Friday, December 29, 2006

Software: Installing DirectX

If you play games or watch videos on your computer, you may want to make sure that you download and install the latest version of Microsoft DirectX software. DirectX is a group of technologies designed to give you best performance from your graphics and sound hardware. Its also a standard among developers of multimedia applications.

To find out what version of DirectX your system is using, from the Run... command type "dxdiag" and press Enter. This will run the DirectX Diagnostic Tool, and display information about your computer's hardware and the version of the OS and software that its running.

To obtained the latest version of DirectX visit the Microsoft DirectX site.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Internet Radio Sites

When you're working on the computer, do you like to listen to music but are tired of the stuff on your CDs, MP3, or DRM'd music (such as iTunes, and others) collections. There are several Internet Radio sites that you can listen to for free:

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Internet Explorer: Automatically Clearing the Cache

Internet Explorer (IE) automatically keeps a local copy of all the web pages, images, and other objects that you view in your browser. The reason for doing this is to speed up the browsing experience by keeping local copies of the content that has not changed when you revisit a web page.

There are two reasons some people don't like these file stored on their hard drive. First and foremost for privacy reasons, and second because it can consume a lot of space.

You can manually clear the cache from the Tools menu, by selecting Internet Options. Then on the General tab, pressing the Delete Files button. You can also configure IE to automatically clear the browser cache when you exit the program.
  • From the Internet Options dialog, select the Advanced tab.
  • In the Setting listbox, under the Security section, check 'Empty Temporary Internet Files folder when browser is closed'.
  • Press the OK button.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Free (and low cost) Privacy Toolkit (Updated)

In my previous article I talked about some basic tools and services that you can use to protect your privacy when you're online and in the real world. Now I am going to explain how to protect the data on your local computer, and your privacy when you surf the web.

File/Disk Encryption
What privacy toolkit would be complete if I didn't talk about encryption. There are several tools available that allows you to encrypt your data. One of the best tools for encrypting your data is GnuPG, it uses strong encryption to protect your data. (Note: This tool is difficult to use so make sure that you download one of the the GUI interfaces for it.)

If you own Windows XP Professional, it includes a built-in file encryption function called EFS that is part of the OS. EFS will automatically encrypt and decrypt your files for you.

If file encryption is not enough, and you want to encrypt the contents of your whole hard drive use a program called TrueCrypt. TrueCrypt works by creating a virtual encrypted disk within a file and then allows you to mount it like a real hard drive.

Other privacy tools and resources:
  • SDelete: Completely erases a file on the hard drive by writing data over it several times.
  • DBAN: Completely erases a whole hard drive by writing data over it several times.
  • CCLeaner: Windows privacy and optimization utility, read this page for a list of features.
  • Firefox: Clearing The Cache: Explains how to clear the private information from the Firefox browser.
  • Internet Explorer: Clearing The Cache: Explains how to clear the private information from the Internet Explorer browser.

Find Out What Web Sites Know About You
Check out the following sites if you want to see the data someone can learn about you, just by querying your IP address or your browser's information.
  • GeoBytes: Once someone has your IP address, then they can use it isolate where your ISP is located. So if you live in a close proximity to your ISP then someone can roughly narrow down where you live.
  • CGI Environment Variable Viewer: The information shown on this page, displays what just about any web server can learn about you based on HTTP header information your browser sends every time you visit a web site. Things to notice are the REFERRER and USER AGENT information. The referrer can display the web site you were previously at before visiting the site. The user agent shows the site the type of browser you're using.
    • HTTP Header Viewer: See the HTTP headers supplied by your browser to every web site that you visit.
  • BrowserSpy: This web site will show you just about everything that a web site can query about your browser.
Surfing the Semi-Anonymously
If you would like to browse the web semi-anonymously, check out EFF's Tor tool. This tool protects your privacy by, using a technology called 'Onion-Routing' which basically means that it adds several 'layers' of extra network routing to obfuscate the origin of the traffic.

If Tor is too complicated to use a good alternative to browse anonymously is a service called Anonymizer (Note: this is a fee-based service). This service works by performing your HTTP requests for you, then sending you back the results. The only thing that the visiting web site sees is the Anonymizer servers.

If you want to test if these services are really working, go to a site called before turning on the service. Then visit the web site again after you enable the service. Your IP address should be different, if not then the service is not working for you.

