Category Archives: Software

Running Windows XP Under VirtualBox

As I write, it’s only another month until Microsoft’s free upgrade offer on Windows 10 expires (on 29 July 2016). I am so looking forward to that day, in the hope that it’ll mean an end to Microsoft’s intrusive little pop-up messages in the lower right corner of my monitor, and their increasingly devious attempts to trick me into accidentally upgrading. The experience is a little like having a weeping software engineer repeatedly grip your lapels, shake you gently, and sob: “But it’s cool. It’s free. Why don’t you want it? For pity’s sake, why? Why?

I don’t want it because it offers nothing I need or am even curious to see, while promising inconvenience and hassle during the upgrade process. When Microsoft are willing to pay me for the time I’ll spend on their “free” upgrade, then maybe we can talk.

But at present, I’m much cheered to be running Windows XP again, which marked the last occasion I ever felt a new Microsoft operating system actually constituted an “upgrade”. The fact that you can run a virtual XP machine in a window under Windows 7, 8 or 10 is not as well known as it should be, and it has let me continue using some old software from that era that has resisted running in “compatibility mode” under later operating systems.

Microsoft offered a Windows XP Mode for Windows 7, which could be installed and run under that operating system. The file is still available from the Microsoft Download Center (click on my link), and it contains a virtual hard drive with an XP installation—so to get XP running under Windows 8, 8.1 or 10, all you have to do is retrieve that VHD.

I downloaded WindowsXPMode_en-us.exe from my link above. Since I wanted to run XP under Windows 8.1, I didn’t run the exectuable—I tucked it away in my Downloads folder. Embedded inside two layers of compression is the virtual hard drive I needed.

I used 7-Zip to find and extract the necessary file. 7-Zip is a handy, open-source archive manipulation program, which adds a couple of options to the Windows menu you see when you right-click on a file. So I navigated to where I’d stored WindowsXPMode_en-us.exe, right clicked on the file, selected “7-Zip” and then “Open archive”. 7-Zip then gave me a view of the contents of the archive file, which includes a folder named sources. In that folder, there’s a file called xpm. This is also compressed, so I right-clicked it and opened it in 7-Zip. In the archive listing for xpm, there’s a file called VirtualXPVHD. That’s the virtual hard drive containing the XP installation. I right-clicked it, and then selected “Copy to …”, telling 7-Zip to extract and decompress VirtualXPHD. I put it in a new folder called XP.

7-Zip screenshot 1
7-Zip showing the xpm file in the sources folder (Click to enlarge)
7-Zip screenshot 2
7-Zip showing the VirtualXPVHD file inside the xpm file (Click to enlarge)

So that Windows could recognize VirtualXPVHD as a virtual hard drive, I now edited the file-name by adding a .vhd extension to it.

For an environment in which to run my new VHD, I downloaded VirtualBox, and installed it with the default options. Then I ran the program, told it I wanted to set up a new virtual XP machine using an existing virtual hard disk, and pointed it to the location of my VirtualXPVHD.vhd file.

Welcome to VirtualBox
VirtualBox, ready to go (Click to enlarge)
Create Virtual Machine
Creating the virtual machine (Click to enlarge)
Using VirtualXPVHD.vhd
Using VirtualXPVHD.vhd (Click to enlarge)

And that was that. Now you I could launch an XP machine in a window on my Windows 8.1 desktop.

New XP machine, ready to go
New XP machine, ready to go (Click to enlarge)

VirtualBox does a lot of handy things. There are a couple worth knowing about if you’re setting up your own virtual machine:
1) You can scale the window in which the XP machine runs, using the menu option View/Scale Factor. This is useful if you find yourself peering at a tiny window in the middle of your high resolution monitor.
2) At first, you’re going to need to let the XP window “capture” your mouse pointer. When you click inside the window, a dialogue box appears offering to capture the pointer. When you accept, you find your mouse is trapped inside the XP window. You can release it again by tapping a “hot key”, which defaults to the right control key on your keyboard. It’s worth checking that you actually have a right control key before you fire up XP for the first time, otherwise your mouse will be permanently trapped. If you don’t have one, you can change to a new hot key in the VirtualBox menu, File/Preferences/Input/Virtual Machine/Host Key Combination. Select the “Shortcut” box and press whichever key you want to designate as the new hot key.

I found the virtual machine was a bit crashy when XP was going through its initial set-up on my laptop (but not on my desktop). A couple of times I had to press the hot key to free up my mouse, and send a “power off” signal to the virtual machine using the VirtualBox interface. On each occasion it rebooted happily and let me proceed further with the set-up.

