Saturday, April 30, 2005

Free Computer Security -- FireFox

I have a lot of ranting to catch up on. But I just read John Moran's FireFox recommendation, and I had to concur. We'll somehow manage to work it into this Free Computer Security series.

Yes FireFox certainly is free. And it provides security in the same sense that a Volvo provides safety. Driving (or riding in) an automobile is not safe. But if you have to do it, do it in a Volvo. Similarly, browsing the World Wide Web is not safe. But if you have to browse the Web, FireFox is a good choice.

FireFox may not be completely invulnerable to exploits. Just read the FireFox 1.x bulletins at Secunia to see. But at least it's not tightly integrated into the Windows OS as Internet Explorer, the Yugo of browsers, is. That means Spyware is less likely to take root and germinate.

FireFox's ability to suppress unrequested popup windows means you don't need a separate popup blocker program.

Many exploits involve tricking users into thinking they're on a site other than the malicious site they're actually on. So the SpoofStick extension was created to address this. SpoofStick displays the domain name of the website at the top of the browser window in bold, green letters. (The font color and size are configurable.) This makes it easier to tell if you've been redirected.

But remember, the safest computer is one that's not connected to the Internet[1]. If your tolerance for risk is very low, you'll not have a modem or NIC in your box.

On the usability side of things, I happen to prefer FireFox's tabbed browser concept. If you've always used Internet Explorer, tabbed browsing might take some getting used to. Here's how it works. Instead of having one button on the TaskBar for each open web page, there's just one button on the TaskBar for the main browser window. If you have multiple web pages open, you select the one you want by clicking the appropriate tab or cycling through them with Ctrl-Tab. Microsoft Excel can be configured to work this way. Microsoft calls this Multiple Document Interface, or MDI. I call it cool. (Just one thing. To make Ctrl-Tab switch to the most-recently used tab rather than the next tab, install the LastTab extension.)

Give it a try!

[1] Actually, the safest computer is the one that's never turned on.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Book Review: "Better Off : Flipping the Switch on Technology"

A funny thing happened when I went to the local library to look for "Better Off : Flipping the Switch on Technology," by Eric Brende -- the computerized card catalog database was inaccessible. I guess the situation was more ironic than funny. Either way, it had me longing for those arrays of oak drawers filled with index cards.

Eventually the librarian was able to look it up and put it on hold for me, not without remarking on the irony of the situation.

I don't usually go to the library to look for books. Instead, I look for what I want online and go just to pick it up. But I was there with my daughter and decided to take a look-see.

I first read "Better Off" a few months ago. My wife had checked it out accidentally, thinking it was something else. Then she gave it to me to read.

The main idea behind the book is that technology places a barrier between a person and the outcome of his effort. When that barrier is removed, the person finds meaning and even euphoria in his labor. A minor point is that any time that's saved by using labor-saving devices is either wasted or is spent in maintaining (or paying for) the technology that saved you the time.

After absorbing numerous books that poke fun at technology, I enjoyed reading one that when so far as to do something about it. The author turns his back on it and lives for eighteen months in an "Amish-like" community. (I sometimes wonder if he thought about subtitling it "Flipping the Bird on Technology.") The fact that he wrote about his experience made me want to write about my experiences with technology. So reading the book partly inspired me to create this blog.

But this book left me puzzled, so I decided to re-read it. I hardly ever re-read a book after only a few months. But I can't help thinking that the author was suffering from burn-out from his graduate studies and thesis work. As well, just before completing his program, he was involved in an accident that was severe enough to leave him temporarily debilitated. This, too, I believe explains his romance with (and eventual marriage to) his live-in caretaker.

The other reason I wanted to re-read it because I came across a study[1] recently that seemed to suggest that such conditions as ADHD and autism were non-existent among the "native" Amish. But the only commentary on youth is that their courtship is scripted and predictable. And with the exception of one child who was born with a genetic disease, there seems to be no need for medical care.

He seems to suggest that people would be better off with the lifestyle he chose. But the people he lived with relied on products that were made with the help of modern technology. Such products include the metal in their gardening tools, for example. Watch steel-workers and miners leave for the farm and wave goodbye to your ability to work the soil.

So he flips the technology switch off, but keeps it within reach for when it's needed.

[1] The Age of Autism: The Amish anomaly, by Dan Olmsted.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Technology - No Place for Wimps

My co-worker gave me this hat a few years ago. The hat is resting in front of my flat screen monitor at work, on top of a 120GB hard drive and a Sandisk Flash Card Reader. Below it lies a sticky note with an address and some part numbers and a neat American Wire Gauge slide rule reference of wire sizes.

That KDS monitor is nice and clear, BTW.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Free Computer Security -- Firewalls

Any computer that's connected to the Internet needs a firewall. It doesn't matter if you have only a dial-up connection. I'm on dial-up, and my computer sometimes is targeted for port scans. In fact, my first two computer calamities probably were caused by malicious Internet activity.

I was running Windows 98 back then and playing an online RPG. I'd leave the computer connected to the Internet several hours at a time while I played or downloaded updates. One day the computer failed to load Windows, and I discovered that the SYSTEM directory was empty.

I repaired the system and went back online. About six months later, the computer suddenly became very sluggish, and a program that I was unfamiliar with (probably a service) was maxing out the CPU.

Then I did two things. First, I set my hard drive up to dual boot Windows 98 and NT 4.0. NT would be my primary OS, while Win98 would be for my daughter's games. Second, I installed a firewall.

At the time, three free firewalls were popular: Sybergen Secure Desktop, Tiny Personal Firewall, and Zone Alarm. Zone Alarm seemed to be the most popular so I installed it. It was easy to use and hid my computer's ports from the Internet. And I haven't had an Internet-related problem since.

