Saturday, September 25, 2010

Money for Nothing

When you give your two teenage sons $140 in cash to pick up their back-to-school items, including a scientific calculator, you expect to get some money back.  Then again, maybe not... "ok, take my debit card with you, if for any reason that's not enough money put the balance on the debit card."  The boys proceeded off to Staples armed with cash and card.

About a half hour later, Mikey sends me a text - "good thing you gave us the card"... "why? what's the tally?"... "the calculator alone cost $120"... ouch, da pain, I say to myself.  In my mind I make a mental note to search eBay with the calculator model # for a better price. We'll return the original to Staples. The boys come home a while later and proceed to hand me $84.12 in change.  "What's this?"  "Your change" "Nice, you didn't get the calculator?"  "yea, we got it"  "Lemme see the receipt"  The total read $195.88.  The receipt also shows two debit transactions of $140 cash for $280 total.  Hmm... let's see, 280-195=85... ah, I see what happened.  "Didn't you understand something was wrong when they didn't charge the card anything?"  Jack: "Well, I didn't really think about it when she gave us the change.. Mikey: nice, huh?  Betcha never thought you'd get money back!"  Sigh... "Well, we'll probably need togo back to return the calculator anyway, I'll give them their money back then, and have them charge the card properly."  "Why would you do that?  They'll never know."  Sigh (again)...

He was right, they would never know.  It was a valid (albeit incorrect) transaction.  I would know, however.  Chance for a lesson.  "Yea, but I would know.  That's stealing.  We don't do things that way in this family."  Point taken.  Nods of understanding from the boys. Ok, so time to head back to Staples... the Manager was grateful, albeit a bit bemused.  It was comical when the Manager struggled completing the transaction, the POS software had no mechanism for handling the return of lost money.  Eventually I received two more receipts, one to back out the original transaction and another with the debit card charge.

Seems to me a flag should have gone up during the original transaction when the $140 cash was logged twice... how many companies are losing money with these entry mistakes?  Or worse yet, how easy it for an employee to run a scam like this with a friend?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Blue Screen of Death

The Blue Screen of Death (BSoD) visited my laptop last night.  If you're unfamiliar with this surprise visitor, it's a disturbing crash of the Microsoft Windows operating system;  in my case, Windows XP.  Officially known as a "Stop Error", it's sometimes related to recent driver updates.  With the age of my laptop (2002), I'm thinking it's more likely related to a hardware or RAM failure.  The error will cause the operating system to put the memory data to a disk file, or "dump" file.  These files are usually placed in the C:\WINDOWS root directory.  Look for the file(s) with the .dmp extension.  I'll take a closer look at the dump file if my quick fix doesn't do the trick...

When I investigated the error code on the screen, it referenced the win32k.sys file.  Not good.  Per the Microsoft Technet reference library, the win32k.sys is part of the kernel.  It could be the file itself is corrupted.  So here's what I did, I renamed the file win32k.old (located in C:\windows\system32)... in essence I deleted the system file.  Many times when a system file is deleted in Windows, the operating system will automatically create the missing file.  In this case, XP recreated the file for me and I haven't experienced any further problems.

We'll see what happens, if it happens again I'll be taking a close look at the dump file.  In the meantime, I will make sure I have a full backup of my laptop's hard drive ready!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Are you vulnerable?

Here's an easy way to make your home Windows PC a little more secure and less susceptible to viruses and malware:  Be an average user.  If you read any Microsoft Security Bulletin, you'll frequently find the phrase "Users whose accounts are configured to have fewer user rights on the system could be less impacted than users who operate with administrative user rights."  I was reminded of this as I read the latest Bulletin from Microsoft.  Check out the Executive summary, it's in there :  August 10th Security Bulletin.

What does this mean?  If you have one user account that everyone at home uses, it's configured with computer administrator privileges.  Create a separate account for the computer administrator, and set your other accounts to "Limited" privileges (Depending on your version of Windows, this may be a "Restricted" or "Standard" user type).  Use the administrator account when you need to install software or perform some other function requiring the higher privileges.  Use your Limited account for normal web browsing, etc.  Granted, there will be times when you absolutely must do something with higher privileges - for these you can use the "Run as" option for these situations (right-click on your icon to see the "Run as..." option).

