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Vermont Computing, Inc.
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Randolph, VT 05060

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Sunday
Dec012013

Protecting your holiday digital photos

Holiday Pictures

Most people take photos around the holidays, and these photos are irreplaceable.  So what do you do to protect yourself from losing these important files?

Backup… Backup… Backup.  You should have at least two backup copies of your important photos (and all important data) stored in different places.

Steps to ensure you keep these cherished photographs:

1)      Download the photos to your computer.

2)      Copy them to a flashdrive or CD

3)      Back them up to an online backup service.

4)      If 3 isn’t an option for you (but with free backup services available, it is really an option for anyone with internet access); make another backup to a flashdrive or CD and store it at another location.

Data protection efforts is one of the few times where redundancy is not only acceptable, it’s crucial.  It doesn’t take much technological skill, hardly any time, and is very inexpensive to do.  There are few things in life as irritating as losing special photographs or important documents that you could have easily and inexpensively protected.

Sunday
Nov242013

Take control of your schedule with Google calendar

Using Google Calendar to take control of your schedule

Until I started my current job, my schedule was manageable with things just jotted down on a piece of paper.  When things got extra busy, I would use a day planner and just roughly outline the things I needed to do.  When I started working at the job I currently have, things got messy quickly.  I was no longer the only person scheduling my days and there was a lot more volume of information to manage.  At work we use Google Calendar, the office manager schedules an appointment for me and sends an invitation at which point I choose Yes or No regarding whether or not I can do it.   This worked great for my work related appointments, but what was lacking was integrating my personal appointments.

I evolved to the point where I had my work calendar and a personal calendar.  With Google calendar I can easily show my personal appointments on my work calendar so that the office manager can schedule appointments around my personal schedule.  With a few minor tweaks, such as an agreed upon indicator that I put on my entries to let him know if the item I scheduled is flexible or not, it worked very smoothly.  I set the appointments to send a text message to my phone 30 minutes prior to the appointment.

I am at the point where I am going to have to put my entire life on the schedule; but the extra 30 minutes per week that I estimate this will take should recover a lot of wasted time in my schedule.  I realized this week that this was going to be necessary- On a typical day, I have a morning appointment scheduled for approximately 9am.  Then I go through my day and take care of the other appointments on my list, hit the gym for an hour or so, then do some remote work at home in the evening.  By not scheduling my time and managing it properly, I end up essentially working 12-16 hour days.

Scheduling my days and including both work and personal items will allow me to move through my day efficiently and ensure that I have the time to complete the things I planned on doing that day.  The google calendar will replace the need for a daily task list and you’ll have access to it from anywhere.  You can access and edit it from any computer and from most cell phones.

Saturday
Nov162013

Why would the average computer user want to encrypt their emails?

Email encryption programs server two purposes.  One, it encrypts the data in your email to protect it from being intercepted and viewed while on its way to the destination address (this will not prevent someone with access to your computer from reading your email, it only prevents interception enroute and unintended recipients reading it).  Second, it digitally signs the email to prove that it came from you.  Both of these have their legitimate uses, but why would the average person want to bother with it?

Encrypting the data prevents thieves from intercepting emails and stealing the data.  It is not uncommon for people to email personal information- including passwords, account numbers, and addresses.  This information can be intercepted and used for identity theft or other illegal uses.  While most people don’t like the prospect of people prying into their email exchanges, they don’t believe they are sending any information that is sensitive. 

Digital signatures are used to prove that the email came from you and that the content has not been altered.  This is useful for legal situations, such as correspondence between you and a company you have a dispute with.  If you both are using digital signatures, the email exchanges can be used for proving what you did, or did not, say in your email. 

Several email clients, such as Thunderbird or Postbox, allow you to incorporate PGP encryption easily into your emails.   The encryption is fairly easy to install, setup, and configure on your computer.  Anyone who you wanted to send encrypted emails to would also have to have the encryption installed so they could decrypt and read the message.  In the case of digitally signing your emails so that you can prove what you sent the person; the recipient does not have to have the encryption programs installed.  In the event of any legal question, the digital signature could still be used to prove what was in the message and that you sent it.

