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File encryption tools exist to keep your work private if someone gets hold of your computer. With files or even your entire hard drive encrypted with a key passphrase only you know, you can protect sensitive financial, medical, or other personal data. The Pro versions of Windows 7, 8 and 8.1 have built-in encryption, as does OS X, but you have to use a third party program for Home versions of Windows, or you just like to use something different. Among the variety of options that exist for Windows and OS X you can find 7-Zip (usually thought of as a file zipping tool), GNU Privacy Guard, and VeraCrypt.

It should come as no surprise that there are ideal lengths for different online content, if you want people to pay attention. The latest figures I found show tweets should equal 100 characters while a Facebook post does better at 40. Email subject lines should fall between 28-39 characters while a blog post should be readable in 7 minutes or scan about 1600 words. If you are hoping for people to read, listen or view what you produce, pay attention to what lengths grab your attention and keep you reading, listening or watching.

Google Earth Pro is finally free and has some tricks that can make it very useful. It comes with a variety of accessible data sets, including property parcel data, and a large collection of demographic and geographic information. You can also generate virtual tours as videos that, no surprise, can be uploaded to Youtube.

Cut wasted time on social media by setting a plan and sticking to it with a timer. It is easy to say that you have to get on Facebook or Twitter to expand your business contacts but without setting a more precise plan, like getting ten new people to call and then logging off, you may want to start using a simple egg timer to keep you from straying way off into the weeds. A great way to keep focused is to learn how to save interesting but unrelated information for later reading. This is a great reason to use a tool like Evernote or save links with a bookmarks tool or service.

To organize project with a group of people or just your own life, take a look at Trello.com, an online “web board” for placing cards with tasks in lists or categories to help you shepherd large projects with many different little tasks through to completion. Its focus is on group projects but you should be able to use it for anything that otherwise you might pull out notecards, sticky notes, or big sheets of white paper and multi colored markers. And, accounts at trello.com are free, forever they say.

Laptop Comparison Chart at productchart.com, need I say anything more once you look?

Patching, posting, scamming, repairing

Update or “patch” many Windows programs at one time with Patch My PC. Windows checks for its own updates but not all software will do the same unless you are actually using that program. And, most of us postpone such updates anyway. If you use Patch My PC, you can have it check for needed updates for over 100 commonly used programs. Go to www.patchmypc.net and click on the Free Tools menu to find the installer.

“To Post or Not to Post” is a humorous decision tool from onlineclasses.org that can help you figure out the wisdom of posting on any particular social media site. Look under their Resources section at the top to find this and many other decision and information graphics.

Scams are all over, including on Facebook. Here are some common ones that might even tempt the most suspicious of us. They include: see who has viewed your Facebook profile; enable new or hidden Facebook features with additional software; get free giveaways or amazingly deep discounts on new products; or see shocking pictures or videos that you must install some software to view. Be careful if you have to install additional software just to see that latest juicy bit of scandal.

Repairing your Windows Registry is one of those decisions that challenges many people and is often over sold as a fix to speed up your PC. The Windows Registry is a common location to store many bits of information used by Windows, programs, settings, etc., and Microsoft has tried to make sure that it remains trouble-free with multiple copies and built-in methods to resolve conflicts. Nearly all computer slowdowns are more likely due to insufficient hard drive space or disk fragmentation, not enough RAM for the number of running programs, bloatware or adware running in web browsers, and not quitting out of software you aren’t currently using. If you want to clean up your Registry of orphaned entries, then CCleaner (the free version works fine) from www.piriform.net, has a good tool for cleaning your Registry, along with its other tools for cleaning out many temporary files and disabling programs from automatically starting up.

I have talked about using password managers, like lastpass or 1password, to store complex and different passwords for all those websites requiring logins. To secure that password manager you also need another strong password that you don’t have to write down and yet that you can remember. Rules include, make it long, use characters other than just lower case letters, use only part of a word rather than any entire word, and use memory triggers that only you would know of. And, think of making up fake answers for those obligatory password recovery questions. One exception to the rule of not telling anyone your master password would be to keep a copy of that password in your safe, in case your estate needs access to your online accounts.

