04 October 2008

#76. What I Did Last Summer

Hello again, dear Tool Bar & Grill patrons. Yes, I’m back after a summer-long hiatus, along with my colorful colleague and Linux Room manager Mark Lautman. I apologize for having been too busy to blog lately. I finished a big documentation project for my principal client, caught up on some personal and family matters, and even got married to the lovely and patient Louise. And along the way, I discovered a few new tools to make my computing life easier and more efficient.

No-Thinking Syncing

I don’t think much about synchronizing any more. I might just have found the synchronization solution I’ve been waiting for.

Loyal Tool Bar & Grill patrons might remember that I have been searching high and low for the perfect file and folder synchronization tool (see post #58). I continued to use my favorite, Allway Sync, having found some ways to avoid bumping up against the free version’s limit on the number of files (for example, by zipping multiple files into one). And I found some other sync utilities that met some of my needs, but not all. But this still means remembering to bring my USB flash disk with me to work and back home again, and remembering to take it out of my shirt pocket before it goes in the washing machine – and my memory isn’t what it used to be.

The alternative is syncing over the Internet. I hesitated to trust my precious data to the cloud. But I am constantly on line anyway, and the advantages are enormous. So I looked into a few Web-hosted services, such as BeInSync, which requires a paid subscription. And I tried out Microsoft’s free Windows Live FolderShare, but it has other drawbacks, such as requiring all synced computers to remain on line and littering my hard disk with temporary files.

Then, while I was wait-listed for its beta trial, Dropbox became available to the world in early September. Now I don’t have to think about syncing, because Dropbox does it all for me. Dropbox automatically (and quickly) encrypts and synchronizes the contents of the folders you designate on each computer you register. You get 2 GB of backup storage on line, including older versions of updated files, and you can buy more space when you need it. So when I get home at night, I find all the files I worked on in the office waiting for me when I go on line. I can work some more, and the updated files will be on my office computer the next morning. I can also find my files on the Dropbox site.

Dropbox is not without drawbacks, but they are minor. First, of course, is the reliance on the Internet, but there’s no way around that. Also, you have to move any folders you want to sync into the My Dropbox folder under My Documents, so your folders are already buried a couple of layers deep. I already have gotten used to navigating straight to My Dropbox, and bookmark tools (such as Favorites, or the bookmark function in xplorer2 or FileBoxExtender) help.

Dropbox is not alone; its main rival is Syncplicity, which is equally simple and efficient. Syncplicity’s added advantage is that you can designate folders to sync in place, without moving them. However, Syncplicity’s free 2 GB account is limited to two computers, and when Syncplicity comes out of beta, it will start charging for this account too.

Microsoft Live Mesh, currently a “tech preview,” is another promising Web-hosted syncing and backup service. Live Mesh promises 5 GB of free storage. I look forward to trying it out soon. In the meantime, I am delighted to have found Dropbox.

Travel Cheaply

I have had to plan a lot of travel lately, and am happy to rely on the SideStep.com travel search engine to find flights, hotels, and rental cars. SideStep searches many other sites (claiming about 200), including those of individual airlines, hotel chains, and car renters as well as other aggregators such as Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, and Cheaptickets. Besides saving a lot of time and trouble, SideStep presents its results clearly and usefully. Better yet, in my comparisons, SideStep always found the cheapest price.

If you observe that Kayak does the same, take note that Sidestep and Kayak have merged, so you’ll get the same results from both.

Great New Updates

Some of my favorite programs have been updated recently. Notable among them is Picasa from Google, among the best free photo management utilities. Its new version 3 offers more and better picture-editing tools and even smoother integration with the Picasa on-line photo sharing service. The Web service also recognizes faces, so once I tag my adorable grandson's picture with his name, Picasa on-line will tag every other picture that includes him with his name. It's a cool
idea, but don't expect perfection.

My favorite timesheet shareware program, TraxTime, is now even better with version 5. I use it daily to punch in and punch out of client projects, and recommend it to anyone who needs to keep track of their work time (see my review in post #22). When I recently got a new computer, I tried a number of free time clock utilities, but none met my needs, and I bought the TraxTime upgrade.

