W E B - T E C H

Computers make it easy to do a lot of things,
but most of the things they make it easier to do,
don't need to be done.

- Andy Rooney


Below are some hints and a few shortcuts I've found helpful in navigating the digital world. Although I got my "digital" start with nand & nor gates way back in the 60's and even learned some assembler & machine code for IBM's old 1620 punch-card monsters in '70, it took me till the new millennium (the year 2000!) to actually finally get me a PC. The main reason for that l o n g delay is that I knew it would take (er... waste) too much of my time -- learning all the PC's minutia, and just... surfing on the web. Of course... I was right!

Even though I actually enjoy most tech stuff, I still find lots of computer workings frustrating, if not manifestly stupid. The tips here (if you can call them that), are for the average PC user. Techies & PC geeks will not find much here of use... there's nothing here on SQL, Scripting, or programming. In fact, there's not too much here on the PC either.

Some Basic PC Tips

  1. Run your machine as lean & clean as possible. That is, eliminate as much useless junk your computer loads at "start-up" as possible. Many programs will automatically put shortcuts into your start-up folder, behind your back, so they're always running in your RAM. This actually WASTES your resources. By removing such shortcuts you'll also eliminate many such programs talking back to their mother ships behind your back, sometimes with data you have no control over. If you open a new program, it takes little effort to do it manually, with a few clicks.

    To eliminate any of those un-needed "auto-started" items, type msconfig in your "RUN" utility (click START, then RUN), and un-check all those programs that are non-essential on the "start-up" tab there. Be sure you only un-check things you know are un-needed.

  2. Be sure to always use a firewall. ZoneAlarm is free and works well. And make sure it's in your startup folder so you won't ever forget to turn it on -- it only takes a tiny amount of resources. Microsoft's newest OS, XP, includes a new internal firewall, but it only works for incoming packets... so turn it off and use something like Zonealarm instead, which prevents outgoing packets too.

    And keep your eye on the "traffic" that's visible in the firewall icon... don't be afraid to click the "Stop" button whenever you think your PC is talking behind your back. Also go into [C\windows\internet logs] and periodically look at the log file there from the firewall. It's one way to discover if some Trojan virus is in your PC trying to get out. And while you're there "cut" that log-file back to a smaller size. There's some good basic expalnations of IP's and how firewalls work here.

  3. Virus & Security Concerns-
    I rarely use virus-scan programs. It's largely a waste of resources and often not able to protect your PC fast enough. But, I don't necessarily think such "advice" is for everyone.

    [1] The single best way to avoid a virus is to never open e-mail attachments. Also set your e-mail program (in it's preferences menus) to require double-clicking to open them. Recognizing a "friendly" e-mail address only means that someone you know is already infected with a virus.... and they're giving it to you.

    [2] Other pro-active ways to protect yourself is to always update your PC with the latest "critical" security patches. If you're running MS/Windows (most are)... you need to check almost every week... LOL!

    [3] ALWAYS use a firewall. There's some good info on firewalls and other security issues here: Home PC Firewall Guide.

    [4] Go into your browser's "security" settings and set them properly. I would NOT, willy-nilly, prevent the running of ALL active-x, Java, and JavaScript type routines... which are all things that add a lot to normal web browsing. If you simply turn them ALL off, you'll be missing too much great stuff on the web. But I would set some of those settings to alert you, or ask for permission to run in certain areas.

    [5] Right-click your "Network Neighborhood" icon and select "properties". Unless you're networked to another computer in your home, you should select Client for Microsoft Networks and/or File and Printer Sharing for Microsoft Networks on the list, and REMOVE them. This removes the easiest way an intruder can get access to your computer if some of the other safeguards here are not followed.

    [6] See the last section below on SOUNDS.

    None of those things alone can totally protect you, but together they give you a better chance to avoid damage to your PC, and make the web a safer place. Most of the problems of web-based virus's can be laid at the feet of millions of foolish computer-users who are indifferent to simple, basic security concerns.

