Your Home is Your Office

This newsletter will not tell you to wash your hands or notify you about another cancelled event. It may feel like there are too many announcements being made about the Coronavirus right now, but the goal is our health and safety. Once you and your loved ones are in a safe and secure location, likely at home, your next thoughts may turn to getting work done and keeping in contact with friends and family. Today I’ll tell you about some things I am doing and how you too can use some powerful tools to keep “business as usual”.

Best regards,

Neil

This past Friday morning, the main team that I work with joined a Zoom conference to discuss the important topic of how we would continue to work in a world with a COVID-19 lockdown. We work with numerous customers on datacentre design and architecture and there is much benefit to doing our workshops in person. When doing any kind of design and planning, it’s best to be able to draw diagrams on a large whiteboard while in the same room. The back and forth discussion in person has immeasurable benefits in producing successful results. We have been advised to work from home and not to go to the office or have meetings in customer offices. So how are we to get work done?

Enter video conferencing

We are fortunate to live in a time where fast, reliable Internet is more the rule than exception. Yes, we’ve all had outages and slow Internet but overall it works well. For a long time, there have been tools such as Skype for audio and video calls and anyone who uses an iPhone is familiar with FaceTime. Let’s dive a bit further into one of my current favourite video conferencing solutions, Zoom.

I’m starting with the pricing page (shown above as of March 2020) to answer the question that I know you’re already asking – what does it cost? As you can see, it starts out as free, and this may be sufficient for your needs.

Here’s some of the ways you can use Zoom:

Team conference with or without video

If there are 10 people in your team, this program will allow all of you to be in front of your webcams and be able to have a conversation while seeing each other. The software is intelligent enough to show the video of the person who is currently speaking. So… don’t all talk at the same time!

Share Documents

You can open a Word document or an Excel spreadsheet and share it through Zoom so that all participants in the conference can see. Let’s say you’re working on a report and you want to review it with a colleague. Normally in the office you would sit in front of the same monitor and discuss it. With Zoom you can create a 1 on 1 video conference share your document and discuss it just as you would do in the office.

Draw a design that others can see

If you have a tablet with a stylus, such as an Apple iPad with a Pencil, you can share your screen and draw diagrams that the conference participants can see. If they also have a device with a stylus, you can draw together and collaborate. With a little bit of practice, you can achieve the same results as you would in a boardroom with a whiteboard.

Use Zoom video conferencing for meetings outside work

For over 20 years, I’ve been a volunteer with the Jewish Genealogical Society of Toronto and have been on the board for much of that time. Our monthly board meetings are usually held at a community centre. This week it was looking like we might have to either cancel the meeting or have a much lower attendance. I suggested that we do the board meeting by Zoom conference. First, we did a small test with 3 other board members. It was a success with all of them easily connecting to the conference. When we told the rest of the board that the upcoming meeting would be by Zoom, several of them who would otherwise have not been able to attend, said they would. We are also looking at having a future meeting of the group done by Zoom. A presenter will give a talk. and using the sharing feature, a PowerPoint presentation can easily be seen by all participants.

Upgrade your webcam and headphones

Most laptops have a webcam but the video quality is generally not particularly good. This week, for less than $100, I purchased a Logitech C920S high definition video webcam. The video is very high quality and I also like that this webcam has a removable cap so that I can cover it when I’m not using it. I also like that I can position the webcam at different angles and move it to an external monitor so it is directly in front of my face.

You can use the microphone and speakers in your computer for online conferencing but there are a few problems with this:

  • participants may not be able to hear you clearly if you are too far from the computer
  • other noise in the room or building may be heard by the meeting participants – especially if your kids are home from school which is the case nearly everywhere now

I use a Logitech H340 headset that plugs into a USB port in my computer. It has a built-in microphone so audio is clear and consistent.

You can also use a mobile phone or tablet

For all the examples shown earlier, your mobile phone or tablet can run software such as Zoom. The ability to share content isn’t as straightforward as on a computer but the ability to share a whiteboard is best on a tablet. When we ran our test of our genealogy society board meeting, one of the participants connected from her iPhone and commented on how easy it was to do so. She plugged in her Apple headphones with microphone and said that the audio was very clear and we heard her as though she was in the same room.

