Outlook 2007: replying to multiple emails or senders

Today, I received about 60 emails from my students who were handing in their assignments. Normally, I would just ask them to assume that I have received their emails correctly, but since we had trouble with the Internet connection, most of my students wanted to make sure I had received their work in due time. So I decided to send a kind confirmation reply to all the students that emailed me their work.
So here I go, opening Microsoft Outlook 2007, selecting multiple emails, right click to find the option "Reply to all" ... horror! It's not there! There's no apparent way to reply to all my students at once. What's worse is there isn't even an option to collect email addresses from people who emailed me (I would then have created one email with all recipients in BCC).

How it works, in a nutshell
After Googling it for about an hour, turns out there is no regular solution to perform such a basic operation. All the solutions I found involved installation of 3rd-party software OR installing and running complex macros. Uh, no thanks. I found some kind of simple workaround that requires no third-party software or macros. It's all in there, using advanced features.

Before I detail each step, here is the principle:

  1. We create a "Message Template". This template will contain the email to be sent to everyone.
  2. We place emails we wish to reply to into a specific category
  3. We create a rule that automatically sends the email template we created in 1) to all the senders of the emails we selected in 2)
  4. We apply that rule and send out the emails.
All of the above four steps are extremely simple and require no technical skills. Read on.

Creating a message template
Follow the simple instructions given below. 

Instructions, as described on the image:
1) Write a regular email without a recipient
2) Click "Save As"...
3) Save it on your file system, making sure to select "Outlook Template" as a file type ("Save as type...")

Categorizing emails
The next step is to select the e-mails you want to reply to, and place them into a category.

As you can see, all you have to do is:
1) Select some emails
2) Right-click on the selection
3) Unfold "Categorize" and select a category, for example "Red Category".

Creating a rule
This is the trickiest part so I'll write more detailed instructions. Creating and managing rules is done from the "Rules and Alerts" window. In order to access this window, on the main menu bar of Outlook 2007 go to "Tools" then "Rules and Alerts..."

To create the correct rule, follow the rule creation wizard which shows up when you click the "New Rule" button:
  1. Selecting a Template. Under the "Start from a blank rule", select "Check messages when they arrive". Click next.
  2. Selecting Conditions. Locate the "Assigned to category category" item and check it. As you check the box, a new item appears in the rule description. Click the underlined word "category" to be able to select which category of emails should be replied to. Click next.
  3. Selecting Actions. Locate the option "Reply using a specific template" and check it. As you check the box, a new item appears in the rule description. Click the underlined part "a specific template", which will reveal the template selection window. At the top of this window, in the "Look in" drop-down list, select "User Templates in File System". Then you will be able to browse for the directory containing your template created in the first part of this tutorial. Once your template is selected correctly, click Next.
  4. Selecting Exceptions. If you want to exclude certain emails from getting replied to, select your conditions here. Click Next.
  5. Specify a name for your rule. Below the rule name input box, you will find two checkboxes: "Run this rule now..." which you must enable; it will apply the rule to the folder currently selected in Outlook. Make sure to disable the "Turn on this rule" box, unless you want to automatically reply to similar messages in the future. Click Finish.
Upon clicking Finish, the rule will be applied: all the emails that you categorized will be replied to with the email template you selected previously. Click "Send/Receive" to send out the emails.

Voila! Was it so hard? I don't believe so. But Microsoft should have made it a lot easier to reply to multiple emails, it seems to me that this is quite basic functionality and it should have been available from the start.


Windows 7: restoring old-style logon screen tutorial

I've found a lot of information on the subject on various blogs and forums, strangely everyone seems to come to the conclusion that it is impossible to get back to the old style logon screen that appeared like this under Windows XP:
Why would anyone do this?
Why would you go back to something like this? There could be thousands of reasons. The default logon screen of Windows 7 looks like this:
If, like me, you work in a computer-unfriendly environment such as a school, you'll find that a lot of people are unable to locate the "Switch user" button or simply wouldn't just dare to click it. All they were told is to enter their username and password and they never expected to have to do anything else.

So how do you restore the good old logon screen with a simple text box for the user name, and a simple text box for the password? It's actually a lot simpler than some people would think.

