Posts filed under ‘Computers’

Learning With Raspberry Pi And Friends

As the roles at $EMPLOYER have become more narrowly defined, it is difficult to avoid stagnation. One of the things I did to help keep $EMPLOYER-related stagnation from becoming whole-life stagnation was bought a Raspberry Pi and an Arduino. (And also a BeagleBone Black, but who’s counting?)

I have not done much with them yet, but I did start using the RPi to share an external hard drive across my network, actually staying pretty close to Kevie’s instructions. I’m also messing around a little bit with Node.JS on the BBB.

I’m hoping to try some more things, and to write about them, soon.

Saturday, 2014-February-22 at 23:11

Signing and Encrypting E-mail With Thunderbird

Digital Prism has a new post up telling how to improve the security of electronic mail.

Signing & Encrypting Email In Thunderbird

Email security isn’t just for the experts, or the rich. It’s for you too. It’s a bit of an enigma at first, but once it’s set up it’s pretty easy to use. This post is about the basics of how to set it up and use it, but first a look at why it’s important and what benefits you get from doing it. You can sign and / or encrypt your email. This has a variety of benefits and limitations.

Recommended reading for all.

Thursday, 2012-July-12 at 22:33 1 comment

Moving Away From Webmail: Why?

Back in the late 1990s, I encountered webmail services. I quickly signed up for accounts with every service I knew:

  • Yahoo! mail—sponsored by Yahoo!, which had a top-notch human-curated search engine directory
  • Mailexcite—later known as Excite mail—at that time sponsored by Excite and Webcrawler search engines
  • Hotmail—before it became a Microsoft property
  • and over time, various services that went by names like Warmmail, Coolmail, Coldmail, and CoolEmail—these services came and went and sometimes came back under completely different owners

What I liked about them was that I could go to the local college, the state college, or to friends’ homes and still check my e-mail without having to set up client software for each computer I used. This was before we knew a lot of the things we have learned about online security. Passwords were often restricted to 4-6 characters, often either all lower-case or all numeric.

If you forgot the password you used on site ‘X’, you would click ‘Send my password’ and check the relevant webmail account where the password would be sent.

Over time, things changed. Passwords started to require a mix of upper and lower case, along with one or more numeric digits. Then special characters were added. Passwords became longer. And ‘forgot my password’ started taking you through one or more secret questions before sending a password reset link to your e-mail. (No more mailing your password.)

It became more and more time consuming to log into a website, scroll through your new and existing messages to find the ones you choose to read, and write responses as necessary. This would be enough to make me switch back to the convenience of using client software to handle my e-mail messages (at the small cost of more complicated set-up than just typing a name and password into a couple of boxes on a webpage). But this is not even really the problem.

You see, in some areas, we have never advanced. We call it electronic mail, but it is really more like electronic postcards. This means that anyone, anywhere along the chain between you and the other party (or parties) could easily and quickly read your messages. That contract to buy a retirement property in Hawaii? Someone could have grabbed a copy, whipped out their word processor, and read everything in it. Same with that e-mail to your kid’s school about her grades. Didn’t you say they use Social Security numbers as student ID numbers?

You may say that you don’t do anything illegal and you don’t use e-mail to conduct financial transactions, therefore you have nothing to worry about. That is not so. You cannot know in 2012 whether information you “leak” today will become useful to someone who decides to use it against you in 2017 or 2022.

What is the answer? PGP. PGP (or Gnu Privacy Guard, which is a freedom-preserving implementation of OpenPGP). PGP puts your e-mail messages into an envelope, making it more difficult for someone to snoop on your message. Since the message is electronic, the envelope is also electronic, a type of public-key encryption.

Now, there are some who believe that anyone who encrypts data is doing it because they are doing something wrong or illegal. Those people are wrong. I personally believe that it is patriotic to encrypt your data. First of all, I do not believe that the government would have permitted its use if they had not figured out how to penetrate the encryption, if they are willing to devote enough time and computing power to do so. This means that encryption is not going to protect spying or terrorism. Our government will still be able to see what evil deeds such people are planning.

