Monthly Archives: April 2006

The Cost of Knowledge

A number of state public interest research groups have created a report entitled “Rip-off 101: Second Edition – How the Publishing Industry’s Practices Needlessly Drive Up Textbook Costs“. If you haven’t spent much time in college classes recently you may not be aware that it’s not unusual for students to spend $900 a year on textbooks. Many students now recoup some of that cost by selling their used textbooks back to the bookstore (let’s not even get into that scandel), but as publishers move towards electronic textbooks that is not going to be a possibility any longer. Of course publishers could drastically reduce the price of electronic textbooks and end up making about the same amount of money but they see this as just another way to profit on the backs of debt-ridden students.

Luckily there has been slow bust steady progress towards free and open “textbooks” and curriculum. This really started with the MIT OpenCourseWare project and has since expanded to numerous other offerings. Of course I’ve already written about Schiller’s free physics textbook, the All About Circuits electronics curriculum and the Learning by Doing CCNA textbooks but now there are even more.

The Textbook Revolution, Free Tech Books and Assayer websites all have lists of different free e-textbooks availible on a variety of subjects. If you’re in the position of influencing textbook purcahsing I would urge you to look and see if any of these free offerings could meet your needs. Perhaps you’ll even blend a few of them to create a free textbook unique to your class. In any event I’m certian students would appreciate the thought.

The Truth About Hotel Key Cards

On September 19, 2005 ComputerWorld blogger Robert Mitchell posted an entry about an IT director named Peter Wallace who supposedly found his name and personal credit card information encoded on the magnetic strip of several hotel key cards.

The next day Slashdot linked to that blog entry in this article where much debate took place and several readers pointed out that internet myth debunking sites such as Snopes had debunked this urban legend several years ago. You’ll even find that I went back to the original ComputerWorld source and pointed out this was false information.

That evening Robert Mitchell responded to criticisms of his earlier entry. He included links to both the Snopes report and an article by Jane Ann Morrison which appeared in the Las Vegas newspaper in 2003 which also seems to debunk the myth. Mitchell again contacted his informant, Peter Wallace, who stated he had also been receiving much feedback and would like to respond but “is awaiting clearance from his organization’s legal dept. before he can do so”.

As far as I know Peter Wallace then disappeared but this topic did not. On January 16, 2006 ComputerWorld published a feature length expose where they tested 100 hotel card keys and determined that…drum roll please…there was no personally identifiable information on any of them. Astute readers will note that this was the comment I made on Mitchell’s original blog entry. You see, I happen to own a three-track magstripe reader myself and have made an interesting hobby of scanning all kinds of cards to see what they contain. I can happily state that I have never ever found any personally identifiable information on any hotel key cards.

In any event, if you’re interested in this sort of thing I strongly suggest you read the complete ComputerWorld expose which has all kinds of interesting information about how hotel key card systems work and why it would be so unlikely that personal information could end up on a key card. As for Peter Wallace the IT director of a travel company who started all of this? When asked he had “no comment” for the ComputerWorld story.

Lacking in Updates

You may have noticed the lack of updates the last few days. There are a number of reasons for this but it mainly boils down to a hectic schedule the last few days. I will try to get things rolling again on a daily basis in a few weeks but I would like to write a few slightly longer pieces as well so no guarantees! On a slightly related and interesting note I am serving district court jury duty for the next two weeks which promises to be quite an interesting experience and one suitable for at least one blog entry once I’ve completed my tenure. All I’ll say for now is that it’s quite the interesting process.


Lots of people know about the various serices that will page or email you when there is a severe storm threatening your area. Something new that I just heard about tonight is a service called StormCall which will actually call you on the phone and warn about severe weather.

StormCall seems really designed to be pushed by local tv stations. This is a genius marketing idea. First, the local tv stations pays StormCall to get things setup. Next, the tv station “advertises” it on newscasts and with public service announcements (PSAs) all of which amounts to free advertising for StormCall. Finally, StormCall charges a yearly subscription fee to viewers who sign up for the service. This is quite an interesting business model and the reliance on gratis advertising is truly genius.

