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.

From Good Stock.

Making Your Own Stock: A Primer…

I like to make my own. No doubt about it. It is hands down the best way to make better soups. Good stock. It’s easy, inexpensive, and it’s an efficient use of vegetable portions that you might otherwise discard. The basics of this are obvious enough. Take some vegetables, throw them in a pot of water, boil it for a while, strain it, done. But there is certainly some nuance to be had and some insight to be shared.

Vegetable Stock is the simplest stock to make. In it’s simplest form, you could take:

2 onions, chopped

5-6 carrots, chopped,

4 stalks of celery, chopped

1 head of garlic, crushed

a toss of salt and some peppercorns

10-ish cups of water (cover the goods)

Bring everything to a boil, reduce heat slightly so that the boil is gentle, not roiling for 1.5 – 2 hours. Strain it with a colander. Use it now or freeze for later. Stocks can be kept frozen for about three months before they lose their magic.

Sure, that’s simple enough, but it’s lame. And it looks like a recipe, this is stock! And why bother using all of those perfectly tasty carrots and onions when you can be even more environmentally friendly? What I do is to keep a large freezer bag that is just for cuttings. This includes the spines of kale and assorted greens, onion and garlic skins, the butt ends of celery and cabbage, and various peelings from cucumbers, carrots, and just about anything that is a vegetable. I say vegetable but need to specifically exclude fruits, root vegetables and tubers. You will find many a seasoned cook that tosses in the potatoes and turnip as well, but I find that it just starches up the stock unnecessarily, and if you want a nice clear stock that is useful for all manner of cooking beyond soups, well, just skip the potato peelings.

Summers provide an obvious abundance of the fresh vegetables that make for the best stock, but I think you will find that year round, you have plenty of fodder for the stock pot. The bag just pops back into the freezer for safe keeping after the dinner and salad prep time concludes. Bring the bag out and have it right next to the cutting board with you and it will fill all the quicker for the convenience and it’s well worth it. Once the bag is full, you’ve got enough to make your own custom stock. As a brief aside, I say to not be afraid of a little dirt either. rinse your veggies of course, but we’re going to clarify this later anyway, so don’t fret if a little dirt on the celery is involved, it’s good for you, trust me.

Take your full bag of clippings and toss them into a stock pot, if you feel your clippings are too ‘green’ feel free and modify the pot with some more carrots or onions to suit. Cover the goods with water and boil gently for 2 hours as above. You stock will be all the more complex and the richer for the varied ingredients and will certainly improve your soups dramatically. You may be tempted to start throwing lots of peppercorns, bay leaves and salt at your stock. I say to resist. While a bay leaf is a fine candidate to subtly flavor a soup from it’s inception and certainly belongs in the clarified stock when you’re brewing up the final product, it’s best to let your stock be a little plainer for the sake of versatility later on. I resist adding herbs other than parsley as well for the same reason. And in my opinion, salt and pepper, while essential, should be added later, at least mid-way through the actual soup preparation once ‘tasting’ begins…

One of my favorite things about creating an all vegetable stock is that we get multiple uses per vegetable and extend the cycle. We of course enjoy the fresh carrots on our salad, but the peelings go into the stock bag and create stock. Once the stock is strained, all of the boiled down vegetable cuttings go into our composter and spin around for a few months. Finally, it becomes excellent dirt for our modest vegetable gardens enabling fresh carrots to grow again. Cycle complete!

For a chicken stock, we of course use the same vegetables, but we add all of the chicken bones and carcasses collected over many nights of dining on the fine bird.  A separate freezer bag is kept for chicken bones and yet another for beef bones. Saving the little bag of gizzards, liver and such that comes in the carcass of a whole chicken and tossing them in the bag is a must as well. The difference in cooking the chicken stock is that a lower heat should be used, something just above a simmer and of course a much longer cook time accordingly. Plan on at least 3-4 hours on the stove. Beef stock works in very much the same way, but utilizing the bones from steaks and shanks and of course cracked soup bones that are generally available for short money at your local meat market.

