It’s clear that we are not going to be able to control our outside environments to a point where everyone feels healthy and safe without someone’s sense of entitlement getting hurt, but we can definitely control our home office environments, especially how we work. And seeing as I am typing at you with dual wrist braces (aggravated by some light DIY home construction, not computer work!) it seems timely that I should share with you some important things to pay attention to as we continue our work at home journey together for at least several more months.
A list that should not be ignored!
I don’t know that any one of these is more important than another. None of these should be disregarded, but depending on your situation and state of physical health, certain things may have a higher priority. As always, if you have a medical condition that may be impacted by one or more of these recommendations, please consult with your physician before making any changes or decisions.
- Your feet should be flat on the floor, thighs and forearms parallel to the floor. Your upper body and neck should be straight and head neither tilted forward or back to look at the monitor, the top of which should be more or less level with your eye-line, which, again, should be parallel to the ground. If the height of your workspace does not allow for your feet to rest on the ground, use a foot rest to achieve this rather than compromising on the parallel lines. This article from the Mayo Clinic has a good illustration of proper body placement/positioning.
- Your keyboard and mouse should be at a height that allows your hands and wrists to be parallel to the ground, and as you are typing or mousing, the back of your hand, wrist and forearms should be completely straight – you should not have to flex up or down to perform either of these tasks. It’s also acceptable for your typing position to be slightly below the level of your elbows, but not to the point where you have to flex your wrists to type. Your head, shoulders and torso should not need be rotated to work, which means that your main monitor and keyboard should be directly in front of you.
- Make sure your office is properly lit – don’t just rely on the light of your monitor. This can cause eyestrain, which can lead to poor posture as you compensate for tired eyes. Also make sure your monitor brightness, size and distance is at a comfortable level where you can easily read text on screen. If you find yourself hunching forward to read the screen, adjust the screen, magnification or distance so that you can comfortably view your typical work screens without sacrificing ergonomics. If you wear glasses or contacts for day to day activities but are having trouble comfortably viewing your screen, you may need glasses designed specifically for computer viewing, a new monitor, or even both.
- Keyboard and mouse choice can have a great impact on wrist and hand health. If you regularly type on a smaller laptop and have large hands, consider using an external keyboard and mouse to avoid awkward typing angles and finger cramps from using the touchpad. Don’t cheap out on the peripherals. Get a mouse that is comfortable to use for your hand size, and a full-sized keyboard with appropriate spacing between the keys. If you do a lot of number crunching, a full number pad will be indispensable.
- If you are using a laptop as your only computing device, consider purchasing a laptop stand and external keyboard and mouse, which will allow you to place the monitor at a proper viewing height and your typing/mousing surface at an ergonomically correct angle – flat or at a slight decline from the elbow. Do not attempt to use the laptop keyboard while it is propped up on a laptop stand. Remember – straight line across the back of your hands to your forearms.
- If you are still one of those people who cradles the phone on their shoulder – stop it! Get a headset or use the speakerphone.
- Wrist rests are helpful if you spend long hours on the computer, but make sure they stay clean and dry, and don’t change the angle of your typing position, especially if they force your wrists and forearms out of alignment with the backs of your hands. When I type I rarely rest my wrists on my wrist rest, but that is because I frequently use my mouse or key combinations that move my hands out of the traditional “home” position on the keyboard. Your usage and preference will differ, but never sacrifice the straight lines.
- If possible, position your monitor in front of something other than a wall, such as a window or open space in your office. This allows you to change your focal point throughout the day – essentially letting your eyes “stretch”. If that’s not possible, see #9.
- Stand up or stretch at least every 15-20 minutes, especially if you are likely to be in front of the computer for several hours. Let your eyes rest by closing them, or focusing on something other than a computer screen (not your phone!).
- If you are considering a standing desk, all of the above still applies except for the leg positioning (obviously). Make sure you use something that can switch between standing and sitting easily, especially if you are new to standing while working, as you will want to start slow. Even though I’ve been doing it for years now, I rarely stand for more than an hour or two at a stretch before switching to a seated position, and regardless of position, I try to stretch or move every 15-20 minutes. If your office has hard floors (thin carpet or hardwood), make sure you are standing on a pad, even if you have proper footwear. If it’s something very rigid like concrete or stone, the pad will be crucial.
