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March 4, 2003 - Vol. 3, Issue No. 41

By Scot Finnie

IN THIS ISSUE

  • Let's Fight Spam VI: Spam-Fighting Ideas
  • Header Analysis
  • SpamAssassin Ironies
  • Network Know-How: All About NetBEUI
  • 60-Second Briefs
       - Java, Java, Java
       - MyRealBox Opens Doors Again
       - Microsoft's Mad Anti-Piracy Campaign
       - More on Windows Messenger Service Spam
  • New PCs: A Buyer's Market
  • Product Beat: Netgear 802.11A/B/G Wireless Card
  • Q&A
  • Link of the Week: MyWay.com
  • Tips of the Week: Commonsense Ways to Work
  • SFNL Threads Update
  • Subscribe, Unsubscribe, or Change Subscription.


    Let's Fight Spam VI: Spam-Fighting Ideas
    You know a problem is pandemic when the ideas for beating it are this wild and woolly. A couple of months back I started getting a trickle of spam-fighting ideas from some of you, ideas that sounded a little radical. It's clear a lot of people are thinking this way. My colleague at InternetWeek.com, Mitch Wagner, has done a series of stories on outside-the-box spam solutions. (Mitch is also a big POPFile fan.) I'm going to pull from Mitch's stories too. So, anyway, preamble aside, here are some of the ideas fellow readers are coming up with.

    Give up and Get Used to It
    As you wrote in your Let's Fight Spam Rant of the Week last November:

    Don't ever purchase anything from a spam message. Don't even click through a spam message. Just delete it. If everyone in the world heeded those words, spam would dry up in a year's time.

    This is the only solution that could work, but it will never happen because some people will always give in to spam. Filters will never work on a large scale because spammers will just modify their messages to get around any widely used filter system. Furthermore, the average user simply isn't savvy enough to manage his own filters. Laws won't work because laws don't cross borders. In other words, there is no hope. --Tom Phelan

    Response: I'm not the giving-up kind and there's always hope. Still, I think there's a lot of truth in what you say, Tom. --S.F.

    If You Can't Beat It, Legalize It
    My least favorite idea is the one forwarded by Barry Shein, president, The World, a Boston-based ISP. Since banning spam is an impossible task, Shein's notion, is for the U.S. to legalize spam and regulate it. Bottom line: ISPs would band together under Shein's plan and charge bulk mailers for the privilege of sending mail to their customers' email addresses. Sounds good, right? Only problem is that, once again, legitimate newsletters and other desired "bulk" mailings are somehow lumped in with spammers. There is this ongoing assumption that just because someone sends a message to a lot of people, that most of those people don't want it. Still, this story by Mitch Wagner makes for interesting reading. There's a lot of different thinking going on it:

  • ISP Head Floats Plan To Legalize Spam - InternetWeek

    Pass a Federal Law Against Spam
    Every nation should have a law requiring spam to have only "AD" in the subject, which would then be much easier to block if desired. Strict enforcement and effective punishment would be needed. --Carl Jarrard

    Response: This is the most common sentiment received from SFNL readers. In my rant on the subject last November, I called for a federal law banning spam. I believe that the one thing that might stop spam is to make it too expensive to operate. I'm generally not big on litigation, but a few well placed, well publicized lawsuits could make spammers think twice. We have to hit them where they live, and that's their pocketbooks. Of course, this will only take us so far as Tom Phelan mentioned (above). Spammers will just go offshore where U.S. laws can't touch them. That's already happening, in fact. --S.F.

    Go After the Product Makers
    The only way we're ever going to bring down spam is if we attack it at its root -- the companies that are making money on the products and services that spam pushes. If we make spam illegal, we can use that to attack these companies -- even if we can't find the spammers -- and make them pay. That'll make spammers pay too. It's the only way. --James McGrath (and others)

    Response: There's a germ of a great idea in this thought, but it breaks down when you start analyzing the companies that are actually selling spam products. It's often just as tough to figure out who they are as it is to figure out who the spammers are. For example, "Norton SystemWorks Close Out" is a common spam come-on. But it isn't Symantec that's selling this stuff, it's some third party that's gotten hold of a boat-load of NSW 2002 or 2003 retail boxes they're trying to make a quick buck on. In fact, a good portion of spam is the same stuff that "fell off the back of the truck," circa 1977. In other words, the spammer is the seller. Spam messages often imply they're selling on behalf of another company, but don't believe it. --S.F.

    Central Database
    The approach that will finally work is a giant central email address database that all messages must go through for a valid "From" address. Any that don't pass, are spam! --Patrick Thom

    Response: Databases are good things. The problem is that someone has to maintain them, and they're only as good as the data that goes into them. If there were a federally mandated and maintained database of known spammers (a blacklist), would we have the FBI maintain it? Should the CIA do it? The NSA? The DOJ? The FTC? The FCC? We already have several organizations maintaining blacklists, and they're not working, in my opinion. There are also several organizations lining up to charge "bulk mailers" for the privilege of being certified as not being spam senders (whitelists). I do this that a public whitelist database has a chance of succeeding, but if it requires bulk mailers to pay, it will be putting small fry like Scot's Newsletter out of business. Even if I weren't a newsletter author, I wouldn't think this was an acceptable solution. --S.F.

