Frankly Speaking

Penguin Computer & Telephone Solutions
8695 College Parkway, Suite 1120
Fort Myers, FL 33919

239.963.4680

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Bamboo Capture Giveaway!

* Promotion Has Completed *

Exciting News!

On March 15th 2013 we’ll be randomly selecting one lucky person who comments below and giving them their very own Wacom Bamboo Capture pen tablet (model CTH470) complete with software!

Supports Windows, Mac & Gnu/Linux!

  • Package includes Adobe© Photoshop Elements(win/mac)
  • Autodesk© Sketchbook© Express (win/mac)
  • MyPaint and GIMP with the built-in open source wacom drivers which support software freedom on GNU/Linux (IE Ubuntu, Fedora, Et Al)

To enter this drawing and qualify to win you must:

  • Be a resident of the United States -or- have a valid US address where the package can be received
  • Leave your full name and an email address (don’t worry, it will be hidden) in the comments below as well as how you’d use this great device once you’ve won it. Will it be a gift? Would you use it for digital graphics work? Drawing?

We will contact the winner via email.  We’ll give you until March 21st to claim your prize.  An unclaimed prize will be awarded on a future date.

That’s it!  We’ll even pay ground shipping to your location. 

CTH470_1

Privacy Policy: We will not give your information to any third party.  We will not use it to spam your inbox – but we may contact you at some point in the future in a very limited way – for promotional reasons.

confirmed winner

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Windows 8 Laptop Bloatware?

Our friend Roblimo (Robin Miller) has a great little article outlining some key differences consumers are liable to encounter when purchasing new Windows 8 Laptops. You can read about it at the IT Knowledge Exchange website.

Your New Windows 8 PC May Have $100 Worth of Junk Software On It

Worth a quick read if you want to know how you can safely remove unwanted software while still maintaining security. Enjoy!

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Hurrican Sandy Shelters

A map of available shelters. Zoom in to your area.

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Convert Your Logo From BMP to SVG, Free!

My friend has a service business here in Lee County, Florida.  His business is doing well and he gets quite a bit of work using simple word-of-mouth advertising.  That’s great, but when I think about the out-of-town folk showing up for a limited time and needing emergency clean-up and the like; I know he’s losing a lot of business to national chains with recognizable names.  He needs a web presence and search engine placement to get him on the first page when those potential customers use a search engine.  No one uses phone books any more – now it’s all search engine.  Search engine, search engine, search engine.

[Image 1]
Bitmaps are great if the image is always going to be the same size, zoom in and there’s a problem.

His is a truly small business.  He has business cards, letterhead and the like.  He sent me the only artwork he has, which he created himself a while ago. It’s small and it’s bitmap, meaning it’s made up of millions of tiny dots – each with its own value – compressed into a file. As Image 1 shows, when stretched out a bitmap image becomes pixelized and begins to have steps and staircases all over it.  Not good enough.

It’s a great logo!  Unfortunately it’s not in a very useful format.  When we need to make it bigger (like on the web site) it will look very unprofessional.  The first thing we need to do is convert it from a bitmap to scalable vector graphic (SVG).  The primary difference between the two is the way they hold the image information.  An SVG uses math and curves to delineate where the edges of an object are.  As the object is scaled the curve stays the same it just grows along with it, keeping the exact same proportions.

[Image 2]
SVG images are smooth and can be resized for any purpose.

 Let’s get started.

I’m going to use Inkscape for a couple of reasons.  First, it’s cost free software which also respects its user’s software freedom.  Second, it runs on pretty much anything, meaning Windows, Linux and Mac computers.  This means you can do this yourself if you like.  You can start immediately and it won’t cost you a dime.

Here’s a picture of what we’re trying to achieve.  Image 2 shows a smooth image that stays smooth no matter how large or small we make it.  This will enable us to use the logo for printed materials like business cards or banners (think trade shows), as well as the world wide web.

Embedding is preferred

[Image 3]
Embed the bitmap

Launch the Inkscape program and open the bitmap image.  When asked, select “embed” since that will bring the entire image into the Inkscape program so we can work with it.

