RSS

September 16, 2009 Leave a comment

RSS Logo RSS is an acronym for “Really Simple Syndication” or “Rich Site Summary”. Basically it is a format for “web feeds” that are used to update web pages using a standardized format. The beauty of this is the standardization. It allows readers of web pages that use RSS to subscribe to the feeds. There are various ways to do this but the most straight-forward of these is the “RSS Reader”. The premise behind this is you “subscribe” to various sites that you want to be updated on and the “reader” application you are using will display the updates from all subscribed sites within one window. Much like an email application.

There are a multitude of RSS readers out there. The “sidebar” application that is bundled with Microsoft Vista has an RSS Reader application so that feeds can be displayed directly on your desktop. Google has a built-in RSS reader for Gmail users called “Google Reader“.  This works within a web browser for now, although that distinction is becoming more and more vague every day. Another popular RSS reader is called “FeedDemon“. In case you’re worried of the diabolical name, “Daemon” in computer terminology is a service or process that runs in the background. In other words the “demon”  is in the back ground “grabbing your feeds”.  If you give it your gmail user name and password it will synchronize your feeds from Google. This allows you to access your feeds you have subscribed to in Feed Demon in Google Reader and vice versa.

You can also add RSS feeds to your Firefox “bookmarks toolbar”.  Just click on the orange RSS icon in the address bar (if you don’t see an RSS icon, then the site probably doesn’t update via RSS). When you do you’ll see a box like this:

RSS Fig 1

Click subscribe and it will add the feed to your toolbar. This works fine if you have a small number of sites that you want to keep tabs on, but if you have more than 15 or so it can fill up your toolbar pretty quickly.

The main benefit of all this is to aggregate all of the updates for sites you’re interested in into one app. That way you don’t have to spend time visiting each and every website.

Writing and understanding the ins and outs of RSS feeds requires a good understanding of XML (Extensible Markup Language), the language that RSS feeds use.

Have any questions about RSS? Want to see a future topic in my blog? Just leave a comment. Until next time, happy reading.

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Computers Need Air

September 5, 2009 5 comments

It’s true. Computer manufacturers design computer cases with air flow in mind. All of those chips, resistors, transistors, capacitors, and heat sinks that make up the internal electronic components of your computer need to stay within a certain temperature range. If they get too hot, eventually they will fail.

If you have a laptop, keep the underside the computer ventilated. Don’t set it on a pillow. There are vents on the bottom of most laptops, the worst thing you could do is to sit it on a surface that will sink and cover the vents like a pillow. Try to keep it on flat level surfaces so that it gets good airflow and doesn’t overheat.

If you have a desktop computer, do not leave it sitting on carpet. Carpet can attract and discharge static electricity which can cause serious problems for computer components. If your computer is on a desk or a low shelf, turn it around and clean the dust off of it occasionally. Once a season, or about 4 times a year is a good guideline. Use a can of compressed air to blow the dust out of the fan vents on the back of the case. Use a vacuum cleaner to remove dirt and dust from the shelf or area where the PC resides. Try not to smoke around your computer case. The tar in tobacco smoke will accumulate over time on the fan motor and internal components of a computer (or any electronic device for that matter).

vents

Keeping the computer cool by allowing the proper airflow into and out of the case will keep your computer running for many years. The idea is to upgrade because you want to, not because you have to. Paying attention to the physical environment of a PC is sometimes just as important as updating and securing the software and files on a hard drive.

Have any other advice? Questions for a future blog post? Leave a comment.

Hump Day App

September 3, 2009 2 comments

By far the application that I run the most often on any computer that I use is CCleaner. What is this powerhouse application you ask? CCleaner is a “system optimization, privacy, and cleaning tool.” Essentially it has 3 main features.

