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Integrating Gmail and Toodledo: Bring Your Task Inbox to the Surface

March 31, 2011 Leave a comment

As noted in an earlier blog post, when I used Outlook as my day-to-day email client, I relied heavily on the excellently conceived Netcentrix Outlook GTD plugin. Since migrating to Google Apps and Gmail, I’ve tried several different approaches to allow me to integrate my email inbox and a Getting Things Done (GTD) task management system. My currrent tool of choice for GTD and task/project management is Toodledo (TD). While it doesn’t specifically integrate with Gmail directly, the application has some special ways of accepting tasks sent to it from Gmail (or any other email client, or even Twitter).

The developers have created a clever means of using special syntax placed into the subject line of the email that will categorize an email for you automatically. For example, if I sent an email to my special Toodledo inbox, and created a subject line with “Pickup Dry Cleaning #Next thursday,” Toodledo would create a task for picking up the dry cleaning, along with next Thursday as the due date.

Email Subject Line Syntax≠Good Usability
I keep a cheat sheet on my desktop with the special syntax (I have a Tomboy note for this), but I find it cumbersome to work this way in practice. Usability wise, it’s very easy to screw this up, and try as I might I often screw up the syntax. You have to think about it too much for my tastes.

Also, I often want to get the email into my “waiting” status (so I know to check on the receipients progress), and I hate the idea of the various TD syntax being exposed to the recipient of an email I’ve sent them.

Send Your Email to Toodledo, but Use Toodledo to Process
Using Toodledo, I’ve arrived at a system that works well for me now. It allows me to quickly track emails that need to be converted to tasks, and gives me the power/flexibility of Toodledo’s interface to process them. Here’s how I do it:

  1. I have a Gmail contact for my TD email address (the name field in the contact is TD), so I can just type “TD” in the “To:” field in Gmail.
  2. When I want to get an email into TD I either forward the email, or if I’m replying to someone, I BCC it to the TD address.
  3. In TD my default folder is something I’ve labeled “Inbox.” Any emails I forward from Gmail end up there to be processed GTD style. Then it’s really easy to quickly assign status, folder, context, due dates, etc…
  4. To make the “watched” inbox/gmail thing work for me, I run 4 tiled browsers (Chrome works well for this), each open to a different view on a secondary desktop, with the inbox in the lower right. I’ve set this up on a separate computer/monitor that I control via my main keyboard using an app called Synergy. This way my task dashboard is always in my face (and my task inbox is always visible). BTW, I use a really inexpensive Netop computer for this and an older/smaller LCD screen that I had lying around.
  5. I also utilize the Ultimate To-Do-List on my Android-based phone and keep my Inbox on a secondary home screen. I often end up doing mobile gmail to task conversion by forwarding mails from my Droid to Toodledo.

You can see this in action here (Inbox is in lower right):

TD Screenshot
Click on the image for a larger view

I consider this to be a work in progress. The second machine/synergy thing has really helped me, as has the Toodledo inbox folder as a means of processing.

There are several interesting Gmail/GTD tools out there that have caught my attention. GQueus and ActiveInbox look like they would be great GTD/task tools for Gmail users such as myself; however, to effectively evaluate them, I would have to reengineer my setup, which will require more time than I’m ready to spend right now (not ready to take the deep dive). Great as Toodledo is, the lack of a more direct Gmail/Google Calendar integration does have me keeping my eyes on other apps.

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Reading in Bed with a Kindle… I’m Getting Hooked, but I Don’t Love it

November 16, 2010 Leave a comment

My mother-in-law received a 2nd generation Kindle as a gift from one of her publisher’s Penguin Books, which she recently passed along to my 12-year old daughter since she wasn’t using it. Given that “Granny” is a regular world traveler, a scholar, an avid reader, and a regularly published author, she is the kind of book person that would greatly benefit from the literal lightening of the load that an eBook offers, but alas, she chose to not work her way through the technological or psychological gap the Kindle ended up in her granddaughter’s lap… and now mine. As a technology guy, and someone who gets in trouble with my own clutter, I’ve always coveted the idea of a Kindle’s electronic tidiness, but the cost/opportunity/eventual obsolescence kept me from putting the hammer down.

