Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Summer School: Computing 101

August 2006

By Mike Gould

The radio quiz program "Whad'Ya Know?" features a category called "Things You Should Have Learned In School, Had You Been Paying Attention". Judging from some of the questions I get asked and the computer user problems I see, one could infer that a lot of business folk weren't paying attention in computer class. But that would be incorrect, because I suspect that a lot of you never had an intro to computing class. I never had one. <Putting on my best wheezing geezer voice:> "Back in my student days a computer was the size of a house, and only rocket surgeons worked on them; I was too busy getting a degree in biology to pay them much mind".

I suspect that most of you are in the "a computer the size of an Amana freezer" age bracket, and yet still missed that all-important "the floppy goes in this side up" class. So here is a quickie list of Important Things You Probably Already Know, But If You Don't, Here They Are Again. The brain scientists out there already know this, but for the rest of you (us), here is a summer school refresher course.

ABCs of CPUs
First rule of computing: always have your data in at least two places. Place one is on your hard drive in your Documents folder. This is where all your files should be living, each in its neatly titled folder. Place two is your backup: a folder on a server, a USB Flash drive, a CD or DVD. With all your files in one Documents folder, you only have to back up that one folder. And back it up often.

And this is so elementary it almost goes without saying: save your work as you go. There is nothing worse than working on a document for an hour and having it disappear if your PC has a hiccup; you lose everything since the last time you saved. There is a keyboard shortcut for this in Mac (cmd-s) and Windows (cntrl-s): learn it, use it, save your butt. The other major butt-saving shortcut is Undo; this undoes that major error you just committed. Mac: cmd-z, PC: cntrl-z.

Naming of the Parts
The first time you save your masterwork, you will need to give it a filename. This can be up to 255 characters, but I would encourage you to keep it short and sweet. In the old days of DOS, everything was 8.3 - eight letters.three letters: filename.extension (06report.doc). This encouraged concise thought at the price of flexibility. Now you can call a file "2006 spam fighting efforts that are useless.doc". But that is a lot to type and if the file ever lands on the web, all those spaces turn into %20s, because that is how Unix servers interpret them. I would name the above file " 06spamFightUseless.doc". And letters and numbers only: don't use typographical symbols in your filenames (/ : \ * !, etc.) as this confuses several operating systems out there.

And speaking of parts, a hard drive is a piece of internal hardware, NOT that humming box sitting next to your monitor. That is called a "computer". Not a hard drive, a "computer". The hard drive is a small box that lives inside the computer. Please don't call a computer a hard drive. That just makes me (and any other computer support person within earshot) crazy.

Naming of the Ports
Everything that plugs into your computer goes into a special opening called a port. You have USB ports, FireWire ports, PS/2 ports, video ports, etc.. It is a good idea to learn what these ports are called so that when you go to the computer store to buy a new or replacement peripheral, you get the right one. (There is another computer meaning of "port", having to do with internal assignment of communication routes, but you will probably not have to deal with it). Here is a quick rundown of external ports:

USB (and USB2): keyboards, mice, Flash drives, printers - flat connector, tiny internal contact strips. USB stands for "Universal Serial Bus" and is the most prevalent means of computer connection. PS/2: keyboards and mice on older systems - round connector, tiny pins FireWire: camcorders, faster external hard drives, cameras - found on all modern Macs and some more advanced PCs, this connector is shaped like a thick, elongated letter D. Video: monitors plug in here - also called RGB, D-shaped connector with 15 or so tiny pins. May also be a wide thingy with a whole lot of pins used with digital monitors. Parallel and serial ports: old-style means of connecting things to PCs - wide D-shaped with a zillion tiny pins or holes. Sound input/output: speakers and microphones - tiny round holes with impossible-to-read-without-serious-magnification icons next to them. Ethernet: network connections - looks like a slightly-wider telephone connector. Modem: a telephone connector.

(Geekspeak: Peripheral - a device that plugs into a computer to extend its usefulness. So called because it lives at the periphery of your computer system, not internally.)

Protecting the Ports By now everyone should be onboard the security train. It's a dog-eat-data jungle out there and you have to protect your online self from the bad guys. This means passwords, firewalls, and a lick of common sense.

Firewall - a software, or, better, hardware barrier that sits between you and the Internet, preventing evil from crawling up the wire into your computer. Most computer operating systems have them, though they are not always turned on by default (as they should be). This includes Macs; if you have a Mac, go to your Sharing System Preference and turn it on. Windows users usually have this beaten into them by their support folks first thing; if you haven't been beaten with this particular stick, ask for a drubbing from your IT person.

Passwords - a means of identifying yourself to whatever server you are talking to, be it email, some web sites, corporate fileservers or whatever. Pick an easy to remember yet impossible to guess one and change it often. For more info, STFW (Search The, um, Freakin' Web).

Common Sense - most security is defeated by what hacker Kevin Mitnick refers to as "social engineering". This means the evildoer calls you up and says "Hi, I'm with network services and there seems to be a problem with your account on our server. I'm working on it, but I need your password...". At this point you put the caller on hold while you call plant security, your IT person, or the FBI so they can trace the call. A valid security person will NEVER ask for a password over the phone or by email.

Bonus Point
Here's something they don't teach you in computer class: small things get lost. I just replaced my 1G Flash drive (about the size of my thumb) with a 2G jobbie (about the size of half of my thumb). And then I promptly lost it, so I am back to using my 1G drive. If you have a small object of value, tie a good-sized string to it so it is easier to keep track of.

Mike Gould, is a part-time mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Consulting/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of Factotem.com, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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