Now let’s find out what Mark has been doing in the Linux Room all summer. I think I smell fresh paint back there....

It’s a Colorful World

by Mark Lautman

“Boss, you can’t go out like that,” said Peter, my trusty bartender.

“Out like what?” I asked. Except for hands and head, I was fully clothed in an impeccable hand-tailored suit recently purchased in Hong Kong.

“Your Mojave Gold tie clashes with the Hampton Green socks. Everyone will notice.”

“Oh, really? And what color does go well with Mojave Gold?” I asked.

“I’d go with a Beachwalk Brown,” he replied.

“Peter, we run a bar here, not a lipstick counter! So get your Pineapple Fizz rear end back to work before all our customers run out on us!”

Matching colors isn’t easy for a lot of people, myself included. I’ve been chastised many times for wearing brown socks with blue pants, or for creating Web sites with hallucinogenic colors. Fortunately there are lots of good tools to help us navigate these treacherous waters.

ColorSchemer has a basic online tool for matching colors. This page provides a pallet on which you click, and the Web page responds with a variety of matching colors. The online tool I like better is at DHTML Goodies. This site has multiple ways for precisely selecting your initial color, and displays all the mathematically complementary colors.

Colors are used in more than computing, of course. For those looking for ways to brighten up a home, the Behr paint company has a fabulous color coordinator called ColorSmart. The site is designed very intuitively, giving you options for matching trim or main colors.

Sherwin Williams, as well as other major paint suppliers, provide similar tools.

EasyRGB is the Internet’s Travelocity for paint manufacturers. You type a red-green-blue value, and EasyRGB returns the manufacturer’s product with the closest match. In the following example, the closest colors Sherwin Williams has for midnight blue (RGB = 25,25,112) are Morning Glory, Honorable Blue, Valiant Violet, and Full Purple.

I’ll be extending the use of color checkers to our menu in the Linux Room. I wonder what color ketchup goes well with tuna fish? —Mark Lautman

I hope you’ll all come back for more great utility and Web site reviews at Jonathan’s Tool Bar & Grill, and bring all your friends. You can also help keep this blog alive by visiting our advertisers. Though my schedule is still packed, I will try to post useful new information as regularly as I can. Meanwhile, feel free to share your thoughts by clicking on “comments” below or writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.

17 June 2008

#75. Your New Browser Has Arrived

Note to Readers
23 June 2008
Jonathan's Tool Bar & Grill is going on temporary hiatus. Due to backlogged commitments in the real world, Mark and I will not be able to post on our regular schedule for a while. Please bear with us, and remember to check back here from time to time, because we will provide you helpful new
software and Web site reviews and tips whenever we can. Meanwhile, be sure to dig around in the archives to catch up on all the great information you might have missed!

Dear readers, I apologize for posting this entry a bit later than usual. But I'm sure you'll understand when you remember that Download Day is finally here. The browser wars have flared up again, with the long-awaited final release of Firefox 3.0 today, the Opera 9.5 release last week, and Microsoft testing a new, improved Internet Explorer 8. That means I've been very busy evaluating the new offerings for you.

Firefox 3 Hits the Street

I have been using and recommending Firefox for at least several years, and love it more with each new version. Version 3, which became available today (Firefox Download Day), is the best yet. I have had so much fun experimenting with the recent "release candidate" versions that I've hardly found time to write my blog.

Why should you change your browser? First of all, chances are you don't have to... because about 60% of Tool Bar & Grill readers, naturally smarter and more sophisticated than everyone else, already use Firefox. Another 8% or so use Opera, and about 30% use Internet Explorer. Among the general Web-surfing public, about 15% to 20% have adopted Firefox.

If you are still using Internet Explorer, consider switching to Firefox. The reasons are legion: it's much safer than IE; it's a lot faster; it's highly compatible with Web standards; and its memory usage now is quite reasonable (version 2 could be a resource hog).

