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Recycling your old PC

posted May 1, 2014, 7:19 PM by Daryl du Plessis

Windows XP is reaching end of life in April 2014. This means that Microsoft will no longer support it, and will not be releasing any further patches or updates for it. From a support perspective this is not such a big deal as there are plenty of people that can fix issues with Windows XP, more concerning is the lack of security updates. You can bet your bottom dollar that hackers will be writing exploits to take advantage of this situation. So the options are to either buy a new computer or find a new use for the old one.  If the old girl is still going you may get some more life out of her by installing Linux, an open source operating system. This will destroy all the data on the PC so it is advisable to back this up into another PC or external hard drive. There are many variants of Linux, due its open nature, many organisations have customised  their own brand. To get an idea of the varieties available you can visit distrowatch.com. Currently they rank the top 5 distributions as 1. Mint, 2. Ubuntu, 3. Debian, 4. Mageia and 5. Fedora. They all have their pros and cons but you can be confident that any of the top 5 will be useful. 

I have found Mint to be one of the easiest Linux distributions. It comes pre-packaged with most things you will find in Windows and is very similar to Windows in general. You can even run a live CD and try it before installing it permanently to your hard drive. Be warned though that Linux and Windows are different systems so you will not be able to run the same programs on Linux. Usually you can find an alternative program that works much the same way. 

If you can't squeeze any more life out of your computer there are environmentally friendly ways of disposing it. The National Televison and  Computer Recycling Scheme has been setup in all states and allows you to drop off e-waste at certain technology retailers and recycling centres. For more information go to dropzone.org.au.

Setting up a Personal Weather Station

posted Mar 28, 2014, 10:18 PM by Daryl du Plessis

Cumulus
I have become a lot more interested in the weather since moving to the country. I think this is due to the closer connection country communities have with the outdoors, be it is as a farmer, fire fighter or outdoors worker. I often found it interesting to see what direction the wind was coming from and to this end had a painted wooden parrot on the fence post which acted as a weather vane. The parrot finally met its end after years of faithful service and this prompted me to look at getting a proper weather station.

Being the kind of the person that enjoys gadgets, I started researching the options available to me and found a number of devices available, from the costlier high end Davis products (ranging from $800 upwards) to the more generic products in the $150 range. What I found was that these personal weather stations (PWS) can do a lot more than tell you the wind direction. They have the ability to measure wind speed, UV intensity, rainfall, humidity, barometric pressure and more. The best part for me was the ability for these PWS to log their data via a usb connection to a PC. This made it possible to track historical records and also see trends. I bought the cheaper model off of eBay, a Tycon Professional Weather Station. I particularly liked the fact that the remote sensor uses solar power to recharge the batteries that power it. It came with software for the PC but I found a better program called Cumulus which could read the data from the PWS and provide more features, such as graphs and weather records (e.g. the highest temperature, fastest wind speed etc.). Cumulus is freely downloadable from their website. There is a certain amount of configuration required to set your units of measure and other preferences, but the help documentation provided by Cumulus made this a lot easier. I would recommend that you assemble your remote sensors and position them in place before turning on the base station (which connects to the PC). This way you can avoid getting spurious readings from the remote sensors. I found it difficult to clean up the data once it was logged to the base station.

With the Cumulus software configured and the base station hooked up and logging data to the PC, I then went about publishing the data to the internet so I could access the information online. I thought I would have to develop a custom website to achieve this, but I found that there are a number of websites that provide this service already. The website I chose, wunderground.com, requires you to create a free account and enter your PWS details. They then generate a unique PWS ID for your account. Enter this information into Cumulus on your PC and it will automatically update your weather station details online. The end result being you can find out the weather details from anywhere at any time. This does require you to have your PC constantly connected to the base station and the Internet so that updates can be published regularly.

I have found that my base station will freeze up occasionally and lose its connection to the PC. I guess you get what you pay for. Resetting the base unit seems to fix this though. Overall I am very happy with the solution. Now I can annoy my family by telling them the wind speed and direction at any given moment.

