Sunday, April 24, 2005

Ten Things You Should Know... About Using the Internet

We are having our yearly customer conference this week, and my team creates the portal and other web tools used by our customers to get information about our company, tools to better maket and sell their (and our) products, and manage their orders with us.

I put together this list of "Ten things you should know about using the internet" for our customers. In order to get to our web sites, they need to have working systems, and many of the calls we get are just plain "how do I use the computer?" and "why is my internet connection
so darn slow?" questions.

The assumption here is that PCs are being used, and not Apple Computers. If you have an Apple, you need to update the patches as well (see #4). Apple does a good job of making this easy.

Since I think these tips will help all internet users, Uncle Mark is passing them along here!

  1. Always use a computer virus control program, and update it daily.

Using antivirus software is a necessity if you are using the internet. If you are not using antivirus software, you will be infected. Virus infections can destroy your computer information, forcing you to erase everything and rebuild the system. Email viruses will tie up your system and spread malicious emails to all of your friends and family.

Virus software must be updated daily. When a new virus is introduced, it can spread globally in just a few hours, so you need to be up to date at all times. The standard packages make this easy to do – just set it and forget it.

Symantec and McAfee are the standard vendors of antivirus software. The cost is around $50. Well worth it.

  1. Always use a firewall when connecting to the internet.

Attaching your computer to the internet exposes it to the entire internet community, including hackers and other purveyors of mischief. Home and small office PCs that are not protected by firewalls are commonly commandeered by hackers to store illicit information or are used in attacks on other computers. This often happens without the computer’s owner knowing it is going on. A good firewall is the answer to this problem. A “firewall” is a program that runs on your computer or on your internet router (the device that you use to connect to the internet) that prevents anyone from connecting to your computer, unless you want them to. You have to have one.

McAfee and Symantec make personal firewalls, as does ZoneAlarm. LinkSys and other internet routers have firewalls built in to them, and are a better choice if you have a high-speed internet connection.

  1. Use a computer that was built in the 21st century.

Windows 95 and Windows 98 were great when they came out, and the Pentium III was a fine computer chip “back in the day.” Those days are over. You need a computer with a Pentium 4 chip or better, at least 512 Megabytes of memory, a lot of disk space, and Windows XP Professional in order to take full advantage of the web and applications like Quicken and Microsoft Office. The good news is that computers are getting more affordable every year -- $1000 will get you a computer today that blows the doors off anything you could buy for $5000 five years ago.

  1. Update your Microsoft Windows patches regularly.

Microsoft is the largest software company in the world. Every hacker in the world wants to “get Microsoft,” and every security company wants to get the “cred” that comes with finding a valid Windows security flaw. Add to that the fact that Windows is huge and complicated, and thereby prone to errors. That adds up to software flaws that can allow hackers to compromise your computer. What to do? Use the Windows Update Service to automatically keep your computer up to date on their software system “patches” – updates that fix newly discovered flaws.

  1. Get your own Internet domain name and email address.

Having your own internet domain name, like “,” gives you a permanent “location” on the web and gives your site credibility. With your own domain, you can set up email accounts on the domain instead of using free email providers like hotmail or yahoo, or AOL, adding credibility to your business. Companies like “” allow you to register and manage internet names and set up email accounts cheaply and easily.

  1. Get a high-speed internet connection.

If you are using a dial-up modem to connect to the internet, you are not able to use the web to its maximum. In fact, it gets frustrating. If you are in an area that offers high speed access, like cable or DSL, you should sign up. You will find that it will not only make using the portal a much better experience, but other sites, like your bank, will be much better as well.

  1. Using a wireless network? Be secure!

You can buy a wireless internet router for $80 these days. When you set them up, it is tempting to just open up the connection so that anyone can use it. Don’t! Doing so allows people you do not know to access your computer’s information with very little security. You should set up, at the very least, a “WEP” key on the device that you also have on your wireless laptop or computer. This encrypts the wireless traffic and keys out prying eyes. The router manuals are pretty clear about how to set this up, and Windows XP makes wireless relatively easy.

