Saturday, November 19, 2005

What Can I Do With This Computer?

eMail is the carrot that led most home computer users to turn on the machine. The need to stay in touch with children who have gone off to college has moved many moms to the mouse. Some have gone well beyond eMail, others have no idea what else there might be. Following are a few examples of what else is available. I'll cover many of the following in more detail in later posts:.

Applications and Information on the Internet
  • Web browsing. This one is as ubiquitous as eMail. If you didn't know a little about browsing the WWW you wouldn't be reading this.
  • Web Search: When you don't know the name of a website (like WWW.Someplace.Com) how do you find what you're looking for? Search engines have indexed the web pages on literally hundreds of millions of web servers.
  • Product Support: Computer hardware and software companies usually include support at their web site. There you can find such things as user guide documentation and software fixes and updates. Did you know that many other companies include support at their web sites too? For example, you can find user manuals for things like garage door openers, thermostats, microwave ovens, etc. etc. If you've lost or missplaced the manual to your device, you can find it on the web (but it helps to know how to look - see Web Search above).
  • Entertainment Information and Ticketing: What movies/plays/musicals/circus acts/operas/ etc. are playing in theaters near you (or anyplace else in the world)? Get seat availability, pricing information, and/or buy tickets.
  • Travel Information and Ticketing: Airlines, airline ticket wholesalers, hotels, motels, car rentals - information about them and tickets for them are available on the WWW.
  • Communication: eMail is just one way to communicate over the Internet. Others include:
    • Instant Messenger - unlike eMail, instant messenger applications are done in "real time" like the telephone except instead of talking, you are typing. If you've had a conversation with someone this way and you want to pass the information on to someone else, it is easy, after the fact, to copy the conversation into an eMail and send it on. This way a conversation you have had with (for example) a niece or nephew in the service in Iraq (yes, believe it or not armed services personnel do get access to computers) can be passed on to other members of your family.
    • Web Cam - like a picture phone. You can see (and hear) your grandchild waving to you and saying "Hi Grandma"
  • Research: enormous amounts of information are available on every topic under the sun. many research journals, magazines and newspapers are available in full text with archives going back years.
  • Government Information and Assistance: Local, state and national government entities make information and frequently make forms available on the WWW.
  • Shopping: Very much like shopping from a catalog, but the "catalog" is always up-to-date. Some clothing stores on the web will allow you to give them your measurements after which they will show you how a given article of clothing will look on someone with your dimensions. Try that with a catalog.
  • Online Banking: This one is scary for many people. With some education and training, this is as safe as walking into the bank.
  • Snapshot sharing: Pictures you have taken with your digital camera (or scanned from a paper photograph) can be uploaded and stored, at no cost, on the web for others to see/download/print/share. You can make them available to the world or only to the few that you select.
  • Music Purchase and Download: Music "sharing" sites that allow you to download for free copies of copyrighted tunes are dangerous to use and are being shut down one-by-one by the courts for copyright infringement. However, there are sites like iTunes that allow you to legally purchase (iTunes offers them at 99 cents per tune) and download a wide variety of music to your PC. From there you can listen to them directly on your PC or "burn" them to a CD to listen to them in your car or wherever. Instead of buying a CD for $15 to get the two tunes you like, buy just the two tunes and save $13.
  • Driving Directions and Maps: Get a map and turn-by-turn driving directions from any address to any address in the USA and beyond. "Fly" from one point on a map to another - see either the map or actual satellite pictures of the location you are "flying" over. Pictures are in simulated 3D and in some cases, like the Grand Canyon, are incredible photorealistic! (goggle Earth).
  • University Education: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), for example, is well along in the process of putting all of the course material used by its world renowned teaching staff up on the WWW, freely accessible by anyone. Incredible.
  • etc. etc. etc: I've written the above list without even pausing to think. This list just barely scratches the surface.
Standalone Applications - No Need For Network Connections
  • Word Processing is to stand alone applications what eMail is to network applications - its the starting point of computer use for the generation that grew up with typewriters.
  • Home Budget and Tax preparation: Keep track of your budget and expenses, have the software prepare your income tax forms for submission on paper or over the Internet.
  • Snapshot Storage and Slideshows: Upload the pictures from your camera to your computer. From there you can run slideshows, print copies, "doctor" the pictures to remove that old boyfriend from the great snapshot of your daughter.
  • Home Video Edit and Archive: take your library of home videos - all those old vacations, birthday parties, weddings, etc, edit out the miscues, and transfer the results to a DVD where they will last longer than they will on VHS tape.
  • Home Music Library Management: You probably have a library of CDs collected over the years. You can transfer them to your PC where you can either play them. and/or you can select individual songs that can be "burned" by your computer onto a CD. This creates your own personalized mix of tunes on a CD. That personalized "mix" CD can then be played in your car or other CD player.
  • Games -some come for free when you buy your computer, hundreds more are available for free on the Internet (although it takes knowledge and experience to judge which of the free games are safe to download) and hundreds more are available for a fee both in stores and on the Internet.
  • etc. etc. etc.: Hundreds of software titles are available. Click here for a link to one of many software catalogs.
More detail to follow in future posts.
Jim White

Friday, November 18, 2005

Starting Anew

I'm starting this blog as a service to my customers, friends and family. I hope to use it to offer interesting and helpful information on home computer use, home network management, new and emerging technology and related topics.


Sony's music division has installed software on many of it's music CDs that, when inserted into your PCs CD drive, will install itself without telling you and will then hide itself in such a way that if you use any tool (like the Windows Task Manager) to see what is running on your PC, IT WILL BE HIDDEN FROM YOU. They use this software to prevent you from copying the CD more times than they think you should.

In addition to doing this to your PC without even telling you and then hiding it from you, there are bugs in the software that will help hackers to attack your machine and to hide their attack in the same way. Here is a link to an excellent article in the NY Times explaining the details:

For the more tech savy among you here is a link to Bruce Schneier's excellent blog covering this fiasco in detail:

I also snail mailed the following yesterday. If you feel the same way after reading the above, you may want to send something similar:

Nicole Seligman
Executive Vice President and General Counsel
Sony Corporation
550 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10022-3211

Dear Ms. Seligman:

Sony was a company I could trust. I have purchased or recommended to friends and family for purchase literally dozens of Sony products based in large part on a trust which Sony has now violated.

The inclusion by Sony of software on music CDs which installs on PCs without notice then hides itself and, to make terrible matters worse, does so in a fashion that in several ways exposes Sony’s customers to further damage by third parties is an unforgivable abrogation of Sony’s responsibilities to its customers. I refuse to do further business in any way with a company that treats it’s customers in this fashion.


Jim White

End of Message
Probably won't do any good, but mailing it, and making the resolution to boycott Sony products certainly made me feel better.

More later.