Why 28-backspace Vulnerability is not so Serious?

There have been news being circulated around regarding 28-backspace vulnerability of a Linux bootloader, Grub2.

Why this is not a serious problem? Because relying your security on bootloader is utterly stupid to begin with. If someone has a physical access to your machine, that means, they can easily bypass limitations set by a boot loader. It is a very simple feat to create a thumbdrive with a bootloader without such authentication in place, whether this vulnerability exists or not. Therefore, the existence of this vulnerability does not provide any difference from a security standpoint.

To protect a system with this type of issues, you’ll have to take steps like:

  • Limit physical access to the device.
  • Encrypt root partition

If only thing this protection on this Grub2 feature provides, that’s an illusion of security, maybe we are better off without this feature. (If someone’s so concerned about giving access to rescue shell so easily, in casual operation, then remove a rescue shell from Grub2 installation. If system administrator ever needs one, just boot from external media with rescue shell access.)

How Far Can a $300 Laptop Go?

When my last laptop decided to give up on me, giving me a one blink on caps lock, which apparently means that CPU has failed, I needed to get a replacement quick.

I decided to search for Linux laptops, because that’s what I used on my last machine. I could either shop some specialized vendors for laptop, or as I always do, search Amazon.com.

Then I found this device called Acer Aspire V5-131-2887.


This is a very inexpensive $300 laptop that is pre-installed with a variant of Linux called Linpus. Just because my preference, I’ve reinstalled Ubuntu running KDE desktop.

According to Amazon.com, this device has:

  • Intel Celeron 847 1.1 GHz
  • 4 GB DDR3
  • 320 GB 5400 rpm Hard Drive
  • 11.6-Inch Screen
  • Linux

Usually, when it comes to computing, it’s pretty much you get what you paid for, and this computer is not an exception. For instance, I wouldn’t expect this machine to do heavy computing, such as video editing and 3D modeling.

Yet this Intel HD Graphics GPU built into the CPU is actually not that bad of graphic processor, capable of displaying 3D contents with very surprising speed; I just don’t think I would play cutting edge games on it but nonetheless provides adequate speed for applications like Google Maps in WebGL mode. Another good thing about this particular GPU is that it’s one of most well supported series of graphic card on Linux.

This machine is equipped with 1.1GHz processor, which is not very fast, even at yesterdays standard, but it is very smooth, and in very good thermal profile. (It’s usually around 50C.)

as for connectivity, this computer provides 802.11a/b/g/n and Bluetooth. It is a nice touch, it provides those as even more expensive machines of often lacks 802.11a and Bluetooth. (Amazon’s listing is missing those features, you may want to go to a product page for Acer Aspire V5-131-2887 for more complete information.)

Would I recommend this laptop? Absolutely, but only if you know something about Linux. For example on Ubuntu, it worked, but I had to modify grub setting to make brightness adjustment work. If you don’t know what that means, maybe you want to stay away. But then, if you are considering learning how to deal with Linux, at $300, maybe this is a good start!

4+ Things I don’t Miss About Windows

So now I have transitioned my desktop into Linux, this means I no longer have any system that runs Windows (at least at native capacity.)

1. No more crappy update systems

Apparently, Windows has a defect (that roots from Windows XP) on its Windows Update driver, that can cause very high disk load on every startup/resume, mainly, for parsing datastore.edb file. This actually caused in bit of issues trying to use my system. Essentially, every time I turn on my machine to use, it’d take at least 10 minutes to “stabilize.” This has happened in three of prior systems, and latest machine, which is i7-2600 with 16GB didn’t help solve this issue either.

Besides, I have a lot of complaints of how the update system works on Windows. Unfortunately, Windows pretty much requires restart and just about any updates, perhaps thanks to its locking file system, too.

2. I am no longer underprivileged citizen of the system

Why am I getting “Access denied” when you are using your machine as Administrator? Because on Windows, you are not the man of the house. Windows has layers of the system that prevents people from doing stupid things in their system.

Essentially, on Windows, you are prevented to do a lot of stupid things. This mentality often causes cases where I know what I’m doing, but the system is not letting me do that.

For instance, on Linux and other Unix system, you can cause a bit of damage by doing something like:

sudo rm -rf /*

I am more than willing to take a risk, and if this command does kill my system, that’s my own fault. After all great power comes with great responsibilities.

 3. Exiting out from the blackbox

In any computing, you can’t really escape from error messages. Things happen in many degrees of issues. Some are minor, and some are major. If anything goes crazy on Linux, I can usually just type dmesg to find out what exactly happened in few seconds. Windows also has logging facility, but even after spending a long time trying to boot system event logs, information I can get is extremely limited. Something as simple as a defective thumb drive is a bit hard to investigate under Windows.

