Category Archives: Deerfield Valley News Column

Let’s Recap.

So what’s up with the geek? How come that Colby fellow is just plain lackluster in terms of content? Well, you can call it writer’s block, you can call it enjoying the summer months, or you can call it just plain busy elsewhere.

But the truth is, i’m a little stumped for relevant material. So this is a call to action. I am looking for some questions, direct or indirect, regarding topics that you think need covering in this column. I can of course go back and hit issues previously addressed and i suppose that’s exactly what i will do…

It’s summer, and it’s been a glorious summer here in Southern Vermont, but let’s not forget about lightning. Sure, it’s been a sunny summer and the gardens are lush and fruitful, but lightning storms crush computers and electronics in an instant. Uninterruptable power supplies are essential if your data is essential, and a quality surge protector will suffice for the rest of us. Let’s be smart and not just plug our expensive things directly in to the wall okay? Good.

Definitions. A while back I went about writing a couple of articles regarding the terminology of a handful of useful tech items so that perhaps we could all easily converse in a language that was mutually defined. No sense regurgitating that drudgery here, but rest assured there i an archive online. it’s at:

Shopping online. It’s huge. Well, for me it certainly is. I am a preaching locavore when it comes to food. And this year is a good year to be just that. Start simple, you probably have a neighbor within three miles that has chickens and fresh eggs. Make it happen, say hello. They’re probably cheaper and so much better for you than any factory farm produced junk that could have salmonella. Know Your Source! Then take it up another notch and get some milk. Did you know there are cows here? Milking cows? It’s true. Oh yeah, and you can get a CSA farm share from the Boyd farm that’s not only reasonable, but supports local farmers in the best way possible. Not to mention the fair number of roadside farmsteads with a plethora of fresh produce. Or just park your car somewhere near my house and leave it unlocked, there will be squash on your passenger seat when you return. So anyway, yeah, shopping online. I buy all kinds of things online. If you’re worried about internet security in that regard, you need to not be worried, as much as educated. Be sure that you are paying through a secure site and if a deal seems too good to be true, well, there it is…

Mac’s vs. PCs. Mac’s still win. But PC’s are cheaper. So go ahead, the economy stinks.

Home Theatre? Same as before. Things keep getting shinier and less expensive. HD content is becoming more and more prominent and it’s fantastic. Duncan Cable is working on a new HD distribution system with great promise and we’re eagerly awaiting it’s full rollout, we’ll keep you posted! 3D is still kind of a joke. Cool for gaming and animated movies, but the home experience is still in it’s infancy. We’ll see if this not new technology can somehow do what it has historically failed to do… Succeed.

SPAM, the delicious Hormel product, and ubiquitous junkmail that we all suffer from. I still say the best defense is to protect your email address and to have multiple email addresses for just that reason. One for family/friends, that you NEVER give to an outside company. One for online shopping, and another just for junk that you can use to ‘sign up’ for random bits of online information and otherwise ignore.

Word. Well, they’ve gone ahead and released Microsoft Office 2010, and early reviews are outstanding. It’s much snappier than 2007 and cleaned up a little, so if you didn’t bother with 2007, but upgraded your computer somewhere along the way, well, I say go for it. Especially if you’re running Windows 7.

I’m quite sure that everyone could use a reminder about the tragedy of data loss and the need for at least one backup if not two. Online backup solutions are convenient and inexpensive insurance. Having an external hard drive that backs up your data automatically is a no brainer with the cost per GB dropping daily. If you’re not backed up, you WILL lose your data eventually. So there’s fair warning.

Viruses morph and change constantly, but the basic tenets stay the same. we’re still a fan of Microsoft Security Essentials for free and while there are a number of fantastic paid solutions. ESET Nod32 has been consistently fantastic for a long time.

Recycling. Yes we still gripe about recycling. One good thing has occurred since that article. The WSWMD has gone forward with accepting pretty much all forms of recyclable plastic. I applaud their efforts greatly, especially as it is by no means a money maker to do so. As well, it’s gotten a bit less expensive to recycle your old computers and peripherals. Just bring them by your local transfer station and pay the fee, don’t dumpster them, that’s just bad karma.

So there’s a general recap of a number of topics we’ve covered in the past. Sure, I’m mailing it in with this article, but there’s some gems in there somewhere, I’m sure of it. If you have questions or would like a specific topic covered, send me an email at and we’ll see about making everything better in your geek world.

So you want to be a geek?

So you want to be a geek huh? Being a geek isn’t something that just happens overnight there sparky, some are born with it, and others train for a lifetime, only to lapse into normalcy before the age of fifty. Being a geek means different things to different people, but it might best be explained simply as obsession. Pick a topic to be obsessed about. Maybe it’s Anne Frank, or Abe Vigoda, maybe it’s using COBOL to compile your music library database. Any topic will do really, so long as it isn’t something that’s inherently popular.

Once you have that topic chosen, it’s time to do the homework. Read everything you can on the subject and form definite opinions that may or may not be based on factual evidence. Stick to these opinions even after they are clearly disproven. Talk about your subject to anyone who will listen, and then continue to talk about it once they’ve turned away. Reinforce your own beliefs by restating them often and you’re well on your way.

It will also help you dramatically if you make this one very difficult choice. Star Trek or Star Wars? Sure you can easily just go with Star Wars if it’s 1985 and only three epic movies were made, but it’s 2010 and they hammered us with a second trilogy of mediocrity, forever tarnishing the name. And Star Trek? You’re going to go with the tribbles?!? Unconscionable. But a choice must be made, and it is a difficult one. Extra points if you go ‘Deep Space Nine’ only, or forsake them both for Battlestar Galactica and net double points. Take it a step further by having a well reasoned argument prepared for or against the Starship Enterprise vs. a fully functional Death Star.

Buy at least four small, unnecessary, but shiny electronic items. Extra points for being able to attach them all to your belt simultaneously. At least one of these devices should cost more than a weeks worth of your current salary, which is minimal, because you are a geek. Using these items should frustrate you to no end. Upgrading them is de rigueur, and talking about the next revision before it exists is perfectly acceptable.