Other privacy tools and services:
Privacy Tools for Firefox
  • TrackMeNot: Help protects against data profiling popular search-engines by issuing randomized queries with fake data.
  • PrivacyBar: Provides a set of privacy and security tools for Firefox.
Other articles and resources on Privacy:
"Ultimately, as technology increases, privacy decreases." -- Jason Savitt

Monday, December 25, 2006

Web Site:

Here is a web site that I recently came across that called It's dedicated to warning people about 'bad software ' that contains malicious code (aka malware), such as: viruses, spyware, etc.

Currently there are 412+ reports of 'bad software' on the site. I hope to see more added soon, this could be a valuable resource if people contribute to it.

Below is an excerpt from the site: " is a "Neighborhood Watch" campaign aimed at fighting badware. We will seek to provide reliable, objective information about downloadable applications in order to help consumers to make better choices about what they download on to their computers. We aim to become a central clearinghouse for research on badware and the bad actors who spread it, and to become a focal point for developing collaborative, community-minded approaches to stopping badware." Read more.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Free (and low cost) Privacy Toolkit

Sometimes you might feel that you're forced to give out your personal information (such as your phone number, home address, e-mail address, etc.) in order for someone to contact you. For example if you sell things online, in newspapers, etc.

Then there are the web sites that force you to register your personal information in order to access content on it. If you're not a regular visitor of that site, or it's a site that you don't trust then you might be leery of giving out this information to them.

What if I told you there was a way to protect your privacy, while still allowing people the ability to contact you when they want to. There are several web sites on the Internet that offer free or low-cost services that can help protect your privacy.
Disclaimer: Use the tools and services listed below at your own risk. I do not recommend or endorse any of the companies, services, or software listed below. The information on this site is provided for general reference purposes only.
Creating a Public E-mail Address
The first thing that you need in your privacy toolkit is a public email address, one that you don't mind giving out to people, companies, web sites, or publishing on the Internet. This address is basically going to be your first line of contact for people whom you don't know and web sites that you don't trust.

Several companies such as Google's Gmail, Yahoo's Yahoo Mail, Microsoft's Windows Live Mail, etc. offer free email addresses with SPAM filtering, file attachment virus scanning, etc. The main issue about having this extra account is that you're going to have to check it on a regular basis in order to maintain it.

Avoiding Web Site Registration
If you hate registering at web sites that you almost know that you will never visit again or visit infrequently there are two tools that I would suggest. The first is called BugMeNot, this site has generic user names and passwords for popular web sites that you can use so you don't have to register.

The second web site I want to suggest is one called 10-Minute Mail. This site gives you a disposable e-mail address that only lives for 10 minutes. After the time expires the email address and messages are automatically deleted.

Real World Privacy
What about those times when you need to receive or make a phone call, or fax. There are a few sites that can offer you a solution.

The first site is called PrivatePhone, which offers to give you a free local phone number that people can leave you messages. The voice mails that you receive through this service will be mail to your email account.

If you need to receive faxes there is a service called jConnect, that gives you a phone number for people to send faxes to. The faxes that you receive through this service will be mail to your email account.

If you need to make calls to other people, check out Skype's SkypeOut service. If you need a public phone number to receives calls use the SkypeIn feature. Note: there is a cost associated with sending and receiving calls using this service.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Firefox: Critcal Patch Released Today...

Mozilla released a set of 'critical' security updates for its Firefox Web browser (v1.5.x & 2.0.x), Thunderbird (e-mail client), and SeaMonkey (chat client and web development tools).

This update fixes flaws with the RSS feeds, and problems JavaScript in e-mail. Also as part of the Firefox update several bugs have been fixed to improve the stability of the software.

Note: Mozilla recommends that users disable JavaScript in Thunderbird to prevent unauthorized code from affecting their systems.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Windows XP: Swap File (Virtual Memory) - Part 2

Last week I started a series on the Windows Virtual Memory feature, in the first part of the article I explained the swap (or paging) file. In this part of the article I am going to talk about how to optimize it.

Optimizing the Swap File
The default Windows VM settings will work fine for most people. Although, there are still a few ways to optimize the swap file, but in reality they will only offer small amounts of extra performance. So for most people the time required to make these changes might not be worth the effort.

For the real system performance fanatics, I will show you some ways to make your system work more efficiently.
  • Note: None of these changes should cause irreversible damage to your system, but I aways recommend that you have a good back up of your data before proceeding with system changes. Also as always proceed at your own risk.
To configure the Virtual Memory settings:
  • From the Start Menu, right-click on My Computer and select Properties
  • Click the Advanced tab, and press the Settings button in the Performance section.
  • Click on the Advanced tab again, then press the Change button.
Trick 1: The swap file can shrink or grow automatically, consider turning off this feature by setting the 'Initial size' and 'Maximum size' to an equal value in the VM dialog. This should prevent the system from wasting time by trying to manage the size of the swap file.
Note: The general rule of thumb for setting the size of the swap file is about 1.5-2 times the size of your physical RAM.
Trick 2: After turning off the automatic growth feature (in Trick 1), defragment swap file. This can be done using the Windows Defragment tool. This will make the file contiguous and prevent your computer from having to seek all over the hard drive to get the data it needs.