CCleaner deletes temporary files, cookies, Internet history, and other unused files. Most of the applications on your computer (browsers, office suite, operating system) all have temporary folders where they store data that they use while they are running. Over time these files continue to pile up and take up space on your hard drive. CCleaner will go through and determine the programs installed on your system that have temporary files and then give you the option to delete them. When you’re ready, click the analyze button and CCleaner will scan and return a list of files to be removed. Once it has determined the files to be removed and you accept, click the Run Cleaner button. By default it will delete these files from your hard drive as well as empty the Recycle bin. In the options section, you can select whether you want the files simply marked for deletion (they may still be recoverable in this form), overwritten 1 time, 3 times, 7 times, or 35. Thirty-five overwrites may be overkill, but the National Security Agency standard is 7. Unless your transporting international spy documents on your laptop, the default should be fine.
CCleaner Fig1
CCleaner includes a registry cleaner. The registry is essentially a database that keeps up with all of the software and user settings on your computer. As programs are installed and uninstalled or deleted they leave behind registry entries that aren’t needed and take up space and point to folders that may no longer be around. CCleaner will scan your registry and determine a listing of unneeded registry entries. It’s usually a good idea to clean your registry maybe once a month (or two). More if you tend to install and uninstall programs regularly. Just click the button labeled “Scan for Issues” to start. Click “Fix Selected Issues” to delete the registry entries. Before the items are deleted CCleaner will give you the opportunity to back-up the current registry in case you delete something that winds up being important.

CCleaner Fig2
The third feature of CCleaner is an uninstaller and start-up manager. Usually when you download and install a program there is also a file called an “Uninstaller” that can be used to remove the files from your computer once it has been installed. Some programmers however, for whatever reason, do not opt to include an uninstaller. For some programs it’s really not necessary, but for most if you decide you don’t like the program, it helps to be able to remove all start menu entries, install folders, and .dll files. If you made the mistake of installing something that just doesn’t work quite right or seems to be crap ware or ad ware, CCleaner has an uninstall option that will search out all entries left by the program and remove them from your machine. From this menu you can also choose to delete an entry from the “Installed Programs Listing” or to rename it to something that may be more meaningful or familiar. These changes should be reflected in the Control Panel’s “Add/Remove Programs” listing. Another helpful feature here is the ability to save a listing of all the installed software to a text file. This can come in handy if you’re trying to rebuild a computer and want to make sure that you don’t forget any software in the rebuild. There is also a start-up manager which gives you simple interface to disable or delete any programs that might automatically start when your computer boots up. Very helpful for troubleshooting purposes too.

CCleaner Fig 3

And that’s pretty much the long and short of it. There are some advanced options such as selecting specific folders to exclude or include in the scans, or cookies to keep or delete, or start up behavior, but they’re understandable for the most part. The main reason I run a CCleaner scan is to clear out my web browsing temporary files. In most instances when I’ve ever had a virus or a piece of malicious software (malware) it’s always been something that was hanging around in a temporary folder or browser application data folder. Cleaning these folders out regularly seems to greatly decrease my risk of getting an infected file on my computer, which is always a good thing. Plus keeping your web cache clear lets your web browser run that much faster.

Have a question for about this or for a future blog? Drop me a comment.

Stumblin’ Around Part 10

September 1, 2009 1 comment

There are some really cool features in StumbleUpon. I’ve tried to cover all of the basic functionality of the service in my prior blog about Stumble. Today I’m going to go over a few of the more advanced features.

Now next to the Thumbs Down Fig 6 button is a button labeled “All” with a drop down arrow. Click the drop down arrow and you get a list of items and a list of your interests:

Stumble2 Fig1

You can choose any of the icons or select any of the interest categories you have chosen. When you do the “Stumble” button Stumble Button Fig 4 will change to show that you are Stumbling a particular category. For instance, if you choose “Photos” on the drop down menu, the button will look like this: Stumble2 Fig3. Now when you click the button it will only display pictures. You can also choose from videos, news, stumble friends, people, or page from specific users. To go back to the normal Stumble function, just click the drop down again and select “All” Stumble2 Fig2. These categories are referred to as “Channels”. You can also change the channels to Stumble by selecting the icons further to the right on the Stumble bar Stumble 2 Fig 4.

If you click the drop down arrow next to the crossed green arrows you are given the option to pick a website to “Stumble Thru”. This will only display items from that websites domain. Here is the list.

