A $14.24 Computer

Yes Virginia, there is a $14 computer. It’s a recent version of the Raspberry Pi, a favourite among electronic tinkerers since the first one was released to the public in Feb2012.

The $14 computer’s full name is “Raspberry Pi Zero W”; the Zero refers to it’s stripped-down profile, and the W refers to its built-in wifi. The other major models of the Raspberry Pi are (you guessed it!) 1, 2, 3, and 4 … and there are variations on each one. (You can check out the whole family of Pi and accessories at BuyaPi.ca)

And, as you may have guessed, you will need some accessories to make this credit-card-sized computer functional. With those necessary accessories, and shipping, and taxes, the kit will cost you at least $110. That is, assuming you already have a TV or monitor to use as a display.

What operating system does it run? Raspberry Pi OS; a Linux variant.

Is it a useful computer? Definitely NOT as a general purpose computer … it is too slow to effectively run office software or watch YouTube videos, and even typing can be tediously slow. (Sorry, bargain hunters.) So what is it good for?

It can do a lot of things very well. With the right accessories, it can play or record music, pictures, or videos … it is even fast enough to play high-def movies. Basically, like any computer, it can read inputs and control outputs.

It’s tailor-made for DIY projects. Want to make your own digital photo frame? Door opener? Robot controller? Do you need something to send you an alert via smartphone when an intruder is detected? There are hundreds of projects you can achieve with a Raspberry Pi (see projects.raspberrypi.org, or simply google for project ideas).

That’s what this $14 computer was made for.

A New Generation of Printers

We’ve had personal printers nearly as long as we have had computers, but they have changed a lot over the years.

Initially, personal printers were mainly dot-matrix. Some shops still use this technology because it works with multipart forms.

Then in the 1980s we started seeing inkjet and laserjet printers. Inkjet offered cheaper printers—often with photo-quality prints—mainly for low-volume printing, while laserjet offered a cheaper “per-page” cost—with ink (toner) that didn’t dry out—for higher-volume printing.

In the late 1990s, we started seeing the next generation of printers which where chiefly multifunction: you could get “print/scan/copy” or “print/scan/copy/fax” with inkjet or laserjet, monochrome or colour.

Zoom ahead to 2020 and now we’re starting to see fewer laserjet and more inkjet printers. Why? Because inkjet printers are getting faster, with consistent print clarity that matches laser, printheads that clog less and wear out slower, and they use far less electricity than laser. The latest batch have air-tight systems so the ink doesn’t dry out, which allows them to offer larger ink tanks, bringing the per-page cost way down. Some even have “pour-in” ink tanks so you aren’t throwing out (or recycling) anything but plastic bottles.

These new printers come from several different brands and have names like Instant Ink, INKvestment, MegaTank, EcoTank, and SuperTank. Because manufacturers are making less on inks for these printers, they charge a bit more for the printers themselves.

If you are shopping for printers, you should also consider communication options. Most have USB and wifi communication, many have Ethernet, and some have NFC (near-field communication). For compatibility with Mac, you’ll want AirPrint capability; for Chrome devices, you may want Google CloudPrint.

Beyond that, other specs you might consider are time-to-first-page, pages-per-minute, and capacity of the input/output trays for both printing and scanning.

Remote Technical Assistance

[This article is timely, since many people still need technical assistance during the COVID-19 outbreak.]

Getting technical assistance can be awkward.

Traditionally, one would disconnect all the wires, take the offending device to a service shop, describe the issues, wait until it is fixed, return to the service shop, take the device home, plug it back in, and then see if it was = fixed. If the issues were not fixed, you would repeat the process until they are fixed.

A preferred approach is to have a technician come to you and address the issues while you wait … but this can involve a lot of travel time for the technician, and tie up the technician for extended periods, keeping him or her from helping others.

This is why remote technical assistance is invaluable. It saves your time in to-and-froing. It saves the technician’s travel time, and allows them to (potentially) multitask during long fixes. It’s also very helpful if you are shut in, or self isolating, for whatever reason.