XP under VirtualBox
XP running at low resolution and with its horrible “Early Learning Centre” theme (Click to enlarge)

The first priority once you have the XP desktop on display is to add some additional function. Free up your mouse pointer so that you can use the VirtualBox menu at the top of the window, click on “Devices”, and then “Insert Guest Additions CD Image …” This makes the XP virtual machine think you’ve inserted a software CD, and it opens a set-up dialogue to let you install the new software. Accept this (and choose “Install Anyway” each time XP objects to the certification of the software that’s being installed).

Guest Additions CD image
Running the Guest Additions CD image (Click to enlarge)

Now you don’t need to go through the business of capturing and releasing the mouse pointer! The XP window is integrated into your desktop and behaves like any other windowed software. (On occasion, you may find that the mouse pointer behaves a little oddly in some programs—flickering, or scanning too quickly. On those occasions, capturing the mouse is useful. You can turn mouse capture on and off using Input/Mouse Integration in the VirtualBox menu at the top of the window.) I also found that installing the Guest Additions CD eliminated the crashes I’d been having during setup.

One hitch in all this was that XP soon announced that it needed activation, and demanded a Product Key. Now, back in the day, computers used to come with a copy of their operating system on a disc, and I still had the old XP installation disc for a long-defunct computer tucked away in a cupboard. I offered the Product Key from that disc, and XP was happy. In fact, I now have three virtual XP machines all happily registered with the same Product Key. Which is not unreasonable, given that Microsoft haven’t actually been supporting this operating system for a couple of years now.

XP wants to be activated
XP wants to be activated
Activating XP
Activating XP
XP successful activated
Initial tidying up of XP
Classic theme, adjustment ot resolution, disposed of some Microsoft defaults (Click to enlarge)

A couple of the programs I installed under XP are so old they’ll only run if the parent disc is in a drive for them to access. That’s not exactly convenient, so I copied the necessary discs to .iso image files using DVD to ISO , and put the .iso files into a directory on my virtual XP machine.

Then I installed the Virtual CD-ROM Control Panel from Microsoft, which lets XP mount .iso files as if they were physical discs. It’s slightly finicky to install, but the readme file talks you through the process. You need to move the .sys driver file to your Windows XP drivers directory, and then run VCdControlTool.exe to install the driver. Once the driver is installed, running VCdControlTool again lets you create an unused drive letter and then mount an .iso file to that drive. I set my .iso files up as “persistent mounts”, so they’re always available.

Mounting a couple of disc images using VCdControlTool
Mounting a couple of disc images using VCdControlTool (Click to enlarge)
Two disc images mounted as drives D: and Z:
The two disc images mounted as drives D: and Z: (Click to enlarge)

Finally, although I’m no great fan of cloud storage (sure, I’ll let a multinational corporation store my personal documents and photographs at some random location on the internet; what could possibly go wrong with that idea?) I do like to share a few program and configuration files between my various devices. The small storage capacity offered by the free version of DropBox has been more than enough for this—and anyone who cares to hack into my DropBox account isn’t going to find much that’s comprehensible to them, let alone useful. But DropBox discontinued support for XP recently, so I needed a way to transfer files from my XP virtual machine to a directory on its parent machine, where DropBox could then take over.

VirtualBox lets you set up folders that are shared between the XP virtual machine and the parent machine (go through Devices/Shared Folders) but some of my XP software is so ancient it refused to recognize the network drive on which these shared folders resided. So I tried using the free version of Tonido. Tonido synchronizes files through their server without ever storing them—I installed the server software on the parent machine, and the client software on the virtual XP machine. Presto! My shared XP files were transferred to the parent machine, where they could be DropBoxed or backed up as required. This had the advantage of being easy to set up, but the rather bizarre and deeply unsatisfying consequence of a computer transferring files to itself over the internet. It also has to be said that the Tonido file synchronization was often slow, and on occasion delayed for hours.

I found a solution in Link Shell Extension. Windows, in its various incarnations, provides various ways of tying files and folders together, so that a file that resides in one location is also accessible in another location. Traditionally, these hard links, junctions and symbolic links could only be set up from the command line prompt, but Link Shell Extension, once installed, lets you set them up from the mouse pointer with a right-click. Right-click on the origin file or folder, and select “Pick Link Source”; navigate to where you want a linked copy, right-click again, and select “Drop As …” Job done. Link Shell Extension provides all sorts of different ways to produce linked copies of folders and files—it’s well worth reading the description on their website (linked above) before you starting playing with it.

