Friday, 4 November 2011

Live! Cam Socialize

During my October blogging hiatus, I upgraded the webcam on my Ubuntu desktop. I'm now running a Live! Cam Socialize from Creative Labs.

One of the really nice things about this hardware is the native support in the Linux Kernel (2.6) - so, no need for Jeff Moine's gspca patch! It's literally plug - reboot - play.

Picture quality is ok, but the audio performance is excellent: all-in-all this is a great addition to the Ubuntu box and, so far at least, far less troublesome than the LifeCam VX-1000.

Sources & References:

Thursday, 3 November 2011

"We always intended to make Unity Configurable"

OMG! Ubuntu is running a story spinning the idea that Canonical's developers always intended to enhance later releases of Ubuntu making it more configurable.

I'm thrilled by the prospect of a configurable Unity, but I can't help wondering why no-one mentioned this before.

Sources & Resources:

Book Review - Ghost in the Wires

Ghost in the Wires
Kevin Mitnick & William L. Simon
Little, Brown - ISBN: 978-0-316-03770-9

Gripping

In Ghost in the Wires Kevin Mitnick's pleads his case that he is (or at least, was) a "hacker" (one of the good-guys) rather than a "cracker" (a mere criminal) and, if you're interested in how easily gifted conmen manipulate their "marks", his account of being the world's most wanted hacker is a gripping read from start to finish. However, Mitnick is a gifted conman and that's the point - it is easy to be persuaded that he was a benign explorer in a virtual world who was victimised by an ignorant and fearful state, but the truth is not quite so simple.

The fact is, that Mitnick freely acknowledges committing criminal acts and he seems to have had little regard for other people's privacy or rights. Sadly, he demonstrates even less remorse for his actions. Indeed, both during and after his incarceration, Mitnick and his supporters have crafted a persona of an anti-hero - a cybercrusader who was somehow immune from the norms of decent behaviour that constrain most of society. Herein lies the shortcoming with Ghost in the Wires: whilst it is undoubtedly a wonderful account of Mitnick's exploits, it reveals little or nothing of the man or his motives. Although we are given tantalizing glimpses into Mitnick's relationships with friends and family and furnished with banal excuses that he was compelled by some "addiction" (p.40), one is left with the feeling that this is a highly sanitised history, designed to put the best "spin" on his version of events.

Nonetheless, Mitnick's treatment at the hands of the US judicial system is shocking. The unaccountable fear and paranoia demonstrated by the authorities when prosecuting him almost beggars belief and it is difficult to comprehend the impact that months of solitary confinement and incarceration without trial must have had on such a free spirit. Undoubtedly, it is this inhumane treatment that generates sympathy for Mitnick and eclipses his criminal escapades in the eyes of his supporters.

It is difficult not to admire the skill and persistence that Mitnick demonstrated in the pursuit of his goals but it is worth remembering that society needs protection from people who employ such talents to take things that don't belong to them: this is a message that seems to have got lost in Ghost in the Wires. However, it is a fascinating account and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Traitor!

I started a new job this week - so far I'm thoroughly enjoying it and I've joined a company that really does seem to look after its people. My company car was delivered before I started and today I picked up my new(ish) laptop and phone.

The laptop is a nice Advent 5511 (no longer available), which has a crystal-clear display - the only downside is that it's running Windows 7! I know that I've only had it for a few hours, but so far I'm struggling to see how Win7 is any better than Vista.

The phone is even more of a shock - it's an iPhone!

Oh well, time to chip away at the IT Department and see if we can run some trials using Ubuntu - wish me luck :)

Mobuntu?

The news that Ubuntu is being prepared for mobile devices is not particularly surprising, but I confess that I can't get terribly excited by the prospect. I've never really got the smart-phone thing and tablets seem to be little more than lidless netbooks to me.

Perhaps I'll take more interest in 2014!

Sources & References:

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Wallpaper of the Month - 8400

Well, October was a pretty crappy month for me - what better way to get November off to a better start than a new wallpaper?

Sometimes it's nice to take the helicopter view!

This wallpaper is yet another from National Geographic's Picture of the Day and is Iliamna Volcano, Alaska, taken by Michael Melford.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Wallpaper of the Month - 6400 (2)

Fairy Glen didn't quite make it to the end of the month: somehow it seemed a little claustrophobic on such a small screen.

However, this picture is quite the opposite; open and bright, it makes a beautiful background for the 6400.

Petr Cunderlik captured this beautiful scene at one of the Nové Mlýny resevoirs (in the Czech Republic) - you can download the wallpaper from National Geographic's Photo of the Day.

Sources & References:

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Rotten Apple?

I was surprised by the news that an attacker can potentially change a user's password on Apple's OS X Lion without knowing the owner's existing credentials - after all, the OS X is "[b]uilt on a rock-solid UNIX foundation", so system changes must require password authorization, right?

Apparently not!

I don't expect this to be a widespread exploit, not least because an attacker needs access to the machine while the owner is logged-on and Apple users are protected by a relatively low market share; but it beggars belief that Apple could drop such a clanger.

Sources & References:

Two Good Reasons to Use Opera

In his essay, Safe Personal Computing, Bruce Schneier informs us that he uses Opera as his web browser. That's as good a reason as any to choose Opera - here's another one.