Firefox 3 doesn't look very different from its predecessor, but the big changes are under the surface. It is easier than ever to install and to use. It sports some great usability features, like an address bar that suggests your favorite sites when you start typing, streamlined bookmark management, more convenient password management, and an improved download manager. And it now warns you not only of potential phishing sites, but also of Web sites known to inject malware into visitors' computers ("drive-by" infection is a growing problem).

Opera also is an excellent browser – fast, light, and very user-friendly. I've been using it for years too. So why does almost everyone recommend Firefox instead? It's the
add-ons. Firefox is an open and extensible platform, and programmers have created literally thousands of plug-in utilities that vastly multiply the browser's usefulness and versatility. I listed my essential favorites in post #33, and I've got a list of dozens more I plan to tell you about whenever I get the time. Some add-ons have not yet been updated to work with Firefox 3, but nearly all the ones I find essential now work fine, and the rest can be expected to catch up soon.

I found the Firefox 3
official download site overloaded most of the day. You also can download Firefox 3 from FileHippo, SoftPedia, and other download services. Then find out what's new in Firefox 3 and how to use it in the free e-book Field Guide to Firefox 3.

So what are you waiting for? Stop reading this blog, download and install Firefox 3, and then come back and finish reading Mark Lautman's survey of the best Linux videos.

Linux Goes to the Movies!

by Mark Lautman

Peter, my trusted bartender in the Linux Room, came in one day looking all dejected and frustrated. He always looks dejected and frustrated, because to get to work he first needs to pass through the Tool Bar and Grill.

"Boss," he said, "do you know what the difference is between the Linux Room and the Tool Bar?"

"Peter, we've been through this before. The Tool Bar has the furniture, the decor, the clientele, the reputation. But those things are all an illusion. Look at our modest establishment; can't you see why we can call this our 'home'?"

Peter had that look on his face that said "I'm going to quit right now."

"OK, Peter, I'll cave in to your epicurean aspirations. What do you think we should do to make our place more 'acceptable'?"

"Boss, the first thing we need is a full-size flat-screen monitor. And I have a list of just the videos we should play on it."

Peter enthusiastically compiled a list of must-see Linux videos. Here are his favorites, all of which express the theme that Linux is as good as or better than Windows or Macintosh. Next week I'll scour the Internet and list the most effective and efficient tutorials for the Linux beginner.

The following videos are appropriate for all audiences and ages:

Microsoft and Apple claiming to be #1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rtp5gNhBZgo&feature=related

Microsoft and Apple corporations running Linux: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pa1RCg-Ccp0&feature=related

Linux users sharing fashion trends: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVOnFdMf0RU

Comparison of the desktop features between Vista and Ubuntu with the Beryl desktop; fabulous music accompaniment:

Powerful, Matrix-like Linux announcement: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KwEWxpOWOok

During the late-night hours, when the avant garde, progressive artists arrive, we show the following:

Troubles of upgrading a PC or Mac: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-L-0s-7-Z0

Anarchist view of Linux: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uBUgEx_91BU

Mark Lautman

Thank you for tuning in to the Tool Bar & Grill. We hope you have learned something as well as been entertained. Tell us what you think about it by clicking the Comments link below or e-mailing jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com. See you here again next week!

09 June 2008

#74. I Want My Old Office Back!

The Tool Bar & Grill kitchen is the equivalent of an executive’s corner office for this chef. And apropos to Office, I’ve been cooking up some new treats for you. But first, let me tell you a love story…

My Love Affair with Microsoft Word

Relax, there is none. I hated Word when I first started using the DOS version in the early ’90s (WordStar, I miss you!), soon followed by Word 2 for Windows 3.1 (WordPerfect, I miss you even more!). I hated Word 6. I hated Word 95 a bit less, and Word 97 even less than that. I still hated Word 2000, which moved a lot of menu options around, and I hated Word 2002 (XP), though a bit less. I hated Word 2003 less than any of its predecessors. And I hate Word 2007 the most of all.

