View from the geek side


2012-08-30 16:48 File Sharing - What you need to know

posted Sep 4, 2012, 7:43 AM by Boyce Crownover

File Sharing: The Basics, The Myths, Some Tips

Would you like to see photos that someone else wants to share?
How about sharing a whole gallery of music you wrote and sang?
What if you want to share your resume?

Sharing files is something that has been done from the very beginning of the internet and you're likely to want to do from time to time. There are many ways to share files and they vary in complexity and efficency and this guide will help you decide which choice is best for you. An additional concern is the legality of sharing and after reading this guide, you'll have a firm grasp of what you can do, what you can't do and when you're going to need to find out more.

Executive Summary:

Each of the methods of file sharing has benefits and drawbacks. The significant benefits are speed, security and the ability to ensure the other people sharing the file will be able to receive it. The significant drawbacks are software requirements, complexity and security. Choosing the best method is going to depend on how many people you need to share with, what you can expect from them and how secure you need to keep the data. HTTPS for example is complex to set up but fast, secure and widely compatible and an appropriate choice for a business with many clients. SFTP is far less complex to set up, secure and fast, but requires specific types of software be used by recipients and is appropriate for people who want to automate recurring secure file transfers.

In addition to the methods of sharing files, it is very important to learn about the legality of sharing files. There are some instances where sharing files is necessary and completely legal while sharing those same files in different circumstances may be illegal. Generally speaking, you cannot share anything which is copyrighted by someone else without special exemptions.

Simple methods:

Pros: Fast and easy for "one to one" or "business to you" file sharing
Cons: Quickly becomes expensive, fails with very large files, fails with very many files

The two easiest ways to receive a copy of a file from someone else:
1) Download it from your email 
2) Download it from their web page

Terminology tip: downloading is the process of getting something from somewhere else onto your computer. Think of it as taking something 'down' from the isle in the grocery store and 'loading' it into your shopping cart. Uploading is the opposite process, think of it as taking something from your loaded cart and putting it back 'up' on the shelf.

Both processes are simple for you since getting email and browsing the web are the two most common uses of the internet. In the case of sharing a file by email, there is a cost incurred for the time it takes to move the data and the space it takes to store the file. It is compounded by the fact that email was not designed to manage files so they are turned into text making storing them and transmitting them significantly more costly than other methods. If you want to get a copy of a file from someone or share a file with someone and don't plan to do it more than once and if the amount of data you're sending isn't too large, then email is a simple and acceptable way to exchange copies. Be aware that email is not considered secure and while most companies do try to ensure that you're the only one that can get to your email, there is not built in security for the protocol. If you need to keep something secret, you shouldn't trust email for the job.

Getting a file from a web page is simple for the recipient. This is probably the most common method of file distribution since it allows companies to exercise some control over who has access to files and potentially manage security. The disadvantages are the complexity of setting up a web site, maintaining it, managing security and efficiency. Even if a website does everything extraordinarily well, the cost of distributing the file is still the same for every person who requests it. Fifty people downloading the file means fifty times the bandwidth will be used and potentially only being able to provide 1/50th of the available server speed to each requester. If you want a file that a company has decided to share as a link from a web page, then most of the time that's an acceptable method of getting the file. You should bear in mind that there is a difference between a secure connection and an insecure one and you should avoid getting anything you want secure from any web page where you don't see the lock icon.

Sharing files with someone else by setting up a webpage for someone else to access is a complex enough process that you really shouldn't plan to do it that way unless you have significant experience managing web sites including hosting charges, bandwidth fees, DNS management, certificate management and authentication scheme experience. If you're running a business where you specialize in that sort of management or can afford to hire someone with the skill set, then distributing files by hosting a website is the right decision when you want to ensure customers or partners have the easiest access possible.

