Tech – for Everyone

Tech Tips and Tricks & Advice – written in plain English.

About firewalls*

Regular readers of this post know that I advise running a firewall. It has been a while since I have told you how to do that, so I will do so today. If you already have a firewall, you may want to keep reading as some firewalls are not as good as others (and some are next to worthless) and I will get into the details on that further down the page.

A firewall is a tool that essentially separates networks, and allows/blocks “traffic” between those networks. Basically its goal is to block “bad” traffic from entering your machine or home network from the vast, scary Internet, and only allow “good” traffic to come and go. A firewall is analogous to a moat around your castle; it lowers the drawbridge to allow the useful people and products to come and go, and raises the drawbridge when it spots the invading army.

Tip of the day: Install and enable a 3rd Party firewall. Or, if you have one already, turn it on.
Microsoft brought personal firewalls into Windows with XP Service Pack 2 (and improved it in Vista), so if you are running XP or newer you already have a firewall built in and so the first thing to do is to make sure it’s turned on. There are several ways to check the status of Windows Firewall, and here’s a couple: Start >Connect to >Show all network connections, or Start >Control Panel >Network Connections.
You will now see a window showing your networks. You want to look under the heading “LAN or High Speed Internet” for the network that says “Connected”, (mine says “Wireless Network Connection” because I’m writing this from my laptop and I’m in my local public library) and if it’s on, “Connected, firewalled”. Right-click on the icon and select Properties and select the Advanced tab. The top area is your firewall. Click the Settings button, use the radio button to turn it on. Done.

Or, your computer may have come with, or you may have purchased, an Internet Security Suite — typically from a vendor like McAfee — and these all come with some sort of firewall. You should know if it is enabled because if it is, you will have been pestered with pop-up warning boxes asking for an “Allow or Deny?” decision [the price you pay with all firewalls, as they “learn” your configuration and usage].
To make sure it’s “on” open the suite’s control panel by double-clicking on its desktop icon or right-click its system tray icon. There will be several categories of “protection”, and each interface is different, so you may have to explore a little bit to find it.

PLEASE NOTE: It is “not good” to have two firewalls running at the same time! Use only the strongest firewall you have available.

Okay, so what do I mean by “strongest”? Well first of all, you may have read that the Windows Firewall isn’t very good. This is particularly true of the XP firewall, and that criticism is mainly because it’s a “one-way” firewall — it is only designed to prevent intrusions. It is incapable of monitoring the traffic that leaves your PC. It cannot prevent your personal data from “leaking” out. It is also not very “robust”.  (Vista’s firewall is 2-way.)
Robust, in computing, is a term used to describe how, steady and reliable a system is, how “fault tolerant”, and how difficult it is to purposely “crash” it. A lot of the personal firewalls available simply aren’t very robust, and a hacker can bring them down fairly easily, and then, obviously, you would be unprotected.

ALSO NOTE, Please: It is my belief that any firewall is better than no firewall. It will protect you from the casual or inexperienced hacker. However, keep reading because there are robust, two-way firewalls available for free.

If you want a professional-strength firewall (and my point is, you do), the top contenders are for-sale versions, and they are not unreasonably priced. Kerio (now owned by Sunbelt), Outpost Pro, and ZoneAlarm Pro are my recommended choices.

Free link(s) of the day: There are two free firewalls that are as good as the for-a-fee ones mentioned above. My first reco’ is the free version of ZoneAlarm. The Install starts out as the “Pro” version and then reverts to a free version. The Pro version period really helps with firewall’s “learning” and seems to me easier for the average user to configure and use. It is quite vigilant and “chatty” — but it’s effective.
A more robust firewall is offered by Comodo. It takes more system resources and seems to me quite slow in responding to allow/deny answers and isn’t quite as “user friendly, but it is quite configurable for the more advanced user.

