The Basics includes articles that lay the foundation for understanding of conceptions which everyone who owns a computer should understand. These articles will define key terms such as virus, spyware, and web browser. If you find yourself lost in technical jargon, this is a good place to begin.

How to Use the Internet Safely, Part 3: How to Make Your Computer Insecure

In the previous article I talked about the many ways in which people try to make money off of your Internet activity and how that can lead to a slow computer or something much worse.

In this video I intentionally turn off all of the security on my Windows 7 computer so that, in the next video, I can show you just how dangerous the Internet can be when you use it unprotected. In this video we disable the following features:

Windows Update

The second Tuesday of each month Microsoft releases updates to their software.  Believe it or not they call this day Patch Tuesday, and it be celebrated with at least as much fervor as Ash Wednesday but not as much as Doughnut Day.

Occasionally Microsoft finds flaws in their software and they release “patches” to fix them. Sometimes these flaws can be exploited by hackers to gain access to your computer.  That’s why it’s so important to update your software.

Of course in this exercise we want the computer to be insecure.  So I disable Windows Update by clicking Start, typing Windows Update and pressing enter, clicking Change Settings, and selecting Never Check for Updates.

Internet Explorer Protected Mode

Protected Mode is a feature of Internet Explorer that makes it more difficult for unwanted programs from the Internet to run on your computer.  When Protected Mode is enabled Internet Explorer will ask you before opening any external programs or starting browser plug-ins, such as Java or Adobe Flash Player.  Protected Mode is important because browser plug-ins are a common vehicle for malware to invade your computer.

Since we want invaded in this exercise I went ahead and disabled Protected Mode by opening Internet Explorer, opening the Tools menu and selecting Internet Options, clicking the Security Tab, then deselecting Enable Protected Mode.

Windows Firewall

Windows Firewall is the gatekeeper that allows data in and out of your computer across networks such as your home or business network and the Internet. The built-in firewall can block network traffic based on what program it’s coming from, what network port it’s being sent or received from, and a variety of other criteria.  Windows Firewall is important because it can prevent malicious data from entering your computer in the first place.

But in this exercise we’re all about malicious data.  So we turn off Windows Firewall by clicking Start, typing Windows Firewall and selecting Windows Firewall with Advanced Security, right-clicking the Windows Firewall with Advanced Security tab and selecting Properties, then setting the Firewall State to “Off” under the Domain, Private, and Public profiles.

Windows Defender/Security Essentials

Windows Defender (also referred to as Security Essentials) is Microsoft’s built-in antivirus/antimalware application. It performs scheduled scans of your files to check for infections.  It can also use Real Time protection which scans files as you access them. Real Time Protection can prevent malicious software from harming your computer by scanning it as soon as it downloads from the Internet.

I disabled Windows Defender by searching for it on the Start Menu, clicking Tools and then Settings, selecting Real Time Protection then removing the check from the Turn on Real-Time Protection option.

User Account Control

User Account Control is the Windows Feature that asks you for permission before a program can make changes to your computer.  Before a program can install itself to your computer or perform many other changes that could be harmful, Windows will ask you for permission. Unfortunately many users turn off User Account Control because they either don’t understand it or find it annoying, but it’s important to keep it turned on to keep your computer protected.

In the Next Video…

Now that I’ve disabled the security on my computer, in the next video I’m going to show you just how dangerous the Internet can be when you surf unprotected.

Should Schools Have a Facebook Page?

As the developer responsible for my employer’s website (a technical school for high school students and adults) I was also made responsible for creating and cultivating membership to the school’s Facebook page.  Our school is different from a high school in that we aren’t guaranteed enrollment from year-to-year, and so we’re constantly looking to improve our marketing. Facebook was the perfect candidate, but what was initially viewed as a great marketing and communications tool is quickly devolving into an administrative mess.

Should I disable commenting, image, and video posting?  Should our school even have a Facebook page at all?  Facebook is by nature very open and everyone from our Quality Management Team to our instructors to our Administrative director find something wrong with just about every comment posted, whether it be an inappropriate tone or improper grammar.  Policing the page takes no small amount of time an effort.  Disabling the interactive features of the page defeats the purpose of having it.

What do you think?  Should a school have a Facebook page and, if so, how should it be regulated?

Going 64-Bit: A Cautionary Tale

Recently a customer of mine who makes a living testing patient’s hearing and troubleshooting issues with their hearing aides bought a new laptop to take out on call. The laptop he bought was an HP Pavilion TV5, a powerful system with a very reasonable price. Last night I stopped at his office to configure his diagnostic software and devices on the new laptop, and ran into a major issue that was anything but surprising.

The Pavilion TV5 comes with Vista Home Premium 64-bit Edition preinstalled.  Niche industries such as my client’s are often years behind in operating system and platform support, and 64-bit architecture is no exception.  None of my client’s hardware or software were supported by his new system. So what’s a geek to do?