Trick 3: If you have multiple hard drives (and I don't mean multiple partitions on the same drive) installed on your computer. Consider moving the swap file to the non-system drive. This way the computer can access multiple drives at the same time.

Trick 4: If you have enough physical RAM installed on your computer (generally 2GB or more), you might want to consider turning off the VM feature. This will help your computer's performance because it doesn't have to manage the swap file. In the VM dialog, select the 'No paging file' radio button, and press the OK button.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Windows XP: Swap File (Virtual Memory) - Part 1

Do you know about the swap (or paging) file, and what it's used for? Every version of Windows since version 3.1 has included the Virtual Memory (VM) feature. VM is a pseudo-type memory that computer can use when it runs out of physical RAM.

The way the VM feature works is by moving non-critical chunks of data out of the computer's RAM, and on to the hard drive thus free up memory for other things. This process known as 'swapping' or 'paging'.

The benefit of VM is that it gives you more memory to run your applications if you don't have enough physical RAM. The problem is that in order to get the extra memory, VM has to store the data from the faster RAM on to the slower local hard drive.

All hard drives are much slower then real physical RAM. So when the system requests a chunk of memory from VM, the computer has wait for data to come from the hard drive. This will make your seem much slower then it actually is.

When the VM data is written to disk, its stored in a file called C:\PAGEFILE.SYS. This file is generally x1.25 to x1.5 the size of your RAM. So if you have 1GB of RAM, the swap file will consume about 1.25 to 1.5GB of hard drive.

Over the next few days we will discuss options for managing and optimizing virtual memory.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Article: Skype Replaces Free SkypeOut Calls With Flat Rate

I have been a user of Skype for a few years, and I have been playing with VoIP (Voice Over IP) since it first showed in the late 1990. Back then they were unable and unreliable, well at least the ones that I used.

Skype as has always been a pretty good deal, but it has just gotten better when I read this article. PC Magazine reports: "On Wednesday, Skype announced it will be offering U.S. and Canadian customers a new unlimited calling plan at a flat rate of $29.95 per year, or, for those who decide to subscribe before January 31, 2007, $14.95. ... The Skype Unlimited Calling plan will let users make 12 months of unlimited SkypeOut calls to any phone in Canada or the U.S. and, according to the company, is the first time that Skype is making an annual calling plan available anywhere in the world."

So, if you frequently call people within the United States or Canada (even if you live in other parts of the world), you can call any phone in that region, for an unlimited amount of time, as many times as you want for $14.95 for the first year (if you sign up before January 31, 2007). The catch is that you have use your computer to make the calls.

I expect that this could cause a price war with the other major VoIP carriers such as Vonage, AT&T, etc.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Security: Microsoft Patch Tuesday (December)

It's the second Tuesday of the month again, which means that Microsoft just published another round of security fixes for Windows and it's applications. This date is meant to be a predictable date so that companies only have to patch their computers and servers once a month. This month there are three patches that are marked critical, and four patches that are marked important.

For the average user, if you have Automatic Updates enabled your computer will download these updates for you in the background. Then when you shutdown these patches will be applied to your system. If you leave your computer on overnight they will automatically be installed and your system rebooted if necessary.

Warning: Before you leave your computer at night make sure you save all your work or it will be lost if your system has to be rebooted.

Enabling Automatic Update
If you don't have 'Automatic Updates' turned enable I would suggest that you turn it on as soon as possible. If you don't want to enable Automatic Updates, you can always update your computer by visiting the Windows Update site and downloading and installing the patches manually.

To enable Automatic Updates:
  • From the Start menu, select the Control Panel folder.
  • Double-click the System applet in the control panel folder.
  • Click the 'Automatic Updates' tab.
  • Check the 'Automatic (recommended)' option. (optional: if you don't like this feature, you can set it to: 'download but not install the update', 'just notify you', or 'disable this feature altogether' [not recommended])
  • Press the OK button when done.

Note: For the latest Microsoft Security Bulletins, check out this site.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Software: NASA World Wind (3D Interactive World Viewer)

World Wind is an open source 3D interactive world viewer that was originally released in mid-2004, and created by NASA's Learning Technologies project. It's still be being updated and enhanced by NASA staff and the open source development community.

