Tuesday, September 30, 2008

COFEE or tea?

A few months back, Microsoft introduced a USB drive called COFEE - Computer Online Forensics Evidence Extractor. The USB drive is loaded with all sorts of forensics tools that are "freely available". This set of tools is supposed to make extraction of forensic evidence easier on a PC.

Computer forensics is basically extracting evidence from a computer that may have been involved in a crime. It could be as simple as extracting evidence without giving a criminal a chance to say you planted evidence on the computer, or as complex as cracking passwords.

Now, supposedly, this USB drive is simply a combination of freely available software programs at the moment, but what gets to be a little scary is this - Microsoft wants to work with the law enforcement officials around the world, and they know what loopholes exist in their system. What's to prevent them from having some sort of backdoor installed to let law enforcement officials gain access to a criminal computer? Since Microsoft is basically a monopoly, it's hard to say.

It's great that they are working with law enforcement; what scares me is that whatever police can do, hackers will eventually do too.


Sunday, September 28, 2008

Hacking traffic lights - go green in a different way

The MIRT, or Mobile Infrared Transmitter, is a device that can be installed in emergency vehicles (police, fire trucks, etc) that change red lights to green for them. This way, in an emergency, they don't have to worry about going through a red light and getting in an accident.

Of course, a few years after this device showed up, and before a law was enacted against doing this, everyday people found ways to get their hands on these devices, so they didn't ever have to wait at red lights. I wouldn't be shocked if people were still doing this even though it's illegal.

Schematics to build the device are even available freely online!!

The problem in a system like this is this - there is no authentication. In other words, in many places, if the infrared controller receives a certain signal, regardless of what device sends it, it will turn the light green. What really should be happening is that it should reject any unauthorized devices, but that's harder to do and has not been enacted in many areas.

Even though there are laws against this, how many police officers would even recognize a device like this if it were in someone's car? How many people would even notice that someone enough to establish a pattern and call the police? Is a fine of $200 (let's say) even a deterrent?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Sarah Palin - Email Hacked

Vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's Yahoo! email was hacked - proving hacking isn't always something that's difficult to do, with a little thought.

The person who hacked it basically launched what we would call a "social engineering" attack. Apparently, the email account required the following information to reset the password - the user name (readily available), date of birth (find it on Wikipedia), ZIP Code (easily guessed from her town of residence), and the answer to the security question. The answer to the security question was easily guessed - "Where did you meet your husband?" - given that they were high school sweethearts, it's easy to guess that it was the high school they attended, and that was also on Wikipedia.

Notice - NO hacking tools required!

The other interesting part is that the hack (see below for link to screen shots) allowed hackers to find personal email addresses of all sorts of politicians, including Governor Schwarzenegger and many members of the Alaskan political regime.

The interesting part is that the way laws are currently written, this may not technically be illegal!

PS - John McCain admits that he doesn't know how to use a computer. He's probably safe from being hacked, but it scares me to have a potential president who doesn't know anything about computers.

Web Links:

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Free Trial of Microsoft Office 2007

Microsoft is giving out a fully functional 60 day/2 month free trial of Office 2007 Professional. If you don't have Office on your computer, this is a chance to try the new version for free.

Note that since this is the trial version of Office Professional, not only do you get Word, Excel and PowerPoint, you also get Publisher and Access, two other very nice tools, and a few other tools. For free, it's definitely worth a try.

If you were interested in simply purchasing it, there is a "Home and Student" version, which is designed for home users that will be doing common school related tasks. The "Home and Student" version includes Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. This is much cheaper than the standard versions of Office, with a retail price of $150.

At this point, it is a little over $100 to purchase it on Amazon. I'll link to that below.

Web Links:

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Pentagon Hacked by Chinese Military!

Students wonder "am I safe" at home, in regards to their computers. I always think of it as levels of security. Let's look at the example of a car.

