Category Archives: Computers

Plan B tested the hard way!

Well, the disaster happened! My main desktop computer failed spectacularly last week. It was working normally, just playing music, and as I was walking past it, suddenly there was a very loud


sound, accompanied by a smell of ozone and burning insulation, and it was utterly dead. I knew I was in deep trouble when I pushed the power button, and a fat angry spark jumped behind the button.

Now, I do a lot of business online, so not having a computer is out of the question. I immediately deployed my laptop as a stand-in while I started to diagnose the desktop. Of course, just having a spare computer isn’t much help if you can’t access your files, or bookmarks, or print, or find your passwords… So, here’s where I find out if my Plan B is adequate. Several things I had in place allowed me to keep working during the repairs on the desktop:

Network drive backup: I have a free program called Syncback that backs up my downloads, documents, etc. every few hours to my network drive. Many routers (not usually the ones the ISP provides) have a USB port for an external drive that can be used for backup over the network, where it can be accessed by any other device on the same network. There are also network-ready hard drives. The files I needed were right there, in the same folder structure.

I also have online backup, but local backup is almost always faster and less hassle, so I recommend both. The online backup is a last-chance thing in case your house burns down or someone steals all your equipment.

Network printer: Same deal here. A printer on the network can be accessed by any device on the same network, making it easy to transition without having to hook up additional cables. All the major printer manufacturers now make network-capable printers for home and Small Business users.

Dropbox: I can’t recommend Dropbox enough. It’s useful for a whole range of conveniences. Dropbox’s main function, in case you’re not familiar with it, is to synchronize files across several computers. If you have the app installed, anything you put in your Dropbox folder will automagically appear – and update – in the Dropbox folder of your other computers. When I needed to update a document while the desktop was down, I pulled it from my backup and put it in the Dropbox folder so I would have the latest version when my desktop was again operational.

Firefox sync and others: All the major browsers have some sort of sync function. I use Firefox almost exclusively, but Chrome and even Internet Explorer and Edge also have means of synchronizing bookmarks across devices. Obviously, you must be signed on in the respective browsers before this will work. Firefox has it’s own sign-in, Chrome uses your Google credentials, IE and Edge use Microsoft credentials.

Password Safe: Sitting inconspicuously in my Documents folder is my Password Safe, renamed with a boring name for additional security. I don’t really trust those online password managers; they do add a lot of convenience, but I’m leery of letting an online service manage something that important. Since I had a backup of the database, accessing my passwords from my laptop was easy, too. By the way, Password Safe works on all versions of Windows, Mac, and Linux, plus Android and IOS.

Backup computer: I already had a laptop on hand that I immediately put into service. If you can’t go more than a day without a computer, I highly recommend you have such a backup, configured with your network printer and your most-used programs. While I did have to install a couple of programs in my laptop, for the most part it was ready to step into the gap. It doesn’t have to be an expensive one; it just has to be capable of doing the vital chores.

With the use of this setup, I was able to keep going and get all the important stuff done despite the catastrophe!

So, what happened to the desktop?

Apparently, the power supply failed gloriously, and took the motherboard and processor with it. The first thing I did while waiting for parts was pull the hard drives out and test them; there are plenty of adapters that will turn an internal hard drive into a USB drive, for diagnostic or other purposes. I find mine useful for recovering data from my customer’s failed machines. The hard drives (all three of them) were undamaged, saving me a great deal of grief. If they had failed, my backup is adequate for such things, but restoring all that data is a hassle.

Since I had no way to test the RAM and processor without a good motherboard, it wasn’t until I installed the new power supply and motherboard that I determined that the RAM was OK, but the CPU had bought the farm. Once those three parts were replaced, the machine came to life again.

I wasn’t quite out of the woods yet, though.