Your clothing can’t be particularly stylish, at least not all at once. Sure, a nice pair of jeans is fine, but only if paired with a shirt that says ‘Don’t Panic’ on the front with the name Zarniwoop above the number 42 on the back. Shoes should be Chuck Taylor All Stars, unless you are a shoe geek, like me, which is probably one of the most appalling types of geeks around. It does improve the overall ‘look’ when I sport a well worn pair of Carhartt painter pants with some spiffy Cole Haan’s, no doubt about it.

As an electronics geek, you must be willing to spend hours, if not days, trying to make something work, without ever having the slightest desire to read a manual or call any manner of tech support. They clearly can’t help you. Any software installation ‘wizard’ will be wholly ignored. Extra points for authoring or modifying your own video or printer driver. +4 for calling tech support after three weeks of mucking about to tell them it’s ‘defective’.

Playing video games, it’s a given. Just like knowing which house you would belong to in Hogwarts. -10 for Hufflepuffs, no exceptions. Knowing the definitions of non-words like pwn, grok, and n00b. Dressing up as a paladin at Halloween is cool, dressing up as a dwarven warrior is really cool, seeing a girl dressed up as a night elf druid is epic. Being able to count in binary using your fingers and showing it off at cocktail parties. I can’t tell you how popular this will make you.

The downside of being a geek is that as your geekness increases, the amount of questions asked to you about any technical problem increases almost exponentially. At first it’s flattering, but after a while, it’s just madness, din, and vex. Using the word ‘vex’ as a noun is worth even more points, regardless of the impropriety. The best part about being a true geek is that it doesn’t matter what your answer is, so long as you offer it up with confidence, in truth you can take that broken thing and google up a fix as fast as anyone else out there. Being able to implement that found knowledge is where it’s at. Everyone has google, just like everyone had a set of Brittanica’s, or in my case the geekier World Book’s, but those who could actually use them to great advantage, well, they’re winning.

Yep, it’s a pretty good time to be a geek. Our time has truly come. Sure it’s painful as can be at the high school level, but the infinite rewards are out there, and most of us couldn’t un-geek ourselves if we tried. So I say to go for it, learn a programming language and annoy your teachers by constantly staying ahead of the curve with technology, because at some point, even the geekiest of us all, have to stop, stick with what we’re surrounded with and let go. Like an upside down kill screen in Ms. Pacman, all things must end. But I for one have plenty of time left to keep reaching for the next gadget, to see the Star Trek reboot and like it, and to re-read the entire Harry Potter series, or at least listen to the audiobooks. I’m a geek, it’s what we do.

“A Geek Falls Upon Tough Times” or “The Frugal Geek”

Someone keeps talking about a recession, but I never had a whole lot of money so it all looks pretty similar to me. But what is a geek to do? They keep parading out new shiny things with lights and buttons that tempt and draw us in. Like that ridiculous iPad thingy. I have no need for it, it’s little more than an enlarged iPod Touch, yet of course I am captivated, longing to make it mine. But I can’t justify a material purchase in this rocky fiscal environment, no sir. And frankly, I’ll wait until they start blowing them out at $300 and add a usb port. But still, what is a geek to do? How can we maximize our tech budget, or better yet, how can we save money? Today we’ll focus on a few key tips to provide just that.

Here’s the first one, and it may be too late. The holiday buying season and the Superbowl came and went, and maybe, just maybe, you made it through without buying a new flat screen. Maybe you didn’t make it, but if you resisted, good for you. The prices that magically appeared just after ‘Black Friday’ (Monday for us internet shoppers), have stayed and perhaps dropped further. And they will continue to do so. My advice is to hold out as long as you can. If you’re looking at a specific model of television, wait for at least a 25% price drop off from it’s original retail price. And don’t get too caught up in the 1080p, 120Hz, higher numbers are better idiocy. It’s a lot of fluff. They are better, but the amount they are better aren’t generally justified by the price. For the human eye at 20/20 to actually perceive a difference between 720p to 1080p, you’d have to be sitting closer than 5′ from a 42″ screen. My mother told me not too sit that close to the television. You can now get a very good name brand 42″ 720p LCD or plasma for less than $500. That’s just awesome. Somebody paid $1000 for that same shiny box less than a year ago. Sit ten feet away and enjoy.

Want a new computer? Well, it might be time. It’s a fine time to get one, they are cheaper than ever. A decent Dell laptop is sub-$500 now. We are nearing the end of a technology cycle in terms of computer processors and hard drive design, so those components in addition to all major companies decoupling warranty coverage from your purchase has made them all the more affordable. By decoupling warranty coverage, I’m talking about the fact that when you call the 800 number you talk to someone with less than spectacular english. You used to pay more for your computers so that they could provide you with decent service after the sale. Apparently, this quality, as with so many other things, is the first to go to make sure that we can have it cheaper. Sad. I have a Mac, not that it’s ever needed service, but I promise you’ll be talking to someone stateside when you call. If for some reason you bought a computer within the last couple of years, you may be best served by upgrading the RAM and perhaps the hard drive to maximize performance for short money. Why buy new if you can upgrade your current machine and improve productivity for $150 or less?

Leakage. Where is the leakage? Sometimes it’s as easy as taking a closer look at your monthly credit card statement. Hosting a website? You’re almost definitely paying too much. I happen to know of a local company that will certainly save you money on that. Paying for your antivirus program? Sure it’s not much, but it’s really no better than the free versions available in Microsoft Security Essentials and AVG. If you don’t watch a lot of current release television shows, drop the satellite/cable bill and start streaming them online. streams even the biggest new release television shows the day after their on air premiere, and it’s free. Have a Netflix account? Drop it to one disc at a time and check out their stream on demand service. The selection is limited, but it’s pretty cool. If you have a XBox 360 with a Live account, you can stream Netflix through that direct to your television. Or pick up a nifty little wireless box from Roku to make it happen. Or maybe that new TV you just bought has it built in. For real, they make that. Telephone bills driving you to the poor house? An internet phone is a no brainer, especially if you are making any international calls. Vonage is solid, but we recently switched over to Ooma for even our business lines. Great service and all but free after your initial hardware investment. There are even more high tech ways to sweeten the phone deal utilizing Google Voice and other services, but they get pretty in depth and going into it here would bore even me.

