How I Turned an Old Computer Into a Mobile Digital Vault

For a couple of years I’ve had an older HP AMD64 sitting around that the motherboard went out on, and I’ve been looking for a use for the parts. More specifically, I’ve been looking for a way to use the 500GB SATA HD that’s inside. It seemed like an awful lot of space to waste.

Stripped Insides of the old computer
I just took the HD, RAM and CPU.

I posted a while back on my Twitter (or possibly LinkedIn, it’s been a while) a link to LifeHacker’s “Five Best Drive Enclosures” and slowly the idea has been making its way up my project list.

But I wanted to one-up the project. I didn’t just want a portable hard drive, I wanted a device that I could move around, somewhat, and still be secured in the event that it was stolen. Basically I wanted a mobile digital vault.

First step was to get the drive out of the computer and into something that was useful. Referring back to the LifeHacker article before I chose the Rosewill RX-358 which met all of my criteria: It had to be cooled (fan), support larger drives (500GB) and be ESATA compatible.

HD just before putting top on
It slides right in to the connectors on the back and fits like it came from the factory that way. Kudos to Rosewill.

I dropped the old SATA drive into it, which fit snugly into the case. Once you put the Rosewill back together, it actually feels like it was factory built to be a mobile drive. It feels solid and secure.

I backed up any data on it I wanted, which wasn’t much, and then formatted the drive. I chose NTFS for the drive format type because both Windows and Linux, the two OSes I use most, can both read it. I didn’t plan to turn all 500GB into an digital vault, since I don’t have that many private documents, but you can certainly do that with the software.

Now that I had a newly-formatted 500GB drive I used TrueCrypt to create the virtual drive on it. This software runs on Windows, Mac and Linux, so a drive created in one is readable on any device that has TrueCrypt installed. This is of course assuming that it’s in a filesystem that the OS can read.

TrueCrypt Main Screen
The TrueCrypt Main Screen before I hit the “Mount” button. You can have several encrypted virtual drives running at once.

I tried initially to create a 50GB drive (more than enough for me) in NTFS through Windows, but for some reason Windows wasn’t able to write past about 7GB before shutting down. I tried again in Linux and it had no problem creating the entire 50GB partition and encrypting it with my key.

When I did this, however, NTFS was not an option and I chose EXT4 (Linux filesystem) instead. This meant that while I was able to mount it in Windows, I wouldn’t be able to read the virtual drive without some extra work. This was fine for me, as I use Linux primarily. If you are trying this on your own, keep this in mind.

After the new drive was created, formatted and mounted (with password required)*, I put a copy of a faux folder called “Important Documents” into it with a few files and dismounted. The dismounted virtual drive was an unintelligible mess with no indication of what it was supposed to be, which is exactly what you want.

My "Important" documents
My “Important” Documents encrypted and decrypted fine. Ubuntu acts like it’s just another drive, but in Linux it isn’t in fstab so it won’t show up in your Unity dock.

The device mounted again, after rebooting on the machine it was created on and on another system entirely, showing me my documents in good condition. I was able to mount it on Windows as well, though as mentioned I was not able to read the files from it. I tried a program that was built to read mounted EXT2/3/4 drives, but it didn’t seem to pick up my encrypted drive. There are other methods, such as installing a driver to read the other filesystems, but since this was not a high priority for me I did not do it. Perhaps I will try those options later. I’ll post an update on this blog post if I get anything to work (or not!).

So, there you have it. I now have a 500GB mobile drive with a 50GB digital vault. I would recommend also putting a copy of Truecrypt on your un-encrypted portion so you can install it if need be. If not that, then you can do as I have and sync the installer to your Dropbox. My method, of course, assumes that you’ll have internet access. I wouldn’t recommend encrypting the entire drive for this reason as well, especially if you have a large one. Truecrypt is very smooth, but you don’t want to have to do that every time you get on your drive to move some pictures or something.

Rosewill Running
The Rosewill attached via the ESATA port. The blue lights are factory standard.

Any way you go about it, this is a good way to securely move your data around. If the unthinkable happens, you’ll know that you don’t have anything to worry about… other than getting a new mobile drive.

*Note: Just to give you an idea of the power of the encryption technology in use, with AES encryption it would take a trillion computers doing a billion brute force attacks (password guesses) a second, two billion years to break into your data. Fort Knox wishes it was this secure.

-CJ Julius

Google Plans to Take Over the U.S. (and that’s a good thing)

Google Fiber is coming...
Google Fiber is coming…

As I’ve pointed out before, when you list the industries that consumers like least usually the cable companies make the top three. Sometimes they’re beaten out by airlines or gaming companies (EA), but the common wisdom is true. People hate their cable companies in mass, and for very good reasons.

