Everyone must use computers in modern society, so it’s important to understand how to use them.
Computers are logic machines, so they do exactly what they’re told to do.
Don’t overload a computer with more information, especially when it’s already overloaded and bogged down.
Every computer command is technically a shortcut, and there are many ways to do the same thing.
Keep track of where you store user files inside your computer.
Most computer problems can be solved with a straightforward approach:
- Reboot the computer.
- Free up memory.
- Reinstall the drivers.
- Research the problem online.
- Ask someone else for help.
Viruses are malicious software that control parts of a computer.
- They usually come from you trusting something you shouldn’t have trusted.
- They’re only harmful when the code runs.
Watch for phishing, which is a hacker trying to appear legitimate.
Watch carefully what you’re downloading and installing.
Keep your computer routinely updated.
Sometimes you can’t avoid a virus.
Keep your data safe by running regular backups and learning good password habits.
Keep your important activities separate from everything else.
Why learn computers?
Most of the developed world uses computers, and living in modern society requires operating a computer.
In fact, you’d have a hard time finding something in society that isn’t using computers!
Computers are far more ubiquitous than you may think:
- Almost every modern television, radio, phone, fax machine, watch, and security system is a type of computer.
- Most household appliances like microwaves, refrigerators, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and coffee machines have computers in them.
- Computers also control alarm clocks, pacemakers, air conditioning units, and autos.
If you don’t understand how a computer generally works, you’ll feel trapped by modern life when something goes wrong.
Computers are logic machines
All computers have three main parts:
- An input (usually a touchscreen or mouse)
- Processing parts inside that perform and store calculations (usually memory and a CPU)
- An output (usually a screen or printer)
Everyone who operates a computer is “programming” it:
Computers do precisely what you tell them to do:
- If the programmer’s logic was bad, computers become the world’s fastest idiots.
- Algorithms add steps to let the computer “learn” but are still a programmer’s instructions.
- To put bluntly, most computer failures are “user error”.
Don’t overload a computer
Save your work often:
- Until you save your work, the information is often only in short-term memory, and cutting off power will lose your work.
- By saving frequently (or having the software auto-save on a regular basis), you won’t lose work if you need to reset the computer.
Every button press, screen touch or mouse click gives the computer another instruction:
- Usually, depending on how it was programmed, it stores the information in a chronological list for later, then runs it after everything froze.
- If you enter too many commands, you’ll overload the memory and the computer will crash.
- Many modern computers have “timeouts” for input commands, but that required that the programmer was perceptive enough to program it.
Every command is a shortcut
As the logic gets more elaborate, the systems become more complicated:
- At one time, everyone used a keyboard type in what they wanted, and they had to use punch cards before that.
- Tapping or clicking something on a screen is often running the same command:A user can navigate to “C:\Program Files\WindowsApps”, then run “calc.exe” with a command prompt.
- Alternately, that user can use the mouse to select “Calculator”, which will run that same “calc.exe” program.
- There are technically about 4-5 ways to do pretty much anything in a computer.If you’re willing to learn keyboard shortcuts, you’ll become dramatically faster and more productive.
- Even more elaborate input devices (such as VR headsets) add even more complexity to the situation.
Touchscreens are more convenient than mice, but have a few controls that aren’t intuitive:
- The computer counts how long you press and how much you move your finger.
- Touching for less than a second in one spot is a “tap”.
- Pressing for more than one second in one spot is a “long-press”.
- Touching and moving before a long-press is a “swipe”.
- Swipes can include multiple fingers.
- Two fingers moving toward or away from each other are called a “pinch”.
- Touch screens hide most menu options:
- Long press on parts of the screen to find extra menus.
- Swipe your finger from each edge to find “pull-out” menus.
- Swipe your finger toward all four edges of the screen to navigate to other screens.
- Most menus hide in plain sight with horizontal lines or dots at the top of a screen.
Keep track of important files
To make computers run, they usually need thousands of files:
- They separate the files for humans’ reading into groups called “folders”.
- There are several major groups for files, though each operating system runs things a little differently.
- System files are critical to keep the operating system running.
- A few missing files might make your mouse not work or make the computer not start.
- Unless you have a career in computers or are hacking, don’t touch system files.
- Some operating systems show a warning to prevent people from breaking their computer.
- Program files are necessary to run various “applications” you want to use (e.g., word processor, email).
- If you mess with program files, you might have to reinstall the program.
- Program files also have special “configuration” files that may have settings you prefer (e.g., your email address/password).
