Random (but not really)

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Greatest Free-Market Success Story in History

The Internet is “the greatest free-market success story in history”
–Ajit Pai

Unless, of course, you live in a rural area or an area suffering from poverty and urban blight.

Consider these numbers for WV, for percent of the population with access to mobile broadband service +25mbps. (Broadband Now)

Jefferson = 95.4%
Hancock = 94.9%
Berkeley = 93.5%
Wyoming = 93.8%
Wood = 90.9%
Kanawha = 90.4%
Monongalia =89.2%

Mon county (where I live) has the flagship state university, WVU, and yet only 89.2% of the county has access to broadband. Two of those in the top three are the easternmost panhandle counties–essentially bedroom counties for the DC area. The third is the northernmost county, which is just west of Pittsburgh.

But still, that’s not too bad, right? What about the rural counties?

Pocahontas = 0%
Calhoun = 0%
Ritchie = 14.0%
Clay – 16.7%
Monroe = 17.9%
Barbour 21.4%

Two counties with zero access to broadband. None. And one of those counties (Pocohontas) is in the Radio Quiet Zone where there is also ZERO cell signal.

And even without the Radio Quiet Zone, there are a LOT of areas in WV without any cell services. (1)

And here are the 2015 poverty rates for those bottom counties.

Pocahontas County = 16.5%
Calhoun County = 17.7%
Ritchie County = 20.7%
Clay County = 28.2%
Monroe County = 16.8%
Barbour County = 21.5%

The only positive here is that those don’t happen to also be the counties with the greatest percent of the population in poverty. (3)

Remember last spring when I was talking about food deserts?

Monroe and Barbour counties are also a food deserts.(4)

Transportation is harder to quantify. For the sake of simplicity (and lack of data) I’m going to look at areas without access to a major divided highway as having transportation issues. A lot of this is subjective unfortunately, since Rt 50 west of I79 is a well-maintained divided highway, but east of I79 it’s almost all single lane with a lot of switchbacks and 7-9% grades.

So what kind of roads do these counties that lack broadband have?

Pocahontas – Route 219
Calhoun – Rt 119/33
Ritchie – Rt 50 west
Clay – I70 across northern corner
Monroe – 219
Barbour – 119/250

You can look these up yourself, but if you’re willing to take my word for it, out of that list only Ritchie county has anything approaching a decent road running through it.

So what is my point in all this?

My point is that A good deal of WV lacks broadband coverage, and there is zero financial incentive for companies to bring it in. And once they come in, they’re going to want ways to boost their revenue, and the only way to do that would be to charge the big sites for premium access.

So no, I think repealing net neutrality is NOT a good idea.

Here is all the above data in a single table, if that makes it easier to parse.

 

  Broadband Poverty Median Unemployment Roads
Pocahontas  0% 16.50% $49,801 3.10% Rt 219
Calhoun  0% 17.70% $45,519 8.80% Rts 119/33
Ritchie  14.00% 20.70% $46,394 5.30% Rt 50 (west ofI79)
Clay  16.70% 28.20% $42,030 5.60% I70 (small corner)
Monroe  17.90% 16.80% $47,975 3.80% Rt 219
Barbour   21.40% 21.50% $46,623 4.60% Rts 119/250

(1) This is one of the reasons we bought a GPS for the car years ago, because google maps doesn’t work if you don’t have cell service. (2)

(2) It’s also why I’m pretty proficient in reading paper maps. Because our GPS hates us and often recommends roads that are not recommended for cars without 4-wheel drive.

(3) The bottom five would be:
Webster County = 26.1%
Gilmer County 27%
Lincoln County 27.3%
Clay County 28.2%
McDowell County 35.5%

(4) I am designating food deserts here as areas where you have to drive 20 or more to purchase food (ie groceries). This doesn’t mean a grocery story necessarily, just a store (like a Quicky Mart, Drug Store, or Dollar Store that also sells food.)

Written by Michelle at 10:35 am      Comments (2)  Permalink
Categories: Computers & Technology,Politics  

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Pedometers: Data Comparison!

Another quick reminder of what I’ve been testing:

Accupedo
Garmin Vivofit
FitBit One
Omron HJ-323U

The Devices
The Software

Now for my FAVORITE PART! DATA!

I tracked the output of the various devices for three weeks, noting steps, kcal, and miles at various points of the day, including immediately before and after exercise or hiking.

Here’s what I found.

Steps

steps-time

As I’d found previously, the FitBit overcounts steps. Accupedo and the Omron are generally pretty close to each other, and typically had lower step counts than the VivoFit and the One.

HOWEVER.

On days when I was doing things like cleaning house or baking, the VivoFit had a much higher count than any other device. (I also threw out the Accupedo data on several of these days, because I didn’t have the phone in my pocket for several hours.)

I’m not terribly distressed that the VivoFit had a higher step count on days when I was baking or cleaning, because I’m active during those times, just not moving from one place to another.

Calories Burned

kcal-time

Not only does the FitBit overcount steps, but it also generally overcounted how many calories I burned during the day.

exercise-kcal

Here you can see that during periods of exercise, the FitBit gave me a far higher calorie burn than any other device–including the Garmin Fit, which should also have been taking elevation and pace into account. (Note that for walks, the Omron and Garmin Fit had very close calorie burns, but for hikes (where we were in steeper terrain) the Garmin Fit gave a much higher calorie burn than the Omron. I believe the Garmin Fit data should which should be fairly correct, although I know that using the heart rate monitor would make it more accurate. But I find it uncomfortable, so you don’t get that data because I am unwilling to suffer that much for data.)