Perhaps the best way for a geek to survive the downturn is to stay vigilant. I strongly believe that taking a bit of that new found idle time to educate yourself to new technologies is time well spent. Just brushing up on more recent versions of software that you already use regularly can make you all the more productive and effective in your current position. This is no time to sit idly by. The job market is rough as can be and your skills may need to be much sharper if you find yourself suddenly without work. Take some of this time to push yourself forward and to break through some of the walls that have crept up around you while you were otherwise occupied. Invest in yourself, clean up your own web presence, whether it’s an out of date website, a long lost myspace account (at least go to facebook), or just checking your search engine rankings, there’s no doubt that some part of you or you business has been neglected and can use a facelift. What kind of impression are you giving online right now? Take a look at what’s out there and be honest with yourself, it can always be better.

So that’s just a handful of things, and maybe you’re doing just fine and none of this applies to you. In that case, feel free and give me a call, I’ve got some business ideas for you. But if any of these makes you think even just a little bit about ways to improve your inner geek, well that’s good. I say go for it, and I’ll be happy to help. I will also accept an iPad as payment.

Taking it to the next level, whatever your level is.

Perhaps heard most often on the phone is the phrase ‘I’m not really computer literate’. At least I hear it a heck of a lot, and my response that I usually keep to myself is ‘Well, why not?’. The time for that to be an acceptable position is long past. Personal computers have been part of our landscape for over three decades and they have only become increasingly intuitive. The amount of free help out there is daunting, and while you get what you pay for, google and wikipedia have put the old door to door Brittanica fellow out of a job. There still exists among a large portion of our population a reticence to accept computers on both an intellectual and visceral level, and frankly, it’s just unacceptable. ‘Be wired or be gone’ is another phrase bandied about and it rings true for a great number of reasons and at all levels of human existence. This is not a fad, this is not a demo, the burn in period is over, computers are an everyday, every hour part of life.

Now some may scoff, wince, and turn the page at this, mumbling something about never owning a cell phone, or maybe that the set of World Book’s from 1986 is all they need to reference any question they have about the platypus. And I will not deny them their say as I had that very set of encyclopedias and felt smarter for having them, in 1986. I also got my first Apple IIe computer at roughly the same time, and by no means do I take for granted the printed pages and their part in my education. I was fortunate though, to have that computer at such an age and to have Mrs. Millett, my third grade teacher as a early adopter and advocate for computers in the classroom and beyond. My generation was the first to receive hands on use of computers at an early age in the public school system. This is why we have little or no fear in computing today, and it’s also why your grandchildren can show you how to navigate the menus with ease on your flat screen television, tivo, iPod, GPS, blackberry, you name it. I was setting the clocks on the worlds VCRs when I was a boy, but today kids that age are writing simple programs that can control the appliances in your home.

If you have moved past the first stage of technology acceptance, the second level is the ‘user by rote’. This type despises any and all changes to a computer, program, or system, but can work efficiently for a near eternity, so long as the order of actions remains the same. I still have many customers that fall into this category, and they are invaluable members of our workforce. They just want a list to follow, and they prefer it stay ‘just so’. A computer upgrade is not an upgrade to them, it is a hinderance, and at times a return to zero. These users would just as soon stick with an outdated, virus-ridden operating system than upgrade to newer, faster, more secure lifestyle. To them Windows 98 was the zenith of computer development and any changes since have caused more trouble than not. Many of them have a poster of a kitten perilously clinging to a branch with the phrase ‘hang in there’, posted near by. Another tell tail sign of this user is the number of times they click the button on the mouse. A double click for everything? This person has not adapted to change well at all.

Moving past this stage we have our most feared user. He who knows just enough to be dangerous. Clearly this individual wants to accept and use technology. It is likely that, some well meaning IT professional or youth has shown them enough keyboard shortcuts and tricks that he feels empowered. Empowered enough to buy into the newest technology, an iPhone perhaps, only to have it seemingly blow up in his face when those keystrokes don’t apply similarly. They usually power through however, and the best advancement for this group can be found when they are not afraid to ask questions, or seek out help.  Help menus and google are invaluable to them. These are the folks who got burned by the Lord Voldemort of operating systems, Vista. The early adopters of that system can barely say it’s name without vitriol, if at all, and deservedly so. They are also the rather vocal majority that has everyone repeating the scorn in mockingbird fashion. Vista has gotten much better, but they’ll never know it, it’s on to 7! And good riddance I say. 7 is a cleaned up, streamlined Vista 2. Believe the hype, as much as you believed in the maligning of Vista, 7 is solid.

And then there’s fools like me. I want the latest, bleeding edge, beta version of everything. I don’t care if it wipes out my entire computer, I can fix that. I’m the one who was using an internet phone service more than five years ago. It sucked. I still have it, although under a different moniker, and now it’s great. I still have my first iPod, the first generation one that’s as big as a deck of cards. They can fit as much music onto a player the size of a thumbtack now. I have a Mac computer museum graveyard that I should really do away with. It begins to remind me of how much those things cost and how quickly they depreciate. And yes, I always upgrade to the latest operating system, and it’s good for you that I do. That way, when you call and ask me if you should upgrade, i can give you a hands-on response which typically is, ‘not yet’. We are societies beta testers, and we get taken advantage of by the big companies for our inability to resist their shiny claims, but it also puts us in the position to resolutely pan an emerging technology that doesn’t live up to it’s advertising ballyhoo.

So I need you, and you, like it or not, need me. I’ll be vetting these new trinkets eternally, and on the far end, you will accept these pieces as useful, but only after they’ve become so ubiquitous and inexpensive that it’s a near impossibility to functionally exist without it, and that’s just fine. By that time, I will invariably be on to the next, and I can’t wait.