However, for unimportant people like you and I, people who may occasionally speed on the freeway, but do not otherwise break the law, the government is not likely to invest the effort. Our lives are too boring. There is nothing to be gained. I cannot imagine Jon and Ponch showing up at your door to write you a ticket because you admitted in an e-mail message that you drove 70 in a 65 zone.

I should point out that I have no evidence that our security agencies can read your encrypted messages. It is purely my opinion that they would still be trying to suppress PGP is some security agency had not figured out how to penetrate it. (Disclaimer: I work for a federal agency, but I don’t speak for them and they don’t speak for me.)

On the other hand, using encryption gives you some privacy. While I firmly believe the government can read your encrypted messages, the average computer criminal cannot. And more importantly, the casual observer who inadvertently is exposed to your message is not able to read it. The beat cop who is trying to make his quota cannot read it. The junior high kid down the street cannot read it.

So you and I should be using PGP (or the open source implementation, GPG) for most of our messages. Remember that an envelope only protects its contents in transit. If you’ve got the unencrypted contents sitting on your hard drive, or if the person on the other end has them, all that anyone has to do is gain access to that computer.

It is sometimes convenient to think of encryption like a vault. The locks on 1920s-era vaults probably would not slow modern criminals very much. The locks on current bank vaults are probably sufficient to slow down the majority of criminals long enough for the police to arrive. If you think encryption will protect your secret treasure map forever, you’re mistaken.

Now, once you decide to encrypt your e-mail, you’ll immediately be faced with two big issues. First of all, none of the big webmail providers supports using PGP through their websites. So unless you can get FireGPG working, you cannot do the prudent thing. Secondly, installing and configuring PGP/GPG is somewhat complicated. It isn’t really–some of the most tech-adverse people I know today set up similarly-complex software on their computers back in the 1990s–but it isn’t as easy as it could or should be.

Enter GPG4Win. GPG4Win comes with a lightweight mail client (Claws Mail), the GPG and Kleopatra and GPA software to manage the process from creating keys to uploading to public key to a keyserver to signing keys of others whom you know in person, a file encryption plugin (GpgEX), and an optional encryption plugin for Outlook. Mac users can use GPGTools instead of GPG4Win. BSD, Hurd, and Gnu+Linux users can use a somewhat less polished version or KDE’s Kleopatra.

Clearly, though, the process of using PGP and GPG needs to be simplified and streamlined. However, even in their current condition, you and I should be using PGP / GPG. And that means, given that the webmail providers have not figured out how to support it in their interfaces, that I need to pull back from using webmail for most of my messages.

I should also point out that you have to remember your passphrase, or you will not be able to use PGP / GPG. You should probably not create keys that are valid for more than a year or two. I am still learning about it, so I am by no means an expert. It just seems to me that if you forget your passphrase, you want a quick expiration, rather than waiting for years.

Monday, 2012-January-09 at 04:55 5 comments

Computer Shopping Again

So after all the work I did to make my recent computer purchase usable, the screen resolution wasn’t satisfactory, and the built-in Atheros wireless card was problematic under every operating system I had installed on it. MJ needed a portable computer that he could take with him for his classes, so I gave him the computer and the system restore DVDs. He’s now experiencing the pain that is Vista (and has been instructed that there will be NO free support from me for Windows Vista).

But this means that I need to get a portable computer for my own use. I am still doing a lot of work out of town, spending months at a time living out of a suitcase, so it has to be a laptop / notebook computer. I want preinstalled Linux (or PC-BSD or DesktopBSD), preferably 64-bits, on a modern dual-core CPU and at least 4GB of RAM. Obviously, wireless networking has to work well, preferably 802.11a/b/g and draft n. It will be a few years before I buy another after this, so I am looking for something that will be useful for at least three or four years.

I also do not want to deal with Lenovo—ever again—and I dislike Dell’s truly abysmal service. If anyone has some suggestions for a supplier, please respond in the comments.