The three main requirements for remote assistance are that the device has remote access features, is booting up, and has Internet access. If these requirements are not met, a technician can still potentially help over the phone. But if they are met, there are many remote assistance tools that can be used.

Technicians often have their own remote access tools like ConnectWise or TeamViewer that work with (and between) many platforms. Windows has a built-in tool called Remote Assistance. Google has Chrome Remote Desktop that easily be accessed by browsing to remotedesktop.google.com on most devices that use the Chrome browser.

These tools are easy to use and yet are very secure. They must be initiated by the end-user, but can be terminated by the end-user or the support person at any time. Once the connection is terminated, it must be re-initiated by the end-user (i.e., no “back doors” are left open).

There are even remote access/assistance tools that don’t require a device to be fully booting. One is called a DRAC (Dell Remote Access Controller) which is specifically for Dell servers. Another is KVM-over-IP (keyboard-video-mouse over Internet Protocol). The advantage of these hardware devices is the ability to remotely access the BIOS as well as the operating system.

Note: Only give remote access of your computer to trusted and verified support technicians.

e-Transfers: Easy, Secure and Handy

I understand trepidation for using new technologies, but e-Transfers are very handy and have been around for a long time.

Interac, a Canadian interbank network that serves as the Canadian debit card system, has been around since 1984. They launched additional services, including e-Transfers, back in 1996.

The best description of e-Transfer comes straight from Interac’s FAQ: Interac e-Transfer is a fast, secure and convenient way to send money to anyone in Canada from within the security of your online banking service. It uses email or text messaging for fast notification to the recipient that a transfer has been sent, while the participating financial institutions transfer the funds using established and secure banking procedures.

All you need is a bank account with online access, an email address, and the email address or mobile phone number of the person you are sending money to. You initiate the e-Transfer either from your bank’s website, or from your bank’s app. If the recipient has enabled auto-deposit, it may automatically be deposited for them; otherwise, you may need to share a security question/answer for the deposit to be completed.

If prompted to create a security question/answer, make it a good one: something sufficiently long and complex so that 99% of people couldn’t guess it, and something the recipient either knows, or you can tell them with a method other than email/text.

e-Transfers are handy for sending money to businesses, friends, and family. The transfer limits are high (typically, it’s your client card’s daily access limit), the fees are low (or free), and the process is very fast and secure. When sending money to a business, you should probably ask what email address to send it to; but for person-to-person transfers, it’s pretty safe to assume you can send it to their regular email address or mobile number. If you accidentally send an e-Transfer to a landline, or the recipient gets the security answer wrong too many times, you may be informed that the transfer notification could not be delivered. It’s easy to cancel or redo e-Transfers in case of unforeseen issues.

And yes, it is very safe and secure.

Know your stuff

I know … there’s a lot to keep track of these days. But this article describes some of the things you should keep in your head, or at least at your fingertips.

Accounts. Have you got an email account … or 2 or 3? An Apple account? A BC Hydro account? I suggest you keep a list your accounts, replete with URL (web address), username, password, and challenge questions/answers.

Passwords. Please have a firm grasp on your passwords. Treat them like the keys to your car: you don’t expect to drive your car without keys, so please don’t expect your computer to remember your passwords indefinitely. Your AppleID/password is critical for your Apple devices. Your Google account/password is critical for your Android/Chrome devices and Google services. There will come a time when you need to know each password: particularly for getting into your computer, phone, or tablet.

If you keep this sort of information—like accounts and passwords—written down, you should keep it safe. If it’s on paper, keep it in a very safe place. If it’s electronic, keep it encrypted, or at least password-protected. There are many apps that can do this for you.

Wifi. If you have guests who want to use your wifi, you should be ready to give them your SSID (wifi name) and wireless key (sometimes called a password). If you are lucky, they will be printed on your modem. If you are not so lucky, you should have them in your head, or written down. This info isn’t very sensitive, since anyone with physical access to your modem/router can plug into, or reset, the device to get in.

