Thursday, September 11, 2008

Frauds Galore

Social networking may have brought many good things to people. Many long lost friends have been reunited, many new friends have met and many romance ending marriages have formed.

But social networking sites have become a rendezvous not just of friendly people but of frauds as well. Worse, the target of these evil people lurking amidst what is supposed to be a place of smiles is to steal identities and use these to trick and steal from other people!

Look at social networking websites like Friendster, Bebo, Facebook and MySpace and you will easily see many people displaying their profiles publicly.

I read somewhere that in the United Kingdom alone, 80,000 people have been victimized by identity stealing last year and the toll has amounted to more than 1 billion British Pounds!

These frauds are simply taking of advantage of the mathematics field of probability and statistics. There are millions of internet users and each user may have on average about 5 accounts on different social networking sites. They can easily guess username and passwords by trying to deduce from publicly shown information such as birthdays, place of birth, pet's name, mother's names, affiliations, etc. Sounds familiar? – Yes, it does sound familiar because you commonly encounter this during sign up!

Next time, you try to limit the information you send online. If the registration does not require fields on it, do not fill it up. Do not join online surveys of websites you are not familiar with.

On friendster, my most visited among social networking site, I have given miminal information and, take note, in the account settings, I placed there that only my first degree friends can see my profile. This is very important.

On a different note, my brother asked me to pay for an online phone service using my credit card. When I clicked their about us section, there was no mention of company name. When I clicked the contact us section, there was no physical address. The only phone address they have is a toll free hotline to a call center and the agent said they could not disclose the company name as a protocol. Huh? And to think that my brother, who is somewhere in the middle east, said the company agent who referred the site him is an old friend. And before you ask, yes, I was talking to my real brother, identity verified and all.

Still on a different note, I still have been getting chain emails from my relatives despite my warning them that chain emails are "tools of the devil" spams. After several forwarding and circulations, these spammers can already collect thousands of email addresses for potential attacks.

There are thousands of reasons to be paranoid about on the internet. The keyword here is caution and moderation. And if is possible, do not stick to one password. Make several passwords which are difficult to memorize. Then record these difficult passwords the old fashion way: write them on paper until you memorize them from constant use. Just make sure that paper is secured in your hands! When you have memorized, burn the paper.

Free Certification from Brainbench

These days, getting into an information technology career requires very stiff competition. With today's software getting more and more complex and new languages and scripting technologies being developed, it can be very hard to gauge a professional and find the right employee.

And add to that is the breaking of global boundaries with the internet. There are already many schools advertising on their websites that they have the best IT curriculum.

The best way to get the right candidate under certain standards is through certifications. But then, certifications do not come cheap and many people especially those coming from the third countries can hardly afford and do not even own credit cards to pay for online certification.

Good thing there are online free certifications. In fact there are thousands of websites claiming to give free certifications but the problem is how credible and acknowledged these companies are.

I stumbled upon Brainbench I think around the year 2002. Well, actually my friend working in Japan recommended Brainbench but I totally forgot about it until I heard about it on television. I visited their website at and learned that the company was founded in 1998 and has served 5000 corporate and 6 million individual customers.

But of course, the skeptic that I always I am, I did believe because many things are possible on the internet. What if it was a hoax.

Last year, my friend landed on the IT job of his dreams in Florida and he said that his Brainbench certification was a big factor his being hired.

I revisited the site. Actually, not all certifications are given free. In fact, most of the important and most used technologies certifications come with a price but which are significantly lower than other credible and well known certification bodies.

I tried the trial. They were quite difficult and intimidating but seemed to be very credible. During the last few months, I had resolved to get certified on PHP which costs $49.95 and MySQL which costs another $49.95 but I haven’t had the time to really get my hand dirty because I was busy with other things.