  4. If you're using IE (Internet Explorer) while on the web, holding down the "Ctrl" key while using your mouse's scroll-wheel lets you quickly change the font's size on those hard to read pages. Of course, it won't work with pages coded with CSS... like most of THIS site - LOL! It's the whole raison d'etre for using CSS. However, many commercial sites allow you to change the font-size this way.

    For page navigation for those without scroll-wheeled mousies... you can use your "arrow keys" to move up & down within a page; or... use your "Page Up", "Page Down", "Home", and "End" keys (all off to the right side of the keyboard).

  5. Make use of your SOUNDS settings (accessed in your "Control Panel"). You can add sounds to dozens of commands, beyond the PC boot-up and shutdown. You can even change these sounds to ones you make yourself, or download to your drive. Any WAV file is fine for this. I use a mild swish-click sound when clicking new links within Internet Explorer... something that makes surfing the web much more tactile and real.

    For security reasons (see above section), I set certain sounds to occur whenever new programs, dll's, and commands are OPENED and CLOSED. It lets you HEAR what you CAN'T SEE. If you should get infected with a trojan or virus, you might have an additional clue (audio alert) that something is wrong. Without this, you might not know that something nefarious is happening inside your PC. Try it!

Man shoots computer in frustration

Issaquah, Wash (AP)   A man was coaxed out of his home by police after he pulled a gun and shot his personal computer, apparently in frustration.
"We don't know if it wouldn't boot up or what," Sgt Keith Moon said Thursday.
The computer, in a home office on the second floor of a townhouse, had four bullet holes in the hard drive and one in the monitor.
One bullet struck a filing cabinet, while another made it through a wall and into a neighboring unit. No one was hurt.
The man, 43, was taken to a hospital for a mental evaluation.

Digital Cameras / Graphics Editors

Digital cameras are one of the neatest new technologies of the digital age. Such cameras are now very affordable, and the technological limitations and problems of just a few years ago are now pretty much history. There's even a new generation chip, Foveon's X3 sensor, that promises even better quality in the future. I have a few comments on digital photography on some of my other pages, but I'll give a broader overview here.

If you don't take (or plan to take) more than a few dozen photos a year, you're probably better off not investing the time & money in a new digital camera and software... it may not be worth your time & effort. If however, you're a 35mm amateur type who always wished you could afford to take dozens of rolls at a time (like the pros), you'll love the move to digital.

It does behoove you to be a little hip, techwise, in order to make full use such a highly sophisticated machine -- it does take some time and effort to edit digital pics, and a little facility with PC's. (Newbies may find it harder rowing). Also, don't get hung up on the "more pixels is better" debate. It's not a totally accurate measuring standard... it's more an advertising gimmick that might, in fact, cause you more problems. There are other factors much more important than raw pixels... the same way a car shouldn't be judged solely on it's horsepower.

Digital cameras are no more complex than most 35mm cameras, although that could be a problem for some. If you're not comfortable with f-stops and depth-of-field concepts, much of the power in such a complex machine may go unused... that's easily overcome if you're willing to spend some time reading the instruction manual. The digital format has some unique advantages over film cameras. The biggest is the ability to take hundreds & hundreds of photos at any one time, and also to delete any poor/bad shots on the spot. You also have the benefit of easier editing without a darkroom, and cheaper operating costs (developing chemicals and printing of rolls and rolls of film). One need only print the shots you really want, saving quite a bit of money. Anyone who enjoys photography will welcome the chance to take more shots.

Many digicams have slight delays with their shutters, at least in certain shooting modes. This can initially seem frustrating, but all that's needed is to put in a little time & experience and you'll quickly compensate. The effect is no different than the delay one would take in swinging a bat at a baseball... one anticipates the moment. Simply spend an afternoon taking some action shots at a football or soccer game and you'll quickly imprint your brain with the correct reaction. For more "normal" Portrait or Landscape type shots, it's not a concern anyway.