    No Relayed Email!
    It's really very simple: 99 percent of all spam originates from an email address that's not listed in any of the headers in the spam message. All we have to do is make it illegal, or impossible, to send email from an address other than a valid one that you hold, and we'll have eliminated more spam than your average good spam filter can. --Peter Tibold (and several others)

    Response: What you say makes good sense on one hand. But on the other you've identified the year-2001 thinking of many ISPs who totally eliminated "relaying" to the point where some of their more experienced customers jumped ship. A huge percentage of the Internet population relays mail in a perfectly legitimate way. I do it every day. Say what? Think about it. Many people who use email-forwarding accounts are effectively relaying mail. For example, Bigfoot and many of its competitors do not offer outbound email. To send with a Bigfoot return address (as many of us prefer to do when conversing with an entity we're fearful might sell our email address), you must relay. You have no choice. My several ISPs all let me do this. I would not have picked them otherwise. And that's a good thing, because they let me do it by authorizing who I am before I send out a message with a different email address. --S.F.

    Eradicate Dupes
    I read your articles on combating spam and wanted to present my idea. I have several Hotmail accounts, and I notice that the same spam often arrives at these accounts. Perhaps a filter could be made to eliminate all duplicate emails sent to two or more addresses. For example, let's say you have the address sfinnie@techweb.com. You could create an additional address, like sfinnie2@techweb.com. Any e-mails directed to both addresses could be automatically stripped away before ever arriving at your inbox. --Anonymous

    Response: Cool idea. I'm not sure that each of us possessing two email addresses would literally work, since sfinnie2 in the example might not be circulated to all the spammers unless it gets used or published somehow. Still, the idea has merit. What if a pool of email recipients could compare their received email in realtime, giving special emphasis to mail sent to multiple addresses? You couldn't just kill all such mail because a lot of it might be legitimate. But it would be valuable information. Cloudmark's SpamNet uses a peer-to-peer approach that essentially rates email senders (and also the users who rate them) to make a group decision about whether messages are spam. The company is also building a database with this information.

    The only shortcoming to this all is, how to protect legitimate bulk mailers again? It seems to me that we're going to have to make that aspect part of the solution before we're going to arrive a truly useful solution. And the notion that we're all going to pore over a folder that might as well be called "Probably Spam" for the rest of our lives is not a workable solution. Basically those of us who do that regularly are still being subjected to the spam, just in more concentrated doses. We haven't gained as much as we think we have from our simple little antispam tools. --S.F.

    Results of a Reader Poll
    InternetWeek's reader poll about solving spam problems prints the feedback of well over two dozen business people struggling with spam at their companies. Most of these people are technical, advanced computer users. And their opinions and insights make for every interesting reading. If you're interested in this subject, I promise you will not be disappointed. You'll also come across some more wild ideas.

  • Desperately Seeking Fix To Spam Problem - InternetWeek

    This story is also very definitely worth your time:

  • Spammer's Technology Secrets Exposed - InternetWeek

    I am not looking for utility names or websites that purport to help with the spam problem. But if you have an entire idea that, if we could make the powers that be invoke it, might kill spam dead -- I want to hear about that. Please write me

    Back to the Top


    Header Analysis
    In the last issue of the newsletter, I did a Q&A piece called Who's Got the Email Virus? that drew response. The gist of messages sent by several SFNL readers, including Mark Thuemmel and Steve Disenhof, was: "Hey, Scot, tell them to analyze the headers!" And they're correct on this point. In fact, I do this every day with most of the untrapped spam messages I get.

    Mark wrote:

    Ren and his friend should look at the email headers to determine what IP address delivered the "innocuous spam emails" since that's the only thing that can't be 100-percent faked. Ren's friend could go to Spamcop.com to get the headers analyzed.

    Spamcop's spam tool lets you paste your headers into a field and then helps you figure out where the mail actually came from. Ren's friend might see, for example, that the sender's IP address is clearly not Ren's. He or she might also figure out who it really is.

    Steve adds:

    "In Outlook Express (and possibly other programs), if you right-click on an email as its listed in the inbox, choose Properties, then the Details tab, you can find the actual sender on the line marked, "Return-Path: ______."

    I only have this to add: The Return-Path line does not necessarily list the actual sender, but it is a good place to look. In fact, no matter what you hear, you can't fully trust email headers. Or let me put it another way, while there may be a tracing to the server that sent the mail, the people who own and run the server may have had nothing to do with it. Even so, this is all a good exercise because somewhere in the headers you may find the key to rejecting future spam messages. The more you work at this process of analyzing headers, the more you learn about email and thwarting spam.

