Monday, December 31, 2007

Still Not Getting It

I'm sure it's mostly me, but I struggle to find the advantages of selling pre-loaded Linux machines. I'm glad there are companies that do; System76, ZaReason, Dell to name the one's I really know. But I struggle to see the advantage. I like the idea of promoting open source software, and open drivers for hardware -which I think all vendors would do well to go with- but where is the advantage of sell a pre-loaded Linux machine?

There are thousands of used and older computer that run Linux very well. If someone is really a stickler, many of them will run Windows XP just as well too. Vista's turned into more of a flop than a wow, so the need for super hardware is mostly a niche market; Gamers, Engineers, Graphic and animation specialist.

The only real benefit from the absolute newest hardware is battery life on a laptop. Other than that, a used computer is just as good as a new one. A Pentium 4 machine with a good graphics card feels just as fast as a Core Duo.

Maybe my old hardware fetish clouds my judgment. Maybe my over-consumer stance clouds my judgment too.

Someone please tell me: Why spend $1200 on a new computer, when a $300 spent on rebuilt older hardware is just as good?

Disclaimer: Even after all this rambling, I'd love to have a System76 Darter, topped out. Four hour battery life? Yeah, baby!

Friday, December 28, 2007

A Few Reviews

In the last few days, I've set up a few VirtualBox systems. The idea is to install and use an OS well enough to get a good idea of it. As I try out a system, I focus on one primary principle- Ease of Use. I try to put myself in a frame of mind of a complete new computer user. It's not easy.
Here's my experiences so far:

CentOS, short for Community enterprise Operating System, is a complete copy of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. The difference is, other than community support, CentOS comes with no official support. Oracle produces a copy of Red Hat called Unbreakable Linux. Fedora is Red Hat's cutting edge future work, but Red Hat Enterprise is what is used in business.

I decided to load CentOS in a VirtualBox machine so I could go through some Red Hat tutorials. The installation and desktop reminded me of my first experience with Linux - Fedora Core 4. Other than being an RPM based distribution, CentOS is pretty good.

Many businesses use Red Hat Enterprise, or even CentOS, on their servers. I need to know how to use it in a business setting. From what I can tell, CentOS is an excellent way to learn how to use Red Hat Linux.

PCLinuxOS is topping the distrowatch chart lately, so I decided to try it out and see why. Installing PCLinuxOS was fairly straight forward, but there were a few places where a new user unfamiliar with Linux might get confused. Just like Windows, it's easier to just go with the default settings.

PCLinuxOS is a KDE based distribution. There's a variant designed to look much like Windows XP/Vista, but it's not really supported by the forums.

Other than visual appeal, I didn't see anything really special about PCLinuxOS. I'm not sure why it's topping the Distrowatch list at the moment. It looks better than Ubuntu/Kubuntu, but the Ubuntu variants installation seems easier.

I'm not a KDE fan, so PCLinuxOS wouldn't be a primary choice for me. Don't get me wrong -I'm glad KDE offers a choice. Maybe KDE 4.0 will change my mind. But, for now, my desktop of choice is Gnome, and my distro of choice is Ubuntu.

I did a few reviews of gOS recently, but I wanted to comment a bit more on it. There have been some recent reviews of the Everex gPC, featuring gOS, and they were not raving reviews. gOS offers an excellent Ubuntu variant, but can be confusing for a completely new user. I still think gOS is a good option for millennium kids, but not for the average person. Everex would have done better to go with a straight forward version of Ubuntu.

Over the next year, I'm going to try out the top 20, and maybe a few more, Linux distros. I'll report on them as I experience each one. Unfortunately, a Virtual Computer doesn't give you the real information about a Linux installation. A true test would be to install and use it on a laptop.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Windows Security

The more I think about it, the more I suspect that I may never have had a malware problem on my Windows partition. I used to figure that if I had Windows running longer than six months, it got malware. At least, that was my previous experience. But, that experience was based on running Windows only.