  1. Keep “Spyware” off your system.

Spyware are programs that collect and send marketing information to other companies. “Spyware” are programs that offer you some little service – the “Weatherbug” that shows you current weather, for example – that you install on your computer. From then on, information about what you do on the internet is sent to the spyware software’s company. The net result is twofold: One, your privacy can be compromised, and two, the spyware programs load down your computer to a crawl. Anti-spyware Programs such as Spybot and Ad-Aware can detect and remove spyware from your system.

  1. Don’t fall for Internet scams!

Email makes it really easy to send messages to people. In the blink of an eye, you can send an email to one million people, for virtually no money. Because of this, unsolicited email, also known as “Spam,” is a huge problem – in terms of wasted time, wasted computer resources, and offensive or illegal content.

Some criminals send out messages that look just like they came from a legitimate bank or other financial institution, making it look like your account will close if you do not “take action.” The email messages have a link to a site that looks just like the bank’s site – but it isn’t. When you enter your personal information – passwords, social security numbers, PINs, etc., they now have access to your accounts. Some victims have lost thousands of dollars from these thieves.

How do you avoid? There is no automatic way to avoid these scams. Just be wary, and if you have any real questions about an email from your “bank,” call them directly on the telephone.

  1. Back up your stuff!

This is number 10, but really it’s the first rule of computing. Always, always, always back up your computer’s information. You can never know when a computer’s disk will fail, or when a power surge will fry the motherboard, or when someone will spill a Pepsi on the computer. Back your stuff up, and all you have lost is time.

The backup medium of choice for homes or small businesses is CDs, and now you can get drives that can write to DVDs as well. Roxio makes a good program that helps the process of backing data up to CD or DVD.

The internet is an amazing phenomenon and has changed the way many companies do business. The tips above will help you get the most out of it.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Some "Base"-ics

In order to understand computers, some knowledge of math is, fortunately or unfortunately, required. You would think that computer designers would have hidden alot of the math from the people who use computers by now, but that is not the case. We have "32 bit operating systems" and "256 Megabytes of memory". In order to understand these terms and others, a "bit" (pardon the pun) of math knowledge is required.

If you have fifteen apples in a box, you have just that -- an absolute quantity of fifteen apples. However, there are a number of ways to write down the quantity "fifteen" on paper. You could write "15 apples." You could use Roman numerals and write "XV apples." You could do what I did and type out the words "fifteen apples." If you know that a standard "box of apples" always contains fifteen apples, you could say "one box of apples," just like a "dozen eggs" is always twelve eggs.

The point is that no matter how you represent the quantity of apples, you always have the same absolute number of apples: fifteen.

As noted above, we can use a numeral or symbol to represent the quantity "fifteen" in a number of ways. The numeral system we usually use for this is base ten, or "decimal" -- "15" means "fifteen" in base ten. What does base ten mean? It means that, going from right to left, each position in the numeral represents a quantity ten times the quantity of the previous position. In the case of "15", we have five "ones", and one "ten" -- "ten" is ten times one. Some examples:

234 = four "ones" plus three "tens" plus two "hundreds." One hundred is ten times ten.

4,567 = seven "ones" plus six "tens" plus five "hundreds" plus four "thousands." One thousand is ten times one hundred.

30,892 = two "ones" plus nine "tens" plus eight "hundreds" plus zero "thousands" plus 3 "ten thousands."

However, computers don't do well in the base ten world. Underneath it all, computers recognize only two things: "On" or "Off." Something is there, or not there. Computers are essentially a huge collection of switches that can either be on or off. Everything in a computer is represented by a series of "ons" and "offs." For example, in many computers the letter "A" is represented as "off" "on" "off" "off" "off" "off" "off" "on." The number "fifteen" is represented as "on" "on" "on" "on".

We as humans working with computers can't communicate to one another about computers easily saying lots of "ons" and "offs." That's cumbersome. Since there are basically only two positions for computer switches, computer designers chose to use the "base two" or "binary" numeral system to represent information on the computer. In the binary system, each position in the numeral is two times the previous position, not ten. So, you can only have two values in each position: a "1", which is "on," and a "0", which is "off." This makes it a bit easier to represent the letter "A" as "0100 0001" and the number fifteen as "1111".

