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.

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.

Proceed with Caution

Posted Feb 18, 2018

Scam 2Earlier this winter we received an intense flurry of calls from customers who had been attacked by the “Windows Team from Microsoft.”  These assaults are the modern version of the (now blessedly less common) telephone call to inform you that it has been reported your security has been compromised and you will have to take action immediately or suffer the consequences.

 

 

 

Scam 1Nowadays instead of a telephone call, what is more likely to happen is a sudden, overwhelming pop-up on your screen, often with loud alarm sirens.  Flashing instructions warn you not to turn off your computer, but to call a telephone number so that “our team of experts can rescue you.”  If you do call that number a reassuring voice explains that everything can be fixed very quickly if you just follow his instructions.  Next it will be discovered that your problem is much worse than anyone expected and you must be escalated to a “higher level of expert desk.”

 

Here starts the new scenario:  This “expert” will explain that he will have to be paid for his service and that you must now go to the nearest department store or drugstore and buy a pre-loaded credit card from the kiosk near the cash.  When you return home you must call him back and give him the numbers on this credit card.  You will not be allowed to use your own credit card, because these crooks have learned that as soon as their victims realize that they have been bilked they will call their credit card company and have the charge cancelled – a strategy that you can’t use with the generic pre-loaded card.

Let’s suppose that you have allowed yourself to be suckered along to the next stage.  (Don’t be embarrassed; hundreds of thousands of people just like you have allowed these criminals to earn millions of dollars every month, worldwide.)  The expert will guide you to a place where he can take over your computer remotely and at that moment you have lost the game, set and match, because he is now free to deposit any sort of malware that he chooses on your computer and ensure that there can be another round of alarms and expensive “service.”

It is ridiculously easy to avoid all this mess:  As soon as the alarms begin, TURN OFF YOUR COMPUTER – contrary to the warning on the screen.  This is one of the very few times when you should simply press-and-hold the power switch, for a minimum of eight seconds.  Your computer will go black.  Wait for several more seconds and turn it back on with the same button.  The chances are excellent that everything will be back to normal and the whole episode is history.

You can get yourself into the same situation by inadvertently calling an incorrect number for the service department of one of the big name tech companies, like HP or Dell or your Internet provider.  As we mentioned in a column last year there are lots of spoof websites out there now that carefully emulate the legitimate ones and entice you to call the same old crooked “service desk.”  You must always be careful to call the correct number.  If you go astray, the solution is the same as above:  TURN OFF YOUR COMPUTER.

“Remote Assistance” can take two forms:  First is to allow an unfamiliar and unproven stranger to take over your computer – not a great idea.  Second is the Remote Assistance that many legitimate service organizations (including Compu-Home) use when possible to fix certain kinds of computer problems quickly and inexpensively.  Used properly, Remote Assistance is an efficient way of you and your service person working together.  You call your service provider and then log in to the Remote Assistance utility so that you and the technician can both see what is going on with your computer.  You are communicating constantly on the telephone, and nothing is done to your computer without your approval.  This strategy is only advised when you are one hundred percent certain that you know and trust the person at the other end.  It is NEVER wrong to refuse a stranger access to your computer, any more than it would not be a mistake to be careful letting them in your door.

 

A Gathering of Geeks?  Certainly Not!

Posted Dec 4, 2017

If you want to find a prime example of Ottawa’s underappreciated volunteers, you don’t have to look any farther than The Ottawa Personal Computer Users’ Group (OPCUG).  Working largely through the Ottawa Public Library’s Community Events Initiative:  https://tinyurl.com/l8s5xan enthusiastic and knowledgeable members of the OPCUG have presented nearly 500 information sessions over the past few years on subjects ranging from Windows, to Email, to Security, to Software, to Consumer Awareness, to Publishing Digital Photos . . . and the list goes on and on.  The lucky people attending these sessions have ranged from very basic users, to experienced professionals, and they have all come away knowing that they are now able to get more enjoyment and productivity from the use of their computers and portable devices.

Public Relations Director Jeff Dubois proudly related to me that one most stellar examples of the dedication of these OPCUG members is current President Chris Taylor, who was recently awarded a richly-deserved City Builder Award by Mayor Jim Watson, in recognition of the hundreds of workshops that he himself has presented!

The OPCUG meets on the second Wednesday of the month from September to June, at the Aviation Museum.  The doors open for a social time at 7:00, the main presentation starts at 7:30, and there is a Q&A following.  Believe it or not, even though the membership dues are only $25.00 per year, the group does not insist that you must be a member to attend.  Although you will not encounter many teenagers, (who seem to get their techie fix through other means) there is otherwise a rich cross sample of young and mature, experienced and not. Jeff Dubois told me that a healthy sign of the times is that the number of women who are members is increasing in recent years.  Membership is currently at approximately 120 members and there are some meetings with standing room only!  I can tell you from firsthand experience that a new face is immediately made to feel very welcome.

The activities are not solely devoted to technology.  There are pizza nights, harness racing events at Rideau Carleton, and over the years the OPCUG silent auctions have raised many hundreds of dollars for the Ottawa Food Bank.

No matter what your background or level of interest, it is well worth your time to have an in-depth look at www.opcug.ca  so that you can find more details about just how much this club can offer.

Although the OPCUG is noteworthy, it is not the only group in the region.  There are many more clubs – often with a very specific focus – that are maintaining and sharing interest and expertise.    www.webruler.com/mark/computer/user.htm   is a website that contains links to the websites of many of these groups.  In addition, just a few more groups worth special mention are:

: The 50+ Computer Club at the Ottawa Public Library   http://tinyurl.com/lxs3mc9

:  Future Kids Ottawa   www.futurekidsottawa.com/

:  Nepean Computer Club & Discussion Group    https://tinyurl.com/mge4n97

If you have experience with another technology-oriented group in the area, we would be delighted to hear about it, and will share your suggestions in future columns.