Putting that together, we can see how calorie burn and steps tracked for my lunchtime walks.

steps-kcal

The step counts are all relatively close during these time periods, but the FitBit in general gave me a much greater calorie burn (I’m not sure what happened on that final Thursday–I’m guessing operator error in noting the counts.)

Yes, I do walk up and down stairs during my lunch walks, but I don’t think that’s enough to account for the FitBit calorie burn being that much higher.

Mileage

And finally, because I can’t help myself, I compared the mileage calculated by the pedometers as opposed to the distance given by the GPS for outdoor walks and hikes.

miles-vs-gps

GPS readings were from the Garmin Fit, which tracks mileage using my phone, and my Garmin Oregon GPS. I’ll note that the Oregon GPS does tend to give me a slightly shorter reading than is probably true, simply because I meander. So fractally, the distance I walk is probably longer than the distance calculated by the GPS, but not by a large amount.

Also interesting, the Vivofit seems to underestimate distance when I’m hiking and walking, as compared to other devices, but not consistently so, which could be due both to the terrain, and to how frequently I stop to take pictures when I hike.

And to be fair, hiking is quite different from walking, since one’s stride is generally not consistent.

So there you have it: The FitBit continues to overcount steps and overestimate calories burned, but the interface and community are so much nicer than any other device, it’s still my current favorite.

If you do outdoors activity, the Garmin Fit app is very nice, and I can definitely recommend it.

And if you don’t want to carry around an additional device, the Accupedo app is a very good alternative to a separate pedometer (assuming you can correctly calculate the sensitivity).

Previous Pedometer Geekiness:
2014
2013

Written by Michelle at 8:00 am      Comments (0)  Permalink
Categories: Computers & Technology,Fun & Games,Geek,Science, Health & Nature  

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

PEDOMETERS! Software, Websites, & Apps

Because everything is connected now, the screen interface between you and your data is important, so it gets an entire post.

Again, here are this year’s contenders:

Accupedo
Garmin Vivofit
FitBit One
Omron HJ-323U

The Devices

Also tested:

Sense Me
Garmin Fit

Here are the various interfaces.

Accupedo

This is a phone app, so no website.

Screenshot_2015-03-22-20-25-24

I like the Accupedo interface. It puts what I want to see right there, cleanly and clearly.

And I also like the widget, which comes in three different sizes.

Screenshot_2015-03-22-20-26-24

Note that Accupedo is the only widget on my phone. That’s because the FitBit widget comes in one size–too large–and none of the others have widgets.

FitBit

Here is the FitBit website Dashboard. It’s fine. It displays everything I want to see at a glance.

fitbit web

This is the FitBit app. Everything is there in a single glance, and the colors change the closer you get to your goal. I also like this app.

Screenshot_2015-03-22-20-26-12

Garmin Connect

Here is the Garmin Connect website, with the Vivofit panels.

vivifit web

I find this website frustrating. The panels never seem to stay where I want them–probably because I have different computers with different monitor sizes, and the panels shift around. The steps panel itself is fine–if only it would stay where I put it.

The Garmin Connect app I like better. It displays the same information as the website, and in the same manner, but it shows me what I want to see as soon as I launch it. No hunting to find the right panel.

Screenshot_2015-03-22-20-25-48

The Garmin Connect website is ALSO where you view the Garmin Fit app data, (as well as where I view the data from my Garmin watch. (Which I do NOT love, because the buttons are non-responsive, so it’s nearly impossible to start activities and connect the foot-pod and heart monitor. But that’s something else entirely.))

Garmin Fit uses the GPS to calculate the distance, pace, elevation, and calories burned. It does NOT work inside, so this is no good for a pedometer, but it is VERY nice for hiking.

connect website fit

Same panels (and the same issue with the panels) but I do love the little map of my latest activity.

Here’s the app:

Screenshot_2015-03-22-20-26-01

I like the display here as well, although it seems like I have to jump through one too many hoops to start an activity.

Omron Wellness Site

The Omron Wellness site is the new site where your data is uploaded.

omron website

I’ll be blunt. I am having major issues with the Omron Wellness site. It says it’s uploaded my data, but as you can see, my recent data is not there. I’m emailing with tech support, but I must say I really miss the old Omron software where everything lived on my computer.

I’ll update you as to how things go. Since they just rolled out the new site, I’m willing to cut them a little slack–but not much, and not for long. This is the only way I can view all my data (besides on the pedometer itself), and it’s not working.

SenseMe Pedometer App

Screenshot_2015-03-22-20-25-39

There is no screen where I can get an overview of all my data at once. There is no widget. Plus, it’s inaccurate. Goodbye.

Written by Michelle at 8:00 am      Comments (0)  Permalink
Categories: Computers & Technology,Fun & Games,Geek,Science, Health & Nature  

Monday, March 23, 2015

PEDOMETERS: The Devices

Yup, it’s that time again, where I get ahold of multiple pedometers AND TEST THEM TO WITHIN AN INCH OF THEIR TRI-AXES.

Or something like that.

Here are this round’s contenders.

Accupedo
FitBit One
Garmin Vivofit
Omron HJ-323U

pedometers 1

pedometers 2

Accupedo

Accupedo is solely a phone app, so its size is your cell phone.

