Friday, August 29, 2008

Twice a year or so my wife will breathlessly tell me: “The Internet is down.”
My first reaction is that I am sitting on one heck of a news story. Civilization as we know it would slow to a crawl if the Internet itself stopped working. But I know what she really means: Our DSL connection isn’t working.

Compared to the old dial-up days, most of us have it easy. I’m not just talking about speed. The connection is much more reliable nowadays. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the connection is much more crucial to the way we live. It connects us to work, to school, to our online banking and bill paying.

Luckily, there are some simple ways to remain well-connected. Today we’ll talk about what you can do at home to — in many cases — avoid that dreaded conversation with your Internet provider’s technical support staff. If you’ve ever suffered through that experience, you’ll know how welcome these do-it-yourself tips can be.

Let’s start with the most basic trick I know. It’s embarrassingly simple but enormously effective: Turn the modem off, let it sit for a moment, and then turn it on.

Here’s why that often works wonders when it comes to your Internet connection. Modems ccasionally lose synchronization. When that happens, the Web unravels, e-mail stops working. The on-screen messages after that failure tell you what you already know and offers brainy suggestions such making sure all the cables are plugged in (which actually is a pretty good thing to do). But I’ve never seen an on-screen message that offers the most obvious fix: Turn off the modem and any router connected to it, let it sit, then turn it back on.

Let me make up a statistic here, this on/off trick will get your connection going again about 60 percent of the time. It forces the modem in your home to renew its acquaintance with the equipment at your Internet provider.

If that doesn’t work, then do spend a moment to check cable and power connections. Not long ago I was able to show my own incompetence when we lost our home connection. I tried most of the tricks that I knew — as well as a few that I didn’t — with no success. I was on the verge of calling my provider when I noticed that the panel lights on a hub (a device simpler but similar to a router) were out. Turns out my wife had moved a paper shredder to a new location and jogged the wiring behind the desk enough to pull the power connection loose on the hub. Had I followed my own advice about checking connection, the fix would have taken 10 seconds rather than 10 minutes.
We’ve talked about connections that don’t work. But many times, the connection will work do it slowly.

Keep in mind that, just as is true on the interstates, sometimes traffic to a Web site gets so heavy that things slow to a crawl. Besides that, the Internet itself slows down at times. If you want to check the condition of the Net itself here is a site that will let you do that for any area of the world:

Avoid tinkering at the first sign of slowness. But if the slow connection persists across all sites for several days, then the problem may be in your house.
Possible causes include interference from other gadgets — even a malfunctioning outdoor light, dimmer switch or electrical problems can spark a slowdown. Kinks in the ethernet cable can also create a roadblock. The cable reacts poorly to a very sharp bend.

Experiment by turning off suspect devices and checking the cable for kinks.
It would be wrong to write about technology without throwing in a few mysterious initials. So here you have it: MTU: maximum transmission unit.

Read this but, please, don’t try to change any settings unless you spend much more time learning about it than reading a few sentences in a newspaper column.
To understand MTU, you need to know that data travels on the Internet in packets. If you send an e-mail to your Aunt Sally, the note is broken down into bite-size chunks, and these are sent out in a stream. You can set your computer to adjust the size of each packet. Windows Vista tries to do all adjusting that for you, earlier versions of Windows sometimes need manual tweaking (that’s true for Vista too, it’s just a different process).

A faulty MTU setting can slow down the transmission of data. I’ll offer a couple of Web pages that explain why that is and how to change things — even with Vista. But, as I said, consider this a bit of education rather than a how-to lesson.
Here’s a site that discusses MTU and Windows Vista: and here’s a Web site from the United Kingdom that does a fine job explaining how MTU works:

That’s it for today. Maybe the next you hear those famous words, “The Internet is down,” you’ll be able to do what even Al Gore sometimes can’t ... make it work again.
I remember when the first “dummies” computer books came out years ago. I was both sorry I hadn’t thought of it first as well as put off by the dummies title.

Most of us aren’t dummies — maybe I’m too southern, but calling someone a dummy doesn’t seem like a good way to nuture a relationship with readers. Besides, most people aren’t dummies when it comes to computing. Instead they may be ignorant. That’s entirely different than being stupid. Stupid people have trouble learning. Ignorant people are without knowledge when it comes to a specific topic. For instance, I’m ignorant when it comes to carpentry and brain surgery.