Zoom in or out until the entire image is visible in the main window.  In the case of the image I’m working with the white background it’s been placed on is also part of the bitmap.  No matter what type of bitmap you’re working with there will be a background of a certain size around it.  This is because bitmap images do not support transparency.  Select the entire image and from the menu selections use PATH => TRACE BITMAP …  This will bring up a dialog box with a lot of different options.  You can read about Inkscape and tracing options in greater detail elsewhere.  Experiment as much or as little as needed.

For this case adjusting the brightness cutoff threshold is all that’s needed because there’s a definite difference between white (the background color) and elements of the bitmap image.   Adjusting and clicking “update” reveals a preview of what the tracing result will look like.  When it’s where I want it I just click OK.

[Image 4] Adjust the brightness cutoff threshold until you get the desired result – then click OK to create the SVG layer

The brightness cutoff threshold uses the sum of the red, green and blue (or shades of gray) of a pixel as an indicator of whether it should be considered black or white. The threshold can be set from 0.0 (black) to 1.0 (white). The higher the threshold setting, the fewer the number pixels that will be considered to be “white”, and the intermediate image with become darker.  Experiment until you feel like you’re going to capture what you want, then click OK.

The SVG version of your Bitmap image will appear on a layer on top of the bitmap.  You can click and drag it off by itself.  Notice it’s black and we want the capital “A” to be red.  This won’t be possible yet since the whole SVG is one image.  Anything we do to the “A” will happen to the entire SVG image – we’ll need to break it apart first

The top image is the original bitmap. After creating the “trace” we just dragged the resulting SVG down with the mouse so you can see the difference.

We don’t need the original bitmap image any more so we can either delete it or just copy the SVG to a new instance.  Either way we’ll be working exclusively with the SVG we created.  We’ll be creating individual objects out of this one object first.  This is necessary so we can change the color of one object without affecting the entire image.  This is done using PATH => BREAK APART and works well.  The result looks weird until you realize that all the closed curves within the image are also objects.  The ‘doughnut hole’ in the center of the letter is itself an object with a specific path.  First I’ll break the image apart into different objects and then I’ll color the ‘holes’ a different color so you can see what I mean.  Mouse-over each of the four images below for an explanation of what’s going on.  Click on them for larger views.

Once you’ve removed all the yellow parts you’ll end up with an SVG made up of different objects – each of which can be independently manipulated. Let’s make the letter “A” red by selecting it alone and then selecting red from the color pallet below. Three clicks is all it takes.

Click on the pointer icon in the upper left, then the object (letter “A”) and then the color you want to change it to.

Finally, we now have an actual scalable vector graphic of the company logo. We should use FILE => SAVE AS … and save it as an “Inkscape.svg” file for future use. We can also “export” it using Inkscape and that will allow us to save it as a bitmap or rasterized (.jpg, .png) file in any size we like.

Using the steps above we were able to use a tiny bitmap image to create this header for the new business website

Please stop by my friend’s new site – it’s in the early work-in-progress phase of development but it’s coming along nicely.  Also, feel free to leave comments below.  Let me know if we missed anything.

Thanks.

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Make Way – I’m A Professional!

I was having a conversation with a Certified Public Accountant yesterday.  I was there at his office for a different purpose but invariably the conversation turned, as it often does, to technology.  The subject of our conversation quickly became his small office network, systems and his data backup in particular.

This Accountant has a cloud backup in place.  He’s a truly small business – only he and his wife using two computers and a printer.  There’s a program that runs in the background on his computer and it regularly sends updates to the backup provider’s storage cloud for safe keeping, in case of disaster.  “Have you ever read the terms of your service agreement?” I ask.  We launch the backup software for a quick look.

In plain English the terms of use means he has agreed, once delivered to their storage, his data become property of the storage provider.  This is done presumably to protect the provider from legal liability in the event the user’s data is somehow lost due to Acts of God, corruption during transmission, no good to begin with and the like – you really cannot hold a backup provider responsible for that.  Okay, that makes sense.  The chance of an Act of God occurring is pretty slim.  Presumably the provider has redundant systems so that’s pretty safe.  Do they also have employees that never make mistakes?

