Friday, December 11, 2009

What About Google Chrome?

You may have noticed that Google is pushing very strongly its browser, Google Chrome.  I think almost everybody understands Google's business model - they are not an Internet search company, they are an advertising company.  They make money by charging their customers to place ads, and they cleverly come up with inventive ways to do so (free e-mail, Google Maps, Google Earth, etc.).  My question on the business side is, how does Google make money off of Chrome?  I don't think they do.

So, I have been using both the Beta and Release versions of Google Chrome for over a year now.  Or, rather, I should say I had been using them.  If you were ever wondering, "Should I switch?" I will give you my answer.

What Is A Browser?

A long time ago (circa early 1960's), in a galaxy far, far away (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA), the Internet was invented (originally called DARPAnet - and who says the government doesn't do anything useful?).  Back then, the Internet was only for geeks and hacks.  There was e-mail, but no one except a few hundred people on the planet knew what e-mail was.  In order to connect to something, like NASA for example, you had to know their IP address.  And know UNIX.  (Yeah, I downloaded a lot of cool JPeg pictures from NASA in the 1980's.)  Then, you could connect - and do what?  Download files.  Communicate in "bulletin boards" called Newsgroups.  That's about it.

Nowadays, it seems second nature.  But, sometime in the late 1980's and early 1990's, a group of super-geeks invented HTML and the World Wide Web.  In 1991 or 1992, when I first heard of it, my friend said, "You've GOT to see the World Wide Web.  HTML - hyperlinks, embedded pictures - it's so cool!"  We were mesmerized, by the fact that you could read documentation on software, and actually click to cross-reference a word.  Cool!

Of course, today the Web (so-called because it is a complex web of interlinked and cross-linked documents and resources) is almost synonymous with the Internet.

A Browser, simply put, is the software that allows you to view this Web content of the Internet.  Its basis is HTML, which is a formatting language developed to lay out textual documents with graphical components, but so much more has been built upon it.  So, what's all this big deal about Browsers?

Back in the old days, there was only one - Mozilla (the original one developed back in the 1980's).  This has morphed into the product now called Firefox.  Eventually when the Internet took off (primarily because of the Web), Microsoft took note, and in 1995 included a browser with Windows called Internet Explorer.  Now, there are a bunch of browsers out there.  However, these 2 browsers really dominate the market, with a new contender that has grown very fast.  The new contender?  Google Chrome.

What Browsers Are Out There?

For a good review of browsers, see
  • Microsoft Internet Explorer, or "IE" is the default with
    Windows, currently on version 8
  • Mozilla Firefox, currently on version 3.5
  • Google Chrome, currently on version 4.0
  • Opera, currently on version 10.0
    • Not talked about in this article, it is blazing fast and its innovation is mouse gestures as shortcuts for the common browser buttons; however, it seriously lacks compatibility with many web sites
  • Apple Safari, currently on version 4
    • Not talked about in this article, it performs very nicely on Mac and PC, about the same as Chrome and Firefox
  • ...and a bunch of small, relatively unknown browsers I have not evaluated nor heard of before I did research for this article:
    • Flock
    • Maxthon
    • Avant
    • Deepnet Explorer
    • Phaseout

What's So Unique About Google Chrome?

So, what's the big deal?  As the years have gone by, IE has become Bloatware - that is, so huge and bloated, that it is both unstable (it crashes a lot - and always has, ever since version 2.0 / Windows 95), and it is a slow and ungainly application.  It is huge!  The latest invocation, Version 8, requires lots of RAM and a fast computer, otherwise you are really waiting a lot.  Google Chrome is minimalist. There is only one field for entry - for URL's (the address you want to go to), as well as for searches.  You have the tab bar, menus, toolbar, and that's it - the rest of the screen is devoted solely to browsing.  Behind the scenes, it is small, lean, and fast.  Of course, browsers nowadays have to be free to compete - no one will pay for a browser.  Chrome gives you speedy performance, but at a cost, of course - albeit not a direct monetary cost.

Another really nice feature, is Incognito Mode.  You can run Chrome in Incognito, and this will prevent cookies from web sites being saved to your system.  It helps if you are browsing dangerous web sites, to protect your computer from damage by them.  However, it is not a catch-all for these issues.  Your computer's address is still known to the server you connect with, and you can still download and install executables.

What Are The Problems With It And Internet Explorer?

First, what are the problems with Internet Explorer, or simply "IE"?  Heck, it comes preinstalled with Windows, so why would anyone switch?  Believe it or not, not everyone who has a computer has Windows.  There are a ton of UNIX, Linux, and Mac users out there.  I hear a few of them even use Internet Explorer - perhaps it behaves better on UNIX-based machines, I haven't yet found out.  As mentioned above, IE is Bloatware (with a capital B).  It takes up a ton of memory, it takes a long time to load - especially if you have Plug-Ins (add-ons that add functionality to IE), and because it has so many features, it loads pages and displays them much slower than its competition.  And, there is a lot of competition.

So, what's wrong with the top browser, and what's wrong with Chrome?

  • IE
    • Bloated, slow, and unstable.  In a Wisconsin Public Radio show earlier this year, I heard that the 2 most unstable software in the computing industry (most crashes) are IE and Windows Explorer (the core component of Windows).  I can vouch for that by firsthand experience.
    • User Interface has become, well, not so great.  I used to say Microsoft is the king of user interfaces, making their software intuitive.  However, they have fallen, to the folks at Google and Apple.
    • Resource hog - it grabs lots of memory, and generally slows down the entire computer while using it.
    • The plus side?  It is compatible with all the web sites out there.
  • Chrome
    • Compatibility - there are quite a few web sites, some of them very important for my work, that do not function correctly with Chrome
    • Lack of plug-ins - there are many excellent add-ons you can get for Firefox and IE, that are just like Apps for the iPhone.  They make the whole user experience.  They are just coming on line for Chrome, and very limited.
    • No Google Toolbar - yes, the one completely addictive gadget Google has come out with in the past few years, Google Toolbar, doesn't work with Chrome.  This really bites.
    • Up until the end of October, 2009, another problem with Chrome is no Mac version; however, they now have one, so take that one off the list.