While I think we can all agree that as far as years go, this year is definitely going down in the history books as a bad year, the week of July 13, 2020 should have its own footnote in what will assuredly be a voluminous chapter on 2020. Depending on your usage of the internet and technology, you might not have even noticed, but for those of us in the trenches of IT support, July 15th will live in infamy.
I’m being a little dramatic…but only a little.
There is a stereotypical scene that is used frequently in movies where something disastrous happens off-camera while a bunch of people are in the same room. Simultaneously, all of their phones/pagers start going crazy and the scene explodes into frantic activity. That was July 15th around 9am when everyone tried to launch Outlook to read their email and instead they were greeted with an error and crash. Everyone at C2’s phones and email started lighting up with frantic calls and texts. “My Outlook is crashing and today is not a good day for that to be happening,” was one of the more polite calls I received from a client. Turns out, Microsoft issued an update to recent versions of Outlook that just outright broke the application, and thanks to Windows 10’s unavoidable update cadence, millions of people woke up to Outlook not working. Through some sort of miracle, Microsoft actually managed to fix this colossal cock-up around noon Pacific, but for several hours it was quite tense at Chez C2.
A few hours later, we get the somewhat humorous news that several high-profile Twitter accounts have been hacked, and not only that, but that the hack had been used to push one of the oldest cons in the book. While the victims probably don’t find much to laugh about, when Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Barrack Obama offers to double any amount of Bitcoin sent to them, and you just (barely) lived through the Outlook debacle not 2 hours prior, you are going to have a good chuckle. The hackers chose chaos instead of outright villainy, but they still took in over $100k in Bitcoin before Twitter regained control of the accounts in question. We’re 20 years into the new millennia and suckers are still being born every minute.
And in case your week wasn’t fun enough, domain name service provider Cloudflare broke half the internet two days later. Literally. Cloudflare provides domain name services for a very large number of websites and services, including those that provide status on things like DNS and internet outages, leading many people to believe there was an active attack on the internet. Sadly, it wasn’t that exciting, but a self-inflicted wound delivered to a key router somewhere in Atlanta, Georgia causing a cascading failure similar to what happens to power grids when a critical transformer blows. Supposedly the problem was fixed within 30 minutes of it being identified, but as you are all now painfully aware – 30 minutes without internet (or email) feels like an eternity during the middle of a work day.
Is it 2021 yet?
If there was a glimmer of possibility that you might be returning to some semblance of a normal office life, that light is probably set on the dimmest setting for now with the renewed lockdown and a resurgence in Covid outbreaks. This means your training as an technology Jedi has only begun, young padawan. Never fear (it leads to anger, after all…) we have more tips to help you traverse the dark side of technology trouble.
“When do I get to hit it with a lightsaber?”
Trick #4: Reboot (The Sequel!). You’ve rebooted your computer, but the internet is still not working. Time to move upstream on your network river to figure out if there is an obstruction blocking the sweet flow of data. If you are using WiFi and are fortunate to have a dedicated access point or mesh system, try rebooting those devices first, but only if you’ve verified that it’s not working for anyone else in the house. If that doesn’t work, try rebooting your internet router. If there isn’t a power button, just pull the power plug from the device, but DON’T try the reset button unless instructed by a professional or you know what you are doing. Let it sit for at least 30 seconds to think about what it’s done, and then plug the power back in. If the internet does not come back – do not panic! Call your ISP to make sure they’ve tried turning their stuff off and back on again as well.
Trick #5: Try a different Browser. If you are having trouble with a website, whether it be one you use regularly, or something that you are visiting for the very first time, try accessing the same site from a different browser. If you didn’t know there was more than one, or that you could use more than one, let me blow your mind: You can use as many different browsers as you want, and there are more than two! To be fair, both Apple and Microsoft are pretty insistent on people using their specific browsers (Safari and Edge, respectively) but there are quite a few alternatives that are readily and freely available. Google’s Chrome and Mozilla Firefox are the two most popular “non-default” browsers, and may help you seal the deal on your next web transaction.