Try it out

Sign up for a free Zoom account and try it out. If you like the results, you can sign up for $20 a month to allow larger groups to meet with you. Or maybe the free account works fine for you. There are numerous other tools too, such as Callbridge, Webex, and Join.me. A quick Google search will give you the list of features of each of them.

If you’re curious about how this works, I’d be happy to jump on a Zoom call with you to show you how easy it is. In this time of staying away from offices and other public spaces, it’s the perfect opportunity to try out some amazing tools that will help you keep your business running and most importantly in close contact with the people who you are most important to you.

Send me a Zoom invite – I’d be happy to join.

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Backup and Restore Your Droid

Spoiler alert! I’m going to talk about the most recent Star Wars movie, Rise of Skywalker. If you haven’t seen it yet and still want to, you might want to stop here. Unfortunately, that means you will lose the benefit of the following great advice!

In order to pull some important information from C-3P0, his memory had to be completely erased. Think of it like resetting your phone back to factory settings and losing all your personal data. Thankfully R2D2 had a back up copy, so C-3P0 was restored back to his old self.

The most important part of the C-3P0 story isn’t even talked about much in the movie. It’s how a backup was done and how regularly it was performed. For as long as we’ve used computers in our daily lives, there have been some more and less effective means of backing up our data.

How things used to be

I can recall the ‘olden days’ of personal computing in the 1980s when all programs and data were stored on floppy disks. A hard drive was a huge luxury and the capacities of these heard drives are a tiny fraction of what they are today.

In order to make a copy of your important document or spreadsheet, you would have to make a copy on another floppy disk. If you had lots of money to spend, you could buy a tape drive to keep your backups. These were manual methods, and unless you had a routine to do your backup, it didn’t always get done.

Thankfully, a lot has changed in the past 30 years and we have much better tools available today to protect all of our critical data. Let’s have a look at some of these.

Automate the backup

Wouldn’t it be great if your files got backed up automatically without you having to do anything? There are two main ways that this is accomplished

  • Backing up to a hard drive connected to your computer
  • Backing up to a online backup provider

Some backup tools are built into the computer such as Windows Backup, and Mac Time Machine.

Then there are programs you install such as AOMEI Backuper and Macrium Reflect. With these types of programs it’s just a matter of

  • Install the software
  • Tell the software what data to back up
  • Point it to your external hard drive
  • Set up a schedule
  • Tell it to start backing up

With all the above types of backup programs, you are protected from accidental changes, viruses or your computer’s hard drive failing.

Online backup services such as iDrive work the same way except that instead of backing up to and external hard drive they backup to an online cloud based service. There is a cost to these services which varies based on capacity or number of devices backed up.

Why use syncing vs backup

If you do some research into backup programs, you’ll find ones such as FreeFileSync. The difference here is that a sync program does copy your files to another hard drive but it just creates an exact copy of the folder structure. A backup program stores the file in its own unique format and allows for multiple versions of files. A sync program is still a backup copy that will protect you from hard drive failure and is most useful if you want to take that copy and use it elsewhere. Make sure if you do this to be careful not to start changing those copied files as your data will not be consistent between your computer and the backup copy.

Keep it always in the cloud

Cloud based services such as Dropbox, Apple iCloud, OneDrive and Google Drive are very popular. They make it very easy to ensure that you always have another copy of your important data. I switched to OneDrive a few years ago when I signed up for Office 365 and it’s been ideal for a number of reasons:

  • As I save my documents, they are immediately backed up online
  • I can access my files from any computer, including Windows, Mac or Chromebook and even a mobile phone or tablet
  • I can edit documents on any device and the changes are synced back to all other devices
  • If any of my devices break, I can move to another device and continue working
  • I still have a second level of backup as one of my computers has iDrive set up and backs up my OneDrive folders to the iDrive online cloud based service

The best solution is the one with multiple backups

Any one of the above backup services or solutions can fail. You might go to your external hard drive to restore a file and find that the hard drive failed. Maybe your computer was disconnected from the Internet for a few hours and your files didn’t back up. Having multiple backup systems in place ensures that your important data is kept safe. In the Star Wars universe, whoever was in charge of C-3P0 ensured that his memory systems were properly backed up. You can make sure that your sales proposal document, budget spreadsheet or Droid is kept safe by choosing a few backup methods from the ones listed here.