*Prior publication 6/30/07

Copyright 2007-8 © Tech Paul. All rights reserved.jaanix post to jaanix

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April 22, 2008 Posted by | advice, computers, firewall, how to, Internet, networking, PC, privacy, security, tech, Windows | , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Every good story needs a villain

This story opens gently enough. It begins with a friendly and helpful Comment posted on a friendly and helpful blog.

Someone had written to share “the results of their work”, which he said “solved his security problems.” He was talking about viruses and spyware, and other malware, and he said his method “covers 99.8%! of all known threats.”
He posted his advice/Comment on an article about How To prevent the dangers posed by spyware (and also warns about “rogue” anti-spyware programs). He signed himself “Spycrasher”.

So far, this all sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? 99.8% effective certainly sounds good.

As you have probably deduced, Dear Reader, the “friendly and helpful blog” in question was this one. Tech–for Everyone, like most blogs, provides readers the opportunity to respond, ask a question, or just “put in their two cents”, simply by clicking on “Comments” at the bottom of the article. And also like most blogs, I have the ability to “moderate” which comments get posted and which don’t– for instance, Comments containing offensive language will not be published.
Spycrasher’s 99.8%- effective security solution will NOT be seen here.

But.. maybe you’re a little curious as to what it was. And.. maybe, why I deleted it. (Take another peek at today’s title..) “Spycrasher’s” comment said to use three particular anti-spyware programs– in tandem– and he provided download links. (This, alone, triggers red flags.) He mentioned two tools I was not familiar with, and one rather well-known program.

* Hyperlinks are always suspicious (and blocked as a matter of policy), and the first thing I checked was, did the links point to legitimate websites..? Or would clicking on them take you to a poisoned webpage (which could infect your machine) or a pharming site.
No problem there. The links he provided did indeed point to real websites.

* The next thing was to check out the unknown programs themselves. No self-respecting and legitimate tech writer will advocate something they have not used, and tested, themselves. Period.
In my initial research of the first program (XoftSpy-SE), I found a wide range of reviews and comments.. from “this is rogue” to “this is the best thing since sliced bread”, and I learned that the program was “for pay”.
I don’t promote “for pay” software here (but do provide a daily free download), nor, even potentially rogue app’s; and so I stopped right there. I would not allow Spycrasher’s Comment.

* Being the gentleman that I am, I decided to write Spycrasher and thank him for his submission, and explain why I had moderated it. But before I did, I wanted to get a feel for where he was coming from.. so I ran a Whois on his IP…

Now, I gotta tell you.. it is very rare for ARIN to come back with a “no match found”. Very, very strange.

So I traced him.
New York >London >Amsterdam >Berlin >Warsaw…
And then he disappears into a virtual private network somewhere in the Ukraine.

* So I used a search engine to find instances of the word “Spycrasher”… and he came up a lot. Spycrasher likes to post in various forums. Quite a few of them, actually. Like, practically all of them.
And he posts a lot of Comments there.
* Guess what? They are all identical to the the one he posted (I should say “pasted”) on mine.. right down to the ‘wink’ smiley ;-).

Very.. odd.

Tip of the day: Be very leery of hyperlinks, folks.. and please understand: not every innocent looking thing you see on the Internet is in fact “friendly and helpful”. There are people whose full-time job it is to try to trick you, and seduce you into doing something you normally wouldn’t.
I am very sad to say.

[note to bloggers/forum moderators/webmasters: you may want to search your published pages for instances of “Spycrasher”, and delete this guy.]

Today’s free link: I am going to repost a program here today, because I have it on every single one of my (Windows) machines, and I think you should too. ThreatFire (originally named “CyberHawk”) is a free, behavior-based anti-malware application. I use it as a supplement to my antivirus and other anti-spyware tools. Heuristic tools like ThreatFire are your only defense against “zero day” exploits.

