Sorting Like an iPod

At work we use drafting software called Microstation. It originally ran on UNIX workstations, but was soon ported to PC’s. However there are still little UNIX touches. One weird thing in UNIX is how things are sorted. Usually when you sort things with numbers and letters in the name, the numbers sort to the top. In UNIX for whatever reason, the numbers sort to the bottom. Since Mac OS has been based on UNIX for a while (I guess this is why, I don’t know for sure), the iPod sorts songs the same way. So 10,000 Maniacs is at the end of my Artists list instead of the top. Continue reading

McAfee

I have been using commercial antivirus software for a while. I don’t know that it is necessary to do this because Windows has some decent protection as part of Microsoft Security Essentials or Defender or whatever they are calling it. Plus there are some free tools that are pretty good. But Fry’s always has antivirus software that you can buy and then get a rebate for the entire price, making it free. So far I have always gotten the rebates, but twice I had problems, once with Kaspersky and once with Norton, where they told me I didn’t fill in the submission correctly. However, after I complained they sent me the rebates anyway. Sometimes I will get a couple of products the same year just to try them out. I had written about past experiences a few times already. Right now I like Norton the best because it only scans when I am away from the desktop whereas McAfee takes 8 hours or so to scan on my laptop (better than Kaspersky which I gave up on after the scan took many days).

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Master Password

One nice feature of Firefox that I started using on my laptop (I had been using Sea Monkey as my browser on my desktop until this week when I finally switched to Firefox) is the master password which you enter once and then it will keep track of all the different usernames and passwords for most sites that have them. The problem with the master password is that a lot of times I leave the browser open and then the computer goes to sleep and I don’t think about it anymore. Now if anyone were to break into the house, all they would need to do is open my computer (I don’t have a Windows password) and they could get into all of those sites if I had left the browser open. Most of the really secure sites don’t work with the master password, but it works on enough sites that I wouldn’t want someone to be able to do that.

So I thought it would be good if the master password would expire or time out after some amount of time, but there doesn’t seem to be an option for that in Firefox. A search found an extension that will do this, but just a little more digging found that Firefox can do this on its own through some config settings. I didn’t even know about config settings, but you can get to them by typing “about:config” in the URL bar.

Once that page opens you have a long list of settings. There is one setting called “security:ask_for_password” that is the master setting. If you set it to a value of 2, then you enable the password timeout. Then you can go to another config setting called “security:password_lifetime” and change it to the number of minutes you want the master password to work. The default is 30 minutes, which I figured wasn’t enough, so I changed it to 150 minutes. I don’t usually use the laptop in the morning, so by the time I leave the house it has been 8 or more hours since the laptop was in use. With 150 minutes, I might only need to enter that once at night and it will stay good. It’s easy enough to change later.

Win 7 Antispyware

Tonight Mom called and said she thought she had gotten some kind of virus disguising itself as anti-virus software. She kept getting a window popping up telling her to download some software. She knew that she wasn’t supposed to do this and that McAfee was supposed to protect her from viruses. But McAfee had let this one through. [In fairness to McAfee, it turns out her subscription had expired several months earlier.]

This isn’t a virus so much as it is a trojan and like so many of them, once it gets on your computer it is very hard to get rid of. By manipulating the Windows registry it prevents executables from running so that you can’t install anything or run programs, and it stops you from getting to websites where you might find help or download fixes. Even if you can find the virus’ executable files, they will reinstall themselves the next time you open your web browser or any other executable. Awful.

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Wine With That Ubuntu?

I am still working on Jenny’s Gateway laptop. I got her HP laptop working pretty well using Windows 2000 and she reported that they were able to surf and get a paper written for school this week, though they couldn’t print from the laptop. But the Gateway is the one that eats up hard drives and the fourth hard drive is now showing problems. The laptop just won’t boot. For some reason it did boot a couple of times for me and I was able to install her copy of Office 2007 on it, but then I opened Word, the computer froze and I’ve never been able to get back into Vista again. I can use a Vista installation disk to boot the computer and I can boot it using Ubuntu, but Vista won’t reinstall because it doesn’t think there is a hard drive there. Interestingly, Ubuntu sees the hard drive and installs no problem. I even tried installing Windows 2000 by formatting the hard drive, but Win2k wouldn’t recognize the hard drive either. I tried different partition schemes involving Ubuntu and Windows and then formatted the whole drive with Ubuntu and tried to install Windows over it and still nothing. Ubuntu does say that there are some bad sectors identified on the hard drive.

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Win2k All Over Again

My friend Jenny has been having problems with her computers. She has 4 computers in her house and only one of them was still working. So I went over there last Saturday to work on them which is when I found out about heat pipes. That computer was still overheating some, but the bigger problem was that a virus (or something) had associated all .exe files with Windows Media Player and they wouldn’t run anymore, just open the media player (which in turn couldn’t do anything with the .exe files since they aren’t music or video). Since all anti-virus software is an .exe, this prevents fixing it. And I couldn’t re-associate .exe since Windows Explorer wouldn’t open (it’s an exe too). So I wound up taking the hard drive out, scanning it in my desktop computer that I brought over there (I actually brought my new and old desktops over since one has SATA hard drive connections and the older one has IDE and I wasn’t sure what kind of drive the affected computer had in it; it turned out to be SATA and mounting it was no problem except that in the BIOS I had to enable that hard drive port instead of the computer just recognizing whether a drive was present or not). A scan turned up 79 viruses or threats, at least some of which were trojans (sometimes browser “cookies” are considered threats, but they don’t really do any damage, unlike trojans). So Kaspersky got rid of all of the viruses. The computer would run and could browse the web, but you still couldn’t open executables and it would overheat and shut itself off in a few minutes. But I found a Microsoft online wizard named Mr. Fix It that would reset the .exe association and that worked perfectly. There are also a lot of shady website out there that offer fixes like that, but I didn’t want to try anything like that with a site I wasn’t familiar with.