As much as I’d like to go on a rant about how much cable companies charge versus the services they offer etc, the point is that they’re already in a weak position. If any company entered with a viable alternative that was even marginally better or priced more reasonably, Time Warner and Comcast would be forced to compete.

Enter Google Fiber. Now, I’m not going to argue every point that this article does, you can read that for yourself and I don’t necessarily agree with everything it says. However one thing is almost certain, Google is positioning itself for a fiber takeover. With the new addition of the city of Provo, it looks like this Google Fiber plan is way beyond ‘test pilot’ and the company is steaming towards a full roll-out.

network-box
A Google Fiber Modem. (c) Google Fiber

But the question is why you should care. I’m only going to touch on these in brief, but there are three good reasons: Higher bandwidth, Free Public Wi-Fi and net neutrality.

Fiber offers higher bandwidth. That’s a no-brainer. But, we already suffer some of the slowest speeds in the industrialized world for internet access… and it was invented here! There are some that are slower, like Canada, but in general our internet infrastructure lags behind many others and the telecommunications companies are largely to blame.

Not only will Fiber itself be faster, but it’ll force other technologies to compete. TWC, Comcast and other cable companies will have to bring down their prices. Google Fiber has built into its contract and modems a method by which every subscriber becomes a low-bandwidth Wi-Fi hotspot. AT&T and other mobile companies will have to step up their game or at least lower their prices to compete if Google Fiber gets wide-spread adoption. And believe me, if it rolls out in other cities like it has in the “test” cities, then it will.

Google has also been a proponent of net neutrality, which is good for consumers. Net neutrality becomes a moot issue if everyone has access to the internet, and provides internet to everyone around them.

Google Fiber’s win is a win for all internet users.

-CJ Julius

Sherpa, A New Challenger to Siri

SherpaWidget
You can put a widget on your
home screen for easy access.

I’ve used Siri a bit, and not to say that it isn’t an impressive piece of software, but it didn’t really wow me like I thought it would. It (she?) had the problem of misinterpreting what I said, or in some cases being very confused as to the nature of my request. I speak in a relatively clear North American accent, and am usually regarded as having a clear speaking voice, but these assistants sometimes have trouble getting me.

This is a problem, not just because it’s annoying when I want a “map of Ho Chi Minh” and instead get directed to a “map of coaching men” (honest-to-goodness result), but because it isn’t reliable enough to be useful. If it takes me just as long to open up my quick apps and find it on Google Maps myself, then I might as well not even use the assistant.

Sherpa is a new product along these lines released by a Spain-based company of the same name. It’s still in beta, so I’m cutting it some slack, but it like all of its Siri kin isn’t something I can use regularly.

Sherpa_Main
On the left is where commands, as they’re understood are listed, and on the right a work area where the browser, notifications etc show up.

It gets very confused on simple things like open [name of app], and sometimes misinterprets what I say. For example, “Open Google Play” should open the Play Store. It does not. For some strange reason, Sherpa googles Google Play in Firefox (my default browser). It’s just not reliable enough to do all of the cool things it should be able to do.

Sherpa may have a long time to go before hitting a final release, so this could be a really early preview version, even if it was released to the public in the Play Store. However, it seems to me to hit all the bumps in the road that current Digital Assistants do, and in doing so, fails to be something that I can regard as much more than a toy for amusement. I’ll probably keep the app installed, just to see where it goes, as it’s the most promising Digital Assistant I’ve seen outside of Siri.

Rating: 2/5 – Lots of promise, but still not useful. Note: In Beta

If you want to know more, here’s a quick article about the new release:

From Gigaom:

A new voice digital assistant is on the scene in the U.S., but unlike other Siri-challengers Sherpa comes with some overseas work experience. Sherpa launched its Spanish-language Android app in October and has since risen up the Google Play charts in Spain and Latin America. Sherpa has now learned English, and on Wednesday it launched in the U.S. in the Play store.

Most virtual assistants powered by natural language processing are taught to do specific tasks very well but tend to come up short when given unfamiliar assignments. For instance, Siri excels at jobs like making calendar appointments and dictating text messages but can be confounded by more general requests for information, usually resorting to simple web searches.

Read More…

-CJ Julius

Windows 8: I’ll Admit It; I Like It.

With the headlines about Windows 8 Killing PC sales, and the laundry-list of complaints from tech websites about problems with the OS, you’d think that Windows 8 was the worst thing since, well… Vista. But it’s not. I promise you it isn’t.

Main_Start_fxd
My re-arranged “Metro” Start Menu.
Pretty elegant and useful, if I do say so myself.

