Desktop: Who's your daddy?

On the surface, Windows seems like a respectable, Mom, Dad and apple pie kind of system. Its browser will restrict "bad" sites if you ask it to, and its built-in firewall will bar any evildoers who try to hijack your computer for activities - like spamming - that aren't on the up and up.

By DAVID SHAMAH
March 1, 2006 12:04
4 minute read.
computer cartoon 88

computer cartoon 88. (photo credit: )

Your computer's operating system works like a family - a very dysfunctional family. What goes on inside your PC's system folder is like something out of a bad hillbilly movie, what with all the illicit intra-family relationships. On the surface, Windows seems like a respectable, Mom, Dad and apple pie kind of system. Its built-in browser will restrict "bad" (as in X and R-rated) Web sites if you ask it to, and its built-in firewall (in Windows XP, at least) will bar any evildoers who try to hijack your computer for activities - like spamming - that aren't on the up and up. But down below the surface, when Windows takes off its jacket and tie - man, what a family life it has! Processes spawn processes - "parent" processes that start running when you open an application "spawn" other processes, known as "child processes" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child-process).Some of these processes even run in "promiscuous mode" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Promiscuous-mode)! Processes, both child and parent, do all sorts of secret - and often unwholesome - things right under the nose of users who see nothing but a calm blue surface on their desktops. Meanwhile, hundreds of secret connections are being made to all sorts of remote computers, and programs you wouldn't let in the back door sit themselves right in your process list, doing whatever they please to your PC. I haven't come across anything this (dare I say it?) perverted since I started watching Married... With Children reruns. Something must be done, I say! What's needed is a little injection of morality into your Windows' family life - and What's Running, a free program that is like the Moral Majority of PC programs, is just the application to do it. In Windows, you have, among other features, processes, services, modules and drivers (if you're a technophobe, skip the next paragraph). Processes are computer programming routines that, to put it lightly, do stuff. For example, the process known as lsass.exe authenticates users who try to log onto your computer, making sure they have the right user name/password. A service, in Windows-ese, is an application that remains in memory from the time you boot up until the time you shut down, because it needs to be constantly accessed. Many anti-virus programs, for example, install themselves as services so you won't forget to run them when you start up Windows. Modules are usually components of code that are grouped together, often in order to make activities "transparent" (i.e. invisible to end users). And a driver is a bit of code that tells the operating system what a piece of hardware is and what it is supposed to do. Of course, most of hardware - such as a modem or network card - is tied in closely to other programs or to the operating system (how does Word know what printer you're using?). To view the process list in Windows, by the way, hit the control-alt-delete key combo on your keyboard. It comes up automatically in XP; in Win 2k, click on Task Manager (heavy tech stuff ends). Without going into too much detail, you can imagine from the above description that there is a high degree of integration between hardware, software and Windows itself - which is just the way we want it. (You don't have the stomach for the alternative - believe me, I've seen it.) If we were just talking about Windows and Microsoft products, I suppose it wouldn't be too bad; we can trust MS, after all (I hope!). The problem is that all applications written for Windows - even the bad ones, like viruses, worms, trojan horses - work the same way. Which means they wrap themselves into your system, integrating themselves with legitimate processes, spawning rogue processes and services that are a true hassle to catch. That's where What's Running shines. By clicking on the program's tabs on the left side of the screen, you can display all the processes, modules, services and drivers your PC is using - as well as all Internet and network connections and even startup items in your system. You'll note that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of processes running at any one time. It would take an encyclopedic mind to figure out which process does what, but fortunately What's Running does 90 percent of the work for you. The process list, for example (which is far more extensive than the process list provided by Windows), lists the name of the product/company responsible for putting it there. Most of these will have the name Microsoft somewhere in its title, but many will not - and some won't have any identifying information at all! Those are the ones that should make you nervous (obviously someone has something to hide), but if you right click on the process name and choose Online Info, you'll be transported instantly to the What's Running forums, where either the program or a helpful soul will have listed details. If the process is associated with a program that doesn't look like it should be there (like "Ed's Big Bad Virus"), you know you've got a problem. The on-line info can be accessed from any process, child process or module, since they are all meshed into one big Windows ball. The same goes for on-line connections - right click and look up the WhoIs ID info for a connection. Knowledge is power, and What's Running will shine a flashlight on a world you'd probably prefer not to know about - but must understand, for your PC's health. Download What's Running from http://www.whatsrunning.net. For Windows XP/2000. Free for personal use. [email protected]


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