Daughter rather liked the Kindle, but immediately ran into the issue of how to feed books into it on her limited budget (her iPod offers similar challenges). Dad on the other hand has a little bit more liberties disposable income wise, so I decided to borrow the device a few weeks ago, and am now nearly through my 2nd full length book (Daughter now wants the Kindle back). And while I don’t love it, I’m not ready to give it back yet. I’m curious as to what other’s experience has been.

The Kindle is Very Imperfect
I find the Kindle very imperfect, but will admit I’m hooked on having a small electronic slate next to bedside that quickly wakes to the page I left off on the night before. And while I love libraries and book stores, it’s amazingly convenient to hear about a book on the radio, or from a friend, and to get it delivered immediately.

I have a gooseneck LED reading lamp at bedside, which is almost required Kindle equipment, especially if one’s partner is trying to sleep when you are reading. The E Ink technology that allows the Kindle to run for weeks on end without a charge is not quite bright enough to read without another light source. From a reading in bed perspective, the oddest thing about the Kindle reading experience is turning pages. The 2nd generation Kindle relies on a dedicated page turning button which audibly clicks when you press it (apparently the newest 3rd generation Kindle has made this a quieter operation). If you haven’t done the Kindle thing, imagine a silent bedroom with your partner sleeping gently beside you… then click. The page turns sound positively cacophonous.

Since a Kindle book is readable on other devices, self conscious about waking my spouse, I tried reading one night on my Nexus One Android phone. Page turning is a simple silent finger swipe move, and of course the device’s AMOLED screen is very bright (no reading light required). Still there was something inherently awkward about hanging out under the covers with my smartphone in hand (and the brightness was definitely part of it). The handset is dense, where the Kindle is more balanced and thinner (more book like). We have a book jacket type cover for the Kindle, but the last couple of nights I’ve take the cover off as it adds unnecessary weight and the back flap is cumbersome while reading.

With the rise of Apple’s iPad, and various emerging competing tablet/slate solutions there is a great deal of debate regarding the relevance of a purpose built reading device like the Kindle. The pundits are suggesting that this holiday season will mark a real shift into eBook land similar to what we saw with digital music and photography. The question of course will be what will you be using to read those eBooks? One potential interesting challenger is Barnes & Noble, whose recent introduction of of the Nook Color (review here) delivers something in between an iPad and a Kindle, but still decidedly a reading device first. As far as form factor/device, I’m still on the fence. The Nook Color will undoubtedly evolve (or die) quickly, so conventional wisdom is to stay away from this first generation device.

Are you reading in bed with your iPad or Kindle? Do you love it? or are you a Luddite and sticking with paper for now?

P.S. I highly recommend my first 2 eBooks: Jane Levy’s The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood and Mark Greenside’s I’ll Never Be French (no matter what I do).

Categories: Mobility, Software Tags: ,

After 20 Years, Windows No More (mostly)

July 12, 2010 Leave a comment

“In the new world, especially where much of one’s transactional life happens in a web browser, one fundamentally doesn’t need Windows anymore…”

Last month, after running my ThinkPad X61 as a dual-boot Windows/Linux (Ubuntu) laptop for 14 months, I finally wiped Windows off of my hard drive and opened up 160 GB of space. I had kept the Windows XP boot option there as a safety since the beginning, but after not using it for several months I decided I no longer needed the crutch.

I’m by no means a revolutionary as many others have done this, but as with my move to Google Apps (detailed here), the shift is very telling, especially for the small business community (which I’m a member of). In the new world, especially where much of one’s transactional life happens in a web browser, one fundamentally doesn’t need Microsoft Windows anymore. That’s a big deal, especially in a time where a recent decision to put Windows 7 Ultimate Edition (64 bit) on one of our laptops cost my business $258.99. Obviously there’s more to this than money, including the ability to run on a wide variety of hardware (including old seemingly out of date computers) and stability (e.g. no blue screens, viruses or spyware).

A Little Detail and Some Back Story
I started the Linux thing purely as an experiment. The whole idea that there was a very large community of people collaborating on excellent free software was always very intriguing to me. I was also attracted to the idea of technology that could easily run on low-end hardware and was free of licensing restrictions. In 2004 or so I took an old desktop PC and installed whatever the “easy to use” flavor of the Linux-day. In spite of my comfort with PCs, I was immediately confused and disoriented. I quickly gave up.

