Friday, March 25, 2011

Adventures in Laptop Repair

My friend had an old laptop he brought to me today. It was pretty old. It has 64 MB of RAM, a 233 Mhz processor, a 4 GB hard drive, a dead battery...a real winner! In addition, whoever set it up installed Windows XP on it, so it takes FOREVER to start up.

He asked me if I could put it in Spanish so he could send it to his niece in Puerto Rico.

I decided to take a look and see what I could do. After all, it keeps my tech skills fresh!

As I have never done a Spanish install before, I first started by going to the Windows control panel. I took a look around, and went in to the language settings. Ah ha, I thought, this should fix it. I switched everything to Spanish, restarted the machine, and waited for it to work.

Sadly, this did not work. The Windows XP system files were installed in Spanish, and this did not even change the Start Menu to Spanish. It made sense when I thought about it. All the programs were already installed in English. A little Internet research showed that in order to do what we wanted, I would need a special installation of Windows with a new license key. License keys are generally tied to a specific version of Windows, so even if I got the Spanish version, I doubted the existing license key would work.

I was also sure that my friend did not want to pay for a new XP license for this machine.

At this point, I had a few options. I could have considered pirating the key, but my personal ethics ruled this out. Even if they didn't, the risk of downloading stuff from torrents/file sharing networks (0-day viruses, getting caught) would deter me.

Besides, when I thought about what my friend wanted for his niece, it was a computer that allowed her to do Internet research and type papers. At this point I decided to investigate Linux. I figured there should be a Spanish distribution of Linux, and it would certainly run better than Windows on this machine.

I am familiar with Ubuntu Linux, but it did not look like there was a complete version, so I did some searching and found Asturix, a Spanish Linux distribution based on Ubuntu. I downloaded the CD image and burned it on to a CD.

I brought my new CD back to the old laptop, and tried to open the CD-ROM drive. No response. Luckily, I know about the trick to open a stuck CD-ROM drive with a paperclip (that's why that tiny little hole is on the front of the drive!).

I opened the drive, inserted the CD, and started the machine. I walked away and came back, and it booted directly in to Windows. I restarted, and went in to the BIOS (the computer's basic input/output system). It was correctly set up to try the CD-ROM drive before it booted off the hard drive.

I restarted again, and paid attention this time. When the computer restarted, the CD-ROM drive made a very odd sound and then stopped spinning, and then the computer booted in to Windows. To verify, I went to My Computer, and the CD-ROM drive wasn't even listed, which means it was malfunctioning.

Normally at this point, I would consider creating a USB boot drive, but this machine was so old, the BIOS did not support it.

At this point, I considered partitioning the hard drive, but it just wasn't worth the effort for me.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Fall 2011 - What I'm Teaching

I've got my tentative Fall schedule set up. I figured I would pass it along.

At PCCC - Passaic Campus
CIS-101-P02 Computer Concepts and Applications
Monday, Wednesday 8:55AM - 10:10AM

CIS-101-P01 Computer Concepts and Applications
Monday, Wednesday 10:20AM - 11:35AM

At PCCC - Paterson Campus
CIS-152-ME1 Internet/E-Commerce Technologies
Thursday 7:05 PM - 9:35 PM

CIS-170-M01 Website Design and Tools
Tuesday, Thursday 11:45 AM - 1:00 PM

CIS-290-M01 Database Fundamentals
Tuesday, Thursday 10:20AM - 11:35AM

At Bergen CC - Paramus Campus
INF-163-001 Internet Concepts and Applications
Monday, Wednesday 3:55 PM - 5:50 PM

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The battle for online sales tax

Funny, we were just discussing this in one of my classes, and now it jumps in to the news.

There are a number of ways to make money online. Advertising is an obvious one, along with having a Web catalog. There are always sites that do on-demand publishing like CafePress where someone can design shirts and link to their store there, and CafePress handles the printing and shipping.

One of the other ways has traditionally been affiliate marketing. This is the type of thing where I can link to someone else's site, and they give me a percentage of any sales generated by you clicking on the link. Many companies, such as Overstock and Amazon have these types of programs.

For example, I have one that I don't push through Amazon Associates here. That link takes you to Amazon, but if you bought something, Amazon would give me a small percentage of it. This is a great program, with very little risk to either side. Amazon makes money, so do I, and my users may buy something they were going to buy anyway through the link.