Sunday
Nov032013

Crypto Locker- How to protect yourself

Ransom ware, Crypto Locker - What is it and how do you protect yourself?

Ransom ware has been around for a little while, but the outbreak of one called Crypto Locker has brought it to the forefront of tech news and has been described as particularly nasty.  Ransom ware does just what the name implies, it encrypts your personal files and you must pay a ransom to get the decryption key from the criminals who infected your computer.  This ransom can be any amount, but most reports state that for the Crypto Locker virus the ransom is generally $300.  They promise to send you the decryption key once they verify that they have received the funds.  To make it even worse, they put a countdown timer on it- generally 72 hours before your decryption key is destroyed and your files are effectively lost forever.

This virus is generally delivered through email attachments that are in emails from apparently reputable sources such as FedEx, UPS, or an email from a friend’s email account.  The email attachment is normally disguised to look like a pdf file, when you click to view it, the virus is installed.  Once it installs it scans your hard drive looking for files to encrypt; normally picture files, document files, spreadsheets, and others.  Once the files are encrypted the user is notified that their files are encrypted and they will need to pay a fee to receive the decryption key.

To protect yourself, you should back up all your important files on a removable backup source that is only connected to the computer during the backup process.  Some of the ransom ware infections will scan for backups and include them in their attack, this is why having a backup that is not attached to the system all the time is important.  Cloud backups like Carbonite and Dr. Backup will also solve this problem.  If you find yourself with an infection and you have a current back up, recovery is easy.  Removal of the actual virus is a simple process, but once you’re infected you may not be able to get your encrypted files back without a backup.

Other protection measures include installing anti-malware software.  There are several free versions of anti-malware protection available, however most of these do not provide real-time protection.  To get real-time protection you generally have to purchase the full paid versions of the software.  To keep yourself protected with the free versions you would have to download your attachments to a folder and do a manual scan with your anti-malware program.

If you do end up with an infection you may have to decide if your lost files are worth risking paying the ransom and “possibly” getting the decryption key.  Remember- these people are criminals and just because they say they will give you access to your files again does not guarantee that they will.  The best thing you can do is protect your data so even if you get infected, you do not have to pay the ransom to recover your files.  If most people do not pay the ransom, the creation and distribution of this virus will cease to be profitable for the criminals.

So remember- Prevent the infection by installing and using anti-virus and anti-malware programs. Update and run scans often.  Use malware programs that provide real-time protection if possible, if not then scan all email attachments and downloads prior to opening them.  Set your anti-virus scanner to automatically update and automatically scan your system often.  Backup all your important data on a removable drive that you only connect to your computer when it is backing up your data; leave it unplugged from your system when it’s not in use.

Article by Dan Lagerstedt, VCI.

Friday
Nov012013

Free alternatives to commercial software programs

 

As we all know, software is expensive.  Eventually, the software vendor will want payment for the next year of updates or the version you have will not be supported.  These costs add up quickly, so what do you do?  Most popular software programs have free alternatives that do the same functions, sometimes in ways that are modeled after the paid version.

Premium photo editing software has always been popular, and expensive.  Adobe photoshop used to be several hundred dollars, now they have a subscription program that ranges from $19.00 to $49.00 per month.  The free open source alternative is called GIMP.  GIMP can do anything that adobe photo shop can do for most users.  Professionals who are will need all the functions of Photoshop on a regular basis are probably better off with the Photoshop program, all others will be satisfied with the functionality of GIMP.

Office software is also an expensive necessity; many people pay $100 or more for Microsoft Office Suite that includes a word processor, a spreadsheet program, a presentation making program, a calendar, and more.  Open Office and Libre Office are both free open source software suites that have all the components that MS Office has and they work in similar ways.  These free options also support the feature of saving your work in the file format (and opening these file formats) that MS Office uses so you can share documents with people that have the paid versions.

