As Computers Evolve, Tutoring Seniors Must Also Evolve – But How?

Helping seniors to become computer literate is a moving target. New skills are needed as new devices become popular, and new techniques need to be developed to meet the need of seniors wanting to become computer literate. The same goes for non-seniors with special needs.

A few years ago one of the most frequent requests was for help in using a mouse. People with limited flexibility in their fingers due to arthritis and other issues of aging have difficulty holding a mouse steady while attempting to click an icon. It is challenging when your fingers do not go where you want them to go, and then when you do get to the target, trying to hold the mouse steady while moving one finger to click is another challenge. A standard ploy I use is to urge them to drag a little finger on the mousepad and then clamp it tightly against the pad and the side of the mouse while also pressing the opposite side with their thumb before attempting a click.

For many seniors suffering from loss of flexibility, turning a scroll wheel can also be a challenge. For them, using the auto scroll function might be a good alternative, but many of them do not know about this handy feature.

Along with loss of flexibility, loss of visual acuity is a problem. Windows offers several alternatives to the standard display themes, including extra large print, high contrast display, and magnification for those with severe sight impairment.

By the way, if you are setting up a PC workstation for seniors, please be advised that we all wear bifocals or gradient glasses. If you set the monitor on top of the computer to save desk space, senior users will be forced to bob up and down to switch vision from monitor to keyboard or other desktop material. A roomful of seniors working at such stations resemble a flock of birds bobbing up and down for feed. Being sensitive to the limitations of senior eyesight requires a lower monitor. Some thought should also be given to how far the monitor is from a user’s face. Putting it back farther than usual might allow a senior to focus on it with mid-range and focus on the desktop with close-range. Tablets and laptops do not share this difficulty.

But along with the rest of the population, seniors are rapidly adopting tablets and smartphones instead of being tied to classic desktop or laptop computers. This is one aspect of the moving target for a tutor. The skills needed to navigate a tablet hampered with arthritis are different than those for handling a mouse.

Then there is the always delicate issue of discussing how to overcome an aging-related difficulty with a client who does not want to admit to having a difficulty. Sometimes the psychological hurdles are greater than the physical ones. Recently I had a class of seniors in a hands-on PC workshop. One of the women was having a difficult time with the practice exercise while the others were doing it with no problem. She was alert and obviously following the class, so what was the problem? A look at her hands showed crooked fingers and swollen joints. She was being frustrated by her inability to maneuver the mouse and click. Without thinking, I suggested to her that given her difficulties, she should try to grip the mouse differently. But before I could explain what I meant, she shot me a withering look which eloquently said. “I have lived more than 70 years, given birth to children, raised them, and support myself as a widow, and you are not going to tell me that I am deformed just because this damned mouse will not go where I want it. So watch your language!” This was before I had said anything more than to suggest she hold the mouse differently.

Nothing is gained in such a situation by continuing down that path. I nodded to her and suggested that if she wanted any help, I would be available.

In the same class, a man sitting at the next computer was having similar difficulties with simple mouse manipulation. I asked if he would like some pointers on how he might be able to improve his performance. He gratefully said yes. So we worked for a few minutes on how to stabilize the mouse while clicking, and I showed him how to vary the mouse speed through the control panel to better meet his needs. All the time while talking to him, I ignored the first woman even though I noted she was watching us. Before the session ended, she had made considerable progress and had essentially adopted my suggestions. If it works for her, then it works for me.

This class was a laboratory using standard PCs. However, in the computer clubs I attend, many of the members have switched to tablets with varying comments on the difficulty of swiping across the tablets. I have yet to formulate a standard presentation suitable for seniors using tablets. One would think that touchscreens present fewer difficulties to operate with limited mobility than a mouse, and that is probably true, but I have seen seniors struggle with multiple-finger manipulations just as they do with a standard mouse.

Even if we do develop protocols to help seniors make the transition from desktop to tablet, how long will those skills be necessary? Last weekend I cleaned up my office and threw out the last of my floppy disks. They are obsolete. CDs are essentially dead. How long will DVDs last? The speech recognition feature that comes standard with Windows is not perfect, but it is much better than the first examples I used some years ago. Will tablets give way to speech-driven devices? What will the next generation of computing things look like? I say “computing things” because the concept of a computer changed with tablets and will change again. And whatever comes next, seniors will have some difficulties that younger people do not face.

CC licensed Flickr image shared by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com

Back Up Your Computer. Back Up Your Computer. Back Up…

Back Up Your Computer. Back Up Your Computer.  Back Up... Am I Being Redundant?This is about backups — again. Anyone in my position would find it difficult to avoid being repetitive about the necessity of regular backups of digital data. I deal with a lot of senior clients, but the culprits could be any clients who use computers. I tell them, “Back up your computer!” but they do not listen. Many clients seem to have a real aversion to making backups. In days past, I could see how this might happen since backing up was either a manual thing that required direct intervention at timely intervals, or it was a relatively complicated application that might not actually do what needed to be done.

Modern techniques make backing up simple. Combine this with continuing decrease in the cost of storage, and backing up is a no-brainer. In fact, sufficient free storage is available on the Internet that one need not even purchase an external drive or pay for off-site storage for backing up personal data if cost is an issue.

When one of my clients recently lost some things due to no backup whatsoever, I showed her the almost embarrassing array of backups that I keep routinely. Since I am not satisfied with a single backup, I have several. Some readers might think my zeal excessive, but I actually surpass the 3-2-1 rule (three copies on two different media types and one off-site). Part of my paranoia about losing data came several years ago when a friend of mine, who was the head of IT for a major local company, had an accident. He had seven computers in his house with multiple backups and a common server. He knew what he was doing and his system was truly secure. However, we have certain seasons here that other parts of the country might not have. We have a fire season, and he lived in the back country. It is very pretty where he lived out amongst the trees. A few years ago we had a major fire that destroyed his house. Later he told me that he had never planned on the whole damned thing being destroyed at once. He lost everything, and he knew he should have had off-site storage. If even a professional can be burned, I needed to take special care.

This week another client brought me her husband’s computer. He had passed away after a long illness in which he used the computer daily since he was not able to get around. She had pulled some stuff off onto a USB stick to copy to her computer when the HD apparently suffered a head crash. Maybe it objected to being moved around a lot. Maybe it was just old. Maybe it missed its master. At least she recovered his contacts and some other things before it went down, and that is good because they had no backup for either his computer or hers. She tells me she will be more careful now.

She asked if I could recover any more personal data from the dead machine. If I could have, I would have, but nothing I could do would let me talk to it. Even my forensic software could not wake up the HD when I installed it as an external drive on my test rig. I suggested that if she really wanted to recover anything, she would have to take the faulty HD to a specialist and for many bucks, they would take it apart and perhaps recover things. She declined and asked me to destroy the HD (which, given the situation, was a bit redundant). After a couple of swings with a maul, I was pretty sure she was safe.

In both cases, the clients knew that backups were recommended, but neither bothered. I wonder if they drive around with no spare tires in their cars.

Maybe the storage technology is simply at an awkward stage. If our storage media were less reliable, we would probably all back up our data religiously. If our storage media were more reliable, then perhaps data loss would be so rare that we would not need to worry about it. After all, most people do not have earthquake insurance, and they sleep soundly at night without worrying about losses. Similarly, if you look at old photos of automobiles, they often have two spare tires mounted either on both sides or in tandem in back. The industry evolved from a pair of spares to a single spare tire of normal size as failure rates decreased. Now most automobiles have a down-sized spare instead of a regular tire. As failure of data storage similarly becomes less of an issue, our backup habits will likely follow a similar progression. Right now we are at the one-spare-tire phase. I doubt either technology will ever migrate to no spare tires or to no backup needed.

