Workshop 2007 Summary

 

The latest in the series of OPCUG's Beginners' Workshops was held on November 17th. The all-day event featured four separate topics: computer hardware, operating systems, open source software, and computer security.

The first session, on computer hardware, was given by Vince Pizzamiglio who provided his thoughts on the future of personal computing. The world, according to Vince, is likely to be dominated by parallel processing – dual cores, quad cores, and perhaps even more cores. We will be using more memory and faster memory; have access to a range of convenient wireless devices; and look at bigger, widescreen, LCD monitors, using various flavours of digital signal inputs (DVI, HDMI and Display Port). Vince made special note of the tremendous increases in computer power in recent years, and the major reductions in costs of computer systems and components. He advised users not to wait for “something better tomorrow”, noting that there will always be something new on the horizon. If you always wait, you will never buy, and never actually get to use that better mousetrap! For Vince, the complexity of technologies, the miniaturization of components and, in particular, the pricing structures for hardware as opposed to labour, make it preferable to replace rather than to repair. Similarly, his preferred update path is the purchase of a new machine - perhaps on as little as a three-year cycle!

Alan German then provided an overview of two current operating systems – Vista and Linux. Vista has a shiny, new, user interface, but needs considerable CPU horsepower, available RAM, and a compatible video card to make it sing. There are a confusing number of different flavours of the software (Version Hell !) and any particular version comes at a not-insignificant cost. The Home Premium Edition seems to be the operating system of choice for new machines. Vista has some new features such as Windows Gallery (an image manager), a built-in desktop search engine ( la Google Desktop), and a rudimentary disk partition manager (a sort of watered-down Partition Magic). It also has some features that are available for use with Windows XP (e.g. Internet Explorer 7 and Windows Defender). The allegedly, intrusive security system – User Account Control (UAC) – was noted to be much less of a problem than reported and perhaps a necessary (or desirable) evil. Alan's bottom line for Vista? If it comes with a new machine, it's a very usable, and very pretty system, but there are no must-have features that would drive a user to purchase a copy as an upgrade from XP.

Alan also tried to dispel some of the myths surrounding Linux, notably that it's hard to use and only suitable for geeks. Focusing on the Ubuntu distribution, Alan noted that this operating system was just as easy to install as Windows, and has a somewhat similar, but “cleaner” graphical interface, that is equally simple to use. In addition to a web browser (Firefox) and an E-mail program (Evolution) that are usually packaged with the operating system, Ubuntu's distro also provides the full OpenOffice.org office suite of programs (Writer, Calc, Impress, etc.). There is also a photo-manager, image editor, image viewer, movie and music players, a CD ripper and burner, a whole raft of games (including Sudoku), and many more other pieces of software that are installed together with the Linux operating system. One of the best features of modern Linux distros is the availability of a live-CD. With this CD, you can boot your machine into Linux without making any changes to the machine's hard disk. Try before you buy. And, if you do decide to buy, the best news of all is that Linux is free!

Expanding on the topic of free software, in the next session, Don Chiasson discussed the basic concepts of open-source and how this evolved from the free-software movement. Open-source programs are available at no cost (as in “free beer”), but the free nature of the software is really free as in freedom – the freedom to modify the source code and the freedom to access the modifications. In particular, the terms of the GNU general public licensing scheme allow programmers to modify open-source code but require that all such changes be made public, thus ensuring the free nature of the software on an on-going basis.

Don also demonstrated a number of his favourite free programs. He made particular note of the fact that, while open-source is associated with Linux, a large number of the software packages are also available for use on the Windows' platform. And, to underline this, all of his demonstrations were done using Windows, including OpenOffice, Firefox, FolderSync, WinDirStat, Audacity, and MP3BookHelper. His main advice on how to find good, open-source programs? “Google is your friend!”

