What to look for in a USB flash drive

What to look for in a USB flash drive

USB flash drives are pretty much a necessity these days. They’re far more convenient for moving files around than optical discs, and they make good backup devices. But not all USB flash drives are created equal. Here’s what to look for in a USB flash drive.

Here’s a tip: I don’t just use USB flash drives for transporting data and backups. I like to keep a modest-sized USB flash drive plugged into my router, turning it into a small NAS. It gives me a convenient, reliable place to back up data from any of my computers.

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What can I do to improve the security of my digital information?

On Monday, March 13 at approximately 10:30 AM CST, I will be appearing on KFUO Radio’s Faith and Family program to discuss home computer security with host Andy Bates. One of the questions he’s planning to ask: “What can I do to improve the security of my digital information?”

This, fortunately, may be the easiest question to answer and the easiest step to implement.

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Happy Patch Tuesday, September 2011

Microsoft has five updates and Adobe has two for us on this fine Patch Tuesday, in addition to a patch Mozilla pushed out for Firefox last week.

Don’t get too complacent if you run something other than Windows. If you run Microsoft Office on a Mac, or Adobe Reader or Acrobat on a Mac, or Adobe Reader on Unix or Linux, you’re vulnerable. The vulnerabilities in those affected products are more serious than the vulnerabilities for Windows. So keep that in mind. Don’t be smug about security. It’ll bite you.

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How to tame e-books

I haven’t exactly been rushing out to buy an e-reader, for at least a couple of reasons. The practical reason is that I’m afraid of being locked in to a single vendor. Amazon is the market leader and the most likely to still be around for the long term, but they’re the worst about locking you in. The other vendors offer slightly better interoperability–supporting the same file format and, optionally, the same DRM–but the non-Amazon market leaders are Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Sony, all of which are scary. Borders is being liquidated; B&N isn’t losing money–yet–but its profit margins have shrunk each of the last two years; and Sony’s recent problems are well known to the security community. I’m not too anxious to climb into bed with any of them. Google is entering the market as well, but the first Google-backed e-reader doesn’t support highlighting or note-taking.

The Luddite reason is that I’m old enough to have an attachment to books. Physical books, printed on paper. Maybe this isn’t true for any generation beyond mine (I’m a GenXer), but for my generation and previous generations, having books on your shelf is a sign of being educated. And there are certain books–or types of books, depending on your field–that you’re expected to have on your shelf.

To a certain extent, the latter reason can be negated by playing the e-reader card. Of course I have the complete works of Shakespeare on my e-reader, so those Shakespeare books from college just became clutter…
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Why I like MS Office better than OpenOffice

I saw a story on Digg talking about why MS Office is so much better than OpenOffice. The argument was pretty shallow–pretty much everything it said was either untrue or could be simplified to "because it is" or "because it costs money."

I’ve used both. I have both installed on a couple of machines. I generally use MS Office. Here’s why.For virtually everything I do, OpenOffice is fine. There’s no feature in Office 2000 that I actually use that isn’t in recent builds of OpenOffice. None. I wrote a book in Office 97, and the only thing that would keep me from writing the same book again in OpenOffice might be the template I used. If OpenOffice could interpret my old publisher’s template and save it in a format my editor’s copy of Word could understand, I’d be OK.

And honestly, I think during the process of writing that book, I pushed my system a lot harder than most people do. Word 97 would crash hard on me once or twice a month, and I don’t think anyone else has ever done that.

I’ve never crashed Word 2000. I don’t know if it’s because Word 2000 is more stable or if it’s because Windows 2000 is a lot more stable than Windows 98 was. I never ran Office 97 on Windows 2000.

My complaint with OpenOffice is speed. Word launches in five seconds or less, even if I don’t have its quick-launch application in memory. Usually less. OpenOffice components load slowly, sometimes taking 30 seconds to load. If I wanted to wait 30 seconds for my word processor to load, I’d use my Commodore 128.

And while I can’t quantify it, once Word is loaded, it’s faster and more responsive. OpenOffice Writer seems to hesitate just a fraction of a second longer when I pull down a menu or hit a hotkey. There’s not a lot of difference, but it drives me nuts.

I’m spoiled, I know. I used to use a word processor called TransWrite on my Amiga. There were a lot of things TransWrite wouldn’t do, but it was lightning fast. Even on a 7 MHz Amiga, it did everything instantly.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but what I want is something that gives me all the features of, say, Word 95, and runs as fast as TransWrite did. Given that 1 GHz is considered a slow computer nowadays, I don’t think that’s too much to ask. Neither OpenOffice nor Microsoft totally deliver, but Microsoft’s product comes a lot closer.