Alternative traditional methods:
One of the early methods of sharing files was called FTP, which means simply File Transport Protocol. It works much like a web page does and requires similar expertise but has the advantage of being faster and less expensive to host than using the web (HTTP - HyperText Transport Protocol.) Running an FTP server is typically simpler than running an HTTP server. FTP has minimal security built into it in that it requires a username and password exchange, but the communication is not encrypted so it shouldn't be used for things that require strong security. The advantages are a lower cost, simpler configuration and widespread compatibility. Most web browsers will allow you to use and FTP link inside a webpage and many will handle the file management automatically so it is a good choice if you have many customers or partners but want to minimize your cost as a second priority.

Alternatively, if you want strong security with most of the benefits of traditional FTP there are three similar methods of setting up a server to allow file sharing.  FTPS is FTP with encryption bolted on later. The methods of adding the encryption on vary and the tools that will work with it have to consider many different implementations so it can be complex to use FTPS successfully. If you are already running an HTTP server with FTPS capability, and can ensure that your clients are going to use software compatible with it, then FTPS is acceptable. 

A very similar alternative is SFTP which is essentially a secure communication with FTP bolted on afterward. SFTP is actually easier to set up for the person who wants to share files and easier for the client to use since it has far fewer options that might make it complex. SSH servers like KypM are relatively easy to set up and some systems (Linux, Unix and Mac) come with support for it as a standard option. SSH is the secure communication protocol and the FTP part is just a minor addition. It is possible to use SSH without FTP added since SCP is the secure copy protocol that is built into it, but SFTP is usually trivial to enable as an addition and comes with a variety of useful additional features. Since SSH supports the ability to manage key based logins, most SFTP servers can be managed so that you can manage security without the client needing to share their information, making it even more secure than other options. If a client manages their private key correctly and you manage their public key correctly, clients can use a single key to allow access to multiple servers without needing to constantly put passwords in. The cost of transport is higher than with FTP but secure and lower than HTTPS or FTPS options in most cases.

HTTPS is the standard secure method of managing file distribution. The cost is significant both in management and registration, but is most compatible of all the options for securely sharing files with clients. If you're running an HTTPS server and want to offer files to clients then you've probably got the expertise necessary, however this is not something most people should use to share files with other people.

File Hosting Cloud Services:
If you want to share files with other people but don't want to incur the cost or learn how to manage your own server, then this is a pretty good compromise. You can take advantage of Dropbox, Box.net, Google Drive or in some cases if you want to share the right types of files, Flickr, Picasa or Youtube. There are many businesses who have taken their expertise and spending power and used it to make sharing files easier for the consumer.  If you have files that you want to share and don't have a lot of computer and server expertise, then you can still make it easy for other people to access your files by using one of these offerings. Sites like Facebook, Google Plus, Flickr and Picasa make it easy to share pictures and Youtube and Facebook make it easy to share videos. Dropbox, Box.net and Google Drive (as a few examples) make it pretty easy to share files of nearly any type with other people. So long as you don't have particularly large files, need significant security, or do a whole lot of sharing, then using a hosting service from a cloud service provider is a good method. Companies should be careful to avoid trusting too much to the security of these types of offerings without a contract and you as a consumer should consider how secret your data needs to be before using them, but they're a great option for most people.

Peer-to-peer file sharing:
Sometimes someone will want to share files with a lot of people but not want to incur the financial or management costs of running their own server. One of the significant limitations of more traditional file sharing options is the speed with which you can transfer files from your computer (or server) to someone or many someones. With web pages and FTP type servers each client who wants a copy of a file has to share the total available bandwidth you have available which can be very costly to expand if demand is high. If you want to get a copy of large files or share many or large files, then file hosting cloud services may not be an option due to their rules or cost. Peer-to-peer file sharing is a method of sharing files that minimizes the cost and complexity of sharing large amounts of data.

A company or individual that wants to offer inexpensive or free software for example may not want to incur the cost of making files available through traditional methods. Peer-to-peer file sharing moves that cost to the consumer. Instead of the file to be shared coming directly from one source, the cost is spread across all the people who want to get a copy of the file. Large files are segmented into small pieces and indexed so that each client is both downloading and uploading pieces with other clients simultaneously. As a result a file that might be desired by 1,000 people is downloaded once from an original source then pieces of that file are downloaded from each client who wants the file from other people who are downloading the file at the same time. This way the speed of sharing is sped up according to how many people are wanting a copy at the same time without adding to the cost or speed limitations for the original provider.