Last year, after doing lots of homework I went at this very step wise and methodically. One of the engineers who worked for me talked up Ubuntu and I felt compelled to try again. I first built a home server for storing my music and our family’s backup files. Nothing special. I bought some very cheap hardware off of NewEgg.com, salvaged an old hard drive, and installed the operating system on a cheap compact flash card (same kind as you’d use in a camera).

This first go round was not in the least bit difficult, but it was still strictly hobbiest stuff. Still I was successful enough at the process that I decided to go after my day-to-day computer.

Linux had evolved significantly by my second go round, so by the time I built my home-brew server I was able to install it easily, and the system was immediately familiar and usable to me. Today that home-brew server not only streams my music collection throughout the house, it is also a backup device for my wife (Windows 7) and my daughter (XP), and acts as a print server for our household color printer. Not bad for a very low powered system that cost less than $200.

Not Ready for the Deep Dive
When it came time to my day-to-day computer, I wasn’t ready for the deep dive immediately, so started my transition by installing an Ubuntu variant called Wubi. Wubi lives completely inside of your Windows install, and doesn’t require uninstalling anything or making a commitment—a perfect try before you buy scenario. You keep Windows as is, but have a choice at boot time whether to launch Ubuntu or Windows. It doesn’t allow you run both at the same time like other virtualization schemes (more about that later), but it’s a remarkable piece of practical engineering that allows you to play around like it’s the real thing. Don’t like it? Very easy to uninstall it without a trace.

After about a month I was ready to make a bigger move and installed Ubuntu side by side with Windows XP (I’d abandoned Vista a few months before because of very serious bugs I was running into, and Windows 7 was not yet available). The stock Ubuntu installer does a nice job of separating church and state and soon enough I was able to choose whether I wanted Windows or Ubuntu upon boot. I  created an NTFS  partition (standard Windows file format) that could share my working data between the operating systems (documents, images, music, etc…), and soon I was living in Ubuntu most of the time.

I admit it, I use Crossover and VirtualBox, but I’ve found lots of good non-Windows software I like
Let me admit a few things. As much as I’ve tried to embrace the open source OpenOffice for day-to-day word processing and business chores, I don’t love it and still use Microsoft’s Office 2007 (which understandably doesn’t have a Linux version). I bit the bullet a few months back and purchased Codeweaver’s Crossover, an application layer that allows you to run regular Windows programs in Linux (also on Apple computers). While it is possible to run Microsoft Office in Linux without Crossover using the free Wine, Crossover takes away a lot of the headache of doing this. I do find myself running Microsoft Office less and less and using the OS agnostic Google Docs instead, but Google’s office apps are still incomplete so it’s nice to have standard Word and Excel available when needed.

My business does customer support work that requires us logging into customer sites using a variety of VPN protocols, not all of which play well together on the same computer. Also, many of the applications we support are Windows-based, so having a Windows-capable environment is necessary for me a few times a week. To handle Windows when I need it, I’ve turned to Oracle’s free VirtualBox which runs nicely inside of Ubuntu and gives me Windows on demand.

XP (or whatever Windows is your preference) runs really nicely inside of VirtualBox and can run any Windows application natively. I end up using VirtualBox for GoToMeeting and a handful of odd ball scenarios where I need Windows (like websites that only run on Internet Explorer).

What About those Trusted Applications?
Like most computer users I’ve come to rely on some trusted niche applications that I needed to find equivalents of in Ubuntu/Linux land. More than a year into this process, I can tell you that a die-hard Windows guy like I used to be can get along just fine with a little bit of fishing around. There are some amazing folks out there writing open source applications and you’d be surprised at how evolved some of the offerings are.