But here is the frustrating thing: You certainly must know people who do drive around with no spare tire, and we all know people who blithely go about life without worrying about backups and they never get burned. It is all a matter of probability. Some people will win and some will lose. Those in the middle who see unprotected people surviving without difficulty are tempted to emulate them and not worry about backups. These are my future clients who will panic when their system fails to boot. Getting new clients is good, but there are better ways to find them.

So I see no help for it; I must be repetitive and continually be warning about backups — without becoming a nag and alienating the very people I am trying to help. That is a delicate line to walk.

Tutoring Seniors in a YouTube Age

Tutoring Seniors in a YouTube AgeOver the last two weeks, I presented three short courses to classes of senior students on computer applications (LibreOffice, Excel, and Inkscape). Not until I was well into planning for the third course did I realize that an important change had happened almost overnight in the effective presentation of learning material. Each of the three courses included some selected examples from YouTube. I had not planned it that way; I had simply tried to assemble what seemed like the best tools to present the coursework.

The amount of tutorial information available on YouTube is astounding. I seriously doubt there is any human activity that is not currently supported by a YouTube video — at least any legitimate activity (and probably a lot of illegitimate ones, as well). I use short, online materials to emphasize points I make in my classes. But the availability of great examples of almost any aspect of any readily available application brings into question the value of a formal class on any subject in the first place.

One might think that the need to gather students and teacher together at the same time in the same location is obsolete since self-teaching with online videos can do the same thing at the best time for students. Even teachers might benefit since they do not have to be prepared at a given time. But I think that analysis is flawed. Students, particularly senior students, learn as much from each other as from an instructor, but the instructor (or moderator) and a formal classroom devoted to the task at hand still facilitates more rapid and complete learning than piecemeal online YouTube snippets. Some people can learn effectively in their own home working privately on their own computer, but what about the rest of the population that responds better to being in a learning community?

What should an aspiring tutor make of the YouTube phenomenon? I look at it as a way to increase the efficiency of my teaching and even increase the fun of it for both teacher and students. For instance, while introducing students to the power of the freeware graphics application Inkscape, I showed the basics of generating shapes, changing colors, stacking, etc. Then, after they had a chance to experiment on their own computers, I pulled up a YouTube video showing how to make swirls and flourishes. The video opens with a shot of the finished product. That can be daunting for the beginning students, but as the video progresses from a blank screen to the final product in a couple of minutes, they see that the individual steps which, I point out as the video progresses, are ones they have already seen and even tried. While a few things are novel, most steps have already been demonstrated. In that way, the students can see how easy it will be to build on their beginner’s knowledge. In this last class, after watching a video I had chosen to show a feature, we spent some time extemporaneously scrolling through the other available subjects on Inkscape. Most of my students were amazed, but one of them simply leaned back and said, “Yeah, you can find almost anything on YouTube these days.” She was right.

Inkscape is a good application to present to a class since it comes with a great set of its own tutorials in its help folder. The tutorials are cleverly written in Inkscape itself so that students can read the text and experiment by changing the associated illustrations or even creating new examples in the margins. However, these are static tutorials. Students can read and practice at the same time, but that is still different from either one-on-one life tutoring or watching a video. Some people learn best one way; others prefer another method. The availability of YouTube tutorial videos for almost any subject is a boon to those who learn best by watching and then experimenting.

However, with few exceptions, going the YouTube route exclusively without support from other methods is not a good idea. Watching three- to five-minute segments can help students learn part of a discipline, but they are not guided in seeing the whole picture. A danger of relying only on short video segments is that students will only learn what they need to know immediately to solve a particular problem. They might not acquire knowledge that would prepare them for other situations. Working with a teacher who has an overall grasp of the subject can help direct students’ attention into areas of deficiency and help them achieve an overall grasp also. Similarly, having a complete digital text (with illustrations) is better than a short video for looking at how parts of an application interact. A student can quickly search back and forth to find areas of interest and see how they can be applied. Some students (including me) will probably not feel comfortable without a traditional hardcopy manual as a backup. In spite of the various online aids, I still have a thick “Excel 2007 Bible” on my desk.

New methods are often feared by the established practitioners, but far from being dismayed by the advent of YouTube videos, as an instructor, I believe they are a valuable resource to make my classes more enjoyable and efficient. If you tutor or participate in classes, particularly classes oriented toward seniors, what do you think of the online aids — including YouTube? If you prefer to self-instruct, how do you learn best; from written material, videos, commercial coursework?

Marketing Channels for a Senior Geek

Marketing Channels for a Senior GeekA new client called me last week to schedule a tutoring session. Two things were unusual about this. First is that the client did not report anything wrong with his computer; he just wanted to learn how to do some things, and he even had a list! Since most people who call me want service first and tutoring second, if at all, and many of them are too disorganized to make a squawk list, this was a gratifying phone call.

The second thing that was unusual was that the new client was a man. Most of my senior tutoring clients are women, sometimes with their husbands sitting in to pick up hints on how to fix things.

If you want to repair computers and tutor, you must consider marketing channels if your activity is to be anything other than a hobby with occasional small income. In my case, I offer free lectures through various senior centers, and I teach occasional courses through OASIS, a nationwide school system aimed at continuing education of seniors. I will present three short courses in June (see Class Description). This gives me exposure both to attendees and the multiplying factor of word-of-mouth advertising. My out-of-pocket expense is zero or negative (negative cost since I get paid to teach and occasionally get tips for my free lectures — leaving an open jar next to a signup sheet works wonders).

In addition to those marketing activities, I also write an occasional newsletter for anyone who has ever used my services. This newsletter is also sent (thank you, Alan) to members of at least one PC user club. My newsletter has also been quoted in a PC column in a local newspaper because the author of the column also gets a copy. That single quote brought several responses.

Strangely, although this series of LockerGnome posts has generated several conversations with local users as well as online comments, I cannot identify any client who first heard about me through the Internet. The vast majority of clients have been word-of-mouth referrals or attendees at one of my presentations.

Attending PC user clubs is fun, interesting, and another way of getting your name out to potentially interested clients. I am not aggressive in that type of marketing, and being too forward in pitching yourself will be a turn off for the other members. The benefit of clubs is primarily to associate with people who share your interests and exchange useful information. Any extra benefits are secondary. Be cool and enjoy. Make sure you give more to the club than you take.

So this new client is very organized. He has a desktop and laptop. The desktop is a general purpose machine for the family and visitors. The laptop is single-user and almost exclusively used for managing finances. We sat at his desk and ran through his list of questions. It was a pleasure to work with someone who had the basic ideas down and who wanted to learn more. It was such a pleasure that I almost forgot to perform the most rudimentary security checks on his systems. Checking for prior infections is my standard practice when meeting a new system for the first time.

With some quick surfing, I suspected his browser was compromised, so in spite of being at the end of our agreed upon session, I inspected his anti-virus software protection and noted that it was an expired commercial package that probably came with the computer. So I downloaded and installed Malwarebytes on both of his computers and ran quick scans. We chatted about various computer-related things while Malwarebytes did its thing, and we watched the red warnings pop up on the desktop as Malwarebytes found threats one after another. When the quick scan was complete, it had found over 300 threats, most of them relatively harmless adware, but a good sprinkling of them were harmful Trojans. We talked about that for a bit.

The laptop had a single threat indicated: some adware.

So I set up the desktop to do a complete scan and showed my client what do to when it finished after I left. We scheduled another meeting to install MSE and continue the tutoring.