All recent versions of Windows will revert to an un-activated state after major hardware changes, particularly the motherboard. The newest versions of Windows 10 go farther; they will revert even if the replacement is identical to the original. Last year’s update (Version 1607) had a convenient feature that allowed easy re-activation if the user had signed in with a Microsoft account. I had never done that on this machine, since I resist such heavy-handedness. I prefer all my credentials to be local, thanks. Fortunately, an online chat session with a Microsoft rep, and having my original product key I’d upgraded from, got that sorted out as well. So now I’m completely back, and hoping I don’t have any more disasters like that for a while!

Web of Lies??

Well, another one bites the dust. For several years, I’ve been recommending a browser add-on called “Web of Trust.” Turns out that in November 2016, Web of Trust was busted by a security researcher for collecting data from people’s web browsers and selling it. Allegedly the data was (supposed to be) anonymous… Not so much.

It’s sad and scary when a program or add-on that purports to help keep one safe turns out to not be trustworthy, but given the lure of the Almighty Dollar, it’s not the least bit surprising. I’ve uninstalled Web of Trust from all my computers.

The good news is such tools may be obsolete anyway. Because most attacks now are in the form of fraudulent emails or sites that come and go so fast that they can’t be rated, maybe it’s better to just trust the browser itself, and use your head.

Meanwhile, I strongly advise uninstalling Web of Trust as soon as possible. Here’s how:

For Chrome:


Internet explorer:

More info:

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Bring a Printer cartridge Back to Life! (Sometimes)

 Use your printer much?

Many people don’t. The problem with inkjet printers (The type most home users have) is that they use water-based liquid ink. This ink can, and often will, dry out in the nozzles of the printer, clogging them. These nozzles are about 1/10 the diameter of a human hair! As you can imagine, they can be hard to unclog.

Sometime in the 1990s, when inkjet printers were still a bit mysterious to some folks, a well known electronics retail chain (Whose initials are RS) came out with an inkjet printer cleaning kit, containing a one-ounce bottle of “Inkjet printer cleaning solution” and some swabs. This kit sold for around six dollars. Upon close examination, I discovered that the “Cleaning Solution” was nothing more than distilled water! Let’s see… Six dollars times 128 ounces… That’s 768 dollars a gallon for distilled water!! Great scam if you can work it.

Water is, however, the best cleaner for inkjet printers. You just don’t have to pay 768 dollars a gallon for it. In fact, tap water works fine.

If you have a printer cartridge that hasn’t a lot of mileage on it but has started making sub-par prints, try running the cartridge cleaning utility that’s built in to your printer first (Consult your owner’s manual for the exact procedure). Run it 2 or 3 times if you need to.

If this doesn’t help, there is one more thing you can try. If you have ink cartridges (the nozzles are part of the ink cartridge; most HP printers are like this), remove the cartridge from the printer, fill a saucer with warm water to a depth of no more than 1/4 inch, and submerge just the nozzles (at the bottom of the cartridge; looks like a metallic stripe) in the water for about a half hour. Remove and pat dry (try not to wipe!) with a clean paper towel.

If you have ink tanks (There is a nipple-like appendage on the bottom of the cartridge; many Canon and other brands), you will have to remove the print head; This is the part the tanks go into. Soak the nozzles of the print head as described above.

After performing this procedure, you will have to run the cleaning routine again (cartridges) or possibly the ink priming routine (Tanks). Pretend it’s a brand new tank and have the printer do it’s thing.

While this doesn’t always work, hopefully you’ll be able to get more life out of your expensive printer cartridges with this simple trick.

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Distributed Denial of Service



noun: botnet; plural noun: botnets
  1. a network of private computers infected with malicious software and controlled as a group without the owners’ knowledge, e.g., to send spam messages. Combination of the words “Robot” and “network.”

If you noticed a disruption of the internet last week, it was due to a virus that created a botnet of such things as internet-connected video cameras and other “Internet of Things” (ioT) devices. many of these devices have weak security at best, and to make things worse, the security is hard-wired into them, making it impossible to change without a redesign.