With all that in mind, consider today’s column the “A Basic Computer Guide for the Ignorant.” We’ll talk about the very basics of keeping your computing relatively hassle free.

No. 1: The smartest people recognize the areas where they have gaps in their knowledge. When it comes to computing that means you should avoid the very most common cause of computing disaster — fixing something that you don’t understand, or installing a program that you know nothing about you’ve found on the Internet.
Take my word for it, your biggest enemy is the person who brushes your teeth every morning. If you avoid crazy over-your-head fixing and installing, you’ll be miles ahead of the competition.

No. 2: Overcome your ignorance when it comes to routine maintenance. Spend some time reading — in this column, or on the Web, or even with one of those yellow Dummies books — about anti-virus protection and programs that stop adware and spyware. Then get a program for each: Either the commercial suite of programs from Norton that includes both anti-virus and anti-spamware, or freeware from for viruses or a program such as this one — — for adware/spyware protection.

No. 3: Emulate a good newspaper reporter and be skeptical, even cynical, when it comes to believing what you read. Some e-mails will tell you that you need to log onto your bank account, others will invite you to give eBay all your personal information. These e-mails all differ a bit but they have one thing in common — they are an effort by crooks to either steal your personal information and then your money, or to plant a virus in your computer.

If you feel you just can’t ignore the e-mail (and you really should ignore it) then pick up the telephone and call the bank or other institution and ask if they sent the e-mail.

No. 4: Use a password that is hard to figure out. That means it should not form a word you can find in the dictionary and it should contain at least eight characters composed of letters and numbers. For instance, here’s a horrible password: Lucy. That’s the name of my beagle. Here’s a decent password: 73rtrnrd2. If your Internet provider or the Web site allows, using a combination of lower case and capital letters is even better, like 73rTrnRd2.

It’s perfectly OK to write down passwords if you have trouble remembering them, as long as you keep them hidden away in your desk or a drawer at home. After all, if the computer crooks can start pawing through your belongings at home, this virtual reality stuff has gone way too far.

(For those living with roommates or other disreputable folks, then you’ll either need to memorize the passwords, or hide them away securely).

No. 5: Now that you’ve protected your machine from viruses, spyware and hackers as best you can, you need to protect it from nature. That means buying a UPS — an uninterruptable power supply — and using it.
These things are big batteries that have a gizmo that converts the DC battery current into AC power that your computer can use. Besides keeping the machine going long enough to shut it down in an orderly fashion after a power outage, they filter the current that your machine uses in regular operation. That filtered current avoids feeding your machine voltage surges that can kill it.

No. 6: Make back-up copies of the data you’ve created. The easiest way is to buy an external hard disk that connects to the USB port. So there’s no assembly required and, most often, the disk will include software to do the backups. My guess is that the data on your computer is worth more than the computer itself. So making regular back-ups is a flat necessity.

Even if you are completely ignorant when it comes to computers, these tips will get you headed toward the light. Think of them as five small steps away from ignorance.
My trip to chilly Nova Scotia has me thinking about winter.

But even if you’re not heading north like me, it’s not crazy to start thinking about preparing your high-tech equipment for the cold months. Power outages are close to certain — at my house, here in warm Atlanta, I can depend on at least two each winter caused by icing on power lines.

You can take advance steps to make those dark days and powerless nights easier to handle. If you wait until the first outage, you’ll find that stores are out of lights, batteries and other needed supplies. So let’s get your shopping started.

Light: Candles are dangerous and flashlights, while important to have, aren’t the only or even the best way to go. Buy a couple of battery-powered fluorescent camping lanterns (please don’t get the dangerous type that uses fuel). A couple will pro-ject broad swatches of light to ease cooking and reading.

Batteries: Get regular batteries — not the rechargeable kind. A regular will hold its charge for at least two years when stored unused. Some people advise putting them in the refrigerator, but they’ll do fine in a box at the top of a closet. Buy plenty.
Radio: I’ve found radio news to be the best source of information during a storm. It’s great for learning about road and school closings, as well as the all-important forecast. If you really want to do things right, also get a battery-powered weather radio or an AC model that has a battery back-up.