The moving target that is malware.

While I have been as busy as ever with work, life, and amusements, it’s certainly time for another article. This week, we’re talking malware. The traditional computer ‘virus’ has taken a backseat to the far more prevalent ‘malware’, ‘spyware’, and more recently ‘scareware’. Let’s start with a brief history of viruses.

Old school viruses and infections were usually little more than simple pranks and exploits, ‘mostly harmless’ if you will. Sent as a ‘worm’ that spread easily to others. But things quickly took a turn for the worse as hackers and crackers took to creating viruses that would not only spread and pop up goofy messages, but that would, in fact, erase portions of your data. And that’s just not nice at all. More recently they aim to get your credit card information, which is not amusing either.

The trojan horse method of infection involves a simple disguise for the virus, more often than not running alongside some other desirable piece of software that you said ‘yes’ to, not knowing that there was something else lurking beneath it. Pop-up windows were extremely effective mediums for these viruses until it became frighteningly obvious that pretty much EVERY pop up window is a bad thing. And they are. Any website programmer worth his salt will strongly advise against pop-ups in any form as they are not to be trusted and are just plain annoying. Trojans were originally created for notoriety. A good programmer could use a virus to show the holes in a popular piece of software, gain notoriety and eventually land himself a better job for his efforts. Not landing a better job however can easily lead to bitterness and unfortunately, the viruses became all the more malevolent as an effect. Phishing is the art of crafting an email or a popup that looks legitimate, but links you to somewhere very much the opposite. Some of the most popular phishing scams used Paypal and various bank logos to create very convincing looking emails telling you to login and verify your information. No bank will ever ask you to do this via email. If an email asks you to ‘click here or your account will be deleted’, it is lying. It has nothing to do with your account and wants you to type in a credit card number. Someone in Brazil or India is collecting numbers right now, making a lot of small transfers, and getting away with it.

Spyware is one of the more recent terms that is generally associated with bits of malicious software that are used to track your browsing habits, log your keystrokes, and otherwise gather information about you or your accounts. They are built to make money. Many of these exploits are unlikely to ever show themselves to you as you work on your computer. They are just running in the background, in hiding, waiting for your passwords, and sometimes just sending your browser history to a company looking to collect data for advertising and promotion. Eventually you may find that you get more emails related to your browsing habits. This might seem like a good thing, but it really isn’t. Companies like HP, Google and Microsoft all use spyware to  gather information about you. They are not nearly as malicious, but HP in particular installs enough junkware with a printer installation that tries to sell you ink, paper, and lifestyle to ruin your day. This may seem harmless, but it adds up fast. If you aren’t using the latest greatest computer with plenty of RAM, all of these little programs constantly running can slow your system down substantially. All of those ‘toolbars’ that you installed, they are spyware. All of those ‘customer feedback’ options that you checked off (or that you simply didn’t UN-check) installed another bit of spyware. And now your computer is slow. Bummer eh?

Malware is a portmanteau using malicious and software. And that was clearly a gratuitous use of the word ‘portmanteau’. This malicious software is meant to infiltrate and potentially damage your computer without your proper consent. Usually they are small bits of software that you inadvertently obtained while browsing an insecure website. But as of recent, even websites that are generally considered safe including the New York Times website have been hosts to some nasty malware. Myspace is positively soaked with malware, and of course, pornographic sites have plenty of it to offer as well. No longer constrained to pop-ups, the viruses can be easily attached to a simple jpeg picture or flash software piece. The most recent spate of malware has been downright nasty. Without getting too technical and talking about bots and rootkits, I will tell you that it has gotten very sophisticated and increasingly hard to remove. It uses ‘backdoors’ created with one small bit of software to download another malicious component. It hides itself well and it hides itself within a daunting number of files, many of which are essential to your computers operation.

The most recently coined phrase in the world of computer viruses is perhaps scareware. Scareware can best be described as a more advanced form of phishing. If a pop-up that looks very much like a virus scanner comes up an alarmingly pronounces that your computer is infected, it may not be lying, but it could very well be the virus itself. Clicking the button to clean it will do nothing of the sort, it will only dig it’s hooks in deeper. If the message is from the virus software that you personally installed, then by all means, trust it to do it’s job. But if it’s unfamiliar and not from your recognized software, well, frankly, you might as well call the geeks immediately because it’s a real pain to get rid of.

So what is the average computer user to do? Buy a mac? Absolutely. Sure they’re more expensive, but they’re great computers, and how much money will you spend over the life of your computer on anti-virus and professional removals? Stick with your old windows box? Fine by me as well, those viruses make us money. But you really must keep your anti-virus software updated. There are a great number of companies offering paid and free anti-virus solutions. Our favorite this month is none other that Microsoft’s Security Essentials. It’s very comprehensive, and it’s free. We have had excellent luck with Norton, AVG, and Avast! in recent months as well, but it’s an ever moving target. The programmers are working on another unbeatable code for tomorrow while the AV companies try to patch up yesterday’s breach. There is no end in site to this cycle without all of us becoming more educated computer users.

The best advice perhaps is to just be careful out there. Use some common sense when clicking on links. If it uses the word free more than three times, it’s probably fake. If it’s a company asking you for personal information, think twice, or go the old fashioned route and call the company directly to verify the post. If you must view questionable websites, then you really need to educate yourselves to some more advanced protection methods. Simply using a browser other than explorer is probably the simplest thing that anyone can do to be more secure. New products like GeSWall offer insight into the future of protection and we look forward to them being more end-user friendly. I have a feeling that 90% of the time, a user has a moment, a split second before clicking that mouse button, and they realize that their next move is potentially unsafe. The key here is to restrain yourself, and to quickly ask, “Is this the right move?”. Perhaps not. This might not please you, but very nearly all infections on the computer are the fault of the user. Don’t feel too bad though, because they’re trying awfully hard to attract you to that shiny ‘yes’ button with all sorts of claims good and bad that will surely improve your life somehow. So contrary to my ‘geekness’, I will postulate that the best way to improve your life is not the ‘yes’ button, but the ‘off’ button.

