All posts by Jerry Stern

Why Computers and Commuters Both Need Coffee



Computers slow down from too much traffic

The best explanation for why Windows is slow that I’ve heard was an explanation of ‘building funnels” from a state highway engineer. Roughly: “That commuting route is beyond planned capacity. Yes, we could add lanes to it and increase the capacity, fit more cars, and even increase the speed limit if we make it limited access. No problem there. But these commutes don’t end in highways, they end in neighborhoods, in areas we can’t control, county roads and other states. So adding capacity encourages more use, which results in building funnels at both ends of the commute where the extra lanes are taken away, and the funnel and resulting merges back up the traffic.”

And then, darker, “Sure, we could co-ordinate work with other states to extend things, but why should we invest anything to encourage building in areas that don’t give us any tax revenues but add to our highway costs? And worse, developers build homes on a much shorter timeline than we can plan state highways, let alone fund them and build them.”

Of course, the people who live alongside these racetrack routes, the worst of the commuter single-lane state highways, have things to say on these topics.

But back to technology. This is the classic Windows stupidity of running background tasks when the system is slow, but not in sleep mode. So let’s set a service, we’ll call it “Street Cleaning” just to make it non-techy, and say “We don’t want that to run during rush hour. Let’s have it run whenever the controller sees that traffic is low. Can’t do it when there is no traffic at all, because we’re turning off the streetlights when nobody’s on the road. So when the streetlights come on, check recent traffic, see that it’s zero, and start cleaning the streets. Excellent.” 

This, of course, turns on the streetlights based on a motion sensor, and sequentially starts  “Street Cleaning” at the moment that a car enters the parkway. Or triggers some service to start doing complex background stuff because you woke the computer and started typing. Or set twenty to fifty services to start running and phoning home for updates when the computer is first turned on. Which leads most users to start the computer, and then start the coffee pot, and not come back until both computer and operator have been thoroughly woken up. 

Preventing Startup Buildup

Old computers aren’t always slow because they’re old. If they were not budget computers on day one, they shouldn’t act like junk in year three. If they do, and the hardware tests out OK, the remaining cause for ‘slow’ or ‘erratic’ is generally “too much software trying to run at the same time.” That’s a traffic condition, background junk that does not need to be there. Some of it is malware, and a lot of it is just un-needed junk that is not remotely evil. But all auto-starting software adds to startup time.

So, to prevent that, you have to avoid software that adds auto-starting stuff to the system. I’ve told many of you this before, here it is again. It’s important: When you install software, always choose the Custom install. Always. Even if you have no plans to change anything, even if you’re afraid of even touching it. Always. And then read the screens during the setup, and pay attention to the options. The default options will work, they’re tested heavily, but they were not tested on every possible computer configuration. 

What you’re looking for in those option screens are the choices that mention “Also install this…” or “Start with Windows”. Those always require a moment of asking why would that be a good thing? Why allow that? Why allow a Hewlett Packard printer to run a program at startup that phones home to Hewlett Packard for a new driver, waiting for an overloaded server to respond, for the life of the computer? Think about that–not the life of the printer, and not the life of the printer warranty, but forever. Now multiply that by a dozen, and that’s a typical HP printer setup. 

Auto-running software is a problem

Now all of these startup items are not available to “just say no” to during setup, and I can follow up later during a tuneup to remove the useless autoplays, but for those choices that appear, if you won’t need a listed feature, don’t install it. And if it’s a third-party program, as in “we also recommend,” that’s a malware installation tactic. While not all software that arrives in that way is evil, you didn’t go looking for it, so you don’t need it, so don’t let it install. 

There are a lot of small utility programs that suggest ‘Run with Windows.’ OK, let’s see, it’s a little utility that you have never needed before, that converts something to something else, and it wants to start with Windows because you will need it every day, forever. No. Just say no.

As the Printers Die

Reminder: If you bought a new printer to replace another, go to Control Panel, Uninstall a program, and remove the software that installed with the former printer. Also check the printer list, in Settings, Devices, Printers & scanners, and remove the old driver there. It’s easier to do that before installing the new software, especially if the new and old printers are the same brand. The rule is like any other cleanup rule: Demolition before rebuilding. Make space before organizing. Remove that old plumbing before adding the new pipes. Or wires, or software. That helps you identify the old stuff, wipe it out before adding the new stuff. 