    It's a worthwhile enterprise.

    Back to the Top


    SFNL readers get 15% off VCOM's entire line of products!
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    SpamAssassin Ironies
    Despite a broken email-response link in a recent issue of the newsletter, a lot of SFNL readers have been forwarding information about whether Scot's Newsletter is rejected by the SpamAssassin content filter. And I appreciate that greatly because it's helping me to make minor changes in the newsletter that don't affect its message in the slightest. I hope to apply the same approach to other content filters in the future. I'm learning about this from both ends, both as a user of antispam technology and as a newsletter author who is getting sprayed with "friendly fire."

    As part of the Let's Fight Spam series I reviewed Spamnix for Eudora, a pretty good spam fighter that integrates fully into the Eudora interface as a plug-in application. I liked the program, but mostly because of the SpamAssassin technology, I couldn't award it Top Product! status. And now I'm glad I didn't.

    The last issue of the newsletter scored 3.4 points for just two SpamAssassin tests (out of literally hundreds of tests every message is checked against). That's bad enough. No test out of hundreds of tests should score as high as 1.9 when the threshold is 5.0. The odds are just too high in favor of improperly branding a message as spam. But in this case, the tests themselves are ludicrous.

    I am forced into censorship for the first time in Scot's Newsletter in order to explain how they're ludicrous. I can't actually print the two phrases that I printed last week (because if I did, fewer of you would be reading this), but I'm going to attempt to work around it by putting X's where the "offending" words were.

    SpamAssassin handed me a 1.5 score for the following headline that appeared in the last issue:

    One in Six Xxx-xx Newsletters Vanishes as 'Spam'

    In the line above the xxx-xx replaces two words that mean subscribers had to specifically request the newsletter, actively showing they want it.

    That's pretty ironic, but the sentence from the last Scot's Newsletter that's even more ironic is this one, which SpamAssassin awarded 1.9 points for:

    I believe I have found a very simple thing I can do that will xxxxxxxxxxx xxxxxx the likelihood of Scot's Newsletter ending up in the Spam folder again.

    The X's represent a two-word phrase that means something like "significantly lower." It's also a phrase commonly used by retailers to mean that a price has been cut deeply. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that if you award a 1.9 for that could be said this innocently, sooner or later you're going to trap legitimate email.

    By the way, I did figure a way to trim 1.5 points out of my SpamAssassin score, but that savings got swallowed up by these two phrases that SpamAssassin proscribes. So everyone who uses a SpamAssassin-based antispam tool who reported to me found that Scot's Newsletter was in his or her Spam folder. So long as I don't say anything I'm not supposed to in today's issue, though, maybe they'll let me squeak by.

    Don't you love technology.

    Back to the Top


    Network Know-How: All About NetBEUI
    Since the last issue of the newsletter, I have spent many, many hours getting to the bottom of how to install and use the network protocol NetBEUI in a mixed Windows environment that includes Windows XP. I've already written several items on this subject, but they were imperfect because they were inadequately tested or didn't provide solutions for some readers (such as people who don't own Windows 2000 CDs).

    I now have a set of instructions that I believe will provide a working installation of NetBEUI on virtually any small, mixed-Windows network. Instead of creating a whole new story that describes how to do this, I opted to upgrade a pre-existing Tip of the Week that ran in the January 21, 2003, issue of Scot's Newsletter. You'll find that here.

    You may have visited this page in the past and either been stymied in your attempt to add NetBEUI to your network or been only partially successful. Even if you were successful, I would urge you to look at it again. Among other things, it provides:

  • Fail-safe instructions for finding and *properly* installing Win2K NetBEUI files.

  • A download link for Windows 2000 NetBEUI files for anyone who doesn't have a Windows 2000 CD (as well as refined instructions for extracting from the Win2K CD).

  • Instructions for uninstalling Windows XP NetBEUI and installing Win2K NetBEUI.

  • Instructions for how to disable TCP/IP sharing.

  • Instructions for how to test your NetBEUI network.

    If you've tried to install NetBEUI before and wound up with poor performance or unreliable networking, these instructions can help you. In testing this, I ran into many of the problems that others have described about using NetBEUI with Windows XP that connects to Win9x PCs in particular. The steps you'll find at the link above eliminate those problems.

    Network Know-How
    Network Know-How is the name of a recurring section of SFNL that hasn't appeared in quite some time. I think I got out of the habit of using it because network how-to information appears in several areas of the newsletter. But I'm thinking it might be a good idea to resurrect it. To get it started again, I'm making a call for your networking questions or coverage-area suggestions.

    One thing I'm working on is a new round of wireless coverage. The first thing I'd like to focus on is the use of non-TCP/IP protocols (such as NetBEUI and IPX/SPX and NetBIOS) on 802.11x wireless networks. My personal experience is that wireless networking is not a very reliable means of networking with anything but TCP/IP as your primary protocol for file and device sharing. But what's your experience? I've been trying for a couple of weeks now to get any of the major wireless device makers to talk to on this point and, so far, I've had no takers.

