Saturday, January 22, 2005

Easy Computer Tips For Newbies

Easy Computer Tips For Newbies
– by David Matthews 2

Every year, thousands of people join the online world. Some will buy their own computers; others will simply be given them either as a gift or for work or school purposes.

Unfortunately, every year, we also see a new influx of computer viruses, snooping programs, and illegal schemes to deprive the online users of their money and/or their identity. These threats are bad enough of an annoyance for your more seasoned computer users, but to a new computer user, these threats can turn their new gift into a nightmare. Some new users have become so traumatized by these threats that they have literally abandoned their computers, vowing to never use one again.

With that in mind, I have come up with a few tips that should apply to most new computer users. Of course, I know that not everyone uses Microsoft products, but a few tips should also apply for those of you playing with Macs and Linux.

RTFM: Read That (Fine) Manual! – The biggest tool at your disposal is a book (and in some cases it really IS a book) that has all of the essential information about your computer. This book is called a MANUAL. I know we all hate to read… unless it’s our paycheck, or a sales circular… but this is one book that you should get to know. Take the time to go over this book and get to know the particulars about what your computer has and doesn’t have.

Upgrade and check often! – Even though you may have Microsoft’s Automatic Updates turned on, there are some patches and upgrades that you still have to download and install yourself. Visit Microsoft’s Windows Upgrade website ( on a regular basis, even if you have Automatic Updates turned on. Also, some updates may be available BEFORE the Automatic Updates feature gets around to doing your computer. Virus writers don’t wait until Microsoft gets around to coming up with a patch before they exploit the holes, so don’t wait for MS to get around to you!

Learn to like Microsoft! – Whether you think that Bill Gates is a genius or the devil incarnate; whether your love or hate Microsoft; if you’re using Windows, you better learn to LIKE Microsoft!

Visit their website ( regularly because they have some great tools that go beyond your standard system upgrades. One of the best little free trinkets is a program called Tweak UI, which helps you make little changes to the Windows XP system so you can customize things to your liking.

Microsoft also has their Knowledge Base, which is a repository of technical support documents of all of the various changes, updates, and problems that may occur at any given time. You’ll find that many companies will simply defer their Microsoft-related questions to the Knowledge Base. Trying to get the result you need may take a bit of time, but just like an Internet search engine, if you phrase the question right then the Knowledge Base SHOULD come up with the right answer for you.

Check your anti-virus program! – What sort of anti-virus program do you have? Do you have a whole suite of security programs? Are they running? How do you know it’s running? You’ll usually see an icon over by the taskbar showing what is working in the background.
If you bought a computer from a retail store or from one of the major computer stores like Dell or Gateway, then they will probably throw in at least an anti-virus program, if not the whole suite of security tools. The same, however, cannot be said if you bought a second-hand computer or one from a local mom-and-pop computer store. So make sure you check to see if you have an anti-virus system installed, and if you do not, then you better make sure to get one and install it as soon as possible.

The latest version of Windows XP (Service Pack 2) has a new feature called the Security Center. This monitors things like firewalls anti-virus programs and makes sure you have the latest version, and if you don’t then it will let you know. This version of XP will also come with its own firewall program, which is turned on by default.

If your anti-virus program has a schedule feature, set up a time every week to have it automatically scan your computer. Set it for a time when you know that you probably won’t be using the computer too much, such as very late at night or very early in the morning. That way your computer will be checked regularly for viruses while not interfering with your day-to-day activities.

Get multiple anti-spyware programs! – Yes, some anti-virus programs will offer anti-spyware protection as well. But that is usually not enough. Spyware programmers are notorious for designing their programs to avoid detection by some of the most popular security programs, sometimes even disabling those services to open the door for more programs to be downloaded and installed without your knowledge or permission. So it’s always best to have a second or even a third opinion in this matter.

There are two FREE spyware-detection programs available online. Spybot Search & Destroy and Ad-Aware will check your computer for spyware and other potentially dangerous programs. Install them and set some time in the week to have them run. (Not at the same time, though. That would really slow things down.) Do so once a week if possible, and make sure that these programs are updated with the latest data before using them. Remember that Spyware programmers are always looking out for new ways to hack into your computer.