Accupedo tracks steps, kcal burned, miles walked, and active minutes. The feature that makes Accupedo so good is that it has a sensitivity setting. At the base setting, I found it was over-counting steps (dramatically so), but decreasing the sensitivity made is very accurate (when compared to the other devices).

The calorie tracking is only for activities. If you do nothing all day (or leave your phone sitting on a table) your kcal count will be zero. This makes it difficult to compare it directly to the FitBit and the VivoFit, since both of those calculate your calorie use on top of your resting rate.


FitBit One

FitBitThe FitBit one tracks steps, elevation, kcal burned, miles walked, and active minutes. The elevation is one of my favorite things it tracks, because I live in the land of hills, and I always take the stairs.

It’s small, and even if the silicone case fits easily in that little tiny pocket of your jeans, which is where I keep mine (which reduces the amount of incidental abuse it takes.)

It syncs over bluetooth with your phone, or over a dongle you plug into the USB port of your computer. I quite like that you have two different options for syncing, since I don’t generally leave my phone’s bluetooth on.

The One is a rechargeable device that you slip into an odd little USB dongle you plug into the USB slot of your computer. This dongle does not sync–it just charges, which seems like a waste to me, but what do I know?

The One is supposedly water resistant. I haven’t gotten this one particularly wet, however, this is my second One. The first One was accidentally put through the washer by Michael when I was sick (he was being helpful, so I can’t really blame him for not checking my pockets). It didn’t recover from the experience.

The silicone clip is quite sturdy, and I’ve clipped it onto the waistbands of skirts with no ill effect.


Garmin Vivofit

GarminThe Vivofit is a wristband fitness tracker that I got when Michael decided he really didn’t care for it. (He now has a FitBit One.)

The VivoFit tracks steps, kcal and miles and activity.

Although there is a website, the device syncs only through your phone’s bluetooth, and only when you tell it to sync. The later is nice, because it saves the battery. Instead of being rechargable it uses a watch battery. I bought the VivoFit for Michael at the end of October, and we haven’t had to change the battery yet, so it’s got a pretty decent life for what it does.

It is water resistant, and I’ve repeatedly splashed water on it, and no ill signs yet.

It displays the time, just like a watch, although to reserve the battery you can’t read it in low light. I consider that a feature, not a bug.

I find myself strangely pleased with the VivoFit, probably because I always wear a watch, so this does double duty. (I’ll note that I am VERY hard on watches, and regularly destroy them. So we’ll see how much abuse this can take.)


Omron HJ-323U

OmronThe Omron Activa is the third Omron pedometer I’ve had, and it is unfortunately my least favorite.

On the plus side, it’s smaller than previous Omron pedometers, and is built upon a USB stick, so to upload your data, you just remove the cap and plug it into a USB port on your computer. It’s also extremely accurate (assuming it’s in my pocket and not just dropped down the front of my bra, where it does not, in fact, count very accurately).

On the negative side, I don’t trust the clip, so I don’t wear it if I’m not wearing something with pockets, and I utterly despise the current software that comes with it. As in–the software doesn’t work for me and this makes me very unhappy.

It runs off a watch battery, and the battery lasts quite awhile, so no complaints there.

But as I said, the software is currently abysmal and non-functional for me. And although the design is smaller than previous versions, I don’t particularly trust the clip, so unless I have pockets, I don’t wear it. (If you are female, you understand that this happens quite frequently since women’s clothes are STUPID.)

 

So design-wise, I like the VivoFit and the FitBit One, as I find both unobtrusive.

Written by Michelle at 7:11 pm      Comments (0)  Permalink
Categories: Computers & Technology,Fun & Games,Geek,Science, Health & Nature  

Monday, September 16, 2013

Weekend Travels: Green Bank

We went to Green Bank Saturday, which is home of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

Green bank is the center of the National Radio Quiet Zone, to reduce the amount of radio interference the telescopes pick up. The most obvious thing this means is that there is no cell phone reception. But it’s a lot more than that. Once you go past the gate, you cell phones must be turned off as must all digital cameras, so I was unable to take any pictures up close to the telescope. (You can buy disposable cameras at the gift shop, as they don’t cause interference.)

But it’s more than that.

On site, all electronic equipment–including microwave ovens–must be kept in Faraday cages. And locals occasionally receive visits from Green Bank personnel, who then fix their faulty electronic equipment (such as microwave ovens).

The telescopes operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and anyone can write a proposal for project.

20130914_Green_Bank_089

20130914_Green_Bank_014

The telescope sits on four wheeled stands that are a bit like train cars, which allow the telescope to rotate a full 360 degrees to point in any direction.

The angle of the dish can also be changed. The thick white arc with the black stripe running down the center contains teeth that allow the position of the dish to be raised and lowered.

20130914_Green_Bank_159

The dish of the main telescope is larger than a football field, so it can been seen from quite far away.

20130914_Green_Bank_098

There are multiple telescopes on site, to take advantage of the radio quiet zone.

20130914_Green_Bank_050

And in the science center, there is a scale model. I took several pictures of it, if you’d like a better look the structure.

Written by Michelle at 7:00 am      Comments (0)  Permalink
Categories: Computers & Technology,Photos,Science, Health & Nature,West Virginia  

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Weekend Travels: Green Bank: Geeking Out

We went to Green Bank Saturday, which is home of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

We amused ourselves at the Science Center.