UPS: My UPS — uninterruptable power supply — helps out in unexpected ways during an outage. I use it as a supply of AC that lets me charge my laptop computer and cellphone. It also can keep a DSL or cable modem running for two or three days if there’s no other load on it. I have four separate UPS’s and I wish I had more. Since a UPS is essentially a big battery that uses a converter to supply AC, it can come in handy for devices such as cordless telephones, whose base units need a power source.
More on telephones: Every home needs a regular wired telephone. Even when the electricty goes out, phone circuits usually remain operational. Since you can’t depend on a cordless phone, wired phones can literally be a life-saver. In most homes, there should be one in the bedroom and one in a central location of the house.

Get the answer: Many of us now use an answering service provided by the telephone company, or rely on cellphone voice mail. But an answering machine can be valuable during an outage. Here’s why:

When you leave home for work in a home without power, you’ll spend the day wondering if the power has been restored. The answering machine can tell you when the power goes on. Just plug it into the AC outlet. If you call and the answering machine picks up, you’ll know the power is on.

Safety: There are several things not to do in a power outage — and they’re a lot more important than keeping warm.

One, never use a charcoal or gas grill inside the house. The grills can create carbon monoxide fumes that can kill you.

Two, if you have a portable electric generator, consult a licensed electrician before using it. Ask the electrician to create a master switch that will let you use the generator without sending electricity out over the lines outside your house. Power company lineman have been killed thinking they were working on a dead line and grabbing a live one instead.

Follow these tips and, while you may be a bit chilly when the lights go out, at least you’ll have enough light to watch your family shiver.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Long ago most families had one car. Dad went to work, Mom stayed home and errands waited until evenings or weekends. It wasn’t very convenient.

Not so long ago, most families had one computer. A line formed behind the person using it. It wasn’t very convenient, either.

Along came a second computer, then a third. At least you don’t need a bigger garage.

But multiple computers raise questions about how best to use them — including cast-off computers that have the approximate dollar value of an old suit.

We’ll tackle this in two stages, starting with the easiest. If you have extra computers that can still do heavy lifting, they can do a lot of tasks and serve as a networked computer holding backed-up data. For those interested in that prospect, here’s a Web site that covers that method, as well as other backup techniques:

That was the easy part. Some computers are no longer fast enough to handle big tasks; that’s why they were replaced. Still, there are some interesting ways to use these lonely underpowered computers.

We’ll want our lonely heart computers to be able to talk to your network. That means you’ll need to add a wireless adapter if they don’t have wireless capability. You’ll find cards that can be added to an accessory slot along with wireless adapters that connect to a USB port. And, of course, you’ll need one of those too.

Now, let’s find a home for that computer.

Kitchen: Years ago, I started accumulating cookbooks as well as recipes that I jot down on note cards. Nowadays, when I need help making a Memphis dry rub for barbecue or a refresher course on veal marsala, I just turn to the Web. Adding a computer to the kitchen — in an area protected from spills and grease — means your cookbooks won’t be needed as often. And there also are excellent sites that help you convert measurements. One tip: Kitchen computers profit from a plastic dust cover, for obvious reasons.

The shop: If you’re building a deck, a fence or even a bookshelf, you may need design help. Many excellent programs offer that — and will even tell you, based on the project, the type and length of boards you’ll need. Again, a dust cover is a must.

The den: In my house, a television program can spark interest in an unfamiliar country, animal or event. A computer tucked away in a cabinet so it isn’t an eyesore lets you find the answers quickly without abandoning the show. A laptop is even better, as you won’t have to get out of that favorite chair.

A guest computer: Overnight guests often want to check e-mail, read their favorite news Web sites or blogs or even play games. I oblige, although there’s a privacy risk with a networked computer. Keeping it separate removes those worries.

In the bedroom: No jokes, please. A bedroom computer can be extremely handy. Many times I’ve retired for the night only to realize I needed to send an e-mail or check for one. A computer in my bedroom means I can take care of that without disarming my home security system and wandering around the house.

Some of this may be excessive now. But I promise you: One-computer households will soon seem as quaint as one-car families.

