Curious conspiracies… or maybe just progress all at once

In the wake of Truecrypt’s sudden implosion, someone sent me a link to this curious blog post. I can see why many people might find the timing interesting, but there are a number of details this particular blog post doesn’t get correct, and it actually spends most of its time talking about stuff that has little or nothing to do with Truecrypt.

What’s unclear to me is whether he’s trying to say the industry is deliberately sabotaging Truecrypt, or if he’s simply trying to make a list of things that are making life difficult for Truecrypt. His post bothers me a lot less if it’s just a laundry list of challenges, but either way, the inaccuracies remain. Read more

The Warhol Amiga discovery in context

A team of digital archaeologists recovered a series of images off floppy disks from Andy Warhol’s estate, including a number of experimental images created by Warhol himself. Judging from the comments in the various places that covered the discovery, the Internet is unimpressed.

Yes, these images appear to be the result of Warhol messing around. In many ways, they’re not all that different from what anyone might produce today messing around with a digital camera and a simple paint program with a fill pattern.

I’m not sure how many of the critics realize Warhol created this stuff in 1985 or perhaps even late 1984, using preproduction, prerelease hardware and software. All of it was likely buggy. And, as much as I like the Amiga, none of it was anywhere near today’s standards. The stuff he had to work with was nowhere near 1989 standards–the Amiga in its early days was notoriously finicky.

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Why the government (and others) still deal in floppy disks

The revelation that the Federal Government still relies on floppy disks for some of its business is making it the butt of some jokes this week. And although that will serve as confirmation for some people that the government is completely backward, there are actually multiple good explanations for it.

From a security standpoint, using floppy disks isn’t a bad idea at all. Read more

New media in Cuba

I read an ingenious article this week on Slashdot, talking about how Cubans evade Internet censorship (not to mention lack of access) by passing contraband material around on flash drives. It’s so old school, but brilliant.

Sure, it’s less efficient and less elegant than using the Internet, but unlike the Internet, it’s nearly impossible to detect and even harder to stop. Read more

The old days of viruses

Blogging pioneer John Dominik, inspired by my Michelangelo memories, wrote about his memories of viruses later in the decade. So now I’ll take inspiration of him and share my memories of some of those viruses. I searched my archives, and at the time it was going on, I didn’t write a lot. I was tired and angry, as you can tell from the terse posts I did write.

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Remembering Michelangelo

Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the Michelangelo virus. If you don’t remember, on March 6, 1992, Michelangelo was programmed to overwrite the first 100 sectors of a hard drive–not quite as destructive as formatting a drive, but to the average user, the effect is the same. It was a huge scare–John McAfee predicted five million computers would be affected–but largely was a non-event.

Those of you studying for security certifications would do well to remember that Michelangelo is a prime example of a virus and a logic bomb. Viruses replicate; logic bombs do something when an event triggers. Malware doesn’t always fit neatly into specific categories–crossovers are common.
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Floppy disks for Commodore and other vintage computers

It’s been many years since 5.25-inch floppy disks suitable for Commodore, Apple, Atari, and other vintage 8-bit computers (not to mention IBM PCs and PC/XTs) have been something you can buy at the store down the street. I found some 360K DS/DD disks on Amazon, but they aren’t available in huge quantities.

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The truth about DVD recordables

I read Jim Louderback’s column from this week on DVD recordables with interest, but it was disappointing.

The most useful information in this column: Generic recordable DVDs don’t necessarily cost less than the brand names.

The rest of the column is just about hazing and an incomplete description of how he did various things you’re not supposed to do to DVD discs and then tried to see if they still worked.Since he did lots of things that you’re not supposed to do and many of the discs still worked immediately afterward, he came to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter what discs you buy.

Well, I used to do lots of things you’re not supposed to do to floppy disks. Sometimes I got away with it, and sometimes I didn’t, but since they weren’t repeatable experiments, that experience means nothing. And I didn’t try to present any of that experience as useful information either.

There is some advice that pertains to pretty much all recorded media and I’ll go ahead and repeat it here.

Buy the brand/type of media the drive manufacturer recommends. It’s not fair to say that, for instance, Verbatim discs are junk based on one bad experience with a Verbatim disc in one particular drive. Some combinations of disc and drive work better than others. That’s not to say that untested media won’t work, but it does mean you don’t know what you’re getting into. It’s better to know what you’re getting into.

This is why some people swear TDK is the best media and Verbatim is the worst, while someone else may say (with just as much passion) that Verbatim is the best media and TDK is the worst. I guarantee that the two people doing the arguing don’t have identical DVD burners.

Make at least two copies of everything. If the data is worth something to you, it’s worth the dollar or less it costs you to burn a second copy. Store it in a jewel case in a cool, dry, dark place. Why? Heat, light, and moisture are the three things aside from physical abuse that cause discs to break down most quickly. The jewels will protect the disc from physical abuse. Ironically, polystyrene jewel cases intended for CDs are more fragile than the media they protect, but in a way that’s a good thing. It gives you fair warning that you’re handling it too roughly.

