Saturday, April 25, 2009

Jaunty Jackalope First Look: a Slack brown Fedora Dr. Jones would be proud of!

Earlier this week Jaunty Jackalope was released (that would be Ubuntu 9.04). I thought it would be interesting to give it a try on one of my computers, so I picked my new HP notebook. For a real test, I set it up with an external USB 60GB drive (mostly because I didn't want to screw anything up by modifying my 320GB internal permanently).


I downloaded the iso image on Wednesday night. It took much longer that I expected (since that was the day it was released) because of the traffic at all the download mirrors. No big deal. I downloaded it using one of the spare laptops we have laying around, an old Celeron system (about 5 years old or so) that I am playing with Win7 on. The download went without a hitch (once I found a mirror that would actually let the download start!). As a side note, the built-in CD burning in Win7 is very nice; fast, easy, convenient, and accurate. Once I burned the image to a CD, I thought "What the heck, I'll try the live boot feature and see what happens".


I was impressed. The image booted correctly, identified all the devices on the Toshiba laptop, and came up quickly (for a 5 year old system). It correctly identified the wireless network card, the sound, the dimensions of the LCD, all on the first try. I may put in on there as a final version once the Win7 beta expires in August. I didn't try too much, just played around, used Firefox, hit some web sites to test the WiFi card (and it seems faster, or maybe it's Firefox, I'm not sure). That was a good first test, so I waited until Friday night to give it the final test.


The install went very quickly. I'm impressed with the install menus. I think back to the mid '90s when I would do my Slackware installs, shuffling floppies in and out of the drive; nobody EVER thought about putting Linux on a laptop; Minix maybe, but not Linux. Well, it's been several millenniums in computer years since then. Ubuntu 9.04 installed in less than 30 minutes, and even gave the option of porting over my existing files and settings from my Vista boot drive. That's a nice feature.


With the installation done, it was time to play! The CD drive popped open and I was given the prompt to press Enter to reboot.

Grub Loading stage1.5

Grub loading, please wait...
Error 17

No joy.


So, since I have my desktop sitting right here with all the resources of the world at my fingertips, let's find out what the problem is. I went to Google and searched for Grub Error 17. There are over 153,000 hits for that, so I'm guessing it's not an uncommon problem. I started poking around and the most recent information I could find on that error was from June of 2008. Hmmm. That was a while ago. You'd figure they'd have fixed it by now if it was a bug. Digging deeper told me it was the Grub loader configuration, not a bug. Grub tries to identify the hard drives on the computer based on polling them, not from BIOS or directly from the system. If there is a discrepancy between the two, Grub won't boot the computer correctly and will give the Error 17. That's nice, but how do I fix it?


I booted off the boot CD again, and dug around on the new Ubuntu boot disk. I looked in the /boot/grub/ file. It looked OK to me. I don't see any real problem. Paged through menu.lst with the same result. OK, I'm stumped. Back to Google.


Then I stumbled upon what may have been a gift from God. Buried deep in the recesses of some forum (and I can't remember which one) was a link to the Super Grub Disk. The WHAT? The Super Grub Disk. It's a magical 4MB CD iso image (yeah it's a waste of a CD but it WORKED) that, when you boot from the CD will analyze your Grub setup and configuration and fix any problems. FANTASTIC! I quickly downloaded the image (it took less than 30 seconds), burned the image, put it in the CD drive of the notebook, booted and prayed.


The menu was slightly confusing, but I dug around and figured it out. Pick the automagic menu item. It took all of about 2 seconds, and the computer rebooted. And magically, the Grub menu appeared with the boot choices. SAVED! I didn't lose all my stuff on my notebook! Huzzah!


It was 11:00 PM by this time, and being an old fart dealing with back problems, it was time for bed. But it was like Christmas Eve knowing that I could play with my new Ubuntu Jaunty Jackalope install in the morning.


I crawled out of bed at around 7:30 or so this morning and stumbled to the office to test my new toy. Windows Vista shut down cleanly, booted into Linux with no problems. Very nice. Now let's play. The first thing I noticed was the wireless card wasn't connected. No problem, I thought, I'll just do what I did with the Toshiba downstairs the other night. I put my mouse over the wireless icon on the top bar, but it didn't show the dropdown of the available connections. That's odd, I thought. OK, well, I clicked on it, and Linux hadn't installed the wireless card by default. I typed in the SSID of my wireless network, and it fired up. Perfect. Now that my Jackalope knew it was on the net, it did the updates (yeah, 3 days out and already there's updates!). Firefox updated and a few other minor updates (to be honest, they went by so fast, I missed most of them). No restart required. But wait a second. When Ubuntu boots, isn't there supposed to be that wonderful African drum beat sound? I don't remember hearing that. Hmmmm. I tested the sound card. Nothing. The volume was up, and was not muted. OK, Linux didn't recognize the sound card. I installed Skype anyway and fired it up. No sound, of course. But at least I have Skype installed.