Colby Dix is co-owner of Vermont Geeks and is far more scared of computer viruses than he is of H1N1.

Clean Me.

How about a little spring cleaning in August? This weeks column is all about the cleaning and organization of your friendly and mostly useful computer. Without fail, everyone is guilty of a little bit of haphazard file management on their computer. This is normal and it doesn’t make you a slob or a bad person, but a little bit of help in this area can certainly make your life easier.

So let’s start with file organization. Some of this may seem obvious, but it’s frightening how few people take advantage of the built in file structure of Windows. The simplest way to put this is that there are two places that your personal documents and files should be. Only two. On your computer desktop, or in your ‘My Documents’ folder. Do not save a recipe list to the root of the C: drive. A much better place is to open up ‘My Documents’, create a new folder called ‘Recipes’ and save it there. There are a number of ways to create a new folder, but perhaps the simplest is to navigate to the place you want this new folder to be (in this case ‘My Documents’) and right-click within that folder so that a contextual menu comes up. Scroll down to ‘New…’ and select ‘Folder’ from the new side menu. Windows will automatically create a folder for you aptly named ‘New Folder’. You may notice that the title of this folder is highlighted, which means it’s ready to be edited, just type in the new name (in this case ‘Recipes’), and hit enter. Now you have a recipe folder, nice.

The best reason to take advantage of this folder structure is for the upgrade process. When you get a new computer and want to transfer your old info to the new, searching the computer for folders scattered every which way is not only cumbersome, it’s downright irksome. Using built in tools like the ‘Files and Settings Transfer Wizard’ grabs your desktop and documents and prepares them for an easy transfer to the new machine, but if your files aren’t in those two places, it’s not going to keep them. Sorry.

Another key point as far as organizing these files takes place in the ‘Save’ dialog box. This box come up whenever you hit ‘Ctrl-S’ or the ‘File, Save’ command for the first time. So let’s say we’re using Microsoft Word, and we’ve written a letter to the editor of the Deerfield Valley News in support of a certain ‘geek’ candidate. It’s full of praise and admiration and it’s almost perfect. When you click on ‘Save’, where does it go? By default, with a new document it routes you to the ‘My Documents’ folder. If you have opened an existing document, it will automatically save it to it’s previous home. Within that ‘Save’ window, there are a handful of options that are generally available regardless of the program you are working in. At the top of this window is an address bar indicating your current location. Directly to the right of it are a number of small icons that can help you navigate through the folder structure. One other important icon looks like a folder with a little red ‘star’ in the upper right corner. This symbol can be pressed to create a new folder, directly from the save dialog, which can be very handy indeed, as previously explained.

On the left of this dialog there are a handful of common locations to save to, be it the Desktop, My Documents, or My Computer. Approaching the bottom, there is a place to name the file, more on that in a moment, and a ‘Save as type:’ area. This one can be very important. Depending on the program you are using, there may be a multitude of options here. This is important to note in terms of compatibility. If you are using Microsoft Works instead of Word, this is where you would select the option to save as a word document if you need to share it with others.

Back to the file name. Let’s go over some naming conventions. You can name files just about anything you want, but I can’t help but stress to you all to stop using special characters. If it isn’t a dash or an underscore, do not use it in the filename. Absolutely no periods, or apostrophes please, they create the most trouble when it comes to file restoration when your hard drive fails or when transferring data. Avoid using slashes for dates such as 09/08/09, and either opt for dashes (09-08-09), or no punctuation at all (090809). Spaces are generally okay, unless the file is going to be uploaded to the internet, where spaces are messy. So let’s just say that it’s a good habit to drop them too. As an example, I like to name files thusly; ValleyNewsArticle082709.doc

So there are a couple of tips to get you organized. Sure it made for a somewhat boring read, but sometimes the information is more important than the associated entertainment value. If it helps, you can imagine that I was wearing a pink shirt while I wrote it, or that I incorporated recorded laughter and applause to motivate me while writing. Fine by me.

Geeks Recycle Too.

Hola, amigos. How’s it going with you? I know it’s been a long time since I rapped at ya. But I’ve been swamped with work, rain and a desire to be a better person. With that desire, I have landed on a single conclusion. One thing indeed, that I might do that will improve my karmic state and my place in the good graces of the planet. I’m going to recycle more.

Sounds easy. Should be easy. But nothing is easy is it? Sure, we can put our newspapers in a bundle and cart them to the bins, cardboard too, maybe even a few plastic bottles, and 5¢ a can isn’t bad at all, but beyond that, it’s downright tough to accomplish. Recycling has been around a while, and this being a ‘green’ state before anything else, you’d think that we’d be on the forefront of recycling our stuff. The truth is, we’re right there with everyone else, and it’s a pretty lame place to be.

The worst is simple plastic. The bins will accept plastic bottles with a neck of any number value. But even if that same number is evident on your yogurt or butter tub, it’s a no go. You can toss it in there, but they’re going to pitch it into their own trash or more likely burn it, which does nobody any favors, especially the environment. So, that means no plastic bags, no plastic lids, caps, or even that snazzy to go container your lunch came out of the deli in. What’s sad is that they CAN recycle this, but they won’t because it’s not worth the expense of storage/transport to them.

The same goes for styrofoam, which is right up there on my annoyance list. Because the recyclers are generally paid by weight, bulky, but lightweight foam = fail. This means that all of your meat purchased at the market, packaged in plastic, sitting atop a nice piece of foam with a boldly indented recycle logo won’t actually be recycled. This means that my business, that receives quite a few items weekly via UPS in cardboard boxes packed with foam peanuts, has at least six 30 gal. garbage bags full of ‘peanuts’ that I have to hide to keep myself from depression. For some reason I keep them, thinking a proper place for them will magically appear. Same for the foam that surrounds electronics in their boxes, nice big triangle with arrows on it implying it’s ‘green’ and friendly, but where in fact can this possibly go to be recycled? A quick call to the WSWMD in Brattleboro to ask where I could possibly recycle the #6 polystyrene received an answer stating that I could drive it to New Jersey if I wished. And that is exactly why they don’t bother. Trucking a huge amount of low weight styrofoam to NJ costs more than whatever they could receive from the recycler.

