Decentralized Internet

March 15, 2014 at 11:15 pm | Posted in Computers, Economoney, Internet, Media, Software, Technology, Web Apps | Leave a comment

The technology landscape has been changing rapidly. Companies like Microsoft have already lost over half their market share. Meanwhile, the open Internet has devolved into a giant marketing opportunity. Dominant technology players are gathering everything they can about our movements, shopping, and social lives. Just look at what you have to approve on a typical smart phone app. Or how you’re invited to use one service to log into another. Government agencies have been doing the same and more, quite illegally.

Meanwhile, a variety of technologies have been developing to change the way we connect and interact – mainly to take out the intermediaries. The behaviour of business and government above and the revelations of security breaches and spying are simply pushing those technologies to the fore so we can take back control of our lives and devices.
Here is a talk by Fred Wilson in Paris, on 3 macro trends in society:

3 macro trends:
- from bureaucratic hierarchies to technology-driven networks (eg: newspaper to Twitter)
- unbundling – how products and services are delivered, specialization (eg: finance moving away from banks, a la carte entertainment on demand)
- becoming a network node (w/ smart phones, shifting from desktop), always on and connected

4 Sectors to watch:
- money – distributed and decentralized payments on the Internet, without the banks
- health & wellness – staying out of the health care system, wearable monitors
- data leakage – data pollution, spying
- identity – cryto-currency applied to online and secure identity

This article lists 21 technologies that may decentralize networks, including mesh networks, alternative domain registration, and decentralized farming. We live in remarkable times.
David

Running Android on a PC

March 13, 2014 at 8:52 pm | Posted in Backup, Computers, Economoney, Games, Hardware, Software, Technology | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , ,

Say you want to mess around with Android and apps, but you’re a little nervous about experimenting on that rather expensive phone or tablet. One solution is to load Android into a virtual environment where you can play around all you like and nothing is ever broken. All you do is back up your virtual machine (VM) software folder first, then if anything goes sideways you can restore it in about a minute. Developers use this approach all the time.

Oracle’s VirtualBox (VB) is free virtualization software you can install just about any Operating System (os) into (assuming you have a legal license). I’ve been running Windows XP, Ubuntu Linux and Android this way for several years. XP, mainly to support some old software that won’t run in current OS’s, the others to explore and experiment with. No messing with my main computer or setting up a boot loader. The other systems run in a window, so no rebooting required. File sharing is much like sharing over a network.

Fred Langa has written an article with step by step instructions for installing VirtualBox and Android on a PC. Most of the steps are pretty obvious but there are a few options that are not and a couple of gotchas. Note his comments about the captured mouse (for touch-screen behaviour), for example.

For Android, you need VT-x (AMD-V on an AMD processor) enabled in the PC’s BIOS. Most modern processors have it but it may be off by default. I checked a couple of utilities to confirm I had it but it was off anyway. Just reboot into your computers BIOS and turn it on. (instructions vary by maker) If you skip that step, the instructions will tell you Android is not supported, so do take care of that first.

I also noticed that some people who also use Microsoft Virtual Machines (like XP Mode) may find VT-x not working because Hyper-V is hogging it. In that case, it’s on in the BIOS but still unavailable in VB. In Windows 7+, the Hyper-V setting is hidden. Comment 5 on this thread offers the command line for turning it off and on. If you want to get fancier, I noticed this article on Hyper-V Manager. It still requires a reboot though.

Other Choices
If you just want to play an Android game on your PC, you might like Bluestacks. It’s designed for loading apps on a PC. It says it’s free only while in beta though.

Genymotion is an Android virtualization tool to create various OS version and screen size variations to test an app in. That’s for more advanced testing.

More OS’s
The advantage of using a tool like VirtualBox is you can also play around with other OS’s. You can get other images (VMs) here, for example. A popular Linux distro, Ubuntu is here. Install the current VB Extension Pack to support it.

The 13.04 version of Ubuntu is an OVA file. OVA files are preconfigured – just double-click to load into VirtualBox. Far fewer steps than in Fred’s article above. It also comes with LibreOffice and other software pre-installed. Note the password on the download page for your first Ubuntu login. You can go into System Settings (gear top right) and add a new User of your choice once logged in.

