Category Archives: Computers

The network is down… And so is my Stock…

It happens to everybody sooner or later. You’ve got an important document you have to email right away, and you suddenly lost your Internet connection.

Don't Panic!!

First off, your life probably does not depend on your internet connection. Your career might, but that’s not too likely, at least for short term outages. If it truly does, you need to come up with a Plan B, pronto! If you just think it does, then maybe you don’t have a life! We’ll talk about “Plan B” a bit later, but first let’s start with some basic troubleshooting.

Check to make sure some fool with a backhoe didn’t just cut your cable. Don’t laugh, it Happened to me! Of course, that’s easier to check if the backhoe is in your back yard at the time…
Anyway, the first thing you should always check is your modem. All broadband modems have an entire array of blinking lights on the front. They’re not there just to impress the user; incredibly, they actually provide useful information! Get familiar with how many and what color lights are on when everything is working. My DSL modem has four green lights during normal operation. They are labeled “Power”, “DSL”, “Internet”, and “Ethernet.” Cable modems are similar. “Power” is self-explanatory. “DSL” indicates connection to the phone line. “Internet” is connection to the Internet, and “Ethernet” is a wired connection to your computer or router.

The router will also have lots of lights, indicating wired and wireless status.

The computer or other device you’re using will have a connection icon that gives current status. Get familiar with that also.

The easiest thing to try first, no matter what the lights are telling you, is shut down the computer, then remove (unplug) the power cord from the modem and the router if you have one. Wait 60 seconds, then first apply power back to the modem, wait up to 3 minutes, and see if all the important lights are back on. Next, do the same with the router. Finally, start the computer. In most cases, if the phase of the Moon is right and you bowed toward the East three times, You’ll be back up lickety-split, no problem. If not, try to localize the issue:

  • Try to connect using another computer or device, if you have one. If you can, then the problem is the computer.
  • Try a wired connection if your problem is wireless, or vice-versa.
  • If you have a router, try bypassing it and going direct from router to computer.
  • If your connection is wired, try a different cable — your cable may have failed, or been chewed by your dog, cat, skunk, or pet platypus. Also check the cable going from the modem to the wall, especially if you don’t have all the lights on the modem.

If all that doesn’t work, call your ISP. The trouble may be on their end. The first thing they will tell you to do is all the things I just told you, so maybe you can save yourself some hold time and aggravation! Maybe they have a Fool with a backhoe somewhere in the neighborhood…

Now… About that plan B. If your internet connection is that important, you need a back-up plan. Fortunately, there are a number of easy alternatives.

  • Many smartphones can be used as a wireless hotspot, i.e., it can become a source of wi-fi, using your cellular connection. Be cautious with this, some carriers don’t allow it, others will charge you an arm and a leg for the privilege, and you will go through a lot of data even if they do allow it.
  • Consider a dedicated portable hotspot. These will work much the same as the smartphone, but with a separate data plan you will have to pay for.
  • If you’re working from a laptop or tablet, find a public hotspot. Most public libraries, coffeehouses, and many other public buildings have them now, and many are free. Caution: Don’t do anything involving sensitive information (Like your banking) on a public hotspot. You don’t know what may be happening to your data on it’s way to it’s destination.

061017_no_shirt_shoes_wifi

  • If all else fails, and you still have a land line, you can use dial-up. Yes, I know, it’s as slow as a drugged snail, but it might be better than nothing. You will probably have to buy a USB dial-up modem, because most late-model computers no longer have internal modems.

All of these alternatives require some pre-planning, but if your connection is that important (In other words, you lose money every minute it’s down), it’s wise to look into them.

Now, you can resume panicking!

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Pay Up Or Else!

J003-Content-RansomwarePerhaps you’ve heard of “Your money or your life?”

Well, now it’s “Your money or your data!” It’s a new form of online extortion known as Ransomware. When it is installed, it immediately begins to encrypt all personal files; Pictures, documents, videos, and music are all at risk. The encryption is essentially unbreakable, and you get a message on your screen something like these:

Ransom3-November2015 Symantec-ransomware-image cryptolocker-100222101-orig

kovtor-ransomware-100222098-orig 3

This is very bad news.

Despite the fact that some of the examples above are displaying various law enforcement images, they are all the work of criminals that want to extort money from you, hence the name, ransomware. Instead of kidnapping you, they kidnap your data. Even some Police departments and hospitals have been forced to pay up (typically $200-$500, sometimes more) to get their valuable data back. It’s often impossible to retrieve the data any other way, and, of course, sometimes the criminals may not even hold up their end of the “bargain” after being paid. It’s much, much better (Not to mention cheaper), to not get into this situation in the first place.