First of all, the purpose of a car key was to prevent cars from being stolen. Okay, so people found a way around that one. Well, how about locking doors? Still not theft proof. How about a car alarm? Do people even look anymore? LoJack? It can be disabled. Automatic engine shut off? That doesn't stop me from towing your car away.

Point being, to a sufficiently motivated car thief, your car isn't safe. A lot of what we do for car security is so that people move on to another car and leave ours alone.

The same thing applies to computer security. Anti-virus? Check. Anti-spyware? Check. Fully updated operating system. Check. Software firewall? Check.

Safe? No. Safer, yes.

Could someone really hack you? Let's put it this way. A little over a year ago (Sept 2007), the Chinese military apparently hacked the Pentagon's computer network.

If the Pentagon's systems are not safe, how can you be?

Just remember this, no security system is foolproof. All you are doing is making yourself a less likely target.

Web Link

Friday, September 19, 2008

Internal Temperature for your PC

In a CIS 101 course the other day, the question came up about the fans inside the system unit/tower. The fans are there to cool your system, so if they aren't running, it may be indicative of a problem.

When it is not a problem? Well, some fans are designed to be "green" - so in other words, they may shut off once in a while if they are not needed, in order to save you power.

CPU fan not in action.

But, how can you tell if this is the issue or not? The Windows operating system does not come with any built in utilities to tell you if there is a problem or not. One of the nice utilities to check on things is a free software program called SpeedFan.

SpeedFan will let you (on a basic level) check temperatures inside your computer, and (on a more advanced level) view some of the diagnostic readings from the hard drive and even turn your fans on more or less often.

I don't recommend that option for beginning users.

Anyway, this free software can access lots of different pieces of information. I have two hard drives, and it was able to tell me that the temperatures were 36 degrees Celsius in one, and 48 degrees Celsius in another. A little Web research told me that these are well within acceptable ranges, so my computer is okay. Note that if you start seeing numbers like 60 degrees Celsius, this is a bad thing.

So, if you are wondering how hot it is inside your PC, this is one utility that you can download and use to check it. If you're someone who is looking for a good diagnostic tool to use on other people's machines, this is a good example of a free software program to have in your diagnostic kit.

Web Link:

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Office 2007 Shortcut Keys

One of the best ways to be a little more productive is to learn the hotkeys of a program. Also known as "shortcut keys" or "keyboard shortcuts", keyboard shortcuts are the way of using the keyboard to do things that you would otherwise do with the mouse. For example, a common hotkey in Microsoft Office is to hold down the control key and hit the P key. This will allow you to print without clicking around to do so.

Now there is no way that you're going to memorize them all, but what I think is efficient is to figure out something you're doing often, and to look up the hotkeys for that feature.

No, not THAT type of hotkey.

I've blogged in the past about some of these hot keys, but in the process of updating Microsoft Office, they've removed some of the hotkeys that I personally was used to, which makes me sad, but they've also added some, which is nice.

Where do you look those up? Well, if you Google it, you'll get a list, but at this point, you're dealing with a lot of people who have the Office 2003 lists up. You would figure that there's a comprehensive list for each of the programs on Microsoft's site ... but you'd be wrong. As far as I can find, they only have a set of Office 2003 shortcut keys on the site, not the Office 2007 ones.

One site that I've used for this purpose in the past is keyxl.com and they've done an excellent job of laying out shortcuts for the major Office tools at the links below. Definitely worth a look if you're wondering something like "How do I start a slide show from this slide instead of slide one?"**

Web Links

** Answer - hold shift and hit f5

Monday, September 15, 2008

Painting online

One of my biggest weaknesses is that I am not a very good artist. I've got a very logical mind, and the creative process just never really worked with the way my brain works.

For those of you who have been in my class, you know my famed drawing of someone using a computer and communicating with their friends in chat as they also use Microsoft Word...which has also been called "stick figure touching a box".

Ok, so my art skills aren't that great. Even if they aren't, I've had fun at times messing around in programs like Microsoft Paint or Adobe Photoshop.