But just yesterday, Brainbench send my an email (I subscribed for alerts of course) saying that they are offering more than 2 dozen exams at no cost. These include .NET Framework 2.0, Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition, Macromedia Director 8, HTML 4.0, RDBMS Concepts, Programming Concepts and many more. I am thinking of taking Java 2 but then I have to do more reviewing as I hadn’t done Java in many months already.

Oh, and Brainbench actually has a learning center where you pay to learn some technologies while you get the others for free.

For now, I should have followed the advice of my friend back then. He now heads an IT department and at the same time runs his own profitable website.

Well, I am very positive that in one of these days, I'm going to be certified on one of those technologies. I know that to some degree, I am confident of my skills being better than many people, but it still is a different to be certified. Especially if you get it from a reputable company for free!

Boosting Computer Performance with RAM

My desktop computer system at home is about 3 years old and I still keep if for sentimental value. Well, aside of course from the fact that it is still in the best shape and performance.

My only problem though is that the motherboard cannot already support newer and faster processors. Not that I want to change processor as mine is still perfectly working. But my point is that software is getting more complicated and my needs greater especially that I am getting into photography and multimedia and as any of you know, the file sizes of these stuff are just humungous.

My better judgment tells me that the best way to boost performance is to add more random access memory (RAM). Aside from the fact this really significantly boost up performance, even better than upgrading the processor, RAM chips are incredibly cheap. For 1 gigabyte of RAM chip, I bought one a few months ago for about 25 US dollars.

As a little backgrounder, the random access memory is the place where data and software currently in use by computer are placed. There is analogy I love and it goes like this. RAM is like a physical table where you have all sorts of work to do like worksheets, paintings and journal. If you have a small table, you cannot place these works all at once and you need to place the others on another place and keep swapping with whatever you want to work on.

In computers, if you have a small RAM capacity and you open many software, a swapping takes place between RAM and the hard disk storage. The problem with this is that it will take some time because the hard disk reads slower than RAM and this will negatively affect performance. Same is true with the computer technology as one will take extra time to swap between the table space and the other place where the other stuff are located.

I now have 2 gigabytes of RAM in my dear old laptop and I am thinking of adding more but the motherboard has reached its full capacity.

There is a good news I read on the web yesterday that says that flash memory (those that come in tiny keychain like thingies) can actually act as a supplemental RAM. In that article, it said that Microsoft through its new operating the Microsoft Vista, is capitalizing on developing flash drive to act as RAM. Wow, what great news. And flash drives nowadays could have up to 16 Gigabytes capacity and very cheap price!

How this works is that the computer moves regular accessed files which can no longer be accommodated in the RAM and store them into the USB flash drive.

I am particularly interested with this development because this can be very useful with my laptop. Laptops do not come cheap and they are hard to upgrade. I am sure that many of you laptop owners out there are as excited as I am.

Developing with Linux

For a time, Linux, which is a Unix-like operating system, was confined to the domains of the computer geeks and servers. In fact, the first Linux kernel was created by the geeky Finnish software engineer Linus Torvalds and development by the open source community around the planet kept springing up bringing hundreds of different "flavors" of Linux in the world today.

The beauty with Linux is that is totally free and one can enhance it because he can also get the source code very easily. This has, to some degree, threatened the leading commercial operating system in the market today – Windows.

In a survey of more than four hundred IT managers, programmers and developers, it was found out that Windows developers have declined in number by 12 percent from last year. This has caused Windows' 74 percent developers decrease to a bout 62 percent this year.

True, Windows is still in dominance but Linux popularity has consistently been eating up an increasing portion.

Many devices other than the tradition desktop and laptop computers like hand held personal digital assistants and cellular phones are switching to Linux to run their devices. Because Linux is free, this will significantly reduce the selling price of the devices and make them more accessible to the masses. Because Linux is open source, the operating system's source code can be modified to run efficiently on smaller electronic devices.

Linux development tools have also come a long way to sophistication. Techies know that in the distant computer world past, which is a few years ago, talking of development editors mean using vi or EMACS command line editors with interfaces similar to Windows command prompt of Notepad. But today's Linux development environments can rival those of Windows' graphical look and feel like its Visual Studio Suite.

