MS Exchange – Outlook Issues

July 2nd, 2017

A funny thing happened to me on the way to troubleshooting a Microsoft Exchange problem.  A client had recurring, sporadic, unpredictable, difficult to reproduce issues with Microsoft Outlook 2013 connected to a Microsoft Exchange Server owned by Microsoft.  It is possible to set up your own Exchange Server, but in this case he was using what was already provided by Microsoft.  We’d been on the phone and chatted online with tech support several times over a number of months, coming up with solutions that seemed to help at first, but ultimately did not.  Finally, I found a Microsoft business customer support technician who had THE answer.

The problem manifested itself in not downloading email messages that had been sent while the computer was turned off.  Upon lighting up the laptop and invoking Outlook, we could wait for a long time (minutes, hours, or forever) for these messages to appear on the screen.  I won’t go through everything we tried because none of these apparent solutions addressed the actual problem.

The bottom line is that Microsoft Outlook (even the 2016 version, apparently) has a problem with IPv6.  For some reason having IPv6 enabled on your network adapter introduces problems for the Exchange Server when using Outlook.  I don’t know if this is a general problem with Outlook (we did not try it with a non-Exchange account), but we easily demonstrated that by disabling IPv6 in the network adapter configuration the missing email messages magically appeared.

I cannot explain why Microsoft, of all companies, would allow such a problem to persist.  Using a Microsoft client to communicate with a Microsoft email server should not be derailed by using a more modern Internet protocol than IPv4, which is about 800 years old now.

Choosing the right wireless adapter

January 9th, 2017

First of all, why would one need to buy a wireless adapter?  All laptops and tablets have wi-fi, and most desktops and all-in-ones do, too.  Sometimes these things stop working, sometimes they become obsolete before you are ready to part with the computer, and sometimes you just want better wireless performance than what was built in.

I have a Dell Vostro mid-tower desktop computer with a built-in 802.11n single band, single antenna wireless adapter.  The wireless n standard uses two bands: 2.4 Ghz and 5 Ghz.  The 2.4 Ghz band has a theoretical maximum speed of 150 Mbps per antenna, but because of its enormous popularity and limited number of distinct channels, interference with other nearby networks limits the speed to 72 Mbps per antenna.  My single antenna Vostro therefore can send or receive at a maximum of 9 MB (megabytes) per second.  Since the actual real-world speed is typically not more than 20-40% of the theoretical number, I normally see 2-4 MBps transfer rates.  That is abysmal.

My router operates on two bands.  The 5 Ghz band is generally capable of higher speeds as it is less crowded.  The router with its three antennae can therefore offer 450 Mbps on the 5 Ghz band.  I actually see this connection speed in normal use.  To get my Vostro running at this speed I can add a USB adapter that runs on both bands and has 3 antennae.  So, with a small investment I can multiply my connection speed by about six times.  This can be especially useful when downloading or uploading large files or high quality streaming.

USB wireless adapters are small, about the same size as Flash drives, and cost $10-100, depending on the bands on which they operate and the number of antennae.  Today, most networks operate on the “n” or “ac” protocols.  Wireless n runs on two different bands, while ac operates only on 5 Ghz.  Wireless ac is up to three times faster than n per antenna.  It is still new, so most hotspots are not yet using it.  N, however, is ubiquitous, especially on the 2.4 Ghz band.

If I were buying a wireless adapter today, I would opt for the one with 3 antennae, generally labeled as “3×3” or “3T3R.”  While it is true that wireless ac with one antenna is about the same speed as wireless n with three, very few hotspots currently run with the ac protocol.  So, to get the maximum speed in most situations, a three-antenna setup is best.  A three-aerial configuration also allows a more reliable connection than a single setup.

M-Disc: 1,000 Year Archiving is Here

June 1st, 2016

There is a new archival technology that holds promise for keeping your data safe long enough for your thirtieth generation descendants to read it.  Imagine reading the data off a disc that is older than the Magna Carta.  Most of us will not need to retain our things for that long, but it is comforting to know that such a capability is within reach of ordinary people without large bank accounts.  It provides a comfortable margin of safety for those of us who wish to keep our data for a longer period than today’s conventional means of storage allow.


The technology is not yet mature, so there is some additional cost over using conventional storage media, but MDisc permits us to break the never-ending cycle of rewriting data every few years to keep it safe.  Today you can buy (with a very large check) magnetic tape storage systems that will preserve your data for perhaps fifty years.  Magnetic tape, however chemically stable, is soft and flexible.  Optical discs are not, but the actual recording layer is a thin film deposited on the plastic substrate.  The film is highly susceptible to environmental effects.  With proper care you may get 100 years from a very expensive gold CD, but most WORM (Write Once Read Many) discs cannot be relied on after 5-10 years.  Stamped discs are more stable because the tiny little holes are cut into a thin layer of metal, rather than burned into a thin layer of chemicals, but they can only be created with a huge investment in the stamping tools.  Movies and music might make sense, but stamped discs are simply not useful for archiving.  A good, rock solid hard drive might hold data safely for ten to twenty years, but you won’t find one with a warranty exceeding five, reflecting manufacturers’ confidence that the likelihood of safely keeping your data after that drops to an unacceptable level.  Quantum bit technology may come into play for long term storage, possibly becoming economically viable in another twenty or so years, but for now, if you want to store information reliably for a long time, and without requiring periodic maintenance, then MDisc is the only option.