Here’s a short list of some of the applications I use on a day-to-day basis:

Category Linux App Replaced Windows app Comments
Web Form Filler LastPass (also works in Windows) Roboform I was so reliant on Roboform that I simply could not jump to Linux without a good form filler, password management utility. LastPass gives Roboform a run for the money and then some, especially since it’s completely browser based and will run across platforms.
Screen Capture Shutter Snagit SnagIt is one of those incredible utilities that you become dependent on quickly. Shutter is not as good as SnagIt but pretty darn good (and getting better).
Document Capture/Scanning gscan2pdf Adobe Acrobat Professional You can clearly live without Acrobat Professional (or Standard) in Windows, but if you do a lot of work with documents, it’s nice to have the real deal. On Ubuntu one can put together a variety of programs that take care of the things that you would do in Acrobat. I use Gscan2PDF to scan receipts and just about anything that I need to digitize. It’s simple, fast, and works like a charm at what it does.
PDF Manipulation PDF Shuffler Adobe Acrobat Professional As with Gscan2PDF, PDF Shuffler is a bit of a one trick pony. I use it to rearrange PDF pages, and also put together separate PDFs into one document.
PDF Manipulation/Editing Foxit PDF Editor + Wine PDF Editor FoxIt makes a great PDF editing program for Windows that allows you manipulate PDFs after the fact. There are some rough Linux equivalents, but nothing close to Foxit. Turns out that their PDF Editor works fine under Wine.
Folder Backup/Sync Grsync SyncBackSE I started replicating “My Documents” under XP years ago with SyncBack. A great little utility (there’s a free version too), I would schedule backing up my data nightly to an external drive (or network drive). Many folks do this via the native Linxu tool rsync. Grsync adds a graphical front-end. Not as fully featured as SyncBack, but does a good job nonetheless.
Ghost/Hard Drive Replicatioin Clonezilla Macrium Reflect and/or Ghost Clonezilla is not a pretty application, but it is very effective and have found that I can get by using many of the defaults. Several folks have written good instructions which can be easily be found via Google searches.
Digital Audio Conversion/Manipulation SoundJuicer + SoundConverter dbPowerAmp Nothing comes close to dbPowerAmp’s Swiss Army knife set of tools for Windows audio. I’ve found that it runs very well under Wine. That said, I mostly use the native Gnome apps Sound Juicer and Sound Converter.
Cleanup/Optimization BleachBit CCleaner They say this is not necessary in Linux, but BleachBit is the equivalent of CCleaner and cleans up artifacts of old programs and “crap” that your browser accumulate.

Should I Jump?
As much as I would like to say so, Ubuntu (or Linux) is not for everyone. It it a really viable option for a lot of people? I think so.

Unless you are extremely motivated to learn yourself, I think a key in making the jump is having someone who you can call on for support. I mostly didn’t have someone, but I was interested in learning and used online resources. For the motivated, there are several great blogs and forums that can help and  the Absolute Beginner area at Ubuntu Forums is incredible place to start. I also have learned a lot from the following blogs: OMG! Ubuntu, WorksWithU, Tombuntu, and UbuntuGeek. You’d be amazed at the generosity of the community, especially towards newbies.

Oddly enough, I think one real stumbling point for consumer adoption is the iPod or iPhone. Since I’m not an iTouch, iPhone, or iPod user, this was not an issue for me, but for many of the folks I know, this would be an issue.

A couple of months back I chronicled my 12-year old daughter’s Windows malware meltdown. For a few days while I worked through getting her computer usable again, daughter used my Netbook, configured with Linux Mint (a variant of Ubuntu). She actually rather liked it and was quite open to giving up on Windows. What held me back, was that she is a regular iPod user, who uses iTunes to purchase and manage her music collection. While there are ways to get iTunes to run in Linux, I wasn’t looking forward to being her personal tech support slave.

Yes, the new version of Ubuntu can easily sync iPods (and other Apple devices), and there are several good music management apps like iTunes (the current version of Banshee integrates nicely with Amazon’s mp3 store); however, if one has older DRM tunes purchased through the iTunes store, reconciling all of this can be an ugly process. In the next 6-12 months I see this situation continuing to improve as Apple is beginning to have some serious competition in the online music purchasing business. Could we have just run out and bought her a Mac? Perhaps, but the stumbling block is cost, and of course openness.

For the small business owner? it really comes down to who will support you… if you have a great support vendor, or internal resources, this is a great direction, especially if your core business applications can be done in the cloud.

Are you someone who’s made the jump? or are you sticking to Windows 7? or are a Mac user who thinks Ubuntu is blatant rip off? Feel free to leave a comment.