The Register is reporting that:

"Researchers have discovered a serious weakness in virtually all websites protected by the secure sockets layer protocol that allows attackers to silently decrypt data that's passing between a webserver and an end-user browser."

In essence, the researchers (Thai Duong and Juliano Rizzo) intercept and decipher the authentication cookie on a secure connection: They plan to demonstrate the attack later this week at the Ekoparty Security Conference.

The attack is only effective against earlier versions of the TLS protocol; TLS1.2 is impervious to the attack. Few browsers support TLS1.2 by default, so few websites have switched to the protocol - a vicious circle! However, there is one browser that does support TLS 1.2 by design:

"While both Mozilla and the volunteers maintaining OpenSSL have yet to implement TLS 1.2 at all, Microsoft has performed only slightly better. Secure TLS versions are available in its Internet Explorer browser and IIS webserver, but not by default. Opera remains the only browser that deploys TLS 1.2 by default."

Whilst switching to Opera makes no difference to users' security if the majority of websites eschew the latest security protocols, this story does show that the Opera developers design-in the latest security and that is another good reason to switch.

Sources & References:

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Quick Tip - Share a Kubuntu Folder on your LAN

If you want to share a folder on your local network using Kubuntu (10.04), you'll need to install the kdenetwork-filesharing package.

Open a terminal and type:

sudo apt-get install kdenetwork-filesharing

Enter your password at the prompt.

To create your shared folder - in Dolphin:

  1. Right-click the folder that you want to share on your network.
  2. Select Properties from the pop-up menu.
  3. Click the Share tab.
  4. Click the Configure File Sharing... button.
  5. In the File Sharing - KDE Control Module, click Add...
  6. Enter the path (or browse) to your folder.
  7. Select the NFS and/or Samba options.
  8. Click OK three times to create your share.

Sources & References:

ReactOS

An interesting project to create a Windows clone is under way in Russia and one of its developers has just asked Dmitry Medvedev for €1m.

Whilst I see nothing wrong with investing in a competitor to the dominant commercial software manufacturer, it seems a shame that governments haven't been prepared to spend cash on developing the existing alternatives!

Sources & References:

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Office 364½

I doubt that the news that Microsoft's online services recently suffered from a "major service failure" came as a great surprise to anyone - after all, server outages happen all the time. However, once again, the news highlights the potential problems of over-reliance on online storage/service providers.

The farther data is removed from its owner, the more fragile are the access and security protocols associated with that data. That's why I advocate removable media as the preferred method of secure storage - even in a power outage, providing I have a charge in one of my laptop batteries, I have access to my critical data: do you?

Sources & References:

Quick Tip - Kubuntu Muted System Sounds

If you've installed Kubuntu and find that you have no system sounds, open a terminal and type:

alsamixer

When you've hit the Enter key, the control panel for your sound card will appear in the terminal window.

Make sure that the Master & PCM volume levels are not set to zero by using the left/right arrow keys to select the playback type and the up/down arrow keys to set the levels.

F4 will give you access to the Capture (input) levels and F5 will display both input & output levels. Hitting the Esc key returns you to the command prompt.

Sources & References:

  • None

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Oneiric - On Love & Leaving

The Register's Scott Gilbertson has reviewed Oneiric Ocelot and, whilst Gilbertson is balanced in his appraisal, it's not entirely flattering!

Gilberson concludes:

"The message of 11.10 seems pretty clear: Unity is here and you're either going to love it or leave it. While Unity is clearly improving - and getting faster - it remains a departure from the old GNOME interface that isn't going to please everyone."

It's worth mentioning that 11.10 is still in beta stage, but the fact is that Gilbertson is right and I for one have decided that I really don't like Unity. The problem is that I'm not completely enamoured with GNOME 3 either, so I've been searching for an alternative. At the moment, the favourite candidate to replace my 10.04 setup is the KDE desktop: however, I'm not even sure that it will by running on an Ubuntu OS!

OpenSUSE is about to be installed on the Inspiron 1501.

Sources & References:

Monday, 5 September 2011

Just How Much?

So, just how much does the British Government spend on software?

The answer is...

...It doesn't know!

Well, that may be overstating the facts: many departments do seem to know and the numbers are astonishing! Furthermore, some departments refused to release details (implying that the information is available) "on the grounds that it would cost too much" [to collate] - you have to wonder that a Government department (presumably accountable to the Public) doesn't already know the answer!

Sources & References:

Multiple Live CDs on a Single USB Startup Disk

Recently, I tried out a Live USB for the first time. It's a great way of installing a Linux-based operating system or simply trying one out before committing to an installation. In fact, I liked the idea of a convenient, reusable medium for testing new distros so much, that I purchased a new USB drive in order to keep a copy of Kubuntu to hand.

Whilst I didn't put a great deal of effort into my search, the smallest thumb-drive that I found was 4GB - that's an enormous drive for a c.700mb image file and I started wondering whether I could put multiple images on a single usb stick - it turns out that sundar_ima has already thought of the idea and produced a fantastic utility called MultibootUSB.

Put simply, MultiBootUSB is:

"... a shell script which allows user to install multiple Linux Distros in to USB drive / Pendrive / Flash drive and able to boot from it."
And it works!

You can find some great instructions for installing MultiBootUSB at pendrivelinux.com, so I won't use up space replicating them here. However, it might be useful to point out a couple of things to watch out for if you want to use this application.