Wal-Mart Canada recently launched a polystyrene recycling program that takes your peanuts and turns them into fire-resistant commercial insulation, which is a win-win somewhere along the line, and a great idea. But I have a better solution. It turns out that brick & mortar UPS stores accept packing peanuts. The closest stores to our area are in Williamstown, MA, Greenfield, MA, and Keene, NH all of which confirmed to me via phone that they will indeed accept the peanuts. So there’s a start.

Now for the next easy one. Plastic shopping bags. If you’re like me, you have a drawer or cupboard that is just teeming with plastic shopping bags stuffed into plastic shopping bags. Bring them back to the Shaw’s in Wilmington, they have a nice bin for ’em that implies that they will be recycled, and heck they’ll even discount your purchase total by 3¢ for every bag you reuse on the spot. In Ireland they’ve begun using a tax to curb plastic bag usage with excellent results. This will no doubt irk a few (my conservative leanings included here), but a 15¢ tax per bag at the grocery will certainly help me remember to bring that cloth bag in from the car when I pop in for a few things.

So what does this have to do with computers and tech? Well, first off, it’s a fair bit like tech things in that it is somehow just beyond common knowledge to many of us, regardless of how often it is right before our noses. And of course I’m going to go into computer recycling now, how could I not?

It is absolutely imperative that you recycle your electronics properly. eWaste is by far the most hazardous of our recyclable refuse. Not recycling it is in my opinion vulgar and despicable. While there are very few places in the US that accept eWaste and recycle it properly, there is at least enough profit in it for our local WSWMD to deal with it and ship it to the right people, which they do, for a fee. I know you don’t feel like you should have to pay to recycle anything, because we all deserve just about everything for free, but if you can’t afford $10-$20 to retire your old equipment properly, then burn it in your own fireplace and keep the fumes to yourself instead of spreading them on to others.

Or, alternatively, you might be able to recycle it for free anyway. If you bought a new computer to replace the old, there are options. Many manufacturers have very reasonable programs to do it right. Apple will give you two FedEx barcodes presumably for both a CPU and a monitor that even pay for shipping back to them for free recycling of your old system. And if you have a dead Dell and buy a new Dell, they’ll take your old one for free and pay for shipping as well. When I recycle this way, I go so far as to take other failed components (motherboards, modems, etc) and toss them into the cpu case and get it as chock full as I can before shipping it off to them. They haven’t yelled at me yet, so why not pass on the fun. RadioShack will take all of your batteries, so stop throwing them in the trash as well. Staples will pay you for recycling your printer cartridges there. They’ll pay you!

What about compact fluorescent light bulbs? CFL’s are great, but have mercury in them. You probably didn’t realize that did you? Well, in five years or so when they finally burn out, bring ’em down to our local ACE Hardware, Deerfield Valley Supply, and they’ll take them off your hands for proper recycling without question.

One more thing, how about a compost bin? Make your own dirt! This is family fun people, it’s like a smelly party in the backyard. It’s so easy and there’s a lot of ways to get it done, but it will reduce your weekly rubbish dramatically and your dump runs will be all the more pleasant for it as well. Everything from paper towels and egg cartons to coffee grounds and egg shells can jump in there and make you some fine tomato growing soil.

So there it is, perhaps my geek-iest column yet. But I’m going to be a better person for it. Thanks for trying to recycle at least, I know it’s a complete pain in the tuchus, but really it’s worth it. It might be another couple of miles on your Suburban, but you might offset that carbon emission with a few key stops along the way.

Back it up, Mike!

This week I will add to your paranoia. It’s not enough that ignorance surrounding the ‘swine flu’ has everyone running scared (try washing your hands), but I’m going to use some good ol’ fashioned scare tactics to get you to take data loss more seriously. The fun part is that I don’t even have to bend the truth or mislead you in any way. Straight up truth will be enough to have you tossing and turning, thinking about your files.

It’s not a question of if your hard drive will fail, it’s a question of when. It is estimated that a computer hard drive fails every twelve seconds. Close to 50% of US computer users have experienced some manner of data loss due to a virus, hardware failure, or other malfunction. I believe that the other 50% just don’t realize that they’ve lost anything yet. I ask, plead, and tell customers constantly to back up their data. It’s sad just how few of them do. The only people who tend to backup regularly are the ones that have been badly burned before. Even in the business world, less than 40% of small businesses have any backup at all. Of those that do, the strong majority report that backups occur less than thrice per year.

My main work computer is a Mac laptop. It’s shiny. It’s just past a year old, which means the included warranty is up. Two weeks ago on a Saturday, my hard drive died. Completely. Full on, no recovery happening, DEAD. While this is annoying, I did not cry. Nary a tear or flushed cheek was to be seen. Why? I had a backup as of Friday afternoon. OSX has a nifty built in backup software element that backs things up every ten minutes to an external drive. At work, I have just such a drive that is always connected to my laptop. I didn’t have a drive available immediately, and I was leaving town anyway, so it wasn’t until Tuesday that I recovered to a fresh, new, and larger drive. Brand new mind you, still in the wrapper. And what happened on Friday following this complete and total recovery? Drive #2 failed. Not irrecoverably, but it failed. I sent it back and got a replacement, and I have yet to lose a single email (touch wood). Of course this was all an inconvenience, and the sad truth about the quality of even new hard drives is depressing, but knowing that my files were still there somewhere had me resting easy.