Here’s Michael:

20130914_Green_Bank_071

20130914_Green_Bank_073

20130914_Green_Bank_038

20130914_Green_Bank_039

Some self-portraits:

20130914_Green_Bank_064

20130914_Green_Bank_057

20130914_Green_Bank_106

Michael’s picture of me:

20130914_Green_Bank_083

Written by Michelle at 10:33 am      Comments (1)  Permalink
Categories: Computers & Technology,Geek,Photos,Science, Health & Nature,Travel,West Virginia  

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Pedometer Testing: Results

I think that I’ve generated enough data now.

total steps total difference thu - mon

Couple things: where the pedometer is placed affects the step count. I wore the pedometers in several configurations: on my waistband, in my pocket and a combination of both. When they were on my waistband together (Friday), the Omron and the Pulse gave the closest results. When in my pocket together (Monday), the Pulse had a slightly higher count than the Omron.

time period steps thu - mon

The Fitbit always had a higher count, averaging 800 steps more than the Omron. (The Pulse averaged 15 steps more than the Omron.)

The Pulse and the Omron were relatively close in counting active minutes, with the Pulse being higher, due to the fact that you have to be active for ten minutes before the Omron starts that time.

A couple things I didn’t mention previously:

The Pulse has the ability to measure pulse rate. You hold the device between your fingers, cycle through the menu until you find the heart (pulse rate) icon, touch that icon and it measures your pulse through your finger. If you have the Pulse in the wrist band for sleeping, make sure the device is resting over the pulse point in your wrist and start the measurement.

heart rate

It looks like the measurements are relatively accurate on average, but not very precise for any single measurement. The chart is hard to read, but I would take several measurements, one right after the other. The results are clustered around what should be the correct value, but can fluctuate wildly.

I’ll probably play with the pulse measurement more in the coming days, but for now, I’m not that impressed with it. Which is fine, because I wasn’t that interested in that option.

The battery life on the Pulse is nowhere close to as long as the battery life of the FitBit, however, on a positive note, the way it charges, through a short mini USB cable, means I’m less likely to forget to put it back on. (I had to resort to charging the FitBit at work, and taking off my shoes and putting the charging station on my shoe, to remind me to put the thing back on.) I also like the charging monitor better, and think I won’t have the same charging issues I did with the FitBit (sometimes I would put it on the charging station, and it wouldn’t charge, or the display wouldn’t update to show me that it was charging, so I generally had to fuss with it).

Another point in the favor of the Pulse is that it’s a brand new device and so the phone and web applications are still being developed, and one of the things that will be added is the ability to download your data as a CSV file. I have NEVER been happy with the fact that FitBit wanted to charge you a subscription to download YOUR OWN DATA, and that the data is “allowed” you to have was in no way the full data set you created.

I am hoping that the data set the Pulse generates will be closer to that created by the Omron. I’ll let you know how that one goes as well.

One additional thing I haven’t tested is wearing the Pulse while hiking and biking. I’ll be curious to see how accurate that data is compared to the data generated by my new Oregon.

Written by Michelle at 6:58 am      Comments (0)  Permalink
Categories: Computers & Technology,Geek  

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Pedometer Testing: Day Two

I’m going to update this through the course of the day.

I’m wearing the Withings and my beat-up FitBit next to each other, clipped to my belt. The Omron and the old FitBit that don’t hold a charge are inside a cargo pocket.

Yes, I AM putting this into Excel, calculating the differences, and I’ll probably make a chart of it. Like I do.

I WILL DO SCIENCE TO IT

FitBit = clipped to belt
Pulse = clipped to belt
Omron = in pocket
FitBit 2 = in pocket

8:15 AM
FitBit: 1099
Pulse: 912
Omron: 1013
FitBit 2: 1147
(more…)

Written by Michelle at 7:00 am      Comments (7)  Permalink
Categories: Computers & Technology,Geek  

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Pedometers! A Comparison!

Because I am a HUGE DORK I wore three pedometers today: The Omron HJ-720ITC Pocket Pedometer, the Fitbit Ultra, and a brand new Withings Pulse.
(more…)

Written by Michelle at 8:09 pm      Comments (6)  Permalink
Categories: Computers & Technology,Geek  

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Importance of Good Documentation and Instructions

As I’ve mentioned repeatedly, I write technical documentation and instructions–I teach people how to use computer programs.

Which means that BAD documentation and instructions make me want to hurt someone.

I’m trying to become familiar with the new online course management system we’ll be moving to, and after a several hours of this, I’d like to take their entire support staff and beat them senselessly.

My goal: to import questions from a text file of some sort into the program.

What I found first:

A very long list of instructional videos. I would rather eat lint WHILE being stabbed with a fork than watch instructional videos.

Because they are almost always a WASTE OF MY TIME.

I finally find a help document.

No help

Completely worthless.

What I found next (within the program):

No Help
No Help

OK. Fine. I made a text file.

It failed. Repeatedly.

What I finally find after several hours of wasting my time.

Actually Useful

Really. Why does the help that pops up WITHIN THE PRODUCT not mention those parentheses? This is a system used across the country–in fact, I believe it’s one of the most used systems. So why are their help files so abysmally NOT HELPFUL.

WHY CAN’T THEY JUST GIVE ME A CLEAR, HELPFUL EXAMPLE?!

Now if you’ll pardon me, I’m going to go try really hard not to put my fist through my monitor.

ADDENDUM the FIRST:
OK, trying to fix my text file, and I’m now even MORE confused. I really hate technology.