Copyright 2007-8 © Tech Paul. All rights reserved*.jaanix post to jaanix

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April 20, 2008 Posted by | advice, anti-spyware, blogging, computers, Internet scam, PC, Phishing, phraud, security, spam and junk mail, tech, Uncategorized, Windows | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Your computer is spamming me*

“Spam” did not always mean “unsolicited (junk) e-mail”. Spam is, in reality, a processed and canned meat.. for, like.. when you go camping in the woods.. or something.
cannaspam.jpgI cannot recall ever having eaten SPAM — though I’m fairly certain I have — and so I cannot say whether this item is a tasty treat, or whether it deserved its (in my recall, anyway) reputation as being.. not so good. I think it’s supposed to be similar to ham.

I do recall watching a lot of the British comedy group Monty Python’s Flying Circus on television. One of their more well-known and popular skits was about SPAM.. and vikings.
The song seemed to catch on.

One of the character’s lines is “I don’t like spam!”
And, we don’t like unsolicited (junk) e-mail!
Hence the birth of an expression/joke that’s turned into an actual dictionary definition of common, accepted, everyday usage.

(from Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary)
Main Entry: 1spam Listen to the pronunciation of 1spam
Pronunciation: \ˈspam\
Function: noun
Etymology: from a skit on the British television series Monty Python’s Flying Circus in which chanting of the word Spam overrides the other dialogue
Date: 1994
: unsolicited usually commercial e-mail sent to a large number of addresses

Yes. I don’t like spam!
Not terrribly surprisingly, the spammers are at it again, using their botnets (our infected computers) to send e-mails offering discount drugs.. out of Russia. At the end of January, I wrote about the “Spam blocked” counter on the side column of this site (which shows you how many such solicitations are being posted as Comments) and, the psychology of these spammers… There’s been an extraordinary barrage of spam comments here at Tech–for Everyone these last several days (automated spambots in action).
Will spam ever go away? Not until not one human being EVER clicks the link. (Please stop clicking links in e-mails!)

Until spamming doesn’t work and the spammers move on to some other technique to try to rip you off, you can learn how to manage the amount of junk e-mail you receive by reading (or reviewing) these two articles.

To read my article on botnets — and how your computer might be a bot (and what to do about it), click here.

The sun is out, and I got things to do.. so, until next time, “spam spam spam, spam spam spam spam..”

*Original post date: March 15th

Copyright 2007-8 © Tech Paul. All rights reserved.jaanix post to jaanix 

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April 19, 2008 Posted by | advice, anti-spyware, antivirus, computers, e-mail, how to, PC, security, tech | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Vista Plug and Play issues*

It has been  a while since I’ve done a “reader questions answered” segment (and reminded you, Dear Reader, that you can post questions to me), but I’m hoping that you’ll remember the “Q’s and their A’s” format.

Q: Vista won’t recognize my new device. What’s wrong with my PnP?
A: Vista is actually quite good (in my opinion, the best yet) at automatically installing new devices with the use of PnP (Plug and Play). That said, a fair portion of the calls I receive at my online Tech Support business are troubleshooting PnP failures.
There are standard procedures for getting devices installed, when it doesn’t happen automatically for one reason or another, which I have outlined here before. Review the How To’s by clicking on this link: I advise reading all three parts, and the Comments as well (and read about USB Host controllers).
If you have tried these methods without success, there may be some “ClassID framework” missing which needs to get installed before Vista can ‘see’ your device, and you will need the help of Tech Support– I would not be averse to getting it direct from Microsoft.

You can avoid some headaches by making sure the device you want to buy is “Vista Compatible”. Vista is rather recalcitrant at accepting 3rd-party drivers that have not received Microsoft’s stamp of approval (not undergone Microsoft laboratory testing). This is to ensure that the webcam (for example) you want is going to work, and not “mess up your machine”. Visit the Vista Hardware Compatibility List, and sort by category to find approved (tested) makes and models, and purchase one from the list.

