Sunday, September 18, 2011

What To Update?

Update May 2019: Please read this article, it supersedes what follows here. 

Revised September 18th 2011 and October 3rd.

All to often I hear from customers remarks like “There are always these reminders to update this or that but I am afraid to do something wrong so I always say NO”. I do understand the basic impulse behind this reaction; I always ask “Why didn’t you ask me?”. And that is where we usually have to leave it because I am at their home to do a job.

There is an easy answer to the title question: “Every program you use”. But I realize that this answer raises for most of my customers even more questions; it appears that is not a correct answer.

Here is an updated attempt to put together a list of programs that IMHO should always be kept up-to-date. Please respond with as many suggestions, critical remarks and questions as possible right here in the blog by using the Comment feature. I hope this list will grow and become a good point of reference for the ubiquitous question “What should I Update?”. The bolded words are a list of what you should keep up to date.

Windows itself and all other programs from Microsoft need to be kept up-to-date all the time. My experience shows over and over that the standard Windows feature called “Automatic Update” is not really dependable. On computers I have set up you will find a desktop icon for Windows Update or Microsoft Update. Although the background color will be different on your computer they look like this:

     Windows XP              Vista/7

When Automatic Updates has worked it may show you a small icon in the tray area (bottom right corner of the screen).
image           image
Windows XP       Vista/7
When you rest your mouse cursor on one of these icons Windows will tell you for example that “Updates are ready for your computer. Click here to install them” or “Updates have been installed. Click here to restart”. Well, please do that; Windows is telling you that important security relevant changes have been made and you need to allow Windows to complete this process!

Any and all security programs like anti virus, adware- and spyware scanners and the like have to be kept up-to-date.

Your web browser, hopefully Firefox, has to be kept up-to-date. It should check for updates automatically but this sometimes just does not work. Firefox for example allows you in the Help menu in About Firefox to check for an eventual update like this:
Another important thing are Firefox add-ons (also called extensions), little programs that add functionality to the web browser like weather status, blocking of advertisements and color coding of dangerous web sites in Google search results. Currently I install three extensions: Adblock Plus (block advertisements from known commercial advertisement servers), Forecastfox (weather info) and Web Of Trust (warns of unreliable web sites in search results). Firefox may ask you to check for Updates for installed add-ons.

After you have done the check you may be told that there are updates available; allow these updates to be installed!

If it tells you that “No updates were found” just close the window.  

Another slightly more detailed representation of Firefox Add-ons on my blog is here.

Update 03/0/2016:
is a computer system independent programming language that used to be widely used on the Internet. It has so extensively been abused to distribute viruses that it hardly used any longer.

I do no longer install nor support Java. If for any reason need to have Java installed keep reading, all others please remove Java from your computer(s) and skip to Adobe....

All too often I find computers with terribly outdated Java installations; this is like playing Russian Roulette with a revolver that has five of six chambers loaded. Java mainly gets updated to fix security risks and there are many Java viruses out there that just wait for a computer with an older version of Java. 

The newer versions of Java have an Auto-Updater that should check at least once every month for updates.You find the most current version Java on

If you get a Java update you are NOT done yet, sorry. Newer versions of Java since about one or two years will normally remove older versions but they can do that only in a limited fashion. You have to check manually that there are no older versions left on your computer!

In Control Panel click on Programs and Features (in XP click on Add/Remove Programs). In the resulting list look for any Java entry with a version number lower than the highest, that is the most recent one. If you find older Java entries highlight them and click on Uninstall (or Remove). Here is what is current per Sept. 19, 2011, example from Windows 7:

Java In Prog-Features
Naturally this will change with future updates or releases.  

Adobe Reader, Adobe Flash and Adobe Shockwave are ubiquitous on the Internet and important to be kept up-to-date. Here is how you can check for updates yourself:
  1. Adobe Reader: Help menu, Check for Updates will tell you...
  2. The About Adobe Flash Player page has to be visited with every web browser that you use regularly.
  3. Adobe Shockwave Player; when you see a version number in the graphics box then you have the most current version. If not then please update immediately!
Please see below the paragraph beginning with "For the technically inclined reader…".

If you use the Thunderbird email program it too needs to be kept up-to-date. In Thunderbird you can check for an eventual update in Help, About Thunderbird. You will see something like this:
For the technically inclined reader I recommend Secunia PSI, a free program that will tell you when ANY program you have installed needs to be updated. 

Here is the list of the most important things that have to be kept up to date:
  1. Windows (better: all Microsoft software)
  2. Security programs
  3. ‏Firefox web browser 
  4. Firefox add-ons
  5. Adobe Reader
  6. Adobe Flash
  7. Adobe Shockwave
  8. Thunderbird email client
  9. Thunderbird add-ons
Please help to improve this list by making suggestions in comments.