Should I Switch?

Obviously, only you can decide.  For me, there is one overriding, all-important feature - Compatibility.  If the web sites I frequent don't work correctly on the browser, I can't use it.  Chrome falls into this category.  For me, it really bites.  Yes, it is fast - but Opera is faster.  Firefox is just as fast - and has the compatibility with probably 99% of the web sites, and an IE plugin that covers web sites that it don't work with.  Second most important, is speed - Firefox, Chrome, and Opera all have that.  So, I use Firefox every day.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Slow Computer Frustrations

I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that there are probably a few people out there who get frustrated with computers from time to time.  I'm going to also go way way out, and guess that most of these are Windows users.  Just a guess.  Why, aside from the sheer market penetration?

Well, I just tried to reboot my laptop by doing Start, Shut Down, and pick Restart.  What happened?  It hung for 10 minutes, no activity.  Everything stopped responding, no hard drive light, nothing.  Finally I had to power off. They used to call it Plug and Pray back in the days when Windows 95 came out (notice the "r"?).  This high-end Dell laptop, with 4 Gigabytes of RAM (heck, my Amiga 2000 had 5 MB and it was a lot!), a Core 2 Duo CPU, and supposedly a big I/O bus, but oy does it spend a lot of time hanging waiting for the hard drive.

So, I've been contemplating, in all this time I have to wait, what is it exactly that gives me the impression that, no matter how fast the computer is, it is still too slow?  Have you thought the same?  I mean, you know, back in the 1980's there was the DOS PC, the old Mac, the Apple IIe, Commodore 64 and Amiga, Atari 800 and ST, and so on.  They were slow by today's standards, but back then they seemed, you know, fast enough but after you got used to them, you wished they were faster.  Each new generation of machines got "faster", but they seemed, you know, fast enough but you wished they were faster.  Heck, if you took the same machine and used it for 6 years, it was slower than when you got it.  This is particularly a Windows phenomenon - I have noticed it because, being the miser I am, I like to recondition old equipment and use it for other purposes, so I have reformatted and reinstalled Windows many times on old equipment, only to find - hey, they run a lot faster after a reinstall, almost as fast as a brand new machine!

So, what's that all about?

First, Windows itself is a behemoth operating system that is built upon older versions upon older versions, with a mandate to maintain certain levels of compatibility all the way back to DOS 3.  1984.  Remember the old IBM PC?  In fact, Windows is itself very much like the Internet.  The Internet as it stands today rests upon some basic standard protocols called TCP and IP, which were developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and several universities including my alma mater, U of M.  By the way, these protocols were developed back in the 1950's-1960's to withstand a nuclear holocaust and still route data between defense and university facilities.  Not really designed for efficiency in communication, nor were they designed for anything other than simple text files, data files, e-mails, etc.  Nowadays, upon those basic protocols, we have added rich Web (developed in the late 1980's and deployed in the early 1990's), streaming media, mobile apps, voice and fax virtual phone lines, virtual networks, rich e-mails with formatting and embedded media - it's amazing what they do with 1's and 0's.  However, notice that the Internet doesn't work very well for these things - why?  Because the basic foundation, that of self-routing packets split up and finding their own way so they can arrive in spite of a nuclear blast, is not designed to work well for them.

Windows is just like this - a simplified PC hardware architecture with a CPU, 640K of RAM, a text monitor, and a keyboard.  Oh, you want graphics?  Sure, we can do that - we just make a patch here.  Oh, you want a mouse too, sure, another patch, and one for sound, one for USB devices.  Put it all together, you end up with a patchwork built upon an ancient design.

UNIX, on the other hand, has had quite an interesting series of rebirths.  It did start out in similar times, but with different bent and direction.  As opposed to Bill Gates and his cadre of executives and lawyers, UNIX started out an open operating system (without the avid goal to make money).  AT&T Bell Labs published their source code.  Much UNIX software has remained like this, generating such institutions as the GNU Public Library, and influencing Sun Microsystems and others.  Its openness extends to the design and handling of new constructs.  Take, for instance, the famous decision made at Microsoft in the 1980's.  Most computers had a max of 64K of RAM, so they multiplied it by 10, and said "That's the most memory we'll ever need," and proceeded to design their operating system under that limitation.  UNIX (AT&T), on the other hand, said, OK, the largest number we can address in a number of X size is Y, so Y is the maximum RAM (turns out, the maximum number addressable depends upon the processor you run it on, so as the hardware gets bigger, UNIX addresses the memory no problem).

The bottom line is, we are all limited not by the resources at hand, but by what we imagine to be resources.  The decisions we make, the actions we take, and more importantly, the assumptions we make without realizing those are merely assumptions, become the box that sets the limits.

So, fast forward to today, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century.  The fact that Windows works as "well" as it does, is pretty much a miracle!  Anyhow, a long digression on the history of computers, but I think it's quite interesting that this Dell, which basically has the exact same hardware as my Macbook Pro, runs so slow.  But the Macbook Pro is insanely solid and fast.

The only time in the past month I have had to reboot the Macbook, is when it downloaded a software update from Apple that said "you should reboot".  That's twice.  In fact, when I close the lid, it goes to standby in, no kidding, 3 seconds.  When I open the lid, no kidding, it comes out of standby and connects to the WiFi network in 3 seconds.  I don't know how they do this magic - and that speed is truly magical.  I suspect that a) the UNIX-based Mac OS X is a well-designed OS, well-organized, and b) the lack of real-time monitoring "security" software like antiviruses and antispyware really give it a boost, whereas they probably cause as much or more problems than the software they protect me from!

