February 2010 Archives

David asks:
My wife and I have an IBM-compatible computer that uses Windows XP. We recently switched from dial-up to a higher-speed line, giving us 1.5 mb/second. The problem is, it still seems to take forever to start our computer (and download e-mails). We suspect that we have a ton of programs that are slowing us down.

Can you recommend a low-cost software to scan our computer, delete unnecessary programs, and increase our computer's speed? Thanks for your consideration.

Brian's answer:
Can I recommend a program to do this? No. But I can offer you a series of steps that won't cost you anything and create the same result.

First, you'll need to run a full backup of anything valuable on your hard drive. You should do this anytime you're about to do any technical work on your computer, just in case anything goes wrong.

Once you've completed the backup, run a complete scan of your computer using your antivirus and anti-spyware programs. There are usually several different levels of scanning available. Use the most thorough one and plan to let it run overnight some night (this will take at least two nights, since you'll run antivirus one night and anti-spyware the next night). If either scan picks up anything nasty, allow the program to clean it up, then run it again the following night. As it says on the side of the shampoo bottle, "lather, rinse, and repeat." Repeat these scans until both of them come up clean.

Next, you'll need to learn how to enter your computer's system configuration utility and shut off those programs that automatically load themselves. It's not difficult, but it does involve following some pictures in order. I've prepared a guide to cleaning up the system configuration utility. Print it and follow the instructions.

Finally, to reduce the likelihood that you'll have these problems in the future, set up your computer to operate in a limited-access mode for most of your routine use (like web browsing and checking your e-mail). This will help make your computer more resistant to viruses and other malware that are often the culprits slowing your computer.

Antivirus for the cheap

David writes with this question:
Two or three weeks ago I heard you mention on your show that I need about three different pieces of software to protect against viruses and spyware. I was driving and couldn't write those down. Where can I find what you recommend for protection? I couldn't find these posted on your WHO webpage. I believe these were freeware but I might be wrong. I currently am using Trend Micro. Are the ones you recommend better? 

Brian says:
Dan and I differ on this subject. He recommends that people use AVG Antivirus, Spybot Search and Destroy, and Ad-Aware. I don't really mind Spybot Search & Destroy, nor do I mind Ad-Aware, though I don't actively use either one because I prefer other alternatives. But I got really angry with AVG Antivirus when they started bombarding the Internet with traffic that wasn't really necessary. To the best of my knowledge, they've gotten their ducks in a row and aren't hogging bandwidth like they used to, but the experience really soured my opinion of them. Today, I generally recommend that people pony up a few dollars for commercial antivirus software from a source like Symantec or Kaspersky. But if you're too cheap to do that, I've found Avast to be a decent free alternative for home users.

Maybe it's unfair of me to hold a grudge against AVG like I do, but as the operator of a number of websites for which I have to pay overage charges if I get too much traffic (even if it's bogus traffic from antivirus programs, like what AVG was doing), I think it's fair to punish those who have transgressed.

No matter what antivirus software or anti-spyware tools you're using, though, the single most effective way to avoid trouble is to use a limited-access Windows profile. I could repeat this every ten minutes on the air, put a 300-foot banner on the side of 801 Grand, and hire a pilot to go skywriting with the message over Des Moines every day, and I still could not get the message across to enough people. Use a limited-access account, and you'll avoid -- by my estimate -- 90% to 95% of most malware risks on the Internet.

By the way, if you ever need a reminder about the free tools we talk about on the air, I keep a list of most of them at http://www.gongol.com/research/opensource.

Should the iPhone be exclusive?

Larry sends us this question:
Don't you think that the world would be a better place if smartphone manufacturers would allow their phones to be unlocked and useable with any service provider? The problem with iPhone is that it can only be used with AT&T. My experience with AT&T is that there are many places in this country where their cell service is not available. Other carriers have better coverage. But by only allowing the iPhone to be available through one carrier precludes me from owning one. That's why I have the Motorola Droid. It's usable nearly every place life takes me. Do you think there should be laws passed, similar to anti-monopoly laws that would open the marketplace to a more beneficial level playing field for users?

Brian's reply:
I'm with Larry all the way up until his very last sentence. I think the deal struck between Apple (maker of the iPhone) and AT&T is pretty silly. Imagine if Henry Ford and Alfred P. Sloan had spent their time negotiating agreements whereby you could only drive a Ford or a Buick on certain roads, but not on all the rest. If they'd been that ridiculous, then today, all Americans would be driving Packards or some other vehicle.

Exclusivity makes a little bit of sense up-front: Instead of building phones to work on America's two segregated cellular networks, Apple only had to focus on one (the GSM band). The agreement drew a lot of users to AT&T Wireless who probably would have shopped around otherwise, and that allowed Apple to split the costs of marketing and promoting the phone with a single dedicated partner that had all kinds of incentive to make the product work.

And it's not as though Apple and AT&T were the first to strike an exclusive deal. Cell phones are subsidized heavily by the wireless-service companies, who pay for some of the cost of the phone in order to lock customers into (usually) two-year contracts with hefty fees for early termination.

But the exclusive agreement undoubtedly cost AT&T a lot of customers in places -- like rural Iowa, for instance -- where GSM coverage is lousy. Geographically speaking, AT&T's 3G network (their broadband Internet data service) covers perhaps 5% of the entire state, and excludes Mason City, Waterloo/Cedar Falls, Dubuque, and Sioux City, among other major cities. No problem if you never leave metro Des Moines. A big problem if you plan to hit a football game at any one of the three state schools and want to stream anything to your iPhone when you get there.

