Monday, February 18, 2008

Data, Data .... Where's my data ?

There are two types of computer users - Those who have lost data and those who will loose data. To change your membership from Group A to Group B is only a matter of planning (or the lack thereof), good (or bad) luck, and a matter of timing. What I mean by timing is .... did the backup drive fail with the only instance of the saved data because it was part a flawed shipment of drives (you get the picture).

Over the years, clients have frantically called with a similiar tale of woe - "I turned my computer on this __________ (morning, afternoon, evening, week, month,etc. - You choose the time interval) and I saw a blue screen. Oh, I say, you received a BSOD. A BSOD? What is that? I then said, " That's the Blue Screen of ..... DEATH! You would then hear a long pause, sometimes followed by a loud thud. In the background, a faint voice would cry out, "Get the smelling salts".

After calming down the client (author's note - the status of the client's unpaid invoices will have direct impact on the time interval prior to the client being put at ease and the success of the recovery) ; I then explained the details. Windows, unfortunately, has a tendency to self-destruct. The Windows registry file is the most critical file in a Windows installation. Specifically, the registry is the database in which the operating system stores most of its settings. The installed programs and hardware store their settings within this file. Importantly, the registry defines relationships between different parts of the operating system's user interface. For example, the registry defines what you see on the desktop; how the Start menu and taskbar work; and how the operating system starts. So, if the registry file becomes corrupted then Windows will not start and the computer bootup will result in the dreaded BSOD.

However, the critical personal data files are still recoverable. The use of a self-booting CD with Windows PE allows you to look at the file structure on the hard drive, find the data files and save the information to a removable flash drive. Whoa, cowboy. Try explaining this in english. Ok. I'll slow down and use non-geeky terminology.

Windows PE (or Pre-Installed Environment) is a bootable CD that allows the user to boot up an otherwise non-bootable computer and provides you with a complete complete Win32 graphical interface (point and click ) with network support, a graphical user interface (800x600) and file system support. It allows the user to save files to a removable flash drive or to a network shared drive. I personally prefer to use Bart PE ( ) which is a Windows PE environment with a number of useful utilities built-in.

OK, Genius, so you always retrieve the data? No, there are limits to to what this recovery method can do. In the case of physical damage, recovery methods based on software are hit or miss at best. I had the case of a computer that came out of restaurant fire which resembled a molten plastic slag rather than a computer. The recovery experts at Drivesavers ( were able to disassemble the drive and recover all the critical data.

There is also the case of "Whoops! I forgot to do that." I was upgrading a client's Mac G4. This also involved upgrading Microsoft Office 2004 to version 2008. Everything went well. The new version was installed without incident and the prior version was removed. However, when the client wanted to check her calendar in Entourage, I knew that I blew it. I forgot to backup the Entourage data because I was concentrating on Word, Excel, etc. My next thought was - "What do I tell the client ?" Various scenarios were contemplated; i.e., the calendar never existed, Entourage self-destructed, unknown government agents confiscated the data under order of a secret federal court. After a brief discussion with the client, we determined that the calendar data was gone and we dealt with it.

So, the bottom line is backup your data. After you back it up, well, back it up again. Then make sure that the backup works and back it up a 3rd time. Murphy's Law of Computing says "For every action, there is an equal and opposite malfunction" and "He who laughs last probably made a back-up."

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Paper, Paper, Everywhere As Far As The Eye Can See

The person who said the advent of computers will lead to a paperless office also subscribed to the "three big lies" school of thought. Those lies are -

1. This won't hurt a bit.
2. The check is in the mail and

3. I'm from the computer help desk and I'm here to help you.

Its just so easy to just click on the print command that everyone becomes a click-happy paper-producing fiend.

If only we can accurately scan our printed documents and convert the scans into editable, searchable digital files. Well, wait no more. Omnipage Pro 16 allows the user to scan a printed document and accurately convert it into an editable MS Word document. Nuance (formerly known as Scansoft) has become the leader in the OCR (optical character recognition ) field. Its two leading products - Omnipage Pro and Paperport, a document management program. I had last worked with Omnipage about four or five versions ago. As good as the prior versions were; the current Omnipage version had significant improvements in character recognition and speed.

When initially started the program prompts the user for the preferred program interface: Classic (similar to prior versions), Flexible (tabbed, overlapping windows for advanced users), and Quick Convert (a quick and simple-to-use single screen designed for novice users and those in a rush to convert a document). The program can accept input from a scanner, file or digital camera image.