Local security policy management console
Press Windows+R to get the "Run" dialog, and enter "secpol.msc" in the text box then click OK. You are opening up the Local security policy management console.
In the option tree on the left, go to "Security Settings" / "Local Policies" / "Security options".
In the list of settings on the right, locate "Interactive logon: Do not display last user name". Double click this setting and in the box that shows up, select "Enabled" and click OK. Restart your computer... and voila!
You can also change a couple of other settings, such as disabling the annoying "Ctrl+alt+del" screen, the option right below the one I just described.

Once you're all done you'll be seeing a screen like this when you start up your computer. If you didn't join a domain obviously you won't be seeing the domain part.


Nginx market share soon to hit 10% mark

According to multiple sources such as:

the amazing and lightning-fast web server known as nginx is just about to hit the 10% market share mark in the next couple of months. This is a fantastic milestone for the author, Igor Sysoev, who probably didn't imagine that the application (which he originally developed on his own) would meet such fame.
Diagram courtesy of W3Techs.com (article linked above). Its market share went from a little over 5% to almost 10% over the last year as you can see. 

I wouldn't go so far as to say that the release of my Nginx HTTP Server book (released Summer 2010) was one of the factors that contributed to the popularity of the Russian web server. It is my belief that the sole quality and efficiency of the software is what made its success.

The book was and is being translated into three languages:
  • In Japanese
  • In Chinese (to be published soon)
  • In Korean (release date unknown) 
Nginx is already a popular web server in Russia and Asia; some of the most popular websites in these regions are powered by nginx; namely Yandex, 163 (China's #1 e-mail platform), Soso.com, Renren.com, and more internationally Wordpress, among many others. My own websites GBAtemp.net, FileTrip.net, ShopTemp.net are powered by nginx as well.


PPTP server fix for iOS problems (pptpd/PopTop)

Ever since I was offered an iPod touch 4th gen I have been unsuccessful in my attempts to connect to PPTP based VPN servers from iOS. Apparently this is a well known issue since iOS 4.3.3 or earlier, that did not get fixed in the iOS 5 update.

Having set up my own PPTP-based VPN servers using Poptop (also known as pptpd) under CentOS, I always found it strange that my servers would function perfectly fine under all versions of Windows, but completely refuse to work under iOS and reportedly MacOS X as well.

Symptoms were the following:
  • Initially, the connection to the server starts ("Connecting... Starting... Authenticating... ") and appears successful for a second but then immediately drops, with a vague error message.
  • After a few tweaks that I read on DD-WRT's PPTP server configuration page (pertinent given that DD-WRT uses poptop as well) the situation changed but still failed to solve all of my problems: I was able to connect normally, without any error message, however any network communication failed and timed out. Whenever I tried loading a page it would just keep loading forever. Any app that connects to the Internet did the same- loading forever.
 Finally after a combination of multiple tweaks I finally got it to work! The solution is given below but I'd like to credit people first. First I used the DD-WRT tweaks as I previously said, then I followed the tips of two users who posted on this page, sid2 and jeremy207. Massive thanks to both of them!

Here's what got it to work for me. You need to open up the options file for pptpd usually located here: /etc/ppp/options.pptpd
At the very bottom of the file, insert the following lines:
mtu 1400
mru 1400
After saving the file, make sure to restart pptpd properly (I stopped it and started it again completely) and try connecting from iOS again. Worked for me! Hope it will for you as well.


How Paypal rips off online businesses

Paypal has just "resolved" a dispute that a customer filed against our small-scale online business and I am absolutely disgusted by the outcome. Not because of the amount that they've stolen from us (11.25€, we will survive without it), but for what it represents and the inherent risks. I should never have been charged that fee. Let me explain.

A regular purchase?
A few months ago a customer purchased the most expensive VPN plan (72€) on my website VPN1Euro.com. The account was immediately set up, and the customer started using it. A few months later, the customer requested a full refund for the payment (through an automated Paypal dispute), without contacting me prior to sending the request to Paypal. I responded to the dispute by telling the entire truth:
  • the customer purchased the account legimitately (IP address matches the location entered in the Paypal billing address, nothing indicates that there was some kind of Paypal account fraud)
  • the customer used the account for a while
  • the customer never contacted our services to request anything
  • we offer refunds on prorated basis. Basically if you purchase a 1-year plan, you can get a refund after a while. But if you've already used your account for 2 months, you'll only be refund of the remaining 10 months (why would anyone refund a service that has been duely consumed?). That's what happened here. Had the customer contacted us to obtain a refund we would have sent it without question.
Buyers abusing the system
From the moment the customer filed the dispute, Paypal froze the money (the whole 72€). I replied immediately, but it took over 3 weeks for Paypal to process my response. The outcome was just unveiled to me today: not only the customer is getting ALL of their money back, but I am ALSO being charged for a complementary fee called "settlement fee".

