Windows 10 Upgrade & Tweaks

May 13, 2016 at 9:02 pm | Posted in Computers, Internet, Software | 12 Comments
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If you’re using Windows 8, the free upgrade to Windows 10 is an obvious choice. Some describe it as what Win8 should have been in the first place. Windows 7 is a bigger jump but unless your hardware isn’t up for it, upgrading while it’s free may be a good idea. I waited for the dust to settle and the bugs to be fixed. But now, the end of the free upgrade period is coming July 29. Experts say it’s unlikely to be extended. If you’re considering it, it’s time to make your move and avoid a last-minute crunch.

If you’ve already upgraded, you may find the Protection section and below worth reviewing.

Usually, I install a fresh version of a new operating system so I’m starting from a clean slate without historical problems. But this requires reinstalling all the software and making all the settings changes from scratch. Because Win10 is a smaller change and my Win8 installs are newer, I opted for the free upgrade.

Preparation
You first want to update Windows fully.

And update your major software to ensure it’s current & compatible with Win10. You may find PSI useful. I had a problem with several things hanging after the upgrade. Turns out I needed to install a new version of my Antivirus tool. I had thought it’s version was current but it turned out not to be.

Next create a full image of your operating system – the update gives you the choice to revert but if something goes wrong, you want to be able to get back to where you started. I had trouble with Windows backup on my tablet. It wouldn’t accept any of the media options that where available. Macrium Reflect (free) allowed me to choose a large thumb drive and get the job done.

For Windows upgrade, you can download the tool to start the upgrade process here. This is preferable to using the “Get Windows 10” tool Microsoft has pushed on many computers.

If you’d like a fresh install, you can get the media creation tool here. It has DVD and thumb-drive options. But you’ll need a prior Win10 activation. To get that, you first have to Upgrade to Win10, then Activate, and then you can wipe the drive and install fresh. When you come to activate that, Microsoft will recognize a valid install on the same system. Fred Langa goes into details here. (paid content)

Installation
The install software first spends time checking your system and downloading the upgrade files. This can be done while you continue to work. When the time comes for the actual upgrade, a lunch break would be optimum.

I upgraded a hybrid tablet and a custom desktop system. Both went smoothly and retained most of my customization and settings.

As the install is completing, it will ask you to log in to your Microsoft account. If you had been using a PIN or similar, be sure to have your original password ready.

Next you get the “Get Going Fast” screen – don’t. Click the tiny Customize link in the lower left and review some of the default settings. If you want some privacy, you’ll want to turn a lot of the initial settings off. Also the default apps if you already have programs you prefer.

After more processing, it will bring you to the desktop. Most of it should look about the same.

If you were using a third-party start menu, it will probably have been turned off. Microsoft told me twice Classic Shell had been “removed” but it wasn’t uninstalled, just tuned off.

Protection
For some reason, System Protection is turned off by default. In Control Panel, System, System Protection, turn on System Protection for your boot drive, set the space at about 2% and create a Restore point. Details. This gives you the ability to roll back if an update causes trouble. Windows Updates are now only automatic so this is important.

Windows key-X will give you a quick menu to access various admin functions, including Control Panel. Or right-click the Start menu icon.

Adjustments
Three areas that need attention are the new variation of the Start menu, Search, and Settings. We’ll look at Settings first.

Continuing in the trend of Win8, Windows 10 has settings in 2 places – Control Panel and the Settings app. The second is accessed by the Gear icon in the Start menu. You’ll want to review each area as some of the default settings are less than desirable.

If you travel a lot and want to share settings across devices, want to use mostly MS products, and want to share everything with Microsoft and the world, you may be happy with the default settings. If not, spend a bit of time reviewing them. This will also give you a better sense of what Win10 offers and what you can control.

System
Most in here are fine. You may want to review Notifications.
Offline Maps may be useful for you if you need map access where Internet service is lacking. But the maps are large files. If they don’t finish downloading before you reboot, you have to start again.

Devices
By default, it has Windows manage your default printer, based on the one you used last. I turned that off. My printer was off during the update and was not on the list. When I turned it on and asked it to search for new printers, it said there was none but added the printer meantime.

Network
It’s notable Windows now tracks your data usage like a cell phone.
If you have wireless, in WiFi, Manage WiFi settings, turn off the automated connection options. You want to manage what hotspots you connect to, not your Contacts, etc. And why would you want where you connect being shared like this?

Personalization
I found that Windows retained my prior settings but the accent colour didn’t look as good.
You may want to tweak the Local Screen settings.
Start is where you adjust the Start menu. If you use default Windows locations for your music and such, you can control which folders are displayed.

Accounts
If you don’t plan to sync settings on multiple devices, turn off Sync. Key to understand here is it’s all synced through your Microsoft account on-line. That’s not exactly privacy.

