Compu-Home Blog

These articles by Malcolm and John Harding address current issues in the world of personal computing. We hope you find them helpful! If you have any questions or comments, please let us know.

Exploring the Cloud – Part 2

Posted Sep 25, 2018 | 1 Comment

To Recap:  In our last Entry we defined the cloud as “an arrangement allowing users to save data in an alternate location via their Internet connection, remote from their own computer disks or systems.”   We discussed just a few of the free and commercial cloud offerings, how they work, and the fact that most people are actually making at least some minor use of the cloud, whether or not they realize it.

 

Jurisdiction is a concern mentioned often in the context of the cloud.  Canadians, for example, expect to be regulated in their activities by Canadian governments, but if the cloud storage service you use has servers in other countries, then it might be possible that the foreign government might exercise its jurisdiction by demanding access to your data and applying different laws and interpretations.  Frankly, the implications are usually scarce, but people who are concerned with tax matters, politics or citizenship, to name a few, might wish to download a Canadian perspective on the subject from     https://info.cloud.ca/jurisdiction-matters

 

Security is a subject that worries a lot of people but we think that this nervousness usually points in the wrong direction.  The companies that offer cloud data storage these days have such huge investments in redundancy and safety measures that risk to your data is very low.  We think that the misunderstandings about the use of social media – another form of cloud usage – should be of much greater concern and that this is an alternate form of data that has much greater potential for harm if it is used in the wrong ways.

 

The convenience of the cloud must not be overlooked.  First is the security of knowing that your data is being saved automatically in an additional location, so that equipment failure or loss becomes less a disaster than it might have been.  Some cloud backup services allow you to designate a folder on your hard disk to serve double-duty and anything saved there is automatically copied to an identical remote folder.  If another computer, tablet or smartphone is appropriately configured that same folder appears there also and so documents, photos, music, messages, calendars and addresses are always available.

 

Sharing of data among family members, friends or in a business context is another significant convenience.  The old days of clogging up someone’s inbox with a bunch of email attachment photos can be a thing of the past, if you post them to a cloud folder and then allow your friends access to that folder.  They can simply view them or download them and, if you allow it, they can add their own photos to that folder.  In another example, people all over the world can make edits and additions to a joint document, with the various versions saved for reference, if you have given them access.  Some cloud services, Google Docs being just one, even allow you to post your data and assign a URL (web address) to it so that anyone who has that  link can click on it and see it instantly.  Anyone with Gmail has automatic access to this service and a pretty decent amount of storage space is free!

 

Do your own research about using the cloud – but be careful.  When we were doing our background reading to prepare for these columns, we found a great number, perhaps the majority, of articles online that were VERY out of date.  Cloud computing, especially for business, has been around for more than a decade but there have been so many updates recently that we are suspicious of information older than a year or so.

Exploring “The Cloud” – Part 1

Posted Sep 25, 2018

What the heck is this Cloud I’m hearing about constantly?  Simply put, the cloud (or more accurately clouds, plural) is an arrangement allowing users to save data in an alternate location via their Internet connection, remote from their own computer disks or systems.  Many large corporations such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and lots more offer cloud storage service.  The typical model is that a certain amount of storage space is free, and users pay incremental amounts if they need more.  After initial setup they are automatic or extremely easy to use.

 

Is data safe on the cloud?  It’s probably much safer than it is on your own computer.  Companies use massive banks of servers, in “farms” scattered throughout the world, to create redundancy upon redundancy upon redundancy, thus ensuring data is safe from terrorist attacks, earthquakes, floods, fires and equipment failures.  Let’s put it this way:  The American CIA, which is thought to be pretty hyper about security, has just hired the Amazon cloud for data backup.

 

I don’t think I need such a thing.  Chances are, you are already using cloud storage for parts of your data.  Most people have their email account set up such that messages, contacts and calendars are saved on the servers of their email providers to make them available at second computers, tablets or phones.  If you have signed up for online banking, or an account with any web-based merchant, or do any social networking, then at least small bits of data are already “up there.”   Microsoft Office, and Apple’s Pages are now being sold on a subscription basis rather than the program being installed on your hard disk, and the default setup is for the data you create to be stored on the cloud.  The Chromebook, a budget-priced laptop that we have extolled often in these columns, has such a tiny hard disk that most apps and data are stored externally.

 

There is an unfortunate sinister dimension to some of this.  You may remember scandals of a few years ago, in which compromising photos of many popular personalities, mostly young Hollywood actresses, were published on sleazy websites.  This happened in many cases because these people did not realize that their phones and tablets were automatically set up when they were new, to save photos on iCloud, which is Apple’s cloud storage system.  Photos that were assumed to be private were hacked from iCloud, back in the days when security was not being taken as seriously as it is today. . . a sad lesson on how important it is to understand the workings of a new device.