After installation, make sure that the thumb-drive is mounted in the /media/ directory before starting the application - I know that it sounds obvious, but check anyway! The easiest way is to plug-in the drive and click on the icon in the Places sidebar in Nautilus or Dolphin. When the drive is mounted, you can find the application (in Kubuntu) via the Applications > Utilities menu.

When you want to add a new image to an existing MultiBootUSB, you'll still receive a warning that "Grub2 will be installed in the MBR!" - don't worry, this will not overwrite or delete any existing images on the drive. Select the drive from the device list and click the confirm button to access the Multisystem menu.

If you are installing OpenSUSE, be patient: it seems to take much longer to install to the pendrive than Ubuntu-based distros.

A really nice feature is the test function in the Multisystem menu: you can test using either QEMU or Virtualbox.

So far, I've put four images on my 4GB drive (Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Mint, & OpenSuse) and still have 1.1GB free! For those who want to explore the vast world of Linux distros, take a look at DistroWatch for some ideas about other bootable offerings.

Sources & References:

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Installing Ubuntu One on Kubuntu

Ubuntu One is easy to install on Kubuntu: open Konsole and type:

sudo apt-get install ubuntuone-control-panel-gtk

This command will install the following six packages

  1. python-ubuntuone-client
  2. python-ubuntuone-control-panel
  3. python-ubuntuone-storageprotocol
  4. ubuntuone-client
  5. ubuntuone-control-panel
  6. ubuntuone-control-panel-gtk

Alternatively, search for ubuntuone-control-panel-gtk in KPackageKit and install Ubuntu One from the software manager.

Sources & References:

Friday, 2 September 2011

Some Days...

Today has been fairly challenging for me insofar as technology is concerned.

My first surprise was an email from Facebook telling me that

"A new unknown device logged into your Facebook account (Thursday, 01 September 2011 at 15:51)"
- well, I was at work at ten-to-four yesterday afternoon, so I know that it wasn't me! Strangely, my daughter also got a similar message, so it's entirely possible that this is a false alarm, but I don't take chances with security: time to change passwords.

Of course, the problem with a potential account compromise is that any infiltrator may have gained access via one of the email accounts associated with the account, so I also changed my email account passwords - or at least, I tried to change my email account passwords! It seems that one of my email account providers only accepts passwords between 8 & 16 characters long and only those that contain letters and (at least) one number - that's only a 95 bit password and not particularly secure! Doubtless, had I bothered to read these instructions, my task would have been so much simpler, but I was too busy trying to convince the dialog to accept a 210 bit password that contained all manner of characters.

Any way, I sorted it all out eventually and then decided to delete my Facebook account. It's too high in maintenance costs for my tastes and, notwithstanding its latest moves to secure users' privacy, it often plays fast and loose with users' personal details. When I came to post a quick note here to let people know that my account was in the process of being deleted, I got another surprise:

It seems that blogger doesn't support Opera 11.51!

Any way, I'm leaving Facebook and, if my friends need to know what I'm up to, I can be contacted via Karmic Odyssey. As for my intended post (on enabling Kubuntu's Desktop Effects on unsupported video cards), that'll have to wait until another day!

Sources & References:

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Wallpaper of the Month - 6400

Since upgrading to Kubuntu 11.04 on my DELL Inspiron 6400, I've been struggling to get the look & feel right: trying to find my way round a new desktop environment, getting stuff to work, and trying to find something pleasing to look at has not been easy!

To cap it all, I haven't found the Plasma themes to be particularly intuitive and I haven't come across a wallpaper that has really called to me for a while. So, I thought that I'd see what one of my photographs looked like as the background for my new set up.

For those interested, the picture is of Fairy Glen on the Conwy River, near Betws-y-Coed (Conwy). It was taken using a Canon PowerShot S3 IS (Lanscape Easy Mode - literally, point & click!).

Actually, I'm quite pleased and this picture might make it through the month. With Autumn fast approaching, I'm planning a return trip to get a shot of the leaves turning to those beautiful pre-winter hues.

Sources & References:

Quick Tip - Installing Plasma Themes from .tar

If you download a Plasma theme as a .tar package, you can install it by extracting the package to the ~/.kde/share/apps/desktoptheme/ directory.

Restart the Desktop Theme application (System Settings > Workspace Appearance > Desktop Theme) to access and apply your new theme.

Sources & References:

  • None

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

ttf-mscorefonts-installer Package - Don't be Fooled!

So, you think that by installing the ttf-mscorefonts-installer package via KPackageKit that you now have access to the Microsoft fonts? Well, if you have installed the package via the software manager, it's worth checking that it's been properly installed!

To check, open a terminal and type:

locate Arial

If you return to your command prompt without listing any files or directories, the package hasn't been installed even though KPackageKit lists it as an installed package. This may be the result of a bug in KPackageKit that prevents the user from accessing (or, even seeing) the End User Licence (EUL) Agreement.

There are a couple of ways of fixing this, but I found the easiest was to purge the existing package (using the terminal):

sudo apt-get purge ttf-mscorefonts-installer

And then reinstall the package (again, using the terminal rather than KPackageKit):

sudo apt-get install ttf-mscorefonts-installer

Now the Microsoft EUL Agreement screen should appear:

  • Hit TAB to highlight the < OK > option in the EUL Agreement screen and press Enter.
  • Select < Yes > in the next (Configuring ttf-mscorefonts-installer) screen.

