Author Archives: JDługosz

How do Phishing scammers get your personal information?

Today I got email that pretended to come from Ebay, in the form of a fake invoice that is actually bait to get you to click on one of the links in the message.  This is known as “phishing”, as explained on Wikipedia.

Now this particular message was sent to the wrong email address.  I use a unique email address for each online merchant or other purpose such as forums and any other kind of sign-up.  The particular service I use, and have been happy with for many years, is https://www.sneakemail.com.  It is handy for me to keep track of order information and forum sign-up data too, for low-to-medium security purposes (I keep passwords for banking sites and such in a password vault).

So, when I got this scam email, I knew that it was not really sent from PayPal.  It was sent to the address I used for Things From Another World, “best online store to buy comics, graphic novels, manga, and pop-culture collectibles!” and apparently to have your customer information stolen, too.  I used this email address on an order made January 3, 2006, for the Serenity comics, in case you’re interested.  That’s just to point out how Sneakemail helps me track these things.

So now their customer database winds up in the hands of criminals.

This is not the first time it has happened.  Other companies have been caught at supplying email address and perhaps first/last name (and who knows what else?) to those who then send spam or phishing email.  Most of the time they totally ignore repeated inquiries to their customer service, support, help, or other email addresses.

But when I have gotten an answer (e.g. from dyndns), it usually turns out to be blamed on the company they use for their newsletters, and they promise that it only included non-sensitive information.  So, that’s another reason to be sure to un-check any kind of newsletter subscription that they usually have on the check-out page.

Now, with Sneakemail, I can activate greylisting on an individual address, set up filtering (which is handy for addresses used for mailing lists and forums) to only allow through the intended correspondent, and, when necessary, disable or delete that individual address.  Deleting the address I used to place orders with TFAW or Oratec, does not affect any other address so all my other correspondence is not bothered.

Update May 11

I received a reply from someone at TFAW.com dated Friday afternoon.  That’s about a 24-hour turn-around, which is remarkable in these cases.

She said, (bold mine)

Thank you for contacting us, and notifying us of this matter.  We definitely do not rent or sell out any customer information at all, and any information provided on our site is kept completely confidential.  We do list our privacy policy confirming this in our site’s help pages that you can review at the following location: http://www.tfaw.com/Help/Privacy-Policy___35   We had our technical team look into this matter and have confirmed that there have not been any compromises in security on our end.  We definitely understand your concern on this matter, but rest assured no personal information has been passed along or obtained from our site.  We here at TFAW.com take privacy concerns very seriously, and actively ensure that all information is kept safe and confidential.

And also invited me to forward the message with the headers, for them to keep on file (not to further analyze?)

If I read that correctly, they didn’t give information to anyone such as a mailing list company, and nobody ever accessed their data surreptitiously (meaning their detection would be flawless even if the access control isn’t).  So what’s left? Deliberate access by someone on the inside.  Somehow I don’t think that’s what she meant.  Maybe email was gathered in-flight from their outgoing confirmation mail (the only time that address ever appeared in an email before the spam) only to be held for a couple years before being used for spam.

If some third party is listening in on email transit, I think there would be worse effects than just use of the address much later: such a person would have the receipt, invoice, and whatnot, containing order numbers and account information and could immediately spoof that person at that store, read the mail sent for a password reset, and go nuts.  However, the current state of security on email sent between parties on normal ISPs is far from tight.

July 28, 2014 — The Sock Company

I got another PayPal phishing message, this one sent to the email address I used with Thorlos socks.  I like their socks very much, and my notes indicate that it’s cheaper to order from them directly because of free shipping, unless the order is more than $55 in which case it’s better to by from The Sock Company.  I’m sure prices have changed since I first ordered from them in 2005, but that is an illustration of the kind of records I keep and why I’m confidant that nobody else would know of the email address to which I’m receiving these messages.

September 4, 2014 — Kingwin

Another occurrence, this time from Kingwin.  I emailed their tech support two years ago with questions about their USB SATA Dock products.  At least this time there’s no customer information with them, but only my name and a (unique) email address.

June 18, 2014 — LightRocket

I got an ad promoting something called LightRocket, sent to my historical original email address.  What I mean by that is once upon a time the Web was a nicer place and my email address was published on my web pages and various publications.  I still maintain it, but it’s only used by “cold calls”.