Rather than downloading a virtual machine, you can also install an OS directly yourself. Create the container in VB (New button), then install into that. This article reviews installing a distro from Ubuntu directly.

You can install a wide range of other OS’s, including Windows and Mac, in a virtual machine – it’s a great way to test and experiment without messing anything up. Or to run old software that won’t install in a modern OS.

Given the end of Windows XP’s support in April, it will soon no longer be safe for web surfing and other Internet uses but it may still have a role for old software in a virtual machine. Fred reviews installing XP into a virtual machine and the VM backup process here. (article free for subscribers) If you have an old XP install you’re retiring and want to move it to a virtual machine, you can use the free Disk2vhd. This is especially useful if your old computer didn’t come with system install disks. VHD is a Microsoft virtualization format but VirtualBox can use it.

And if you have some concern this is experimental technology or something, it’s been around for years. If you surf the web, you’ll have used a virtual machine. Many large web sites are run in virtual machines so they can, in moments, shift from one physical server to another when under load.
David

Real Wii

February 20, 2014 at 12:43 am | Posted in Computers, Hardware, Software, Technology | Leave a comment

Recently, I explored the idea of getting a game console. I liked the Nintendo boxes as they had fun sports games and were modestly priced. However, the newer Nintendo consoles are oddly designed or overpriced. The WiiU has a large tablet-style controller. The Wii Mini has substantially reduced features over the original Wii. In fact, one site recommended you find a used Wii instead – they have more bang for the buck. Plus the earlier model Wii’s have the connections to play Gamecube games (with controllers and memory cards) too if you can find one. You may even find a new Wii around as they were just discontinued last fall.

Accessory’s are still very available as well as tons of games. The Wii games run on the new WiiU so will continue to be around. If you upgrade the TV cable to component, you get much higher quality video for modern screens – not the HD of the newer PS and Xbox consoles, but at 1/4 of the price. Plus the Wii motion controllers are a lot of fun. (waving a tablet?)

If you buy used and have no warranty to worry about, you also have the option to “homebrew” the Wii and add further abilities, like making it into a Media Centre that will not only play DVD’s but will play formats not supported by the big consoles. And you’ve got a “magic remote” already. You can play classic games you own, fully backup your Wii, and much more.

The process is a bit geeky and you have to follow the steps carefully but it’s not difficult. They suggest you review the FAQ’s and follow the instructions. All of the original Wii functionality remains.

See you at the baseball stadium. Or the bowling alley.
David

Safe Browsing, still

February 19, 2014 at 11:52 pm | Posted in Computers, Economoney, Internet, Online services, Security, Software | Leave a comment

Periodically, I’ve recommended some tools that help keep your browsing safe. Web sites are the most common way of getting infections now. Not to mention tracking your activities and identity. I thought it was time for an update as the threats and tools continue to evolve.

Of course, the most important tool is common sense. Don’t go into bad neighbourhoods. Look before you leap.

I personally use the Firefox browser because it’s the most customizable. It’s also an open-source platform that’s not invested in making money from the collection of user data. That collection in itself leads to both privacy and security issues. Some consider Chrome superior but I have concerns about using too many Google services as they do collect user info for marketing. LifeHacker discusses the browser issues here.

This article is thus focused on securing Firefox on a Windows PC. Some of these tools or equivalents are also available for Chrome and Internet Explorer. This is not a review of all security tools but rather recommended examples in several categories, with a few caveats. All are free, unless otherwise noted.

Your first line of defence is of course a good Anti-Virus service and Firewall. With Windows 7, the built-in firewall is fine. The hardware firewall in routers is also advantageous. As for anti-virus, you can check testing sites like AV-Test for your choice. Some free ones are as good as the paid ones for basic protection. I’ve been using paid ESET NOD32 AV to good effect for some time.

Firefox Add-ons:
Anti-Code:
AdBlock Plus
Blocks most annoying 3rd party ads that slow down web sites and track your presence.

NoScript
The first thing many suggest you install – it blocks the troublesome scripts on web sites, similar to the above. Lifehacker suggests this is redundant with AdBlock. I’ve been using both but they have come to overlap more.