4. Locking file system

You can’t delete or move files that are in use. This is somewhat a legacy from old Windows versions. On Linux, you can do these things as executables are mostly preloaded into RAM, hence many system updates don’t require a reboot of the system.  Most of system has more RAM than you ever use, so this is very ridiculous notion that you still can’t do this on Windows.

Ranting continues…

Another thing I want to point out is that Microsoft has been harsh on IT professionals (well, I don’t know if I’d call myself “IT professional” but I do maintain a handful of systems…) lately. TechNet Plus was a useful resource in evaluating softwares, so I can support the platform that I don’t necessarily use. First, they degraded its contents of the subscription, and then they decided to retire it altogether. I was paying my own hard earned money to stay on top of the platforms I have been supporting. An enterprise may be able to move to MSDN, but smaller business, which relies heavily on personal expertise of staff, this won’t be very realistic. Anyways, Microsoft no longer seems to care. So why should I care? That’s pretty much what I will have to tell people from now on.

Why I Rather Want to See Linux Desktop Succeed

Linux Desktop looking better and better…maybe more so when Windows 8 is out.

Because Windows 8 is One Step Away from the Operating System…

Face it, Windows 8 is a mess. It mostly trying to push their agenda. (which Mac OS X in certainly guilty on some count of this) Those both platforms are trying to make PC into a jail, with scaled down interface on Windows, and now they are starting to lock down their system using Secure Boot feature and launch restriction.

Better Out of the Box Experience

If you grab a copy of Ubuntu (free, indeed!), you immediately have access to just about everything to get started. No need to buy another hundred (or two) bucks to get Office Suite; it’s already there, waiting for you to use it.

Better Accessibility

One thing Microsoft hasn’t address for over its lifetime is a biggest accessibility topics in the world. That’s language support.
Windows still don’t have language pack available as a standard feature. Yes, if you buy top of the line Ultimate edition, or the localized version; which is not readily available unless you live in the country that the language of your choice in use, you can have that feature. But that means, if you pay more than $200 when it should be basic accessibility feature. Ubuntu can be used in at least 40 languages without purchasing additional language pack, and Mac OS X ships with 28 languages. It’s 2012 and Windows still speaks only one language! (Granted unlike when it was era of Windows 95, at least you can display/input those languages, but full language integrations are not there unless you buy Ultimate edition, or localized version which is not usually available outside of a target region, let alone for consumers.)

Ubuntu Control Panel in Japanese
Ubuntu Control Panel in Japanese

Games

Traditionally, Linux has been left out of the loop for many games. Not any more. Humblebundle, for example, periodically push out very nice games that works on Linux, and now Steam is developing for Linux, prospect is pretty good for games.

Unfortunately, despite effort of those parties, this probably remains weakest aspect of the Linux as viable operating system. After all, myself being in the industry, it would be actually quite difficult for me to push for development for Linux, let alone with smaller company. Nonetheless, it is nice to see there’s some additional efforts being put into this area. Hopefully people at Valve will constructing the way to Linux gaming. (Linux don’t have to dominate the market, it just need few 10%s. Just like a browser, having small, but substantial chunk of the share is enough to make sure it won’t be ignored.)

How about Mac OS X?

I actually use Mac OS X at my work, and it is quite pleasing system to use. It is probably most friendliest system that is well-supported yet allows access to Unix core. It insulate a lot complex part of Unix core and put really nice interface to it — users don’t have to worry about any Unix aspect of the system at all for general use. One thing I have been noticing while using Mac OS X is that it works very good if you are willing to stay within its eco-system. If you try to deviate out from it, then it start treating you bit harsher; it’s won’t be flexible as Linux.

After all…

If you know me, and especially if you know my past, I’m bit biased. Around 1996 my only computer was Linux box. Around that time, Microsoft vs. Linux was much more of heated debate, and in fact, I have yet to shed distrust I have developed against Microsoft during those susceptible years at the time. (only difference is that now I do use some Windows system — but still have 3 other systems that running Linux.)

It is ironic perhaps I’m a victim of my own success that I’m known around me for being troubleshoot most of general computer issues (including Microsoft product, ahem), and, I actually made some money doing that, but that’s not because I know the software, but rather I know general computing… and unfortunately, that’s not what a lot of people get it. Sometimes frustrating, but what can I say.

Ubuntu Unity Dash Search Problem and Fix

Just installed new virtual machine instance of Ubuntu only to found that Unity Dash Search not showing anything.

Then I came across the post on Ask Ubuntu, titled Software Sources not found in Unity Dash Search.

