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.

21 May 2008

#71. Prevent Your PC from Going Up in Flames

Welcome back to the Tool Bar & Grill. I wish I could stay – but I just saw Mark Lautman heading into the Linux Lounge with a gas can, some rags, and a lighter. So I decided to evacuate the Tool Bar & Grill and leave the place entirely to Mark today.

Playing with Fire

by Mark Lautman

There is something a little disturbing about names of computer products. We have “firewalls” and CD “burners.” A label manufacturer has a product called Afterburner, and a large retailer offers an in-home computer installation and repair service called Firedog. Is it just me, or does everyone seem to detect an underlying attraction to arson in the personal computer world? With all these latent firebugs using computers, we better start talking about computer security.

Jonathan wrote about the absolute necessity to install a firewall (see posts #6 and #66), and offered a few recommendations for Windows users. Linux users, while normally docile and tame, and who would never, ever consider hacking into someone else's computer, need to be protected as much as anyone else.

The easiest Linux firewalling tool to use is Firestarter (a name which only proves my point about PC-induced pyromania). This product installs easily into Ubuntu, and provides a very clear and usable window for establishing firewall rules. This is what happened when I added a rule to block outbound traffic to the Tool Bar's Web site.

Firestarter is easy to use and works beautifully, but it doesn't have many of the features available in modern firewalls. For example, it doesn't provide detailed filtering to precisely examine many fields in an IP header. In addition, Firestarter won't automatically “learn” firewall rules by asking you to approve or deny an attempt by a program to use a network connection.

iptables provides an additional level of protection. You can create rules at a very specific level, combining source and destination IP addresses, ports, protocols, incoming and outgoing network interfaces, and almost any field within an IP header. To make things even more complicated, iptables allows “chains” of rules. After examining a packet, you can instruct iptables to move the packet through an additional chain of tests to determine if the packet is allowed over the network. Below is a simple IP rule that blocks outgoing traffic to the Tool Bar's Web site.

iptables lets you build a very tight firewall, but it still doesn't “learn” firewall rules like Comodo or ZoneAlarm. A tool similar to iptables is shorewall, which also uses the command line to build tables of firewall rules.

Next week, we'll continue exploring other Linux security utilities, including some that do learn firewall rules. In the meantime, be sure you hide all your matches and gasoline! —Mark Lautman

Regrettably, due to work and travel pressures, I (Jonathan) was unable to provide you with a detailed utility or Web site review this week. I'll be back next week, though, with a special issue. Meanwhile, this update on essential security software:

More Firewall Woes

Comodo Firewall Pro version 3 had everything going for it – top test scores, glowing reviews, built-in self-educating HIPS (host intrusion protection system). And Comodo recently took first place again in the Matousec firewall tests. However, I have had a lot of trouble with Comodo 3 (see post #66 for a recap and links to previous posts about Comodo.) It still annoys of me with very frequent pop-up questions about programs that it should recognize already, and its apparent habit (often after being updated) of forgetting some of my previous answers to the same authorization questions. It’s bad enough to be asked every time about, for instance, Windows Media Player or Windows Update. But it was the last straw when Comodo even failed to recognize its own updater, and nagged me with multiple authorization requests just to update itself.

As soon as I have a bit of time, I'll experiment with other firewalls again – perhaps the slightly lower-ranked Online Armor (though the free version is not Vista-compatible) and add the well-regarded ThreatFire for HIPS projection.

Antivirus Delight

I have been using Avast! Home 4.8 antivirus for several weeks, and I am quite happy with it. Avast! consistently ranks very highly in comparative tests, includes all the main functions you want (real-time scanning, email scanning, daily updating, etc.) and also includes anti-spyware and anti-rootkit features (though I'm not sure if these are as good as stand-alone products). Avast! is unobtrusive, and best of all, the Home edition is free. The main drawback appears to be heavy processor and memory usage, so Avast! might not be the best choice for weak computers. However, among the top three free antivirus products (the others are Avira AntiVir Personal and AVG Antivirus Free), Avast! so far has gained a slight edge in my opinion.