RequestPolicy is a more aggressive version of this. With it, I typically found a web site was text-only until I worked out where their styles and functionality were loaded from and adjusted the settings. This is a bit of a guessing game that makes it less effective in practice to me.

Priv3
Specifically targets tracking done by social networking services on other sites, like the omnipresent Facebook “Like” buttons that can track your browsing even without clicking.

Better Privacy
This deletes “Super” or Flash cookies – a more invasive and persistent type of cookie. I’ve not found the deletion affects performance of any sites. But I was surprised how many some sites use.

None of these would be necessary if web sites played more politely with visitors.

Safe Sites marker:
WOT (Web of Trust)
This is a crowd-driven add-on that will flag your search results to warn you off of troublesome sites. (versions for most everyone)

Safe Preview
This tool does not show up in search results unless you ask but can give an overview from 5 services, including WOT, before you click. (Norton now stingily blocks 3rd-party tools like this) I use it as a 2nd opinion if the WOT result is unexpected either way. I used to recommend LinkExtend similarly but it’s not been updated in some time.

VTzilla
A Virus Total tool to give a site or download link a deeper check with a right-click. How’s it fare with multiple anti-virus sources? A cautionary step before inviting something onto your computer from unknown sources.
(VT has other versions for Chrome and IE)

Search Management:
Google No-Tracking
Shuts off nested links in Google search results to avoid click-tracking. Google will still track you but it reduces some of this and it makes copying web addresses, doing checks with the above tools and so forth much easier. It also makes Google faster.

StartPage.com is a search alternative that doesn’t track but uses Google. DuckDuckGo is also suggested but I’ve not found the results as useful. Both eliminate the “filter bubble” of targeted search results where your IP and history determine what you see, rather than what the larger world is discussing.

Support tools:
LastPass
For secure passwords – much more secure storage that will fill-in login details and remember strong passwords for you. Way better than browser tools. I’ve recommended this before. RoboForm is also well-recommended but not free.

TIP – Avoid the temptation to use your social site logins on other sites. It makes you much easier to hack and track. That’s becoming all too common and is not in your best interest. Use distinct logins for every site and let something like LastPass help you keep track of them.

FEBE
backs up your Add-ons, themes, and settings in Firefox automatically.

If you want to see how a site is tracking you, try Lightbeam.

Some of the other add-ons I’ve tried I found too aggressive. Lifehacker recommends Disconnect, for example. While it may reduce tracking, it also greatly reduces the functionality and display of web sites. Again it becomes a guessing game to know what needs OK. They have made you more anonymous but do it by breaking site features.

And if you’re also logged into a sister site, you’ve lost the advantage. Even worse if you’ve logged in using a social media sites credentials.

Browsing through a VPN, sandbox, or alias site would be more effective if privacy is a priority. Just keep in mind that the web is not about privacy but sharing. That’s why it’s called a world wide web. Anything you share often stays shared, beyond anything you may have imagined. A long-gone web site I built 16 years ago still has a copy on-line at the Wayback Machine, for example.

Bad Add-ons:
On the flip side, you may find this HowToGeek article useful – some browser add-ons are or have become spyware, reporting all of your browsing history and inserting ads on pages you visit. The article includes a follow-up list of troublesome ones to avoid or remove.

I considered moving away from popular webmail services to avoid some of the tracking but soon realized that many contacts use them, so the messages get tracked anyway. Email has not yet had this kind of functionality added. Another gold mine for advertisers.

Safe computing!
David

Backup That Counts

January 25, 2014 at 12:26 am | Posted in Backup, Computers, Internet, Online services, Security, Software | 3 Comments

Many tell me they’re not worried if their computer dies – they’ll just buy another. But gradually as our lives go more digital, we start collecting digital things that are more difficult to lose. The password for the service you paid for. The holiday photos. Your oh-so-carefully prepared resume. Important contact information. The list gets larger and larger.

With that growing body of digital history, the need for decent backup grows. For most people, you want it to be automatic. Set it and forget it. Manual gets forgotten.

At the same time, you want a backup that works. If it’s not reliable or there are barriers to getting access to your key files during a failure, it’s not working. A backup is only useful if it can be easily restored. I’ve seen studies that show even expensive business backup solutions failed in practice the majority of the time.

