Archive for February, 2009

Connecting to Stanford’s VPN Network with Linux

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

This is a random tidbit that I just figured out. On MacOSX and Windows you typically need to install the special Cisco VPN client to get things to work. This was always a little annoying, and they don't provide an up to date client for x64 Linux which plays nicely, from what I've gathered. This worked under Ubuntu 8.10 (Intrepid Ibex) for x64, your mileage may vary. I saw the instructions from Wei Cai's group wiki and figured that there must be a simpler way, which motivated this. So here's what I did...

Install vpnc as described here

sudo apt-get install network-manager-vpnc

Download the Stanford VPN settings file from here.

From the network settings toolbar, choose VPN Settings > Configure.

Import the VPN settings file you just downloaded.

Now here's the fun part; they give you the encoded group password but you need the decoded password. But there's a solution described here; luckily Cisco has some security problems so that you can decode the group password. Open the VPN configuration file that you downloaded and copy the value for enc_GroupPwd. Paste it into the magic decoder ring here (hint: the decoded password will be a sentence with the last letter of the last word truncated). Paste the password into the VPN configuration box for the group password. Make sure that you didn't accidentally include a trailing space.

Enter your username and password into the other two appropriate boxes.

Save and try connecting; hopefully things will work and you'll be able to connect to Stanford from off campus. Note that these instructions are a completely valid way of connecting to campus and just save you the hassle of trying to install or build the official Cisco VPN client and give you a tightly integrated VPN solution.

Update Nov 12, 2009: An even easier VPN solution is to go to Since updating to Ubuntu 9.10 my vpnc connection hasn't been working, and I have started using sussl instead.

Set Phasers to Org-Mode

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

I've tried to keep track of my thoughts and todo items many different ways in the past 3 years or so. I tried to use a single text file, but it grew too bulky and there was no way to slice the data across projects, contexts, or todo items. The same problem cropped up with a hand written list; there was simply too much stuff to keep track of and the notes would always end up in the washer. Next, I had a series of flings with web applications: Gubb, Todoist, Remember the Milk and Tracks. A common problem with these was that they were too slow; I inevitably would have a separate list or text file that I ended up falling back on. I tried desktop applications; iGTD and Things, but they felt like contrived systems rather than a real way to plan and keep track of things. If any type of system takes too much of my time to manage, it's turning into a hobby rather than a tool. I ended up settling on Evernote for about a year, which made me feel slightly more organized than a text file, but only so slightly.

The other day I was taking a fresh look at the problem. Somehow I came across org-mode. I watched a Google Tech Talk on the subject and immediately hated it. I mean, it's based upon emacs, and the scars of using non-X11 versions and being unable to click anywhere are seared into my brain. And how would I handle images!? I immediately installed Wine and went back to Evernote. Harumph.

But then some of the tech talk started slipping back into my brain. Org-mode seemed like a way to tame the text file beast and ride it off into the sunset. I installed the latest version of emacs using the magic of Linux and apt-get, and I realized that emacs is pretty sexy actually. And org-mode is centered around bulleted lists, which I always find myself using anyway (along with parentheses, of course). It was starting to make some sense. So I gave it a shot and two weeks later my life is stored in two text files along with the magic of org-mode. I have no idea how long they are, probably 1000 lines each, but it doesn't matter. I can combine long winded notes about my latest fabrication process with that thing that I have to do on it next week, fold everything back up, and then keep easy tabs on everything using the agenda view. It's like an outlining tool, except it's so good that you might as well keep going and outline everything. I would recommend using clean view though.

Org-mode is one of those things that can't appreciate until you've given it a chance. And there is definitely an initial bump to get over (like the insane zombie unicorn logo, although it could just look like that because I've been playing too much Left 4 Dead lately). So give it a chance, I don't think that you'll regret it; moving bullet points up and down like butter is a thing of beauty.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

I've used a Mac since back when LC IIIs roamed the Earth. But I switched to Linux a few weeks ago. My laptop was starting to fall apart and the interface was starting to feel a bit slow, so I started thinking about upgrading to a newer computer. But paying roughly double for Apple hardware and having little choice in terms of laptop size and performance seemed a bit silly. And my hands could only take so much more of the sharp corners and burning heat that my previous iBooks and MacBook have come with. Then I tried the Ubuntu Live CD and felt the snappiness, so decided that it was worth some serious consideration. Pretty much every application that I use is open source, runs on Linux, or has a good equivalent, so I started looking into the hardware a bit more. I decided to seal the deal when I found the Asus X83VM-X1, which is essentially a MacBook Pro for $800 instead of $2250 (once you bring up the memory and hard drive to match the Asus). The downsides would be battery life (3 hours) and trackpad buttons that will make you grow muscles in your thumb where aren't even supposed to be muscles (although I've either gotten stronger or the buttons have loosened up). On a side note, I got my computer off of eBay for about $750 but you can also buy the X83VM-X2, which is essentially the same as the X1, for $800 new from Best Buy. If you're happy with integrated graphics and a non-Penryn processor then you can get a solid laptop in the $400-500 ballpark or about half that if you're into netbooks.

After about 3 weeks I'm still extremely happy with the setup. Installing Ubuntu 8.10 was simple and all of the drivers were magically installed (including the nVidia 9600). The only potential issue is the CD drive which has has some problems reported with it although there's a quick fix. I installed Ubuntu with a USB flash drive so didn't notice the CD problems until today and it just took a few minutes to change a BIOS setting (there are instructions online).

In fact, after reinstalling Windows XP on a computer at school the other day, I'd say that the Ubuntu installation process is way faster and easier, and includes all of the drivers known to man with it. I mean, Windows didn't even have the driver for the ethernet so I had to transfer everything via USB from another computer.

Change is good and I've started to love some of the new applications that I've found: Gnome Do really is crazy delicious, Banshee is my favorite music player so far and can sync with the G1, Picasa is solid for basic photo management but I'm not set on it yet, and org-mode rounds things out.

I'm going to try to share any interesting tidbits that I encounter and will probably crank out a few posts tonight. I recommend trying out the Live CD and giving it a shot if you have hardware that is starting to show its age or just want to give it a spin.