We found a neat little utility program that answers a frequent reader question: What’s all that stuff running in the background?

The utility is called Security Task Manager, and it not only tells you what’s running, but also what the programs do and what you can do with them. This utility has

a lot more detail than Windows’ own task manager and provides “”red zones”” to identify potential problems.

Unbeknownst to us, we had over 90 programs running in the background. The potentially dangerous stuff was listed first and colored with the darkest shade of red. As we went down the list, the colors changed toward pink and then white. You can select any background program and stop it, quarantine it or remove it entirely; we removed about a dozen.

As to why some programs run in the background every time you start up, only the programmer knows for sure. The usual reason is they just can’t believe you don’t want to have their program available at a second’s notice.

What’s dangerous and what’s not can be a matter of interpretation. Google Desktop Search was listed as a red zone program, for example, but it’s harmless and runs in the background because it continually indexes everything on your hard drive so you can find it quickly later.

Pop-up blockers are always running in the background, and you almost certainly want to keep those; anti-spyware programs also run in the background. If you’re suspicious of something but unsure if it’s possibly harmful, you can quarantine it; that way you can always restore it. Removing programs running in the background will make your computer run faster and more trouble-free. Security Task Manager is cheap to buy and free to try from www.neuber.com.

The best of Encarta

There are three main encyclopedias worth reviewing, but we don’t have the space to do them all at once. We’ll start with Microsoft’s Encarta and do the others in the next few weeks.

Encarta is the top seller on disk and the most-visited reference site on the World Wide Web. After using either disk or Web for a few moments you can easily see why. This is a multimedia extravaganza. What started out as a little-regarded reference work (it was originally based on the Funk & Wagnall’s Desktop Encyclopedia) has been enhanced into an amazing piece of work.

The Premium version of Encarta is on a single DVD that lists. Both child and adult versions are on the same disk. Both versions offer music, speech, videos and terrific educational games. There are 63,000 articles, a dictionary, thesaurus, book of quotations, translators, maps, homework helper, etc.

Encarta has hundreds of sound clips, videos, animations, clips from Discovery Channel and interactive games. We listened to classical music and pop tunes, prose and poetry, political debates and oral arguments before the Supreme Court. We watched a catfish walk across land and a goat climb a mountain. We put human organs in their proper place in the body puzzle, matched famous buildings to their correct locations and presidents to their deeds. The math tutor taught us a step-by-step way to solve a variety of math problems, at many levels of difficulty.

The World Wide Web has created an explosion of additional material for encyclopedias. You must be online to use this. Encarta has links to many thousands of sites: radio stations around the world (we listened to King Radio for several hours), videos, museums and articles on just about any subject, including recipes for dishes from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Some of the ingredients are hard to duplicate: a dish labeled “”A simple char,”” for example, turns out to be a roasted ox.

Encarta is more fun than a video game. Every time we turn it on, it’s an hour or more before we can leave. Every minute is a learning experience. A new version comes out every summer, and the previous versions then sell for half-price or less. Or it’s free to try for 30 days from the Web site: www.microsoft.com/encarta.

Home movies

Mail in your old videotapes and for US$5 this outfit -Afiniti – will turn them into digital format. You can also make them available online at www.homemovies.com, and all your friends and relatives can spend many happy hours watching your kids eat cereal or seeing you try out the new trampoline. You can store them online for US$10 a month, or for US$15 you can edit a home movie online and burn it to a DVD. Details are on the Web site.

Linux in a book

Test Driving Linux by David Brickne if available at www.oreilly.com.

Linux is an operating system that has created a stir in the computer industry as a possible substitute for Windows. The book comes with a disk containing the Mandrake version of Linux. It works right off the disk, without being installed on the hard drive. The interface looks much like Windows itself. The disk comes with Open Office, a suite containing lots of programs, including a Web browser, media player and word processor, which Joy immediately used to write a letter, print it out and save it to a thumb drive. This is a quick and easy way to try out Linux. We could even listen to a CD of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate.

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