Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Passwords Made Easy, I Promise

I have two tech tidbits before I get to the meat of this column, how to create and use secure passwords easily.

The first tech tidbit concerns the continuing saga of the animal that's invaded our house. As you may recall, the smart people at Aardvark, www.vark.com, the human-based answer line, all said that it was a mouse that was stealing the Perugina Baci chocolate. Nothing else in our kitchen was touched and there were no, um, droppings, so the only clue as to what it was came from the stolen Perugina Baci chocolate, with the shredded remains of the wrapper. Last week my daughter said she saw a mouse in our kitchen, apparently confirming what the helpful people at Aardvark had already told me. Just to be sure that my daughter hadn't mistaken the mouse for something else, I asked her what it looked like. She replied, "a mouse." Fair enough. I guess that's definitive. (She is, after all, a mouse expert, having seen a myriad of Disney movies.) A few days ago we baited a Have-a-heart trap with Perugina and peanut butter. The mouse, apparently too light to trigger the trap, stole both the chocolate and peanut butter on subsequent nights. We're awaiting the arrival of a more mouse-oriented humane trap.

Tech tidbit number two: If you haven't thought about using Picasaweb, Google's online photo sharing service that can also be used to back up your photos, here's another incentive: For a limited time Google is giving away a 4 gigabyte Eye-Fi memory card if you purchase 200 gigabytes of storage for $50. An Eye-Fi card is a secure digital memory card, normally $60, which goes in your camera. It has a unique feature: An Eye-Fi card lets you wirelessly upload your photos to your computer and to one of several online sites. No wires, very handy! You can read more about this offer at http://picasa.google.com/eyefi.html.


Passwords. Let's talk about passwords for a moment. There are two rules that everyone should follow when it comes to passwords. No, not should. Must. The first rule is never, ever use the same password in more than one place. If you use the same password in more than one place, all a crook has to do is figure out your password and then everything you own that's online becomes that crook's. Using one password requires that you trust every employee at every company where you use that password, too. And trust that people who work for that company won't lose the passwords on a stolen laptop. Et cetera, et cetera. You get the idea: One password can expose your whole life to permanent misery.

The second rule is to make all your passwords strong, using random letters, numbers, and characters. Passwords should be impossible to guess or predict. This is a good password: Iiomh!8H. This is a bad password: Palin2012. Some services bar the use of insecure passwords. If you sign up for Twitter and try to use an insecure password (insecure = stupid), you're barred from using that password. Some stupid passwords are "password," "naked," "beavis," "123456," and "secret". Insecure passwords come in all flavors. What's an insecure password? Anything that somebody can guess based on personal knowledge of you. Any word in the dictionary. Any password that does not contain at least some upper case letter, punctuation mark or number. A friend of mine used his son's name followed by his own birth year as his Facebook password. A hacker guessed his password and broke into his Facebook account. Worse still, my friend used the same password for his Gmail account. The hacker promptly impersonated my friend on Facebook and Gmail.

Here's a short article on how to make strong passwords: http://www.microsoft.com/protect/fraud/passwords/create.aspx (http://goo.gl/JDBD).

So how do you use a unique, hard-to-guess password everywhere? Get a password management program that generates passwords, stores them, and logs you into websites automatically. I use the password management program, Lastpass, http://www.lastpass.com . With Lastpass all you need to remember is a single password, and that password opens the door to all of your other passwords. Lastpass recognizes websites, so it knows to log you in: One click and you're logged on to any website. Lastpass keeps a copy of your passwords stored on your computer and on their server, encrypted, so that you can access your password-protected websites from anywhere. All of your computers and browsers are synched. Lastpass also has an anti-keystroke logger to thwart programs that are sometimes installed on public computers to record passwords by recording all keys pressed on that computer. (Oh yes, Internet cafes and hotel business center computers are popular among crooks as places to steal logon information.) Lastpass will not log you into fake websites, helping to prevent you from being phished.

Lastpass will also disable the insecure password system in your web browser. That's a handy feature: If a thief steals your laptop, without the master Lastpass password, that thief can't get into any of your password-protected services. There's a mobile version for Lastpass that fits on a thumbdrive, as well as an iPhone app. You can create secure, encrypted notes using Lastpass, too. Your confidential information can be protected and available to you everywhere. I like it. Lastpass serves me well.

Lastpass isn't the only password management software, either. Keepass, http://www.keepass.info , and RoboForm, http://www.roboform.com , are two other password management programs that get terrific reviews.

