14 August 2014

Step Away From That Computer! You’re Not Qualified to Use It!

Most things tend to come with warnings and careful instructions these days, but sadly not one of the most ubiquitous appliances of all, your computer. If a chainsaw is missing its instructions, you’re well advised not to use it, even though you probably know roughly how it’s supposed to work. I confess, there are days when I feel the same way about computers.

Long ago, during the renaissance of the computer age, it was possible to know everything about computers. But today, it is challenging to be fully knowledgeable even in one small area, and most people aren’t as savvy as they like to think. And, if I may borrow from Edwin Abbott Abbott’s classic Flatland, that includes me. And you.

Need an example of what I mean? Take a look at almost any recent month’s batch of Windows updates. Just two quick questions for you:

  1. Do you need all of those updates?
  2. Is it safe to install all of those updates?

I do software design and development for a living on Windows and the .NET platform, but I will be quite candid: I often have little clue what the heck some of those updates are going to do or why they are needed.

So, if you do not know why they are needed or what they do, how do you know if they are safe? Of course, one can sidestep both questions by accepting Microsoft’s recommended Windows Update setting of “install updates automatically”. That leads you to infer that you need all of them (which is not always the case) and, more significantly, that they are safe. Quite safe. Ah, lest reality intrude upon such a pretty picture!

Sadly, there is no such thing as risk-free software installation, and payloads from Windows Update are no exception. Earlier this year, a Windows Secrets Patch Watch article touted this headline: Keep this troublesome kernel update on hold. It discusses KB 2862330, a security update originally published more than 4 months earlier, and yet the article still recommends not installing it!

Most people simply do not have the time, resources, or interest, to go about figuring out which updates to install or postpone or skip for safety reasons. Windows Secrets Patch Watch is the best service I have encountered for getting advice, but it is still no panacea and using the service effectively requires a degree of computer literacy that I still think is beyond a good number of people. Which brings us full circle: Step Away From That Computer! You’re Not Qualified to Use It!

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Michael Sorens

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