Category: Tech Talk

Some of the Worst CPU Exploits in History – Should You Be Worried?

tech talk

By Andy Li

If you wanted the quick answer, then yes, you probably should be — or at least be paying attention. For those of us that don’t follow tech that much, January for the tech world has been abuzz with two words: Spectre and Meltdown. They’re two computer exploits that can give an attacker the ability to read data in parts of the system that are normally completely secured and unreadable by conventional means.

Normally, data that’s being input and processed into a computer system, such as passwords, usernames and other sensitive information, isn’t readable straight from the these heavily restricted areas of the hardware. This is thanks to industry conventions and standards that require developers to ensure these areas are well secured and encrypted against prying eyes. But thanks to researchers at Google’s Project Zero and other independent research teams, these parts of the computer are now no longer as nearly secured as everyone once thought.

Being called “one of the worst CPU [computer processor] bugs ever found” by one of the researchers who originally discovered them, every major hardware and software vendor is currently in a frenzy trying to determine what should even be done with the exploits. That’s because they affect nearly every CPU within the last 20 years, with Intel CPUs being especially vulnerable.

This means that billions of devices are potential targets. While bugs and exploits are usual fare when it comes to technology, Spectre and Meltdown expose not just security problems with computer hardware, but inherent design flaws made by CPU developers trying to squeeze out as much performance as possible for their hardware. It comes as no surprise then that current fixes to these exploits come at potentially steep performance costs, with some major companies reporting up to a 30 percent performance decrease for their systems after applying fixes for the exploits.

As of now, Google and Amazon have already reported that their infrastructure has been secured against the exploits with minimal performance issues. Microsoft has had mixed results for Windows patches, where some AMD CPU users reported unbootable computers before a subsequent fix was pushed out to address the problem.

Meanwhile, Intel has remained vague in their plans to address the exploits, despite it being their CPUs that are affected the most by the exploits. Early attempts by Intel to fix the problem through firmware updates have been lambasted by some developers, including Linus Torvalds, as being “complete and utter garbage.” Longer-term solutions announced by Intel, such as the development of Spectre- and Meltdown-proof chips, have only raised more questions than answers as scant details have been given other than that they’ll be released later this year.

So the question remains: What can we, as normal consumers, do to protect ourselves against these threats? Unfortunately, even with current fixes, you won’t be protected from certain variants of Spectre. Keeping your system up to date, though, will go a long way in keeping you safe from becoming a victim of a new class of attacks. Use this tool created by the Gibson Research Center to determine if you’re still vulnerable: Pay particular attention to your web browser and operating system and update those as soon as possible to the latest versions.

In the long term though, the only way to be totally rid of these exploits would be to replace the system with Spectre- and Meltdown-proof machines. However, with Intel still being the titular CPU in use for most computer systems and given how long many of us can hold on to our computers for, this will certainly be no simple task. So for now, while we can only wait and watch to see what the big players will do next, one thing’s for sure: Meltdown and Spectre will be haunting us for quite some time.

Andy Li is a member of the Information Technology Senior Seminar course and is planning on an eventual career in database administration.


How I Became a Geek

tech talk

By Jamie West

My name is Jamie West, and I started in SMCC’s Computer Technology program in 2012. It has taken me five years to get to where I am now. I will graduate with my Associate in Applied Science with a major in Information Technology this spring. It has been a struggle at times. However, with help from all of my instructors and encouragement from my supporters, I will graduate.

Before attending SMCC, I was intimidated by today’s technology. I grew up with Atari, then the Nintendo gaming systems. The only PC I used was an old Commodore 64. I had no idea of the differences between Macs and PCs. I couldn’t tell you what a bit or a byte was, let alone a VM.

Now, after all the classes I’ve taken, I’m hoping to get into the tech industry and make a career out of it. I can now maintain desktops, laptops, tablets and cell phones. I’m pretty good at troubleshooting hardware and software issues. I know what a VM is (Virtual Machine). I can set up basic networks for SOHO (Small Office/Home Office) environments.

The lessons that I’ve learned at SMCC and the skills that I’ve acquired I can now take with me into the workforce. I know what it’s like setting up VMs and having to configure the IP addresses so they work properly via the physical machine they are running through. I also know what it’s like to work and collaborate with others as a team to solve problems. Communication is a big part of all of the above. If I didn’t ask questions or answer questions and participate in classes, I wouldn’t have maximized the potential knowledge offered.

I’d like to say that it has been a long road with some bumps along the way. Regardless of life’s challenges that I’ve had to deal with, I didn’t give up.

