Category Archives: (Hopefully) Helpful Hint

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Pass Me the Remote Control

“See the Start menu button? Okay, click that and go to Control Panel. No, Control Panel, over there. Do you see it? Yes, you have Control Panel, just look a little closer…”

Anyone who’s done technical support for a friend or family member over the phone has probably felt some frustration about not being able to see the computer’s screen to better assess the problem and guide the user along. Although they can often be overlooked, remote assistance tools — which let you see the other person’s screen and even take over control of the computer through your Internet connection — can make it easier for helper and helpee alike.

helpbunnyTapping in via remote assistance is not as hard as it used to be, thanks to new software and services. For example, Google recently added a Remote Desktop feature to its Google+ Hangouts group video-chat service.

There’s a little bit of set-up involved, but a guide on PC World walks you through the steps. The Remote Desktop function had been previously seen as an extension for the Chrome browser, so that’s a possibility as well for helping out from afar as well; Google has info on using it here.

If you don’t use Google+ hangouts, or the Chrome extention, the Windows operating system has its own Windows Remote Assistance feature that’s been around for at least a decade and also lets you tinker with someone else’s computer over an Internet connection; questions about it are answered here.

Mac OS X has a few ways to share the screen (including with the Messages app) so you can see what’s going on and better direct your support. Apple has its own instructions for screen-sharing in OS X 10.8 here.

Third-party remote desktop apps like LogMeIn or TeamViewer, but these can be pricey if your needs go beyond the freebie editions. There’s also a whole category of remote desktop apps for mobile devices as well, so search your app store if you want to go that way.

Because it involves surrendering control of the computer, a remote assistance solution should only be used between trusted parties — and at least one of those parties needs to know what it’s doing. Remote assistance is obviously better for diagnosing software problems that it is for hardware issues, but if you just need to tweak a setting or find a “lost” file that accidentally got saved to the wrong folder, it can be a great tool for wielding your Jedi Master technical expertise when you’re not even physically in the room.

 

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Time-Saving Sites

The Web is a vast place, full of information, but sometimes it takes longer to dig up the answer you need than you’d like. You do have other things to do, after all.

Take, for example, canceling services and subscriptions. Who wants to wade around in the customer-service section of a company’s site or be stuck in a caller queue for half an hour? Instead, stroll over to the WikiCancel site, which claims to be “the most current subscription, contract, and account cancellation guide.” Here, you can find links and information about canceling all sorts of things in one convenient location — it’s like one-stop stopping. Not all services are covered – for example, the page for quitting your TiVo service still needs to be written – but the site invites volunteers to contribute and write up a few cancelation instructions themselves.

wikicancel

Privacy on social media Web sites is another multi-layered topic that can vary based on what social media sites you actually use and take time to suss out. If you want to quickly see your privacy settings for a bunch of common social-media sites, visit the MyPermissions page. This free service basically creates a giant visual bookmark right in your browser that lets click through to the privacy and permissions settings for sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Instagram, Flickr and more. Once you click into your privacy settings for each page, you can make sure they’re set to the level you want for your accounts. There’s also a mobile app version for the iPhone.

mypermissions

(On a side note, Lifehacker also has a page called The Always Up-to-Date Guide to Managing Your Facebook Privacy that’s worth a read just to keep up with the ever-changing world of how much of your information Facebook gets to share with advertisers. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has its own guide to protecting your privacy from Facebook’s new Graph Search feature as well.)

Having trouble getting Facebook — or any other online service — to load in your browser and wondering it it’s you or them? If that’s the case, visit the Is It Down Right Now? site, which keeps a running tab on the uptime of many popular Net sites and services. You can also check the status of other Websites by entering enter its URL into a box on the page and a fresh site-status test will be performed.

isitdown

If all goes well, you save a few minutes here and there, get some quick answers and move on to more exciting ways to spend your time on the Web.