Outlook is a popular email program that is about $110, it has it’s features that make it popular and easy to use.  If you are looking for an email reader but don’t need it integrated with your entire office suite, Thunderbird is an excellent free open source alternative.  It easily, and usually automatically, connects with your email provider and sets up the account for you.

No matter what the paid software you’re looking for is, there is probably a free open source program that does exactly the same thing (or similar).  Before you make your purchase, do a google search for “Free open source alternative to ___________ (insert name of the commercial software you’re trying to replace)”.  More often than not, you will find several free alternatives of the software you are looking for.

Monday
Oct212013

Should you drain your laptop battery before charging?

Many people still ask if they should completely drain their laptop batteries before they charge them to help extend the life of the battery.  This was the case with nickel-cadmium batteries.  Those batteries experienced a “memory effect” where they lost the ability to fully charge if, over time, they were charged before they were drained.  If your laptop is old and had a nickel-cadmium battery, then to prolong its life you should fully drain it prior to charging.  The type of battery is indicated on the battery and you should see it on the labels if you remove it.

Newer laptops use lithium-ion or lithium-polymer batteries.  Repeatedly discharging these batteries to zero power doesn’t help extend their life, in fact, it will most likely shorten its overall life and capacity.  These batteries will last longer if you never allow them to fully discharge.

Some users purchase laptops as replacements for desktop computers and they are plugged in all the time.  In this case, it is best to remove the battery and replace it with a “blank” (a fake battery) if your laptop will operate with the battery removed.  To keep your battery ready for use it’s best to store it in a cool place with roughly a 50% charge.  Removing and replacing the battery frequently isn’t recommended, the contacts and latches aren’t designed to withstand frequent removal & replacement of the battery.

Tips to extend your newer lithium-ion or lithium-polymer battery:  1) Try to keep the battery as cool as possible (especially constant charging which generates a lot of heat).  2) Don’t leave it plugged into a charger all day when you’re not using it.  3) Plug it in when you’re gaming or otherwise taxing it.  4) Try to run the battery between approximately 20% and 80%.

Saturday
Oct192013

Restoring a backup- Best Practices

 because not every backup offers this recovery option...

There is all kinds of information on the internet about backing up your files… How to back up, Where to back up, When to back up, What needs to be backed up… But you rarely find information about the best way to restore your files.  Each back up method has different ways to retrieve your backed up data, so those methods vary from backup system to backup system.

Restoring a backup of one particular file is pretty straight forward.  You use your backup’s restore feature to replace the missing file or overwrite the corrupt file and you’re done.

If you have to replace a directory folder that potentially has newer data in it than your backup contains, it’s still a straight forward process; but there are some best practices you have to remember to ensure that you don’t lose the new data contained in those folders.  DO NOT assume that restoring the backup files will append to the existing files, it will most likely overwrite the existing file therefore causing a loss of the newer files.  There are two cardinal rules that you must never overlook.  1) Never NEVER restore to the original location and 2) Make a copy of all the existing files in that directory.

The easiest way if you have space on your hard drive is to create a folder on your desktop called “Saved Files” and copy your directory into that folder.  Then create a folder on your desktop called “Restore Files” and restore your backup to that location.  At this point you can copy the files you need into the proper directory; if you discover that you’ve copied a file that doesn’t contain the files you need, you can go to your Saved Files folder and get the original file back.

At this point, you should have restored your files back to the state they were when you last backed up.  Check your program and ensure that it is completely up to date (It’s a good idea to save your Saved Files folder for a period of time until you are sure things are up to date).  If it’s obvious that you are missing things from the time period between your last update date and the current date, you can get that data from the Saved Files Directory.

Written out- this seems like a complicated process, but it boils down to the two cardinal rules- NEVER restore to the original location and ALWAYS make a copy of the files/directories you will be working with.