Stumble 2 Fig 5

So you can now Stumble the best videos on You Tube, the best pictures on Flickr, even the best blogs on WordPress. Not to mention you can choose one of your specific interest categories to Stumble through as well.

My two favorite features of the Stumble bar are the “Search” Stumble 2 Fig 6 and the “Share” Stumble 2 Fig 7. Search is under the “All” drop down arrow with the other “channels”. It works in much the same way except when you select this you get a pop up box:

Stumble 2 Fig 8

Type in anything you want to search for and click OK. Now when you hit the Stumble button you will be given web sites that have a tag matching your search terms. Keep in mind that thousands of other people may have tagged the page your seeing so someone may have put in a tag that doesn’t quite line up to what it is you had intended. I find most of the tagging pretty accurate. It makes it very easy to find quality content fast, much better sometimes than having to look through all of the Google entries until you find exactly what you’re looking for.

Stumble 2 Fig 7 Share is also great. Click this button and it allows you to Share a website with other friends. You can upload the URL to your Twitter feed if you want. You can send the website to an email address, or just one of your other Stumble friends. I personally like the email feature. I can email the page to myself so I can go back to it later. While all the pages you Stumble and “Like” are saved on your Stumble account page as “Stumbles” or “Favorites” respectively, it can sometimes be hard to find a particular page if you didn’t tag it or don’t remember when you Stumbled it. Especially when you have over 32,000 Stumbles and 6,200 favorites (like me).

The other thing that bears mentioning briefly about StumbleUpon is that it is not meant to be a quick and dirty way to get traffic to your website. So don’t go around giving all of your sites the “Thumbs Up”. I’m not sure if the User Agreement specifically mentions this or not, but your free to give it a look-see and let me know. StumbleUpon has recently banned some users for spam or other inappropriate behavior (more info about that here and here), so make sure what you’re “Thumbs Up”-ing is because its legit and you like it and not because you’re trying to link bait as many people you can into your Ad Sense farm. As far as I can tell though, there’s nothing wrong with giving a friends site or blog and “Thumbs Up” either because you like the site or want to help out your friend. Just be careful as to how often, because you may look like your trading “Thumbs Up”s which is frowned upon. It’s not perfect yet, nothing is.

StumbleUpon is a business though and does have some new sites and services that work with Stumble, including some paid submissions and ad services, so you may want to do research on those if increasing traffic is your thing. I personally think that if you have a site that provides some value to the reader or customer, then you shouldn’t need to trick people into going there. They will go there because they like the site.

There are probably a lot more advanced tricks with using StumbleUpon to build site traffic. I know quite a few of my Stumble friends send me their blog pages through the “Share” service and ask me to “Thumbs Up” or review it if I like the page. I don’t see anything wrong with that, the site is meant for networking after all. There are also some options to configure with the toolbar itself, but those are pretty self-explanatory, so I’ll let you figure those out yourselves.

So there you have it. That’s how I use Stumble. What do you like most about StumbleUpon? What do you use it for? As always if you have a question, or a suggestion for a future blog topic, please leave me a comment. And hey, if you like the blog a “Thumbs Up” wouldn’t hurt either.

Stumblin’ Around Part 01

August 31, 2009 3 comments

OK, so per my mother’s first comment request, I’m going to talk a little about Stumble Upon. Stumble Logo Fig 3

I’m going to warn you right now though. When you’re up channel surfing the Internet until 4am on a weeknight because you have to push that button Stumble Button Fig 4one more time, don’t blame me.

So first for the uninitiated, what is Stumbleup0n? Is it a website? Is it a toolbar? Is it a Firefox add-on? Is it a social networking site? Well, truth is, it sort of defies classifications and labels. There’s not much else like it that I’ve found. It’s similar in function to Delicious (aka del.icio.us).  Wikipedia defines Stumbleupon as:

StumbleUpon is an Internet community that allows its users to discover and rate Web pages, photos, and videos. It is a personalized recommendation engine which uses peer and social-networking principles.