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Mom’s New Laptop

Mom dropped off her new Dell Inspiron 1545 for me to set up this weekend. Her old laptop was a Frys store brand, but this is a Dell and the price was the same (except that she got an extended warranty on the first one and this one she is just doubling Dell’s one-year warranty with her credit card). Moore’s law says that the number of transistors on a computer processor doubles every two years. It has been five years so everything should be at least 4 times better and maybe 6 times. Let’s see:

The old processor was a 1.3GHz Celeron and this is 2.2GHz Dual Core Pentium. Since there are two cores (processors) now I’m going to say this qualifies, but I have no idea how many transistors are on a Celeron or a Pentium. She had 256MB RAM and now she is getting 3 GB of RAM (1 GB was added to the old laptop later on). So that is 12 times. The old hard drive is 40 GB, the new one is 250 GB (6 times).

There are some notable changes between laptops of yore and today. Most of the ports, including the USB ports, were on the back of the old computer. Now they are on the sides. Her laptop didn’t come with a built-in wireless card (though the computer that replaced it when her hinge cracked did) but it was 802.11g and this one is also 802.11g (I guess that’s more of a notable lack of change). In the meantime they have come out with 802.11n, and most of the higher end laptops support that, but this one does not. There is a SD card reader in the front for transferring pictures from a digital camera. Also, while the old laptop had a microphone, this one has a microphone and a web cam for internet video calls. Also this screen is wider in relation to the height to mimic HDTV’s. That changes the overall shape of the laptop a little, but this one seems about the same size and maybe a pound lighter than the old one (and noticeably lighter than my 2-year old Dell), which was pretty heavy. Lastly, this computer has Windows 7 and the old one had Windows XP, so she skipped right over Vista. I like Windows 7 so far. It seems pretty snappy and hasn’t given me a ton of warning messages.

Hard Drives Gone Bad

Jenny at work has a laptop she bought in 2007 from Gateway. This thing is huge, maybe 17 inches. While it was under warranty the hard drive failed so she took it back to Best Buy and they put a new one in. She lost all of the data (they said they could recover the data for $1200) and started doing backups more regularly. It may have failed again under warranty, putting her on her third hard drive. Now it is no longer under warranty and the hard drive has failed again. I took a look at it this weekend to see if there was anything I could do. Well, it wouldn’t boot up. So I tried to start it from the Vista installation CD (or DVD, not sure), bypassing the hard drive. But even this didn’t work. It would start, but as part of the boot sequence it would look for any hard drives and it would hang while it was identifying the hard drive (I think; it would hang on the screen with the status bar that says © Microsoft Corporation).

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Portable Hard Drive

After ending up with a couple of extra notebook computer hard drives when I did the Archos upgrade, I ordered some cheap ($4.90) cases from China on eBay that would let me convert the hard drives to portable drives. They arrived this morning. I got a blue one and a black one. One will hold the 40 GB drive and the other the 20 GB drive (the blue 40 GB drive is for Nicole).

portabledrive.jpg

To set it up, you just take the end off of the case, plug the hard drive into it, slide it back in place, and screw two tiny little screws into the sides to hold it securely (they include a small philips head screwdriver). They even threw in a cheap looking leather sleeve for it. My computer had no problem recognizing it and I didn’t need the extra USB plug that can provide extra power (the only thing kind of non-standard is that they used the wide USB A end instead of a mini USB or USB B plug for the drive). The connection is USB 2.0, so data transferred very quickly. I moved 3.81 GB of videos over in 3 minutes 39 seconds, so 17.4 MB per second. That is at least a few times faster than the tests I did on my flash drives and way faster than when I connect the USB 1.1 Archos where 3 GB of data would take 20 minutes or so. USB 2.0 will allow faster speeds than that, so the limiting factor might be the hard drive itself or my computer. It is noticeably snappy when opening folders on it, similar to folders on the computer’s hard drive.

Anyway, this is pretty neat and a good use for a hard drive from an old laptop computer.

TrueCrypt

For a while I’ve been carrying around a flash drive on my keychain. It helps if I ever need to transfer files from work or pictures from Susan’s house, or whatever. One of the things I put on there is paystubs that I download from work and then bring home. And sometimes I want some spreadsheet from home to be available when I’m at work, so I’ve been carrying around some other financial stuff too. I realized I don’t want just anyone to be able to get all of this if I ever lose the drive or my keys.

I looked around for some kind of flash drive vault software and soon found a free one called TrueCrypt. Like a lot of really good SourceForge collaborations, it has a huge feature set as people make recommendations for improvements. That has also made it kind of complicated: it has a 119 page user manual. I had to follow the first 23 pages of instructions just to store my first file (and this is the abbreviated quick start).

TrueCrypt’s approach is kind of neat. You create an encrypted file on the flash drive (I chose to make my 300 MB out of a 2 GB drive) that can be any name (so I chose katie.avi and figured people would just think it was a video of my dog that they couldn’t open with Windows Media Player for some reason). You open the TrueCrypt software (stored in unprotected space on the drive), open the archive file, enter your password, and it mounts a new drive letter where you can see all of your files and also drag and drop files just like another flash drive (for instance, my flash drive might be drive J:, but the TrueCrypt archive will show up as drive M:).

I still don’t have the hang of it yet, but the level of protection is really impressive. They recommend a 20-letter password and they generate some kind of random key to use by having you move the mouse around for 30 seconds. There are other options like different security algorithms and you can hide the archive file if you want, but I just started on this last night.