Sunday, January 30, 2005

More on What You Need

My friend Larry, aka Eclectrix, had commented on the What You Need entry, and made some points that I think it makes sense to address.

1. Windows XP Professional (XP Pro) is the way to go. Windows XP Home Edition has been hobbled. I agree -- Get XP Pro. Software companies put their best efforts into the business versions of their software, and tend to "dumb-down" their consumer versions.

2. He mentioned an issue with Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) in which "Microsoft is trying to take too much control of the machine or something." Frankly, I think that you are going to run Microsoft software, or not. If you are, you need to trust them to a certain degree. SP2 is such a significant upgrade that it is required if you are to run XP. If you don't want to run Windows XP, get an Apple or go full-on techno-nerd and go Linux.

3. He has an issue with Automatic Updates being Automatic. Sometimes an update breaks something. I full agree with him on that, which is why I mentioned that a fully funded Information Technology department should review updates prior to distributing them. That is their function. To review all releases prior to applying them is a full-time job, and takes up a lot of attention. The average non-technical user really can't do this, and will not do this. So, if the updates are not automatic, the updates will not get done, and their computer is in grave danger of being hacked. This is not good. So, unless you are a professional, do not try this at home. Just turn on the auto-update.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

What You Need

In order to use a computer and the Internet, you need to understand a couple of things:

1. You can't do it "on the cheap" unless you are a severe nerd (or at least have nerdish tendencies) and can build your own.

2. You need to know that the Internet is made up of the best and worst of mankind (see posting on the Internet), and that you must armor up accordingly.

3. Computers are not "there" yet. It is still too hard to use these things. You can own and drive a car without ever opening the hood, or having the foggiest clue about whether the thing runs on gasoline, diesel, hydrogen, or electricity. But, a computer -- that's a different matter.

4. If a computer, therefore, ever crashes (stops working, locks up, freezes, chokes, whatever), it is fundamentally not your fault. It is the fault of the system designers who designed the programs you are running, and the programmers that wrote them. (This, of course, presupposes that you are not dunking the computer in water, or using it for target practice - tempting though that may be).

5. A computer virus is a program that some twerp wrote (or stole) that propagates itself from one computer to another, and usually does some damaging thing to the computers it infests. It does this, usually, by exploiting programming errors and bugs in operating systems (Microsoft Windows, really), e-mail clients (Microsoft Outlook), desktop applications (Microsoft Internet Explorer and Microsoft Office), and database servers (Microsoft SQL Server. You might see a trend, here). It can also do this by exploiting the generally open and trusting internet protocols.

6. You can mitigate against errant code and malicious viruses by setting up your computer system appropriately.

With these basic maxims in mind, what do you need?

First, you need to decide if you want to use Microsoft Windows or an Apple Macintosh. Uncle Mark does not really "do" Apples (I like them, but I am not an expert), so we will talk Windows here. You can also choose Linux, but if you choose that (at least at this writing), then you don't need me to tell you what to do. If you don't know, you'll never get it running. So, Windows it is.

Rule 1: Run Windows XP, Service Pack 2 or later. Just do it. If you have Windows 95, Windows 98, or Windows NT, realize that they are obsolete. Windows 2000 is okay, but Windows XP is better. If you have Windows XP but it is not Service Pack 2, upgrade now. How do you know? Open up "My Documents" and go to the Help menu, and choose "About Windows." If it doesn't say somewhere in there "Windows XP" and "Service Pack 2", you need to get upgraded.

Rule 2: If you have a computer that cannot run Windows XP, it is time to retire it. If your computer is four years old or older, it is time to let go. Basically, almost any new computer that you can buy for $800 or more will do.

Rule 3: Get DSL or Cable or Satellite if you can. This is called "Broadband." Dial-up, i.e. using a modem, is slow.

Rule 4: Use a DSL/Cable router to connect to the DSL or Cable modem, rather than have the modem connect directly to your PC.

