Saturday, September 6, 2008

SAM Goes Back To School, Part 4: Secure Your Laptop, Secure Your Data

Most college students have a laptop computer to work from. We did a survey a couple of years ago and the majority of the seniors we questioned actually recommended a laptop over even a high end desktop for intel studies students.

Many students keep the laptop in their rooms but, increasingly, I see students carrying their laptops with them everywhere: From dorm to class to work, etc. Obviously the more you have your laptop with you, the more use you are going to get out of it. Just as obviously, the more you move it around, the more chance you have for an accident, have someone steal it or just allow someone to mess with it.

Lifehacker had a great post earlier this week about setting up a free (or cheap, anyway) laptop security system. They talk about the different levels of security you can download, install or enable and cover applications for the Mac and the PC. Worth reading.

If you have one of those monster desktop replacement laptops or you just don't like carrying a laptop all the time, there is an alternative: PortableApps. You will need a flash drive (sometimes called a thumb drive). Get one with as much space as you can afford (They have gotten inexpensive, particularly through the online retailers. You can get a 1 gig drive for 3 bucks and an 8 gig drive for about 26 bucks at Amazon right now, for example).

The PortableApps website has some pretty clear instructions on how to download and load the apps (If you are having problems look for a Mercyhurst intel studies sophomore -- we gave a little extra credit for students who set up the system for themselves in Advanced Intel Analysis last year and most of them took advantage of the offer...).

The net result is that you can plug your thumb drive into any computer, work on the computer, and, when you are done, eject the thumb drive and leave taking all your work (and your browsing history) with you. Once enabled, all your work gets saved to the thumb drive.

The portable apps system comes with a whole host of open source software that you can use as well. Can't afford even the student version of MS Office? Then OpenOffice is for you and it comes pre-loaded in the PortableApps package (along with the Firefox browser, the Thunderbird email tool, Pidgin for IM, etc). If you find yourself going from the dorm to the computer lab and back, then PortableApps can keep you from carrying a ton of weight and reduce the risk of damage to the laptop from theft or, more likely, accident.

A third option (and one that teams of students working on various projects seem to be increasingly turning to) is Google Docs or some other online productivity suite (such as Zoho). Google's offerings are not as fully functional as the MS Office tools you likely use right now but most people use very few of the functions in MS Office anyway.

The Google tools do have the enormous advantage of making collaboration a snap. This has proven to be particularly true with the spreadsheet application and team projects. With Google Docs, the team knows that everyone is working from the same format. While you can ensure the same thing with email and MS Excel, it simply is not as easy to set up and monitor. In addition, since everyone can see the whole spreadsheet everytime they log on, input mistakes are less likely to go unnoticed.

People worry about the Google hegemon and what it might do with all the docs that are uploaded there, and whether your data is truly protected, etc. I agree that these are obviously legitimate concerns for businesses and other formal organizations. I think the equation is bit different for college students. Here the question is something more like: "Is my 20 page term paper on 'Correlates of Bubble Gum Consumption In Burkina Faso' safer with Google or with me and my buddies and their coffee, beer or wine and my busy schedule and my cheap backpack without any padding, etc." I know what the answer would have been when I was a student...

Related Posts (Sam Goes Back To School):
Part 1: Wake Up!
Part 2: Top Firefox Add-ons
Part 3: Blogs Of Note

Friday, September 5, 2008

Don't Think, Stay Skinny! (Ars Technica)

Ars Technica is reporting today on a study that seems to indicate that "heavy mental effort leads to much bigger meals". The study was small scale and tested female students only but the results were statistically significant. The test was pretty carefully controlled and tested food intake after 3 conditions: resting, reading/writing or computer work. The students ate the most after the computer work but still ate significantly more after reading and writing than after just sitting around. The scientists concluded that knowledge-based work is "a new risk factor for a positive energy balance, with the potential to lead to overweight in the long-term."

Obviously they are going to do more studies but until they do, the next time someone fusses at you for not doing your school work, you have the prefect excuse: I'm trying to lose weight.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

SAM Goes Back To School, Part 3: Blogs Of Note

There are a million great blogs out there so the list below is obviously incomplete. I have selected these blogs based on largely internal criteria - you may well disagree. I am also sure that I have forgotten somebody -- so forgive me as well. In this case, please do not hesitate to post your own favorite site in the comments or drop me an email.

The Basics: Secrecy News, Danger Room and Google News Alert for "Intelligence". OK, OK; these are mostly focused on US national security intelligence rather than intelligence writ large. The facts remain that 60-70% of our students, at least, go to work for a three letter agency and the 50-60 billion the US drops on intel each year dwarfs every other intel program in the world. Secrecy News, sponsored by the Federation Of American Scientists, is probably the most respected intelligence watchdog out there. Wired's Danger Room is interesting, eclectic and very widely read. Finally, while you will get many false positives, all intel studies students ought to have an alert set up with some news service (I use Google's News Alerts on the keyword "intelligence".