When I wrote back asking how I got on their mailing list, I got a real reply from someone in short order.  That’s nice, and hopefully I’ll find out something.  I’ll revise this report as I learn more.

January 4, 2015 — OEM PC World

I’ve ordered flash media from time to time from OEM PC World, most recently in July 2013.  Now I’m getting dozens of emails for mail order brides.  I’m sure that’s not really in their catalog, so how did these purported women get my contact info from them?  Interesting that a company that’s been “the world’s memory value leader” for over 15 years doesn’t have an email address itself, but can only be reached via a web form.

I received a real reply from someone later that same day.

Ongoing…

 June 2015— Paradigm Speakers tech support

I wrote Paradigm Speakers support email on 23 June 2014, and one year later I started getting PayPal and Apple ID Phishing email.  It wasn’t until November that I noticed some leaking through my normal spam filter, but I see it goes back at least to June 3.

In December 2016, I’m still getting junk from them (56 over the last 30 days), with nothing resolved.

December 4, 2016 — IcyDock

I got a PayPal Phishing email that slipped through my filters, that was sent to an email address used for product registration for Icy Dock, on November 21 2011.  Is this just the first to slip past the filters?  I checked the sneakemail stats and it was the only email to that address in the last 30 days.  So, the security breach of customer info is recent perhaps.

I contacted Icy Dock Sales, and quickly got a serious reply from a representative.  It’s refreshing to see that a company not only reads and responds to their own email, but gives a serious reply rather than some canned blather or blanket denials.  So, Kudos to them!

It would be great to discover if some particular 3rd party service were responsible for many of these incidents.  It would be possible if companies took it seriously and noted who was given customer information and when.  A culprit would show up as being common to many of them.

 

 

How much would you pay for the universe?

This is inspiring.  Neil deGrasse Tyson could run for president.

This goes with it.  I actually found this first and followed the link to Tyson.

Watch in the Home Theater for best experience (or at least full screen 1080p, with headphones).  I liked the music so much that I bought the album it’s from, as a gift for my wife to listen to in the car on her traffic-jammed commute.

As it so happens, today I received a letter from The Planetary Society.  They are campaigning for action on the budget for NASA.  You can sign a petition at http://action.planetary.org.

Censorship is Wrong

This post is not to preach in support of the free exchange of ideas, as you can find that stated eloquently from many others.  Rather, I want to give some practical advice.

TOR

A few years ago, I was visiting a country that is famous for having a “firewall” that censors access to arbitrary sites on the whim of whoever is running it.  On that particular day, the blocked list included that fount of human knowledge, Wikipedia.  In fact, here is a link to TOR’s description on Wikipedia, as an example of how prevalent it is for me to do so!

I installed a Firefox browser extension that automatically tried TOR if a URL was blocked.  I don’t see that listed on currently supported extensions, but I see several proxy-switcher extensions that are generic.  If you have TOR installed, then any of those would let you change your browser settings to use TOR, or back to normal settings, by clicking an icon on the status bar.

Since the list of available or favored extensions will be always changing, I won’t list the top results that I see today.  Rather, just search for “proxy” in Firefox Extensions and look at anything that says it will Select, Switch, Toggle, etc. the proxy settings.

That would still require that TOR be installed first.  If you look at TOR’s website, you will also find Tor Browser Bundle, in many languages.  This will, with a single installer, automatically install TOR and a browser pre-configured to use it.  It may be stored on a USB stick and hidden away, and used on any machine.

Finding “unpublished” Tor entry points is the best way to stay reliably connected to the whole world, without cost.  New ones are added as they become blocked.

VPN

A VPN is normally used to connect your home PC to your office LAN.  However, the same function allows you to privately connect to another machine for any purpose.  Some companies sell accounts on computers located in friendly places such as Zurich, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, etc.  If you set up your computer to log in to this as your “office”, you can use any networking software normally, and it goes through the friendly remote location.