ADDENDUM the Second:
Co-worker looked over everything with me, and we can find no reason why most of the file is failing.

Have I mentioned how much I hate computers?

Written by Michelle at 2:50 pm      Comments (5)  Permalink
Categories: Computers & Technology  

Monday, June 18, 2012

More on the Mac Vs PC Debate: Repair and Upgrades

This article from Wired gets to the heart of the problem I tend to have with Macs (as well as with tablet PCs in general)–they’re not easily repairable.

The New MacBook Pro: Unfixable, Unhackable, Untenable.

I’ll admit, that I went through personal laptops at a pretty fast rate for the past couple years, primarily because I couldn’t find one that I liked. But when I upgraded, I gave my old laptops to people who could use them, so I wasn’t trashing them.

And I tend to run my desktops forever–I had one desktop that eventually had every single part replaced (some parts more than once), one part at a time; I had that computer forever. My current desktop is two years old, and still works fabulously. I’ve added more memory and another hard drive (because photo processing eats memory and hard drive space), and added Michael’s monitor after he gave up his desktop. And aside from trying to set up local networking with Windows 7 Home edition (gag) I haven’t had any issues at all.

Now I know that most people are not capable of upgrading their computers on their own. But there are tons and tons of place that will help you. And even if you have a laptop, you don’t need to be any kind of expert to replace your battery. And adding memory is doable project for all but the most timid. But you can’t do those things yourself on a Mac.

But I think I’m more disturbed by the throw-away nature of Macs. These paragraphs from the article really got to me:

When we choose a short-lived laptop over a more robust model that’s a quarter of an inch thicker, what does that say about our values?

Every time we buy a locked down product containing a non-replaceable battery with a finite cycle count, we’re voicing our opinion on how long our things should last.

Why is this important? Because throwing away electronics leeches poisons into the soil and water, but in many cases, recycling is no less evil. (If you do nothing else, click on those links and just look at the pictures.)

Written by Michelle at 5:55 pm      Comments (4)  Permalink
Categories: Computers & Technology  

Friday, June 1, 2012

Computer Questions: Tablet or Laptop?

This is a question I’ve been asked several times in recent months. As with the PC or Mac question, the answer is, again: it depends.

But getting to this answer is, I think, a little easier, and boils down to: what do you want to do with it?

Emails?
Watch movies?
Read books?
Surf the internet?

If you do a fair amount to typing, you will hate not having a keyboard.

If you want to watch movies, you’ll probably prefer a tablet, since it’s a whole lot lighter than any laptop.

If you want to read a lot of books, you might want to consider getting an eInk reader, which is much easier on the eyes, is lighter, and has a significantly longer battery life.

If you want to be able to pull the thing out of your pocket and play games or surf the internet while you’re waiting or bored, you’ll want a tablet.

If this is going to be your primary tech device while you travel, you might be better off with a laptop, since in addition to having a keyboard, a should also have USB ports, SD card reader, etc.

Essentially, think carefully about what you want to do with it and how you want to do it. Do you want to lie on the sofa and watch movies? Do you want to curl up in a chair and read books? Do you want to sit down in comfort and type emails etc? Imagine doing these tasks with each of these devices and decide which device will provide the least amount of frustration when doing most of your tasks.

Written by Michelle at 6:14 pm      Comments (0)  Permalink
Categories: Computers & Technology  

Computer Questions: PC or Mac?

This is a complicated question, and one that usually gets you fervent, partisan responses. I’m going to try really hard to give you an objective, reasoned response here.

Ready?

The answer is: it depends.

There are multiple questions that will influence the answer.

First, it depends upon what you want to do with your computer. Do you want to play games? Is it for work? Or just send email and surf the internet?

This is the most important question.

If you want to play games, you need to take a look at the games you want to play, and see what platforms those games come on. I’m not a gamer, but many gamers prefer PCs, because they are more customizable and easier to upgrade.

If you’re going to use your computer for work, and your work uses PCs, you’ll most likely want to stick with a PC. Changing between systems is annoying. Although Office 2011 for the Mac is mostly compatible with Office 2010 for the PC, there CAN be problems. And the Mac version is missing some of the programs the PC version has.

If you just want to check your email and surf the internet, it doesn’t matter what kind of computer you have.

If you have a hobby, check into what is the best software for that hobby, and see what platform those programs require. Talk to other people with the same hobby, and see what they recommend. I have a DSLR (Digital single-lens reflex) camera, so when I bought my latest laptop, I made sure it a) had an SD card reader b) had lots of USB ports and 3) fit into my camera bag.

Second, how much money do you have to spend?

Macs are WAY more expensive than PCs, and you can get a low-end PC for netbook for significantly less than you’d pay for a Mac. Of course, you then have a low end PC which, depending on what you want to do, may or may not be sufficient for those purposes.

Another important consideration is that you can relatively easily upgrade a PC to make your system better/faster. So if you have a small initial budget you might consider a computer that you can upgrade over time, upgrading parts as you nave the money. BUT, this is something you have to be willing to do. (See: point the fourth.)

Third, what kinds of computers do your friends use?

If you have questions, it is sometimes best to have the same kind of computer as your friends and family. Even if they aren’t necessarily technically savvy, you may be able to help each other out with basic questions: How do I change the size of my windows? How do I video chat?

But if all your friends and family have Macs and you get a PC, they aren’t going to be able to help you with ANYTHING.