To be sure, the Mac OSX operating system makes it terrifically easy to back up and restore single files to complete systems. It is yet again a shining example of elegance and usefulness. That said, there are plenty of fine alternatives on the PC side of the aisle. One of our favorites by far is backup software by Acronis. It’s what we use when we clone a customer’s failing (not completely dead) drive, to restore to a new one. The consumer editions of their software are not free, but are by no means expensive when you compare the cost of trying to recover off from a complete failure. Increasingly, online backup storage has become more accepted and widespread. So long as you have a high speed connection to the internet, this becomes a viable alternative. A number of companies offer free and paid services for online backup of your information. The biggest advantage to online backup is that it is off site. So if the unthinkable happens and your home and office both go up in flames simultaneously, your data is still safe. With that in mind, having two places to store your data is one thing, but having those two sources in different locations is far better insurance.

One of the simplest things that you can do is to purchase an USB flash drive. They drop in price constantly, and a 4GB ‘stick’ is plenty to store pictures and documents for most home users. That way it travels with you, or maybe you lock it in the fire safe, or maybe you keep in in your sock drawer. Redundancy is key though, because a drive failure is dramatically closer to reality than a fire.

Just take a moment and think about the information on your computer. As they become more and more ubiquitous, and as constantly as they are a part of our lives, the data on them becomes more important. Is there data on there that if you lost would affect you financially, such as your Quickbooks files, stock portfolio tracking info, or your business plan that will surely change the world, if only you could get financing? Is there data on there that if lost would affect you emotionally such as your family photos, songs that you wrote about a mean girl, or that motivational note that you wrote to yourself to ‘keep going’? Is there data on there that you could stand to lose, but would be a total PITA to replace? Depending on your answers to these simple questions, you will likely find yourself in need of a proper backup scenario. Do it. I can’t tell you how much information I would have lost if I didn’t have that backup, but it saved me in a lot of ways.

So what happens if you don’t have a backup? What do you do when the computer is just done? We have a handful of nifty ways of recovering data, even on failed systems, and we’ve had excellent results and feel confident that we can recover quite a lot of information. A client came in with a laptop that had been stolen from him, and then dropped in the woods, left exposed to the elements for over a year. Caked with mud, and corroded inside and out, the harsh VT seasons did this computer no favors. All of our normal recovery attempts came up with nothing more than a sharp clicking sound when the drive itself was plugged in. With nothing left to lose, Tim Bayers, the mad scientist, put the drive in the freezer overnight. I won’t explain the science behind it, but the next day, we were able to get the drive spinning for long enough to pull the essential data with some advanced (pricey) software that we use for just such a situation. So all is not lost, even if it’s lost. In truth, the next step beyond our software not being able to recover info, is to send it out to a company that does hardware recovery. This is a horrible option, not because of its efficacy, but because of the cost. It generally costs $1500 and up for them to simply look at your drive. So unless that data is truly irreplaceable and of a real value, it’s not something you want to do.

With all that in mind, you can know for certain that buying an external drive or subscribing to an online service is cheaper than recovery. If you calculate downtime costs, and/or the cost of re-entering information manually, the numbers can become frightening in a hurry. At the very least, grab a blank CD and backup your ‘My Documents’ folder, that’s some cheap insurance right there, assuming that you actually organize your files properly in the ‘My Documents’ folder, which I’m sure that you all do.

Internet Insecurity (A Geek’s Rant)

I intend to go on a bit of a rant with this weeks column. Maybe it’s because I overslept, or under ate. Maybe I’m just not feeling warm and fuzzy just yet surrounded by the melted mess of mud season’s beginning. Maybe I’m tired of sitting at a desk when it’s so warm outside. Maybe I just feel like ranting…

Big brother is watching. A lot of people think that their habits on the internet are private. They believe in fact, that time spent in the low light hours with a flickering screen are perhaps moments unto themselves. They are wrong. There is nothing private about the internet. I mention this, because it has been brought to my attention a number of times in recent weeks. The truth is, your ISP can look at everything that you are doing. They can tell exactly what sites you’ve visited, they can tell exactly which files you’ve downloaded, and they can even read your emails. Realistically, I doubt they care to pay all that much attention unless you are doing something that waves a red flag, such as consuming a fair amount of bandwidth.

I say a ‘fair amount’, as it should be fair, you’re paying for that bandwidth, you should be able to do with it what you will. But when they see spikes and sustained high usage, they check you out and try to figure out why you would do something so crazy as to us the internet that you’re paying for. If for some reason a portion of your bandwidth was used to download something not entirely legal, they will shut you off. If you were downloading something that was indeed legal, they often temporarily throttle your bandwidth down, effectively slowing down your service. Satellite providers are notoriously vicious in terms of throttling.

All of this is within their rights of course, it’s in the fine print. But what about when it slows down dramatically and you weren’t doing anything remotely close to illegal or using all that much bandwidth. Sadly, it’s because of our location. The local providers simply can not handle the load during holiday weeks and the busiest parts of the season. It’s not economically feasible for them to be able to. Putting in the infrastructure to handle that level of traffic is a massive expense, and one that is unlikely to occur soon. That and it’s spring, so we can expect smooth internet until the lightning comes.

So what else is bothering me this week?

Rebates. I love a good deal as much as the next guy, probably more in fact, but rebates are a sad joke. The companies that handle rebates are rarely the company you are buying the product from. The economic climate being what it is, these small-ish rebate companies often dissolve well before the absurd 10-12 weeks that it takes to process your request (read also ‘collect interest on your funds’). But the requests themselves, they are what bothers me the most. Original receipts, UPC codes that can be removed from packages but only with a surgeons skill, circling and highlighting the item on the receipt, noting the product number on the envelope, no P.O. boxes allowed even though you’re sending your request to a P.O. box. I fill out rebates all the time and am pleasantly surprised when they return with a cash-able cheque, but I certainly don’t count on it.

‘The customer is always right.’, WRONG. I can’t believe how many people use this as an excuse to be a jerk. Stop it. I have no problem ‘firing’ a bad customer, and I certainly don’t expect anyone to treat me as royalty simply because I am a customer. It’s absurd. Be nice to people. That’s it. Whether you’re the customer or the vendor. The ‘customer is always right’ attitude empowers abusive customers and can net them better treatment than the nice people. If you enter any business with any attitude other than one reflecting common decency, you deserve little more than to be shown the way back outside.