Facebook newsfeed simplified

Facebook newsfeed simplified. Facebook has made changes in News Feed settings that should help you focus (or refocus) on groups and people you follow. When you see a story you don’t want to follow anymore, click the arrow by the story to tweak settings. And, while you are dealing with Facebook, check out their newer Privacy Shortcuts menu in the top bluish bar, look through the Privacy Checkup, and read through their Privacy Basics, paying attention to the section on “What You See.” Since Facebook will have a new Terms of Service and other agreements going into effect on January 1st, I should remind you that whatever you read about Facebook owning your content is not true, you have copyright protections, they just can use it in a variety of ways to help their advertisers know more about you.

With rising concerns about text message security, you might want to check at EFF.org and look at their secure messaging scorecard, search for it in their upper right search box on their home page.

If there is a YouTube video you want to save, have it open in your web browser, click into the address bar and add two letters before the youtube.com part, after the www part. The two letters are “ss”, that is two esses and tap the enter key. You will end up at a video converter and downloader site called savefrom.net with download links for mp4 versions of that YouTube video.

Backups, you know I talk about them and I would like to add in some other things you should think of when thinking of backups. To have an alternative internet provider, you might be able to set up your smart phone in “tethered” mode, so that it connects to the internet and also sets up a Wi-Fi hotspot for laptops and tablets to use. Just be careful of the data plan limits you might have. What about having an alternative device to connect to the Internet, to your email, to other data you might have saving into the “cloud.” Your passwords should be backed up also, and let someone else know where they are, in case you cannot get to them. And, what about important papers, don’t forget to have copies of the top 25 documents to have, as determined by the Wall Street Journal.

Wikipedia may have great information but it is so pretty unless you use a browser extension from wikiwand.com. Try it and maybe you will get excited again about Wikipedia.org.

With all the talk of Facebook changes and expansion, I have seen more emails contending that Facebook has changed my password for security and suspicious activity from some location. Checking the actual senders address, sometimes you have to click on the senders address to see the real address, always shows an email address other than Facebook. So, be safe.

Killer Speed

For killer speed improvement move to a solid state drive. I just finished upgrading from a regular hard drive to a solid state drive (SSD) and I feel that my computer is faster than when I bought it over two years ago. The usual advice for upgrading computers before having to buy a new one had been to add more RAM, now I think upgrading to a SSD should be your next upgrade, once you have 4 GB of RAM in your PC or Mac. Think of a SSD as really fast camera card memory or the type of memory in your smartphone. They are much cheaper than even last year but not as cheap as a regular spinning hard drive. I replaced my existing 500 GB hard drive for about $225, a regular hard drive of the same capacity would be a quarter the cost. Yet, it feels at least 2-3 times faster in opening applications. So, it was really worth the cost and I will be using this laptop for much longer than I might otherwise have.

To help manage home finances or use other common financial, calendar, and legal templates for Office programs like Excel or Word, look through some of the free templates available through vertex42.com. You can find travel planning spreadsheets, time tracking help, templates for many common and basic legal documents, even Gantt charts to help plan the timing of all those steps going into a larger complicated project.

Work rules at home that I find very helpful include: fixing a quitting time and sticking to it; ensuring that others respect the work space and have a signal for when I am working or playing; making sure that family members understand I can say not now; and getting out and about to talk with others doing what I do.

Windows 8, what a refreshing way to reinstall it. With Windows 8 “refresh” you can do a fresh Windows installation without deleting any of your personal files. It’s like re-installing Windows, but you don’t have to back up and restore your files manually. Desktop applications, like Office or Quickbooks, will be uninstalled, but your “modern” apps will be preserved. Helpfully, a list of removed programs will be saved to your desktop so you can re-install the ones you want back on your system.

