IN THIS ISSUE:
0. EDITORIAL: Is your Windows Update Working?
Are you really sure that your Windows Update is working?
I ask because update problems are surprisingly common and worse still, Windows won't usually tell you if you have a problem.
This is bad news particularly if you have your computer set to update automatically. You may believe your computer is being updated when in fact it isn't. That makes you a sitting duck to be attacked.
It's easy enough to check your Windows Update is working and I suggest that you do it right now. It's probably working just fine but you really can't afford to take the risk.
To check, start up Internet Explorer, select Tools from the top menu them Windows Update. This will take you to the Windows update site.
When the page loads it will automatically check to see what updates are installed on your PC. When the checking is completed select "Express."
If your automatic update is working correctly you should be told, "No high priority updates are available."
If updates are available this doesn't necessarily mean your Windows Update is not working as there are two other possible causes.
you may not actually have your computer set to update automatically. You can check by
following the instructions here:
Second, new updates may have been just been issued by Microsoft. Normally these come out on the second Tuesday of each month ("Patch Tuesday") but it can take several days for these to be distributed through the Update service.
If you can rule out these two possibilities then it's likely your automatic updates are not working. This isn't good news but it's far better to know you have a problem rather than live in the belief that all is well.
The first thing you should do is try to download and install the updates manually from the Windows Update site. If it works at least you know your computer is up-to-date and furthermore you can keep it that way by regularly visiting the Windows Update site. If it fails, you may also get an error message that will help you pin down the problem.
Generally what I've found is that when automatic updates are not working, manual updates aren't working either.
possible causes are many and tracking the problem down can be difficult. Thankfully,
Microsoft provides an excellent set of resources to help you which can be accessed here:
I believe Microsoft also offers free support for Windows Update problems to registered Windows users. I haven't used this service and can't comment on its quality.
In my experience most Automatic Update problems are usually due to a failure in BITS, the Windows Background Intelligent Transfer Service. You can test this by trying to start the BITS service manually. Start up the Control Panel, select Administrative Tools then Services. Right click on the Background Intelligent Transfer Service and select "Start." If it doesn't start note the error code as this may help you track down the problem.
Hundreds of web pages and forum threads have been dedicated to solving BITS problems. One of the best is here: http://www.botmanfamily.net/~aurelien/articles/BITS_reinstall.html
My standard technique is to open a command window and run the following command:
Reg add HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\BackupRestore\FilesNotToBackup
It seems to work in most cases and is definitely worth trying.
Once you have the BITS service running your Windows Updates should work fine but remember to check from time to time to confirm that it's still working. These days you simply cannot afford to operate your PC without the latest Windows monthly patches installed.
See you next month.
1.0 TOP TECH SITES AND RESOURCES
1.1 Convert Your USB Drive into an Instant Toolbox
site offers a 187MB download that will install dozens of useful applications and tools on
your USB drive along with a self-contained menu system. For security, all files are fully
encrypted. The programs run directly from flash drive and require no installation on the
host PC. Applications include the Firefox browser, Thunderbird email client, FileZilla FTP
client, Trillian IM and the latest version of Open Office. The full tool list is very
extensive. You'll need at least a 512MB drive to hold it all.
1.2 Free Bootable Ubuntu Linux CD
you haven't dabbled with Linux for a while you should try the latest 5.1 release of Ubuntu. It's a real step forward in both ease of installation and general usage. It's available for free download  as a full installation version or as a bootable live CD which includes all the free software from TheOpenCD project . The live CD version is a great way to try out Linux without risking your Windows setup. It also allows you to test drive popular Open Source software products such as OpenOffice, Thunderbird, AbiWord and The Gimp which come pre-installed on the CD. Ubuntu.org will even send you free CDs containing both the full install and live CD versions by mail  though you do have to register first. You can even order multiple sets of CDs to give away to friends. They are truly free as Ubuntu.org wears the mailing cost as well. Now how good is that? Before installing Linux beginners should check out the introductory guide referenced in the last link below .