Sunday, 2008-October-26 at 18:30

Always Get / Make Restore CD

If your computer gets infected with anything—virus, trojan, spyware, or whatever—you can no longer trust that disk partition to be clean and pure. For that reason, always make sure you obtain a restore CD or DVD. My most recently-purchased computer came with a single-use application to burn the restore information to a set of CDs or DVDs, so I used that. If I ever wanted to re-experience the pain and frustration that is Vista, I could go back to what I had when I bought the PC.

Continue Reading Tuesday, 2008-October-14 at 09:14

Tasting Better With Linux

Recently, my traveling laptop’s 512 MB of RAM proved inadequate for my use, so I purchased a replacement. The replacement came with Windows Vista and a load of garbage software–shame on you, HP–that made it almost unusable. In an effort to salvage my investment, I installed Mepis Linux 64-bit on part of the hard drive. However, neither the 64-bit version, nor the 32-bit version was able to pick up the built-in Atheros WiFi card, nor utilize the USB-plugged D-Link WUA-1340 I purchased in an attempt to make it work.

Enter Ubuntu. Using the 32-bit LiveCD, it immediately picked up the external adapter, and was able to connect to the hotel’s WiFi. I flattened Mepis and installed Ubuntu. I will give myself some time using the new system first, but I will probably flatten Vista and rid myself of that headache.

I realize that Microsoft is running taste-test ads in which XP users try Vista and are pleasantly surprised. I also realize that SP1 does fix many of the most pernicious problems with Vista, including many of the built-in drivers that could not be used, because they lacked required security information. As a traveler who spends up to two-thirds of my time using hotel networks, Vista’s continuing wireless weaknesses make it entirely too unreliable for my uses. I cannot recommend Vista to anyone who connects to multiple networks. It is just not good enough.

I think that those taste-testers would have been even more certain that Vista is a flop had they used it for an extended period, for their regular day-to-day uses, on standard hardware. I intentionally bought a computer with extra RAM and found that it really did help speed the system up, but it did little to make it usable.
Grade: D-
Avoid it if you can, resign and find a new employer if you cannot.

Alternatives: Dell, Lenovo.

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Sunday, 2008-August-03 at 08:42 2 comments

XO Rocks!

My XO laptop arrived yesterday, 2008-03-25. I can see
already that it is a severe threat to the established
hardware vendors, but I could not imagine just how
much the XO’s unique software threatens the existing
eduware vendors.

When MJ was younger, I got the “blaster” learning
games. While they were a great improvement over the
rote quizzes that characterized a lot of eduware of
the time, he soon saw through the entertaining
graphics to the quiz engine underneath. After that, he
played those learning games no longer.

It used to be that computers in schools were not used
for vocational training. Instead, they were used for
explorational learning with tools like LOGO, as well
as introductory programming in the BASIC and Pascal
languages. Somehow we’ve gone away from actually
letting students learn and toward the kind of
mind-numbing learn-by-rote that formerly only
described memorizing multiplication tables.

Teaching schoolchildren to click a particular set of
menu choices to perform a certain task
is a tremendous
waste of time and money. By the time most of them are
in the workplace, the arrangement of those choices
will be different enough that the former student may
need retraining. Instead, we need to teach kids to
think for themselves and to be comfortable exploring
the computer to learn how to perform any specific

About the ‘activities’ or software: I’m trying to
blend exploring into my already cramped schedule, but
I’ve enjoyed the Measurement activity (a moving graph
of the sounds around the unit which could be used as a
fascinating introduction to acoustics, wave theory,
and related topics), watched the Etoys demo, and
opened the TamTam music activities, browsed the Web
with the built-in browser, and opened the chat
activity. I am writing this using the AbiWord-based
Writing activity. It does not yet use ODF, but the real AbiWord (v. 2.4.6) still has problems with the format as well.

I can definitely see how this beats boring quiz games and word processing.

About the laptop itself: the keyboard is definitely
kid-sized, and it occasionally does not catch keys I
press, especially when I start to speed up. The screen
is bright and clear. I can read things at smaller
sizes than I normally can. The wireless picked up
more than double the number of networks than I knew
existed around here.

This thing is so much fun that I really hope that they
bring back Give1 Get 1. I think my family would like several.

Thursday, 2008-March-27 at 00:03 1 comment

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