Tag Archives: Laptop

The Problem With Memory Sticks

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… is that you forget you have them in your pocket. According to Credant Technologies, a Texas-based security company, about 9,000 USB sticks have been left in people’s pockets in the UK when they take their clothes to the dry cleaners.

This is based on a survey (no link available; sorry) of 500 dry cleaners across the UK who, on average, had found 2 USB sticks during the course of a year. There are, according to the Textile Services Association, some 4,500 dry cleaners in the UK. A survey by the company of taxi drivers in London and New York last September showed that over 12,500 handheld devices such as laptops, iPods and memory sticks were left in the back of cabs every 6 months.

Taking these figures with the caution they deserve—two? Is that ‘We find on average two thumb drives each year’ or ‘yeah I suppose you could say a couple’?—it doesn’t sound surprising. Indeed, you’d think it would be higher, and, indeed, in the centre of London, it is: One dry cleaner in the heart of the City of London said he is getting an average of 1 USB stick every 2 weeks, another said he had found at least 80 in the past year.

Credant want to remind us that data on thumb drives is probably going to be valuable, and there could be a lot of it. With most drives now at least 2GB in capacity, that’s a lot of files that some bad guy could have access to. Encrypt, they say (using their software, presumably.)

They have a point. Though maybe encryption isn’t so much the answer as asking whether there’s perhaps a better way to carry sensitive data around with you? Like not?

Illustration from Computer Zeitung used with permission

Laptops Aren’t the Problem: The Meetings Are

Some interesting discussions about whether laptops should be allowed in class or meetings. This from Cybernetnews (via Steve Rubel’s shared Google Reader feed):

At the start of my last semester of school, I was taken back when I read the syllabus for one of my classes. It read something like: “laptops may not be brought to class because they distract both the student and the teacher.” For most of my college career I had gotten used to bringing my laptop to class to take notes because I could type much faster than I could write, and sorting and organizing notes was much easier. Here I was in my last semester and the teacher wasn’t going to allow a laptop. I was annoyed, but life went on without my laptop and I had to get used to writing my notes once again.

This is also happening in business meetings.

I definitely think it’s distracting to a teacher or presenter to have people tapping away on laptops. And, perhaps more importantly, distracting for people around them. Speakers at tech conferences can feel themselves battling for attention in a room full of laptop users who rarely look up. I often bring a laptop to interviews and type directly into it; I can tell some interviewees find this distracting, and it’s not good for the ‘hold eye contact to make subject comfortable and stick to topic” routine I try to instill in students.

But laptops are part of our culture now in the same way that notepads and pens were. The truth is that laptops are part of our productivity, and removing them doesn’t make sense since it punishes those people who have succeeded in meshing them into their lives. And besides, few of us have got so much to say, and are so good at saying it that members of the multitasking generation can’t do a few other things while they’re listening to us.

The downer is if the user is clearly not actually taking notes. Or not using the laptop to dig up useful information to contribute to the meeting (my favorite example of this is PersonalBrain demon Jerry Michalski, who can dig up interesting links related to what’s being talked about in seconds). And there’s another aspect to this: the flattening effect of the backchannel, where participants at a conference discuss what is going on onstage among themselves. In one sense this is good, since it gives a passive audience a tool to control the session, but in another it’s simply another distraction.

But I think we presenters/meeting leaders/speakers need to think harder, and throw out the old rule book.

I’ve tried to analyse why I as a teacher find it distracting. One student has been tapping away almost incessantly in class when I’ve been talking. And until recently I’ve had no way of telling whether she’s been writing a letter to Aunt Joan or IMing  or whether she’s so impressed with what I’m saying that she’s taking it down verbatim. But I’ve figured out the solution: just lob a few questions her way and see whether she’s flummoxed or in the flow.

The truth is that while it’s great to have everyone’s eyes on you when you’re talking, rapt fascination sculpting their features into a permanent O shape, those people are not taking notes. We don’t assume that people writing longhand are goofing off (although in my students days that was exactly what I was doing, writing lyrics) so shouldn’t we give laptop users the benefit of the doubt? I’d rather students had some record of what I was saying in class, even if it means they’re also checking email.

The bigger solution, of course, is to ditch the whole ‘presentation thing’ in favor of participation. I know my class are more attentive if they know I’m going to ask random questions of them. An audience is going to be more attentive if the speaker is not merely droning on but offering a compelling performance and engaging them as much as possible. A meeting leader is going to have the attention of the room if s/he doesn’t waste their valuable day giving some PR schtick but keeps it short and genuinely meets the other participant, rather than lectures them.

