Computer Management For Non Technical Users
Peter Rose - 04/2009
Everyone uses a computer but not everyone knows how to manage the data on their computer. This paper addresses all aspects of managing your computer, your data, and protecting that data.
All computer operations come down to understanding and managing two things: directories and files. A file is anything you create, a program, text file, MS Word For Windows document, whatever. You create these documents and you then save them to a directory on your hard drive. Pretty simple.
The problem is where are you saving these files to? Do you know? Why bother to care because, after all: when you open your word processing or financial management program and click the 'Find File' option, the program takes you to a display of where it has stored your files. Well, you need to care because at some point you absolutely must make a backup copy of these files in the highly likely event that you computer crashes and everything on it gets wiped out.
I say "highly likely" because someday that is exactly what is going to happen; I just had a friend tell me the other day that somehow a virus got downloaded on his computer and when he turned it on the next day everything was gone. Everything. He took it into the shop, and they couldn't recover any of his data - not even his records for his small business. All the information, all the saved family digital images, stories he had written, his calendar, and all of his email correspondence and his email address book. All gone. And no backup. Let's make sure this doesn't happen to you, okay?
Whenever you install a utility program on your computer, it puts itself somewhere - usually under 'Program Files'. A utility program is anything like a word processing program that you buy at the store, or recipe calculator, or financial management tool, or graphics program. Anything like that.
When you put the program's CD into your drive and tell it to install itself, it will generally ask you for two pieces of information. First, where do you want to install the program to on your hard drive, and second where do you want to have the program look for files you create with it, although sometimes this is a configuration that you can make later. Always let the program install itself wherever it says it thinks it should go. That way, if you upgrade the program two years later you won't have to worry about where you told the original to install itself to. Keep it simple.
Organizing Your Data
But you must manage where you store documents and files that you create. If your computer crashes, you can always re-install the program and life will be good. But that won't save the files that you have created. They will be gone unless you specifically save them, i.e. back them up onto another machine, flash drive, CD/DVD, external hard drive, whatever. You are the only one responsible for protecting your data. Here's how you do it.
You need to know that when you buy your computer, everything on it is stored at C:/ or what is called the "root" level. Look at your file system in Windows Explorer and you will see the C:/ root level labeled 'Local Disk (C:)'. Under it you will see a bunch of yellow folders, or what we call directories - though the terms are used interchangeably. There are also probably some other non-yellow entries there, and these are files. Don't mess with them as they probably have something to do with some program that has been installed or some computer operating system use.
Okay, so click your mouse on the root level in Windows Explorer. Go up to the top menu and select File; New; Folder. An input box will come up asking you to type in the name of the new directory you want to create. If you fat-finger things here, you will automatically create a new directory called 'New Folder'. You can always right-click on this directory and change its name.
Anyway, type in your initials for this name. For this document, I'll talk about my own home directory 'pmr'. It's called a home directory because every new directory and every new file that you create from now on will go under this pmr directory. So, pmr is my home; everything I save will go somewhere under this directory, okay?
You might wonder why. Well, the simple answer is that it becomes very easy later to click on this one pmr home directory and tell your computer to back up everything under here. Then you will be sure that all of your data has been saved. Well, I have to qualify that just a little bit. Some windows programs, like Outlook Express and the Normal.dot file for MS Word For Windows for example, stuff all of their data in other locations. I'll show you later which files like this you need to also save, how to find them, and how to save them easily.
Creating Subdirectories Under Your Home Directory
Okay, let's continue on with creating some subdirectories under our pmr home directory. All you do is click on pmr, and then File; New; Folder just as before. Now, you can set up as many subdirectories as you want, call them anything you want, and even nest subdirectories under subdirectories under subdirectories. It all depends on how complex your life is. Let me show you what I mean.