Why would you want to do this?  When a hacker creates a malicious script or virus, they will sometimes try to manipulate files that require the administrator privilege.  If you're running as an average user and somehow come across one of these malicious attempts to do damage, the script will fail due to the lack of privileges.  It's a good step to take on the road to safe computing along with installing a reputable virus & malware scanner.

If you're an average user, run with administrator privileges at your own risk.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Camping 2010

Daydreaming, catching the last few minutes of the sun, my neck and shoulders relaxed for the first time all day. Off on our first camping trip, I found myself propped up on the picnic table with no one nearby save a camper tending to his grill about 50 feet away... as camping novices, we had nothing but a few coolers of deli meats and chicken salad. No worries. While I was a bit hungry, I was savoring the quiet time and delaying the next activity... As I closed my eyes, I also savored the smell of steak wafting through the air... I opened my eyes to 2 sizeable steak tips on a plate held by camping neighbor... "I thought you might want to try some - I watched this cow grow, butchered her myself!" my new friend said with glee. Yep, We were in Maine.



Later in the evening my wife and I joined the kids poolside (ok, this wasn't TRUE camping) for a make-your-own sundae. This led nicely into the concert from the band Coos Canyon, a stunning surprise given the cost (no charge!) and locale. We're at a campground, right? These guys were extremely talented, and generated lots of dancing. Did I mention my new friend showed up with his wife and kid? He also bought us a couple rounds of beer. Steak tips, beer... was my new buddy separated from me at birth?

We returned to our campsite which was now in complete darkness. This was cured by a roaring fire. The night sky was lit with stars, promising another sunny day tomorrow. The kids were enjoying themselves, interacting more than usual as they all enjoyed s'mores. It was fun to just sit and take it all in... no iPhone necessary. Yep, I turned it off for at least 36 hours during the weekend... it's good to get away from technology sometimes... give it a try.

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Safer Net

If you have Internet surfing kids, chances are you've cringed on more than one occasion at content they've come across on the 'net.... I liken the Internet to New York City, there's a lot of great stuff out there, but watch where you're going...!  So what's a parent to do?  There are options available so you can keep your sanity and know your kids are safe online.  Filtering software is a start (i.e. Net Nanny), but it can be a cumbersome task to make sure you're running the latest version, and good luck if you have multiple Internet-ready devices in the house... fortunately there's another solution, filtering at the router.  A solid (and free!) solution is OpenDNS.

Just point to the OpenDNS name servers and you are off and running.  A name server is a computer that turns your name requests (i.e, espn.com or cnn.com) into a number (IP address) that routers understand.  Your router, if it was installed by the cable guy, will be pointing to the cable company's name servers:  that means no filtering, average performance, somewhat reliable uptime.  Point them to the name servers supplied by OpenDNS, and get more reliable and faster performance (OpenDNS uses caching techniques to make the actual name resolution faster), and best of all, content filtering.

Sign up for a free account, and OpenDNS allows you to add your home router's IP address to it's database.   From there you can choose one of 5 filtering levels:
  1. High: Protects against all adult-related sites, illegal activity, social networking sites, video sharing sites, and general time-wasters.
  2. Moderate: Protects against all adult-related sites and illegal activity.
  3. Low : Protects against pornography.
  4. No filtering, and
  5. Custom: Choose the categories you want to block.
Choose one of the levels, and save your settings.  Then update your router's configuration.  Your router will have a basic configuration menu that allows you to use your service provider's name servers, or specify alternate name servers. This is where you would plug in the IP addresses of the OpenDNS name servers. The OpenDNS name server IP addresses are 208.67.222.222 and 208.67.220.220. You could also set these addresses on the individual computer, in the network settings. But to protect your entire household, setting them on the router is the best solution.

[Keep in mind your router's IP address may be dynamic.  Meaning, if you ever lose power or reboot your router for any reason, it may be assigned a different IP address by your cable company when it starts up again.  You'll have to update your OpenDNS account if this happens.]

Take some time and check it out.  You owe it to your family.

Use OpenDNS

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

An iMac for Pop

Today's Boston Globe had an article titled For elderly, the wired world holds terror - or delight.  Some quotes from the article: “The future scares me, I like the old days. I’m scared of computers", and “I’m not on the Internet, I don’t know that much about it....I don’t even know what they’re talking about: BlackBerries, blueberries.’’  This got me thinking about my Dad and his computer use... I'm happy to say my Dad isn't afraid of computers, and he likes blueberries too...