There's a bit of a learning curve involved with any password management program. But once you get the hang of it, you'll not only be protected, but you'll never forget another password again.

Turn Your Old Computer Into a New One

Before I launch into this week's tech column, I'd like to offer two tech tidbits. After last week's column in which I praised Aardvark, www.vark.com, a human-backed Internet query system, I received some emails in response to my question, "what was that animal that was stealing our Perugina Baci chocolate (and only that)?" Several helpful Aardvarkers insisted that it had to be a mouse. My wife and I set a humane trap baited with Perugina Baci chocolate, but as of today the bait hasn't been taken, so we just don't know the answer yet. Curious. My next Aardvark query may be about hyper intelligent mice that can avoid traps -- could they take over the planet?

Tech tidbit number 2: A few days ago my daughter's cell phone ended up in the wash. This was not a happy moment in our family, but I remembered reading a tip about how soaked electronics can sometimes be saved by immersing the device in uncooked rice. So with nothing to lose, I did just that, and to my surprise, my daughter's cell phone is not only clean, but it works fine. If your cell phone or other small electronic device gets soaked, be sure not to turn it on before you cover it with rice because you don't want the water to cause a short, which would mean permanent damage. Leave it in the rice overnight. Hey, this tip actually works!


Pick me! Pick me! That's what nearly every program that's installed on a Windows computer seems to be saying. Many programs not only install themselves on your computer, but like to be running all the time. They think it's a benefit to you to have the program in your computer's memory so it can load faster. Maybe, but if you only use that program infrequently, the program is just hogging RAM and causing your computer to boot more slowly. The more programs that are running, the greater the chance your computer will crash, too. The only benefit that all these auto-loading programs have is that they give you time to brew a cup of coffee --or two-- while your computer wakes up in the morning.

You can reclaim considerable computer memory and speed up your computer's start time by turning off the automatic loading in these programs. You can do that through a program that's built into Windows, MSCONFIG. In the start menu (for Windows Vista and Windows 7), type MSCONFIG and open it. If you use Windows XP, go to Start, then Run, then type MSCONFIG. Go to the Startup tab. If your computer is more than a few months old, you'll find a lot of programs listed. Uncheck all of those programs that you don't want loading every time you boot your computer. Don't worry about unchecking a program by mistake. You're not uninstalling any programs, you're simply telling programs not to start with Windows. You can always re-check applications you want to run all the time.

How to choose which programs to uncheck and which to let load with windows? Google (or Aardvark) to the rescue. Just search for the name of the program and you'll be able to read about what it does and whether or not that program is important or essential. There's also a handy list with descriptions of the 13,000 programs that like to start all the time with Windows at http://www.sysinfo.org/startuplist.php. (Don't worry, not all 13,000 programs will be starting up on your computer all the time, even though it may feel like that.) If you're still uncertain, you can uncheck it and see what happens.

Some programs, such as iTunes, insinuate themselves into loading with Windows every time you update the program. (iTunes adds Quicktime; there's no reason why you need to have Quicktime running all the time.) Another program that creeps into Windows' memory is Adobe Acrobat, which doesn't need to be running all the time, either.

Once you've parsed your computer's startup list, you'll have a faster, spiffier computer. (If you want a shinier computer, you could put it in the wash and then dunk it in rice, but a little dirt is probably a good idea when it comes to computers.) Ditching startup programs is almost like getting a brand new computer.

Better than Google

You may not have even noticed that it, but you already prefer ways of finding out the answers to questions other than using Google. If you're scratching your head and thinking, "Wikipedia?" you're wrong. If you think the answer is a trip to the public library, you're wrong. (Though the library is still a great place to get answers!) If you think that the best place is one of the other terrific reference or news websites such as www.nytimes.com, www.infoplease.com, or www.britannica.com -- you're not even close. If you think it's your mom, because she always knows best -- then you're actually close to being right.

At times --maybe most of the time-- asking a question of another human being is better, because it's more accurate than Google.

And we already do. The Cleveland Park Listserv is a great example of tapping into the collective wisdom of over 8,800 neighbors. Google "plumber washington dc" and you'll get plumber listings. But Google won't necessarily tell you if that plumber is prompt, creative, and pleasant to have in your home. The Cleveland Park Listserv is an example of an online forum that taps into the richness of human experience and knowledge.

There are hundreds of thousands of specialized forums that also let you tap into other people's wisdom. YahooGroups is the world's leader in online forums. When I have a problem with my computer, I search for a specific YahooGroup that deals with the issue I'm having, be it with Microsoft Outlook, an aging Windows XP computer, or my iPhone. There are forums on YahooGroups about health, fitness, travel, parenting, language learning, nature -- everything.