Q: I bought a gateway with Vista Home Premium, but need to convert back to XP Pro. I have a friend who is technically sound, but (they) said it would be hard to get all the drivers loaded to work right. Do you know where I can get all the drivers to make XP work on my Gateway that is less than a year old?
A: If you “must” convert back to XP Pro, you will indeed need to acquire some “for XP” drivers for some of your hardware/devices (XP will have some drivers already). Make a list of all your devices (Device Manager is a good place to start) and look on the Internet to make sure there’s XP drivers available. Make a system state backup of your current configuration. Then Install XP.

Once XP is installed, use Device Manager to find which devices need drivers (look for yellow ?’s, and red Xs).
You will then go to the device manufacturer’s website and download the XP driver. (You should not use the “Update driver” feature, as XP drivers are ‘old’.) Again, I refer you to the article link above.
A tool like Sandra Lite can help determine the make/model of your devices if you’re unsure of the manufacturer (such as the motherboard chipset).
You will have to do this on a case-by-case basis (there is no driver ‘one-stop-shop’) for those devices not covered by the XP install itself…but that shouldn’t be too, too many.

When you’re done, make a good backup… preferably with a “disk imaging” program.

Today’s free link: I use Sandra Lite quite a bit when troubleshooting distant machines. The benchmarking tool gives a very complete system profile, including the make/model of installed devices. It is often the only way I can determine the motherboard chipset. A word of caution: do not elect to make the scan results public, or “share them for further analysis”.

* Original post date: 02/14/08

Copyright 2007-8 © Tech Paul. All rights reserved.jaanix post to jaanix

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April 18, 2008 Posted by | advice, computers, device drivers, hardware, how to, PC, Plug and Play, tech, troubleshooting, Vista, Windows, XP | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Quick Tip: Customize new tabs behavior

One of the nice things about ‘modern’ web browsers is they let you open multiple sites in a single window through the use of “tabbed browsing”. This allows you to quickly flip back and forth between relevant sites.. while keeping an eye on your webmail Inboxes. No more minimizing/maximizing from your Taskbar.

One of the not so nice things about tabbed browsing is that when you hit Ctrl+T and open a new tab, it doesn’t go straight to where you want to go.. but opens to MSN (or some other pre-defined site) or more likely it says…
Yes. I know. I’m the one that hit Ctrl+T.
This may be tolerable.. and even informational, the first few times you ever use “tabbed browsing”.. but I do not particularly enjoy being told that I have just done something that I did on purpose (“You’ve typed some words”).
“You’ve opened a new tab” has got to go. Fortunately, this “Welcome to Tabbed Browsing” page has my very favorite-est computing checkbox on it (down towards the bottom), the “Don’t show this again” option. I love seeing this option. Place a check in the box, and the next time you open a new tab you will get…
Which is not only less insulting to my intelligence, but it loads faster. I like faster.

In Internet Explorer 7, there is a new tab behavior that just makes no sense to me, and I believe it is the default behavior (which makes even less sense)– that is, when you open a new tab, it doesn’t open next to your current Webpage.. but launches a whole ‘nother instance of IE.. and you’re back to Taskbar minimizing/maximizing again. This “option” shouldn’t even exist.. much less be the default: it is called the “Open in new window” setting. Let’s turn this off and force IE to keep all our work in one place– the current window.
From the “Tools” (a gray gear icon) menu in the upper-rt. corner, select Internet Options.
In the “Tabs” heading, click the “Settings” button to open up our tab behavior options.

You want to change the radio buttons in two places: the middle option, “When a pop-up is encountered” and “Open links from other programs” should be set to “new tab“. Click “OK”.
That’s it, you’re done. Now your browser will behave (more) the way you want it to.

* If your new tab opens to MSN (or some other pre-defined page [called a “homepage”]) and you don’t want to be exposed to the potentially dangerous Flash advertisements and/or it takes to long to load, or whatever reason, you can uncheck the box next to “Open home page for new tabs instead of a blank page”. Now Ctrl+T will always open to a quick blank tab. (When you do want to see MSN/homepage, click the house icon on your menu bar.)