These are sold for a variety of purposes, including aggregating bandwidth and caching content, for users in areas with poor connections.  I would suppose some are set up specifically to combat censorship, in which case advertising them would just make them easy to block, so you’ll have to find out about them from someone who’s already on it.  In general, the paid products I know about (assuming they are not themselves blocked) offer high quality of service and no loss of bandwidth (though increased latency), and a level of service and support that goes with being a professional product.  Covert or free systems set up by activists might be more difficult to use and have low bandwidth.  For example, if I were to set up such a server on my home PC and give the address and password to relatives somewhere else, then everyone using it would be going through my home PC and sharing my total bandwidth.

You-Tube Performance

My original concern was to access Wikipedia, and if the page took a long time to get through TOR, I would just wait for it to load and then read the page when it finished.  But streaming video is another story:  If it loads slowly, you cannot watch it.

So, here is some advice for You-Tube, using a couple Firefox extensions.

Download the Video

Even with uncensored Internet access, I sometimes have problems with the network performance, which prevents me from watching a video.  I originally supposed that pausing the player would let it read ahead, and I’d watch after it buffered most of it.  But the Flash player they use does not work that way at all!  If you pause, it stops reading from the network!  It reads and plays one little chunk at a time, and does not buffer ahead.

What I really needed was to download the video file, and then watch it once I had successfully downloaded the whole thing.  This is also useful when the You-Tube player has any other kinds of problems, such as wrong aspect ratio, refusing to go full screen, or sound out of sync.  I download the file and play it on a more capable player.

Finally, for watching videos while traveling, including on a long flight, I needed to store several hours of content to watch without reliable network access at all.  The Android player has a “preload” feature, but it doesn’t have controls to force preloading or tell me when it’s done so, and furthermore it checks the site again before playing the preloaded file, so it must have a connection anyway!

You-Tube does not provide a download feature on their web page.  But, I found numerous Firefox extensions that provide this.  Many of them are poor in various ways, or are built around server-based conversion features I’m not interested in.  I wanted something that would just save the stream to a file, nothing more.  I found exactly that with the extension called “Download YouTube Videos as MP4” by a user called ialc.  This is based on a Greasemonkey script that you could run in a different browser, or adapt and change it to suit your needs.

I’ve used it for all the reasons I’ve explained, and find it simple and useful, and it just saves the file, without involving other servers or installing complicated software.  I strongly endorse it.  In fact, I am wary of any of the other extensions that offer You-Tube downloading.

Customize the You-Tube Page

Even if a video is provided as a file on another site, such as the author’s download page, it can be handy to access the You-Tube page anyway.  In particular, you can read the description, read and respond to comments, and add your ratings!

So, if you access a You-Tube page on a connection that is too poor to watch video, with the intent of using the Download button described earlier, and adding your comments, you might still find that the network connection chokes when it starts to play automatically when the page is loaded.

I tried a few Firefox extensions for You-Tube, that improve or customize the page in various ways.  I recall one feature was to “disable auto-play”, so it doesn’t start playing the video immediately when a page loads.  I ended up not using those extensions, so I don’t recall exactly which one that was!  But browsing through the extensions now, I see Stop YouTube AutoPlay by Nikola Kovacs, which is a single-purpose extension which does exactly that.  It has an option for stopping autoplay on background tabs, so I may load that on my machine for everyday use.  It’s terrible when the browser is restarted and all the tabs reload, and every one of them starts playing at the same time!

For simple changes to the You-Tube page, Greasemonkey scripts might be a better choice.

Maybe you can buffer, after all?

The SmartVideo extension by Ashish for Firefox will allow the player to buffer the video before you start playing.  It also states, “you can opt to defer video initialization video until you click on it” which I think means that it won’t do anything at all (not play, not buffer) until you tell it to.  This works for embedded players on other pages, too!

You-Tube Specific Proxy

In writing the previous section, I came upon this extension:  ProxTube by Malte Götz.  It appears to be ad-ware and was written because GEMA (Society for musical performing and mechanical reproduction rights in Germany) is making it difficult for You-Tube to provide service in Germany.  I don’t know how well it works from other countries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Input

When you work with the computer all day, the human-machine interface is of critical importance.  I spend all day typing, so the workstation should optimize my ability to work rather than getting in the way.  So it is well worth putting some attention into getting right.