1.3 The Best Free Fonts
blogger Vitaly Friedman is offering his pick of "the 20 best license free official fonts."
Nice collection, though a couple are clearly geared to the German language.
1.4 Fast Free Anonymizing Service
 is a free web service that allows you to browse anonymously via their site. No proxy
setup is required; all you have to do is go to the Anonymouse home page and enter the
address of the site you want to browse to. Anonymouse also offer from their site a free
web based anonymous email system called AnonEmail. Anonymouse has been recommended by over
a dozen subscribers and I can see why; it's relatively fast for an anonymizing service,
easy to use and free. I doubt that it provides the industrial strength security of
services like JAP  and Tor  but most folks don't need that anyway and besides,
Anonymouse is way faster.
1.5 Find Photos Quickly
a neat idea: a site that find photos at Flickr using a tag search. Use your mouse to find
** Additional Items in this SE Edition **
1.6 The Best and Worst Cell Phones for Radiation
users note that their brand took the top seven spots for the highest radiating phones.
Also bad were the popular Treo 650 GSM and the Sony Ericsson P910. The worst models
radiated around 13 times more radiation than the best.
1.7 How to Burn an ISO Image to CD or DVD
web site may be ugly but the instructions are good. Here you'll find a step by step for
just about every CD burning software product on the market including a number of free
1.8 How to Configure Azureus
is my favorite BitTorrent client and it's free. Azureus works fine "out of the box" but it
needs to be properly configured for maximum performance. This site offers the best
configuration guide I've seen.
1.9 Free Computer Books and Magazines
large searchable collection sorted by category.
Got some top sites to suggest? Send them to
2.0 TOP FREEWARE AND SHAREWARE UTILITIES
2.1 Free Snippet Manager
really useful to be able to save bits of text from web pages for later use. Firefox users
have had the excellent free ScrapBook extension  available for some time but Internet
Explorer users have had few usable free products. Until now that is. Clipmarks  is an
IE plug-in that adds a toolbar to allow the easy collection and recall of snippets from
web sites you visit. Usage is simple; just press the "Clipit" button, select the text or
image you want, describe what you are saving and then save it to the central Clipit
server. The system supports optional sharing and del.icio.us style tags for later
retrieval. It works quite well though is not as fast as products that store data on your
hard drive. On the plus side, the centrally stored information is accessible from any
computer via the web interface. A Firefox toolbar extension is also available. There's
much to like about this free service, I hope it survives.
2.2 Firefox Extension Lets You Use Old Extensions
of the annoyances about installing a new version of Firefox is the likelihood that one or more of your old extensions won't work with the new version. This will become a pressing problem for many users when they upgrade to version 1.5. You can get around this by using the free "Nightly Tester Tools" extension which allows you to re-install your old extensions by bypassing compatibility testing. It adds a check box to the Firefox install dialog box. When checked, the extension will be installed regardless. That doesn't mean it will necessarily work, though, so use with appropriate caution.
2.3 $50 FolderShare Web Service Now Free
reported favorably about FolderShare in previous issues. It's a web service that allows
you to automatically synchronize and/or share files in a given folder across multiple
computers. It also allows you access these files from any computer. FolderShare used to
offer a cut-down service for free but a full-featured service with unlimited file space
and individual files up to 2GB cost $50. Not anymore. FolderShare has just been bought by
Microsoft and you can get the full premium service for free. I recommend you sign up, it's
an unbeatable deal. Use it for syncing your home and office data, sharing photos and other
large files with friends or simply as online backup of your critical data. To use the
service you need to sign up on the web site and download the FolderShare "Satellite"
client software. Free, Windows ME and later plus Mac OSX 10.3.8+, 646KB.
