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I have exactly one customer who pays me with a credit card. I am working on migrating him to Dwolla, the efficient payment network that takes the smallest cut of any other payment service. Here's my referrer link... consider joining the revolution!
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+Dwolla is a modern system for transferring money -- both person-to-person and person-to-business. It is instant, the fees are marvelously low, and it's trivial to set up a new account. Many businesses in the Cedar Rapids / Iowa City area already accept it. Why don't you?
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What if a stranger across the world hijacks your email account, permanently?

You might think you have nothing to hide or can simply open a new account, but what about the ubiquitous "Forgot your password?" function on every site? With access to your email account, a hacker can pretty much gain access to every other site you use.

For your email, use the most secure password (and password policy) you can. It's your skeleton key. Strongly consider two-factor authentication, which, in addition to your password, sends a one-time, short-lived code to your cell phone---the code you must enter to log in. Gmail and FastMail have comprehensive support for two-factor authentication. Yahoo and Hotmail do not, as far as I know.
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If you are a software developer and considering buying SlickEdit, I can offer you a 10% discount.
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I do not recommend +Symantec's anti-virus solution. Instead I recommend Microsoft Security Essentials. MSE is free, lightweight (read: fast), and effective.

Recently Symantec has lost a bit more relevance when its users learned the hard way that their software is not as secure as we have the right to expect.

I trust and recommend very few security products, especially for something as critical as remote login as an administrator. For remote access to my clients' PCs, I use only OpenSSH, OpenVPN, and Bitvise's WinSSHD. Keep these up-to-date, and sleep easy.
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Speaking of optical media, let's review what formats are available nowadays and how much they cost. Back in the day things were simple: CD-R and (if you're a masochist) CD-RW. Both were 650 MB, which was enough to store 74 minutes of CD audio. (Like with error correction, there is only one standard for CD audio, also known as CD-DA.)

Since then the compact disc has grown to 700 MB, or 80 minutes. We've gained DVD formats and now BluRay formats.

We've also come up with an innovative way of labeling discs such that they look quite professional: LightScribe. It requires both a LightScribe-compatible drive and disc. With this technology you graphically design a black-and-white label, then load your disc label side down into the drive and click Burn. The drive burns the label onto the disc in a very similar way to how it burns the actual data. This is my preferred way of labeling discs, especially because I can save and re-use my designs just like any other graphics design file.

Let's return to today's media options and prices. Since rewritable optical media is unpopular for several reasons, I'll list only write-once media. Here's how they fare. Prices are from +Newegg and include shipping.

CD-R, 700 MB, no LightScribe: 19¢ ea for a quantity of 100.
CD-R, 700 MB, with LightScribe: 32¢ ea for a quantity of 100.

DVDs are a bit less uniform. There are two major formats, DVD-R and DVD+R. My understanding is that DVD+R is better for several reasons, which Wikipedia is happy to elaborate on. So, I buy only DVD+R. There are also single-layer discs (4.7 GB) and dual-layer (8.5 GB). Dual layer stores about twice as much data as single layer, but the media is more rare, more expensive, and less compatible with older DVD drives.

Single-layer DVD+R with LightScribe: 36¢ ea for a quantity of 100.
Dual-layer DVD+R, no LightScribe: 58¢ ea for a quantity of 25.

There's also an unusual optical media format called DVD-RAM. This disc type comes in its own cartridge, which reduces scratches to the disc itself. This format also supports using the disc like a floppy disc or a flash drive: write files to it without worrying about sessions. I've never used this format. It's for some reason very unpopular and expensive -- Newegg offers only one DVD-RAM disc for $13!

Finally, BluRay media. Storing at least 5X what a DVD disc can hold, it's certainly attractive, and BluRay appears to be gaining popularity. Unlike with DVD, there's no BD-R vs BD+R, but there is still single layer (25 GB) vs. dual layer (50 GB). There are no LightScribe-compatible BD-R discs on Newegg.

Single-layer BD-R: $1 ea for a quantity of 10--25.
Dual-layer BD-R: $7.5 ea for a quantity of 10, falling to $7.2 ea for a pack of 25.

Clearly, BD-R is still at the frontier of optical technology. These days USB flash drives are about $1 per gigabyte and more convenient than optical media... but my concerns about flash reliability tilt the playing field.

I'm interested in what's going to happen in the next few years. Will BluRay gain steam and become the standard of choice for large files? Will USB flash drives become large enough and robust enough to overtake everything? Or will fast Internet connections combined with cloud services like JungleDisk virtually eliminate removable storage?
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Starting today, if you buy a qualifying PC with Windows 7, you'll receive a download offer for Windows 8 once the latter becomes available. I am excited about Windows 8!
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A great read for all businesses.
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Windows 8 is getting firmed up. The release date is roughly October, and we know there will be four editions: Windows 8, Windows 8 Pro, Windows 8 RT, and Windows 8 Enterprise.

I continue to recommend the Pro edition to everybody. In addition to supporting joining a domain (which is useful if you're a staff member at a school where I am the IT department and want your laptop to access network drives), the Pro version also supports device encryption. Between the risks of theft, loss, and the TSA, I recommend encryption to everybody.