Check your pop-up blocking programs – Pop-up windows are those advertising windows that either pop up in front of or behind your browser window. Pop-ups are a nuisance to people because it shoves all sorts of advertising on their computers, wasting computer resources and also slowing down your online browsing to any given website. For instance, you could visit a news website, and it could take forever for the page to load. In most instances, it’s not a problem with the page itself. The actual page itself could load in half-a-second. It’s all of that advertising being downloaded to your computer that’s slowing it down.

Some online services will provide you with free pop-up blocking software that will work on MOST forms of pop-up and pop-under advertising. Users of Windows XP with Service Pack 2 have a built-in pop-up blocker with their Internet Explorer browser. Browser toolbars from America Online, Yahoo, Google, and Earthlink will also have pop-up blocking features included. Unfortunately these programs aren’t instant cure-alls, and while they will block most pop-up and pop-under windows, they will also block essential pop-up windows that are not used for advertising.

Keep in mind that this is an all-or-nothing setup. Blocking programs cannot tell the difference between a legitimate window and junk advertising, so it will block everything unless you tell it otherwise.

Holding down the CRTL key while surfing through a page or clicking on a hyperlink will usually temporarily suspend the pop-up blocker. If you’re looking for a more permanent solution, your blocking program may allow you to include certain websites as "acceptable" locations for pop-up windows. Check with the program’s "options" to see how this is done, since the method can vary from program to program.

Watch the CAPS LOCK! – It’s very easy for people who have very little typewriting or data entry experience to leave the CAPS LOCK button on. But in the online world, especially when it comes to instant messaging and chatrooms, leaving the CAPS LOCK button on is considered SCREAMING AND SHOUTING AT THE TOP OF YOUR LUNGS!

It’s very annoying to the seasoned computer users and it makes you look like an idiot.

You don’t want to look like an idiot, do you? Of course not! So mind the caps lock.

Beware Friendly Attachments! – This one is a little hard for people to pick up, but this is how many of those viruses get spread around. You get an email, supposedly from a friend, or a family member, or a coworker or even just someone you know, and they have some sort of weird attachment with it. They claim it’s a new screen saver or some graphical display that you MUST check out. Only it’s NOT what they claim it to be. It’s a virus, and by the time you realize it, your computer is already under the control of hackers and Spammers.

Just like parents tell kids to never talk to strangers, you need to remember to never open up strange attachments, even if they supposedly come from people you know. At the very least, double-check with the sender themselves to make sure they really did send you that email. If they don’t know anything about it, then their computer may be infected with the virus itself. Be sure to delete the email in question, go offline, and run your anti-virus and anti-spyware programs IMMEDIATELY. Don’t go back online until you know for certain that your computer hasn’t been affected.

Also, if your email program has what is called a "Preview Pane", make sure this feature is turned off as soon as possible. The preview pane was a nice feature once upon a time, but then virus writers learned how to exploit it, allowing viruses and Spyware programs to be installed just when the message is previewed, without the actual message even being opened. So now this neat little feature has become a liability to users. (Note: Users of Microsoft’s Outlook and Outlook Express will find that the Preview Pane feature is turned on by default.)

Check your time zone – Double-click on the clock and check to make sure that it’s showing you in the right time zone. By default, Windows is set on Pacific Time. (Because Microsoft’s headquarters is on the West Coast, in case you’re curious.) If you’re not on Pacific Time, though, several clock settings for things like email will be screwed up. Make sure that Windows reflects the RIGHT time zone that you’re in. And if you’re in one of those areas that doesn’t recognize Daylight Savings Time, then make sure that the option box is NOT checked. (That feature is checked on by default.)

If your computer runs on Windows XP, connected to the Internet regularly, and you’re not on a company network, there’s a little feature that you way want to try out called "Internet Time". This allows your computer to coordinate its clock with one of several atomic clocks in the world to ensure precise time. You can set it up to check every day at a certain time, and you can even manually tell the computer to check it. (Note: if you’re connected to a network, you might find this option is either disabled or simply not available.)

