Bag of Spoons
Just off the A1(M)

Thu, 06 Jan 2005

My first LUG

Last night I finally got around to attending a meeting of the Hertfordshire Linux User Group. It took me a while to find the venue in a community centre tucked away down a back road. When I got there I found a room full of geeks (not a derogatory term) with a selection of PCs running various forms of Linux. I spent a merry couple of hours having some interesting conversations and was even able to help someone to install Firefox.

I'm still finding my way with Linux, but this looks like a good resource for local help.

[12:17] | [] | Comments | G

Mon, 20 Dec 2004

Don't let your computer be idle

Many people do not realise that their computers can spend most of their time doing nothing. They are just waiting for you to press a key or something. It's only when running games or other intensive tasks that the processor is really pushed.

Various people have had the bright idea to use this spare capacity to solve difficult problems. One of the best known projects is SETI@home that analyses radio signals for signs of alien intelligence. I ran that briefly, but have dedicated much more time to distibuted.net (mathematical proofs and code-breaking challenges) and grid.org (medical research). I've clocked up several years of processing for each of them.

I don't get paid for this or anything, but I like the feeling that I am contributing to possibly worthwhile causes. I've recruited others to the cause and am always trying to bring in more people. For grid.org I started a team called Whizz for atomms (a Gerald Searle reference). Feel free to join us.

I know some people will worry that these programs could pose a security risk, but I'm very wary myself. I check various forums for any potential issues before installing anything. I've not heard of issues with either of these. Some people have found that they can affect their PC performance, but I've not noticed this. Mail me if you have questions.

[13:29] | [] | Comments | G

The Skype's the limit

Bob has been thinking about trying some form of VOIP (internet telephony) to save on his phone bills. I had heard good things about Skype so he installed that. They offer fairly reasonable rates to most countries and free calls to other PC users. I installed it on my Linux box too. That worked, but needed some help from the forums to get the sound working. We tried some PC->PC calls, but it kept having problems with delays that gradually got worse. The sound quality was good though.

Simon pointed me at 18866 who offer 1p UK calls and similar internation rates on a normal telephone. That may be worth a play to cut our bill, but it's never that massive anyway.

[08:29] | [] | Comments | G

Mon, 13 Dec 2004

Have a safe internet Xmas

Bruce Schneier is one of the world's top computer security experts and a man who talks a lot of sense. He has just published his updated list of ways to keep you computer and data safe here.

I go along with most of that, but I'm not quite as paranoid as him. Maybe I've been lucky or I could have been hacked without knowing about it. My move to Linux should help matters a little, but I still need to be careful.

Generally the internet is fairly safe if you stick to sites you know with good reputations. Have a read of his hints and you should be okay.

Let's be careful out there.

[18:53] | [] | Comments | G

Thu, 09 Dec 2004

Converting to Linux

I've been working almost entirely with Linux as a main OS for a couple of weeks now. It's stable and does what I need. It's a learning experience. I have to work out how to install things, i.e. packages, compiling from source etc. I'm even getting my various peripherals working.

Mozilla provide Firefox (web) and Thunderbird (email) as I was using on Windows. Both have reached version 1.0 now and work well.

OpenOffice continues to satisfy my word processing and spreadsheet needs.

GnuCash replaces Quicken to the limited extent I use it.

gPhoto talks to my Kodak digital camera. I'm still sorting out a tool to organise the resulting pictures. My Sipix webcam does not seem to be very well supported on Linux.

Psi works in the same way as on Windows for Jabber, MSN and other chat networks. As with my email I can use GPG to keep my communications private, as long as the person at the other end uses it too.

My Canon i455 printer is partly working using a driver for a different printer, but it comes out a bit faint. There is no specific driver for mine apart from the commercial Turboprint. I used that on the Amiga many moons ago. I may consider it if there is no alternative. I need to get the scanner working, but I believe my Epson is supported.

I've been trying some simple programming using Python. It's a neat little language that I want to learn. So far I've just done a bit of encryption, but one day I may write proper applications with GUI etc, just for fun.

So generally it's going well. The rest of the family can use it without having to know it's not Windows. The kids still have a Windows 98 PC for games and web. The other PC is still awaiting fixing, but can be persuaded to boot when needed. I have lots of data on there that will not fit on the others. I need to invest in bigger disks, but that's for after Xmas.

[13:21] | [] | Comments | G

Wed, 03 Nov 2004

Another Distributed Computing Success

I've gone on before about the fact that most computers spend 99% of their processing time waiting for users to do something. There are many projects that allow this wasted capacity to be applied to solving various problems, from detecting aliens to finding cures for cancer. One of the oldest projects is over at distributed.net. They started off trying to win competitions for breaking encrypted messages, but diversified into some hard mathematical problems. This week they completed the OGR-24 project. See their page for the details. I contributed many hours to their projects in the past, but have moved on to other things.
[09:15] | [] | Comments | G

Tue, 02 Nov 2004

Secret Messages

I've been fascinated by the science of encryption for a few years now. It's gone way beyond the old letter substitution of my youth into advanced mathematics, giving codes that could take longer than the age of the universe to crack. There are a multitude of free tools that allow you to protect your communications from anyone who might be listening in. It doesn't have to be the government spooks, your email could be read by anyone with access to a server that it passes through.