There are several types of Peer-to-peer file sharing that have been popular and successful. Napster made the first significant inroads in the process by hosting a central system which allowed anyone to make available files they wanted to share with anyone interested in getting a copy. Napster was able to minimize their own costs while at the same time making files easy to share with thousands of people at a time. Later there were many alternatives created which overcame the limitations of Napster's methods of sharing files, some of which have been quite successful.

The most popular current technology is probably bittorrent. Bittorrent works essentially like Napster did; it makes a file available by providing an index of clients who are currently sharing or trying to share a file, but doesn't rely on a single source for the index. Anyone can download a bittorrent capable client and download files by finding someone who is providing the very small reference files responsible for directing you to other people sharing the desired file. 

Legal considerations:
There is nothing inherently wrong with sharing files, but it is not legal to share all types of files. Napster and similar companies that have made sharing files with Peer-to-peer networks have often been shut down because they were found to encourage sharing files that the people sharing them didn't have legal rights to share. If you don't want to be bankrupted by lawsuits, it is important to know not only how to share files, but what kind of files you are legally allowed to download for your own use and to share with other people. 

What you can do:
If you produce a file that contains something you have the rights to, such as your own resume, videos or pictures you nearly always have a right to share that file. Things that you own or create are yours to distribute as you please so long as doing so doesn't violate other very specific laws. You're nearly always allowed to share software that you build from scratch or modify according to licenses such as GPL which allow you to redistribute your work.

If you'd like to share pictures or video that you create then you're nearly always allowed to do so by whatever means you find most convenient. Web pages that you or your company create, software you build and things which specifically allow redistribution are typical examples. 

Software like Debian Linux is often distributed by bittorrent to minimize cost and is completely legal both to download and share. Videos you create are usually legal to share with Youtube. Pictures you take are usually legal to share with Flickr, Google Plus or Picasa.

What you cannot do:
You are not allowed to distribute things which belong to other people who don't explicitly allow for redistribution. That means that you can't legally share songs, videos or software which you don't own rights to unless they're purposely exempted from that restriction by the original creators and owners.

Napster and many bittorrent hosting sites have been successfully sued for encouraging people to share things they didn't have a right to share.

Individuals have been successfully sued for sharing songs, videos and software they didn't have a right to share.

It is illegal to share certain types of software with entities in regions which aren't supposed to have access to that type of software. (Confusing? Yes, but there is a pretty easy to understand concept behind it.) Certain countries where specific ideas are deemed to have military value are prohibited from sharing those ideas in too much detail with other countries. Encryption is considered potentially critical to a country's military strategy so some countries don't allow software using certain types of encryption to be shared with countries which might be a potential enemy. For example, the US developed a variety of very secure methods of encrypting data that cannot be shared with many foreign countries. As a result, many of these types of secure encryption methods were duplicated independently in foreign countries without such restrictions so it is permissible to get encryption from places and share software using it with them, while at the same time it is illegal to share software containing US specific encryption that does the same thing with them. In some instances, it is illegal to download software from foreign countries that infringes on these types of laws specific to the US. (Many countries have similar laws, the US is used as a strong but not unique example.)

What you should research before doing:
If you create something that includes the work of someone else, then you need to research exactly what is allowable in your specific instance. If you're creating something built on software licensed under GPL and you want to redistribute it, for example, then you're not so much allowed as required to provide specific things if you choose to share.

If you produce a video which contains music owned by someone who doesn't allow redistribution, then you may not be allowed to redistribute it, or you may be allowed to, depending on how and how much was used. A video of your child singing along to a Prince song may not be legally uploaded to Youtube for example, but a skit where you use the same music to make a humorous satirical point may be.

The US and other countries have a concept of "fair use" which allows for to reuse works created by other people within specific limitations. Humor is a part of free speech which often allows someone to make fun of something which the owner may not approve of, but making a point with humor may be a right. Small portions of a work such as a song or video may be reproduced and shared without the consent of the owner for the purpose of journalism. Significant reproductions may be shared for the purpose of education which might not be require consent.