 

You could avoid the cloud completely if you were prepared to take the time to go very carefully through all of the settings on your computer, tablet and phone to make sure that everything was being saved on that device only.  The trade off would no doubt be a certain inconvenience but if you had decided that only local storage was important, it would be possible to achieve that.

 

Next Entry in Cloud – 2, we will look at the implications of cross-border storage of data, additional concerns, and ways in which a few of those concerns may have been overblown.  In the meantime, you can start your own research on the subject of the cloud by consulting:

An Inside Look at the Microsoft Cloud

 

Ways that You Are Already Using the Cloud (Although You May Not Realize It)

 

More Ways You Are Probably Using the Cloud

Equipment Worth Exploring for Summer

Posted Jun 3, 2018

 

 

This is the season when many people do some travelling or spend a bit of time at a cottage.  Ideally, it would be very nice if that could be a time for getting away from it all but lots of details can conspire to compromise that goal.  Here are a few devices that may be helpful, if you can only get away from some of it.

 

OVER THE AIR TV ANTENNA:  Be honest now; it’s not just the grandchildren who might enjoy a TV fix now and then on a rainy day at the cottage.  If we’re not utter snobs, we might admit to the occasional Blue Jays game, or maybe some pre-season Redblacks.  In a location where cable or satellite service is not available or too expensive, an antenna might do the trick.  Local television stations tend to have their transmission towers clustered in prime locations and it is quite possible that you might find yourself in range and able to bring in as many as twenty channels with surprising quality.  Those of us of a certain age remember “rabbit ears” sitting on top of the TV set and the simplest of the modern equivalents do just that, for less than $50.00.  Even challenging locations (longer distances, or dare we say it – tents, trailers or boats) can be served with external antennas, some with an electric rotor, for less than $100.00.  In fact, lots of urban homes are now making do very well with a combination of an OTA antenna and some Internet TV, instead of cable or satellite.  

 

CELLULAR PHONE SIGNAL BOOSTER:  It might seem ironic that your fancy new smartphone doesn’t have the signal range of the 2-pound “brick” monster of 25 years ago.  When it is necessary to cram a miniscule antenna into the tiny space that is now available and you add to this the fact that the vast majority of cell phones are being used in urban areas with lots of towers, maybe it is not surprising that modern cellular coverage and reliability drop off very quickly on a trip to the country.  Cellular signal boosters don’t perform miracles but under certain conditions they can make a remote location safer or just more convenient.  Our successful experience was with a Yagi (directional) antenna costing less than $100.00 and permanently installed by amateurs at a cottage where cellular coverage was otherwise hopeless.  While this certainly does not qualify as a universal success story it does indicate that this technology has graduated from the gimmick stage where it was only a few years ago.

 

PORTABLE POWER BANK:  We have always been skeptical of the ads that show a tiny battery the size of a paperback jump-starting a pickup truck but the new generation of these rechargeable power packs would certainly be up to the task of keeping a cell phone, GPS or flashlights recharged during a lengthy backpack or canoe back country adventure, especially considering the fact that nowadays many people include such devices under the heading of safety equipment.  Anker is probably the best-known manufacturer of modern rechargers.  The primary consideration in these devices is usually the size-to-power ratio and the commonest compromise is the 20,000mah size which, simply put, is about the size of a big chocolate bar and half the power of a car battery.

 

Read LOTS of reviews before buying, both to avoid worthless junk (of which there is plenty out there) and also to ensure that you have found a device precisely suited to your needs. 

 

On the other hand, maybe you will be one of the lucky ones who won’t need this equipment.  In any case, we hope that you have a terrific holiday season.

Email Frailties

Posted Apr 19, 2018

Q:  I just got a notice that my email account rejected a message that a friend had sent me.  (Sometimes the problem is the other way around, and my friend doesn’t get a message from me.)  I got a gobbledygook note explaining why this had happened which is utterly incomprehensible to me but the bottom line is that I am worried that my email address is not reliable.

 

A:  The big guys like Sympatico, Yahoo, Gmail, etc. operate with great suspicion of one another and are always on the alert for an attack.  That is for good reason; it happens all the time.  Email accounts are constantly being scammed and spammed and if Gmail (for example) suddenly gets several thousand incoming suspicious messages from a Yahoo user (for example) then they will put a temporary block on Yahoo until they perceive that the threat is passed.  A few hours or a day later all is forgiven and they are friends again (until the next time).

