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Student High Tech Hygiene

I wrote this when I had 2 kids in University (and 1 about to go), the year was 2011. Student Computer Safety was important as I ran my own I.T. shop and many times the system failed. They failed due to heat, failed power supplies, and other things. Have a Plan “B” in this situation or you will be very sorry.

As part of my regular duties as the father of University Students, I must act as the I.T. support for all computers bought in my house. I actually enjoy keeping my skills up to date with all of this, but it is also a very nerve wracking job, when the kids are long distances away (remote I.T. is not an easy thing). I used LogMeIn (a free utility) to try to do some elementary remote debugging, but inevitably the problems are fairly bad and not easily fixed over the phone (and LogMeIn is no longer free either)

Last term I ended up with both of my daughters’ computers BSOD (Blue Screen of Death) to the point where 1 of the machines would not boot. The following is my opinion of Laptop Computers in general and HP Laptops in specific:

Kids treat laptops with very little respect and laptops (in general) are more fragile than their manufacturers wish to let on. That being said, HP laptops are the work of the devil and should be avoided at all costs!!

Me – 2011

Please treat this as only my opinion, but keep it in mind as well.

In the end my daughters had to beg, and borrow computing devices from friends to attempt to get their school work done, while their machines were being repaired by the technicians at the school book store. Using the technicians at the University Book Store can be a hit and miss proposal, sometimes the machines are back running in A-1 form, sometimes, not so much, however at the end of it both my daughters managed to muddle their way through it all, and I swore I was going to take measures not to have to live through that again.

With this in mind (and I view this as a Finance issue, because all of the costs in both time and money), here are my tips for student computer safety:

  • If your child is going to take a laptop with them to school, teach them that the machine is not a toy, and should not be jostled and chucked around like it is indestructible, it is not. It is very destructible, and if it has a hard drive that spins, this disk will eventually break from being moved while running.
  • As a precaution find an old  computer that they can use as a back up computer (a desktop machine), you can find these cheap all over the place, and create a lifeboat (more in the following section).
  • If your child really wants a portable computer look at something that has a Solid State Disk in it like the Mac Air, or some of the tablet computers. The main thing that breaks in a laptop is the disk drive, if you can eliminate it from the equation, your life is much simpler.
  • Anti-Virus the hell out of your kids computer, and point out that each thing you download has virus or malware in it, no matter what you think, it is all bad, and that if their computer dies because of it, there is no sympathy for them (tough love)
  • Warranties for these computers seem like a good idea, but find out what the warranty gets you and how the service will be done (having to mail something away for 4 weeks, ain’t really gonna cut it). I used Costco’s concierge for some warranty work, which was very quick replacing a broken power unit, but not so helpful with a flaky hard drive.
  • If the data is important (i.e. documents, projects, pictures, etc.,) back it up in at least 2 different places, using Google Documents, a USB memory stick and/or a USB Shelf Disk Drive. If you have backups you haven’t lost your work, you have just lost your device. If you don’t back things up, you are asking for trouble. You can even just mail stuff to yourself and back it up using Gmail. Remember to test your backups as well (BEFORE you might need them). Backing up data is great, making sure you can use it after it is backed up is IMPLIED.
This was MY University Computer

LifeBoat Computer

The one thing I am doing for one of my daughters is creating a Lifeboat computer. Remember a Lifeboat does not need to be as powerful or as good as the system it is going to act as a temporary replacement for, it simply needs to let the student limp along as best as possible, using the data that has been backed up. It needs to run a subset of whatever tools the student needs, and be able to connect to the Internet (no it can’t be an old XT or AT that you found in your basement).

Don’t spend a lot of money on the Lifeboat or it will simply become another computing device for your child to download crap onto, it is a use in emergency resource and that is it. In my instance my daughter’s boyfriend had an old Pentium-4 system that seems to fit the bill just fine.

Computers are now an integral part of all post-secondary students’ lives so now you must take steps to make sure it is as safe as it can be.

Other Back to School Thoughts?

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Computer Tinkering at Home (case study)

I think I finally understand why friends spend so much time on the hobbies and projects which they love. For background, the past few days I have spent many hours tinkering, fixing, patching and fiddling with my family’s computers, and I actually had a good time doing it. I can hear a few of you saying, “Couldn’t you find something better to do with your time (like flossing your cat’s toes)?”, and the answer is No, this type of stuff is fun to me.