The last thing that needs to be covered is clarification. Indeed we can use the stock as is. It will be flavorful and delicious, but it’s a little dirty, hopelessly cloudy and frankly, just not as pretty as it can be. If you want to make a consommé or aspic, this cloudy mess simply will not do. To clarify your stock, you will need little more than an egg and some cheesecloth. Let the stock chill to at least room temperature before beginning the clarification.  In fact, just cover it and come back tomorrow. Don’t put it in the fridge. Don’t put anything that hot in the fridge, it’s ridiculously wasteful, just let it hit room temp and then refrigerate if you must. Meat stocks may need degreasing. The easiest way to degrease the stock is to skim the fat from the top once it has separated after refrigeration. You are welcome to keep this fat for all sorts of other uses, as it will prove an excellent cooking oil for sure.

After degreasing, separate the egg and feed the yolk to your dog. Keep the whites and the eggshells. Crush the eggshell into bits and add to the whites in a small bowl or ramekin. Add a small amount of lukewarm water, 1.5 Tbsp or so and whisk the egg white, shells and water with a fork briefly. Dump this mixture into the pot of stock and whisk it around a bit to evenly disperse. Turn the heat back on to medium. The key to this part is that you want the heat to come on gradually, and you do not want to disturb the stock. Once ‘medium’ has been attained you will see that egg begin to do it’s work, separating the gunk from the glory. Turn the heat up another notch to medium-high and await a gentle boil. Once that boil hits, shut off the heat and move the pot to a vacant burner.

Let the pot cool again. When it’s cool, it’s much easier to remove the firmed egg on the top with a spoon. Get the biggest bits and whatever is easy, but don’t go crazy, the cheesecloth will get the small stuff. Use a colander here, over another stock pot or reasonable container large enough to hold your finished stock. Line the colander with cheesecloth. I use at least four layers to strain through. Pour slowly. Clean the cheesecloth under cool water and repeat. Two strainings should suffice.

What’s left is a beautiful, translucent stock that would make my grandmother proud. Taste it. If it is too weak, boil it down a bit to strengthen it. A little salt at this point can aid in bringing out the true flavor of your stock. Your stock can be used as a base for soups of course, but portioning it into ice cube trays makes for an easy additive to all sorts of sauces and meals. Using stock in lieu of water when making rice, couscous, and other boiled grains provides an immediate boost in your culinary prowess as well, quickly adding that special ‘something’ to an otherwise simple side. I firmly believe that the simple act of making your own stock makes you a better cook and gives you another ingredient in your arsenal to bring your meals to the next level. That and a nice bottle of wine of course…

An Open Letter To The Voters Of Dover,

It is a time for action, and it is a time for some positive change here in our local government. While there have been a few small contentions as of recent, in my view, they have served us well as a town in that they have brought more people forward. People that want to get involved and to make a difference. People that care deeply about our town and it’s well being. People that care about the prosperity and growth that this area deserves. Our Board of Selectmen has been working very hard to address these issues and to achieve a great many goals, but they rarely receive the due appreciation for their efforts. I hope to join them in this thankless pursuit, so that we may keep Dover the truly wonderful place that is is to live, to work, and to raise a family.

Southern Vermont has been my true home for my entire life and I take great pride in this area, the quality of life, and the quality of the people here. I have tremendous respect for the history of this town, and as a younger candidate, I admit to having a keen eye toward it’s future. As a local business owner in Vermont Geeks, my desire to see technical and financial growth is obvious and my ability to help us realize this great potential is perhaps my greatest asset. But perhaps even more important is my desire to communicate openly with the residents and the business owners and the tax payers of Dover. My desire to hear the whole story, and to hear the varied opinions, so that I can do my best to accurately represent you as a whole. I am the type of person who prefers to consider things professionally, not personally and will strive to do just that.

