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Technology Today - October 2010
Robert Sanborn

I took a trip to China recently and was very pleasantly surprised with the depth of use of personal computers. They are really wide spread there from homes, to hotels, to small businesses.  I decided not to take a notebook with me because of the weight consideration but as I went with a group of 14 people, I noticed that four of them had notebooks.  I just couldnít handle the weight with everything else I needed to take so my goal was to find places I could use computers to check on my systems at home. The first thing I noticed in my short survey of hotels and stores was that no one was using Windows 7.  In fact, didnít even find a Vista computer among the bunch.  They were all running Windows XP.  Nearly all of them were running a Chinese language version of XP and the good news there is that nearly all the applications on the computers used the standard Windows icons so it wasnít really that hard to use the computers as once you brought up Internet Explorer, the keyboard usually brought up letters and so you can browse to your heartís content.

Many of the upscale hotels have business offices with computers to use for internet access and the cost is reasonable, around $9 per hour broken down usually to the minute. Speeds of most of these are at DSL quality, not blazing, but quick enough for email. One of the hotelís I stayed at in Jingdezhen actually had a computer in my room to use. That machine was interesting in that there was no hard drive in the machine (an all in one unit from a Chinese manufacturer) and so when you boot, you boot from a network and it loads an image of Windows to the computer and you are ready to go. They take the approach that when you turn off the machine, it is wiped clean and starts fresh each time you turn it on. Problem is that it did not have an anti-virus loaded and so I think their hope is that the network it is attached to has a firewall strong enough to keep out hackers so while it was fun to have a computer in the room to browse the web, I didnít dare connect to my system at home with it.

As I mentioned, most of the systems were running Chinese versions of Windows XP and so had Chinese versions of anti-virus programs loaded.  In most cases, I had to ask where it was so I could be sure that it was running and up to date and since most of the hotels used the same software, I was able to figure out which keystrokes told it to update itself and run a quick scan.  Only then could I be comfortable enough to fire up my Teamviewer program, which by the way, is a great program for connecting to your computer at home and being able to run it remotely.  In one case, I found that there were alert windows all over the place from one of the antivirus programs and I quickly gave up on that computer. In another, I had the computer run a quick scan and it found a bunch of things and so I gave up on that computer as well.

In yet another case, I decided to try something I brought with me.  I had found out how to create a bootable USB stick running Ubuntu Linux.  Most modern computers will boot from the USB stick if it is there but on some of these old hotel computers, you had to go into bios to tell it to boot from the stick. Fortunately, the bios in this case was from Intel and was easy to read. And it worked like a charm. I was able to boot the stick, run the Ubuntu Linux, fire up the Firefox browser that comes with it, and read all my internet based email and surf as the web to keep up with the goings on of the Red Sox.  Teamviewer, www.teamviewer.com has a version for Linux and specifically for Ubuntu and so got it downloaded, run, and was able to connect to my home computers without any worries.  I suspect at some point, I am going to have to see about an antivirus to put on the stick as well to keep anything from sneaking in while I use the stick but the promise there is very good as a way to run a clean system when I need one to connect to my home computers.  Another big advantage to the stick is that I can also put Open Office on it so I can work on my Word and Excel files as well. Pretty much a computer on a USB Stick.

Another reason that I decided not to travel with a computer was that I had my PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) with me. I realize that today, most of them are disguised as cell phones, and yes, some of them have screens as big as my PDA but really, I would rather talk on a small cell phone, and get all my other stuff on the PDA.  My PDA has both WiFi and Bluetooth and so I can surf the web with it and it came in handy with one of the hotels, I needed to check in on my flight back to the US.  Air Canadaís website has a place in it for mobile devices (small PDAs and Smart Phones) and I was able to connect and check in for the flight. Even was able to change seats.  The other reason I took the PDA was that I was able to install Skype on it and since it has a built in speaker and microphone, I was able, when I found a WiFi hotspot, to call anywhere in the world and talk to people. The only snag here was trying to keep the PDA from going to sleep while I was talking and break the connection.  I could have also set up the PDA (an HP iPaq 200) for downloading email and checking it on the road but with too many accounts to keep track of, it wasnít worth the trouble.  Finally, it has Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and can read PDF documents, everything I needed to take my agenda, schedules, and even my postcard and email listings. All in all, it really wasnít that much of a problem to travel without a notebook.

