Don’t defrag Android. TRIM it.

I had a question come in the other day about defragging Android. Since Android devices use solid-state storage, you don’t want to defrag it. I directed him to Lagfix, an Android app that forces the underlying Linux kernel to issue a TRIM command to perform garbage collection on the internal storage.

It’s not quite like defragging, but the concept is very similar. Most Android devices do this automatically, but if things start lagging too much, forcing TRIM can pep things up a bit.

Bethlehem Lutheran Church sacrificed its sanctuary for a greater good

If all (or even a slim majority of) Lutheran churches were like Bethlehem Lutheran Church, I would still be Lutheran. Since they aren’t, I’m not.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself, and made this way too much about me.

Late last week, there was a big boom at the corner of Salisbury and North Florissant in the north St. Louis neighborhood of Hyde Park. It sounded like a truck wreck, but it turned out to be the wall and roof of a 120-year-old sanctuary crashing to the ground. Read the full post »

Password advice in the wake of Heartbleed

I’ve seen a lot of bad password advice lately. Guessing passwords is just too easy for a computer to do, especially as they get more and more powerful.

Formulas are bad, but unavoidable, so here’s what I recommend if you’re not going to use a password manager creating completely random passwords: Unverifiable (or difficult to verify) facts. Things like what house you lived in in 2001 and what you paid for it. Better yet, your favorite baseball card and what you paid for it. Or maybe the address and phone number of your favorite long-gone pizza or BBQ joint. Think along those lines.

T206Wagner$0.50 was a reasonably good password before I published it here (you paid 50 cents for one at a garage sale! Right?) only because it contains an unverifiable fact. I guarantee T206Wagner$1M (the value of the most valuable baseball card in existence) is in all the password lists these days.

This isn’t especially great advice, but it’s something that there’s half a chance people will be willing to follow, and it pretty much forces passwords to have a nice mix of character types and to be at least 12-16 characters long. I don’t think it forces enough non-alphanumeric characters, or a wide enough variety of them, but left to choice most people won’t put any of them in. It would become lousy advice if very many people chose to follow it, but I know few will, and most people will continue to use the weakest passwords a site allows, so it’s adequate for a while.

The most important thing is to make it personal. What I paid for favorite baseball cards is easy for me to remember. If you never collected baseball cards, think of something along those lines that’s easy for you to remember, with a spin that’s hard for someone else, computer or otherwise, to guess.

How to light the underside of your train table

There are few things worse than fumbling around in the dark under a train layout. So I mounted a ceiling-mount light socket underneath my train table to create a work light so that I could see when I’m working on my wiring. It’s another one of my 15-minute projects, one that pays dividends by making future 15-minute sessions more productive.

I did most of the work with stuff I had on hand. If you want to duplicate my project, you’ll be able to get everything you need at your nearest hardware or home improvement store, and the materials will cost less than $10. I provided Amazon links for everything, so you can see what these items are. Some people know what a wire nut is before they know how to read, and some people may be well into adulthood before they undertake any kind of electrical project. Yes, this is an electrical project. As long as you check and double-check all your connections and don’t plug it into an outlet until after it’s done, it’s safe. Respect electricity, and you’ll find there’s less reason to be afraid of it.

Read the full post »

Why AMD’s turnaround is working when so many turnarounds fail

As this editorial notes, a year ago chipmaker AMD was on the ropes. Today AMD still won’t be unseating Intel any time soon, but they’re profitable again.

The problem, it argues, is that changing CEOs isn’t enough. A CEO has to have lieutenants that tell the CEO what the CEO needs to hear. Steve Ballmer failed, the author argues, because he inherited Bill Gates’ team, and Gates’ team wouldn’t tell Ballmer what he needed to hear.

It’s a very interesting perspective, and timely, as AMD released a compelling product line today.

Passwords you need to change in Heartbleed’s wake

Heartbleed, a serious vulnerability in a piece of Internet backend software called OpenSSL, is the security story of the week. Vulnerable OpenSSL versions allow an attacker to see parts of a web session they aren’t supposed to see, including passwords in transit.

Timing is critical. If a site upgrades to a new version after you change your password, you have to change your password again. That’s why some experts are saying to wait, and others are saying change right now.

Here’s a list of sites that are affected or potentially affected. My recommendation: Change any passwords for any sites on this list listed as affected. Hint: Yahoo, Google, and Facebook are on the list. If at any point in the near future you get e-mail from them saying you need to change your password, change it again.

To clarify: Changing your password right now won’t hurt, but it might not be enough either. To be safe, you may end up changing some passwords twice, so be ready for it.

Another clarification: If you’re using 2-factor authentication, don’t bother changing the password. An attacker has to catch the password after it’s been sent, but if you’re using 2-factor, you’re not sending the password (you’re sending other stuff–and that stuff changes to prevent replay attacks), so you’re good.

I want to feel for this ad executive, but I can’t

There’s a problem in this world, according to Mike Zaneis. It’s ad blockers.

On one level, I can relate to the guy. Ad blockers cost me between $500 and $1,000 a year, personally. But on another level, I have no sympathy for him. Because there’s so much problematic advertising out there. If you ever try to download something from one of the major download sites, good luck. There are 14 download buttons. 13 of them are ads that deliver something other than what you want, or ridealong stuff you don’t want. Somehow, Mike Zaneis thinks that’s OK, but blocking ads is wrong.

How about misleading ads that talk about government programs that don’t exist? I see an ad promising me a mortgage bailout every day. I’d love for Mike Zaneis to explain to me how this is ethical.