In the last 1 1/2 years since I installed my dual boot desktop, I used Windows for schoolwork, iTunes and I used Linux for everything else, especially random internet surfing. If I didn't have school, I'd wouldn't use Windows at all. I get it through school, as part of our materials for training. I rarely use Windows for surfing the internet, and I never went on myspace or facebook with it. Most of my mail was opened in Ubuntu, and unless I know who it's from, I don't open attachments. So, looking back, I rarely exposed Windows to potential malware.

Maybe most people who insist on using Windows should have a dual boot system. They could surf and email from Linux, and do whatever they need to for work or school in Windows. As more applications are available online, there will be less of a need for a particular operating system, be it Windows, Mac, or Linux. That's a whole 'nuther security issue itself, though.


The Tinkering Monster got me. I did the upgrades on my desktop:
  1. Graphics card- from 32 mb ATI to 128 mb Nvidia GeForce4 MX 440. -- I did this upgrade first. When I turned the computer back on, Windows came on, but obviously wasn't using the drivers. Ubuntu 6.06 Dapper Drake didn't work with the Nvidia card. It could have, but I didn't bother to go through the xorg.conf file to fix it. I was already planning more upgrading anyway.
  2. Pentium 4 processor from 1.8 GHz to 2.26 GHz - The major difference isn't necessarily the speed of the processor, rather the speed of the bus. From 400 MHz to 533 MHz. That is where the speed really comes from. Anyway, the computer worked right away. A good bit faster.
  3. Dbanned the hard drive, reinstalled Windows and Ubuntu.
The reinstallation is something I've been wanting to do. I save all my personal data and setting to external hard drives, wiped the disk, then reinstalled my dual boot system. It's REALLY important to install Windows XP first. Not that you couldn't do it another way, but it makes setting up a dual boot much easier. I installed Windows, did all the updates, installed the anti-virus and anti-spyware, the defragged the disk and installed Ubuntu.

Here's the catch: Ubuntu to all of 2 hours to:
  1. Install the system
  2. Do the system updates
  3. Enable all the repositories I want
  4. Load all the software I want
  5. Copy specific personal data to My Home folder.
Done. Actually, in slightly less than 2 hours. Windows, however, was another story.

The installation alone took almost 2 hours, and that was before the updates. 10 hours later, almost all the updates were finally done. I counted seven rounds of restarts. That should have been the justice departments punishment for Microsoft: to restart their entire business seven times a day. I eventually got most of what I need installed. Once again, I've learned what I use and what I don't use. 95% of the software I installed on the Windows side is open source. A few proprietary programs, but not many. I'll go without Microsoft Office as long as I can, and use exclusively. I would love to say that I use Open Source exclusively, but I'm in school for IT, so it's not an option just yet. I'd love to say that I use Ubuntu Linux exclusively, but I have to know how all the other Operating Systems work: Windowx XP/Vista, Mac OSX, Unix, Solaris, FreeBSD. Yes, I know the last four are basically the same thing. I have to know how to use them.

The main advantage to upgrading Ubuntu from 6.06.1 to 7.10 is being able to use the files in the Windows partition. Click on the disk, browse to the folder with the file I want, and use it. I don't even have to drag it to the Ubuntu side. And no extra packages to install to make that happen. 7.10 also comes with the latest packages/programs for Ubuntu.

The only real upgrade left that I really need is the ram. It's 1 GB right now, but 2 GB would work better for me. If I wasn't in school, I'd probably not bother, but many of my classes use Virtualization for learning and practice. For now, 1 GB is fine, but I'll probably have to upgrade the ram with my own money. If I get a job, that is.

I did decide to scavenge the Gateway box for this upgrade. The Gateway isn't dead though, not by a long shot. I had some extra processors, so I put in a 2.8 GHz Celeron in it, and the 32 mb ATI graphics card that was in my Dell to the the Gateway machine. Installed Ubuntu, and it's ready to go to a trusty volunteer. I just hope whoever gets the machine doesn't try to upgrade the ram.

Friday, December 14, 2007

What to do?

The semester is over. The urge to tinker is overwhelming. I have plenty of machines to work on for Free Geek, but that's almost getting routine. A good routine:
  • Pickup or receive equipment
  • Wipe the hard drive(s)
  • Check and upgrade if necessary
    • BIOS
    • Memory
    • Graphics card
  • Load Ubuntu or Xubuntu as an OEM installation
  • Deliver to recipient or have them pick up
    • Usually deliver, since people who can't afford a computer usually can't afford a car.
  • Prepare for the inevitable onslaught of "Thanks You"s
Yep. A good routine.