You will need to keep your MS account but can add and use a Local account so you’re not obliged to sign in to Microsoft (and be connected to the Internet) whenever you’re using your computer. Of course, the later is required for some features.

To create a Local account, go to Family and Other Users: look for ‘I don’t have this persons sign-in’ and add a User without a MS account.

For security, it’s not recommended you do regular computing in an Admin account. One way to avoid loosing your personalizations is to create a new Admin user, then log into it and change the original account to Regular. You’ll need the Admin password to make changes but it prevents malware from running accidentally.

It was also recommended to create a 2nd Admin account as backup, in case the first gets corrupted.

Time and Ease
Worth browsing to see what’s here.

Privacy
This is the big one. Your Advertising ID? There are a series of sections to go over, including which apps can access your personal data. If you don’t use the App, you can turn it off.

Update
Updates are always automatic in Windows 10 Home. In Windows Update, Advanced options, change the setting to Notify. Otherwise it may reboot your computer to update while you’re working.

Some have suggested you can control updates by setting your connection to Metered. But that’s canceled whenever you connect to a new network.

Search
Click Cortana in the Taskbar (by the Start menu), then the Settings icon and turn off online. Otherwise, everything you search for on your computer is also searched on Bing and tracked. Don’t know about you, but I don’t expect to find my work files on the Internet. I also find it more useful to use a browser to search on-line. I can also then use the search engine of my choice. You may want to turn off Cortana reminders at the top too.

You can also change the space it takes – an icon may be fine. For that, right-click the Taskbar, select Search, and then box, icon, or hidden.

Start Menu
As usual, there’s some junk in the Start menu to unpin. I prefer desktop programs over almost any of the apps. Once you clean out the “Get Office” etc, the right side is more manageable. You may also find you can make the tiles smaller. If you’re not on a touchscreen, the big tiles just take up space.

I find the lack of a Programs folder view annoying. The All Apps alphabetical view is much less useful as I group related programs in folders. But I was happy to see you can right click and Uninstall the undesirables.

At first I found some weird things on the list, like program Help links rather than just executables. But that seems to have sorted itself out. However, if you open folders, it shows everything in all the sub-folders together, including files like “legal” & “readme”. It doesn’t show which program they’re associated with. They apparently assumed no one organizes their Start Menu.

You can browse the alpha list and Pin your more commonly used programs, or create a folder with shortcuts for them and make that a new Toolbar (from the Taskbar). Woody shares many other tricks here.

I’ll have to decide how I will organize the Start menu – break programs out of groups? That will make the list vastly longer and require I remember the right name (Office? Microsoft Office?). Or use a third-party Start menu? The free Classic Shell still works for Windows 10 and is great for hierarchical menus. The exploration continues.
David

Music Sequencing

April 16, 2016 at 2:44 pm | Posted in Computers, Hardware, History, Music, Software | 1 Comment
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If you’re not a musician, you may be unaware of one trend in modern music –  sequencing.

Many years ago, sequencing software first arose in tools like Cakewalk. You added a track for each instrument and placed “notes” that used MIDI data. MIDI is a digital language for music data that allowed various devices, instruments and computers to talk. It could produce synthetic notes from pre-defined instruments. Computer sound cards of the day added MIDI instruments to their repertoire.

Old Cakewalk
(the software looks complex but is mainly a series of modules. Tracks, sequencing, notation, mixer, etc.)

You could compose complex songs in such software, or just use it for background tracks like drums and bass.

Over time, the ability to add pre-recorded sample sounds of live instruments was added, greatly expanding the quality and flexibility.

You sometimes hear sequencing software used in live performances to duplicate studio techniques that can’t be easily reproduced on stage – like a backup orchestra. It may sound like prerecorded content – which might also be used – but sequencing software allows adjusting the tempo and changing other details live that can’t be done with recorded content.

A friend of mine, who is not a musician, composes entire songs with samples in sequencing software. He markets the resulting albums on-line and makes a small income from his hobby. Such software now has thousands of instruments available and more can be added.

A parallel development was in instruments like drum pads where rubber pads could be used to trigger pre-programmed drum sets. This allowed drummers to expand their available drums but also to practice much more quietly.

drum pad
Similarly, piano keyboard controllers came out that were used to trigger software or other keyboards (via MIDI) rather than having built-in sounds. They were just a keyboard – like another form of your computer keyboard.

Over time, “pad controllers” were added to other instruments like keyboards as it was easier to play drums or trigger events with pads than keys. Then the controllers became instruments in themselves. They’re used to trigger digital events in computer software – either an individual sound sample (like playing an instrument) or an entire pre-programmed sequence.

nanopad
This shifted sequencing from a software process into a performance process. Recorded as a sequence, any errors can be easily corrected, samples upgraded, and so forth before recording a final song.

Unlike a typical instrument where this key is middle C, and that one is C5; pad controllers are entirely programmable. Any given pad can be anything. And then be something else for the next song. Better controllers have pads that are both touch and pressure sensitive so they can be quite expressive, giving contours to the programmed sound.