Here is a photograph of the “input” portion of my work desk:

kb-overview

Main Keyboard

It’s mostly all black, so it is hard to see in the photograph I’m afraid.  And I do mean all black—the keys are solid black with no labels.  Visitors are surprised by that, and I point out, “neither does a piano.”  This is a Das Keyboard II, featuring Cherry MX mechanical switches.  It is a little different from the third iteration that was introduced in 2008, in that it does not have an internal USB hub, has a matte surface, and is a fully rectangular case, something that I make use of.

Using an unlabeled keyboard does indeed make one a better typist.  The first time I learned to type was on a mechanical typewriter that had belonged to my grandfather.  The buttons were small and round with nice gaps between them to catch your finger instead!  The keys needed to be depressed a long distance and with great force.

I wasn’t that great at touch-typing and had to look at the keyboard.  It was once I became a professional computer programmer (late ′80′s) that I decided to better learn to touch type without looking.  I used Typing Tutor software, and learned the normal letter area quite well.  Typing forum posts and other prose writing, I easily made 60wpm.  But, I never really learned to “touch type” the funny characters like {} and &.  They are rare in prose, but bread-and-butter for programming languages.

I’d always appreciated a good quality keyboard.  Typing confidently with speed means not having the keys slide from side to side, and having a better feel than a cheapo keyboard.  When PC computers started getting cheap (shoddy!) keyboards, I found the Keytronics KB-101Pro, which I wore the labels off and started to wear down the plastic on some of the keys to a noticeable extent.  Eventually common keyboards improved in quality and an inexpensive keyboard from a stock PC was not too bad, and an inexpensive after-market keyboard was only subtly inferior to a high-end one.

A high-quality keyboard that was unlabeled made sense.  The labels wear off anyway, and you are not supposed to look while you type.  I recall someone improving upon the normal “don’t look” instructions for learning how to type well by using a box that hid it from view.

After I got this one, I had to learn all those funny keys that were not covered under lessons.  If I hit the wrong button, I could not cheat by looking at the labels.  I really had to learn them.  For letters and most other keys, I didn’t notice the difference because I never needed to look anyway.

Today, the only keys I ever worry about are the three to the right of the F-keys.  They are so rarely used at all, and never for their original labeled purpose anyway.  (Now I use them for different varieties of screen capturing.)

Keyboard Extension

kb-closeup

In this close-up you can see that there is another row of keys above the normal top row on the keyboard, and these are white.  Actually, they are hand-written labels under a clear flat cap.  This is a 16-key X-Keys stick.

The idea is pretty simple:  16 buttons, and USB.  But the software it came with was utterly useless.  The MacroWorks software could only issue codes for keys that you could already type!  I guess that’s for sending whole words with a single button, but I was specifically wanting it for characters that were not already on the keyboard.  I tried to hack the saved file format, but the software didn’t like the codes anyway.  I tried to use the plain USB keyboard mode and program it with codes that are defined but not on my regular keyboard (there are actually a bunch more F-keys than 12, and a few non-US keys) and then use other software to map those to what I really wanted; but that didn’t work either (I don’t know if it was the XP operating system or more funny business with X-keys).

Almost ready to give up, they pointed me to the Developers Kit.  Using the DLL they provide, I obtain the keypress.  Then it is trivial to call the Windows API function SendInput with the Unicode character.  Their original MacroWorks software installed a bunch of device drivers for a fake keyboard and fake mouse.  I asked why they didn’t just use SendInput — Win95 compatibility or some other features?  They never answered, but the next version of MacroWorks did not install a bunch of drivers.

My motivation for getting a keyboard extension was writing a chapter of text full of things like “1.23×108 kg∙m∙s−2

Trackball

To the right of the keyboard is a Kensington trackball.  It nicely matches the black motif, but that’s simply the color they sell it in.  Years ago, I realized that reaching for the mouse was not at all ergonomic.  Having piles of stuff on the desk doesn’t help either!  So I tried trackballs.  Many are too poorly made and are useless.  I actually liked the Microsoft model, but eventually wore down the ridges on the scroll wheel and they stopped making it so I could not get another of the same.  Other “ergonomic” trackballs I’ve tried make the mistake of thinking that one size fits all.  When the placement is for hands three sizes too small, it becomes the exact opposite of ergonomic.