Ransomware

posted Feb 8, 2014, 7:31 PM by Daryl du Plessis   [ updated Feb 8, 2014, 7:35 PM ]

There's a new kid in Malware town and he's causing trouble. Going by the generic label of Ransomware, this class of malicious software takes control of a system and then directs the user to pay for the system to be unlocked. The intention is always to extort money from the user. In some cases a law enforcement agency message will be used claiming that the computer has been used for illegal activities. In other cases, files will be encrypted and rendered unusable unless the ransom is paid.

In Australia, the Cryptolocker virus has been impacting many businesses and individuals, including local councils in WA. The payload for this virus encrypts all Office documents on drives that are connected to the infected computer. Once this process is completed, a message will popup stating that the files have been encrypted and that a ransom is required to decrypt the files. This can obviously cause a significant impact on the businesses involved. The infections are usually caused by users opening attachments in emails that look like PDF documents but are in fact executable programs. It is also possible for websites to install the malicious code to workstations.

It is not advisable to pay any ransom, as there is no guarantee that the malware will be removed, in fact it is more likely that you will be targeted for further extortion. It is advisable to get a computing professional to assess the damage and see what can be recovered. To mitigate against the impact of ransomware, it is best to ensure you have a regular backup, preferably offsite and not connected to the network. This way it is possible to recover files that have been encrypted or rebuild systems that have become unusable. Prevention is better than cure so it pays to follow the standard precautions for safe computing:

  1. Always have an up to date anti-virus package installed; 
  2. Don't open attachments that look unusual or are from unknown senders; 
  3. Don't click on links in emails as these could take you to an infected website;
  4. and lastly, be careful which websites you do visit, as they could infect your PC. 

A number of anti-virus products have browser extensions that can advise the trustworthiness of websites, it is worth using these to be safe. Also as mentioned last month, don't install software that you are not 100% is safe.

Playing Russian Roulette with your PC

posted Feb 8, 2014, 7:29 PM by Daryl du Plessis

Installing free programs from the internet is a bit like Russian roulette these days. You never know which one is going to be the live bullet that infects your PC with any manner of malware. It is tempting to download and install any manner of useful utilities that can be found free on the internet but it is easy to get tricked into installing malicious 3rd party apps along the way.

I was installing a free app used for system monitoring and even though I carefully checked all the boxes when running through the installer I almost got caught out, because only way to not install the 3rd party app was to close the installer. Once I did this the original installer kicked in and finished the installation but I was intentionally given what looked like only one way to proceed, by clicking Next and installing the additional software. It’s tricks like these that we need to be aware of when installing programs. Always check the options and deselect the additional toolbars, PC optimisation programs and anything else that you didn’t specifically ask for.


If you do need to install an app you do not trust 100%, then you can mitigate the damage by performing a scan on the downloaded file with your AV scanner (usually just need to right click on the file and select the option to scan for viruses). This alone won’t give you complete surety so it will pay to create a system restore point before you proceed with the installation. You can do this by going to Control Panel and search for “system restore” (search can be found in the top right corner of the Control Panel window). Select the option to create a restore point and step through the wizard. Once this is done you can (carefully) run through the app installation. If you find that you are having troubles after the install, you can then roll back to the restore point which will remove the offending files and settings.

Lastly, it pays to install apps only from trusted sources. With Windows 8, Microsoft have created a Windows App store that provides a level of legitimacy and a safe place to access apps. It is also worth getting references from trusted websites or blogs. The least trustworthy option is to download software from random torrent sites. It is just not worth the trouble caused by installing dodgy software. If you would like to know more about system restore, take a look at the link below.

 

http://windows.microsoft.com/en-au/windows7/what-is-system-restore

Using your iPad to remotely access Windows PCs

posted Feb 8, 2014, 7:23 PM by Daryl du Plessis   [ updated Feb 8, 2014, 7:24 PM ]

These days it is very likely that people will have more than one computing device in the house. Whether it is a mix of smartphones, smart TV’s, Windows PCs or tablets, there is likely to be a heterogeneous collection of devices. Microsoft has realised this and has released an app that you can use on your iPad or Android tablet to remotely connect to your Windows PC. It is called RD Client, and you can find it on the app store or Google play store. Best of all it is free, other remote access apps have charged as much as $20 for the same functionality.