Lest you assume that my attitude stems from ignorance, take note that much of my income over the past 15 years has derived from my expertise in using Word. I design and program templates, and train others how to use Word. No, my frustration with Word developed through intimate familiarity with its innermost secrets.

Office 2007 adopted the “ribbon” interface instead of tool bars. As I complained in post #70, I now have to spend extra find hunting for commands that are no longer in their familiar places. Back then, I told you about the Search Commands add-in for Office 2007, which helps you find commands that the new Office 2007 ribbon interface misplaced.

Tool Bar Nostalgia

Now thanks to fellow Tool Bar & Grill reader Shailesh Shah, I have another great way to cope with Office 2007. In a comment to post #70, he pointed me to his Web site, where he provides classic Office menu add-in templates for Office 2007, free of charge.

These add-ins display the Office 2003 menu bar, Standard tool bar, and Formatting tool bar in the Add-Ins tab on the Office 2007 ribbon. Because my other specialized templates appear there, I found myself clicking back and forth between the Add-Ins tab and other tabs (mostly Home). Here’s the Word version:

Now all the functions I need are on one tab, and in their familiar places (though many shortcut keys are still a problem).

Add-ins are available for Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access 2007. Here’s the Excel version of the Office 2003 add-in:

I do wish the tool bar were customizable, so I could add or remove buttons. But this is a minor problem. Those of us who feel punished by Office 2007 owe a great debt of gratitude to Shailesh Shah for his contributions to easing our misery. His home page offers a number of other useful-looking Excel utilities.

And now, here is Mark Lautman with his take on the latest Ubuntu Linux release.

Some Laurels for this Hardy
by Mark Lautman

I recently went with my mother to a steakhouse. “I'll have the ground round steak,” she said to the waiter. “Please tell the chef I want it well done.”

“Why do you insist on well done?” I asked after the waiter left.

“Because when it comes to ground beef, you never know what's really inside it. Ordering well done means all the bugs and bacteria are properly removed.”

The first thing that came to my mind was shock and disgust: why do we eat food that has such a problematic history as industrialized meat? The second thing that came to my mind was, again, shock and disgust: why do we use software that, like steak, has bugs and bacteria in it?

I haven't purchased a copy of Windows Vista, but from all the bad publicity, it seems that XP is a better product.

The most recent version of Ubuntu, called the Hardy Heron, doesn't have a lot of bugs, but it has a different kind of problem. Ubuntu, like any other Linux distribution, is a collection of the Linux kernel and a variety of programs, such as OpenOffice, Firefox, media players, and an email application. The people who manage the distribution decide which programs to include, and which versions of those programs to include. In the case of Ubuntu’s Hardy Heron, things got a bit ahead of themselves. For example, the version of Firefox included with the Heron is a beta version for release 3.0.

This version of Firefox isn't available to the general public; you can only get it as a “release candidate.” (http://www.mozilla.com/en-US/firefox/all-beta.html) However, as part of the Hardy Heron, it is readily available. One consequence is that one of my critical plug-ins, Foxmarks, doesn't work until it is also upgraded.

Another indication of an unripe distribution is the number of upgrades that are installed. Ubuntu uses the Debian package manager, which automatically checks for upgrades to programs. Since installing the Hardy Heron one month ago, I've downloaded at least 200 MB of individual updates. This is a sign that not everything was properly integrated. Below is an image of a typical upgrade notification.

In spite of my complaints, the Hardy Heron is yet another reason why Ubuntu continues to be the most popular Linux distribution. Networking, Web surfing, emailing, and playing media are effortless. Most importantly, the upgrade from Gutsy Gibbon was seamless: just start the download/install routine, go watch a movie, and by the time you come back you're all upgraded.

The Hardy Heron includes some fabulous improvements. The best one is Wubi. (Wubi is an African term that means “Do I get potato with my sirloin?”) Wubi installs Ubuntu onto your Windows machine like any other application. In post #48, I recommended virtual machines as a way to try out Ubuntu. That avenue is now obsolete. Wubi is a much better way to go. I tried it, and it works perfectly. If you have 8 GB of free drive space and a fast Internet connection, you'll be running Ubuntu in 10 minutes.

