Month: August 2009

Dropbox: My Online Hub

I have a computer at work and a computer at home.  Both are laptops, but both serve their own purposes.  I’ve tried a good handfull of methods to have a consistent experience from one to the other.  My solution to this problem is Dropbox, a free (or fee-based, for larger accounts) tool that synchs files between computers through the cloud and also gives me the peace of mind that I’m not only working with the most recent version of the file, but that I’ll have access to it whether I’m online or offline.

For years I carried around a simple USB drive (okay…”pen drive”) with a handfull of key applications and documents.  This was a slick solution for quite some time, but I found I was going through them pretty quickly (they’re not all that durable and the hardcore ones are clunky).  This evolved into my iPod because of the 80GB hard drive (and I had it with me anyway, which offset the clunky factor).  While I loved having easy access to my files, applications and music, it ended up being a hassle to have an outside device tethered to my computer. The extra device I carried around drew lame questions and made my system a bigger hassle to take places.

There was also extra work I made for myself trying to deal with file versioning. Inevitably, I’d take a local version of a file, then have to remember to copy the finished product back out.  As this became more and more frequent, it got tough to keep track of which instance was the right one.

In the back of my mind, there was always this fear that I’d lose my data with a hard drive crash.  This meant making extra copies…locally and on other external drives.  It got tough keeping straight which computer or which drive had the most recent backup, too.

There were online hacks to use Gmail as a file repository (GmailDrive is one example) but it only took one lock of my Google account to put a quick stop on that.  I used Carbonite for a year, which was great for backup and recovery, but not a real solution for synch.  As an aside, I stopped using it when my hard drive crashed and I wasn’t able to recover my files because of a technicality…

Dropbox has been my hero.  A simple installation application creates the “My Dropbox” folder that sits under My Documents.  These files get synchronized out to the getdropbox.com server (2GB starting capacity for a free account, larger available).  Next step (in this multiple computer scenario) is to set up Dropbox on each of the other systems, providing the same account information.  Dropbox kicks right in and starts populating the second computer’s My Dropbox with all of the same files that were on the original system.dropbox

The software runs in the background, waiting for changes, and once an updated file has been saved and closed, the new data is uploaded (and almost immediately) updated on the other computer (if it’s on and connected to the internet).

Pseudo Techie Stuff:

  • Dropbox is monitored by a host agent that looks for file changes.
  • The synch only uploads the part of a file that’s changed, not the whole file.  (So if I wrote a novel and saved the 50MB file to Dropbox, then later realized I forgot to include “The End”, it’s smart enough to only upload a few bytes of data instead of all 50 meg.
  • Both a local copy of the most recent file and a cloud copy are retained.
  • Version history is tracked and older versions of a file can be restored through the web interface.
  • Files on getdropbox.com are encrypted, but user-defined keys are not an option (yet).

I’ve been going strong for several months now and it’s been a fantastic experience.  Dropbox almost exclusively handles my synchronization requirements.  I say almost because large video files (multi GB .VOB files of my band’s shows) are much more quickly transfered over USB or the local network. I’ve been able to silence the fears that the file I want to be using lived on my other computer.

Some of my favorite other features of Drobpox include:

  • “Public” folder which allows me to send links to people who can download the files I put in there
    • Great alternative to sending a file in email, just send the link (like a great video of a co-worker losing it during a fire drill)
    • Image hosting for online content, I trust it will be there more than tinypic (Photo of my band hosted on Drobox)
  • Sharing Folders with other Dropbox users: Far better way to transfer files than over IM…and it gives a little notification balloon saying that a new file has arrived.

These are only the basics, and believe me, I have a lot more to say about the service.  If you’d like to try it out yourself, you can download it yourself at http://www.getdropbox.com/ or (if you’d be so kind) you could click through this link, which will give me referral credit and increase my dropbox size by 300MB when you sign up.

More to come on how I use Dropbox to make digital life a heck of a lot easier.

