Thursday, May 24, 2007

Cell Phone for (Grand) Mother

I bought my 80-something mother her first cell phone yesterday. She wants to be able to turn it on, say a name and make a call. Here are the functional spec's for her cell phone:
  • Voice-activated dialing.
  • Good signal coverage wherever she goes.
  • Clam-shell design.
  • Hearing aid compatible.
She doesn't want anything else that might confuse her. So, no voice mail, three-way calling, speaker phone, camera, MP3 player, keyboard, etc. She doesn't want to fool with menus and try to read a small screen. She doesn't want it to beep, vibrate or coo at her. She wants it to ring when a phone call comes in, assuming she has it turned on. I expect she'll have the phone off 95% of the time.

My mother is a Luddite when it comes to cell phones. Her only reason for getting one now is that she is going on a trip, and she wants to have it in case she needs help, directions, etc. I'll be setting it up and entering the names and numbers of people she is likely to call. I'll do my best to turn off or hide the "advanced" features of the phone.

What did I get her? I got her the LG 3600 from Verizon, free with the America's Choice, Basic, 1-year contract (450 mins./mo.).

I am very curious to see whether she takes to it or not. Will it become a paperweight or a valuable safety device or an indispensable communication tool or a fashion accessory or something else?

My bet is that it will mostly be a paperweight, with occasional tours of duty as a safety device.

Monday, May 14, 2007

4 Steps to Revive Your PC

Part 2 of "How to give an old PC a new lease on life." Click here for Part 1, "Questions and Answers."

  1. Back it up
  2. Clean it up
  3. Clean it out
  4. Reload it (optional)
Step 1. Back it up
  • Your PC is going to fail one day, no matter what you do to keep it going. You've been lucky so far if it hasn't failed yet. The first step is to back up your data, documents, photos, music and other personal files. And implement an automated backup plan so that when your machine fails you will not lose anything important.

  • Backing up is something that everybody knows that they should do but almost nobody does it. Do it now. You can get online, automated backup for little or no cost. Stop procrastinating and do it.

Step 2. Clean it up
  • To improve your old PC's performance:
    1. Remove any malicious software (malware)
    2. Uninstall old applications you don't use
    3. Get applications you don't use often out of the System Tray
    4. Delete files you don't need
    5. Defragment your hard drive

  • A. Remove any malware : Malware (viruses, adware and spyware) can hurt you in different ways. It can take up RAM, it can monopolize the CPU, it can clog the hard disk with files and messages and/or it can hijack your applications and have them behave oddly. To improve your old machine's performance, you want to remove any and all malware.

  • If you have an "anti-virus" program running, that's good; most of the commercial anti-virus programs (Norton, McAfee, AVG, et al.) provide malware protection.

  • My recommendation for keeping a system clean of malware is to have an anti-virus program running all the time. Then, since no such program will be 100% effective (because black-hat hackers are resourceful and computer owners can be their own worst enemy), periodically scan your computer using products like Ad-Aware and Spybot Search and Destroy. Go to and see what products are available and which are popular.

  • B. Uninstall old applications you don't use: Delete old applications that you don't use because they are using up disk space. And, worse, they may be automatically loaded into RAM every time you boot up, costing you precious RAM. There are two ways to delete applications. First, go to the Start/Programs menu and see if there is a folder or program group for this application. Sometimes there is an Uninstall program in the group that you can use. Alternatively, you can go to the Control Panel and select Add/Remove Programs and select the program and remove it.

  • C. Get applications you don't use often out of the System Tray: Windows' System Tray is on the right end of the bottom task bar. It holds shortcuts to some of the programs that load or run when your PC boots. To improve performance of your old machine, stop applications you don't need from being automatically loaded.

  • By default, many applications install in such a way that they are loaded into RAM every time the computer is powered up. That way the application launches more quickly whenever it is selected from the Start menu or icon on the desktop or bottom task bar. In many instances, the improvement in launch time is not worth the cost of reduced overall system performance -- particularly if an application eats a lot of RAM and is rarely used.

  • Identifying applications that load on startup and stopping them is not always easy. For example, malware usually does its best to hide itself and prevent you from stopping and removing it. At the other end of the spectrum are programs that announce themselves when they load by placing an icon in the System Tray, and you can click on the icon and configure the app to NOT LOAD on start up.

  • So, the System Tray is the first place to look. If you see any applications there that you don't need to have loaded all the time, try and stop them. Usually this means starting the applications and going into the preferences or configuration options and de-selecting "Load on startup" (or something like that). If that doesn't work, you can try deleting the application and reinstalling it to see if you get to choose to have it not load automatically.

  • If you know what you are doing, you may also be able to find and stop applications that are running automatically by checking the Control Panel/Administrative Tools/Services. The problem with this is that there is often not a clear mapping between services and applications you don't need.

  • D. Delete files you don't need: To free up disk space on an old PC, it is a good idea to archive and remove any old personal files that you do not regularly access. Put them on a network drive or on a CD or DVD. You should also delete old temporary files (.tmp), old backup files (.bak), old log files (.log), and old application downloads (.zip and .exe). You can generally reclaim disk space by emptying your browser cache and your Recycle Bin.