In short, the onus is always on the person who leads the meeting/class/conference to engage the participants. It’s not rocket science to figure out that all the laptops will clamp tightly shut if the meeting is so absorbing and lively that participants don’t want to miss a second of it, and feel their voice is being heard. And the teacher/presenter/meeting leader should make sure that there’s a decent record of the meeting so those who participate aren’t punished because they haven’t had a chance to take notes.

Laptops have been around long enough for us to have figured out a better way of absorbing them into our workflow. Campuses now have power outlets and lots of tables where students can work on their laptops. This is great to see (and I find it a tad strange that some lecture rooms don’t have the same deal.) These students are used to doing stuff on their laptops, and they’ll enter the workforce with the same mentality. We should be encouraging this. We need to figure out ways to work with this, not against it.

No Laptops Allowed! A New Trend?

Bye Bye, Laptop?

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The day seems to be getting closer when we can do something that would seem to be pretty obvious: access our pocket-sized smartphone via a bigger screen, keyboard and a mouse. Celio Corp says it’s close.

Celio Corp have two products: their Mobile Companion (pictured above), a laptop like thing that includes an 8″ display, a full function keyboard, and a touchpad mouse. At 1 x 6 x 9 inches and weighing 2 lbs, the Mobile Companion promises over 8 hours of battery life and boots instantly. After loading a driver on your smartphone you can then access it via a USB cable or Bluetooth. (You can also charge the smartphone via the same USB connection.)

Uses? Well, you can say goodbye to coach cramp, where you’re unable to use a normal laptop. You can input data more easily than you might if you just had your smartphone with you. And, of course, you don’t need to bring your laptop.

The second product might be even better. The Smartphone Interface System is, from what I can work out, a small Bluetooth device that connects your smartphone, not to the Mobile Companion, but to a desktop computer, public display or a conference room projector  — these devices connect via a cable to the Interface, like this:

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The important bit about both products is that the Redfly software renders the smartphone data so it fits on the new display (this will be quite tricky, and, because it will carried via Bluetooth, would need quite a bit of compression. The maximum size of the output display is VGA, i.e. 800 x 480, so don’t expect stunning visuals, but it’ll be better than having all your colleagues crowding around your smartphone.)

The bad news? Redfly isn’t launched yet, and will for the time being be available only for Windows Mobile Devices. Oh, and according to UberGizmo, it will cost $500. The other thing is that you shouldn’t confuse “full function keyboard” with “full size keyboard”: this vidcap from PodTech.net gives you an idea of the actual size of the thing:

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this is the keyboard size relative to Celio CEO Kirt Bailey’s digits:

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Until I try the thing out and feel sure that the keyboard doesn’t make the same compromises as the Eee PC, I’d rather use my Stowaway keyboard.

For those of you looking for software to view your mobile device on your desktop computer, you might want to check out My Mobiler. It’s free software that purports to do exactly that for Windows Mobile users.

Leaky Laptop

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My friend has brown gunk leaking out of the bottom of her laptop. I’m not able to see it in person, but the above is what it looks like. She says that nothing has spilled on her laptop, but that’s the only explanation I can think of. Could it be something else?

Grynx has a couple of interesting posts on this kind of thing: One post describes rain getting in to a router:

It didn’t look that bad from the outside, but gee it really looked bad on the inside. The brown gook is what was left after the water dried. It seems like the water wasn’t that clean and that it contained a lot of minerals which has rusted.

He points out that the problem is not the water:

The water in itself is not your enemy but what is contained inside the water is. Especially the minerals which will be left after the water evaporates and in this case it went really bad as the minerals decided to corrugate.

I can only assume this is what has happened to my friend’s laptop. Over time the water has gone but left behind the minerals which have corroded the circuitry inside. What can be done about it? Well, the best thing would be to take it in for servicing, but if you wanted to try to resolve the problem itself, there are some interesting solutions among the responses to the post, and in this post on cleaning a laptop that has suffered from a wine or soft drink spill.

Among the tips:

  • Clean the laptop as soon as you’ve spilled something. Don’t just dry it out and think the problem’s gone.
  • As soon as you have done the spill, turn the laptop off and disconnect the power. Remove the battery.
  • The key is washing off the residues. Suggestions: compressed air, rubbing alcohol (which contains Isopropyl alcohol), contact cleaner, WD-40, distilled/deionized water.
  • When you dry it out, leave it for several days. Use a hairdryer and/or compressed air as well.

