Sunday, January 24, 2010

Are You the Unofficial "Tech Guy (or Girl)" for your Family and Friends?

WXPNews: Published by Sunbelt Software since 2001

Vol. 10, #3 - Jan 19, 2010 - Issue #413

 Are You the Unofficial "Tech Guy (or Girl)" for your Family and Friends?

  1. Editor's Corner
    • Are You the Unofficial "Tech Guy (or Girl)" for your Family and Friends?
    • Follow-up: The Reign of the Netbook
    • Quotes of the Week

  2. Cool Tools
    • Tools We Think You Shouldn't Be Without

  3. News, Hints, Tips and Tricks
    • XP Users: If you're still using IE6, it's time to upgrade!
    • Reformatting and reinstalling XP the right way
    • Microsoft has removed Office from online store
    • Bing keeps gaining market share; Will Android drive Microsoft and Apple together?

  4. How To: Using XP Features
    • How to set NTFS permissions in XP Home

  5. XP Security News
    • Old version of Flash in XP has security issues

  6. XP Question Corner
    • Is there a way to show the file extension for some files and not others?

  7. XP Configuration and Troubleshooting
    • Cmd.exe runs files that don't have executable file name extensions
    • How to reset the hosts file back to the default?

  8. Fav Links
    • This Week's Links We Like. Tips, Hints And Fun Stuff

  9. Product of the Week
    • Driver Genius Professional 9.0: Are your Outdated Drivers Slowing Down your PC?

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 Editor's Corner

Are You the Unofficial "Tech Guy (or Girl)" for your Family and Friends?

The Chinese say that if you save someone's life, you are responsible for that life forever more. It sometimes seems as if the same thing applies to computers. If you're the one in your family or circle of friends who has a little more technical knowledge than the rest, it's likely you'll respond to their cries for help when their systems go down. But beware: do a good job of getting that crippled computer back up and running, and you'll find yourself forever on call any time something happens to it.

Some of the folks who find themselves in this position also find themselves in way over their heads. I have a friend who is far from a techie, but she does know how to install a program, change some of her display preferences, set up her email client and do basic things like that. Some would say she knows just enough to be dangerous. But this is much more than her office mates know; they're mostly older ladies who are still scared to death of computers and know only enough to use the one or two applications they need for work. Consequently, she has been crowned the "computer expert" at her office.

Thus any time her colleagues have a problem with their computers, they call her. And about eight times out of ten, she in turn calls me. Luckily, most of their problems are simple ones that don't require a lot of time, thought or effort to solve. "Julie's taskbar has disappeared" or "Susan's sound doesn't work" are issues that usually end up being simple configuration mistakes and my friend has learned that many of them can be fixed simply by rebooting the system.

When you're considered a real computer expert (i.e., that's the way you make your living), the number of requests for help you get can really escalate. I don't mind helping out the people I care about, and let's face it: it's good for the ego to feel needed. But sometimes it gets ridiculous. When I go to a party, for instance, I don't really want to spend the whole time trying to come up with possible explanations for the computer woes of a friend of a friend, based on a hazy description. Even worse, I may end up in a back bedroom away from the festivities because the host asked if I could "just take a quick look" at a PC that won't boot.

I have many friends and family members with whom I am happy to share my expertise any time I can. These are people who are equally happy to use their own skills to help me and I know I can call on them if I need something from them. The ones who annoy me are those "friends" who never call me except when they have computer problems, and always seem to be "busy" or have some excuse if I ask them for a similar type of favor or even if I just suggest getting together to visit.

Then there are all those people I've never met who want my help with their computer problems. Since I write newsletters, articles and books about technology, I'm used to getting lots and lots of questions, and I'm glad to get them. Those questions are valuable resources when I write the next newsletter, article or book and I try to address as many of them as possible in my writing. However, some readers seem to think that by virtue of writing about computer problems, I have an obligation to privately answer every question that's sent to me. Unfortunately, that's a physical impossibility. If I answered every emailed computer question I get, I would be doing nothing else.

Instead, I allocate a certain number of hours per week to reader mail and answer what I can. Whether or not your question gets answered depends on: a) how many other questions I got that week, b) where your question fell (chronologically) in the list, c) the complexity of the question and d) how nicely you ask. The first two factors are just a matter of luck, but you have some control over the last two.

When it comes to c), it's simply more efficient to address the less complex questions first. I can answer dozens of relatively simple questions to which I know the answer in the same time it takes to answer one complicated question that takes six paragraphs to describe and includes multiple components and many possible causes/solutions. When solving a reader's problem takes hours of research and/or requires much back-and-forth, viewing network diagrams and screenshots, etc. - that's not question answering, that's a consulting job. And that involves a rather hefty fee. :)

Now, there's a difference between hard questions and complex questions. One characteristic of a complex question is that it's probably going to be pretty much specific your particular network setup. On the other hand, there are hard questions that may involve some research, but the same problem (with the same cause/solution) is experienced by many people. I don't mind putting in the work on those, and in fact they sometimes lead to the writing of an entire article.

