As you can see, we have made some visual changes to the website. Personally, I like dark colors. Unfortunately many do not like to or have problems reading light text on dark backgrounds, so this is a compromise.  Over time I will improve the CSS for the website, but this is functional for the time being.

SSL Website Encryption

A more important change is that the website is now using SSL encryption provided by Let’s Encrypt. Let’s Encrypt is a free SSL certificate authority sponsored by many large organizations including Mozilla and The Linux Foundation.
If you check the URL to the website you should see that it uses https instead of http and there should be a lock icon nearby, depending on your web browser.

For you who do not know: SSL encrypts web traffic, preventing big brother and others with nefarious intent from spying on you. Google and other search engines penalize websites that do not use SSL and give advantage to they that do. By encrypting the web we take power from organizations like world governments less control over our data. Encryption is necessary not only to protect from theft, but to create and protect a free and open internet.

We will go over Encryption in our Introduction to Computers series after going over the basics, look forward to it.

Before we learn how to use a computer we must understand what a computer is and the underlining concepts that allow computers to work.

At the most basic level a computer takes data (input) and processes it into information (output). Lets say you us a calculator to solve a 2 + 4. The numbers 2 and 4 are your input along with the plus (+) sign. The plus sign is an operator that tells the calculator how to process the input. The output will be 6. This is how computers work, everything you wish to do on a computer follows this principle.

ENIAC, the first general purpose computer.

ENIAC, the first general purpose computer.

Brief History of The Computer

Technically commuters have been around for thousands of years, but we are only interested in the past two hundred years.

Charles Babbage conceptualized programmable computers and began to build a Difference Engine in 1822. After building his Difference Engine, he thought it would be possible to have a system that used punch cards for input. This punch card system was called the Analytical Engine. Unfortunately Babbage died before he could get it working.

Ada Lovelace wrote the first algorithm for the Analytical Engine. Wist the Engine was not finished, Lovelace wrote what is attributed to be the first computer program.

These Difference and Analytical Engine are both mechanical computers. Though there where electronic computers near the beginning of the 1900s, the first general purpose electric computer was announced in 1946. This computer was named the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer (ENIAC). ENIAC combined the abilities that other earlier computers had and ran at a much faster speed.

Computers Today

Computers come in many shapes and sizes, ranging from so small that 150 of them can fit on your thumb (M3) to ones larger than ENIAC. The smallest computer we will be going over in this series is your cell phone and we will not be building server farms so we will not concern ourselves too much with size.

Computers have become such an integrated part of our society that it is almost impossible to get a job without knowing how to use one. Even cash registers have computers integrated into them.

Types of Computers

We will be going over several types of computers during this series. This includes:

Smart Phones:

Smart Phones have largely replaced standard phones for most things. These phones are computers that can connect to cell-phone networks and WiFi networks. This gives the phones the power to both access the internet and make phone calls. Smart Phones can run software to do anything that a desktop computer can, from playing games to doing your taxes.

Single-board Computers:

Single-board Computers have one circuit board with all of the components soldered to it. These boards are often used in manufacturing and hobbyist projects. The most notable computer of this type is the Raspberry Pi. These computers are often inexpensive and perfect for simple tasks like weather tracking. We will go over Raspberry Pi projects some time in the future.

Laptop and Desktop Computers:

Laptops are computers that have a folding screen that comes down over the keyboard. Laptops are more expensive and less powerful than Desktops, but run off battery power and are portable. Desktops are cheep and powerful, but are not as portable as laptops. Both run the same type of software and the same principles apply. This is the type of computer this series will focus on.

Next time we will go over the basic hardware that will be needed and how hook everything together.

For further reading you can read the Wikipedia pages for concepts we have covered:

Ada Lovelace

Charles Babbage and His Work in Computing

ENIAC

In our hyper connected world it is important to know how to use a computer. Unfortunately, many people do not have the knowledge of computers to get far in a work environment. Thus Random Thoughts will start an Introduction to Computers series of posts. This is to help people who have little knowledge of how to use computers become more than competent with them. By the end of this series you should be your own computer guy.