I visited my parents recently, and when I visit this means helping out Pop with his computer. I look forward to it. Once the Chief Engineer of the Navy, the Admiral is no slouch when it comes to computer logic. I don't recall when he got his first PC, but it was well after he'd retired.  The challenge Pop has is at the keyboard, he's a bit deliberate... unfortunately he never learned to type. Given his career path, manning the keyboard was not part of the job description.

Recently my older brother helped Pop upgrade from a classic Gateway Astro to the latest iMac. This was a great idea and long overdue. Now while Pop executes his one-finger typing, he can see what he's doing on the 21" screen.  Pop spends a lot of time online these days, mostly on news and financial sites, where he can point and click. With the built-in camera on the iMac, he's also started venturing into video chat, which allows him to see his kids and grandchildren.


This was my first exposure to the latest iMac, and I was impressed.  While the keyboard's a bit tiny, it's similar to a laptop's keyboard, with less effort required to press the keys.  And as advertised on the Apple site, it's the ultimate all-in-one. Now with the ultimate display.  Heck, after spending the weekend playing with Pop's iMac, it was tough to return to my Dell laptop.  As an iPhone fan, I'm sure I'll break down and get an iMac soon... anyhow, I've digressed... by the end of the weekend, I had Pop set up with an account on Facebook.  Yep, Pop has progressed all the way to the world of social networking... he hasn't posted much, a few comments here and there, but I'm pretty sure he gets a kick out of his kids profiles, and all the family pictures...

So here's a shout out to Pop and his iMac, and by the way, start posting some status updates!



Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Let's Be Careful Out There!

During the Winter Olympics a bronze medalist snowboarder was seen having a bit too much fun. Photographs surfaced on the Internet and the U.S. Olympic Committee deemed his conduct was bad enough to send him home. My brother pointed out to me 15 years ago this incident would have gone unnoticed -- most likely no one would have heard about it -- and if they did, the news would not have been in real time! The Internet along with the proliferation of cell phone cameras has made it difficult for celebrities to maintain any sense of privacy these days.

What about the rest of us? HBO's The Wire makes it clear if someone wants to know what we're up to, they can find out if we're not careful. "Do you feel me??" (you Wire aficionados understand!)  Stringer Bell notwithstanding, there are steps we can take to maintain some privacy and security while utilizing the great tools of the Internet.

Everyone knows the basics :
  • Open emails only from individuals you know.  And if you are sent a link from someone you don't know, don't click on it!
  • Use strong passwords for your online accounts, and always logout of your online account when you are done
  • Set your browser to automatically delete cookies and temporary files when you exit
  • Run firewall, anti-spyware, and anti-virus software
For more privacy tips check out these links : Privacy and The Internet, Internet Privacy and Email Security, and Privacy.org.

Now, what else can we do? Here's a nice tool to monitor your exposure on the Internet : Google Alerts. You define a phrase and get regular reports every time that phrase is found by Google's network of bots... I have alerts set up for my phone number and street address. If these show up somewhere on the Internet I get an email showing how they are being presented. You can set up alerts for your name as well, if it's unique enough. There are way too many people with my name, so it's not very effective... check it out... you can also use it for other productive purposes, such as marketing for your business -- see how often your business is getting it's name out there...

There are obviously many tips and techniques to maintain privacy on the Internet. Social Networking brings a new level of privacy techniques that need to be understood... I'll try to expound with more detail in upcoming blog posts.

I'll sign off for now with a quote from Sargeant Phil Esterhaus, "Let's be careful out there..."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Omnipresent Technology

Recently I went to Vermont with my 9-year old son for a Father/Son weekend.  It's a great opportunity to spend some quality time with him one on one.  A faith-based adventure, I've gone the past 8 years or so with a group that ranges anywhere from 10 to 25 Dads and their sons.  It's cold in late January, but the creature comforts of home are quickly forgotten once the activities start... I was looking forward to leaving technology behind for a couple days, or so I thought...

The trip started innocently enough, as we were picked up by a friend of mine and his two sons.  My friend was driving a Ford Flex, a car I wasn't familiar with but quickly found loaded with gadgetry.  The first toy I noticed was the factory navigation system.  There was also a DVD entertainment system with a nice drop down screen for movie viewing.  The Sony audio system delivered 700 watts of surround sound through 10 speakers, with a Bluetooth connection which one of the boys demonstrated when he fired up his Dad's iPhone and the game sounds came roaring through the sound system... yep, we were leaving technology behind for a couple days...