Whoever you are, however old you are, regardless of what challenges you have to deal with, you can achieve your goals if you put your mind to it. Don’t be afraid of the bits and bytes that come along. They’ll usually update without you noticing. Things change, technology changes, and people change.

SMCC and the Information Technology department have helped me in more ways than I have words for. Not only am I able to network professionally, but I know how to set up networks as well. I understand servers and promoting them to a domain controller. I can set permissions on clients as well as myself within the network. I know what a login script is.

When I first heard some of these terms and acronyms, I was clueless. I still can’t quite speak “geek,” but I can do the tasks required to keep my grades up and learn skills that are sought after in our present time.

Had I not faced some of my own fears, I would not be writing this. If I can do this — go back to school later than the average student — anybody can. Keep on keeping on.

Jamie West is currently a member of the Information Technology Senior Seminar course and is planning on a career in networking.

How to Fix a Slow PC, in 7 Steps

By Joel Kabambi

Many of us think that when a computer starts performing slowly, it’s time to buy a new computer. Does your desktop or laptop often hang on the hourglass for several minutes at a time? Is it slow to load files or applications, and does it take a long time to boot? Even if you’re extremely careful about how you use your computer and never download questionable material, over time it is inevitable that your system will accumulate unwanted registry entries, errors, clutter and debris. It’s important to clean your computer up and get it running faster again.

Below are steps that can help speed up a Windows OS computer or determine why it is running slowly.

If your computer has not been rebooted for a long time, make sure to restart it before following any of the steps below. This is the first step of all troubleshooting.

Disable background programs
Background-running programs can also be the cause of a slow-working computer. Remove or disable any program that automatically starts each time the computer boots — programs that are not needed. How to do it? The followed link provides details:

Delete temp files
As a computer runs programs, temporary files are stored on the hard drive. Deleting these temp files can help improve computer performance. Programs like Disk Cleanup can be used to delete temp file, but there is also a way to do it manually. The following link provides details on how to do it manually

Free hard-drive space
Verify that there is a lot of space in your driver hard disk, at least 200 to 500MB of free hard-drive space. This available space allows the computer to have room for the swap file to increase in size, as well as room for temporary files.

Remove viruses
If a computer is infected, this can cause your computer to run slowly. Make sure you have antivirus software, and ensure that it’s up to date. Scan for viruses to remove. If you don’t have an antivirus program installed, you can run the free Microsoft antivirus Microsoft Security Essentials to scan for viruses on your computer and remove them. Microsoft Security Essentials can be downloaded from this Microsoft page:

Update Windows
Make sure you have all the latest Windows updates installed on the computer. If you are on the internet when your computer is slow, make sure all browser plugins are up to date. You can also try disabling browser plugins to see if one of them is causing the slowness.

Check for hardware issues
Finally, if your computer is still slow after trying all of the above recommendations, there may have a more serious hardware-related issue, such as a failing component in the computer. Examples of failing hardware could include a failing or bad hard drive, CPU, RAM or another component. This may require you to replace hardware that is causing slowness. If replacing hardware will cost too much, then it’s time to make the big decision of buying a new computer.

I Am Sick of Hearing About Cybersecurity, Too

By Alexander Kennedy,
SMCC Cyber Security graduate

As the year comes to a close, it’s a time for many to look back and reminisce about good times gone by. Some people may consider large news headlines of 2017 — we have a new president, hurricane season was worse than usual, and the United Kingdom started its transition out of the EU, to name a few. But for the first year in a long time, it’s safe to say many people probably recall one or two headlines relating to security breaches across the world.

So far, 2017 has seen at least one major security headline per month. In January, the U.S. Department of Energy reported that the U.S. electrical grid was in “imminent danger” of a cyberattack similar to ones seen in Ukraine a month prior.

February saw the breach of the internet company Cloudflare. The bug, known as CloudBleed, revealed sensitive information of users from companies such as OKCupid, Uber, and Fitbit.

In March, WikiLeaks unveiled Vault 7, a major compilation of data revealing CIA hacking tools that gave the agency the ability to listen to us via our smart TVs, as well as many other methods of turning our own computers against us.

Cybersecurity made it to the world stage in April when a phishing email scam was found to have successfully hacked the campaign of French presidential hopeful Emmanuel Macron.