I absolutely, positively do not buy the argument that MS Office is more capable. Microsoft’s eternal struggle has been figuring out how to get people to upgrade their old versions of Office, because frankly when I started working in desktop support in August 1995, the existing Windows 3.1 versions of Word and Excel did everything that the people I supported wanted, even then. When I became a full-time IT worker in March 1997, one of my first jobs was rolling out Office 97. Its draw was that it was 32-bit and crashed less. It had some new features but aside from the real-time spelling and grammar checking, nobody really talked about them. Some people loved the real-time checks, and other people fell all over themselves turning them off.

Two years later, Office 2000 came out. A hotshot in the accounting department told me how much better it was, but when we really talked about the new features, his opinion was mostly due to the excitement of being the first to have the new version. Outlook was considerably better in Office 2000 than it had been in previous versions, but outside of that the only new feature I ever heard anyone mention was that the font menu displayed font names in the actual font. Access was better, but not a lot of people used it.

I’ve used Office XP and 2003. Outlook was incrementally better in both versions. But aside from Word’s booklet printing capabilities, I’ve never found anything in the newer versions of Office that I miss when I come home and use Office 2000 on my now-ancient computers.

And whenever I shift gears from Office 2000 over into OpenOffice, a few obscure features might be in a different place in the menu structure but I’ve always found what I needed.

But if for some reason I had to ditch MS Office tomorrow, I wouldn’t switch to OpenOffice. I’d load the Windows versions of AbiWord and Gnumeric.

In some regards, AbiWord and Gnumeric are closer to the 1992 versions of Word and Excel when it comes to capabilities. But they’re fast. And I’ve always been willing to sacrifice a few capabilities for a program that can operate as quickly as I can think. My only complaint about those two programs is that I never figured out how to make .doc and .xls the default file format for them.

Floppies, meet your replacement

I must be the next-to-last person in the world to spend significant lengths of time experimenting with these, but for the benefit of the last person in the world, I’d like to talk about USB flash drives, also known as thumb drives (for a brand name), pen drives, or keychain drives, because they’re small enough to fit on a keychain.They are, as that popular brand name suggests, about the size of your thumb. It’s possible to buy one that holds as little as 64 megabytes of data, which is still a lot of Word and Excel files, but currently the sweet spot seems to be 512 megabytes or 1 GB. This is, of course, always a moving target, but as I write, it’s entirely possible to find a 512-meg drive for around $40, although sometimes you have to deal with rebates to get the price that low. It’s harder, but still possible, to get a 1 GB drive for under $90. That will change. Currently a 2 GB drive is more than $200.

I remember when people went ga-ga over a 1 GB hard drive priced at an astounding $399. That price was astoundingly low, and that was only 10 years ago. Progress marches on, and sometimes progress really is an improvement.

The drives are so small because they use flash memory–a type of readable/writable memory chip that doesn’t lose its contents when it loses power. It’s not as fast as RAM, and it’s a lot more expensive, and its lifespan is much more finite, so you won’t see flash memory replacing your computer’s RAM any time soon. But as a replacement for the floppy disk, it’s ideal. It’s fast, it’s compatible, and unlike writable CDs and DVDs, they require no special software or hardware to write.

The drive plugs into a USB port, which is present on nearly every computer made since about 1997. Use with Windows 98 will almost certainly require the installation of a driver (hopefully your drive comes with either a driver or a web site you can use to download a driver–check compatibility before you buy one for Win98), but with Windows 2000, XP, and Mac OS X, these devices should just plug in and work, for the most part. With one Windows 2000 box, I had to reboot after plugging the drive in the first time.

From then on, it just looks like a hard drive. You can edit files from it, or drag files onto it. If the computer has USB 2.0 ports, its speed rivals that of a hard drive. It’s pokier on the older, more common USB 1.1 ports, but still very tolerable.

The only thing you have to remember is to stop the device before you yank it out of the USB port, to avoid data loss. Windows 2000 and XP provide an icon in the system tray for this.

These are great as a personal backup device. They’re small enough to carry with you anywhere–the small flashlight I keep on my keychain is bigger than most of these drives–and it only take a few minutes to copy, so you can copy those files to computers belonging to friends or relatives for safekeeping.

If your only interest in a laptop is carrying work with you–as opposed to being able to cruise the net in trendy coffee shops while you drink a $5 cup of coffee–a pen drive makes a very affordable alternative to a laptop. Plug one into your work computer, copy your files, and take work home with you. Take it on the road and you can plug it into any available computer to do work. It’s not the same as having your computer with you all the time, but for many people, it’s more than good enough, and the drives make a Palm Pilot look portly, let alone a laptop.