2.4 Free Hotkey Utility With Inbuilt Reminder
you are like me and keep forgetting your hotkey assignments then you might like to check
out qliner's free Open Source "hotkeys" utility. It's a not only a first rate hotkey
utility; it also has this neat feature: when you hold down the Windows key for three
seconds it displays an image of the keyboard showing all the hotkeys that have been
assigned. The same screen can be used for defining new hotkeys using drop and drag. The
application comes with around 20 pre-defined hotkeys for standard Windows applications.
Also included is a keyboard volume control and hotkey for an analog clock. Over 100
international keyboards are supported. Overall, it's not as quite flexible as my top
recommendation Hotkeycontrol XP  but it's faster, slicker and prettier. Thanks to
subscriber Ken Free for the suggestion. Freeware, Windows XP, 804KB.
2.5 Best Free Web Form Filler/Password Manager
time I looked at this category I suggested the free version of RoboForm  as a clear
first choice with the Open Source KeePass  as an alternative. This prompted subscriber
Susan Martin to suggest KeyWallet  as a better alternative choice than KeePass. It is
indeed a very capable program. It is superior to KeePass in the way you can drag and drop
saved information directly into web forms. Not quite as neat as RoboForm's click and fill
system but still highly effective. KeyWallet can also automatically save form data, handle
difficult Java based forms and is skinable. Donationware, Windows 98 and later, 1.4MB.
** Additional Items in the Premium SE Edition **
2.6 Free Digital Camera Lens Correction Software
the website says, "PTLens is free software that corrects lens pincushion/barrel
distortion, chromatic aberration, and vignetting. PTLens is available as a standalone
application or Photoshop plug-in." The site offers a good collection of downloadable lens
parameters for popular cameras and gives instruction on how to configure your own if your
camera is not listed. I tried the Photoshop plug-in and it worked a treat, though I should
add that my needs are very modest. Freeware, Windows 2000 and later, 170KB
2.7 Free Utility Enhances Excel Productivity
users of Excel spreadsheets will really appreciate this free add-in that simplifies the
creation of complex formulas in cells. It not only makes the process easier but it also
cuts down on errors and is easier to debug. Freeware, Windows 98 and later, 1.10 Mb.
2.8 Firefox Screen-Grabber Captures Off-Screen Areas
wanted to get a screen shot of a web page that's too big to fit in a single screen? Now
you can with ScreenGrab, a free Firefox extension that automatically scrolls around a page
then stitches together a complete screen shot from the component parts.
2.9 Automatically Convert iPod Music Files to MP3
are any number of utilities available than can create MP3 files from another format by
re-digitizing the analog sound that comes out of your sound card. This technique, however,
always results in some loss of quality. The loss can range from the unnoticeable to the
unplayable depending on the quality of the ADC (Analog to Digital Conversion). In
contrast, pure digital to digital conversion suffers almost no loss in quality but is not
always possible due to digital rights protection schemes such as that used on the iPod.
HotRecorder for Media  is a $19.95 shareware utility that claims to be able to convert
your music files to MP3 format while "maintaining the original quality of the audio
files." Now, I'm no audio engineer but that statement, if true, would imply digital
conversion. If not, the claim is false or at best an exaggeration. I'm also no lawyer
either and can't comment on the legalities involved. What I can say is that when I tested
HotRecorder I thought the MP3s produced sounded fine but no better than those produced by
the free program Mp3mymp3 . This doesn't surprise me; MP3 is after all a lossy format.
Where HotRecorder did impress was its ability to semi-automatically generate MP3 files
from my iTunes library; a real convenience factor. HotRecorder is available on a trial
(with a 60 second song time limitation) so you can decide for yourself. Shareware, $19.95,
Windows 2000 and later, 1.85MB.
some favorite utilities to suggest? Send them to
3.0 SECURITY PATCHES, SERVICE RELEASES AND UPDATES
3.1 Microsoft Security News
released only a single patch this month  but it was one of critical importance. It
fixes three separate flaws in the way images are displayed in Windows 2000 and later,
including XP SP2. If exploited, the worst of the three flaws could allow an attacker to
take control of a PC just by getting the victim to view a specially crafted image file.