Fourth, how much do you want to fuss with your computer? Would you like to upgrade it and make changes as time passes or do you never ever want to do anything more difficult than plugging it in?

As I said before, as long as you’re careful with your initial purchase, you can upgrade individual components, one at a time, to make your system better. But you have to be willing to do this.

If you want to plug it in and have it just work, get a Mac. They’re stable, they do things for you automatically, and you rarely have to worry about dealing with problems of any sort. But you will pay a not insignificant price for this. And you’re pretty much going to be stuck with your system as it is.

If you currently have one type of system but want to switch to a different system, be aware you will have to repurchase any software you regularly use.

That’s the long answer.

The short answer is: there is no “best” computer for everyone. The right computer for you to buy is the one that does what you want it to do, and causes you the least headache and frustration.

Written by Michelle at 5:25 pm      Comments (1)  Permalink
Categories: Computers & Technology  

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Blogger: You Have GOT to Be Kidding Me

To my friends who are using Blogger: That’s it. I’ll help you move to WordPress. For FREE. No matter how long it takes.

This is bullshit.

Illegible

Written by Michelle at 10:24 am      Comments (5)  Permalink
Categories: Computers & Technology  

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Computer Problems: Common Sense Recommendations

For the most part, geeks are willing to help you fix your computer–we WANT you to like technology as much as we do, and we want you to understand how to use your computer and (hopefully) learn how to fix it yourself.

BUT

Please keep in mind several things:

1. We are doing you a favor. Be polite. If the problem takes a long time to fix, at the VERY LEAST offer to buy us dinner or the legal beverage of our choice.

2. Not all problems can be fixed. This is not our fault. Additionally, we all have different areas of expertise. So even if a problem is fixable, it might not be within our area of expertise. If we contact a friend for additional assistance, you now owe that person dinner as well.

3. If you don’t take steps to keep your computer safe, such as running an anti-virus program, problems will happen again and again.

The following are helpful things to tell us when you’re asking for help:

1) What operating system are you using?

a) If you are using a Windows system, to find your specific system, look at the start button in the lower left corner of the screen. If the button is a circle, you
re probably running Windows 7. If the button is a rectangle and says “Start” you’re probably running Windows XP.

b) If you are using a Macintosh, click the apple icon in the top left corner. From the menu select “About This Mac”.

c) Word and Internet Explorer are NOT operating systems. They are programs that run ON your operating system.

2) What web browser are you using? (if you’re having web problems)

3) How comfortable are you with computers?
a) Dude, I know more than you, except for this specific thing
b) Everyone I know asks me questions, but I’m not an expert per se
c) I can generally figure things out on my own
d) More often than not, my computer gets the best of me
e) My computer regularly senses fear and attacks

It is TOTALLY OKAY to be 3e. We just need to know that up front, because how comfortable you are changes how much information we give you, what information we give you, and how we explain things to you. (Can I just tell you to go to the control panel, or do I need to take you step by step though how to get to the control panel?)

4. If we can see what your screen looks like, that makes it a WHOLE lot easier to help you. The steps below will let you take a picture of your problem to send to us.

Mac: Command + Shift + 4 (The space bar toggles between capturing a window and the snipping tool)
Windows 7: Start -> All Programs -> Accessories -> Snipping Tool
Office 2010: Insert tab -> Screen shot -> select an open window or choose Screen Clipping

5. DO NOT RANDOMLY CLICK WHILE WE’RE WALKING YOU THROUGH SOMETHING. Chances are you already guessed incorrectly. You won’t get it right this time, either. Which means we now have to backtrack. If you do this often enough, we’ll stop answering the phone when you call.

If you’d like a primer on what NOT to do, see the following (both contain strong language and scatological humor, both of which are deployed by anyone doing computer support, on a regular basis): Cracked: 6 Reasons The Guy Who’s Fixing Your Computer Hates You and The Oatmeal: Why It’s Better to Pretend You Don’t Know Anything about Computers

If you’ve done any of the things mentioned in those articles, immediately send an apology to your friend / relative who helps you with your computer, along with a gift certificate for dinner for two at their favorite (expensive) restaurant.

Written by Michelle at 5:42 pm      Comments (0)  Permalink
Categories: Computers & Technology  

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Computer Security: Passwords

Now for the biggie: PASSWORDS.

Yes, I know. You HATE passwords. They’re hard to remember, and people always keep asking you to CHANGE them.

Well, there’s a reason you’re supposed to use complex passwords–and use unique passwords on every site–passwords exist to keep people from stealing your information. If you use a stupid password anyone can get your information. And if you use the same password on every site–even if it’s a strong password–if someone hacks that site, they can then use that password for any other site you access.

There is one relatively simple solution: use a password safe. I use KeePass to store my passwords. The nice thing about KeePass is that you can copy it to a USB keychain drive and always have all your passwords with you. If you do that, you only need to create ONE strong password you have to remember.

Aside from the xkcd comic I linked to up there, there are other things you can do to make memorable passwords.

Let’s say your favorite movie is Gone with the Wind. You can use that movie as the basis for your password by combining things you can easily remember. If your favorite character is Scarlett and you vividly remember first watching it in 1982, you could make your password Scarlett 1982. Or even better, $carlett 1982, or $c@rl3tt_O’Hara_1982. (No, I’ve never read the book or watched the movie, so if I got the names wrong, too bad.) That’s a password that’s relatively easy for you to remember, but would be hard for someone to guess.