Here's the bottom line. Jaunty Jackalope is a nice Linux build, but it's not perfect. I've done some research on the sound card issue and it should be an easy fix (I hope). I'll get that fixed and test it for a few more weeks. I'll give you an update then.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

BlackBerry tools and Dr. Frankenstein’s Laptop

It's been an interesting week, news-wise, but I'm going to stay as far away from politics as I can today and focus on two things; Windows 7 and my beloved BlackBerry.


Just to be confusing, I'll start with my BlackBerry. I've had my BlackBerry Curve 8330 from Verizon Wireless for about five months now. It has become an indispensible part of my work tool kit because it is so versatile. Let me give you a feel for what I'm using on my BlackBerry. I have Slacker Mobile for music. I have YouMail for my voicemail, I have ÜberTwitter for Twitter access, and I have several of Google's mobile tools installed just to round things out. So where do I start?


Let's start with Google. I have three mobile tools from Google installed on my BB. GTalk, Gmail, and GoogleMobile. If you have a BB and use gmail for your email, you absolutely MUST install the gmail app for the BB. But let me warn you, if you get a lot of mail in gmail, change the default alarm options, or you'll be inundated with vibrations and flashing lights (or you can just remember to close out of gmail when you finish reading your email)! By default, when you escape out of gmail, the application remains open in the background, checking for new messages for you, and letting you know when they arrive. If that's what you're looking for, that's great, but I prefer to exit out of gmail completely so I use the menu options and scroll down to exit. If you haven't tried gmail for your BB, you'll understand what I mean when you try it. Gtalk is exactly what you think it is, the Google Talk capability for your BB. It's fully featured, you can use emoticons, and you can have multiple conversations going at once (but that is very cumbersome for me). But if you are logged in to Google in several locations, all of them will alert you on the initial GTalk message (which is an issue for me that I haven't fixed yet). So when I get a GTalk message, my BB vibrates, my Gmail on my PC flashes the message, and Pidgin flashes. Lots of excitement for one simple message. I'll find a solution for it eventually, but it's not high on my list of things to do. Finally, there's GoogleMobile. The icon on my BB is a nice blue square with a big G in it (and I thought big G was General Mills). GoogleMobile gives you access to search, Gmail, GoogleMaps, GoogleNews, and Reader. I don't use Reader on my BB because I follow so many RSS feeds that it would just be lots of hard work. I do, however use GoogleMaps. The new version of GoogleMaps includes Google's Latitude (which I talked about earlier). I use it to figure out where my wife is when she's out running errands, just in case I need to help her find directions to get home. All of these apps are highly recommended.


ÜberTwitter is a recent discovery for me. ÜberTwitter is currently in open beta testing, but you wouldn't be able to tell it by using the app. It integrates itself very well into the BB, with modifiable alarm levels for Friends updates, @ replys, and Direct Messages, which I find very useful. It also is always on, which is somewhat of a battery drain, but that's OK, given what it does for you. You can configure ÜberTwitter to update your GTalk status based on your last update. You can also configure ÜberTwitter to update your location based on cell tower location, not relying on your GPS (which is good for Verizon users). It also lets you tweet video and images by pushing them to a dedicated ÜberTwitter user site and tweeting the URL. You can look at your friends list, and best of all, you can install it OTA, so you can just go to the site from your BB and install. This is an awesome Twitter tool for the BB, and in my book, it is far ahead of all the other BB Twitter tools out there, and it's still in beta!


YouMail is a cool voicemail tool that replaces your voicemail from your current provider and provides you a better and free replacement. Your cell service provider pays YouMail for providing the voicemail service that you are not using from your cell provider. All you need to do is go to the YouMail website and download the software on your phone. The web site will walk you through what you need to do with your phone to switch voicemail providers. Then upload your contacts to YouMail. Here's the cool part: once your contacts are uploaded, if one of your contacts calls your BB and you don't answer, the voicemail answers and greets them by name, and takes a message. That feature freaked out my daughter; I thought it was just awesome. But wait, there's more! You can record your own personal greetings and assign them to specific contacts, so if you want a special greeting for your mom, you can record something like "Hi mom, sorry I missed your call! I'll call you back as soon as I can, but let me know what's going on, ok?" and every time your mother calls and you don't answer your BB, she will get that greeting. You can also set up specific contacts that will be ignored or just dumped (in case you're trying to lose that really needy guy you just dumped). For a fee, YouMail will transcribe your voicemail and send you an email of the message. All the rest of the features are free. YouMail is just Awesome.


Slacker was the only I found to stream music on my BB. There are two versions, free and pay. Pay give you the option of skipping as many songs as you would like, while free only lets you skip 6 songs per hour. I don't find that to be an issue, so I stay cheep and go with the free version. Slacker also sucks your battery dry, so make sure your BB is plugged in or well charged if you're going to listen for a long time!