So let's summarize what happened here:
  • customer purchases expensive VPN plan
  • customer makes use of VPN plan
  • two months later, customer gets all of their money back
  • seller pays an additional 11.25€
Not only have we provided the service correctly, but we are also being charged for the payment reversal! This is completely absurd and Paypal won't budge on the matter.

A flawed system
With such a system any ill-intended customer can just purchase anything, THEN get their money back, THEN have the seller charged for, well, whatever we're being charged for ("settlement fee"). So I'll say it again: the amount lost in this case is obviously neglectable. But what if it happens again? We haven't receive a single cent for a service that was correctly provided, and we've also been charged for it. What can businesses do against such malpractices? The only answer I'm thinking of right now is: don't use Paypal. As if the 4.5% transaction fees weren't enough, they're now stealing money from us. That's great.


China upgrades its Great Firewall to regulate VPNs

I have lived in China for two years now and I must say I am absolutely disgusted by the new censorship measures enforced by the Chinese government. Especially this new one.

Here's how the story begins. Late April, before the Easter holidays, I was still enjoying live TV streaming from french channels through my regular VPN. It wasn't too fast but good enough to stream correctly without much buffering. When I got back from holiday early May, I noticed that all my VPNs still worked but the speed had become incredibly bad, I could barely access websites - let alone stream live video. I thought it would be temporary or that maybe peering between China Telecom and Europe was saturated.

But it got worse. At work (I work at a foreign school) ever since I got back from holiday, our connection would get shut down every now and then. Nearly every single foreign website (most IP addresses outside of China) would be unreachable for hours. We decided to investigate the issue with our ISP, China Telecom. Unfortunately, it turns out that the reason our connection gets blocked is because the Great Firewall detected that some people in our school were using VPNs.

Today I got to talk with some China Telecom employee (#1 Internet Service Provider in China) and he informed me of the new measures taken by the government to enforce the Internet censorship laws. Here is a summary of the points that I remember hearing from the guy:
  • the GFW as they call it (GFW for Great FireWall) is controlled by the government up there in Beijing, China Telecom themselves can't do anything about it. All Internet traffic goes through the firewall.
  • they recently upgraded their systems to take further action to enforce Internet censorship law... sometime between late April and early May.
  • previously, their systems only enforced a "black list" kind of censorship. They kept a massive list of blocked domains, IP address, keywords, and so on.
  • since the upgrade, they are able to modify routing tables in order to actually prevent any communication with foreign IP addresses when they detect usage of a VPN.
  • both campuses of our school are having the same issue, even though they are in completely different areas. It is reported that other businesses/offices/organizations are experiencing the same issue as of late.
  • when it comes to the general consumer, when usage of VPN is detected, bandwidth gets severely capped. I have no idea how they proceed, but anyhow that's what the China Telecom dude said.
 Are you experiencing issues too? I would like to get additional information and testimonies from people all over China. While I am reporting pretty much exactly what the guy said, it could have been bullshit from China Telecom trying to clear their name seeing as Internet in Shanghai is crappy.

As a reminder, the Chinese censorship completely disable access to the following websites (including all related services): Facebook, Youtube, Dailymotion, Twitter, any form of video streaming hosted outside of China, any form of pornographic content, random searches on the Internet, global news websites from mainstream media, and so much more.

I don't know what they are trying to achieve with this. There will always be ways to bypass the "great firewall", network technology always adapts itself. Tunnelling can be done in all sorts of ways, no matter the port, no matter the protocol, no matter the IP address, no matter the encryption method... tunnelling is merely a principle, a concept that they will never be able to block fully. They're just making it a lot less convenient right now, and the speed's worse than before... but still doesn't prevent anyone from accessing blocked sites.

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