The Gateway I recieved is a pretty good one, except for the RDRAM. Now RAMBUS is actually a really good technology, but the company messed themselves up on the licensing, so RAMBUS is just way too expensive. To upgrade the memory from 512 mb to 1 Gb would cost almost $500. Not practical at all. The only choice with a machine that uses RDRAM is to wait till other machines like that come it, and use those memory chips. For our purposes, RAMBUS is a show-stopper.

So, I've decided to scavenge the Gateway for parts. As I am the primary volunteer, I get first pick of best-of hardware. So, I'm going to try to use the parts from the Gateway to upgrade me Dell:
  • The Pentium 4 processor from 1.8 GHz to 2.26 GHz
  • The graphics card from 32 meg to 128 mg
Those would be the main upgrades. I would eventually want to upgrade the memory from 1 GB to 1.5 GB on too. I use my desktop for lots of projects using a virtual machine, so memory is important to me. When you have two virtualized servers going, and two virtualized desktops going, memory tends to forget.

The problem is: my desktop is working fine. It dual boots Windows XP and Ubuntu 6.06 Dapper Drake. I set it up like that right after Dapper Drake came out, so it was around June 2006. I've been running that setup this long - probably the longest I've gone without doing a system reinstall. Every once in awhile, I'll scan my Windows installation with different tools for malware, but nothing comes up. I use the Ubuntu side to do 90% of my internet surfing or IMing. I use the Windows side mostly for school assignments that require Windows, so my Windows side is rarely exposed to the outside world.

Windows XP SP3 (service pack 3) is due out soon, and I hear good things about it -as far as security and speeding things up. Also, Ubuntu 8.04 Hardy Herron will be an LTS release (Long Term Service, like Dapper Drake is) meaning 3 years support for the desktop. My original idea was to wait till both are available, and do the hardware upgrades and system reinstalls then. Part of the reason is that I don't look forward to the Windows installation. Getting the system installed, updated, and programs reinstalled and updated can take almost 48 hours -or more even. Getting everything setup and installed just like I want -including programs and desktop settings- in Ubuntu take two hours, three at the most. It would probably be shorter if I didn't walk the dogs during the install process.

There is also the possibility that if I wait till both of those are available, even better equipment donations will come through Free Geek, and I can use some of those. That, and while RAMBUS is expensive, it runs very well with just 512 mb. I could give the Gateway to a volunteer -provided they'd never need to upgrade the memory.

So, to my avid readers, what do you suggest?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Finals Are DONE!

My first final -Advanced Network Security- took all of 7 minutes. 40 questions, multiple choice. Five seconds or more a question? Something like that. I got 100.

My second test -Introduction to Business- took even less time. I got to class -filled in the scan tron sheet with my name and school number- then the teacher took up the sheet from me and another girl, and said, "Thanks. You can go."
Now, when a teach does and says that, my instant assumption is that I've done something wrong. "Whad I'do? My book? I'll take it off the desk."
"No. You got an A," she replied.
The who's from Ukraine, and has been speaking English for only a few months, grabbed my arm and said, "Come on, let's go."
Clueless me is still going, "Huh?"
"Merry Christmas," the teacher said.
"Merry Christmas?" I replied, still clueless.
When we got out to the hall, Nelya told me what was going on. Evidently, she and I had above a 95 average, and were the only ones in the class who'd done all the work. We could have failed the final, and still gotten an A. Reward for effort.

My third final -Introduction to Network Security- was about as fast as the other test, except I missed two questions on Public Key Cryptography- Sender/Receiver keys and digital signatures and digital certificates. I get all those a bit confused. I'll get them ironed out eventually. Maybe a bit of practice with GNUPG (GNU Privacy Guard) will help.

I made a 95 on the Intro to Security, after I'd made a 100 on the Advanced Security. Go figure.