The answer to this problem, though, isn't more government regulation. The market has already solved the problem, just as Larry has discovered: Competitors to the iPhone -- some of which are probably even better than the iPhone -- are available, and they work on networks everywhere. I took a vacation in December and was able to get Internet access on my phone both on the cruise ship and walking around places like Grand Cayman, using a Palm Centro. A friend who also went on the trip got nothing from his AT&T iPhone. Now, maybe you want to be cut off from your e-mail while on vacation. But I'm a partner in a business, and I can't be unreachable for that long. So I'll never be a customer of a wireless network that doesn't allow me to travel freely. I still want a smartphone, though, so I represent a ready-made market for smart wireless providers and phone makers. And there are a lot of us.

Why do I oppose government intervention in this market? Because I think it's costly, intrusive, and ineffective:

  • Costly, because you may recall the days when Ma Bell had a government-regulated monopoly on phone service. You got a rotary-dial phone and you paid mightily for long-distance service. All of the real innovation in telecommunications has happened ever since government got out of the day-to-day regulation of telephone service. Ma Bell never gave you text messaging, free voice mail and call waiting, or wireless 3G service, did she?
  • Intrusive, because we all instinctively seem to want everyone else to be regulated, but never ourselves. That's because we recognize the harm of over-regulation when we pay the costs, but we tend to ignore it when we think someone else is paying. For instance, if I told you that the government was going to regulate what chair and microphone I had to use on the WHO Radio Wise Guys, you probably wouldn't care. But if I told you that the government was going to regulate which presets you could use on your car stereo and which stations had to be programmed in, you'd probably revolt. If I were running a wireless-service company or a phone manufacturer, I wouldn't want government telling me what deals I could cut any more than I want them telling me how to run a radio show.
  • Ineffective, because Apple has been down this road before. They had a choice in the 1980s to allow open development on their computer platform, or to try to control the operating system and the manufacturing of the computers themselves. Microsoft, on the other hand, licensed its operating system to any manufacturer who would pay for it, and allowed programmers to build as many useful tools around their OS as wanted to. Microsoft controls a crushing share of the OS market today. Opening up to different computer manufacturers and outside programmers did far more to allow Microsoft to become a near-monopolist than trying to tightly control the system, like Apple did. In other words, we shouldn't be surprised if we look back ten or twenty years from now and marvel at how dumb it was for Apple to go with an exclusive deal with AT&T, as 85% of us end up using smartphones built on some other platform.
So, do I think Apple's exclusivity deal is a loser over the long-term? You bet. I think the smarter business move for them would have been to offer a CDMA version of the iPhone and a GSM version, and offer unlocked versions to the public and non-exclusive deals to every wireless provider who would've wanted it. In some parallel universe where they followed that path, 90% of us are using iPhones and everyone's wondering why the government isn't breaking Apple's monopoly on the smartphone market. I much prefer this version of reality.

Cell phone service overseas

Listener question:
My wife and daughter will be going to Europe on a cruise, primarily in Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Ukraine, and various locations getting to these countries.  They want to have a cell phone that they can use, and I don't think US Cellular has a tower there.  Where do we get information about a phone that might actually work in these countries?

Brian's answer:
You're right: US Cellular doesn't work overseas. That's because many American cell phone companies, including US Cellular, use CDMA. The European mobile-phone services use GSM. Do you really need to know the technical details? Not really. Just understand that it's a lot like the problem you'll encounter when you try to watch a Region 2 DVD on a Region 1 DVD player.

To use a phone in Europe, you have two choices:

1. Sign up with a US phone service that offers GSM, like AT&T or T-Mobile. Then be prepared to pay some seriously huge roaming charges, especially if they're hopping from country to country. You won't really know the full cost until a month or two after they're home.

2. Buy a prepaid GSM phone that can be used here or there. If you really want to get sophisticated, you could forward calls from their regular numbers to the prepaid phone, but then be prepared to pay some big-time long-distance charges, since you'll probably be charged international rates for every minute of forwarded calling.

If it were me, I'd probably just get a prepaid GSM phone and leave a special outgoing message on their phones saying "here's where to reach me in an emergency."

We'll take calls from domestic and international listeners alike this Saturday from noon until 2:00 on Newsradio 1040 WHO at 515-284-1040. Or text us at 515-989-1040 and save on roaming charges.

Amazon Mechanical Turk

Colleen asks this question:
Saturday afternoons are busy for me, but I did happen to catch your show Jan. 30 and heard about Amazon Mechanical Turk. I went to the site and checked it out. I am new to this kind of thing and was wondering how safe a site like this is. In the process of signing up to the site, I learned that as a worker I would be asked to supply my social security number so 1099's could be made out by the requester and sent next tax season. I am not sure that is a wise thing to do. Any insight?

Brian's answer:
You're very smart to be conscious of the security consequences involved in giving anyone your Social Security Number. Bravo! Taking a look at the IRS instructions, it appears that a requester would only need to issue a Form 1099 to you if you earned more than $600 in a single year. So if you really want to avoid this problem, you might just be careful to not exceed $600 worth of work for any individual requester. That having been said, if you've done $600 worth of work for any person or company, you've probably had a sufficient chance to figure out whether they're honest or not, and whether you'd be willing to give them your SSN. By the way, to get your tax information, the requester has to supply his or her own EIN (Employer Identification Number) as well.

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