Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tales of the neighborhood nerd

When I was going to high school, somewhere back near the invention of electricity, being a nerd was more of a pejorative than positive. This was before movies glamorized us wearing taped-up glasses and calculators on our belt loops. Now lots of people wear their cell phones there, and we have reality shows that pair up nerds with beauty queens (I guess I was born in the wrong century). And Gates is conquering world diseases with all the dough he has collected from us, just to make it clear who has really won. Being a nerd means that I am often the go-to guy when something computerish breaks around here. Sometimes that responsibility is hard to bear, especially when word gets out around the neighborhood.

In one town where lived for many years, it was fun to solve computer problems at first. This was back in the 1990s, when people were just getting started with broadband Internet. Soon it seemed that everyone had a problem, and I was glad when I moved to the Midwest that I didn't have to play the neighborhood support tech and could live in relative obscurity.

But then I have truly passed the nerdship mantle on to my children, and it is interesting to see how the younger generation has stepped up to the plate and taken over as the new front line of support.

Both my stepson and my daughter have risen to the challenge, each in their own way. My stepson Jeremy has been supporting a friend of his whom we'll call Pete. Pete never really had a PC before and Jeremy helped guide him to upgrade an old computer lurking around his basement. He patiently spent hours on the phone talking him through some issues, helping him get a DSL connection once Pete realized that dial-up wasn't going to cut it, and then through at least three re-installs of Windows because of the various spyware and other garbage that Pete managed to collect in his surfing of questionable Web sites to build up a substantial image and video collection, if you get my drift. Pete and Jeremy both don't like going to movie theaters and have managed to download many DVDs, most of them of questionable provenance. They can find just about any video online, showing me how useless DRM is. But that will be for another column.

Jeremy is a natural PC support technician because he does telesales and has to listen to people complain and ask stupid questions – my hat is off to him, believe me I wouldn't last more than ten minutes listening to some of his callers. To help Pete out, he installed VNC to do remote diagnosis and control because he lives about 30 miles away. Then last week Pete called in a panic. He thought that Jeremy had connected to his PC and was wondering what was going on. Jeremy wasn't online, but he quickly dialed into Pete's PC and saw that someone else had found the open VNC port. Naturally, Pete didn't have a password to protect the connection, and was using the default ports of 5800/5900. The hacker was opening command windows, installing all sorts of spyware, and generally having a good time with Pete's wide-open machine. Pete had installed anti-virus and a firewall, but because he had re-installed XP so many times he had blown through his allowed licenses.

Of course, he was about to re-install XP for another time, once he disconnected from the Internet and could take control of his machine again. Perhaps now Pete has learned his lesson, although I think another re-install is in his near future.

My daughter Maia is also called upon from her college friends to help with their computer problems, and sadly had her own disaster this week with a hard drive that went south, without any backups. She is more of a Mac person because of her dedication to iPods and her own extensive collection of audio downloads. She even taught me a few things, such as the $15 iGadget tool that will allow you to copy music back to your Mac from your iPod. Maia, like Jeremy, is also adept at using the Web to find stuff, and was the first in the family to do video Skype chats. I think she was responsible for converting about a dozen of her friends to Macs.

One of the reasons that I did tech support for the 'hood was that I always learned something out of the encounters. When you poke around someone's computer, you get to see a lot of interesting stuff, sometimes things that you would rather not know about your neighbors. (Oh, the stories I could tell!) I even wrote a book about how to survive your home network (now hopelessly outdated, otherwise you know I would link to Amazon and nag you into buying a copy). So it is nice to see both kids learning new things from their experiences, and becoming the good kind of nerds.

Whether they will have their own reality TV shows remains to be seen. But at least they are now doing backups and running firewalls.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

How not to steal a laptop

I have had my own laptop stolen just once, from the trunk of a locked car parked in a shopping mall, several years ago. I was putting some packages that I purchased in the trunk, and I guess someone decided to remove not only my purchases but my laptop as well. There are some happier laptop stories, and this one is just so funny, I had to share with you.

