Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Open Source Spotlight - KeePass

Like many of you, I have too many passwords to remember. Passwords for my online banking, my billpay, my blog... the list goes on. And like many of you, I was resorting to writing them down, reusing the same password over and over, and other bad ideas that aren't secure and will wind up getting you in trouble.

A couple of years ago I was introduced to KeePass. KeePass is what is known as a Password Safe. Basically it is a database of passwords that is encrypted and hidden behind it's own password. Only it's a little more user-friendly than just that.

It gives you a single place to categorize your passwords on your PC so that they can be found or even searched. It also gives you a place to keep other useful information like the URL to the site that you're logging into, your username, and a notes section where you can document all of your "security question and answers".

Not only is the database encrypted using must stronger techniques than a password protected Word document (I've cracked those in a matter of minutes), but it also has tools that can make your online life more secure. One of the best thing that you can do is have completely unique passwords on each site. KeePass makes this easy with a random password generator.

By selecting the parameters (length of password, upper case, lower case, numeric, etc...), it will generate a password and store if for you.

The password database can also help mitigate the risks of being infected with spyware/malware programs called key loggers. Key loggers are basically programs that capture anything you type in on the keyboard and send it to the "bad guys". With KeePass, entering a password on a site can be done with a couple of clicks of the mouse - no typing on the keyboard and it even flushes the password off of the computers clipboard after a few seconds so someone else can't stumble across it.

Like any piece of technology, it has it's drawbacks. With this, it is increasingly important to back up your data files on a very regular basis. Also, if you let it randomly generate your passwords, you become dependant on KeePass which can be frustrating if you're at a friend's house or otherwise don't have access to your KeePass file.

I give KeePass four out of five stars.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Advanced Halloween Construction Techniques

I had been anxious to try my hand at some "cool" Halloween costumes since my now four year-old daughter was born. My aunt had made me and some of my cousins a series of costumes when we were kids - like airplanes, helicopters, robots, etc. Now it was my turn.

Using some model RC airplane techniques that I'd learned along the way, I set out to build a costume from corrugated cardboard. I wanted to build a replica of my all-time favorite plane, the Fairchild PT-19.

Here is a photo of a fine looking model of John Hooton's PT-19.

I started by taking measurement's of my my daughter, and sketched an airframe around that. I used old corrugated cardboard boxes to cut the pieces from, which mainly consisted of several formers, and a wrap-around fuselage.

After some careful bending, and plenty of carpenters glue, I had a 3-dimensional airframe taking shape.

I wanted the nose and tail to slope downwards, like a real plane does. I suppose that I could have mocked up the exact cuts using a paper model or even CAD, but I found it simple enough just to cut a triangle shape from the side of the fuse, and then glued the sides back together with a cardboard doubler on the inside. The final step was to trim the bottom side flush.

In the tail, I scrounged together some Styrofoam blocks to make the final former. Next, I cut the fail feathers out of cardboard. I cut one of each the horizontal and vertical stabs, and then used it as a template to cut a second. The pairs were glued together on top of each other to double their thickness, thereby adding strength.

Using the actual parts as a guide, I cut slits into the Styrofoam blocks in the rear of the fuse that my tail feathers would slide into. It was very important to have a nice tight fit, and to not cut ALL the way through the Styrofoam block, so that it retained some of it's inherent strength. The block gave me plenty of gluing area, and I used Gorilla Glue to secure them in place.

To build the wings, I first cut a single piece of cardboard to the size and shape. Using that as a template, I cut three more corrugated wings. I bought a 4x8 sheet of pink Strofoam from a big-box home improvement store. Note, I used the denser pink board as opposed to the white bead board.

I peeled the plastic backing off of both sides of the foam (that backing is one of the few things that I've found that Gorilla Glue won't stick to - I saved mine for later as I needed to keep the wings from being glued to the fuselage). I smeared the glue all over the cardboard wings, and very carefully laminated the foam with cardboard on either side. I had pretty good luck having the top and bottom line up. After it dried, I cut the excess foam away from the cardboard, and wound up with two extremely strong wings.

Unfortunately I didn't take any photos of the mechanics of the wings, but I took one of those ~6 foot fiberglass rods from the home improvement store (I think they're used for marking your drive way for the snow plow), and cut it in half. I drilled holes through either side of the fuse, and threaded the rods across - one in front and one behind the pilot. This gave the wings something solid to lay on, but was still narrow enough that it would fit through most doorways.

Because there's no way that the wings would make it through doorways, I bought a couple pairs of cabinet hinges and glued them onto the edge of the wing. Some 3 inch drywall screws along with plenty of Gorilla Glue made a good attachment point. I then propped the wings in place, and glued the other side of the hinge to the side of the fuselage. I used some of that plastic film from the Styrofoam board to keep everything from sticking together. Now, when it came time to get through a narrow area, the wings could be pulled up to a vertical position, and the costume was only about 30 inches wide.