In the home, more and more household users are switching to Linux to fit their budgets. This has become easier for them to use Linux because of the many desktop features that make computing similar to what they have been used to with Windows in the past.

Many applications have developed for Linux. Well, it is no surprise because of the thousands of collaborating programmers around the world lending hands and brains for Linux. It's answer to Microsoft's Office is OpenOffice. For internet applications, there Firefox, Thunderbird, Pidgin, aMule, Evolution and Azureus. For multimedia, the choices include MPlayer, Amarok, Totem, VLC, Xine, and XMMS. For graphics editing, one can have Blender, Inkscape, Scribus and Blender. These are all free software so who would not be enticed?

I think one of the big reasons why many developers are going to Linux because of the bright career prospects in the future. With the exponential rise in manufacturing of electronic devices, it will certainly mean big demands for Linux developers a few years from now. But among my IT friends and colleagues, the thought of being a Linux guy is synonymous to the word "cool". Call it hype, but I believe it to be so.

Customizing Your Firefox Browser With Add-ons

I just wiped my computer slate clean last week after more than 4 years since I installed the first operating system. My computer has two operating systems: Windows XP and Ubuntu Linux.

Since Windows does not ship with Firefox browser, a direct competitor of its own Microsoft Explorer browser, I had to download Firefox from to reinstall my all-time favorite browser.

I noticed that first add-on featured on their website was the Download Status Bad add-on. While I did not have any problem with the regular download feature of Firefox, I figured that it would be worth trying the add-on. This add-on lets me view the download progress at the foot of my browser instead of the progress being opened in a small separate window.

Being a geography fanatic ( I have blogged about Google Earth and NASA's Java application in the past), I immediately took notice of the Map+ 1.1.0 Add-on. This add-on allows me to view maps but unlike Google Earth, I can view maps within my browser. The installation is very easy, less 1 minute and everything is done but the configuration can be a little challenging. But the installation and configuration can be
viewed on video on YouTube at

Still on being my geography freak, I downloaded Forecastfox add-on which lets me, as the name suggest, view weather forecast from around the world through I like this add-on because it is not obtrusive and I can easy customize to my desired place for forecast.

I also downloaded Adblock Plus which I think is the coolest and easiest to use ad blocking code I have ever seen. Since I often travel to countries that have slow internet connection, these ads make the connection even slower as it takes time to download these ad graphics. With Adblock Plus, I can easily right click on an ad and choose "Adblock" from the context menu and the ad will never show and be downloaded again. It will just be replaced by a star. I can also subscribe for automatic filtering with Adblock Plus.

And then of course, there is my favorite Bookmarks. If anyone can see my bookmarks online, he can see there lots and lots of them. Installing Bookmarks creates two icons on my tools bar on top. One will take me to the website while the other lets me bookmark my pages automatically. This has been one of my most frequently used add-on (I had this before I reformatted my hard drive) because I go online a lot and maintain lots of websites and also keep on researching and studying online.

Most of these add-ons come in very small sizes not exceeding 1 MB. They install in one click and in about 1 minute. Although an installation requires a restart of the Firefox browser, there is actually no need to worry about closing any opened pages because Firefox has a really neat feature that restores previous sessions.

Be wary during you birthday and other important events

Sounds like a weird advice, don’t you think?

Well, last July 4, 2007 I received an email from my best friend in Boston and the email said I had an Independence Day greeting from America. When I opened the email, it said that I need to click the link and be taken to another website where I could view the greeting card. I could have been the biggest dork on earth had I clicked the linked: a combination of four set of numbers better known as IP address! Who are they fooling? – me the IT professional? An elementary student could immediately recognize the link to be an IP address, which was a very glaring indication that there was something fishy going on

The emails contain the following subjects and people should delete them immediately:

Happy Fourth of July
Independence Day Celebration
July 4th Fireworks Show
America the Beautiful
God Bless America
Your Nations Birthday

I tried looking for information about the Trojan on Google and learned that when one clicks on the link which, as I said, comes in the IP address format, one is taken to a zombie computer that hosts the JSecard-A Trojan downloader. A code which is called Mal/Dorf-C is then immediately downloaded and installed into to the victim's computer.