  • When the package has finished installing (you return to your command prompt), force the cache to reload:

    sudo fc-cache -f -v

  • Now check that your fonts are installed:

    locate Arial

Now you should be able to select the fonts for use in the System Settings and application properties dialogs.

Sources & references:

  • None

Monday, 29 August 2011

Kubuntu 11.04 on Inspiron 6400

I've been so impressed with Kubuntu that I'm installing Kubuntu 11.04 on my DELL Inspiron 6400 - the installation process worked flawlessly, but, once I'd restarted my machine, I couldn't log in!

Taking a couple of deep breaths and bringing my mounting panic under control, I realized that I had to select a desktop to log into! Below the user name & password dialog boxes, there are two buttons (one to shutdown the machine, and another to select a desktop session): the three options are default, plasma, and failsafe. Selecting the Plasma option logged me into Kubuntu.

First panic over - now all I have to do is:

  1. Apply the updates
  2. Get my wireless card working.
  3. Mount my shared drive and apply the shutdown fix.
  4. Install & configure Opera
  5. Install & configure Thunderbird
  6. Install & configure KeePassX...

Well, you get the idea...

Sources & References:

  • None

Kubuntu - Fixing WiFi

When I loaded Kubuntu on my Inspiron 1501 this week, I experienced the perennial WiFi problems that seem to plague every Ubuntu installation. Loading the correct driver was a piece of cake - I've done it so many times - but even though I could see all the available networks, I just couldn't connect!

Eventually, I abandoned the default application (the plasma-widget-networkmanagement) and installed the Gnome front-end for Network Manager - problem solved.

Well, sort of...

Despite being able to connect to my network, I kept receiving error messages about the system being unable to unlock the Gnome keyring. I'd also have to supply the wireless manager my network password every time I rebooted. This can get kind of tedious very quickly! Strangely, most of the solutions posted online recommend setting an empty value for the default keyring password - right, like that's going to happen!

Actually, there's a much simpler (and far more secure) way to allow the wireless applet access to the keyring.

  • Open the Autostart System Settings dialog (Menu > Computer > System Settings > Autostart > Advanced Tab).
  • Click the Add Program... button.
  • In the Choose Application search dialog, type Gnome Keyring.
  • Click the Application tab and in the Command: dialog, type - gnome-keyring-daemon
  • Click Ok.
  • Close the Autostart Settings dialog.

Next time you reboot, you'll be asked for your network password but, thereafter, your wireless should connect automatically. Moreover, with this solution there is no need to have blank passwords either, so it's a much more secure method of automating connection.

Sources & References:

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Kubuntu - CIFS Mounts Hang at Shutdown

One of the problems I've experienced with my recent installation of Kubuntu is something I've come across before: the process that unmounts CIFS shares hangs at shutdown, delaying the power-down sequence by several minutes (some users report even longer delays!).

After some effort, I finally understand what causes the problem and discovered a fix that works on my test machine (signs of Linux maturity perhaps?). However, I had to dig very deep to resolve the issue: I came across the following solution on page 7 of my Google search (after following pretty much every link on the first six pages) and the answer wasn't even on a direct link, but a link from a link! The actual instructions are in post #160 of the bug report, demonstrating the benefits of persistence!

The problem is well documented and caused by an error in the shutdown sequence. It seems that the Network Manager is closed before the share(s) are dis(un)mounted - the effect of this sequence is that, once the Network Manager has been closed, there is no longer a network over which to make or receive a call to unmount. There are several solutions posted on the Internet, most revolve around scripts for unmounting the CIFS shares that are then symlinked to earlier processes in the shutdown sequence - I tied them all, but none worked (for me). Kudos then to c0l2e, the author of the following:

"found a better fix via /etc/init/dbus.conf

add the pre-stop script:

pre-stop script
trap "TERM signal" TERM
/bin/umount -a -t cifs -f -l
trap - TERM
end script

It works for me and few tested notebooks and desktop PC."

(c0l2e post #160 - Ubuntu Bug Reports: Bug #211631)

I can confirm that this solution works for a DELL Inspiron 1501 and that my Kubuntu installation now closes in under fifteen seconds.

Sources & References:

Quick Tip - Finding Your Linux Version Information

If you ever need information on your Linux release, open a terminal and type:

lsb_release -a

My output (on my Kubuntu machine) looks like this:

No LSB modules are available.
Distributor ID: Ubuntu
Description: Ubuntu 10.04.3 LTS
Release: 10.04
Codename: lucid

Sources & References:

Kubuntu - I Think It's Love

A couple of days ago I resumed my search for a suitable alternative to Unity. Whilst I haven't given up entirely on the possibility that, post-Lucid, Canonical's latest user interface will be my choice of desktop environment, I thought that it wouldn't hurt to be prepared for the worst.

If I'm honest, I've led a pretty sheltered Linux existence and I've only ever used two Linux desktop environments: Gnome & Unity. This inexperience coupled with my continued ambivalence towards the latest incarnation of Ubuntu, seemed like the perfect opportunity to take Mark Shuttleworth's advice and give one of the other DEs a peek. So, for no better reason than not knowing any better, I decided to start with Kubuntu.

I think that it might be love.

Sure, I've had some early issues to deal with, but Kubuntu 10.04 is running contentedly on my DELL Inspiron 1501 and the environment can only be described as, beautiful - I'm already considering migrating my two stable machines to the interface!