E-mail Bill at

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Technology has given business a powerful tool: the ability to transfer some of the work of handling orders and complaints to Web sites.

Automated functions on the site force customers to do most of the work for themselves. In theory that’s not a bad idea. If it saves money for the business, it should bring down prices.
But it also opens the door to what my friend Clark Howard, the consumer advocate, calls “customer non-service.” It can be complicated to reach a real person, and extra fees may be involved.

When online service works, it’s fast and efficient. When it doesn’t, it feels as if you’ve poked your finger into an electric pencil sharpener.

These days most folks have a tale of online service woe; I’ll give you mine. I was trying to book a trip to Nova Scotia with a 15-day stay. I wanted to fly into Halifax, stay one night in a hotel, and then head to Cape Breton.

I used a travel site to book a flight, but it insisted on also booking my Halifax hotel room for all 15 days instead of just one night. Maybe I missed something or made a mistake, but I needed human help. The first human I got politely said she had to transfer me to someone else.
That person told me she only worked with corporate customers and that I shouldn’t have called her. I explained I had been transferred and asked if she could just quickly explain how to change the hotel reservations.

“Oh, no,” that’s not my job, she said in effect.

I hung up and resorted to a secret weapon I’ll reveal at the end of the column.

But, here’s what I could have done instead: Called again and reached a different person more willing to help. You’d be surprised how often that works. One thing that often doesn’t work is getting mad and letting it show. Polite people get better service. Seldom does an insult advance your cause. You needn’t be a marshmallow, but be businesslike.

If the person you are dealing with can’t help, ask to speak to a supervisor and restate your case.If you keep moving up the food chain, you’ll probably find a person who understands it’s better to resolve complaints.
Unfortunately there’s that qualifier: Probably. Sometimes there’s just no help. If the problem is worth the time, put down the phone and go low tech: Write an old-fashioned paper letter explaining your problem and asking for resolution.

The letter should be no longer than a page -- although it’s fine to include copies of receipts or other info to support your case. And get a good proofreader. Rambling letters filled with mispelled words won’t get as much attention.

Send your letter to the company’s marketing chief or president. The big shot may never see the letter, but some companies have people assigned to deal with complaints that reach the president’s office. Use google to find executives’ names, usually in the “about us” part of a company Web site.

Now I’ll tell you the secret weapon I used to solve my problem with the travel site. I turned the telephoning over to my wife, who is Irish with a gift for blarney. Before long she was on a first name basis with one of the service reps in India, chatting about the weather, and booking my trip just the way I wanted.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Back-to-school time always brings memories of the Dew-Orr Department Store in Arkadelphia, Ark., where I made a once-a-year excursion with my mom.

I got five pairs of blue jeans, five shirts, five sets of underwear and socks and, if we were prosperous at the time, new shoes.

Mr. Orr always gave me a brand-new pocketknife at the cash register. That’s a back-to-school accessory you won’t see as a giveaway in any stores near you.

These days back-to-school shopping is a little trickier, especially when it comes to technology. But there are ways to turn shopping for the middle school and high school years into savings that pay off for the entire term.

If you use an ink jet printer, for instance, you’ll find that a laser printer will save you money in the long run. Anyone who regularly buys ink cartridges knows buying replacement cartridges can be darn near as expensive as buying a cheap ink jet printer. There will be a lot of printing to do, and much of it will be in the form of reports that do just fine in black and white. Combined with the regular load of printing for parents, having a laser as a second, or even third, printer can pay for itself in just one school year.

Most families can do just fine with a monochrome printer — one that only prints in black and white. The ink jet can be reserved for times color is needed. Check out the reviews at to find a printer that’s right for your home.

Two models to check out — both made by Samsung — are the ML-2851ND (prices vary but you should easily find it at a bit over $200) and ML-1630 in the same general price range. Both receive favorable reviews at Cnet.

Color laser printers once were reserved for high-end business use, but prices have fallen. Most families would still be better served hanging on to their ink jet for color and using a laser for black and white, but your situation may vary.

School has become a lot like the office. Many projects start there but are completed at home. Some of the homework can involve music and video. That means a flash drive (also called a jump drive) is essential. These tiny, portable solid-state drives simply plug into a USB port and can store data just like a regular hard disk. Prices have really dropped over the years. You can find a jump drive in the 2 to 4 gigabyte range for around $20. I favor the Lexar brand.