So, how do I solve the problem when the Dell won't reboot?  I give it a nice, hard, satisfying jab on the power button, hold down for 20 seconds, and it turns off.  Bam.  Almost as instantly as the Mac shuts down normally.  Well, at least there's the satisfaction that I have some level of control after all.

Second, what slows machines down is called "garbage" collecting.  Windows is notorious for this, but to be fair, I guess all computers are susceptible to it to some degree.  For example, central to Windows operation is an internal database called the Registry.  This registry is a central location where settings are stored - settings for your hardware, Windows, software and drivers installed, and more.  As you can imagine, it can get huge.  Also, there can be things left behind by upgrades, uninstalls, and normal usage ("garbage"), that slow the overall system performance.  There are utilities out there to clean up this stuff, my favorite is Glary Utilities.  However, I find it interesting that the old UNIX way of doing things for the past 40 or 50 years, works better than the new Registry (introduced in Windows 95).

Third, of course, is the file system.  By this, I mean the way in which the computer organizes files on hard drives and storage media.  Old Windows and DOS used to use FAT and FAT32 (yeah, there are jokes about it), Windows now uses NTFS.  However, there are many inefficiencies with the Windows file systems.  First, if you have a lot of files in a folder, operation is very slow. Especially if you have a lot of small files.  Second, is inefficient use of hard drive space - the block size is 1K, so if you have a file less than 1K, it uses 1K on the drive - the rest is wasted.  Drive size is allocated in 1K blocks, so file sizes in between 1K are rounded up on the drive, leaving wasted space.  UNIX seems to again do much better in drive use - one very interesting example is my MP3 players.  I had a Sansa Fuze with 8GB memory, and my 1,200 songs pretty much filled it up.  However, the same songs stored on my iPhone take up much less space - somehow, they fit with the iPhone OS leaving much less than 8GB free to start with, and I still have room.  (The iPhone runs a mobile-modified version of Mac OS X.)

Coupled with the File System, is the collection of "garbage" files.  These are typically temporary files created by software for a few moments' or hours' need, then they usually "forget" to clean up after themselves.  (Hmm, does that sound like my daughter?)  These collections of files slow the machine down (remember, the Windows file system gets slower with larger numbers of files stored within it).  The true marvel here, is that UNIX UFS/HFS/NFS have been around for so long, and don't slow down with more entries thanks to the ingenious indexing and entry location system.  In Windows, temp files collect everywhere, especially in the Windows Temp folder.  Glary Utilities can help identify and clean these, improving system performance.  And, it is good practice to clean stuff you no longer need.  However, I admit that a) you don't always know what you have because a lot of it is done behind the scenes, and b) you may not know when or if you need it again, so you may want to hang onto it.

I have found that archiving files off onto CD or DVD for later use is good, and I have made a utility (MediaCat) that indexes these files into a database that can be searched to later locate the file and disc.  Surprisingly, there doesn't seem to be a lot of other utilities that do this - there are a few, but none of them told you where you put the disc, only the name of the disc.  Kind of useless if you have 300 discs!!  Hmm, what was that I was saying about garbage collection??

So, much like my Chrysler Town and Country, the longer I have this Macbook, the more I like it.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Big Storage Lie

What's This About?

Long story, but I just bought a new 1.5 Terabyte drive for my server.   Once it was formatted, how big does it say in Windows?  1.32 TB.  So, what happened to 180 Gigabytes of space?

In fact, this phenomenon is rampant now throughout the computer industry.  And remember, everything is a computer - from your cell phone (no matter how simple it is, it is still a computer with its own Operating System, CPU, and memory) to media players (MP3, video, etc.), to USB jump drives, to flash memory sticks (SD, MicroSD, CompactFlash, Sony Media Stick, etc.), car stereos, GPS devices, and to, of course, hard  drives.

I traced this discrepancy down once, to a white paper by James Wiebe, in which he explains exactly why we have this discrepancy.  It basically boils down to the fact that the hard drive / memory manufacturers use a different standard to compute the size, than the standard that computers use to report the size.  What!?!?  That's right.  Somewhere, someone decided they would redefine what has been in place some 60 years, and arbitrarily say that a 1 GB hard drive means 1,000 MB, which by the way each mean 1,000 KB, each of which is 1,000 Bytes.  You may know that electronic computers since their inception have used a binary  system to compute storage size instead of a decimal system, therefore using powers of 2, 1KB is 1,024 Bytes, 1 MB is 1,024 KB, and 1 GB is 1,024 MB, and so on.

Somehow, all of the manufacturers started following suit - probably as storage capacities became so large they figured no one would care.  So, basically we are all being cheated!  That's right, I paid $105.95 for 1.5 TB, but I only got 1.32 TB.  They stole 180 Gigabytes from me - by the way, my roommate in college had a 5 Megabyte hard drive, so that would be, oh, some almost 37,000 hard drives from college they stole from me!  Or would it be only 36,000 because you multiply by 1000 instead of 1024?  Oh, to heck with it!

A Call To Action

Sometime in 2003, some of the hard drive manufacturers were sued, successfully, on this point.  However, in a settlement, it turns out the end result is this stupid statement on the bottom of my Seagate box:

When referring to hard drive capactity, one gigabyte, or GB, equals one billion bytes and one terabyte, or TB, equals one thousand billion bytes.  Your computer's operating system may use a different standard of measurement and report a lower capacity.  In addition, some of the listed capacity is used for formatting and other functions and will not be available for data storage.

