All posts by Ross Parker

Firefox

http://firefox.com/

Firefox is a fast, simple, sophisticated web browser, which provides a secure alternative to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Whilst a great choice for all users, it is particularly useful to web developers, who can use the multitude of add ons (Firebug, Foxy Proxy, Firesizer, Snapper, ColorZilla etc) to aid them in their work. Its high levels of standards conformance also make it a good choice for developing web sites.

Thunderbird

http://mozilla.com/thunderbird/

Thunderbird is an email client available for Windows, Linux and Mac. Built by Mozilla, it provides a clean, easy-to-use system for managing email on the desktop. With advanced spam filtering and search, as well as the ability to add in calendering (which can be synced with Google Calendars), it is a great hub for staying organised. I really love the intelligent feature that reminds you to add an attachment to emails that should have one.

Picasa

http://picasa.google.com/

This free desktop photo management software from Google provides a fantastic way to manage a large photo collection. It incorporates basic editing tools, and makes it easy to open a file in a more advanced application (such as the GIMP). It’s integration with Google’s online web album system makes sharing images and video with friends and the general public a breeze.  One nice feature is that it allows you to share files under Creative Commons licenses, which are subsequently shown in Google Images searches.

Dropbox

http://getdropbox.com/

Dropbox creates a folder on your computer, which is continuously synchronised with a personal, secure space on the web. The system gives you 2GB of online storage for free, and you can purchase more as required. This is a great way to share files online, either to the public in general, or to a selected audience. The desktop integration makes it extremely quick to use, and the fact that it works on all three major operating systems (Linux, Mac, Windows) means it can be used by all.

If you have ever found it impossible to email a large attachment, Dropbox provides a great solution.

Skype

http://skype.com/

Skype is a free (but not Open Source) desktop client that allows voices and video calls to be made over the web. In addition, it supports texts chat and screen sharing (very useful for technical support). By purchasing credit, it is possible to call from a computer to a land line or mobile phone number. Skype is a great tool for connecting classrooms and hosting video conferences.

Helping The Needy Get Nerdy

Free Geek, “Helping The Needy Get Nerdy”, is a great organisation based in Portland, Oregon. The belief behind the organisation is very simple: many people discard IT equipment that they don’t want, that other people need.

The model applied at Free Geek is much the same as that of Crossroads International, which is a Hong Kong-based NGO that deals with all sorts of superseded goods by collecting, repairing and distributing them to other NGOs in need.

The genius behind this model is that it simultaneously meets real needs whilst dealing with some of the excess produced by our horribly wasteful and materialistic society.

In an interesting twist, Free Geek gives people the chance to earn their own free computer after 24 hours of service, which is a great way to reward volunteers.

They also use Open Source solutions on all machines, such as GNU/Linux, thus acting as a great “bottom-up” way of spreading free software love.

Check out their video on YouTube:

Home & Internet Security

The last decade has seen the Internet morph from a little-known academic and military communications network into a world-wide phenomenon. For many people around the world the Internet has become an indispensable tool, deeply integrated into everyday habits of life and work. The advent of home broadband Internet access has furthered this trend greatly.

However, having a worldwide communications network running into your home or office also has it’s disadvantages, the biggest of which is security. Very few Internet users realise how exposed the Internet”s open communications protocols leave them to people with malicious intent.

The aim of this article is to introduce you to 4 of the biggest threats on the Internet today, and to give you an idea of how to protect yourself.

Risks & Solutions

1. Exposed Ports
Network-enable computers maintain many open ports, which listen for and allow network connections with other computers. Open ports can be detected by malicious Internet users (and software) and used to attempt entry into a computer system.

Solution: Use a Firewall (such as Windows Internet Firewall or Norton Personal Firewall) to hide unused ports, reducing the risk that your computer will be discovered and attacked by online “port scanners”.

2. Viruses
Viruses come in many shapes and sizes, but can be generally defined as “software capable of reproducing itself and usually capable of causing harm to files or other programs on the same computer”.