I like to describe it simply as “It lets you channel surf the web.” Just like channel surfing on the TV, you keep clicking, looking for something better on another channel. The thing is with the TV eventually you run out of channels and your back to where you started. With the Internet, you don’t run out of channels.

Essentially, you create a user account where you can enter some personalized information and get detailed if you want. You can even have a picture, so it feels like a Facebook/Myspace type thing at first. Then there is a toolbar that you can download for Firefox, and there used to be one for Internet Explorer (I’m not sure if IE8 supports Stumble or not). If your using Chrome or Opera or even Safari, I’m not sure. I have gotten Stumble to work in Opera, but by far it works the best using Firefox. Either way, you need the toolbar to appreciate the full effects of Stumbling. So just get Firefox already, it’s free.

So the tool bar you install will be below your bookmark toolbar in Firefox and just above the tab section:

Stumble Fig 1

When you get started setting up your account the site will ask you to choose your interests. There is a long list of categories broken down into sub-categories. You’ll select each sub topic that your’e interested in and StumbleUpon will present you with pages in that category when you click the “Stumble” button Stumble Button Fig 4.

As of now, you can only choose 127 different topics, so choose carefully (you can always go back and change them later).

StumbleFig 2

Now the idea behind Stumbleupon is simple. When your online and you find a website that you like or want to share, you click the “I Like It” thumbs up icon Thumbs Up Fig 5.

If the page is a new submission then it will ask you to tag it, or in other words, give the page descriptive words about its content. You can use pretty much any words for tags (separated by commas) but they only let you use five total tags. You can also right a review and categorize the page if you want. If the page has already been submitted to the database it will simply note that you “like it” and add it to your listed favorites on your profile.

Once you “thumbs up” a page it is added to your “Favorites” section. On your Stumbleupon profile all of the pages that you “like” are listed for you or any of your “friends” or “fans” to see. One of the reasons I started using StumbleUpon was as an alternative to del.icio.us. It allows you to bookmark sites that you can then access from any web browser. So if your not at your home computer you can still pull up sites that you may not remember the URL to get to.

If you decide after all that it’s not a favorite or you don’t want it to be seen or listed on your profile, then it can be deleted be clicking the “Delete” link on your list of favorites.

Now when you hit the Stumble button a page is retrieved from the database of submissions that matches up to the categories you’ve selected as interests. I’m sure there’s more to it than this, but without trying to reverse engineer the whole thing, that’s the just of it. Sometimes you will get a page that one of your friends has submitted. Generally when you click Stumble the Stumbleupon user that submitted the page will appear in the Stumble bar. You can then click on the user button to visit their profile and see what other pages they like and learn more about them.

If you are given a page that you don’t like for whatever reason you can click the “Thumbs Down” buttonThumbs Down Fig 6 with a few options in the drop down arrow.

First, you can simply decide that the page is “Not for you”.  You can also report the page as spam, duplicate content (meaning you’ve seen the page or a the same content on another page), or you can choose to “Block Website”. This last option will keep any page from the website that you are on from being displayed by a click of your Stumble button.

There are a lot of other advanced features that make StumbleUpon really addictive. I’ll talk about those in a future blog. But for now go ahead and download the toolbar and sign up for an account. Did I mention that it’s free? Play with it and if you run across something you have a question about, drop me a line (leave a comment).

Until next time I leave you with this and wish you happy Stumbling.

633723777745356860-stumbleupon

11001001

August 30, 2009 2 comments

I decided to borrow the title to this blog from an episode of Star Trek The Next Generation. The episode was about a group of aliens called “Bynars” and today I’m going to talk about binary math. Seriously.

So binary math is one of those topics that gets hammered into you as an IT major/Computer Science major from your very first day of class. In my case, the first day of every computer related course I took the instructor thought they would be clever and pull out some binary math problems. This is usually met with groans from the class. After a little bit of practice it’s actually not so bad.