Not everyone on these forums is imbued with expertise, however. So you have to use your own brain power to figure out if the answer makes sense. Or ask your question in another place, too. It's also the case that the answers to questions that come from Googling, Wikipedia, or other static online sources aren't necessarily right. (The only two online sources that I trust with my life are the New York Times and Encyclopedia Britannica.)

What if the question that you're looking to answer doesn't lend itself well to a particular online forum, or you can't find a forum? For those problems, there are answer services. Yahoo has its own service called Yahoo Answers: http://answers.yahoo.com . Post a question and somebody will answer it, usually very quickly. Perhaps the best online answer service is Aardvark, http://vark.com. Anyone can ask a question. If you sign up to offer your expertise, you can tell Aardvark what subjects you'd like to answer questions about. The questions are then sent to you by email or IM. There's an Aardvark application for the iPhone so you have access to experts in almost every subject, wherever you are. I've used Aardvark to get answers to obscure foreign language grammar questions and to try and figure out what kind of animal was finding its way onto our kitchen counter and shredding the wrappers of Perugina Baci chocolates without eating the candy. Aardvark's uses are limitless: Imagine -- you're standing in line at the airport and see somebody wearing a type of outfit you've never seen before. Fire up your Aardvark app, describe what you see, and within minutes somebody will tell you what country that person is from. I like Aardvark so much that I created a Cleveland Park Listserv Network on Aardvark: http://vark.com/g/39fd04.

What about those questions that require an opinion, not a precise answer? For that there's Instant Jury, http://instantjury.com. Instant Jury members decide cases that people submit to the Instant Jury website. I was recently a juror in a case that tried to settle the question of whether or not emailed holiday cards are okay to send instead of paper cards. (The eCards side lost.) There's a case currently pending between a husband and wife about whether they should let their kids to crawl into bed with them in early in the morning before school.

Google is great. But people are even greater.

Backups Made Easy, Part 2

Last week I wrote about using online services to back up your data. In between that column and this one about local, in-home backups, I discovered an additional, and mostly free service that I hadn't thought of as backup service: Picasa Web Albums can be used to back up your photos. If you use Picasa as your computer's photo organizing program or editor, you can easily and automatically upload your photos to Picasa online every time you add photos from your camera or smartphone. Google recently lowered their price for online storage: 20GB costs $5 a year; 200GB is only $50 a year. Here are a couple of tips about Picasa: If you use Picasa Web Albums to back up your photos, be sure to change the setting to use the photo's original size (the default is to back up at a lower resolution), and make your online albums not automatically viewable to the world (unless you want your photos to be seen by everyone). Sign up and download Google's free photo editing and organizing software at http://picasa.google.com.

If something's good, then two of them may be even better. That's true for cheesecake and backups. Everyone should use at least two backups. Why? Because backups can fail, just as your main drive can fail. And unless you regularly check your backup software's logs, you may find yourself unpleasantly surprised one day when you discover that your backup has failed. A second backup helps prevent disaster, and preventing disaster is why we do backups.

I also strongly suggest having at least one remote backup and one local backup. A remote backup for total peace of mind, and a local backup so you can back up and restore files at lightning speed.

Backing up to an external drive is easy and fast, but not without problems. A virus that infects your computer, wiping out files, can easily destroy your external drive's backup, too. External drives aren't immune to fire or theft. External drives wear out and can die a sudden death. And the software you can get to back up your photos, music, emails, wordprocessing documents, spreadsheets and other data can simply decide not to work one day. (A program crashing and burning -- say it ain't so!)

Here's all you need to know to use an external drive as your primary or secondary backup. Buy the largest external drive drive you can afford, but at least double the size of your current hard drive. (Why double? Because that gives you the ability to back up multiple revisions of a document.) Plug the drive into your USB port, run your backup software, and that's it. The process of setting up an external drive backup should take all of 5 minutes.

For backup software, I use SecondCopy, http://www.centered.com. There are lots of other excellent backup programs for PCs and Macs including GFI Backup, http://www.gfi.com , Paragon Drive Backup, http://www.paragon-software.com , and SyncBack, http://www.2brightsparks.com. These programs vary in price and features. In addition to SecondCopy, which is very easy to set up, I've used SyncBack and can recommend it for reliability and ease of use.