 Graphics Editing Software is a must to get the best from your digital photos. But if that sounds intimidating or time consuming (it is), you can forgo it in many instances... just be sure not to print any poor shots. A digital editing program can literally make a silk purse from a pigs ear. The main problem with most graphics editors is that many people just aren't able to understand or grasp their basic workings easily. Nevermind that Photoshop, the oldest and most entrenched graphics editing software, is extremely complex and not user-friendly -- even many simple freeware programs can confuse the average person. So my advice is twofold:

1) only get something that you're comfortable with... if you already have problems understanding basic PC concepts, don't get the fanciest image-editing tool out there... you won't use it. And a fancy tool is useless if it's not used.
2) try to get a hold of someone who can show you in person the basic workings of the program you choose. Books and tutorials are great, but often don't answer basic questions that keep users confused longer than they should be.

Even many bare-bones (& freeware) programs can be helpful here, but (my choice), Paint Shop Pro, and Photoshop Elements are all similar mid-level programs under $100. IMO the FULL version of Photoshop is just too expensive and has too steep a learning curve (for the most part) for anyone but professional/commercial graphic artists (who MUST use it because of it's entrenchment in the commercial graphics business). But if you're artistic in any way, you'll be amazed at what you can do with any of these graphics-editing programs. Even some of the more basic but free programs (like Gimp... do a search for it online) are extremely useful.

 Batteries: Most digi-cams use NiMH batteries (AA's), which are great. These have no "memory" (unlike older Ni-Cads). This means you can charge them at any time without complications, something that normally ruins older Ni-Cad batteries. Most digital cameras come with bats and a charger, but you'll want to buy another set (& have them charged), so you'll never get caught dead (without power). A set of 4 costs around 10 bucks. You also want to make sure you use a fresh set when downloading your pics to your PC, as a power failure here could ruin those files and/or your card.

 Prints: Although some home printers make excellent prints, they can end up costing more than you think when the paper, ink, and printer costs are added up. There are also concerns about the dyes fading over time with home-printers. Another potential problem of home printers is getting your printer's colors properly calibrated for both color-hue and luminosity.

I use my (old) inexpensive HP home printer primarily for B&W "text" documents. Occasionally I'll use it for graphics pictures, but for photographs I go to a local professional lab and get 4x6 or 5x7 prints made. Most labs (not all) now handle digital files.... but be sure you don't rely on the (cheaper) mass-market ones, which generally are a notch below the quality of a good private business lab. Online labs will do this too, although you'll need a high speed broadband connection to upload them. The web is full of such sites. By using pro printers you avoid the possible problem of archival prints deteriorating over time... fading and color changes as they age. That's NOT an issue with prints from professional (very expensive) state-of-the-art printing machines, using high-quality photographic dyes and papers. So this choice is not only cheaper and easier, it's generally better.
 

 Esoteric Stuff: There's some interesting links here if you're the curious or adventurous type of camera nut. It's a listing of articles from members of the faculty of the School of Photographic Arts and Sciences at RIT. The topics range from infrared photography, ultraviolet, high speed, synchroballistic, panoramic, special effects, peripheral, schlieren, photofinish, and many other things.
 

HTML / CSS notes

HTML is the language of the web; specifically HyperText Markup Language, which is more like an assembler language in concept than a computer language. It's simplicity is at the heart of why the web is what it's grown to today. It was developed around 1990 by Tim Berners-Lee, and is just as remarkable an invention as the chipsets & software that run your PC. Having just a small understanding of some basic HTML concepts will make for a better web experience for anyone.

For those interested in designing and putting up their own sites, I don't recommend any of the stand-alone programs for making a web-site (Frontpage, etc). The learning curve and expense for most of those is a little steep. And if you think you can avoid learning the basics of HTML & CSS by using them, you're actually more likely to be confused and slowed down. I personally use one of the many TEXT editors out there that are either free or very cheap. Notepad is one such program that comes free in every Windows OS, although it's a little too bare-bones IMO. Both HTML & CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) can be learned in a few hours, although experience is the best way to fully absorb the basic concepts.

is also a great basic text-editor. I use it as my default .txt program, and not (generally) for coding HTML. It's free, and useful for other tasks beyond simple text. Another exellent free program is which has a long history as a great wav & music player. Cute FTP is the ftp program I use to upload files... not freeware, but excellent and easy to use.