Controllers are also inexpensive compared to traditional instruments as the basics are simple. They’re a group of fancy buttons. All the sounds and intelligence are in the software. That’s where you do the programming, assigning sounds to keys. Then you can record the result – as a song or as a sequence to further polish.

In this example, notice how even voice is used as an “instrument” via pre-recorded samples. Also notice the sound samples being played have various lengths – some short, some longer. This is different from a normal instrument.

You have to have good spatial memory for this.
Here’s someone with 2:

A basic 16 pad unit with “lite” versions of the needed software is only about $30. It also works with pretty much any sequencing software like the free Hydrogen drums. (a dedicated drum sequencer, what might be called a software drum machine)

At first, people used pads for programming sequences. But pretty quickly, they began using them in live performance too. I saw a single live musician with a digital drum pad lay down the bass drum beat, then the next drum, then the next, building up over a dozen instruments, then jamming over the top. It has an interesting crescendo effect. One musician playing multiple parts in a kind of time dilation.

A related example:

The next stage of that was recording acoustic instrument samples live into a sequencer and then having that play back while they added other layers. The lines between live and recorded, acoustic and digital all blur.

Here’s an example – watch them use the foot pedal to mark the end of a sample recording. The pedal is carefully triggered so the sequence repeats from that point. (this is called looping) Notice a pad controller also being used but they’re using various triggers.

You don’t see pad instrumentalists on mainstream radio much yet. It’s a new style of musician – but they’re quite common on the net. It will be fascinating to see where this evolves.
David

Really Free Android Games

April 4, 2016 at 5:43 pm | Posted in Computers, Economoney, Games, Internet, Software | 2 Comments

I’ve been a fan of the Android smartphone platform, partly because of it’s roots in Linux. But I have to say that Google’s behaviour has me questioning that, treating their users as a commodity to be monetized. Not that the other platforms are above this. Some of the worst aspects of the modern Internet have become concentrated on the cell platform. The “swiss army knife” of telephones becomes a Truman Show experiment.

Google is in a major conflict of interest around advertising. Junk web sites have proliferated with their ad model and they highlight them in search results. Ads get more hits but search results get much less useful. Witness the growth of services like DuckDuckGo that allow you to use Google with less of the manipulation.

But on Android, you’re in Google world so it’s everywhere. When you browse apps in the Play store, the “Recommended” free ones can be some of the worst offenders and there’s no way to filter them out. Reviews are almost useless and some are gamed.

I’ve found myself adding apps like QuickPic (photo gallery) and AIMP (music) to avoid the pushy Google apps you can’t remove.

In the history of computer games, there has been a long record of shareware, trialware and freeware. The last became almost ubiquitous on Linux. But in the Android variant, it’s all about advertising. On the PC platform, it would be called Adware, considered by some to be malware.

This became highlighted for me when I installed a paid anti-malware app on my cell phone, the mobile ESET. ESET includes a review of app security. I was surprised by some of what I’d OKed. One of the worst turned out to be a flashlight app – evidently many of them are rife with user tracking. For a high-rated flashlight?

Apparently, as a way to promote development on the Android platform, Google has been promoting advertising for income. It is certainly fair for developers to earn money for their work. But the implementation has often been at the expense of the user and their experience. A great program spoiled by pop-ups and appalling ads. Part of the game becomes where to click to close the latest interruption. Not to mention reporting your cell phone activity.

On the web, I don’t mind advertising such as you see in magazines and print (aside from “native advertising“). But they didn’t leave it there – many sites went over the top with pop-ups, pop-unders, flashing text, video, and sound. The ads are often obnoxious or inappropriate and they load tracking beacons. I was obliged to turn the deluge off with Adblock Plus and related browser plug-ins. But turning down the volume is not so straightforward when it’s built into the platform.

To add insult, all of this cell advertising is using your paid data. When the ads include video, they can soak up an amazing amount of bandwidth. If you’re using a basic plan, you really DON’T want your apps using up your data.

Sure, some (but not all) will use wireless if available. But generally, I’m using games during a commute, in a waiting room or some such where wireless is not an option. And if it is, do I want to go to the trouble of connecting to a public hot spot just for the ads? And further, you’re now sharing user information on a public network.

This kind of activity also uses your battery charge up much faster than simply playing the game. Pretty lame to have your phone die over ads.

In summary – some of the motivation against using ad-supported free games:
– low quality ads: obnoxious and inappropriate ads the feature nudity, violence and fake warnings. It surprises me legitimate companies put themselves into this mix.
– heavy data usage by ads, especially video
– heavy power usage by ads
– gamed reviews – app reviews are largely useless and some apps game them by asking you to recommend them after a few levels, then they turn on all the crap.
– Play Store “recommended” apps are some of the worst offenders
– tracking of user activity, data, and calls – just watch those permissions when you install. Does this app need access to your call records, etc? Just say no.
– hidden payware where you have to pay to continue the “free” game
I’m sure many of you have experienced other tricks too

If you’re looking for high quality games to play as a pastime, I’d suggest looking for real reviews and buying them. But if you’re looking for a few apps to amuse you while waiting somewhere, you want simple and ad free.