The bottom line is that my client ended up spending more money than he had planned, but being happy that he did. His questions were answered, and he actually did the activities that he wanted to do rather than watching me demonstrate. My style of teaching is to say, “I know how to do it. You operate the computer, and I will simply oversee.” Some clients do not like this at first because they are self-conscious about making mistakes. They want to watch me operate the computer. I tell them that computer literacy is a lot like learning to play the piano; I can tell you where all the keys are, but you must practice.

As a bonus, he learned a bit about how malware works and bought into my standard speech that regardless of the anti-virus software, he is the first line of defense.

One does not get rich on a business where the income is proportional to the time spent by one person (unless maybe if one is Picasso!). However, the rewards can be in meeting new people, helping people, and making a bit of money here and there. If I wanted to be more formal and make more money, I would rent a small office and set up a “real” business. There would be tradeoffs. I like it the way it is. That does not relieve me of the necessity of minding the marketing channels. You can be the best tutor or technician in the world, and if no one knows it, you will get no clients.

And some clients can be delightful to work with.

New Clients Can Be Great – How Do We Find Them?

New Clients Can Be Great - How Do We Find Them?A new client called me last week to schedule a tutoring session. Two things were unusual about this. First is that the client did not report anything wrong with his computer; he just wanted to learn how to do some things, and he even had a list! Since most people who call me want service first and tutoring second, if at all, and many of them are too disorganized to make a squawk list, this was a gratifying phone call.

The second thing that was unusual was that the new client was a man. Most of my senior tutoring clients are women, sometimes with their husbands sitting in to pick up hints on how to fix things.

People like me who repair computers and tutor must consider marketing channels if the activity is to be anything other than a hobby with occasional small income. In my case, I offer free lectures through various senior centers, and I teach occasional courses through OASIS, a nationwide school system aimed at continuing education of seniors. I will present three short courses in June (see Class Description). This gives me exposure both to attendees and the multiplying factor of word of mouth advertising. My out-of-pocket expense is zero or negative (negative cost since I get paid to teach and occasionally gets tips for my free lectures — leaving an open jar next to a signup sheet works wonders).

In addition to those marketing activities, I also write an occasional newsletter for anyone who has ever used my services. This newsletter is also sent (thank you, Alan) to members of at least one PC users club. My newsletter has also been quoted in a PC column in a local newspaper because the author of the column also gets a copy. That single quote brought several responses.

Strangely, although this series of LockerGnome posts has generated several conversations with local users, I cannot identify any clients who first heard about me through the Internet. The vast majority of clients have been word of mouth.

Attending PC user clubs is fun, interesting, and another way of getting your name out to potentially interested clients. I am not aggressive in that type of marketing, and being too forward in pitching yourself will be a turn off for the other members. The benefit of clubs is primarily to associate with people who share your interests and exchange useful information. Any extra benefits are secondary. Be cool and enjoy.

So this new client is very organized. He has a desktop and laptop. The desktop is a general purpose machine for the family and visitors. The laptop is single-user and almost exclusively used for managing finances. We sat at his desk and ran through his list of questions. It was a pleasure to work with someone who had the basic ideas down and who wanted to learn more. It was such a pleasure that I almost forgot to perform the most rudimentary security checks on his systems. Checking for prior infections is my standard practice when meeting a new system for the first time.

With some quick surfing, I suspected his browser was compromised, so in spite of being at the end of our agreed upon session, I inspected his anti-virus software protection and noted that it was an expired commercial package that probably came with the computer. So I downloaded and installed Malwarebytes on both of his computers and ran quick scans. We chatted about various computer-related things while Malwarebytes did its thing, and we watched the red warnings pop up on the desktop as Malwarebytes found more threats. When the quick scan was complete, it had found over 300 threats, most of them relatively harmless adware, but a good sprinkling of them were harmful Trojans. We talked about that for a bit.

The laptop had a single threat indicated — some adware.

So I set up the desktop to do a complete scan and showed my client what do to when it finished after I left. We scheduled another meeting to install MSE and continue the tutoring.

The bottom line is that my client ended up spending more money than he had planned, but being happy that he did. His questions were answered, and he actually did the activities that he wanted to do since my style of teaching is to say, “I know how to do it. You operate the computer, and I will simply oversee.” Some clients do not like this at first because they are self-conscious about making mistakes. I tell them that computer literacy is a lot like learning to play the piano — I can tell you where all the keys are, but you must practice.

As a bonus, he learned a bit about malware works and bought into my standard speech that regardless of the anti-virus software, he is the first line of defense.

One does not get rich on a business where the income is proportional to the time spent by one person (unless, maybe if one is Picasso!). However, the rewards can be in meeting new people, helping people, and making a bit of money here and there. If I wanted to be more formal and make more money, I would rent a small office and set up a “real” business. There would be tradeoffs. I like it the way it is.

More on Free Office Suites: Office on a Stick

More on Free Office Suites: Office on a StickMore on free Microsoft Office suite alteratives and their ramifications: Since my last post on the availability of free office suites, with emphasis on LibreOffice, I have received many comments. Several people mentioned the questionable start of Kingsoft. I was not aware of this, but apparently the original version of its free package expired after a year — without a previous warning! Of course, if the user paid for it, the company would re-activate the “free” package. That ploy seems to have ticked a lot of people off. I believe that, at this time, the free version is indeed free, but the scandal left a bad taste with many users.

One aspect of free office suites that I had overlooked in the last post is the possibility of using them without a dedicated host computer. Ob55555555 [sic] pointed out that OpenOffice can be loaded on a USB stick for portable application. I have not done that, or even looked into how to do it, but I do have Ubuntu on a stick complete with LibreOffice and Firefox. Sometimes popping the stick into a borrowed computer and booting to live Linux is useful both for immediate surfing the Internet and for the availability of an office suite that I am familiar with. (Live installation simply means booting to RAM from the stick without bothering the hard drive or the native OS. Most modern computers permit this. For those that do not, I carry a bootable CD of live Linux.) As a nice extra, Firefox can sync up with my bookmarks over the cloud so that surfing is just like at home. Checking email is not an issue with a Web-based mail client. What more can you ask for? And it all comes in a small flash drive.

My boot stick has a lot of empty space, so should I want to write a letter for later review or create a spreadsheet and save it, both the letter and the spreadsheet can be stored and not lost when the live session is closed. The other resources of the host computer are available with some effort, but accessing the host hard drive through Ubuntu is simple. This means that I could copy files from the host and edit them with LibreOffice and save the result of either or both the hard drive and stick. A word of warning: Before you let me or anyone else plug anything into your computer, be aware this is a security issue. A Windows logon password does not prevent my live Linux from accessing personal data. In fact, the stick has an application that will tell me the Windows passwords.

Violating security is potentially a bad thing since I could, given a few minutes alone with a computer, copy a lot of personal data on my USB stick and log off before anyone knew. But on the other hand, I have successfully recovered data from a client’s non-booting system this way before digging in to see what the problem was. Getting in and grabbing data before mucking about can save things that otherwise might be lost in the process of trying to fix the computer. Before hard drives completely fail, they sometimes signal their impending demise by suffering a few bad sectors. With a quick response, sometimes data can be salvaged before total failure.

Carrying this process a step further, why bother carrying a laptop or tablet with you when all you need for most things is a simple USB stick? Almost anywhere you go there will be a potential host for your live system. Staying at a motel? Log on to the communal computer and you will not leave a trail behind you on the hard drive. You might have to talk to management to make it happen, but that can be part of the adventure. What is life without a few puzzles? Finding a suitable host at other places such as airports can be a problem, but still, this is an interesting alternate lifestyle — no laptop.