Once the glue was dry and I knew exactly where the hinge needed to be, I was able to drill through the fuse and, using some scraps of aluminum sheet metal, I bolted the hinges to the fuselage.

It was time for a test flight!

I spent the next several nights putting drywall primer and latex paint of the rought fuselage. Admittedly, I got a little lazy, cheap, and quite frankly, short on time, and just painted blue and yellow. It took several coats brushed on rather heavily to cover.

I ordered a geared motor from All Electronics and bolted it to the front of the fuselage. I used some more cardboard for the propeller, and with a handful of odd parts from the hardware store, I glued the prop onto the motor shaft.

Next, I glued a green LED on the right wing tip, and a red LED on the left wing tip. I also put a red LED on the top of the vertical stablizer. I just used some old flat telephone wiring to supply power, and wound up using Gorilla tape to hold the wiring in place. I wired up a little 555 IC timer to make the tail blink on and off. An old 7.2V NiMH battery pack that I had laying around supplied power, and I put some old toggle switches on the control panel so that the pilot could switch the motor and lights on.

Finally, I used some fairly wide nylon webbing material from the hardware store and wrapped either side around those fiberglass rods fore and aft of the pilot. This served as the "seat belt", which really let the plane rest on her shoulders. I doubled the strap back onto itself, and secured it with a pair of heavy-duty safety pins so that I could adjust the length easily.

A trip down the the local space museum scored us a military flight suit to complete the outfit.

All in all it was a great costume. Coming in at over 11 pounds, it was quite heavy for a 4 year old, but she managed long enough to wow her friends, her classmates, and the judges at the costume contest at the local mall. Next time I would focus more heavily on the weight. I could have easily put lightening holes in the formers. Also, I would have used thinner foam in the wings. Size was also a larger factor than I had anticipated. The folding wings worked well, but it was awkward to maneuver in, and it ALMOST didn't fit into the van.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

November Sweepstakes Ham Radio Contest

I'm just finished up another year of Sweepstakes. I don't really recall how many years I've been doing this, but after 10 years of marriage, my wife knows that there is one weekend a year that I am just not available - and she's a really good sport about it...

Once again I came up just shy of a clean sweep, with 68 of the 80 possible sections, 173 contacts, and a claimed score of 23528. I missed the usuals again - Newfoundland (NL), Quebec (QC), Manitoba (MB), and Alaska (AK). For some reason this year, it seemed tougher to some of the staples, like California for example. I didn't pick up Santa Barbara until the last 3 hours of the contest!

Last year I spent quite a bit more quality time in the contest. This year I did a lot of side projects like fixing a bug on a website, and cleaning out my inbox. I spent some time cruising eBay, as this contest again put me in the mood to upgrade my old faithful Kenwood TS-430S that I've owned for about 15 years. Those new computer-controlled satellite-capable rigs with DSP in the IF stages sure look tempting.

I think the thing that I really miss most from years past is having a choice between vertically and horizontally polarized antennas. I noted years ago at a previous house/antenna installation, that it didn't really matter what your antennas were, so long as you had a choice. Many times a station that was weak on the tri-bander, would suddenly pop up a couple of S-units just by switching to a vertical. Some day I need to figure out how to put up a dipole or beam at the new house without electrocuting myself.

The other item that I feel compelled to get worked out is a better recording/playback setup. I used pre-recorded WAV files with my callsign, and the static part of my exchange. This significantly reduced my operating fatigue, but I doubt my transmissions sounded very seamless (which is a pet peeve of my own).

My logging PC (Vista Ultimate) is finicky at best when setting the recording level of the microphone. That made it frustrating to configure, plus I wasn't using my normal (Heil) communications microphone to do the recordings. I made an educated guess at some equalization settings and applied it with the open-source Audacity project, but I really needed a second receiver recording my audio so that I can tweak the EQ.

Maybe next year...
73's de W0ZC

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Unable to install some components of Microsoft Money

I've been trying off and on to get Microsoft Money to install on my Vista Ultimate desktop for nearly a year. I started with MS Money 2007 Home and Business edition. I didn't keep any documentation of the actual error, but the point is, it wouldn't install completely. I had a case open with Microsoft, but they were going no where with it and after finding that Money would install on my then new laptop (Vista Home Premium), I gave up on my desktop.

I grew tired of digging up the laptop every time I wanted to send out bills, so I naively purchased the latest version of Money Plus thinking that the bug would have been fixed. (For some reason Microsoft just started calling them all Money Plus – my version is, whatever that means.)

I shelled out my money, downloaded it, and behold, another error message: Setup was unable to install some of the components needed to run Money. Try installing Money again.

Aparently this is a rather common error message to get, as Google returned lots of hits.