Paint is of course free, but the issue is that you have to save your art and then either upload the or email to someone else. There is a Web program on art.com that allows you to do basically the same things you do in Paint, with a few more options added in. In addition to all those, you also have the opportunity to share the drawing, and your friends can watch your creative process in action - it stores the exact keystrokes you used to create the painting, all for free.

For example, the quarterback on my fantasy football team got injured, and I created a visually stunning representation of how this injury happened:

Amazing to see the creative process in action, is it not?

Web Site Link:

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Free Public Transportation: 9/15 - 9/21

I grew up in Sussex County, so my idea of public transportation was catching a ride home with a friend. I remember how confusing it was when I first started going in to New York City via the PATH trains and using the subways and I remember how stressful it was - is this the right train?? What if I end up lost?

I've gotten much better at this, through experience.

One of NJ Transit's Trains in action

Anyway, it seems like New Jersey Transit does this at least once a year - they are having a "STUDENTS RIDE FREE" week. Anywhere NJ Transit goes, you can go for free, by going to their Web site and filling out a form. I'm on their e-mail list, so I get reminders when this goes in to effect and I try to mention this to my classes.

Even if you are paying normally for public transportation - if you fill out this form and bring your student ID, it's a free week.

This is valid from 9/15 (Monday) through 9/21 (Sunday) and on all bus, rail, and light rails run by NJ Transit. They've also got a trip planner on the Web site, in case you're wondering "how do I get to NYC from where I am?".

Also thanks to Sue for a reminder on this one.

Web Site Link:
NJTransit.com - Students Ride Free!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Rate Your Professors

During a discussion in my CIS 101 course in Paterson today, the site RateMyProfessors.com came up in conversation, and I was asked my opinion. This was part of a discussion on how computers have changed education.

Hey, we've all been there...

I think the site is a great idea, as I told my class, and here's why. You as a student KNOW when a professor cares and when they don't. I was there, I knew which professors wanted to be there and those who didn't. At Montclair State University, there were a few professors I had that we all knew were there to do research, and didn't care at all about teaching. It's sad, but since they were so good at researching and publishing papers, it DIDN'T MATTER that they came to class and wasted our time.

So, my point is, there was always "word of mouth" - your friends told you who was good and who was bad. You heard who cared and who didn't. Is RateMyProfessor any different than that? Not really, in my opinion.

For example, if you're a PCCC student, you probably already know that if you want a great experience in Psychology or Sociology, you go with Professor Ed Mosley. I've only heard one bad thing about him, and that was today, believe it or not. It doesn't mean he's going to give out a bunch of "A" grades - he will make you work - but he makes the class worth your time.

The thing I also like to point out is that one great rating or one poor rating doesn't mean a lot. The more ratings, the better an overall feel you get for your professors. For example, Ed Mosley has 56 ratings with a 4.8 out of 5.0 rating in terms of quality (!!!). That, folks, is a trend that says something. The more ratings, the better the quality of information.

Knowledge is power. This is an awesome example of shared knowledge.

Of course, if you're on Facebook or Myspace, they have their own professor ratings as well, but RateMyProfessor was out there first, and doesn't require a login to use.

Web Site Links:
Thanks to freeclipartnow for the public domain image above.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The sex offenders among us...

I had an interesting conversation today with my CIS 101 class at the Wanaque campus about one Web site. It is always a topic that finds classes split, often down the middle. The Web site? It's a government Web site - the National Sex Offender's public registry.

This Web site was put up due to some backlash related to a young woman named Dru Sjodin, who was a student at the University of North Dakota. She was murdered by a convicted sex offender who had recently been let out of prison. The uproar about this this resulted in the creation of the creation of a database on the Internet, called the National Sex Offender's public registry, where people can look up what sex offenders live in their area.

There are a lot of pieces of information - not only can you get names, but you can get addresses, car makes and models, and much more. It is of course a Web site intended to inform and to protect the general population, but there is always the issue of the rights of the sex offenders.