    Back to the Top


    60-Second Briefs
       - Java, Java, Java
       - MyRealBox Opens Doors Again
       - Microsoft's Mad Anti-Piracy Campaign
       - More on Windows Messenger Service Spam

    Java, Java, Java
    If you've got school-age kids, you'll probably know what I mean when I say "It's the song that never ends. It goes on and on my friends...." That's how I feel about more beefs, more shenanigans, more stuff to write about the Java Virtual Machine (JVM), a.k.a. the Java Runtime Environment (JRE). For those of you keeping score, Microsoft and Sun can't even agree on what to call this software; those names are Microsoft's and Sun's names, respectively.

    So in the last issue I published a link to a website that offers links to multiple JVM/JRE download sites. You would not believe the small torrent of angry mail I got about the fact that, horror of horrors, the site doesn't offer the 3809 version of Microsoft's JVM. It only offers the 3805 version that, because it's missing two or three security updates, will clearly pitch people into the mouth of hell. Get over it, people. Do you really think any software you're using is truly secure? They have patches on patches on patches these days. If there were a way to visualize the software running on the average Windows PC, it would look something like my oft-repaired jeans from the early '70s (back when I had long hair).

    Besides, most Java applets that require Microsoft's JVM over Sun's JRE are looking for the 3805 version, in my experience. I'm guessing most will probably work with 3809 too.

    Because I'm into peace, love, and apple sauce, I decided to scour around and find a link to Microsoft's JVM 5.00.3809. Actually, I didn't have to look too hard. SFNL reader Patrick Thom sent me a link for it. Just download the 5.2MB file and double-click it to install the JVM.

  • Dowload Microsoft's JVM 5.00.3809

    Thanks, Patrick.

    If you're keeping score on the ongoing legal maneuverings, here's the latest from Microsoft on the subject:

  • Fact Sheet on Removal of Java from Windows - Microsoft

    Among other things, Microsoft says it will provide security patches for its version of the JVM until January 2, 2004.

    MyRealBox Opens Doors Again
    In the October 11, 2002, issue of this newsletter I waxed positive about a free email service run by Novell called MyRealBox.com. Only a few days after I wrote about it, the company stopped providing new free accounts. I've been a user of this service for well over a year. There are frequent periodic outages of the service, but they always resolve, and I've never lost any email.

    Good news. An SFNL reader who chose anonymity wrote me recently to say that MyRealBox has begun passing out new accounts again. And I appreciate the heads up. If you've got a hankering for an excellent free email account, check it out.

    Also, the mention and mini-review of MyRealBox I wrote last October was part of my nearly 18-month saga of extricating myself from my long-held Bigfoot.com personal email account.

    I'm now almost completely switched over and out of Bigfoot. Two weeks ago I stopped paying the company $9.95 a quarter for the privilege of having a spam-free email-forwarding account that would forward 150 messages a day. I now have a purposely-spammed Bigfoot account that only forwards 25 messages a day, but costs me nothing. (What were the jerks at Bigfoot thinking?) I've spent hours and hours changing literally thousands of website email registrations, newsletter subscriptions, and the like over the last several months. Bigfoot and others like them are counting on the fact that most of us are too lazy to make the big change. It's up to us to prove we're not.

    Microsoft's Mad Anti-Piracy Campaign
    Pulitzer-prize-winning investigative journalist Byron Acohido, who writes for USA Today, has written at least two stories lately that reveal some of the tactics that Microsoft is employing (along with product activation) to stop software piracy and/or force companies to adopt its new licensing schemes.

    According to a February 27, 2003, USA Today story by Acohido, the well-known maker of guitar strings, Ernie Ball Inc., was slapped by the Business Software Alliance (BSA) with a $90,000 fine for using eight unlicensed copies of Microsoft Office on the firm's 80 personal computers. Microsoft, which co-founded the BSA, then made an example of Ernie Ball. It mailed a letter to businesses containing a news clipping about the Ernie Ball fine, warning them that they too could face similar fines.

    The Ernie Ball company paid the $90,000, but it wiped all traces of Microsoft Windows and Office off its PCs and switched to open-source software. Can you blame them?

    In another Acohido story, published in USA Today on January 21, 2003, the City of Houston, Texas, decided not to capitulate to similar pressure from Microsoft that involves warnings about stiff penalties if companies don't sign up to expensive, multiyear licensing plan.

    According to Acohido, Houston decided not to heed Microsoft's warnings. Instead it switched to a little-known competitor called SimDesk, which the City is using on at least half of its 13,000 PCs.

    Longtime readers may recall that I believe Microsoft went off the deep end with its anti-piracy and licensing policies. The company appears to have a chip on its shoulder. It may be taking out its anger over the antitrust suit on its customers. While no one was a clear victor in the Microsoft antitrust battles, most experts agree the software giant came out of it pretty well. Even so, the company's attitude shifted during the trial. Whatever the cause, it is no longer as customer focused as it once was.