Other enhancements include packages for Inkscape (which I discussed in post #56, the latest Gnome desktop, and a remote desktop viewer that can connect to more than one computer. The full list of the Heron's features is here. From the list you can see that the folks at Ubuntu have indeed been busy!

In the future, I'll wait a few months before upgrading to a new version of Ubuntu. That gives it a chance to get cooked well done, with a nice char-broil sear on the outside, like the way my mom likes her steaks. Incidentally, she loved her ground round side. Not a single cell of bacteria was on it. I ordered a vegetarian dish, a raw spinach salad. Two hours later I was in the hospital with E. coli poisoning! –Mark Lautman

Thank you all for dropping by my office today. I hope it has been beneficial; if so, please bring your friends next time. Did I overlook your favorite utility? Tell me about it by clicking on “comments” below or, if you prefer privacy, by writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com. And please show our appreciation to our advertisers by clicking through to their sites.

03 June 2008

#73. What’s In a Name?

I get hung up on names sometimes at the Tool Bar & Grill. I take a lot of digital pictures of the numerous celebrities who drop by for a snack, as well as of my new grandson. All these photos must be renamed if I’m to make any sense of them later and then sell them to major news magazines. And then there are all those music files with strange characters or mistakes in their file names (how many ways can you spell Shania Twain anyway?). What to do?

A Rose By Any Other Name

The Internet is full of utilities that rename multiple files all at once according to your specified formula or pattern. Many sophisticated file manager utilities – including my favorite, xplorer2 – also offer powerful batch file renaming functions, but the interfaces of specialist utilities make the job much easier. Most of the best ones cost a few dollars, but I tried out a lot of them, and found a few really good ones for free.

It was a tough choice, but I think my favorite batch file renamer is Flash Renamer. This clever program can rename any selected group of files and folders (including subfolders) in just about any way you want – add, remove, or replace characters, change case, trim spaces, add or change numbers, set file attributes, and more. Wild cards, regular expressions, and batch scripts are supported. “Visual Assist” supplies examples from your files on which to experiment. Preset jobs are provided for common tasks.

You can drag and drop files into Flash Renamer, a major convenience. The interface is relatively easy to figure out, and shows a live preview of the effects of your changes before you execute them. It also displays picture thumbnails, extracts dates from JPG photo files, and provides metadata and ID3 tag support for MP3 files.

The free version annoys you with a nag screen when you launch it, so you might want to pay $20 just to get rid of it.

Tied for first place is JoeJoeSoft’s Rename Master. It does nearly everything Flash Renamer does, including add, replace, and remove characters, change case, add a counter, and much more. You can use wild cards in replace operations, execute multiple changes at once (with live preview), and save batch scripts. You also undo your last change, and drag and drop files into the program window, and view thumbnails. Rename Master also supports JPG and MP3 metadata. It is not quite as flexible as Flash Renamer, though, and doesn’t trim spaces.

Best of all, Rename Master, like JoeJoe’s other great utilities, is freeware and therefore does not nag you to upgrade. However, I urge you to contribute a donation if you like the program and use it regularly.

Rounding out the top three is Denis Kozlov’s ReNamer, whose very simple interface hides functionality similar to Flash Renamer and Rename Master (in some cases even broader). The key is the Add Rule button, which opens a window that helps you formulate renaming rules relatively easily. Thumbnails, however, are among the few features that ReNamer lacks.

ReNamer also is free, but donations are accepted and well deserved.

I also like File Renamer Deluxe, shareware which I am enjoying for free thanks to giveawayoftheday.com. I like its cheery, clear graphical user interface (GUI). The free version has most of the deluxe version’s important functionality, including drag-and-drop, live preview, and the wonderful ability to specify a different output folder… but the price, and lack of wild cards or thumbnails, dragged it down.

Some other reviewers, including my esteemed colleague Samer the Freeware Genius, have plunked down in favor of freeware Bulk Rename Utility. While BRU offers wide-ranging functionality similar to the two programs name above, its interface is complex and intimidating (see below), and it shows only one picture thumbnail at a time.