If possible, store the second (or a third) copy offsite. A locked desk drawer at the office is a good candidate, but be careful if the owners of your office turn off the air conditioning during the weekends. Or store it at a friend’s house, and return the favor by storing a cache of discs for that friend.

And if it’s super-duper important… If the data absolutely has to be right, burn it at the slowest speed your software allows, and walk away from your computer until it’s finished. Discs written at the slowest speed are slightly more reliable than discs burned at high speeds, as are discs that didn’t require buffer-underrun protection to write.

It’s extremely rare for either of these things to make a difference, but if you’re paranoid, keep it in mind.

How to remember lots and lots of stuff

I’ve been slogging away in nostalgiaville, writing obscure stuff over at Wikipedia again (once an addict, always an addict, even if the addiction hurts you), and I started wondering about something. Why is 20 years ago easier for me to remember than last week?
I think there are two reasons for that, but if I go off exploring those, I’ll never get back on track. I stumbled across a web site today called Supermem. It extols the virtues of repetition for memory. It’s really heavy reading and not terribly eloquent, at least I don’t think. I think the author’s strategy is showing off how much stuff he can remember and trying to make you jealous, in the meantime arguing that even ordinary people, given enough knowledge, can become geniuses. And maybe the people he cites in his stories are examples of people who became geniuses through knowledge.

And I’ve mostly summed up what he spent pages and pages saying.

The basic premise is that knowledge isn’t everything but it sure can add value to anything else you have, and from the outside, sometimes knowledge can look like everything. But we forget lots of things. The key to remembering things is repetition. The hard part is coming up with a strategy for repetition that works.

Of course he has a solution. As you might have guessed, he wants to sell you something. In this case, it’s a piece of commercial software.

The only reason I didn’t scramble for the back button right then and there was because old versions of the program–specifically, the DOS and Win3.1 versions–are now public domain. And the program inspired a similar Linux program called Memaid. So you can try it out without spending any money.

So here’s how it works. Take some things you don’t want to forget, then figure out how to phrase them in the form of a question. Then you enter those things into the program. It drills you. And it figures out how often you need to repeat something in order to retain it.

The idea is to establish a pattern. Seek out things you won’t want to forget. Then figure out how to restate those things in Q&A form. Enter them into the program, then spend 30 minutes a day with the program. If you do both–learn at least one new thing every day and drill on the old stuff–you’ll accumulate a body of knowledge.

Here are a couple of examples from my job:

Q: What’s the optimal Linux command to create/write images of floppy disks? (The device name will vary in other Unix-like environments)
A: dd if=/dev/fd0 of=(filename) bs=18k
dd if=(filename) of=/dev/fd0 bs=18k

Q: What’s the DOS command to rewrite the boot record on a hard drive that won’t boot or has been corrupted by a boot-sector virus?
A: fdisk /mbr

Q: What’s the web site I can go to in order to find the geographic location of an IP address?
A: www.networldmap.com

And I would do well to add some specific questions to the list as well, such as, “What’s the primary nameserver at our Sunset Hills office?”

So if you want to sound like William F. Buckley Jr. and not come off like an idiot–like one person I know who likes to pepper the dictionary.com word of the day into everything he can, except he frequently misspells or misuses it–add that. If your goal is to lose as many coolness points as possible, put things like Vanilla Ice’s real name in there. If I’d known about this program when I was in college, I’d have put my Spanish vocabulary words and verb conjugations in there, and today I’d be able to say more than just hablo pocísimo español without embarrassing myself. (And for all I know, you’re not supposed to put the -ísimo suffix on poco and when I do it, I come off like someone who would say no sabo. OK, so I guess I do remember a little Spanish, but not enough to hold much of a conversation.)

It’s an interesting idea. I think I’m going to give it more than just a try.

Putting every question I ask Charlie (along with the answer) in there would be a good start.

New Freesco

Freesco 0.3 is out. It now has working PPPoE support, I understand. I don’t know what else it does just yet. But I intend to find out.
Freesco is easily my favorite single-floppy Linux distro, because once you get the hardware going, it’s easy to get running. Anyone familiar with computer networking can do it, without knowing a thing about Unix. And once it’s working, you can move it to the hard drive, which is good, since tiny hard drives are common as dirt and cheap and reliable (Freesco spins the drive down after it’s done booting, so a hard drive should work pretty much indefinitely, seeing as you’ll only reboot the thing when there’s a power failure), whereas floppy disks are anything but reliable.

That’s not to say that getting the hardware going isn’t a pain sometimes, but that’s not Freesco’s fault. Resolving a bunch of IRQ and I/O conflicts to get a 486 with a pile of ISA cards in it working perfectly is a pain no matter what OS you intend to run on it.