I look forward to bringing greater transparency to our proceedings and making better use of the internet and media to help communicate with our townspeople, improving dialogue and debate in the process, so that decisions can be made swiftly and with the best interest of our voters.

I have agreed to take part in the candidate’s forum on Thursday, September 3rd, and very much look forward to speaking to many more of you there in person, and to hearing what you have to say. Thank you for your consideration and please do take the time to come out both for the forum and to vote in the special election on Sept. 8th.


Colby Dix

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.

Why Colby Dix Is Running For Dover Selectboard

Communication, Common Sense, and Common Decency.

Communication is first and foremost. There seems to be a real lack of genuine communication between our board and the residents of Dover, I aim to change that with better use of technology to get the information to the people. Communication is a two way street and those lanes must be open so that we may adequately listen to our constituents and base our decisions on the majority and not solely on personal preference. I also vow to promote better transparency in our local government, with less hiding behind the over-used Executive Session and promoting clarity in our statements, arguments, and decisions.

Common Sense has also taken a backseat to personal agendas. This is just not the way of Vermonters and it should be something that we can all strive for. Simply evaluating issues, proposals and expenditures with common sense in mind will relieve much of the in-fighting and disparate opinions. We are a community, and a small community at heart for the majority of the year, but our appeal to the resort market is undeniable. Maintaining strong relationships with all local businesses, from Mount Snow to the sole proprietors that ‘get the work done’ around here will only improve our surroundings and further establish pride in our local economy and it’s well being. We must be fiscally conservative, but we must remain open minded to the possibilities and the opportunities that change can bring to our area.

Common Decency is the third directive and every bit as important as the others. Kurt Vonnegut once said ‘Perhaps a little less love and a little more common decency…’, to which I couldn’t agree more. At times our local government has become downright uncivil to constituents and fellow members alike. This is absolutely unacceptable. Respect for our neighbors is paramount to furthering our goals and realizing our potential. Listening to our allies and opponents alike only makes us stronger in our ability to decide with truly educated opinions. Close mindedness will only keep our town from prospering and stunt our growth in a time when growth is much needed.

I am running for Selectboard at this time primarily because I do not feel adequately represented. I am a young, local, small business owner. I was born and raised here in Vermont and take great pride in it’s history and future. I can no longer sit idly by and hope that these things will just work themselves out. I feel an obligation to get my hands dirty and get to work for my fellow townspeople, and for the benefit of our town. I am fiscally conservative and socially liberal, and am well known to listen to both sides of the coin before making my opinion known. I welcome the opportunity to hear from any and all of Dover’s voters, whether it be to ask me a question, or tell me what they think.


Colby Dix

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.

Spiced Ham.

Who doesn’t love SPAM? Originally produced by Hormel in 1937, the loveable lunch meat travelled with our soldiers into WWII and beyond, winning the war and living on as ‘Hawaiian Steak’ to this day. Why, even still, if you find the means to travel to Hawaii, you will find it on the menu at McDonalds and indeed as ‘SPAM musubi’ at even the finest (well, maybe not the finest) Hawaiian restaurants. Mmmm, SPAM. There’s even a SPAM museum. It’s in Austin (Minnesota, not Texas), and they’ll tell you all about the great pork-ish goodness. And I personally feel that is one of the best websites out there, no kidding. You should really check it out. But what about the OTHER spam?

Other spam? Like New Jersey’s Taylor Ham, which predated Hormel’s offering by nearly thirty years? Ah yes, life in the days before SPAM. Or maybe you’re thinking about ‘Treet’, SPAM’s evil, cheaper twin?

