#sockethop
SocketHop: Pretty Good Privacy

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Between Snowden, Greenwald, and the NSA, encryption is in the news. But what is it? And how can you, a mild-mannered student at an American university, use it? And why should you? You’ve got nothing to hide, after all. In this latest SocketHop, Conor Skelding (no tech genius himself) tries to lay that out.

Something to get out of the way first: this chillingly-titled NYTimes article, “N.S.A. Able to Foil Basic Safeguards of Privacy on Web.” A friend sent it to me and asked whether setting up PGP encryption is still worth it, given that title. And I asked a better informed friend.

It is still worth it, for two reasons. First, it’s worth it because it’s unknown what exactly the NSA can foil. According to cryptographers, it probably hasn’t cracked PGP (though it gets around it many other ways). The second reason is, even if PGP encryption doesn’t protect you from the full force of the NSA, it will  protect you from trespassers in your GMail account, advertisers, your email provider, hackers, and thieves who physically steal your phone.

Indeed, the NSA, according to that article, is “still stymied by some encryption.” As Snowden wrote, assuming endpoint security, “Encryption works. Properly implemented strong crypto systems are one of the few things that you can rely on.”

Read on for how to set up PGP in fifteen minutes.

SocketHop: The Butler Buzz

Typical Butler denizen

In the latest installment of SocketHop, Minister of Miracles, Marcus the Magn(et)ificent Levine, answers why your headphone-covered ears ring when you walk through the Butler detectors? 

Don’t let the tranquil, seldom broken silence of the reading rooms fool you—Butler is a very loud place. Not just Butler, but practically everywhere in the modern world is saturated with the silent noise of electromagnetic radiation. As normally functioning human beings, we usually only come into contact with visible and infrared light. Still, innumerable other frequencies of electromagnetic radiation beyond our perception, from radio to ultraviolet, permeate the air.

While you’re strolling through the Butler book theft detectors lookin’ fly with your doughnut sized headphones, you may experience a strange sharp ringing noise. The 3M security gates operate using magnetic EAS (Electronic Article Surveillance) technology, and the way the system works can directly interfere with your musical experience, and perhaps drive you to question your sanity.

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SocketHop: The Death of Majordomo

Or just ask your local neighborhood SEAS kid

After you’ve bounced around College Walk amiably signing up for several dozen club listservs, there comes a point when you regret reckless innocence. Now you have 40 extra emails a day that you might have read during NSOP, but now you just don’t have time to care about capoeira or Parliamentary Debate. Department listservs can be even worse (looking at you History Department). Sean Zimmermann reports on how to file for divorce.

As some students may have noticed, CUIT has changed the system that manages club mailing lists. Because the system has been upgraded, the old system for subscribing and unsubscribing from mailing lists around campus, majordomo, is no longer supported.

What does that mean for me? Well, it means there is a new way to unsubscribe from all those mailing lists you signed up for during that activities fair. Here’s how you can manage your mailing lists:

  1. Go to lists.columbia.edu
  2. Find your desired mailing list.
  3. Follow the instructions to (un)subscribe.

So simple!

This also means that there are a few changes for clubs which manage listservs. Now there are no more approved codes, and you can no longer subscribe students by email. You must manage the email lists from the new mailing list admin website here: https://lists.columbia.edu/mailman/admin

Because there are no longer approved codes, clubs have two methods of sending messages to a moderated list. You can either send messages to the list, and use the web interface to approve them manually, or designate specific members of the list to be able to send messages without moderation (in the list website, find the person in the member list, and uncheck the “mod” box).

Note: This only works for mailing lists that end in @lists.columbia.edu. If the mailing lists ends in @columbia.edu, go here: http://www.columbia.edu/acis/email/maillist/

SocketHop: There’s an App for That Us!

Welcome back to SocketHop, where Bwog locks the few engineers on staff into a room and makes them explain things. We’ve covered tools to help you be more productive and new operating systems for your computer before, and today we take a look at a new Columbia app for your Android smartphone.