Those of you that aren't Mac users, by way of introduction all of their laptops come with built-in cameras and software that allows you to take pictures of yourself, or anyone else sitting in front of the thing, called PhotoBooth. Earlier this summer, a Michigan-based headhunter by the name of Damian Zikakis had his laptop stolen when someone broke into his offices. He replaced it a few days later and because he had used Mozy's online backup service, thought that he was covered at least in terms of being able to bring back his files from the Internet backup. This took some time to recreate all of his files.

When Zikakis had a moment to examine the layout of his new machine, he "found several incriminating files. The individuals who had my computer did not realize that the Mozy client was installed and running in the background. They had also used PhotoBooth to take pictures of themselves and had downloaded a cell phone bill that had their name on it." Zikakis did a bit of head hunting on his own and contacted the appropriate police department with this information. They were able to recover his computer, and now have the task of figuring out who actually took the laptop originally and what law enforcement options to pursue.

This is similar to another case reported earlier this year when built-in Mac remote desktop software was used to recover another laptop from a thief who happened to boot the machine up and not notice that he was automatically connected via an IM session.

Note to potential thieves: wipe your stolen laptop's disk before use.

And for those of you that want to do something more, there are a variety of software tools for both Mac and Windows that can aid in the recovery of a stolen laptop, here are the ones that I know about:

Oribicule's Undercover for Macs
MyLaptopGPS just for Windows
Computrace LoJack for Laptops has versions for both Mac and Windows
Adeona is a free open source product for both Mac and Windows

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Fundraising on the Internet

You would think that in this day and age of online everywhere and social media all the time, using the Internet to help raise funds for charities would be a big business. Nevertheless, it still is in its infancy, and while there are a number of applications that can help ordinary people collect money for various causes, none are close to being anywhere as good as they should be. And none of these tools can compare with a well-maintained email list for ease of use and to actually deliver results.

I should know: for the past several years, I do an annual bike or walking charity event where I raise several thousand dollars. Some of you have graciously donated regularly, year after year. Some of you have turned into becoming your own fundraisers, and I gladly support your efforts so in effect we are just passing back and forth a donation. And one of my side efforts is the site accidentalfundraiser.com, where I do podcasts with Carol Weisman, a professional speaker who consults to non-profits on fundraising, among other things.

So here is a brief lay of the Internet fundraising landscape. I welcome your comments; please post to my Strominator blog if you don't mind, so that others can see them.

First off you may not know what cause to support. You can start with change.org, which will search more than a million non-profits, or at least so they say on their site. Another site, Idealist.org, has volunteer opportunities, internships, and other programs that you can search too.

Once you find a cause, you want to start to build your network. There are a number of tools to do this, such as fundable.com and chipin.com. You type in some details, what your goal is and when you need it by, and they will collect funds and send to your PayPal account.

What you really need at this point is a list of email addresses of potential marks, I mean, donors. All of these tools can take just a plain text list, or if you want to get fancy and personalize with the names you can create a CSV file that matches their format.

In some cases, your charity may have already made arrangements and set up their own backoffice software donation system. This is the route that the majority of events that I have been part of, such as the Komen and Avon walkathons and the MS and JDRF bikeathons. The two bigger vendors in this space are: Kintera (which is owned by BlackBaud, a vendor with a lot of other donation management products that are used by professional fundraisers) and Convio. The latter is the better of the two tools, but both are cumbersome to import your address list and manage the emails that you send out and replies that you get. And once you get your donors imported in one system, you can't easily extract this information if you have to use another one for another cause.

I use a combination of an email list with an Excel spreadsheet that tracks the donations. It is easy to see who has donated when, and while it takes some work to maintain, it is quickly portable from one event to another.

Now you might ask what about social networks? If you search Facebook for the keywords charity, donation, or social cause, you will find hundreds of apps that can be used for this purpose. Most just have a few members, which doesn't inspire confidence. The two most well known are Facebook Causes and MySpace Impact. Both are more akin to portals that connect you to various causes and non-profits. If you are a big user of either network, you can start here and see where they take you.