Here is a list of free games I’ve found that are currently free of ads and obnoxious permissions. Quality is a little mixed but I enjoy a few of them. You can find them in the Play store.

Frozen Bubble (bubble matching)
OpenSudoku (you can download other games free)
Instant Sudoku
Trap!
Mastermind
Mines (Minesweeper)
ShokoRocket (maze game)
Vexed
Simple Missile Defense
Scrabble free

There was a great Solitaire game I used to use but they went advertising badly. Not aware of one now.
If you have any of your own suggestions, let us know in comments. No promotions, please.
David

The Collection

August 26, 2015 at 3:58 pm | Posted in Computers, Media, Movies, Online services, Software | Leave a comment
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Movie Buffs come in many forms. There are those who like movies only in the theatres – perhaps at a favoured cinema or an art house. Others like to manage their own schedule and subscribe to various on-line services like Netflix to stream what and when. And still others like the physical media so they are independent. Or maybe they just like to collect. And of course there are mixtures – those who collect just fav films but go to the cinema for the big screen spectacles and stream others. And so on.

Over time, those collections can get to be large. We can start loosing track of what we have, what we’ve watched, what we’ve loaned and so forth. Myself, I began a simple spreadsheet. When that got too large, I migrated to a simple database. I looked at available free cataloging software like I use for my archive discs but didn’t find what I needed. I also recognized the benefit of storing the data external to the database, something most home office apps don’t do (Access, Base, etc). Good databases store their data externally, so I set up a jdbc database. That worked well for a year and then Java updated in a way that my office software didn’t. Broken.

Time for a new solution. After doing some online research and going over Gizmo and Lifehacker, I narrowed my choices down to 4 programs. DVD collection software has come a long ways. After trying several out, I found Eric’s Movie Database best met my needs.

It took a bit of fiddling to get the data out of the old broken database, then convert to csv format, then to add a couple of custom fields to EMDB (easy). It’s also good to review your old data to make sure its in a standardized format. Some of mine like dates was in shorthand that another database wouldn’t recognize. Then I was able to import a large collection into Eric’s. You can then run a batch update through IMDB and it downloaded a great deal more info than I ever tracked. So much easier than all that typing and now I had visual references too. A quick review allowed me to correct a few identification errors plus load TV episodes for those items.

EMDB is a vast improvement over my little custom database. I just enter the name and a couple of details and it collects all the rest. It’s packed with customization options. It has both manual and automatic backups. You can easily add another database for a different collection and cut and paste those titles over. And you can make the whole thing portable. I’m still discovering features.

If your collection is digital, such as on a NAS or media server, EMDB includes a file Location field. You can index an entire digital collection by file name (if you have good naming habits). And you can also launch the movie from within the software, if that works for your setup. Adding a new file, it will index it without even having to type the movies name.

For a small donation, Eric will send you a file to rename the program in your name.
David

Wrist Phone or A Misleading Example?

February 7, 2015 at 1:55 am | Posted in Computers, Design, Hardware, Technology | Leave a comment

Here’s an interesting video made for a product in development. I’ll let you watch it first.

Certainly intriguing. The video has had over 10 million hits. But it’s also creating some controversy as they illustrate some features without explanation. Features only possible with another device, making it a bit misleading. It’s a very bad sign to mislead possible investors up front.

Part of the issue may be that many are viewing the video out of context of their web site. On the site, they talk about it as a wrist screen but seen as above, the video doesn’t stand alone.

Everything in the video is simulated. The video shows a smart phone screen but the device has WiFi and Bluetooth only. Any cell abilities require a separate cell phone. In fact, you’ll note the screen content and functionality is all from the smart phone. So this is more like a variation of a smart watch but without a glass screen. This offers a larger non-fragile view but remains more dependent on a cell phone for the displayed functionality.

When they answer the phone in the clip, it’s the cell phone that answers as the device has no speaker nor mic – just a vibrator. Again, illustrated in a way that could be taken wrong.

They show someone playing a game – their own illustrations suggest the sensors would be good for button pressing but I’d be dubious it would be high enough resolution for game play.

They illustrate it as being waterproof – certainly an interesting detail for an active person. But it has a USB port, probably for backup and charging. So that may be a little fraught.

This video shows their first working prototype.

Note the focus issues.

This certainly could be a viable alternative to a smart watch for active people. But the illustrated functionality means you can’t leave the cell in your backpack and answer the phone but could check a map as illustrated. They have a lot of problems to solve.