Software and Data, Local and Remote
There are 2 types of stuff to back up and 2 types of places to put that backup.

Software
The first type of stuff to backup is your operating system (OS) and programs. The key reason to do this is to get you up and running again as quickly as possible. Having to reinstall the OS, all your software, and all the updates can literally take days of your life.

The best solution for software is an Imaging tool. The ones built into modern operating systems (like Windows 7+) are fine. Or buying the well-known Acronis TrueImage. This can be set up to be automatic. Weekly is probably enough unless you experiment with software a lot.

Data
The second type of backup is for all your stuff – all the files you create or receive and store in the digital world. If your needs are simple, the above imaging software may be fine. Just image it all together. If you do this, set the backup for ‘daily incremental’. This will catch all the changes made each day.

The downside of imaging your data is access to that backup. If your system goes down or is stolen, you have no quick access to your stuff inside the backup until you have a similar environment and software installed. Go to your old Vista computer, for example, and you’ll have to jump through hoops to get at your Win7 backup.

A better solution is simple file copy or zipping. Those copies of all your created files can then be accessed at any time by any OS – even a floppy. Cobain Gravity has been my recent free choice for that. Plug in your backup drive to another computer and get to work.

For your most critical files where you want to save current versions more often than daily, I recommend File Hamster. When that file or folder is added to File Hamster, ever time you hit save, it makes an additional copy to the location of your choice. (a different drive) This has saved my bacon a couple of times when a file got corrupted. And this is much more likely to happen on files you use all the time.

The program is not presented as free but if you don’t purchase it after the trail period, it reverts to Basic mode. It’s more than worth paying for though. I wrote 2 articles about it here.

Location, location, location
Local
The first type of backup location should be local, due again to the simple question of immediate access. In your office or nearby on the network. An external hard drive or network attached storage (NAS) are best and not expensive. Different types of backup above can be saved to different folders on the same external drive. Figure on double to triple what you have now for the size of the external drive.

Backing up to an optical disc is useful for long term archives, but is too manual for automated backup. Thumb drives have longevity issues and are again too manual.

Remote
Unfortunately, a local backup will not save your files in the event of a fire, major theft or other such disaster. For that you need a secondary off-site backup. But it should be secondary. Automated remote backup still has too many possible points of failure to be your primary solution.

Software
Storing an OS image in the cloud is problematic as it is large and thus takes massive time and bandwidth to upload. Not to mention the cost of the on-line storage. And then if you have a failure, you cannot restore the OS from the cloud. You need an OS to get to the OS.

The simple off-site solution for the OS is making a periodic image to portable media and storing that safely off-site. Then you can still restore if your local backup solution fails. It’s a bit manual, but ensures it’s easy & workable.

Data
The focus of your automated secondary backup is for your critical files. On-line file-sharing and backup services have been growing in leaps and bounds. I even researched setting up one myself. But they also have issues. Make sure the service is suited to the task. Some sites delete your files automatically after a certain period of time. They’re not designed for backups.

Copying your critical data over the wide open Internet is akin to sharing – not a fine idea. Some suppliers may add encryption, but make sure it’s also encrypted in transit or you’re exposing your content where it’s most vulnerable. Complicating your choices are the cost and that some use quite proprietary techniques. This can again create access issues in the even of system failure.

In a recent article by Fred Langa, he introduces an alternative solution. You use the online storage of your choice. And you use a local pre-encryption tool that automatically encrypts, then uploads to that on-line service whenever you copy files to it. He used Boxcryptor. (requires .Net4)

You set up Boxcryptor and point it to your on-line storage. Then you set up a secondary backup routine in your backup software to copy to your designated Boxcryptor folder on an automated schedule. Backup to Boxcryptor to On-line storage. Voila – automated and secure on-line backup. The basics are free for personal use.

From a convenience and recovery standpoint, those encrypted files are then available from all platforms anywhere – Android , Mac, & PC.

Be sure the size of your backup routine is less than the size of the on-line space you have. BoxCryptor does allow you to connect multiple services. Also make sure you’re backing up to the virtual drive, not the BoxCryptor.bc folder, or the files won’t be encrypted. Same with decrypting them – get them from the virtual folder or they won’t be decrypted – they’ll just be gibberish. PCWorld talks about using BoxCryptor here.