Kensington has made professional trackballs since before mice became mainstream.  And their classic model is hard to improve upon for the actual ball.  Some day I’ll make a mod to add mouse buttons on the left side of the keyboard.

Shuttle

To the left of the keyboard is another gizmo, a ShuttlePro2.  This was recommended for use with some software I was using to edit video.  Since it can be programmed to issue keypresses for the jog and shuttle actions, it can be made to work with other software that doesn’t specifically know about it too, if you watch out for where the cursor is or what control is activated.  It’s basically a must-have for video editing and quite helpful for audio too.  For other programs it’s a bunch of extra buttons too!

Wacom  Tablet (not pictured)

For photo editing, I use a 9×12 inch Wacom tablet.  I got it around the year 2000, so I’m worried that they will stop supporting it although it works fine and there is no real reason to get a newer one.  What the trackball can’t do well, a mouse isn’t very good either:  try writing your name in a painting program with a mouse.  The stylus is the tool to use.

Unicode on St. Patrick’s Day

I have a key to type ⌘ on my keyboard (though it doesn’t work in the MCE editor!  So I copied it from Notepad++ after typing there) which is handy for writing things like “Type ⌘B to rebuild the project.”  This is technically called the Place of Interest Sign.  But searching for clover in BabelMap gives me U+1F340 which may show up as (🍀) if you have a suitable font installed. There is also a Shamrock, (☘), with three leaves.

A Tale of Two πs

 

Happy Pi Day!   In countries where dates list the month before the day, 3 14 brings to mind the very special number π.  Yes, there really is a Pi Day, and the first time I “observed” it was a joke with my wife Tao.  She comes from China and doesn’t know all the American Holidays, so I was joking that we have a holiday coming up.  Someone that same year asked me how one celebrates on Pi Day, and after a moment of reflection stated that we had to eat round foods.  So we (a group from work) went to a burger place that also served onion rings.

Seriously, the day has inspired me this year on a couple of points.

Peach Pie

The first “pie” is a home-made peach pie.  We have a peach tree in the back yard, 2013-peach-pieand we harvested enough peaches to fill the freezers even after giving away a lot.  We have enough left for many pies throughout the year, and it is a good time to use up peaches from June 2012 before the new crop comes in.

So I asked if Tao would make a peach pie this week, and she did.  Yum!

Raspberry Pi

A short time ago I saw a You-Tube video concerning building a project with the Raspberry Pi single-board computer.  The teaching of computer programming skills is also an interest of mine, and, like the message from the Raspberry Pi story, I’ve often felt that kids these days have these powerful and mysterious PCs and don’t get exposed to “making it work” the same way as I did, even if they are in a class for that express purpose!

They say, “If you want to support us, we’d love you to buy one”.  So, in honor of Pi Day, I’m buying three.  In the very near future, I’ll see about getting them into the hands of local kids through high schools or some existing computer clubs.  It’s a whole lot easier to simply give money and goods to causes than it is to be active in one!

My own early computer experience was with an 8-bit device that had 1K of RAM.  So it’s still hard to think of something with Xbox 1 level of performance (24 GFLOPs GPU) as “simple” or “primitive”, after ray-tracing without floating-point instructions at all (maybe a quarter of a megaflop?).

 

My First “Pre-Loved Computer”

The short version:

After getting a new computer for my wife Tao, I gave away the old one. Since nobody in my extended family living nearby needed it, I found somebody who did.

Longer version:

Tao’s computer was last upgraded in 2008.  Upon getting a new DSLR camera, she had trouble with our vacation photos being too heavy to handle.  Adding RAM would not be cost effective because it was no longer common.  So I bought a new motherboard, CPU, and RAM at MicroCenter.  The motherboard features gigabit Ethernet and on-board graphics, and with 4GB it maxes out 32-bit Windows XP.  Photoshop/Lightroom was more than happy with it, and the fast local network made working with the photos over the LAN as fast as if they were on a local hard drive.

Later, I did replace the hard drive too.  Being as old as it was, it was holding back the system performance.

In 2013, it was still working quite well.  Although “only” two cores and 4GB, it performed its duties just as well as when it was new.  So why upgrade at all?  It was a Valentine’s Day present surprise.  I am something of an enthusiast about computers, and this was the slowest/oldest still-working PC in the house.  Win XP didn’t understand how to talk to her Samsung Galaxy phone, and retreading the computer with a new OS is so much work why not start with a fresh motherboard too?

