25 January 2007

#10. Safer Surfing Safaris

Everybody’s talking about Internet security these days. It’s the hottest topic from Kalamazoo to Katmandu. So why shouldn’t I get in on the action, sitting as I am right between those two?

Welcome back to Jonathan’s Tool Bar & Grill, where twice a month I share my discoveries of great low-cost utilities and Web sites. Today I’ll tell you about a couple of ways to stop fraudsters from tricking you into giving up your personal information.

No Phishing Allowed

As the Beach Boys sang, you can’t be too careful when you’re surfing. Well, OK, so maybe they didn’t, but they should have. If you care about safe surfing, I strongly recommend that you upgrade your browser to the latest version today. If you don’t care, I strongly recommend that you start caring. Why else would you be reading this?

The major browsers – Internet Explorer 7, Firefox 2, and Opera 9 – are all much more secure than their predecessors. They claim their code is harder to exploit, and they try to prevent drive-by downloads from infectious Web sites.

The major browsers now also boast built-in antiphishing alerts. When you go to a site that is suspected of masquerading as a reliable site, these browsers warn you before allowing you into the site. Firefox’s alert is shown below; the "Get me out of here!" link takes you to Google, where you can search for the page you really wanted.

These mechanisms rely on frequently updated blacklists of reported phishing sites, though their blacklists come from different sources. Both Firefox and IE7 also attempt to identify unreported impersonators from the sites’ characteristics, an area where Opera seems to have lagged behind. And Firefox also can allow you to choose a third-party service for checking Web sites, though presently Google is the only one offered.

The antiphishing filter can slow a browser down, but could be worth its weight. Make sure it is enabled in your browser. You can also try a number of antiphishing add-ons, most of which predate the new browser versions, but the built-in antiphishing mechanisms are generally regarded as equally good.

Love At First Site

SiteAdvisor (acquired by McAfee last year) is another good way to avoid Web sites that want to infect your computer, steal your identity, or bury you in spam or pop-ups. SiteAdvisor is a valuable adjunct to the browsers’ built-in antiphishing protection.

SiteAdvisor checks each Web page you visit against its database of sites that send out lots of e-mail, offer infected downloads, generate pop-up windows, collect personal information, or are affiliated with other suspicious sites. It colors the SiteAdvisor button in your browser’s status bar green (safe), yellow (caution advised), red (possibly unsafe), or gray (not reviewed). While surfing, glance at the button to see if the site is safe, and click the button for a detailed report about the site.

When you search through Google, Yahoo, MSN, AOL, or Ask, SiteAdvisor puts a colored safety rating button right next to each result (as shown below). These buttons can take a few extra seconds to appear, so be patient.

Unfortunately, this feature does not work with other search tools, such as metasearch engines I have previously recommended, but you still can rely on the SiteAdvisor status bar button for each page you visit.

SiteAdvisor does give misleading or false results occasionally. For example, it red-flags a clean, upstanding online calendar site that I use because some shady Web site also happens to have an account there. So if SiteAdvisor nixes a site you want to use, check the detailed report to find out why. You can also enter a site name in SiteAdvisor’s home page to see its detailed report.

SiteAdvisor works only with IE and Firefox, and can be downloaded absolutely free from http://www.siteadvisor.com. Consider also SiteAdvisor Plus, the paid version, with advanced anti-phishing protection and other features. Other independent products are available too, from Symantec and others, but they are not free.

Got any better ideas? Please post your comments and suggestions below. And visit me again right here on February 10 for more cool tips.

This column first appeared at http://www.elephant.org.il/jonathans_tool_bar_grill.

10 January 2007

#9. For Music Lovers Only

Welcome back to Jonathan’s Tool Bar & Grill, where twice a month I share my discoveries of useful free or cheap utilities and Web sites. Fresh back from a long vacation, I still have leisure activities on my mind, especially music. So here are some of my favorite free tools for managing my country music collection.

Converting Can Be Quick and Easy

If you’re converting music files from one format to another, that is. I found Switch when my son discovered his MP3 player would not play WMA files. Switch converts files between MP3, WMA, and several other formats, simply and quickly. The commercial version, Switch Plus, offers more formats and options. While Switch does not boast the widest possible range of conversions, other programs that do tend to be heavy and complicated.

You can download Switch for free or buy Switch Plus at http://nch.com.au/switch/index.html.

Slice and Dice Your MP3s

Sometimes you just want to take a razor to an MP3 file and cut it up. For example, you might want to slice an album into individual songs, or you might want to crop Aunt Minnie’s cackle from the end of your recording of Uncle Leo’s wedding toast. At such times, MP3 DirectCut is my tool of choice. MP3 DirectCut shows you the music file in graphical form, as a continuous amplitude bar chart. A place marker moves through the bar chart as the file plays, while a digital counter shows the elapsed time. You can navigate forward and backward through the file in large or small steps. Then you can mark off sections of the file to delete them or to save them to separate files. You can also fiddle with the volume, and even record new MP3s.

MP3 DirectCut is effective and easy to use, and best of all, it’s free (though donations are welcomed). You can get it from www.softpedia.com. For more details, visit the author’s site, http://mpesch3.de1.cc (the author, Martin Pesch, also publishes 1by1, a simple free MP3 player that plays the MP3 files in a chosen directory one after the other, without playlists).

Slice is another free MP3 splitting tool worth considering, which I stumbled across on the Web site of NCH, the publisher of Switch. It’s less versatile than MP3 Direct Cut, but simpler and more convenient in the limited situations it’s designed for. Slice splits MP3 files in only three ways: by the number of resulting files (for example, split into three equal parts), by duration (split into tracks of 10 minutes each), or by silence detection (split at silent passages, whose duration and level you can specify). The latter option can be a great time saver for albums. Slice also is free, and can be downloaded at http://nch.com.au/splitter/index.html.

Play Tag with ’Em

I’m a bit compulsive about maintaining accurate metadata in my MP3 files – for example, file names, artist names, album titles, track titles and numbers, genres, and so on. When George Jones is listed as the artist, but it’s really George Strait, I open ID3 TagIt to set it Strait. You can load a whole folder of MP3 files into ID3 TagIt and easily change every arcane metadata field individually or en masse. It handles both ID3-1 and ID3-2 tagging standards.

ID3 TagIt displays a lot of other functions on its menus, but I sheepishly admit that I am quite clueless about them. There is no help file yet, but I quickly learned how to assign the correct name and track information to my files, and I am content with that.

ID3 TagIt is free and can be obtained from http://www.id3-tagit.de/english/index.htm (where you will find a Donations link).

Stamp, NCH’s free tagging program, also appears useful – provided you only want to modify the title, artist, album, genre, year, track, or comment fields. It has a simple interface and, unlike ID3 TagIt, handles WAV files as well as MP3s.

Thank you for your attention. You can talk back to me below. Be sure to check this space on January 25 for more reviews of helpful utilities.

This column first appeared at http://www.elephant.org.il/jonathans_tool_bar_grill.