Yes, your antivirus or anti-spyware program might find and delete the offending program… But by that time, the damage has been done, and deleting the program will not un-encrypt your files!

Your very first line of defense is to be very, very suspicious of anything that wants to install itself unexpectedly. This includes files that purport to be media players, games and  security software. These often use social engineering to con you into installing them; for instance, “See naked pictures of (fill in name of celebrity here), or any other link that can be classified as Clickbait (defined as a link so provocative, scary, prurient, or otherwise so interesting in a juvenile sort of way you almost can’t help clicking it!), When you click on such a link, you might get a message saying, “You need to install (media player or other program) to view this content,” or sometimes “Virus detected! Install (Name of software that looks vaguely security-related).”

All of the above applies to email attachments and links as well.

Never, Never, Never install anything from a pop-up or similar message.

Second, there are browser add-ons that can help warn you about malicious sites. My favorite is Web of Trust, which can be installed on Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera, and Chrome (but currently not the new Edge browser that comes with Windows 10).

Third, there is User Account Control (UAC), on all current versions of Windows. This is that annoying box that

User Account Control message.

User Account Control message.

spoils your fun when all you want to do is play that latest game or video. It is there for a reason. It’s to inform you that whatever you’re trying to do will make changes to the computer. This is your last chance to change your mind about installing things that might contain malware.

Fourth, there are a few companies building software to “immunize” your machine against ransomware. Malwarebytes, one of my favorite programs, has an anti-ransomware program in beta right now: https://forums.malwarebytes.org/topic/177751-introducing-malwarebytes-anti-ransomware-beta/

and BitDefender has one also: https://labs.bitdefender.com/2016/03/combination-crypto-ransomware-vaccine-released/

These programs do not absolve you from due diligence. Just as air bags in your car should not be construed as a license to drive recklessly, do not think you can do anything you want if you have one of these installed.

Finally, a good, frequent, tested, backup plan can help in this and many other disasters. Choose a backup plan that has versioning, so that even if your system backs up the encrypted files, it should also have the last “clean” version available. Read my post on backups here.

More info:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ransomware

https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/security/portal/mmpc/shared/ransomware.aspx

 

Visit my store for cool gifts and gadgets

For even more empowering technology info, read my new book, “Deciphering the 21st Century,” Available now!

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Drive-ing Me Crazy!

Sometimes the strangest problems have simple solutions…

My computer recently slowed to a crawl for no apparent reason. A full malware scan revealed nothing, but I noticed something – The hard drive activity light was on constantly, even when I was not using the computer. Hmm. Time for a look under the hood.

One of the best improvements in modern versions of Windows is in the Task Manager. Windows has always had this tool, but it has gotten a lot better at showing resource usage and performance data.

How do we launch this very valuable tool? Well, as with many other Windows features, there are several ways. I usually launch it with the keyboard shortcut Ctrl-Shift-Esc (That means hold the Ctrl and Shift keys and press the Esc key). Two other ways are right-clicking on the Taskbar, which gets you the following menu:

Right-click on the taskbar gets you this. Your menu will look slightly different.

Right-click on the taskbar gets you this. Your menu will look slightly different.

Another way is to click the Start button and type “task manager,” which gets you this:

Screenshot 2016-06-03 12.02.10

Any way you do it, you’ll get the Task Manager window, which will open at the “Processes” tab. This is the tab for finding and killing unwanted or unresponsive programs, or finding out what’s hogging resources.

The tab we need right now, however, is the next one over, the “Performance” tab.

Task1

As you can see, this gives the usage level, in percent, of CPU, memory, and drives, and network performance in Mbps or Kbps. As you can also see, I actually have three hard drives in my system. Well, my “E” drive was showing 100% usage – Even though I wasn’t doing anything to access it (It should have looked more like the above picture).

So, I naturally thought I had a drive going bad. I quickly backed up everything not already backed up, and ran a battery of tests on the drive, which all came back saying the drive was disgustingly healthy. Hmmm. There were three things that could be wrong; The motherboard drive controller, the drive itself, or the drive cable. A new drive would’ve cost me around $100, and I’m not about to replace a motherboard if I can help it, because it’s not only a lot of money, but a lot of work. I did, however, have plenty of spare drive cables lying around, so I replaced the cable, and What Do You Know? Problem solved! First time I ever had a drive cable go bad, but it does happen!

Moral of the story? Always try the simplest, cheapest solution first before you start throwing money at a project.

Visit my store for cool gifts and gadgets

For even more empowering technology info, read my new book, “Deciphering the 21st Century,” Available now!

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Computer on A Stick!