After all, many students point out, they've served their time in prison and have paid their debt to society, haven't they?

Other students have the opposite view point. Sex offenders don't deserve privacy. Some mistakes can't be undone and you have to live with them forever.

My town has five registered sex offenders, one only a few blocks away. I had one student last semester who had a good friend listed on the Web site, and another had his cousin listed on the Web site. Both students did know of the offenses, but it's still interesting to see personal connections to this site.

Web site link:
You can find the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender's Public Registry at:

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Open Office 2007 files in older versions of Office

So, this semester, my college has made it the "standard" that we are using Office 2007. This presents some issues that we haven't seen in years, the issue of backwards compatibility. In other words, let's say you are running Office 2003 at home. If I mail you a Microsoft Word document in Office 2007 format, you are basically out of luck.

...that is, without an extra piece of free software from Microsoft.

If you are running Office 2000, Office XP, or Office 2003, and can not open Office 2007 files (they have slightly different extensions, such as .docx, .xlsx, or .pptx), the free Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack program will allow you to open these files.

I would highly recommend that you download this and install it, especially if you are a PCCC student. If you do classwork on campus computers, you'd have to otherwise remember to "Save as" an older format in order to work seamlessly between campus and home, and that's really not all that seamless, is it?

PC Users: Download Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack

One problem that someone verbally asked me about - this does NOT help with Access files. If you have Access 2003 and someone sends you a database in Access 2007 format, you're out out luck, even after installing this.

Now, why they haven't pushed this out as part of their Microsoft Update, I can not tell you.

Mac users only
If you are a Office for Macintosh 2004 or Office for Macintosh X user, you will need to go through a different process. You need to download a free tool called "Open XML File Format Converter for Mac 1.0". Yeah, that's easy to figure out.
Macintosh Users Download Here

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Google "Chrome" Web Browser

After years of quiet on the Web browser front, there is a new entry in to the battle. Google has introduced a new browser in to the realm...

Being the computer person I am, I of course downloaded it immediately. We'll see what happens with this (it's still in Beta - or testing), but bringing Google in to compete with Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox will probably help things. Competition is good for the consumer.

Anyway, I installed it, and I figured I would take it for a little test drive. First impression - it allows me to import settings from other browsers - this is something Firefox also does, so that's good. After going through that, it brought me to a default page that says "most visited pages". The pages are displayed in little boxes, so you can see little previews of your frequently visited pages.

This seems like a clever idea to me. First impressions, good!

I then went to ESPN.com to give it a test. Why ESPN? Well, sports aside, this is a very media intensive page. It managed to block a popup automatically, good...Adobe Flash player was automatically setup and it managed to play a sports highlight...good...and then BOOM. Unable to fully display the page, would you like to reload?

Not a good sign!

It gave me the option to reload, so I did, and it worked just fine the second time.

So, how does it stack up? Here are my thoughts, simply from a usability interface.

  • Features you are used to are there - it has tabbed browsing, as Firefox and Internet Explorer do, built in phishing and malware detection, easy clearing of your browsing history, bookmarks....
  • The interface is less cluttered than the interfaces you see in Firefox or Internet Explorer.
  • It has an "incognito" mode - wow. Pages you view in the incognito window claim to not show up in your browsing history or search history, and will protect you if you visit Web sites that you aren't sure are trustworthy. I didn't test this fully, but a spectacular idea!
  • It has it's own "task manager". If you've ever visited a Web page that locked up in Internet Explorer or Firefox, you've likely had to kill the entire browser program and restart. This allows you to kill certain bits of the browser, so let's say a Flash program is slowing me down, I can just shut that off without affecting the other things I am doing.
  • Downloads show up along the bottom of the screen by the status bar - rather than disappearing immediately (Internet Explorer) or having a pop up window with downloads (Firefox)
  • It doesn't seem to have the page setup options you have in Internet Explorer and Firefox (for example, print headers and footers or not)
  • They didn't fix the problem I would love to see someone fix - block ads on a certain site - this can be done in another way, but it would be great to see this actually easy for the average user to do
  • It has its own set of hotkeys different than the other browsers. Just a minor annoyance.
  • If you close the only tab that exists in a window, it exits the entire program. This is not intuitive - one wrong click and you're going to have to restart the program. It should warn the user or give a blank tab.
Worth a download...use the link above to give it a shot, why not, for free? Since it's a Google product, I am willing to bet it will be around for a while. It seems like everything they touch turns to gold.