But, while being enthusiastic about many good open-source programs, Don also noted the downsides. Opens-source software is often developed by programmers as a challenge to their skill. This can result in some programs being abandoned while not quite complete, with missing functionality and/or inherent bugs. (But, the latter are also true of some commercial programs which are often released sooner than might be desirable in order to generate income for the company.) Open-source is free of cost, but not necessarily free of bugs. Programmers also like writing and testing code, not documentation, so the help files can be somewhat less than adequate.

The final workshop session had Chris Taylor discussing security issues, and outlining the need for and functionality of anti-virus software, personal firewalls, patches to the operating system, and anti-spyware programs. Chris made special note that “It is far easier to keep your computer free of security problems than fix it after it has security problems!”

He suggested that anti-virus programs should have at least a real-time scanning capability (check files as they are read from or written to disk), and preferably the ability to scan the computer's memory as some recent viruses are never written to disk. His advice on which package to use? Pick one – and keep it up to date. Chris noted that hardware routers generally provide very good inbound firewall protection, while software firewalls can be configured to check both inbound and outbound traffic. The latter might prove useful to identify if a machine is infected by some form of rogue program (a so-called “bot”) that is trying to contact home base.

In terms of keeping your operating system up to date with security patches, Chris suggested that Microsoft's automatic update service should be used at least in “notify” mode, and that periodic manual visits to the Windows Update site provide a useful double-check. For those nervous of allowing automatic updates, Chris asked: “Would you rather have Microsoft automatically install software on your computer, or have a cracker in eastern Europe do it?” He also noted the malicious nature of spyware, as opposed to the nuisance value of adware, and pointed to Spybot Search & Destroy and Ad-Aware as two programs that can be used to detect and remove both types of unwanted code.

Chris ended with some amazing statistics, pulled from a security report published in October, 2007:

  • 94% of computer users have anti-virus software installed, but 48% of DAT files in use are more than one month out of date
  • 73% of users think they have a firewall; 64% have it enabled
  • 70% think they have anti-spyware; only 55% actually do
  • Only 22% of users have an anti-virus program updated within the last week, have enabled firewall, and are running anti-spyware software. Are you one of the other 78%?!

If the answer to the last question was yes, or if any of the above information was news to you, you should have been at our workshop. In fact, you should have been there anyway. For $50.00, you would have received a one-year extension to your membership; a CD-ROM with all of the presentations, speakers' notes and associated reference material; a CD with a variety of free software; the promise of a CD with Ubuntu Linux (these are on order and won't be available until after the workshop); a catered lunch, plus coffee and cookie breaks; and a ticket to a draw for more than $2,000 worth of computer software and books. In fact, we had so many prizes that every registrant to the workshop went home with a prize ranging in value from $20 to $300. So, most people made money on this deal! (Maybe you should watch this space for next year's workshop!)

We received some very favourable initial comments on the workshop, and are now in the process of analyzing the evaluation forms submitted by the attendees. We hope to be able to glean some ideas for a future workshop, and would very much like to extend this process to the general membership. Previous workshops have been aimed at beginners, or focused on specific topics of interest to more advanced computer users. What should we do for our next workshop? What topics would interest you, your family and friends sufficiently that you/they would attend our next event? Please give this some thought and send in your suggestions to or speak to any member of OPCUG's board of directors.

Finally, the workshop was a success because of the efforts of many members and the contributions of our sponsors. So, we would like to extend our grateful thanks to:

Mark Cayer (registration desk), Don Chiasson (presenter, free software CD), Computer Supplyhouse (software), Jocelyn Doire (coffee, evaluation), Gail Eagen (registration desk, setup), Alan German (presenter, promotion, presentations CD), Bob Gowan (audio-visual, setup), Wayne Houston (accommodations, setup, Ubuntu CD), Glenn Lisle of Monitor Magazine (promotion), Brigitte Lord (catering), McAfee (software), Microsoft Mindshare (software, books), O'Reilly Media (books), Vince Pizzamiglio (presenter), Bert Schopf of Blackbird Communications (promotion), Chris Taylor (presenter, registration, CD duplication), and Ubuntu (software).