Yet Another Windows Nightmare, aka YAWN…

Attacks against unpatched Microsoft bug multiply

Any seasoned Windows user will not be surprised that there’s another known Internet Explorer security bug that Microsoft has taken much to long to address. Yes, they have released a little workaround script to temporarily disable the dangerous ActiveX control in question. But as a computer repair technician of many years I can assure you that the article’s assessment of that workaround is quite correct. Most people aren’t keeping up on this sort of thing – especially since it happens so annoyingly often – and are unlikely to use that script, since it requires taking time out of real life to go download and install it.  This, after another similar incident last week.

These frequent opportunities to have one’s computer invaded and/or data stolen or deleted should serve as a wake up call to how truly dangerous it is to run Windows.  With all the spyware out there nowadays, it’s pure lunacy to do online banking or taxes or any other sensitive transactions on a Windows machine any more.  I have had customers tell me horror stories about getting victimized by identity theft after making such transactions, and finding out later that their Windows machine got infected with spyware shortly before it happened.  Danger, Will Robinson!

As a computer tech I can also tell you that by and large the most common repair these days is removal of viruses, spyware, adware, trojan horses, and keyloggers.  I speak as someone who has been cleaning up Microsoft’s messes for a long time when I say it continually amazes me how much time, money, and energy are spent just keeping Windows systems free of malware.  This in addition to the hefty 100 or 200MB service packs one has to keep downloading and installing, and having to deal with sudden crashes so frequent and ubiquitous they earned their own moniker in the computer world – “BSoD” for Blue Screen of Death.  (Here for your viewing pleasure is a video where Bill Gates himself gets hit with one of these at Comdex, a large computer conference… poetic justice, many would say.)

So I’ve used the acronym YAWN here for the reason that these occurrences are the same boring song sung over and over again.  If you’re not fed up by now, you haven’t been paying attention.

When you get sick and tired of being sick and tired, you’ll seek an alternative.

Some people respond to this problem by switching to a Mac.  But I think that’s jumping from the frying pan into the fire.  Part of the problem behind Microsoft’s shoddy software is the fact that they alone control that software, and users’ freedom of choice is the last thing they care about.  That’s why they are far more concerned about using antitrust tactics  to force out competitors (1 2 3 4 5 – oh heck just google “Microsoft antitrust”) than they are about making a superior product.  Now, while Apple’s software is clearly much better than Microsoft’s, they’re worse for user freedom of choice.  This is because, like Microsoft, they have exclusive control over the software – but they also have exclusive control over much of the hardware.  If Microsoft chooses not to remedy a software issue, Windows users are out of luck.  Mac users are subject to that problem too, but worse because the same exact concept also applies to hardware.  If Apple decides it has no plans to remedy a hardware problem (and I have heard various complaints about this), Mac users are out of luck on this front too.  I don’t recommend taking the Apple route, for these reasons.

GNU/Linux is easier than ever to use, and built with security and user freedom in mind.   It has an active worldwide community that provides support and continuous development of free software – “free” as in “freedom” and often “free” as in save your money.

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Dual-booting guide

Dual-booting is often a great first step for someone who is new to Linux and wants to try it without giving up their Windows installation. (Or, less commonly, someone who wants to use 2 different versions of Windows or 2 different distributions of Linux.)

Switching “cold turkey” to a new operating system (OS) is not an appealing idea for most people because they won’t know how everything works yet in the new OS. This will prove frustrating if they just need to get something done quickly but can’t figure out how to do it, yet there’s no way to go back to the old OS where they know how to get it done.

Dual booting allows you to try a new OS, with the knowledge that you can always go back to the old one if you get stuck or just want to be back in familiar territory.

Here is an excellent set of articles on dual-booting, tailored for beginners, complete with screenshots and illustrations. It covers various combinations of booting Linux-Windows, Linux-Linux, or Windows-Windows.

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Upgrade from Windows XP

Micro$haft is preparing to release Windows Vista this year, saying that enhanced security is the top reason why users should fork over the money for the upgrade. And yet, simultaneously, they are also beginning to sell security products to businesses and $50/year antivirus subscriptions to end users. Doesn’t it strike anyone as being particularly ballsy to write crappy software all full of security holes, sell it at exorbitant prices, and then turn around and charge subscription fees to help fix it?? M$, are you for real?

It’s no secret that Vista hasn’t even hit the market yet, and already M$ has released a security patch for it.

To be fair, M$ is right about one thing. Security is, in fact, most definitely the reason why you should upgrade. …But what I take issue with is how they define “upgrade”. If you define “paying good money to move from an exceedingly broken and vulnerable OS to a somewhat less broken and vulnerable OS” as “upgrading,” then have at it, I guess.  I don’t call that “upgrading” — I call it an insult to our collective intelligence.

Microsoft says we should all upgrade for security reasons. (I’m sure the fact that this would line their already-filled-to-bursting coffers with even more profits has nothing to do with this recommendation.) But you know, profits notwithstanding, they are absolutely right. All previous versions of Windows including XP are riddled with security holes, and by all means we all should upgrade. But if you believe for one second that Vista will be the answer to these problems, you are seriously deluding yourself. Naturally M$ will tell you that each succeeding version is THE solution to all previous problems, simply because it’s profitable for them to do so!

A smart consumer will take the wheat and leave the chaff. Yes, each version of Windows will get better as M$ learns from each new catastrophe it has helped create, and we all pay the price (literally) in IT expenditures and downtime while they learn. But when you finally get sick and tired of the merry-go-round, you’ll consider a serious upgrade – to GNU/Linux or Mac.

But first, some excellent free advice from me as a long-time computer tech:

You should always keep at least one backup copy of all your important data in a separate location — in case, heaven forbid, your computer gets stolen, your hard drive crashes, your house catches on fire, or a plumbing problem turns your computer room into a swimming pool while you’re away at work. Whenever you do any software install, whether on Windows, GNU/Linux, MacOS, or any other operating system, you should make an extra backup, just in case you mess something up or a failing sector on your hard drive decides this would be a great time to quit allowing your system to access an important system file.

Yes, yes, you say. I have all my stuff backed up. What do I do now?

GNU/Linux options if you don’t feel comfortable installing it yourself:

  • Find a [GNU/]Linux Users Group (LUG or GLUG) close to you for help. Many of them periodically have “InstallFests,” events where anyone who wants Linux can just bring their computer in for free installation. For example, there will be a very large one this year at the Desktop Linux Summit 2006 in San Diego, California. Or for something less formal, just ask a LUG or GLUG member for assistance. GNU/Linux people are generally more than happy to help and quite eager to share their knowledge.
  • Find a GNU/Linux-savvy computer technician and pay him/her to install it for you.
  • Purchase a computer with GNU/Linux preinstalled. More and more often, major computer manufacturers are selling computers with GNU/Linux installed and ready to go.

A few of the most beginner-friendly GNU/Linux flavors to choose from if you’d like to try doing it yourself:

Mac options:

  • Purchase an Apple computer with MacOS X preinstalled. As of this writing MacOS 10.4 is the newest version.  Mind you, MacOS is proprietary software and as such, is subject to many of the same pitfalls as Windows – it’s just that Apple is better about addressing them than Microsoft is.

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