If you haven't experienced KDE, it's well worth downloading an image and creating a startup disk.

Sources & References:

Friday, 26 August 2011

Happy Birthday

I'm a day late, but Happy Birthday to Linux - 20 years old on 25/08/2011

Sources & References:

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Another Reminder

An update to the Windows Vista saga - the owner consented to a fresh install and it has done the trick! It's taken several hours, but the final set of updates are being installed.

I've never been anti-Windows, but I am disappointed by having to reinstall an operating system just to bring it up to date - how could Microsoft change its own update system so that even its own products couldn't use it? Utterly bizarre!

Anyway, if you're suffering from the "Window module installer has stopped working" error message, it seems that the most effective way of recovering from the problem is a fresh install.

Sources & References:

  • None

USB Startup Disks

The Create Start Disk application that comes with a standard install of Ubuntu is great for creating start images of the host OS, but what if you want to try another distro?

If, like me, you find that the embedded application is unwilling to create a start disk for other distros or even other flavours of Ubuntu, install the KDE Startup Disk Creator: it's much more forgiving!

You'll find the app in the Ubuntu Software Centre or, in a terminal, type:

sudo apt-get install usb-creator-kde

The application window has a familiar appearance and the application installs to the System Tools menu by default. Operation is simple: download your .iso file (and check the integrity of the download), match it to your USB stick and click the Make a Startup Disk button.

I created my first USB startup disk this week with a spare 1.0GB thumb drive that I had lying around: the addition of an Ubuntu logo sticker gives it some extra appeal.

Sources & References:

  • None

Reminders

Recently I offered to take a look at a faulty laptop and working on the problems over the last few days has reminded me of why I began my odyssey into open-source.

The machine in question is running Windows Vista (SP1); it wouldn't boot into restricted (non-administrator) user accounts and was prone to crashing during the boot sequence. Getting the machine to boot into safe mode gave me some useful pointers:

  • This is a multi-user machine with two registered users & the Guest Account activated.
  • There were two AV programs installed (McAfee & AVG), both were active and both were out-of-date.
  • The firewall was turned off.
  • The last successful Windows update was 2009.
  • Internet Explorer crashed every time it was invoked.

These are signs that computer security is relaxed and immediately raised suspicion that some kind of virus or other malware might be responsible for the problems. So, the course of action was clear:

  • Uninstall McAffee (for no better reason than it's a subscription-based service and AVG is free).
  • Turn on the Windows firewall.
  • Update AVG and run a full system scan.
  • Install Spybot S&D and run a full scan in Administrator mode.
  • Reset Internet Explorer.

There were no viruses but Spybot did detect and remove over 142 bits of malware and tracking cookies! Once IE had been reset, booting into any account worked as expected: however, it was then that my problems really began.

For the sake of good order, I decided to update the machine and install SP2 (as Microsoft no longer supports SP1) but Windows update refused to work. Each time I tried the update, the update installer crashed, offering nothing but vague error messages and nebulous reference numbers.

Being a resourceful chap (and not wanting to be beaten by Windows!), I decided to install SP2 manually. So, I downloaded and saved it to the hdd and then ran it as an administrator - still no joy! Each time I tried to load the update manually, a new error message appeared:

"Window module installer has stopped working and was closed."

This is not a novel problem with Vista, just Google the error message to see how many other users have experienced the same thing. Indeed, so common is the issue that there are several solutions posted online (notably, Microsoft offers no solution) but I couldn't find one that resolved the problems on this particular machine. After several days (yes, days) of trying, I've given up! The fact is that the remaining options for resolving this issue are pretty brutal and it's not my machine!

  1. Leave WAU switched off and eschew all future updates from Microsoft (this is a bad option - it leaves the machine vulnerable to attack).
  2. Restore the PC to its factory condition and install SP1 & SP2 manually (although, there is no guarantee that this solution will fix the problem)
  3. Install Ubuntu - my favourite option!

If this had been an open-source problem, perhaps more attention might have been paid by the distro provider. In any event, the community would almost certainly have found a solution. This is why I turned to Linux in the first place and it seems, in retrospect, that my decision to abandon Windows was justified.

Source & References:

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Implementing Plan C

With the arrival of my brand new 32GB usb drive this morning, I thought that it was time to take my own advice and implement Plan C of my backup strategy. However, as usual things didn't turn out quite as I expected!

My initial plan was simply to create an encrypted directory on my flash drive and copy my backups across the network. However, copying large compressed files from network storage to usb (via pc) wasn't successful and I found Ubuntu reporting errors - so, I modified my plans (let's call it Plan C.i) to replicate the backup using SBackup. Unfortunately, that didn't work either - SBackup couldn't access the encrypted directory so I had to think of a Plan C.ii!

When I first started thinking about a backup strategy, one of the options that I considered was, rsync: however, I abandoned this option because it was just too complicated (for me) at the time. rsync is a command line tool - it's manual stretches to 61 pages when printed to file and it's not a particularly forgiving read! Fortunately, there is a graphical interface (Grsync) in the Ubuntu Software Centre that makes configuring a backup a little less intimidating and, when coupled with some excellent pointers from The University of Auckland, getting a working backup onto a USB drive is reasonably painless.

