Archive for May, 2008

Lock up that wireless

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

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I am a regular listener to the Clark Howard show.  He is a consumer advocate with a daily radio program.  You can listen to him locally on KCMX 880 AM or do as I do and download his podcast through iTunes or directly from his site.

A couple of weeks ago he had a caller who was curious about whether she should drop her Verizon broadband service in favor of this free “Linksys” one that she had access to which appeared to be much faster.  As I gathered from her call, she was using Verizon’s cellular-based broadband service and not DSL or FiOS.  The Linksys network was a neighbor of hers who hadn’t changed any of the settings on the router and just plugged it in.

In my travels, I would say that at least a third of the people who buy a broadband router will never customize any of the settings.  I’ve even noticed similar issues with the DSL or cable modem products which include wireless functionality (although this is beginning to change with the defaults having some form of security included).

One of the reasons why Clark told this caller to not use the free wireless that she could use was that she was at risk of having her user names and passwords to banks and other financial institutions skimmed while on an open network.  In general, this is not true as your bank will have an encrypted browsing session that goes directly between your computer and the bank so that nothing in between can capture that information.  Some reality, though, is that most people use the same user name and password for all sites they log in to and not all of them set up a similar amount of encryption.  It would then be trivial for a bad person to see where you were going and just try to use the credentials from a site which didn’t encrypt to try to get into your bank.

Clark did touch on the idea that using someone else’s open wireless connection without permission is a gray area under the law.  Since I’m a geek and not a lawyer, I’ll echo that sentiment.  However, if you own such an open network, you may be subject to whatever bad things these unknown users may do while using your internet connection.  I’ll go so far as to say that I’m very sure that the biggest risk you have with owning an open wireless connection is not that someone will steal your information as you attempt to use the internet but that the unknown user or users could do almost anything using your connection and your ISP, the police, or some lawyer could come after you as a result.

Whenever I am called to install a wireless network, I will ask three questions so as to lock down the network.  The first is the name of the wireless network.  All wireless networks have what’s called the SSID or Service Set Identifier.  Each wireless network in an area should have a different name, but if you have more than one wireless access point on a single network, they should all have the same name.  So, your wireless network name should be different than what your neighbors may use.  I usually recommend against using anything related to your name or address.  I’ve used words on a poster in the room to names of former pets.  What you name it doesn’t really matter at that point.

The second question is always the password for the network.  This is the encryption and security portion of your wireless.  I will always set the highest level of encryption that all the equipment (your router, computers, and anything else that may connect) will support.  The password will need to be at least eight characters long and should not be the same as anything you may use for anything else.   Why?  What if you have guests over that want to use your network?  Maybe you want to be stingy and not let anyone else in (and I won’t fault you for that).  If you’re more accommodating, you certainly don’t want to give your guests the same keys that would unlock your e-mail and bank accounts.

The third question will be for the password of the router or access point.  It’s okay for this to be the same as others (although I’d recommend keeping all your passwords for every account different, but that’s a different article) since the only time you’d be using it is to change the settings on the router.  How often will you need to do that?  Generally, almost never.  Once set, you’d usually only need to change these if you want to change the passwords or if you changed internet providers.  Another good reason is if you want to restrict which computers can get on the internet at any given time (e.g. your children’s computers).

Care to do it yourself?  By all means.  All of these routers will come with a manual or some easy to use software to get you going.  Otherwise, you can call me, give the answers to the three questions, and I’ll take care of it.

The XP SP3 blues

Monday, May 12th, 2008

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Service pack 3 for Windows XP has been out for a week or so now and reports have been pouring in from people who have applied it and seen it hork their computers.  The most common symptom has been a computer that does nothing but reboot after the service pack has been applied without allowing the user to get into Windows to do anything useful.

I applied it myself on a computer running XP in my household and I didn’t see anything crazy as a result.  However, just because it worked for me doesn’t mean anything.  Maybe I’m just lucky.  I’ll try another computer here and see what happens.  🙂

There is, however, light at the end of the tunnel.  Jesper Johansson, a Microsoft MVP, has investigated the issue and come up for some solutions for the more common reasons why a computer may choke after the upgrade.  Check out his site for some solutions.

I strongly believe that you should install service pack 3.  However, if you have a computer such as the one Jesper describes (name brand with an AMD processor), you may want to enlist some help before doing so if you don’t feel comfortable with the steps that Jesper outlines.  The good news is that if you’ve already upgraded and are having this problem, it can be fixed without reformatting and reinstalling everything.

One other place I read suggested using the service pack which is available on the disc image from Microsoft.  Traditionally, you’ve been able to purchase a service pack disc from Microsoft.  I haven’t investigated that for this version as I was able to download the image instead.  You can find links to the downloads here:  gHacks list of SP3 downloads.

Good luck and happy upgrading!

Your computer is filthy!

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

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While this isn’t new information to me, I’m sure that most people don’t really think about it much if at all.  In a recent article from Which? Online (see link below), it is revealed that one of the most filthy things you will willingly touch on a regular basis is your computer keyboard.  They go so far as to suggest that your keyboard may have more bacteria and other nasties than your toilet.  Starts to make you regret eating that sandwich while surfing for the ultimate recipe for dinner, doesn’t it?

Everyone should go out, get some alcohol, cotton balls and swabs, and begin cleaning their keyboards right now.  Just be sure to turn off your computer and unplug the keyboard.  If you are using a notebook, you should remove the battery instead of the keyboard unless you know exactly what you’re doing.  Don’t forget the mouse while you’re at it.  I wouldn’t blame you if you took this opportunity to upgrade to a better keyboard than the one you have now.

What the article doesn’t discuss is that that’s not the only dirt in your computer.  If you’ve been using your computer for any length of time, there is undoubtedly a build-up of dust and other debris within the case itself.  I tried to dig up some pictures of what this may look like but I couldn’t find any in my collection and I didn’t want to use someone else’s picture for this purpose.

Depending upon the environment your computer is in, it will have either a light layer or a thick block of dust hiding within.  I’ve seen many situations that surprised me from the light layer on a computer that’s been in service for years to the nearly impenetrable block in one that was new only a few months ago.  While this dust may not be as much of a health hazard as the grime on your keyboard, its presence can certainly lessen the life of your computer.  As the dust builds up, it prevents air from circulating and getting to the components so that they can cool.  I once had a computer that was so sensitive to this, I would get overheating warnings about every six months.&nbsp. I knew it was time to open its case and blow everything out.

From start to finish, it will take anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes to give your computer a thorough cleaning from top to bottom.  If your keyboard is really messy, you may want to take its keys off and wash them while removing the crumbs and all from below.  This will take an hour on its own, but it’s worth it for a good keyboard that you want to keep working.

Links:

Keyboards harbour harmful bacteria