We arrived at our rustic location in the town of Randolph late Friday evening, and all of us (38 in total) recognized sleep was needed to handle the long activity-filled day ahead... a veteran of these trips, I also knew earplugs were needed to fall asleep with the amount of snoring that usually goes on... well, I forgot my earplugs but I did have my iPhone with a set of earphones... now, if I can get a 3G signal I'll be able to fire up Pandora, or better yet, an interesting talk show or podcast on FlyCast... the signal was a bit shaky, so I settled for the iPod functionality in shuffle mode... a little Tchaikovsky and I was off to sleep in no time...

The first activity Saturday morning was a hike... given it was about 5 degrees, we figured we'd walk until someone froze, then we'd turn around.  First one of the Dad's took some photos of the group with a very slick digital camera (there's that technology thing again)... then it was off on the hike.  It was a wonderful sun and little wind so it wasn't bad at all.  Next it was off to the nearby college where we had an arrangement for an all-you-can-eat brunch.  From there it was to a nearby ski slope, which we used for sledding.  Then it was back to the house & barn to thaw out for a bit...  then some touch football, then back to the college for swimming and basketball... it was one activity after another... no more technology, no more stress, just a great weekend of fun with my 3rd son, some new and old friends, and their sons...

The evening was welcomed as the Dads were worn out and the boys wanted to wind down... we gathered for prayer before dinner, and then it was meal time without any phones ringing or a TV on... ok, once or twice I checked to see who was texting me about UConn's upset victory over Texas, but that's it... then it was time for a bonfire... we were truly relaxing...

The bonfire was the highlight for me... not a cloud in the sky.  No wind.  Dry, crackling wood.  Great conversation.  It was perfect.  It was bitter cold but the fire was plenty hot.  Now the boys were dropping off one by one as well as most of the Dads... a cigar was called for (ok, maybe two)... this was perfect.  But you knew it couldn't be avoided... it was time for another gadget, as one of the Dad's pulled out his new Android phone and gave us a demonstration of it's capabilities, firing up the app Google Sky ... before I knew it we were exploring the stars above us, and for once we knew just what we were looking at...

Ah, technology... some times you just can't get away from it.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Haiti and SMS

I didn't realize blogging on a regular basis would be such a challenge!  At the time I started this note, some reports said over $8 million had been raised for Haiti from text messaging the string "HAITI" to 90999.  Think about that, at $10 per text message, that's more than 800 thousand text messages.  No doubt the numbers are much higher now.  This has been done before, as similar mechanisms were in place for the Tsunami and Katrina.  What a great way to help out...  just think how much money would be raised if everyone with a cell phone jumped in... there are over 270,000,000 cell phone users in the United States alone, that's a lot of money!

The mechanism used to raise the money, SMS (Short Message Service), is at minimal cost to the providers, who send the SMS data on a control channel.  This is a nice profit margin for them, some of whom are charging 15 cents for each send and receipt.  The control channel is in place to track which tower your cellphone is connected to, so your phone can change cells as you move around... messages are traveling on the control channel at periodic intervals even when your phone is not in use, as this packet exchange lets both the tower and the phone obtain the service status.  Since the control channel is also used to set up a phone call, care is taken to make sure SMS messages don't overwhelm the channel.  SMS messages may be delayed or throttled to make sure voice calls go through...

The SMS message itself contains up to 140 bytes (1120 bits) of data - this takes care of the 160 characters allowed in your text message.  Confused?  SMS uses 7-bit characters, instead of 8-bit, which leaves 128 possible character values instead of the normal 256. So 1120bits/7bits = 160 characters.  There is a bit of processing to convert the 7-bit data into 8-bit (octets), here's an example showing how the message "hellohello" is converted... as you can see there's a lot going on when an SMS is sent!  I'll spare you the details on the message encoding and other header data necessary to make sure the message gets to it's designated receiver.

Tip : The research I did across the net was made a lot easier with iCyte.com's research tool.  It's a great way to do research and installs as an add-on to Firefox or Internet Explorer.  Create a free account and start a project.  If you come across a page you want to keep for reference, just add it to your project with a simple click. It's more powerful than organizing bookmarks.  iCyte enables you to highlight and save text on any webpage, allowing you to recall the most relevant information. You can save sections of webpages or the whole thing.  Webpages you "Cyte" are saved forever on the server, letting you return to your research even if the webpage has been deleted or modified.  The sites I used included howstuffworks.com - a valuable site to learn the details on just about anything.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

RSS, Feed Readers, and why dial 411?