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Launchy: Because the start menu is a hassle

Launchy is a simple application launcher that is extremely easy to use, yet can be customized to carry out rather robust tasks.  It’s the first application I install on any computer, home or office, and when I’m on somebody else’s system, I have to catch myself because it’s so intuitive.

For some context, I spent a good chunk of impressionable computer years  in DOS or a DOS compatibility mode.  This means I had a flashing cursor and needed to type my way to the application of choice, but it was a navigation interface rather than my primary means of interacting with my data.  I got really quick at  typing in a full path to run a program, or creating a folder and creating batch files (.bat) that I could easily crank out.  I was the king of the world.  From any directory, I could type c:\mca\appname.bat and ZING, all 16 megahertz (today, more) of computing power let loose to load my app of choice.

Later, Windows.  Very pretty, much more accessible to…well…everyone.  Look at the pretty colors!!  Most of the apps I cared about were launched by navigating the start menu.  Oh boy did my start menu become an unwieldy beast.  Even the most carefully planned folders couldn’t help make sense of the jungle that was the start menu.  Heck, half of what was in there was crapware that came preinstalled or was an “added bonus application” of some other software purchased…just a mess.

Microsoft has done a good job of trying to manage the start menu.  Auto-hiding lesser used folders, improving the UI for direct manipulation of the layout, adding the recent applications section to the main start menu.  However, none of these things helped when I’d try to find an application that was extremely useful, though it was rarely used, and stored in a folder named after the developer, not the application.  Heaven forbid I resort to try the old school MS Search functionality to find the .exe…

In 2006 I stumbled across Launchy.  A lightweight application that’s brings itself up in a window with a simple key combination.  This window is a text window where you can start typing the application I want to run, and it starts showing the apps I may want to launch.

Launchy-starting an application

Launchy-starting an application

By hitting enter, or keying down to the desired program, ZING!  Off it goes.  No menus, no scanning of folders, no memorization of directory trees, no time wasted, period.  Because of Launchy, it doesn’t really matter what the name of the folder in the start menu is…if the app has a shortcut there, it’s indexed by Launchy.  Have another folder where applications or shortcuts live?  You can add that folder (or your entire hard drive) to the Launchy indexer.

The other thing Launchy has going for it is its intelligence.  If in the image above, I picked the “fractaltrace” application, the next time I typed in “calc”, the default application would be just that.

Vista and Windows 7 users have a similar type of launching function built into the start menu, however I’m an XP user (as many, many still are) and appreciate the simple, lightweight Launchy application.  Additionally, Launchy supports custom scripts, which allows you to extend it further than just an application launcher.  I plan to dive into this further sometime in the future.

Want to try it yourself?  I only hope you find it as crucial to a successful digital experience as I do.

Launchy (http://www.launchy.net) (Windows XP, Linux)

  • Notable Preferred Settings
    • Hide Launchy when it loses focus = Checked
    • Alt-Esc as hotkey combination
    • Index PortableApplications directory

Passwords…on (in?) my digital keyring

We all have passwords, and they need to live somewhere.  My history:

Oh the days when they could all be kept straight in my head…that was great.  I was a big fan of picking a single word, then substituting in one numeric character for a similar looking letter.  5wordfish and c1etus were my favorites.  You may recognize Cletus as a (then) lesser known character on the Simpsons.  Who ever would think that I’d pick his name, and be smart enough to stuff a letter in the middle?  Those were the days.  My Geocities account couldn’t have been safer.

Eventually, sites started requiring an uppercase letter…fine.  Then C1etus it would be.  However, this soon morphed into inconsistent requirements from web account to web account.  Lame.  Okay…time to formalize this a bit further…add a rule so I’ll know it’ll be one of three potential password case combinations.  Swell.  It’s a little more complicated, but I can handle it.  Most of these sites don’t lock me out with three tries anyway.

This worked pretty well, but shoot, soon my standard username was taken by someone else.  Who would have thought that “soupanderson” would be such a popular handle?  Soon, two handles became three, became a dozen–and was sometimes one of my four email addresses (a lot at the time).

This turned into a text file with codes…website name, code for whether it was a username or email address, last letter of the user name, then a hint to which of my growing array of passwords.