I have not tried to make a live version of Microsoft Office or any other paid-for and protected software applications. It probably can be done with some effort and maybe by violating the user agreement. If so, that is another reason to become familiar with any of the free alternatives.

Finally, why do we think everyone needs a complete suite? If all you want is word processing, why buy or download a complete suite with components you are not planning to use? Having the equivalent of Microsoft Access will not do any good for the average user. LibreOffice comes with a great facility for writing mathematical expressions. I like it, but what fraction of the intended users need it? I think the answer is that people — power users and beginners, alike — want a simple decision. Download the suite. That is simple. By downloading the whole thing, they are assured of at least getting what they want. The alternative is to present users with a menu that will likely confuse and turn off a significant number. Hard drive space is essentially free, so why not simply include all applications with each package — even when that means a majority of functionality across all downloads will not be used?

So experiment and find the suite you like. Then I’ll bet you can find a spate of free tutorial videos for it. As a tutor, I suppose the availability of free tutorials should distress me, but I love it and am glad to share links with my clients. And it works both ways. Sometimes clients will send me links that I did not know about. The world has changed since I first tried to wade through an early manual for GIMP. Free things do not always mean cloudy documentation.

What Free Office Suite is Best? Why?

Which Free Office Suite is Best? Why?This week I gave two related presentations, and already one of them might be outdated. The first presentation was on LibreOffice for a general audience of seniors. The second was on applications available for easy download on Linux presented at a PC users club. LibreOffice also played a part in that. Both audiences were composed of seniors who were interested in learning more about computers. Both presentations were well-received.

At the LibreOffice presentation, I mentioned that it is not the only free alternative to Microsoft Office by a long shot. There are at least five or six others, most of which I had tried. Then I gave the usual demonstrations of word processing and spreadsheets and demonstrated compatibility with Microsoft. Then we had an open Q and A period. One of the questions asked about LibreOffice was the history of how it came to be and how it compares with the alternatives. We discussed the difference between open source software and other types of free applications. Although I have tried most of them, there was a glaring exception. I knew about Kingsoft, and had read reviews of it, but had not downloaded and tried it. Kingsoft comes in two varieties: free and premium. For what it is worth, Kingsoft comes from China.

After the presentations, I decided to download and install the latest version of Kingsoft. It is really good! This causes me some heartburn and moral dilemma. Kingsoft is not from the open source community. It is from a Chinese company that would dearly love to have you expand beyond its free download version to its premium version — which is still much less expensive than the equivalent Microsoft product. This is not even close to the sense of community one gets using LibreOffice.

All this brings out is the old analogy that “free” can mean free as in “free beer” or free as in “free speech.” Both OpenOffice and LibreOffice are free in the first sense, but LibreOffice seems to be freer in the second sense, which contributed to their bifurcation. In the case of Kingsoft, there is no question about being free in the second sense. So how important is it that an application does what is it supposed to do and does it with compatibility? Does that parameter trump all other considerations?

Maybe a good comparison is the difference between regular and organic food. A nutritionist might find no difference between an inexpensive tomato and one that is certified organic. Maybe in a blindfold test you might not be able to tell the difference in taste. So why should you pay for organic? Maybe you do not believe the nutritionist. But I suspect that the majority of people who spend the extra money for organic products do it for essentially irrational, unsupported feelings. Organic sounds better, and I feel better when I buy it — so there!

In the same way, I might be unable to make a completely rational decision about which free office suite is best because the offerings range from highly organized corporate to loosely organized open source. The motives driving the developers range from pure money-making to something that is difficult to describe and not sound like I spend evenings around the campfire singing “Kumbaya.”

To work out of this mental dilemma, perhaps we should back up and try to define the scale upon which we measure the value of freely available suites. Because Microsoft is the elephant in the room, one measure is how compatible the components are with Microsoft products. The inability to import or export to Office is a strong negative.

Another value is related since it also involves Microsoft. How easy is it to learn a new application if one has a passing knowledge of Office?

Do candidate suites have a full offering of all major components and functions? The free version of Kingsoft does not seem to offer macros. Is it worthwhile to upgrade? AbiWord is a nice word processor, but it is not part of a complete office suite. The list could go on to examine Lotus Symphony, OpenOffice, LibreOffice, and the various cloud alternatives (such as Google Docs). When we make the rational comparisons, I suspect that one or two might be eliminated, but the remainders are not significantly different from each other. Therefore, the ultimate choice takes us back to the moral one of whether or not we want to support a particular organization.

If the organization does not make a difference to you, then you are like the person who buys good (i.e., nutritious) food that might or might not be organic.

Finally, there is the issue of what your friends are using, and that consideration can trump every other parameter. If people in your community use LibreOffice, you will probably use it and benefit from mutual exchange of tips and shortcuts. If the people around you are not adventurous and unwilling to learn new things, they are likely going to stick with Microsoft and not even acknowledge that there are worthy alternatives.

My experience dealing with many seniors is that most of them are surprised that there is more than one game in town. Then they are doubly surprised to learn that some of the other games are free. Most of them are turned off by the concept of a free office. If it is free, they reason, it must be second-rate. This attitude amazes me since all of them use a free search engine and free email clients.

At this time, I know one person who uses Kingsoft primarily, and a handful of seniors who use either OpenOffice or LibreOffice. But the largest fraction of the seniors I know bought various versions of Microsoft Office. Some of them, who are on limited budgets, bought it after I recommended they try a free alternative. Go figure. But then I still prefer LibreOffice to Kingsoft and have difficulty defending that. Go figure.

Serial Number Annoyances: To Read This Post, Enter Your 32-Character Access Code

Serial Number AnnoyancesLast weekend I went to Fry’s twice to buy things featured in its anniversary sale. This means that I bought a few things I do not need simply because they were free after rebates. Two of the things I bought were software packages. Both were impulse buys — unnecessary, but potentially useful.

One of the software applications was Nero 11, which updates my older version. I do not know if the improvements are worth making a change, but, hey, it is free — well, almost. I had to fill out two rebate forms and show proof of previous ownership, but that was not bad for a major upgrade. My main gripe started when I put the disc into my computer to start the installation. To install this update, I needed to enter a 32-character serial number, which was printed in sans-serif letters on the back of the sleeve. This number is composed of a mixture of numerals and upper case letters. That means this single number could take on 36 raised to the 32nd power different values. This is about 6.3 times 10 raised to the 49th power. That would be about 10 to the 40th individual values for every human on Earth. What purpose can be served by such overkill? We do not even have convenient words to describe such a huge number. You can only pile so many quadrillions on top of each other before it looks really silly. I understand the need for security and that the serial number is actually a code to prevent copying, but why burden us customers with your problem?

The second application I purchased, TuneUp Utilities 2012, was simply to see what it does and because it was free on rebates. Sometimes my clients ask me about such applications, and I do not like to seem unaware. It is a good idea to try them out so I can give meaningful recommendations. This package only needed one rebate, but I was surprised and dismayed when I installed it to discover that this application beat out Nero by a large margin. Its serial number is 36 characters long — also numerals and upper case letters! This means that there are about 1.7 million TuneUp Utilities serial numbers for every Nero serial number! Why is that? Is there some kind of pecking order in application annoyances? “My serial number is longer than yours…”

There are so many ways that providers can protect themselves against piracy that one has to wonder why they put the burden on honest consumers. And why do we put up with it? Are we sheep? For instance, there are several numbers associated with my computer that can be accessed by the software to verify a valid installation. A reasonably short serial number could be compared with onboard numbers to determine legitimacy. Without working at it too hard, I can even think of methods a manufacturer could use that would provide some level of security without manually entering any serial number. This is not done, so I must be wrong.