News Flash: Backup Utility Free, This Week Only

This just in: NTI Shadow 3 software for local backups is being offered for free, but only if you act by June 8. This is the full $30 version for Windows or Mac OS X (only the Windows version will burn backups to optical media).

NTI Shadow 3 is generally well regarded as backup software. Its special advantages include ease of use, flash disk recognition, and file versioning. I especially like the ability to back up files as soon as you save their changes (like my favorite file synchronization utilities) as well as on a schedule. It has shortcomings, too, such as over-simplicity (resulting in a lack of options), and the lack of file compression or encryption. (You can read a recent PC Magazine review here.) However, its functionality falls well short of my favorite easy-to-use backup shareware, Titan Backup (see my review in post #40). And I just discovered that when burning a backup set to DVD, NTI Shadow can't span discs; whatever doesn't fit on a disc is logged as an error.

NTI Shadow Version 3 is now about two years old. Could it be offered for free in the anticipation of an upcoming new release? I don’t know. But if you need a simple local backup solution, it’s certainly worth trying NTI Shadow 3 while it’s free this week.

Now special guest blogger and Linux guru Mark Lautman has a scary story to tell…

Shelter from the Virus Storm

by Mark Lautman

The wind was howling around the modest hovel, rain lashing against the window panes. Inside a terrified young mother was clutching her hungry toddler, desperately searching for some ray of hope that would relieve their hopeless situation. A coyote howled in the distance, and the toddler clutched ever harder to his mother. Gazing onto the prairie, the woman saw headlights approaching in the distance. “Don’t worry, my child, help is on the way.”

It was only six months ago when we purchased a new Windows computer for our youngest son. I got lazy and didn’t install any antivirus or anti-spyware software. Within two weeks my son was asking me some very embarrassing questions, like why he’s getting the blue screen of death, why the web browser suddenly closes, and why I never invested in Woodward Governor. Once again I learned that Windows is amazingly susceptible to viruses. Fortunately, things are much different for Linux and Macintosh.

Discussions about Linux viruses tend to be short, and that is because of Linux’s (and Unix’s and Mac’s) inherent concept of file permissions. For example, most of the critical programs used to run Ubuntu Linux are in the /sbin directory. Wiping this directory will make the computer useless. The following image explains why only a single user can access those files.

As the screen shot indicates, only the “root” user can create and delete files the directory. (The root user is similar to an Administrator in Windows.) All others can read the files, but not use them. In order for a virus to erase that directory, it needs to be executed by someone who is the root user. Most of the time people are not signed on as the root user; when I use my email program, I am logged in as a normal user like “handsome” or “successful” or “popular.” If I run a virus, it can affect only those files to which I have access, typically in my home directory. In addition, anything you download from the Internet, including email attachments, is automatically designated as non-executable; you can look at the program, delete the program, but you can’t execute the program. Nothing can “automatically” delete any file unless I explicitly take an action.

In spite of all these inherent safeguards, there are a few known viruses affecting Linux. For those who want the added protection, you can choose from the top two AV packages: Clam and AVG, both of which are free. Other products are also available.

Interestingly, if you do run Linux “naked,” the biggest damage you incur is against other Windows machines. Even though Linux may be immune from virus programs, they are not immune from passing them on to other computers in your local network or across the Internet. Therefore, if you are running Linux within a home or small business network, you might want to install anti-virus just to protect the other computers.

The last component of desktop security is blocking spyware or adware. Firefox has an add-on for blocking ads called Adblock Plus. Jonathan mentioned it as one of his Firefox favorites in post #33. This approach works only for spyware coming through the browser. If, however, your email client displays content from web sites, then you need additional protection. The most comprehensive approach is to modify your /etc/hosts (Linux) or C:\WINDOWS\system32\drivers\etc\hosts (Windows) file by including the MVPS hosts file, located at http://www.mvps.org/winhelp2002/hosts.txt. Request to connect to any of the garbage domains in that file are simply dropped. The disadvantage with this approach is that you need to manually pull and install this file from the Internet; automatic updates aren’t available.