Rule 5: Always, always, always have a firewall in place. A "firewall" is a piece of communications software that runs on your PC, your DSL/Cable modem, or on a separate "appliance" that inspects, monitors, and outright prevents unwanted internet traffic from hitting your computer. Absolutely required. Windows XP has a firewall built-in. Windows XP Service Pack 2 has it turned on when you install it.

Rule 6: Always, always, always have virus control software in place on all your computers. Some firewalls have virus checking built-in.

Rule 7: Always, always, always have your virus control software check for updates daily.

Rule 8: Have Windows Automatic Updates check for updates daily, and automatically install them. Unless you have a business with a nice, fat Information Technology budget and network administrators to spare, you don't need to test the update first. Just assume that if Microsoft releases a bug fix (which is what these are, really), then you need to install it. You should know that the minute Microsoft announces a bug in Windows or one of its other programs, lowlife virus writers kick to life (if you can call something that low "life") and race to create a virus that exploits that bug. The update fixes the problem, so stymie these guys, and install the update. To do this, go to the Control Panel and then load the Security Center, and choose Automatic Updates.

Rule 9: Keep all your other software updated, as well. If you have Microsoft Office, or Quicken, or other programs, keep up to date with them.

Rule 10: Limit your use of software that is free but advertises to you. Some of these have trackers that track your use of the internet, and some just plain take over your system. These are called "Adware," for Advertising Software, and "Spyware," for software that spies on you. Microsoft has a new anti-spyware application in beta that helps get rid of some of these. There is also Ad-aware and Spybot. For really effective spyware killing, you need to run all three. And even then, unfortunately, some spyware can survive the onslaught.

Rule 11 (Some might call this rule 1): Always back up your data. Back up your documents and other data files to CD regularly. You need to have a CD writer on your computer. This is required. You don't necessarily need to back up your applications, unless you downloaded them and don't have installation CDs.

That's enough rules for now. This is an awful lot all at once, and some will need elaboration (which virus software, for example). Do the above, and your computer will be armored.

How do I comment on an Ask Uncle Mark Entry?

"Stymied" from Pasadena asks: "How do I comment on a post on your blog?"

Well, Stymied, here's what you do: the number of comments made on an entry is located at the end of of the entry. If you click on it, you will be taken to the "comment" area. To post a comment, click on the "Post a comment" link.

I do not allow anonymous comments to this blog. There is a class of low-life called "spammers" that looks for random blogs, and post "comments" that are unrelated, and are really advertisements. So, I ask that if you wish to comment, you join Blogger, which is the friendly service that makes this blog available to you. If you are not a member, join up.

Then, comment away!

Alternatively, you can e-mail me at AskUncleMark @

Friday, January 28, 2005

Feed access to this Blog

"Can you Email me when you do a new post or is there a way to sign up to be notified through when you post something new?" Signed: Perplexed Realtor in Hawaii

Dear Perplexed,

If you notice on the right, over there, a little "XML" icon. That contains the address of our news feed for this blog ( This allows a news reader or news-enabled e-mail client to read this Blog like a news item.

There are a number of news readers around. You can use the "Live Bookmarks" feature of the Firefox web browser (more about Firefox in another entry). You can access news feeds in "My Yahoo" (which is pretty cool). You can access them using the Mozilla Thunderbird e-mail reader. Or, you can use a dedicated news reader, like Sharp Reader or Feed Reader.

Then, when a message is added to the blog, you will know!

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Excellent Web Dictionary Source

There are a lot of dictionaries on the web. There is one place that is your conduit to all of them: Onelook ( Onelook has the usual links to English dictionaries, but also looks your word up in technical, business, and other specialized dictionaries. Highly recommended.

Announcement Emailed to Friends and Family

It is now official, and I am on the hook!