Before I go any further, I need to disclose that these steps could have unintended consequences, and you should proceed only with caution and a recent backup. You've been warned.

My first thought was that the old version was still partially hanging around, and needed to be deleted. Microsoft conveniently posted instructions in their Knowledge Base Article 895866 of how to manually remove their software. In short, you do an uninstall of the software, then delete any trace of files from the C:\Program Files\ and from C:\Users\. Finally, you download a Windows Installer CleanUp utility from their site and wallah, it's removed. But alas, no joy.

Next I read that it must some obscure security setting that got messed up. Microsoft has a KB Article 313222 that explains how to reset my security settings back to their defaults. For Vista, you fire up a command prompt and run the following command:

secedit /configure /cfg %windir%\inf\defltbase.inf /db defltbase.sdb /verbose

According to the KB article, it is normal for it to through an error message, but to be assured that it did its magic.

I really don't know what settings the above command reset for me, but it didn't help my situation. I haven't yet found any repercussions from it though either.By this time, I was pretty frustrated and it was time to call Microsoft. Only that's easier said than done if you don't have your product key (which is found in Help-About Microsoft Money). Obviously, if you can't install the program, you can't get to the Help menu.

The first heavily accented rep that spoke with insisted that I must have a Product ID, got frustrated, and transferred me to “Roxie”. Again she insisted that I have a Product ID, but finally agreed that maybe she should look up my recent purchased that I'd made an hour before on their own website. “Roxie” took me back through the above steps that I'd told her I'd already done, quickly gave up and transferred me to a fellow with a very American sounding name, “Joe”.

“Joe” and I had our own difficulties communicating, but after an hour, he agreed to email me the steps to reset permissions on all of my files and directories.

First “Joe” had me download a tool called Subinacl from Microsoft's Website http://go.microsoft.com/fwlink/?LinkID=23418, which I installed.

Next, I created a .CMD file in my text editor with the following contents:

cd /d "%programfiles%\windows resource kits\tools"

subinacl /subkeyreg HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE /grant=administrators=f
subinacl /subkeyreg HKEY_CURRENT_USER /grant=administrators=f
subinacl /subkeyreg HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT /grant=administrators=f
subinacl /subdirectories %SystemDrive% /grant=administrators=f
subinacl /subdirectories %windir%\*.* /grant=administrators=f
subinacl /subkeyreg HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE /grant=system=f
subinacl /subkeyreg HKEY_CURRENT_USER /grant=system=f
subinacl /subkeyreg HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT /grant=system=f
subinacl /subdirectories %SystemDrive% /grant=system=f
subinacl /subdirectories %windir%\*.* /grant=system=f

I saved this as “fix_registry_permissions.cmd” per his recommendations. Why I couldn't call it “fix.cmd”, I fail to understand.

Finally, I right-clicked the new .CMD file and selected “Run as Administrator”. This took quite a while to run. I watched it for about four minutes – you should see a DOS box pop up, and it will have a red bar across the top as it runs. At this point, I went to bed. I'm not sure how long it wound up taking.

Well the good news was that “Joe's” commands allowed me to install Microsoft Money, and it worked just fine. The bad news came after I rebooted.

Fortunately for me, I rebooted that same night while this was fresh in my mind. Usually my PC will go weeks if not months without restarting (yes, even Vista is that stable). After rebooting, I noticed things were odd, like I got some strange error when trying to run an installer file, my LAN connection in the Systray was reporting “Connection Status: Unknown, There's not enough storage to complete this operation”, and my audio icon had a red X across it.

Back to Google for answers, and I quickly found a forum with my problems described to a tee. A few posts down and I had my answer. Assuming that you're running Vista Business or Ultimate, you can use the GUI to do the following.

  • Click on the Start button
  • Right-click on Computer, and select Manage.
  • Expand the Local Users and Groups.
  • Click on Groups.
  • Double-click the Administrators group.

At this point, you will probably see the Members listed in the middle as Administrator and then possibly your name.

  • Click Add to bring up the Select Users window.
  • Click Advanced.
  • Click Find Now.
  • Double-click on the item LOCAL SERVICE
  • Click OK

You should see that it added the NT AUTHORITY\LOCAL SERVICE account to the Administrators group. Now repeat the process to add the NETWORK SERVICES account to administrators.

  • Click Add to bring up the Select Users window.
  • Click Advanced.
  • Click Find Now.
  • Double-click on the item NETWORK SERVICES
  • Click OK

You Administrators group should look something like this:

If you're running one of the more limited versions of Vista, you'll instead have to make these changes manually from the command prompt, as Microsoft didn't include the Local Users and Groups snap-in with these editions.

net localgroup Administrators Local Service /ADD
net localgroup Administrators Network Services /ADD

Once the changes have been made, reboot the computer, and it will probably come back up normally.