    I am also on record for being vehemently opposed to Microsoft's product-activation technology. This document explains my position and provides links to articles that detail the technology in case you're fuzzy on it.

    More on Windows Messenger Service Spam
    Two issues back I wrote about Windows Messenger Service, and the possibility of receiving spam pop-up windows because of a the messaging/alert service was designed.

    It's come to my attention recently that Microsoft has a Knowledgebase article that treats this subject. The only problem is that, instead of telling you how to disable Windows Messenger Service, it advises you to turn on Windows XP's pretty terrible Internet Connection Firewall.

    Don't follow the advice in this Microsoft article, though. It only works on Windows XP and is ill considered in any case. If you have a solid software firewall running on your system, such as Norton Personal Firewall 2003, Sygate 5.0 Pro, or ZoneAlarm, you are probably covered.

    On the plus side, Microsoft produced a different Knowledgebase article that both describes the problem in more detail and also provides the "workaround" steps of turning off Windows Messenger Service for Windows 2000 and Windows XP. This article makes the point that by turning off this service, you may also be turning off alert messages from software programs that use the Windows Messenger Service, such as some antivirus programs.

    It's not clear to me at this time whether this is an empty warning or not. As I wrote earlier, my recommendation is to wait to turn off this service until you have a problem with it. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

    Back to the Top


    New PCs: A Buyer's Market
    Have you checked out the cost of a new PC lately? I do this every couple of months, comparing vendors, checking out options, looking for bargains. Over the weekend I spent a couple hours researching again. This may not be news to you, but it bears stating: There has never been a better time to buy a new PC than right now. I'm even beginning to see purchase financing (not leasing) from some vendors -- something I haven't seen since the late 1980s.

    I'll give you an example. I'm partial to Dell PCs. The Dell Dimension 2350 I priced out came with this list of stuff:

  • 2 GHz Pentium 4
  • 256MB DDR SDRAM
  • 19-inch M992 CRT
  • Integrated Intel Extreme 3D Graphics card
  • 30GB Ultra ATA/100 7200 RPM hard drive
  • 3.5-inch floppy drive
  • Windows XP Home Edition
  • Integrated 10/100 Ethernet
  • 56K modem
  • 16x DVD-ROM Drive
  • 48x/24x/48x Max CD-RW Drive with Easy CD Creator
  • Basic Harmon Kardon HK-206 speakers
  • WordPerfect Productivity Pack
  • Limited 2-year at-home warranty
  • 6 Months free EarthLink service
  • $100 mail-in rebate

    The only thing I really don't like about this machine is the integrated video. But the total price with free shipping is $805 -- and that doesn't include the $100 rebate, so I guess it's $705.

    The last couple of new PCs I've gotten have been homebrews I built myself. I not only saved a small amount of money on them, I built them my way. But ... at the current price points, I can afford to buy a new PC and then modify it to my liking it, and still come out ahead.

    I think PC sales are going to stay depressed for some time to come. But I don't think they'll remain so forever. If you've been thinking about getting a new one, shop around. I strongly urge you to consider Dell desktop PC. There are, of course, several others that make good purchases too. You don't need the fastest CPU on the planet any more. 2.0GHz from either AMD or Intel is just fine.

    I'm also constantly pricing notebook computers. My favorites are the IBM ThinkPad T series and the larger Toshiba Portege models. Both are still a little pricey for my budget. But prices have come down markedly over the last year. Again, for a bargain, the Dell Inspiron 4150 gets my vote. I priced it at around $1,350. I don't like the overall size of the Inspiron; it's a bit chunky. But given the price point and the feature set, it's a worthwhile trade off.

    [Editor's Note: Yeah, just my luck. On weekends Scot spends his time on one computer scoping out another. --Cyndy.]

    Back to the Top


    Product Beat: Netgear 802.11A/B/G Wireless Card
    Since Wi-Fi wireless networking products first came into vogue a couple of years ago, not really a lot has changed. These products have made it both manageable and affordable to network PCs in homes, small offices, branch offices, and departments in ways that just weren't possible to do before. A knowledgeable person armed with a few hundred bucks and an afternoon can network eight PCs in an afternoon -- including the inevitable major snag that always crops up. Wireless networks have made basic networking and Internet connection sharing pretty darn easy.

    There have been problems, though. Security, performance, and for lack of a better term, networkability have all been issues that users have wrestled with. But some or all of those issues are being addressed by new 802.11 specifications.

    Yesterday, Netgear became one of the first networking hardware providers to release a dual-band (5GHz and 24GHz) wireless networking PC Card called the WAG511. It supports three different wireless networking standards, 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g.

    Because the WAG511 supports 802.11a and 802.11b, it is capable of data-transfer rates of up to 54Mbps (802.11a) and 11Mbps (802.11b), plus up to 108Mbps in 802.11a "Turbo" mode. The WAG511 also provides 152-bit WEP encryption.