Lately, every site thinks their formula for password requirements is somehow better than any other site.  Must be 9 characters, have at least one uppercase letter, one lowercase letter, one number, one special character, no spaces, and no repeating letters.

IE and Firefox (ok, an chrome too) have integrated password managers.  I adopted the Firefox password manager with an extension called “master password timeout” which forces me to enter a super password if I’m not active in the browser for any 2 minute period.

This worked great…but made me nervous.  I’m not the best at locking my workstation if I walk away, and I was an early adopter of portable applications (read: carried my digital life around with me on a 512MB USB drive, later my iPod).

Then came the popularity of online banking.  All of a sudden, I could access secure information about my financial life through my home (or public–yikes) PC.  It started with credit cards, then moved to online brokering and banking like e-trade, then got mainstream with Wells Fargo, TCF Bank, and US Bank. At this point, it didn’t take a slack-jawed yokel to recognize that a simplistic password strategy was just asking for trouble.

I decided to abandon the browser-saved-credentials ship while I was ahead of the game.  My go-forward solution:KeePassPortable (based on KeePass Password Safe).  I’ll deep-dive on the app another time, but the important bullets include:

  • Encrypted password file: All of my passwords live in one file, which i can back up as desired, and have a single, ridiculously difficult password to remember, as well as an optional keyfile.
  • Easily searchable: one search box to go through my entire password database.
  • Lightweight, portable application: It’s not intrusive into my computing experience, and open source to boot.
  • Each entry gives me latitude to add notes and other meta data so I can keep things straight.

The biggest downside is that I find myself more and more dependent on KeePass.  As this compounds, I need to open my password file more often, which provides more opportunities for my master password to be compromised.  Though this can be a bit nerve-racking, a good password rotation should keep this in check.

I’ve held firm with the KeePass approach for a solid couple of years now, and it’s still the best play as far as I’m concerned.

purpose statement

A little bit about me:

  • I helped assemble a computer at the age of 3.
  • I could beat my dad and his friends in action-based computer games by age 4.
  • At age 6, I was introduced to LOGO.
  • I was a Number Muncher at age 7 (prime!).
  • I learned DOS and windows 3.11 for workgroups by audiocassette at age 8.
  • My oxen died on The Oregon Trail when I was 9.
  • I used my 2400 baud modem to connect to bbs systems when I was 10.
  • I was the only 11 year old (anywhere) who managed home-computer tape backups (lightning fast through a parallel port connection).
  • I created my first personal website at age 12. (guy incognito’s simpsons domain)
  • I was offered my first full time job as a webmaster at age 14.
  • By age 15, I knew what the difference between raid 5 parity 3 and raid 5 parity 5 was.  Also, if you were being annoying in an AOL chat room, I was sending you IM bombs.
  • I had a 6 foot tall anti-piracy poster in my room when I was 16.
  • I completed my CCNA at age 17.
  • Today I work in the Data Storage industry

I grew up with computers as a pillar of my youth.  My computer world started with command prompts and floppies, later transitioned to a Mac SE/30, added an online experience with BBS and gopher, and later upgraded to Windows 95, 98 and my choice of Netscape or IE (on my family’s screaming fast DSL line).  The rapid advances in the digital experience made it tough to keep up, but I had the time to spend (devote) to experiment with these evolving tools.

It was this experimentation that really gave me the opportunity to explore.  I loved to try things out.  Games, utilities, shareware, beta software, anything I could get my hands on.  My Dad’s one rule for our computer was: “It doesn’t matter what you install…but the computer’d better work when I want to use it.”  This rule stuck with me.  Honestly, it’s a good practice.

I’ve tuned this method over the years, and as the line between the local computing experience and the cloud blurs, I’ve had a new set of challenges put in front of me.  The sheer volume of utilities, hacks, apps (local, portable, web), blogging sites, portals, and digitalia out there make it tough to stick to the simple strategies I grew up with.

My Digitalism is where I can share what is working well, what I’m trying to improve, what my goals are, and what the method to my madness is.