Assumptions I Have Made:

As it is impossible to predict every scenario, I have made the following assumptions.

  • You have a computer and are running Windows 7 or newer. I will be using Windows 10 in this series as Windows is the most common operating system. I do not have access to a Mac and Linux has too little of the market to make this useful to the majority. In the Future I will have a few articles on Linux, but the same principle apply.
  • You have never used a computer or only use computers for basic research, games, and social media. If you know how to go on Facebook and how to search Google for cat pictures, but do not know how to change paragraph format a word possessor, you do not know how to use a computer. If you have never used a computer before or never did any maintenance on your computer, this is geared to you. Likewise, if you are an avid computer programmer this is not for you.
  • You have an internet connection. You will not be able to download the software we will be using without an internet connection and the majority of things we will cover will use the internet.
  • You are willing to learn, mess up, as questions, and find answers on your own. If you are not willing to learn, you will not learn. You need to experiment, that means messing up and potentially breaking something. It is okay if you mess something up, you can always fix it. You do not learn by studying theory, you learn by tinkering. You will need to find your own answers for many problems, we will help point you in the right direction.
  • You have administrator rights to your computer. This is important as you need administrator access to do many of the early things we will be covering and to install software.

I look forward to seeing in part one of Introduction to Computers

This year Random Thoughts will start an Introduction to Computers series of posts to give readers a better understanding of how to use computers and their important in society.

School and work have prevented me from keeping this blog up to date, but with the upcoming year I will dedicate some time each month to writing.

The Plan:

The series will be geared towards people who have little experience with computers. I have found that the majority of people are woefully ignorant of how to use a computer for more than simple searching and Facebook. In our connected and computer filled world everybody needs to know at least the basics of computers.

The series will start off with a general introduction to computers and then get into Windows 10’s User Interface, settings, and basic software needs that open-source software can provide. Wist this may seem remedial to some, I have encountered many people who have hardly touched a computer or who only know enough to post on Facebook. That is who this series is for.

As time progresses Random Thoughts will cover more advanced topics such as networking, basic web markup (HTML & CSS), etc. As we cover software we will go over the necessities first, what is needed to get the job done. We will go in depth in separate articles.

As an example of the structure we will use LibreOffice Writer:

Most users will need to know typing, character formatting, header and footer formatting, and paragraph spacing. That is all that is required for most college papers in MLA and APA format and more than what most people will ever need in an introductory level office job.

After covering the basics an advanced article will be available to people who need a little more guidance. In such we would cover page and paragraph formatting, advanced keyboard shortcuts, tables, and using images.

You will find that Random Thoughts will always encourage you to experiment and find your own answers, but we will try our best get you where you need to go.

Our plan is to be helpful to you in the coming year. Feel free to ask about anything to do with consumer and small business level computing.

Hopefully we will see you in 2016.

 

The Problem:

Microsoft did not include Solitaire or MineSweeper in Windows 10, instead you can get Microsoft Solitaire Collection. This is Microsoft’s attempt at making solitaire into a service that you will pay for. You will either pay a fee to get an ad-free experience or get bombarded with obtrusive advertising. To top it all off you need a Microsoft Account to use it. Who would have ever thought that you would have to pay to play something computer users have enjoyed for free for so long. Microsoft Solitaire Collection is a bad joke.

The Solution:

PySol is an open-source version of Solitaire written in Python. Sadly development has stopped and it has not aged well.

Look at all of them.

Look at all of them.

Fortunately it works on Windows 10 and has more than a thousand solitaire games, including Mahjong Solitaire. The interface is intuitive and the games work.

Disclaimer: I do not play Solitaire and am not qualified to review PySol’s quality in regard to game-play.

PySol is under the GPL and can be modified and improved. If you know a little bit of Python and love Solitaire I encourage you to bring the project back to life as no one wishes to give Microsoft any more than they must.

PySol can be downloaded from Sourceforge here.

Our computers fill up with a lot of useless programs over the years and many computers come with a lot of useless programs pre-installed, much to our annoyance. You could use Windows built in uninstaller, but it does not do nearly as great of a job as one would want.