Once you have downloaded the app you will need to provide your computer’s name or IP address. This can work either on your local network or across the internet if you have a  computer that has been made accessible across the internet. You can save your credentials or you can be prompted when you connect. Once you have authenticated, you can then access your PC. Usage is very similar to the built in Windows remote desktop client, but if you are accessing a Windows 8 PC you can use more gestures than on previous versions of Windows. If you haven’t used remote desktop before you may need to enable this on your Windows PC. Take a look at the FAQ in the link below to find out how.

 

There are some limitations to be aware of. Not all versions of Windows support remote desktop access (usually the home versions of Windows). In this can you can use 3rd party apps to connect, such as LogMeIn and splashtop, but as I mentioned, they are commercial apps that you will need to pay for. For more information take a look at the following link or search for “rd client”.

 

http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/dn473015.aspx

The ever changing face of technology

posted Feb 8, 2014, 7:19 PM by Daryl du Plessis

There have been some new announcements in technology recently. Two new 
versions of the iPhone have arrived. The iPhone 5c (for colour I presume) comes in a range of plastic coated colours and the iPhone 5s (I'm putting that down to s for Style) has some additional features (fingerprint reader) and is higher priced. As is customary Apple have also released iOS7 in tandem with these new products, and have added more functionality to their software platform. I think they are realising that competing with the Android phone requires them to provide more than one form factor for the iPhone. That was the reason I moved to Android, there was a much better choice of handsets to suit my needs.  I don't think Apple will be able to compete with the range of Android phones available, unless they license their iOS to other manufacturers, and I don't see this happening too soon.

In the Microsoft world, long standing CEO Steve Ballmer is stepping down (he took over from Bill Gates many years ago and has been involved with Microsoft from the early days). I like to think this is Karma for releasing Windows 8 without a start button. Speaking of, Windows 8.1 is due for release this month and yes, they have put the Start button back, but don't get too excited as it just open up the Windows 8 start screen. So it looks like we will just have to get used to things the way they are. That's progress I guess.

Extending your wireless network

posted Feb 8, 2014, 7:10 PM by Daryl du Plessis

Wireless networks are very common in homes and businesses these days. Most people will have a broadband router that will act as your wireless access point, which provides a wireless network around the house or business. The maximum range of the wireless network will depend on a number of factors but generally speaking the more expensive routers will give you a larger area.The environment will also impact on the range, especially if  there are dense walls in the building or, in the case of a shed, metal walls.

Fortunately there are ways of extending the wireless network if you find that you just can't get it where you want it. There may be a couple of scenarios and I'll focus on these and the relevant solution.

Scenario 1: You have a wireless network in the house but want to get access when you are outside the house, and the signal doesn't currently reach. In this case you can use a wireless range extender that will sit within range of the network, but repeat the signal so it reaches outside the house.  These devices are typically very simple and as long as they are situated in the right location, will extend the reach of your wireless network and eliminate dead spots for about 20 - 30 metres. Wireless range extenders are easily found at computer stores and range in price from $50 upwards. Beware though that the cheaper devices may not boost the signal as far as a better quality brand.

Scenario 2:  You have a broadband connection in one building but want to get broadband access in another building  located out of reach of the network. So let's say for example you have your router and wireless network in the house but want to get internet access in a shed 400 metres away. As I mentioned earlier sheds can be problematic as they shield a wireless signal. The solution would be to use 2 wireless antenna to send a directional signal (i.e. a more focussed signal) between the buildings. As long as you have line of site  between the buildings, this is achievable, with the right antenna. Line of sight just means you can actually see from one site to another without obstruction. With this setup it is actually possible to extend your wireless network for kilometres if the conditions are right. The antennae you need in this  scenario are more specialised and not as readily available. Installation is also a bit more complicated as you need to factor in signal strength, range and additional wiring back to your network devices. The antenna cost from $150 and upwards depending on the model. You will need two antenna for the system to work in this Point-to-Point configuration.

So if you are concerned about getting your internet access where you want it, don't despair, there are many options available to you.