Monday
Oct072013

Protecting your children on the internet

These days the threat from online predators is at an all-time high.  The fact that a lot of children and teenagers are more internet savvy than their parents makes protecting your children online even more difficult.  Most of the parental filters and controls can be deactivated by a tech savvy teenager and their tracks can be hidden, making monitoring very difficult.  If this is done discretely by the child, you may never know that they have been circumventing your monitoring efforts.

So, what do you do to keep your child safe?  The first step should be open and honest communication with your child about acceptable internet activities and potential dangers.  As a parent, you have to be involved in this part of their life and play an active role in teaching them how to keep themselves safe in this environment.  Ultimately, the internet is the same as real life; You have to help your child learn how to safely participate in this part of their world and as they learn, and earn trust, you give them a little more freedom to experience and learn on their own.

Teaching children to keep their personal information private is also an important component.  They should never give their full name, birthdate, address, phone number, or any other identifying information to someone that they do not know.  Explaining that someone they have only met online is not someone that they “know” is also important.

The use of monitoring software should be a part of your efforts at keeping your child safe, there are many to choose from.  They offer different levels of protection; some even include an option to covertly monitor so that the child wouldn’t know they were being watched.  This option can be useful, but can also erode the trust between you and your child if they discover that you’ve been “spying on them”.  These hidden monitoring programs can be discovered by a tech savvy child and deactivated; then it becomes a cold war between parent and child and can become its own problem by creating a point of contention between them.

Some general rules to consider following to facilitate a safe internet experience for your child are:

1)      Keep internet connected computers in a family area where their activity is more easily monitored.

2)      Deactivate or remove the webcam.

3)      Invest in monitoring software, and learn how to use it.

4)      Prevent them from deleting browsing history, check it periodically for inappropriate internet activity.

5)      Keep a clear list of rules posted by your computer, make sure the child understands the rules, the consequences of breaking the rules, and the potential dangers associated with breaking the rules.

6)      Remember, as a parent it’s your job to protect your child- Not to be their best friend.  While they may not see it now, someday they will appreciate your diligence in looking out for their safety.

Here are some links to information sources about keeping your child safe:

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/20/parents-help-child-safe-online

http://www.ou.edu/oupd/kidtool.htm

http://www.parenting.com/article/keeping-your-child-safe-on-the-internet

http://www.wikihow.com/Keep-Your-Children-and-Teens-Safe-Online

http://www.fbi.gov/fun-games/kids/kids-safety

Wednesday
Oct022013

How long will your computer last?

As a computer technician, I hear the phrase “It’s only ‘X’ years old” many times.  People seem to expect their precious gateway to the wonders of the internet to last forever, but what kind of time frame can we reasonably expect from them.

So how long should “X” years be….The standard answer is “3 to 5 years”.  This time frame can be extended, or shortened, depending on what you use it for and what you need it to accomplish.  If you’re playing high tech games, your hardware will wear out faster and (more likely) your game will outgrow your hardware quickly and you’ll require upgrades to allow the game to function at optimal levels.  On the other hand, if you’re using your computer as a word processor and/or only using it for email, your computer can last much longer.

With the 3 to 5 year time frame in mind, the most likely failure you’ll encounter is Hard Drive failure.  To protect yourself against this, be sure to keep backups of all your important files. 

Monday
Sep232013

Three more handy things to know about your computer:

  1.       How to backup your data.  If you keep your information stored in another location, it stands to reason that you can’t lose it.  The “3-2-1 backup” philosophy I follow is that all your important information should be in at least Three different locations, on Two different types of media (thumb drive & DVD for example), and at least one of them should be stored in a different building than your computer.
  2.       How to protect your computer from electricity. A computer can suffer damage from receiving more, or less, than the voltage it expects.  A good surge protector can help with over-voltage, but a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) is required to protect against under voltage.
  3.       How to search online.  Searching is a skill.  There is so much information on the internet that it can be difficult to extract the pertinent data that you’re seeking without tweaking your search methods.

See Jeremy Lesniak’s blog for more information