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PC or Mac?

Now that Windows 7 is available, this question takes on added significance.  The ease of use advantage that Apple once enjoyed is now a thing of the past.  Windows 7 and Apple Snow Leopard have equally slick interfaces.  Apple’s marketing campaigns have done a good job making the claim that Macs “just work” and and PCs don’t.  Of course, plug and play has been built in to PCs since Windows 95.  What makes connecting new devices to PCs or Macs “just work” is the software that vendors provide with their printers, digital cameras, etc., to make them work.  The frustration long known by PC owners with old unsupported printers came to be known by Mac owners who upgraded to Snow Leopard (the newest Mac operating system), then discovered that their old printers no longer worked.  So, whether you own a PC or a Mac, the truth is the same:  “supported” hardware “just works,” and unsupported hardware probably doesn’t.

Always clever and timely, Apple’s new marketing campaign talks about the pain of upgrading to Windows 7, but conveniently neglects to mention the catastrophic data loss suffered by many Mac owners who recently upgraded to Snow Leopard.  Apparently, Mac owners using guest accounts (and some without them), lost all their data — all documents, music, photos, etc.  For further information, here are two articles

There are a few issues to help decide if a PC or Mac is right for you and your specific needs.

USE. How you are going to use your computer could determine which is right for your needs.  For example, if you do video animation, and (if) the software you need to use is only available for the Mac, you have your answer.  Although many industry-specific packages are only available for the PC, that might not be true in your specific situation.  If appropriate, do the necessary research to determine what you need.

SUPPORT. Unless you are very technically sophisticated, you will require technical assistance on occasion.  Conveniently available support at home or work, by IT staff, coworkers, family, or independent IT consultants will greatly enhance your computing experience.  Determining what type of expertise is readily available should help make your decision easier.

DESKTOP SOFTWARE.  If a large variety of readily available desktop software is a necessity for you, you should probably go with a PC.  Conversely, if you have limited needs that are met by both platforms, then this will not be a determining factor.

COOL.  Let’s face it — Apple products are cool.  Although — in my opinion — the iPhone and iPods (especially the Touch!) have more of it than the Mac, the Mac does seem to have it, at a several hundred dollar premium to the PC.  Although the new PC designs — especially ones with Piano Black finishes — are awfully slick looking, the Mac seems a bit more sleek.

CONTROL.  Apple tightly controls the Mac platform, to a much greater extent than any one vendor controls the PC.  If you like control (think of your favorite “hands on” sports franchise owner), you will love Apple.  Many of the choices are made for you.  Whether that’s a pro or con depends on your perspective and needs.

Good luck with your decision.

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What IT People Need to Know About Non-IT People

Not many things get me riled up more quickly than hearing fellow IT professionals ridicule people for being technically unsophisticated. Here are a few things IT people need to know about non-IT people.

Everybody is good at something, but not necessarily IT. If everyone were good at IT, many of you would be unemployed, eating Hot Pockets, living in your mother’s basement, and playing X-Box all day.

Writers don’t need to know a domain from a workgroup, as long as they’re there for you and they know their stuff. If you’re lucky, they can rework that gibberish you write and make you look good to your clients.

Doctors don’t need to know MS Office from MS Windows, as long as they know a metacarpal from a mandible. It would be a shame to have a cast in the wrong place! Luckily, doctors have “M.D.” instead of “MCSE” after their names.

Accountants don’t need to know a router from an access point , as long as they know the difference between a tax deduction and a tax credit.  Who would you rather prepare your financial statements: a CCNA or a CPA?

Financial advisers don’t need to know 802.3 from 802.11, as long as they know a SEP from a Keogh from a 401(k).  You just might prefer to have a CFP, rather than a CNE, help you with retirement planning.

Personally, I’m delighted that there are non-technical people I can earn a living helping, and thankful that there are people who can help me with things I can’t do myself.  Vive la différence!

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Tales of Woe with New HP Multifunction Printer

When the Hewlett Packard Officejet Pro printers, with their low electrical and ink consumption and high quality text printing, became available, it was inevitable that one of them would be my next printer. As soon as the Officejet Pro 8500 multifunction printer went on sale at a local retailer, I bought one. As is usually the case with Hewlett Packard multifunction printers, the software installation was the most time-consuming part of the installation, but it completed without a hitch. HP thoughtfully — without asking permission — put an icon for Solution Center, which handles scanning , cropping, OCR, etc., on my desktop. Everything worked as advertised, for a brief period.

