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Tech Q and A: Got My Head in a Cloud

Every other week or so, FOXNews.com tries to solve your most vexing technology-related problems. Send your questions to TechQuestions@foxnews.com and we'll reply to selected ones in our next installment.

Hang out with a IT professional for very long, and you're bound to hear some nerd-speak, even though we make a point of using plain English around the customers.

Occasionally, we co-opt one of those regular words and give it a special geeky meaning.

"Cloud" is one of those words. In networking terms, the cloud is an external network, usually the Internet.

To diagram our network, we draw a fluffy little cloud, label it "Internet," and then extend a line from it which represents our Internet connection.

Then we attach to that line various symbols representing the routers, switches, servers, workstations and other network devices, to show how they are connected to the cloud.

You can see what I'm talking about in this Wikipedia article.

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"Cloud computing" refers to programs that run on a server in the "cloud" rather than your own machine.

For example, if you use a browser to read your e-mail, you're doing a kind of cloud computing, since the e-mail itself is stored on servers at your e-mail provider and you can use any browser to access it.

But when you use Microsoft Outlook or Outlook Express to check your e-mail, you're not, since those e-mails are stored on your PC or your company's internal network.

I bring this up because Google introduced its new browser last week. It calls it "Chrome."

Does the world really need a new browser? We already have Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Opera and several others.

Why Chrome? And what does this have to do with cloud computing?

The answer comes from Google.

"Think of Chrome as more than a simple Web browser," says Google.

Certainly it is a simple browser — especially in the existing beta release, without some of the eventual bells and whistles.

Google continues, "It's a platform for running Web applications."

Ah, so! Chrome "was designed to be the world's speediest browser at handling JavaScript," according to the Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg.

By inference, it's meant to transport you to Google's excellent (and free!) word processing, spreadsheet, e-mail, calendar and other cloud-computing applications — all of which use a lot of JavaScript.

It's a little like the Dodger Shuttle here in Los Angeles in that respect. That bus can pick you up at Union Station downtown and whisk you up to Dodger Stadium.

It's just like other buses, except that it does only one thing and does it well. You don't have to deal with the traffic or parking fees.

And if you've had to pony up the suggested retail price for the Microsoft Office Suite — $679.95 for the current full edition — you know exactly what I'm talking about.

Not Even Norton Can Protect You!

Q: I use Panda for malware protection. I remember you saying that I should learn what messages from my virus-protection program look like and ignore everything else.

I was recently trying to download an attachment in an e-mail program. I got a message saying that it was being scanned by Norton, which then declared it to be virus-free. Should I trust it?

A: As a general rule, you should be suspicious of any e-mail attachment.

That said, however, it's how we often do business — and if you're expecting something to be sent to you as attachment it is generally less risky than something that just appears out of the blue.

Please note all the weasel words in that last paragraph.

In your case, I notice that your e-mail address is from SBC Global. If you are using SBC's browser to look at your e-mail, it is perfectly normal to see the Norton message.

This is another example of cloud computing.

In this case, SBC's using software from Norton to scan e-all mail attachments from its server before it let you download them. It's one extra layer of protection.

Oh, and the sub-headline above about Norton? I recently saw it on a T-shirt, and it made me smile.

Recording Lectures and Meetings

Q: I work for a non-profit. I need to record lectures and meetings, and I want to post those recordings on a blog or Web page, but I cannot find a digital voice recorder (that doesn't cost much) that has a memory card or cables for transferring the recordings to a computer.

I'm using a cassette recorder now — not good. Any suggestions?

A: "That doesn't cost much" is a little subjective. You might want to look at the Olympus WS-311M Digital Voice Recorder.

Other models come a little pricier and also a little less pricey. This one's in the middle, but has great features.

It can hold more than 100 hours of recordings (presumably at the lowest-quality setting — somewhat less if you actually want to be able to understand what you've recorded) and has a built-in USB connector that connects directly to your computer.

Since it's digital to begin with, it stores recordings internally in the same format you want them to be in on your blog/Web page.

In English, that means you don't need a special program to convert them, as you would for a cassette recorder. You just plug it into your PC and transfer the files.

The street price is about $100, but it's on sale now at Fry's for $70 and at Amazon for slightly less.

Yet More Feedback on Digital Television

Q: Continuing your comment about two TV populations: There is a third — those that purchased a converter and now can't see anything because the signals are marginal.

I could always watch football games during the season with my outside antenna. While the picture was not perfect, it was more than viewable and served me fine for years.

Football is the ONLY programming that causes me to turn on network TV, so I will not spend the year-round DirecTV upcharge to get my local channels.

But this digital over-the-air leaves me with ALL networks' picture and sound unusable. I live in a large metropolitan area and am well versed and well experienced in antenna technology and orientation, so don't give me a tutorial for these items

Until digital technology advances to where it can work with marginal signals, this is a total fiasco foisted upon us by Congress. They did it again, and we, the folks, are the ones who suffer.

A: One of the pro-digital arguments is that there's no signal overlap as there is with analog broadcasting.

For example, the flagship ABC radio station in Los Angeles is KABC-AM. I live in a small town 50 miles west, and a little south, of downtown L.A.

At night, I can hardly get KABC at all. In fact, I can get KSL-AM, in Salt Lake City, Utah, (600 miles to the northeast) more clearly.

There are two reasons for this. KSL's signal — like all radio signals — bounces off the stratosphere, especially at night, and I happen to live in an area where it happens to ricochet back to earth.

More importantly, U.S. radio stations are required to turn down the power at night, whereas stations "south of the border, down Mexico way" are not. One of them walks all over the KABC signal and I get mariachi music mixed in with my Dodgers baseball.

That's radio and this is television — I understand. But it works roughly the same way.

One of the alleged advantages in the move to digital is that it eliminates one station walking over another if they're near each other on the dial.

The downside is that reception is more binary — you'll see it well or not at all. There's less tolerance for "not perfect, but more than viewable."

I'm sure I'm going to get about a hundred e-mails on that last statement, most of them saying that digital is better.

My answer is that I calls 'em as I sees 'em.

Disk drives are digital, too. But when you get a single bad bit, you can have difficulty reading everything in the same block.

To recover the data, you use an analyzer that looks at the data in an analog sense, and tries to recover the bad bit by analyzing it in an analog way.

That said, remember that the digital signal being broadcast now may not be the same signal you get in February after the nationwide conversion.

I spoke with one of the engineers at WTVJ-TV in Miami/Fort Lauderdale. (You listed your home as Fort Lauderdale; I chose an NBC affiliate because "Sunday Night Football" is on NBC.)

He told me that the station is currently broadcasting from a different antenna cluster than it will be using post-conversion. The current one is south of Fort Lauderdale; most other TV transmitters are to the north.

The point is that your signal may change and reception may get better.

You might want to look at other alternatives. For example, "Sunday Night Football" is currently streamed over the Internet — I watch it on my laptop!

There are also several TV over Internet Protocol companies starting up.

Or perhaps you can talk a buddy into installing a Slingbox — and watch his TV over your Internet connection.

That's why I love technology. New and better answers every day.

Guy R. Briggs is a member of the Nerds On Site international IT service team and is based in Los Angeles.

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