More likely I am just talking about junk mail, or more specifically junk email. Spam is the scourge, a canker, a true menace, nay, a POX upon us all! It is, with no exaggeration, the worst thing about having internet connectivity. All of the other things out there that may be unsavory or just not quite what I feel like looking at just yet, might be there, but I have to try and find them to an extent, unless my fiends send it to me, which is a LOT like spam. Spam just shows up, unannounced, asking me all sorts of rude personal questions about what I’d like to see larger and how soon. It’s horrible, truly, just how pervasive it is, far worse than the simple flyers and junk mail and even the old school Ed McMahon trying to sell me a magazine schtick (I really didn’t need another year of ‘GRIT’ magazine, but it IS Ed McMahon).

So what to do? If your email address is already receiving spam, well, there’s not a lot you can do. There is no ‘do-not-call’ list for your inbox and there probably won’t be for some time. The worst truth is, that the spam is your fault.

Boooo. Hissss. Sorry, but it is. Remember that time you visited a website about those adorable little dolls you like so much and to get to the article you wanted to read, you had to ‘register’? You gave them a real email address didn’t you? Because you’re a good person, and believe in the decency of others. I believe in the decency of others too, if I can see them with my own eyes, but that’s about as far as it goes. The internet? Nobody’s policing it very well and honesty is by no means a virtue out there. There’s no ‘editor’ and there’s no censor. It’s all you. So make up a fake email address. I do it all the time. Any time that I want something out there, be it information or a link to a file or something that they put just beyond my reach and ask me to ‘register’, I throw them an email address that doesn’t even exist. If the registration requires a valid email address, then I have an email address through yahoo that is junk specific. The only time it gets checked is immediately after i click that register button, and that’s it. Any free email account will do for this, gmail, hotmail, yahoo, etc; they’re all just fine.

Your own email address, the one that you give to family and friends? That’s sacred, no sharing. I go so far as to recommend three email addresses at the minimum for any web faring fellow. One for friends and family, one for internet shopping/online lifestyle, and one for junk. This way, you have one that you check everyday, as it’s likely to contain information you might actually WANT to read. The shopping one is separate, because, like it or not, the people you shop with are going to send you emails, and probably sell your email address to someone else so that they can do the same. But you don’t have to look too closely at this one, unless it’s christmas day and Amazon’s two day shipping takes seven days. By online lifestyle, I’m referring to internet networking sites such as facebook and myspace which send you constant updates that are redundant and ridiculous. The junk one is obvious, we’ll just leave it alone.

But wait Mister Dix, I have a business email address and it’s already getting pummeled with junk mail, what do I do? – Sally, Sandusky, OH

Well Sally, nice to hear from you, there’s plenty that you can do. Filters are the best defense available to everyone. Junk mail filters in Outlook and Outlook Express specifically can be set up to push junk mail around based upon obvious words, phrases and senders. Adding them is a must and it might be tedious to setup, but the drastic reduction in wasted time checking email can be well enjoyed. Mac Mail does a particularly good job of ‘learning’ your junk mail habits and is quite frankly, the best program to receive email in. This isn’t just a Mac fan-boy speaking, it really is remarkable how well it filters once you’ve taught it to respond based upon the messages you receive. Another fine thing that may be available to you is server-side filtering. If you have a website and an associated email, then your host can tell you about this, but essentially, we hosts can block a whole slew of blacklisted IP addresses, reducing dramatically the number of useless emails in the inbox. Another quick tip is this. NEVER OPT-OUT! If you receive an email saying ‘click here to remove yourself from our mailing list’ DO NOT CLICK HERE. That just lets them know that you are alive and received the transmission. Best to just lay low and hope they go away.

Spam accounts for nearly 80% of all emails worldwide and salt makes up over 8% of SPAM’s mass.

I’d repeat that, but you can just go back and read it again for effect if you’d like. The truth is, it might be time to toss that old email address and start fresh, with some new knowledge under you caps and toques. A clean slate is not as hard as it may seem either. A simple email to the people that you care to hear from informing them of your new address is all it takes, and you’ve got that friends and family thing all set up. Save that slightly tarnished one for shopping and the like for now. This way, we can prevent some of that idiocy from ever coming your way.