There are hundreds, if not dozens, of spammy news stories that are really just advertisements, preying on ignorant people, spreading misinformation and damaging society, littering the web today. Stop eating cumquats and lose 20 pounds! Buy gas at precisely 7:05 AM and gain 4 MPG! Here’s how Warren Buffet is preparing for the apocalypse! These things don’t work, and I haven’t figured out how these newsvertisements make anyone any money except perhaps through profiling, and I’d love for Mike Zaneis to explain this. There’s a guy named Kevin Trudeau who made a career of spreading this kind of stuff. He’s in prison now. The difference between Trudeau and this stuff is that Trudeau pitched it in late-night infomercials charging $19.95 rather than giving it away for free and turning the people who read it into the product–something Mike Zaneis denies anyone thinks is a problem.

But the worst of all are malvertisements–advertisements that plant malware on your machines. If I run computer code on someone’s computer who doesn’t belong to me, I’ll be hanging out with Kevin Trudeau in prison for the next 20 years. But for some reason, it’s ok to do this in the name of advertising. I’d love for Mike Zaneis to explain this, too.

But unlike Mike Zaneis, I’m not complaining. It might be nice to be a professional blogger, but I’m better off with my day job than I would ever be as a pro blogger. It’s nice when I make a little money off this web site, but a lot of what I write is to support that day job–I can find what I need at a later date very quickly if it’s on the blog. That content never makes me a dime. I have some niche content that makes virtually all of the revenue I see, but I’m hesitant to elaborate much further lest someone like Mike Zaneis launch a site and steal all that traffic.

But that’s the thing. I adapt. I have to do that in everything I do. I can whine about how I don’t make the kind of revenue I made in 2005, but the fact is, if I were willing to change a few things, I probably could make more now than I did in 2005. About 5% of what I write accounts for all of my revenue. If I could devote 20% of my content to those subjects, I’m sure I would make considerably more. Since that would require me spending four times as much time thinking about and doing different things from what I do now, I haven’t made that shift. But if I ever needed to, I could.

Mike Zaneis thinks people who create and use ad blockers are out to extort him. They aren’t. They’re trying to encourage certain limits on acceptable behavior. That’s one reason I’m careful about the kinds of ads I let run on this site. There are certain categories–profitable categories–that I don’t allow, such as ads for gambling sites, political ads, prescription drugs, and get-rich-quick schemes. Some of those categories were profitable for me before I discovered my account was using them, but taking money from those behaviors would be wrong, so I stopped doing it. There was nothing illegal about those ads, but there was nothing ethical about them either. So I draw the line there, because some things are much more important than money.

Mike Zaneis draws the line at a different place, and he’s trying to start a war. I’m not convinced it’s a war he can win, and I have no reason to root for him.

Happy late 50th birthday, z/OS!

It was 50 years ago this month that IBM released the first modern mainframe, the System/360. The System/360 was notable for being the first series of systems built with interchangeable parts, rather than being custom-built. It’s also notable because its direct descendants are still in production: In the 1970s, it became the System/370, the System/390 in the 90s, and the z series today. The systems originally ranged from 1 MHz to 50 MHz in speed, and came with anywhere from 8 KB to 8 MB of RAM. To put that in perspective, the low-end model was comparable in power to an early Apple II desktop computer from 1977, and the high-end model was comparable in power to the 486 PCs we ran Windows 3.1 on in the 1993-94 timeframe. Or you could compare it to one of my souped-up Amigas, if you prefer (I do). But the same software that ran on the low-end model would run on the high-end model, and there’s a pretty good chance that software from the 1960s will run on a modern Z series mainframe today, with little to no modification.

Twenty years ago this architecture was supposed to be on its way out, but it never really went away. IBM keeps modernizing it, so I expect z/OS has a long life ahead of it. It’s entrenched, and when technology gets entrenched, there’s no getting rid of it.

There isn’t much new, young mainframe expertise in training these days, and it turns out there are certain jobs that mainframes do better than smaller PCs do. Most large companies have at least one mainframe, and it’s not going anywhere, but the people who can care for it and feed it are retiring fast. If you want some job security, you can do a lot worse than learning everything you can about IBM Z series mainframes in addition to the other things you know.

SSDs in business: The time is right

My employer is experimenting with a few desktop PCs with SSDs. And they are amazing. These machines have an Intel Core i5 CPU, 8 GB of RAM, and a 120 GB SSD. They log on and off in seconds. Word and Excel 2010, which are absolute slugs on HDDs, load in one second.

This is what modern computing is supposed to be.

There’s plenty of benefit, too. Quality SSDs fail predictably, so that reduces maintenance. They take images very fast, which reduces maintenance. Their small size encourages people to save their data on the network, where it’s backed up. The same thing discourages users from storing movies and music on their PCs, which is a legal liability in more than one regard. Depending on the user’s choice of movies, it could be both an HR issue and a copyright issue.

But beyond the intangible benefits, there’s the increased productivity. The computer is almost always ready for the user.

It wouldn’t take long for a $100 SSD to pay for itself by saving a couple of hours of most workers’ time each month.

How I turned a junker PC into a trap for scammers

Note: I wrote this almost a year ago. It wasn’t good enough to publish then, I thought. This week I’m slammed, and it’s better than anything I can write this week, so, it’s time to release it. -Dave

As my regulars will be aware, for the past few weeks I’ve been getting lots of phone calls from “Peggy” from “Computer Maintenance Department.” What I’ve found during these phone calls is that debating with them does no good, and saying that your computer is crazy fast gets them to hang up on you, but they’ll call back again in a few days anyway.

Last week, I had lunch with a group of future coworkers–I’ll be joining them once my background check results come in–and I mentioned these phone calls. The guy sitting across the table from me said he wants their malware, so he can reverse-engineer it. So I said I would cooperate the next time I got a phone call. Read the full post »

Switch to our mobile site