The basis of my encryption options is GPG (Gnu Privacy Guard, descended from PGP, Pretty Good Privacy). This uses public key encryption techniques. This means that you can freely publish a key for people to encrypt messages to you with, but only you can read them with your secret key. One of the interesting concepts is that other people can 'sign' your public key to say that they confirm that you are who you say you are. Yesterday Simon and I met up with Rob from Rotterdam to exchange keys. This was coordinated via Biglumber.

There are utilities for most email clients that allow easy use of GPG. My chat client of choice, Psi, can also use it to encrypt instant messages. Simon and I are using that now. I just need to bring some of my other contacts up to speed.

I don't have major secrets, but I like my privacy.

Assorted encryption links on my del.icio.us.

[09:11] | [] | Comments | G

Fri, 08 Oct 2004

Computer problems

My main PC that has been happily running Windows 2000 for a few years started playing up recently. It powers down whilst booting Windows and was taking several attempts to actually get it to a log-in. Once running it was still stable. I suspect the PSU may be playing up, but I could be wrong. Then this week it came up with a message saying that a Windows file is corrupt. I tried doing a repair from the CD, but that didn't fix it so, reluctantly, I re-installed. This is a pain as I will need to re-install all my other software and drivers. Or it could be an oportunity.

I've been thinking for ages about moving to Linux. Most of what I need (internet, word processing, home accounts) is freely available. It also opens up possibilities for playing with some interesting new technologies. I just need to ensure that all my data can be transferred across. There's also the issue of using my peripherals. I just bought a Canon printer that is not officilly supported in Linux, but I found a comment on a forum that suggest it might work. See my del.icio.us links.

I will still have at least one Windows PC in the house if I really need to run Windows software. The kids use one for web and some old games.

[08:35] | [] | Comments | G

Thu, 26 Aug 2004

Rebuilt a PC

I've been meaning to set up a PC for the kids to use for on-line and CD games. There's a couple of reasons for this. One is that some of the old games don't work on Windows 2000, the other is that I might want to use the PC at the same time.

I've got an old Celeron 433 PC that used to be in Dad's office. I had already upgraded it with my old Matrox video card, Yamaha sound card, more memory and a second hard drive, but had a problem fitting a CD. The case requires the drive to have plastic rails fitted and I couldn't find any that fitted. So I splashed out on a 10 case from ebuyer. It's not too bad actually, apart from having too many screws to undo. We have some old Gatemay machines at work that don't require a screwdriver to open the case and replace a drive. I guess something like that would cost a lot more. Over the last couple of evenings I've moved all the parts over and it all seems to work. I added a third drive in a removable caddy for backup and file transfer. Those three drives add up to less than 10GB. Not much by modern standards, but enough for what it will be used for.

Next stage is to do a clean install of Windows 98 along with some firewall and anti-virus software. I intend to use Firefox as the browser for extra safety. It seems to do all we need.

Of course the PC will also be running the grid.org client to give me a few extra points, but it's going to take a while to process each work unit.

I know a lot of people think they need the latest/greatest PC, but unless you play new games it's over the top. Anything over 300MHz will be fine for internet, word processing etc as long as it has enough memory. 256MB should be a minimum. You can pick up old PCs at computer fairs for less than 50. Much better for the environment to re-use old hardware than to keep producing new stuff. Just keep back-ups in case the disk fails. If anyone has old hard drives that they have outgrown I might be interested.

[13:31] | [] | Comments | G

Tue, 29 Jun 2004

Keep your PC safe

I tend to end up acting as technical support for several people I know. There's several things I'd suggest to them to make their lives easier:

Disable CD auto-run - The kids may have to find and click on something to play their games, but this 'feature' can be more trouble than it's worth. If nothing else it may stop you playing 'protected' music CDs on your PC. It's a bit technical this one as it involves the registry.

Get a firewall - The free Zonealarm software sits between you and the great wide internet, checking for naughty behaviour. The best option is to have it tell you each time a new program tries to access the internet. This should stop software installing itself and getting up to no good. It also makes you invisible to any nasty crackers (hackers are not bad people).

Install a virus checker - AVG is free and seems to do the job. Make sure you set it to get regular updates.

Don't use IE or Outlook Express - There are some very good products from Mozilla that let you surf the web and read your email without attracting every worm, virus or other bug that's out there. They also offer a lot more in the way of spam filtering and pop-up blocking.

Check for spyware - All sorts of apparently useful or fun software also installs other, less friendly, software that may monitor your surfing and bombard you with adverts. Ad-Aware detects and destroys most of these. Get it and run it often.

All the above are absolutely free, so there's no excuse.

[21:53] | [] | Comments | G

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