Hooey!  Horse hockey!  Is anyone else mad as hell about this?  First of all, your computer's operating system may use a different standard???  There is not a single operating system in the world that doe NOT use a different standard - the original power-of-2 standard.  All flavors of UNIX, Windows, Mac, you name it.  Second of all, I mean really, what would it be like if the US gas stations started listing prices in Liters, without labeling it as Liters?  That's right, now it's $2.59.  Times 3.8 liters per gallon, oh, but we didn't tell
you.  If you wonder why your gas fillup now costs you $120 instead of $35, it's just because some cars made for the US market may report a different capacity!  Yeah, that's exactly what they said on the bottom of my Seagate box.

I say enough of this lie - if it is 1.3 TB capacity, call it that.  Fine, I'll pay the $105.95 (did I multiply by 1,000 or 1,024???).  But call it like it is - don't lie and say it is 1.5 TB, because it isn't.

We tried the legal route - it's either way too limited (suing a company or several companies), or just forget about the mountain to climb (getting Congress to pass a law - besides, do you really want Congress passing a law regulating technology?).

Contact your manufacturers and complain.  Have them spend the time to explain it to you - hopefully as well as James Wiebe did (did you follow the IBM/Hitachi computation?).  If they find they are spending so much time answering complaints, and explaining, maybe that will hit thim in their profitability, and they will begin listing the TRUE capacity.

That's my 2 cents worth.

Friday, November 20, 2009

What’s this Mac thing all about?

Computers have become a huge part of our lives.  Especially mine.  The first time I laid eyes on my parents’ TRS-80 Model II at 8 years old, I was hooked.  Over the years, I have done a lot with computers - and managed to avoid mainframes (except for one excruciating class in college).  I have worked on machines from the Commodore 64, Apple II, Atari 800, all the way through half a dozen implementations of UNIX (including the Microsoft Xenix - remember that one?).

At times, as I am sure you can relate, it has been a love-hate relationship.  The Commodore Amiga, way ahead of its time, was burdened with a company who wasn’t very interested in marketing it against the PC and Macintosh (that was at the same time as the PC with DOS 4 and 5, Windows 3.0/3.1, Mac 512, Mac SE, Mac II).  Later sold to Gateway, the Amiga became a set-top-box environment used for cable boxes.  PC’s and Windows - well, I think we all know why we hate them.  The biggest gripes I had about the Mac, was that it didn’t let tinkerers into the inner workings very easily - no command line interface, the GUI (that’s Graphical User Interface) was too simplified, and the darned thing crashed a lot with that annoying bomb.

So, I began my career selling PCs and Macs, then transitioned into a job programming on a UNIX environment.  I kept up with UNIX for 10 years, doing lots of work on various environments.  When Apple announced that their operating system, Mac OS, was transitioning after OS 9 to UNIX-based OS X (X for UNIX, X for 10...), I was pretty piqued.  However, by then I was deeply immersed in the Windows world.

For those of us who were around when Windows ME came out, we remember what a fiasco that was.  That version (somewhere between Windows 98 and Windows 2000) was so overly bug-ridden, we thought for sure Microsoft had learned their lesson.  And so it seemed - Windows 2000 was very stable: the first version I could leave running for more than a couple of days without rebooting.  (My 1989 Commodore Amiga 2000, I would leave running without rebooting for weeks, by the way.)  Windows XP came out, and I was wary of upgrading - until I was issued a new laptop from work with XP on it, and I was again impressed.

Then what happened?  Vista came out.  Mac OS X came into its own.  Ahh, Vista - Windows ME all over again.  All the big promises Microsoft made about stability, new environments to help us avoid all the problems with older Windows (DLL Hell, to name one).  The biggest cheese - the “security”.  I loved the Mac ads - “Asking the user to Cancel or Allow isn’t security - it is simply annoying.  I either have to allow every time, or if I allow all, then I drop the new security altogether.”

Fast forward.  It is now toward the end of 2009, and as promised when Vista came out, I did not buy another PC.  An opportunity came up, and I ordered a Macbook Pro.


Let me say it again.  Wow.  After using this thing for a month, I have realized that the Macintosh is how I’ve always thought computers should run.  UNIX to its core, but a nice, friendly interface.  That is the power.

But what about software?  Think about it.  Think really hard.  What is it you need to do on a computer?  Web?  E-mail?  Address books?  Word processing?   Spreadsheets, presentations, convert to PDF, print, transfer files.  Oh, what about video editing, photo management?  You know, every time I tried to hook my Windows machine up to my Comcast cable box to record the video, it gave me a blue screen and rebooted.

Well, the Mac comes with all that!  Comes with it - the Office document suite, from Apple, is $40 if you buy it bundled with the machine.  Or you could get Microsoft Office for the Mac for 4 times the price, but I’ve had it with Microsoft stuff.  I mean, the Mac is just so - elegant.  But really, that’s not fair.  It comes with a ton more.  Garage band lets you arrange music, take lessons for instruments (comes free for guitar and piano), and more.  iPhoto lets you manage photos - and really well.  FrontRow gives you special multimedia watching capability.  iCal is a calendar integrated with the operating system, and all applications.  The address book is part of the Mac, not just some afterthought (oh, it’s in the e-mail package, or if you buy Office you get Outlook).  No, it’s at the core of everything.  And iTunes comes built into the Mac, and it works flawlessly - fast, integrated into the keyboard - and it doesn’t crash like Windows Media Player.

Let’s talk about the touchpad.  Laptops come with a touchpad, but the Windows ones are pretty basic.  Move the mouse around, tap to click.  Woo hoo.  Oh, now you can slide certain regions in the margins to scroll the screen.  Useful - but a pain in the hand.