When an outside, malicious force takes control of these devices, they can then be aimed like a laser at whatever server is the target of the hacker’s wrath. In this case, something like 500,000 devices were compromised. When that many devices start sending data to one target, the target gets completely overwhelmed, and if it’s not completely knocked offline, becomes glacially slow in the attempt to deal with such an abnormal volume of traffic. This is what is known as a Distributed denial of Service (DDoS) attack.

This one of the many reasons I’m not too thrilled with the direction technology is going. I’m afraid it will not only make us vulnerable, but it may make us lazy and stupid as well.

As Gerald Weinberg said, “If builders built houses the way programmers wrote programs, the first woodpecker to come along would destroy civilization.”

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Windows Help desk?

When the Waste Material hits the Rotary Ventilator (Something horrible happens to your computer), panic and the urge to do anything to get it fixed is a likely first reaction. Some folks will commence a Google search for a support number or website. The “Windows Help Desk” you arrive at may actually be nothing more than a den of thieves! (By the way, Microsoft’s site is called the Answer Desk, not the Windows Help desk.)

This can be very dangerous, both to your computer, your identity, and your wallet. There are plenty of “support” sites out there that purport to be “Official,” when in reality they are anything but. The best of these may be able to perform a fix, but at an outrageous cost when you might have been able to do it for free. The worst, on the other hand, may take your money, your private data, and your identity, and still leave you with a broken computer – maybe even turning it into a “Zombie,” sending spam and doing work for the bad guys.

I’ve told you before about pop-ups from poisoned websites that will tell you your computer is infected, blah, blah, blah, and to not take any of them seriously. Well, the same goes for support services advertising themselves on the internet. Bad guys know how to manipulate search results so that their sites float to the top. It’s very important to know that you’re using the real site when you look for support. For instance, if you have a Dell, go straight to, for HP machines, and so on for other manufacturers. All the top manufacturers have a Support section on their websites. is your go-to site for problems with Windows.

When things go awry, start with the fix-it-yourself and automated solutions offered through official support venues such as, your PC maker’s support site, and from trusted third-party sources.

The Web of Trust browser add-on I’ve talked about before is also a great help for ferreting out some of the scammers.

If you must venture further afield for online help, take the time to run a whois query on unfamiliar support sites. That’s especially the case for sites that want credit-card or other personal information, or that request remote access to your PC. Also run a general Web search to see what others have to say about the resource or company.

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Expected Unexpected error

There’s a new scam making the rounds that’s guaranteed to scare some computer users half to death. You’re blithely surfing the web when suddenly a web page opens that starts either beeping loudly, or worse yet, talking to you in a computer generated voice:


Windows System Alert!!

System has been infected due to unexpected error!

Please Contact Microsoft 1-855-653-4481 Immediately!

to unblock your computer.

Registry Failure of Operating System.

Error Code: rundll32.exe

And accompanied by something that looks like this:

yourcomputerhasbeenblocked-homepageThe worst part is, sometimes you can’t close the window or navigate away from the page, adding to the terror!

Take a deep breath. Relax. Do Nothing! Put down that phone!

In all probability, everything’s OK. You have visited a “poisoned” website that has re-directed you to this scam page. This sort of thing is not too hard for a reasonably good web page writer to do. It’s a complete hoax… But if you call that phone number, it will cost you, and you’ll get nothing but grief in return!

When these scammers get you on the phone, one (or both) of two things will happen: Your “Certified Microsoft technician” will have you pay to install software on your computer that really will screw it up, then ask for money to fix it, or he will get you to grant remote access to your machine, whereupon he can steal anything he wants, such as passwords, credit card numbers, you name it.

There are other variations on this, such as the “Activate Windows” scam:

fake-activate-windows-screen product-key-tech-support-scam

And others that all ask you to call a toll-free number for support.


