Archive for December, 2010

No more discs, please

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

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I read an article recently (gee, I read a lot of articles) which suggested that maybe it’s time for discs to be gone.  I actually had to think about this one for a bit before I decided to agree with the sentiment.  In recent years, I can’t think of a time where I used a disc (either floppy or optical) to move information from one computer to another.  For that purpose, I’ve been using a flash drive the vast majority of time.  The remainder of time I download the files from somewhere.

The floppy disc had been a staple of computer storage for many years until one day in 1998 when Apple introduced the iMac personal computer.  It didn’t have a floppy drive.  It did have a CD-ROM drive (and later models would have a CD writer of some kind or another) so loading software and drivers was still possible.  What the iMac really made simple was connecting to the internet.  You only needed a power cable and a cable to connect to the internet (either using the built-in dial-up modem or an ethernet cable to your high-speed internet provider).  Very neat and clean compared to the mass of cables that surrounded PCs of the time.

Now, this caused some great consternation for the consumer who was resistant to this kind of change.  I admit a little trepidation myself at the thought of leaving the floppy behind.

When the portable flash drives (sometimes called thumb drives or by the popular brand of Jump Drives) first came on the scene, I didn’t quite understand what purpose that would have.  Most had sizes of one to four megabytes in size.  Then it was explained to me that they were intended to replace the floppy.  My eyes grew wide at the prospect.  The largest floppies in common usage were 1.44MB in size.  Spend some money on a 4MB flash drive and you have greater storage.  And it has a much faster speed than a floppy drive.

When I got my first 32MB drive, I quickly found use for it in carrying various software tools with me.  My current tools drive is 16GB (about 500 times the size of that first one) in size.

The article suggests another reason for getting rid of discs is installation software.  Major software can almost always be downloaded directly from the publisher.  Drivers for hardware can be downloaded directly from the manufacturer and can often be more current than the disc that was included with the peripheral.

More and more people are downloading music.  Who needs to go to the store and buy a CD when you can download it from Amazon or iTunes from the comfort of your own home?  While the MP3 and AAC formats aren’t as good as a CD (and some would argue CDs still aren’t as good as vinyl) since they are both lossy compression schemes (which means some of the original soundwave is discarded in an effort to make the file smaller), I’ve purchased and downloaded music directly from the artist using a quality setting just as good as a CD (using a lossless compression in the process).

I wholeheartedly agree that the humble disc needs to go away.  It is now nearly antiquated and basically unnecessary.

So, seriously, when are you going to lock up your wireless?

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

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While my travels have shown a greater number of wireless networks are secure, there is still room for improvement.

I read an article recently about a man who had hacked into his neighbor’s wireless and did unspeakable things on that network with the idea that they’d be traced back to the neighbor and not to him.  I had previously blogged about locking up your wireless and how important it is.  This event shows just how much.  My primary reason then and today for locking up your wireless is to keep other people from using your network for purposes you can’t control.  You can read the article to see the kinds of things that can be done, but that’s not the limit.

Peer-to-peer filesharing can also get you in trouble if someone on your network happens to be sharing files for which someone else owns the distribution rights.  It wouldn’t feel right if your internet provider shut off your service because someone else who was using your network shared a popular movie to many others.

What security options are there?  For home users, you have several modes of encryption.  The best of them is WPA2 (WPA stands for Wi-Fi Protected Access).  Next best is WPA (without the ‘2’).  WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) is effectively useless as there are tools which can crack the keys used in a matter of minutes.  Basically WEP is only going to stop the person who is looking for an open wireless network.  It’s not going to stop someone who is intentionally trying to get in.

In my previous blog post, I recommended going with the best encryption that all your equipment can handle.  Now I’m going to recommend that you implement WPA and/or WPA2 and plan a way to upgrade anything which can’t handle it.  Plus, you need to have a sufficiently long and complicated enough wireless passphrase to prevent someone from attempting to guess or use some form of brute-force attack (a method where multiple keys are attempted in some logical manner).  It’s even been recommended to not use a common name for your wireless network (SSID) as that is used in combination with the passphrase in the generation of the actual key the equipment uses.