 

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Playlist Inspirations

Are your playlist powers in a rut? Your music mojo feeling a little weak as you keep coming up with unexciting variations on the same old cardio workout theme or commuter mix? (Seriously, that’s enough with the “Call Me Maybe” on everything. Yes, you.) So if you want to perk up your playlists and get new ideas for songs and mixes, here a few suggestions:

  1. Many people like to publish their work as inspiration for others. You can find many a sample playlist online on Pinterest or sites devote to the art of the mix, like 8tracks, mixtaple.me and playlist.com. (Mashable has tips for using many of these sites here.)
  2. If you’re looking for workout mixes, check out fitness Web sites for ideas — FitBottomedGirls.com and Shape magazine’s online site are just two places that have some playlists to inspire.
  3. On-Demand Music services, which you can join and explore also give you access to music you may not be familiar with and knock you out of your slump with fresh tracks. Grooveshark, Hypster, Spotify, Last.fm, Pandora, Slacker Radio — they’re all out there.
  4. If you use iTunes and you’re feeling lazy, you can also use Apple’s Genius feature for making playlists automatically by algorithm. You basically click a song in your iTunes library that you want to use as a foundation for the playlist, click the Genius icon and let Apple do the mixing work for you. You can also edit or redo the results if you don’t like what you get.
  5. autoplaylistIf you like the idea of automation, but want more control over what tracks go into the mix, you can use the Auto Playlist feature in Windows Media Player or the Smart Playlists option in iTunes to tell the software what you want to hear. Once you make a new auto/smart playlist, you can tell the program what you want on it with a series of pop-up menus or text fields. You can pick tracks you have rated 3 starts or higher, use songs from a specific time period, factor in beat-per-minute and have your music program search your library for songs that meet all or some of your pre-defined criteria. The SmartPlaylists.com site, which is geared toward iTunes users, has more ideas and we’ll have links on how to use the Auto Playlists and Smart Playlists features on your show page. And remember, for this to work, you need to have really good tags in your music files.

You can also find playlist-making advice over on Lifehacker and Yahoo has a roundup of free online playlist sites. And if you just can’t think of a good name for your poppin’ fresh new mix of tracks, you can get help with that part, too, over at the Playlist Name generator site. The titles may be a bit on the goofy side — Warm Popcorn, Accidental Design, Whimsical Flesh and Insidious Sweater are just a few samples — but hey, you saved some brain cells not having to think too hard about it.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Notify Me, Cougar

Last week, we had a Hopefully Helpful Hint for the Windows 8 users and this week, we’re going to step it up for the Macfolk. OS X 10.8, also known as Mountain Lion, incorporates a number of programs and features that are also in Apple’s iOS system for its mobile devices. These programs include Notes, Reminders, the Calendar and Contacts, all of which can be linked together through Apple’s iCloud service so your Mac, your iPad, your iPhone and your iPod Touch all have the same information – in theory.

OS X and iOS have another thing in common: the Notifications Center. As on the iOS system, the Notification Center is your one-stop shopping location to see all the alerts you’ve gotten for new mail, GameCenter updates, missed FaceTime calls, Reminders, Calendar appointments, Twitter mentions and other things that you may want to know about. (Notifications on mobile phones are nothing new – in fact, the Android system had them first before iOS got on the bandwagon.)

To see the Notifications on your Mac, click the icon in the top right corner of the menu bar; it sort of looks like a pictograph of a bullet list. A panel slides out from the right side of the screen to reveal your notifications. If you’re using a Mac laptop with the multitouch trackpad, you can also see the Notification Center by swiping two fingers across from the right edge of the trackpad. Click the x icon to clear old notifications from the list.

You can configure which apps notify you and how they get your attention in the System Preferences area of the Mac. You can choose to be pestered by onscreen red-circle number badges on dock icons, by banners that slide down from the top of the screen and then go away, or by alerts that won’t leave until you make them.

NotificationsIn the Notifications preferences box, you can also choose to add sound to your alerts if you want the Mac to give you an audio cue with a notification. If you work in an open-plan cube farm, however, your co-workers may kill you unless you wear headphones all day. Then again, wearing headphones in an open-plan cube farm is the only way some people can get any work done without killing their co-workers, so a total win-win could be on the books here.

Episode 31 News: “Give me a ping, Vasili. One ping only, please.”

whoopsLate last week, the Department of Homeland Security issued an alert about a flaw in Oracle’s Java software that could have potentially put 850 million computers at risk. Apple, Mozilla and other companies advised uninstalling or disabling Java until an update was available and Oracle put the pedal to the metal and rushed out a fix over the weekend. Security experts, however, were still dubious about patch, lingering security issues or even the need to still run Java in the first place.

Java security flaws are also suspected in a wave of cyber-espionage attacks on computer networks used by several international governmental, scientific and diplomatic agencies The attack campaign, dubbed “Red October” by security firm Kaspersky Labs, seems to have been active since 2007 and continues — albeit without the brawny Sean Connery-Alec Baldwin star power of the 1990 film that was made from the namesake 1984 Tom Clancy thriller, “The Hunt for Red October.” (The film version is available to stream on Netflix, and if you have a Nintentdo Wii, you can also watch it there since Amazon’s Instant Video service is now available on your game console.)