  • E. Defragment your hard disk: Over time, as you work with your computer and the hard disk fills up, files on the hard disk become increasingly fragmented. One file may be stored across many different sectors of the disk, causing disk read and write operations to slow down. The older and smaller your hard disk, the more likely fragmentation is to cause performance problems.

  • Defragmenting the hard disk is the last step in cleaning up your PC, after you have reclaimed as much free disk space as you can. Windows has a utility for defragmenting your hard disk. There are also tools available at

Step 3: Clean it out
  • In an old PC, dust and dirt can block the machine's cooling systems, causing the processor and disk drive to overheat. If the components get too hot, to avoid damage, PCs are designed to slow down to reduce power consumption and lower internal temperatures.

  • How dirty can it get inside an old machine? It can get pretty dirty inside a PC, especially so if it's sitting on the floor in the basement or on a shag carpet. One machine that I saw smelled like an ash tray and inside looked like a diseased lung. Cigarette tar and dust mixed together and coated everything. Another machine I saw had been through a flood and the insides were coated with silt. Another machine was brought in for service and it was infested with cockroaches. One woman put a chocolate bar on her laptop, and it melted and ran inside. The chocolate ended up everywhere inside the machine...

  • Open up the case to clean out your old PC. Check the air intake filters and blow, vacuum or rinse them clean. Blow the dust out of the fans and cooling fins on the heat sink. Make sure all the fans are working. Replace any that are not.

Step 4: Reload it
  • You've done Steps 1-3, but you are still not happy with the performance of your old PC. Perhaps malware has hosed your operating system beyond recovery. Then you might want to think about reloading Windows. This assumes that you have a recovery CD with all the drivers you need (many PCs come with a recovery CD). It also assumes that you have the original installation media and keys for the applications you have installed. And you've backed up your data files.

  • If you've got all that, then you can reformat your hard disk, reload Windows from your recovery CD, reinstall your applications, download and install all the updates and patches to Windows and your applications and restore your data. It is not a quick and easy job.

  • How about upgrading to Windows Vista? This is probably not a good idea. So far, people are saying that XP is better than Vista. And unless you've got a “Vista-Ready” PC purchased a few months ago, it is not going to be a “cheap and easy” process to upgrade. My advice is to pass on Vista until you are ready to buy a new PC which has it loaded and once the problems with Vista are resolved.

  • Or, maybe your performance problems are not only due to the fact that your hardware is old. Your operating system and your applications are obsolete too. Microsoft is no longer supporting and patching Windows 98 for example. Norton et al. don't provide virus updates for your old anti-virus program. Websites want you to have browser capabilities your browser doesn't have.

  • In this case you have two options, throw the PC away, or do something interesting and fun. Rather than throwing the old beast away, you could try and install Ubuntu Linux on it. Ubuntu is a distribution of the Linux operating system that is free and easy to install. It has the potential to take your old machine and transform it into a usable, completely modern (software-wise) PC. I have installed Ubuntu on a half-dozen old PCs, and it worked like a charm. And if it doesn't just work, effortlessly, recognizing the hardware and installing the drivers, I wouldn't waste time with it. If it does work, you ought to max out the RAM to improve performance. If it doesn't work, throw the old thing out.

So, there you have it, 4 steps to revive your old PC. We are not talking about transforming it into something that can keep up with a new machine with the latest processor and lots of RAM. But you don't need all that speed and capability to read email, do word processing and surf the web, do you? These steps will help your PC to do these things better, and work more smoothly for you and with the people you communicate with and the web sites you visit.

Friday, May 11, 2007

How to give an old PC a new lease on life

Questions and Answers
  1. What are we talking about today? Are we talking about transforming an old klunker into something that can keep up with today's new PCs?

  2. Not exactly. That would take a lot of time and money, and with the prices of new machines today, it is easier and cheaper to simply buy a new computer. So, what we are talking about is taking an older computer and restoring it to something like what it was like when it was new. The assumptions are that:
    • Your old computer does everything you want it to do: email, web browsing, word processing, etc. You don't want new capabilities.
    • But, you are not happy with your old computer because it has gotten slow and buggy.
    • You do not want to spend a lot of time and money fixing the situation. Cheap and easy is the rule.