That’s right, our very own mobile app. Ariq Azad, CC ’14, working alongside Andrew Freiman, Cornell ’14, has released an unofficial Columbia University Android app, because hey, why not. (Come at us, Princeton.) So far the app’s user interface and features are a little humble, and Azad himself notes that this is just a “proof of concept.” Nevertheless, with the app, users can search for and read reviews on CULPA, read the latest campus news (stories from Bwog, the official CU news stream, and Spec), look at what amounts to be the campus on Google Maps, and search the Bulletin for classes. While no one would prefer doing any of these things on a mobile device, we can perhaps see some use in the Bulletin feature—the search results list times and locations for courses, and in case you’re darting between classes and you forget where the next one is, figuring this out via the app is much simpler than logging into CourseWorks or SSOL.

The app itself was created with PhoneGap, a development platform that allows developers to use web technologies to write an app once and deliver the product to multiple platforms. This means the interface won’t necessarily have the look and feel of an app that’s designed for a particular phone, since it’s targeting multiple devices. However, it also means there’s a greater potential to see this unofficial app come to iOS or BlackBerry devices since it’s such a simple porting process. Indeed, Azad tells Bwog that the process of iOS development will start soon after classes begin.

There’s a healthy list of upcoming features for the app too (although if you’re savvy with the technology industry, you know that promises are often not kept), and Azad told us to look for these on the Android app before the iOS release. Potentially coming soon are SSOL info, MTA data integration, and CourseWorks push notifications. Push notifications are the kind of alerts a phone gives the instant it receives a new text or email. Now imagine a world where every time a grade gets posted on CouresWorks or a new assignment is posted, your phone buzzes. That gets our circuits flowing.

We know there’s a large body of programming talent out there. If you know of any other CU apps, tell us about them at tips@bwog.com.

Toasting the New Courseworks

The future was yesterday

Columbia is no stranger to website redesigns, but here comes an overhaul that will actually matter. As CUIT so eloquently phrases it on the CourseWorks home page, this fall “CourseWorks Begins Transition to New CourseWorks.”

The current CourseWorks is based on the Prometheus course management system and has been around since 2001—to put that in perspective, if CourseWorks were a child, it would be entering 5th grade. It’s seriously been a long time coming, and CUIT has been planning this since 2008, but Columbia is finally starting to begin its transition to a new course management system, based on the open source Sakai Project.

In a press release, CUIT hails this system for its “state-of-the-art online learning and information sharing tools,” includes discussion boards, grade books, and file drop boxes. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Sakai will have largely the same offerings as CourseWorks, only presumably now it won’t go completely offline whenever PrezBo plugs in too many things in his office or something. Moreover, some new features of Sakai include some sort of live chat/IM system, polling, wikis, and what CUIT’s press release ominously refers to as “social media.”

CUIT will begin transitioning classes to this new system in waves, starting in Fall 2011 and concluding in Spring 2013. First up are classes from the Med Center, School of Social Work, Anthropology and Statistics departments, and select “early adopters” from SEAS, the J-School, and Architecture department. With this transition, Columbia will finally be joining a long list of institutions that have already adopted Sakai, which has been around since 2004. Don’t get too excited though: to quote one student from a school already using Sakai, “It’s not pretty, but it gets the work done.” To quote another, “It sucks.”

Generic Sakai website via Sakai Project

Mission Critical: Encrypted Wireless Now Available

The Attack is Trivial

If you don’t switch over to using Columbia’s new secure wireless, you will be hacked. Accept that as a simple definitive statement. Breathe it; live by it; tattoo it onto your upper thigh. Security is a real issue, and until recently, hackers with a fairly limited skill-set could trivially camp out in Butler with an ordinary laptop and read your messages, emails, see some of your passwords, and hijack your Facebook account. To stress again: if you do not use secure Wi-Fi, hackers will mess with you.

So what’s the big deal? Well, while some websites use encryption of their own through a protocol suite called HTTPS (which you should have been using with Facebook already), the reality is that most websites fail to protect your account after you’ve logged in. This allows hackers to fire up programs like Wireshark and execute what’s called a “cookie hijacking attack.” In fact, the entire hack can be automated using novice tools like Firesheep.