Shortly after installing the printer, as part of normal maintenance, I ran the Secunia online software inspector, which reported an old and insecure version of Flash Player. After updating to the latest/most secure version of Flash Player and removing the insecure one, I opened Solution Center to scan a photo. Immediately, Solution Center started its installer and requested the installation CD be put back in the drive. Of course, if you put the installation CD back in the drive, the just-uninstalled insecure version of Flash Player gets reinstalled, and the process continues ad infinitum. It is possible to hit cancel when the installer requests the CD, and Solution Center will work fine — until the installer pops up again, and again. This is not the way software is supposed to behave, nor is constantly hitting cancel an acceptable workaround. In case you are wondering, this is the newest version — 12.0.0 — of the software from the HP web site.

Armed with the knowledge that Solution Center would eventually perform all the functions I needed it to perform with the newest version of Flash Player and without the two Flash components that it thought it needed from the old, insecure version, I tried an experiment. Please do not try to replicate this experiment, as tampering with files in your system folders can render your system unstable or unusable. When those two “needed” files were replaced with text files of the same name, Solution Center quit complaining and performed all the functions I asked of it, including scanning photos and converting paper documents to editable text. Printing, which is done through the print driver, not Solution Center, works quite nicely as well.

Wouldn’t it be nice if HP fixed its software to work properly? Currently your choices are: live with a known security problem, put up with constant installation windows, hack system files, or buy another vendor’s printer. Unless HP fixes this problem, alternative number four looks pretty good.

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Upgrading to Windows 7 RTM

As soon as Windows 7 RTM (release to manufacturing — the final product that will be available in stores October 22) became available to IT professional Action Pack subscribers, I downloaded Windows 7 Business edition and did a clean installation on an old spare laptop, after running Windows Easy Transfer to save my files and settings to a thumb drive. Since there was not much on that computer, a clean install and setup probably took under two hours from start to finish. Fortunately, I already had all the hardware drivers I needed on my thumb drive. As it turned out, the sound card was the only device that required me to manually install the driver for it. Boring! Since this computer was a spare with nothing of any importance on it in the first place, failure was an option. That’s probably why it went so smoothly: Your results could be far different.

Next on the agenda was my main computer — the one I use to run my business. Failure was not an option, nor was extended downtime. Since the computer had never been compromised by malware (viruses, spyware, trojan horse, etc.), was running Vista very well (but slowly for so much power), and had far too much software for me to want to reinstall it all, an in-place upgrade to Windows 7 Ultimate edition made good sense to me. Not wanting to rely solely on my backup images for a backout plan, I decided to clone my hard drive, and perform the upgrade on the new drive. If the upgrade went horrifically wrong, the new drive would be removed, the old drive swapped in, and the computer would be back to square one — running that   s-l-o-w   a-s   m-o-l-a-s-s-e-s   Vista.

After cloning the old drive with the software that came with the new one, I began the in-place upgrade. Right away, the installer insisted that the computer be deauthorized for the iTunes store, and iTunes be uninstalled, before the upgrade could begin. A few minutes and one reboot later, the real upgrade finally began. Because of the amount of software it had to reconfigure, this process took a couple of hours and several restarts. If you are not at the computer to remove the installation DVD from the drive when it performs the first restart, it will attempt to start the upgrade over. If this happens, remove the DVD and restart the computer. At this point it will pick up where it left off.

When the upgrade was finished, the only thing that did not work was Norton Internet Security 2010 beta. After an uninstall and reinstall, Norton worked fine. When iTunes was reinstalled and the computer reauthorized for the iTunes store, we were back in business. iPod and Blackberry successfully synchronized, Outlook, Firefox, and Quicken all worked. After two days, the only thing that does not work properly is the access to the computer management console, which is how you get to the computer’s event logs, device manager, disc manager, etc. It is supposed to start up by right-clicking on My Computer, then scrolling down to manage. Since that does not work for me, I can get to it by typing compmgmt.msc in the search box. This is hardly a deal-breaker. Finally my Cadillac computer no longer feels like it has a Volkswagen engine in it!

If your computer does not have much installed on it, a clean install may be your best approach, and if it is experiencing any kind of problems or has ever been compromised by malware, a reformat (or new drive) and clean install is probably your only option. In this latter case, you probably should not even use Windows Easy Transfer to migrate your files and settings. Although it is more work to manually copy your files and start from scratch, you are much less likely to migrate your computer problems. Whatever you do, don’t neglect to have a backout plan!