May and June were dominated by ransomware attacks like WannaCry and NotPetya, which cost the global economy an estimated 4.2 billion dollars was well as compromising nearly half a million computers.
In July, security researchers proved voting machines were easily hackable. HBO was hacked in August, leading to the leak of “Game of Thrones” and “Silicon Valley” episodes.
September had the most notable hack of the year. Equifax reported that the Social Security numbers, names, addresses and other personal information of 145.5 million Americans had been compromised by hackers. For those who are counting, that is half of the U.S. population.

The past few months have seen breaches in Yahoo and Uber. Uber took it a step further and actually paid the attackers $100,000 in hush money.

Whether you’re in the technology field or not, 2017 has made it impossible to escape the news of cybersecurity. And most people couldn’t care less. It’s all too easy to become disillusioned with cybersecurity, with the sheer amount of articles saturating your news feed. But it is vital for us to care if we wish to keep building upon the connected world we live in.

For years, professionals in the cybersecurity industry have been trying to get people to understand the importance of security. The major cyber-events of 2017 have certainly kick-started the conversation on best practices for cybersafety and what you can do, as a consumer, to protect yourself from big-company data breaches. Hopefully, this trend will continue.

Hopefully, this year’s major security events do not scare us away from the awesome power and potential of the internet, but rather propel us into a new age of security-conscious communication and help us to discover what we can do, as consumers, to protect ourselves from big data breaches. Securing the internet is critical in keeping us safe as we interact together and grow our society in cyberspace.

CCleaner and How It Can Help Your Computer

By Jimmy Dasch

CCleaner has been one of my favorite programs to use on my computer for a long time. Ever since I can remember I’ve been using this program to clean and maintain almost every computer in my house. Besides just cleaning out computers of junk files and registry errors, which end up slowing down your computer, you can change other options, such as which programs start when your computer is turned on. This program has helped me keep computers healthy for a long time, and I’m going to tell you how you can do the same for your computer.

Once downloaded (go to to download), CCleaner greets you with a user-friendly interface that has its options right in front of you. You’ll notice that there’s an upgrade button on the bottom of the options; that’s because there’s a free and a paid version of this program. The two versions are similar, one of the only big differences being that the paid version will automatically download updates. The free version will still ask you if you want to manually install the updates, so the paid version isn’t needed.

The “cleaner” tab is one of the most important parts of this program. Once you click analyze in the bottom right of the window, it will search through your computer for junk files, files that have been left behind by web browsers and other programs that shouldn’t be there. After the scan is finished, you can click on “run cleaner,” which will get rid of all of the files CCleaner found. This alone can provide a huge speed increase to your computer. So can using the “registry” option, which is the second important part of this program.

Upon clicking on “registry,” you’ll be asked to scan for any registry errors that your computer has. Registry errors are left behind from uninstalling and updating any programs that you have on your computer. Too many of these can result in a slow-down of your computer, just like with the junk files and temporary internet browsing files. After CCleaner has finished the scan, you can click on “fix selected issues.” This will get rid of the registry errors found, resulting in even more of a speed boost on your computer.

There is one more tab you should explore under CCleaner, and that’s the “tools” tab. So what’s under this tab? Once you click on it, you’re presented with a few different options. The only one you need to worry about is the “startup” tab. Click on it, and take notice of how many programs are “enabled” under that section. Whatever programs are enabled are what start up with your computer, and depending on how many programs are under that list, your computer startup time could take way longer than you’d like it to. The only program I recommend keeping enabled under that tab is a virus-protection program of your choice, just so you always stay protected while browsing the Web.

Once you sort through what programs you want to start up with your computer, you’re all set to close out of CCleaner. To finish up your computer maintenance, go ahead and restart your computer. You should notice a faster startup time as well as a speed boost from your previous cleaning of the temporary files and the registry errors. I recommend running CCleaner once a week — both the regular cleaner and the registry cleaner. This will ensure that your computer stays up to speed and functioning properly. CCleaner is one of the most useful free programs out there, and I hope after reading this guide you’ll download it yourself and try it out.

Jimmy Dasch is a member of the Information Technology Senior Seminar course and is planning on a career in the IT field in the near future.

Windows on a Mac

By Evan Jackson

According to various publications, including Fortune and TechCrunch, Apple’s iPhone controls the smartphone market in the U.S. This, I’m sure, comes as no surprise to most smartphone users. What may come as a surprise, however, is the fact that, despite how consumer trends are portrayed in film and television, Apple laptops own a significantly smaller portion of their market share than their smaller sibling. Apple does, however, still go to great lengths to provide users with a friendly and aesthetically pleasing personal computer that appeals to a target audience of younger consumers, with college students chief among them.