But the astute reader will notice that I referred to Zone Alarm in the past tense. I almost hate to mention this, because Zone Alarm is a very good program. But remember how I wrote that I was playing an online RPG and that I was on dialup? I discovered, through a lot of trial and error, that Zone Alarm interrupted the connection to the game every thirty to sixty seconds for about five seconds. And its "disabled" mode didn't change that. The interruptions went away only after I uninstalled Zone Alarm.

So that prompted me to try Sybergen Secure Desktop. That program was just about as easy to use, hid my computer’s ports just as effectively as did Zone Alarm, and it didn’t interrupt my gaming experience one bit. I recall running a port scan while playing. Everything worked fine, and I’ve kept it on my system.

Sybergen Secure Desktop now is called Sygate Personal Firewall. And it still runs on WinNT 4.0 (SP6).

Once you install Zone Alarm or Sygate Personal Firewall, you’ll need to configure it. Configuration is an ongoing process since these products will block a program’s access if that program has been changed. But I like to tweak things even further. I find that the default settings for "allowed" programs is too relaxed.

First, I like to restrict the remote port numbers that things connect to. For example, my web browsers are allowed to connect only to remote ports 80 and 443, which are standard ports for HTTP and HTTPS, respectively.

Second I like to set everything to client-only communication so that any remote-initiated attempts to communicate with these programs are rejected.

Third, I use FireFox as my default browser, but keep Internet Explorer for those ASP-type pages that are unreadable with anything else. (Internet Explorer was required to file my income tax claim at When I need to use IE, I get the website’s IP address using Ping and then allow IE to access only that IP address. Otherwise, IE stays blocked. Ditto for Outlook, since email gets routed through a couple of proxies before arriving at Outlook. (These proxies will be the subject of another installment of Free Security Programs.)

I’ll post the URLs of my favorite sites that do port scanning in the comments section, below. But not right now – later, when I stand a good chance of keeping my eyes open.

(Psst: I never did try Tiny PF.)

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Geek Test Result

I didn't score as high as Tirsden, but that's probably because I don't have time to be a gamer....

The Deviant Geek
You answered 76% of the questions as a geek truly would.

You're a geek and you know it. You've got all sorts of fringe hobbies and socially unacceptable tendencies. Chances are, whenever possible, you hate to be grouped with other people and sometimes go out of your way just to be different.

You're smart too. You're more willing to depend on your own brainpower to solve problems, instead of relying on others to pull you through life. You probably read a lot, and generally enjoy learning new things.

So what's it all mean? You may be considered by some to be uncool, but you probably don't care either. In social situations you may be either slightly passive or slightly loud (geeks always fall into the extremes). In a nutshell, you answered enough questions correctly supporting a geek philosophy to be considered a more potent geek than 60% of the population.

My test tracked 1 variable How you compared to other people your age and gender:
You scored higher than 68% on geekness
Link: The True Geek Test written by ambientred on OkCupid Online Dating

Cool High-Tech Thing -- Free Computer Security

Securing your computer might be tedious, but it need not be expensive. In fact there are a number of excellent free security-related applications to make you and your computer feel at ease.

Let's start with Anti-Virus. Grisoft delivers a free anti-virus solution with its AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition, which is free to home users. I had switched from Symantec's Norton AntiVirus (aka NAV) for these reasons:

  1. The Annual Virus Definition Subscription Fee. Paying this entitled the user to download virus updates for one year. But if you ever reformat your hard drive within that year (which I did twice) you'd either have to pay the fee again or you'd have to contact customer service to receive a special unlocking code in order to download more updates.
  2. Sluggish Performance. NAV slowed my system down quite a bit. It was so annoying, I wound up disabling its real time mode of operation and its email scanner. So I used it only for performing manual scans. Even those took a long time.
  3. No More Support for Windows NT 4.0. The home edition of NAV fails to list NT on it list of system requirements. In fact, just before I switched to AVG Anti-Virus FE, I'd been using the Enterprise Edition of NAV, which apparently even supports DOS. (Sometimes it helps to have a friend in the IT department at work.)
  4. "LiveUpdate" Blocked by Firewall. Every time I wanted to update the virus definitions, I had to download the entire 5+MB universal virus definitions file and install it manually. That's because the program's internal updater, called "LiveUpdate," failed to make it through my computer's firewall. If only they'd give me a range of IP addresses to open up (aside from to But they had too many different servers providing the updates.
AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition can be downloaded installed and registered for free. Users can easily get differential updates for free. It runs crisply on my Windows NT 4.0 OS. In fact, scans take so little time, I was at first skeptical that it was anything more than a program that popped up a message box to say the file has no viruses.

Coming next... free firewall discussion.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Deadly Body Odor

Yet another example of misuse of technology -- the Genetically Altered Scent project.

Researchers discovered a way to modify the DNA of a common bacterium so that the waste it produces has a pleasing scent. The idea was to introduce this strain of bacterium into the armpit regions of test subjects, who would be required to forgo deodorants, antiperspirants and anti-bacterial soap for a ten day period. At the end of the study, the subjects would don a cotton pad under each armpit and perform some light exercise. The pads (along with pads from a control group) would be sniffed by another group of participants who would designate each pad as either "pleasing" or "disagreeable."

If the study was successful, Genetically Altered Scent, or GAS, would usher in a new line of designer fragrances.

Unfortunately, the study had to be halted due to a complication. About thirty percent of the participants who hosted the modified bacteria developed a severe rash. A few of these actually had to be hospitalized and undergo intravenous antibiotic therapy. Apparently one of the modified genes turned the bacterium into an aggressive organism, similar to deadly flesh-eating varieties. Luckily no one died or suffered permanent damage.