So, I now have copies of my essential files encrypted and saved to a portable disk: Plan C has been implemented. Given that I probably won't be automating this process (I'll still have to mount the USB drive and decrypt the directory whenever I want to refresh my backup), I kept the backup to absolute essentials only - documents & configuration files - but it is a working solution for disaster recovery.

Sources & References:

Opera 11.50 - Switching to New Tabs Automatically

Although I'm very impressed with the look, feel, and speed of Opera 11.50, I would be the first to acknowledge that, unlike most of the other browsers on offer, configuring it to work as you want cannot be described as an intuitive process.

In one way this is no bad thing; it encourages you to explore the features and potential of the application. On the other hand, I'm four days into my Opera experience and I'm only just getting it to do what I expect it to do!

For instance, take something as simple as changing focus to a new tab - in most browsers the option to switch to a new tab automatically is easily found in the preferences menu (in Firefox 5.0, it's the last option in the Tabs preferences!) but there is no such option in Opera. Moreover, I've had to get used to opening links by clicking the scroll wheel on my mouse rather than left-clicking an embedded link. However, you can configure Opera to switch to a new tab automatically (even from the Speed Dial page), albeit by using your mouse's middle button or scroll wheel:

  1. Open Opera's Preferences menu (ctrl + F12).
  2. Click the Advanced tab and then click the Middle-click options... button.

  3. In the Middle-click options dialog, select the Open in new tab option.

  4. Click OK to close the Middle-click options dialog and then OK to close the Preferences dialog.

Now all you have to do is to remember to click the middle button!

Sources & References:

  • None

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Sidejacking

Have you ever wondered how the script kiddies who often can barely read & write manage to hijack your Facebook or Hotmail account?

Well, it turns out that it's shockingly easy: in fact, I managed to learn how to gobble up someone else's cookie and hack their account by following just three links! No brute force or dictionary attacks necessary - all that's required is a laptop, a public WiFi hotspot, Firefox, and a copy of Firesheep.

The irony is that it is (or, at least should be) easy to foil such attacks. All three of the links that I followed are essentially arguing for the same thing - end-to-end encryption between server and browser that protects users from identity theft. Indeed, Eric Butler (the author of Firesheep) even claims that he only released his hacking tool to demonstrate the extent of the sidejacking problem.

"Websites have a responsibility to protect the people who depend on their services. They've been ignoring this responsibility for too long, and it's time for everyone to demand a more secure web."
Eric Butler via { codebutler }

The message should be obvious: whether you're using Facebook, Google, Hotmail, or a myriad of other services on the web, if you would rather that no-one else had access to your data, make sure that you are using a secure (https or ssl) link.

Sadly, I expect few people to heed this warning. After all, no-one bothered to turn on the security features released by Microsoft for its Hotmail service!

"For example, in July, eight months after Microsoft first offered HTTPS protection, the company revealed that only 2 million of the 500 million users of Hotmail had enabled the option."
Christopher Soghoian via Ars Technica

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Opera Browser - Multiple Home Pages

If you want Opera to open with multiple start (home) pages, the solution is easy:

  1. Open all the pages you want to start when Opera is opened and make sure that any others (that you don't want to open when Opera starts) are closed.
  2. Click the Opera Menu button & select the Tabs and Windows option.

  3. Select the Sessions option and then the Save this session... option.
  4. In the Save session dialog, provide a name for your session (e.g. home or home pages) and check the Show these tabs and windows every time I start Opera check box.

  5. Click the OK button.

That's it! You can even use Speed Dial as one of your home pages using sessions.

Hint: the pages open in the same tab order as they are saved, so, if you have a preference for the page order, drag your tabs into the order that you want them to open before saving your session.

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  • None

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

A Night at the Opera

The news that Mozilla has released a new version of Firefox hasn't tempted me away from Chrome; but, something else has persuaded me to change my browser!

Recently, page loads in Chrome have got slower and slower and it seems that this is neither a new problem, nor is it attributable to a single reason. After enduring the rather cryptic sending request error message for a few days, I thought I'd take the opportunity to see how Opera performs on Ubuntu. This move isn't entirely a leap in the dark, I'm already a regular Opera user - it's the primary browser on my iPAQ hx2790!

I've always liked the speed dial page in Opera Mini and, in my opinion, text rendering has always been superior to Firefox. So, this weekend I downloaded Opera 11.50 and gave it a whirl on my Ubuntu machines.

It's taken a day or so to get used to the way the browser works and shortcuts aren't as intuitive as I would like. Moreover, online help is not as readily available as it is with other browsers and this dearth of expertize is probably a reflection of the minuscule market share (estimated at around 2.3%) that Opera enjoys. However, Opera is probably the quickest browser that I've used (particularly with the Turbo function enabled) and text rendering is as stunning on the desktop version as it is on the WinMob application!

If you are tempted to give Opera a try, here's a couple of tips:

  1. If you enable Speed Dial, use your mouse's centre button to open links in a new tab or window rather than than the current tab.
  2. Take a look at Opera's tutorial on mouse gestures - it could save you some time trying to set preferences.

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FFmpeg & 10.04 LTS

I've been having a problem converting a video from one format (.avi) to another (.mp4). It wasn't a huge issue, I just wanted to convert a few seconds of raw video to a format that my wife's Android could read, but, try as I might, I couldn't get FFmpeg to handle the conversion. To be honest, I don't edit video often and I merely assumed that it was I that was doing something wrong - it turns out that it wasn't!