No Outlook in My Future: Migrating to Google Apps and Leaving my Blackberry Behind

May 18, 2010 Leave a comment

After using Outlook/Exchange since 1997 and RIM/BlackBerry devices since 2004, I recently spearheaded a move to migrate TPC Healthcare (the boutique healthcare technology firm that I founded) to Google Apps and to Google’s Android devices. For a long time I considered myself to be a big Microsoft/RIM guy, but over the last couple of years something really shifted for me, not the least of which was spinning off my business into its own entity. Partially this shift was about saving money. At $50-per-year-per-user, Google Apps Premier Edition is a no-brainer for the small business owner who needs enterprise features. Prior to this move I’d been outsourcing seats on Exchange/BlackBerry Enterprise servers for $22.90-per-user-per-month, along with a Smartphone Enterprise $45/month/user data plan. I had become accustomed to these overhead costs, but when presented with the possibility of saving 50 percent while getting a broader set of applications, I knew I had to check it out. But cost was not the only reason I switched to Google. As a small business we have the opportunity to be nimbler than the large competitors we face every day. Having excellent communication tools and well organized data is a competitive advantage for us — as is the ability to have shared-anytime-anywhere access to our assets. And as I evaluated our options, I considered Google Apps to be a practical and unifying move that could be done quickly with limited cost outlay.

Read the rest of my case study @ Internet.com’s EnterpriseMobileToday here: http://bit.ly/drof2u

Delousing the Tween’s Windows Laptop… and Tales of Recovery & Prevention

April 15, 2010 Leave a comment

My lovely tween daughter really hosed her laptop weekend before last and was infected with a rather insidious piece of malware called XP Smart Security (also masquerades as Vista Smart Security, and various Windows 7 variants). It appears as a legit microsoft-type applet, so at first the casual user just assumes that the behavior is normal. My first round of delousing this took about 5 hours, and I’d thought I’d nabbed it using a couple of different anti-malware remedies, only to have it quickly reappear a few days later. Here’s what it looks like, so if you see something like this come on your computer…. run!

You Need Multiple Remedies
In addition to being careful regarding where one treads online, the real lesson is that one needs to use multiple remedies for these types of things, as the bad guys are really crafty and it’s hard for any one of these solutions to cover it all. In fact, there are many out there who will tell you that if you are infected with this type of malware, the best remedy is to wipe the machine and restore to the system’s original state using the manufacturer’s restore partition or CD/DVDs. I was absolutely ready to do that, but the pains of bringing the system back up to its current state software and configuration wise was not anything I was looking forward to (especially with an impatient  almost 12-year old hanging over my shoulder). And yes, if she were running an Apple machine, or Linux like her Dad, she would not be subject to this type of infestation, but let’s not cover that here.

For the working masses who own Windows machines (still in the ~90% range by all accounts), I would highly recommend running 2-3 of these malware remedies regularly (perhaps once a week, or at least once a month), and not just in a time of crisis. Trust me, if you are running Windows, preventative maintenance is necessary. And in spite of the false sense of safety you might get by running McAfee, or Norton, or the security suite of your choice, your anti-virus software being up-to-date, and running utilities like Ccleaner (really has no impact on these kinds of things), are not enough. And I can guarantee that when you run these remedies they will find stuff, regardless of how careful you think you are being.

This Week’s Windows Toolkit
Malwarebytes helped irradicate daughter’s issue. I also used A-Squared and Spybot Search and Destroy. These programs all have a free version (the real difference about the free versions is that they often don’t come with real-time protection or scheduling). I’m by no means religious about these brands, and there are many other good programs that can help. And while one can truly try to stay away from bad websites and never click on stuff you’re not sure about, it’s increasingly hard and almost impossible to avoid. My larger point is that you should use multiple products and do it regularly.

If you are little bit technically inclined, I really like Ultimate Boot CD for Windows, which allows you to create a completely free and comprehensive recovery environment that boots from a CD or USB drive and includes both anti-virus and anti-malware tools. If your machine is really sick, and your are you can follow some basic technical instructions, this CD can be a life saver (e.g. it can allow you to get your data off of a machine that just won’t boot up).

Make sure that when you install any of these programs that you run the updates for each of them. In the case of the anti-malware tools, once you run them, make sure that you execute the sequence that will actually remove or quarantine the issues it finds.