The Experts: Haft Of The Spear, IntelFusion, Soob, Analyst's Corner, The Dark Visitor, Risk, Uncertainty and Everything Else and much of the blogroll. Michael Tanji posts occasionally to Wired's Danger Room but if you want all of his good thinking you have to go to his site, Haft Of The Spear (affectionately known as HOTS). Jeff Carr over at Intelfusion is another blogger worth listening to. His recent OSINT project should generate some pretty cool results. Deborah Osborne's Analyst's Corner is a unique resource for crime and law enforcement analysts. The Dark Visitor is about Chinese hackers and if that interests you, then this is the best place to learn more about it. Finally, Professor William McGill explores the scientific aspects of intelligence at Risk Uncertainty and Everything Else. There are others in the blogroll (in the column to the right) worth checking out as well.

The Techies. Ars Technica, TechCrunch, Gizmodo, and ReadWriteWeb. All of these blogs cover technology in one fashion or another but each has its own specialty. I like Ars for its commentary on the way technology and society mix. TechCrunch covers the business of technology while Gizmodo focuses almost exclusively on gadgets and new applications of technology. ReadWriteWeb is all about web applications and fills in some of the gaps left by the other three.

Resource Blogs: Docuticker, Information Aesthetics, MakeUseOf, and Lifehacker. All of these blogs provide resources for getting stuff done. Docuticker provides links to many articles and studies of interest (I get a lot of the links in the Shared Items column at the right from Docuticker). Information Aesthetics is all about data visualization and is very good at providing new ideas or tools for making more compelling graphics. MakeUseOf is a web tools site with lots of tips, etc. for getting more out of the internet. Finally, the granddaddy of them all, Lifehacker, with tips, tricks and useful tools for just about everything.

College Blogs. Wise Bread, Hack College and Mind Hacks. Wise Bread is all about living on the cheap while Hack College is specifically targeted at helping students get through college. Mind Hacks is not truly a college blog but I always find good tips about how to study or analyze problems there.

Fun Stuff: Boing Boing, Rocketboom, Indexed, Ill Doctrine and Alexia Golez. These are some of the blogs I turn to when I need a break from work. Not all of it is for everybody but there is almost always something interesting on one of them.

Mercyhurst Student Blogs: The 19th Hole, GiRl SpY, Justin's Space and NewRisks. Student blogs are not as widely read as some of the others on this list but there are some very good ones out there. The 19th Hole covers a wide range of international issues while GiRl SpY covers the subject of women in intelligence with a unique and very personal voice. Justin's Space is a varied mix of interesting topics while the excellent NewRisks blog seems to have gone silent (Let's hope for its return soon!).

The Internationals: Silendo (Italian), Konkurrenzanalyse 2.0 (German), George C. Dimitriou (Greek), Inteligencia Competitiva (Brazilian), and Renseignement & Intelligence économique (French). We get quite a few international students and it is good to know that there are bloggers on every continent talking intelligently about intelligence. This is also good practice for students in various language programs. Me, I just use Ubiquity's translate feature...

As I mentioned earlier, I am sure I have forgotten some of the very best. Either post them to the comments or drop me note and I will make sure they get posted.

Previous Posts (
SAM Goes Back To School):
Part 1: Wake Up!
Part 2: Top Firefox Add-Ons

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Mercyhurst Intel Student At The Democratic National Convention (WSEE)

Our local television station interviewed one of our own, junior Jenna Jarema, while at the Democratic National Convention. She did well and if you haven't seen it, the video is here.

SAM Goes Back To School, Part 2: Top Firefox Add-Ons For Intel Studies Students

One of the basic tools of an intel studies student's life is the internet browser. Everyone has an opinion, of course, but for my money Firefox 3 is the best choice. I have come to really like the flexibility of Firefox for the project-based work we usually find ourselves doing and have become increasingly impressed with the new features on Firefox 3 (introduced back in June).