Traditionally, viruses were unable to spread without human assistance (such as on a floppy disk), but the Internet has lead to a new generation of viruses, known as worms, which are self-propagating, and so can spread extremely swiftly.

Solution: Invest in Anti-Virus software (such as Norton Anti-Virus or Trend Micro PC-cillin) which can protect you from viruses as they emerge into the Internet. Ensure you keep your Virus Definitions files up-to-date.

3. Spyware/Greyware/Malware
Much of the “free” software available on the Internet has a hidden cost: it secretly tracks your computing actions and reports them back to a central computer. This ranges from the invasive (tracking websites you visit for marketing purposes) to the illegal (stealing credit card numbers from your keyboard as you type them in and then using those numbers to make purchases).

Other annoying features include pop-up ads, disabling of anti-virus software and reduced computer performance due to misappropriation of system resources.

Solution: Install an Anti-Spyware product (such as Spybot Search & Destroy or Lavasoft Adaware) and update it and run it regularly. Be careful of which Anti-Spyware products you install, as there are many examples of Spyware being disguised as Anti-Spyware. Spybot S&D and Adaware are tried and tested solutions.

4. Improper Internet Usage
In many cases Internet users expedite their own online demise through ignorance. If you are aware of the threats that are out there, then you can behave in ways that protect rather than expose you.

Solution: Exercise caution when using the Internet. Do not install software unless you know it is trustworthy. Be cautious when opening email attachments. Remember that email is about as secure as a postcard. Watch our for “cyber predators” when using chat and instant messaging software. Be wary of online scams.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is safe to say that the Internet is like most good tools: it is great when used sensibly and with caution. Used in any other way it can prove to be dangerous and ultimately painful.

It is also worth noting that whilst securing your system is essential, it is impossible to achieve 100% protection. In order to cover yourself against the chance that things do go wrong, it is also important to make regular backups of your system and your data.

Useful Links

Norton Personal Firewall
Norton Anti-Virus
Trend Micro PC-cillin
Spybot Search & Destroy
Lavasoft Adaware

IT And The Environment

More and more, humanity is becoming aware of the potential for scientific progress, via industrial processes, to disturb the world’s natural balance.

Today, as never before, we are noticing the undesirable effects of an economic system which requires (obviously unsustainable) growth to function. These include, but are certainly not limited to climate change, destruction of natural environments and habitats, and ground, sea and air pollution.

Information Technology is no exception to the general rule: manufacturing, using and disposing of computers is unfortunately not good for the environment.

What Can You Do?

Iota is commited to helping it’s customers reduce their Information Technology-related impact on the environment. Acting by example, we run our own systems according to the following rules:

  • Use Less Power – Do not leave your PC on overnight, or for extended period of time when it is not being actively used. This not only saves energy, but will help prevent overheating and general wear and tear of components.
  • Push The Limits Of Obsolescence – It is simply not necessary to upgrade a PC every 2 years, despite what hardware and software vendors may want us to believe. Generally, 5-6 years is a more realistic life-span, unless your usage patterns change dramatically. We can help you extend the life of your PC: just ask.
  • Dispose Of E-Waste Properly – When a PC (or for that matter any item of electronics) is retired, it is common practice to dispose of it along with regular household or office trash. However, given the chance of reuse and recycling, and the harmful nature of the chemicals contained in some components, disposal should be a more carefully considered process. We recommend the two follwoing options (see right-hand column for Hong Kong-specific information):
  • Donate your computer to a charity, where it will be reused or recycled.
  • Use a government-supported PC disposal center.

With a little bit of thought, we can all do a little to help address environmental problems: in the long term, these issues will hopefully be tackled by structural changes within our economic, political and financial institutions.

Give It Away Now

Hong Kong-based non-government organisation Crossroads International, accepts well looked after computers and peripherals for re-conditioning and distribution to other charities around the world. If you don’t want your computer, someone else might.

Proper Disposal

The Hong Kong Government’s Environmental Protection Department now offers a PC Recovery Service, which will take computer equipment in any condition. Those parts which can be reused are: those that can’t are disposed of safely.