If your own work falls into one of these categories and you wish to share your work, then you need to research the fair use restrictions and allowances which pertain to the work you want to share in your legal environment.

Your own resume may be an example of such a work. If you are a musician with expertise in reproduction of music by Meatloaf for example, it might be legal to include clips of you playing provided the clips are short, but not legal to provide the full song. If you are an editor, it might be legal to provide short examples of your proposed editing of a popular novel, but not legal to provide large segments of the same thing.

What you might not realize you need to know:
There are some myths about file sharing which you need to be aware of. 

Sharing something without making a profit does not make it legal. Many people believe that they can share songs, videos or articles created by other people so long as they don't plan to make a profit by sharing. Your intent to make a profit or not does not determine whether you are guilty of copyright infringement. There is an idea that sharing something for free limits the ability of someone else to control the rights to what they create. Sharing a music file for example might allow people who would purchase the file to get it for free and thus limit the value that producing the song would otherwise offer. Rights of redistribution are given to the copyright holder regardless of the intent of people who might want to share. 

Sharing something with only your personal friends does not make it legal. Most copyright holders don't pursue lawsuits against someone who shares something interesting with a friend or co-worker, but it is still illegal to share something you don't have the right to share regardless of the size of the audience. Many small offices share emails and articles with each other without realizing they are infringing on the copyright holder's rights. Software is a particular issue since software producers have copyrights which limit the options for reusing software even if it is only with a small number of people.

2012-08-22 20:38 Mint volume weirdness

posted Aug 22, 2012, 6:37 PM by Boyce Crownover   [ updated Aug 22, 2012, 6:38 PM ]

My Linux Mint install has had a weird problem lately where the volume control main sound slider didn't affect the volume of anything noticeable. The Applications sound slider control did affect the volume on a one-by-one basis. After getting frustrated and starting to click things a little more randomly than I usually would,  I switched to the HDMI hardware output instead of the normal built in analog, and sound stopped, but when I switched it back, the master volume slider started suddenly working.

2012-02-25 21:53 Putting Android on the HP Touchpad

posted Feb 25, 2012, 9:47 PM by Boyce Crownover   [ updated Feb 25, 2012, 9:48 PM ]

  1. Download the files onto your computer
  2. Copy the installer files to a specific location on the TouchPad
  3. Reboot the TouchPad to USB with it plugged into your computer, holding the volume key down during reboot
  4. Start the installer on your computer
  5. Wait 4 minutes and 30 seconds for the drive processing to finish
  6. Wait another 30 seconds or so for the install to finish
  7. Reboot into Android about 6 minutes after starting the previous reboot
Late in 2011 HP killed their TouchPad business. If you don't have one, chances are you can't find a new one to buy. It is only one of several decisions that HP made around that time and it is really a pity. HP bought Palm for about $1.2 billion (with a B) in 2010 and got with it the WebOS platform. The WebOS platform is something like Android, it is built on Linux just like Android and designed to be App driven and touch interface friendly. The Palm Pre came out to rave reviews on the Sprint network in 2009, but it didn't rack up a lot of sales. iPhone and Android basically ruled the roost, but nobody argued that WebOS (what Palm Pre was running) wasn't a good system, it just didn't have the millions of bodies driving it that the competitors did.

HP tried to make a bid to get into the mobile business but business was bad, and sales there and in the end user business weren't making a lot of profit. The iPad and the iPhone ran the show and HP couldn't get people to buy basically the same product for the same price when everybody knew what iPads were and didn't know what TouchPads were. Workstations weren't making much profit. The whole consumer sales business was really barely turning a profit in the struggling economy of the time. It is obvious what motivated them to decide to just get shut of the whole consumer business and focus on selling servers. Obvious or not, it shocked a lot of people, particularly shareholders. There was a bit of a rebellion that eventually resulted in the CEO making those decisions being switched for a new CEO that would reverse that position.