Leaving that issue aside I asked the CPA whether he was comfortable having his business critical information, customer lists, customer social security numbers, tax returns and other items available for inspection on the cloud provider’s server whenever they want?  What about the nefarious “hacker”?  How do you know the providers systems aren’t already compromised?  Of course he admitted he really didn’t but he pointed out that his backup is encrypted so he’s fairly certain no one else can decrypt and view it.  Good point.

I asked him where the decryption keys for his ‘cloud’ backup were being kept?  He looked at me for a moment and then said, “Um … you know, I really don’t know, I guess they’re on this computer somewhere.”  He was not sure.  I asked him if he had a common “pass phrase” he uses when asked for one.  He really didn’t remember, point taken though.

I’ve written about the “Feel Good Backup” in the past.  The “Feel Good Backup” happens when a key business decision maker is not positive whether their company’s data is being backed up but they’re certain enough to feel comfortable that they’re doing what they need to.  The “Feel Good Backup” is a pitfall.

Your company technology is a only a tool but your company data is the gold you are mining!  Many hours each week are spent toiling in front of your technology, gathering information and providing services to your customers.  After a while it’s easy to see where the vehicle becomes the focus instead of the payload.

A common mistake and here’s why

Truck drivers worry about tires, fuel and maintaining repair of their truck because it’s the tool they use to earn a living carrying around someone else’s gold.  That gold is insured against loss and it usually doesn’t actually belong to the truck driver.  In the case of the Certified Public Accountant however, the gold is his data!  There is no insurance other than the backup he puts in place!  Forget about the computers, switches, servers, printers and employees – insure your gold!  As I’m sure most people are aware by now anyone can be replaced – “anyone” meaning any one person.  Backup your data.

So where exactly is the accountant going wrong?  Let’s review:

  • His only backup does not belong to him
  • It could disappear tomorrow and no one is responsible
  • He can retrieve but cannot read his data without a copy of the encryption key
    • He doesn’t know where the encryption key is being kept
    • His key is most likely on the computer itself – after a fire where is the computer?
  • He has no trusted surrogate

I’m glad he and I spoke because it really got him thinking.  He’s not in a panic, which is good, but he’s exploring his options and realizing that with a few small changes he can have better peace of mind and a real actual verifiable backup strategy in place.  He realizes that I’m just the messenger and he’s thankful I brought these shortcomings to light.

Mission accomplished.

 

 

 

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Safe Internet For Your Customers!!

John owns an auto repair shop.  As an entrepreneur he understands the importance of customer service.  He’s competing with larger and sometimes better funded competition all around him.  He knows his services and parts are superior and he wants everyone else to know too.  John prefers to work smarter.  He knows these simple truths.

  • Customer Experience will play a vital role in his success
  • Repeat Business is money in the bank
  • The best and least expensive advertising is word-of-mouth

John’s Auto Repair Customers

John's Auto Repair

John's Auto Repair

John wants customers to come, enjoy the expert service he has to offer and leave having exceeded their expectations.  He wants them to return again and again.

The auto repair shop is not an exciting place to be but there are television, magazines and free Internet to keep his customers occupied.  This reduces stress on the customer and stress on his technicians.  Time flies for the customer when they have distractions available to them.  The average customer arrives with their electronic devices in their vehicle.  They’re prepared to get some important work done and maybe answer some email while they’re waiting.  At some point during their visit they may even check into a social network or two; to see what their friends are up to.  They might even “check-in” on Facebook or Foursquare so their friends can find them and that’s where John gets free advertising.  Internet access -or- lack of Internet access will impact John’s Auto Repair business.

 The Network

Protect Your Business …

John uses his existing network and Internet access to reach his resources.  A big one is www.alldata.com which keeps him up to date with the latest service bulletins for all motor vehicles and includes known safety issues; things he’ll need to address for his customer.  He also utilizes it to process credit card sales with the bank.  His server and laptop computers must be highly available – his techs depend on them.