I used an Antec case that was emptied from a previous build/upgrade (Mercury).  Although the hard drive etc. was moved to the new build, what was left were bare bones of a still useful PC.  I was determined to get it into the hands of someone who could make good use of it, not have it sit around gathering dust or wind up in a landfill.

The P.L.C. Organization is Born

In the past, I’ve had trouble finding donation places that would take computer parts.  Mostly they just want clothes and small appliances that can be directly resold at their thrift stores.  I’ve not found anyone in the area who did this kind of thing: produce working computers from leftovers or nonworking systems and salvaged parts.

I’ve been wanting to “do something” along the lines of humanitarian/community support work, and resolved this New Year to find something that works well for me where I can make a difference.  So… maybe this is it?  I can do this kind of work, and organize and coordinate others who are interested or have old computers to contribute.

I was pretty sure I had enough to get this machine working.  I had previously, not too long ago, given away a drawer full of old hard drives (Salvation Army took them, but I don’t know if they ended up doing good or in the trash after all), and now wished I had one.  I thought I might reach out to a local computer-oriented club if I was short anything, but I ended up making it work.  I was determined to use only reclaimed and salvaged parts.

The Recipient

Assuming I got a working machine running, how would I find a worthy person to bestow it upon?  Meanwhile, I had been going through the application to become a Big Brother with the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization.  I contacted them, and eventually got put in touch with the Coordinator of Agency Engagement and Stewardship who reported,

We would love to be able to gift the computer to a deserving Little Brother or Little Sister. That would be a great gift as we move into the end of the school year.

Later, I found out that it’s going to a young man who is just starting Harvard, having graduated Salutatorian from High School.  I’d love to get a comment from this former “Little” if he reads this!

Computer Details — Provenance and Legacy

I call it a “pre-loved” computer because, as you can see from the earlier description, I have a fondly remembered history for it.  As an enthusiast, it is not an off-the-rack ready made PC, but is a collection of components that I’ve worked on over time.

The Great

The case is very well made, unlike the typical PC which gets bent out of true and difficult to open and close.  Tao recalls that she got it from her office when they replaced some computers, around the year 2000.  I’ve remarked that they don’t build them like that anymore and it is more like an industrial-grade case; maybe it is in fact an industrial PC.

The only issue, by current standards, is the lack of ventilation.  Other than the power supply exhaust, it has a 80mm fan on the front, behind a plastic bracket whose primary purpose is to retain full-length expansion cards.  Cards are not that long anymore, so the bracket is not needed.  The fan I had replaced with a high-end super-quiet fan of the correct size, and that fan went bad eventually so I replaced it again with another just like it.  The thing about fans is that bigger is better—more air flow and less noise, as well as better lifetime.  Currently case fans are commonly 120mm, not 80mm.  It would be easy to modify the front to hold a larger fan, discarding the plastic card retainer.  There is a grilled area on the back too, but it can’t be made any larger because of the contours.  You could also cut a large window and mount any size fan on the side (they sell up to 200mm fans for that purpose!).

If the case fan goes bad (or becomes inadequate after further upgrades), you can run safely without it if you simply leave the side off the case.  (Note that the CPU fan is quite mandatory.)

When I upgraded to the current “guts”, the ventilation issue was kept in mind.  The CPU is a low-power (as it watts) model, and the built-in graphics don’t need cooling like an add-on card does.  The high-quality case fan gives better air flow than the original, although the same size, and is quieter too.

The case is very good, and can easily outlast the other components and be used again and again.  Though it may need some modification for a larger fan, or be home (again) to a low-power system.

Likewise, the power supply is top notch.  I read this article from Tom’s Hardware at the end of 2002 which exposes how most power supplies are poorly made and cause problems.  I noted the short list of those which proved worthy.  Interested in both reliability and silence, I also looked up power supplies in SilentPCReview and took the intersection of both lists:  Seasonic.  I’ve insisted on Seasonic power supplies in all my builds ever since.  I think they may make power supplies that are branded by others now, but I still order a name-brand one even if some other one at Frys looks like it’s the same model really.  They might make them cheaper as ordered by an OEM.