Even more random, pick two items that are sitting on your computer desk, and use THOSE items for your password. If you always have red pens sitting on your desk in a Brooklyn Dodgers coffee mug, your password could be red pen dodger, or D0dger R3d P3n, etc. Because you’ll see the item every time you sit down at your desk, it will remind you what your password is, but it’s unlikely someone could guess that.

Yes, there are sites for which a throw-away password is perfectly fine. That would be a password that’s easy for you to remember that you use all the time. Registration sites frequently get my throw-away password.

But I strongly recommend using KeePass or some other password manager. It’ll keep you from forgetting all those complex passwords you created, but still make it hard for people to break into your account.

Written by Michelle at 6:41 pm      Comments (2)  Permalink
Categories: Computers & Technology  

Computer Security: Common Sense, Part 1

The basics of what you need to do to keep your computer are covered in anti-virus software, keeping your web browser up to date, and using caution with email.

But you can also use common sense to keep yourself safe and secure.

First, bookmark Snopes. This website exists solely to debunk the stupid emails people send to you that sound ridiculous and most likely are. (If only Snopes had been around when the Pop Rocks urban legend started…)

bccSecond, let’s talk about the Bcc field. BCC stands for Blind Carbon Copy. Using BCC simply means that no one user can see anyone else’s email address. If you are sending an email to multiple users who do not know each other, it’s polite to place their names in the bcc field. The only thing you need to remember is to place someone’s email address in the “To” field, or your message might get caught in the spam filters. (I usually use Michael’s email address for this, since he generally knows everyone I do.)

Third, password protect your computer. Yes, it’s a pain to type in a password every time you want to use your computer, but you’ve got important stuff in there, and if someone steals your laptop, you’re not just don’t several hundred dollars, the thief now has access to everything from all your email accounts to your bank information to the addresses and phone numbers of all your friends.

You can also use programs such as prey or locate my laptop for extra protection.

Written by Michelle at 6:40 pm      Comments (0)  Permalink
Categories: Computers & Technology  

Computer Security: Email

If you’re going to do something stupid with your computer, chances are, it’s going to involve email.

First and foremost, don’t click on email links or open attachments unless you are 100% POSITIVE they’re safe. Just don’t.

Second, don’t reply to email messages from strangers. No one is going to send you money for “helping” them. I promise you, you’re not missing out. (You will, however, be missing out if you don’t click on that link and read Eric’s “replies” to spammers.)

But there’s a little bit more to it, and there are ways to tell if a link is likely to be safe or not.

First, let’s talk about hyperlinks.

If you are reading your email through a web browser, when you hold your cursor over a hyperlink (WITHOUT CLICKING) a little box typically appears in the lower left corner of your window giving you the URL (uniform resource locator) for that link. Nine times out of ten, looking at that URL will tell you if a hyperlink is what it’s supposed to be. If the text of your hyperlink says “SHOP BOB’S MARKET!” and the text that appears when you hold your cursor over that link is something like http://bobsmarket.com/sale.php you can see that those two things match up pretty closely.

Where it becomes tricky is when a hyperlink says one thing, but the hover URL says something else entirely. I can write text that says http://bobsmarket.com/sale.php but make the link go somewhere else entirely. If you see that, you can be almost certain the link is to a spam site.

Here’s something else to keep in mind–if you have not given a company your email address, chances are it’s a spammer trying to hoax you. If you have signed up to receive sale notices from Lowes or King Arthur Flour or some other company you like, then you can use the above method to check that the links are correct. But if you’ve never asked a company to send you emails? Go ahead and delete without reading–and certainly so NOT click on any of those hyperlinks or open any of those attachments.

But what if you’re afraid your account HAS been compromised? In that case, go to the site by typing the URL for that site into your web browser (paypal.com or amazon.com) and then log in and check and see if you have any alerts or messages.

Got that? Good. Now don’t forget it.

Next, let’s talk a bit about how you use your email.

Usually, when you register for products or buy things online, you’re required to give an email address. Which is perfectly fair.

The problem is that EVERYTHING then comes to this email address: emails from your aunt/niece, recall notices from your product registration, sale notices from your favorite shoe store, etc.

Here’s the thing: You don’t have to have only one email address. You can–and should–create an email address that you use just for registering for products and shopping. Then use your “main” email address for communicating with friends and family.

I have a yahoo account that I use for shopping and registrations etc, and a gmail account that I use for email with friends and family etc. I keep both open in my web browser, but check the yahoo mail tab far less frequently.

The best part of this is that when I get email in my gmail account, it’s almost always email I WANT to receive, as opposed to junk.

Additionally, Gmail (and many other email providers) allow you to download your email to your own computer, using a program such as Outlook or Thunderbird. I’m a HUGE fan of Gmail and having all my email accessible from any computer and my phone. But I also like the security of having everything downloaded to my computer. Just In Case.

But for the most part, if you keep in mind those first two rules: don’t click on links/attachments and don’t reply to strangers, you’ll be fine.

Written by Michelle at 5:49 pm      Comments (2)  Permalink
Categories: Computers & Technology  

Computer Security: Web Browsers

If your computer is running any version of the Windows operating system, then by default you have Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) installed on your computer. How do you know which browser you’re using? Look at your taskbar (probably at the bottom of your window). Each program has it’s own, unique icon, and that icon will tell you which browser you’re using.

One thing that is important regardless of which browser you use, is to KEEP UPDATED. Any program that is not updated on a regular basis will become vulnerable. So whatever browser you use, make sure that browser automatically updates to the newest version.