So, please, lock it up!

More on Net Neutrality

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

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I spoke previously about the idea of Net Neutrality.  It’s been dealt a blow last week by the FCC, the very same government agency we thought would be on our side to protect our interests.  I’ve read articles on the subject from The Wall Street Journal, InfoWorld, and National Public Radio.

My take on it is that the rules are a start, but seem a little loose in interpretation.  For instance, while there is a prohibition against blocking traffic like phone services or streaming video, there is an allowance for ISPs to be able to manage the traffic over their networks so long as they are open about it.  For instance, they could have a policy where they’ll allow streaming video, but if it’s not from their own network, they’ll drop the transfer rate down to 10kbps (ten thousand bits per second).  Compare that to a typical cable internet transfer of between one and five Mbps (million bits per second).  I don’t believe that the FCC proposed regulations will prohibit an ISP from charging to allow its customers greater access to services that compete with the ISP.

I’m not a great proponent of government regulation.  This whole Net Neutrality thing coming from the FCC is a perfect example of why.  I just can’t trust my government to do it right.

Mind you, I don’t have the answers.  I wish the large ISPs were altruistic enough to realize it’s a good thing to allow freedom.  I know I can’t trust Comcast as they’ve been known to cut off subscribers who have used too much bandwidth without even telling them they were getting close or giving them some other option (or even telling them what the maximum usage was).  I’m just thankful that Comcast is not available in my area, but with Charter going through perpetual bankruptcy protection it’s probably only a matter of time before they are sold off to a bigger entity.

I’ve been hacked!

Monday, December 27th, 2010

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The reason why you haven’t seen any updates to the blog in a while is that it had been hacked.  I don’t know who or why, only the fact of the hacking.  At first I thought it was a problem with my hosting provider, but that turned out not to be the case.

Over 700 PHP files in my blog’s directory had code inserted into them.  The details of the code are a bit over my head and don’t really spell out what it’s supposed to do, but I was able to find some information with the help of Google.  Some details about this attack are on this site, this site, and this site.

I’m still working with Dreamhost to see what I can do to prevent it from happening again.  In the mean time, while I can, I’ll post updates a bit more frequently until I’m caught up.

I did find a great, free utility to help with the cleaning process.  Replace Text by Ecobyte Software.  I was able to feed it a directory of files and have it search for the hacked code and replace it with clean code (thankfully, the hack involved ADDING something and not REPLACING anything).  It worked so well that I wish the author continued to support it with Windows 7 and beyond.

So, look forward to a couple of posts tomorrow.

Why go with free software?

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

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I’ve mentioned several times about free software alternatives to popular software.  Why bother?  Well, many people don’t realize that when you borrow your friend’s Microsoft Office disc to install on your computer, you’re committing software piracy.  The way most software is licensed, you may only install it on one computer at a time.  If you want it on two, you have to buy another copy (or license).

In most cases I recommend free software whenever possible to keep costs down for my clients while still providing them with the tool to do the job.

Let’s start with antivirus software.  I can think of several off the top of my head for Windows:  Microsoft Security Essentials (my current preference), avast! Free (my previous preference and fall-back when Security Essentials won’t work), AVG Free, Avira Anti-Vir, and ClamWin (the only open source program on this list).  Except for ClamWin, I’ve used or have clients who use each of them.  There are pros and cons to each, but they are all very effective at their job and remain completely free anyway.  I even recommend these over commercial products like Norton and McAfee.  I don’t recommend ClamWin as it doesn’t run in the background to catch anything coming into your system; you would have to manually check everything.

Previously I mentioned OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice.  Need to edit pictures?  You could organize them with Picasa or you could do complex editing with GIMP instead of the expensive Adobe Photoshop.

Pretty much any commercial software package has a free alternative.  Need help finding one?  Try alternativeTo.  Just type a software title into its search and it will give you a list of free and non-free suggestions.  The neatest thing I’ve found on that site was some music scoring software a client wanted.  After searching for a couple of popular commercial titles, MuseScore came up.

The upshot of all this is you don’t have to be a software pirate to get your work done.  There is likely to be a free alternative that will work fairly well for most of what you want the software to do