The first subdirectory under pmr that I have is called bin. This is just a bucket I use to stuff anything I don't know what to do with but that I know I want to keep. I have another directory called pictures, and I'll come back to that later and I'll show you how I create more subdirectories under that. Then I'm going to create a series of other subdirectories under pmr called: business, music, pers, and movies. So, I've got a structure that looks like this:
So, look - this is all pretty straight forward, right? You take some pictures on your digital camera, and then download them to the pictures directory. You create a MS Word For Windows document that maps out your family history and you save that to the pers directory. Smooth...
But organization is the key to managing your data. Let's say you only add files to your pictures directory, and that those pictures are all of your pets. You want to make sure that if your computer goes down, you have all of the most recent pet pictures.
In other words, you may want to back the whole pmr directory up every week, but all of your pet pictures every day. You don't want to back the whole thing up all the time. To organize this, you would create a series of subdirectories under the pictures directory such as: pets, relatives, family, and vacations. Now, your directory structure would look like this:
And, if you need to be even more specific with your pet pictures, you could create subdirectories under pets like this:
Other Files You Might Want To Backup
As I mentioned earlier, other than your own data that you create, many of the programs that you use will store information in places that it is best to leave there. I mentioned stuff like your email folders and your address book. If you use Outlook Express, for example, the path to address book files might look something like this:
Unfortunately, understanding which stuff is hidden like this and then going about finding it is a little beyond the scope of this document. Suffice it to say that you need to determine what you need to save, and then find out where it is. Now, in the case of the above address book example, you can use Windows Explorer to find your way there every time you want to back up, and then copy these files somewhere.
Creating A Backup Batch File
Or, you can write what is called a batch file that uses a utility like WinZip to do this automatically for you. You'll have to purchase WinZip or a similar file compression program, and figure out how to write the DOS system batch commands.
For example, at this particular time in life, I have a batch file that goes out and does this exact thing for all of the files that I want to save.
I have this batch file in my root directory, and all I need to do is make sure I have a subdirectory under my root of tempbkup where this backup file will be stored. I then just double click this batch file, and boom! magically all of the files you see listed get backed up into one neat file that is stored in tempbkup. From there, I can copy it to a flash drive for safe off site storage.
I might mention that if you write such a routine, you have to constantly check it to make sure the files that you want to back up are still stored in the places that you have indicated. Many times I have upgraded my Windows software, or even just Outlook Express, for example, and have found the paths to these files have changed. So, if you're thinking of doing this, it's not as simple as just copying what I show, and then blindly executing it. You'll have to get someone who knows this type of thing to work with you.
All right, you've got your home directory with all its subdirectories set up, and you have established a backup routine. You're safe, right? No.
We're in a wired-up world. We're on the net, and our whole life is exposed to... well, the whole world. Once you hook up to the Internet, you send a signal out to the world that you re open for business just the same as opening the front door of your business and inviting all the customers as well as street bums and thugs in.
That's where virus software and firewalls come into play. But first, some education about just what it means to be "on the net". The Internet is just like another big telephone company - wires running everywhere. But the big difference is that when you talk on the telephone, your words go down one wire to a transmitting or switching station to another wire, to another wire, to another switching station, to another wire, and right into your friends house to his phone.
The Internet is a little different. Your words are all broken down into tiny little packets of information; maybe just a few letters of a word each. Each of these packets is a separate entity, and as they leave your computer, they don't go out just over one wire, they get splattered out over maybe hundreds of wires. It's like writing a letter on a piece of paper, and then tearing the letter up into hundreds of pieces, putting each piece into a separate envelope addressed to the same end address, but then you go around to hundreds of mailboxes depositing one envelope into each one. The Post Office routes all of these hundreds of envelopes and they all end up at the designated mailing address.
Now, if you're smart (and they guys who designed the Internet were pretty bright people) you would have numbered each of these envelopes so that the recipient would know what order to put the pieces of the letter in so that he could read it. A piece of software called an Internet protocol (IP) knows how to do all of this to our email; it has a code that breaks the email into all of those packets, knows where they are supposed to go, routes them all there, and then puts the email back together again. Your computer then beeps, and the woman's voice chirps out at you, "You've got mail!", and life is good.
