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Saturday, November 9, 2013

7 Weeks with Linux - Impressions

I've been using Linux as my primary (well, only) operating system for about 7 weeks now. There are things I like and things I dislike and things that are simply annoying.

The Good

So I figured, if today the main thing we need is a web browser, so why do we need more than a free OS? Indeed, Ubuntu comes with Firefox by default, and for me, a Chrome favorite, installing Chromium from the Ubuntu Software Center (aka the App Store) was a piece of cake.

Installation of the OS was real easy, and so was the upgrade (started with Ubuntu 13.04, upgraded to 13.10).

Linux seems to make fairly good use of the hardware and gave me accelerated OpenGL graphics, audio and network out of the box.

Ubuntu also comes with several extras from basic tools like a notepad (gedit, that is by far better than windows notepad, and more resembles notepad++), through picture, video and audio players, to advanced tools like an entire office suite (libreOffice, which is nice but quite heavy, so I prefer online tools), all out of the box. Most other things can easily be downloaded from the Software Center.

The Bad

While most things can be installed from the Software Center, not everything is available, and not once I found myself searching the web for a better solution for a program I couldn't find. I'm talking about development tools, which was pretty odd to me, as I thought Linux is the cozy home of all software development. Well, maybe just home, surely not cozy. The better development tools I know are for Windows. Linux is all about hard, notepad development and command line compilation. Sure, you can find MonoDevelop, and Eclipse is Java base which makes it cross platform, but that's about it, and they are limited (PHP anyone?)

I could find AptanaStudio, an Eclipse based IDE for web development, and this is the main tool I use, and acutally this is the same tool I used on Windows for the same kind of development, so I guess I can't complain, except for it not being in the Software Center.

Coming down to the people from the development ivory tower, I couldn't find an official app for SkyDrive.

The Ugly

There are many things that are just annoying. I thought that by the end of 2013 they'll be handled by now, but it seems Ubuntu rather put their efforts on the HUD (Heads Up Display) that gives me results I don't need for my searches rather than implement missing drivers and such. And I already wrote a post about security.


This is were you search your computer. You type something in, and get a list of results. The results are from installed apps, files you may have, apps of the Software centers, and all over the world - Wikipedia, Foursquare, YouTube, MySpace, whatnot. I find it very annoying.
Another thing that is annoying in the HUD is that when you change search criteria, say from "All" to "Software", it loses the search term.

Local Network Connectivity

Connecting to the Internet is simple and done quickly. That's true also to connecting to Windows networks through Samba (SMB:// addresses). However, it just doesn't recognizes other Ubuntu machines on the local network.
I tried sharing the folders and giving access to just about everyone in the universe and still it doesn't recognizes the other machine. Which is annoying, because the other machine is in the living room, which doesn't have the same conditions to work with as the main computer. I want to copy files, that's it. Just log in using the file manager to the other computer on the network and move files around. And I can't even get there. Annoying. I though this would come out of the box, and I can't even get it to work at all.


I run an Intel Core I5-4430 system. A small one. I didn't put a discrete graphic adapter in it since the one integrated in the CPU is far beyond all my (current) needs. However, when trying to run software like BOINC distributed computation (World Community Grid), or a BitCoin miner, it tells me it couldn't find any usable GPGPU (that's General Purpose GPU. It actually says things like "No usable GPUs found" or "No OpenCL devices found").
Intel don't have drivers yet. Don't know if they will. After a lot of searching and attempts to get this to work with all kinds of workarounds, I just gave up.

These are my main impressions from Ubuntu, but all in all I still rather use it than Windows, and if only because of Windows' lengthy reactivation issues.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Moving to Linux - Said and Done

In one of my earlier posts I blogged about switching to Linux.
That was in May 2011, today is September 2013... it took over two years, but I'm happy to say that the transition has finally happened! (two months ago)

It happened when I bought my new computer about two months ago (the old one pretty much died):

When I bought the new computer I wanted it to be as small as possible and yet to have an optical drive, USB 3 connectors, 8 GB of RAM and 500 GB hard drive. I knew I needed to move the data from my old hard drive, and didn't know if I'd have any way of connecting it in addition to my new hard drive, so I got an external hard drive dock.

I connected the dock to the USB and power, placed the old hard drive in there, turned the power on and made sure the computer will boot from USB.
Indeed, my old Windows 8 (yeah, I know, but it replaced my older Vista (again, yeah, I know, but it was state of the art when I bought it), and besides, it didn't cost me that much) came up, but since it detected my hardware configuration had changed (basically all of it), it booted directly to repair mode and suggested to automatically repair my Windows installation.

Sounds great! Sure, do that!

Windows was then started working its magic for about 20 minutes, just to let me know it had failed. Thank you so much!