Trick #6: Get close or get wired. If you are working from home you are probably on WiFi, and you’ve probably already experienced problems with network speed or connectivity that you’ve rarely experienced in the office. Getting internet from point A to B is best done by wire, and even enterprise-grade WiFi is a poor second to Ethernet. Think of it as the equivalent of trying to deliver water from point A to B. Wired Ethernet is a hose – just about all the water is going to get from A to B without much fuss – whereas WiFi is using your garden sprayer to shoot the water from A to B. Yeah, the water is going to get there, but a lot of it is going get everywhere, and point B isn’t getting wet nearly as fast as the hose. So the next time you are having trouble filling a big bucket of internet data, either get a hose (get wired!) or get closer to the bucket with your sprayer (WiFi). It doesn’t have to be permanent, use an Ethernet cable or get closer to the router to rule out WiFi as the source of the problem. Oh, and sometimes, you need a new sprayer, especially if getting close doesn’t seem to be doing the job. And if the hose (Ethernet wire) doesn’t help, maybe it’s time to call an actual internet plumber (C2 Technology).
You did try turning it off and back on, right?
Image by Bruno /Germany from Pixabay
It’s apparent that many of us will continue to work from home for the foreseeable future, which means that many of you will also be the first-responder for technical support issues in your home office, whether you wanted to be or not. While we’re not expecting you to become a seasoned field technician, there are quite a few problems that can be resolved without picking up the phone if you know what to look for or try. What we do isn’t magic, but just like magicians, we have a set of tricks we keep handy, just up our metaphorical sleeves.
“Yer a wizard, Harry!”
Trick #1: Reboot. It bears repeating, but only because of how effective it actually is in about half the problems that come to us. Lately, Windows 10 has been a bit of a problem child with a series of updates that alternately break and fix your computer, and one thing we’ve noticed is that when computers start behaving strangely, there’s usually an update queued up, waiting to be applied. Try a reboot to see if it clears up whatever is ailing you, but be prepared to wait for updates to apply, especially if you haven’t rebooted in a while. NOTE: Many of you don’t realize that putting your computer to sleep, nor logging out and back in, isn’t the same as rebooting your computer. To reboot, go to the start menu, select the “Power” icon (the circle with one vertical line bisecting the upper part of the circle) and select “Restart.” If you see the manufacturer’s logo appear before the Windows logo loads, you’ve achieved an actual reboot.
Trick #2: Try a different port. This mostly applies to USB devices, but if it stops working, or is behaving strangely, try moving the device to a different, available port. Loose cables can easily become disconnected, and if it’s an older cable/device, the port itself might be getting worn, resulting in a less-than-perfect connection. Swapping ports, like swapping light bulbs to see if it’s burned out, will help identify the root cause of a device failure. If it’s a port that has a tighter connection, it may help sort out a flaky printer or scanner. NOTE: not all USB ports are created equal. On devices that have both 2.0 and 3.0 ports, the latter will be blue, and while some devices can work on either port, some USB 3.0 devices will be slower when connected to USB 2.0 ports. Also note that USB connectors WILL fit in an HDMI port or Ethernet port if pushed hard enough, and that will most definitely break something expensive.
Trick #3: Check the lights. Most (but not all) technology devices have indicator lights that will help you determine if something is powered up and working properly. If you frequently have trouble with your home internet, take a picture (or short video) of the modem/router lights when it is working properly, and use that as a reference for when things are not working properly. If you are feeling particularly intrepid, take a closer look at the lights to see if they are labeled (they usually are) and check the manual to see what they indicate. If one of the lights that is normally green appears yellow (or is dark), that might be a significant clue as to what is wrong. The same goes for your PC and printer – both will have some form of power and function indicators that will flash sequences or different colors to let you know what is going on. Most important to identify on your computer: the hard drive activity LED. If your device has one (most of them do), you should know that light blinks to indicate that your data storage devices are active. Normally, this LED will be blinking intermittently, especially when opening documents, saving files and the faster and more frequently it blinks, the harder your PC is working. If that light goes solid and your computer seems to be frozen or working in slow motion, your hard drive is “redlining” meaning it is hard at work on something. But it could also be a sign of technical trouble, especially if it happens frequently.
Next week – more tricks for you to learn!