With the TouchPad born in a bad economy, amidst a huge company refocusing and re-refocusing, sales were poor. No surprise, this killed the already struggling TouchPad business and HP decided to stop producing them. Then they started selling the inventory they had at fire sale prices. A few serious geeks and bargain hunters got new TouchPads at $400 to $450 discounts (depending on model and vendor) and they loved them and wrote great things about them. A few months later, HP set up an eBay sale to finish selling remaining stock, this time selling the refurbished ones at the same prices.  They cost about $150 instead of the original $600 for the 32 GB version but they were selling the $500 version for $99 and that got all the attention. Originally the sale was to be announced to HP employees so they'd get first crack at them, but news didn't take long to get out. When the sale started, HPs eBay site basically ground to a halt from all the people trying to get their order in. I managed to get two as gifts, but I don't think I could have if I'd been aiming for the cheaper version.

The TouchPads came with WebOS. It's a really nice interface, but there aren't a huge number of users, so some people have set out to put Android on the TouchPads. HP is okay with this, but of course modifying your tablet voids your warranty (maybe.)  I knew of these modifications and suggested it as a possibility but both TouchPad users were reluctant at first to modify a perfectly usable system with a questionable one. WebOS was then released as open source, which means that anyone can now make modifications and improvements to it, further making the case that sticking with it is a solid plan. Yet, WebOS doesn't have nearly the number and variety of Apps that Android does and eventually the users of the TouchPads I'd given as gifts started to wonder if maybe there wasn't something they wanted to do that the modification would allow. Reluctance to change carried the day until my daughter locked herself out of her TouchPad and we had to reset it to factory defaults to get it to work. Nothing she'd saved on it was there anymore and feeling she had little to loose, she decided to give Android a try.

It was really easy, and I have to say that the guys who have put the software, guides and videos together have done a great job. I watched the video, read the instructions, re-read the instructions, went through the comments and installed it on the TouchPad. My favorite guide is the one on howtogeek and it was a tremendous source of confidence. The install went very smoothly. Excitement with the new system was nearly shocking, but Android was invariably compared to the WebOS system at every turn. It turns out that my daughter prefers the WebOS system, which is still present, for most things, but there are a couple things that are easier or work only with Android, so all in all it is a successful and worthwhile experience. After comparing notes, the other TouchPad user also wanted to have Android as an option and that install went as smoothly as the first one. The biggest hurdle was getting the TouchPad back to a reasonable charge. Both TouchPad users tend to run the battery down to minimal charge and it took me a while to figure out how to get them charged sufficiently to get started. The key is to use the charger that came with them, and not the USB plugged into the computer and not the USB AC/DC adapter I already had handy.

Here are some notes to take from my experience:
  • You can reboot WebOS by going to the system menu and Info, then reset options. On the same screen as you see the options to erase and start your system from scratch, there is an option to reboot
  • The charger that comes with the TouchPad puts out enough juice to charge from a near complete discharge. USB charging will not. Even some other outlet based USB chargers may not.
  • Go ahead and put the Google Marketplace download in with the other files during the first install. I did it as a second step on the first one but with the initial setup on the second and it saves time because you will want it

2012-02-09 20:30 Is it cool to be cruel as a Network Admin?

posted Feb 9, 2012, 8:45 PM by Boyce Crownover   [ updated Feb 9, 2012, 8:47 PM by Boyce Crownover ]

There are plenty of humorous stories floating through email and on the web about how silly the mistakes and misunderstandings can be between the people who specialize in working with computers and those who are mostly ignorant of the black magic that makes computers work. People who have plugged the power cord into itself, the legend of someone trying to order a new cupholder because they had been using their CD ROM tray for one, the persistent rumor that someone took a picture of what was on their monitor by putting it on the copy machine... there is probably a grain of truth in all of them. All of us make mistakes that seem silly to the people who know a subject far better than we do.

With that in mind, I try to always be patient when trying to educate people and reassuring when they blunder in ways they are embarrassed to admit. I prefer to be the nice guy that makes your life better rather than that IT guy you put up with because you need him. Sometimes I worry that I am seen as that guy anyway, so I try hard to be nice.