The Problem:

Windows uninstaller does not always clean up files programs spread amongst multiple directories or the registry keys left behind in the registry. Some programs cant even be uninstalled from the control panel so you need to find their uninstallers somewhere hidden in Program Files.

The Solution:

Revo Uninstaller, a third party uninstaller that cleans the leftover bits left behind by Windows. Revo Uninstaller has a freeware version and a professional version, but today we will be looking at what is freely available.

First I wish to say two things: Freeware is different than Open-source so read the licensing agreement before you use Revo Uninstaller commercially and be careful when messing with the registry, if you do not know what you are doing leave it alone.

After you install Revo Uninstaller you will see a screen full of your installed Uninstaller_Appleprograms. You can change the view using the view button on the top tool bar if you would prefer a more detailed view or list.

In our Example we will be getting rid of Apple Software Update, but the same principles apply. We will want to double click on the program we wish to uninstall, this will start the uninstaller.

The first options you will be presented with are to run the built in installer, the vary thing we wish to avoid, Safe, Moderate, and Advanced. Most of the time going with Moderate is your best bet. The program explains what each one does in case you wish to do something Uninstall_Modedifferent. When you hit next it will start the program’s default uninstaller. After this Revo Uninstaller will scan for leftovers. If it finds any you will be prompted to clean them.

If you are uninstalling a game for example and the game did not remove old saves or config files, they would show up here. You can select what you want to remove and what Revo Uninstaller should keep. This is the same for the registry. Do not do anything to the registry unless you know what you are doing as Revo can make mistakes and you could remove something important to running Windows. Some registry keys are self-explanatory, but most are not.

Revo Uninstaller has some other tools, but there are other programs that handle these tasks better.

You can get Revo Uninstaller at its website here.

windows_10_Logo_725

 

On the twenty-ninth of July, many of you received your upgrade to Windows 10. The operating system is great as long as you ignore the blatant security problems and the problems in the new start menu. Fortunately the latter is easily fixed with the program Classic Shell.

What is wrong with the Start Menu?

Everyone was excited about the implementation of the Start Menu in Windows 10, but this is not the menu of yesteryear. It has numerous improvements over the old menus:

  • Better SearchWindows_10_Start
  • Live Tiles (Questionable improvement, but we will get to that in a minute.)
  • New Animations
  • Cortana Integration

The better search in Windows 10 is wonderful, in earlier versions of Windows search was almost entirely useless. Now you can start typing in the name of whatever you need to find and it will find it, though application launchers still do a better job. The animations are smooth and have a nice feel to them.

Cortana is a feature I do not use for the privacy reasons, but if you are okay with sacrificing privacy for convenience it may be a boon.

Now the problems that come with the menu:

  • Most of the Live Tiles are useless advertisements for Microsoft programs, not something you should expect for a professional operating system. The other programs connect your start menu to the internet. This sounds nice to some, but first, this is a security risk and second, why would you want to be bombarded with information every time you try to launch a program?

The new search is everywhere in Windows 10 so there is no reason to use the default start menu there either. You could use an application launcher to search and launch programs instead.

  • Then there is the problem of customization. Wist you can pin programs the menu as bulky live tiles, you can not change the menu’s appearance much, other than accent color and its size.
  • Some programs do not even show up in the apps menu. The uninstallers and sub-folders do not show up at all. How is one to be productive if they must make new program shortcuts for their programs and place them on the desktop or if they must go into the control panel whenever they wish to uninstall a program?

How do we fix it?

We can use Classic Shell. This is a free program that will add a new start menu and replace the old one. This will work on other versions of Windows so do not fell left out if you have not upgraded yet.

The first thing that you need to do is download and install Classic Shell form their site here: http://www.classicshell.net/

After the install you will be prompted with an options screen.

Classic_Shell_SettingsStart Menu Style

The first option available to you in Classic Shell is to choose the style of the start menu. The classic style is similar to the Windows 95 and 98 menus, this has little advantage over the default menu in Windows 10. The next option looks more like Windows Xp’s menu with multiple columns for the programs menu, this is useful if you do not want to scroll through a list of programs as everything will be on the screen at once. The last option looks more like the Windows 7 with a single column programs menu.