Beware the pitfalls of multi-tasking! – Yes, you can have multiple programs and windows open, but bear in mind that each active program gobbles up computer resources, even if you’re not using it at the time. (And yes that includes that cute little screen saver you may have running when you’re not around.) Once the easily accessible resources (RAM) are used up, then the computer has to dip into some space on your hard drive, which isn’t as easy to play around with and slows things down considerably. So unless you’ve got plenty of RAM to spare, you may want to start closing down those applications that you’re not using.

Guard your personal information! – Identity thieves try all sorts of tricks to get you to give up your personal information. They look to steal things like your credit card numbers, bank account numbers, Social Security number, and even your home address and phone number. Their most notorious trick is to impersonate a bank or an online store and tell you that you need to correct some sort of error in their records. This scam is called "phishing". (Yes, that is how it is spelled, and not to be confused with the sport that involves a rod and reel.) Their deception will take you to a website that will even look like the real deal, but the only thing they are interested in is getting your information, and then exploiting you and bleeding you dry.

Banks and online services WILL NOT ask you for your personal information or passwords via email. If you have any suspicions about an online account, DO NOT follow the link given by email. Instead do a search yourself for the website and visit it. If everything is as it should be with your account, then the email is just another phishing trap, and you should delete it immediately.

Keep in mind your specifications – If you happened to get a brand-new, top-of-the-line computer, then you should be able to play most programs on the shelf today. But if you got one that’s been on the store shelf for a few months, or if you got a second-hand computer, then you really need to keep in mind what sort of setup you have. Most, if not all, programs have a list of specifications of what your computer SHOULD have at the very least in order for the program to run. Some will even have both a minimum and an optimal standard. If your computer is leaning closer towards that minimum standard, then you may still be able to run the program, but it will probably be quite slow or you’ll have limited functions.

The key things you need to know about your computer are the operating system, RAM, video memory, and not only your hard drive space, but also how much space you have left on your hard drive.

Power games demand MORE! – High-graphic computer games can be fun, but keep in mind that they are notorious for demanding the latest-greatest computer specifications. One well-known simulation game that came out a few years ago was so advanced for its time that it demanded that users have computers that weren’t even AVAILABLE yet.

Some game specifications will recommend a certain kind of video or audio card to get the "optimal result". Part of that is a subtle push to get you to either buy a computer with that hardware or to upgrade your current system with that hardware. Will the program still work if you don’t have that exact brand? Probably, but it may not look or sound as good as what you see on the box.

Oh, and if you’re still one of those who has dial-up Internet access, then you’ll probably want to steer clear of those online games. Most of those programs are designed for people with high-speed broadband access.

Many game designers will presume that ALL uses of their programs have the same kind of computers as they do. So if they have the latest, greatest, most recent computer system, then they believe that everyone else does too, even if that hardware still costs upwards of $3000. Call it the "Jones Principle", as in "Keeping up with the Joneses". (By the way, you’ll find that many web designers also operate under the "Jones Principle".)

Watch out for your kids! – We all hear about online predators who try to entice kids. But what doesn’t get reported is how much of this problem is the fault of parents who simply do not keep an eye on what their kids do online. Some parents will even make the critical mistake of letting their kids have an Internet-capable computer in their bedrooms. This is akin to having them play in the middle of a busy freeway.

As a parent, it is YOUR responsibility to make sure that your children are using the Internet properly. It’s not the responsibility of your online service or the various websites to watch out for your children. There are plenty of tools available for parents to help monitor computer use. Some of these may even be available through your online provider. But the best tool at your disposal is simply good parenting. You don’t have to be a software expert to figure out what your kids are doing online… just be a parent.

Read "Idiot" and "Dummies" books! – This isn’t to insult anyone’s intelligence, but rather to point out that there are books that are designed for those people who take pride in calling themselves "computer illiterate". You don’t have to default to your eight-year old neighbor to figure out where the power button is. There are plenty of books to help you out of that "technically-challenged" category, with the best ones being either "For Dummies" or being an "Idiot’s Guide". They’re very informative and they’re designed specifically for people with little or no technical experience, and they’re a whole lot cheaper than the computer courses at your local college or computer store.