It generally consists of doing copy operation from default:

mkdir -p ~/.local/share/applications
cp /usr/share/applications/software-properties-gtk.desktop ~/.local/share/applications/

Then changingNoDisplay=true within.

After some inspection, it turned out to be unity-lens-applications and unity-lens-files weren’t installed. Wow, those are missing with fresh install of Ubuntu? This need to be fixed…

Linux: Some words about it

I have been advocating Linux for both notebook and desktop system for some time, let me run down some factors that will affect when you want make a switch.
I have been using Linux exclusive from around 1994 to 1997, and after I some blank, I am now using Linux on couple of machines for several months now. So I will have some comparative analysis for those who are thinking about coming back as well.

Installation

Installation was somewhat pain around 1994, where installer were rudimentary, while newer distributions such as Redhat started introducing more user friendly installation. Today’s installers are mostly graphical (though, text only installation method is still there as an option). Another big thing about it is most of modern distributions offer liveCD feature. With this feature, you can boot Linux off from CD to try it out, without writing a bit on your hard drive, and many even allows you to install it right onto your hard drive, if you like it so it will be bootable from your hard drive. By partitioning your hard drive, it is possible to have both of those operating systems co-exist on one machine, where you will be prompted whether you want boot up Windows or Linux. Most Linux also has provision of writing to USB thumb drive, which allows you to boot up Linux by plugging in your USB thumb drive, while saving all data into it. It may be useful for temporarily borrowing your friend machine and for recovery purpose. This is big and practical advantage over Windows as simply license don’t allow this at all.
While most, if not all Linux can be downloaded fairly easily, nice people at Ubuntu can send you free CD if you request one. (This can be used for both installation and liveCD.) Or just ask friend who has installation disc. Anyone who I know that are interested installing Linux, just ask me and I will burn you one.

GUI

No, you don’t have to use CUI (Character User Interface) like command shell if you don’t really want to. Just like command prompt on Windows. Learning how to use command line, however learning how to use CUI certainly makes your life easier in some case. It’s just like Windows, if you don’t really touch command prompt, you can live that was, too.
Linux GUI has pretty much everything you will expect. But of course, there are some difference where you can find different options and such.

Softwares

Most of productivity tools and applications comes with distribution out of the box. For example, Ubuntu ships with OpenOffice.org for office suite, GIMP for graphic editor, and such. Usability out of the box, in fact is much higher than Windows.
However, some hard-to-find aspect of Linux would be games and some type of niche applications.
Installation and removal of applications are easy on modern Linux distributions as they come with package manager built in.

Security and Administration

Generally, when people talk about Linux security, they tend to believe it is more secure than Windows. It is in fact yes and no.

  • If your own account is compromised and the perpetrator does not have access to root (Linux equivalent of Administrator) account, damage can only extend to your own account.
  • Many distribution has designed so built-in firewall receive ports closed unless they are reactivated or necessary.
  • Linux has lower userbase than Windows and Mac, so it is less likely to be targeted.

Generally speaking, Linux do offer at least same level or higher security than Windows, when combined those factors above.
Administrating on Linux has different mentality than Windows.

  • On Windows, SYSTEM account (non-interactive account that Windows system maintains) assumes privileges higher than Administrator account. Which means there are certain things you try to do on your system but your SYSTEM account do not allow. On Linux, root has highest privilege. You can do real damage as root, if you don’t be careful. But at the end of day, nothing gets on your way if you try to do something on your system, to fix things. Flipside is, if you stay away from root account, you can’t really do real damage to the system.
  • On Windows, your files are locked, which means if something else is using your file, you cannot generally delete them. On Linux, you can delete file while it is being used unless application specifically requests file to be locking. (Inside Linux, applications still do have access to the file you have deleted until the application is terminated.) This often prevents “access denied” error when you try to delete files. (Which can be annoying if you really know what you are doing.)
  • Linux, especially due to its design coming from server operating system, minimizes necessity of rebooting. Only time you have to reboot your machine would be when some critical file on your system has been updated.

    Compatibility

    It used to be relatively hard to come by hardware compatible with Linux. But these days, most graphics card are supported on Linux by a manufacture. Drivers for most of hardware are available.
    Software wise, if you have to connect to Exchange server, Evolution E-mail application is available, and for 90% people, OpenOffice.org should have enough compatibility with Microsoft Office.

    Where to start?

    Convinced? Try Ubuntu. Trying is best way to start. If you are capable of burning ISO image to CD, you can download image file from Ubuntu and start trying. If not, order CD, or ask me.
    Further reading
    Wikipedia article on Linux
    Ubunchu the manga about Ubuntu