Do you have a solid backup system? Have you ever had a major loss of data? Reply to this message and tell me about it.

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No phishing for me, thanks

Ping! Your cell phone makes a noise and you check who the text message came from.

We’ve all been well trained to keep our phones nearby and to check and respond quickly to text messages. Once in a while, instead of it being your friend, spouse, parent or child, it’s a scary warning from your bank, or the tax department telling you to contact them because something has happened to your account. At this time of year in Canada and the US, we’re all on extra alert, and some cool headed thinking can prevent great financial losses.

Identifying a scam

Text messages are a great addition to our list of communication tools. If I’m in the grocery store and my wife wants me to pick up a few more items, I’ll tell her to send me a text with the list – don’t call me as I’ll forget as soon as we get off the phone! However, as with any helpful tool, there is always someone who finds a sinister misuse for it. It’s not uncommon, especially during the tax season to get a message like this:

Message 
Yesterday 9:1 2 
You have received $493 
from the Canada Revenue 
Agency last year for your 
taxes. Please fill in the 
following online form:

There’s a common pattern in scam messages, also known as phishing (as in fishing for information). The scammer wants to either scare you into action or promises you some reward – like the supposed $493 from the Canada Revenue Agency. These types of texts will have a link that, when clicked, appears to be a trusted organization like your bank. Do not click on these! You will be asked for your user name, password and possibly other private information. The scammer will use these to steal your banking or other financial resources.

But not all texts are phishing

The banks and other financial institutions have also started using text message alerts as a notification system. But how do you tell the difference? Have a look at this message:

TD FRAUD ALERT Purchase 
$58.34 @ SKIPTHEDISHES.C 
Credit Card ** 16 Reply Y if this 
was you/your add! Cardholder, 
N if not Msg rates may apply

In this message, it appears to be coming from TD Bank and is asking if you spent a specific amount at a specific vendor. It asks you to respond either with “Y” that you made this purchase (and all is ok) or “N” for no that you didn’t make this purchase (and all is not ok).

The difference – in the scammer text, you are asked to provide your personal information. In the second, you are only being asked to confirm or deny information. At no time is any personal details exchanged.

So, now you know that scam messages will ask you to click a link, or call a phone number. Notification alerts only ask you to confirm or deny information. For any type of alert where you are not sure, you can call to a known phone number from your bank and find out if the alert is true or not. By understanding the different types of messages you may get, you will always be in control and have the right response.

Sometimes it looks like a scam but it’s not

Recently I read about a new scam going around – scammers attempting to port phone numbers illegally:

In this scam, the scammer was able to determine just enough personal information about someone that they could call the cell phone provider and have the number moved to another provider. A text message was sent to their phone but the original owner either didn’t see it in time or thought it was a scam – a valid response based on how’ve we’ve been trained to react.

Rogers has received a request to 
transfer your telephone number to 
another Service Provider. If you did not 
authorize, contact Rogers urgently at 
1-877-327-8503

Once we have been trained to ignore what seems to be a scam message, what should a cell phone owner to do with this new information?

When you receive what appears to be a phishing text, if you aren’t sure if it’s valid, contact your bank, cell phone provider or whichever company is referenced. Do not use the number or website in the text! Look it up either through your contacts, the back of your credit card or through the provider’s official website.

Most mobile phone providers in the US offer blocks to prevent your phone from being ported unless you provide them with a pin number that you set up. The following article explains this process https://www.thebalance.com/prevent-your-mobile-number-from-being-ported-4160360 and you can call your Canadian (or other) provider to find out if they offer such an option

Always be vigilant

This tax season while you are busy enough getting all of your papers and files in order to submit your taxes, it’s more than likely than before that you’ll get phishing texts or phone calls from scammers. Remember that the tax agencies will never call, text or email you with threatening messages. You can always call them at officially listed numbers to find out if there is indeed a problem. When the inevitable scammer comes calling, take a breath, think about your options and then make the right decision to shut them out.

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Eureka, I figured out why my upgrade failed!

I’ve solved a mystery and I’m so very pleased! You know that feeling when something isn’t working but you can’t figure it out so you just live with it? I recently wrote about upgrading to Windows 10 and how easy a process it can be. Well, there’s also upgrades to Windows 10 to keep it healthy and working nicely. I’ve done this for a bunch of computers of mine and others and had no problems. Except for my primary personal laptop. Here, my Windows 10 upgrade failed.