The University has in the past offered another form of encryption called a virtual private network, which encrypts all your traffic and sends it through a central server, but this was only offered to faculty and staff. Over the past week, Columbia finally began offering wireless encryption using the WPA2 protocol, which allows all Columbians with UNIs to receive proper wireless encryption. This encrypted network isn’t available all over campus yet, but we’ve found it in Butler, Mudd, Schermerhorn, and a few dorms. It will presumably also be campus-wide soon. It’s protection—use it where you got it.

If you can’t figure out how to connect to the clearly marked “Columbia U Secure” network with your UNI and password, CUIT has put together a nice little automated wizard web page.

It’s about time.

Update 5/3: If you’re still having troubles connecting to the network, CUIT asks that you to let them know so they can help at askcuit@columbia.edu.

Hacking via Firesheep

SocketHop: Crafting a Bigger Brother

A proposed secret international treaty would greatly heighten penalties for copyright infringement, some threatening civil liberties.  SocketHop, the technology decoder for the literature-minded, takes a look.

TelescreenEveryone breathed a sigh of relief when it was announced one year ago that the music industry would stop its broad lawsuits against alleged file sharers.  Since about 2003, the movie and music industry associations (the MPAA and the RIAA, respectively) have been suing consumers accused of sharing copyrighted files over the Internet.  At one point, the RIAA was even targeting students like us directly with threatening letters with the help of (unwilling) universities. The music industry finally learned how to adapt its business model to changing times and consumers hailed the arrival of DRM-free online music stores and new RIAA lawsuits have ended for now.

None of this means that content producers are giving up the fight against copyright infringement.  A new treaty, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), is currently being negotiated in various countries around the world.  The cause for alarm is that everything is happening entirely in secret, with many of the key players denying involvement and others claiming that it is a purely “economic” treaty.  Very few drafts have surfaced but many industry “advisory committees” have access to confidential documents.  No one knows all of the details of the negotiations, but enough has leaked that many consumer advocate groups are concerned. The reason for all this secrecy?  You could probably guess: “national security.”

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SocketHop: Seventh Time’s the Charm

SocketHop explains technology affairs to the technologically-impaired.

Today marks the public release of Microsoft’s new operating system, Windows 7.  There’s a lot of information and a lot of technical details flying around the web, so we’ve tried to distill it down into a chunk of need-to-know information.


What is Windows 7?


Windows 7 is the newest version of the Windows operating system from Microsoft.  The “7″ signifies that, with a little magic counting, it is the seventh version to be released.  It comes out barely three years after Windows Vista, the much-maligned successor to the still-popular Windows XP.

Is it as bad as Vista?

Almost all reviews call Windows 7 a variation of “Vista done right.”  Rather than a massive overhaul, Windows 7 improved the good parts of

Windows Vista and redid the clunky parts.  Microsoft decided to douse the public relations fire that raged after Vista and created a solid operating system, instead of playing a game of lengthen-the-features-checklist.

What’s new in Windows 7?

In short, it’s less annoying and more intuitive.  A major complaint with Windows Vista was the constant interference of User Account Control, which was designed to keep your systems settings safe.  However, it turned out that no one appreciated double-confirming every action they wanted to take. (more…)

SocketHop: Buckle Down and Type

Hiding in Butler, you’ve got six papers due in ten hours but you’re engaged in a poke war on Facebook.  It’s time to buckle down and get some real work done.  SocketHop is here to help.

 
late night computing
 Image via Flickr

Lose the Clutter

There’s a million ways to have distraction-free word processing, but Bwog has two favorites.  Dr. Wicked’s Write-or-Die is a website that allows you to set word count and time goals to keep you writing at a consistent speed.  Should you fail to keep typing, the website will flash heart-wrenching colors and spout horrible music.  Writer is a web application that provides stripped-down editing with .txt and .pdf file export options, as well as limited save options.

Half of writing a research paper is, well, Googling other people’s research papers.  And reading all those random articles can be hard on the eyes.  In comes Arc 90′s Readability bookmarklet.  A bookmarklet is a bookmark you can store on your bookmarks toolbar that performs a function (rather than just linking to a Web site).  Readability removes all the clutter from your web-based reading and formats the text with clear fonts in narrow columns.  All this can be customized, as well, creating a distraction-free reading environment.