As usual I welcome comments and suggestions right here in the blog. Thank you in advance.

Click here for a categorized Table Of Contents.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Danger - Wild Parsnip

Through a chain of emails from one concerned nurse to many others and so on finally to my wife I got a warning about Wild Parsnip, a non-native, invasive and poisonous plant that is appearing alarmingly fast and widespread now. I have seen lots of wild Parsnip along the roads here in the wider Hartford, WI area.

I want to pass this warning on to as many people as I possibly can. The original email read (some emphasis added and typos corrected):
I wanted to take a moment to write to you to tell you our county is now completely covered with wild parsnip plants and these plants are very dangerous. Unfortunately very few people know about them. I feel it is urgent that you be aware of these plants so that you may effectively treat your patients and also educate your community too.  

Wild Parsnip causes
phytophotodermatitis to the skin.  When plant juices come in contact with the skin nothing happens but when this same skin is exposed to sunlight a rash with significant blistering can occur.  The skin discoloration and sun sensitivity from this plant can last months, even years.

Please familiarize yourself with this plant as it truly has taken over our county and the accompanying burns will most likely be something you will be seeing more and more of in your practice.
In the beginning paragraph I have linked to Wild Parsnip on Wikipedia. Please read the paragraph titled Dangers.

And here are examples of what Wild Parsnip looks like:
"Harmless" little plant...
... with nice leaves and ...

... many of these plants by the roadside can actually look quite nice!

But the rash and the blisters show the plant's ugly side!
I hope many of you see this and take action when you see the plant! Thank you.

As usual I welcome comments and suggestions right here in the blog. Thank you in advance.

Click here for a categorized Table Of Contents.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Dangerous Downloads - Even From Well-Known Sites

Why didn't I have the idea to write about that earlier?

For the longest time I don't use cnet's web site anymore. Why? Because they force-feed a "download manager" program to your computer whose sole purpose seems to be to offer additional gunk like toolbars, search helpers and so on. Okay, I understand that cnet needs to make money but that is just too much, for me at least.

If you follow this blog you have seen me referring to TechSupportAlert before; this web site is for me the source for finding information about free software and that's the reason that I am subscribed to their newsletter. This newsletter in turn lead me to a very interesting blog I had not heard of before. The currently newest post there is titled "Dangerous Downloads on Legitimate Websites & Search Engines".

Using cnet's web site in his example the author describes in great detail how easily unsuspecting and uncritical users can be mislead to install an unwanted download manager and then to download exactly the wrong program.

The example is quite extensive but IMHO it's more than worth to really read the details.

What is described in "Dangerous Downloads on Legitimate Websites & Search Engines" is generally but in slightly different form more or less applicable to many, many so called "download" web sites out there. Common sense and diligence in reading, really reading these web pages is called for. We are never too old to learn, aren't we?

Or be consequent and heed all warnings from WOT (Web Of Trust); you did install WOT in the meantime, didn't you? If not please read the article on Siteadvisor being incompatible with Firefox 5 and up on this blog.

As usual I welcome comments and suggestions right here in the blog. Thank you in advance.

Click here for a categorized Table Of Contents.


Thursday, September 1, 2011

Virus Check Any File

Today a customer told me that she actually reads this blog and that she would like to see something about virus-checking any given file. Thank you Rose K. for reading this blog and for the suggestion.

I can think of many scenarios where you have a file, any kind of file, that you feel you better check for viruses before you "work" with it. And you may want something like a "majority vote" because just the other day you read in the newspaper that scary article saying that one anti virus program may not be enough to know "the truth".

As with increasingly many things around computers the Internet can help with a service that will allow you to upload any file up to a size of 20MB; this service then will submit your file to currently 40 (forty!) different anti-virus programs and give you the results.

This free service is called VirusTotal. Here is a partial screenshot of  an example output:

When you click on the Show All button the list gets much, much longer.

In the Result column on the far right you see what every anti-virus program says about the file. No entry here means that the AV program does not qualify the file as containing a virus.

Yes, above mentioned newspaper article is technically correct, one vote is not enough to really matter. But when only 5 of 40 results mark the file as virus infected you can with some degree of reliability assume that these five positive results may be so called "false positives". 

A word of warning: I can imagine that only a few AV programs mark a file as infected while the majority does not and the file actually contains a brand new virus that the majority of AV programs can not yet detect! Depending on the circumstances you may react super carefully rather than too trusting.

Again another good example that computer safety benefits from an open mind, common sense, a good measure of caution and careful consideration of all aspects of the given situation.

The only problem with common sense seems to be that it ain't that common..

As usual I welcome comments and suggestions right here in the blog. Thank you in advance.

Click here for a categorized Table Of Contents.