    The "g" variant is actually still an emerging spec, and Netgear's product supports the "draft" standard. But the company anticipates easy compliance with the final specification (expected to be ratified by IEEE later this year) either as-is or with a firmware upgrade. Netgear also expects a future firmware upgrade to provide better security and an 802.11g data rate of 108Mbps in "Turbo" mode.

    Based on Atheros' (AR5001X) WLAN chipset technology, the WAG511 automatically roams between 802.11a, 802.11g, and 802.11b networks, while providing an option to enable roaming only within either 802.11a or 802.11b/g networks. The 32-bit WAG511 CardBus adapter supports ad hoc and infrastructure wireless modes. Its suggested list price is $157, and it should be available any day now.

    Does your company have a new computer product of interest to this newsletter's readers? Submit it to Product Beat.

    Back to the Top


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    Q&A

  • ISP Hijacked Browser Start Page
  • Sharing or Not?
  • Throw-Away Email Addresses or Domains?

    ISP Hijacked Browser Start Page

    Question: I was recommended to you by Jack Schofield on the online Guardian (London, UK). Some time ago, when the service was free, I signed up with and ISP called Ntlworld. The company now charge 10 pounds per month. When I dial-up I get an Ntl portal page. But on top of that the same Ntlworld page has became my browser home page by default. I have tried several times to reset my browser to a home page of my choosing but the conventional settings are ineffective. Can you please advise me on how to untie this knot? --Richard Upton

    Answer: I have a special page of the Scot's Newsletter website devoted to removing ISP "branding" from your computer. I think that may be what Jack Schofield was referring to. But my instructions don't cover persistent resetting of the browser home page, a malady commonly called browser hijacking. The website that I think does the best job of explaining solutions for resetting a hijacked home page setting is called SpywareInfo. It has been a past Link of the Week in Scot's Newsletter.

    The very first fix mentioned on this page, Spybot, is a free downloadable program that may find other problems like this on your computer too. I recommend it. Be careful with Spybot. Some of the possibilities it offers for removal could get you into trouble, although the items it checks off by default are usually OK.

    Another, similar program I recommend is a less invasive spyware/adware remover called Ad-aware 6.0 from Lavasoft, also available in a freeware version. Ad-aware 6.0 is a Scot's Newsletter Top Product!

    The manual means of removing your problem described at SpywareInfo is probably what I would do on my machine, just so I could see what Ntlworld had done. But there's no reason why you need to go to that trouble if either of the above programs work. If they don't, by all means, continue with the SpywareInfo instructions. --S.F.

    Sharing or Not?

    Question: I'm new to networking and confused by something you said in your latest newsletter:

    On my LAN, I find I have to enable File and Printer Sharing bindings for TCP/IP for all computers connected via wireless connections to manage file sharing.

    I thought that if you want to share files, File and Printer Sharing HAD to be enabled no matter what. --Dave Phillips

    Answer: Thanks, Dave, that's a good question. If your network is connected to the Internet, even via shared dial-up, TCP/IP file sharing should be disabled. It's counter-intuitive, I know, but with this configuration you access the Internet via TCP/IP, but you access your LAN via another protocol. Working this way adds a basic layer of security.

    For the primary LAN protocol, small Windows networks should use either NetBEUI or IPX/SPX with NetBIOS, both of which you'll find readily available in most versions of Windows. To add either under Windows 9x/Me, for example, follow these steps:

    Start > Control Panel > Network > Add (or Install) > Protocols > Microsoft > choose a protocol.

    Whichever protocol you choose, it must be installed on all the computers on your network. File and printer sharing must be enabled for this protocol. There's more coverage on this topic elsewhere in this issue and in recent back issues of the newsletter. --S.F.

    Throw-Away Email Addresses or Domains?

    Question: I signed up for Covad's home DSL plan that has 15 email addresses as much for that as for the faster connection. I use two throw-away addresses at eBay, PayPal, and CraigsList. If I start getting spam, I can just dump that email address and keep my main one as clean as possible. I dropped AOL over two years ago because I got so much spam and most was from different addresses so a block did little good. If I had used the throw-away idea at AOL, I could just have closed the extra address and been able to keep my main account name. Does this make sense to you? --Mary Nelson

    Answer: Mary, this is similar to how I work too. I use throwaway addresses for my personal mail so I can shield my permanent addresses. Every time I write about this in the newsletter, I get a slew of people telling me that the better way is to get your own domain name and give that out to everyone because it will always be there (true, if you keep paying the charges) and you can always change the first name of your address and kill any accounts that get too much spam.

    But that last part is usually false. If a spammer has your domain name, the way most email services work is that anything sent to non-existent address @yourdomain.com will still get to you via a default email address. Even if that's not the case, eventually your address is going to get out there, and now the domain you've paid good money for, and continue to pay good money for, will be spam bait. It may take three years, but it's going to happen sooner or later.