The headlights belonged to a delivery truck, which parked next to the frightened woman’s home. “Thank you so much,” she said to the delivery man. “Son, we won’t have to fear a virus attack any more. We just got our Dell laptop with Ubuntu Linux! Now run along and play that violent, sexist, and debilitating computer game while I crash your uncle’s wireless network.” –Mark Lautman

That’s the name of the game for this week. We laughed a little, cried a little, and learned a little together. Please return next week for more great utility and Web site recommendations, and tell all your friends about us. And do feel free to share your thoughts by clicking on “comments” below or writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.

IT certification exams like Microsoft 70-272 and LPI 117-101 certainly open the door to promotions. By completing the 1z0-050 Oracle Database 11g and 1z0-042 Oracle Database 10g: Administration, you will be able to demand greater salaries than previously. So it has become necessary to obtain the new and most popular certification exams like Cisco 350-040 CCIE Storage Networking Written Exam and 1Y0-308 Citrix® Access Gateway exams.

27 May 2008

#72. See and Do: Video How-To’s

You denizens of the Tool Bar & Grill are all wonderful folks, each and every one, with fine qualities too numerous to list. Among your best traits is the desire to learn new things every day. You are an admirably inquisitive lot.

Some people learn best by reading, others by watching. You visual learners can read on to find the best Web sites that teach new skills through video demonstrations. (For you readers, see post #70, “Guide for the Perplexed: Where To Find How-To’s,” for some great text-based instructional Web sites.)

I usually publish a new post here every Sunday. I apologize to all my faithful readers for publishing this post a bit late. It’s because this past Sunday I was busy assembling a crib for my adorable new grandson. I figured out the easy way to do it after struggling with it for quite a while. Perhaps if I had checked the Web for video tutorials, I would have finished faster!

Learn By Watching

Instructional videos have burst across the Internet like mushrooms after a rain. Some are highly professional, while others are laughably amateur. Some sites pay for good videos, and some contributors toil day and night to crank out new videos in a variety of subjects. The hard part is finding the best ones.

You probably would assume, as I did, that it’s best to start with one of the video aggregators, which collect instructional videos from many other sites all across the Web. WonderHowTo claims to be the biggest, boasting over 100,000 videos. SuTree is smaller, with over 33,000 entries. Both have a social networking flavor, relying on both members and search bots to find video tutorials, and SuTree also hosts some videos of its own. However, when I searched for “assemble crib,” both sites returned numerous results with either “assemble” or “crib,” but only one video – from About.com on crib safety – that actually mentioned crib assembly. SuTree preceded the video with an advertisement. This despite my finding a number of privately produced (but not very helpful) crib assembly videos on YouTube.

Therefore, I recommend trying some of the following broad-range instructional video sites when you’re in the mood to learn something new.

ExpertVillage claims to be the “world’s largest video how-to site,” with nearly 99,000 videos. The site uses videos only from credentialed experts, whose qualifications are listed briefly.

Howcast, relatively new in the field, specializes in professionally produced instructional videos, and also offers production tools for amateur auteurs. Specific scenes or steps are marked so you can skip right to them.

5min (“life videopedia”) presents member-submitted videos of under five minutes on specialized topics. (Complex subjects might be the subject of a series of videos.) As with all the community-based sites, quality can vary.

Instructables (“the world’s biggest show & tell”) also showcases how-to videos submitted by its members.

eHow (featured in post #70) hosts mainly text tutorials, but has been branching into video too, both professional and user-generated. The selection still is somewhat limited, compared to the larger sites.

VideoJug (“life explained on film”) primarily offers professionally produced videos (with charming British-accented narration), but also user-submitted and discussion forums.

TricksPro, another community-based site, appears to have a limited inventory compared to the more established sites, and its busy interface is a bit harder to navigate.

ViewDo is yet another community-based site, with no distinguishing features that I could detect.

