Archive for December, 2010

Malware writers getting clever with Java

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

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It appears that Java is being used increasingly in malware attacks.  In this article there is mention of compromised web sites being used to deliver the malware.  It’s sophisticated enough to be able to tell if the payload will be delivered to a Mac or a PC and alter itself accordingly.  Given that Java is pretty much everywhere, malware can be written to take advantage of it and work on pretty much any system.

While it doesn’t happen all the time, many malware require the computer user to do something to allow for its installation.  With Windows Vista and 7, this became more likely with User Account Control popping up whenever something was going to be installed.  My normal advice here is that you should be saying “no” unless you were intentionally trying to install something.  This advice is not often heeded because inexperienced computer users may not have the necessary background to know when to not say “yes” to one of these.

In my opinion, you’re probably better off saying “no” when you aren’t sure and asking someone more experienced to guide you on how you should be responding to these dialogs.

It’s probably another good time to talk about making regular backups of your system.  Since some of this malware can be rather catastrophic to how your computer operates, sometimes the only way to get rid of it is to completely erase your computer and reinstall everything from scratch.  In my experience, malware is either of the “minor annoyance to the expert” variety or the “gotta nuke it from orbit to be sure” variety.  By making regular backups, you assure yourself the ability to recover from the latter if it occurs.

Something good to say about Microsoft Internet Explorer

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

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I’ve been a proponent of using any browser OTHER than Microsoft Internet Explorer for as long as I can remember.  In fact, I used Netscape Navigator from before Internet Explorer came about and continued using it until some time after it was purchased by AOL and its development stunted.  Once it was clear that Netscape’s browser would no longer be improving, I switched over to Mozilla Firefox.  At first it was a step back, but it has quickly become one of the best internet browsers that I’ve ever used.

I’ve said in the past that you can browse the internet more securely using Firefox compared to Internet Explorer.  However, a report has recently been issued that puts Internet Explorer ahead of other browsers in protecting against socially engineered malware.  This kind of malware convinces you to click on something so as to install a program.

Now, this isn’t an overwhelming reason to switch to using Internet Explorer, but it’s a good enough one that I don’t have to twist the arms of my clients to move away from it.

A good overview of the results and some of the dissenting commentary is available from this article at InfoWorld.

I’ll say what I’ve said in the past with regard to this kind of malware.  If you get a popup that says you’re infected with untold amounts of bad software, it’s likely to be a lie unless you can see clearly that it’s the anti-malware software that you know was already installed on the computer.  Following this advice should save you from a good percentage of the malware out there regardless of which browser you use.

I saw a neat little wireless gadget

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

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A client of mine showed me a wireless networking adapter that I thought rather ingenious.  The Hawking Technology HWU8DD Hi-Gain™ USB Wireless-G Dish Adapter. It’s a USB wireless adapter with a parabolic dish on it to concentrate the signal.  I hadn’t seen anything quite like it before.  My client got it for use in RV parks where they provide wireless to their guests but it can be spotty depending upon where you are in the park.

Previously, I’d be recommending getting a device that allows you to connect your own antenna and getting a high-gain antenna of some variety attached to it.  The cost for this could get pretty high depending upon the equipment.

Now, using a dish antenna of any type requires that you aim it directly toward the access point.  This adapter had five LEDs to let you know how strong of a signal it was getting, which would help out a great deal with aiming.  It’s also far less costly than previous solutions I would have recommended.
I’d recommend something like this to anyone who has a sketchy signal, but doesn’t want to go through the expense of setting up large antennas.

Their current products are the HWDN1 and the HWDN2, which are both wireless-N devices.  The HWDN1 supports speeds up to 300Mbps, the HWDN2 only 150Mbps.  Both are compatible with Mac and PC computers but neither has the convenient LED readout to tell you the strength of the signal.  The software that comes with it has a nice signal strength gauge (at least for the Windows version).  The HWDN1 has a list price of $75 while the HWDN2 is $65.