Yes, this rant must be based on mistaken thoughts because we all know that even Microsoft requires input of a serial number that also is astronomical in its capabilities. And again, I recognize that the serial number does more than simply count, which is why Microsoft does not call it a serial number, but that does nothing to change the fact that providers of proprietary software think it is perfectly appropriate for customers to be burdened with manual entry of random strings of numbers. Some offenders even close an installation if the entry has an error, forcing a complete start over.

In a competitive world, one would think that software installation processes would have evolved toward more user-friendly methods, but has that happened? Yes, in part it has. The actual mechanics of installing has certainly become less painful and easier than in years past. But we still have the onus of entering large arrays of meaningless alphanumeric strings to get the rewards.

Surely there are other solutions. Here is a suggestion. Print a 2D barcode on the sleeve next to the serial number. Then, if the installing computer has a webcam, it can simply grab an image of it. That would perform the same function as entering an alphanumeric string. For those who do not have webcams, the option of manually entering characters still is available. I have not seen barcodes used in this way, so maybe there is something wrong with my thoughts. As I said before, I am often wrong in suggesting fixes for problems, but — and this is important — just because I am wrong in suggesting a solution, I am not necessarily wrong in identifying the problem. And I am being kind in even suggesting alternative solutions. Simply pointing out the problem should be sufficient. (I am reminded of early motorcycles that were poorly designed because the users did not complain and early sewing machines, which quickly evolved to high reliability because the users would not tolerate failures. Honda changed that, but if early motorcyclists had complained more, we would have had better motorcycles sooner.)

The process of entering a code to enable using a software package amounts to a shared activity between the vendor and a customer to prevent piracy. What is the reasonable sharing of responsibility to fight illegal copying? Am I wrong to fret about being forced to manually enter long strings of random characters exactly so that I can use software I purchased?

None of these issues would exist if the cost of copying software (or music or movies) was significant. To some extent, I am complaining about a lag between the technology of copying and the technology of protection given a for-profit system. What do you think?

CC licensed Flickr photo by lrargerich

Compromised Contacts Can Cause Confusion

Compromised Contacts Can Cause ConfusionIt has happened again. Things seem to go in waves, and right now people who I know seem to be involved with a wave of compromised contacts in their email accounts. Last week, my wife received an obviously bogus email from a friend. She returned a quick warning, but I suspect her friend had already discovered the problem because another email came through with an apology to everyone who had received the bad letter. We do not know if anyone on the contact list had the misfortune to actually open the contaminated mail.

Then at a computer club this week, two members reported their contacts had also been compromised. This provoked a conversation about (1) what to do next, and (2) how to protect oneself from future problems.

Before discussing what to do next, we need to understand one common thread linking these three events. All were using Web-based mail clients. I do not claim to be an expert on email security, but I prefer to use a local mail client. Yes, I will even admit to being a fan of Outlook — after all, it does play nicely with my BlackBerry. (Now I have probably made two sets of people angry. Oh, well, you have to call them as you see them.)

The consensus of the group was to shut down the compromised account and open a new one. Various suggestions were made about how to safely import the old contact list without bringing a problem along. These included exporting the contacts to their home computer as a CSV file and then scanning it before re-importing it to the new account. Exporting contacts is an iffy thing. Some providers make it difficult as a way to keep customers — at least that is what I believe; there does not seem to be any other rational reason. I suggested that a local scan with the PC running in safe mode and no Internet access would be a good thing to do before opening a new account or doing anything. MSE or Malwarebytes are my applications of choice.

About this time, one of the members said that he heard of a way to protect contacts by making a bogus entry, [email protected]. When an intruder tries to send an email to that address, it will fail, and since that is the first one in alphabetical order, the process stops. Sadly, that is not true. There might have been a bit of truth in that scheme years ago, but intrusion techniques now are quite sophisticated. In fact, I was surprised that legend still circulates. There is even a rebuttal on Snopes. If anyone knows of a way of thwarting intrusions via bogus entries, please share.

This is not the same thing, but I do recommend creating a bogus person in your contacts with your own address. Then set up your mail client to show who mail is being sent to (usually just you). If the bogus person ever gets a letter, you know after the fact that you have been compromised. This does not protect you, but it could kick-start to a recovery process. At least it does not cost anything. Another test is to go to dcwg.org and follow instructions.

The bigger question is how to prevent future compromise. Since the history of how these three accounts were successfully attacked is not available, we have to fall back on standard techniques. After all, the reason they are standard is that they work. I never open a forwarded letter unless I confirm with the sender that it is legitimate. Closing the preview window is a good idea.

By all means, complain quickly and loudly to anyone who sends a mass mailing without using BCC. This is not only for your own protection, but for all those other potential victims as well. I used to be overly polite is pointing out this breach of etiquette and common sense, but now I couldn’t care less for the feelings of the offender. I am still polite, at least as polite as I need to be to attempt to bring about a change in dangerous behavior. Graphic descriptions of the horrors that could be visited upon the innocent recipients usually have a beneficial effect.

We could go through a litany of good techniques, but it all boils down to one thing: You are your own best defense. Even if there were a magic app that would promise total security, it might be valid for today and could fail tomorrow. You would be worse off for having been lulled into a false sense of security. The people who write the malware are at least as smart as those who write the protections, and the ones who write really successful malware can make a lot of money quickly. That is incentive.

There is another reason to avoid blind dependence on software protection. It is what I call the GPS effect. Since we have GPS in our cars, I have slipped over the years into the habit of punching in addresses even when I know where to go. It is convenient. But as a result, my ability to navigate by dead reckoning has decreased greatly. The same thing happens if you become complacent over Internet and email security because you trust your protective software. You might relax and click a button you should not have gone near, or you might open an obviously bogus letter.

So why do these things seem to go in waves? Is it just a random fluctuation that looks like a wave? It could be due to a new and improved intrusion tool being proliferated. Not only am I not an expert on these things, but I really do not want to become one. Like everyone else, I just want to avoid getting infections of various types with as little effort and compromise on my end as possible. That is probably too much to ask.

How Should You Archive Data?

How Should You Archive Data?At a recent computer club meeting, someone asked, “What is the best way to save personal data?” The question was not about backing up data, but was about archiving valuable data sets for long times — at least tens of years. This provoked a discussion of the physical lifetime of writable CDs and DVDs. If the goal is to archive data to last for an indefinitely long time, then normal CDs and DVDs will fall short since both will develop problems over a period of years unless one spends some big bucks on special archival discs.

However, physical lifetime was not what interested me. If one wishes to archive as opposed to simply saving, then consider the fact that I have in my possession images of my family that have been stored for over 100 years and are easily accessible by anyone who is interested. Simply look at the photos that my great-grandparents took on early Kodaks or even earlier tintypes. On the other hand, I also have some Apple ][ floppy disks that someone, somewhere, might be able to read, but I cannot, and I have a roomful of computers. Some of them contain pictures.

Floppy disks of all sizes had a good, but short, run. CDs are still around, but fading quickly. The re-writable ones flowered briefly. How long do you think DVDs will last as a product? Does anyone use re-writable DVDs?

I have a CD/DVD holder that has storage space for 120 discs. At one time, it was nearly full. I had an array of CDs from Corel with images and a collection of art from various museums, amongst other things. Finding clip art is now easier and quicker by searching on the Internet. Many museums have excellent online sites with guided tours and discussions. Even my four-CD set of recordings of bird calls is largely neglected simply because it is easier and more informative to look online. For instance, suppose you wanted to know the call of the yellow-bellied sapsucker. You could sort through the CD holder, find the right disc, and load it, or you could Google on “bird calls yellow-bellied sapsucker” and get this bird video on YouTube. Not only do you hear the bird, but you see a short video of it doing its thing. As good as either my Audubon or Peterson field books are, they cannot compete with a video. The written attempts to characterize bird calls are crude at best. So what use is my huge CD holder?

