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Synchronicity

When I was in school, I used a lot of computers, and even if I was in the same place, I wasn’t guaranteed to use the same computer in that place. At work, until I got an office, I used which ever computer was open when I got to the office. Any work I did in a computer lab was done on whatever available computer I could find. I had a computer at home, and from time to time, I may need to use one at the fraternity house. Not only were the computers I would use completely unpredictable, but the operating systems were, too. Because of this, I spent a great deal of time an effort in finding tools that were cross platform, and/or were browser-based. Below is a applications I use on a regular basis, which sync from computer to computer to phone, and in most cases, are either platform independent, or browser-based, along with a description of how I use them, and what operating systems and devices on which they can run.

Files:
Dropbox – Windows/Mac/Linux/iPhone/Browser – 2GB Free | 50GB $9.99/month | 100GB $19.99/month

Thumb drives are dirt cheap now, so everyone has at least one. What size is it? 8, 16 GB? How much of that do you actually use? Is it less than 2GB? How often do you need your thumb drive, and can’t for the life of you remember where you left it? This is why I use dropbox. I can sync all of my important documents across all of the computers I use frequently (work, laptop, desktop) without thinking about it. I just dump the files into the specially designated dropbox folder, and the program running in the system tray uploads the files to a website. When I turn another computer on, which is also configured, all the new/changed files are downloaded. And if, for some reason, I need an important file, and I am not at one of my own computers, which dropbox is already installed on, I can access the files through the website.

There are some neat tricks that you can achieve with dropbox, too. For example, I use micro torrent to download (perfectly legal) torrents (you know, like linux isos). It has the ability to monitor a system folder for new torrents, and automatically add them to the active torrent list, and start downloading. By making the folder that micro torrent monitors a folder in my dropbox, then from any of my computers, anywhere on the planet, I can dump a (linux iso) torrent into that directory, and as long as my micro torrent machine is on, and micro torrent is running, the file will be uploaded to the dropbox server, downloaded to my micro torrent machine, micro torrent will pick it up, and less than a minute after I found the torrent, it is being downloaded. I don’t need to run a torrent application with a web interface, or set up VNC or remote desktop, because dropbox does all the hard stuff.

Another swell hack is to synchronize IM settings and logs. I use pidgin, which is also cross-platform, as an IM app. It can connect to all the major protocols (AIM, MSN, Google Talk, etc) as well as IRC servers. By changing an environment variable in Windows (see a how-to here), or creating a symbolic link in Linux (see @shawnp0wers video tutorial here), my IM settings can be stored in my dropbox, so that if I make any config changes, they are synchronized, and all I have to do is turn on my computer, and wait for dropbox to sync, before launching pidgin.

Dropbox also has a folder specifically made for sharing files. The Public directory, which is created in your dropbox by default on installation, allows anyone, whether they have their own dropbox or not, to see the files you put in this dropbox sub-folder. For example, I took a backup of my Google Reader feeds, and saved the xml file in my public folder, which you can access here.

Passwords: Keepassx – Windows/Mac/Linux/Blackberry – Free Verisign Labs PIP – Browser – Free

I have joined a lot of websites for a lot of different reasons. Forums, social media, email, music, even banking. Sometimes it feels like just about every website I frequent requires a username and password. All told, I probably have between 50 and 75 passwords floating around cyberspace. In my experience, there are only two ways to manage them, and frankly, neither of them are good options. 1) Use the same password everywhere. This is flat-out stupid, but if you can’t remember more than one password, and you need to register for 20 different sites, what else can you do? The problem is that if just one of those sites gets hacked, you are now completely vulnerable on every website you visit. You know that email account you keep just for directing spam? Does it have the same password that your online banking site does? 2) Write them all down. This option, at first seems just as stupid. One of my college professors was also a penetration testing consultant. Like a less dramatic version of the movie Sneakers, he gets hired by a company to break into their computers and gain access, then tell them how he did it, and most importantly, how to prevent it from happening again. Before you can access the big stuff, you need to get into any small computer on the network, and he found that the easiest way to do that was wander around the office at lunch time. The number of people who write their account passwords down, and leave them either unhidden or poorly hidden is staggering. But what if you write them down in a file that is itself password protected? That is the idea behind Keepass, and its open-source equivalent, Keepassx. My Keepassx database is encrypted, and locked with both a password and a key file. This means that even if I give someone my password, they can’t unlock the rest of my passwords without a special file I have designated as being required for opening the password file. At this point, it sounds like a lot of files to remember passwords, right? The password database, the key file, and the executable to read the password database file. Gee, if only there was an application that was good at syncing files across multiple computers… By keeping my Keepassx database, and key file in my dropbox, I have access to all my passwords, no matter what computer I am on. Not only that, but since Keepassx has a version designed to be run from a thumbdrive, I can keep the executable itself in my dropbox.

PIP, which stands for Personal Identity Portal, is a service provided by Verisign, one of the companies that authenticates browser certificates. You know when you go to your bank’s website, and the browser tells you it is secure? It is encrypting your traffic using a browser certificate. And to make sure you haven’t been caught in a phishing scam, the certificate is authorized, in many cases by Verisign. I use this service to store passwords, in addition to Keepassx. Why store them in two places, you may ask. Well, PIP has this really great feature it calls One-Click. Once you have signed up for PIP, you get a link to a bookmarklet, which, when clicked, will determine what site you are on, and populate the username and password fields automatically, assuming they have already been stored in your PIP account. If they haven’t, it will give you the option of adding them with minimal effort. This means that any time I want to sign in to, say Gmail, I don’t need to know my Gmail password. I just click the PIP One-Click button in my bookmark toolbar. If I am already signed in to PIP, it will fill out the form for me. If I am not, it will redirect me to the PIP website, where I use my PIP username and password to login, then it takes me back to where I started, and fills in the form. This is only really useful for websites, and, while rare, PIP has had outages. That is why I use PIP in addition to Keepassx.

This post is already longer than I was expecting, so for the sanity of myself and my audience, I will continue this in a later post. Tune in next week for Synchronicity II, in which I will cover some, if not all, of the following:

  • Notes
  • To-do list
  • Calendar
  • Email
  • Contacts
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