Cleaning computers and alternatives

Chromebooks are an alternative to Windows or Mac laptops and tablets. They are laptops that use Google’s Chrome operating system, often with a solid-state drive, decent battery life, and 11 to 14 inch screens. Having a keyboard, they don’t force you to tap-type on a screen and, of course, integrate with all of Google’s services like Gmail and Google Play. Choosing between different models and manufacturers is now easier at http://prodct.info/chromebooks/ where you can filter by screen size, minimum RAM, SD card size, touch screen, and other criteria.

Occasionally, I see hot desktop computers, not as in fantastically great but actually hot to the touch computers. Their fans are always running and they operate slowly. Various things can make this happen but one of the most common is dust, pet hair, rug and dryer lint, and smoke or tar build up from wood fires or cigarettes. To clean these out requires opening up the computer and actually finding the cooling fan that sits on top of a finned radiator. Just vacuuming it may not work, you will need to use tweezers to pull off the sticky lint and then vacuum it off. And, then vacuum out all the dust you can see, using the crevice tool is often a good way to get into corners. Don’t forget the dust that builds up on the power supply, the box inside the tower where the power cord plugs into. With laptops, look for dust in and around venting, usually parallel or circular openings.

While on cleaning, LCD screens are best cleaned with one of those dry microfiber clothes, like you get for glasses. Try it dry, if you need dampness, spray water or dilute white vinegar on the cloth, not the screen. Don’t press on the panel, just keep gently rubbing to get food gunk off. If you don’t have a microfiber cloth, a coffee filter will work. For keyboards, you can often blow out all sorts of crumbs and dust with compressed air from a can.

On the Mac side of things, for those of us who are too wordy, there is a Summary service that can help you check your wordiness. It is not perfect but it can give you an idea of wordiness, especially if you play with the slider to see how much can be summarized. To turn it on, and to learn more about Services, actions that are available across all your Mac applications, try a google search for “Mac services summary” or something similar.

It comes as no surprise, more passwords have been leaked and you might be scrambling to change them all again. The advice is still to use different passwords and to change them regularly. Password saving software, like LastPass and others, can help with that, as can a card in your wallet. You limit your exposure to logins being compromised if you always use different passwords, especially if they are truly different, not just 1234google and 1234yahoo and 1234att.

Falling

iCloud storage, you get some for free and then you pay for the rest, what a pain on your iPhone or iPad. But there are ways to manage what it being put in that cloud, maybe you don’t need to use as much. Apart from photos and music, quite a few apps will store or backup data to iCloud. Check Settings, iCloud, Storage and Backup, Manage Storage. Under Backups, tap your device, then look under Backup Options to Show All Apps. An example of an app that does not need to backup to iCloud would be Evernote, its data is already stored on the web. If you see an old device in the listing, delete its backup.

White hats to the rescue. If you have heard of CryptoLocker, now you can cheer for the researchers who have reverse engineered that ransomeware. People can now get their decryption key for unlocking their data without paying the “ransom”. I have not found anyone locally affected by CryptoLocker, but it is great to know that there are smart people working on the good side. CryptoLocker is different from some of those scary “FBI” screens that would hide your data, but those did not actually encrypt your files.

Slowing web browsers. Just as computers get cluttered with software, so do browsers end up accumulating extensions that can slow them down. All three common browsers have different ways to look at extensions, to either see how much memory or loading time each takes. Extensions are those extra bits of software that may help a browser do more, one example being the Adobe PDF Helper that lets you see PDF or Adobe Reader files directly in your browser. And some of those extensions “helpfully” provide ads for you. In Chrome, click the menu button, the three bars towards the upper right part of Chrome and then scroll to and hover over Tools, then click on Task Manager. In the list that opens, look for ones labeled Extension and decide if you really need that extension. You can disable extension for testing purposes with the Tools, then Extensions menu.

One Time Secret? Do you find times when you want to share something over the internet but don’t think it should be in plain sight? OneTimeSecret.com could be your solution. This would let you email a secret encrypted link to a unique page only available for a limited time, where you can display a password or some other text you would not want in an email.

Expand your IT training. If you want to up your Microsoft skills, you should look through MicrosoftVirtialAcademy.com. I will say most of the courses are geared towards people seeking IT level knowledge, not really for beginners.