Besides, for those of us who have Web design background, it gives you yet ANOTHER Web browser to test your site in. FUN!

Monday, September 01, 2008

Freelance Computer Repair - How to Get Started

I was reading a post over on The Simple Dollar, and the site founder answered a question about how to start doing freelance computer repair. I figured this might be something worth posting here, since I assume some of my long term readers are former Information Technology majors.

First things first: Remember, you have an advantage over places like Best Buy's "Geek Squad", or Staples. Why? First of all, price. For the Geek Squad to visit you at home or in the office and repair the computer, they are charging $75 to $125 an hour. I don't know about you, but I can't see myself paying $400 to repair my home computer. You have a HUGE advantage in terms of price.

Secondly, many of you speak multiple languages. Staples or Best Buy may or may not offer that advantage. If you are bilingual (or trilingual, etc), that can only work to your advantage.

Thirdly, you have the advantage that, since you are in effect working for yourself, you care how the customer responds to you. If you help them, word of mouth can be very powerful for you. If you can fix their problem and help them out a little bit, they will tell their friends.

So, how do you get started?

Post Flyers
You can start by downloading a basic Word template with the little tear-offs down bottom (or, if you have Publisher, use the templates in that software). Remember, not everyone has computer experience, so list both a phone number and an email address. Do you speak multiple languages? Make sure you put that on there. Same with transportation - can you drive to them? Also, remember, people are concerned about cost - you may want to quote a price (more on that later) or simply say "why pay more money to Staples or Best Buy?". If you want to set up a basic, cheap Web site on a site like Geocities, do that.

Where should you advertise?
There are 7000 people attending PCCC, for example. If you advertise on campus, you have access to all those students (plus faculty, staff, administrators, and visitors). Remember, you have to get them stamped in A202A first, but they typically are very accommodating. Many local businesses will let you hang flyers as well, if you ask. Think of places people wait - a laundromat, a busy restaurant, train and bus stations, etc.

How much should you charge?
Well, this is entirely up to you. How much is an hour of your time worth to you? There are other factors as well. Are you doing something basic (like running a backup for the user)? Are you doing something more complicated (virus removal)? Remember, you are offering a premium service. I would say BARE MINIMUM ask for $30 an hour, and feel free to go up from there. If the person is nice, you can always cut them a break.

How do you keep people coming back?
First of all, be nice. Secondly, get it done right. Thirdly (is that a word?), go the extra mile. If you've cleaned up a virus because they didn't have a virus scanner installed, install a free virus scanner, and make sure they realize you are saving them $75 that they would have otherwise spent on packaged software. If they call you for something complicated and you fix it, ask them if there is anything else that annoys them, and help with that. Ask them to tell their friends.

How do I really build my business?
Get a Web site. You can do something free and very basic on a site like Geocities.com or one of the other 10,000 free Web hosting sites. If your business starts picking up, you might want to invest in your own domain name. Another way to invest in your business - you can get a free or inexpensive voicemail number, so people aren't calling your cell phone and interrupting you. eVoice.com is free for a basic service or $4.95 a month for the "Plus" service that includes a local phone number. Business cards are also a great idea - you can leave them with your satisfied customers, or hand them out. I've found VistaPrint to have excellent prices.

Hope this helps - I've gone through versions of this discussion in some of my classes, and I've always wanted to put it online here, and now here it is. Do you have questions or suggestions? Something else that worked for you? Please add them in the comments and I can address and/or add them.