The company is French. I was amused to see they have a muse portrayed along with the founders.
David

Better Base Databases

October 19, 2014 at 7:49 pm | Posted in Computers, Software | Leave a comment

The open source office suite OpenOffice and the related branch LibreOffice (my fav) are a great package for your word processing and spreadsheet needs – for free. I’ve been using them for years, ever since MS Office started locking up my machine – even when it wasn’t running. I’ve used OO for complex projects like a book with master document and separate chapter documents, auto-table of contents, end notes and more. They work fine with MS Office documents but do even better with the Open Document standard. This standard avoids some of the issues with proprietary formats. (ever tried to open a very old Word document?)

Where the package is weaker is with Base, it’s database component. Data is much more robust when stored externally from the reference document. I had a spreadsheet that was getting a little too large and decided to migrate it to a database in Base. I could then add more fields, have a data entry form, predesigned reports and so much more. I attempted to use an external SQL database (mySQL) but this required a bunch of added software and a very obscure process. While I successfully created a database, it wouldn’t link properly. I needed something more straightforward to manage.

I ended up just using Base, but with a default embedded database.  (Microsoft Access has the same issue btw) As is not so uncommon, it recently hiccuped and was unable to repair 2 components. Happily I use FileHamster, so was able to quickly recover a version saved prior to the hiccup.

But I knew I needed a better solution. This time, I ran into a more straightforward alternative for an external database. This uses JDBC and macros to manage your external data. The database is stored in the folder, outside the ODB file and is thus less prone to being corrupted. The folder is fully portable.

The instructions look long and complex but it’s actually pretty straightforward, with lots of detailed notes. Just follow the steps. I’ve summarized them below to give you a sense of it. They’re the same with OpenOffice or LibreOffice.

For a new database:
– check 2 correct settings (I’d recommend Medium security)
– download and put the Split_HSQLDB_Wiz template in a new folder
– open the template in Base and begin creating Tables and so forth
You’ll notice the 3-4 table files are created outside the ODB file, hence external.

Here are the steps in detail

For an existing database:
– check 2 correct settings (I’d recommend Medium security)
– create a new database folder
– copy your old ODB database into the folder
– using a Zip program like 7-Zip, extract the files in the database folder (your tables) of the old database into the new folder
– rename the extracted files to match the new database name, as in mylist.data
– download and put the mydb_wiz.ODB and jar file in the folder
– open the new ODB and your tables will be seen “within”
– open the old ODB file and drag and drop the Queries, Forms and Reports into the new one
Save and done.

Here are the steps in detail

You can then delete the old ODB and rename the new one appropriately.
The folder will contain the new ODB, the jar file, and the 4 db files (with no extensions). The files have to be kept together but the folder is portable.

When you open the database, the footer in Base will show JDBC | hsqldb:file:///… instead of Embedded, indicating an external database.

If you appropriately use Medium security, to avoid accidentally approving macros in an unknown document, you’ll have to OK the macros each time you open the database. To avoid this, you’ll want to add the location of your new database folder to “Trusted file locations” in Security, Macro Security, Trusted Sources tab.

Happy Data!
David

Social Media – Bane or Blessing?

October 17, 2014 at 10:22 pm | Posted in Computers, Economoney, Internet, Online services, Security, Software, Web Apps | 3 Comments

Social media is an interesting bird. On the one hand, it’s connecting us globally as never before. It has helped facilitate the Arab Spring and Occupy movements plus many flash mobs. It reconnects us with old friends and makes distances and differences grow smaller.

On the flip side, it’s no replacement for a social life. It depersonalizes social connection and creates false communities. Facebook discovered that users watching “friends” all-positive feeds were getting depressed. They ran experiments to manipulate users moods with fake friends data.

Many free services are funded by advertising. Companies discovered that with better user tracking, they could offer their advertisers more targeted ads. The experiment has largely been a failure but rather than backing off, there has been a sharp increase in the level of tracking. More and more services are being cross-linked and more and more companies are sharing their user data to enhance tracking. While companies have to respect your email address by law, they can do what they like with your activity data. It makes big news when hackers breach security on your purchase data but when they announce another massive data sharing agreement you didn’t approve, you don’t hear a peep.

Another trend is to consolidate services such as at Google, Microsoft, and Apple. This is being driven by the desire to consolidate user data from all services. They’re not interlinking YouTube, GMail, Search, Calendar plus your various accounts for your convenience. If you also use the Chrome browser and have an Android phone, I think you’d be a little startled how much information is being gathered about you. It’s much the same with other services. Facebook invites you to “friend” businesses so your purchasing activity gets added. They actively share info with data consolidation businesses. Did you also let them load your address book? There’s a big reason the government is making record requests of such businesses for user data.

Myself, I don’t think it’s a big deal if a web site knows a little about it’s visitors. Most sites, including this one, track what pages visitors view and how many things they click. Did you look at 3 pages or 5? If you make a comment, they record your IP address. (do you really think comments are anonymous?) Many also subscribe to get notices of new articles. But those are typically managed separately. Subscribers are not tied to page reads or comments here. Newsletters similarly track opens and clicks to see what people respond to but they don’t track web activity.