Backup if possible – If your computer has a CD or DVD burner and you have something stored on your computer that you really want to keep, then it would be to your advantage to back it up to a disc. This includes things like any documents or family photos that you may store on your computer. If something were to happen to your computer, such as a virus attack or if your hard drive crashed, then you won’t have to worry about these things being forever lost.

And finally…

The computer is not smarter than you – That box full of silicon, copper, plastic, and electricity may be a wonderful device, and it can do a lot of things all by itself faster than a human being. But it is still not smarter that a normal human being. Keep that in mind before you start throwing your hands up in frustration, screaming and shouting about what that computer "won’t let you do".

Every program in your computer was written by a human being, and it only does what it is told to do. It can’t guess what you want it to do. It can’t even figure out what you MIGHT want it to do. It just works on whatever it is programmed to do along with whatever commands you give it, and that’s only if it understands the command you give. In that regard, even the most intelligent computers are still pretty dumb compared to the human brain.

And yes, that includes those of you who consider yourselves to be "technically-challenged".

David Matthews 2 is a freelance writer living in Georgia. He has been around computers in one form or another since the 1980’s.

This article may be distributed freely only so long as it is reprinted in its entirety, with all proper credit given to the author.

2005 – Get Brutal Productions

Saturday, January 01, 2005

About Spyware

What You Need To Know About Spyware
– by David Matthews 2

Of all of the things that annoy Internet users, the big three are Spam emails, viruses, and spyware. Of those three things, the most insidious is spyware.

You don’t have to be an expert to know when you’ve been infested with Spam emails. Most viruses can be contained with some common-sense applications and good software. But most people have absolutely no idea that their computers are infested with spyware. Some computer users will even have dozens, if not hundreds, of spyware programs running on their computer, and they would never even know it until something specifically happens to affect their use of that computer.

What is Spyware?

Spyware is essentially a program that is installed on your computer that gets information about you, the web sites you visit, the words that you search for online, and any other kind of data that can be used for information-collecting or advertising purposes.

"Spyware" goes by several names. The most common is "Adware", because the most common use of these programs is for advertising. "Spyware" is often used to describe those programs used to collect the information on your computer. But since "Spyware" has a negative connotation to it, some companies that use such programs are eager to sue anyone who dubs their software as such. (The more annoying of these companies have demanded that such programs be henceforth referred to as "Valueware".) The more malicious of such programs are referred to as "Malware". These are programs that basically operate like destructive viruses, causing havoc on infected computers. The best examples of "Malware" have to be the "mouse-trapping" websites, where programs would be used to disable your mouse or to prevent you from closing certain pop-up windows. Or if one window would close, five more would appear.

The whole purpose of Spyware is to collect information about you and your computer, and to shove advertising culled from that information in your face. Companies pay big bucks to get advertisers to shove their wares in front of your face, and they don’t care how it gets shoved in front of you.

For the most part, it comes in the form of pop-up advertising. You may have pop-up blocking software running, but for some reason you still get pop-ups. Sometimes you may get pop-up windows for no reason, even when you’re not connected to the Internet. When that happens, you know that Spyware is involved. Advertising may also appear at the bottom of certain function windows. For instance, you go to print a document, and when the print window appears, the window extends to ask you if you need to buy some more ink. Or if you try to save a document, the "Save As" window expands to ask if you want a new hard drive or need some more floppy disks. These are all visible examples of Spyware in action.

Sometimes Spyware will even overlay ads on top of other ads on a website. Or you may get ads from companies that compete against the website you visit. For instance you may visit the website of a certain brand name cola, and instantly you get a pop-up ad from the competing brand. That’s Spyware in action. No name-brand company would ever allow their website to display an ad to their competition.

Why is Spyware so notorious?

Three reasons. First, because Spyware is often installed without your knowledge. Most Spyware programs are bundled in the installation program of another file. For instance, you hear about this really neat screensaver program, so you download it from a website. It has a self-installing program, which you have to run in order for it to work on your computer. Bundled in with that program is the Spyware program, and it also gets installed without so much as an introduction, much less your permission.