  1. Always be sure you have reputable security software, and that it’s up-to-date.
  2. Install the Web of Trust browser add-on for all the web browsers you use. it’s available for Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, and Firefox. (If you use Windows 10, it’s not yet available for the Edge browser; I recommend you install either Firefox or Chrome and use one of those instead.) This add-on should warn you if you’re about to visit a known-bad website, although it’s not foolproof because the bad websites are a moving target.
  3. Don’t install any software that is advertised in a pop-up or is otherwise unsolicited.
  4. Do not ever search Google, Bing, or any search site for security software. There are too many rogue sites out there. Instead, visit They have all the security software you need.
  5. Never call any “Tech Support” number that unexpectedly pops up on your screen. They are all scams.
  6. If you can’t close the window or navigate away from the page, shut down the computer immediately. That means click the start button and select Shut Down. Other options will just put the computer to sleep, and the annoyance will still be there next time.
  7. If you get any “Activate Windows” messages, you can check for yourself if Windows is legit: Right-click on “Computer” (Windows Vista and 7) or “This PC” (Windows 8 and 10), and select “Properties.” At the bottom of the Properties window you will see the current activation status.Screenshot 2016-08-20 09.35.31More info:

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Tales From the Trenches

In my years offering technical support to folks, I’ve seen some strange and odd things. Some qualify as 1D10T errors, also known as PEBKAC (Problem Exists between Keyboard And Chair), others are just strange issues with equally strange fixes. Names have been withheld to protect the guilty…

Mute button

Mute button

Mute button on keyboard: I had a customer who used his computer to record and edit audio. One day I got a panicky call, “I’ve got no sound!” Upon arriving, I saw the little “mute” icon by the clock, pressed the “mute” button on the keyboard, and the sound worked! That’ll be a hundred bucks!

A customer complained that when he was sitting at his computer playing audio, the audio would unexpectedly stop and start. This took some observation of how he was actually sitting at his desk. Many audio programs pause when you hit the space bar. Turns out he was pressing the space bar accidentally – with his stomach! Since he reacted badly to my weight-loss suggestion, I turned off that feature…

Here’s a real stumper: Customer complained that the computer shut down immediately during startup. I came in, pushed the power button, computer started normally.  No problem. A week later, I get another call; same problem. Again, computer starts fine when I push the button. A few days later, same problem again! Okay, I sez to myself, sez I, something strange here. Works fine for me, so I turn the computer off again and ask the customer to sit down and turn on the computer. She presses the power button and holds it down! Of course the computer shuts down within 10 seconds – All modern computers do that if you hold the button; that’s how you do an emergency shutdown. Why she started doing that, not even she knows…

Worst Virus I've ever seen...

Worst Virus I’ve ever seen…

A friend had a similar problem except he wasn’t holding down the button, and it didn’t always happen. My first theory was a bad power button, so I removed the (desktop) computer’s front panel. Turned out, the computer was very old, and had possibly not been cleaned in it’s lifetime, and there was so much dust behind the front panel, it was jamming the power button! Did I mention the fellow was a bachelor?

WiFi switch on laptop: Some laptops have a tiny little switch somewhere (usually on the side) that turns the Wi-Fi on and off. Some others have a “hotkey” on the keyboard that does the same thing. This can be really annoying when there’s an errant typo that turns the Wi-Fi  off, or the tiny switch gets bumped taking the laptop out of it’s bag. The cure? inspect the laptop very carefully for a switch, and check the top row of the keyboard for a little “Wi-Fi” symbol (usually looks like an antenna with waves coming out of it).

Sometimes, when troubleshooting audio systems, the problem is one of signal flow. Some folks, if they don’t have an audio input on a piece of equipment, will plug an output into another output, or vice-versa. This not only doesn’t work, but can cause damage. Outputs always need to go into inputs.

And finally, yes, it’s possible to put a CD or DVD in it’s player/reader upside down. No, it doesn’t work that way. The label side always faces up or toward you.

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