The rub comes when we consider that my Peterson book is more than 50 years old and is still relevant. 50 years from now, I doubt anyone will be able to access that YouTube video of a yellow-bellied sapsucker. Whatever data sources are available then will likely be better, and maybe operate in an enhanced reality format. Maybe we will also be enhanced — those of us who are still around.

How should you archive photos and videos? Photographs and motion picture film certainly can survive many years (although finding a projector might be a problem similar to attempting to read Apple ][ disks). But if your precious memories are digitized and stored on a hard drive, you had better have copies on other media in other places also. That will protect you from loss by disaster, but it will not protect you from loss by obsolescence.

Good money can be made digitizing images, converting VHS and 8 mm film to MP3, and updating LP collections to the digital age. But the process never stops. The very reason we need to convert VHS is that it had a finite logical lifetime regardless of how long the physical tape could be stored. By the same reasoning, the DVD that you put the VHS onto will also become obsolete and require another conversion to whatever comes next. In fact, I have several videos on a flash drive, and I prefer it to getting out DVDs and dealing with the jewel cases, which always seem to have a shorter physical lifespan than the disc itself.

What is the best way to store data? My wife’s mother emigrated from Ohio to California in 1920 with a carload of young friends. She kept a personal diary of the trip, which we transcribed and made into a modern book complete with the black and white pictures she took. So now the personal data exists in the original, easily accessed, notebook and several transcribed and bound copies distributed to family members. But it also exists in digital form on the computer, which I am currently using to write the piece. Which is the best storage method? The answer is obvious: it depends. I can search the digital form for key words easily, but a handwriting expert could obtain information from the original that I am oblivious to when reading a digital version.

If you think these storage considerations are difficult, think of the task scientists have to come up with when designing a way to keep radioactive waste from being a hazard. Even engraved concrete erodes over such a long time. Keeping data safe for an equally long period of time has its own set of seemingly impossible hurdles to bound.

Most of us would be comfortable with archival storage that is secure for at least a human lifetime or two. Beyond that, it is not our problem. Other than printing with real ink on acid-free paper or photographing on silver-based film, I do not think any of the current methods meet that standard. (Inkjet dyes fade rather quickly; sublimated dyes last longer. Neither is as good as old-fashioned ink.)

For less important things, keeping multiple copies of data on separate devices is good. I use normal hard drive backup augmented with ad hoc storing on a flash drive and the cloud. Occasionally I still burn a CD or DVD, particularly for restoring systems, but even that function can be replaced with a USB drive on most computers.

So what is the best way to store or archive data? Well, it depends…

Awareness Counts in Tutoring

Awareness Counts in TutoringWhen attempting to tutor seniors in computer literacy, one is well advised to first assess the client’s awareness. By awareness, I mean a general tendency to look at the environment and to see what is there. We are all creatures of habit who work with observed patterns to reduce our mental workload. For instance, every day I call my dog and say, “Let’s go check the mail.” He bounces around and happily walks with me to our communal mailbox. Of course he has no idea of what mail is or why one should check it. His knowledge of English is limited, but he does recognize the pattern of sounds in “Let’s go check the mail,” and he associates it with a short walk and sniffing exercise. People are the same way.

Many times I have watched new clients do simple tasks in their normal way without my help. I do this to try to understand their current level of expertise and awareness. Often they will have a pattern of clicks and mouse moves that gets a job done, but if I interrupt the flow of their clicks, they can get lost and need to start over. At that point if I suggest they consider the functions invoked by clicking, they might look puzzled. “Use left click for actions; right click for options,” I will tell them and show how right clicking usually opens a drop-down window with various options on it. Obviously left-clicking on a highlighted option activates the function. This is so natural to me that I truly cannot remember learning it, but most likely I picked it up from experimenting. That is, no one told me; I just played around and found a pattern that explained the functions of various clicks.

In contrast, many self-taught seniors will play minimally and instead of finding functional patterns that can be used in many tasks, they will find a limited pattern that is often a rote series of keystrokes that produces a desired outcome such a reading an email. This difference in behavior comes about in part because of the different payoffs afforded by finding patterns. I enjoy figuring out some clever pattern in nature or computers simply for the joy of reducing the things I need to remember. Spotting a pattern means you can use it to predict things without remembering all possible combinations. But many clients do not share that joy. They approach a computer or any other physical obstacle with the intent of minimizing the distasteful work they must do to get a specific task done — like checking the email. Their series of keystrokes is the equivalent of my dog responding to “Let’s go check the mail.”

This is not a putdown on the clients. They have found a way to get what they want without too much hassle. The way they have found is extremely limiting, and some of them realize that. The ones who realize their limitations might sign up for classes or hire a tutor. Some will aggressively start a program of self-education. But many of the struggling users will probably lose interest not because they lack the smarts to advance beyond checking email, but because they do not have the more powerful patterns in mind. They are limited by having found a path that works to get them where they want to be before they had an idea of the whole map.

Knowing this can help a tutor prepare an appropriate lesson, but care must be taken to work from ideas known to the client and add things to it. A common mistake is for the tutor, who does see the whole map, to attempt to jump over the intermediate steps and give a client powerful tools without simultaneously providing a logical bridge from the known to the novel. This is tempting because the tutor knows that if only clients could understand the reason some software was constructed the way it is, they would be better able to use it.

To this day I fall into that trap when lecturing about Excel. For a novice who only has a partial grasp on what spreadsheets are all about, discussing advanced formulas and special things like pivot tables can be a real negative. Failing to introduce the powers available by building on existing knowledge can convince a client that spreadsheets are just too complicated to learn. This does a real disservice to students.

The challenges presented in helping students to overcome their initial patterns of usage are why I prefer individual tutoring lecturing for a large class. I prefer the one on one exchange, and my students often teach me new things.

Economically, tutoring does not make as much sense as teaching a class. Even though the teaching is more efficient when there is a close relationship between student and teacher, the mass efficiency of teaching a large class with lower individual efficiency is why universities have large lecture halls. Of course we can also argue that those lecture halls are now obsolete since educational material can be delivered even more efficiently via online classes. But from the instructor’s point of view, the psychological rewards of watching an individual go from novice to competent user under direct tutoring can be greater than the psychological rewards of taping a lecture for unseen online students. At least that is true for me. This does not address the greater financial rewards for lecturing to mass markets.

As I help senior become more aware, particularly aware of how computers operate, I become more aware myself. Maybe that is part of the charm of tutoring.

To Charge or Not to Charge? A Moral Dilemma Averted

To Charge or Not to Charge? A Moral Dilemma Averted width=This week I barely escaped being forced to make one of those moral decisions that leave you feeling bad no matter which way you go.

It started with a call from a couple of elderly clients who have used my services several times over a period of years. They are not power users by any means. Their computer is primarily an email facility and occasional vehicle for surfing the Internet.

“Can you help me? Our computer went dark and will not do anything, so we bought a new laptop — well, actually my nephew ordered it for us from Dell. We tried to set it up, but it wants the Internet for the setup, and we cannot seem to access the Internet from the new computer. Also, the box has no lights.”

“Which box? Do you mean the DSL modem?”

“The one the phone company put in so that I can get on the Internet. It used to have lights, but now it doesn’t. The printer is acting funny also. It has a blue light where it never did before.”