A failed upgrade

Every time in the past year that I started the upgrade it would hum along for awhile and then end with this oh so helpful error message:

Thanks for the info, but why did it happen?

I’ve also seen the message: Error: 0x80070003 while updating Windows to Windows 10 1903

For those who are technically inclined, there are log files that get created on the computer when something like this failed. I started looking through but got impatient or distracted and didn’t find a solution. I just kept living with an older (and maybe more insecure) Windows 10. Until today, Fri Jan 31, 2020 when I stumbled across this discussion from Microsoft:

https://answers.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/forum/all/error-0x80070003-while-updating-windows-to-windows/6efb2834-9348-4955-98b8-1707fc3943a5

and the solution is buried in the discussion:

there’s a lot of technical lingo here but the answer is here

To make a long story short, what this is saying is that

  • a program called Macrium was installed on my computer
  • I removed it
  • It did not play nicely and left behind some incorrect settings
  • and this prevented Windows 10 from upgrading itself

I followed the instructions listed here and fixed the messed up settings – and the upgrade finally worked!

And what do we learn from this

I like to try lots of different programs on my computer and maybe you do too. And many of these programs come from reputable sources but still there can be bugs even in good, safe programs. And to be honest, I’m not going to tell you to stop installing programs that you need. In my case, this was a program for copying one hard drive to another and I needed it for something I was doing. We just have to be aware that there’s a lot of connections between seemingly separate programs on computers but that they can break each other. I also suggest to make note of any error messages and do a Google search for it. My theory is that I’m not the only one having this problem so if I can find someone else experiencing the same thing, then there could be a solution. And sometimes it takes a year!

There’s a line that my wife likes to say, consider your choices, consider your consequences. The more you add to your computer the more detective work there may be to solve unexpected problems.

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Can a slow computer become a speed demon?

One of the activities at my kids’ summer camp during a camp wide competition is tug of war. It is said that a chain is only a strong as its weakest link.  I’m sure that there are always stronger and weaker members of the team in tug of war. I’ll bet that the stronger members of the team wish that they could replace the weaker members with super strong people! 

losing at tug of war can often mean a trip into a messy puddle!

The slowest part of your computer is also the weakest link in the chain. The hard drive has traditionally been the slowest part of the computer. This is because hard drives were a set of moving parts that contain all of your files. Memory and the processor are very fast so when you’re sitting there waiting for something to happen on your computer, it was usually the fault of the hard drive.

A slow computer doesn’t have to be the case anymore. Solid State Drives, known as SSD are hard drives with no moving parts. What this means for you is that they are very very fast.

The Little Computer That Couldn’t

A few years ago my cousin Gerry bought a little computer that he could use for travel, a HP Pavilion x360 Convertible. This was in addition to his primary home computer and using techniques like cloud storage he could still access everything from this small machine.

it looks small and powerful but one feature made it nearly impossible to use

After setting up the computer and installing things like Microsoft Office 365 and Dropbox, Gerry found the computer to be extremely slow. It took over 15 minutes for the computer to power on and get logged in and even then everything was sluggish. This was a new computer out of the box and it was painful to use.

Eventually Gerry got fed up with using it and while discussing it, I convinced him to get a cheap Chromebook. While a great solution for many tasks, Gerry still wanted a travel computer that could run Windows. I have had much success with replacing old, slow hard drives with SSD but this computer appeared very challenging to open. So we left it as is.

After about 2 years, we got to discussing this computer again and I decided that I was up for the challenge of opening it up to see if the hard drive could be replaced. There wasn’t much to lose as it was to slow to be of any use. I learned that modern computers are made to be hard to open. To be fair, on very thin computers, it’s quite a challenge for manufacturers to pack in all the parts in a small case.

I searched YouTube for instructions on how to open a computer like this. Several made reference to screws hidden underneath the pads on the bottom (red arrow pointing to them).

there are screws hiding inside!