I recommend getting a book on HTML/CSS, of which there are loads. Even a cheap older one from a used book store will contain basic info... stuff you'll need to check often, and it's handier than reading stuff online. Learning the basic concepts can be done online... the web is full of such sites. One is here. Another good resource is here.

If you've gotten your feet wet in HTML and CSS and want to learn more, I recommend you visit Jeffrey Zeldman's great online web design site. If you find it interesting, go buy his recent book. A good teacher is rare, in any field. Jeffrey writes about often complex topics in a lucid way that makes them understandable to the rest of us outsiders.

And while we're on the subject, the new Mozilla stand-alone is a better browser than the older Mozilla builds IMO. I usually used Mozilla for cross-testing my code, but this new Firebird is pretty good online too. Of course, it doesn't correctly parse a lot of tags (like "hr"), let alone play background sounds (like this page), even with the object tag... sigh. I added the Sky Pilot theme, which is a very classy looking style. Mozilla also has their free mail program.
 

Links

This part is intentionally short... long lists of links can be a bit imposing. But I think there are many free tools here out there, especially useful if you're a new or fairly normal computer user.

  1. Back when I first got on the web (2000), I discovered Google as the best & fastest search engine out there. This was well before it became so well known. I still use it for most searches, but you might want to add this search engine, All The Web, to your favorites list. (Just right-click it and choose Add to favorites...). It's a mega-search engine that uses many other engines and will rank results in a more user friendly order. (How deep in those thousands of search replies do you ever go?) All The Web is especially good when you have some really esoteric or unique words or subjects you're going after. The web's a HUGE place -- a good search engine is a very useful tool.

  2. Bill's Software Picks lists literally thousands of software programs available online, and even more sites that keep track of 'em. Some are free; some are very cheap or free with limited use (demo's). The programs are listed in different categories.

  3. The List of Lists is a short page of links to various software arranged in over 100 areas. The software ranges from freeware to commercial ones. It's a nice resource to search out really specific tools for any of a huge range of jobs... audio, windows, pda, mail, registry, etc.

  4. The Google toolbar is an add-on to your browser that allows a much quicker ability to access Google's search sites (news, pics, web, etc). But it's big "selling point" (actually it's totally free) is it's built-in pop-up blocker, a necessity if you're using IE (Internet Explorer) as your browser.

  5. ZoneAlarm is a free firewall that works very well. I've been using it for years.

There are many on-line help, news, & tips newsletters to keep one up-to-speed on virus's, computer problems, and lend advice & tips on all sorts of computer issues. These two are among the most well known and respected... and they're both free. Neither will ever use your e-mail addy for any other uses. Recommended.

  1. The is a series of newsletters aimed at the average user. It's delivered via e-mail every few days and is free for the asking. Fred Langa also has a paid version that's even more tech involved.

  2. Kim Komando has a weekly newsletter, among many other resources at her site. She hosts a nationally syndicated radio show every week where she answers computer questions. Her e-newsletter (free) is aimed at beginners & average computer users. (she's cute too).
    Kim Komando, America's Digital Goddess

Defragmentation

Defragging your hard drive is a basic utility that can help keep your PC's hard-drive more efficient. How much good it does depends on the size of your hard-drive and how you use your PC. You can find it, along with other utilities by going to: [Start/Programs/Accessories/System Tools/Disk Defragmenter].

Always run the "quick" version of Scan-Disc (another utility) before Defragging. That will "fix" any errors on your drive. Those "errors" can occur to your drive naturally over time, and could stop your defrag process. nevermind having other negative effects. You also should close most background programs before defragging... by hitting "Ctrl+Alt+Del" and killing those programs. Personally, I find watching the defrag visualization, which shows how randomly your hard-drive is accessed, to be quite neat.


That's it for now... I'll add some links down the road when time permits.

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