The Internet protocol is called HTTP for: "HyperText Transfer Protocol". HTTP is an application protocol which defines how files on the world wide web are transferred. At the heart of HTTP is the Internet address, or IP address. An IP address is both a number and words, i.e. the words are translated into the number. Each address is unique. This means that when I type into my computer browser's address field http://www.cnn.com that might translate to something like 188.8.131.52. I just made those numbers up, but they might very well point somewhere. Anyway, there can only be one Internet location that maps to http://www.cnn.com and 184.108.40.206 (not cnn's IP address, but you get the point).
Excuse me, but you left your front door open...
So what? Well for example, if I know what your street address is, I know where you are and I can drive by and see if you left your front door open. And if you did, then I can sneak in and steal all your stuff. Likewise, if I know your IP address I can take a peak and see if your computer is unprotected.
There are programs a middle school kid could write that can scan through thousands of IP addresses looking for open doors - what are called ports on the Internet. A port is how information is transmitted from and to your computer so trust me - you've got open ports on your computer if you're hooked up to the Internet.
Once an open port is found, that middle school kid, quaintly referred to now as a "hacker" can walk right into your computer, look around at all the files, take some of those files off your machine to his, and possibly (probably) leave bad programs (called malware) on your computer.
This malware can tell him when your computer is online, i.e. it can be programmed to dial home when you turn your computer on to let him know that your front door is open, and he can wander around looking at your files. He can even watch as you type your password to access your web mail, or - yes folks - as you log into your online banking account. As I suspect you can guess at this point, none of this is good.
Virus Software and Firewalls and Routers, Oh My!
Most people are now on a cable modem for their Internet. This means that you are assigned one static IP address, just like CNN. In the "old days", everyone was connected to the Internet through dial up modems at your ISP - Internet Service Provider. Each time you hooked up to the Internet, you were assigned a different IP address from a pool of numbers the ISP had.
With cable, it's so much easier for someone to find you. That's why you might want to put a router on your system. A router just takes in one signal and then sends it (i.e. routes it) to another place. In the process of doing this, it has its own set of IP addresses or ports that it uses. This confuses the crap out of hackers in specifically finding your open port. It doesn't make it impossible; just more difficult. It's the first 'lock' that you can put on your system.
The next thing you need is a firewall. They call it a fire wall because as a piece of software that you can buy and install on your machine, it acts just like a solid, resistive barrier. A firewall blocks un trusted IP address signals from getting through to your computer. How does it do this? Don't ask as you'll just get a headache trying to understand. Just know that a firewall blocks stuff.
And virus software looks at all the stuff that the firewall lets through and makes sure that no know viruses exist in the packets of data in the signal. It's as simple and as complex as that.
But even despite having a router, firewall, and constantly updated virus software, a determined hacker can get through to you. Sometimes it's as simple as sending you an email and you not paying attention and opening the attachment or clicking on a link in an email. That's all it takes and all of your defenses are useless. Sometimes our worst enemy is ourselves. So you just have to take the next step: you have to backup your data.
Is all this confusing and time consumming? Sure. But consider this: if your computer crashed right now and you lost all of your data, what would you do?
They just don't tell you this stuff when they sell you the computer. Advice? You want advice? You'll never get it because there is so much you should do to organize and protect your data that no one is going to take the time to show you. You either make a study of it, or you hire someone to teach you.
But never, ever hire someone to do it for you. You wouldn't invest tens of thousands of dollars setting up a business and then walking away from it to let your employee run the whole thing. You learn the business and you run it. If your data is important to you and you use a computer, then you must learn this stuff and you must do it yourself.
Otherwise we'll hear the screams from across town. And you have a nice day....