This month my daughter incurred over $7 worth of charges from calls to 411 on our latest cell phone bill... frustrated, I told her to "just text me and I'll look up the number for you"... her friend, listening in on the conversation, says "just text GOOGLE" (466453)... she quickly demonstrated by sending a text to GOOGLE, with the contents of "Cold Stone Creamery"... boom, within seconds, the nearest Coldstone Creamery location and phone number was texted back!  You can also get weather information, stock quotes, and more... check out more texting tricks at google.com/sms.

Ok, so ever get annoyed by all those quizzes and game invitations on your Facebook News Feed?  Did you know there's a way to avoid visiting the Facebook site but still get all of your friends updates?   Here's how to avoid it but still see what's going on with your friends:  RSS.  Really Simple Syndication.  Blogs, news services, audio, video, etc. are all fed by syndicated "feeds" to whoever wants to subscribe to them.  With a feed reader, you can monitor all sorts of information in one location.  A favorite feed reader of mine is Google Reader.  To follow Facebook with Google Reader, you need to subscribe to the feeds you want, i.e posts, notes, and status updates :


To subscribe to your friends posts, go to http://www.facebook.com/posted.php. On the upper right in the shaded box is a link titled "My Friends' Links" with the RSS logo next to it. Copy that link address/URL (right-click on it and copy the link address) and then subscribe to that URL in your feed reader.  In Google Reader, you would "Add a subscription", and paste the URL you just copied.  You can get the Notes feed by going to http://www.facebook.com/notes.php and repeating the same steps.  For the status updates feed, it's a little trickier as the Facebook powers that be don't advertise the feed... but it's there, just take one of the URLs you copied above and edit it... change the text in the URL that says "friends_notes" to "friends_status."   I edited the text in the browser location dialogue at the top of Google Reader... make sure you keep everything else that came before and after that text the same... after the feed loads, subscribe to it...

Ok, so it's a bit cumbersome to set up and it's not the true Facebook experience, but you may find it less noisy as you wade through all the updates...and with a mobile phone it's ideal... Google Reader is a great iPhone app.  Now you know how to avoid the Facebook noise and we learned a bit about RSS feeds in the process...  while you're at it, add YoungStop.com to your feed reader!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Web 2.0 ? Look no further than mint.com

One of the reasons I started blogging was to learn more about Web 2.0 concepts and the services that advertise themselves as such... one such site that is leading the way to the next generation of the Internet is mint.com.

"The best FREE way to manage your money" is how mint.com advertises itself... and I have to agree. Who doesn't like free?! I've used many financial software packages over the years, going all the way back to Andrew Tobias' Managing Your Money on an IBM/XT clone running DOS. There was Microsoft's Money, and Intuit's Quicken, which remains the standard (not for long?) when it comes to managing your finances. If you do any sort of online banking and budgeting, you owe it to yourself to take a look at mint.com.

Mint removes the pain of setup, requiring just the account information for your banks, credit cards, loans, and investment accounts. That is the extent of the data entry required to get up and running. Immediately, Mint pulls in your balances, purchases, stock trades, etc. to give you a complete picture of your finances. All account data is kept up to date automatically.

Worried about Security? Mint provides bank level security to your data. Mint is read-only. You can't move money around with Mint. Mint actually increases your financial security by providing alerts on possible fraudulent activity. Check out this video on Mint's approach to security.

So where's the service you ask? Mint has intelligence with algorithms that analyze your spending habits.  Mint downloads and categorizes transactions daily. When Mint adds new features you don't have to do anything, the features will be there when you log into the site. No software to install or download, it's ready and waiting for you.

Mint's user interface is second to none. It's clean, edgy, responsive, and easy to navigate. Mint is ahead of the curve with it's mobile support and iPhone app. You have access to your financial status from anywhere at any time... there are plenty of reviews online you can read, so I'll sum it up by stating no other service can give you this level of detail about your complete financial picture this easily.  Did I mention it's FREE?

Web 2.0 - If Mint is any indication of the services we can expect, we will enjoy the ride.