There’s another video here on cleaning up a spillage from eHow.com.

All these stories, however, have the computer/device not functioning. My friend’s does. But with that kind of gunk coming through, I can’t help feeling its days are numbered.

Update: Apparently, it’s not a liquid spill but a partial melt of the rubber seal around the hard drive, a problem not uncommon in the model (a Toshiba Portege R100.) It explains why the machine is still functioning, for now. Sounds like a design fault they need to fix.

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Marooned at 30,000 Feet

Don’t be fooled: Business class doesn’t have anything to do with business.

Aboard the new Cathay Pacific business class seats, which feel like a cross between a throwback to the cubicles of boarding school and cow pens. Still, they’re fitted out with power sockets — real square ones, which don’t require fancy plugs, so I eagerly rolled up my sleeves for another working blitz. This time around I didn’t even bother to bring my back up battery because on the outgoing flight, despite it being an older aircraft, they carried power adapters for most brands of laptop.

So I was only marginally alarmed when no power came through to my laptop. I pinged the attendant, who looked apologetic and said “There’s a Memo on this actually,” she said, as if that made it all alright. “This flight is HKU which means there’s no power.” She kind of looked as if this was good news; that I’d be somehow delighted by the news and slam my laptop lid shut and order caviar. Instead I spluttered into my champagne. “No power?” I gasped. “This is business class, right?”

She went away to talk to her colleague, who came back with the actual Memo itself. Turns out this flight really does have no power. Well, presumably, it has some to fly the plane, as by now we’re halfway through the first round of drinks and have reached 30,000 feet. But there’s no power to replace my fast dwindling battery, and no one looks like they’re about to thread a cable through from the cockpit or something. So, I’ve got about 20 minutes of battery left, half of which I’m taking up writing this rant.

This is where I have some issues with the whole class system. Surely “business class” means just that? It means that the class is designed for road warriors like me who want to keep working, indeed plan our schedule around it. Instead, we’ve got in-flight entertainment up the wazoo, but no way to actually turn this time into something productive. (And don’t get me started on the lack of free WiFi at the business class lounge at Heathrow. It’s like going back to the 90s.)

Disappointing stuff. I don’t often get the chance to fly business class, but if this is how airlines assign their priorities — loungers, booze and Big Entertainment why don’t they at least change the name to something more apt: Leisure Class, Lazy Class, Lots of Cash and Nothing To Do But Watch Movies and Eat Oysters Class?

Next time I’m going cattle class and bringing six batteries. And if I ever do fly Business Class on Cathay again I’ll ask to see the Memo before I book.

Backing up hard to do, but worth it

This is an edited version of my weekly column for Loose Wire Service, a service providing print publications with technology writing designed for the general reader. Email me if you’re interested in learning more.

Sometimes it takes something like an earthquake to realize that you’re vulnerable.

Once the ground stops shaking and you’ve begun to sense that your life — and those of your loved one(s) — are not in imminent danger, your thoughts turn to the next most important thing in your world: Your data.

Well, of course, that may not be your exact train of thought, but it’s the general direction. So much of our lives are digital these days — e-mails, music, photos, social lives — the first thing we tend to clutch when we’re in trouble is our cell phone/laptop/external disk drive.

Or at least it should be. So what should you prepare for when things go wrong and you need to evacuate, pronto?

Here, in brief, is how to do it:

Whatever can be online, should be. E-mails, for example, should be on something like Google’s Gmail (or Yahoo!, who have launched a new e-mail service that’s at least as generous in terms of storage as Google’s.)

This doesn’t mean you can’t also keep your e-mails on your own computer, but make sure they are also online. Get in the habit of e-mailing important documents to yourself, as well, so you’ve got an extra copy online.

This means you can evacuate in a relaxed state of mind. Well, as relaxed as you can be fleeing a building that is burning/falling/swaying/no longer strictly speaking a building.

Same goes with photos: Get in the habit of uploading your favorite photos to an online photo album service like Flickr (www.flickr.com), because if there’s one thing you don’t want to lose it’s family snaps.

Sign up for the Pro edition if you’ve got the cash and a fast(ish) Internet connection, since at US$25 a year for unlimited storage it’s a reasonably cheap way of backing up.

Add photos incrementally: Just get into the habit of uploading photos to your Flickr account when you upload them from your camera/cellphone to the computer (I’m assuming you do this; you do do this, right?)