A while back, I talked about getting an Antec Ammo external USB hard drive case that was protected by RFID keys.  Sounded like such a great way to protect your data while you are traveling with it but I immediately ran into problems.  It comes with two keys and to set it up, you need to wave each of them at the unit while it is initializing and then you are ready to go. My problem was that only one of the keys would register.  The other was dead.  And no amount of tinkering would either bring it back or allow the initialization to finish.  The problem is that once up and running, you can use either RFID key to unlock it and use it but you have to have both to get it installed. Called Antec, quick troubleshooting, either it works or it doesnít, and got my RMA.  Shipped off the old unit, and waited. And waited. Finally called them and yes, they got it, and would be shipping a new one out the next day.  It took in total, a month to get the new one.

I mentioned that Ubuntu software stick I have and found another use for it the other day.  I had a friends notebook computer that has bad spots on the hard drive. Windows wonít boot, and when I booted from a Windows CD, it still refused to see the hard drive. Took the drive out, plugged it into a USB to IDE adapter and still no go, none of the computers would recognize it. So, put it back into the notebook and what I did notice that if I use the notebook (IBM) utilities, it would see the drive and I could run diagnostics on it (bad hard drive) but still couldnít get any software to see it.  Plug in the Ubuntu USB stick, boot from it, and it sees the drive to the point of my being able to copy data files from it to another USB stick using the Ubuntu file manager.  This stick goes into my travel bag.

Norton Internet Security 2011 is out and I had been thinking of upgrading to it but I decided to wait till the subscription on my three computers expires in a few months, and then get the new version.  So just minutes after I was thinking about that, my Windows 7 test machine locked up.  And I do mean locked up. I was in an old graphics program and this has happened before. Had to power it off and then back on.  So, as the machine was rebooting  it decided to tell me that something was wrong and Windows and it went through its recovery process but hung on that for about 20 minutes.  Gave up, hit the power, restarted and then it restarted ok. But my NIS 2010 was missing.  Checked processes and there was one process for Norton but it wasnít doing anything. Tried to start from the icon and it just ignored me. Symantec used to have some pretty neat tools for troubleshooting a Norton install but I see that they have all gone away and have been replaced with mostly FAQs that tell me all about my subscription issues. Nothing on repairing a current version, sorry, not current any longer, but still nothing on repairing the 2010 version.  Reboot several times and no change. No Norton.  Check the logs and sure enough, it tells me that windows did not shut down properly but didnít tell me a think about what caused it.  So, I thought I would just go to control panel and get rid of it but when I click on the program and hit un-install, nothing at all happens. Even when I wait 10 minutes, nothing at all.  I am getting irritated. So, off to download the latest Symantec Removal Tool and it does its thing and gets rid of my Norton NIS 2010.  At this point, I am getting worried so I download Malwarebytes, www.malwarebytes.org one of my most favorite tools for looking for malware, and it sees just one little ad pop-up program and it wasnít doing anything at all.  So, I was thinking of reinstalling my current CD of NIS2010 and I thought, let me download the latest version of it from the web and the  next thing I see is that I am downloading NIS 2011.  It installs just fine, updates itself, and then scans itself and finds nothing wrong.  It goes online to activate itself and discovers that I had time left on my old 2010 and gives me the remaining time on my license.  I think I might go and update the other machines as well since it worked so easily, and it did, I was able to install it and like the other machine, it also came up with the current expiration date.

Robert Sanborn





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