It may not seem like much when you talk about your dog here, chat about work there, put up a dating profile here, share pictures there, and so forth. But taken together, there is a massive library about many people on-line. It becomes information you often no longer own or control. Plus it can be used against you in court.

If you check out archive.org, you realize a lot of it never goes away even if you close your account or shut down your web site. The Wayback Machine now stores almost half a trillion web pages, including the first version of my original web site and comments I made on a tech site over a decade ago. Facebook doesn’t delete closed accounts. And so on.

The issue arises because this user data is not being used in a respectful way. And it’s being kept. Users are seen as objects to be manipulated. Government efforts to access this data, that they can’t legally collect themselves, is encouraging a new trend – moving the data off-shore to avoid local regulations. The players all have vested interests in expanding the collection.

It’s most prolific form is now on smart phones, the leading edge of device proliferation. Thousands of apps for your phone and many of the recommended ones want excess permissions. Why does a game need your address book and call list? User data.

Social Sharing
And this brings us to a new feature of this site.

As I discussed back in the Plug-in section of setting up a blog, there are three types of social sharing on a typical blog:
1 – Feeding new articles to your social media sites
2 – Offering the buttons to connect with you through the social media sites you use
3 – Offering the buttons to share your article with the social media sites readers use

The last is often the most visible. Below, beside or above many articles is a row of sharing buttons. These allow users to easily click the service of choice and share your article with others.

However, the tools used to provide this sharing are of 2 camps. On one side are services that simply refer the user to their account on the social site. On the other are services that track this process. In other words, they make money from tracking your site visitor activity in exchange for a free service. The shady part is they don’t usually bother to tell you that.

Unlike other features on my main site, social sharing has been one of the more problematic. I’ve tried quite a few tools but they’ve all typically had issues.

Such tools require constant updates due to regular changes to various services. The simple ones I tried often lacked many services, were out of date and thus partly broken, and/or tended to have bugs. The ones that were updated and working well typically included tracking – that’s how they’re funded.

For example, the service I originally used had many service links, was low key and promised no tracking. But with no budget, it gradually went down hill. The next one was was simple and lightweight but wasn’t getting updated or fixed. I couldn’t configure it how I was supposed to be able to and support questions went unanswered. Another very popular one is prone to bog down your site.

During another round of research, I tried another decent one but it was showing in places I didn’t want and it uses a List item structure (even though not a list). This caused it to inherit the themes List settings inappropriately. Again, no fix available.

AddtoAny
I then discovered the potential of AddtoAny. It allows you to select the number of displayed icons, select a range of looks, and has a sub-menu with dozens more social media services. When I made suggestions to improve a recent update, they quickly came back with an even better option.

In checking it’s background, I found they also offer the service for web sites and many other platforms like Blogger, Typepad, Joomla. The big surprise though was one for free WordPress.com, like this site. The free WP.com doesn’t have a plug-in architecture so few such services are available for it. You get what WordPress offers. In this case it adds a few settings to Settings, Sharing. It lacks the customization of a full plug-in and it appears removing all enabled services would be the only way to “remove” it. But it’s a pretty big improvement for a free blog. The only bug I’ve seen so far is its not showing on the most recent posts. Just ones a bit older. Odd, that.

The big issue it raises is user tracking. The full plug-in shares data with your Google Analytics but the company itself tracks much more. Some of these sharing services even track activity on your site, even if a reader doesn’t click on a share icon. Just loading the plugin does it.

While they don’t bother to tell you this, it becomes very obvious if you use a browser plug-in like DoNotTrackMe. Personally, I found the plug-in overzealous and it blocked too much functionality, but it certainly gives you a sense of how much user tracking is going on. You might be surprised how much tracking your own web site is doing without your knowledge. Larger sites commonly have numerous entities, all tracking users.

To their credit, when asked AddtoAny did offer the switch to turn off tracking. However, as this article notes, AddtoAny has since been bought by another company which has added further tracking.

This page offers another illustration of how far it’s gone. It will show you how many member companies are tracking you. And this is only member companies. They check the tracking of hundreds of companies on your computer in a few minutes. The irony is that if you use an Ad Blocking plug-in (like AdBlock Plus), you don’t see the ads (whew) but they’re still tracking you. I talk about other safe browsing tools here.

Advertising does support many free services but targeted advertising has been crossing a line. They say they’re not tracking user-identifiable information but often that’s bullocks. The more they track and the more they compare notes, the bigger the picture they have of you. Would the government be asking them for records if there wasn’t traceable data?

In the meantime, it’s a balancing act. Providing the service and convenience on the one hand and  trying to mitigate the abuse on the other. You can’t really avoid it. If you’re going to use the web and email and social media, you’ll be interacting with others who are being tracked.