The touchpad on the Macbook I instantly took to!  First there’s scrolling.  Put down 2 fingers and move around.  No confinement to the rightmost 1/8 inch if you can get your fat finger to touch it right!  Just drag 2 fingers, and it scrolls.  Effortless.  And, the buttons are not simply a tap - the whole touchpad is a button.  Just push down, and you can feel it click.  Simple, tactile response.

The Mac has Exposée - no, I don’t mean something the newspaper does.  I mean this is a sweet feature of the Mac. By swiping 4 fingers up or down, or pressing the function key, all of my open windows fly out from behind each other, and I can see and click on any one of them to locate the window I want.  Waaay too useful - now I hate using Windows!

But, something I had on the Amiga and UNIX CDE was workspaces.  You can divide your screen up into workspaces.  Each workspace takes up the full screen, but you can put windows in it, and switch between workspaces, so you don’t get too cluttered.  The Mac takes that to the next level.  By pressing F8, all my workspaces fly out, and I can see, interact with, drag windows between, and click on a workspace to switch to it.

If that weren’t enough - I’ll throw a few other facts out.  First, the Mac doesn’t dog.  My “brand new” Dell Core 2 Duo with 4GB of RAM often gets into fits where the system freezes while it writes big files to the hard drive.  I have to reboot it often (Windows XP of course), and every so often a blue screen.  Second, I don’t need antivirus, antispyware, firewall - from 2 or 3 different vendors just to protect myself.  There are currently no known viruses for Mac OS X.  Third, there’s the software that comes with the Mac.  I mean, just comes with it.  Video editing, audio editing, multimedia, movie watching, music, and more.  Fourth, this computer is a programmer’s paradise.  XCode, the free package from Apple for writing software for the Mac and iPhone and other platforms, blows away Microsoft Visual Studio.  Fifth, if you really, really want to, you can run Windows.  Of course, you need to buy it and install it.

So, the biggest 2 things I have noticed about the Mac are, 1) the Mac really lives up to the advertisements, and 2) it exceeds what they say in the ads.  How often nowadays do you get a product, and are happier with it months after the purchase?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Sometimes it is a difficult thing to imagine, since technology and gadgets are such an integral component in our lives, but there are (believe it or not) actually times where technology is a hindrance, bother, annoyance, or downright dangerous.  That last remark may seem a poignant reference to texting whilst operating machinery, but it extends beyond that.

So, what is a Tech Geek like me doing talking about de-teching?  Once years ago, someone put it to me like this: if you have to choose between a critical after-hours work involvement, and a critical family involvement, think about this.  When you are lying on your death bed, will you regret missing work, or will you regret missing that family event?  That helps me put things in perspective.

There are times when cell phones, PDA's, computers, even telephones are inappropriate.  This is different for each person, but there is also an aspect of considering the feelings of others.  A friend posted on her Facebook yesterday what I thought was a really nice survey of what types of coworkers people found annoying - and I really thought about the "Tappers" - people who sit in meetings in which the are supposed to be participating, but are tapping on their Blackberries/iPhones/etc.

So, am I to preach what you should and should not do?  That is not my intent.  What I want to do with this article, is to trigger that little-used "thought" app that you downloaded when you were a kid, but haven't used much in relation to technology.  Ignore the article if you wish!  I cannot advise you on when you should or should not use your cell phone (heck, nowadays the law will tell you that!), but I can share with you some of the tools I use to help me choose.

Why De-Tech?

Since the dawn of time, mankind has become a tool maker.  We use our smarts and the stuff around us to develop technology that gives us an edge, makes tasks easier to accomplish, and even entertains.  From stone knives to the iPhone, we have a plethora of stuff available to us every day.  However, overuse or over-reliance on a tool, or tools beyond the ones God gave us (brains & hands), can foster a disconnect between our lives (soul if you will) and our experience of our lives.

For example, if you want to tell someone something, modern technology gives us an unbelievable number of ways to do it.  We can text them, we can e-mail them, we can call them, send a letter, heck we may even be able to video conference.  However, have you ever heard the phrase "there is no substitute for face-to-face?"

E-mails and text messages (and in a way phone calls) cannot convey nuances of inflection, facial expressions, and body language that communicate syntax that is just as important as the spoken words themselves.  If you rely mainly on these forms of communication, you may find that the quality of your relationships has dimished to the point of simple message/reply, or have statements misinterpreted and have things blow up out of proportion to what was intended.

If you are watching your daughter's playoff basketball game against the rival team, and it is a close game, but you are in the middle of texting or talking on the phone, what is your experience and the quality of connectedness between you and your daughter?

I think what is missing in the technology, is a cultural context in which to determine when and if we should use that technology.  In fact, exactly because of this line of thinking, this is why at home we do a lot of food preparations and food processing manually - with the kids when they want to help out.  Pickles, drinks, beef and chicken stocks, tomato sauces, growing and harvesting our own foods - these all give us a connectedness to each other, and to God's creations - oh, and by the way, they are healty.

How to De-Tech?

So, how do we do it?  I mean, we have all these neat stuff because, well, they are neat.  They are useful, and make our lives easier in many ways.  However, as with any tool, there are certain things these tools do well, and other things that other tools are better at.  For example, a screwdriver is great at turning a screw.  Not so great at hammering a nail, or at pulling a nail.  You could do it, but a claw hammer is better.

The first tool I use to help determine if I should use a gadget or not, is Stop And Think.

  • Is the tool the best way to communicate what I want to communicate?  For example, e-mail and text messages have one big shortcoming.  They are prone to misunderstandings.  So, is the message I am sending simple enough to be clearly communicated in this way, or if it is complex or perhaps emotionally charged, a phone call or face-to-face would be better.
  • Is the use of the tool disturbing to others?  If I am a Tapper, then it obviously is.  My family can attest, since I have had an MP3 player, I am prone to walking around with earbuds in my ears - even if the sound is off, people are not sure whether or not I am able to hear them.
Sometimes, it's not so easy to Stop And Think.