I’d already been using Link Shell Extension with DropBox, linking the DropBox copies to the parent folders my programs worked from. But in this instance what I needed was a link between a network drive and a parent folder in XP—that needs a symbolic link, which was supposedly not available under XP. But Link Shell Extension works with an XP driver written by Masatoshi Kimura, which adds symbolic link functionality to XP. The Link Shell Extension page provides download links and instructions on how to install the extra driver. Unfortunately, it’s slightly technical, requiring a one-off instruction from the command prompt. The page also says you’ll need to edit your Windows registry to make the driver permanently available. Interestingly, I found this wasn’t required on my virtual machines—the registry value HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\SymLink\Start had already been set to zero when I checked, and it stayed that way—the Symbolic Link option was available immediately, each time I booted up.

Anyway, once I’d got that straightened out, I used the Devices menu in VirtualBox to make the DropBox folder on the parent machine a shared folder, ticking the boxes to make it “auto-mount” and “permanent”. It then appeared as a network drive the next time I booted the virtual XP machine. Using Link Shell Extension in XP, I could pick folders inside the DropBox network drive, and drop copies of them as symbolic links on the XP c:\ drive, where my ancient programs could see them. When the programs modify those files, the modification is then reflected in the DropBox folder on the parent machine, and that cascades off to my other devices, and their virtual XP machines. Joy!

So now, every time Microsoft offers me a free upgrade, I can sit back and enjoy my free downgrade instead.

Pennycook et al.: On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit

This from the November 2015 issue of Judgment And Decision Making. Here are links to the original paper (pdf) and its supplementary tables (pdf).

The authors seek to find a preliminary answer to the questions, “Are people able to detect blatant bullshit? Who is most likely to fall prey to bullshit and why?” Their study is therefore of the characteristics of the  bullshittee, rather than the bullshitter, or of bullshit itself.

They suggest that bullshit occupies a sort of halfway house between lie and truth. Bullshit is “something that is designed to impress but […] constructed absent direct concern for the truth.” (That is, the author of bullshit doesn’t care whether it’s true or not, in contrast to the liar, who is deliberately subverting the truth.) And “bullshit, in contrast to mere nonsense, is something that implies but does not contain adequate meaning or truth.”

I’m indebted to them for providing links to two sources of pseudo-profound bullshit, used in their study.

One, Wisdom of Chopra, uses random words taken from the Twitter feed of Deepak Chopra to construct novel sentences. Here’s an example of its output:

The unexplainable arises and subsides in the doorway to energy

The other, Seb Pearce‘s New-Age Bullshit Generator, generates an entire, beautiful page of random bullshit. Here’s one headline:

You and I are entities of the quantum matrix. By evolving, we believe

So that’s all pseudo-profound bullshit.

According to Pennycook et al., reasons you might mistake that for actual profundity include:

  • A deficiency of analytic thinking
  • Ontological confusion (confusing different categories of existence, such as the mental and the physical)
  • Epistemically suspect beliefs (such as paranormal or supernatural ideas)

Four studies are reported in the paper. They all look for correlations between the particular cognitive biases listed above with a “Bullshit Receptivity” scale—a measure of an individual’s tendency to rate randomly generated bullshit as “profound” on a five-point scale ranging from “not at all profound” to “very profound”.

I haven’t even counted the number of separate correlation measures to which the authors assign significance values; I’ll leave that as an exercise for the  Interested Reader.

But what we seem to see is that:

  • Participants tended to score random nonsense as moderately profound.
  • Participants scored selected real Deepak Chopra Tweets as a little more profound than random nonsense, but less profound than some motivational quotations.
  • Some participants scored even mundane statements like “Most people enjoy some sort of music” as having some level of profundity. These participants tended to give high profundity scores across the board.
  • To quote the authors: “Those more receptive to bullshit are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (ie. verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.”
  • Waterloo University undergraduates (or at least, those who sign up for this sort of study) are catastrophically gullible, assigning various levels of profundity to some quite astonishing twaddle (Table 1). Snake-oil salesmen are presumably converging on the campus even as I type.

So it’s good to have all that sorted out.

Book Collector

When you have more than 4000 books scattered around the house, it gets difficult to find the one you’re looking for. Especially if you’re hunting for a short story and you can’t quite remember which book you read it in. This used to happen a lot, chez Oikofuge. But not any more.

Book Collector is a book cataloguing program from, and it’s the best I’ve run into. I can’t now imagine life without it.

Data entry is easy, and highly automated. If your book has an ISBN, you can type it in or scan it with a barcode reader, and the basic book data are pulled down off the central database. These days, the ISBN is readily visible on the back cover, but with older books (1967 to the mid-70s) you may have to look for numbers written on the spine, or listed in the front matter. Some UK publications of that vintage have nine-digit SBNs instead of ten-digit ISBNs, but the conversion is easy—just add a zero at the left end.

Before 1967, there were no ISBNs, but Book Collector also lets you add books automatically by entering the author and title. This option will bring up all matching entries in the database, so you might need to do a little poking around to find the entry that matches your specific edition.