As for d), attitude really does matter. When I get an emailed question that basically demands an answer - and right now - it goes to the bottom of my list (or gets deleted altogether). When a reader complains that "This is the second time I've written to you about this and I never heard back from you and I wonder if you even read your mail," that's not the best way to ensure an answer this time. It doesn't take much effort to be nice, to say "please" and "thank you." Most readers are unfailingly polite and gracious in their requests - but a few act as if I'm a public servant whose salary is being paid by their taxes. Been there, done that, and like it better here in the private sector.

Then there are those who want my help but don't even read my writing. I still remember the time a friend asked me about a problem with installing a service pack. I told her, "I just wrote about that in last week's VistaNews." Her response: "Oh, I never read that stuff. It's too boring." Now there's a great way to make a writer want to help you out.

At least I can often turn the free troubleshooting sessions that I perform for friends into paying articles. Most of you who have been anointed the unofficial, unpaid, under-appreciated Tech Person of the family or office don't even have that consolation. And mixing what should be business with personal relationships can be disastrous to those relationships. You may start to feel resentful and taken advantage of when you spend your weekends doing a bunch of work for others for free. But even if you enjoy doing it, there's the danger that the recipient of your free labor will end up angry at you. Sometimes our troubleshooting efforts only make things worse. Sometimes we do nothing wrong but we just can't perform the expected miracle and have to tell a friend that all of his/her prized data is lost. Some people will appreciate that at least you tried, but there are some who will blame you for the loss and maybe even expect you to pay for a "real" computer expert to fix it.

That's the reason I'm pretty careful about whose computers I work on. I know my friends and family members well enough to be able (usually) to predict which ones are likely to hold it against me if I can't fix what they've broken, and I avoid ever touching those folks' computers.

So how do you keep from being taken advantage of without causing hard feelings? Here are a few tips:

  • Don't be afraid to say "no" - in a nice way. If you don't have time or just don't want to work on a friend's or family member's computer, you're under no obligation to do so.
  • If you do decide to take on the job, schedule it at a time that's convenient for you. Don't be pressured into foregoing your own plans for a "rush" job. If it's truly that urgent, the person should be willing to take the system to a computer repair shop that gets paid to get the work done quickly.
  • Along those lines, acquaint yourself with one or two good computer shops in your area, and refer friends and relatives to them. The shops will appreciate the business and you'll avoid the perils of working for friends or family.
Perhaps the best solution is to help your friends and family members to learn more about technology themselves. Loan them your "how to" books, point them to good reference web sites, tell them about computer classes that are available. Much of the art of troubleshooting computer problems involves knowing how to search the web for answers. You would be surprised at how many people don't know how to conduct an efficient and effective search. Remember the old saying that "if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him to fish, you feed him for a lifetime"? If you teach your loved ones to "fish" for solutions on the web and apply them on their own, you help to solve or reduce their computer problems for a lifetime.

What do you think? Are you the unofficial tech support person in your circle? Do you revel in the position, or do you sometimes wish you'd never told them that you built your own computer? How do you handle unwanted requests for help? What was your most annoying experience in helping someone else with tech problems? What was the most gratifying? What advice do you have for other people in the same position? We invite you to discuss this topic in our forum at

Follow-up: The Reign of the Netbook

In last week's editorial, I addressed some recent reports that netbooks sales have peaked and predictions that they will now start declining as people are able to buy more powerful computers that are only a little larger/heavier and cost only a little more than the netbooks.

I predicted that tablets would be taking the place of netbooks in the coming year. Ironically, In the week since I wrote the netbook editorial, I've discovered a netbook that actually has me interested: the new Lenovo IdeaPad S10-3t, which is in fact a netbook in convertible tablet form factor with a capacitive screen and multi-touch capabilities. It also supports 2 GB of RAM instead of just one as many netbooks do.

It's the first of its kind (the most interesting netbook tablet on the market previously was the Gigabyte TouchNote, but it has a resistive screen that supports only single touch.

Reader comments on this subject were interesting. It appears that most of you do love your netbooks, although a few say you aren't attracted to them at all. But this topic really stirred up a lively discussion and that was the intent of the article. Thank you to all of those who participated.

'Til next week,
Deb Shinder, Editor

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Quotes of the Week

"Those who do not archive the past are condemned to retype it." - Garfinkel and Spafford

"The anguish of low quality lingers long after the sweetness of low cost is forgotten." - Unknown author, suggested by Peter Gregory

"Security is always excessive until it's not enough." - Robbie Sinclair, Country Energy, NSW Australia

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 Cool Tools

Tools We Think You Shouldn't Be Without


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 News, Hints, Tips and Tricks

XP Users: If you're still using IE6, it's time to upgrade!