Graspr appears to be distinguished only by the ability to skip directly to specific marked scenes or steps in the user-produced videos (like Howcast).

Sclipo offers both professional and user-submitted videos, but does not seem to screen out relatively amateurish productions.

And of course, don’t overlook the enormous wealth of how-to material on general-interest video sites like YouTube and Metacafe.

I finally assembled the crib without any help. But when my grandson is older, we’ll explore the Web together to learn how to throw a boomerang, play rugby, build a computer or a dune buggy, or maybe knit a tea cozy.

Linux Firewalls, Part 2

by Mark Lautman

I once had an insurance agent who had a very effective sales technique: He would always talk about the client who died a horrible death from cancer at age 40, a young widow left penniless, orphans running in the streets begging for money from tourists. “You can avoid all that if you buy life insurance from me,” was his closing statement. That guy worked three hours a day and bought a new car every year; I work eight hours a day and drive a car made in the last century.

Scare tactics are as appropriate for computer security as they are for insurance policies. If you don’t want your domestic partner to be kicked out of his or her home after a network attack, if you don’t want your children suffering abuse in foster homes, continue reading.

In my last post, we started reviewing firewall tools for Linux. One other application worthy of mention is kmyfirewall, which runs on the KDE desktop. It is similar to Firestarter, which we discussed last week. Here is a sample of blocking outbound traffic to the Tool Bar’s Web page:

After rereading my last post, I now realize that a clarification is in order. The packages Firestarter and kmyfirewall are front ends to iptables, which is the underlying firewall program in Linux. Firestarter and kmyfirewall don’t do actual firewalling, they only help you make entries into the iptables database. You can create your own firewall in iptables directly, as we discussed in the preceding post.

Let’s dig a little deeper into what a firewall actually does. All of the traffic going through your network connection needs at least a source address (your computer’s address), a destination address, and a protocol. All these items are included in an IP header. One example of a firewall breach is when a program floods your network connection with outgoing IP headers containing a fictitious source address, that is, an address other than your own. The destination address will then start sending responses to the fictitious source address. This clogs the network connection of three victims: your computer, the destination computer, and the bogus source computer.

IP headers, along with TCP headers, carry most of the Internet traffic for Web pages and FTP transfers. IP headers contain 160 teeny-tiny bits that, if hijacked, can do an awful lot of damage. (Good illustrations of IP and TCP headers are here.) Firewalls examine the bits of every single header crossing your network connection, and allow or deny passage depending on the firewall’s rules.

A measure of a firewall’s flexibility is the number of fields it can examine inside the IP header. The standard firewall tools for Windows and Linux typically examine the basic fields: source, destination, port, and protocol. iptables goes much further than that, examining obscure fields such as “time-to-live.” The most thorough reference I found for iptables is the Iptables Tutorial. If you’re paranoid, it’s a must-read. If you’re not paranoid, you will be after you read the tutorial.

Modern firewalls for Windows have a very useful ability to “learn” filtering rules; whenever an unknown packet tries to go over the network connection, the firewall asks you for approval. The one Linux utility that has this feature is mason. Unfortunately I could not get it to work with Ubuntu, and I couldn’t find other learning firewalls. While some Linux users claim firewall rules should be designed, not learned, I would like to have this feature available.

You can compensate for the lack of firewall alerts by sniffing your own network connection. Wireshark (Windows, Mac, Linux) is the premier protocol analyzer that gives you a very clear and detailed picture of your network activity. Here is a snapshot of a recent visit to the Tool Bar:

You can review Wireshark’s reports for suspicious activity, and close your firewall’s holes as necessary.

That’s all for Linux firewalls. Next week we’ll do a short review of antivirus and antispyware tools, and then return to slightly more important topics, like the extinction of all life after the asteroid collision in 2036. –Mark Lautman

Well, dear readers, I have certainly learned enough for one week. Please come back next week for more great tips on handy Windows and Linux utilities and helpful Web sites. Feel free to share your thoughts by clicking on “comments” below or writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com. And please help this blog survive by clicking on our advertisers’ links.