- User files are the original files you’ve made while using the computer.
- Always save files somewhere you can quickly locate again, even if you’re downloading them from the internet.
- System files are critical to keep the operating system running.
Computers automatically store your important documents in a few specific folders, but it depends on the program you’re running:
- Documents or Downloads folder
- In the Desktop folder (the folder that contains everything you see on the desktop)
- Inside a proprietary cloud storage folder (like Dropbox or Google Drive)
- Inside the folder specifically designated for the program (especially game save files and settings)
- Sometimes, you might have a proprietary system that manages files elsewhere and hides that they’re files (like many programs that run in web browsers).
To safely manage files, stay organized by creating folders inside folders as needed.
Most computer problems are simple
95% of all computer issues are a few profoundly simple solutions.
A. Fully power off the computer and then restart it:
- Processes get hung up, configurations go weird, memory leaks eventually overload the computer.
- Most tech support will instruct callers to do this before even discussing another option.
B. Check for low memory, then delete enough programs or files to have at least 5-15% free:
- This usually requires running basic software like Disk Cleanup or BleachBit.
C. Reinstall the computer’s instructions for the hardware (the “driver”):
- Visit the device manufacturer’s website and download the driver from there.
D. Research the problem on the internet:
- Thousands of people have had your problem and hundreds of them have solved it, so the answer is usually on a web forum or help desk “knowledge base” somewhere.
- Look in the “About” section (usually one of the right-hand menus) to find the program and version you’re using.
- If you can’t find the right answer, add “solved” to your web search.
E. Ask someone more skilled than you with computers:
- You only know what you can know, and computers are complex.
- Even genius computer scientists get stuck and need help!
How viruses work
Computers use the concept of “permissions” instead of “trust”:
- Trust is somewhat intuitive and earned through reputation.
- Permissions are a series of rules, and are gained through some type of “authentication” (i.e., a type of passcode).
Some malicious people find ways to gain permissions they shouldn’t have to access someone’s computer.
Viruses are malicious lines of computer code inserted without the user’s consent.
Most viruses are designed to avoid detection, so people are often wrong most of the time they think they have a virus.
Most viruses are installed by a user opening something that came from someone they shouldn’t have trusted.
A virus is only harmful when the code runs:
- Some viruses can delay themselves for months after they’re installed.
- Other viruses only run when the computer runs a specific program.
If hackers can currently get inappropriate permissions from a computer’s software right now, it’s called a “zero day vulnerability”.
Watch for phishing
“Phishing”, the most well-known type of hack, involves stealing personal data by fooling people into thinking a hacker has a legitimate website/email or has legitimate authority.
You can usually detect phishing from certain specific details:
- Asks for personal information they normally wouldn’t need.
- Refuses to give specific information that refers to anything you can look up.
- Requests any specific bits of information that could betray your password:
- Mother’s maiden name
- Name of pet
- First girlfriend/boyfriend
- Your address
- Many times, they’re not very good at speaking or writing.
- Just because they say they’re from the FBI or threaten you doesn’t mean anything in itself, especially if you’ve been legally safe.
Avoid opening alerts you’re not familiar with:
- The only virus alert you should have will come from antivirus software you know you downloaded.
- If you ever receive an alert from unfamiliar software saying YOUR COMPUTER IS INFECTED, don’t click on it.
- If you ever see an unsolicited Internet message that says you have viruses or you should scan your computer, close them ASAP or avoid clicking on them.
Don’t open any email you don’t trust, and especially don’t click on any links from it.
Never download or run anything you don’t 100% feel safe about.
Many scams are fake bank websites, financial institutions, and social networks that look very similar to the actual website:
- They’ll make the entire site look the same and even use a similar-looking web domain.
- Expert phishers will often plug in the password to the legitimate site once you enter it on their phony site.
If you suspect phishing, give them the wrong information to see how they respond.
Add a fake email address to your contacts list:
- If a hacker gets your email and sends out spam, you’ll know immediately from an Undeliverable Report email sent back to you.
- Alternately, add a second email you own to the contacts list of the first.
Stay vigilant when installing new programs
Watch carefully what you’re downloading:
- Many “Download Now” buttons on websites are advertisements for unrelated software.
- If you see more than one Download button, note the file name of what you’re downloading (usually by hovering the mouse over the button).
- As long as you don’t run it and promptly delete it (and empty the Recycle Bin/Trash), most viruses can’t harm your computer.
Many “standard installation” options install harmful or worthless software (“bloatware”):
- Always select “custom installation” to avoid installing additional software.