In the past, whenever I have converted video from one format to another, I'd just open a command line and type:

ffmpeg -i /source_directory/source_file.avi /output_directory/output_file.mp4

Now, FFmpeg is far more capable than this simple command suggests, but this simple conversion instruction is normally all I need. However, the version in the Ubuntu Software Centre doesn't seem to support even this level of simplicity, so I had to turn to one of the best resources on the Internet for Ubuntu specific problems - the Ubuntu Forums.

FakeOutdoorsman has posted some superb instructions for installing a fully operational version of FFmpeg. The installation process is lengthy but, if you're experiencing problems with video conversions, this excellent tutorial may be the answer you're looking for.

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Monday, 15 August 2011

Sharing Your Tellico Database Across Multiple Machines

Recently I managed to share my KeePassX database with all the Linux machines on my network - another program that I use regularly and have always wanted to synchronize with my laptops is, Tellico and now that I've mounted my network drive permanently, I've finally got around to adding this functionality.

Tellico does allow you to open a remote file using Samba, but, for some reason, I can't get the program to remember my Samba password and end up with an error message every time I try to open the database. The following instructions describe how I use my permanently mounted smbfs share to access a central database, circumventing the need for my Samba password.

  • From Tellico's main menu, click File & then Open...
  • When the Open File - Tellico dialog appears, right-click the Places bar & click Add Entry...

  • Enter a label and location for your mounted network drive in the appropriate dialog boxes. If you followed these instructions to create your mountpoint, the location is likely to be in the form of: /media/mount_name/directory/file

  • Click OK & then, after selecting the network file, Open

Using a permanently mounted smbfs share turns out to be a great way of making sure that you're always using current data regardless of the machine you happen to be using.

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Friday, 12 August 2011

EncFS - Changing Passwords

If you've created an encrypted directory using EncFS, it's likely that at some point you'll want to change your password - this is a painless process using the command line.

From a terminal, type:

encfsctl passwd /path/rootdir

Where /path/rootdir is the path to the directory that stores the encrypted data (This is not the mount point directory - the root directory address will likely begin with a period - for example: /home/jogga/.rootdir).

You'll be prompted for your current password and then your new password. Once you have verified the new password successfully, you'll see the following confirmation message:

Volume Key successfully updated.

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Thursday, 11 August 2011

Using KeePassX on Multiple Machines

One of the problems of having multiple PCs is that of keeping data synchronized. For instance, over recent weeks, keeping three password databases up-to-date has become rather irksome!

There's no ideal solution to this inconvenience, but a single database, accessible by every (authorised) machine on your network, does seem to be the best option. Fortunately, establishing a centralized data source using KeePassX as your password manager and a network attached storage device (nas) turns out to be rather simple. The only fly in the ointment is that the Linux version of KeePassX doesn't natively support samba so you have to mount your network drive, either manually (if you access your passwords only infrequently) or automatically at boot (if your make more frequent use of your password manager), in order for KeePassX to read the data source. Either way, the process is straightforward:

  1. Copy your database to your network drive. Don't export your data - copy the existing .kdb database. Exporting your data creates either a .xml or a plain text file, neither of which is encrypted and therefore readable by anyone who can access the directory.
  2. Follow these instructions to create your new mountpoint and Windows share on each machine that requires access to the data source.
  3. After testing your share (sudo mount -a), open your database using the KeePassX interface (File, Open Database...) and, after entering your password, add the path to your KeePassX bookmarks (File, Bookmarks, Add Bookmark).

Now you should delete (or, better still, archive) your local file in order to ensure that you only work on a single database. The advantage is that you will always have a current database regardless of the machine you happen to be using. Moreover, the first user to open the database locks the data preventing write conflicts. However, there are a couple of potential problems:

  • Unless you have a VPN link to your NAS, you can only access your database from inside your network (i.e. if you're on the road, you won't be able to access your data unless you have a copy on a portable drive).
  • You'll need to make provision for backing-up your database.

Notwithstanding these two minor issues, managing your database this way solves the problem of syncing data across multiple machines.

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Monday, 8 August 2011

Another Diamond in the Rough!

I've mentioned before that there are some excellent resources on the Internet for those that are prepared to hunt for them and my recent foray into the dark arts of programming has led me to another such jewel.

Python for Software Design: How to Think Like a Computer Scientist is available from Amazon for £23.74 and it gets all five-star ratings! So, imagine how happy you would be if you could read this book for free - well, you can!

The Open Book Project makes this book available on the Internet; its stated mission is:

"...to encourage and coordinate collaboration among students and teachers for the development of high quality, freely distributable textbooks and educational materials on a wide range of topics. The advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web are making collaboration among educators on a global scale possible for the first time. We want to harness this exciting technology to promote learning and sharing."

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Sunday, 7 August 2011

Deleting Directories Securely

The shred command is a great way of deleting individual files securely, but it can be a bit cumbersome if you have a lot of files that you want to delete at once. Fortunately, there is a secure method of deleting whole directories in Linux using the command line and a package called (appropriately enough), secure-delete.

You can install secure-delete from the Ubuntu Software Centre or the Synaptic Package Manager. The package contains tools to delete files & directories (srm), clean the swap memory (sswap), and clean the RAM (smem) - all of these tools are accessed via a terminal.