There’s a hot new trend showing up in the computing world – the ultra-portable “stick” computer. This is a complete computer that is literally about the size of a USB flash drive. Typically, it plugs into an HDMI port on any available TV, and contains a complete Windows, Linux, or Chrome computer.

What’s it good for? Well, if you’d like a “smart” TV but don’t feel like buying a new TV, one of these might fill the bill for around $100. But, I think they’re over-hyped. You might think something like this could be a laptop substitute for someone who likes to travel  light. Eh, not so much. You still need a mouse. And a keyboard. And a power cord, usually. So it’s not just the stick; you’re pretty much back to having a valise rather than a pocket. Plus, there’s the hassle of finding a TV with an HDMI port that you can actually get to. (Most wall-mounted TVs need not apply…)

If the idea of web browsing from your couch appeals to you, these aren’t too bad of a deal, as long as you understand what you’re getting. Make sure you know what operating system you’re buying. As mentioned earlier, these come with either Windows (8.1 or 10), Android, Linux, or the Chrome OS from Google. The Android devices are generally the cheapest, followed by the Chrome or Linux versions, with the Windows versions the most expensive. Android versions can cost as little as $35-$40, with Windows sticks starting at around $100.

For TV/couch use, you’ll probably want a wireless keyboard/touch-pad combo, like this one from Logitech. If you like to be in a darkened room, Logitech’s got you covered, there, too. (For more money, of course!)

Bottom line: If you want something for light use such as web browsing, and you don’t have a lot of space or money to spare, and you understand that you’ll still need to add a mouse (or touch-pad) and keyboard, a computer-on-a-stick might be for you. Shop carefully, though. some are too under-powered for even light use.

http://www.pcworld.com/article/2911098/computers/mini-pc-invasion-10-radically-tiny-computers-that-fit-in-the-palm-of-your-hand.html

http://www.pcworld.com/article/2978182/ifa/the-itty-bitty-asus-vivo-stick-is-a-cheaper-better-windows-10-pocket-pc.html

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=compute+stick

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For even more empowering technology info, read my new book, “Deciphering the 21st Century,” Available now!

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Does What It Says!

I’ve recently discovered a new PC repair tool that can be used by professionals and amateurs alike: Easy Recovery Essentials.

I recently had a problem with my own computer that prevented it from booting. Not usually a problem for me, except my main PC is set up to dual-boot. This means that I have both Windows 10 and Windows 7 installed on the one machine. It also means I’m not too familiar yet with Windows 10’s Boot Manager. The boot manager is what does the magic of giving you a choice of Operating Systems when the PC starts.

It seemed that somehow the boot manager had become corrupted, which meant that I couldn’t boot into either version of Windows. I could get the old Windows 7 boot manager, which then proceeded to tell me that I did not have Windows 10 installed. When I tried to boot into Windows 7, I got an endless loop. I was dead in the water.

After considerable online searching, it appeared that nobody else I could find had a solution, either, but my searching kept leading me back to this site:

https://neosmart.net/EasyRE/

Well, the first thing I saw was, “Guaranteed to work or your money back!” Wow, I thought, somebody that actually stands behind a product like this, in the 21st Century no less! This is a “magic” recovery boot disk that purports to have several automatic and manual ways to repair a PC, plus a web browser and file access for backup purposes.

I wasn’t holding out much hope, because I thought to myself, “This is designed to fix simple problems. It won’t work with my setup.” But, there was that money back guarantee… And I was out of ideas. And they only wanted $20 for it. And there was that money back guarantee. And my only other alternative was to reload Windows (both versions!) completely.

I whipped out my Visa card and downloaded the program, burned it to a CD (There are options for USB drives as well), stuck it in my computer, and ran the automated repair. Rebooted… And got a Blue Screen of Death. Yeah, I knew it wouldn’t work, I grumbled to myself. But then something told me to run the disk again. Rebooted after the second run, and whaddya know? The sucker is fixed! Finally, a product that just “does what it says on the tin,” as our friends in Britain like to say.

Their boot disks come in several types. The inexpensive option is geared to a specific version of Windows, so make sure you order the one that corresponds to your version. There are also “Pro” and “Technician” versions that cost more than $20, may be worthwhile for someone like me, but not necessary for the average home user.

I know I’m probably cutting my own throat by recommending this product, but like a good doctor, I’d rather my customers have options rather than having to pay through the nose every time something goes wrong. It’s the whole reason I write this blog; I want people to have some basic understanding of how things work in the technology sector. Knowledge is power.

https://neosmart.net/EasyRE/

Visit my store for cool gifts and gadgets

For even more empowering technology info, read my new book, “Deciphering the 21st Century,” Available now!

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Blast From The Past!