    Getting your own domain name is a great idea. But using a throwaway email address to forward email to your domain account is an even better idea. I mentioned one such throwaway address earlier in this issue of the newsletter, MyRealBox. There are many, many others. The Email-Address website does a good job of listing them. Tunnel into the forums there for opinions too.

    Of course, having said all this, I don't use a throwaway address for the newsletter. I used to a long time ago, but I overwhelmed a mail-forwarder with an email poll once and had to give up on the idea. --S.F.

    Send your burning question to the newsletter and look for an answer in a future issue.

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    Link of the Week: MyWay.com
    A frequent correspondent with Scot's Newsletter who strongly prefers anonymity passed along his or her recommendation of a browser start page a few weeks back. I didn't think much of it because, frankly, I've found most such pages to be more concerned with collecting information about me than in providing me with a fast, reliable, customizable start page. But because I've learned to trust this reader's opinion, I checked it out.

    The place is called My Way, and I was surprised to find myself liking it from the get-go.

    There are no banners or pop-ups and you can read the straight-forward privacy statement in about a minute (without a lawyer by your side). Bottom line: They promise not to rent or sell any information about you. Plus the page loads very fast in your browser, according to the built-in page time, less than a second with my AT&T Broadband cable connection. And the My Way pages are highly customizable, including a long list of information and services, and you can choose layout, colors, themes, even your own version of the My Way logo. There's also extensive preferences where you can change your time zone, page auto-refresh rate (zero is an option), text size, and so forth. My Way also offer data importation for things like portfolio info from Yahoo and MSN.

    To try out a customized version of the site without committing to anything, use this URL:

    http://my.myway.com/

    Best of all, though, My Way has a sense of humor. My favorite page is the one linked to at the very bottom in small print labeled: Advertise with Us. When you open that page you see a single line of text reads:

    "My Way is not in the business of selling ads. (Thought you had us, didn't you?)"

    So how do they make money? That part is a little sketchy, I'll admit. They say they do so through "clearly identified sponsored listings and text links." OK, but I'm not seeing them. One thing My Way does that's different from other Internet portals is that it partners for all the services and builds very little technology of its own. So, for example, if you're partial to Google's search, you can use it at My Way.

    After all the free stuff on the Internet turned into "A-ha, we've got you now, and here's how we're going to make money off you," My Way is a very refreshing place. I hope they keep it just like it is, because its ad-free simplicity is exactly why it's a Scot's Newsletter Link of the Week.

    I need your help! Have you discovered a relatively unknown Windows or broadband related website that's a little or a lot amazing? Please send me the URL so I can check it out and let everyone know about it.

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    Tips of the Week: Commonsense Ways to Work
    When you own, maintain, and have as many new PCs coming through your office as I do, you learn a trick or two over time for how to make working with them a little easier.

    Over the weekend, my wife, who is working on our taxes (thank you!) and I had a small conflict. She's taken to using the computer beside my main computer for a small list of things she does regularly. Trouble is, I use both of these PCs regularly when I work, and so they're right next to each other. And there's not enough room for two chairs in the same space. The conflict was, we both wanted to work at the same time. I won't bore you with the details, but the solution was to move the PC she wanted to work on to the next desk over (I have three two-computer desks in my office). That dovetailed with a change I've been meaning to make, and when all was said and done, I had to shuffle three computers to new locations (musical-chairs style) and swap two adjacent monitors, involving a fourth PC.

    The entire thing took less than 20 minutes because of systems I have in place. I'm going to tell you about a few of them:

    1. The System Folder -- Every computer I use has a folder in the root directory of its C drive called System. In this folder (which you can call anything you like), I place all the device drivers and any specialized software for that hardware. This includes drivers for video cards, soundcards, NICs, monitors, modems, and so on. I also put things like BIOS updates there, and even firmware and drivers for attached devices, like printers, scanners, and routers. Since most of my PCs are configured as multiple-boot with some combination of Windows 98, Windows Me, Windows 2000, and Windows XP (I finally retired my Windows 95 and Windows NT PC), each device driver folder may have subfolders (like "Win9x-Me" and "Win2K-XP") to account variations in the drivers for specific versions of Windows.

    To facilitate moving computers around, I also cross-pollinate my systems folders with a common set of device drivers. All my monitors are TFT LCDs, which benefit more than most CRTs from using the proper Windows monitor driver. All my LCDs are made by NEC or Samsung. On each PC, the System folder contains the drivers for both the Samsung and NEC LCDs. On one of my PCs, I keep a back up of all these drivers so that if a C drive goes down, I won't have to go play find-the-driver again.