Is it really worth me doing all this work or would it be cheaper to take the computers into a Computer Place (e.g. Best Buy, Staples, or Big Al’s Computer and Donair stand) ? That question always comes up when I start on these kind of projects, sometimes it is me who asks, but many times it is Mrs. C8j who is asking it (i.e. she wanted me to be doing something else that she deems more important (possibly feline toe flossing)).

Where I cut my teeth on computers

As with the folks who tinker with cars, they could get their cars fixed by a licensed garage, but there is a feeling of accomplishment and a bit of pride when you fix problems (and the joy of the frustration you build up trying to fix the problem) by yourself. How can that be put in monetary terms?

This quandary is much like writing this blog, I make about slave wages writing this tome (not that I am complaining, I only mention this for comparison), I could make more money working overtime at work, or refereeing basketball games or the like, but I get a certain level of enjoyment doing this (even that really weird post about the Departed on Tuesday).

Is it Worth Doing?

I have also learned that most computer shops can do competent jobs fixing up computers, but I usually end up tinkering with machines even after they are “fixed” to understand why they broke in the first place (or to figure out whether I created my own problems, by creating problems from “fixing” other problems). Sometimes all I really needed to do was run an Anti-Virus program.

Do you have a hobby that sometimes monopolizes your time (to the detriment of earning real money)? Do you rationalize why you do it, or do you simply enjoy it?

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CRTC Proves that Monopolies are Good

I wrote this many years ago, but isn’t it refreshing that “…plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…”? The CRTC continues to protect the monopolies.

For those of you who are not techno-dweebs or geeks (like I am), you may not have noticed that this past week the CRTC ruled in favour of Bell (and Rogers, I would assume) in their battle with Service Providers who “sublet” bandwidth from them and repackage that to customers (specifically Teksavvy, but others as well) that they must uphold Bell’s Usage Based Billing rules when they repackage the service.

Previously, companies like Teksavvy allowed you to have unlimited usage for a month, with no “caps” on your usage of broadband access to your house. This meant you could run NetFlix, YouTube, and many other bandwidth hogs with impunity, without having to worry about overrunning your monthly bandwidth allowance and then being gouged by your Service Provider. Remember, I have already Needed to Ask for special dispensations from Rogers for the same kind of problems (so this is a topic near and dear to my heart).

This is another blow to those who are unimpressed by the Monopoly that the Major  Communication Service Providers have in Canada (for Phones, Internet and Cell Phones), and now we are being held by a much tighter shock collar as well.

However, putting on my Bell Share Holder hat lets me also explain something to my fellow geeks. This is what large companies do. They use their sway and clout to try to crush competitors that are taking away their client base. This was to be expected, and if the CRTC had not made a judgement in their favour, I would guess that Bell would have choked the bandwidth in some other way to stop rampant usage of High-Speed Internet access. You need to be a realist here, and as long as the CRTC (and the FCC to a certain extent in the U.S.), is in charge of this service (or at least make the rules), the monopolies are going to get what they want (sorry to rain on your parade, but that’s the way it works these days).

What can you do?

Nothing.

Simple, ain’t it, though? Not quite true either. There is little you can do to get what you had with Teksavvy again. However, you can negotiate/argue/cajole with your current service provider to get a better deal. I check RedFlagDeals forums to see what other folks have received from Rogers and Bell so that you can get a better deal, but it will not be Unlimited.

If anyone cares to prove me wrong on this one, please post a comment on how it is possible (no, I am not asking for which petition to sign, I mean an actual deal or procedure that gives you unlimited High-Speed Internet access). If I can verify it is legally possible, I will make an entire post about it (and give you full credit, too!).

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Simple Security and Your Money

Do you wander around announcing your PIN number for your accounts loudly on City Streets? If you are doing on-line banking do you yell your Account ID’s in crowded rooms? I would doubt that anyone does this (and if they do, it is within your rights to walk up to them and ask,“In what bizarre world do you live that you think what you just did was secure?”). Luckily all you need is some simple security measures.

Those examples while ludicrous, do happen, and here are some other areas where you may not think you are being unsafe with your money, but you are.