 

It’s positively amazing what has happened with computers in only a few short years. In the 1940s, computers used vacuum tubes and filled a room. It required a dedicated staff just to maintain, let alone program them. They were so expensive they were used only by governments.

ENIAC, the first general-purpose computer, 1946

ENIAC, the first general-purpose computer, 1946

The 1950s saw improvements in storage using magnetic tape and magnetic drums.

UNIVAC 1 computer. Insurance companies and the US military were some of the users.

UNIVAC 1 computer. Insurance companies and the US military were some of the users.

The 1960s saw the first computers smaller than a refrigerator. The use of transistors and integrated circuits enabled the shrinkage. At one point, NASA was using 60% of all integrated circuits manufactured in the U.S.

The Apollo spacecraft navigation and guidance computer. It weighed only 70 pounds and took up only 1 cubic foot of space.

The Apollo spacecraft navigation and guidance computer. It weighed only 70 pounds and took up only 1 cubic foot of space.

The 1970s saw the first ready-to-use “personal” computer, courtesy of two Steves: Wozniak and Jobs. You supplied the color television set.

The Apple II hit the market in 1977 and sold millions of units.

The Apple II hit the market in 1977 and sold millions of units.

The 1980s saw personal computers go mainstream once Radio Shack got hold of the idea. Look at how much you get for five grand! Inflation doesn’t apply when it comes to computers.

The 1984 desktop computer, from Radio Shack.

The 1984 desktop computer, from Radio Shack.

Almost affordable in 1986...

Almost affordable in 1986…

The 1990s saw the first handheld “computer.” Yes, it really was a computer, and could sync data with your home computer. It even had a sort of “handwriting recognition.”

The Palm Pilot personal organizer (PDA).

The Palm Pilot personal organizer (PDA).

And then, only nine years ago, the iPhone was released, giving us all the opportunity to watch stupid videos, waste time on Facebook, and walk in front of a bus doing it… Ah, technology!

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Hardware or Software??

Oh, No! Something’s just gone horribly wrong with your computer! Is all your data lost? Your precious pictures? Noooo! What could be wrong?

Don’t panic. A majority of the time, your data is still there, even if you can’t get to it. It would be nice to know, though, whether the problem is hardware (the hard drive and other physical parts of your computer) related or software (The programs, including Windows, that make your computer run) related.

Here’s a (relatively) easy way to find out.

Let’s back up a minute. When you turn on your computer, the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) on the main board (motherboard) goes looking for some source of boot software. Normally, it looks to the hard drive and finds some version of Windows, and boots from that. If Windows has gone south for some reason, the BIOS usually has no alternative. You can, however (in most cases) also provide an Operating System on a CD or USB stick, and have the computer boot from that. Enter the Boot Disk.

If there’s nothing wrong with your PC’s hardware, a boot disk will allow you to start it even if your Windows installation is completely hosed. This will not work if your PC is getting no power, the video has failed, or the motherboard or processor has gone bad. It will work even if your hard drive is shot, but in that case, you will probably have to go to a profe$$ional for the data recovery. Since roughly 95% of computer problems are software-related, it’s worth a try.

There are a number of options – free and paid – for boot disks. You can boot from a Windows installation disk, which might tell you whether your computer hardware is working properly, but won’t help you get your files back.

What you need is a CD (or USB drive) that has a self-contained operating system so you can back up files as well as see if your hardware is working. Sometimes these don’t work for a variety of reasons, but often they do, especially on older machines.

Two that I use frequently are Hiren’s boot cd and a popular version of Linux known as Ubuntu. Now, both of these are pretty huge downloads, so if you have a slow connection be prepared for a couple of hours of downloading. Your completed download will be an .iso file, and you cannot burn this directly to a CD. You’ll also need a program such as Imgburn to “unpack” and burn the file to a bootable CD.

If you don’t have a CD drive, you’ll need a tool such as Rufus to make a USB drive bootable.

You’ll also need to configure your BIOS to look for an operating system on the CD or USB drive. It’s not a bad idea to do this ahead of time. Just set the BIOS to always look for boot media on a CD or USB first, and the hard drive second. If it finds nothing to boot from in the other drives, it’ll go straight to the normal Windows installation. Note that this will slow down the boot – by a few seconds – as the BIOS looks in those other places.

Whew! Now you have an alternate way to start your computer, just like the pros do! While both of the OS downloads I mentioned earlier do not work exactly like the Windows you’re used to, either will allow you to copy, read, and delete files, as well as possibly diagnosing whatever problem you might be having.

For even more empowering technology info, read my new book, “Deciphering the 21st Century,” Available now!

Click here to read all about it.

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