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Thirty-second tricks while waiting for healthcare.gov

I had “fun” over one of these past weekends working my way through healthcare.gov. Since I quickly found that clicking from question to question was giving me about 30 seconds of waiting, I decided to find activities that fit.

After toting up my work mileage for the tax year, I turned to:

Checking for software updates, Windows Update for Windows or Software Update for Macs. Not to forget Adobe products like Reader and Flash, also make sure all web browsers are up-to-date.

Changing passwords after reading “studies suggest red-haired women tend to choose the best passwords and men with bushy beards or unkempt hair, the worst.” This means using different passwords for each site and keeping track of them with something like LastPass. Yes, this took more than one 30 second cycle, but I was already at the computer.

Turning over my keyboard and laptop to gently tap out dust and crumbs, also blowing out the air intakes and exhaust areas. Then wiping off the screen with a lint free cloth.

Emptying my email trash, my computer trash, even my office trash.

Updating my emergency list of all my accounts, logins and passwords, in case I am incapacitated or something worse.

Checked my Facebook privacy settings, oops, that took longer than 30 seconds.

Looked for 30-second exercises, found one called the Thoracic Bridge. But for some of us, just getting up and looking out the window for 30 seconds would be easier and maybe even better.

Made sure my backups are working by looking for something recent on the backup drive and on the online service.

Looked at one of those ergonomic posture pictures and realized that I am breaking all most all the rules because I am using a laptop. Decided that I should start with a monitor to plug into my laptop, one that would get me raising my head up more. That, or look away every few minutes to avoid locking my neck at one position.

Unplugged my laptop and used it long enough to run down the battery below half. Something I have to do once a month to get better battery life. OK, that did not take 30 seconds but still it fit between questions on healthcare.gov.

I am sure there are many more 30 second tricks, the goal being able to be patient, not only with healthcare.gov but with those times that the computer just wants to take longer to finish something and no amount of double-clicking will speed it up.

CryptoLocker and more

For many years, viruses and other malicious software have not deleted your files, maybe hidden them but not actually deleted them. A new piece of ransomware, CryptoLocker, will actually encrypt your data files, images, documents, videos, etc. on your computer and files that you have on any attached external and/or networked drives. You have to pay up within 72 hours of infection to get a key to decrypt your files and you have to use Bitcoins or MoneyPak. If you don’t pay up, that key is thrown away, effectively “deleting” those files. Recent news indicates that the people behind this are extending the payment time but upping the price from $200 to about ten times that.

There are various ways to avoid CryptoLocker. For the most part it seems to come as part of carefully crafted email attachments trying to look like email from a bank or delivery service so the first rule would be to avoid opening email attachments that you don’t expect. If it is from something like UPS or Amazon, you can always go online to their website and see if there are alerts in your account, same with your bank or credit card company. Second, since you probably do back up to an external hard drive, you should turn it off when it is not being used for a backup. Third, you can “inoculate” your PC with CryptoPrevent from Foolish IT, FoolishIT.com under his More Tech Software section down the left side of the site. Fourth, if you use an online backup service that keeps different versions of your files, then you can get back the older unencrypted versions of your stuff. And, so far, this does not affect Macs.

iGoogle replacements for those who are mourning the passing of iGoogle November 1st include My Yahoo, igHome, uStart, Protopage, or you could just start up with a blank page and use bookmarks or start up tabs loading your needed pages. Only start up those that you really need when you open your browser, otherwise you slow things down.

Google Apps, especially Gmail used with Windows XP and Internet Explorer 8 or even 9, will start see notices about needing to either upgrade IE or switch to something like Google Chrome or the latest Firefox if you want to use the gee-whiz features of a particular Google product. By the way, there is nothing wrong with using two or more browsers, you might even want to dedicate one to just Facebook.

And, don’t forget that when you are installing free software, most of them will try to install other software. Pay attention to pre-checked boxes, license agreements for products other that what you want, and buttons like advanced or options. You can always go into the Programs control panel, sort it by date and see what else installed with the program you thought you were only getting. Then, uninstall those others if you don’t want them.


Yahoo Mail, the basis for AT&T’s webmail, has changed its look and increased its storage limits. Although it is not truly unlimited, for most people, the inbox is open to keep all your email. This lets smartphone users, who use IMAP to read their ATT email, not worry any more about filling up their inbox. I still would suggest deleting or move email out of your inbox, just to avoid loosing email below the first page of messages. And, if you use their webmail, now you should be able to preview attachments without having to always download them.

Recover wasted disk space with Windows Update Cleanup. With the recent set of updates from Microsoft for Windows 7 Service Pack 1, Microsoft now will let you clean out no longer needed Update downloads, thus freeing up more disk space. This is part of the Disk Cleanup tool, when you run it, there will be a checkable box for Windows Update Cleanup.

Facebook public posts are now fully searchable using their “wonderful” Graph Search. This might be great for HR departments and banks seeking to determine your credit worthiness, but it means that you have to spend more time again going through your privacy settings. These are accessed through the Privacy Settings menu under the gear icon in the upper right corner of your Facebook window. You may want to spend time reviewing these and if you are seeking guidance for safe settings, you can use your favorite web search engine for something like “Facebook privacy settings guide” to see what you might want to change. It is getting hard to prevent someone from finding your Facebook profile, unless you pretty much don’t friend anyone or don’t share anything with anyone. In other words, if you don’t want someone to find you, drop out of Facebook.