I’m not going to posit  a case for Macs over PCs or vice versa here, and I’m going to assume that there are numerous readers in both camps. What I’m going to do instead is offer the following advice specifically to Mac users intending to use their computer even when they may be required to utilize proprietary Windows software, or perhaps simply choose to do so for preference.

For a user who wants to run Windows on their Mac laptop, the advice is quite simple: Employ a virtual machine instead of using Boot Camp. Now for the why and how: Boot Camp allows a user to install a second operating system on their Mac computer. This means that the computer’s hardware is shared, by means of partitioning, between the native Mac operating system and the Windows operating system. This is a completely viable option; however, it can use up valuable hardware space and functionality. Another downside to using Bootcamp, or dual booting, is that the two systems cannot run simultaneously; one must reboot their computer to employ the desired operating system.

The better option is to utilize a virtual machine, or “VM.” A VM sits on top of the host hardware via a software environment called a hypervisor. General users don’t need to know the specifics of how VMs work, just how to employ them. And it’s quite simple. The only tools needed are a viable Windows OS image and Oracle VM VirtualBox (available at .

There are numerous resources and tutorials online explaining how to create a virtual machine running a Windows distribution, so I will spare you the technical steps in this article save to say that the process is as simple as clicking a few buttons, locating the correct file and initiating a standard installation. I’ve created one such tutorial on my personal website that details exactly how to create a virtual machine running Windows in VirtualBox. You can view my tutorial at

One of the primary benefits of running a virtual machine is that your hardware is not partitioned, and is thus less taxed than when dual-booting. Another benefit is that you can run the two systems simultaneously. This means, among other things, that you can listen to the music in your iTunes on your Mac while you work on your spreadsheet in MS Excel on your Windows VM.

What Is the Internet of Things?

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By Nicholas Saball

It’s likely you have heard the term before, especially as the concept has gained more recognition in recent years. It is a discussion in touch with our lives on a personal level, and it’s important to acknowledge it as technology progresses. The internet of things, or IoT, is the aggregation of data transferred between electronic devices. So, more simply, all devices communicating over a network share information with each other. The IoT is a network of computing devices with some form of software, sensors, actuators, etc. This could be anything from a heart monitor to traffic lights. Each of these pieces of technology with network connectivity contributes its data to this overall system of objects. IoT’s influence will eventually extend deeply into our society, as it has already enhanced industries such as home, transportation, manufacturing and agriculture.

Some even refer to IoT as the next Industrial Revolution, as the new technology is integrated into many industries and drastically increases production.

Due to such a variety of devices and our growing dependency on technology, IoT has seen massive growth and is estimated to reach nearly 35 billion devices by 2020. IoT’s primary investments are expected to come from commercial business and government, as both aim to decrease expenses and increase productivity. While implementation in government can greatly improve infrastructure and quality of life, business can use this technology in the development of new products and the expansion to new markets. Recently, its popularity has risen with the emergence of technologies such as self-driving cars, home automation, motion-detecting traffic intersections and so on.

Life today looks drastically different from the past. With the introduction of home automation, you have most likely heard the pitch: how great it could be to have the lights on when you arrive, or have any simple task that you currently conduct throughout the day put out of mind and made a thing of the past. The idea of electronically automating unnecessary everyday actions hinges solely on IoT, and we even notice small progressions in the modern lifestyle, like home security systems going from an interface on your wall to your computer and inevitably being consolidated into a single app on your smartphone, always accessible. With the emergence of devices like the garage-door remote and the universal remote, as well, we know that people are interested in consolidating their devices — and to a deeper extent, the accessibility of their devices from any location.

Now as the popularity of IoT increases, so does the skepticism. The concept has gained a stigma in recent years that has taken many different forms. While many speculate, there is fair reason for alarm, as the security of this network can pose a legitimate risk. With such massive and rapid expansion, it is very important for the security to match — especially when these technologies promote a certain disregard for something once seen as a personal responsibility. Most important to the consumer is trust. So this is to be taken very seriously when your market applies to something as personal as self-driving cars.

As a consumer you probably don’t think much on security, and may claim that it’s the companies’ responsibility. However, in this situation, before ceding control to certain devices, it is important to choose products carefully to ensure proper updating, service, etc. For example, it can be appealing to buy the cheaper product, but if it is not updated frequently it poses a much greater risk to hacking and security breaches. So, while the industry grows around us, be aware of the products and the companies that make them before you buy to guarantee that they will continue to meet security expectations over time.

Nicholas Saball is a member of the Information Technology Senior Seminar course and is planning a career in Software Development.