Other old software should also be removed. Any program that has an annual version can cause problems, so don’t allow them to build up forever. If you will never use these products past, say, year 3, then delete the “three years back” version when you add the latest version. 

Do Hard Drives Fill Up?

The answer is generally “not from saving documents.” But software can fill them, as can video editing in high resolution, or Windows errors that cause log files to never ever go away–that’s currently a recurring issue in Windows 7. If there is very little software on your system, but there are ‘full’ warnings in Windows, it can be the log files–call for a cleanup.

Is this Email Safe? Is this Robocall for Real?

I’m often asked whether an email is real, or safe, or dangerous. And the same question shows up applied to web sites And robocalls are rampant right now, and seem to pick up around year-end. What’s real?

Short answer: If you think it’s a scam, it’s probably a scam. It’s either an attempt to have you open a software installer, or read a fake purchase order, or link to a web site selling garbage.

Scam emails have a few things in common:

  • Fake urgency. Act Now! Limited Time Offer! Your computer is infected! 
  • False Authority. These are quotes from big-name companies and “experts” pushing whatever they’re selling.  The quotes either not real, or from people who are not experts in the correct specialty.
  • Fake address. The email address of the sender is from the wrong domain name. 
  • Poor English. Spelling, grammar, or usage are wrong. Incorrect capitalization is common.
  • Jumbled. Word order is typical of languages other than English.
  • Short. If there’s an attachment or a link, the message is frequently one line, because that makes it more difficult for SPAM filters to recognize a bad message.

Good emails and web sites:

  • For an email, the sending email address is at the same domain as the web links. So mail ABOUT Chase Bank is FROM Chase.com, not a Gmail account.
  • Have phone numbers, especially a direct-dial non-toll-free  number.
  • Have a physical address. Even a post office box is OK. That physical address is required by law in commercial emails, under the CAN-SPAM act.
  • Emails have a WORKING Unsubscribe link, also required by law. 

When in doubt, look it up:

Some of this applies to products as well; check these sites to look up the reputation of a company or a web site.

On Google.com, type in the site or product name, and ‘complaints’. Then in the results, look for companies that you know that do reviews, including any of these:

There are other review sites, but be aware that most small sites have poor moderation, and bad reviews could be from competitors. And of course, there are companies that “manage reputations” and that basically means “flood review sites with good reviews until the bad reviews are pushed off the first page.” The companies above are somewhat skilled at detecting those duplicate submissions, and these are not, but may still provide some useful information. The ‘grain of salt’ guideline applies:

For any question of “Is this file I received safe to open?” you can upload it at VirusTotal.com, and it will do multiple antivirus scans immediately.

In general, online reviews of companies or products that are a single line of text, and don’t actually mention the name of what they’re reviewing, are likely bulk submissions from a paid reputation management service. Ignore them, and read the longer reviews signed with real names, or (on some sites) marked as ‘Verified Purchaser’ or similar.

Bad emails and web sites:

  • Hide their physical location. Contact, if any, is by email or chat. There is often no clue as what country they are in.
  • Offer to ‘install software to allow you to view’ their page. That’s an offer to install malware. Close that page.

Both good and evil web sites have:

Encrypted web sites, with addresses starting with https. While secure web sites do provide protection from information entered into an online form from being read ‘in-traffic’ as it goes through the internet, https links do not provide confirmation of identity, just encryption. A “green padlock” link can provide identity confirmation, but only if it’s issued by a known “certificate authority”, and checking the encryption certificate for the issuer is going to show information that is mostly not easy to understand; it’s not a good indication of good or evil.

Already on a Site, and Suspicious?

High-pressure web sites tend to scroll forever, and show an auto-starting video, with no indication of length, that does not allow you to skip ahead. They’re selling the modern equivalent of snake oil, or the cure-all nostrum of the day. They’re promising something that they won’t tell you the price of until you get to the end of that video. They’ll pack that video with, again, fake urgency and endorsements from impressive experts you’ve never heard of, and it’s all just formula pressure sales that are modeled on the old in-person free seminars that push real estate investment books to anyone willing to sit through 4 hours of talking. Close that site.

“We’re from Visa/Mastercard, contacting you about lowering your rate…” Unless you are a bank, you don’t have an account with either the real MasterCard or Visa companies; you have accounts with banks. Visa and MasterCard are credit card interchange corporations, and they do business with banks, not individuals. Visa and MasterCard are competitors,  and they would not co-market interest rate discounts even if they sold accounts directly.