So to explain binary, it is basically just a number system, similar to the decimal system. The normal system of numbers that people use for everyday things like money, counting, etc. is called the “decimal” system. It’s called this because there are 10 digits, “deci” representing a Greek or Latin root for the number 10 (think decade or decimeter). In any place in a given number there is a digit 0-9. When you get past nine you add an additional digit “1 ” plus the 0 which is “10”.  The “1” is said to be in the “tens” place and the “0” is in the ones place. The places in the decimal system go up ones, tens, hundreds, thousands and so forth. The mathematical way to think of this would be 10^0 for the ones place, 10^1 for the tens place, 10^2 for the hundreds place and so on and so forth. (10^2 reading as : 10 squared or 10² which equals 10×10).

Still with me?? Binary numbers are just like decimal numbers, except that computers are dumb. They cannot interpret 10 different digits in their basic machine language. Computers read circuits as either on or off, open or closed, 1 or 0. Thus they only have 2 digits available in their number system of binary. 1 & 0.

So the first place in a binary number is 2^0 or 2 to the 0 power. Any number to the power of 0 is 1. So the first number is still the ones place. In binary if there is a 0 in that place then you do not count the number for the total. If there is a 1, then you do. 0 is off, 1 is on. So 0 is still zero, and 1 would still be 1. Simple enough right?

So what would 01 be? Still 1. 11 would actually equal 3. The next place up from the 2^0 place would be 2^1 which equals 2. So if there is a one in that place, count 2. So 11 is 3. 111 would be 7. 1111 would be 15. 1000 is 8, 1100 is 12, 1011 is 11. Still there?

So each place in the number goes up by one power of two: 2^0, 2^1, 2^2, 2^3, 2^4, 2^5, 2^6, and 2^7. Generally most binary numbers come in sets of 8. (make note that I stopped at 7, 2^0 counts as a digit so there are 8 places all together even though it only went to 7).

A binary digit (a 1 or a 0) is referred to as a bit. Which is represented by a “b” (lowercase). A byte, is a series of 8 binary digits (like the title of this blog post) and is represented by a “B” (upper case B). So when you see Mb, it’s read as “megabit” and MB would be read as “megabyte”. It may seem like a small difference, but one is actually 1,000,000 bits (or 1,000 Kb) and the other is 1,000,000 Bytes or 8*1,000,000 bits, so 8,000,000 bits.

So the place numbers of a byte from right to left are 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, and 128. Now you can have a number that goes past 8 places. You just add another power of 2. So 256, 512, 1024, etc. or 2^8, 2^9, 2^10.

So the easiest way when learning this for the first time is to write out on paper the places from 128 – 1 in order from left to right. Then put your byte to convert to a decimal number under each place lining up the numbers like so:

binaryfig1

So this number would be 128+64+8+4 or 204. Try some for yourself til you get the hang of it.

A couple of tips. Any number that has a 0 for the last place will be an even number. Any number that has a 1 for the last digit will be an odd number. All zeros will be 0. All 1’s in a byte is 255. Some times it’s easier to subtract. For instance, if the number is 11111110, then you know its 255-1 or 254. If the number is 11110000 then it’s 255-15 or 240.

Remember, you can represent any number between 0 and 255 with a byte (8 digits). Here’s another tip. Say you have 00001111 (also can be written without the “leading” zeros as 1111). Well, that represents 15, but it’s also one number less than the number of the next place up, 16. So 00000111 is 7 and 00001111 is 15 because 00001000 is 8 and 00010000 is 16. Just like 11111111 is 255 and 100000000 is 256 (9 places).

So what would 00111111 be? Easy, 63. Or how about 01000001? 65. 10000001? 129.

Going from a decimal number to a binary one is a little different. Say we have 223 and want to convert it to binary. Well start at the “128” in our diagram. 223 is larger than 128, so put a 1 under the 128 and subtract that from our number.

223-128=95. So 95 is larger than 64, write a 1 under that place and subtract. 95-64=31. So next is 32, well we have 31, so write a 0 under 32. Next is 16. 31 is larger than 16, so write down a 1 and subtract 16. 31-16=15. 15 left, 15 is larger than 8, so put a 1 under 8, subtract. 7 left. Put a 1 under the 4, subtract 7-4=3. Put a 1 under the 2, subtract 3-2=1. Put down a 1 under the 1.

binaryfig2

Now, when you got to the 32 place and you had 31 left, you could have just stopped right there and put ones in the 16 through the 1 place, but just in case you’re still catching on, I thought I’d work it out all the way.