In case you have too many online friends and can’t keep track of their interests, Facebook just introduced a new feature this week called Graph Search. This future tool lets you match up people on your friends list with things you are looking for, like buddies with similar hobbies — as long as they’ve shared the info publicly. Graph Search is in the beta stage and may cut into LinkedIn’s territory more than Google’s as some have speculated. Also in the social-network news: MySpace made its redesigned site available to the public this week.

John Scully, a former Apple CEO, said the company needs to adapt to a changing world by overhauling its supply chain to meet demand for cheaper smartphones in emerging markets. Competition from Samsung, which has now sold more than 100 million Galaxy smartphones, is probably adding to Apple’s angina. (Some research has even shown that younger buyers consider Samsung’s phones way cooler compared to the iPhone, which may feel like the 1990’s in reverse for the longtime Applefolk.)

But while Samsung and Apple duke it out in the profitability-and-popularity contest, Microsoft is still trying to get developers to write apps for its Windows Phone handsets. Perhaps in a whiff of reality-show excitement, the company launched a contest this week called “Window Phone Next App Star” that invites developers to create and submit their apps for judging and rating by public voters. Research in Motion is also in app-gathering mode and just got 15,000 new apps for the BlackBerry in about 37 hours thanks to a couple of Portathon sessions that invited developers to port versions of their apps for other systems to the BlackBerry OS for fun and prizes.

Meanwhile, up on Mars, NASA’s Curiosity Rover is rocking out and may be doing some drilling up on Mars. Yay, science!

Finally, we here at Pop Tech Jam note the passing of Internet prodigy and programmer Aaron Swartz, who sadly committed suicide at the age of 26 last week. Swartz, who helped create RSS at the age of 14, worked on other Web applications and was an advocate for freedom of information and open access online, was facing a Federal trial this spring for downloading millions of scientific journals, scholarly research and other documents from MIT and the JSTOR archive. While MIT has launched an internal probe of the events leading up to Mr. Swartz’s death, activists like the Electronic Freedom Foundation have called for an overall in computer crime law. Requiescat in pace, Mr. Swartz, and thank you for making the Internet a better place.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Germ Warfare

The holiday season is upon us, and with it comes travel and the general cold and flu season. Keeping a bottle of hand sanitizer close by and washing your hands frequently can help cut down on the spread of germs, but so can wiping down your gear, says WebMD.

Several companies make cleaning products designed to get the germs off mobile phones, where moist hands can spread those microbes around. This is where the whole concept of the wipe — the pre-moistened disposable cleaning cloth — fulfills its potential. Someone out there somewhere has a wipe product for just about anything, including babies, automobile interiors and even ferrets.

Celluwipes is one such moist-towlette product for your smartphone. A pack of 10 costs $3 from the company’s Web site. ZAGG sells its similar ZAGGwipes in packs of 15 antibacterial gadget-cleaning cloths for about $5.

Wireless Wipes, which are a pack o’ 12 for about $3, are made to clean cell phones, PDAs, and laptops. If you want minty-fresh hardware, these are probably the wipes for you, as rosemary peppermint is one available scent; you can also opt for pomegranate citrus or green tea cucumber.

RabbitWipes

If you work in an office where the landline is shared and more than a little grody, Fellowes sells a pop-up dispenser of 100 Phone Cleaning Wipes for about $11 at Staples and other office supply stores. You can also find cleaning kits for computer mice and keyboards that in addition to maybe killing a few germs, make the equipment all sparkly and much nicer to use. (Cleaning putty can also get in those hard to reach parts of a keyboard and other devices, plus it’s totally cool to play with.)

And when you get done cleaning, sit back and visit the Moist Towelette Online Museum to see the history of such an important product.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Learn to Code

A few episodes ago, we talked about iTunes U as a free source of educational courses, content and lectures from major universities. Along those lines, you can also take free computer science and programming classes from sites like Coursera and MIT’s Open Courseware.  Practical Programming in C is one such course offered on the MIT site.

Want something a little looser in format — but just as educational that you can do in your own time? Visit the Codeacademy, which is the product of a start-up company based here in New York. On its interactive Web site, you can take lessons in a few different languages including Python, Ruby, JQuery and JavaScript and learn website fundamentals.