  • Beyond Firefox 3, of course, there is Internet Explorer 7, Safari, and Opera. I like Opera the best of the three (particularly for cell phones) with Safari a close runner up. IE 8, which should improve on the current browser, is still in beta and Google's addition to the browser wars, Chrome, is not due out until today. There are, of course, other browsers out there and anyone with strong preferences is welcome to post to the comments...
One of the things that makes Firefox such a great browser is the ability to customize it using add-ons. There are add-ons for every conceivable purpose so I will only highlight the ones here that multiple students have found very useful in the past. In addition, Firefox 3 built a number of traditional add-ons from Firefox 2.0 into the browser itself so there is no need to install them.
  • Zotero or Scrapbook. Both are very good ways to store and retrieve web pages for research purposes. Zotero is a little more complicated but is very useful for writing academic style as well as intel style papers (Zotero integrates easily with MS Word which makes including citations and bibliographies in papers a breeze). Scrapbook is easier to use but does not have the power that Zotero has. Because of Zotero's ability to help students in both intel and non-intel classes, we require the use of Zotero in our freshman Advanced Intel Analysis class.
  • IE Tab. IE Tab allows you to see content that is typically only viewable in Internet Explorer in Firefox. There aren't many sites where you need this tab but some troglodytes out there still insist on optimizing their content for IE only. In these cases, IE Tab is invaluable.
  • McAfee Site Advisor, Web Of Trust or Netcraft Toolbar. When poking around the internet you are almost certain to come across what might look like a suspicious website. All of these add-ons provide you information to help make an informed decision. I use McAfee Site Advisor and Web Of Trust has come recommended by a source I trust (Thanks, Megan!). Netcraft Toolbar is another such add-on (targeting phishing attacks in particular) that comes recommended to me.
  • Morning Coffee. This add-on allows you to bring up a whole menu of websites with a single click. It is particularly useful if you are working on a project and want to monitor a number of sites routinely and simultaneously.
  • Adblock Plus. Tired of annoying ads on pages? Adblock Plus gets rid of them.
  • Forecastbar Enhanced. Gives you a complete weather picture whenever you want it. Particularly useful in places where the weather can shift from one extreme to another within hours (like Erie...).
  • Ubiquity. I almost put this one first. It is one of the most advanced tools I have seen for Firefox. My only hesitation is that it is in extreme Alpha status right now (but getting better quickly!) and it requires Firefox 3. What does it do? Just about everything. Check out the video below.

This is a short list of the add-ons that have been repeatedly recommended to me over the last year. If you have others, please post a link to the comments!

Related Posts:
SAM Goes Back To School, Part 1: Wake Up!

Monday, September 1, 2008

SAM Goes Back To School, Part 1: Wake Up!

All this week, I am going to try to put out a series of posts that capture some tips, tools and useful websites for students, particularly intel studies students, returning to college (we are back in classes tomorrow).

To get things started, though, I think I have found the near perfect wake up song for those 8 AM classes: "Volcano Girls" by alt rock band Veruca Salt. Loud enough to get you out of bed but with a chorus that expresses completely and utterly your mood at 7 in the morning.

(By the way, only the chorus really counts here. Nina Gordon's hard rock vocals are pretty incomprehensible anyway and likely impossible to hear over a cell phone alarm...)

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Puttin' The Open Into Open Source: MCIIS Innovation Challenge Team Looking To Do Some Collaborating!

The ODNI's Open Source Innovation Challenge set off a brief wave of excitement here at Mercyhurst late last week. There were a lot of pumped up students ready to take on the two challenge questions (Really -- they live for this kind of thing). Then everyone realized that you had to have a registered conference attendee on the team to submit an entry and registration was already closed...

The students set up one team anyway (under the sponsorship of Bob Heibel, our only registered attendee) and have been hard at work on their submission since then. Realizing that there was a ton more good open source info out there than they could possibly get at in a week, and taking full advantage of the rule that sets no size for the teams, the students have adopted an "innovative" approach to the problem: crowdsourcing.

They have asked me to help them get the word out that they are looking for anyone with anything relevant to the Al Qaeda challenge question: "Using the best open sources to inform your answer, is Al Qaeda a cohesive organization with strong and centralized control, intent and direction?"

You can send any info you think might be relevant to, their group account, but they need the info ASAP as they have to submit their final report by 5 SEP 08.

Specifically, they are looking for reliable open source information from any source (academic studies, think tank reports, social network analyses, first hand observation, whatever...) that is relevant to the question of AQ and the level of centralization in its command and control. They have a few specific collection requests as well for anyone out there who might have something or know of something:

  1. Instances of documented conflict between Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and other al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist groups.
  2. Instances where ties with Bin Laden’s al Qaeda existed but terrorist groups were documented as autonomous and conducted independent acts of terrorism.
  3. Instances of terrorist groups taking Bin Laden’s al Qaeda propaganda techniques and adopting them for their own purposes.
  4. Instances of self radicalized terrorists forming independent self generated terrorist groups (other than the London and Madrid bombers).
  5. Instances of groups that had sworn their allegiance to Bin Laden’s al Qaeda shifting to pursuing their own agendas that may have even run contrary to the wishes or mission statement supported by Bin Laden and al Zawahiri.
  6. Links to quantitative lists of attacks by al-Qaeda and affiliated groups/splinter groups etc.
  7. Differences in standard operating methods and tactics between Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and splinter groups.
Many readers of this blog are already working on their own entries, I know, but if you are one of those people who got closed out of registration or aren't going to get to go to the conference for other reasons, you can still play by helping the students out (they will give full credit to everyone that submits something). If you can't help but you know someone who can, don't hesitate to refer them to this post.

Win or lose, they have also agreed to let me post their final product here on SAM when the results are in, so stay tuned...