Free Wireless Internet Access For Your Customers

Since his private network is firewalled (protecting it from the customer-side) using a correctly configured captive portal he has no worries about security.  He makes his Internet connection available to his customers free of charge.  He’s already paying for the connection and much of it would go unused throughout the day, so why not?  He can control wireless WiFi and even wired network connections from his waiting room area to prioritize his own needs while providing his unused bandwidth free to his customers.  Using the captive portal John can even “turn off” Internet during non-business hours.  He is in control.

… from Your Customers

Let’s be honest, the Internet is a crazy and dangerous place at times.  It’s riddled with spyware and malware sites posing as free anti-virus sites.  Not to mention dangerous email attachments posing as weekend photos of your friend’s family.  These threats are available to anyone using the Internet.  These threats are real.  As added insurance the Captive Portal also offers a layer of protection for John’s business; his TERMS OF USE indemnify his business from liability if anything goes wrong with a customer’s device while they’re on the Internet connection he’s providing.  Don’t misunderstand, the Internet can be dangerous from anywhere but when people connect from their home it’s different because John doesn’t provide that connection.

In John’s case he knows his customers (and strangers in the area) are unable to harm his systems or network.  He did the research and invested in the piece of mind that a professionally installed Captive Portal solution provides.  He knows network security doesn’t just happen on its own.  He’s smart enough to know he needs help, but not just for himself, he’s going to protect his patrons too.

Protect Your Customers

John's Captive Portal

Safely Connected To John's Auto & Truck Repair

When a customer connects to the Internet at John’s Auto Repair they know they’re connected to the legitimate wireless network.  Their web browser is redirected to the splash page before they’re ever allowed onto the Internet.  This page can be used for a variety of purposes but at minimum it will display John’s “Terms of Use”, and require user agreement prior to allowing customer’s to reach the world wide web, email, etc…

This protects the customer.  They want to be able to check their email and surf the Internet while getting their car or truck repaired.  Their kids want to use the iPad or hand-held gaming device to keep up with their friends.  Customers don’t want to be “hacked” by strangers or have their personal information compromised.  The captive portal landing page will assure them that they’re on the repair shop network and not a hacker’s network deliberately set up to look like the repair shop’s – in the hope of luring people into a trap.

 Conclusion

A Captive Portal device protects John and his customers.

Everyday more Internet connected devices become active.  The Internet has become the indispensable tool used by millions to work and stay connected with their friends.  Through social networking they “check-in” with their friends and rave about the great service and products they’ve purchased and enjoyed.  Help them get the word out!

If done properly, Internet access is a fairly inexpensive way to garner goodwill from your customers.  They appreciate it and will tell their friends!  Cost free advertising is a win too.

Penguin Computer & Telephone Solutions can help your business provide safe Internet for your customers.  Safe for you and safe for your clientèle.

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Happy Belated World Backup Day! Seriously.

World Backup Day happened on my birthday last week so I was distracted and forgot to remind everyone.  In our defense; every day is World Backup Day for us.  We keep your business systems safe by constantly planning for the worst while hoping for the best – every day.  We’ll try to be more vigilant about getting the word out though, we promise.  :)

I found this brief article – complete with nifty info-graphic (see right) depicting how we’re all falling down on the job.  It’s important to actually have and verify your data backups.  Don’t get caught rolling the dice!

There are more than a few “Feel Good” Backups going on still as we’ve written about previously.  We’ll do our part by continuing to beat that drum!

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Simple Performance Boost – More Memory

Recently more and more customers are bringing their machines in to have them “gone over”.  In many cases the customer is noticing slower and slower performance and are ready to purchase a new system.  Prices have fallen in recent years so new replacement systems are looking more attractive than ever.  Consider though the cost of labor involved in moving your programs and data over and in some cases additional licensing for the software that doesn’t transfer legally.

Before spending money unnecessarily consider a simple memory upgrade.  Not only do most systems come with less than their maximum RAM – many come with slower memory than they can handle.  Depending upon configuration your system may benefit from more memory and faster memory too!