Please come back for my recommendations of great utilities and Web sites and Mark’s Linux wisdom. Do tell all your friends about us too, and support this blog by visiting our advertisers! Finally, feel free to share your thoughts by clicking on “comments” below or writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.

11 May 2008

#70. Guide for the Perplexed: Where To Find How-To’s and Office 2007 Commands

This week at the Tool Bar & Grill, we want to tell you everything about everything you need to know. Unfortunately, we don’t know much… but we do know where to look!

How To Find a How-To

The Internet is full of great information. You can learn how to do just about anything on line – build a deck, play the guitar, arrange flowers, make origami flowers, or even make love – if you can just find the right sites.

Usually, a well-formed search through Google, Yahoo, or another search engine (or better yet, a metasearch engine that aggregates results from many others) will turn up what you need. But you might find it quicker and easier by visiting one of the many Web sites that collect and disseminate how-to tutorials.

I recommend you start with eHow, which hosts professional, illustrated tutorials on a wide range of topics. You’ll also find a lot to read at About.com, the granddaddy of instructional and informational sites, though often the information is scattered across many pages of varying styles.

Other sites to try include Tips.Net (with a somewhat narrower selection and condensed tips) and WikiHow and Wired How-To Wiki (both hosting user-written tutorials of variable quality). HowStuffWorks also provides some how-to guides along with its famous explanations of how stuff works.

Quamut is a new entry on the written tutorial scene, offering detailed, professional multipage instructional guides (as well as a user-written wiki). These guides also can be downloaded in PDF format at $2.95 each – but each day, one is offered for free.

A few of these sites, especially eHow, also offer video tutorials on various subjects. I plan to provide you a round-up of the best video how-to sites in an upcoming posts, so stay tuned.

Where the #$%& Is that Command in Office 2007?

When I use Microsoft Office, I try to stick with the 2003 version, but sometimes I have no choice but to use 2007. I still feel like a retard when I can’t find a particular command on the huge, confusing “ribbon” tool bar (not to mention my irritation at the extra clicks required). And contrary to Microsoft’s assurances, some of the old keyboard shortcuts don’t work.

It seems that even some folks at Microsoft Office Labs had the same trouble, because they wrote a little Office add-in to handle it. If you, too, sometimes struggle to find your way around Office 2007, you will share my delight in discovering the new Search Commands. This “pre-release” add-in helps you find commands, options, wizards, and galleries that have gone AWOL in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint 2007.

Search Commands puts a new tab on the Office Ribbon. It contains a search box, a link to “guided help” (which would not load on my computer), and several popular search terms:

Type the function or command you want in the Search box. You don’t have to know the exact name; an approximation or description usually will do. As you type, matching or similar commands will appear in the ribbon; typing more narrows the range of choices.

Hover your mouse over one of the commands, and a screen tip appears to tell you where to find it on the standard ribbon next time. Click the command to execute it.

Search Commands has been a great help to me in the week or so since I installed it. For fellow keyboard kloppers, pressing Win+Y anywhere in Word or Excel brings up the Search Commands tab (if you have other add-ins, you might have to add a number, such as Win+Y2; this is shown in the ribbon).

Software You Can Drink Anywhere

by Mark Lautman

In last week’s post I introduced Peter, a regular at the Linux room with some social limitations. I recently promoted Peter to the position of Lead Bartender, because Peter can make one nasty martini. He made them at the finest European hotels and at some of Moscow’s steamiest bars. Making martinis is a “portable” skill; it can be done anywhere.

Peter’s name, however, isn’t portable. He was born in the rural mountains of Albania with the name of Engjëll. Later he moved to India where he adopted the name Abhayaprada. Listen, I’m all for cultural tolerance and diversity, but it’s awfully difficult to write “Abhayaprada” on our new employee badges that were designed for names no longer than “Ed.” “Abhayaprada” is not a portable name. Neither is “Ed.”