Save Your Eyes

Late nights in Butler mean late nights staring at your bright, white LCD screen.  That translates to red, sore eyes by morning.  Enter F.lux, a small tray application (Windows and OS X) that solves this problem.  In a nutshell, F.lux modifies the color temperature of your screen to match the time of day.  This means that as the sun sets, your screen transitions from a blueish hue to a yellowish hue, matching the color of your fluorescent hell.  It sounds like a strange idea at first, but once you become used to it, you’ll never switch back.

One more tip and a geek level-up after the jump. (more…)

SocketHop: Free Backup Solutions

Nothing stings quite as much as that whirrr-click-click-click sound when you try to boot up your newly-purchased laptop.  Blank screens and corrupted data have sent many Columbians into hysterical fits.  Do yourself a favor; spend an hour and earn permanent peace-of-mind.

 Photo via Typepad

 

Backing up up your files is as essential to mainstream computing as oil-filter changes are for your (sorely missed) car.  The truth is, far too many people forgo backup, usually because they assume that computers never crash.

If you own a computer, your hard drive will crash at some point in its life.  You should be prepared.  Today, Bwog presents five 100% free solutions for saving your life’s work, online and on your own hard drives.

Online Backup

Mac & Windows: MozyHome Online Backup

Mozy is an online backup solution that has one huge advantage over local (i.e., on a separate hard drive next to your computer) backup: online backup preserves your data even in the result of catastrophe (waterfalls) or theft.  The free version of Mozy allows you two gigabytes (roughly 100,000 Word documents) of online storage. (more…)

SocketHop: To Their Printers, From Your Machine

office space printer destruction
 Image via terriemiller.com

Waiting for lab computers to (eventually) log you on so you can print that rightfully-forgotten graduate Kant dissertation is a relic from days past.  It’s very easy to set up your own computer to print to lab printers.  In fact, you can print to any printer on campus from any computer you like.

CUIT’s instructions are, like commencement speakers, thorough, longwinded, and a wee bit annoying.  We’ve shortened and sweetened them for you, our dear readers.  You can now enjoy the freedom to print from the roof of Mudd because, yes, the wireless reaches up there.

Our version–in English–after the jump. (more…)

SocketHop: Conquer Your Email

Welcome back to SocketHop, a newish, occasional feature in which we seek to help you with your technology.  This week, we take Gmail and make it even better.

 A horrifying example of an outdated electronic mail message client.

Just say no.  To drugs, unless it’s Adderol; to sex, unless you paid for it; to Cubmail, unless Gmail is down.  And even then it’s a tough decision to make.

We at Bwog recieve hundreds of emails every week and we would drown if it weren’t for the geniuses in Mountain View.

If you haven’t already, fetch all your Columbia email through Gmail.  It’s quite easy to do; here’s a nifty tutorial.  Benefits include threaded conversations, simple and powerful organization, and the constant distraction of Gchat.

Using the incredible tools found in Gmail Labs, we’re going to show you some ways to make Gmail even more powerful and effective for managing all those emails from the CCE.  Offline emailing, multiple inboxes, and automated organization after the jump. (more…)

SocketHop: Windows Can Be Pretty, Too

Welcome to SocketHop, in which we bring you free (but useful) mini-apps and major (but relevant) headlines from the world of technology, hopefully demystifying the subject along the way.  Flood our inbox (bwog@columbia.edu) and tell us what you think and what you want to see.  Be not afraid of technology!


Snazz Up Your Desktop: Exposé for Windows


Columbia is an Apple-happy campus.  Mac OS X (pronounced “oh ess ten”, Apple’s operating system) dominates in lecture and in lab, but let us not forget those of us who have stuck with Windows.

One of Mac’s spiffier features is Exposé.  Exposé presents miniaturized versions of all your open windows at once, allowing you to click on the one you want.  If you’re like Bwog and have twenty applications open at any given time, this saves you a lot of cycling through windows searching for your thesis draft.  A video of all Exposé features in action is on Youtube (skip to 1:15 for the “show all windows” feature).

Exposé on OS X

Windows’ most similar feature is in Vista (but not XP), called Windows Flip3D (Microsoft once again displaying its naming prowess).  It doesn’t simultaneously show you all open windows, but it allows you to visually cycle through them- not a good option if you have too many open.

A quick fix, after the jump.

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