The next item on my list is a cellphone. Some schools won’t allow them at all, while others allow them to be carried but not used, so check with your child’s school. In many cases, kids as young as 9 or so already have one.

Everyone has his or her own view on this but I will say the obvious: It’s a dangerous world, and a phone gives your child a way to call for help if needed. Some cellphones include GPS tracking technology that enables a parent to locate the phone — and presumably the child — at any time.
Interested? Use Google and enter this search to read about the technology and offers from various cellphone companies: trackable GPS cellphone.

A lot of stories about back-to-school technology focus on computer games, iPods and iPhones, digital cameras and camcorders. I do not see them as back-to-school necessities.

I also haven’t talked about desktop computers and laptops. Most families either have them or can’t afford to buy more. There is a good argument for a separate school machine by the time a child is in high school. Now that many parents also spend evenings either working or playing at the computer it may be close to a necessity. Just make sure to use adequate parental controls on the student machine.

I’ll offer more tips on computer shopping in future columns. But most brand-name computers sold today are plenty adequate for school use.

My final tip on back-to-school technology shopping: Your child may know more about what’s out there and what’s needed than you do. So at least listen — unless they suggest a pocketknife.

Monday, August 4, 2008

When I started covering technology 18 years ago, there was lots of talk about potential hazards of using a cellphone.

One report would say there was a risk of brain cancer; another would follow saying there was no harm from the relatively low-powered radio signals from the phone. Then the back-and-forth would start all over again.

It continues today. Recently Ronald Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, said his research shows it is possible that cellphone radiation raises risks for some relatively rare cancers.

But if the arguments are similar today, cellphone use has changed dramatically. Cellphones were an expensive luxury a decade or so ago. Air time was expensive. Most folks only used them when a land line wasn’t available.

These days, everyone has a cellphone — including kids who, according to Herberman, are especially vulnerable to the hazards of radiation. Many people use them constantly, to the point of dropping land line service entirely. So, for many people, exposure to any potential health hazard has grown from a few hours a month to a few hours a day.

Herberman’s research isn’t the last word. But it’s still worth noting, given the amount of exposure most of us have. Luckily, we can lessen any hazard from radiation. Bluetooth earpieces allow hands-free operation and keep the cellphone’s antenna away from our heads. Some doctors think something as simple as switching the cellphone from one ear to another several times during a long conversation will keep radiation from being concentrated in one part of the brain.

The risks are realistic enough to make it smart to do what you can to reduce the radiation.
But the real kicker to all this is that there is a real and well-documented health risk from cellphones, one so strong that it makes any radiation risk pale in comparison.

A University of Utah psychologist, David Strayer, has found that people using cellphones behind the wheel are more dangerous than if they were driving drunk. You’d think the precaution I just suggested — using an earpiece to talk hands-free — would remove much of the driving risk. After all, I’ve watched my real estate agent wife fumble through a purse large enough to hold a small dog in search of her cellphone while driving.

But Strayer’s research found that the risk of driving and talking on the cellphone is about the same regardless of the use of a hands-free phone.

Here’s the deal, at least according to Strayer as quoted in a Los Angeles Times article: While your computer can handle several chores at one time, your brain can’t.

“There are limits to how much we can multitask, and that combination of cellphone [chatting] and driving exceeds the limits,” Strayer said.

Some states recognize the danger.

I am just back from a couple of weeks in California, and motorists there — as well as in several other states — are prohibited from talking on hand-held cellphones while driving. The loophole is that they can still use headsets and speakers or — incredibly — send text messages while driving.

But the hand-held ban is at least a start. I recently read a New York Times story about a study done by Jed Kolko, an economist with the Public Policy Institute of California. He studied traffic deaths in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Washington, D.C., before and after handheld cellphone bans.

He thinks California will have 300 fewer traffic deaths a year because of the ban. California averages about 4,000 traffic deaths annually, so that’s a heck of a decrease.

The cellphone isn’t going away. Nor are chatty drivers. All you can do is control your own actions, and putting the phone aside while driving is a good start. Talk is cheap these days, but it can kill.