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.

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.

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/