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
I’ve only had one client ask me this exact question recently, but I am getting this general sentiment a lot more these days than I ever had in the past. There’s nothing more disappointing than buying a brand-new device, getting it out of the box, setting it up, only to be severely underwhelmed by its performance, or in some cases, discovering that it’s just plain not working at all. Personally, I feel bad when this happens, and professionally it’s not a good look for C2 when a computer we recommend or procure for a customer stumbles right out of the gate. Unfortunately, this is happening for a lot of clients lately, and while this explanation may seem like we’re trying to pass the buck – we’re really not – you should know what’s actually going on.
So what the heck is going on?
Here comes another numbered list. It helps me think, and hopefully gives you helpful guide posts on where to pause, digest, and uncross your eyes because this is complicated. I wish it were something as simple as gremlins, but we should be so lucky in light of what’s actually going on.
- Microsoft has been releasing some real winners on their recent updates. And by winners, I mean losers. I explained this in a previous post, but basically back in 2015, Microsoft converted its quality assurance operations from a professional, in-house team, to one powered by volunteers in the wider technology community. Microsoft crowd-sources the testing of their updates, and the results are poor.
- New PC’s can sometimes sit on shelves for weeks, if not months, before arriving on your desk. During this time, Microsoft has been dropping (bad) updates like they were hot (see #1), so when it finally gets connected to the internet, your new PC pulls a Kanye and says, “Imma let you finish…” and proceeds to apply gigabytes of back-dated patches, in some cases well over 100 gigabytes if your PC is really behind.
- Oh yeah, some of those updates are bad. Don’t forget #1. Some of them don’t even get successfully applied. Repeat “Imma let you finish…” except in reverse as your PC rolls back an unsuccessful patch. Why did it fail patching? Who knows. Microsoft is not going explain what went wrong. It just throws the whole thing into reverse, reboots, and waits to try again.
- A lot of new PC’s come with antivirus software already installed. Most antivirus software aren’t particularly speedy, especially if it was provided for free. So your PC is applying literally thousands of changes to your operating system files, and the antivirus software has to follow it around with a clipboard, saying, “OK, you can apply that change. WAIT…OK that one too. WAIT…let me check that one…OK.”
- If you happened to buy a PC with a spinning hard drive instead of an SSD, add a speed penalty to all the above nonsense.
- Throughout all of the above, Windows 10 is trying to do this in the “background” while letting you “work” on your PC. Except your PC is pinning the needle on your hard drive and you get the spinning, blue wheel of “please wait an interminable amount of time for this file to open.” This is probably the greatest failing of Windows 10: updates are applied in the background with zero notice to the user of what’s going on. If you dig, you can find out what’s happening, but, “ain’t nobody got time for dat!”
So basically, out of the box, your PC needs to go through a “break-in” period. Any of you who have ever participated in a sport that requires gear knows that this feels like. On a PC, this can mean a new computer won’t actually hit its stride for several days (up to a week, depending on your internet speed!), and that period can be even longer if you are also installing newer versions of software that are now “Windows 10 compatible”, and, oh by the way, also very different from their Windows 7 counterparts you are “upgrading” from. This break-in period happens on high-end, expensive PCs just as often as budget PCs, and in my experience, is not really avoidable. Just like stretching out before exercise, today’s PC’s need a “warm up period” when fresh out of the box, so plan accordingly.
I’m simultaneously amazed and not surprised that Adobe Flash is still as widely used as it is currently. I was just working with a client who uses a website for a very large financial services company where certain key features rely on Flash. And this site was just launched. I know of several other clients who regularly rely on training websites to ensure employee compliance that require Flash be enabled to view their webinars. It’s as if all the major technology companies haven’t been warning for years that Adobe Flash was a dead-end technology riddled with security flaws. Heck, Google started hammering nails in Flash’s coffin five years ago, and yet, here it is, still required throughout the corporate workplace.
“I’m not dead yet!”
Unlike the famous Monty Python scene, there’s nothing humorous about Adobe’s stated plans to discontinue support for the stand-alone Flash Player at the end of this year. Not only will it no longer be supported, Adobe has stated that it will just stop working at that point, and should be uninstalled. I can see some of you scratching your head, “Hang on, isn’t Flash built into my browser?” And therein lies maybe a small amount of grace for tardy developers who are hoping to eke out a few more miles from their Flash content. Chrome, Firefox and Edge all have Flash built into the browser, but make you manually unblock each website that still requires Flash to operate, and there are, as of today, no definite dates for when those browsers kick Flash to the curb for good. You can bet that it won’t be too much past Adobe’s deadline. If you are relying on a website that still uses Flash, you know who you are: the hoops you have to jump through to use a Flash website are essentially impossible to avoid. Make sure you contact your content provider to find out what plans they have, if any, to upgrade their websites when Adobe Flash finally shuffles off this mortal coil.