Windows 7


About a month ago, I helped my Mother-in-law buy a new laptop, which relegated her old laptop to the stack of Dr. Frankenstein's play-things. Her old Toshiba Celeron-based laptop was about 5 years old, running really slow, and was annoying for her (because her games were running slow, which I totally understand). So what did I try? Last night I put Windows 7 on that poor old warn out laptop. To my surprise, it actually works! Let me share with you some of the issues I've found with Windows 7 on this old laptop.


First, let's look at Internet Explorer 8. This is an integral part of Windows 7 (although I've been told you can actually uninstall it). For some reason I haven't figured out yet, Gmail gives me an error when I start it in IE8. I have no idea why this happens, but if I find out, I'll let you know.


One of the cool things about Windows 7 on the home network is that it has "Libraries". Libraries are a collection of directories (folders) that contain the same type of file (say MP3s, videos, pictures, etc). You can add or remove folders from a library using the properties dialog of the right-click menu. It's a great way of putting similar things together without really clumping them together.


Like I said, I installed yesterday, so once I've played with it for a while and my wife as well, I'll have more for you, but so far, I'm really impressed with Windows 7. IE8 just seems like another non-standard Microsoft browser, and even though it's supposed to be main stream now, I'm not going to upgrade my work laptop until I absolutely have to, because no one has tested it with our work VPN yet. More on that later, I hope.


Like I said, it's been an interesting week. Hope you had a good one. Oh, and if you have computer related questions or problems, send them to @Mister_Fix_I_T on Twitter. I'm shooting for less than a 24 hour turn-around time at the start, and hopefully I can drop that down to about an hour in the future.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Safe Computing

I sit here in my home office, completely surrounded by technology. Three desktops and a laptop running, two desktops in various states of disrepair, a multifunction inkjet printer, and a laser printer, are all within eight feet of where I sit. All of the computers are running or configured to run Microsoft operating systems, XP, Vista, or Windows Home Server. I haven't used a Macintosh since I gave up my old Mac SE. Well, that's not quite true. I bought a Mac Mini for the church a few years back and I spent some time configuring it and playing with the Bluetooth keyboard and mouse.


Lots of people are moving to the Mac platform. You hear things about the Mac being "virus free" or people saying things like "I've never owned any anti-virus software. My Mac doesn't need it". All I can think is "your time will come, my friend." In fact, I think your time is very near. According to an article on Ars Technica, the market share of Mac OS X browsers (a reasonable indicator of Mac ownership) has increased steadily since 2007. In January 2009 the Mac OS X browser market share was 9.63%, up from 6.38% in February 2007. What does that mean? Mac computers are getting more popular.


OK, I hear you. So what? Macs are getting more popular. Good for them. Well, maybe not. Let's think about this for a moment. According to, Microsoft has 87.5% of the OS market share, with Apple's Mac OS X at 8.66%, Linux at 1%, and 2.9% for other OS out there. Let's discount the fact that there are lots of bugs in the Microsoft OS, actually, let's assume there are equal numbers of bugs in ALL operating systems. Using a military term, Microsoft is a "target of opportunity" because it has such a large market share. If you want to crack into a computer, and you don't know what the operating system of that computer is, it's a good guess it's Microsoft based. But Apple's Mac OS X is on the rise. That means that crackers will soon start focusing on OS X, if they haven't already. And OS X is a nice, soft target because so many Mac users have been lulled into a false sense of security.


OK, you say, what about Linux? It has a real small market share, right? That means it's safe, right? Um, no. Not really. Linux is a very powerful operating system (and Mac OS X is similar to Linux in that it is based on Unix). So powerful is the same as not safe? No, not really. There are many different ways to configure a Linux-based system. Those configurations may include opening up ports or controlled holes in the firewall on the computer, or turning the firewall off altogether. This can inject vulnerabilities into the configuration if you don't know what you're doing. Linux has historically been the OS of choice of crackers, because of its ability to be configured and manipulated. You can configure a Linux computer to look like other operating systems, both visually and on the network.


So, what am I trying to say here? No computer is inherently secure simply because of its operating system. All operating systems have vulnerabilities. Microsoft operating systems are vulnerable because they are the most widely used operating system, so they are an easier target. So far, OS X has been reasonable safe because of "security through obscurity". And while there is no honor among thieves, there is among crackers, so most Linux-based computers are safe because of "professional courtesy". There is malicious software for any and all operating systems out there. No one operating system is safe, because no operating system development team can consider all the possible weaknesses inherent to their system. You need to protect your computer from attacks. If you have sensitive information on your computer (like checking account numbers, date of birth, etc. what is known as Personally Identifiable Information or PII) you need to protect that information. Please protect your computer, no matter what operating system is running on it. Get anti-virus software, anti-spyware software, and a firewall to protect you from the bad guys out there.