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Day 2 of the Schools ICT Conference 2010

September 27, 2010 Leave a comment

Disappointing. That, in one word, sums up how I felt today went at the conference. It felt like all organizational skills went out the window today, with people running the conference by the skin of their teeth.

I arrived early again today, and spent my time looking around the venue. Eventually I ended up sitting in the staff room, chatting to people about various things. Pleasant enough. I was waiting to sign up to attend a course that would be taking place in a computer lab. The sign up process should have warned me: things were going to get ugly. With no schedule as to when these booking sheets would be going up, trying to book for a course in the computer labs became a stop start guessing affair. Lots of delegates became upset about this, as they felt they were wasting the time and money of their schools. The organizers tried valiantly, but one could almost sense that they were in head under water.

My first course today was presented by a Microsoft employee on various tools Microsoft offer for teachers and education. Not too bad, if it wasn’t for the fact that his slideshow kept being interrupted by a fake anti-virus program that kept informing us that his computer supposedly had malware on it. Not a good sight at all, especially from a Microsoft employee!

The course ran over a bit, so we had to rush to make it to our next course, on protecting yourself online, courtesy of AVG. We may as well not have bothered. The presenter never pitched. The room ended up having an informal discussion about computer security, but there was nothing new. I did however win a mousepad with a gel wrist rest. The only other moment of interest was that we made a connection with a network admin from a primary school. Nice guy, and very bright.

After much confusion, we signed up to go attend a course on Moodle. It was interesting for the first half, after which the presenter lost control of the class and we became distracted. I guess there is just too much ground to cover really, Moodle is a vast program. I spent most of that course reading the host school’s network policy documents, and cursing at the slow computer I was sitting at. If you ever want to know of a way to make a user scream, give them a Celeron PC with 512MB of RAM, set Symantec Corp 10 to do a full scan at 12 noon and sit back. I swear I could urinate faster than that computer was running. Oh, and for what it’s worth, I had about 12 infections pop up while I was there. Security FAIL.

After that, my colleague and I meandered about, had some lunch and killed time. There were no other courses worth our time, so we hit the vendors again, then went to the central tent to kill time. We decided what to attend tomorrow and then he went home, while I waited to get picked up. Thankfully I brought a book with, so I wasn’t too bored.

Overall, I am not that impressed with this whole conference. I could have used the time over these last 2 days in other ways, including getting some needed rest. Oh well, 1 more day and I’m free for 2 days.

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School’s ICT Conference 2010

September 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Today I attended the 1st day of the 2010 School’s ICT Conference, held at the Cape Academy for Maths, Science and Technology. It’s the first conference I’ve been to since I started working more than 5 years ago, so I was a bit nervous and excited. I arrived quite early, and proceeded to work through registration. The whole procedure was quick, I got my name badge and a lanyard. To my surprise, I was given a small backpack with goodies inside, mostly pens, paper and promotional material. I named this my “Swag Bag” However, information about some of the specifics was a bit a vague, something that didn’t change throughout the day.

Unfortunately, the early thrill soon ebbed away. My colleague arrived a while after I did, and we sat around doing precious little. Registration was 2 hours long, followed by a tea break. Eventually, by 10:45 we made our way into the main hall for the opening speeches. The hall was a pretty cramped space, and 2 out of the 3 speakers nearly put me to sleep with droning speeches. The middle speaker was good, but got a bit frantic to finish his speech before he ran out of time. A bit of a buzz kill to be honest.

After that, lunch was served. My colleague ate, after which we mingled around and visited the booths of exhibitors. We proceeded to collect more swag, question the salespeople and just meander around. The course timetable was very sparse for today, so we had a lot of time to kill. We eventually attended a lecture that turned out to be the complete opposite of what I thought it was meant to be. It was ok, but not all that useful.

Tomorrow and Tuesday promise to hopefully be more interesting, there are definitely more courses to attend. While it would be nice to mingle with guests from other schools, it isn’t easy to do so since the vast majority of the delegates are teachers, not network administrators. The whole goal of the conference is more to connect teachers teaching anything IT related, rather than the nuts and bolts that hold ICT together in a school. Still, it’s nice to be able to attend such an event, and I am hoping that the next 2 days offer some interesting information.

When a bad anti-virus update hits you

September 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Late on Thursday evening last week, Eset released a bad update for NOD32 Anti-Virus. Computers that received the update hung, crashed or kept displaying error messages about ekrn.exe crashing (this is the heart of NOD32.)

For the life of myself and my colleague, we couldn’t figure out what was going on initially. He was working late on the Thursday when the bad update came out, but we hadn’t linked the problems yet. Our Exchange server had fallen over, so we spent 45 minutes over the phone fixing that up. Friday morning when I got in, the Exchange server was still up, but people were complaining about error messages they were getting on screen, or the NOD32 splash screen not minimizing after log on.

We didn’t get much time to investigate the problem, as we were busy elsewhere doing other tasks. Eventually we got called to check if the servers had frozen, as the network had suddenly gone awry. When we went into the server room, it was confirmed: all our Windows servers had frozen or were in the process of freezing. We rebooted all of them, then set out to find what had happened. I checked Eset’s home page; sure enough there was a notice about a problem update. We downloaded the tool explained on the page, inoculated our servers and then proceeded to monitor the situation. The servers stayed stable. All we could do now was wait till the clients pulled in updated definitions that had corrected the problem.

It was a tense time because of this bad update. Our network became unstable and servers froze. Luckily no major data loss happened or any other serious problems. All AV vendors have released bad updates in the past, so we didn’t fault Eset. Other vendors’ botched updates took out Windows or created blue screen loops, we were lucky our problems were so mild in comparison.

When Monday came around, most of the computers had gotten new definitions, so the problem was moot. Life went back to normal. It’s the first time in almost 3 years of using NOD32 that I’ve had this problem, hopefully it won’t happen again any time soon.

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A plague of bad capacitors

September 5, 2010 Leave a comment

Almost every piece of electronic equipment contains capacitors. Normally, they work without fault, unseen to the outside world. When they give out though, all sorts of interesting and bizarre failures can come about.

Our school has had 7 computers this year become faulty due to bad capacitors on their motherboards. It is an insidious problem, as the computer will be working fine the one day, and will be faulty the next. Out of nowhere, computers were blue screening or refusing to go past a certain point in the boot sequence. Before we knew what to look for, we ended up checking and reseating the ram, the graphics card and so on, all normal diagnostic processes. The problem so far has been pretty much exclusive to a series of MSI motherboards that were among the earliest to support the Intel Core 2 Duo CPU. Fingers crossed, other makes and models won’t be affected.

When we failed to diagnose the problem, we gave the first computer to our external hardware support person, and he informed us it was the caps that had gone on the board. He showed us what to look for, so that we know in case it happened again. Some of the stricken computers only had 3-4 bad caps, but some had 10-12. Luckily he knows how to replace the caps; all he does is solder on new ones. It’s quick and cheap, and you don’t have to replace the computer.

A few years ago, I read about a situation in the computer industry where manufactures had resorted to using the cheapest possible caps on their entry level motherboards to save some cash. The thing with these cheap caps though is that they don’t die straight away. They work fine for a few years before they die. From what I read on Wikipedia, they can’t be checked at the factory to determine if they are good or bad caps.

Since then, manufacturers have used better quality caps, with some using solid state caps. We are due to upgrade our lab at the end of this year, so I hope that the existing old computers can last a few more years without dying.

Wikipedia link on bad capacitors: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capacitor_plague