The Assessment

I carefully pried these off and sure enough there were screws underneath. After removing all the screws, I gently pulled off the top keyboard and got access to the internals. If you’re wondering what the inside looks like, I’ll save you the suspense – here it is. The hard drive sits in that empty slot in the side so I realized it would be quite easy to replace it.

the top secret internals of a HP laptop

Inside was a slow, old 500 GB traditional, slow, with moving parts hard drive. There’s much better solutions, such as fast SSD drives so that is exactly what I suggested that Gerry do – get a replacement hard drive.

The Solution

Gerry ordered a new 1 TB SSD hard drive for $136 (CAD). Prices have really come down. The next part would appear to be the most difficult but was actually very simple – copying from the old to new hard drive. For that I used my hard drive duplicator. It looks kind of like a pop up toaster oven but instead of bread you put in the source and target hard drives. Press one button, and then wait awhile, and voila, your entire hard drive is cloned!

I think I’m a clone now

How the patient is doing now

The difference from before with the slow hard drive to the new SSD is like getting past a slow section on the highway and kicking it up to highway speeds! The computer now boots up and is ready to go in less than a minute. Everything is fast and smooth and will be a productive and valuable tool. With a 1 TB drive, Gerry can have a full copy of his Dropbox files on the computer. This means that while travelling and away from internet access, he can still have access to all his files. Gerry is leaving on a trip soon so I’ll have to get a full report when he gets back. There’s no excuse now for vendors to ship computers with slow hard drives. SSD drives have come down in price so every computer has the ability to have a speedy disk. And if you have an older slow computer, or even a new one with a slow hard drive, there is a cost effective solution to make your computer at a much faster rate.

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Goodbye Windows 7

It’s been several months since I sent a newsletter. My new year’s resolution is to send a monthly newsletter. I want to write about relevant technology issues that are important to you. Please feel free to email me with any ideas or questions you have. 

It’s out with the old Windows 7, as of January 14, 2020

Cars vs Computers

In spring of 2009 we bought a 3 year old used Dodge Caravan minivan. It’s always risky to purchase a used car but here we are 11 years later and our minivan is still in remarkably good working order. We’ve made this happen by following the recommended maintenance over the years and using a talented, creative and honest mechanic. By the way, Leo (our mechanic) says to get your car rust proofed regularly with a service like Krown. It’s one of the few extra things he highly recommends and we still see the results today.

I realize that at some point soon there are going to be enough things wrong with the van that we’ll have to say goodbye. As long as it’s safe to drive and reasonably cost effective to run, we’ll keep it.

Think about the computers you’ve bought in the last decade

Do you still have one that is in good working order? Is it still ‘safe’ to use? Safety for a computer is a bit different than that of a car. Microsoft and Apple release security updates on a regular basis to keep the computer safe from hackers and other nasty villains out there on the internet. You can think of the security updates over time much like the Krown rust spray that we have put on our car every year. If you have a Windows computer that was bought between 2009 and 2012, it likely came with Windows 7. In fact, Windows 7 was such a successful and reliable operating system, that it was still being installed on new computers past 2015 when Windows 10 was released.

Up until now, if you asked me if you should upgrade your Windows 7 computer, I would ask these questions:

  1. What are you doing with your computer?
  2. Is there anything you are doing with your computer that can’t be done with Windows 7?
  3. And if the answer to the previous 2 questions was that everything is working properly, I would ask if you enjoy causing unnecessary chaos in your life?

That all changes now.

On January 14, 2020, Windows 7 will be reaching End of Life (EOL). You can read all about it here: https://support.microsoft.com/en-ca/help/4057281/windows-7-support-will-end-on-january-14-2020

What does this really mean to you?

As of January 14, 2020, Microsoft will no longer release security updates. It would be as if the fine people at Krown looked at our van and said, sorry, your car is too old for a rust proofing, we’re not going to do it anymore. As you can imagine, at first the car would continue to run just fine but as time goes on, and no additional rust proofing is done, the rust will overtake the car and make it a good candidate for the junkyard.

It’s similar with your Windows 7 computer. On January 15, 2020, everything will work properly. And possibly for days and months to come it will be fine. But eventually a security issue will be discovered and there will be no fix from Microsoft. Your chance of some type of hack on your computer will only increase over time.

Should you throw out your computer on January 14, 2020?

No, you have several choices after Windows 7 goes end of life.

  1. Continue using your computer while being aware of the risks.
  2. Install a program such as Malwarebytes to provide some level of protection 
  3. Upgrade your computer to Windows 10

Continue using your computer

We already talked about what happens if you continue to use your computer after Windows 7 goes End of Life. Continue at your own risk!

