .pst folder including long forgotten archives. It's wonderful, and I can't imagine it working better.

The bottom line here is that I'll stick with Outlook. At the moment I am using Outlook 2003, because all my legal copies of Office 2007 have been installed on laptops and other systems. I'll fix that when I get a Round Tuit, because Outlook 2007, while not radically different from Outlook 2003, is something of an improvement, and the upgrade is worth while. Fortunately, when I copy all the .pst files from an Outlook 2003 system to an Outlook 2007 system and vice versa, it all works invisibly; there's no version conflict.

In addition, if you work alone, it's also worth while to upgrade to Word 2007, but if you work collaboratively with Word XP and Word 2003 users, this can cause lots of problems, and is not advised. Fortunately, you can have both Office 2003 and Office 2007 on the same machine, and run Outlook 2007 while running Word 2003; at least I have been doing this on both Vista and XP systems without problems.

I also note that my attempts to use Open Office with Windows have not been successful. I gather that Linux users have no difficulties – Robert Bruce Thompson writes books to an elaborate template using Linux and Open Office, and Captain Morse has become pretty well Windows Free – but I have noted some difficulties when I send out a copy of the column in Word and get back an edited copy done on a system running Open Office. The difficulties aren't intolerable, but it does require some reformatting.

For all the mail I get denouncing Outlook, I have to say that it has served me well; and whenever I hear of something that is supposed to be so much better, a bit of investigation discloses that the candidate substitute isn't without problems. Outlook does a lot for me, and so far, despite my occasional curses, it has worked. With Outlook plus Windows Desktop Search I have mail files going back into the 1990's indexed and instantly available at need; and that's a Good Thing.

The moral of the story is simple. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, and if you do have to fix something, often it's better to just fix it: you don't need to do a full overhaul every time.

DEGUNKING

This isn't a full report on degunking. That will take a lot more time and space than I have. However, many of you will be visiting relatives who got new computers this season, and if you read this column your relatives probably think you're a savvy geek who can help set up the new machine. Managing Editor Brian Bilbrey, who evidently has less formidable relatives than I do, says the best thing to do is Just Say No.

If that alternative isn't available, think of this as a reminder on what to do.

It used to be that it took a while for a computer to get all gunked up with needless applications, update requests, services, adware, and other junk. Alas, now when you buy a new computer all that goop is already there. Symantec-Norton, MacAfee, Adobe, Google, and a whole bunch of other companies have mysterious "relationships" with computer manufactures. Neither they nor computer companies like Dell will comment on how those "relationships" work, but the result is that there's just an awful lot of gunk on your new computer.

It has got to the point where computer sales outlets will often offer to "optimize" your system for a fee, typically $30 but ranging as high as $100. The "optimization" generally consists of removing the various "services" provided by the companies that install their stuff on your machine before you get it.

Of course not all gunk comes preinstalled. Computers do get gunked up with unwanted goo over the years. As an example, uninstall programs don't always work properly and leave something behind. Internet security service programs expire. Other programs that you no longer use keep trying to phone home and update themselves.

Complete degunking can take a while, but there are some quick and dirty steps you can take. The first most people think of is to open Control Panel | Add and Remove Programs and look at each program in the list. You may find things in there that you haven't used in years. I know I do. Uninstalling those will work, but it's pretty permanent; it might be better to disable them before you remove them entirely.

The reversible way to disable startup programs is to invoke the DOS program msconfig. If you've got Vista, just type msconfig in the Start/search window. If you're using XP, do run cmd to open a command window, and type msconfig.

I just did that on my XP machine, and nothing happened. Since I know that msconfig exists on my XP system, I wondered what was going on. Windows Desktop Search couldn't find any instances of msconfig, so I used the older Search program that comes with XP, clicking the "Click here to use Search Companion" item. That found several instances of msconfig, one in C:\Windows\System 32\dllcache. Interestingly, that \dllcache subdirectory is not in the default command path, so the command parser never found msconfig.exe. I suppose I could have set a new path, but there's another way. Copying msconfig.exe into the System 32 folder took care of the problem.

When you have msconfig running, examine "Startup" and "Services", and you'll probably find a bunch of items you may want to think about. Uncheck them, and they'll be quiet in future. This can cut startup times by quite a lot. Doing a bit of degunking is a good way to make some points with Aunt Minnie. If it turns out that she doesn't miss any of the programs you've turned off, you can simply uninstall them.

Rick Hellewell adds:

There is a program called the "PC Decrapifier", which claims to remove the various 'craplets' that are present on consumer-grade computer systems. Their web site is here, "The PC Decrapifier will uninstall many of the common trialware and annoyances found on many of the PCs from big name OEMs."

I have used it once, and it can help remove some of the unwanted stuff. It's not a complete solution, but a start. One can also use the "add-remove programs" to get rid of things.

One should be careful about what they remove. The vendor may put some good stuff on there, like their own software to update system component software. Or the "BigFix" program that is found on eMachines to help keep non-Microsoft software updated.

I also recall that Dell allows you to order a system without the extra crapware installed.

Regards, Rick Hellewell

Now Defrag It

When you're done uninstalling gunk, it will be worth your while to defrag your disk, because all that goo resided in the disk section where your startup programs live, and keeping that area defragged is worth the effort; or at least I have found it so. As usual, the defrag program I recommend is Golden Bow's VOPT. If there's a better program for the purpose I don't know of it; I've used VOPT for decades, and I've never lost a byte of data in doing it.

Coming Up

Due to the Christmas Holiday, there will be no installment of the column next week.

I am expecting a new digital camcorder with separate microphone input, and we're setting up to do some short video podcasts. That should be fun. I have green screen capability, but first we'll try looking across my desk to where I usually work. That gives me an incentive to clean off my desktop and other working areas...

And Merry Christmas.