    2. The Ziploc Bag -- Placing the System folder on every C drive is something that grew out of another practice. Every PC I own has its own jumbo-sized Ziploc bag containing all the software and driver discs and floppy disks particular to it. When you buy a new PC, you get this stuff. Stick it in a Ziploc bag. If you have more than one PC, use a permanent marker to label the bag with the name of the PC. Maybe that's "Jane's PC" or whatever. In my household, the PCs are identified by a long-held naming convention. And given how many there are, I actually write their names right on their cases (with erasable pencil) so we don't all go crazy trying to remember which is which. Even if you have only one PC, the Ziploc bag tip can save you a lot of time and aggravation.

    3. The Downloads Folder -- Many experienced PC people use this trick, but it's worth mentioning. The C drive of every computer I manage has a Downloads folder that contains the installer routines of every program I've ever installed on that PC. What's more, when I download new programs, I download them into a generic folder for the program name (such as "Eudora"), and then I create subfolders named with the version number (such as "5.2"). Save your installer files, people. At least the latest one and the last previous version that worked well. You should always be prepared to uninstall and reinstall a program, if necessary -- either to solve a problem or troubleshoot a conflict. As with the System folder tip, I have one PC on my network that serves as a superset and backup of all the programs I've ever downloaded.

    I've also been known to copy the installation routines of smaller programs that install from a floppy disk or CD into my Downloads folder as well. Especially a program that is a routine part of the toolkit of software I install on every PC. (For larger applications, such as Norton Antivirus, Microsoft Office, and so on, see the next tip.)

    4. Don't Install What You Don't Own -- I've written about this before, but it deserves mention again. Don't install software that you don't own the CD or floppy disk to. Don't borrow a friend's CD set, install some big program, and hand the CDs back. Because sooner or later you're going to run into trouble, and it's not going to be pretty. Besides, that's software piracy. Try to pay your own way. If you can't pay, then go for a freeware or open-source alternative. Going along with this notion is the idea of keeping all your installed software in one place. A box, a shelf, a jumbo file folder -- whatever it takes to organize the CDs, if not the software boxes, of store-bought programs is essential to sane computing.

    5. Stick to Program Files -- Don't choose, as Cyndy does [Editor's Note: I do not! --Cyndy], to install programs anywhere other than the \Program Files folder on your computer. Having all your software installed in one place makes it easy to see at a glance (well, more or less, sometimes those folders are empty) what's installed and what isn't. It also makes cleaning out program installations or doing a partial clean-install of the operating system easier.

    The tips this week are a lot like a series of tips done previously called Computer Savvy. You might want to check them out too.

    I need your help! Do you have a Windows or broadband tip you think SFNL readers will like? Send it along to me, and if I print it in the newsletter, I'll print your name with it.

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    SFNL Threads Update
    Along with testing NetBEUI issues, I spent a lot of time during the last couple weeks testing forum software. Three that I examined closely were vBulletin, Infopop UBB.classic, and UBB.threads. VBulletin and UBB.threads use PHP and MySQL. But wait, didn't I previously state that my Web host doesn't support MySQL under Win2000 (which is what scotsnewsletter.com is hosted on)? That's true. But my host just started supporting MySQL about three weeks ago. I requested that feature be turned on and was able to install the UBB.threads demo successfully the next day.

    Unfortunately, the highly knowledgeable and responsive vBulletin support folks weren't very positive about supporting my particular PHP implementation (or MySQL hosted on Windows), so I had to cross them off my list. Too bad, they probably have the fastest and most reliable forum software around.

    Infopop's tech support has also been excellent, though. My problem with UBB.threads is that the demo is written with a Linux bias. There are Linux/Unix-style path statements built into the code that kept breaking the demo pretty dramatically. The program needs to be tested and bug-checked under Windows. Until they do that, it's not worth a plugged nickel to me, never mind the $230 they want for it.

    User-interface-wise I like UBB best. And I prefer UBB.classic overall. I do have a working UBB.classic trial forum running on the Scot's Newsletter website. It's far less buggy than UBB.threads. Its problem is that it's just too slow for reasons not yet determined. I'm still working with the Infopop folks on checking into this. So there's a possibility that UBB.classic could still get the nod.

    What about other options? The two most likely next contenders are from my research so far are:

  • phpBB
  • Invision Power Board

    PhpBB is interesting because it supports both MySQL and MS-SQL. While writing this, I quickly set up a phpBB forum on the Scot's Newsletter website. I was amazed at how easily this product installed. Much easier than the Infopop products. On the other hand, the configuration options are much thinner, and I still have a lot to test.

    If you're interested in helping me evaluate bulletin board software for the Scot's Newsletter Forums, please feel free to check out this phpBB version:

    http://www.scotsnewsletter.com/phpbb2/

    One thing I could use is feedback on the mail transport for registration activation. The best thing you could do is post your comments right in the forum.

    Be advised that this phpBB version of the Scot's Newsletter Forums is unsupported, subject to change, and the whole thing could just be wiped from my server to make way for another test or another version of phpBB, or whatever. I will try to leave it there for at least a week or two though. And I will be checking people's messages.

    So, see you at the forum. ;-)

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