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Just What ARE We Telling the World Via Social Networks

Social networks provide wonderful opportunities to communicate with friends, colleagues, clients, etc., without regard for geographical, time, and physical constraints. What we frequently fail to realize, however, is that there should be absolutely no presumption of privacy of communication, regardless of your privacy settings. Assuming that there are no software vulnerabilities and no human error or misdeeds on the part of those maintaining these social networks, an incredible stretch in and of itself, all it takes is one person to re-tweet or post on their own wall to open your “private” communication to the entire world. Recently, a Chicago lady tweeted to her twenty-six Twitter “friends,” implying that her apartment was moldy. Within hours, this tweet became national news. This case exemplifies both the power and danger of social networking.

It bothers me not at all that people who don’t do their jobs post their slacking exploits on Twitter and Facebook. What does concern me, however, is that ordinary people may be telling the world a little more than they should. For example, a simple “I’m leaving for California tonight, and will be back in two weeks,” means just that to friends, but means “My house will be empty for two weeks,” to potential burglars. Young people boasting about wild parties may mean “I’m cool” to friends, but could mean “Don’t accept me to your college,” to an admissions officer, or “Don’t hire me,” to a potential employer.

Perhaps it would be appropriate to ask yourself, “Is there any reason not to share this with the entire world,” BEFORE posting. News, good or bad, travels around the world in the blink of an eye. As we all know, there is no “recall” button on information traveling around the internet.

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Sending Multiple Copies of Every Email

A client had a serious problem with his email. He was sending multiple copies of every outgoing email via Outlook Express. If he sent you an email, seconds later, you would get another copy, then another, etc. I was able to observe that it was not a case of him clicking Send several times before the email actually went out. One may be inclined to think that the computer was infected with spamming malware, but that was not the case. When he clicked on Send, the email would go into the Outbox, get sent, but not move to the Sent Items folder, instead staying in the Outbox. Outlook Express would notice that there was email in the Outbox, send it, then attempt to move to Sent Items folder; since it failed at the move to Sent Items, it would keep it in the Outbox, and the process would start over, until we shut down Outlook Express. At that point I looked at Sent Items.dbx, which is the Outlook Express Sent Items folder, and observed that it was at the 2GB limit. Because the Sent Items folder was already “full,” no more outgoing email could be moved into it.

Since the Sent Items folder was no longer accessible, we had two simple choices: delete the folder, and lose copies of all sent email; or import his email into Mozilla Thunderbird, which has a 4GB limit on each folder. Since he wanted to retain and prune his send mail, he chose the Thunderbird option. After I set up Thunderbird for him, he was able to pretty quickly prune his sent items folder from 2GB to under 500MB. Now his email works much faster than it has in quite some time, thanks mostly to not having his email operating at or near its storage capacity.

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Malicious Email Attachments

Every so often, I get an email forwarded to me by a friend, client, or colleague, about the latest email circulating with a malicious attachment designed to entice people to click on it to launch a pernicious piece of malware. They always ask the same thing, “Is this for real?” Some of the warnings are hoaxes made up by people with too much time on their hands, but many are about real threats. Regardless, the concept is constant: If you click on an email attachment, it could trigger a nasty payload. Here is a recent example
Unfortunately, malware purveyors have gotten quite clever over the years, by latching onto interesting topics — Obama, Sarah Palin, swine flu, etc. Remember Anna Kournakova? The sender could appear to be a friend, prospective client or employee, the IRS, etc.

Microsoft makes it easy for malware distributors to trick people into clicking on malicious email attachments, by hiding extensions for known file types. For example, some slimeball could send you an email with an attachment named resume.doc.exe, and it would appear as resume.doc. Even Windows 7, the next generation operating system from Microsoft, has this “feature.” Thanks, Microsoft.

How do you fix this giant security hole Microsoft put on your computer? Go into the Control Panel, and open Folder Options. Next, click on the View tab, and UNCHECK Hide extensions for known file types, then click on OK. That will help, but will not substitute for caution.

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Don’t Get Hooked by this Fake eBay Phish

Con artists are targeting eBay users with a phishing email intended to steal personal information. The following image is a capture of an email I received this morning. When I moused over the link to take me to the eBay form, I saw that it did not in fact lead to, but instead to — a fraud site. You could use the mouseover method I employed, or just open your web browser and go to Ebay to check your account. Do not click the link in the email! Also, you could forward the email to [email protected] for analysis.