Security experts were highly critical of the fact that Microsoft has taken more than seven
months to fix these serious flaws. Whatever; just make sure your PC is updated from
Windows Update  as an attack utilizing the flaws is inevitable.
3.2 Serious Flaws in RealPlayer Patched
Inc, maker of the popular RealPlayer media viewer, has released a patch that fixes several
serious flaws in their product. One of the flaws could allow a PC to be compromised simply
by viewing a .rm movie file. Users of RealPlayer should update their product by selecting
the Tools option from the menu bar and then click "Check for Update."
3.3 Flaw in Macromedia Flash Player Prompts Microsoft Comment
has issued an advisory  about a critical flaw in version 7 of its widely used Flash
Player that could allow an attacker to take complete control of a PC. The flaw is so
serious that it even prompted Microsoft to take the unprecedented step of warning its
customers about the flaw and the urgent need to update. All users should upgrade to
version 8 immediately using the second link below.
3.4 Multiple Flaws in Skype
has issued advisories  covering several serious flaws in its popular VoIP software, the
most serious of which could allow an attacker to take control of an affected PC. The
flaws are in Skype for Windows Releases 1.1.*.0 through 1.4.*.83. Users are advised to
update to version Release 1.4.*.84 or later . There is currently no patch for the
Pocket PC version.
3.5 Rootkit Worm Spreads via AOL IM
last month's Editorial I noted with concern the increasing using of rootkits to stealth
malware. My warning proved timely with the emergence during the month of the W32/Sdbot-ADD
worm packaged with the lockx.exe rootkit to hide its presence. The worm was spread over
the AOL IM and chat networks by encouraging users to click on a file link. This worm has
been around for some time but the use of the stealthing rootkit is new and indicative of
the escalating trend towards the use of rootkits in the latest malware. In last month's
editorial I gave details how to detect and remove rootkits. If you didn't read that
article I suggest you do so now. Thou hast been warned.
3.6 New Rootkit Detection Tools
new tools have arrived. The first is RootKit Hook Analyzer  from the folks over at
Resplendence. It's currently a beta and free for the moment but will eventually become a
commercial product. It identifies any active kernel hooks in your system. Now some kernel
hooks may be established by legitimate programs so you need to be very careful
interpreting the results. Also some rootkits don't employ kernel hooks so it won't catch
these. These reservations aside, it is a useful tool. The second tool, IceSword, is not
new, but has finally become usable. IceSword  is a free utility that was originally
only available in Chinese but an English version is now available. IceSword provides a
whole set of tools including a process viewer, startup manager, port enumerator and more,
all of which display actual system data regardless of rootkit stealthing. It's a brilliant
product in the hands of a skilled user. I've given a download link below but be warned,
the Chinese site is agonizingly slow - it took me two days of trying before I finally got
a working copy.
3.7 Sony Using Rootkit in Music CD DRM
story whipped up a storm during the month after PC SysInternals Mark Russinovich
discovered a rootkit installed by a Sony copy protected audio CD. "Not only had Sony put
software on my system that uses techniques commonly used by malware to mask its presence,
the software is poorly written and provides no means for uninstall. Worse, most users that
stumble across the cloaked files with a RKR scan will cripple their computer if they
attempt the obvious step of deleting the cloaked files." Sony initially tried to defend
their software but finally caved in and announced they would suspend the copy protection
scheme. Several security vendors have released removal tools including Microsoft who will
include that capability in the their Malicious Software Removal Tool distributed via the
Windows Update service.
3.8 Another Top Freeware Program Bites the Dust
has long been regarded as one of the best outliners available but all development work has
now stopped. The author Marek Jedlinski has outlined why in a polite and graceful exit
note but I suspect the underlying reason is the demanding and ungrateful attitude of some
freeware consumers. This is a message I hear repeatedly from freeware developers.