 

Q:  Well what the heck can I do about it?

 

A:  Not much.  Well, maybe a few things:

  1. Be patient; the problem will probably be resolved very soon without you having to do anything.

 

  1. Ask your friend to send (or receive) a few more messages to (or from) you over 36 hours so that you can monitor how consistent and longstanding the problem may turn out to be.

 

  1. Don’t rely on email only, whoever the provider, for urgent messages. Although the percentage of email that is spam has actually gone down slightly in the past couple of years, spammers are now more sophisticated and effective than ever, and with billions (that’s right!) of spam messages being sent every day, a lot of legitimate messages are inadvertently getting caught in the spam filters.  See:  https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-01-19/e-mail-spam-goes-artisanal

 

  1. Consider the possibility of creating another email address that you share only with people you trust absolutely – and by this we define “trust” as knowing that they are as careful as you are in how they understand and use email. Inconvenient perhaps but worth it, especially if you set up forwarding of all your email accounts into one, so that checking one Inbox covers them all.

 

  1. Never send an email to more than about 15 recipients. The number of recipients of a message is a flag in the filtering systems of the email providers and if there are too many, most of them won’t receive it.  If you have to send a message to 60 people, it is better to send it 4 times to 15 recipients.

 

  1. When you send a message to a group of people, make sure to make yourself the addressee, and put everyone else in the Bcc: box, so that you are not broadcasting potentially private information.

 

  1. On the chance that you really do have a problem, take time often to make certain that your anti-virus utility is always up to date and working the way you think it is.

 

  1. See also:  https://glockeasymail.com/email-marketing/emails-blocked/   (First 3 paragraphs; ignore the advertising.)

and  https://mailchannels.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/204124374-Why-is-my-email-blocked-

This ‘n That

Posted Apr 10, 2018

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Was it something I said?  Soon after our last column appeared, Amazon was frantically trying to fix the fact that their Alexa speaker was breaking out into gales of laughter without any prompting, in a way that people described as “creepy.”  Apparently the issue is resolved.  For now.

 

 

 

We have never before had to include a warning in one of our columns, but if you choose to go to the current CNET article about online intolerance:  https://www.cnet.com/ihate/  we alert you that you must be prepared for some truly unpleasant material – despite the fact that CNET has apparently deleted some of the content that is even worse.  Most experts seem to agree that it is the anonymity of the Internet that seems to stimulate such intense intolerance that it often boils over into actual physical violence.  Many online news organizations have eliminated the comments section that used to follow their articles, primarily because the comments had started to become so extreme that they were detracting from the point of the original story, and the unpleasant atmosphere was starting to become associated with the news organization itself.  We hope that legislation and the courts catch up quickly and follow some European examples of how to stomp out this abomination before ordinary people start to think that the Internet generally is so upsetting that they will avoid it completely.

 

Battery

 

Lithium batteries are considered to be dangerous goods by the Government of Canada.  A description of the issues and strategies for avoiding problems can be found at https://www.tc.gc.ca/eng/tdg/lithium-batteries-are-dangerous-goods-1162.html  and considering the fact that lithium batteries power a great many devices that you probably own and often carry, a bit of research on the subject is time well spent.

 

 

 

Trade some convenience for security.  “Two-factor authentication” is a term that we all should start to become familiar with.  Simply put, you can make use of an extra level of security for most of your online accounts, from email to banking.  Usually you would set this to kick in whenever that account was being accessed from a new device; the premise being that if a hacker wanted to get into that account they would most likely to be doing it from their own computer and if that machine has never logged into the account in the past, the bad guy is going to be foiled by a demand for information they don’t have.  Think of this strategy as multiple passwords – required only when the account is most vulnerable.  A short video by Brian Barrett of Wired Magazine at https://tinyurl.com/y9a36eev  on this and other security measures is worth a quick look.

 

The iHome wifi Smart Plug is the Apple version of a nifty innovation that allows remote control of any electrical outlet from an app on your smartphone.  Other manufacturers have their own variety of this handy little invention and if you live in the world of Android you might prefer one of those.  With no electrical expertise whatever required, you simply plug this cover into an existing outlet and then it can be turned on and off from your phone, tablet or computer.  The potential peace of mind from knowing that the coffee pot is not on the verge of catching fire four hours after you left the house, or that the sump pump is working while you are out of town, make this an inexpensive investment in serenity.

 

PogueOriginally broadcast in 2013, David Pogue’s TED Talk tech tip time-savers are still as useful as ever.    Play  https://tinyurl.com/y72v6cw5   a couple of times to help you remember them.