These principles apply to any email you receive, especially those purporting to be from e-commerce sites, banks or other financial institutions. Sadly, neither Postini nor the Outlook 2007 spam filter quarantined this message. Remember, YOU are the last line of defense against fraudsters.

Phishing Email

Phishing Email

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Email Etiquette

Imagine how much more enjoyable reading our email would be, and how much less time we would waste, if everyone with whom we wish to communicate would practice proper email etiquette. Since training in proper email usage in not a prerequisite to getting an email account, many otherwise polite people don’t know the proper email etiquette to help them be considerate and respectful of other people’s time dealing with email. Here are a few basics.

SUBJECT. Every email message needs a descriptive one, so the recipient knows what you are writing about. If your name is Joe Schmoe, “From Joe Schmoe,” is not a useful subject. Email programs already tell us who the message is from. A proper subject makes it much easier for the recipient to find and followup with your message in the future.

TO, CC, BCC. As a general rule, when you send email to more than a few people, the recipients should be blind copied, to protect their privacy, keep their email addresses from being collected by viruses on other recipients’ computers, and to keep from cluttering the message. Nobody wants to have to look at a page of email addresses on top of a two sentence message! Many years ago, I maintained a distribution list of about seventy five people to whom I regularly sent important announcements. When somebody sent a completely off-topic reply to all, I learned to use BCC and never looked back. An exception to this rule is when your email is part of a discussion, and you want people to reply to all.

REPLY, REPLY to ALL. Before replying to all, consider whether or not others on the list need or want to see your response. If they do, go for it, but otherwise. . . Whatever you do, refrain from sending an off-topic response. Doing so is the email equivalent of belching at the opera. If you need to write on another topic, please create a new email message with a topic-appropriate subject.

FORWARD. We all get email forwarded to us, usually rumors and heart-wrenching stories about Johnnie the orphan. They usually start out, “This is a true story. I verified it on Snopes,” and end up with, “Forward this to everyone you know.” Delete it. These are very rarely true. Microsoft did not just email your friend about the worst virus outbreak ever; nor did the FBI email your friend’s coworker about six Middle Eastern men apprehended with photographs and descriptions of a nuclear power plant. If you are curious, Google it, but don’t forward the message. When you encounter something that would interest a friend or client — hopefully, nothing that’s mentioned above — clean out all the extraneous email addresses and comments make by others, and just send the actual content. Please do not make your recipient open several layers of nested attachments to get to the content.

CLEAN UP. Always consider what is necessary for recipients to see when you reply. It is not necessary to quote a two-page message and another page of email address when your response is, “I can make it to dinner Friday night.” In many cases, you can go into the body of the email message and hit Ctrl-A, to highlight the entire text, then hit Delete to delete it, before typing your message. In other instances, it’s appropriate to snip out extraneous text. Use your judgment regarding what’s appropriate.

RECYCLING. Sometimes it’s necessary to recycle an old email message, especially if you do not have a distribution list for your intended recipients. Make sure to change the subject line to one appropriate for this email message, and delete the entire original message before typing a new one.

cAPS lOCK. Make sure that it’s off, because when you type in all caps, it looks like you are SHOUTING!

DON’T BE the ONE to send out email like the following. Have mercy on the poor schmuck who needs to print out your address and six pages of extraneous junk comes out of his printer!

Six pages of junk for a few sentences of actual message.
Actual message is in red.

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Privacy Notice — What’s Wrong With This Picture?

If you have ever had a business relationship with a financial institution, you should know that they have access to a variety of your personal information. You may not realize that they can, without your permission, disclose this information to their “affiliates” and non-affiliated third parties. Additionally, they can change their disclosure policies at any time. Here is a typical financial institution privacy notice, which outlines what type of information they collect and disclose to others. They make it your obligation to “opt out” of disclosure. They also make it your problem to figure out and provide your account numbers. So, if you have a checking account, savings account, and a CD, you must provide account numbers for all three, to prevent disclosure of your personal information. Although they do freely provide your personal information to their other business units and affiliates, if you are a customer of one of these units or affiliates, you are on your own to separately contact them to “opt out” of disclosure.

Clearly, the rules make it easy for financial institutions to monetize your personal information and difficult for you to prevent disclosure of your personal information. What’s wrong with this picture? Isn’t it time to change our privacy laws to require explicit permission to release your personal information? For your privacy, you should demand that your elected officials enact “opt in” privacy laws.

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