Today, I took my last final -Windows Server 2003 Network Infrastructure. I got a 97. The class uses SamAcademy by Course Technology. I don't like that product. TestOut is WAY better. Learnkey is somewhere in between. The final was completely practical, using the simulator environment in SamAcademy. Windows always you many ways to do the same thing, like close a window. You can click the X in the top right corner, click "File" and select close, or right click on the Window bar and select close. SamAcademy lets you do it only ONE way in their sim. Like Mac OSX, you have to do it THEIR way. The problem is you get use to doing it one way, and you reflexively do that way. Then you get the "INCORRECT ACTION". How Soviet. This time, I went back through all the simulations, wrote down everything step by step (in an file, of course- who uses paper?) and followed it in the test. I only missed one question -and I think it was sim error, not mine. But I got a 97 anyway, so I'm not complaining.

Even after all that, I consider my best achievement this semester to be getting our printer networked in Ubuntu. It's cool being able to print wireless from my laptop.

I've Been an Elitist!

Sometimes it's difficult to see when it's happening. In the USA, pretty much any purchase you make puts you in the category of an elitist. The massive overconsumption we do (and I'm just as guilty as anyone) would take six and 1/2 planets to sustain. We've gone past the point of abusing our resources to the point of running them dry.

What I never realized was the impact of actually using Windows. The exclusionary and elitist statement that even turning on a Windows machine says is pretty big. Bruce Byfield, a journalist and editor for the Open Source Technology Group, did a really good article on the subject in November 2006. I highly recommend reading it.

I have a Windows Server 2003 test due tomorrow. To quote the dinosaur in Toy Story, "Now I have guilt!"

Thursday, December 06, 2007


Today, I received a donation of a Gateway tower, 2.26 Ghz, 512 mb RAMBUS ram, 40 gb hard drive @ 7200rpm, Nvidia GeForceMX 440 graphics (128mb). Except for the RAMBUS ram, it's a really nice machine. Rambus is actually an excellent and fast type of memory, but the company screwed themselves with a stupid licensing deal, and their memory is WAY too expensive. It would take $500 or more to take this computer up to 1 gb of memory, and it's not really necessary with the RAMBUS type of memory to do that.

This computer is the first I've had with a good enough graphics card to use Compiz-fusion - the desktop effects that comes with Ubuntu. I decided to enable the effects, install the effects manager and play a little.

Mac OSX and Vista got nuthin over compiz for desktop effects! Here's a demonstration of what the desktop effects can do:

While I like the effects, I probably would rarely use them myself.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Truecrypt is DONE!

While I mean my presentation is done, it would be just as true to say, "Truecrypt is DONE" as an application. This is one incredible program.

I spent most of the end of last week watching Truecrypt tutorials, like this one on YouTube, or this one on Irongeek. The Irongeek one is especially informative. I spent most of Sunday and Monday actually practicing using Truecrypt. It's pretty easy to use, but to use it to it's full potential takes practice. I first learned about Truecrypt on Security Now! with Steve Gibson and Leo Laporte, espisode #41. I highly recommend listening to it a few times if you intend on using Truecrypt.

  • If you have files that you don't want anyone else to see, use Truecrypt
  • If you use a laptop, and have sensative files on it, use Truecrypt
  • If you keep any files on a USB jumpdrive, use Truecrypt - even regular files can contain sensitive information that can be used against you
  • If you want to keep important records with your attorney, mother, best friend - make a CD with Truecrypt and have them keep it - just in case of fire, hurricane, or flood
  • If you work for Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, and you're sending a CD with 7.25 million peoples ID's by courier service - use Truecrypt. And get a different courier service!
  • If you suspect your ex has hired private investigators to find out how much money you really have - use Truecyrpt.
  • If you finally have evidence that the Electoral College if fake - use Truecyrpt
I really can't say enough about how important a tool Truecrypt is, and how important the skilled use of Truecrypt can be for a company with sensitive information - even if that company is only one person. At the very least, watch the Irongeek video on Truecrypt.

The Linux version of Truecrypt is command-line based, and the Truecrypt people are working on a GUI for it. A Mac OSX version is suppose to be forth coming too. I'll play around with the command-line version over the holidays, and report back.