I needed to quickly convert a printed document into Word file. So, after a quick installation (click, next, click, next, click, next .... about as exciting as watching grass grow); I selected the Quick Convert interface as time was limited. A single printed page was scanned in from a networked HP Officejet L7680. The scan was quite quick and the resulting accuracy was remarkable. What assisted the conversion was Omnipage's direct support of Word 2007 and its improved graphics capabilities. The formatting of the document's text boxes and a table was correctly translated. It only took about five minutes from invoking the program to looking at the same document on-screen in Microsoft Word.

An accompanying program, PDF Create4, allows for the file to be saved in an Adobe Acrobat pdf file. Another accompanying program, PaperPort Standard 11, serves in the role of document manager. PaperPort allows for the organization of documents on your computer, scanned or otherwise. It will index these documents and allow for search retrievals. Paperport creates a toolbar that links to external programs. This allows the user to drag and drop a scanned image on links for email, printing, faxing, etc.

The speed and accuracy of Omnipage's OCR, along with its rich set of features makes it a very appealing program. The program typically sells for $450 - $500.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Why are you so Blue?

Bluetooth. Everybody has heard of it but do you really know what it means? Bluetooth is the short-range wireless standard designed to allow network transmissions between small hand-held and peripheral devices. For example, it allows a two-way wireless communication a cell phone and a computer. In my own case, I use bluetooth to sync my Treo 650 with Outlook on my desktop computer.

But, why call it bluetooth? Well, once upon a time (sorry, couldn't resist) Harold Blatand (translated as Bluetooth) was a 10th century Viking King of Denmark. He is credited with uniting and bringing order to Denmark and Norway. Some of the folk tales from that part of world refer to Harold's teeth as being tinged blue because of his habit of eating blueberries. The Bluetooth development team used the analogy of unifying the warring Scandinavian tribes to unifying small electronic devices through a common wireless standard. The initials "HB" written in Norwegian runes as shown here comprise the Bluetooth logo.

So, bluetooth becomes the connecting link in a PAN. Now, wait a sec. Wasn't PAN the flying guy who was the leader of the Lost Boys and the archenemy of Captain Hook? No, I'm referring to a Personal Area Network. This refers to a network of personal electronic devices which can communicate with each other. This is different than a LAN (Local Area Network) which refers to a networked collection of computers, printers, etc. A LAN will typically communicate across a wired or wireless ethernet link and may share information from a central file server.

Ok, Genius. So how does it really work? Well, each bluetooth-enabled device has a unique identifying number assigned. When a bluetooth device is brought into close proximity to another bluetooth device and the discovery feature is enabled; then, the user is prompted to create a link or to "pair" the devices. When the pairing is successful, then a "trusted relationship" is created. I know that this sounds like some type of strange "touchy-feely" therapy, but computer consultants can barely relate to each other in a virtual world. So, expecting a computer consultant to relate to an actual human being in the real world is an unreal expectation.

For example, Let's say that you purchase a new wireless headset for your bluetooth enabled cell phone. When you turn on the headset and place it in discovery mode your phone will "see" it and request if you want to pair the headset to your phone. If so, then you are requested to input the security key or passkey. With a bluetooth device that doesn't hold sensitive information, the factory default passkey is 0000. Assuming that you are quick enough to key in the proper passkey, then the trusted relationship is established.

The current version of Bluetooth is 2.1 which allows for a 3 megabit/second file transfer. The next standard - 3.0 - will allow for up to 480 megabits/second. This places the next proposed standard in the current transfer rate of USB and Firewire.

It also makes you wonder. With all these people people walking around with bluetooth headsets stuck in their ears while walking around and doing their everyday tasks; is this relationship with their personal electronic device their most "trusted" one? No wonder there's such a demand for mental health services these days.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Nokia N800

Wouldn't it be nice to be able to access the internet on a small, light-weight hand-held device. "Wait a minute, you say. That's exactly what I do with my cellphone or with my wifi-enabled pda.
I'm not saying that this is new concept, but wouldn't it be nice to have a handheld device that is simple to schlep (this is a techno-geek term meaning to wear clothes with many pockets while walking around. Each pocket is filled with multiple electronic devices.) around and can view a web page in extreme clarity.