All StormCall is doing is mathing the address entered by a subscriber to a latitude/longitude. When the National Weather Service issues a warning which includes that location StormCall calls you and plays a friendly message from your local tv station’s chief meteorologist warning you and reminding you to turn on channel X for more information.

I would like to see an implementation of this using the free and open-source Asterisk PBX. I think it would be a great piece of demo software showing off the versitility of Asterisk and it would be fun too. Instead of a pre-recorded message you could have the Asterisk text to speech engine read the actual storm warning from the NWS. You could also show off the IVR capabilities by allowing users to sign up for the service via telephone so no end-user internet access is required. The NWS already provides free severe weather data so it would just be a matter of getting that data stream into some program to parse it and find the appropriate people to call. I think it would make an interesting project anyway.

North American Network Operators’ Group

The North American Network Operators’ Group, or NANOG, is essentially a user group for backbone and large enterprise internet providers. Why should you care about NANOG? Well, if you’re responsible for any type of network connected to the internet in North America you’re probably interested in the current status of the internet and routing. The NANOG mailing list is my goto location when I think there’s a potential routing problem on the internet. The folks there keep a pretty close eye on things and usually report any difficulty with the internet infrastructure.

File Synchronization

For years I’ve recommended using Second Copy to automatically synchronize folders and save backup copies of files. A typical installation would be for copying off nightly backups of a user’s documents and profile from a laptop to a network share. If you’re looking for a freeware alternative you might take a look at SyncBack Freeware from 2BrightSparks Software. You’ll have to scroll past the paid version to find the freeware version, but it is availible.

If you’re a little more the doit yourself type I would check out Unison File Synchronizer which is what I use myself these days. It’s a lot like rsync in that it only transfers the smallest portion of a file it can. Unlike rsync there is an easy to install Windows port of Unison which is a great benefit if you’re working in a mixed Win32/*NIX environment. Unison also has fantastic scripting support making it the best bet if you have the time and technical inclination to set that up.

Microsoft Windows XP Lockdown Toolkit

Update (2/4/2008): Since the time this article was written Microsoft has upgraded and renamed this product. The Microsoft Shared Computer Toolkit or Windows XP Lockdown Toolkit is now referred to as Windows SteadyState. This software was recently discussed on episode #129 of the Security Now! podcast. More information including a good description of the software as well as screen shots can be found on their website.

If you’re responsible for maintaining Windows XP computers in a shared environment such as a computer lab you’re probably aware of all the challenges associated with keeping the computer running and malware free. You may even be aware of commecial tools such as Deep Freeze which allows you to lock down systems and prevent users from making changes as well as reverting any changes when the system is restarted. What you’re probably not aware of, because it isn’t glamorous or well publicized, is the Microsoft Shared Computer Toolkit.

This toolkit is designed to help people just like yourself who need to maintain systems for public use. A few of the things you can do is clear user settings at every login, restrict users from making any system changes (even more so than the restricted/limited account type) and revert the Windows partition to its original state at every reboot. You don’t need to be running an Active Directory network for this to work, but if you are the toolkit includes group policy templates so you can control how restrictive the environment is on a per-user basis. If you’re looking for something to help you keep public computers under control and don’t have the budget for a commercial product you might want to give the Microsoft Shared Computer Toolkit a shot. The toolkit requires Windows XP Service Pack 2.

Free CD Burning in Windows

While it’s not as polished as Nero it’s quite a bit smaller. CDBurnerXP Pro is a free Win32 CD and DVD burning solution. Unfortunatly it’s not open source but when you’re just looking for some simple software to burn discs in Windows this could be the ticket. Of course on Linux I strongly recommend K3b which is undoubtedly the best GUI for CD and DVD creation in Linux.

Because brand name is better

The other day I was looking for a clean copy of an old Apple Computer Company logo. I was able to find one and many more logos at “the best brands of the world” website. In fact, I was able to waste about two hours looking for all kinds of classic or defunct company logos. I had a great time looking at old Microsoft MS-DOS logos, baby Bell logos, and many more. If you’re looking for company logos this is the best place I’ve seen so far. As an added benefit many of the logos are availible in EPS format which is a scalable vector format perfect for printing.