However, if you ask the Spyware companies, they will tell you that YOU DID give your permission for any and all Spyware programs to be installed on your computer. Then they’ll point you to some obscure piece of legalese in the Terms of Service agreement for the screensaver program, which says in a roundabout way that if you agree to install the screensaver, then you also agree to have Spyware installed on your computer. Yes, it’s deceptive. Yes, it’s devious. Yes it’s unethical. Yes, the people behind this stuff should be flogged and keelhauled, but it’s also quite legal.

Sometimes, though, a Spyware program may be automatically installed just by VISITING a certain website. Well, you know, if the webmaster feels that he has a right to put data cookies in your computer, then he should also have a right to put in any other kind of program on your computer… especially if that program will generate money for him.

Some computers even have Spyware pre-installed! It’s on your computer even before you take it out of the box.

The second reason why Spyware is notorious is that it self-regenerates. It comes back to haunt you, even if you use the Add/Remove Programs feature in Windows or one supplied by the program itself. Not only are some Spyware programs scattered all over your computer and all over your Registry files, but if even one portion of the program is intact, it is instructed to go back to the website and download and reinstall the rest of the program. Next thing you know, the Spyware program is back like Freddy Kruger, ready to resume the nightmare. And it is hard to remove every aspect of Spyware by yourself. One such instruction to remove every line and every hint of a certain popular Spyware program is over forty pages in length! (And yes, you DO have to remove every single piece in order to be free of these things!)

The third reason is that Spyware isn’t just relegated to some obscure porn websites and file-sharing groups. These things show up on so-called "mainstream" websites, including those run by major corporations. The list of companies that have engaged in partnerships with those that develop and distribute Spyware programs reads like the who’s who in Fortune Magazine. These are major players with dibs on as many computers as they can get their cyber-mitts on.

Why is Spyware bad for your computer?

At best, Spyware is an annoyance. Pop-up windows showing up when you don’t want them to… extra windows being generated to push advertising when you don’t want them to… Pop-up windows automatically opening even when your computer is off-line can be embarrassing, especially when they’re for pornographic websites and it’s on a workplace computer.

At worst, Spyware invades your privacy. It collects sensitive information about you and your online habits. It can track your keystrokes, grab passwords, bank accounts, email addresses and anything else it wants to, without your permission, and sends this information to other people to use at their discretion, again without your permission.

Plus, Spyware can bog down your system, wasting system resources and online bandwidth grabbing needless advertising to shove in your face. And because most of it operates without your knowledge or permission, you don’t even realize why your top-of-the-line system is suddenly slowing down.

What can you do if you think you have Spyware on your computer?

First, mutter some well-needed colorful remarks at the advertisers and programmers who burden us needlessly with their trash. It won’t fix the problem, but it will vent some frustration.

Next, get some programs to scan your hard drive and completely remove the spyware. And I do mean "programs" in the PLURAL sense.

There are two FREE programs available that will do the job quite well. The first one is Ad-Aware, and it was developed by a company called LavaSoft. The other one is called Spybot Search & Destroy, and it was created by Patrick Kolla. Both of these programs will thoroughly search your hard drive for Spyware, tracking cookie files, and even vulnerabilities in your Windows registry. You can find both of these programs through any search engine by searching under the name of the program.

Now unlike anti-virus programs, you shouldn’t just pick one Spyware-hunting program or the other. In fact, it’s advisable to have both programs on your computer, because some Spyware programs are designed to evade any one of the most common Spyware-detecting programs. So to have two or more systems will increase the odds that you will find whatever elusive program is hiding in your computer. (Just don’t have the multiple programs running at the same time, because that will really bog your system down.)

Yes, there are a plethora of other programs out there that you can buy that will do just as good a job or better. It’s up to you to decide whether you want to make the investment. Obviously someone running a business will want to make sure they have ample protection in a way that some of these other programs will provide. But for the average home-user, Ad-Aware and Spybot Search & Destroy are the best way.