So I prepared for a house call with three objectives: (1) determine what is wrong with the desktop (“went dark” is not very helpful), (2) investigate the issue with Internet access, and (3) configure the laptop and add a wireless router. We would see about the printer after considering the first three items. The fact that I had three objectives is important for avoiding the no-win moral dilemma.

Immediately upon entering the office area in their home, I asked the owners if the desktop had failed while they were using it. “No, we turned it off as usual, and we were away for a few days. When we got back, we turned it on and it made some noises, but the screen stayed black.”

It took a few seconds to find and press the power on button for the monitor. The screen lit up with a plaintiff message from the computer saying it was ready to go to work. Nothing else was wrong.

On to the Internet: an even quicker inspection determined that not only was there no power supply plugged into the back, there were no extra unused ones in the general mess. While rummaging around, I did note that the all-in-one printer combination was wireless and Bluetooth enabled. The Bluetooth light was on.

“Do you have any idea what might have happened to the modem power supply?” I asked.

“You mean the black thing? We took it and the box to the office because we thought it was not working right. They said it was okay.”

The best scenario I could come up with was that they had left the power supply sitting on a tech’s counter.

At this point, if they had not purchased a laptop and wanted me to set up it and a wireless router for them, I would have had to decide what to bill them for turning on a monitor and noting they were missing a power supply. These are repeat customers who have referred me to their friends with rave reviews. I did not want to rip them off, but I had made a house call and actually done something for them. If that were the end of the story, I would likely have joked a bit, suggested they purchase a new power supply, and walked out without charging them anything. But at the back of my mind would be the observation that they could spend an extra $800 on a laptop before thinking to call me, so a minimum service charge would not be a strain on their budget, and besides, I was entitled to something for driving out there. Like I said, it would have been a no-win choice. Such things are just part of the cost of doing business if you want to provide a service and keep your clients happy and coming back.

Fortunately they had the laptop. I took it, the router I bought for them, and their modem back to my office where I proceeded to sit it up the way I knew they would want, including piggy-backing the new router on my LAN so I could set up the security for them. After that was done, I swung by the AT&T office to get a new supply for their modem. (By the way, this visit followed the most unsatisfactory telephone experience I believe I have ever had. I called the local number to confirm the store had a power supply in stock and wasted twenty minutes working through the worst menu I have ever experienced. Even repeatedly punching zero only got me hung up. Finally I did get a human who was in the business office is some other city and said she would put me through to the right person. There was a click and eventual open line. I decided to just drive there and risk it. The irony is that this was the telephone service provider!)

Without much trouble, we got the new system going and then had to explain why they were able to look at the same email on either computer. That took a while.

The printer had problems. We all agreed on that. I suggested that I could work on it, but it would cost more than it was worth. They agreed and decided to get a new one and donate the old printer to whoever wanted it. Problem solved.

My invoice was written up to include my time, the parts, and two house calls. It was still less expensive than many alternatives they could have pursued. I felt good. They felt good. I even installed MSE on their desktop for them and did a scan, which luckily came up clean — one never knows in these cases.

I would have not charged them for powering on the monitor and noting a missing power supply, and I would have felt better about walking away than if I had charged them for a house call, but…

Who’s to Blame when Scamming is So Easy?

Who's to Blame when Scamming is So Easy?I am really getting tired of trying to protect the senior PC users around me. At club meetings I extol the virtues of being alert and looking out for scams, but to what effect? I write a newsletter for my clients and friends which, in nearly every issue, features a horror story about malware infections or other scams and prescriptions about how to avoid having the same problem, but to what effect? Should I stand on the corner and scream? This week a very nice, but innocent, lady PC-user disclosed to the club in the open session that a foreign-sounding man called her on the telephone during the week to report that he was from Microsoft and they were getting error messages from her computer. She needed to fix the problem immediately.

We can guess what your response would be to this call. You would probably hang up or give the caller an earful. You might try to get some information to report to the authorities. She did none of those things. Being nice, but innocent, she followed his instructions and went to her computer where she entered the commands as he said to do, and eventually he reported that she had serious problems and it would cost $99 to fix them. In the meanwhile, she confirmed that nothing worked now that he had completed his analysis. He told her that he could fix everything remotely, and all she needed to do was to give him her credit card information, which she did. She gave him credit card information!

By the time she came to the club meeting, she had realized that she was the victim of a scam, but, and this truly astounds me, she asked us what she should do now. This implies that she did not take immediate action to stop further losses. The room rang with encouragements to immediately call her credit card company and then to report the scam to the authorities. After that initial outburst following her disclosure, a heated discussion ensued as other club members argued about of exactly who to report the scam to. I did not participate in any of this because I was too busy shaking my head in disbelief. When scamming people is so easy, can we really blame the bad guys for taking advantage? I cannot imagine making my career as a leech scamming off the innocent, trusting, population, but I am not everyone. Obviously a subset of humanity seems to be doing okay living off ill-gotten gains. Do they sleep easily?

Someone in the meeting quoted me as saying that neither Microsoft nor your bank calls you and asks for personal information. I have said things like that, but to what effect?

For comic relief, a friend of mine who prefers Linux for almost everything reported that his wife also received such a scam call during the same week. She turned the phone over to him, and he listened politely to the scammer’s pitch. He even asked some questions to play along. Then they got to the place where he was supposed to enter something in his machine, and he said that he could not open Windows because he used Linux. He did not have a Windows computer. This apparently did not stop the caller immediately. He tried again to get my friend to boot Windows. “I don’t have any Windows computers,” he said, “I only use Linux.” This finally got through, and surprisingly, the caller was polite, wished him a nice day, and hung up. The caller never did explain how Microsoft was receiving error messages from that household when there was no Windows machine in it. Maybe its error-detecting system needs some work.

At this juncture, someone pointed out that we now had the scam caller’s telephone number and could call back and generally play games with them. Again, I did not participate, but cooler heads suggested several reasons why that would not work.

Once again we learn that the first line of defense is you — not anti-virus software, and not the authorities. You have to be responsible for your own safety. It does not take rocket science to decide if a stranger asking for personal information is probably a scammer.

Scams seem to work best on one of two principles: (1) go for the naïve, innocent victims (as this woman happened to be), or (2) play off the greed and false sense of superiority that a potential victim has. The second scam works by presenting a scenario where the victim can score on some money by doing something quasi-legal that looks reasonably safe.

Actually I might have to terminate this piece prematurely; my email just notified me that a rewards account in someone’s name which is similar to mine has been updated with a $20 savings! The site does not look familiar, but maybe I can score on that $20 which seems to be floating around freely. I will be right back after I check th…

Palsy, Aging, and Implants

Palsy, Aging, and ImplantsA recent post on LockerGnome dealt sensitively with the issues a person suffering from palsy has, particularly in using computers from the perspective of a person who has the affliction. I resonate with his predicament because most of my clients are seniors with some type of physical limitation. Not everyone will suffer from palsy, but all of us who live long enough will be compromised by various features of aging. In particular, all of us will suffer from varying degrees of arthritis and decreased ability to see or hear things.

If you are ever bothered by wrist fatigue when working at a computer, think what it would be like if you had to strain to close your fingers enough to hold a mouse securely because your arthritis limits finger motion, and it hurts. Imagine your frustration if, in attempting to click on an icon, your cursor moved every time and caused you to miss opening the application you want. You can see it, but clicking is difficult.