It’s old-hat by now. Microsoft releases a new operating system, tech people throw a fit, but a year or so later it’s the standard. That’s the way it was with Windows XP and Windows 7. We’ll ignore Vista for the moment, since that OS had objectively bad implementation, as Microsoft’s move away from that titling system has shown.

When Windows 8 first came out, I kept well enough away. If there’s one truism about OS releases, it’s that you wait for the first round up major updates before you even consider installing it. I have lots of work that I need to get done on my computers and excluding a few test machines, I don’t have time to dink around with drivers and install problems.

The Install

One day, my Windows 7 machine crashed hard. After a laborious reinstall process, it turned out to be a hardware issue that I won’t go into here and it got me thinking that it might be time to take the plunge. I had previously had a upgrade from XP to Win7 meaning that I had to install XP first, and then upgrade to Win7 should I need to do a full reinstall. This was a cumbersome method, but I was strapped for cash at the time I made the purchase and I really needed to move away from XP.

Win8_Twitter_fxd
The official Twitter app is okay,
though like other Windows Store apps,
it needs a little more love to be useful.

So, I bought a System Builder version of Windows 8 and reformatted my recently installed Windows 7 to start over. The install was pretty clear, and guided me elegantly from start to finish with a fluidity that I honestly didn’t expect. I really didn’t have any problems of note on my custom-built rig. I was off and running… kind of.

I’d only used Windows 8 on a display in a store, and for a short bit way back in the developer preview version. Aesthetically speaking, it was largely unchanged, but boy was I lost. The main screen was pretty straight-forward, with all the apps listed across the sliding panel and the “Store” to purchase them in.

Where it really lost me though, was the desktop. See, in the new version of Windows, the desktop is kind of an app on your Start Menu. You click it and you’re taken to the old familiar Windows7-ish desktop you’re probably familiar with, sans the Start Icon. Notification area, Recycle Bin, QuickLaunch, etc are all listed there as per usual. This caused me some problems that I’ll talk about in the Not So Neat section of this post.

I shrugged my shoulders at the desktop and returned to the Start Menu, adding/removing apps to and from it, getting rid of ones that I probably will never use. Sorry, but I’m not ever going to click on the “Shopping”App. Once I had everything, including my two backgrounds and color scheme customized, I was ready to actually start using it. I forced myself to work with it for about a month to give it a chance to impress me (or not!).

Pretty Neat

As step one I think it’s fair to go through some of the big things that were important to me that I like about Windows 8. There’s a lot of little stuff that it does well, but these are the things that were important to me and maybe others.

AppSwitch_fxd
The “App Switcher”, while it hasn’t
replaced ALT-TAB, is a nice addition.

First of all, it’s faster. Not in a blazing-your-socks-off kind of way, though it is a definite performance boost. Being someone who upgraded a laptop from XP to Vista, I can tell you that this came as a surprise. This is the first OS I’ve ever upgraded where the upgrade was faster than the previous version. Keep in mind that I had a fresh install of Windows 7 on the exact same hardware prior to wiping and upgrading to Windows 8.

The user interface, while a whole different ballgame from previous versions of Windows, was pretty easy to get the hang of. All apps seemed to work independently of each other, much as you’d expect from a App-architecture and most of them functioned pretty well. Most. (See below for more details) I also had no problem pulling all of the software I’ve used on my Windows 7 system or getting Windows Store equivalents.

All in all, this is the smoothest upgrade I’ve gone through with Windows.* For the most part, everything worked pretty darn well.

Not So Neat

It’s not all sunshine and roses. As with any OS, even those I like, I had a few problems. Win8 has a weird way of going about some things and I try to keep separated what I find genuinely frustrating and what is just different to me. Some things are just fine, but they’re different now and I need time to get used to that. I try pretty hard to avoid crotchety old man syndrome.

Win8_Skype_fxd
Skype is functional,
but not much else.

The learning curve is a bit of a mess. As strange as it sounds, if you’ve never used a computer before, you’re likely to pick up 8 faster than someone like me who’s been using the Windows platform professionally for a while. At least for your particular needs.

Keyboard shortcuts and the behind-the-scenes stuff has remained relatively unchanged but the layout has altered so drastically that even a week after I started using it I was still lost. I’d open up windows only to close them when I realized that I was heading in the wrong direction for what I wanted to do. I can’t count the number of times I’ve opened the Start Menu just to close it immediately when I figured out that I can’t use it for what I needed.