If Ruby piques your interest, there’s also the TryRuby interactive site. It’s linked to the Code School site, where you can sign up for and try classes for free — and then pay $25 a month if you want to keep learning.

Want to learn Ruby on Rails, which is an open-source full-stack web application framework that works with the Ruby language? Try the Rails for Zombies site, also from Code School. (Zombies, we just can’t get enough of zombies — especially with The Walking Dead returning with new episodes this weekend.)

For the younger set, there’s CodeMonster from Crunchzilla. CodeMonster uses a fun way of guided interaction to teach live JavaScript programming. For example, the screen suggests you change a number. When you do, the colored box next to the code changes size so you can see the cause and effect of your programming actions. You go from colored boxes to working with basic animation and fractals. Other examples introduce standard programming concepts like expressions, functions and loops.

Another site for young programmers is <Code/Racer>, which is a multiplayer live game that teaches how to write the code for a basic Web site in HTML and CSS. If you already know how to do that, the site tests how quickly you can code.

These sites are just a few of the many options out there, but a good place to start your search for a programming language to learn. And once you get the skills down, you can flaunt the wardrobe.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Do-It-Yourself Data Delivery

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to leave a social network because you have privacy concerns – or Facebook Timeline has really peeved you — what do you do? You do, after all, have a lot of personal stuff up there, photos, videos and so on. You’d hate to leave those memories behind…

In the case of two big social networks Google+ and Facebook, it turns out, you can take it with you — your data that is, all the stuff you posted, uploaded and shared with others. Both sites allow you to download an archive of your data, including photos, to your computer before you start deleting accounts. Here’s what to do for each site.

Downloading your data from Google or Facebook has its advantages, even if you’re not bouncing from the site altogether. The data archive can be useful as a backup, or to retrieve photos form a lost phone or dead computer. Downloading your archive does not delete your info from either service so if you do plan to bail, grab your stuff and then go back and properly delete your Google+ or Facebook account.

Now then, who’s craving a little meeting with General Tso after the liberation?

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: International Keyboards to Go

Many people communicate in more than one language and today’s technology keeps up with this global worldview. While your phone or tablet’s operating system may have a default language for the menus and interface, you can go multilingual when it comes to dashing off texts, e-mail messages and other bits of writing.

Apple makes this quite easy to do on its iOS devices and offers a wide range of languages to choose from, including Arabic, most European and Asian languages and Cherokee. You can even choose regional variations like French Canadian or Brazilian Portuguese. Emoji, those popular little pictographs favored by teenage girls, are also an option.

If you are linguistically gifted, you can set up multiple keyboards for all the languages you need and just toggle between them by tapping the globe key that now appears on your iOS keyboard. Apple has instructions for setting up international keyboards on iOS devices right here.

Most Android devices also let you add international keyboards to your typing arsenal, but the steps for doing so vary by phone model, carrier, Android version, moon phase, sun sign and other assorted fragmentary factors. (Just kidding about a couple of those, but you knew that already.) Here’s one walkthrough for adding a keyboard, but check with your phone or tablet’s manual for precise instructions of you need them. If you want more flexibility, consider an alternative keyboard app. Yes, Google Play has Emoji options for Android as well.

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Creating Hard-to-Crack Passwords

Thievery and hacking never go away, and tech nerds like us always advise coming up with “strong,” hard-to-guess password for your computer or other accounts. But many people don’t exactly know what exactly constitutes a strong password. Fortunately, you can get some password-creation advice on your computer — right there in the control panel where you go to change your password in the first place. Isn’t that convenient?

In Windows, just go to the Start menu to Control Panel to User Accounts and Family Safety to User Accounts. Click on Change Your Password. This opens up the box where you type in your old and new passwords. If you need some help with the strong stuff, look closer. Right in the box is a link called “How to create a strong password” (circled below). Click there for advice. Microsoft also has a site that checks the strength of your chosen password.

On a Mac, just pop open the System Preferences box from the Dock or Apple menu and click on the Users & Groups icon. Make sure your user account is selected on the left side of the box and then click the Change Password button. Here, you also get the familiar Old Password/New Password box, but look on the New Password line. As circled below, there’s a key icon there. Click that icon to call up the Mac OS X Password Assistant, which offers a strength indicator and can even generate strong passwords for you so you don’t have to burn the brain cells thinking them up yourself.

There. You now have no excuse for still using password as your password. It’s time to show your strength!