Fred’s article talks about using it with Skydrive. Boxcryptor supports a wide range of on-line providers, including Dropbox, Google Drive, Box and many more.

Just make sure you use LastPass or some other tool to securely store that unrecoverable Boxcryptor password. In a place that can be accessed any time. Otherwise, you’ve added a key point of failure.

I also reviewed several other encryption options. Some of the on-line storage companies are offering software to do much the same with their own tools but reviews said they were slow. Several tools only work with the big 3 or even only with Dropbox.

And then there’s ownCloud. A little more geeky, but it lets you create your own on-line storage in whatever web server space you have available (assuming your web host is OK with that). It can also manage other sites, mount webDav supporting services like Box, DropBox, GoogleDocs (which it will also open) and supports FTP. It will also give you a cross-platform tool for accessing files, calendar, contacts, bookmarks, galleries and so forth.

Blend that with Boxcryptor and you have your own custom solution.
Happy computing,
David

New Old Pages

January 12, 2014 at 9:44 am | Posted in Blogs, Computers, Internet, Online services, Software, Web Design | Leave a comment

Those of you who have followed the blog for a while know that this is a spin-off of what was once a large site on web design, from the hand-coding era. Better resources for that came up over time but a few key pages I retained as a stub on some other web space.

When I went to grad school in ’10, that web space ended and the resources went off-line. The “Web Ref” tab here closed. Finally I’ve tackled the grunt job of converting a few key pages with their custom styles and tables into the theme-driven blog environment.

Now you’ll find 3 new tabs:
Web Colour is an updated intro to how colour is defined on the web, using hexidecimal numbers. While software does a lot of that work for you now, it’s useful to understand it and  standardize how you use it. There’s also a link to some Character Code tables elsewhere, useful when you want to insert obscure symbols into text, like Ø, Ψ, or ©. Most software only covers parts of the full set.

Colour Chart is an old Web Safe table of 216 colours. While we no longer have to worry about low-bit screens, it does still offer a table of simple, clean colours and easy compatibility checks. I still use it. There’s also a small table for converting from web-safe HEX to RGB. And links to other excellent online color tools.

CMY to RGB is a comparison of the print colour gamut (range) with RGB screen colours. Print colours are produced in a different way resulting in a very different range that only partially overlaps. The table is based on the 64 shade CMY Colour Cube and includes CMY, HEX and RGB values for all sample colours. There’s also a table that compares key RGB colours to CMY. If you plan to choose web colours that will translate easily to print, this may be a good starting point.

Hope you find them useful.
David

How Smart is a Smart Phone?

April 24, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Posted in Computers, Economoney, Events, Space, Technology | Leave a comment

Smart phones are so much more than just phones. They are net connected, with thousands of applications available. We may balk at the cash price for some modern units. But the value? A recent application suggests most phones are capable of much more than we might think. Although it does go rather outside expected use and specs and undoubtedly voids the warranty.

NASA has launched 3 satellites run by smart phones. In fact, each made mostly from a smart phone. These “phonesats” are expected to be the cheapest satellites ever launched, using off-the-shelf products – in this case Nexus One phones running Android. Their mission – to see if smart phones can be used to successfully run a satellite in space. They’re also going to try to use the built-in cameras to take pictures of earth. And of course, they have built-in GPS. So far they’re operating normally.

They did have to add a larger battery pack and a powerful radio. The result is about 4″ square. And no – you can’t call or text them. A little out of your calling zone.

Combine this with low-cost rockets to launch and the satellite game changes completely.
David

the project site

The XP Problem

April 17, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Posted in Computers, Economoney, Hardware, Internet, Security, Software | 2 Comments

Times change. When XP launched many years ago, it wasn’t much of an issue if people stayed with Windows 98 or DOS for a while. But now, in the Internet age, your computer needs regular updates to keep it secure while surfing. XP is web-connected, from right inside the operating system. (as the old IE debate illustrated)

Microsoft extended support for XP but that’s ending in a year (April 2014). However, between 30 and 40% of computers are still running the increasingly insecure XP. Many of those computers may not support the latest operating systems. Thus the only solution is a new computer.