All in all, if you need to get a mildly distant wireless signal, one of these units may do the job.  Keep in mind that the further you are from your access point, the slower your network connection will be, but these adapters will help stretch that out quite a bit.

What printer should you get?

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

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I’m often asked about what printer to get and the answers usually boil down to a combination of budget and what you need it to do.  Without giving a recommendation on a specific printer, I’ll run through the kinds of questions you should ask yourself before buying one.

To satisfy the budget question, you just need to know how much you’re willing to spend.  My experience is entry-level (the cheapest) printers generally work, have few “bells” or “whistles,” and often cost less than what it costs to replace the ink or toner.  They aren’t the fastest, quietest, or highest quality, but they get the job done.

After your budget is determined, you want to decide on the features.  Multi-function devices are becoming more common.  It’s easy to find a printer that also scans, copies, and faxes.  The ability to fax would be the one feature that might be missing on a multi-function unit since not everyone needs or wants that feature.  Do you want a flatbed scanner or will a sheet-fed unit work?  Do you want both capabilities?  How many pages in the sheet feeder?
Next up is print quality.  This is often answered by looking at what you will be printing and how often.  Looking to print photos?  You might want to consider a unit with more than four colors.  Doing mostly casual web pages and documents?  Four colors should be enough.

Speed is often the next criterion.  The speed specifications quoted will be in pages per minute and there may also be a time to print first page.  For inkjet printers, the page per minute value will vary depending upon the quality of the output (a high-quality photo printed on photo paper will take significantly longer than a black text document on plain paper).  Laser printers will normally not vary much in how quickly they print, although the time to first page might.

The type of printing technology is also important.  Inkjet printers tend to be less expensive initially and produce very good photographs.  Laser printers tend to be faster and have less costly consumables (when you consider cost per print).  There are other technologies, but they are often used for specific purposes (e.g. some dedicated photo printers use dye-sublimation technology).

One recommendation I give people for inkjet printers is to make sure they get used.  If you don’t use them, the ink will dry up.  Just printing a full-color web page once a week is normally sufficient to keep the ink flowing without costing you the amount of ink the printer’s cleaning procedure would use.

Dealing with a stolen computer

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

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One of the worst things that can happen to a computer is for it to be stolen.  Along with the computer will be data important to the owner.  This data can range from pictures of important events, a music collection, to the credentials needed to log into web sites.  The loss of all of these at one time can be devistating.

In a video posted at this site (note: the video contains strong language throughout and a few questionable pictures), a man details the circumstances surrounding the theft of his computer and what he did to get it back.  The remarkable thing was that he recovered his computer two years after the original theft.

Now, the speaker did say that if he had better security, he wouldn’t have been able to get his machine back.  Plus, he’s quite an expert at what he does and used those expert skills to get the details needed to find his computer.  The person who had the computer was a typical home user.

What can you do?  The first thing is to consider what you do to physically secure your computer.  For the most part, just consider how you secure your home and how easy it would be for a thief to get in.  In general, the more difficult the task, the less likely a thief will get in (further details on home security are beyond the scope of my blog).  However, if you have a notebook computer, you carry this thing with you frequently and it can be lost, stolen, or damaged far more easily than a desktop computer locked in your home.
I’ve spoken before of the importance of backup.  I mention again how important it is in the event your computer is stolen.  In fact, having a backup located somewhere other than near your computer will drastically increase your chances of recovering your data (you’ll see some reinforcement of this idea in the video).  I recommend two services, Mozy and Carbonite (links to the right), if you want a service to do it.  You could also send copies of your data to a trusted friend or relative.

Recovery of your stolen computer can be assisted by the use of some free software or using a commercial service such as LoJack.  Some of the free software includes FireFound, a plugin for the Firefox web browser (FireFound works for free but you can pay for advanced features).  These software options send information to the company that can be used to help locate your computer.

All of these things are forms of insurance.  You have to decide how much insurance to carry on your equipment and of what type.  My personal belief is that your information is far more valuable than the computer and you should look at making sure there is a backup for it both near the computer (for quick access) and away from the computer (for increased chance of data recovery).