SkyNet called: They want their Terminator back, and they have low credit card rates, too.

Caller-ID is now reliably fiction. I sell phone service, as ‘voice over internet’ or VOIP, and in the setup of each user, you can type in anything you want to be visible as the caller ID information. Telemarketing phone systems change that text constantly. The newest such call here showed ‘Discover Card’ as the caller, but the computer-read script started with claiming to be from Visa/Mastercard’s security department.    

Overall:

Always look at the sender’s email address. If it doesn’t match what’s claimed in the email, there’s something wrong. 

Always look at link destinations before you click; just float the mouse over the link and look in the bottom-left corner of your screen for the destination. It should match the addresses and email domain. 

And be suspicious. Always. The internet makes the wild, wild west look lawful and organized. At the very least, they had a local sheriff.

Did you Break the Internet?

When it looks like the internet is dead, there are some basic troubleshooting steps you can take to see if you’ve really broken it. (And so far, the answer has been ‘no’.)

Reboot First. And Then Take a Step Back

I know that most of you live in Outlook. Or maybe QuickBooks. So separating the outside world (“internet”) from your computers and networks is, well, fuzzy. Badly defined. Vague-ish. But Outlook is a horrible test of whether or not the internet is up. Testing the internet with Outlook is like saying that if your car can’t move, Interstate 95 is a parking lot. It’s sometimes true, but not really useful for troubleshooting traffic.

So if Outlook stops working, first check if you can reach a popular web page, basically a site that never goes down. Open a browser and see if you can get to Amazon.com or CNN.com. 

No, not Google.com, because Google’s plain white website is so clean and empty that you can’t tell if you’re looking at Google, or at your computer’s memory of Google, what it calls the ‘cache’.  (More on error messages below.)

Is it Down, or Just You?

So if the web page works, and your mail does not, what does that mean? Well, it’s either Outlook (got a bad update, got a bad third-party add-in, got muddled), or your mail server, or the connection in-between. It’s too complex a topic to cover in detail here, but the quick check is to test the web page that matches your email address. If you can reach that, it’s probably an Outlook problem.

For example, if mail isn’t working, and your address is admin@yourdomain.com, check that the web page yourdomain.com is up and working. If it’s up, probably an Outlook issue. If it’s down, your next step is to see if the site is down for the rest of the world, or you have some local issue. You do that on this website:
https://DownForEveryoneOrJustMe.com/

It works just like it sounds. Enter a web page address, and it will tell you if it can see the page, or if it’s just you.

Big Site Down?

If you are trying to reach a popular site, and it looks down, you can test that, too. If Facebook goes down, or Verizon, AOL, Comcast, or a few hundred other popular sites, check it here:
https://DownDetector.com/

The pages are sorted on DownDetector by the number of people checking to see if a page is down, so the with the most reported errors are at the top. Use the search box to look for other sites. Click the site logo to see details; there is a complaint list, newest-first, and an outage map. Frequently, DownDetector will show a regional outage faster than AmericaOnline or Comcast will update their outage pages.

Error Message Numbers

If it isn't here, that's 404.

The internet has error numbers. They tell your browser anything that isn’t an actual web page. If you try to visit a page, and it replies to your browser with a 404, that means something.

  • 404 Not Found (Check your sppellin’)
  • 301 Moved Permanently (and here’s where it went. Google, re-index this.)
  • 302 Moved Temporarily (Be right back. ‘till then, look here.)
  • 403 Forbidden (Sure you shouldn’t have a login for that page?)
  • 500 Server Error (This web server has gone stupid. It’s not you, it’s me.)

These are not totally reliable. If a web page editor changes the name of a page, and you go to the old address, you will see either a 404 (Not found), left no forwarding address, or a 301 (Moved Permanently), change of address to this trendy new place. It takes a human to file that change of address, er, I mean to add the 301 to a list of forwarded addresses. 

There are more, many more errors, mostly of no use to end users. They’re handy for computers talking to each other, and it’s not just web pages, but can include other internet communication: 

  • 407 Proxy required
  • 408 Request Timeout (slow internet or overloaded web site)
  • 200 OK

And then there’s this one:

  • 418 I’m a Teapot

That’s what happens when you tell an internet-connected teapot to brew coffee. OK, it was an April Fool’s gag in 1998, and it got stuck. It’s now an officially-accepted reminder that the internet was designed by humans, with all that implies. More here:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyper_Text_Coffee_Pot_Control_Protocol

http://save418.com/