Third party anti-virus and malware protection

Even after Microsoft ends support for Windows 7, numerous anti-virus and malware protection software will continue to work for some time. Examples include Norton Antivirus, McAfee Antivirus and Malwarebytes. I highly recommend a paid subscription to Malwarebytes as it runs all the time and can protect you from problem websites and other online issues. This also applies to modern up to date Windows 10 computers.

It is important to note that even with the best antivirus protection software running on Windows 7, continuing to use Windows 7 is risky.

Upgrade to Windows 10

Since Windows 10 was released in 2015, they have made a free upgrade to Windows 10 available at https://www.microsoft.com/en-ca/software-download/windows10. You need to either run it from the website, or create a USB key or DVD to do the upgrade. It will check your computer first and will notify you if any of your hardware isn’t compatible with Windows 10. I have had much success with this upgrade, even on some computers that are 10 years old.

Concluding thoughts

While on the surface it appears that the end of Windows 7 support means that your computer is now garbage, it’s couldn’t be further from the truth. With a little planning and effort, your computer can still be a useful tool for several more years.

Now if only there was a USB key that would upgrade my 2006 Dodge Caravan to the latest model!

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Malwarebytes to the Rescue

Many times in the past few years I’ve had a frantic call from a family member or a friend whose computer has either slowed to a crawl or is acting strangely. The first thing that I do is have them go to www.malwarebytes.com and to install the free version of Malwarebytes and run a scan. I’d say about 9 times out of 10, the program finds tons of malware and other nasty stuff. The computer starts running much faster and my friend or family member things I’m a hero!

The next question I’m usually asked is how can they prevent this type of thing from happening again? I follow this with my own question – are you willing to spend a bit of money to fix this? If they’re willing to spend about $50 per computer for year then I point them to the full version of Malwarebyes:

Malwarebytes for Home | Anti-Malware Premium | Free Trial Download

Link to purchase Malwarebytes

Full disclosure – if you purchase by downloading from the above link, I will make a small commission on your purchase, at no cost to you.

Whether you purchase from here now or at elsewhere in the future, I highly recommend Malwarebytes. Think of it as having a permanent security guard always watching your computer to make sure that nasty malware is stopped in its tracks. That is essentially the difference between the paid and free version. The paid version is always running and you might not even know that it’s removing malware when you click on a link to a website.

I recommend downloading and installing the free version and doing a scan of your computer. You just may find that things run a lot more smoothly afterwards. Then you can decide if and when you are ready to purchase the full version for always-on protection.

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How to log in to student school wifi for York Region (YRDSB)

My daughter started in grade 9 at Westmount Collegiate Institute in Thornhill in September 2019. Trying to find the right information to connect to school wifi proved to be quite difficult. There is nothing online that tells you how, or if it’s there they’ve hidden it really well. My son has been in the York Region school system for a few years and must have somehow figured out how to connect as his Chromebook connects. We ended up going to the school with both Chromebooks and I checked the settings of the one that does connect and entered the right information and it worked.

The directions below are for a Chromebook but should work for any Windows or Mac too. The field names may be different.

To save others the same trouble we went through, here is what you need to fill out on the wifi settings.

  • First, make sure to connect to the YRDSB-S wifi network.
  • Choose EAP security, EAP method PEAP.
  • You may be able to choose automatic for EAP Phase 2 authentication but I saw that it used MSCHAPv2 so selected that.
  • Do not check for Server CA certificate
  • Identity is your 9 digit student number
  • Password you should already have for Google Classroom

Click Connect and you should be good to go.

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Brightness on iPad goes dark

I had a call from my mom while she was a passenger in a car for a long trip. She brought her iPad with her, loaded with movies to watch. For some reason, the brightness kept dropping, even when she manually moved it back up. She couldn’t figure out why and when she called me, I couldn’t figure it out either.

I asked her to send me a screenshot so I could see what was going on. This is what she sent:

brightness icon shows up on iPad screen

I searched some discussion forums and found some mentions of auto brightness but that didn’t fix it. Then someone mentioned a bluetooth keyboard whose keys were accidentally pressed. So I called her back and asked if her bluetooth keyboard was possibly in her bag and turned on. Yes! It was on and this keyboard has keys for controlling brightness. It seems that the ‘lower brightness’ button was being held down. As soon as she turned it off, all returned to normal.