Wireless Phone Technologies and On Line Banking

While I am not part of the Aluminum Foil Hat brigade (to stop from having my thoughts read by whatever security agency you wish), I do not trust wireless technologies at all. My experience in the Telecommunications industry has taught me how these technologies do “security” but it has also taught me a lot about how these allegedly secure systems will be compromised:

  • Do not use your home wireless phone for banking purposes in any way shape or form. Even if the phones claim to be using some type of security between the handset and base station, you would be astonished about how easy it is to turn this security off, without you knowing it. Yes, to listen in it would take a nefarious person close by, but why risk this at all? Use a regular wired phone for this kind of transaction, that way the only people listening must have a court order to do so.
  • Your BlueTooth headset for your cell phone stuck in your ear (maybe creating a cancerous growth, who knows) is the same as a bull horn for anything you say. No matter how you slice it, these devices are the last place you should be discussing or talking about any sensitive information, assume everyone is listening when you talk on these devices (because they probably are).
  • Wireless Cell Phones themselves (the newer ones) have built-in security so they are better, but if you are talking in a public place, where others can hear what you say, how secure is that conversation? Do you buy things over the phone and give out your Credit Card Number on your cell phone? Where were you when you did this? Maybe you could have waited until you were somewhere safer to give out that info?

Am I being overly cautious? Yes, but you can’t be overly cautious with your money and your important information?

Home Wireless Networks in General

If you do not secure your home Wi-Fi wireless network, you are asking for a lot of trouble.

There was the case of the elderly couple who had left their Wi-Fi wide open and an entrepreneur decided to use it to run his kiddy porn site through. The RCMP arrested the couple and it took a while for these poor souls to be exonerated of the charges laid against them.

As an example, I drive to work each day with my iPod turned on, and playing on my Car Radio, and sometimes I forget to turn off the Wi-Fi antenna on that system. As I drive, the iPod picks up countless wireless networks that I pass, most of which are secured, but there are still a large number that are not secured (and I can see them easily). Yes, this is a form of War Driving, which is bad form, but I simply point this out since this is me with an iPod, think of someone with a LapTop, a good antenna and nefarious goals in mind can do!

Some simple security hints for your home wireless network right now by:

  • Turning on whatever security protocol can run on your Access Point be it WPA or WPA2, most lap tops now easily work with these protocols, so you have no excuse for not using them.
  • Turn off SSID broadcasting on your Access Point, once you have everything set up with your computer. It makes it harder to find you, and that is a good thing in Wireless
  • When you connect to a network, make sure it is one you know about (someone can set up an OPEN network near you and then you are connected with no security, and you may not know about it).

Take these simple security steps and your wireless home network will be safer, but still do not do your on-line banking over Wi-Fi, use a wired connection for this kind of transaction, just to be safe. If you use the Free wireless in your Hotel or at a Coffee House, and you do your on-line banking, this is just asking for Security issues, please stop doing this! Free Wi-Fi is great for Instant Messaging and e-mails that are of a non-sensitive nature, and that is IT! (and even then, the system you used on the network view it as compromised).

If you do not secure your home network, people can easily get access to your home computers and take whatever information on them you store and use it to their own devices, so please secure them, right now.

This isn’t my first post about this important part of your Personal Finances, and it won’t be my last either. Remember to be secure with your money.

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Ontario has same Deficit as California?

Being on course this week (and attempting to resurrect my wife’s laptop computer at the same time) has made the entire writing a blog thing a bit of a chore, but a friend sent me a link to a very interesting post.

If you are to believe the numbers the little old Province of Ontario has the same deficit as the State of California (you know, the one run by the Terminator). I realize Canadians have an inferiority complex when it comes to our American friends, however this kind of envy is really not the kind we should be attempting to satiate.

The interesting numbers to look at are:

State/ProvincePopulationDeficitPer Capita Deficit
Ontario11,410,046$21 Billion$1,840
California36,961,664$20 Billion$ 541

Holy crap! Isn’t California also teetering on the brink of Bankruptcy, yet Ontario blithely blunders along not worried?

The rest of the post has some other more inflamatory commentary about Canadian Governments in general and the banking system in specific, that I am not endorsing (although it is an interesting read), but the whole deficit thing is a chilling thought.

Back Up Plans (Redux)

I have talked before about the importance of backup plans for your computers before in Sometimes the Problem Changes, but remember backups of your computers are great, however, if you have not tested the capability to restore data from these backups, you simply have a Write-Once Read-Never system in place.

I luckily backed up most of the data on a 16 GB flash drive, and also used Symantec’s on line backups, but rebuilding a system from scratch is a long tedious task (not made simpler by folks hovering around you asking, “How is it going?”).

Make sure your Restore works!

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