Be aware and safe surfing.
David

A Really Simple Web Site

August 7, 2014 at 4:34 pm | Posted in Blogs, Computers, Internet, Software, Web Design | 1 Comment

I’ve written much here on web design and set-up. If you have a business or service, you really do want to have a web presence. Otherwise, someone searching you on-line will get a blank or someone else. Networking by posting your email address on other web sites will bring you more spam than contacts. But posting your web address just brings the contacts. A nice, customized interactive blog with regular updates would be good but we don’t all have the time or inclination for that.

But you can have a simple, free on-line brochure/ business card. And it can be done quickly.

Firstly, you need a site. Your best choice long-term is a free WordPress.com blog. This can easily be migrated to a hosted site later if you decide to grow your presence. And it doesn’t have to be a blog. Most small sites today use blog technology, even when they don’t have a blog. It’s so much easier and feature-rich to set up.

Setting up a free blog (like this one) takes just a few minutes. This is just the basics:
1) go to WordPress.com and choose a blog name. On a free blog this is in the format
NAME.wordpress.com. Use your name or your service name or some easy version thereof.
2) Register for an account with them. They’ll send a confirming email. (they may ask you to do this first, then choose a name)
3) Log into your new blog at your new address. This will bring you into the Admin “Dashboard” with all the settings.
4) In Appearances, Themes, choose and activate one of the themes (the look) they supply. The one here is the Pool theme as you’ll see at the bottom – same on all free blogs if you see a layout you like. This can easily be changed and tuned here later.
5) Go into Posts, All Posts and edit the default Welcome post. This is like writing an email. Put in a short intro and how to reach you.
Do not post your email address directly. This will invite tons of spam.

You now have a live web site for your offering.

6) Next you need a contact form. Free WordPress doesn’t supply that so go to Contactify.com and sign up for a free account. Go back to edit your post above and add some text like “Contact Me” and use the special link from Contactify. (use the Link button to add a link to selected text) Your readers will click the link, fill in a small form and the result will come to your email account.

Now you have an official web presence and online business card. Simple.

When you have a few minutes later, you can explore other features like creating Home and About Pages, tweaking your chosen theme, changing the sidebar widgets around, and lots more. But that can be done any time. You can also get a little more professional by getting your own domain name for a dozen dollars a year. (as in NAME.com)

Molly Greene takes this process a little further with more details in her article here. WordPress has guides like this one.

There is also tons of on-line help for WordPress. But make sure you’re looking at WP.com support. Many sites are talking about WordPress.org, the version you host and configure. This is what you can migrate to later if you want. It’s much more customizable and modular but also more complex. Yet once familiar with WordPress, you can take that learning with you.

This blog you’re reading is a free blog I began in 2007.  I use the above Contactify service on my About page. My other blog is hosted, far more customized, and far more capable – it has a newsletter, ecommerce, and other features. It began the same as this one.

Enjoy!
David

Android Security

July 11, 2014 at 11:44 pm | Posted in Computers, Internet, Online services, Security, Software, Web Apps | Leave a comment

I’ve noticed that a lot of smart-phone users don’t take their security as seriously as they do on Windows machines. They’re happy to surf the web without virus protection and to install software with rather appalling permissions. I’ve seen simple games wanting access to your call history, data, identity, location and more – yet they’re recommended by the Play store. Clearly, their standards are not mine.

Android has become the most widely used OS in the world. It dominates mobile devices. So it’s become a target for trouble. And for the modern trend of collecting user info and selling it.

Fred Langa recently wrote a good overview of some of the apps you might find useful for Android security. He reviews AV suites, Password management, device recovery, wiping, and VPNs.

I’ve been surprised how robust the Android security suites have become. Fred mentions Lookout, which I’m not familiar with. He runs through it’s features, making it a good comparison point for other suites. He also notes that there is some garbage posing as security software – you do want software you can trust. I’ve been using ESET Antivirus for some time on my PC’s and have been very happy with it. So it’s a natural that I checked out ESET’s Android offering. I was surprised to discover they were actually underselling it on the web site.

The app walks you through setting up each section as you choose to activate that feature set. If it recommends setting changes, it gives you easy access to those settings. I didn’t have a need for ‘Call and SMS Blocking‘ but the rest of it was rich with features I found useful.

When I tried to register on the web site for an anti-theft account prior, it failed. But when I registered through the app, it worked fine. Not sure why they have a register option on the web site when its the device that has to register. I was then able to test the anti-theft features on-line. It did catch a picture of me and did show the phones location within about 5 meters. (that’s controlled by the area and phones GPS) If you’re prone to leave your phone places, that can be really handy. You can also text commands much as Fred describes in the article, like locking the phone, have it make a loud noise, and so forth.