That will get the basic data into your database, including a version of the cover art if it’s available. But the software offers a huge number of additional relevant data-fields, which you can fill in or ignore according to your wishes. (You’ll probably want to make use of the “book location” field, unless you have a memory much better than mine.) It even lets you create custom fields.

First page of data entry screen
First page of the data entry screen
Note all the additional tabs at the top

The on-line cover art comes from a variety of sources—it varies in size and quality, and can occasionally be for the wrong edition of your book. But Book Collector has an automated search facility that lets you look for more cover art on-line. It also lets you add your own art by scanning the cover. If you’re of an obsessive nature (who, me?) you may find yourself scanning a lot of book covers to get precisely the right edition.

You can view your database in various ways, usually splitting the view between some sort of overview of the books, and a detailed view of a specific volume. The overviews available are a “bookshelf” depiction of cover art (which I find useful when browsing for a specific book) and a spreadsheet-type display of multiple customizable columns. There’s also a “cover flow” option available, but the less said about that the better—it’s the sort of triumph of style over utility that could only appeal to an Apple user.

Book Collector screen capture images view
Books containing Asimov short stories, displayed using one version of the “Images” view on the left, with a “Details” view of a specific book on the right. Note the contents list.
Book Collector screen capture 2
The same short stories list, this time displayed with a “List” view using customized columns on the left, and “Details” view on the right

You can choose from a growing number of different formats for viewing your book details; or, with a little knowledge of HTML/ XML, and some digging around in the file structure, you can customize up your own view.

Searching is easy. There’s a quick-and-dirty search option that just looks for your chosen text anywhere in the book’s description. It’ll bring up false hits, but often it lets you narrow down the display enough to zero in visually on the book you want. But you can also create moderately sophisticated “filter” views, using simple Boolean logic functions, to pull out the books you want.

Boolean search for Asimov short stories
Boolean search for Asimov short stories

As someone who has a lot of short stories in my book collection, I particularly value the fact that I can enter a contents list for my books. Book Collector offers you a cut-down database and user-defined fields for each short story in a book. Unfortunately, the contents list won’t come down to you automatically from—manual entry is required, which can be tedious if you have a lot of “complete works” volumes on your shelves. And I would appreciate it if Book Collector some day offered a detailed view by short story as well as by book. But that’s a minor niggle when I can choose to display anything I want in the columns of the spreadsheet view.

What else? offers a cloud storage facility, so you can be sure you have the same data on all your devices. There’s a responsive Support team (I’ve only ever had to use them once) and an active users’ forum where people are happy to help out with minor queries. And there’s a free try-before-you-buy download.

If you’re in the market for book cataloguing software, do give it go.

Software: Introduction

I started computer programming on punched tape and IBM 80-column punched cards, using Fortran, back in 1974.

Punched tape
Punched card

One of my first teachers was a young woman who could read the program directly off the punched tape, and debug it using a hole punch and some sticky dots. I fixated on her utterly, like a baby duckling.

Later, I moved on to Teletype terminals, on which I programmed primitive astronomy calculations. Then my very own computer (who saw that coming?) the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, plugged into the television, on which I built a primitive model of the solar system using early editions of Peter Duffett-Smith’s fine astronomy programming books.Peter Duffett-Smith books

Apple IIs and PCs after that, mainly working in various dialects of Basic, and then making the switch to event-driven Visual Basic when it came along in the early 90s.

I produced and published various utility programs for the medical specialty I worked in, and even sold a couple of units of a reference-manager program I wrote as an add-on for the early scientific word processor, ChiWriter. But it was all essentially recreational until I made the mistake of writing a rostering program for the department I worked for in 1997 (out of frustration with the very poor quality of commercial rostering software at that time). That put me on a maintenance treadmill for the next fourteen years.

So I rather lost interest in developing any more complete software packages at that point! My other programming activity therefore became confined to writing little routines to get some particular piece of data-handling or calculation done, as part of some other project. I did a lot of that when I was a developer on the open-source 3D planetarium software, Celestia, and also when accessing NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission data to research mountains for Ginge Fullen’s Africa’s Highest Challenge, in which he climbed the highest point of every country in Africa.

SRTM data for Bikku Bitti
Extracted SRTM data, checking the position of the highest point in Libya, Bikku Bitti


Bikku Bitti photo
“Ground truth” photo of Bikku Bitti, sent to me by Ginge Fullen after he completed Africa’s Highest Challenge

I have a number of little software projects in mind for the future, some of which I may share here. But I think initially this category of blog post will be devoted to a couple of reports on software I find useful and/or fun, and want to recommend.