I hope that someone finds this post when dealing with a similar annoying issue.

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Should I store files in folders?

As the family genealogist, I have regularly experienced the thrill of coming across a box full of photographs. It’s a surprise venture into the unknown to go through a stack of picture that may or may not have to do with each other. As the quantities of pictures get larger, the thrill starts to wear off as I think to myself that it would be much easier to deal with these pictures if they were in some kind of order. Compare this to coming across carefully organized and planned photo albums that have written comments and descriptions of who’s who. In the paper based world, it makes sense to put photos in albums or papers into labelled file folders. When it comes to the digital world, the same situation doesn’t necessarily apply.

Photo by Fancycrave.com from Pexels
a stack of photos may be fun to look through but can take forever to sort!

The benefits of storing files in folders

I’ve talked before about my method for organizing photos into folders. This gives structure and and easier ability to find photos. Combined with my method for naming and tagging photos, it makes finding that proverbial needle in a haystack a bit easier to find. This can be applied further to any types of folders, for example I keep folders of bills and statements sorted by company types, ie credit card, insurance, hydro, etc. If I want to find my Mastercard bill from 3 years ago, it’s easy enough to go through my folder structure to find the file that I know will be named something like ‘2016-03 Mastercard.pdf’.

I do the same thing with email. Several years ago I moved my email to Gmail. Gmail uses a structure for folders that they call labels. What this means is that you tag emails with a label name but you view them like folders. If you tag an email with more than one label, it will then appear to be in more than one folder. But if you delete it from a folder/label, it’s gone as there is really only one copy.

Photo by Mike from Pexels
those paper file folders did make finding information a bit easier

In the early days of computing, it made sense to apply structures from the real world into the computer world. Folders in your filing cabinet became folders in your computer. Photo albums also can easily be structured into a computer in the form of folders. I was talking this week with an older friend who agreed with me that this structure makes a lot of sense to him, but his son doesn’t necessarily agree.

An argument for one big free-for-all folder

Part of the power of computers is that they can do the hard work of sorting and searching. Imagine picking up a big box of photos and being able to find the one you want in seconds. That’s what computers have done for the digital world. Let’s look at how this might work in a few examples where we eliminate the use of folders.

Email with no folders

Anyone who has used Google knows at what speed search results are returned. Gmail and many other online email systems use this same concept to allow you to search your personal, private email. Although I choose to label all of my emails (into folders), I could leave them all in the inbox. When I want to find a message, I can just search for any words in it and/or the sender and the results will be returned as in a Google search.

Digital photos all in one big virtual box

Let’s say I put all of my thousands of digital photos into one folder. I could still search for them by date as every digital photo taken has the time and date embedded in the file. This isn’t the case for scanned photos but there is software that will allow you to set this information. Google Photos and other similar photo sharing services don’t use folders. You just upload all your pictures and Google lets you search and organize them into albums.

Files in one big folder

Going back to the example of the Mastercard statement. If I name my files in meaningful ways then I can search for them easily. Let’s say I had a folder with these files in it:

  • 2016-03_Mastercard_statement.pdf
  • 2014-03_hydro_statement.pdf
  • 204-02_letter_to_joe.doc

Searching the folders for any words that I know will appear in the name or maybe even in the content of the document will find the file. This would mean I could keep many unrelated documents in the same folder but still be able to find them.

So which way is better, folders or not?

It really depends on your way of thinking. On one hand, the folder structure is based on the physical world of folders and albums. If you are able to find what you want with searching then having less structure could make sense. Personally, I prefer more folders that allow me to browse when I want, but since all my files are searchable within the computer I can still do both. If I’m searching for copy of a specific statement from 5 years ago, I know exactly which folder to look in. If I want to find a letter that I wrote to a friend at some unknown time, I can search their name in my folders to find it.

Without some level of organization, certain data will drop into a virtual ‘black hole’ never to be found. Think about it this way. If you had 10,000 photos and put them all, unlabeled into a single folder, imaging how hard it would be to pinpoint a specific one. By putting some organization into your files structures, you make it easier to find what you are looking for.

What is your digital organization system?

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