Of course, online options are only good if you’re online. And, tellingly, I’m not right now because there’s a problem with the Internet — and quite a big problem, since even my trusty backup connection is down — so you shouldn’t rely exclusively on connectivity.

(The other problem is that as more of us go digital, we can’t hope to store everything online, because there’s so much of it. Our iPods store 60 GB or more these days, which is still impractical to back up online.)

In which case you need to have a hard drive backup. There are several ways of doing this, but here’s the best one: Back up everything on all the PCs and laptops in your house to one big external drive the size of hardback book, which you can then grab as you exit the building in an orderly manner.

Here’s how to do that:

Maxtor offer a pretty reasonable range of backup hard drives — the cheapest are really just hard drives in a plastic casing (good to prevent damage: hard drives are not as tough as they pretend to be.)

Expect a whopping 500 gigabyte drive to cost you less than $200. Attach the drive to a USB port and you’ve now got a seriously large drive attached to your computer.

Then buy a program called Acronis True Image ($50 from here) and make a backup image of all the computers in your house.

(An image is a sort of snapshot of your computer. It’s faster than backing up individual files, but will still allow you to restore individual files or folders if you need to.)

It’s a little tricky to set up but you’ll get the hang of it, since you’re going to be backing up once a week. (Yes, you are.)

If you think this is too much for you and that the only data you really need to save are a few documents, then get a USB flash drive (those little sticks you can put on a key ring.)

Prices have fallen to the point where they’re a cheap option now for up to four gigabytes. I would recommend the SanDisk Cruzer micro, not only because they don’t have removable caps (which always get lost) but because they include software that make backing up important files easy. (Stick the drive in a USB slot and follow the instructions.)

A word of warning: Think hard about what data you’ve got and what you want to save. It’s easy to forget stuff hidden in an obscure folder.

Get into the habit of saving important files — whether they’re attachments, photos, spreadsheets or whatever — into the same folder. It’ll make finding them to back them up much easier and quicker.

Oh, and try not to wait until the building is swaying/filled with smoke/has moved down the street before actually doing the backing up.

Trust me: You can’t count on thinking as clearly as you might expect.

The Jakarta Post – The Journal of Indonesia Today

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A Beginner’s Guide to Saving an Old Computer

(This is the text of my weekly Loose Wire Service column, written mostly for newcomers to personal technology, and syndicated to newspapers like The Jakarta Post. Editors interested in carrying the service please feel free to email me.)

What should you do with an old laptop that is so slow you have time to down a cup of coffee while it gets ready?

A reader wrote to me recently: “I would be very grateful for your advice on how to make my very old (1999?) Toshiba Satellite 2545CDS laptop work faster and less erratically.”

His symptoms may be familiar to you: “Composing this message in Yahoo Mail becomes a hardship. The cursor moves slowly or disappears, to suddenly reappear. The computer is always doing something other than what I want it to do — the hard disk drive light is flickering madly, the drive is whirring, but the cursor won’t move.

“Using the Delete or Back Space key is particularly exciting: you press the key many times and nothing happens until the machine wakes up and wipes out your whole sentence. Appending files to messages takes hours, and when you leave to go to the bathroom the computer has put itself on standby.

“It takes me a whole cup of coffee to wait for the laptop to get ready to do two things simultaneously like proofreading a document in PDF format while listening to AccuRadio Classical.”

The reader goes in a similar vein for several pages in the best description of a computer past its sell-by date I’ve come across. He concludes: “Other friends have told me it is time to buy a new laptop, and I now have a much faster Toshiba Portege.”

But understandably, he’s reluctant to let go of this piece of hardware, with plenty of hard disk space remaining, and better inboard speakers than its successor. So what to do?

This reader has done the first thing right — clean the Registry. The Registry on Windows machines is the place where all the information about your programs and settings is stored. Windows refers to this file a lot, so the bigger it is and the more messy it is, the slower your computer runs (and the bigger the chance of errors.) So you should keep it clean.

The easiest way to do this is via a program called CCleaner (no, that’s not a typo; the first C stands for something a family paper like this can’t mention.) CCleaner is free from here: http://www.ccleaner.com/. Download it.

Then, just to be on the safe side, create a Restore Point in your system in case you don’t like what CCleaner does (you’ll find System Restore under your Accessories/System Tools menu. CCleaner will also let you save a backup of your registry before making any changes).

When you’ve created a Restore Point, run the “Scan for Issues” on CCleaner’s Issues tab (it may take some time). Then click on the Fix Selected Issues button. When this is finished your Registry should be a lot cleaner — meaning the computer will be faster. A bit.