  3. Why does an old computer get slow and buggy?

    • Adware, spyware, viruses, and any other forms of malicious software can be a big problem on older computers. These programs work against you in many different ways. Some will fill up your hard drive, some will erase key files or data, some will be always loaded into RAM and using the CPU, others will freeze up your machine when you try and do certain things.
    • Over time, you've bought downloaded and loaded software to your old machine, like anti-virus, tax preparation, personal finance, utilities and games. Sometimes these programs install themselves so that they load whenever the computer is turned on. You might not see them until you click on an icon on the desktop or in the system tray, but they are loaded into RAM when you boot up, slowing your computer down. On an older machine with little RAM, you can take quite a performance hit.
    • As your computer gets older, its hard drive starts to fill up. As the disk fills, and as you work with applications and your saved files, files become fragmented. If a single file is stored over many non-contiguous locations on the drive, the job of reading and writing files takes longer.
    • When the hard disk gets really full, it can no longer provide temporary “scratch space” which some applications require. This can slow the machine down and lead to unpredictable behavior on the part of the applications involved. The system may hang and data you are working with may get corrupted.
    • One of the common enemies of performance in a PC is heat. If the components get too hot, to avoid damage, PCs are designed to slow down to reduce power consumption and lower internal temperatures. You see this often in laptops because components are packed together and ventilation/heat transfer is problematic. In an old desktop or tower PC, heat can become a problem, causing it to slow down, when dust and pet hair accumulate inside or in the air filters and block the machine's cooling systems.

  4. Are you going to tell us to open the computer case to replace any of the components inside?

  5. Generally speaking, that is not a good idea. You need to know what you are doing when you start replacing things. And with the cost of components and the value of your time, you quickly arrive at the situation where you are better off buying a new machine than putting the time and money into the old one. If it is cheap and easy, then yes, we'll crack open the case and do it.

    Here are some examples of the cheap and easy things we can do inside an old PC to give it a new lease on life:
    • Increase the size/amount of the machine's RAM.
    • Replace a non-working case fan.
    • Clean the air filters and vacuum out the dust and the pet hair.

  6. What about replacing the hard drive?

  7. Replacing the hard drive is not a trivial piece of work. For most people it violates the “easy” part of our “cheap and easy” assumption. And, if you no longer have the install media for the various applications you want to run, it violates the “cheap” part as well. If the computer is clean of malicious software, you could create an image of the old drive and load that on a new hard drive if you have the tools and the know-how.
Next week: How do we deal with an old, slow, buggy computer? Where do we start to give it a new lease on life?

Thursday, May 03, 2007

How To Beat Identity Theft

Have you been the victim of identity theft? I bet you have.

A few years ago I was charged on my credit card for an expensive plasma TV by a shop in the UK. On another occasion, my bank, after swallowing up a number of smaller banks around the country, ended up with duplicate account numbers in their system, and somebody else's checks started hitting my account (withdrawals only). Then there was the time that someone who worked for me was making personal phone calls overseas on my phone, and I was charged for them. I could go on.

We've all experienced these sorts of SNAFUs. They are not new. In bygone years, you only had to worry about identity theft if your purse or wallet was stolen, but with the advent of the information age, organized crime has gotten involved and "Identity Theft" has become a cause célèbre and a call to action. (According to the Federal Trade Commission web site, "The FTC’s final rule defines “identity theft” as a fraud that is committed or attempted, using a person’s identifying information without authority.")

Thanks to information technology, it is significantly easier now-a-days for criminals to masquerade as you or me. Armed only with your name and you bank or credit card account number, it is possible for you (or someone else), to go online or to the mall or to the bank or call an 800-number and arrange to purchase goods and services or transfer/withdraw money. With your Social Security Number, bad guys can cause mischief in all sorts of clever ways, like opening credit or loan accounts in your name.

Sign of the times... "Easy money, no stickup required."

Thanks to the media, whenever a laptop computer with confidential, personal information on large numbers of people goes AWOL, an identity theft alert is broadcast. But, what can you and I do about it, really? There is not much any individual can do beyond monitoring their bills for mistaken charges, disputing such charges and having them reversed.

Generally speaking, you are not responsible for fraudulent use of your identity. You have zero liability so long as you act in a timely fashion once you detect (or should have detected) identity theft.

The process of disputing charges and clearing your credit history, however, is not simple. It varies widely depending upon the type of account involved (debit vs. credit), the issuer of the account, the terms of the account, and state and federal laws. For example, I have found the dispute resolution process of American Express to be more consumer-friendly than bankcard processes. And credit card charges are easier to dispute than debit card charges.

Contrary to what many people think, the liability for credit card fraud is not borne by credit card companies. It is borne by merchants. Even though a credit card company "authorizes" a charge, it can and does charge-back a disputed transaction to the originating merchant if/when fraud is alleged. At that point, weeks after the sale, the fraudster is probably long gone and the merchant is stuck with the loss. Identity theft (credit card fraud, to the merchant) has become a cost of doing business, like shoplifting.

Credit card companies, banks and other financial intermediaries are in the best position to identify, catch and prosecute identity theft, but they have chosen not to. Rather than going after the bad guys, they have pushed the problem off on the merchants, who lack the data and the computers to make these cases.

Some intermediaries are even profiting from consumers' fear of identity theft by selling identity theft insurance! According to the consumer experts that have looked at it, identity-theft insurance isn't worth its price.

Unless and until merchants say they are not going to take the charge-backs anymore, identity theft will continue to be a problem. And/or after consumers realize that the credit card companies, banks and other financial intermediaries are exacerbating the problem, then we'll start to see the financial services industry get serious about dealing with identity theft.