Image Your Machines. It’s easier than you think
Also, once you’ve done this, I would highly recommend “imaging” your machine (e.g. NOT backup, but a restorable image). For Windows, I like Macrium Reflect (also free), which can run from inside of Windows and image to either external USB or network drive. Backing up your documents regularly is a given, but by making an image you can then get your system back to a known good state is easily if you ever completely hose your machine (and chances are that could happen). I try to make a system image once a month.

Yes all of this sounds like an incredible pain, but if you rely on your computer for business, entertainment, balancing the checkbook, or whatever your needs are, this is kind of like changing the oil in your car.

Categories: Software Tags:

Netbook for the Kitchen and Linux Mint: Refreshing

February 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Soon after we moved into our house nearly 10 years ago I found myself with a spare computer and LCD monitor that I convinced my wife would be a great thing to put in our kitchen. As with a lot of my household experiments, she was skeptical, but soon realized that having connectivity in the kitchen was a great idea (this was before wireless was popular or easy to do).

For a variety of reasons (including a renovation and the introduction of an HDTV into the mix), my desktop kitchen computer was no longer practical. I initially thought I’d put my Vizio TV to double duty as a computer monitor, and did a short experiment with an Asus EeeBox PC B202 nettop that invisibly mounted behind our TV. Good idea, but the TV was simply too small to read the NY Times or recipes from a distance. So back to the drawing board.

I eventually decided that a cheap netbook was going to do the trick and went searching for something that had a decent keyboard, a 10″ screen (IMHO about as small as is practical), and was hoping to find something south of $300 ($200 would have been even better). Based on what I’d read about the keyboard and screen, I decided on a MSI Wind U100 ($289 back in September, but can be even had for less on eBay), and have not been sorry. MSI makes excellent equipment that meet my price for performance criteria–in this case, I was not looking to spend a lot for a muffler 😉

So not that buying a netbook for the kitchen is especially noteworthy, but for those of you not yet on the netbook bandwagon, a few things worth sharing.

  • Windows XP is a dog on these machines and you are likely to be very disappointed by system performance, even for things like basic web browsing and email. Windows 7 promises to be better, but why pay the extra tariff to Microsoft when it’s truly not necessary. After many experiments, I’ve arrived at using Linux Mint 8 (more on this later in this post), a very slick and easy to use (and setup) variant, that is like all other things Linux, free. I quickly ditched XP, and worked my way through Ubuntu 9.04, Moblin, Kubuntu, Xubuntu, and CrunchBang!, until eventually arriving at Mint (based on Ubuntu)
  • I consider the netbook to be a satellite computer, so having a big hard drive is irrelevant as is having lots of ports and or bundled software. Everything one needs software wise for a good kitchen machine can be had legally for free
  • 3-cell batteries that come with these machines by default will not yield acceptable battery life. You will absolutely want to go for the more expensive 6-cell batteries (I bought one on eBay after market)
  • Mozilla’s Firefox web browser can be a real dog on these machines. I opted for Google Chrome, which while not 100% compatible on all websites is much speedier and very much worth considering

So Ken, Why Mint? Why Now?
Most day-to-day users of computers either at home or the office didn’t make a choice (unless they specifically bought an Apple computer). They run what came with the machine, and according to STATOWL for nearly 9 out of 10 people that means some flavor of Microsoft Windows

Mint is different, think Apple different, but not driven by profit (or by elitism). You can learn more about it here.

Mint is indeed subtle, elegant, and unless you want it to be, not in the least bit geeky. While there are literally hundreds of variation of Linux distributions to choose from (I use Ubuntu on my main Thinkpad X61 laptop), Mint’s mission in life is to look good and be easy to use (yes Linux can be easy). In the case of my Netbook it installed perfectly without the need for any drivers or oddball configuration workarounds. Within minutes I was associated with my wireless network was off reading the New York Times, responding to emails, and looking up recipes (things one does with a Netbook in the Kitchen). You will find that Mint easily goes to sleep when you are done with your computing session, and if you visit my home, you will find the Netbook sitting on a shelf ready to be opened at any time if I want to check the weather, look up an oddball fact, or read and comment on my wife’s latest blog post (part of being an attentive husband in my world).