To delete a whole directory, open a terminal and type:

srm -r -v /path/to/directory

The -r option makes the process recursive (it deletes all sub-directories - so be careful!) and the -v option provides verbose output in the terminal window during the operation.

Clearly, this can save you a lot of time (and typing), but, as with all things Linux, there is an implicit assumption that you know what you are doing - once you have shredded files & directories using these tools, they cannot be retrieved.

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Saturday, 6 August 2011

Wallpaper of the Month (8400)

I change my desktop backgrounds frequently - this one has made it to my 8400 desktop for the month of August!

The scene is Spitfire Lake (Adirondack Park, NY) taken by Will Forbes. You can download the wallpaper from National Geographic's Photo of the Day webpage. There's something calming (almost soothing) about this picture - it's simple composition produces a stunning visual impact.

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Friday, 5 August 2011

More on IE IQ

It seems that the story linking Internet Explorer users with lower IQ was "an elaborate hoax" - no surprise there!

What is surprising is how easily a "number of media organisations" were duped into reporting the story. Sometimes it seems as if there just isn't enough real news to fill all the space.

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The Laughing GNOME?

Mark Shuttleworth isn't alone in having concerns about GNOME 3: according to The Register, "Linus Torvalds has dropped GNOME 3 in favor of the Xfce graphical desktop interface, dubbing GNOME 3 an "unholy mess""

I'm the first to acknowledge that my opinion is worthless in the presence of two such Linux heavyweights but I'm still unsure about which direction my journey will take over the next couple of years. If GNOME really is the "unholy mess" that Torvalds claims, then future versions of Ubuntu are probably not for me: I don't care too much for the current state of Unity and was holding out for a GNOME alternative.

Oh well, uncertainty often makes for a more exciting future!

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Thursday, 4 August 2011

IDLE Hands

Yesterday I decided to explore python, a cross-platfom, object-oriented, programming language and in so doing discovered something that SciTE can't do!

Whilst I have a working knowledge of html and a distant memory of using Visual Basic, I could never claim to have anything other than rudimentary programming skills and I've decided that it's time to correct this deficiency. Usually I would head straight over to Amazon and buy a book that guides me through the process, but recent events have taught me that there are plenty of free resources online that are just as good as the commercial offerings if you're prepared to look for them. So, I thought that I'd make my adventure even more interesting by taking a less structured approach and only using free resources.

Fortunately the Python website provides links to some excellent tutorials for the programming n00b and ironically, I chose to go with Derrick Wolters' Learning Python (for the complete n00b). Using SciTE as my text editor, I raced through the first couple of tutorials and was soon saying hello to the world and manipulating simple numbers. However, when it came to user input variables, SciTE proved less than co-operative. Here's a simple example:

print "What is your name?"
name=raw_input()
print "Hello", name.


This is simple stuff, the interpreter simply displays (prints) What is your name? on the screen and waits for a user to input a text string. Once the user has input his name, the interpreter says hello. Unfortunately, SciTE can't handle user input in the python language: it hits an end of file condition without reading any data and returns an error. This is a problem that's been around for a while!

Fortunately, you can download IDLE from the Ubuntu Software Centre. IDLE handles user input variables with ease - here's the same code (with the text string Jogga added as the user input variable:

It's unlikely that SciTE will be fixed anytime soon, but IDLE fills the hole (or blanks!) very nicely!

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Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Silly Season

You can always tell when it's a slow news day and they usually happen when Parliament has finished for the Summer break!

The BBC is running a story today (on its Technology page, if you can believe that!) reporting on a study that suggest Internet Explorer users have a lower than average IQ score. In fact, the authors of the study suggest that IE users IQ averages around 80.

UK citizens that have a television are obliged by law to pay for a licence (the fee goes to fund the BBC) - worth every penny (not!)

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Identicons

Ok, time for something a little lighter than of late! This post isn't really anything to do with Linux or Ubuntu (or even computing really), but the concept intrigued me so much that I thought that I'd follow my curiosity and see where it led!

Recently I've been wondering about those strange glyphs that appear next to commenters' names on Wordpress blogs (I've also seen them used in adverts). It turns out that they're called identicons and they are graphical representations of hash values. Someone called Don Park devised the concept (in 2007) to represent IP addresses whilst maintaining user confidentiality - so far, so good: however, it seems to me that there are a couple of inherent flaws with this thinking:

  1. Efficacy relies on users having a static IP address, something that most of us won't enjoy outside of a professional environment.

  2. An IP address (static or otherwise) is no guarantee of a user's identity: the IP address identifies a box on the end of a wire, not the person on the end of the box!

No problem, just use the hash value of an email address to link an identicon to a person and you're good to go!

Well, maybe...

I can think of a couple of potential problems with this approach. But, let's not dwell on the negative; if you want to create your own identicon, you can sign up to a service like Gravatar and register your email address. Here's what mine look like:

Gravatar Default Image
Identicon Image
Mysetery Man
Retro
Monster
Wavatar

There are other providers or, if you're feeling brave, you can download the source code. Once you've created your account, you can link to your own identicon using:

< img src="http://www.gravatar.com/avatar/HASH" />

Where, HASH is the md5 hash sum of your registered email address (and the img tags are properly closed, unlike the above). The easiest way to get the hash (if you don't want to use the online tool) is to install GtkHash from the Ubuntu Software Centre.

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