Readers who are too young to need bifocal glasses do not share the frustration of being forced to constantly tip their head up and down to bring the monitor into focus and then shift to the keyboard or reading material. Even worse is the difficulty of reading what is on a monitor if you have macular degeneration, which is also an aspect of aging. I find that variable focal length lens suitable for activities like driving, eating, and generally hanging out are not the best for working at my desk. Like many seniors, I have separate reading glasses, but because of the nuisance of changing them, most often simply put up with the head tipping routine to get the focus I need. People with advanced macular degeneration do not have that option. They can only see with peripheral vision. Glasses cannot correct that.

These are not hypothetical examples. They are where we are all heading — those of us who are lucky enough to live long enough to experience these problems.

Over the years I have developed suggestions for elderly people who have trouble with using a mouse. These include such things as dragging their little finger and thumb on the mouse pad to give stability and anchor the mouse. Sometimes these types of adjustments work fine. A better solution is to use a different technology for input. Some use a roller ball. Other clients have found the touchpad to be a better input device, whether on a laptop or as an accessory for a desktop.

Because of this, I think it is no coincidence that many seniors have taken to using a pad for simple tasks such a checking email or surfing. A touchscreen is more user-friendly for people with arthritis than the classic mouse in all its variations. Yet I have never seen an advertisement that emphasized that aspect of using a pad instead of a mouse.

Another method of input that is often overlooked because of its spotty history is audio input — talking to your computer. Early experimenters worked hard to train their computers to understand a limited vocabulary from a single individual. The rewards seldom were worth the effort, but today anyone can navigate to the accessibility section of Windows and quickly enable speech recognition that works quite well. At this time, I can still type somewhat faster than dictating to my computer, but as my hand/eye coordination deteriorates, I will likely switch exclusively to dictation for writing things like this post. Stephen Hawking I am not, but speech synthesis and recognition look more interesting as they improve.

Audio input and output might not completely replace the alternatives, but neither qwerty nor a mouse with clicks will always be with us. Methods of communicating with computers are changing. Touchpads might just be a step along the way. How long will it be before we all use direct hookups of various types? Two years ago we saw a Christmas gift game where balls were levitated by users controlling brain waves. Members of our family took turns putting on a hand band and attempting to make a ball jump over obstacles. More practically, I have seen a video of a man piloting a sailboat using only thoughts to operate controls. These are certainly the first stirrings of what will likely become mainstream technology in the near future. The only question is how “near” is near? Check out the XWave. It is one of many new offerings.

Then we might consider going the next step toward science fiction: electronic implants. Already my dog has a chip embedded under his skin. While this is only for ID, it could be used for other purposes. With some mild improvements, the same technology could be used to control electronic equipment. In 2009, Intel said we would have the technology to control computers with only brain waves by 2020. By 2011, things had advanced in other directions, which indicates active experimentation. The difference between these two articles in only two years gives an idea of the rapid development of this exciting field. They are only a sampling of many fascinating advances you can find with a simple search. Which technique will win and when? I have no idea, but my dog has a chip, and most likely you will, too — but yours will be more powerful (and more expensive!).

All this is a long way from addressing the issues of aging or palsy. If the vast majority adopts electronic implants for convenience, those who suffer from less than normal physical abilities will benefit also. The difference between the physically gifted and the handicapped will probably decrease, just as the deployment of the six-gun in the old West tended to equalize the fighting ability of those who previously depended on their ability to wield a Bowie knife. An interesting question is: What will be the societal impact of these changes?

Who Makes Malware? Am I Paranoid, or Are They After Me?

Who Makes Malware? Am I Paranoid, or Are They After Me?Last week, I wrote about old Internet scams not dying. This was prompted by a couple of attempted scams on some of my clients. (I do not count attempts on my own system because I suffer several attacks every day from something or another. I sometimes deliberately let an isolated machine get infected just to test my protection. This is probably not an activity for the faint of heart.) But I was surprised at the meeting of a club I attend to learn that there seems to be an epidemic of malware attacks in progress. I have no real statistics, but after several months of no one complaining about being attacked, three members related incidents and several nodded. Fortunately only one of the infections was serious enough to provoke a factory restore.

Although we tend to become inured to the presence of bad guys trying to corrupt our systems via the Internet, I wonder sometimes if something more serious is going on here. Two weeks ago I categorized the creators of malware as either trying to steal things (money or control of your computer for nefarious purposes) or simply trying to have perverted fun by harming or harassing other people. At the risk of being dismissed as a total paranoid, could there be something else at work? Can some of these attacks have a more sinister origin?

We all know that modern warfare has a cyber-component. We hear rumors of viruses being deliberately planted in Iran’s nuclear facilities to destroy the centrifuges. All countries have teams working on both sides of the cyber-security issues. If you wanted to bring another country to its knees cheaply — much more cheaply than using various explosive objects — then bringing down its banking system by infecting it with appropriate malware would work nicely. Your only hardware cost might be a small computer and an Internet connection. Assuming you already have a team that has developed the malware, your operating expenses are minimal. Such an attack is certainly more cost-effective than conventional weapons or even suicide bombers.

A major problem with developing cyber-attack tools is how do you test them under realistic conditions? You cannot just shut down a minor country as a beta test. Besides, the first time you bring down any major system, then everyone knows it can be done, and they might even be able to figure out who did it. More important, they might have time to develop counter-measures before you can deploy a fully working attack. The situation is similar to what would happen if you stole a military tank: the first time you take it out for a ride, everyone knows. The second time you take it out, someone probably has a shoulder-mounted missile waiting with your name on it.

So what would you do if you were part of an elite development team working for a major government to develop cyber-weapons of mass destruction? How would you test them? I suggest that one way would be to unleash minor variants on individual consumers to measure their effectiveness in propagating and to see how quickly counter-measures can be found to neutralize them. This would be inexpensive testing on a global scale. In fact, you would actually be commandeering the anti-virus software providers and individual PC users to do development research for you in addition to their obvious utility as reluctant testers.

Now combine that thought with the occasional coup such as stealing credit card information or hacking into a large corporation’s private network. These things make the evening news, but we can assume that other successful attacks are not reported. The victims prefer to keep it as quiet as possible and fix the issue. That is, the events we hear about in the open press are almost certainly only a lower limit to what has actually occurred.

How about minor annoyances like Internet access slowing down for no apparent reason or even becoming intermittent? Are you completely sure your computer has not been made a zombie?

Are these worries just paranoid ranting? Maybe, but maybe not. I only mean to explore the possibility that not all of the malware attacks we suffer are due to simple greed of petty criminals or the perverse enjoyment of misanthropes striking out at innocent victims. What we see might be just the tip of a cyber-iceberg heading for our Titanic.

One problem with musings like this is that they are almost impossible to disprove. A true paranoid would argue that the lack of proof of governmental interference is evidence of a high-level cover-up. Certainly no government is going to voluntarily ‘fess up to deliberately infecting civilian computers as a test, but we know that in the past governments of all types have had no problem infecting unsuspecting citizens with actual diseases or lethal dosages of radiation “for the greater good.” We also know that all major governments have developed or tested biological weapons, and that sometimes accidents have happened. So there is reason to at least consider the possibility that some of the malware normally experienced by my senior PC user friends is not generated by private individuals or criminal gangs.

So what? How would your life be different if you knew that the Trojan intercepted by MSE was a cousin to a clandestine tool designed to compromise the entire banking system of the United States of America? Conspiracies are difficult to disprove (witness the conspiracy theories still propagated about the Kennedy assassination), but that does not mean all conspiracy theories are bogus.

Malware is a fact of life just as the threat of nuclear annihilation is a fact of life. Neither should stop us from doing or enjoying things we like. One takes precautions and presses on. Besides, we have no evidence that malware originates from government development, do we?