Hardware. Know the make/model of your main devices. Do you own a Mac or a PC? An iPad or an Android tablet? Is your phone a Samsung, LG, iPhone, etc.? Which model? It’s like knowing the make/model of your car … it can be handy to know that stuff too. There’s a big difference between losing your iPhone 4 and your iPhone 11.

Wifi Calling

Cellular coverage in South Cowichan isn’t great. It’s better than it was about 5 years ago when several new towers went up, but there are still many areas with poor cellular reception. Many of us have to step outside for every call, and for some of us, dropped calls can mean lost business … which can result in lost revenue.

This is why, for many years, I have considered buying and installing a cellular repeater at home. I have installed them for others, and seen a great improvement in reception, but it’s the principle of spending money to fix a problem effectively caused by my cellular provider that put me off buying one for myself. Depending on the size of area you are trying to cover, a repeater can cost $600-$1200.

But now there’s a new solution that, for many of us, costs nothing. It’s called wifi calling.

All the local cellular providers appear to support this feature, but only for certain plans and certain smartphones. So if you already have the right service plan and the right phone, all you have to do is enable the feature with your provider, and on your phone. If you enable the service on an iPhone, it will use wifi calling whenever wifi is available. In Android, there is a setting to choose cellular or wifi for your preferred method when both are available at the same time. (Keep in mind, for those with a limited number of cellular minutes, your wifi calls still count against your cellular minutes.)

With this new feature, your phone can seamlessly switch from using the cellular network to using your closest wireless network. If you have fast and dependable wifi at home and at work, your days of bad cell reception are over! For some, this could be a big enough breakthrough to consider dropping your landline.

Browsing

Browsing is the term we use for looking at pages on the world wide web. Maybe you haven’t given it much thought, but there are many ways to browse the Internet.

Firstly, you have a choice of devices. If you own a computer, tablet, laptop, smartphone, and/or smart TV, you can choose the one that best suits your needs.

Secondly, you have a choice of browsers. Depending on the device you are on, and the operating system it uses, you can choose from (in approximate order of current popularity): Google Chrome, Apple Safari, Mozilla Firefox, Opera, Internet Explorer, Microsoft Edge. There are a few others, but those are the main ones. You don’t have to use the one your device gave you by default.

Contrary to advertising, most browsers are created equal. What makes one “better” than the other is popularity. Web designers test the pages they design on the popular browsers; they don’t always take the time to test on all browsers. They also tend to focus on current versions of those browsers, not on the older versions.

Once you have chosen your device and your browser, there are several ways you can get to the information you are seeking. If you click on a link sent to you via email, text, or social media, your default browser will open and take you straight to that page. You can also use your browser history or bookmarks/favorites to go to a web page you’ve been to before. If you heard a web address on the radio or TV, and know the exact spelling, you can open a browser and type it directly into the address bar.

Searching for an address is an indirect way to view a web page. You open your browser, go to any one of countless search engine sites, type something in that approximates the address or its content, and click the best result from that search. Popular search engines include Google, DuckDuckGo, Yahoo, and Bing. Beware that search results can contain undesirable results, so be careful which result you click on.

Note that if a web page doesn’t appear properly on one browser, you can always copy the address from the address bar, open an alternative browser, and paste into that address bar.

Security Factors

It can be a bother to remember all your passwords, but appropriate levels of cybersecurity are necessary. For example, if you had no password on your email or bank account, anyone could hop in there and take it as their own.

If you have a phone or computer with absolutely no sensitive or critical information on it, you might choose to have no password on it. That’s zero-factor security, and that’s just fine.

In any other situation, you are going to need at least one-factor security. Typically, that factor is a “knowledge factor”, commonly known as a password or a PIN. Other factors that can be used instead are typically a “possession factor” (like an ID card or unique mobile device) or an “inherence factor” (like fingerprints or other biometrics). In any case, keep your factors safe … they are like the keys to your car.