Programmer David Brown summed it up nicely in a recent email: "I've put hundreds of hours
of my own time into this utility and all I get is abusive letters saying why doesn't it do
this or do that or how the program is just junk or rubbish. I've had enough - they can go
write their own programs." I concur. Every day I get rude and hostile email about the
programs I recommend on my "46 Best-ever Freeware" list. It's water off a ducks back to me
but I sure understand how the program developers must feel.
4.0 OTHER USEFUL STUFF
4.1 Tiny USB Network Adaptor and Wi-Fi Finder
has released a neat flash drive sized 802.11b/g wireless adaptor that includes a network
finder allowing users to determine if a connection is available without powering up their
laptop. According to Linksys, the finder displays the "wireless network's name (SSID),
signal strength, the channel used, and whether wireless security is enabled or not. The
information is displayed on an easy-to-read LCD display and can be set up to look for only
open networks, all networks, or a specific named network. Discovered networks are listed
in order of signal strength." Model number WUSBF54G, street price $65-70.
4.2 Cheap Solution to Cable Mess
Bluelounge Cableyoyo is very thin spool measuring around 3" across that allows you to
neatly store up to 6 feet of cable. It can be used free standing or attached to the back
of equipment using an adhesive pad. At $4.99, it's a cheap solution to cable mess.
4.3 How to Easily Remember People's Names
I tried the various
techniques suggested here and they work. Unfortunately I've now forgotten the
4.4 Watch Your Computer Think
is an online game of computer chess with a difference. While the computer is thinking it
shows in graphic form the various moves it is considering. Quite fascinating for anyone
who plays chess.
4.5 Useless Waste of Time Dept
left to do but work? Then try the classic "Petals Around the Rose game." It's challenging
** Additional items in this premium SE edition **
4.6 Excellent BitTorrent Metasearch Site
this site  to bookmarks; it's a good second choice if you can't find what you want over
at Torrent Typhoon . The presentation of search results in a single amalgamated list
sorted by a number of criteria including seeders and leechers is an excellent feature.
4.7 34,000 Free Online Classical Music Tracks
is an impressive service that allows you to play or download tracks from a catalog of
34,000 songs. There's a free service where you can play (but not download) up to five
tracks a day or a $25 per year premium service that allows you play or download 1,000
tracks a month. Downloaded files are in high bit rate MP3 format. I've been sampling a few
tracks daily for a week or so and would have to say the quality of the performances, while
professional, is not up with the best available. Similar comments apply to the audio
quality though apparently the quality is better with the premium service. These
reservations aside, this site is valuable resource for classic music lovers.
4.8 Test Your Hearing Online
need headphones for this test as speakers simply don't have a wide enough frequency
4.9 A Free Guide to Editing Your Digital Photos
good multi-part tutorial for Photoshop and GIMP users.
5.0 TIP OF THE MONTH
5.1 How to Reduce Desktop Clutter
Most folks have their desktops cluttered with lots of icons. That's OK but you soon reach the point where the time lost finding an icon outweighs the time saved by having it accessible on your desktop.
There are many utilities on the market that can help you tidy up this mess. These include application launchers, virtual desktops and more.
However, one of the simplest ways to do it is to more fully utilize the capabilities of the Windows Quick Launch toolbar. Furthermore, it won't cost you a cent. Here's how you do it.
The Quick Launch Toolbar (QLT) was introduced with Windows 98 to allow users to start commonly used programs with a single click of the program icon. It's located in the left hand section of the taskbar, just to the right of the Start button. By default it includes an icon for Internet Explorer, your desktop and Windows Media Player though other programs you have installed may have added additional icons.
If your QLT is not visible you can turn it on by right-clicking in any empty portion of the Windows taskbar then selecting Toolbars and Quick Launch.
The first step in cleaning up your desktop is to move to the QLT the icons for programs on your desktop that you use most often. You should also delete from the QLT any programs you don't use much. For example, I've added Firefox and Outlook and deleted the Windows Media Player.
To add a program to the QLT, just drag the icon from your desktop and drop it into the QLT. To delete items from the QLT, right-click the icon and select delete.