At this point you can hit OK if you do not want to go through the host of configuration settings available. The style serves as a base for what your menu will look like, but there is more customization to be had.

The next option available to you is to replace the start button. You can change the start button (Start Orb). You have three options: Aero, the Classic Shell Logo; Classic, the Classic Shell Logo on what looks like a Windows 98 start button; and Custom, this is where you can get creative.

Start orbs can be downloaded from websites like Deviantart or make yourself. They are images that have three frames, the first is when the menu is idle, the next is when the mouse is hovering over the button, the last is when the menu is open.

Basic Settings

To get a little bit more power out of Classic Shell you can go to the Basic Settings tab. To some of you this may look like a lot, but it is only scratching the surface of what Classic Shell can do.

As there are many options I will list them and what they do along with any comments or recommendations I have. I will be omitting self explanatory options.

  • Shift + Click: Self Explanatory, Classic Star Menu is the one for Classic Shell, Windows Start is the default one of your OS. I recommend leaving this on the default menu as you never know when you will need it.
  • All Programs style: Cascading will make the all programs menu multi-columned like in Windows XP and earlier. Inside main menu will have your programs in a scrollable list much like Windows 7.
  • Show recent or frequent programs: On the bottom of the Classic Shell start menu you will have a list of programs, this setting allows you to choose what is displayed. Recent programs will show a list of the last run programs. Frequent programs lists the most used programs.
  • Shutdown Command: This allows you to decide what the Shutdown button will do. There is a drop-down menu for the other options by default so this option is only useful if you need to default to something else a lot.

Skin

This is where you will do most of your basic cosmetic changes in Classic Shell. The options are simple. First you have a drop down for what skin you wish to use and underneath a few options for changing skin specific details. Windows Aero is the default Windows 7 look. I will not go into detail about this as it is dependent on your style, skin, and personal preference.

Customize Start Menu

The links you see on the right of the Windows XP and 7 menus are under this tab. This is a feature that they took out of Windows 8 and 10 that is most useful. You can decide to hide or show any menu item.

But There is More

If you click the Show All settings at the top of the settings window it will reveal multitudes of new options. You can change the color of Windows 10’s task bar or change the height and width of the start menu by the pixel, but we will not cover these setting here. We have covered a lot today and will explore more about Classic Shell in the future.

Firefox has experienced a major update with built in chat and a new search box. Some of you may find the new search box inconvenient if you use multiple search engines regularly, fortunately there is an easy fix to the problem.

To use the old search box in Firefox in version 34 or higher you will need to edit the configuration settings.

Type about:config in the URL bar to see Firefox’s settings. Hit “I agree” If prompted.

There should be a search box on the top of the page type this into the box:

browser.search.showOneOffButtons

Set the setting to false by double clicking it or right clicking and hitting Toggle.

After resetting Firefox the search bar should act like it did in earlier versions of Firefox.

BitTorrent has been around for many years now, since 2001, yet there are many who still do not know what it is or how to use it. Today we will lock at the basics of what BitTorrent is and how to use it.

What is BitTorrent?

To put it simply, BitTorrent is a way to download large files quickly and efficiently. BitTorrent itself is a protocol that handles the transferring of files across the internet. The major difference between BitTorrent and standard direct downloads is that when downloading through BitTorrent downloads from many sources at once whereas direct downloads come from one server.

Using this “swarm” of computers allows for faster download speed as you get little pieces of the file from many users who already have that file. The only server involved is a Torrent Tracker that keeps track of the file. All other actions are performed peer-to-peer (P2P) within the swarm. BitTorrent uses a system where you receive data from the “swarm” in exchange you become a member of that swarm to help send files that you have to others. This is known as Seeding.