Another customer issue I would like to bring up is the ‘somewhat informed shopper’. This style of customer is why we at our store make almost no effort to be a retail outlet for anything. For a while, we were happy to offer people excellent values on computer systems. But after a spell of customers asking if they could get the same computer online or at Wal-Mart or Staples for less, and my unceremonious answer of ‘yes of course you can’, we pretty much gave up on the frustration. The margin was already minimal, but expecting a couple of guys in a small store in West Dover to beat any price anywhere is just ridiculous. These days we generally just tell you where you can get a good deal. And of course we’ll help you to set it up properly and keep it running smooth for you. Some people might need a dog to kick, but I don’t have to be that dog.

These traits can apply to customers for all sorts of businesses. And if anything, I’m just asking for a little tact and decency from the world at large. But, that should be enough for now, no need to go on ranting and sounding negative. In truth, I am feeling much better for having let some of that out. Looks like a nice day out there…



today. the word is word. word. microsoft created this little program called word for public use back in 1983, and with it, incorporated the ‘mouse’ for the first time in a commercially viable format. that is not to be taken lightly. this was most certainly the first program that took the ‘mouse’ as a peripheral device and paired it with a program with a fairly complex set of commands that only worked with word. it also grabbed hold of the file extension ‘.doc’, short for document, and began it’s quest to be ubiquitous.

it being a kinder and gentler computer world in the mid 80’s, a macintosh version was released in 1985, which absurdly led to word’s widespread acceptance. this may seem a bit on the edge of ridiculous, but the mac was one of the first machines to incorporate WYSIWYG across it’s program line and word was the first program to properly take WYSIWYG seriously.

WYSIWYG (pronounced ‘wiziwig, or more simply, was-e-wig) refers to ‘What You See Is What You Get’, enabling the user to actually see the end result and layout of a document without the knowledge of the layout commands that are required. that is to say that making a phrase appear in italics or bold, happens right there on the screen and is not represented by such archaic glyphs as “FontStyle::Bold” or other things that the computer requires to interpret your meaning. you can just hit a quick ‘ctrl+b’ and the text shows up bold an beautiful, forrester family style, with no need for you to learn a programming language. please don’t take this for granted. i personally rather hate dislike the sheer number of languages that i must speak to get my point across on a daily basis, and word in fact made this easier for us all.


so what the &*$% happened? why is it that my word documents aren’t compatible? it’s not 1983, they’ve had plenty of time to work it out. right? compatibility is hell, it is a moving target and a fleeting moment, a stolen kiss at best. making perfect sense when you turn and pucker, only to be stung repeatedly by those bitter and mocking wasps that take a moment to gently beat their wings, close to your cheek, waiting for you to open your eyes just to realize that she’s already gone inside and that the door is closed.

word became king for a while, and in software terms, this is substantial. please don’t bother with petty arguments for window works, claris, and the like, they are nothing, and if you bought into them, or if your computer came with them, you got served. you tried, and you might have had a ‘save as’ or ‘export’ command that could barely get you out of a jam. but as soon as you ventured into that uncharted territory, you could count on your font sizes, margins, indents and page breaks to go completely berserk. whatever it was that you worked on for hours, slaved over perhaps, when presented to those that cared to read it, you looked like you skipped the reMedial typing claSs that was offered at thE


but that wasn’t your fault was it? not really anyway, i mean, how many things must you know? how many programs? how many languages?

what’s truly sad is that it hasn’t gotten any better. between 2003 and 2007, things at least stagnated. works talked to word reasonably and mac users just figured out that they were wrong and had to use a microsoft product on their macs or suffer the pointing and laughing much akin to an embarrassing locker room shower episode. the truth is. word is still the king, but the real problem is that word is no longer compatible with word. at least not initially. in 2007 they did the unthinkable and ‘upgraded’ microsoft office. if for some reason you rushed out to get this new release, i am sure that you were stunned at it’s brilliant retooling and comfortably similar layout to versions past. (that’s meant to be sarcastic). in reality, i compare this new version to having someone come over to your house and reorganize your kitchen, putting the juice glasses and salad tongs where ‘they’ think the items should be. sure everything is still there , but darned if you can find anything quickly or when you need it. furthermore they went and changed the file extension to .docx by default. tossing the trusty .doc extension out with the bath water.

what is docx? a new standard that appends file data in an XML component. no need to overcomplicate this, in truth it is indeed a better standard and will make things MORE compatible. but for now, that one new computer in your network that is running microsoft office 2007 is saving files that all of the other computers can’t open, even if they are running a previous version of office. this is awful, but there is of course a solution.

the best panacea is to download the microsoft office compatibility pack, from microsoft’s website to all of your computers running older versions of office. this allows you to open those docx files with relative ease. the second part of the solution, which is optional, is to make your computer that is running office 2007 save the files in the old school .doc format. i say it’s optional, because in time, .docx will be the de facto norm and make everyone’s lives better. mac, pc or linux, everyone will see pretty much the same thing, and that’s going to be great. the problem is that it’s still a way off at this point and sending people files that they can’t open because they aren’t aware of a ‘compatibility pack’ download just ends up irritating them. to change this default setting, get word 2007 up and running. go to the big circle in the upper left and choose ‘Word Options’, select the ‘Save’ tab on the left. At the top of the next window, it lets you choose the option to ‘Save the files in this format:’. make the selection in the box that follows for ‘Microsoft Word 97-2003 Document (.doc)’. Apply your settings and breathe a sigh of relief. you just made everyone’s lives a little easier. hopefully someday soon you can change it back to .docx, but i wouldn’t count on it this year or next for any reason.

one other thing, if you’re on a pc, download a little program called ‘CutePDF’. it can turn pretty much anything into a .pdf file. portable document format files are awesome when the persons receiving a file do not need to edit the document. any computer can read them for free and it virtually guarantees that what you see is what they will get, and that’s nice too.

Colby Dix is the co-owner of Vermont Geeks. He still has a robin’s egg blue underwood compact typewriter, and it’s dusty.