* * Another alternative is to change the browser’s “home page” to a Website of your choosing — your ‘personalized’ page your ISP gave you, maybe. My Quick Tip article on how to do that is here. Note: if you do this, and want new tabs to open to your page, place a check in the box (option) mentioned in the paragraph above.

[Note: while these screenshots, and specific menu choices, are IE, the procedure applies to pretty much all web browsers. “Internet Options” may be named simply “Options”, or “Preferences”.]

Today’s free link: Some people need lists in order to function efficiently and actually get things done (I have found that if I ignore my lists, I can get a lot less accomplished). Todoist is an online list service that is clean and efficient and yet supports a large variety of complex services (nested lists, calendaring, e-mail integration, etc.) and integrations.

Copyright 2007-8 © Tech Paul. All rights reserved.jaanix post to jaanix

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April 17, 2008 Posted by | advice, computers, how to, IE 7, PC, tech, tweaks, Windows | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mac myths

Some folks are Mac loyalists (I refer to them as “iPeople”). And some folks only use Windows. For a very long while, in the “early days” particularly, you pretty much had to choose sides — you ran one OR the other. And once you chose, and bought your machine, (and learned how to use it) you stayed with it.. probably right up to today.

Up until fairly recently (Historically speaking), Apple went to some effort to remain apart (aloof?)– they chose to use hardware standards, software formats, and such, so that you had to purchase “Mac” hardware, software, and peripherals, and floppies. You could not take your files from an Apple computer and work on them on a Windows computer.

All that has changed. (But the loyalties remain!) Macs no longer run unique CPU’s (nor use SCSI), and the software is not written to exclude certain formats. A while back, they switched from “AppleTalk” to TCP/IP as their networking protocol. Yes, Apple is still “different” than Windows, but it is far friendlier than it used to be.

It is partly because of these changes that quite a few people have (shudder) switched allegiances from Windows, and purchased a Mac. (If you are a Windows user, and are considering a Mac as your next computer, you may want to read this article of mine.)
Many people are taking advantage of either Parallels or Boot Camp and running both OSes on their Apple machines, essentially allowing them to enjoy the advantages of both camps.

Tip of the day: Forget those old ideas you may have had about Mac vs. PC’s, as they’re largely myths. Such as:

* Macs can’t share files with Windows. Not true. As I mentioned (above), Macs (as of OS X 10.2) use TCP/IP for networking and support Windows’ SMB. Adding a Mac to your Windows network (and visa versa) is basically as easy as plugging it in. You can exchange files over your network (in either direction) just as you do between your Windows machines.
And, you can access (use) networked printers, too– whether they’re attached to a Mac or a Windows machine.

Specially formatted floppies are gone too. Thumb drives, USB hard-drives, CD’s and DVD’s are the modern tools, and they are “universal”… you don’t buy a “Mac thumb drive”, you buy a thumb drive, period.

* You can’t right-click on Macs. While it is true that standard Mac mouses have only one button (and you hold down the Ctrl key while clicking to open Context menus), you are not limited to using Mac hardware and/or peripherals any longer– simply plug any USB mouse you prefer into your Mac machine.
As a “Windows guy”, the biggest mental adjustment I have to make when sitting at a Mac is my compulsive need to right-click, and so I plug in a Kensington PocketMouse that I carry in my toolkit and, shazaam! I have the three-button capability I’m so used to.

Yes, it is true that some programs will only run on Windows, and some will only run on Macs. So far, the “workaround” for this is either virtualization (such as Parallels) or dual-booting. That is because Mac is founded on OpenBSD and Windows on MS-DOS. That said, “making the switch” from Windows to Mac has never been easier and, you don’t have to completely switch loyalties– you can run both; even on the same machine!