Those who put this off are now typically facing a jump to Windows 8 and a totally different interface. It could be argued it’s as big a change as from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95. And it rather sucks on a non-touch interface, though you can install third-party programs that restore the Start menu. The issue is particularly large for businesses still on XP. Evidently 64% have not completed a migration to Win7. The expense, training and loss of productivity are large obstacles. Not to mention software upgrade costs, old custom software, and the economy. But staying with XP is unsafe and will potentially create even larger problems. XP on the net will be like wearing a kick-me sign.

The issue for many is that XP does what they need. Email, Word, and web. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. My friends scenario should illustrate the problem though. He has a PowerPC G4 Mac. Until recently, it did everything he needed. But gradually, it all  stopped being supported. No system updates. Then browsers, Flash and Acrobat stopped updating. Sites like webmail are gradually changing with features that don’t work on the old browsers. He has trouble even logging in to email now.

The big difference though is it’s a Mac. There are far fewer Mac viruses. XP is on a PC and there are thousands of viruses seeking it out. When it stops being updated, it becomes a sitting duck.

Another example comes to mind. I used to have an old NT server I used for monitoring the other servers and making sure everything was up and fine. Without being aware of it, it’s AV stopped updating as it was no longer supported. (they didn’t bother notifying us) The server got infected. I quickly cleaned out the infection but it was infected again in 10 minutes. It had to be updated to a new, supported operating system or taken off-line.

This is what XP users face. Personally, I’d find a supplier who can still build Windows 7 machines and pro-actively make the migration, like a friend did last week. For old software that is not cost-effective to upgrade, seek out free versions. Or you can use that old XP licence: install XP in free Oracle Virtualbox, then install those apps in XP. The app will run in XP in a window in your current OS. Of course, we’re talking local apps. Web-connected software will remain an issue in XP.

Safe surfing!
David

WP Bloggers Alert

April 17, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Posted in Computers, Internet, Online services, Security, Software, Web Apps | Leave a comment

There’s a new botnet that is infecting WordPress-based blogs and web sites and then using them to infect others. The botnet can then be used to attack other web sites in denial of service attacks, etc. Because web servers are always up, it’s superior to virus-infected home PC’s.

Think it’s minor? Over 90,000 IP’s are already involved. Evidently, symptoms of an infection include slow performance and the inability to log into the WordPress account. They may also go off-line for a short time.

WordPress itself is not to blame. As with webmail accounts being hijacked, the issue is poor passwords.  Apparently its still common to use “admin” or other simple passwords. Brute force password-trial attacks can discover easy passwords in seconds. You need a strong site admin password for your web site – even if it’s not WP based. Do you want to be infecting visiting customers? Or have their AV block them from your site? Friends have had these problems.

Hopefully, server-based anti-virus will be developed to reduce the issue. Some web hosts don’t provide web site anti-virus though. That’s how the virus problem spread in the first place.

Even if you don’t care about your own site, please do others the courtesy of not becoming a vector to attack them.

I talked about good password techniques here

It can be a hassle to remember hard-to-guess passwords, so a Password Manager can be very handy.  I talked about my fav – Lastpass – here.
Safe surfing!
David

Drawing in the Cloud

April 9, 2013 at 8:58 pm | Posted in Computers, Internet, Online services, Software, Web Apps | Leave a comment

One of the interesting trends in software is web applications – especially with the advent of HTML5. Rather than finding and installing software on your computer for this or that occasional task, you simply bookmark a web application and it’s there when you need it without anything to install or update. Many of these are free, at least for basics.

Here’s a new, free on-line drawing tool with the shapes for doing flowcharts, plans, etc.

draw.io/about

Just go to the home page (draw.io) to use it. No signing up or cost. It supports multiple platforms, so you can use it anywhere and save to on-line storage for retrieving it anywhere. It also supports real-time collaboration. I notice that it has automatic alignment tools, making a tidy layout easy.

If you Save, you’ll get an XML file. If you Export, you can save to standard image formats like PNG and JPG. (PNG is better for graphics, JPG for photos) XML is for works in progress and later editing. A graphics bitmap format like PNG is for final output, sharing, etc. Caution suggests you save both in case you wish to edit later.

have fun!
David

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