Most satisfying to me was the ‘Security Audit‘ feature as I’d become concerned about the behaviour of some apps and I wasn’t as informed when setting the phone up. Indeed, it found one of the games had infection issues through it’s advertising. And a few apps had stepped over reasonable permission bounds. ESET takes you right to the apps permissions and uninstall if you need it.

The free version has somewhat reduced features but is fully functional. It’s clear in the app which parts you’re test-driving during the 30 day free trial. Scroll down the page here to see a comparison chart of the differences.

Premium ESET is currently on sale for $10/ year, $15 for 2. From Fred’s article, $15/yr seems typical for paid versions, though Lookout is $30. ESET is usually in the middle.

More
If you travel a lot or use public hot spots, a VPN can much improve security – especially if you need to do some banking or some such. Fred reviews some of those options. Device recovery and system wiping tools are included in some AV suites, like the above, but he also suggests stand alone ones if that’s needed.

Finally, Password management. For this, you want a tool that’s useful both on your PCs and mobile. Fred suggests several which basically mean having 2 or more password stores.  Not very efficient to have different passwords in different places – the one you need is the one that will be stored somewhere else.

As readers here know, I’m a fan of LastPass, a free PC password manager. The premium version, for $12 a year, adds many other features including mobile access to your password vault from any device. It also allows you to separate work and home passwords, create family shared ones, and adds enterprise tools.

Safe surfing, wherever you are.
David

Troubles in the CASL

July 2, 2014 at 6:20 pm | Posted in Computers, Economoney, Internet, Online services, Software | 3 Comments

Recently in Canada, a lot of small businesses and charities have been quite concerned. On July 1, new anti-spam legislation came into effect here. Many small organizations depend on low-cost messaging services to communicate and advertise. A few have been a little sloppy about their lists.

While anti-spam legislation is a good idea, when they define it with terms like “electronic address”, there are issues. Everything on the Internet has an electronic address. Also, very little spam originates from where the legislation will have any effect. Estimates I’ve seen suggest 2%.

The main thing you need to understand is that CASL is mostly about email, though Instant Messaging and SMS are included. It’s about sending directly to a person’s electronic address, typically to many such at a time.

If you’re doing so without their documented consent through some sort of relationship, this is now spamming and subject to fines. (see the implicit/ explicit summary below) Thus, you want to ensure your newsletter/ emailing list is fully Opt-in. If you’ve been using a service like MailChimp or Constant Contact, they will normally do a confirmed or double Opt-in. The end user enters an email address on-line or clicks a link and the system sends them an email to confirm – click and done. Even many blogs comment subscriptions double-confirm now (on WordPress).

However, if you’ve manually entered peoples email addresses or your list is mostly imported, then you will want to ask your subscribers to re-verify with a new Opt-in. You’ve probably seen a bunch of such emails yourself. Constant Contact handily offers a “CASL Template” for doing so. The user clicks the email link and it’s done. (though you’ll need to edit the Contacts, Signup Tools, Change of Interest email as that’s what they’ve used for an email post-confirmation – just make the message more generic.) Constant Contact has said they’ll be exposing the confirmed data in reports later this month. Managing will thus be easy.

With Constant Contact, you may also wish to update your email headers to add the Confirmation option to all emails as well.

So far MailChimp has offered an overview article on the subject. That makes setting up a confirmation email much more involved, not to mention managing the results. MadMimi just refers to the US CAN SPAM law with a link to the CASL site. Even less helpful.

If you’re emailing large groups from your home computer with no unsubscribe link and no opt-in routine, you’re falling further and further outside the law in N. America. Not such a cheap option if you get fined. If your list is under 2,000 in size and you don’t send a ton of messages, MailChimp and MadMimi are both free. I’d suggest that after you import your list, your first order of business will be to send a verification email to get everyone to opt in. Or you drop them.

You also then get all the advantages of reporting, subscription management and so forth. Much easier to manage. And the templates help you to easily design professional looking messages.

All of this will ensure your Contact list is compliant. It may also save you a bit of money as you purge email addresses that have gone stale – just look at your Open vs Send rates. Many abandon free accounts over time. And some ISP’s no longer bounce stale addresses as it can lead to them getting on spam lists, ironically.

Updates that you post on your blog, Twitter or Facebook are sent to yourself. People who then wish to partake of these updates can then choose to view or subscribe. No worries there, in spite of some comments in the news. CASL does not apply.

EasyDNS has offered an excellent summary of implicit and explicit consent and why sending an unsubscribe reminder (Opt Out) won’t cut it.

Also note that you have time. The government does not plan to enforce this for 3 years. But don’t wait – it will take time to herd your cats and you don’t want to wander onto someone’s radar meantime.

Finally, here’s a review of a CRTC presentation on the topic that should ease some minds. But it also highlights the vague language in the legislation. It’s also notable it covers unauthorized software installs but is again a little vague on meaning.

If you have any experience dealing with emailing services we’d be interested in hearing how well they supported you with CASL.
David

UPDATE – see comments

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