The next tool, is the Deathbed question.  Will I regret using the tool / missing out on other things, or will I regret not gaining the functionality the gadget gives me?

Also, I have another tool called Do I Really Need To?  This one I sometimes use to justify my use of a gadget.  For example, if I am on vacation, but the sales guys really need to tap my knowledge for an hour to close a big deal - heck, in this economy we have to do whatever it takes, so I will leave my cell phone on, check my e-mail, respond to the call from work.

Finally, there is an I Need A Break tool.  Sometimes, I need a break from it all!  Turn off the TV, get away from the computer, no MP3 - just hang out on the porch in the folding chair with a beer in my hand.  Hey, you're allowed - and you deserve it!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Computer Security for the Home User

At work, where you have a "full-time" paid employee handling your computers, they have the luxury of  time and knowledge to set up a secure environment.  However, those of us at home either don't know enough about security, or don't have the time to research and figure out what to do.  Or, perhaps we most likely don't even know we have a problem.

So, what is meant by security?  Many different things - some of which are products we install, some of which are behaviors which we exhibit.  I think at a gut level we all "know" that we need to be careful with our computers.  However, it is often not at the forefront of our thoughts - until it is too late.  The computer is crashed, or perhaps someone steals your identity and runs up charges in your name.  All of these happen way too often.

Why would you need to secure your computer?  Well, think about what is on it.  If any one of these apply to you, you need to do something to protect yourself - or become a victim.

  • E-mail with personal information, like address, phone number, user names, maybe even passwords
  • Contacts in your e-mail
  • Financial documents, like Quicken or QuickBooks accounting files, or tax calculations, bank account info
  • Passwords and logins
  • Medical information
  • Personal information you don't what just anyone finding out
The good news is, some of this is just "common sense".  My mother always used to say, "If it sounds too good to be true, it isn't."  This is a good rule of thumb.  Let's look at all of the ways in which we use computers, and the different ways in which they are vulnerable to attack - and what we can do to protect ourselves.

In this article, I discuss:

1. Viruses, Spyware and Malware

Malware is simply a generic term for little software programs that do bad things (mal=bad), and comes in 2 major forms.  Computer Viruses are similar to real viruses.  A computer virus is a program that installs itself (or gets installed) on your computer, and does one of two things.  It copies itself, perhaps to other areas in your computer, or to other computers via your e-mail  contacts or your network.  It also does somehthing malicious.  Where do they come from?   There are thousands of people out there who make these for fun, just to cause people trouble.  Some are tinkering around teens and pre-teens, learning computer programming by playing.   Some are criminals looking to make money.  And some are idealogues, thinking they can fight the Western infidel capitalists by attacking their computer systems.  What kinds of bad things can they do?  They can do simple things like slow down your computer, pesky things like make your mouse not work, or really nasty things like crashing your hard drive and wiping out data.  Typically, they do it sneaky so you can't detect it until too late.

Spyware is software that, while perhaps not as intentionally damaging as a virus, is perhaps just as bad.  Typically it does not "reproduce" and spread itself like a virus.  It is so-called "spyware" because it is usually installed along with something else, like that cool little utility you downloaded because it did something you need.  But then, it "spies" on you, either hijacking something on your computer (like your web browser, forcing it to display advertisements from somewhere), or perhaps even trying to find personal information to help criminals make money off you.  A lot of "spyware" comes bundled with other software, and is simply undesirable because it slows down your computer or makes it do annoying things.

Note that for Macintosh users, there are currently no known malware for Mac OS X.  However, it probably would be courteous for you to get some protection software, to at least scan the files and e-mails you send to those less-fortunate PC/Windows users you communicate with!!

So, how can you protect yourselves?  There are several free and paid software packages that help.  But, keep in mind that no one package is the end-all be-all solution.  It is better to have several tools in your shed.  Understand some VERY IMPORTANT facts:

  1. These software packages have to keep up with the new stuff that comes out, so
    you may need to configure them to
    automatically download updates every day.  Every day is recommended.
  2. Each software package has a different way of fixing the problems, some may be more effective than others with various malware.  So you should have several of these.

  • McAfee Virusscan ( is offered free to Comcast subscribers, and works OK.  However, it sometimes may be just as bad as some malware, as it may slow your system down.  It typically protects from viruses pretty well, but not so great at spyware.
  • Norton Antivirus ( is similar to McAfee - same advice.  If you have access to either, at least have that installed!
  • Avira Antivirus ( is a free antivirus software that gets good reviews, however the free version displays ads constantly - can be annoying.

The above 3 packages both offer a scanning solution that looks through your system periodically, and cleans viruses, as well as a real-time protection that identifies files and e-mails that are bad as soon as you get them, and prevents them from getting to your system.

  • Malwarebytes ( has a great (and free) software that removes malware, and especially spyware.
  • Spybot Search & Destroy ( is also free, and not only removes spyware, but also has a real-time protection that helps prevent spyware infection by checking and preventing the kinds of bad things spyware does to your system.
These are the software I use on a daily basis on all of my PC's.  For my Mac, I have iAntivirus, which does tend to slow down the Mac, so I don't keep it running - only when I want it to check certain things I send out to PC users.

2.  E-Mails and E-Mail Contact Lists

Some e-mails are just annoying - either because you get bombarded with meaningless ones, or because they are scammers trying to take your money, or perhaps because they lead you to viruses or other malware.  Remember:  IF IT IS TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE, IT IS NOT TRUE.  Messages from some diplomat in Africa who will pay you $250,000 to move his $4 million into another account - yes, you guessed it - a scam.  Believe it or not, a lot of elderly people fall for this scam, according to MSNBC and the FBI.