NASA World Wind 1.4 Promo Video
This video only uses graphics from within World Wind no post processing has been done, except for joining video clips together and adding audio.

Note: NASA World Wind 1.4 is not yet available, currently 1.3.5 is available for download.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Software: FreeBASIC compiler

In 1995 Microsoft released QuickBASIC for MS-DOS. Now there's a free, open-source project called FreeBASIC. They have created an MS-QuickBASIC compatible compiler for Windows and other platforms.

For more information check out the web site, or click the following link to see a list of features.

Happy programming...

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Software: AudioShell

Do you need to access the metadata in your audio files, for example the ID3 tag information in your MP3s? AudioShell is a free Microsoft Windows Explorer shell extension that allows you to view and modify music files tags directly. AudioShell supports MP3 (all ID3v2 tag versions), WMA, ASF, WMV, Apple iTunes AAC (M4A and M4P), MP4, OGG, FLAC (vorbis comment tags), MPC, MP+, monkey's audio, WAV pack, optim frog (APE and APEv2 tags).

If you want more information about audio file tags (such as: ID3), check out the following site. Below is a excerpt from the site: "Digital audio files can contain, in addition to the audio track, related text and/or graphical information. The information you're probably familiar with take the form of Song title, Artist name, Album name, Year and Genre. This is the information displayed when you playback a digital audio file on your computer or portable device."

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Article: Hands-on with Belkin's Cable-Free USB Hub

Engadget reports: "So we snagged our lucky selves a Belkin Cable-Free USB Hub, one of the first ever wireless USB devices, as well as one of the first consumer Ultrawideband products. Luckily for us there wasn't a lot to test, but we can tell you this: the hub is small, the dongle is massive, and the speed and range aren't quite what they're cracked up to be. Click on for the usual unboxing, a load of high res product shots, shots and details on setup and performance."

I generally don't cover hardware in this blog, but this is one of those new technologies that I have been waiting to come out. I never thought I would like using a cordless mouse or keyboard until I started using one at work. I like not having deal with those wires.

At home I am primarily a laptop user, so if I have to hook any wires up to the computer on a regular basis its a pain. Although if I break down an get a docking station it would solve a lot of problems.

Now the point, this technologies may one day help reduce the rat nest of wires that most computers have hanging down behind them. If would be nice if everything was just wireless. Although this could create a lot of security issues that I don't even want to get into.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Security: NSA Windows XP Security Configuration Guides

Are you concern about how secure your computer's configuration is? The NSA developed and distributes security configuration guides and templates to help government agencies, companies, and individuals to lockdown their computers. All the files (.PDF and .INF files [security templates]) are available for free from the web site.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Windows XP: Disable or Enabling Windows Shares

Windows Shares provide network access to the files on your local computer from a remote system. This is a handy feature if you need to move files from one computer to another, or if you need to make files available to other users on your network.

The problem with network share if you don't manage the security permissions on them properly, you can accidentally expose files to others you may not intended to. In this article I talk about how to disable this feature for those who don't want to use it. Or by using almost the same procedure you can enable this option if it has been disabled.

To enable or disable Windows shares:.
  • From the Start menu, open the Control Panel folder.
  • Open the 'Network Connections' folder.
  • Right-click the active network connection (i.e.: 'Local Area Connection') and select Properties.
  • To disable this feature uncheck (or to enable it check) the 'File and Printer Sharing for Microsoft Networking' checkbox.
  • Press the OK button when done.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Article: Recycling E-Waste

PC Magazine reports: "The waste that results from disposing of electronics such as computers and mobile phones, called e-waste, can be highly toxic. The United Nations Environmental Program estimates that, each year, 20 million to 50 million tons of e-waste is dumped into landfills around the world. That works out to about 4,000 tons per hour. ... Almost every component is built with some kind of toxin. Computer circuit boards hold lead and cadmium. Monitors' cathode-ray tubes have lead, cadmium, phosphorus, and barium. In fact, a large CRT may contain as much as 4 to 8 pounds of lead. Even cables are bad for the environment, as they are sprayed with brominated flame retardants. Such chemicals can leach into the soil and groundwater."

I have been wanting to write an article about this subject for a long time but have not gotten around to it. The author of this article did a great job of emphasizing the problem.

The problem is that our society has such a deposible mentality, that we don't think about the consequences of throwning that piece of old electronics in the garbage. We need to change our views on this issue, out of site and mind doesn't mean its not our problem.