That’s the basics. I don’t want to confuse you by talking about words and nibbles, or trying to go into hexadecimal right now.

Why would you even want to know all of this? Well, to be able to communicate with computers it helps to understand how they process information. One example is IP addressing. IP addresses are like phone numbers for computers. To be able to communicate on the Internet, your computer needs an IP address which allows it to send and receive information. One common IP address is 192.168.0.1. The computer actually sees this as 11000000.10101000.00000000.000000001. As a network engineer, you need to be able to break these sets of numbers down quickly into “subnets”. A healthy understanding of binary math is essential to do this correctly.

It’s funny how I notice all sorts of computer related things that only allow for 1 byte of information. For instance, in the NES title The Legend of Zelda, you can only get a maximum of 255 rupies. I can only assume this is because the game stored that value as a byte and 255 would have been the largest number it could have interpreted.

If you want to play around with this and check your answers or what have you, here’s how to do it the fast way. On a Windows machine open the run box (WinKey+R) and type “calc” and hit enter. This opens the Windows calculator. On the menu bar click “View” and then “Scientific”.  Your calculator should look like this:

binary fig 3

Right under the white field where you input your numbers there are 4 radio buttons on the left side. “Hex, Dec, Oct, and Bin.”  These mean “hexadecimal”, “decimal”, “octal”, and “binary”. So type in a number and then click in the “Bin” radio button and it will give you the binary version. In binary mode, type in a string of 1’s and 0’s and then go back to decimal to see what the number would be. Doing this I see that the title of that Star Trek episode actually converts to “201”. Wikipedia has this to say about the significance of the title:

11001001” is a first-season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, first broadcast February 1, 1988. It is episode #15, production #116, teleplay written by Maurice Hurley and Robert Lewin, and directed by Paul Lynch. The episode’s title is a combination of the four appearing Bynars‘ names: One-one, Zero-zero, One-Zero, and Zero-One. The rounded binary representation of pi is 11.001001 as well.

Overview: Curious little aliens, the Bynars, retrofit the Enterprise computer in a space dock.

So I guess 201, doesn’t figure into the equation at all. It is a representation of all of the possible combination of two bits: 00, 01, 10, 11.

If you made it this far, your brain probably hurts. Imagine how your hard drive feels.

Freebie Friday

August 28, 2009 3 comments

OK, today I want to talk about security. You know, what the salesperson at Best Buy tries to upsell you when you bought your computer there. Most off the shelf PCs come with some sort of security software. Norton Antivirus (or Symantec), McAffee Security, Trendmicro, there are plenty more. All of these software packages provide basic PC security. Anti-virs, anti-spyware, anti-spam, anti-malware, firewalls, after a while it can become a little overwhelming to the uninitiated.

You get a free trial with your machine, then after a month or 3 you start getting these messages that your “subscription has expired’ or your “anti virus definitions” can’t be updated.  Essentially all of these security suites charge a yearly subscription fee to provide you with the latest virus protections. If you don’t pay, then you’re subject to picking up the latest computer virus.

In case you weren’t aware there are “free” antivirus programs. They provide real time monitoring of the files on your PC and alert you if they encounter a defined “virus” or piece of “malware” (malicious software).

Two of the best, free programs that provide real-time monitoring of your files are “Avast” and “AVG“. There is also an open source program called “Clamwin” that will scan your PC for viruses, but doesn’t commit resources to actively looking for them.

So if you are looking for a free alternative solution to McAfee, Norton, Trend Micro or any of the others, check out some of the links in this blog. If you do choose to use one of these free anti-virus programs, be aware that it may not play well with the previous anti-virus program that came with your machine. You will want to uninstall the old program first.

As always, if anyone has any questions or subjects for a future blog, please leave a comment. Thanks for reading.