Portability in software means how easily the same application can run in different environments. Internet Explorer is the most popular Web browser, but it isn’t very portable because it runs only on PCs with Microsoft Windows. Firefox is also a popular Web browser, because it runs on Windows and Linux, but it is still not portable – Mozilla makes two different versions of Firefox, one for Windows and another for Linux. The following graphic illustrates the nightmare software companies face when they want to develop and maintain separate programs that run on different platforms:

The cost of maintaining two sets of code that are “almost identical” is enormous.

Today, much of this duplication can be avoided by writing applications for a runtime environment (RTE). An RTE is a package that sits between the operating system and the application. If you write an application for an RTE such as Java, you can rest assured that Java will take care of the operating system calls, such as opening and closing files. Applications written for Java are indeed portable: wherever Java runs, your application also runs. Java so popular that it is available for Linux, Windows, Solaris, and Mac (view the full list on the Web site).

Microsoft has a runtime environment called .NET. This RTE runs only on Windows, the Xbox, and some other Microsoft devices. In some ways this defeats the purpose of portability, because an RTE should run applications on all operating systems, not just Windows. Nevertheless, .NET gives Windows programmers a degree of portability because they are insulated from changes in Windows itself. Generally, if you write an application for .NET, it will run on Windows 2000, XP, and Vista.

Another popular RTE is GTK. Like Java, GTK is available for Linux, Unix, Windows, and OSX. Applications that are written for GTK will run on those four platforms, and are therefore portable. The most popular application written for GTK is the image editor Gimp. IT types often sniff networks using Wireshark, another application written for GTK. A competitor for GTK is Trolltech’s QT RTE, which provides many of the same features.

There is a fundamental problem with RTEs. Because they sit between the program and the operating system, there is inevitably a performance hit. Even though Java is highly optimized, it slows a computer’s response time compared to running “native.” The same complaints are made of GTK.

Nevertheless, RTEs are great for developers and for users. For developers, they reduce the headache of making and maintaining multiple versions of the same program; for users, they mean learning fewer applications that do the same thing. My bartender Peter applies the principles of RTEs to his job, and now he’s working on a new Java-based “Colorado Bulldog” beverage that he can serve in any environment! Mark Lautman

I trust today’s post has been informative. Please come back every week for more recommendations of great utilities and Web sites, and bring all your friends. And please help support this blog by visiting our advertisers. Meanwhile, you can share your thoughts with me and other readers by clicking on “comments” below or, if you prefer privacy, by writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.

04 May 2008

#69. Music and a Date at the Tool Bar & Grill

I know, the Tool Bar & Grill isn’t well known as a pickup joint, but you will find valuable tips on getting and keeping dates right here. But first, a little music to set the mood.

Just Music, Just Right

Sometimes you just want to play some music on your computer. You don’t want to futz with playlists or assemble libraries. You don’t want to look at album covers or get dizzy watching swirling colors. You only want to listen to the songs in your music directory, one after the other.

You want 1by1, a deceptively simple MP3 player (other formats are supported through WinAmp plug-ins). Point 1by1 at a folder, and it will play the music files it finds there (and, optionally, in subfolders). 1by1 is small, simple, portable – and free (donations are accepted).

1by1 is customizable, and does support playlists if you really do want to futz with them. Behind the plain interface are a number of helpful options, including audio enhancements and the ability to compare different folders and to copy, rename, move, and delete music files (but not tagging, unfortunately). The other drawback is that FoxyTunes does not recognize it, so you can’t control 1by1 from within your browser. But when the question is plain and simple music playback, 1by1 is the answer.

How to Get a Date in Linux
by Mark Lautman

The regulars at the Tool Bar and Grill are congenial, well dressed, well educated, and function well in a highly social environment. That’s in stark contrast with the regulars in the Linux Room. They can type, they can think, they can even breathe; but when they need to do something as simple as ask a waiter for a glass of water, they freeze.