So how do you maximize the usable space on these devices? The ubiquitous Zip and Unzip work well, and you can download small command-line versions from info-zip.org. If you want something more transparent, there’s an old PC Magazine utility from 1997, confusingly named UnFrag, that reduces the size of many Word and Excel files. Saving in older file formats can also reduce the size, and it increases the possibility of being able to work elsewhere. Some computers still only have Office 97.

You may be tempted to reformat the drive as NTFS and turn on compression. Don’t. Some drives respond well to NTFS and others stop working. But beyond that, NTFS’s overhead makes it impractical for drives smaller than a couple of gigs (like most flash drives), and you probably want your drive to be readable in as many computers as possible. So FAT is the best option, being the lowest common denominator.

To maximize the lifespan of these drives, reduce the number of times you write to it. It’s better to copy your files to a local hard drive, edit them there, then copy them back to the flash drive. But in practice, their life expectancy is much longer than that of a Zip or floppy drive or a CD-RW. Most people are going to find the device is obsolete before it fails.

The technologically savvy can even install Linux on one of these drives. As long as a computer is capable of booting off a USB device, then these drives can be used either as a data recovery tool, or as a means to run Linux on any available computer. 512 megabytes is enough to hold a very usable Linux distribution and still leave some space for data.

A Free, Open-Source alternative to WinZip

Free graphical Zip/Unzip programs for Windows have come and gone. I’m always looking for one because I don’t use a graphical one all that often, preferring the command-line utilities from Info-Zip that I’ve been using since 1991.

But sometimes the graphical interface makes things easier. Info-Zip has a GUI front-end, but it’s difficult to install, at least compared to the typical Windows program. Power Archiver used to be free, but it’s slow, and now it’s shareware, and frankly, I don’t think it offers much of anything that WinZip or PKZip for Windows doesn’t.

Enter 7zip. It’s easy, it’s GPL, it handles all the common file formats, and it’s reasonably fast. Enough said.

It also introduces a new file format. The “7z” format compressed some of my stuff about 80% more than Zip. It also compressed better than CAB or RAR. You can do people a favor and make your 7z files self-extracting, so they don’t have to download yet another archiver (my big beef with RAR).

It’s not only free, it’s better. Go get it.

And while we’re on the topic of Zip utilities, I would be remiss to not mention Ken Silverman’s excellent Zip tools. If you’re not afraid of the command line, they are a must-have.

Getting started in Genealogy

I’ll admit it. I’m not ashamed of it. I’m a johnny-come-lately to the genealogy game. My computer can tell you how I’m related to more than 1,200 different people. And I just started last week.
I’ve accumulated more names than my mom did in years of research, working the old-fashioned way in the 1970s, searching libraries, museums, LDS records, and graveyards.

So how’d I do it?

Talking about Mom’s side of the family is cheating, because she can easily trace her ancestry to pre-Civil War days. Dad’s side of the family was the challenge, because his parents never talked about their roots (my grandmother actually told my mom to quit nosing around in the past and spend time with her two young kids instead–advice that I, as one of those two kids, disagree with, but it’s too late now).

Here’s what I did. I knew that my great great grandfather was named Isaac Proctor Farquhar (I didn’t know if the middle name was spelled “Proctor” or “Procter”), that he was a doctor, and that he lived in Ohio. I literally punched “Dr. Isaac Proctor Farquhar Ohio” into Google to see what came up. What came up was a family tree tracing my ancestry back to 1729. I verified it because I knew the names of my great grandfather and grandfather.

A better approach is to visit a pure genealogy search site, such as ancestry.com or the Mormons’ familysearch.org and punch in the names of any deceased relatives you can think of. The further back they are in the past, the better. The names of living relatives aren’t very useful, since people almost always strip out the names of any living people from their online records due to privacy concerns.

Once you’re reasonably certain you’ve found a relative, enter whatever you can find into your computer. Family Tree Maker is a good piece of software for tracking your roots, and it’s not terribly expensive. Several sites offer free genealogy software. I haven’t looked at any of it. There’s little risk in trying it though–virtually every genealogy program can import and export data in GEDCOM file format. A number of free Linux genealogy programs are available too–just search Freshmeat.

I need to stress entering anything you can find. Often I find incomplete genealogies online. I’ll find a record for a great great great grandfather that lists two children and a birthplace. If I’ve previously entered all available data and I know my great great great grandfather had 10 kids, including the two on that genealogy I just found, and the birthdates and birthplaces and spouses’ names all match, then I can be reasonably certain that I’ve got the right ancestor and I can see where that trail leads me. It’s more fun to track direct ancestors and see how far back into the past you can go, but you need aunts’ and uncles’ and cousins’ names to prove relations sometimes. Besides, sometimes you find a distant cousin who married someone interesting.

