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.

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

Amazon-Alexa-laughing-796x419

 

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.

Voice Activated Digital Assistants – Aren’t They Cute?

Posted Mar 30, 2018

Some people think of them as robots, and others simply as a replacement for their keyboard.  Some affectionately call them by name:  Alexa, Siri, Assistant or Cortana, while others would be much happier if they could be sure these spies weren’t lurking anywhere in their house.

A bit of history:  Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant and Apple’s Siri have been living in our smartphones, tablets and computers for a few years now and voice recognition has pretty much got over being the clumsy stumbling block it once was, to become a truly useful tool.  In the past year all four of these big players have upped the ante by introducing smartspeakers that sit on your coffee table and pair up with the digital assistants to do everything from changing the TV channel, to adjusting your furnace, to tweaking the oven, to telling you who is that guy co-starring in the movie you’re watching.  You start by saying a word that triggers the attention of the system, and then issue your commands or questions from your armchair.  The smartspeakers are pretty similar in their capabilities and the fact that one brand won’t work with another company’s system, and that they all have cute names.

Typing’s Out, Talking’s In is a good place to start if you are looking for an overview of the capabilities of VADA.  Chiel Hendriks from Google Canada paints a very positive picture (not surprisingly) of current and potential conveniences and shortcuts, and provides some insight on how helpful and ubiquitous these systems are poised to become.

But not so fast!  You didn’t think that the big four were bringing out all of this innovation without some sort of profit motive, did you?  Studies in both Canada and the USA have exposed some evidence in this area that causes quite a bit of concern.

Consumer Watchdog in the United States has done some digging into the patents related to this technology, with results that that produce some worry.  We think that most people who read  Home Invasion will wind up paying much more attention to this subject in the future – and avoid planning a bank robbery in the same room with their smartspeaker.  

By now most of us have encountered that spooky sensation when we have searched online for information about something and for the next several days advertisements somehow related to that subject have been incessantly appearing in our email or Facebook pages.  Without being able to put a specific finger on it, we know that somebody or something has been monitoring our data and is using that information, and probably making a few bucks out of the process.

Digital assistants and their smartspeaker henchmen just may be carrying that intrusion another step.  Remember a few paragraphs ago when we referred to “trigger the attention of the system”?  It now seems possible that no trigger is needed – at least not from you.

We recommend two reports from CBC Manitoba:  Digital Assistants offer convenience but what about privacy and   Experts caution about using digital assistants without knowing where your data goes deal with the subject in a lighthearted and breezy but intelligent manner. 

Paranoid? Maybe.  Worth careful study and informed judgement?  Definitely!

Interesting News from WIRED Magazine re: Printer Legailities

Posted Feb 25, 2018

A US Supreme Court decision last year, ruling against some claims from Lexmark regarding re-use of toner cartridges.  This article points out that the gains may be short-term, but that indirectly they just might have some lasting effects.

 

https://www.wired.com/2017/06/impression-v-lexmark/

Streaming Radio – The Price is Right!

Posted Feb 18, 2018

You may find this hard to believe, but some of us at Compu-Home (okay, ONE of us) is of a certain age and sometimes has a bit of a challenge finding the “right sort” of music on the radio.  We once went so far as to discuss a special and very expensive antenna, to bring in a larger selection of radio stations.  Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and a more knowledgeable member of the group came up with a far simpler and cheaper alternative that makes use of existing equipment and Internet service.  Radio through your computer can now be as simple or as elaborate as you want it to be, starting with a modest-bandwidth Internet connection and your computer’s built-in sound and speakers.  Then you have the option to bump it up a notch or two by adding a Bluetooth speaker to carry the sound anywhere in your home, or earbuds to keep it personal.  Desktop or laptop computers, tablets or smartphones are all quite capable of being your 2018 radio, bringing in stations from all over the world.

SINGLE RADIO STATIONS:  If you happen to know of specific stations that carry your preferred programs and music it is a simple matter to find their websites and copy shortcuts into a folder on your desktop.  The websites all look different but they usually offer at least a schedule and a button for live streaming and sometimes podcasts.  Often you can subscribe to podcasts or email programming reminders and special events and this can be a good idea, although sometimes public broadcasters’ reminders will include appeals for donations.

NETWORKS:  The advantage of a network of stations can be as simple as time-shifting, or local news from communities anywhere on the globe.  Other features might include specific programming, like CBC’s Ontario Today, or one of our personal favourites: Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! on NPR’s WBEZ Chicago. There are lots of national and international networks, such as BBC and United Nations Radio that will provide differing perspectives on world events.

PACKAGES:  AccuRadio is probably the best known of the services that offer hundreds of international radio stations and the ability to categorize and search within the groups.  iHeartRadio is a relative newcomer, and RadioPlayer Canada is a homegrown version, with primarily Canadian content.  Sometimes these services can become overwhelming, with Internet-Radio, for example, claiming that it offers music from “37,465 radio stations worldwide!”  Often these services have a free version with advertising, or premium subscriptions that are ad-free and offer more features.

MOSTLY MUSIC:  If music is your primary interest there is a huge variety of services for you and we simply have to suggest that you try as many as possible of them before settling on one or a few that suit you best.  Our personal favourites and recommendations that have been passed on to us include CBC Music, Spotify, 8Tracks and Deezer.  (It is not lost on us that Deezer rhymes with Geezer.)  Don’t forget YouTube, which we explored in detail in a column last year, and which offers the added bonus of video.  Many offer a limited free trial, and then you have to subscribe for a monthly or yearly fee.  You might decide that the subscription is worth it, but we think it’s a good idea to try several services to make sure you have found the one that is best for you.

YOUR SUGGESTIONS ??  If you write to us with your experiences, suggestions and feedback, we will pass them on (without names if you prefer) in a future column and blog.