"1111" is broken down as one "one," plus one "two" (two times one), plus one "four" (two times two), plus one "eight" (two times four) = fifteen.

Since computers can only work with "ons" and "offs", letters and other symbols must be encoded in binary as well. So, the letter "A" is "0100 0001" or sixty-five. Why sixty-five? It could have been anything, but in order to preserve sanity in the world of computers, the American National Standards Institute came up with the "American Standard Code for Information Interchange" or "ASCII" (pronounced "Ask-key) to provide a standard for representing letters, numerals, and symbols in binary. "A" ended up being sixty-five, or "0100 0001" in binary. "0100 0001" means "one "sixty-four" plus one "one."

Regarding the terms "bit" and "byte," "Bit" means "Binary Digit," and a "byte" is eight "bits." (Get it? Eight bits make a "byte" -- computer people love their puns. Half a byte, or four bits, makes a "nybble." I am not making this up). The number fifteen can be represented in four bits, and all of the bits are 1. The letter "A" is represented in eight bits, and the first and seventh bits (starting from the right) are 1.

A "byte," being eight bits, gives you two hundred fifty-six possible values (including zero), which, in the early days of computing, was deemed to be enough. Because of this, a byte is often the smallest piece of data you can work with on a computer.

One more thing, and then we are done for this lesson. As you can see, binary numbers can be quite long. In the example above, 1,048,576 is a very long 1 0000 0000 0000 0000 0000 in binary. Binary numbers quite quickly get so long that they get perspective. To make this managable, computer scientists invented the "Hexadecimal" (or "Hex") numeral system -- base sixteen. Instead of each digit from right to left being ten (decimal) or two (binary) times the previous position, each digit is sixteen times the previous digit. Counting from 0 to "10" in Hex looks like:

0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, A, B, C, D, E, F, 10

What is with the A, B, etc? Well, this is base sixteen, so there needs to be sixteen potential values for each digit. Rather than get fancy creating new symbols for ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen, computer scientists, being engineers and not marketing types, chose to use the letters A-F.

So, 10 hex is sixteen, and 100 hex is 256 decimal (sixteen times sixteen), and 1000 hex is 4,096 decimal.

How on earth does this make computers "easier" (in a computer scientist-sort of way)?

Because a byte, which is eight binary digits, can be represented evenly in two hexadecimal digits. Fifteen is "15" decimal, "F" hex, and "1111" binary. Add one, and you get: "16" decimal, "10" hex, and "0001 0000" binary. A byte that is "all on" looks like: "1111 1111" binary and "FF" hex. Add one, and you get "0001 0000 0000" binary, and "100" hex. So, one hex digit represents four bits.

So, when you look at a number in binary like 1 0000 0000 0000 0000 0000, the number is easily turned into hex: 100000 hex. Likewise, a binary number like "0010 0110 1110" is "26E" in hex -- "0010" is "2," "0110" is "6," and "1110" is fourteen, or "E."

To differentiate between a hex number and a decimal number, hex numbers are sometimes preceded with a zero and small "x" -- 0x100 is 100 hex, and 100 is 100 decimal. So, "26E" is sometimes written as "0x26E".

Okay -- take a breath.

To recap:

Computers are essentially a large, large number of switches. These switches can either be "on" or "off." To represent these switches, computer scientists use the binary numbering system, where a "1" is "on" and a "0" is "off." Each digit in a binary number is called a "bit." A collection of eight bits is a "byte." To easily work with "bits" and "bytes" the hexadecimal numbering system is used, in which one hexidecimal digit represents evenly four binary digits.

The practical uses of this are all over computing. Everything, and I mean everything, comes down, eventually, to bits and bytes. Network addresses, encryption keys, settings for equipment, are all, at core, binary. As we move forward with newer and faster computers, your day-to-day activities will not always bring you face to face with, say "0xFF", but these values are there nonetheless, and if they do come into view, as they do with wireless networking, it is important to know about it.