Something else to keep in mind–as long as you are using the updated version of your browser of choice–there is no wrong choice. Find a browser you are comfortable with, and if anyone tries to tell you you’re stupid for that choice, tell ’em to piss off. It’s your computer and you’re allowed to use whatever browser you want.

Internet Explorer

Some people will probably be shocked to hear me say this, but I don’t hate IE. I can’t say I much like it, but I don’t think the current versions are horrible the way IE6 was. And if you’re a Windows user, chances are there are some things you’ll need IE to do. I don’t like it, but that’s the way it is.

But make sure you’re automatically updating IE (and Windows). Because Microsoft has the lion’s share of the market right now, and because they’re large and plodding, they’re the low-hanging fruit. Malicious code is written specifically for Windows and IE and other Microsoft programs. So remain updated and you’ll be fine.

Firefox

Firefox is created and updated by Mozilla, and is an open source browser that allows anyone to create add-ons, themes, etc.

Firefox is my browser of choice, but that’s my personal preference. Why? Because it has tons of add-ons that make it work the way I want it to work. And many of those add-ons don’t exist for other browsers. There are disadvantages to add-ons of course. They’ll sometimes slow down your browsing or even break certain websites. But that’s easy enough to solve–if your browser stops working properly, disable your add-ons and chances are that’ll solve the problem.

What add-ons do I use? Adblock Plus, Amazon Wishlist, Autohide bookmarks, FireFTP, Ghostery, IE Tab 2, Leet Key, Priv 3, Read it Later, Springpad, and TabMix Plus. What could I not live without? Tab Mix Plus, Leet Key, and Autohide bookmarks.

The other thing I adore about Firefox, is it has a Sync that allows you to synchronize not just your bookmarks, but all your add-ons and settings across every computer you use. This is CRAZY convenient, since I have two personal computers and an even larger number of work computers–no matter what computer I use, everything I need is already there.

Chrome

Chrome is slowly becoming the world’s most popular browser. It is created and maintained by Google, which means it integrates with a variety of Google programs, from Gmail to Google Docs. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s incredibly convenient to have a single sign-in for your email and other resources.

On the other hand, it’s somewhat disconcerting to be giving a single company ALL your information about EVERYTHING.

I use Chrome to keep Facebook isolate from the rest of my browsing activity, but otherwise, I much prefer my customized version of Firefox to Chrome. Chrome also has a synchronize option, but I do not use it, so I can’t tell you through personal experience if it is awesome or now.

The add-ons I use for Chrome are: Adblock Plus, Do Not Track Plus, Facebook Disconnect, and Ghostery.

Safari

Safari is Apple’s web browser, and the default browser for the Mac. I don’t hate Safari, but like many things Mac, I personally find it frustrating to use–Apple programs tend to be backwards from what I am expecting, which drives me batty.

One thing I absolutely despise about Safari (and all other Apple programs (and Adobe programs)) is that whenever they update, they stick their default icons on your Desktop. Every. Single. Time. I have four icons and three widgets on my Desktop and THAT IS ALL. Every time I update an Apple program, I curse the entire time I’m deleting icons off my desktop.

There are other browsers out there, but aside from Opera (which I HATE) I’ve never used them and thus having nothing to say about them.

Written by Michelle at 4:44 pm      Comments (2)  Permalink
Categories: Computers & Technology  

Computer Security: Anti-Virus

Probably the most important thing you can do as soon as you get your computer is to download and install an anti-virus program–it’s generally the first thing I do when I get a new personal computer (well, after downloading Firefox).

There are a ton of anti-virus programs out there, and as long as you keep your virus definitions up to date, it really doesn’t matter what program you use. That said, different programs have different strengths and weaknesses.

The program we use–and we put on our parents’ computers, is Avast. I’ve been using it for a decade probably, and have never had a virus program on one of my computers. I keep saying I’ll upgrade to the paid version, but since the free version works so well, I never remember to do so.

How it works: every year you have to re-register by giving them your email and other information. For those of you who are loathe to do that: You’re getting something for FREE–why are you bitching? Once you install Avast, it runs in the background, automatically checking for updates. By default it will tell you when it updates, probably so you’ll know it’s doing it’s job. I trust it, so I turned off all those pronouncements (ie turned on silent/gaming mode), because I find them annoying.

It’s available free to the home user.

Another popular free program is Microsoft Security Essentials. This is, of course, a Microsoft product, which means it has it’s good and bad points. You know it’s always going to work with windows, and will update with windows. On the other hand, it’s a Microsoft product.

How it works: you go to the website and download the program. It runs in the background and automatically updates itself. It’s available free to the home user.

Are there other anti virus programs? Yes, tons of them. AVG, Norton/Symantec, McAfee. They’re all going to work AS LONG AS YOU KEEP THEM UPDATED.

Let me say that one more time: any anti-virus program should work for you, AS LONG AS YOU KEEP IT RUNNING AND UPDATED.

The second thing to remember is that if your anti-virus program is warning you about a program: DO NOT INSTALL THAT PROGRAM. Unless you’ve written the program yourself or are ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN the program is safe, assume the anti-virus program is correct and don’t install.

The third thing to remember is: BE SMART. An anti-virus program can only protect you from threats it knows about, so viruses can get past it. Help yourself by not being an idiot. More on that in another topic.

Written by Michelle at 3:59 pm      Comments (2)  Permalink
Categories: Computers & Technology  
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