Outside of these efforts, there are others that are rather offbeat, such as Save the Earth, with 35,000 members. They donate money to save rainforests for everyone that installs and plays their game. Another is SocialVibe.com, which allows users of various social networks to put a "badge" on their profile pages, where they can be sponsors and collect points that go towards charitable efforts. The more profile views you have, the more money gets donated to the charity of your choice. This summer they donated $100,000 to various causes. And a company called DankApps.com has developed several social cause apps for Facebook. These apps donate two cents for every new member that installs their app, along with a revenue sharing agreement to support charities to prevent child abuse and other causes. Another idea is care2.com, with close to 10 million members on its own social network and where you click on various causes to donate.

You would think the social networks are an ideal place to raise money. After all, you have developed a nice network of your 5,000 closest "friends" and why not start here soliciting donations from them? While the social networks should be all over this, the hard reality is it is still difficult to develop applications and harder still to manage your contacts, replies and donations. The net result is that most social network apps are clunky and hard to use, and this negates any of their potential viral effects.

What I have found is that the events that I participate in have their own viral nature: people hear about what you are doing and want to do more than just send you a check, so they get involved in an event in their town. Or they get drafted into joining a team, which has its own secondary effect. If you already support various charities, you are drawn to these efforts because a) you were already giving something anyway and b) you might as well support your friends and causes that you have some personal connection to.

What about some other efforts? I have been part of Kiva.org, which collects your money and uses it to make microloans to various people around the world. The money is gradually repaid, and then you can loan it out again, a sort of miniature version of Freddie Mac (well, maybe that isn't the best example, but you get the idea). You pick the project to loan to, and you can track their progress in terms of raising what they need and the repayments.

Then there is trusera.com, run by friends of friends of mine, where you
post videos supporting various charitable efforts and plus3network.com, where you can claim sponsors per mile of various personal athletic efforts to raise money for charities.

I have just hit the highlights here. Some other good suggestions for tools can be found here:

Good luck with your own social causes, and you'll be hearing from me next spring when I start up my fundraising effort for 2009.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The real motivational speaker in the family

As many of you know, one of the things that I do is professional speaking on IT-related topics. I thought you would enjoy hearing from my sister's perspective about a part of the speaking business that I didn't even think about before now. My sister was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002 and has been healthy since her treatment. Since then we have both become advocates for various charity fundraisers that we have done annually. We were part of one of the two-day Avon events last weekend. (She walked, I served dinner and breakfast to about 5,000 people involved in the event.) We were part of a team that she had assembled of 18 people that were connected to her husband's family and friends. Most were walking the route for the first time, and at the end of the first day the majority of the walkers on our team had finished the entire 26-mile route. It was an inspiring moment, especially since most of the team were first-timers. I am very proud of Carrie: she got the team together, got them excited about the event, even got one of them to drop 50 pounds! As a friend of mine said, this would be the equivalent of me climbing to the top of K2. So here are some of her thoughts about the weekend:

This year the Avon Walk was different. It was much more of an emotional challenge and not so much of a physical challenge.

I have always thought that I wanted to be a motivational speaker. Their life seems so idyllic – they speak about their passions and encourage others to be the best they can be. Many of them have a shtick, a 45-minute formulaic talk and a three-hour workshop. Their life is organized into packets of conversation.

I tested out this career change this weekend.

Because I never do anything in a small way, I did it my usual big way. This weekend I walked with two of my sister-in-laws who have never walked more than five miles. For the twelve hours it took us to walk the entire 26-mile course, I delivered a continuous motivational speech. I drew from every workshop and speaker I have heard in the past three years. We tried chanting and visualizations, I recounted the inspiration and guides from The Spirited Walker (Carolyn Kortge) . I encouraged them that they could do anything they put their mind to, they could do so much more that they believed they could do, that when they legs grew tired, they should rely on their heart to carry them through, that passion would fuel them another mile., I recited poetry of the greatest Sufi mystic, Rumi, "Passion burns downs branch of exhaustion." I quoted Carolyn Myss, I Can Do It, creating a field of grace.

Well, we all made it to the finish line for the first day, and arrived at the camp area in time for dinner.

It feels good to make a difference, not in my completion of the 26 miles, but in showing them that they had the power, and the passion to do it too.

After twelve continuous hours of motivational speaking, I'm glad I have a job where I can sit behind a desk, type on my PC, and don't have to talk to anyone if I don't want to.

Thanks Carrie for being such an inspiration! And check out her website at survivorsretreat.com

About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.