Windows 8 will also be the first major version of Windows to not raise the system requirements (CPU, RAM, etc.) -- a refreshing and kind move on Microsoft's part to help you maximize your investment in PC hardware.
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I like the idea of +Red Hat Enterprise Linux -- a comprehensive Linux distribution that's relatively "standard". If there's proprietary software that supports Linux, it's safe to assume that it supports RHEL.

What I don't understand is how much more expensive RHEL is than Windows. It's offered by subscription and costs $349 per year per machine -- and that's without any support and for up to two CPU sockets. $349 will buy you a perpetual license of the best edition of the latest version of Windows every single year!

You might say I am comparing apples to oranges (server vs. desktop OS), but desktop-oriented Windows OS can run services (file sharing, web, SSH, Subversion) just as well as Windows server OS. That's the majority of what small businesses care about -- Active Directory and multiple remote desktop sessions are nice but not in big demand.

Considering Red Hat does way less R&D than Microsoft (the former's bread and butter is support), I don't understand the exorbitant price for mainly GPLed software. A price tag like $349/year moves it from a no-brainer squarely into a "major purchasing decision" camp.

And without support, RHEL is merely Scientific Linux (free) with proprietary centralized system management.

For now I'll stick with +Gentoo for my clients.
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Yesterday at CVS Pharmacy I saw a curious thing in the pharmacy section: an In-Case-of-Emergency (ICE) Medical USB Drive. For a picture and details, see the link below. It costs $27.95 and proclaims that "Carrying this card could save your life!"

Don't buy it! This is a type of a gadget that seems obvious, neat, and useful. It works like any other USB flash drive, storing programs and data. The main program is configured to auto-run when you plug in the drive, and it displays your medical information to your rescuers as well as allows you to update it.

This has potential. I can just imagine some paramedic finding this Medical USB Drive and jumping for joy at how easy you've made their job. Your life is saved, and legend spreads throughout the land about the speed with which they pulled up your complete info.

In reality, the drive will almost certainly be ignored. By relying on it, you've made things quite complicated for your rescuers. First, they have to have a laptop handy. Second, the laptop has to run Windows. Third, the laptop has to permit USB flash drives. (Many security policies prohibit USB devices. I assume ambulances and hospitals do prohibit them.) Fourth, the laptop has to be configured to auto-run the medical program on the flash drive, or at least to prompt the operator to do so. And fifth, you're asking the paramedics to do what everyone's trained never to do: to plug in a stranger's USB flash drive, with who knows how much malware, into a mission-critical computer.

This is why I feel that these "medical" USB drives are a false sense of security. In general, the more technology is required to get your emergency information, the more time it'll take, or the less likely it is to happen at all. Write your most critical info on a card-sized piece of paper (or type it; I'll allow /that much/ technology), laminate it, and rest easy.

P.S. If you're a paramedic or a hospital who is interested in being able to accept these USB drives without any risk of malware, my advice is to have a separate laptop for this, always in standby, configured to auto-run software from CDs and USB media. Install on it either Faronics Deep Freeze or Fortres Grand Clean Slate to eliminate all system changes.

P.P.S. Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, and Happy New Year!
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Have the cheap and ubiquitous USB flash drives replaced DVDs and BluRays? Not for me. Lately I have an awful track record with USB flash drives, even though I take very good care of them. Is it a streak of bad luck, or are modern flash drives particularly bad?

I had a +Corsair 8 GB flash drive that went bad a little after a year, so I had Corsair exchange it. A few months later, Corsair's replacement failed. I had it replaced again, but bought a Kingston DataTraveler 8 GB flash drive since I no longer trusted Corsair. Kingston's flash drive went bad after two months, and I am in the process of exchanging it now.

With a recent history like that, my trust in flash media has dwindled to almost zero. I fondly recall how CDs, DVDs (and surely BluRays) just work. They can get scratched up, they can sit in a drawer for years, but you put them in and there's data.

I suspect that the difference is error correction. For optical discs, error correction is standardized. For example, all DVD+Rs regardless of manufacturer use the same quality of error correction. For USB flash drives, however, the quality of error correction in the flash controller appears to be entirely up to the manufacturer. Cynically, I suspect that manufacturers would rather maximize advertised storage capacity than robustness.

There's also the matter of wear leveling, which flash media requires in some form. Since none of the Windows-supported filesystems support wear leveling, it's again up to the controller. Again I suspect the controller is either not doing it or doing it poorly.

Now that I cross my fingers every time I plug in any flash drive, returning to the reliability of DVDs and Blu-Rays for some tasks is very tempting.

What's your experience with modern USB flash drives?
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860-2-MOON-48
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PO Box 11751 Cedar Rapids, IA 52410
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Professional information technology for Cedar Rapids and Iowa City
Introduction
Moonlit Consulting LLC is a small business founded by Philip in 2010 to provide part-time IT support to organizations and homes in the Cedar Rapids / Iowa City Corridor.

Our strength is assuring high-availability, reliable, consistent, and productive computing experience for everyone in your organization.