So, the power supply will outlast this motherboard, and should not be thrown out until it is really dead, or the motherboards change enough to no longer be compatible.

The Pretty Good

When I needed to upgrade the motherboard in 2008, as explained earlier, I found a suitable CPU on-sale at MicoCenter.  The CPU is an energy-efficient model Athlon X2 (“Brisbane” if I recall correctly) with a TDP of only 45W.  So, it is easy to cool while keeping quiet.

The motherboard is a Gigabyte GA-MA69VM-S2.  It has on-board Radeon graphics, and high-speed LAN which is a feature I was looking for.

It has 4GB of RAM, which maxes out what (non-Server) 32-bit Windows will take.  Actually, a 4GB Windows machine will show more like 3½ because of the area used to map the graphics card’s aperture.  With the built-in graphics, it uses the same RAM so it is not wasted; I find that configuration particularly elegant.

There is room for another pair of DDR2 DIMMs on the motherboard.  It is an interesting story that 32-bit operating systems can really handle up to 16GB of physical RAM, based on the way the x86 virtual memory tables work.  Windows XP pre-release did allow more than 4GB, but it was restricted to 4 in the release version for desktop (non-Server) editions because of problems with driver compatibility.  I mention this because I suppose that Linux does not have this same limit.  Or, you can install 64-bit Linux which is also free.

The optical drive is a DVD writer made by BENQ.  I was less-than-successful disassembling the front panel when I painted it black for a custom build, so now the front panel is missing.  But other than that, it works perfectly.  (Of course, because of its age it doesn’t know about Blu-Ray.)  I chose the BENQ brand because it has special firmware enhancements that lets you pre-test blank media before using it.  I had trouble with DVDs I made becoming unreadable after a while, so I investigated what media is good quality without being super expensive and qualified the discs before burning.

The Webcam is an early Logitec model.  Tao uses it to talk to family in China every week, and it’s always been just fine for that.  I was quite annoyed when I found that there was no driver available for Windows 7!  They orphaned it!  Yet, the latest Ubuntu recognized it during installation and offered to take my picture for the User avatar.  So it stayed with the old computer, where it still works.

Tao was an earlier adopter than me for LCD displays, because she liked them better than bulky CRT, while I preferred higher resolution and professional color, and 21″ CRTs became cheaper than even a mid-grade LCD.  The LCD display included is, I recall, the first one we bought.  They seem to have been better made in the early days, based on how many I’ve broken since.  This has served as a spare when “modern” cheap HD panels have given out, but I fear it won’t work on new systems that no longer support the analog VGA D-SUB 15 connector.  So I decided to pair it with a computer that I knew could make full use of it.

The Mediocre

I found a PATA hard drive in an external enclosure that I had been using for backups.  Now I use bare SATA drives in a dock, so I could retire this one and pass it along.  The speed is poor by current standards.  In testing the assembled PC, I noticed a lag (compared to what I’m used to now) for programs to start up; but then they were just fine to use once they launched.

The Missing

I don’t have a mouse or keyboard to include.  I thought I could pass along an old keyboard with a PS/2 connector that I’ve been keeping as a spare, but discovered at the last minute that Mercury (my main work computer now) needs a PS/2 keyboard to get into the BIOS screen when clearing the BIOS settings!  A USB keyboard won’t let you press the F2 required to continue!  I tested the setup with both the PS/2 keyboard and a USB keyboard, so I know it’s ready to use either.  I grabbed a mouse from another computer to install the OS and test.

Free Software

I installed Ubuntu, which is the dominant consumer desktop Linux distribution.  I found this link, 20-things-to-do-after-installing-ubuntu1210-quantal-quetzal, which I pass along if you are reading this.  I’m a fan of both Libre Office and Firefox, and that pretty much covers what you need for serious school work.

In Conclusion

After reminiscing upon the components I’m passing along, I’m more glad then ever that they will find continued use and not simply be trashed.  I hope this inspires others to do the same.  In particular, computer enthusiasts may buy good stuff that will last, yet paradoxically upgrade again before it is strictly necessary.  If that describes you too, I hope I might inspire you to keep your still-good stuff working somehow rather than gathering dust.