This leads me into my next complaint, that the interaction between the app-driven Start Menu and the desktop, to use a friend of mine’s description, is janky. If you’re on the desktop and you want to open something that’s in your Start menu, you have to go to the menu and open it. No problems there, but if it’s a desktop-based application, then you go back to the desktop to load it. It’s a full-screen back-and-forth that, while generally smooth, is time consuming and feels inefficient. So far, the only way to get around it is to have an icon in the QuickLaunch or on the Desktop, which kind of defeats the purpose of the really neat (are we calling it Metro now or what?) Start Menu system.

Those Start Menu apps also force full-screen. You can drag them off to one side, a process called “snapping” but some apps don’t support this feature as well as others. It’s best to just keep your apps in full screen most of the time. This isn’t terribly annoying, since most people are used to this now from mobile OS’s, but having multiple pieces of software open becomes hard to manage after a while.

Some apps, like Skype as of this writing, turn themselves off if you go to other software. If I’m using Skype to talk to someone and then I go to a full-screen desktop application, it will cut off the sound. There is a possibility that this is a problem in the Skype app, it was pretty rushed and looks it, though judging from the way that other Windows Store apps act, I’m not so sure. Skype is owned by Microsoft, so it should work perfectly in their new OS, right? Right?

And Now

So, after all is said and done, would I go back to Windows 7? Not a chance. Even with its janky nature sometimes, Windows 8 is a step in the right direction. Microsoft needed to do something radical to stay relevant, and this is the OS they needed to make. Short the weird desktop/Start Menu transition, the fundamentals are all there… and then some.

Windows-8-logo-300x300
Windows 8:
Not as bad as you’ve heard.

In the future, as with all Operating Systems, there are going to be improvements maybe even some heavy shifts to address some lingering issues (Check out what’s coming in Windows Blue). But, as a release that could have been horrible or have had no attempt to reinvent the OS at all, I can’t complain that much. So far, this is the most I’ve LIKED a new OS redesign in a long while (don’t even get me started on Ubuntu’s Unity), so I guess that’s something. But rest assured, this ain’t no Vista.

*For the curious, the worst was from Win98 to XP. It was just a big nightmare from start to finish. Keep in mind that this too had a lot in common with the Windows 7 to 8 transition in that it was a fairly radical (for the time) change in OS architecture.

-CJ Julius

Data Caps for Home Internet Are a Terrible, No-Good, Very Bad Idea

Cables_small
Want Internet?
It’s gonna cost ya.

I had been lucky enough to get in on AT&T’s unlimited bandwidth for the iPhone before they decided that they could make a boatload more money if they charged based on caps. You’re probably familiar with these caps if you have a smartphone of any kind. They’re a bank of data that you can use to send/receive over a predetermined amount of time, usually a month. They are confusing and infuriating, even for someone who knows how the technology works and keeps a close eye on it.

Now, they (companies like Time Warner Cable and Comcast) want you to use this system for your home internet as well. Which brings up a whole host of questions, like: How much is a gigabyte worth to you? Would you pay $20 for a gigabyte of bandwidth? Is that fair? What happens if I use over my gigabyte? Do I get a penalty or does my Netflix just shut off?

There are no good answers to these questions, because data caps are just a bad idea for home networks. It takes a relatively simple system, which already has a pricing scheme in place mind you, and needlessly complicates it. It adds nothing for the customer and in fact may drive people away, like similar price discrimination has hurt the airline industry.

The following article goes into more depth explaining why data caps are terrible in theory and practice:

From Gigaom:

In a recently published piece, Prof. Daniel Lyons of the Boston College Law School argued that broadband data caps are a reasonable form of price discrimination. Lyons believes that data caps allow ISPs to more equitably distribute network costs among users based on how much they value internet access. He then goes on to suggest the best model of price discrimination comes from the airline industry, and that ISPs would be wise to learn from them.

Okay, wait a minute. The airlines? I had to read that twice to make sure Lyons was actually recommending that companies like Comcast and Time Warner – you know, two of the lowest-ranked U.S. companies in terms of customer satisfaction – ought to be taking marketing tips from the industry that rivals them for most-hated status. (Interestingly, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, the airlines are third from the bottom, followed by… the cable industry!)

Read More…

User Mcbeese had an interesting comment on the above article, where he argues that it may be treated like long distance telephone service. Users pay based on peak and non-peak usage times. So, a user who surfs all night (non-peak) would be charged less than someone who does so in the 5-7pm block.

That’s a fascinating alternative view (I hadn’t thought about the link between ISPs and long distance telephone services before), but as Elfonblog points out, it’s still “imposing rations on a resource which is not scarce in order to sabotage it’s use for competing purposes (Internet video).”

While I personally won’t go as far as a conspiracy, I can definitely see this as a method for ISPs like Time Warner and Comcast to squelch Hulu and Netflix so they can offer their own competing services. It almost seems too convenient.

-CJ Julius