But there is temptation. No, I'm not talking about spying on your internet usage or snooping on your emails. Stupid IT people do that, it can only end in suffering. Even if you get away with it, it makes you a worse person. I'm not talking about making people feel bad either, because really that's kind of childish.

What I'm considering is a murkier depth of cruelty. I'm considering being cruel for the betterment of the user. I already kind of do this. We work with sensitive information that we are absolutely obligated to keep secure. We work hard to do that. When somebody leaves their computer screen unlocked while they are away from it, then they are committing a minor security faux pas. The most common theft for my industry is insider theft. Leaving your screen unlocked could allow a co-worker who has decided to steal a way to do so and blame it on you. Or they could access information that you have access to and they should not.

The most politically correct is to report the offense to the manager of the employee making the mistake when it is witnessed. I don't like to do that and managers and even IT people know that we do it too, so enforcement always seems a little hypocritical. I will do that where the manager or employee is particularly sensitive to the other method... that other method being to take a moment to mess up their background or move their task bar around. I never do anything serious, but always mildly annoying. After a couple times people see me and think to try to remember that they locked their screen like they're supposed to. That's my goal really, I want them to think about it. It is a very mild cruelty, but done with humor and never malice and people usually take it in stride.

But I am considering taking up the practice of a greater cruelty to address a greater problem.

Passwords are the problem. They're a problem for everyone. It seems like every system that has anything you might remotely care about requires a password. Invariably if you try to commit them all to memory, you will use very insecure passwords or forget them. This means that the average human being requires some sort of method for managing their passwords. In my industry, this is compounded by systems that have complex rules for what make acceptable passwords and requiring them to be changed on an irregular but frequent basis.

To deal with this problem, we encourage the use of password management tools. I absolutely love Lastpass. It remembers my Internet passwords for me and does it securely. It goes with me wherever I go and all I have to really remember is one really good password. A good alternative is KeePass which does much the same thing and works even without the Internet (though it doesn't fill in passwords on web pages for you as well.) A less good but acceptable alternative is putting your passwords in a password protected spreadsheet. Excel will let you protect your spreadsheet with a pretty strong encryption system. Yet another method is to store your passwords in an encrypted zip file. If you must, you can store your passwords in something that you protect like your phone.

Nonetheless passwords are a problem.  People write them down on post-it notes. They write them in little books. I don't really think either is exactly bad in itself, but they leave the books or notes where someone could find them which actually makes it more unlikely that the person who uses them nefariously would get caught.

We get regular calls by people who refuse to learn to use a password tool. We find notes. We find books. This is where I begin to consider cruelty. For those people who leave notes, I am considering stealing them. For the books, I'm considering hiding them. But worst, for those people who just refuse to learn any way to keep their password safe, I'm considering setting their passwords to a string of insanely difficult to remember characters and not leaving it up to them to immediately change it. Imagine that your password was Yc4Q!9$8*g$3ZPB8!ERChgCxK6$MuTHX*c1Up#k#ArNIA . There is no way that you'd try to type it each time. You'd absolutely have to use a password. We already use a system that generates ugly passwords like that as temporary passwords, basically forcing people to cut and paste to get their password of preference set. I'm considering making it so that they cannot change to a password of their preference.

Think on that a minute. What if everytime you had to call to get  your password reset, you were stuck with a password like that for a month. You'd learn to use a password tool all right. You'd learn or quit using that system, but I'm the guy that controls access to the tools you have to use in order to keep your job. If I do that, it isn't a suggestion that you have to deal with, it is a forced adaptation.

I haven't done it. I probably won't. I don't know if I should be that cruel, even for a good cause. Should I?

I might.

2012-02-09 21:30 Upgrading Linux Mint

posted Feb 9, 2012, 6:50 PM by Boyce Crownover   [ updated Feb 10, 2012, 3:47 AM ]

Okay, so my system isn't exactly average. I have a Windows installation that is pretty close to the way it came in the box. I removed a couple things, added a very few, but mostly kept it as is for the purpose of having a reliable machine suitable for use with my work.