So How Do You Install Mint (especially if you don’t have a CD drive)
For those not especially technical the only problem you are likely encounter has to do with the fact that your Netbook will not likely have a CD drive (and you are not likely to have an external CD drive sitting around). More than likely you will have a USB Flash Drive sitting around, and with some help from the following tutorial, you will be able to make a bootable version of Mint that will allow you to try out Mint (without installing it on to the Netbook), and when ready, install it.

So if you’re on the fence about doing the Netbook thing, I would not hesitate, especially given that you could get something very usable for very little money (as of this writing $250 can get you a brand new machine with a 10.1″ screen from TigerDirect). The Linux Mint thing is also easier than you think, even if you’re not inclined to muck with such things. And while you could easily drag your work machine or family computer into the kitchen, it’s quite appealing to have a computer that’s not loaded up with business applications and all the other trapping that we tend to clutter our day-to-day computing environments with.  And of course, Mint’s cool green is especially refreshing in the kitchen 🙂

Categories: Software Tags: ,

LastPass: Time to Get Rid of the Sticky Note Password Management System

December 2, 2009 Leave a comment

Whether you know it or not, you need an online password manager. And an Excel spreadsheet, or a crumpled up sticky note that you carry around with all your account numbers and passwords is not practical and is very insecure. At this point we all many online  accounts with passwords as well as credit card/bank account info that we need to access continually. It’s all gotten very messy.

Password managers are a class of software add-ons (typically that work with your browser) that allow you to securely store and manage hundreds of passwords, typically with strong encryption mechanisms that are designed to keep the bad guys out. What is most significant about these products is that they encourage you to significantly change your password habits. So instead of using the name of your cat, or your daughter’s birthday, users of these products have  practical tools to generate and manage unique strong passwords (I have over 350 accounts that are in my vault).

I have happily used Siber System RoboForm for a couple of years (and have encouraged all of my staff to do the same), and recently have migrated to LassPass because of it’s use of multi-factor authentication (more on this later) and it’s compatibility with Linux Ubuntu (which I use as my day-to-day OS).

LastPass is a cloud-based computing service, which stores your passwords in remote data centers. And while I was initially nervous about the idea of doing this, after experimenting and reviewing several independent analysis of their methodology, I felt that they were at least as secure (if not more) that RoboForm (which of course is a lot more secure than sticky notes).

You can read about their technology here. And there’s a great forum dialog between LassPass’ Joe Siegrist (one of LastPass’s founders) and a concerned (but very security saavy) potential customer with a security bent here.

LastPass works with various browsers and across platforms. Once you have sites and passwords in your vault, every time you hit one of those sites LastPass will either automatically fill it in (if you chose that option) or prompt you. Hit a site that requires credit card entry or shipping information? LastPass can fill that in too (no need to go running for your wallet to check the credit card number). Have multiple credit cards (e.g. work and home)? No problem, LastPass lets you choose. Not comfortable having any of this automatically fill in? LastPass can prompt you for a master password anytime you need items that you consider to be sensitive or need extra security. Encounter a new site? LastPass will generate a secure password for you then save it back to its database. Except for the occasional site that has some weird programming (ml.com doesn’t work well for me), it’s all very seamless. You quickly become dependent on it. At this point, I’m happy to say that I don’t know most of my passwords because they are all strong.

The just released version 1.62 continues LastPass’ multi-factor authentication feature evolution which makes using a product even more secure. In addition to a master password against your online password vault, LastPass can optionally use an external USB product called Yubikey or a specially prepared plain old USB flash drive as a second authentication factor (this requires a premium subscription which costs $12 per year). Basically you need both to get access to your vault. In this set up, you will not have access to the LastPass vault without the USB device and your master password. I used Yubikey for a while, and it worked great, but recently switched over to a USB flash drive add on program called Sesame that LastPass has developed because it allows me to have multiple devices with the same account (e.g. I have one flash drive configured for my work laptop, another for my netbook).

Since I switched over to LastPass RoboForm has developed a competing cloud service that’s currently in beta. For the moment, I’m pleased enough with LastPass that I’m not ready to go back to RoboForm; however, I suspect that RoboForm’s cloud product is as strong as their flagship product that Windows users have been using for years.

So if you are one of those who use the same password for everything, or never change your passwords, of have sticky notes all over you computer with your passwords, you’re taking a lot of risks. Both RoboForm and LastPass basic product are free, so there’s no reason to live your online life unprotected.

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