Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Virtual PC Is Here

A four dollar CD can free you from Windows forever. According to, one fellow is calling it an "Internet Freedom Disk".

You boot your computer from the CD drive. This bypasses any rootkits on the hard drive, any viruses, any worms, any keylogging programs.

No history is kept in the computer of where you go online or what you do. (Your Internet Service Provider may track that, however.) If you get the DVD version, you can use Skype to make phone calls that you know are going nowhere but where you want them to go.

Booting from CD gives the ultimate in secure computing.

Your operating system can never be overwritten by a virus. It's pretty well debugged, because it's Linux. The version I am using is as evolved as Windows or more so. The differences are trivial. You know what's there, because it's Linux.

Not one, but three companies release these discs. The most highly recommended version seems to be Freespire, a descendent of Linspire, formerly Lindows. Ubuntu also provides a bootable CD. The one I am familiar with is Knoppix.

I'm readying now a Knoppix disk for a friend whose Windows machine had a classic head crash on the directory in the hard drive. With this disk, he will be able to restart his PC, copy pictures from his camera into a jump drive, burn CDs and cruise the web.

He may be able to salvage some files from his hard drive, depending on what is left of the directory. If the drive is not a total loss, he can reformat it from the CD, skipping the bad sectors, and, if he likes Knoppix, install that on the reformatted drive. A broken Windows machine becomes a working Linux machine. For $4.00.

I got my Knoppix 5.0 DVD from a magazine in Borders Books. More and more, new Linux editions seem to be distributed this way.

A year ago, I built a small computer that could be devoted to Linux. I installed SUSE Linux from the "SUSE Linux 10 for Dummies" book. I discovered sadly after installing it that it couldn't connect with the DSL provided by SBC. So I haunted the magazine rack, buying and trying FreeBSD, Mandrake, Mandriva and Linspire (got that for a penny on a promotion) and none of them knew how to connect to DSL all by themselves, nor could I find out on the web how to make them do this.

Then came Knoppix. As soon as it booted, it checked this strange ethernet thing plugged into the computer, and Eureka! It knew what to do with it. I had DSL.

In order for it to boot the first time from the CD, I had to press my keyboard's DEL key at startup and tell the setup program to change the boot drive search sequence so that the machine would look first at the CD drive and then at the hard drive. I pressed F10 to exit and the machine booted in Linux. Faster than in Windows.

A fine Linux it is, too. The Knoppix CD has a plethora of programs - 1.9 gigabytes uncompressed. The dvd has even more. When you press the button in the lower left corner a long, long list of programs appears.

Booting from the CD does prevent me from bookmarking my favorite sites. If a program needs to save its startup parameters, it can't. Maybe I can tell Linux to save this information on the little jump drive. I don't know how yet.

You can install Knoppix, if you like it, onto a hard drive. Installed on my hard drive, Knoppix has a package installer that I can use to update individual programs and install new software.

I have not yet been able to initialize the TV card on my Linux machine in Knoppix. This may be a wiring problem. There are several other little clinkers that I hope will disappear as I learn more. Portable media needs to be write-enabled, for example.

You can create your own bootable CDs with a subset of the Knoppix CD if you like - make a standard set of tools for the company or for the department. Eliminate the software overhead in one fell swoop.

While the operating system on CD is intrinsically secure, it desecures the Windows system of the machine on which it runs. From Knoppix you can read Windows files.

You can create an audit CD with a script that lets you copy particular Windows user files from a computer to an external hard drive for review. A policeman, a company spy or a blackmailer can do the same.

Windows users can protect against such invaders by going into set-up mode (DEL, F8, or F12 at startup) and adding a password there. Even a person booting from a CD will need to know this password.

This new twist in technology has profound political implications. Individuals needing secrecy can now visit a wi-fi hotspot, boot up their laptops to a CD, and converse over encrypted internet telephone with no chance of interception.

The right to freely assemble, at least over the internet, has become a global right.


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