I did shrink the primary partition a good bit, no biggie since I had plenty of extra space and built a custom bootloader to kick over to a binary I later set up in that empty space.

I then loaded Linux in that space. I've tried many Linux distributions over the years. I think I started with RedHat back when they didn't have a home user suitable version. Then Fedora, their home user version. Mandriva, Suse, Debian, Gentoo and a handful of others. I tried the BSD stuff too, Free, Net and Open. These days I'm not so concerned with learning new ways that things can be done so switching around between distributions doesn't do me much good. I settled in with Ubuntu because they made it easy to use and have a good support and testing group. Then they switched over to Unity and that soured me on them, so I switched to Mint which was all the good stuff from Ubuntu and none of the ugliness that I got when I tried Unity.

Life has been good for a while. Today I noticed that there is a significant upgrade for Mint, so I made sure that important stuff was backed up (important!) and tried to do an online upgrade.

I think I missed a step or didn't think through the repercussions of upgrading the boot loader because after some errors and trying to force it... black screen.

So I booted into Windows, and got the new DVD version of the Mint installer. I put it on a USB stick with UNetBootin because that makes it fast and easy, if it works. It didn't. While that was downloading and loading, I tried to update Windows. This is a very common occurrence for me, but it failing isn't. A little research revealed that somehow the system tray failing to resize automatically was the culprit. So I switched the system tray settings to show everything and that allowed me to finish five of the six updates. The sixth installed fine after a reboot.

In between reboots I tried booting from my USB stick. UNetBootin works fine, but it doesn't successfully load my Mint DVD, so that was some wasted time. After booting back into Windows (and applying that missing update) I burned the DVD to a real DVD and rebooted to it. That's what I'm typing this from.

This screen is pretty much what I've come to expect from Mint. It handles multimedia fine. It recognizes and nicely handles my dual monitors. It has a friendly installer and can see and be customized to install in place of my previous installation without too much trouble... except it should have allowed me to import users and settings. I didn't think to expect it to, but it was kind enough to let me know that there were none there suitable for import. Thanks.

I'll try to remember to update this later and post the results of this little unplanned foray into system installation.

Update about 15 minutes later: It appears that I should have clicked on "Format" when selecting partitions. Apparently that meant that was what it planned to do, not an option I could consider. Good thing anything important is backed up. Now I have nothing of the previously installed Linux Mint system. Not only that, it overwrote the MBR like I explicitly intended to avoid. It still appears to boot Windows fortunately but now Windows is the secondary system, not the first. Windows allows you to switch to Linux at boot and Linux allows you to switch to Windows at boot, so it isn't really a problem. It is irritating though. Now I have to think "did I really back up everything I might have wanted?"

But the new install is beautiful. Not that I could log in as the user it made me set up at first, oh no, I had to log in as a guest, then switch to that user on the command line and then switch from that user to root from the command line and create my new home directory. Only then was I allowed to log in as my new user on my freshly installed system.

*Long sigh*

It is hard to recommend that others attempt to follow in my footsteps. It may be great for me in the end but there were so many pitfalls along the way that I can scarcely expect a novice user to avoid them. I'm not done even yet. There are updates being applied because of course the DVD doesn't come with the latest software, oh no, you have to wait another hour hours yet for all that to get loaded.

2012-02-04 Better Chatting

posted Feb 5, 2012, 3:55 AM by Boyce Crownover   [ updated Feb 9, 2012, 6:52 PM by Boyce Crownover ]

We use Microsoft Communicator at work and it integrates nicely with Microsoft Outlook. We've been using it for quite a while and people are used to it and it has been dependable. I really have nothing bad to say about it other than the cost, and whether it is worth it or not is really a business decision.