Take Peter, one of our more timid regulars in the Linux Room. He’s been rejected by every young woman that he’s met in his multi-variate differential equation classes. “I just don’t understand it,” he bemoans. “I keep asking them what they are doing on Friday night, and they keep saying, ‘Don’t know, ask me next week.’.”

“Peter, you’re going about it all wrong,” I advise. “You need to send her a recurring reminder. Something like ‘REM Friday AT 18:00 MSG Are you doing anything tonight?’ That saves you the agony of being rejected in person.”

Well, since we’re on the topic of dates, calendars, and recurring reminders, we should go over the fabulous tools available in Linux which can soothe even the most lonely of hearts.
The easiest calendering program available is Mozilla’s Sunbird, which you can also install as an add-on into Thunderbird as Lightning. Sunbird provides standard, easy-to-use functions such as appointments and reminders. A nice feature is the availability of national holidays (download) which you can load into your calendar.

Like all Mozilla products, Sunbird is great. But the heartbroken need so much more. Evolution is a Linux drop-in replacement for Microsoft Outlook. This application includes a very versatile calendar (as well as email and contact handling.) Evolution often gets praise for being a successful replacement to a Windows application.

Most Linux distributions, including Ubuntu, come with the standard utility calendar. You type your appointments, one-time and recurring, into a text file. When you run calendar, it parses the file and displays what you need to do on any given day. Here is what a typical week of mine looks like.

There are a variety of plug-in calendars available for calendar, including many religious versions.
Calendar is good, but its big drawback is that it doesn’t pop up any reminders. You need to run it manually every day to see what is in your appointment book.

A much more feature-rich reminder program is remind, whose flexibility is limitless. You can easily specify reminders that repeat for a month, a year, every 1st and 15th of a month, or any frequency you can possibly imagine. This program can also avoid scheduling repeating appointments on certain days. For example, in the Linux Room we don’t have meetings on the full moon in December because everyone turns into werewolves.

Remind provides a variety of output formats, including PDF, HTML, and a standard desk display. In addition, remind runs as a process, and displays alarms on your console when you need to do something.

Trust me, if you take the time to learn all of these Linux calendaring programs, you’ll always have something to talk about at any party or on any first date! –Mark Lautman

How To Get Rid of a Caller

So Peter finally got a girl on the phone from the dingy phone booth in the back of the Linux Room. After half a minute, he heard a tea kettle whistling, and she said she had to go because the water was boiling. But Peter stayed on the line, because she had forgotten to get his phone number, or even his name. When she picked up the phone again a moment later, she was startled to find Peter waiting. After just a moment, Peter heard the wailing of a car alarm, and she said she had to hang up quickly because someone was breaking into her car.

After he hung up, Peter remembered she didn’t have a car. Mark had already passed out under the table, so Peter came out to the front and asked me what had gone wrong. “She’s a smart one,” I said. “She knows about SorryGottaGo, the Web site with sound files that back up all kinds of excuses for getting off the phone quickly.”

“How does that work?” ask Peter. “Don’t worry, Peter, you’ll never need to know,” I consoled him. “But anyway, you can download lots of different sound effects, or play them right from the site while you’re on the phone. Each sound file supports a different excuse for hanging up quickly.”

“There are sounds of babies, pets, traffic, storms, and much more,” I continued, “and here’s something even you will like: They even have scripts you can play to telemarketers so you won’t have to talk to them yourself.”

Peter reasoned that there is only a finite number of recordings at SorryGottaGo. Excited at having made the acquaintance of such a clever girl, he thanked me and rushed right back to the phone booth.

At the Tool Bar & Grill, we’ll never blow you off or hang up on you. So be sure to stop in every week, and bring everyone you know. And you also can help this blog survive by visiting our advertisers.

Did I overlook your favorite utility or Web site? Tell us all about it by clicking on “comments” below or, if you prefer privacy, by writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.