Image by 00luvicecream from Pixabay
We’re still wading through the aftermath of moving, and I don’t know where half my stuff is, so I’ll keep this short if only to preserve the few shreds of sanity I have left after the past few weeks. In case you hadn’t heard, T-Mobile had a massive outage on Monday when one of their leased fiber circuits failed in the Southeast part of the country. Normally when you operate one of the largest communication networks in the country, you have backup circuits that automatically cover any outages caused by – oh, I don’t know – someone accidentally back-hoeing your buried fiber relays. In T-Mobile’s case, their fail-over actually failed, which caused a cascading network tsunami that crippled their network for the better part of 11 hours.
“I thought you were going to keep this short.”
While I’m sure many lessons (and colorful words) were learned that day by T-Mobile’s network team, the one that I took to heart personally was this: fail-over systems for critical infrastructure are (relatively) easy to design but inherently risky to test, as the only way to really test a design requires forcing a failure. When building a bridge, engineers are able to use well-known formulas based on decades of research and data to calculate just how much weight various designs can support. The key difference between a physical bridge versus a resilient data network is that a bridge design created decades (or even centuries) ago will still serve to cross a gap, whereas network architecture can become obsolete in the span of months due to the pace of technological change. All this to say, everyone wants and expects technology to be infallible, when in fact the pace of change guarantees the opposite. We should have our own fail-overs when critical infrastructure fails because with technology, the question of failure is not “if” but “when”.
If I get up on my soap box this week, I might not come down, so instead I’ll just link this small collection of articles that seemed to follow a theme. My selection has an editorial slant – a prerogative I am able to employ as a blogger, and if you’ve been reading my posts with a regular basis, you are probably fairly familiar with the regard with which I hold social media. “But Chris, if you don’t like it, why do you read/watch/participate in it?” Because you should never turn your back on something that has the potential to harm you.
Here’s what’s news this week in Social Media:
- Facebook reportedly had evidence that its algorithms were dividing people, but top executives killed or weakened proposed solutions
- YouTube auto-deletes comments with phrases critical of Chinese government
- Twitter labels Trump’s tweets with a fact check for the first time
- Bill Gates Conspiracy Theories Have Circulated For Years. It Took The Coronavirus Pandemic To Turn Him Into A Fake Villain.
- Twitter says it is not removing Trump tweets on deceased Scarborough staff member
- Roughly half the Twitter accounts pushing to ‘reopen America’ are bots, researchers found
That double-edged sword is looking a lot sharper on the wrong side, eh?
If there is one conversation I have almost on a daily basis with clients, family and friends, it’s about whether or not they should update their various devices, and especially their Windows computers. In times past (maybe 5 years ago) this was easy to answer, “Yes, always keep your software up to date.” Today, particularly in light of Microsoft’s latest Windows 10 update causing widespread havoc for many users (again!), the unfortunate punchline is now, “Maybe? It depends.”
Nobody likes that answer
It’s safe to say that when clients come to us with technical questions they would prefer situations to be a little more black and white. For certain things we can always say, “Yes, please apply the updates.”
- Your malware protection should always be kept up to date.
- Your smartphones should always have the latest operating system.
- Your firewall firmware should always be updated.
I’m sure there are a few more, but unfortunately, the list of definitive “Yes’s” has become a lot shorter lately. Sadly, Microsoft is has moved to the top of the “Maybes” list, due in large part to their inexplicable decision in 2015 to source their testing and bug-checking to the public (via the Windows Insider program) instead of in-house QA which had worked fairly well for them up through Windows 7. Outsourcing testing of your products to millions of “real” users seemed like a great idea at the time, but unfortunately, it has resulted in much lower quality (and at times, disastrous) updates. The infinite monkey theorem has a corollary here in that while millions of “real” users can test an update, a well-trained team of QA testers could do it faster and produce better quality results without destroying user data.
“Should you be updating your Windows operating system?”