Backups can be even easier with hard drives that come with a "one touch" or automatic backup program. These drives will either automatically backup your computer --no extra software needed-- or will back up your computer when you press the backup button on the drive. The TranscendStoreJet 25 Mobile, available on Amazon.com in hot red, is a 500GB drive with one touch backup. If you're a laptop user and always on the go (and don't have that much to backup), you might want to give the SanDisk 8GB Ultra Backup USB 2.0 Flash Drive, a pocketable thumb drive that does automatic backup.

It's easier than ever to back up. If you're taking pictures of your family this holiday season --and you like your family and want to keep those pictures-- then take time now to implement a backup plan.

Backups Made Easy, Part 1

I'm going to be straight with you. If you don't have a backup plan for your data, you'll eventually lose your data. Your emails, your photos, your movies, your music. It will all be gone one day unless you have reliable backups.

There are lots of ways you can lose your data. Hard drive failure is at the top of that list. Every hard drive that's made will eventually fail, some sooner than others. Whether your hard drive's number is up today, tomorrow, or years from now, that's it -- everything is gone. Computer viruses are another way that your data can go poof in the blink of an eye. Theft, especially if you own a laptop, is among the most common reasons for data loss. Software run amok is yet another way data disappears: Misbehaving programs can delete data as easily as they can create it. You can lose data and not even know it, too: Sometimes everything can seem to be fine on your computer, except for that one spreadsheet or address book that somehow got zapped. By the time you notice that it's gone, there's no hope of recovery.

There are two kinds of backups you can have -- onsite backups (external drives, network backups, USB drives) and offsite backups. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. This column will focus on remote backups; next week I'll describe some onsite backup strategies. First the negatives of remote backups:

* Offsite backups are more expensive in the long run than using an external drive, because you have to pay an annual fee. * Offsite backups are a lot slower than onsite backups. If you have tens of gigabytes of data to back up, it can take weeks to copy all of your data to an offsite backup service. * A remote backup service won't be around forever. Nothing lasts for eternity, and on the Internet a decade is a lifetime.

But on the plus side, offsite backup services are catastrophe proof and that's the idea: If the worst happens --fire, theft, a virus, a small nuclear explosion-- your data is safer than Dick Cheney was in his secure location. Many offsite backup services use incremental backups, which means that if you want to recover the version of a Word document that you saved 12 days ago, you can find that exact version.

Remote backup services vary not just by price, but by feature, too. Here are some of the features you need to consider when you compare offsite backup services.

* Does the service back up external drives? If all of your data is on your computer's main drive, that's not an issue. But if you need to back up data on external drives, that is an essential feature to have.

* How easy is it to add files and folders? Many backup services provide software that automatically selects and backs up what it thinks are important files. That's both good and bad: The automated aspect makes it easy to run the backup, but you sacrifice the ability to specify anything you particularly want backed up.

* Does the service provide alerts if backups are not completed? There's nothing worse than discovering later on that your backups never happened.

* How much space does the remote backup service allow? Some remote backup services provide unlimited space for backups -- not a bad thing if you have a lot of multimedia files.

* How easy is it to retrieve your data if you need to? How easy is it to download individual files if all you want to recover is a single file? These services vary tremendously, not only when it comes to the ease or difficulty of retrieving your data, but also the speed at which files can be retrieved.

* Is the data encrypted before it leaves your computer? If all you're backing up is music or photos, you might not need to encrypt the data. But if you are backing up private or personal information, then encryption is a must.

Here are some remote backup services you might want to look into. I've opted not to review each individually, other than a few notes about the ones I've used, since the features and pricing change regularly. Over the years, I have used Elephant Drive, Mozy, Carbonite and Livedrive. I currently use both Mozy and Livedrive, while the other members of my family use Carbonite. I like Mozy because it offers unlimited backups and will back up my external drives, too. Mozy also encrypts the data. Livedrive, which is relatively new to the backup world, also has unlimited backups (I have over a terabyte of data stored there).

Even though Livedrive doesn't store data in an encrypted form, it's great for backing up multimedia files, and it stores your backups in the familiar file folder format in a way that you can access your data from any computer's web browser. The rest of my family uses Carbonite, which I think is the easiest to use. Carbonite does not back up external drives. I've tried Elephant drive, which is among the least expensive remote backup services, but I've found their software cumbersome.

Mozy, http://www.mozy.com

Carbonite, http://www.carbonite.com

LiveDrive, http://www.livedrive.com

ElephantDrive, http://www.elephantdrive.com

Crashplan, http://www.crashplan.com

Dropbox, http://www.dropbox.com

Sugarsync, http://www.sugarsync.com