Here is the mesage:

I have created a new "blog" called "Ask Uncle Mark", which is a place to get info on computers, the internet, and how to use them. I've worked on a few writing projects over the years, including the Computer Primer in '86 and the SandBlast in 2001, and I wanted to get some of this actually published and out. It is a way to write up my hat, as it were, and spread the joy and the knowledge about computers and all the wonderful problems and pains that go with them.
The blog is at:
If you have news feeds, like "RSS" or Atom, you can get the feed at
If you don't know what a feed is, stay tuned to AskUncleMark! As I figure it out, so I will pass it along.
Check it out. I will be adding more, including a profile of me, and hopefully a search capability. If you have questions, email me here, or at If I can answer them, I will post the answers on the blog. If not, I will sulk, probably...
If you find it useful, let me know, and spread the link around to your friends and family. The purpose of this is to help people out.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Embedded Links in Outlook

I had this ongoing problem with creating a link in an email message to a network directory, and I decided to tackle it today. The problem is this: if you have a directory on your network that has a space in the name, Outlook would screw up the link.

For example, if you have a server called "Server1" and a share (shared directory) called "MyFiles", Outlook will put it properly into the message if you type:

"\\ Server1 \ MyFiles"

(Please note: I am separating the backslashes - "\" - with spaces to keep this blogger from thinking the link is real.)

If you click on it, you will get the directory.

The issue comes in when you have a share called "My Files" (with the space). You have:

\\ Server1 \ My Files

with the link messing up and ending at "My," which is right before the space.

The answer: Encase all links in Outlook with angle brackets ("<" and ">"), like this:

< \\ Server1 \ My Files>

This ensures it is embedded properly. Took a while to find this in help, but there it is.

The Internet

The Internet contains all that is good and great with the world, along with all that is cruel and evil in the world, and it has it all here and now.

In the real world, there are museums and libraries and schools and the local grocery store, and these places are physically separate from jails and brothels and devil worshipers and porn palaces. On the Internet, they are all in the same place: on your computer in your home or office. Your computer is your instant pipeline to all of this.

You need to understand this when accessing the internet. You are only a click away from some pretty gruesome stuff. Open the wrong email, click on the wrong link, take the bait on a bogus web site, and all of a sudden, you are wandering in the wrong neighborhood, with thieves and rapscallions poised to pick your pocket or mug you or your computer.

When your computer is connected to the internet, even if by dial-up modem, your computer can potentially be connected to by any other computer on the 'net. That includes computers programmed by people trying to break into your computer, either to steal your private information, or to spread a virus, or to take command of the computer for various nefarious purposes, such as aiding in an attack on someone's web site. Your computer could just be sitting there, apparently doing nothing, all of a sudden some kid hijacks it to save stolen music files or worse.

This is not meant to scare you. You just need to know it, and act accordingly. There are actions you can take (must take, really) to safeguard your computer and your information. The specific actions will change as the threat changes, but one thing is constant: you need to know that when you connect to the Internet, you are connected to the whole world -- the good, and the bad.

Email Address

I created a new email address for questions: AskUncleMark @

If you have questions about technology, the Internet, computers, or whatever, please email me.

Sunday, January 23, 2005


Hello and welcome to "Ask Uncle Mark." This Web Log (which is what "blog" is short for) allows me to help people with their computers, both laptop and desktop. I plan on covering a number of areas, from simple advice (always use a firewall, for example), to lengthy posts about various aspects of computerdom.

I chose "Ask Uncle Mark" as the name of this, because people have always asked me advice on what to do with their computers, going back well over twenty years, and my name is Mark. I was going to have a more official sounding name, but really, I want it to be friendly and personal. Ask me, Uncle Mark. I am putting in place an email address where you can send questions, which I will answer (if possible) here, for the benefit of all. My thinking is, if you have a question about something, so do a number of people; hence, the Ann Landers approach.

I want this to be a place where people can get information about using their personal computer, whether it is a laptop or desktop, or whether it is for business or personal use. It is about you and your family's and your business's experience and relationship with the computer and the internet.

Thanks for looking in, and keep an eye out for new posts.