Today’s free link: For those of you who like to download Flash games, or YouTube videos, Orbit (a download manager) will simplify your tasks. From site: “It is a free all-in-one downloader which can download streaming media, social music or video from anywhere include youtube, myspace, imeem, pandora, etc. It is famous for its super light, great speed and rapidshare supported.” Today’s link also includes reviews on C/Net.

Copyright 2007-8 © Tech Paul. All rights reserved.jaanix post to jaanix

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April 16, 2008 Posted by | advice, computers, hardware, PC, tech, Windows | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The power of the nap

I do not want to start out today by alarming, or shocking, you Dear Reader, but I do want you to realize one thing — not everyone does things the same way we (in the USA) do.
Yes. It’s true.

Now, I’m not talking about simply using a weird language (non-English) to talk to each other. I’m talking about methods of accomplishing tasks, and how we live life.

For instance:
I am told that if you travel to some Distant Lands, you will find that the people there insist on driving on the wrong side of the road. In fact, in those places, so many people drive on the wrong side that the car builders have taken to installing the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car.

I am also told that there are Distant Lands where it takes several hours to eat your meal (no Drive-Thru windows, I guess). I am also told that wine is served every night. In some of these places, it is said that the evening meal doesn’t begin until about 10pm. That one pushes my credulity, 10?! That’s my bedtime.
I have been told this is true in places like Spain, and also in Italy.
I have also heard that in France they give you three hours for lunch. That has to be a lie… my last “real” job gave me 30 minutes.

Also unlike here, many Distant Lands do not treat smoking a cigarette as a Criminal Offense… and the smoker as a leper.
Weird stuff.

* Now back to today’s title:
I mentioned Spain and Italy before, and I want to get back to them because one of the bizarre things I’ve heard the people there do is of extreme (well.. moderate) interest to me, now that I’ve reached my “middle years”– I am talking about the “siesta“.

Now to my, admittedly limited, understanding.. the way it works is like this: you eat your midday meal (with wine), BS with your friends for a while, and then go lay down and take a midday nap.. then you get up and go back to work. (Maybe that’s why it takes 3 hours?)
I gotta confess..  when I first heard of this, it sounded pretty good to me. In fact, it sounds so good, it surely must be a lie. However, I have taken to adopting this mythical siesta-thing into my own life, and now I regularly (well.. as often as possible.. which isn’t as often as I’d like) lay down for 20 minutes in the afternoon.
Only I don’t call my lay-down a “siesta”; I call it a “power nap” (some folks call it a “NASA nap”).
And folks, I can attest: what you’ve heard about power naps is true. A brief eye-shutting does rejuvenate the mind, body, and soul. And now that I’ve tried this wonder, I ain’t going back.. I am now a “siesta guy”.

What does this have to do with Tech?
Glad you asked. First let me say that (gasp!) life is not all Tech.. and suggest that you may want to look into this midday nap thing yourself (it will actually increase your productivity) and give Personal Sleep Mode a try, and then…
Tip of the day: Putting computer into a low power mode, such as “Sleep” or “Standby”, or “Hibernate” is a good thing to do when you’re not actively using your machine. You will save on your electricity bill, and actually reduce wear-and-tear on your machine.
To learn about adjusting your computer’s low power-state options, read the second “question answered” in this article. And to learn how to enable Hibernation mode on your desktop PC, click here.

Today’s free link: A fella who calls himself “Mr. Electricity” has a page on his Website which helps you understand computer (and attached devices) power consumption, and by reading the information there, you can calculate how much money you’ll save by taking advantage of your computer’s ability to “power nap” too. (It can be an eye-opener to see how much your monitor is costing you.)

Copyright 2007-8 © Tech Paul. All rights reserved.jaanix post to jaanix

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April 15, 2008 Posted by | advice, computers, hardware, how to, PC, tech, Vista, Windows, XP | , , , , , , | Leave a comment