And that's it, my computer is pretty much back to normal with Microsoft Money Plus installed. I have some reservations about adding the two accounts to my Administrators group, as my laptop which has been untouched doesn't seem to have them. If someone has a better or more secure way of fixing the problems initiated by Subinacl, I'm all ears.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Repairing the finals in an Alinco DR-150

Several years ago I replaced the “finals” in an older 2m ham transceiver. As I recall, it was fairly obvious that it was the finals that were shot, so I ordered a replacement, slipped them in, and the radio went back out the door. After it left, I noticed that the output module had a removable cover, curiosity got the best of me and I took it off. Under the cover with a circuit board of sorts with several discreet components soldered together and basically mounted to a heat sink. As I got to looking, it appeared that there was a hair-line crack in one of the traces. It made me wonder…

Skip ahead about five years and I put a surplus 2m rig in my wife’s car. I got the installation all buttoned up, keyed up the repeater but couldn’t get anyone to respond to me. A little checking and it showed the classic signs of burned up finals - barely kerchuck the repeater, but not readable on the other end. A watt meter confirmed my suspicions, but I noticed that the first time I keyed up (i.e. when it was good and cool), I got about 20 watts out for a few seconds.

I brought it back inside, and cracked the top and bottom covers. I found a familiar looking Toshiba S-AV17 power module in the back.

I’d been curious to know if that old rig just had a hairline crack or if it was more serious than that, but since it had already been repaired and returned, I’d never had the chance to find out. This time however, I popped the cover first. Initially, I didn’t see the problem, although it was fairly obvious. Since I knew I had a heat-related problem, I shot a bit of circuit cooler on the module to see if that would “fix” it. What I noticed was the frost from the cooler causing a red glow at the bottom. Sure enough, I had another crack in a trace.

The repair in the photo looks a little crude. This was my first attempt with a 15 watt iron, which I found to be pitifully inadequate since I was quite literally soldering a heat-sink. But, the fix worked.

I cleaned up the joint a little bit with a larger iron, and re-installed the rig in the car. I've only been using it sparsely for a few weeks now, but so far, so good.

Coralife Aquarium Lighting

A few years ago I bought my wife a Coralife light fixture for her salt water aquarium. It’s a four-bulb fixture, intended for a pair of Actinic lights, and a pair of daylight balanced (she runs 10k’s). The first year or two, it ran fine, although she never replaced the bulbs.

About two years ago, we started having problems with the lights not coming on, and from the looks of these four-conductor plugs, I assumed that it was corrosion. It took a while, but I was finally able to pry the bulb off of the connector with a blade screw driver, but in the process, I destroyed one or two bulbs. The pins from the bulb were so corroded that they broke right off. This obviously was no good.

I did some asking around, but didn’t really like any of the answers I got, so after re-investing in a new set of bulbs, I set out to try to stop this corrosion.

What I decided to try was some Silicone Grease that I purchased at the automotive store. They call it Spark Plug Grease or Dielectric Grease. About a year ago I replaced two of the four bulbs. After removing the old ones, I cleaned up the plug with an acid brush (although a pipe cleaner would have worked better I think). I squeazed some grease into the plug, and put a good healthy lather on the pins coming out of the bulb.

When I plugged the bulb in, I was careful to make sure that the plug was on as far as I could get it. Not only that, I also made sure that the metal contacts were not exposed to the (salty) air, but were instead all gooped up in grease.

So now, a year later, how has it gone? Well, overall pretty good. This time when I went to change the bulbs, I had very little problem disconnecting the pair that had been cleaned and greased. The un-greased pair was more difficult to remove. Also, you can sort of see in the photo below the difference between a bulb that had grease applied (top) versus one that didn’t have any grease. It’s hard to see, but the top one is more yellow or brassy colored. The bottom one is more reddish-orange from the corrosion.

The only bad news is that on one of the plugs that was greased, it appears that the plug got very hot and actually melted the side of the plug away. At this point, I don’t believe that it was directly related to the grease, although I’m not ruling out the possibility yet. Of the eight pins that were greased (four pins times two bulbs), only one pair had this heat damage. The other six were in good condition.

Below is a photo of the newly greased plug on the right, and on the left is the bulb with a bad plug. The green you see is the bare copper wire that had corroded. This plug will have to be replaced.

Welcome to my blog

I’ve been wanting to try blogging for quite some time, and I’ve finally decided to jump in. You’ll probably find a of everything in here, but most of it related to computers, electronics, and probably bit of flying.

As a full-time IT guy, and a consultant on the side, I find myself constantly searching the web for solutions to my problems. I’ve gained so much from other people’s experiences that they’ve shared, I occasionally find that I want to share my own. Given the broad spectrum of my projects and hobbies, I couldn’t come up with a single better place to put them then just this…

So without further ado, here goes nothing!