Next stop is to defragment the hard drive. This tidies up the files on your hard drive so they will load more quickly and new files can find a place for themselves without having to split into smaller bits. Think of it as cleaning up after a raunchy party: the files are the wine glasses and plates piled up in the sink, the kitchen cupboards are your hard drive where they all need to go.

Windows has a pretty good defragmentation tool called Disk Defragmenter in the same menu as the System Restore program. Run that — and drink another cup of coffee or six while it’s doing it. It could take some time.

This should speed up your computer. But it may not be enough. There could be several reasons for this. One is that the hard drive is overloaded. (If so, delete the big files until at least half the hard drive is empty.)

My reader is clearly not having this problem: He reports using only 1.5 gigabytes of the 4 GB hard disk. In this case, you may be better off cleaning the hard drive of everything and starting again.

This is not a step to be taken lightly: It involves backing up all your data, collecting all your serial numbers and installation disks for software you have, and then canceling all hot dates for a few days as you laboriously reformat your hard drive and install the operating system, the drivers for your external devices, software programs and settings, and then the files you saved from before.

It’s like war: boring and scary in equal measure. Boring because watching a progress bar move slowly from left to right isn’t fun, and scary because you occasionally get heart-stopping moments where you think you’ve lost an important file forever, or the whole process stops for no apparent reason.

I wouldn’t recommend it, but neither would I recommend you outsource it — at least until you’re absolutely sure you’ve backed up every single file, e-mail, photo and password you might need again. But if your computer is not responding to lesser measures, this might be the best way to go.

Another tip: If your computer is an old one, don’t try to force fancier operating systems onto it. If your computer was made in 1999, for example, chances are it won’t like Windows XP very much, for the good reason that XP came out in 2001 and was designed for faster chips than were available back then. Your computer won’t like it and will rebel.

Better to have an operating system that’s older than the computer. Even better, if the computer is not going to be your main device, ditch Windows altogether and install Ubuntu (www.ubuntu.com), an Open Source (meaning free) operating system that looks a lot like Windows, but will run quite happily on older machines.

You could still play music files, write documents and e-mails or surf the Web on it, and you’ll be considered very cool by your friends.

There’s always another option: Ditch the laptop and just use the hard drive as external storage for your other computers. But that’s for another day.

The Jakarta Post – The Journal of Indonesia Today

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Twitter: SMS for Those Who Missed the SMS Revolution

Joi Ito neatly sums up what Twitter really is: The U.S. dudes finally getting what has been going in the rest of the world for several years: the Internet is all around us, whether it’s the web or SMS.

clipped from joi.ito.com

Twitter was funny for me because it was like the whole “laptop crowd” getting the “aha” that Europe and Asia had with SMS awhile back – the idea that the Internet isn’t about “cyberspace” that turns on when you open your laptop, but that the Internet was something that you could carry around with you and that could ping you when it needed you.

Getting Data Past Borders

Bruce Schneier uses reports that Sudan is searching all laptops being brought into the country to sound a warning: “Your privacy rights when trying to enter a country are minimal, and this kind of thing could happen anywhere… If you’re bringing a laptop across an international border, you should clean off all unnecessary files and encrypt the rest.”

Some commenters take the discussion a bit further, pointing out this may not be enough. Officials may demand you decrypt your files, so a better way would be to encrypt your data in an unpartitioned portion of your hard drive using something called TrueCrypt, which creates a “virtual encrypted disk” within a file (for Windows and Linux.)

Others suggest that this might not be enough, and that it may be better to use some kind of steganography (hiding data within innocent data, like a photo or music file.) It goes without saying that whatever you do encrypt you should have backed up somewhere safe back home. Another option is not to have anything on your laptop and to download what you need once you’re in country, but unless you have a private network you can do this on, chances are your downloads will be monitored.

This is all not as fanciful or infrequent as it sounds. One poster, Abbas Halai, said he had on three occasions entering the U.S. been asked to login to his laptop and then leave the room.

Safe Charging Your Gadget

You’ve seen those little lockers in malls, restaurants and supermarkets where you can store and recharge your phone. Well now you can do the same thing with your laptop. The newspaper Bury St. Edmunds Today reports of an invention by local firm Helmsman, the SafeCharge locker:

Safecharge

The locker enables laptops, iPods, mobile phones and power tools to be safely stored away, while also being charged at the same time. Similar products do exist, the paper says, but SafeCharge “has a separate door for each laptop, giving large businesses and schools greater peace of mind.”