However, this has also been at the center of a big war. This is not a new war. However, online retailers do not need to charge sales tax to residents of a state in which they do not have a physical presence. So, take NewEgg. They are located in California, so they are required to collect sales tax for anything sold to California residents. However, they do not have a physical location in Alaska, so residents of Alaska do not have to pay sales tax on NewEgg purchases. Of course, companies like WalMart and Best Buy have been fighting this for years, because they feel like it puts them at a disadvantage. State governments don't like this either, but a Supreme Court decision (Quill v. North Dakota) from 1992 said companies without physical locations in a state do not have to charge state sales tax (this ruling was for mail order catalogs).

With many states in dire financial situations, this has become even more of an issue. Some states have made the argument that if a site has affiliates in a state, they now have a physical location in that state. Since I live in New Jersey, this would mean Amazon now has a physical location in New Jersey and must charge sales tax.

To me, this is a very loose interpretation of the law, but a number of states have passed laws to require any companies with affiliates in their state to collect sales tax. Amazon's response has been to just end the program in the states that pass this type of legislation. Amazon terminated the program in Rhode Island, North Carolina, and Colorado, so anyone who lives in those states can not be affiliates. Amazon has been doing battle with New York over this issue, and (to summarize the legal blah blah blah) the state basically now has to prove that having an affiliate in a state is really the same as having a sales representative in a state.

This is now even more newsworthy because Minnesota has a bill in the Senate that would try to collect Internet sales tax. The article linked also states that Minnesota made $20 million in income tax from Amazon Associates, so they are on the brink of losing the program.

In addition, the governor of Illinois today signed into law a bill that did the same thing as other states, and Amazon predictably cut ties with affiliates in those states. I am not sure if the Illinois government really expected anything different, but now Amazon Associates is no longer available in Illinois. Walmart, as a company that already charges sales tax to everyone, is pushing their affiliates program, since this is the only option some people have.

If the government really wants to do this right, maybe the original law needs to be revisited, because it has become a big staring contest.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

No, your operating isn't perfect either

When I was in college, I gave up on Microsoft's operating systems (I got tired of Windows freezing on me) and ran a distribution of Linux called Debian for a few years. For my needs, it worked well, probably even better than a Windows system did. I did a lot of programming, and the Linux operating system was very similar to the Unix (Solaris) operating system that our assignments ran on.

When I teach introductory classes, I have students who have Macintosh computers at home or people running Linux. When we come to computer security, I will generally mention the idea of antiviruses. I generally will have some student say "I don't need one because I am not running Windows". Sometimes, I even get "you can't get a virus on a Mac (or Linux) system".

This is factually incorrect. In security, there are no absolutes. There are viruses, malware, and other programs which end up out there for both operating systems. This doesn't mean the Macintosh and Linux operating systems aren't inherently safer, however.

If I am a hacker, I have to determine my audience (much like a research paper). Who am I hacking? The answer is probably something like "new computer users". Most new computer users are not running Linux, and therefore, if you are writing an exploit, you want to target non-Linux users. Similarly, if you are writing an exploit through the Web, you want to target your biggest audience, and that would be Windows operating system users running the default browser (Internet Explorer). Of course there are other reasons you might target the Windows/IE combination (such as Active-X controls).

The reason this is on my mind...out at the Pwn2Own hacker challenge, some folks from a French penetration testing company hacked a fully patched Mac. They did it using an exploit in the Safari browser.

Link to story

Teams will also compete to create more exploits for a number of different browser/OS/plug-in today and tomorrow.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Most Popular Pirated Movies 2010

I was wondering what the popular 2010 searches were, though not on the Google search engine. I was wondering what people were searching for on the torrents. This follows up to my post about keywords people were using to find me.

So, I did manage to find a site that was referenced by Gizmodo, who I trust. The site TorrentFreak had a list of the top ten pirated movies of 2010.

The list is linked below, but I am not surprised that the most popular movie was Avatar. However, I was surprised that the movie Kick-Ass was second, though it was a low-grossing film. While Avatar made almost $2.8 billion, Kick-Ass brought in around $100 million. It's the second lowest grossing movie on the top ten list.

I was also surprised that Iron Man 2 was not higher up the list (it came in at number 5, after Shutter Island).

The sheer number of downloads (16.5 million of Avatar alone) makes it apparent why movie companies are trying to crack down. Then again, Avatar did make almost $2.8 billion dollars, so it is pretty doubtful the Internet cut in to the profits THAT much.

Kick-Ass and the Hurt Locker, on the other hand...maybe.

TorrentFreak's Top 10 downloaded movies of 2010