Links

Setting up a multi room audio system

posted Aug 14, 2013, 4:59 AM by Daryl du Plessis

These days home networks are making it easier to expand the devices and options available for entertainment in the home. Home theatres and computer are converging to make it easier to share media throughout the house. The area that I'll be focussing on is setting up a multi room sound system. This can be useful if you want to be able to control playback of videos, music or radio throughout your house. There are various ways of achieving this but I'll focus on using AirPlay technology, a standard created by Apple, makers of the iPhone. 

The following items will be required for this setup:

1. A home network with Wifi configured
2. iTunes running on a computer, with music and/or video library loaded
3. A TV with Apple TV (only required if you want playback on your TV)
4. AirPlay capable speakers (there are various brands available)
5. A mobile device (Android or Apple) that can run the iTunes Remote app.

Once all these devices are connected you will need to configure iTunes for home sharing. This allows access of your iTunes library to the other devices on your network (such as the Apple TV and AirPlay speakers). With home sharing enabled, you can control all the devices playback from iTunes, either directly from the computer or using the Apple Remote app running on your iPhone or iPad.  There are also iTunes remote apps available for android devices. From the remote app you can then choose your media to playback, be it music, podcasts, video etc., and which speakers to enable playback on. You  can also control individual speaker volumes from the remote.

There are some things to bear in mind when setting these systems up:

1. Ensure that all devices have the latest software and firmware loaded.
2. You can only play one stream of music/video at a time with AirPlay. In other words you can choose which speakers you playback on, but only one person can control the speakers for playback at a time, so you can't play radio outside and music in the lounge at the same time. There are other systems that can do this but not through AirPlay.
3. You will need to ensure all your media is in iTunes if you want to play it. This is not a problem if you use iTunes, but is a bit more work if you need to import media from another media player.
4. Wifi can dropout depending on the environment so make sure you have good wifi coverage when you place your wireless speakers around the house.
5. Wireless speakers will need to be powered so make sure you have a power point available when setting them up (especially if you are locating them outdoors).

There are other systems available and standards are becoming a lot more common. Currently the Pioneer range of speakers look good as they support AirPlay and a few other standards. Their entry level speakers cost around $200. The Sonos Zoneplayer system allows for multi stream control so that is an advantage, but you will require additional equipment to make this work. Take a look at your local JB Hifi or Dick Smith store for wireless speaker pricing and options. For more info on AirPlay follow this link:

Email Setup Options

posted Jun 27, 2013, 2:35 AM by Daryl du Plessis

Email is one of the most important means of communications these days and there are many ways to access your email. Whether you use a smartphone, tablet or desktop PC, you will need to configure your device and there are a number of ways to do this.

Mobile devices are usually straight forward to setup. You generally only need to put in your email address and password and they figure out the rest for you.Typically you will add an account on your mobile device and the wizard will walk you through the steps required.

On a desktop device you can access your mail either through the web using a web browser (such as Internet Explorer, Chrome or Firefox) or using a mail client such as Outlook or Windows Mail (also known as Windows Live Mail). If you use a web browser you just login to your webmail account using your email address and password. Things get a bit more complicated if you want to use a mail client, so bear with me as things get a bit technical.

Your best best bet is to run through adding an email account using the wizard. Once again you will be prompted for your email address and password. If this goes through successfully then you are ready to go. If this doesn't work you will need to dig into the advanced settings.

Firstly an explanation of how the mail client works. The mail client will login in to the mail server, that is located on the internet, and download emails to your PC on a regular basis. There are a couple of ways you can achieve this by using either POP3 or IMAP. These are just protocols that the mail client can use to talk to the server. POP3 is used to download mail to your PC and keep the emails locally. IMAP is used to connect to the server and synchronise the emails on the server with emails on your PC. So the difference is POP3 will keep a local copy of your mail and IMAP will maintain the server copy of your emails. IMAP is useful if you want to use multiple folders that are kept on the server so you can access them from other devices. POP3 is fine if you only use one device and want to keep your mail locally.