But, beware!!!  These scammers are getting very clever.  We had one hit our company recently, where they sent a message supposedly from our e-mail administrator, saying that the system would be upgraded over the weekend, and to click a link to verify your password information.  IF YOU EVER GET AN E-MAIL THAT ASKS YOU TO VERIFY A PASSWORD, THAT YOU DID NOT SOLICIT, IGNORE IT, OR AT LEAST CONTACT THE ORGANIZATION.  For example, if you forget your password on a web site and click the "forgot password" link, then you should expect to get an e-mail from them.  Otherwise, especially if it looks like it is from a bank, you should contact the company immediately.  Banks and other financial institutions do NOT conduct account information over e-mails - they do it by mail, or by phone.

So, getting the software I recommend above, or other similar software that provides real-time protection from viruses and spyware, is essential to protecting yourself from the occasional e-mail that you fall victim to.  An EXCELLENT resource for many e-mails you may receive claiming to warn you about some dire emergency or terrible luck that will befall you if you don't
forward "this e-mail to everyone you know", is's Urban Legends division
( pays people to research these, and expose them as bogus hoaxes or authentic notices.  You can type in the subject line into the search, or some key words in the e-mail.

TRUST ME, BEFORE you forward an e-mail you got telling people to be careful not to use your cell phone while the charger is plugged in because it will catch on fire (or some other such warning, like Microsoft will track all the e-mails you forward), look it up on's Urban Legends and see if it is true before you look like the fool for passing it on.

3.  Web Sites and Web Surfing / Browsing

There are many web sites out there that trick you in various ways.  "Phishing" is so-called because they fish for you by giving you bait - if you mistype in a popular web site, like a banking web site, they set up one that looks "just like" the one you thought you were logging into, until you already have entered your personal information.  If you have been stung by this, immediately call the organization you were "phished" from (like your bank) and let them know, they can take measures to protect you.  Meanwhile, to prevent this, you should activate the "Phishing Filter" in your browser.  Internet Explorer ( has such security, so does Firefox (see  That should handle most of the browsers out there - the other relatively popular ones being Safari, Opera, and Google Chrome.  However, I would say to stick with the top 2 - Firefox being the more secure and faster one, the better choice (and they have it on
the Mac).

Another popular trick is to get you to click on a link to a web site, which then either gets personal information from you, or downloads malware to your machine.  Just be very careful what you
download and install - if you have the real-time protection installed (Spybot and McAfee/Norton), you will be better off but not still 100% protected.

Finally, popup windows have been a nagging hazzard for many years - there are still no really good preventative measures for these, as web developers always find ways around these, but beware of popup windows.

4.  Network Security at Home

Now, here is an area most people ignore or are unaware of.  One really easy way for people to hack into your system and get personal information, is to hack into your  network.  You don't have to be a computer guru to take some simple precautions.

Do you have a wireless network at home?  If so, then you have what is called a Wireless Router (or WiFi Router).  This is a box (maybe with an with antenna sticking out) and blinking lights connected to your cable modem, DSL router, or other Internet connection.  Pretty much all Wireless Routers have some administration built in, and they come from the factory with default settings like a default address and default login and password.  If you have never followed the instructions that came with your router, and changed your administration password, then it will take hackers about 2 seconds to hack into your network and have whatever they want.  At the very least, follow your router's instructions for setting up the password.  Typically, you connect to your router with a wire, and go to the router's address, which is usually, and log in usually with a blank login and "admin" as the password, or "admin" as the login and no password.

If you lost your router's manual, you can simplay go to Google, and search your router's make and model (for example, my router says "Cisco" on it, and on the bottom of the unit is the model number).

Do that at least!  Another thing you can do that will add a double-layer of protection, is to enable secure access (which of course is not enabled by default).  This will lock down the communication between your router and its wireless "clients" (laptops, your Wii, your cell phone, whatever other device uses your WiFi).  You create a password, and then use that password to connect your devices to the WiFi.  If you don't have the password, you can't get in, and it takes a lot more effort to hack in and get your password - probably too much effort so any hacker will simply give up.

Follow the instructions in the manual to turn on Wireless Encryption - WEP is the recommended protocol to use (there are others, like WPA, and more).  Use WEP, and you get to enter any password you choose.

Hopefully you learned something new, and these simple measures will
help to keep your computing safe.  Good luck, and feel free to
comment below.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Backing Up Your Computer - What You Need To Know

Several people have recently asked me about online backup services.  First let me say that if you don't back up your computer now, just imagine what would happen if one day you found that you could no longer use it (for one reason or another).  Does that send your heart racing?  If so, then you rely on your electronic friend, and you owe it to yourself to take care of him or her.

There are many things you need to back up, and many ways to do it, including online backup.  What's the best way?  That may be hard to say for sure, but if your backup has the following aspects, it will work for you.

1.  So easy to do, you don't give up.
2.  Automatic so you don't have to think about it.
3.  Complete.  I can't tell you how many times I have seen backups get everything except one crucial file - invalidating the whole backup.
4.  Restorable.  This is what most people don't think about.  A file backed up while being written to may be no good.  A backup solution that is unreliable, or difficult to obtain as quickly as needed for a restoration is a false sense of security - worse than not backing up because you expect it to be handled.

So, for most home and small business use, what should you do?

Start with asking yourself these questions:
1. What do I need to back up?
- office documents, legal document scans, pictures, videos, emails, databases like financial data or contacts or sales/inventory.
2. How big is it?  Pictures and videos can get big - many gigabytes.
3. How much money can I spend to make a solution?  This indicates how important the data is to you, and how much commitment you are willing to give to ensuring you suffer the least.