These shameless, malicious spammers, who I think are not even technology savvy and are just mediocre marketing people trying to take advantage of vulnerable people, have no qualms at all at tricking people by using important events up to international stature!

For those who may not be aware, Trojans are malicious codes that install somewhere in the back of the computer without the owner's knowledge. It is actually taken from the Greek Trojan Horse which was used by soldiers to win the battle in the guise of a giant wooden horse gift but actually contained soldiers.

A perfect example of how a Trojan works is the program called "waterfalls.scr". This program deceives people by making it appear as a beautiful waterfalls screensaver, which it actually does, but in the back, the program would open some computer ports so that hackers and other evil computer people can have access to the computer's resources. This would also open to cyber thieves the private information, including credit card numbers and even passwords, of the unsuspecting computer user.

As a safeguard, we should always use the latest anti virus and other protection software and regularly get updates. A firewall is also a very important tool for one who is on the internet. My firewall always prompts me for permission for any incoming or outgoing access to the internet so I know everything that passes through my computer.

The internet is a jungle of different kinds of beast. Millions have been lost to online thief. If one is not careful, he may lose not just computer hardware by being physically damaged by malicious codes but his bank savings as well. Worse, one may be penniless on his birthday!

Cross Learning: Biology and Information Technology

Who among us haven’t realized the existence and increasingly growing virtual world? These people must be living under a rock.

We have virtual communities where people are representing themselves as 3D images mimicking real people and their location even are virtual worlds that have supermarkets and roads and houses, etc.

Indeed, virtual worlds and universes are created, thanks to computers. Going down to microcosms, we have viruses and Trojans.

In the real world, top scientists have completed the mapping of the human DNA through the genome project. This has heightened the interest of many people to create artificial lives.

And there is David Harel from the Weizmann Institute in Israel who proposes to recreate living organism inside a computer. He wants to recreate a worm called Caenorhabditis elegans believing that this is the best example to work on being the best understood animal in the field of biology. His objective for the project is to be able to reveal how some stem cells, particularly the pluripotent, decide which specialty to take on and eventually make us understand some of the complex developments happening in nature.

And then again there is Stephen Emmott from the Microsoft Research who is thinking the other way around. Opposite to David Harel's computer trying to mimic a living organism, Emmott wants to make computers out of biological components.

Stephen Emmot and another thinker Stephen Muggleton of Imperial College, London are developing what they call an artificial scientist. This creation has been borne out of their thinking that people and other biological beings are forgetful and not very good crunching numbers compared to electronics but people and other creatures are better at reasoning. The artificial scientist would be able to do inductive logic and probabilistic reasoning. As such, these computers would really act like real scientists - they can design experiments, gather results and make theories and hypothesis. Much as I had imagined, I honestly have not come up with a picture of what an artificial scientists physically looks like. But the idea though is very enticing.

Many other researchers have taken the inner workings of biology into IT developments. Luca Cardelli who is also from Microsoft Research compares biological cells and computers and tries to discover how molecular biology wetware works in analogy to hardware or software.

Other scientists, both from Biology and Information Technology think of the spread of diseases like AIDS and malaria in terms of information systems. These are complex insights involving artificial intelligence but I think developments like these should be something people from all walks of life should support.

As information technology professionals are trying to learn more and more from how nature works through biology, we – humans, plants and animals – are supposed to be beneficiaries of these efforts. Let us just hope that all scientific projects will be geared towards increasing opportunities for work instead of increasing war weapons; finding better medical solutions instead of developing biological warfares; and healing this ailing planet instead of extracting more resources indiscriminately.