After thinking how to fix things (I even thought to re-install Vista from the original DVD I had, but the only valid key was written on a sticker on the side of my old computer, and that sticker was already half torn, so I didn't have a key), I figured I can perhaps use Linux to fix it. I don't remember now exactly what my idea was, but it very quickly changed to "Hey! I can just use Linux instead and that's it!"

And that's what I did:

  • I installed Ubuntu 13.04 64 bit using a flash drive.
  • In order to recover the important data from the older hard drive I used the external dock and copied everything I wanted to save.
  • I had a network drive I wanted to mount in a certain way. I thought this would be simple, and turned out it took a little work to get it done the way I wanted it, but now it's good.
  • I had some paid services (well, just one actually - CrashPlan), so I downloaded it from the website and installed it. I had to reconfigure it to work with the new configuration, and it was a little time consuming hassle, but now I have a working automatic backup running again.
  • I also had other online services (DropBox, Copy) I wanted to use, but happily, these were just working out of the box.
  • SkyDrive, however, does not, and I still don't have it configured. Instead, I just moved everything I had on SkyDrive to Copy.
  • I don't know about Google Drive - I use it online, but I never had its local application installed.
  • I was using the BOINC Manager (for grid computing, running tasks from World Community Grid), so I just installed its Linux version, and everything is the same.
Now about that Windows installation I had... I didn't want to just throw it away, and some applications still must run on Windows... OK than - let's install it on a virtual machine!
I installed and launched VirtualBox, loaded some old virtual machines I had (I had the Windows 8 Developers Preview installed as a virtual machine on my old hard drive, so I just copied it and used it as a base for my new Windows 8 installation). I recovered the installation key from the purchase emails, updated the installation using it, got a new key, re-registered it by phone and now, after all that hard work, I have a Windows 8 virtual machine, ready for a rainy day.

So, to sum things up - transition to Linux wasn't smooth, and there are still some things I don't like (that's for another post), but I have no major problems with it, I like it a lot, and all in all I think it was a good decision. Hopefully in the next versions such transitions could be made smoother and more people will prefer to use it over paid alternatives.

Old Computer Died. RIP?

When I bought my computer in early 2008 I decided it should be a beast.
I got a Tower casing with a quad core processor, 4 GB RAM, 250 GB hard drive and some medium level nVidia graphics adapter.
I figured I could always replace some parts (like memory, hard drive, graphics adapter) but generally, it was a strong computer that was suppose to be sufficient for my needs for many years.

It did survive almost 6 years, but in its last days (well months, actually) it started giving me hard time:
It was shutting the screen down off all of the sudden, or rebooting just because, or having the entire screen go the same color (I remember off-white, pink and light blue as the colors it used to get stuck in) and doesn't letting me do anything anymore.

I tried to understand what was happening by looking at system logs, but it quickly reminded me of an old joke: "How many programmers does it take to replace a light bulb?". None. It's a hardware problem.

So I got a new computer (double the performance, half the price, quarter the size), installed a brand new operating system (moved to Linux, finally), and now the old one is standing on the side of the room, useless.

Now the thing is, I think it is salvageable. A good chance it is the graphics adapter, and if I can only get a new one things will work just fine. I thought of connecting the monitor the on-board VGA output, but alas! There is no on-board VGA output!

I feel sorry not to resurrect this computer, because it has a fairly good specifications even in today's (2013) standards. For one, it has a quad core processor, when most processors today are only dual core. OK, so it's the first major quad core series and much slower than the new series, but who really cares when all you want to do is use the browser? Second, it has 4 GB RAM, meaning it must run 64 bit operating system to use it all. Most cheap systems still come with a 32 bit operating systems, and some come with only 2 GB of RAM. And third, it has room for more! More memory, more hard drives, more bays that can be used...

Maybe sometime soon I'll try to save it. Or maybe I'll just sell it for some low price. I thought I'd give it away as a donation for some school or something, but I figured I can't really donate something that doesn't work.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Computer security when physical access is compromised

Before I begin:
I'm writing this post because I tried getting answers in forums, but got no real answers. Most answers referred to the user as the problem, and while I accept the user is always the weakest link, the software one uses should protect him/her from the things he/she doesn't know.
I don't believe teaching users is the only way to go like some others told me in forums. Teaching comes last, not first, when all other things have been done, simply because human beings make mistakes.

And now for the main article:

Couple of friends of mine had their home broken into and their laptop computer stolen. Bad enough, you may think, as a laptop computer costs quite a lot of money. Now you may think that all the documents and photo, unless backed up, are lost, and that's a greater problem of its own. Well, it gets worst - their online accounts were broken in to and money was stolen using their PayPal account. The scariest thing about this is the thing you don't know about - Identity Theft.