Carmen Carmack from HowStuffWorks.com gives a general rundown of the process:

Traditional Download vs. Torrent

Traditional Download vs. Torrent

  • You open a Web page and click on a link for the file you want.
  • BitTorrent client software communicates with a tracker to find other computers running BitTorrent that have the complete file (seed computers) and those with a portion of the file (peers that are usually in the process of downloading the file).
  • The tracker identifies the swarm, which is the connected computers that have all of or a portion of the file and are in the process of sending or receiving it.
  • The tracker helps the client software trade pieces of the file you want with other computers in the swarm. Your computer receives multiple pieces of the file simultaneously.
  • If you continue to run the BitTorrent client software after your download is complete, others can receive .torrent files from your computer; your future download rates improve because you are ranked higher in the “tit-for-tat” system.”

BitTorrent is only the protocol used to download the files, you will need specialized software to actually download the file, this is known as a BitTorrent client. The client handles all download operations on your computer. There are many client programs available for free, but for this example we will be using Deluge as it is open-source, cross-platform, and easy to use. If you are on a Linux system your distribution probably already comes with Transmission or Ktorrent which are both grate options)

First you will need to go to the Deluge website here.

Once it is done downloading and installing start it up. You should see something like this:

It may look different on your desktop as I am using a KDE theme.

It may look different on your desktop as I am using a KDE theme.

As you can see it is a fairly straightforward interface. You have a traditional menu at the top as well as a tool bar that allows to add, delineate, pause, start, move up and down torrents in the queue, and open up the Preferences panel. The left most panel gives an overview of all torrent and tracker activity. On the right there is a panel that shoes all torrents and allows you to click on them to view more information in the bottom panel. On the bottom is all of the data about the selected torrent. Here you can see how much of the torrent you have, what files you have downloaded, how many peers are connected and how much of the file they have, and options that are specific to the individual torrent. We will go through each of these in depth later, but first we will need a Torrent file to download.

You can use any torrent file you wish, but for this example we will be downloading the Debian live CD. For this example we will be using the amd64 CD release. Debian is a Linux Distribution that is completely legal to download. You can get it here.

This screen gives you an overview of what you are downloading and some basic options.

This screen gives you an overview of what you are downloading and some basic options.

You should be able to open the file in Deluge right from the browser so there is no reason to save the file. This file is information that Deluge needs to download the Debian ISO image, not the ISO itself. Once it opens in Deluge you should see a screen similar to the image on the right.

This screen gives a general overview of the torrent file including its name and the files that are included in this file. Under the options tab you can select the location you wish to download the file and set bandwidth limits(we will go over this later), but for now we can just select the add button to start the torrent.

We will go over the basic options and panels in depth in the next post.

Source:

Carmack, Carmen. “How BitTorrent Works” 26 March 2005. HowStuffWorks.com. <http://computer.howstuffworks.com/bittorrent.htm> 08 November 2014.

Many value a computer mouse over a keyboard nowadays. There is less to remember and the use of menus give us easy access to everything we need. We even have touch screens now that can save us seconds of time now that we do not need to drag the mouse across the mouse pad. With all of this innovation many do not even see the value of a keyboard, with the exception of typing and the few shortcuts that they know. The truth is that keyboard shortcuts are not only for computer geeks and they increase ones speed more than any touch screen could ever dream.

Many who will read this will know their fair share of keyboard shortcuts, however many people only know few, if any, shortcuts.

In my brief experience with the Vim text editor I learned to love my keyboard. Shortcuts allow you to get things done much faster with just a few keystrokes. A control+c here saves two clicks and a shift+control+directional key will allow you to select a few words without you needing to leave the keyboard. The speed took some time to master, keyboard shortcuts are many and require some time to learn, but the results well made up for the time.

I have talked about the application launcher Launchy before (If you are on a Linux system with KDE you can use Krunner), it allows you to launch programs without leaving the keyboard. Application launchers paired up with a working knowledge of shortcuts can lead you to a place where you do not need to reach for the mouse so often. Knowing your shortcuts can greatly increase your productivity in work, school, and even in play.

Wikipedia has an exhaustive list of universal keyboard shortcuts that I highly recommend you take a look at. In the future I will post more on keyboard shortcuts and how to make your own.