For Windows users there’s a simple system scanner tool available as a free download from the Crucial memory website.  You can use it to get:

  • recommended upgrades
  • guaranteed compatibility
  • free shipping on qualified orders
Dimm Memory

Upgrade Memory

Before upgrading memory it’s a good idea to find out whether your Operating System (Windows, MacOS or Linux) will support the additional memory.  There are limits to how much memory will be recognized and used.  Example: most Windows XP computers will only recognize 3.5 ~ 4 Gigabytes of memory.  Most Windows XP computers are “32 bit” which limits the amount of memory the computer can use.  Microsoft has a web page you can view to find out where you stand on the maximum memory issue: Memory Limits for Windows Releases.

Of course anemic memory conditions are not the only causes of slow performance. Many times other things like resource robbing malware or PUPs (potentially unwanted programs) can be removed.  This “cleaning” will free up resources and get you zipping along nicely too.  Nevertheless, memory upgrades are less labor intensive than system upgrades and that makes them a great bargain when possible.

Posted in Hardware, Operating Systems | 6 Comments

Lightning & Power Outages – Surge Protection or UPS?

Summertime is just about here.  With it will arrive unscheduled power interruptions, brown-out conditions, spikes and surges of power; this is especially true here in Southwest Florida.

Because of the value of electronic devices the importance of good protection cannot be overstated.  The store bought warranties that  may be in effect on your important devices do not cover products hit by lightning.

Most folk already have some type of power protection installed.  If you don’t here are some things to consider.

  1. Laptops, printers and monitors should have a Surge Protector/Suppressor
  2. Desktops and servers should have an UN-interruptible power supply (UPS)
  3. Don’t replace that UPS – replace the BATTERY!

Laptops, printers and computer monitors (screens) should have, at minimum, protection from electrical “spikes” and the more deadly direct lightning strike to your building wiring.  A surge protector device will do this.

This is NOT a surge protector

What a surge protector is exactly can be confusing.  First, lets look at something that is not a surge protector.  This thing (pictured on the right) is not a surge protector, it is only a simple power strip, which is nothing more than a device that allows you to plug 6 things in while using only one outlet.  It has a red toggle switch that lights up when the power is on.  Turn it off and all six outlets go dark.  Convenient for sure but this $6 item is not going to save anything that’s plugged in and it doesn’t claim it will.

A surge protector is what’s needed if you want to protect your laptop.  Surge protectors are more like electrical shock absorbers and they’re clearly labeled that way.  They are rated in “Joules” which is a measure of electrical work.  Basically, a joule is one watt (one ampere of current @ 1 volt of pressure) flowing for one second of time.  Example: A 100 watt light bulb consumes/expends 100 joules each second.  This means that a surge protector rated at 500 joules can effectively dissipate one second worth of  the energy consumed by five 100 watt light bulbs, or of course a single light bulb burning for five seconds.  There are other factors like clamping voltage and response time that factor into the quality of any surge suppressor you choose to purchase.  When comparing two competing products the better product will have a higher joules ratings, lower clamping voltage (330 volts offers better protection than 500 volts) and faster response time.  Electricity travels very fast but it still takes time for a surge to build to it’s maximum – usually fractions of a second and can be detected in plenty of time for the surge protection circuit to activate.  Some surge protectors react with a response time in the nanosecond range which is quite fast.  One nanosecond is to one second as one second is to 31.7 years.  A nanosecond is one billionth of a second.  Fast.

This looks like a power strip but it's actually a surge protector

This little device to the right is actually a surge protector that looks like a power strip, demonstrating that it’s always a good idea to read the package.  To be fair it won’t really suppress much of a spike compared to larger more capable (and more expensive) offerings but technically, since it has working circuitry and is capable of stopping a spike, albeit a small one; it is an actual surge protector.

To be sure, the more money you spend the better protection you will get.  A surge protector or suppressor (the terms are interchangeable) is another one of those items that’s often bought for simple piece of mind.  Usually it wasn’t even a thought until the sales person suggested it.  Truthfully, except here in Florida, it may never be needed and will most likely be forgotten after it’s installed.  One thing is for certain – there is a real difference between quality with piece of mind and “feel good” surge devices that barely cost anything.