There's more news in about the security exploit that was used to attack dozens of Silicon Valley companies (including Google, Adobe, Yahoo and Symantec) and although the first reports named all versions of Internet Explorer as being at risk, the Microsoft Security Response Center has now determined that the exploit runs only on IE6, which comes with XP. IE 7 and 8, which come with Vista and Windows 7, respectively, don't run the exploit. If IE is your browser of choice, you should upgrade to IE8, which has Data Execution Prevention (DEP) enabled by default. Read more here:

Reformatting and reinstalling XP the right way

If your XP computer is slowing down or you're having problems with the operating system, but you aren't ready to buy a new machine or upgrade to Windows 7, one solution may be to reformat the drive and reinstall the OS. This can fix a myriad of annoying problems, clean out all the "gunk" (unneeded files) that's accumulated on your hard drive over years of use, and put the spring back into XP's step. But you want to do it with the least amount of hassle and without losing what's important to you. This article provides some useful tips on how to reformat XP the right way:

Microsoft has removed Office from online store

The packaged versions of Microsoft Office 2007 have been removed from Microsoft's online store in the wake of a court order to remove the XML editing tools. A Canadian company has claimed that the tools infringe on a patent it holds. This means Microsoft can't sell versions of Office that include the tools. You can still buy Office (without the tools) in a downloadable version. Read more here:

Bing keeps gaining market share; Will Android drive Microsoft and Apple together?

While it's still a long way from killing Google, Microsoft's Bing search engine continues to gain market share and is now up to 10.7 percent. In July, Yahoo! will start using Bing on its sites, and HP has made an agreement with Microsoft to set Bing as the default search engine on its computers.

Meanwhile, some tech pundits are speculating that, with the release of the Google phone (Nexus One), Apple might join forces with Microsoft and make Bing the default search engine for the iPhone. Now wouldn't that be a case of strange bedfellows? Read about it here:

 How To: Using XP Features

How to set NTFS permissions in XP Home

File level (NTFS) permissions can be used to protect the data of one user from another user who has an account on the same XP computer, but still be able to share that data with a different user. Officially, you need XP Pro to use NTFS permissions but there's a secret way to use them on your XP Home machine. The secret is to log on in Safe Mode.

  1. Logged on with your account, put the data you want to share with one user but not another in the Shared Documents folder.
  2. Restart the computer and press F8 at startup to go into the advanced options menu.
  3. Select Safe Mode.
  4. In Windows Explorer, open the Shared Documents folder.
  5. Find the file that you want to set permissions on, and right click it.
  6. Select Properties.
  7. Click the Security tab (which doesn't show up in the Properties dialog box when you're logged on in normal mode).
  8. Add or edit the group or user names for which you want to set permissions.
  9. Select the level of access to give to each group or user.
  10. Click OK.
  11. Restart the computer in normal mode.

 XP Security News

Old version of Flash in XP has security issues

Last week, Microsoft issued a security advisory regarding the Adobe Flash client version 6 that came with Windows XP. It's badly out of date now (the current version is so if you haven't updated Flash on your XP computer over the years, or if you've recently reinstalled XP and are back to the old version of Flash, you should upgrade to the latest version to protect your computer from a possible remote code execution threat. Read more here:

 XP Question Corner

Is there a way to show the file extension for some files and not others?

This might seem like a silly question. I know I can make Explorer show the file type (like .doc or .exe) but what if I want to only show the type on some types of files, like .exe files that might be dangerous to double click? Is there any way to do it on a per-file-type basis? Thanks? - Josh V.

As a matter of fact, it is possible to show file extensions for specific file types only. In Explorer, click Tools | Folder Options. Click the File Types tab. In the list of registered file types, choose the file type for which you want to display the extension. Click the Advanced button, and click "Always Show Extension."

 XP Configuration and Troubleshooting

Cmd.exe runs files that don't have executable file name extensions

If you use the command prompt to open a file that doesn't have an executable file name extension, the file might run as a program instead of opening in the associated program. This happens when the file is a binary image with an executable header. There's a workaround for opening the file in the appropriate program from the command line. Find out more about it in KB article 811528 at

How to reset the hosts file back to the default?

If you have edited the hosts file on your XP system, which is used to map hostnames (computer names) to IP addresses, you may find that you need to set it back to the default. You can do this automatically by clicking the "Fix it" button on the KB 972034 web site, or you can fix it manually by following the step-by-step instructions here:

 Fav Links

This Week's Links We Like. Tips, Hints And Fun Stuff

Disclaimer: WXPNews does not assume and cannot be responsible for any liability related to you clicking any of these linked Web sites.

 Product of the Week

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 About WXPnews

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