HP will not provide or support a 32-bit operating system for this laptop.  Microsoft will not allow us to exchange the operating system for the 32-bit equivalent.  Best Buy will exchange the laptop but the only replacements they offer running Vista 32-bit are, for lack of a better word, crap.

Did manufacturers jump the gun with the switch to 64-bit?

Update: Apparently this post caused some controversy both here on my blog as well as on my submission over on DZone. In an effort to keep the discussion going, I replied to some reader comments in a separate entry, called Going 64-Bit, Revisited.

Video: Finding Your Network Settings in Windows Vista

A YouTube member who watched my video about Finding Your Network Settings on Windows XP requested that someone make a similar video for Windows Vista. This video is quick and dirty, but it walks users through each step of finding their network connection settings both through the Windows user interface as well as through the command prompt.

My Top Ten Favorite Free Windows Programs

I’m broke and software is expensive. What more motivation does a person need to seek out free alternatives? Back before I began my professional career in Information Technology I used to pirate all of the software that I thought I needed; but these days I insist that my clients use legal copies of software, and so it’s only fair that I do the same. And the longer I play by this rule, the more I realize I never really needed all of the expensive software I once thought was indispensable.

There is plenty of free software out there that provides a quality alternative to the expensive products many of us can’t live without.  I’ve put together a list of my top ten favorite free desktop applications that I use every day.  All of them are available on Windows XP and Windows Vista. Though I have provided a direct link to each of these programs, I need to give credit to osalt.com, a website which lists popular paid software and their free, open source alternatives.

My Top Ten Favorite Free Windows Programs

1. InfraRecorder

(Alternative to Nero Burning ROM) InfraRecorder doesn’t come with all the bells and whistles of Nero, but it makes simple burning tasks simple.  It can create data and auto CD’s, data and video DVD’s, and supports the creation and burning of ISO disc images. If you’re a user like me who bought Nero and never burnt anything more complicated than the projects that Nero Express offers, InfraRecorder will more than fit your needs.

2. Crimson Editor

Not so much an alternative to a paid program as it is a free and handy utility for anyone who has to work with text files.  It’s quick, and supports source highlighting for a variety of programming languages. I recommend it for anyone who finds themselves opening Notepad or Wordpad on a regular basis, but especially for students who are just learning how to program.

3. Password Safe

If you’re like me, you have a lot of passwords to a lot of different websites; and if you’re like me, you’re also too paranoid to leave them saved in your web browser.  I use a program called Password Safe, which saves the website address, username, and password of all my accounts, all in a securely encrypted database that I can carry with me on a thumb drive.

4. Mozilla Firefox

No list of free software would be complete without the Firefox Web Browser.  Firefox is faster than Internet Explorer, and historically has been more secure.  If you’re tired of your computer filling with spyware and toolbars, start browsing with Firefox instead of Internet Explorer.

5. FileZilla

(Alternative to CuteFTP, WS_FTP) FileZilla is the best thing since sliced bread for anyone forced to deal with FTP uploads and downloads.  I use this application constantly at work, where we are required by law to upload reports to the state government, and Window’s default FTP interface is too clunky to reliably get the job done.

6. PDFCreator

(Alternative to Adobe Acrobat) If you need to create PDF’s but don’t need all the features of Adobe Acrobat, PDFCreator is a godsend. This program creates a virtual printer on your computer that allows you to create a PDF document from any program in Windows.  When I bill my clients I often email them an invoice in PDF format, and this program is what I use to create them.

7. OpenOffice

(Alternative to Microsoft Office) Open Office is the best alternative to Microsoft Office you’ll find.  Though I use Microsoft Office at my regular job (it’s an unavoidable part of our workflow), I use OpenOffice to create and manage my personal and business documents.  Personally MS Office is an application I’d be happy to pay for but if you want to save your cash, choose OpenOffice.

8. LogMeIn

(Alternative to Remote Desktop, VNC) Not a free application per se, but a free service you can use to access your computers from any computer on the Internet.  I use this to remotely resolve problems for my clients. It has some limitations, so you may eventually consider their paid service.

9. Microsoft Office Accounting 2008

(Alternative to Microsoft Office Accounting Professional, Quickbooks) Microsoft gets a lot of flack for being the “evil empire” of the software world, but they’ve come a long way and have given a lot back to their customers in terms of free software.  They have made an Express version of Account 2008 available for free.  It has taken me from a loose system of excel spreadsheets to a more organized billing system at zero expense to myself.  I highly recommend it to anyone in business for themselves who doesn’t already have an investment made in Quickbooks technology.

10. Quicken Online

Update: Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like Quicken Online is free and available anymore.

(Alternative to Quicken, Microsoft Money) Yet another free online service that frees me up from installing more software on my PC.  Quicken Online allows me to view and summarize all my bank accounts and automatically downloads a list of my transactions.  It shows me an easy-to-understand overview of where my money is going, helps me develop a budget, and tells where I need to cut back to meet that budget.

Show me yours, and I’ll show you mine!

Now that I’ve listed a few of my favorites, leave suggestions on other free programs and services in the comments section!