There are some companies that will also claim to scan your computer online and make the necessary fixes for a nominal fee. I’d be somewhat skeptical of those. It’s way too easy for some fly-by-night company to offer such a program, tell you there’s something wrong with your computer, and then pretend to fix it, and either do nothing, or worse yet scan your computer, copy your important information, and actually install Spyware.

Check with your Internet provider. Some providers offer free Spyware-detecting software in addition to virus protection and pop-up blocking software.

Speaking of virus protection, some of the major virus protection companies like McAfee have included Spyware-detection as part of their regular service. They properly recognize Spyware as being a threat to the computer.

But whatever group of programs that you use to check your system, make sure to use them regularly. Just like viruses, Spyware programs change and new ones are developed, so make sure that you get the latest updates for your detection programs. Ideally, you’ll want to set aside a block of time when you know that you aren’t going to use the computer and then run your detection programs.

Also, if you’re surfing the Internet and suddenly you see a "Terms of Service" window open, say NO to whatever it is immediately. That’s Spyware trying to get installed. Get yourself offline, start up those Spyware-hunters, and start scanning your hard drive.

If you do come across a website that tries to stick you with Spyware and you don’t want to part with the website itself, there is a way to block the Spyware from being installed while still visiting the website. You can add the website’s address to the "Restricted Sites" list in your Windows Explorer Internet Options, which will block all automatic downloads and ActiveX components on that site from running on your browser.

The other thing is that if you come across the program or website that you know is spreading Spyware, make sure you warn other people about it. If you found the program through a service like which offer user reviews, use that to warn people about the Spyware. Believe me, you’ll be doing other users a huge favor by getting the word out on these things.

Spyware: Not a good trade-off!

The companies that use and include Spyware in their programs claim that what they are doing is providing a convenience for computer users. They believe that allowing others to snoop into your computer so they can force-feed you advertising is a fair trade-off for providing free programs. Of course if they were so confident of that belief, then they wouldn’t be sneaking the Spyware programs into our computers. They’d tell us up-front that this is the condition for having their "free" programs on our computers. They wouldn’t hide this inside weasel legal language that most people won’t see, much less understand. But then again, it wouldn’t really be a "free" program, would it?

The important thing for people to understand is that they now have one more thing to look out for online besides viruses and email scams. And while the various bodies of government are weighing possible new laws and regulations to try to reign this stuff in, online users will just have to be wary of these things from now on, not even being able to completely trust mainstream websites. A near impossible but very necessary task to perform, from a medium that once prided itself on blind trust.


David Matthews 2 is a freelance writer living in the greater Atlanta area. He is a longtime computer user and has been involved with computers since the 1980’s.

This article can be distributed freely provided that it is unaltered and all proper credit is given to the author.

2005 – Get Brutal Productions

Welcome To Brutally Tech

Welcome to Brutally Tech: The Blog for tech-oriented articles by yours truly, David Matthews 2.

As a freelance writer, I normally write stories and commentaries, but as someone who has been around computers since the 1980's, I constantly find myself facing certain tech issues. And the more complex computers get, the more complex the issues.

Adding to that is the fact that this tech world is now the daily home to millions of people all around the world. Sure it's the programmers and the tech-heads that keep it going, but it's no longer just our domain anymore. It sucks, but you know, that's life.

Anyway, this Blog is dedicated to tech-oriented issues. I don't plan on doing daily updates like some other Blog pages do, but the stuff I do post will be important.

If you would like to know more about me, please check out my profile, or visit the wonderful wacky world of Brutally Honest. In the meantime, surf safely.

Quick Word About Use: Unless otherwise noted, the articles in this blog are the property of yours truly (David Matthews 2) and Get Brutal Productions. They are made available to you, the netizens of the world, in the hopes that you will be enlightened and informed. Feel free to send these articles to your friends and family members so that they too can be enlightened and informed.

There are only 2 conditions: that the article be used in its entirety, and that all proper credit be given to the author (that's me). Those are the only conditions to using these articles. That's pretty reasonable if you think about it.