Tech Q and A: Double Your Bits, Double Your Fun

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

Party Like It's 1234567890

All of you Unix nerds out there celebrated an important milestone last Friday. At precisely 3:31:30 Pacific Standard Time, the 10-digit "epoch clock" used by most Unix systems displayed all 10 decimal digits in sequence.

Unix time was, literally, 1234567890.

For the majority of you who are going, "Huh?", Unix systems keep time a bit differently than humans. They count the number of elapsed seconds since Jan. 1, 1970, at midnight Greenwich time. There's been about a billion and a quarter of them since.

Over at Wired's Web site, blogger Dylan Tweney observes, "We couldn't find any watches that display Unix time, but the above desk clock from Think Geek will do the trick. It will also display the time in binary, octal, hexadecimal or Roman formats. Mark your calendars: It's only 11 and a half years until XX:XX:XX X/XX/XX day."

I'm quite certain there's a great reason for keeping time in Unix Epoch format. I don't have a clue what that reason might be.

Meanwhile, some 777,000 seconds earlier (nine days, to you and me), Congress decided to push the date for the DTV conversion from Feb. 17 back to June 12. That gives us almost four months to answer more conversion questions!

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32 Bits vs. 64 Bits

Q: I'm trying to decide if I want to install Windows XP 32 or 64 on my desktop. Can you tell me the advantages and disadvantages for installing the different operating systems? Are all applications compatible with both operating systems?

A: The most commonly cited advantage of 64 bits is the ability to "address" more stuff — more than 3 gigabytes of system memory, for example.

In the scientific community, 64 bits allows much greater precision, especially for very small numbers which might otherwise lead to divide-by-zero errors. In fact, sometimes even 64 bits aren't enough and specialized, 128-bit computers are required.

Bigger address space also means you can keep larger files in memory — larger databases, for example, or larger graphical files.

If the application has been optimized for 64 bits, it generally runs faster for the same reason a dump truck can move a large pile of dirt more quickly than a pickup truck, even if the pickup can drive faster. It's a matter of how many trips the pickup has to make to accomplish the same amount of work as the dump truck.

But notice that I wrote "if." That's the caveat: Make sure that all of your important applications are optimized for the 64-bit OS (preferably) or can at least run on it. Not all do.

For example, the Intuit Web site contains the following disclaimer: "Windows 64-bit is a growing operating system with many configurations. We'll expand our testing of 64-bit OS configurations for TurboTax 2009."

This is right after saying that TurboTax will run on 64-bit operating systems in 32-bit compatibility mode. Translation: It should work, but they can't guarantee it and they haven't tested it.

The larger problem, perhaps, is device drivers — specialized programs which allow the OS to talk to various system components.

Make sure there's a 64-bit diver available for every device you're planning on plugging into your system, from the chipset to the sound card to the printers.

As a rule of thumb, if it was manufactured in 2007 or later, there's probably a driver for it. If it was manufactured in late 2006, there's a 50/50 chance. Before that, probably not.

Or you could just run Vista, which only comes in a 64-bit version.

There's No Place Like

Q: What can you do when NONE of your computer browsers will let you log on to Microsoft Security Updates, or for that matter ANY security software? If I try to get anywhere NEAR a Web site such as Symantec or McAfee, my IE browser will say that it cannot open that page. I am still connected to my wireless Internet connection. I've tried using Safari browser and Firefox. Is there some file that I can get to through DOS?

A: It sounds like the bug holding your computer hostage is network-aware. By that, I mean that it messes with the requests your system makes for Internet addresses.

Compare it to the bad spy thriller, where the agents are parked in the cheesy plumbing van down the street. They've jacked into your phone system, and every time you pick up the phone to dial 411, they answer. Pretending to be Directory Assistance, they give you the wrong number.

That is, essentially, what your malware is doing. It's why your browser is unable to display certain Web pages — especially Web pages where there's an anti-malware solution.

The first thing to check is your local "hosts" file. Think of the hosts file as the little black book where you keep important numbers so that you don't have to dial 411 in the first place.

You need to open up a Command Window. Hold down the Windows key (usually a couple of keys to the left of the spacebar, with the flag on it) and type the letter "r". In the window that opens, type "cmd" and click on "OK." There's your Command Window.

Now type "type %windir%system32driversetchosts" and press "Enter."

The contents of the local hosts file will scroll past. Ignore all the lines that begin with a "pound" sign, or crosshatch — they're comments.

The file comes from Microsoft with only one line below the comments. It reads " localhost." Localhost is the default name for the local (i.e. home) system.

Anything else — especially lines that have "Symantec", "Sophos", "Eset," etc — indicates that your local hosts file may have been hijacked.

If you're comfortable with the DOS text editing program, go ahead and put a pound sign in front of every line except for the localhost line. Otherwise, call your favorite nerds-in-little-cars company to come and fix it.

If the local hosts file is OK, then you'll need to fake out the malware.

The URL in my last installment contained Use the nslookup command to get Symantec's IP address (or whatever site you're being blocked from).

In the Command Window type "nslookup" and press "Enter." It will first show you the computer(s) used to look up the IP address, and then the address itself (often non-authoritative). Last line looks something like "Address:"

In your browser's address window, substitute that number for the name (everything between the "//" and the first "/"), and it should get you safely to the blocked Web site.

One last little trick to try: Sometimes the same malware that's preventing you from reaching certain Web sites will also prevent you from running antivirus or anti-spyware programs.

If this is the case, try renaming the program you're trying to run. For example, has an excellent anti-malware program. The setup program you download is named "mbam-setup.exe." If the malware won't let you run that program, rename it to something like "mb-setup.exe" and it should work.

Q: I have had this Mac laptop going on 2 years. I have my Internet access through Time Warner Cable and have it plugged directly to a Belkin wireless router without a password. I have had no issues with viruses. But now that I read this article about an individual asking about a pop-up "spykiller" or something like that, I'm wondering ... am I really OK without anti-virus protection on my mighty Mac?

One last question. From time to time my Belkin router doesn't give the wireless signal to my Mac and my sister's Windows laptop. Does that mean the router is about to die? I thought routers would last forever.

A: Most malware is designed to attack Windows operating systems. It's not so much an issue of the quality of the OS, or its vulnerability to attack (I know that Mac lovers are going to give me a hard time about this) as it is the sheer numbers of Windows installations.

In the mind of the malware author, it makes more sense to attack Windows because the potential for destruction is so much higher.

If it's my Mac — especially behind a router — I wouldn't worry about it much. If you're a belt-and-suspenders type, by all means, run a good anti-virus program.

Another consideration would be the amount of time spent on the Internet when you're not behind the router — down at your local Starbucks, for example, where the router can't protect you from malware.

With respect to the wireless signal, the first thing I'd look at is other wireless devices in the home. I remember a service call where the customer had a hard time printing via his wireless print server, especially when the print server's tech-support guy was on the phone.

As it turned out, his print server and his wireless phone were on the same wireless frequency! Whenever his cordless phone was in use, he wireless print server quit working.

To solve this problem, go into the settings page on your Belkin router and change the wireless channel to something other than the default. They're usually set to the middle of the range — channel 6 — or else some default setting where the router searches for the strongest frequency.

Set it to either channel 1 or channel 11. If your cordless phone also allows a channel setting, move it to the other end — channel 11 to the router's channel 1, or vice versa.

Sometimes it's helpful to physically separate them. If the router and the cordless base station are setting next to each other on the desk, it can interfere with the router's signal.

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

Got questions about computers and technology? Send them to and we'll answer selected ones in our next installment.

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