Still, I have examined a couple other platforms recently that are worth consideration. First I tried a chat plugin that integrates with MediaWiki. MediaWiki is a really nice plug and go solution for online documentation. There is an extension called "Chat" which integrates PhpFreeChat into the pages. It took a little tweaking and only worked with the 1.3 version for me instead of the 1.2 version recommended. The problem I encountered is that people are uncomfortable with chat room style systems and even though it does have private message capability built in, people have little incentive to use it if they are used to an Instant Messenger like Communicator and, this is key, people are loathe to expose their spelling, grammar and momentary lapses of memory to a large group. If you're looking for a single group chat system, I can recommend it, but it wasn't for us.

I am trialing OpenFire as an alternative. It seems to be pretty much on par with Communicator, but it is of course free. It can run on a Windows or Linux stack and integrates nicely with an Active Directory platform. This I can highly recommend. If your company is looking for a chat system, and you don't like the idea of paying for Communicator, then OpenFire is a good choice and pretty easy to set up.

2012-02-02 17:15 You might be a redneck... no wait, terrorist if...

posted Feb 5, 2012, 3:35 AM by Boyce Crownover

  • Try to keep people from watching you put your password in your email or banking site
    attempts to shield the screen from view of others
  • Prefer cash or use the card of a spouse, parent or with your maiden name
    Always pay cash or use credit card(s) in different name(s)
  • Think somebody might turn you in as a terrorist for your normal behavior
    Act nervous
  • Your employer gives you a cell phone for work, but you keep your own for personal use
    Are observed switching SIM cards in cell phone or use of multiple cell phones
  • You aren't from around here, or you need to check your email while traveling
    Travel illogical distance to use Internet Café
  • Connect to the company VPN to work
    Use of anonymizers, portals, or other means to shield IP address
  • Keep your passwords or work link lists in a handy notebook
     Suspicious or coded writings, use of code word sheets, cryptic ledgers, etc
  • Encrypt patient records, your diary or your email
    Encryption or use of software to hide encrypted data in digital photos, etc
  • Took one of the Vonage offers, use Skype or play video games where you can talk with other players
     Suspicious communications using VOIP or communicating through a PC game

This list of terrorist behaviors comes from an office that is a part of an office that is a part of the US Department of Justice. Apparently. They do say at the bottom, in tiny letters:

Each indictor listed above, is by itself, lawful conduct or behavior and may also constitute the exercise of rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution

This came to my attention through a slashdot article pointing to this copy of the (PDF) document.

2012-01-31 Disabling security is not a solution

posted Jan 31, 2012, 12:35 PM by Boyce Crownover

A support technician recently "solved" a problem on one of our workstations by disabling UAC. UAC is one of those things that doesn't solve everything, but it adds a little security. Turning it off because you don't know how to make your software work otherwise is not a solution. I'll grant you that if you need to turn it off to get it installed and leave it on, I can understand, but turning off our security does not belong on the fix list.

2012-01-18 Cool screensaver idea

posted Jan 19, 2012, 1:54 PM by Boyce Crownover

There should be a screensaver that has a chat system and a survey system built into it. Perhaps you could force a survey response before allowing logging in? Maybe people would be able to get log in help if they could chat without having to log in, but you could still identify the computer.

2012-01-12 Finally fed up with Mint Google Search

posted Jan 12, 2012, 7:36 AM by Boyce Crownover

I've been using Mint Linux for some time now. Essentially it takes the things that made Ubuntu popular and makes them the focus so you get an easy to use and maintain desktop system. The only gripe I have had was that the default searches in Firefox go through a Mint custom page. It is still giving the same results that it gets out of Google but with an advertising bonus to the Mint people. I am not paying for Mint, so I have been very reluctant to change that, since I want them to get some sort of payment. Today it was too much for me though, so I finally tweaked it and here is how, from a root console or with sudo:

# cp /usr/lib/firefox-addons/searchplugins/google.xml ./google.xml.original
# wget http://mxr.mozilla.org/firefox/source/browser/locales/en-US/searchplugins/google.xml?raw=1 -O google.xml.fixed
# cat google.xml.fixed > /usr/lib/firefox-addons/searchplugins/en-US/google.xml
# cat google.xml.fixed > /usr/lib/firefox-addons/searchplugins/google.xml


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