In situations that warrant it, two-factor authentication (2FA) can be used that combine two of those three factors. You might use this on your accounts that involve money or sensitive/critical information, and especially if you are generally a target for hackers, like a public figure or business owner. Mobile phones are commonly used as a “second factor”, but doing so can be cumbersome, so physical “security tokens” like Yubikey or Titan (both are USB keys, but Titan is also wireless) are becoming popular.

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) combines two or more factors and can sometimes include location (from a GPS) and time (from an accurate source). James Bond stuff.

It’s good to know something about security, but there are two important takeaways from this article: use appropriate security, and keep your security factors safe.

Spoofing

Spoofing is where someone pretends to be someone else on the phone, in an email, or in a text. For example, you may get illegitimate email from “Air Canada” with “your flight tickets”, or a text from “CRA” with “your tax refund”.

Spoofing can be easy to spot when there are clues to the message’s in-authenticity:

  • the spelling and/or grammar are poor
  • the names, phone numbers, or email addresses are incorrect
  • the claims are outrageous or incongruous

It’s easy to shrug off an email from the Price of Nigeria offering you millions of US$, but what if the requester’s claims are believable and the details are correct? As scammers perfect their craft, we are seeing scam attempts that are more and more convincing.

I just heard of a scammer who used a company’s published org chart to craft an email to their CFO, seemingly from their CEO, asking him to transfer a large sum of money to a specified account. The same company also had a case where a staff member received a text, seemingly from her manager, asking her to buy certain $500 gift cards and send them to a specified address.

Luckily, those people clued-in to the scams, but we all are going to have to be increasingly diligent with all electronic messages, putting in more checks and balances, especially when there are monetary implications.

Scammers can even spoof your email. If your contacts start receiving email from you that you didn’t send, either someone is spoofing you, or your email has been hacked. If this happens, immediately change your email password and any email account challenge questions. It would also be pertinent to scan your computer for infections. If your email address gets blacklisted in the process, you may need help from your email provider to undo the damage, or set you up with a whole new email address.

Don’t fall prey to these scams. Use strong passwords and question everything. Legitimate requesters will be understanding.

Notifications from Google Chrome

Notifications can be good: like ones for you upcoming appointments, or news items that interest you. But for the most part, we are being overloaded with non-critical notifications on our phones, tablets, and computers. The frustration this causes is compounded by the fact that it often isn’t obvious how to stop those notifications, or where they are coming from!

Here’s how to reduce the number of notifications on your computer if you use the world’s most popular browser: Google Chrome. Run Chrome, click the “hamburger” (3-vertical-dot) icon, go into “Settings | Advanced (bottom of page) | Site Settings | Notifications”, and look at all the sites that you have Blocked or Allowed. We will ignore the Blocked sites for now, but if you have Allowed a site that is now bombarding you with notifications, you can click the hamburger icon beside it and either Block it or Remove it. If you Remove it, the next time you go to that site, you can choose to Allow or Block notifications from it. If you Block it, it won’t bother you anymore.

Side note: If a site listed under Notifications has a puzzle piece icon beside it, you will have to remove the associated Google extension in order to turn off that notification. You can adjust extensions from within Chrome by clicking the hamburger icon, choosing “More tools | Extensions”, and looking at all the extensions you have. From there, you can turn off individual extensions, or simply Remove them.

Note that if you want to remove all notifications and extensions from Chrome, as well resetting your startup page, new tab page, search engine, and pinned tabs, and clearing all temp data (like cookies), click the hamburger icon, go into “Settings | Advanced | Restore settings to their original defaults” and click “Reset settings”. Note that this will not clear your bookmarks, history, or saved passwords, but it is an easy way to refresh your Google Chrome browser, and get it working like new.

The instructions for reducing notifications on smartphones and tablets are similar to those given above for PCs and Macs, but because the Chrome menus on those devices are abbreviated, the procedures are slightly different.