If you can store your data on someone else's (a company's or organization's) server, that is typically better because they have professional IT staff that manage the hardware.  For example, using an e-mail service such as Google Mail, all of your e-mails are stored on the Google servers.  If you lose your computer, it does not affect your e-mail at all.  Other online systems, like Google Docs, also offer the ability to store documents online.  This will help to make you more resistant to point-in-time losses.  Plus, the Google services like mail, docs, calendar, etc. work extremely well with sharing with others and synchronizing with mobile devices (see my other article).

This equates to you doing most of the work.  Most computers come with CD or DVD burner drives.  Of course you have to buy disks, burn them, keep them...

If you are like me, you have many gigabytes of data to be backed up.  There are really two good options.
  1. Maxtor makes USB hard drives called One Touch. Plug them in, press the button, and your system is backed up. As of the time of this writing, a 1TB (1,000 gigabyte) drive is about $100.
  2. Online backup services back up your data over the Internet.  There are a few out there, including Amazon S3, Mozy, Norton, and SugarSync.  However right now, the best features are available for the lowest price, at Carbonite for $55 a year (
The down side of buying a hard drive, you need to replace it when it is too small or stops working. However there was a scandal in March 2009 where Carbonite lost customers' online backups (  Under the assumption that they have learned their lesson, I would bet they are better prepared perhaps than their competition now after suffering that debacle.  The truth is we never really know how well a company takes care of their business without going there and researching ourselves, so barring that, online backups in general tend to be more reliable.  This would be a similar phenomenon to that of airplanes - there are much fewer accidents with air travel than ground travel (e.g. online backups vs. personal backups), but one accident affects a greater population.

If you want to avoid monthly/yearly fees, and control your backups more closely, you should opt the hard drive route.  Otherwise, trust in the professionals and let them manage the hardware, while you just manage which files get backed up.

Finally, we get to an aspect of backup that few people consider.  Backing up data files means you can get them back - in the event you accidentally delete or otherwise lose them.  But, what happens in the event your hard drive fails, and you have to get a new one?  Your whole system is gone, and you need to get your apps, perhaps your e-mail.  Much of what you need resides in the applications installed, the licenses enrolled, and the configuration settings - many of which are typically not stored in the normally-backed-up paths on Windows systems.

One way to back up your system is to use software that creates an image of the hard drive - basically a snapshot of the entire hard drive.  You can store this image on another hard drive, or on CDs or DVDs.  Then, using the same software, you can restore it later to another hard drive.  Software ranges from Norton Ghost, which costs money, to SelfImage, which is free.  BartPE is a free bootable CD that you can build to restore a computer whose hard drive is gone.  It boots into Windows (you need your Windows CD to build a bootable CD), and allows you to run software like SelfImage to restore the hard drive from an image.

This takes technical knowledge - some talent at teasing the hobbling system to work, fixing the broken hardware, and more.  At worst, you can pay someone else (or guilt them into it if you have leverage!) to repair your system and get it to the point where you can restore the files you backed up using the advice above.

You have to take all of these into account to put together something that works for you.
  • Use CD/DVD burners to back up relatively small amounts of data infrequently
  • Use a One Touch hard drive to back up your data if you want to control the hardware
  • Use a backup service to back up your data if you believe they will do a better job of maintaining the data, and this can be automated to happen daily, or even instantaneously
  • Set up a system image periodically, perhaps once or twice a year - you can do Google searches on BartPE and system image software, or contact me for some advice

Hope this helps - and happy backing up.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Family Productivity with the iPhone

My wife and I just upgraded - she from the iPhone to the 3G, and me from a junky old beat-up Samsung to the 3G. At the AT&T store, they told us about Mobile Me, a Blackberry-like push service that allows you to get e-mails, etc. live - for a $100/year fee. We decided we would put it off - and that turned out to be the best decision.

I am a Google junkie. On any given day, I use Google search, Google voice for all incoming calls and many outgoing calls, Google Chrome, Google calendar, GTalk, sometimes Google Docs, Google Mail, Google Maps, occasionally Google Earth, and more. Hey, when the stuff just works, and it's free, you can't beat it.

So, when I found out that they have Google Sync, I was all over it! With Google Sync, Google set up a Microsoft Exchange server that you can configure your iPhone to receive pushed updates for Mail, Calendars, and Contacts. That's right! Since all of the Google apps use a common Contacts list, and you can sync that with your iPhone, you can have all of your contacts in one place!

Now, here comes the really cool part. If you have ever used Google Calendars, you know that you can have multiple calendars, and you can share them. So I had my own personal calendar. I quickly created one for my family. And Google Sync synchronized them both to my iPhone, so that entries in different calendars show up with different color dots next to them.

OK, now the out-of-this-world cool part. I shared my personal, and the family, calendars with my wife, and added Google Sync to her iPhone. Now she can see hers, mine, and the family calendars merged. Oh, and since she uses Outlook for her calendar, she downloaded the Google Sync app that synchronizes the Outlook calendar with her Google calendar, so everything is only entered in one place. If I ever want to know "can I schedule a business trip next week, what's the family up to?" - one tap on my Calendar app, and I can see at a glance!  Now that is cool.

Steps to set up:
  1. Get a Google GMail account if you don't already have one.
  2. Set up your contacts.
  3. Set up your calendar.  Create new calendars if you wish - use the Share options to determine whom to share with, and what they can do to the calendar.
  4. Follow the Google Sync link to set it up (yes, Google Sync works for more than just the iPhone - but I am a techie geek.  What other kind of phone should I have?).
  5. Lather, Rinse, Repeat - for each family member.
Do you need to have a GMail account for this to work?  Yes.  My wife initially had a Google login using her Comcast e-mail.  She was able to set up the calendar, but the iPhone sync didn't work.  When she created an actual GMail address and put everything under that, it worked great.  Because of the push feature, updates to the calendars show up on all phones in a minute or so.  Awesome!