Back to the advanced settings; I advise you check your mail service provider's website for the technical details. For the sending server (outgoing) you will need to provide the SMTP server name (this  is usually the same whether you use POP3 or IMAP). Note that some ISP's will only allow their SMTP server to be used to prevent spamming. So if you are on Bigpond you will need to use mail.bigpond.com even if you use a different email provider. For the receiving (incoming) server enter either the POP3 or IMAP server name, depending on the protocol you want to use. Pay attention to the ports that are required and if SSL is used. This should all be described on the email provider's website. Be aware that if you use IMAP and don't use the email provider's outgoing server, you will not see your sent items under your account.

Once you have entered all the settings, send a few test emails to another email and make sure they are received and replies come back successfully. If this works you are good to go!

Small Business Information Day

posted Jun 4, 2013, 8:32 PM by Daryl du Plessis

The Small Business Information Day was organised by the Small Business Centre Central Coast and was held at Windmill Farmstay on 23rd May 2013. The aim of the day was to provide small business owners/managers up to date information to assist in bringing health to their business. A delicious barbeque lunch was also provided as part of the day by Milton and Joan of Windmill Farmstay



First up was the WA Department of Commerce. Debra Richardson, a former industrial inspector, provided insightful information on current labour laws and standards. Debra advised that information relating to labour relations, awards etc can be obtained by calling wageline on 1300 655 266. This is a free call centre for employers and employees regarding WA employment laws. In addition, the federal government's Fairwork ombudsman has contracted the Department of Commerce to provide information services to country WA relating to the national labour relation standards.


Next up was Julie Mizen from AusIndustry, a federal goverment agency which provides information and funding to businesses to support innovation and development. AusIndustry operate Enterprise connect, which is a free business advice for companies that have a turnover of $750k to $2m operating within certain sectors. AusIndustry also provide a small business support line (federal based) which can be reached on 1800 777 275. There are many governments grants available to businesses and it is worth being informed about what is availble for your business. For more information go to business.gov.au


Siobhan O'Gara from the federal government consumer watchdog, Australian Competition and Consumer Commission or ACCC, presented information about business to consumer laws. Of particular note was social media liability, fans or followers making misleading statements about your business can your make the business liable for the comments made. It is up to the business to moderate these comments. Also of note is the requirement for businesses to provide itemised bills showing details of the labour per hour and parts costs. Ignorance of consumer laws does not limit a business' responsibilities and training on consumer law is available at www.ccaeducationprograms.org. Further information about consumer protection is available at www.accc.gov.au.

Andrew Stowell from Esafety solutions discussed the merits of the Thinksafe campaign. Operated by Worksafe but run independantly, Thinksafe provides OSH advice to small business. A consultant will work with the business to create an action plan for safe and effective operational safety and health in the business. To qualify for this service, a business needs to be independently owned with 30 or less full time employees. For further information go to the Department of Commerce website at www.commerce.wa.gov.au.

Earl Pryor of Synergy Business Services provided some excellent advice for small businesses on how to manage their books leading up to tax time with particular focus on MYOB and Quickbooks. Of interest was the changes to cloud based systems for accounting packages with both MYOB and Reckon (Quickbooks) launching internet hosted services. There are other cloud based services currently avaible but Earl predicts mainstream uptake of these services is 5 years away.

David Endersby of The Human HeRd is an HR and business coach. He showed us some interesting models for determing where a business is placed and where it needs to aim to be successful. Small businesses can benefit greatly by having a HR consultant advise them on contracts and other HR requirements.

Natalie Stodart from the Department of Commerce Industry Participation Branch discussed the Local Industry Participation Framework. The framework "seeks to improve channels of communication with both suppliers and project proponents to ensure that benefits flowing from resource projects to the Western Australian economy and community are maximised." Check the department's website for further information.

Clayton Jaworski from the WA Department of Training, Apprenticentre program, closed out the day. Clayton described the role Apprenticentre plays in assisting with apprentice recruitment and management. Further information can be obtained form the website at www.trainingwa.wa.gov.au/apprenticentre/

Overall the day was very informative and relevant for small businesses. The key message that I took from the day was that there is plenty of advice, information and assistance available to businesses. There are many advantages to being informed and getting the most out of the assistance that can be provided for your business. To be kept informed of future information days in your area check the Small Business Centre Central Coastal’s website at www.centralcoastalbusiness.com.au.

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