If you don’t find anything, talk to your living family members. Ask if they can remember any relatives’ names, birthplaces, and anything else about them. I only know about Isaac Proctor Farquhar because of some conversations I had with my dad. My sister may or may not have known about him. But I know there are relatives she knows about that I don’t. Old family photo albums and Christmas card lists are other sources of clues.

Here’s how I cracked a tough problem. My great grandfather, Ralph Collins Farquhar, married a woman named Nellie McAdow. Nellie McAdow was a dead end. Her mother’s name was Mary Lillian Miller. I didn’t even have her father’s first name. All I found was a guy named McAdow, born in Ohio. A subsequent search revealed her father’s initials were A.G. and he was born in Pharisburg. So then I had A. G. McAdow, Pharisburg, May 25, 1859-January 15, 1904. I did a Google search and found the text of an old book that casually mentioned A. G. McAdow owned a store in Pharisburg in 1883. Great, so the guy’s in the history books, and I still can’t find his first name. Somehow, somehow, Mom knew his first name was Adalaska. Adalaska!? No wonder he went by “A. G.” I searched for Adalaska McAdow. Nothing at ancestry.com. But at Familysearch.com, I found 1880 census data. I found Adalaska living with someone he listed as his stepfather, Smith May, occupation farmer. His mother’s name was Virginia, and she was born in 1838 in Ohio, and they had a daughter, Lena, who was born in 1871. That was enough information to feed a couple more searches, which gave me Virginia’s maiden name, Evans, and the name of her first husband, James W. McAdow.

He was tougher than most, and I still don’t know nearly as much about this line as some others–including Nellie’s mother, Mary Lillian Miller’s line–but I broke the dead end.

I still have no clue why two people with normal names like James and Virginia would name their son Adalaska.

The grandmother who told my mom not to pry into the past remains a tough one. Social security records confirmed her dates of birth and death, and place of death, because my memory was hazy. Mom knows her parents were German immigrant Rudolph Keitsch and Irish immigrant Bessie Bonner. A Google search revealed Elizabeth Keitsch graduated from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in 1932. So far I’ve found absolutely no trace of her parents. I’m hoping that census records may help–a Google search for “ancestry records search” turns up several sites that will let you search various U.S. censuses for free, but they all use ancestry.com for something or another, which is down for maintenance as I write.

But I’m reasonably confident that once I can search census records, even my stubborn half-German grandmother will finally yield some information after all these years.

You can subscribe to ancestry.com to get to information that you can’t find online for free, and I’m sure that at some point I’ll end up doing that. For now I don’t have much reason to. You might as well see what you can find out for free as well. And I honestly hope you don’t have four grandparents like Elizabeth Keitsch. I hope yours are more like Ralph Collins Farquhar Jr., who took about 30 seconds to trace back to 1729, and whose grandmother, Elizabeth Stratton, led me back to the sixth century and gave me a splitting headache that forced me to temporarily abandon the search to return to this continent and four-digit years.

May all your lines do the same.

Creating images of floppy diskettes with Linux or DOS

If you want to archive floppies–a good idea, since a floppy disk can sit for months unused and go bad between the time you made it and the time you really needed it, and since it’s hard to shuffle through a collection of hundreds of disks and find the one you need–Linux is an ideal environment for it. To create a disk image, use the following command:
dd if=/dev/fd0 of=filename bs=18k

The if parameter tells it the input device or file (the floppy drive, in this case), and the of parameter tells it the output device or filename. The bs parameter is block size. Most people use a block size of 512, since that’s the size of a disk sector, but it’s slightly faster to write an entire track at once. The speed increase is only slight, but I thought you might like to know. Floppies are already slow enough as it is. I’ve also heard allegations that reading and writing entire tracks at once is more reliable, but I can’t substantiate those claims.

To write out a disk image, simply reverse the if and of parameters:

dd if=filename of=/dev/fd0 bs=18k

Disk images in this format are portable; any Unix can rewrite them to disk, as can the DOS/Windows utility rawrite, which you’ll find on virtually every Linux installation CD. Most other popular disk-imaging programs for DOS and Windows can handle this file format as well.

If you want an equivalent DOS/Windows command-line program to create dd/rawrite-compatible disk images, check out fimage. You can even make those images self-extracting executables with sfx144, if you wish.

Open a blg file in Windows

Open a blg file in Windows

In some versions of Windows, the usual method of viewing a file–double clicking on it–doesn’t work for BLG files. If you can’t view a BLG file just by double clicking on it, here’s the other way to open a BLG file in Windows.

This works in current versions of Windows and all the way back to Windows 2000.

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