Frankly, Microsoft doesn’t really give you many options for deferring updates without taking rather draconian measures to circumvent their forced march. On top of this, other software platforms that professionals use to get their work done are also trying to match Microsoft’s inexorable update pace with their own updates, and everyone is trying to stay ahead of the criminals. As a result, we seem to be assaulted with a constant barrage of changes that at best don’t break anything, and at worst, break everything. All that being said, our answer is still “yes” but with the caveat that one should plan to apply updates, not just blindly apply them as they appear. When making a decision to update (if you are given a choice) you should always ask yourself these questions:
- Is my data backed up?
- Do I have some other way to do my work if this breaks something?
- Is this update fixing a serious security issue?
- Is this update fixing a serious operational bug?
- Is now the right time to be applying an update?
The last question is probably the trickiest one to answer. Oftentimes, an update can lead to some downtime, either while it’s being applied, or perhaps while it’s being rolled back because the cure was worse than the disease. If you’ve got important work that needs to be done now, perhaps defer that update a few more hours, but don’t forget to come back to apply it.
Image by thedarknut from Pixabay
If social media posts are any indication, most of you are going more than a little stir crazy as we stumble into the 9th official week of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Many of you are taking on new hobbies or rediscovering old ones, resulting in an explosion of sourdough diversity, hilarious pet/family videos, close-up magic tricks, and a plethora of homemade crafts ranging from wondrous to WTF. And that was just what graced my screens in the past hour. If you’ve grown tired of re-arranging your kitchen cabinets or closets, or moving your office furniture around for the umpteenth time trying to find the perfect angle for your next video conference, I’ve got some “rainy day” activities that are also perfect for distracting you from the quarantine crazies.
From the “Here he goes with the lists again,” department
- Create a list of your home’s service providers. Create a document listing every service you use in your personal life that has the following info on it: Company name, service provided, website address, customer service phone number, account number (or login ID), payment method (and last 4 of card used) and monthly billed amount (avg or fixed). And I’m not just talking about tech services – you should list utilities, subscriptions, anything you consider important enough to pay monthly (or annually) AND the services you may not be paying for (e.g. personal email accounts from Yahoo, Gmail, etc.) Having the info handy will save you a lot of stress when that service is suddenly discontinued or not operating as expected. And by handy, I mean, print it out and stick it somewhere easy to get to, like your fridge or home bulletin board. Also keep track of where you saved that file on your computer. And don’t put any passwords in it – that’s the next to do.
- Put your passwords into a password manager. This is a task that people dread doing if they haven’t already done so, but it’s surprisingly easy once you get past the decision to adopt the password-manager lifestyle. Pick a password manager. Our family is using LastPass, but my clients also like 1Password, and Dashlane, all three of which I can comfortably recommend. They are affordable, offer family plans and sharing options, and all have easy-to-use smartphone apps and browser plugins that will simplify tracking and using passwords. Because let’s face it, passwords aren’t going anywhere – most of us have dozens, if not more than one hundred passwords to keep track of, and if you are observing proper security, you are using unique passwords for all your important sites, aren’t you? No? Take a look at the next rainy-day activity.
- Change your weak, overly-used, probably compromised passwords. Have a visit to https://haveibeenpwned.com/Passwords and type in one of your “favorite” passwords. If it shows up on that list, you should immediately go out and change it anywhere it’s been used. Even if it hasn’t been found on the dark web it’s only a matter of time, so if you’ve used it more than once, change it to something unique and hard to guess. This will go real quick if you’ve created a list of services (#1), and started using a password manager (#2), which will allow you to create and save these passwords. Once this particular activity has given you sufficient gray hairs, try entering your email addresses on that same site.
Keep going, don’t give up.
This doesn’t have to be done in a day – for some of you, this may take several days, especially if you can only devote an hour or two to the project, but you will feel a lot more accomplished than rearranging your kitchen junk drawer for the 3rd time, and you will be a lot more secure and prepared for when something other than a pandemic strikes. Add more entries to your list from #1, then take a look at how many passwords you’ve put in #2. Add more passwords from family members who don’t have the technical competence or patience to do it for themselves. Marvel at the number of passwords you have in your personal database, and then give yourself a reward. Those baked goods won’t eat themselves!
Image by thedarknut from Pixabay