- Take your time to read what you’re installing or the installation program is doing.
- All the “helpful” web browser toolbars from Ask, Yahoo, etc. can create new entry points for viruses.
Keep your computer updated
Most virus entry points are “patched” by the latest software updates.
Routinely run operating system updates:
- On Windows, run Windows Update.
- On Mac, run Software Update.
- On Linux, run a command of “sudo apt update” or “sudo dnf update”.
- Most mobile devices simply require using the preinstalled app store.
Mind any pop-up messages in the bottom right corner of the screen or in the pull-down drawer from the top, since they’re often important.
Most of the extra “enhancers” and “cleaners” can do more harm than good if you don’t know what you’re doing:
- Programs like “registry cleaners” are more risky than helpful because the registry is a relatively small database that almost never needs “cleaning”.
- “System scanners” are usually designed to exploit money from unsuspecting users and most of their proposed “updates” are completely unnecessary.
Ironically, anti-virus software will bog a computer down:
- Anti-virus software scans processes for malicious patterns.
- At its most extreme, an anti-virus scan will check every single process multiple ways to where the computer might have 3 times the computer code to run.
- Those extra processes can slow the computer to a snail’s pace.
Many anti-virus programs (especially free ones) are often full of security vulnerabilities that make them more unsafe than not having them:
- Do your research online by looking through tech publications, not the main website of that antivirus software.
- The best anti-virus software for Windows and Mac are built into Microsoft’s framework without any extra installation necessary (Windows Defender and XProtect, respectively).
Sometimes you’ll get a virus
Even tech-savvy people get a virus or hacked sometimes, especially when the virus spreads on a secured network.
The best solution is to have backups of everything:
- Sometimes, the virus will be very effective at what it’s doing:
- You might be unable to access files or won’t be able to run a virus scanner.
- The operating system will be permanently irrecoverable (and require a clean reinstall).
- All the files on the system will be encrypted and impossible to retrieve.
- When you get a virus, turn back time on the PC to an earlier working date with software designed to save and restore backups.
- Whatever happens, do not pay anything they ask, since there’s zero guarantee that they’ll release your files.
- Use The No More Ransom Project to get rid of software trying to extort payment from you.
While it’s not intuitive, powering off and doing nothing won’t make the problem worse:
- An infected computer that’s powered off and not connected to the internet won’t break anything.
- Disconnect the computer from the internet to prevent any malicious data transfer.
- Unplug the power source and remove the battery.
- If you’re brave enough, you can often examine the problem and retrieve user files safely by removing the hard drive and accessing it as external storage on another computer.
As a worst-case scenario, wipe the hard drive clean or get a new computer:
- If you store everything in a cloud service, you may only lose a few hours or minutes of work.
Protect your privacy and data
Automate data backup:
- Numerous free online cloud backup services (e.g., Dropbox) can help you frequently, routinely keep backups of your user files (and sometimes your program files as well).
- Even if it takes space on your computer, keep the System Restore feature on.
A password decrypts information so someone can look at it.
Your most important password is for your email because most websites send password reset links to it.
Use secure passwords you can remember or easily access, especially for your email.
Make an easy-to-remember standardized password with the following:
- At least 10 characters
- 1 capital letter
- 1 lowercase letter
- 1 punctuation mark
- NOT “password”, “passcode”, “123456”, your name, your birthdate, or anniversaries
- Make it uniquely different for every website you visit
- Make it something you can remember.
- The most memorable password is either a full sentence or a set of abbreviations.
Alternately, use a password manager to auto-generate passwords:
- If you use the same password everywhere, even if it has small variations, you’re opening yourself to a hack.
- Every clever thought you have about password cracking (e.g., using “5” instead of “S”) has already been programmed into most password crackers.
Carefully consider where you store your password:
- Do not write down your password unless you’ve safely stored that behind a lock.
- If you store passwords in your web browser, you’re trusting nobody will hack that browser.
- For extra security, use a password-protected document or password management database with software not connected to the internet (e.g., KeePass).
Keep important activities separate
Don’t use the same device (or at least the same account) that manages highly sensitive financial information to browse internet articles and play online games.
If you use another computer that isn’t your own, log out of everything you use.
Avoid frequently posting your email all over the internet where a scammer’s software can pick it up:
- If you need to, keep separate “personal” and “business” emails.
On a public Wi-Fi network, all your information might be unsafe.
- Run your internet through your phone’s tethering or mobile hotspot, or use a prepaid VPN.