3000+ Joules for less than $50

Here’s a surge protector that will protect power cables as well as network wiring and television cable.  It’s rated at over 3,000 joules and comes with a $50,000 warranty protecting your equipment.  Cost is less than $50

Laptops need protection against electrical spikes but they really don’t require battery backup protection since they are generally running off their batteries even when they’re plugged into power.  Unless you routinely use your laptop without the battery installed (I don’t know anyone who does this) – you shouldn’t need an un-interruptible power supply (UPS)

Desktop Computer?  Get a UPS (UN-interruptible Power Supply) 

A laptop has a battery that charges while it’s plugged in.  If the power goes out it just runs on the battery until the power is restored.  If the lights go out suddenly you can still work and if the battery is good you can work for quite a while.

Desktop Style Computer

Desktop computers do not have batteries to keep them running so if the power goes out suddenly they just turn off.  If you haven’t saved your work to a disk file recently you could lose it.  Although it’s not necessarily a disaster, it can be avoided with a UPS.  A UPS has a battery contained within that will provide power to the computer even when the building power is temporarily interrupted.  In addition to this it also has all the benefits of a surge protector/suppressor.   You can save money just using a surge protector if you have a laptop but with a desktop computer it’s best to have a UPS installed.  In addition to providing power “guaranteed” it also conditions the power it delivers to desktop systems but removing low voltage (brown-outs), dirty power (peaks and troughs) and other inconsistencies that can tax the desktop power supply and computer system itself over time.

Most UPS devices also come with software that will detect how much power is left within its internal battery reserve – to keep your machine operating safely.  This will allow you to continue to work until just before the backup runs out of power itself – in which case it will automatically and safely power down your system for you.  A “clean shutdown” can save surprises the next time you try to restart your computer.  A note of caution however: supplied software and cabling must be installed & configured at setup time if you want this additional functionality enabled.  It won’t just happen.  Be sure to ask for this capability if you want to fully utilize the benefits of your UPS device.

Replacement Batteries Are Available

Lastly, nothing lasts forever and sealed lead acid batteries are a good example of this.  This is the type of battery UPS devices contain.  Don’t despair though and don’t throw away that noisy UPS!  The batteries of most UPS devices (not all) are easily replaced and less costly than replacing the entire unit.  Besides, why fill landfills with even more plastic unnecessarily, right?

Testing UPS Under Load

Of course there are instances where UPS devices fail completely but they’re not as frequent as you might think. When in doubt UPS devices can be easily tested with proper equipment under workload conditions.  This is the best way to know for sure whether the failure is a simple dead battery or something more complex.

Trust Penguin Computer & Telephone Solutions to deliver an honest assessment of your current backup protection scheme.  We know how to provide outstanding value while saving you time and money.

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Cloud Computing and the Truth About SLAs

I’m not saying this. CIO.com blogger Bernard Golden is saying it and he has a point.  Cloud Services are the new big deal but they are not a panacea for all things Information Technology related and Service Level Agreements (SLAs) are not guarantees – at least not the kind many may be thinking they are.

Bernard writes, “Having sat through a number of discussions on the topic of SLAs, these session descriptions ineluctably brought to mind the following truth: SLAs are not about increasing availability; their purpose is to provide the basis for post-incident legal combat.”

The fact of the matter is your business losses due to interruptions of service are not generally reimbursed – only a portion of the fees paid for services.  In other words the SLA is only there to protect the cloud provider.

Mr. Golden makes several good points.  I would just also add that the Internet Service Provider who supplies the road to the cloud services generally offers a separate and distinct individual SLA for their service separate from the cloud company.  In other words, if your cloud services provider is up and running but your internet connection goes down it won’t matter what the SLA of the cloud services provider is – they’re still up and providing service – yet you are unable to reach those services and it’s not their fault.

Lots of interesting insights are found in Bernard Golden’s article.

Cloud Computing and the Truth About SLAs

 

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