Well, wait no more. The Nokia N800 Internet Tablet may be just the ticket. Actually, I have been using one for the past six months but have only gotten around to discussing it now. The N800 is a Linux-based hand-held tablet computer designed to access the internet. It connects to the wide world web via 802.11 b/g Wi-Fi or by linking to a bluetooth cell phone and dialing into the internet.

The 4.1 inch 800x480 screen is extremely sharp. Web pages or videos played on the tablet are very clear and easily read. Further, there are side-mounted controls to change the zoom mode. You control the device via a touch screen. A comfortable stylus allows for pin-point accuracy; though, at times I use one of my less than thin fingers as a substitute stylus. It comes with 128mb of ram. There are 2 slots for SD cards which can hold up to 8 gb each. Like many other linux devices, its noteworthy for its speed and stability. In fact, its faster than its predecessor - the N770.

It can be used to play music either through the built-in speakers or supplied earphones. The latest version of the Tablet's OS - OS2008 is the best one yet. It only took a few minutes to upgrade the OS to this visually pleasing interface. You can also use the device as an FM radio, portable device vice to make Skype calls with the built-in webcam, or hand-held email device.

"All Right, you say. What's wrong with it". If you're looking for a "killer app" rather than "killer function" then you've found it's Achilles heel. Its linux software and apps are part of the Maemo Project which is an open-source platform for Nokia Internet Tablets. Thus far, you can't sync your calendar nor contact information. E-mail apps will only support POP3 and IMAP accounts, but not Exchange. I'm hoping that software developers will eventually correct this shortcoming. Especially, since the the next generation of the device, the N810, with a slide-out keyboard has been released.

The N800 is available from on-line retailers such as for approximately $250.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Business Cards from Here to Yonder

As most folks tend to do, I have also collected more than my fair share of business cards. These cards have been used for a variety of purposes - bookmarks for late night reading, shopping lists written on the back of the cards, and to open a stuck door, to name a few. Suddenly, I had a novel thought; why not use these cards for their original purpose. That is, as conveyors of information about business professionals that I have met over the years.

Unfortunately, there were a few snags to this plan. I had no desire to retype the information into the computer; further, I wanted to categorize the cards and sync the information with my Treo smartphone. After immediately rejecting this project due to the amount of potential work; I began to think of alternative solutions. After all, I am a computer consultant who stays up until 3 am reading about techo-related trends.

So, I began to use the Cardscan business card scanner. The supplied software creates a database of the scanned cards. The small business card scanner combined with the software produces excellent results. The scanning software, Cardscan 8, has excellent OCR (optical character recognition) capabilities. The card holder's name, address, phone, etc. are automatically entered into the proper fields. However, when a business card has a very dark background or intricate design woven into the text the OCR software will have a problem and you will have to manually enter the pertinent information.

The cardscan software is able to sync with all the major personal information managers, such as Microsoft Outlook. Cardscan also uploads your business card contacts to a password protected web site. Thus, your contacts are accessible to you from any computer with internet access. The web site will periodically send out emails to check on the accuracy of the scanned information.

The cardscan executive kit (scanner and software) costs about $275 from

Friday, February 1, 2008

Vinyl to Digital

Recently, a client wanted to put his collection of music onto his computer. No big deal, you say, just download the tunes from the internet and then sync your favorite mp3 player (i.e., ipod). But there's a catch. All of the music is on records. You know, those big, round things that resemble a Frisbee and have circular grooves on them. You also need a record player aka turntable, amplifier, speakers, etc. to hear the music. Well, the client only had the large record collection without any stereo equipment.

So, after some research, we decided on the Ion iTTUsb Turntable. It costs about $110 from Very simple to set up. Just install the software. Plug the turntable into a vacant usb port on your computer. Launch software, play record and save recording to computer. Its a great solution to turn your old, irreplaceable vinyl into digital recordings.

Something New

Well... This is a start of something new. A way to share my experiences with electronic devices with the outside world. Previous to this , I only shared my computer "trials and tribulations" with my fellow computer consultants. Typically, the conversation went something like this --- "You won't believe what I had to do with for this ( blank blank --- substitute your own derogatory adjective) client".

Now, I guess that I'll have to look at things from the consumer point of view. This is somewhat of a scary thought. I hope that they don't revoke my consultant's license. In any event, its a new start.