Don't add too many icons to the QLT otherwise it will eat up too much of the taskbar real estate. Only include the programs you use most frequently. Five icons is a reasonable maximum.
Once you have added items to the QLT you can delete those items from your desktop. Just right-click the desktop item and select delete.
Now the interesting bit; how to clear your desktop by organizing your QLT to store your less frequently used desktop items.
All the icons in the QLT are stored in a special folder. The location varies with different version of Windows but in XP it can be found at:
C:\Documents and Settings\yourusername\Application Data\Microsoft\Internet Explorer\Quick Launch
The easy way to access this folder is to right-click in a blank space in the QLT. The best spot is just immediately to the right of the last (i.e. right-most) icon. This will bring up a menu from which you should select "Open folder."
You should now see the Quick Launch folder. Each item in the folder corresponds to an item displayed in your QLT.
Now the trick is to add folders to the QL folder and use these folders to store your less frequently used desktop items.
The number of folders you need and their names will depend on the nature of the icons you want to move from your desktop.
On my computer I've added two folders called "PC Maintenance", and "Security Tools" to the QL folder. You'll have to make your own choice.
To add a folder right-click in the QL folder and select New/Folder. Name the folder according to your needs.
Once you've created and named your sub-folders in the QL Folder you can now drag and drop icons from your desktop directly into the appropriate folders. They will be automatically deleted from the desktop.
To launch a program from your QLT right click the ">>" sign, select the folder you want and then click on the program. Simple as that.
My desktop used to have 51 desktop icons but now there are only eight. I can find things quicker and have lots of desktop space for my current working documents.
Now that I've created all that desktop space I guess it's time to start filling it up again. ;>)
6.0 FREEBIE OF THE MONTH
6.1 The Best Free Dictionary/Thesaurus Utility
My long time recommendation for this category has been WordWeb  but thanks to a suggestion by subscriber Ben Scheiner I can now suggest an excellent alternative. It's a stand-alone application called TheSage  from Sequence Publishing. Like WordWeb, it's a comprehensive dictionary with over 140,000 references together with a powerful thesaurus. It differs in that it is free even for commercial use and offers a couple of features missing from the free version of WordPro such as anagram solving and wildcard word matches. On the minus side, WordPro allows you to find meanings and synonyms in any application just by double clicking the word; with TheSage you have to cut and paste it into the application after you've launched it from its task bar icon.
Picking a winner here is too hard. Try both and decide for yourself. Both products work with Windows 95 and later.
** Additional item in this premium SE edition **
6.2 Free Utility Reveals Secret Internet Connections (SE Edition)
In my October "Tip of the Month"  I talked about the usefulness of having a port enumerator utility to tell you what programs on your PC were talking to the internet. Enumerators are invaluable when trying to trace down the source of unexpected internet activity.
I mentioned that, while there were some excellent free port enumerators that told you what programs were connected, I couldn't find anything free that told you which programs were actively transmitting or receiving, which is what you really want to know.
That prompted subscriber Toos Jansen to email me about "Network Traffic Monitor" , a free utility that does just that. It's not really a Port Enumerator but is more like an Upload/Download meter that identifies the programs responsible for current network traffic. This makes it ideal for identifying sudden unexplained internet activity.
Once you have identified the program responsible, Network Traffic Monitor can track down the port involved, the IP of the remote site and its domain name. This makes it easy to track down whether your PC is talking to a legitimate web site or some hostile site intent on stealing your confidential information. An essential security utility to have in your collection. Freeware, Windows XP or later, 588KB.
Got some top sites and services to suggest? Send them in to email@example.com
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The best way to manage your
Premium SE Edition subscription is from the Supporters' Area of the Support Alert website.
There you'll also find all individual back issues, a downloadable back issue archive,
an extensive FAQ plus a growing list of resources exclusively available to Supporters.
The Supporters' Area is protected. To log-in, use the security information sent to you when you first subscribed or as notified subsequently.
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