Today there are all these cloud services, like DropBox and Copy and Google Drive. We store all the important things there, so we won't lose them, and because it is much easier to share files between several computers that way.

However, when a computer is physically stolen (and a laptop is the second easiest computer to steal after the smartphone) it compromises all of your online data.

"How?" you may ask. "My account is password protected, and I even chose a very strong password!"

That's great, but unfortunately will not help you if your computer was stolen. It might help you, actually if you are always signing out, but if you don't that means your data is probably lost by now.

"OK, I see what you mean, and I usually signing out of most things, like my bank account, which by the way is signing out automatically if I haven't done anything for a few minutes, and my DropBox account. I try to sign out of everything I don't use regularly."

What about your email account? 

"I use my email regularly, no point for me to sign out, I'll get back to it in a few minutes. An hour tops."

Did you check the "Remember me" or "Keep me signed in" checkbox when you last signed in?

"I did, because it makes life so much easier. But I also enabled advanced verification methods. It requires me to enter a code and answer questions only I know the answers to, and even have my phone next to me, if I want to make changes to the account. So I'm safe from someone trying to change my password."

The main problem is that the account is left logged in to. Even if you closed the browser, all the hacker have to do is to try some of the common providers (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!) and one of them will respond by showing the inbox. Now your world is open to the hacker - have a DropBox account? just go to DropBox and say you forgot your password. A reset link will be sent to your email, and as you remember, the hacker can now read your email.

"OK, so I'll sign out."

It's a good thing to do, but you're still partially safe, because someone may always contact your account provider and say someone else hacked into it and try to answer some questions. Sometimes the hacker will get lucky and the provider will reset the password for him.
Besides, that's not the main issue. The main issue is that it shouldn't be easy for someone who stole your computer to see your emails.

"But it isn't, as my computer is password protected."

So the hacker just need to copy the content of the disk, by rebooting the computer with a USB storage device.

"So I'll encrypt the content of my disk. It's a hassle, and not everyone knows how to do it, but I do."

Great, so copying will not help, but is your computer really password protected? When you open the laptop lid, does it always asks you for password?

"I do know people where it's not always the case... But it is the case with my machine."

Did you know it is very easy to change your password by getting administrative privileges by simply rebooting the machine on Linux, and with a little more hassle on Windows? YouTube is full of such demos.

"So what is there to do?"

Right now? Not much, except asking the developers of the operating systems and other software with great importance to improve the security. This is what I suggest:

  • No need to encrypt the entire disk content. Just encrypt a specific folder that holds applications data, so when someone copies the disk content, this folder becomes useless, and so "just seeing" the online account is impossible.
  • Asking vendors to use the above folder for storing sensitive data, or encrypting such data on their own, in a way not accessible without the password for someone who copied the disk content.
  • Not allowing rebooting the machine and gaining administrative access:
    • On Linux (well, actually it's the GRUB boot loader) gaining root access is as simple as choosing it from the menu - no questions asked. This should be changed. They will try to tell you there have been long discussions about that and this is what was decided. But you don't see it anywhere else, so why there? Request gaining root access from GRUB will be password protected by default. Not for you, the IT Professional who can always set it up the way you want, with or without password, but for those who don't know what they are doing, whether they understand it or not.
    • On Windows there's a loophole in the recovery mode - it allows you to open Notepad by clicking on a link to a log file. Notepad is then run with administrative privileges and allows access to the file system (using the File > Open menu item). There you need to find some program that you can run from the login screen, like the Sticky Keys handler, and replace it with a command prompt, and there you have a command prompt that runs as administrator.
These three simple changes (and they are pretty simple) will greatly reduce the chances of someone hacking into your online digital life and stealing your money or worse - your identity.

And another thing to remember, and this is the most important of all: Security is measured by the time it takes a hacker to break into something. It can be your account, it can be a safe at your home or office. Nothing is unbreakable. The idea is to slow the hacker down enough to have time to find out about it and handle the situation. If it's a robber trying to get the content of the safe, then to have enough time to stop him physically, and if it's a hacker trying to change your passwords, than have enough time to block the accounts remotely.

Security can be made very harsh, but it comes to protect the things important for us, and so if it's too harsh we wouldn't use it at all. We must find the delicate point where it protects us to a sufficient level and that we accept the hassle that comes with it.

And last, the common person doesn't really know anything about security, so the operating system must make the best choices by default. Currently Windows is trying but failing, Linux (GRUB) isn't even trying.

  • I don't know how other operating systems handling security on those levels, and so I haven't mentioned the MacOS and some others.
  • When I write about Linux and GRUB, I refer mainly to Ubuntu. I don't know if it is done differently in other distributions.