Monday, October 29, 2007

Driven To Distraction

I have to admit, the purpose of this site was intended to be a simple reference for good computing practices and resources on the web. I came across this interesting little page, though, and I just had to say something about it:

How much simpler can it get? For anyone wishing to try another way to use their computer, it's right there, one click away! Visit the link, click the big Debian logo and you're walked through the process of trying out a new operating system. It just couldn't be easier!

Friday, October 26, 2007

Everybody's Two Cents

It seems everywhere you look, there's another article written giving advice on how to best run your computer. "Do it our way, it's best!" or "Neat things to do with your computer" seem to be the trend. Fact is, there are just too many individuals out there, and just as many ways of maintaining your computer (be it a Mac or a PC).

One part I find really confusing about this is how authorities on the matter (like Microsoft, for instance) will write articles teaching you how to organize your computer, then come out with the latest and greatest in search technology, just in case you lose something. Seeing how Microsoft's latest program search feature works, it looks like they could do to read their own articles! But I suppose that's what they get for trying to keep up with the Mac.

Looking at the latest release from the Linux camp seems to follow this basic trend in trying to help everyone be organized, but falling back to "and we have a search feature if you misfile anything!" In the latest Ubuntu 7.10, there are folders for Music, Documents, Pictures, Video, you name it. Nice and easy to organize, if that's your style (most of my files will wind up in a Download folder somewhere, to be honest). And when I lose something, there's Tracker to get me out of a jam.

Of course, the rivalry across these three platforms doesn't end at just trying to be helpful and let you keep your life (and your files) organized. Oh no, there's much more than that, and they each try to one-up the other. Enter "bling!" Really, I think it was the Mac that started it all. It was that sexy graphical user interface (GUI) that first hooked Bill Gates on the idea, and the rivalry has revved up ever since*. Not to be outdone, the UNIX crowd developed a similar system, but until recent years it just hasn't cut the mustard.

Apple's slick interface, called Aqua, and made with yummy-sounding names like Cocoa and Java, is without a doubt the smoothest experience you'll see in computing today. Microsoft's Windows Vista is pathetic in comparison. And then there's Linux: trying to be everything to everyone, with a few nice tricks up it's sleeve, but master of none.

Computing today is light-years from where it began, and we still have so far to go. When you can organize a computer as well as (or as poorly as) you can organize your life, we'll really be getting somewhere. For now, I think we need a new metaphor. Perhaps something that reflects the real world better, instead of trying to compartmentalize everything into Folders and Files. A little less concentration on the splashy effects that require that we go out and buy brand new video cards and faster CPUs might be an idea, too.

But I guess that's just my two cents.

*And yeah, I know about the Xerox thing, okay? :)

Friday, October 19, 2007

Why isn't your computer secure?

I just came across an article the other day about how to check that your computer is secure. While reading it, it occurred to me that this is a fairly strange situation we've gotten ourselves into. If we buy a car, we have standards to guarantee it's safe to drive. If we buy a refrigerator, it comes with a warranty usually lasting years, and you know it's going to work for at least a decade.

But when we buy a computer, we have to buy additional things to make it complete, to finish the job of "securing" your computer before it's safe to use. This isn't life and death, but it's odd that we accept it as normal.

The very first thing the article mentioned was to install a firewall. If you're connecting to the Internet, this is a crucial thing, and it should be included at the operating system (OS) level. For any modern OS, this appears to be the case. OS X, FreeBSD, Linux and even Windows XP or later include firewalls in their basic OS offering. So far, so good.

Next: the article recommended using anti-virus software. Okay, for many people this seems like a normal thing to do. To many, it's not even a thought. And this is where I diverge with the article: I don't think anti-virus is the right approach to securing your PC at all. Viruses happen because there are vulnerabilities in software. Basically, virus writers take advantage of the fact that software can be accidentally used inappropriately. The count on the fact that the maintainers of the software won't get around to fixing the bugs they find and they don't have an efficient way to patch things up. So we have the bandage solution of using anti-virus software. Outside of the Windows world, free operating systems like Linux-based OSes have come up with ingenious ways to keep systems up-to-date and may not even need anti-virus software at all. Couple this with the proven POSIX security model that separates administrative functions from user functions and viruses are nearly impossible on these systems.

And tagging right along with that idea is what I'll call crapware: all that nasty software that either spies on you, tracks your web surfing habits, puts annoying pop-ups on your screen at regular intervals and generally slows down your computing experience. This should NEVER happen, but it does regularly on Windows-based operating systems. OS X (the Mac OS) and any Unix-like operating system (such as FreeBSD or any Linux-based OS) simply does not allow this to happen. To install software without your knowledge would require breaking into the main distributor's computers and placing the software there, to be mass installed at the next update. But with security measures in place, this just doesn't happen -- breakins are caught and tainted code removed before it has a chance to affect an ordinary user like yourself!

The article also mentions changing your browser security settings -- a uniquely Microsoft approach to web browsing. For Microsoft, the web browser is so closely tied to the OS that web pages actually have access to critical parts of your computer. Again, no other OS has this flaw, and there have been several warnings to not use Microsoft's Internet Explorer because the security model is so bad.

In parting, the article also mentions securing your wireless connection. This is a good idea, but not as critical to protecting your computer as the OS itself. If your OS is secure, the network it connects to is almost irrelevant. Protecting yourself is as easy as making a change: use an operating system designed to protect you. Amazingly, the alternatives are better at this than Microsoft, and getting better every day!