Changes in Google’s Terms of Service, you may have been seeing a notice about this when visiting google.com, could mean your photo, name, or something positive you said about a product, could end up in one of their ads. Changes that go live on November 11th apply especially to those using +1, comments or followings though Google+. At least Google does let you change your Shared Endorsements setting, the location of which you might have to “search” for. And, this would be a good time to check any and all of your Google privacy settings also.

One way to make a to do list more productive is to actually put items on your computer calendar as that pretty much forces you to layout how much time your “appointment” will take. This way, you actually have to estimate the time required for different tasks encouraging you to get more of them done in their true order of importance.


When you are looking at Apple hardware, always remember to look at Apple’s refurbished store too. When you are in the online Apple store, look for the link to the Refurbished & Clearance section down at the bottom of the store page. Apple checks all items and offers their same one-year warranty. If you find what you need there, you can save 15% or more.

Windows uninstallers, for those times you are pretty certain the “official” uninstaller left things behind, include Revo Uninstaller, Comodo Programs Manager, and IObit Uninstaller 2. Although there are many more, these have different strengths, IObit being one of the simpler to use, Comodo being good at actively monitoring all the actions an installer does as it runs, and Revo Uninstaller being a long term favorite of many techies. All are free.

It is easy to have a file safety net in Windows 8 so that if you delete a file, empty the trash and then want it back, you can. You have to turn on File History, easy to get to by searching for File History in that fun search box, and make sure you are looking in Settings. Once set up, you will have a History button in the menu bar or ribbon when looking at folders.

Sometimes, you just want to delete as much of your Web presence, or at least the accounts you control, as you can. There is a service, JustDelete.Me, which is a directory to the actual account deletion page for quite a few services so you don’t have to try (and likely fail) to find that information yourself. Notice their assessment of ease or difficulty.

Do you have an android phone and would like to feel like a hacker? For quite a few android based phones, you can change out the basic, possibly outdated operating system (ROM) for something better and newer. The big daddy site to find all of these options, very daunting even, is the xda-developers forum. The CyanogenMod ROM is often viewed as the closest to what a Nexus device would run with PAC ROM seen as a mash-up of the best features from the top ROMs.

Surprising things

Google books NGram Viewer. One of the power houses of book digitizing, Google, has made a fun and instructive tool available. NGram does nothing more than show you how a particular word or phrase has changed in usage popularity over time. Simple sounding but it can lead to a party game of trying to find four words that have similar rising graphs, for example. It is at books.google.com/ngrams/

Some Windows 8 programs come in both app and desktop versions, Skype being a good example. In Windows 8 desktop programs are those with file menus and that familiar red X to quit. So, for the desktop version of Skype, you need to find it lower down on Skype’s downloads page. Or, get used to the Windows 8 app version.

Notifications in Windows 8 and Mountain Lion can be adapted to your needs. Both Windows 8 and in Mountain Lion on the Mac have a centralized notification system that you should learn how to manage. For example, to change how Mail alerts you on the Mac, go into System Preferences, then Notifications, scroll down the left hand list of items to find Mail and change its alert style to none. In Windows 8, only for apps but not desktop programs (which still use the desktop system tray to display alerts), you need to get into PC settings by swiping from the right, click or tap on Settings, then Change PC settings, and finally get into Notifications. Now you can go down the list and turn off or back on notifications for particular Windows 8 apps.

Whose comments are you going to trust? It may not be a surprise but recent research is showing that positive comments made at a review site influence subsequent comments to be more positive. However, negative comments don’t show a similar effect to make following comments to be more negative. This is apart from any gamming of the comment system that may be going on.

Finally, a funny bug in the “internet of things.”  Japanese toilets from Satis can be controlled from an Android phone using Bluetooth and, oops, they used the same hard coded Bluetooth PIN in all their toilets, making it very easy for any Android phone with their app to control any of their “smart” toilets within phone range.

If you have a Google account, and you haven’t tried some of the new map-making features, sign in and check them out at maps.google.com.

And, now I have a question for you, what computer problem or question have you been hoping I would answer? Let me know at bill@scobie.net

Programming as mind gym

When you stare at the computer screen a good part of the day, when Facebook makes you feel dumb, when you think there must be a way to get your mind going again, try programming. I can already hear the screams of “I can’t do that, I am too old” or “Why would I need to learn programming” but learning anything new does help improve mental capabilities and programming is way more fun than math games. Programming can be likened to telling a good story.

Since many people can at least make up a story, both Scratch and Alice are ways to make a story come to live. You end up moving things around the screen, making music play, just making sure that the story is fun by making and plugging together elements rather than typing code like you see such classic movies as Wargames. The beautiful part is that while you are making a story you are learning how to break down a “story” into parts that can be reused, setting up and following through a flow of what you want to have happen, and end up with something that you can show off, even if it is just to your kids or grand-kids. Both Scratch, from scratch.mit.edu, and Alice, at alice.org, have tutorials, videos, user provided examples, and showcases of what others have done.

As games involve story telling, making a game is another great way to learn programming. Of course, there are many languages to program in, each have advantages depending on what you are trying to accomplish, but for learning, it is better to work with what is fun. Ruby4kids lets you taste the fun of making a game pretty quickly, but you have to enjoy trying something in one window and seeing the results in another window. The teaching materials serve more as references.

I know I try to avoid long web addresses but there are quite a few learning oriented programming links on http://www.techsupportalert.com/content/best-free-ways-learn-programming.htm

Since programming is not what everyone wants, see what people are talking about via Twitter, searching for on Google and publishing on Wikipedia. These trending terms are fun to watch and important to an increasing number of businesses and governments.

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:RecentChanges which is more easily viewed at http://wikistats.co/

Why not try a bit of programming; it will be more of a workout than some of those simple brain gym games.