MDisc works by replacing the thin dye-based layer into which the disc writer’s laser burns the tiny 1 and 0 holes with a layer of a carbon-based material that is chemically and physically stable.  It is also relatively impervious to environmental factors that normally age everything else.  The carbon layer is purported to have an expected life of 10,000 years.  The limiting factor is actually the polycarbonate disc, which can be expected to be stable for only 1,000.  The carbon is much more difficult to burn than the conventional dye-based layer, so a much more powerful laser is needed.  Such devices have in the past few years descended from their stratospheric prices to something mere mortals can take advantage of.  There are now MDisc-capable DVD and BlueRay writers, and the discs can be purchased at many retailers.  The process is significantly more expensive than conventional storage, but it is permanent.  MDiscs go into the safe deposit box; MDiscs go into the off-site storage facility for your business; MDiscs get the wedding video, your children’s violin recitals and the clip of you being interviewed on the evening news.


But.  There’s always a “but,” isn’t there?  The “but” here is that it is important to devise an efficient strategy for creating and updating the archive.  Otherwise, you could be missing important things or spending more money than you need to.  It could also turn into a logistical nightmare, if not planned properly.  Also, there are Internet-based services that will put your data onto permanent discs with periodic updates, easing the logistics, but of course, they are Internet-based, requiring ALL of the important data you want to archive to be IN THE CLOUD, something I strongly discourage.


So, how does one safely and conveniently archive one’s data using this new technology.  You have options.  Here are the two most reasonable: 1) purchase the MDisc burner and the discs, along with software that is capable of doing periodic backups in an appropriate way (a little too complicated to explain here).  Do an initial backup of everything, then periodic backups of new files.  The right software will be able to do this for you.  All you have to do is remember to insert a blank MDisc before the periodic backup starts.  Setting this up, including deciding what and when to archive, might be a little tricky, but you can hire someone to help with that.  2) use a service.  I’ve already said that I don’t trust the cloud, so in this case using a service means that someone will come to your home to do the archive, or you will take your backup drive to someone to do the archive.  The advantages are that no equipment or media need to be purchased, set up or maintained, and that there is little chance of human error.  The disadvantages are that it does not work automatically, as does the online approach, and that it likely will cost more than an online service because a human operator is involved.  This option might be best suited to relatively stable bodies of data, which do not require frequent updates.  If, for example, you have a body of creative work that you simply want to hold onto for a long time, then hiring someone to do the archive is much easier than setting up the system in your home.


Rule of thumb: if you need to update your archive more often than twice a year, you may want to own the equipment; otherwise, you may be better off hiring a local service.


Of course, Compu_Doctor offers all manner of services related to long-term data archival.

The Truth About Computer Scams

November 24th, 2015

The simple truth is that our species produces quite a large number of extremely selfish, anti-social humans with no moral character.  These people find their way into every aspect of our society.  They tend to be the earliest of early adopters, exploiting new technologies for personal gain long before the rest of the world realizes something is amiss.  Some of the biggest offenders are the companies with which we do business every day.  They would be the devil that you know.  The devil that you don’t know is the cadre of hackers and scammers that comprise this century’s snake oil salesmen.  They sound so legitimate on the phone.  They seem to know all sorts of things about your computer.  They are so friendly and helpful.  They have such nice hair.  It doesn’t matter what they say, what they sound like or what they promise; every one of these scammers is a professional con artist that knows what to say, what to sound like and what to promise to have the greatest likelihood of getting money from you.  They will try to scare you- very politely, of course.  They will try to intimidate you (because they speak with such authority- who are you to question what they say?).  They will quickly size you up and do their best to appeal to what they perceive is your most vulnerable sensitivity.  One thing that they absolutely will NOT do under any circumstances is help you with your computer.  It’s not in their job description.


Some rules: No legitimate company will ever call you on the phone to help with your computer problems, unless you specifically request that.  This type of sales simply does not exist in the computer world.  If you receive an unsolicited call, it is guaranteed to be a scam.  There are no exceptions.  If you see a message on the screen that instructs you to call a phone number, it is a scam.  Period.  If you see a message on the screen that informs you of many viruses, then instructs you to take ANY action, apart from simply approving something your anti-virus program is doing, then that message is a scam.  You will never have to go to a specific website, make a phone call, send an email, enter any personal information, or do anything else that makes you vulnerable, in response to a legitimately detected malware threat.


A popular scam that has affected my clients lately starts out with adware sneakily loaded onto your computer.  There are many ways this can happen, but often a website or email will trick the user into clicking on something that surreptitiously downloads adware.  Anti-virus software is not particularly good at catching adware as it is not a direct threat like a virus.  The real damage occurs when the user follows the instructions in the adware message.  The message may alert you to problems on your computer, then offer assistance through email, a website or a phone number.  The goal of all of these is to get your computer to a point at which it is locked, leaving the only way to unlock it the paying of a ransom (they call it a service fee) to the company that is responsible for the adware.  This is not always fatal to the computer.  I have successfully unlocked computers without losing any data.  But, as the perpetrators of these scams care nothing for the health of your computer, it is possible that serious damage could occur as a result of the scam.  The going rate to unlock a computer seems to be around $400, but paying the ransom is no guarantee that your computer is okay.  It will still need to be professionally inspected to ensure there are no remnants of the maliciousness that started with the adware.


These scams work because many people do not understand enough about computers and the Internet to recognize them as suspicious.  The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen technology advancing faster than we simple humans can adapt.  We generally learn how to use new technology pretty well, but we do not understand the dangers before everything changes again.  It takes years to develop that kind of awareness, and things have been changing too fast for that to happen.


However, all is not lost.  Because even though technology changes quickly, people do not.  The same human nature that deceived rural folk in nineteenth century America with potions and elixirs possessing magical qualities survives today in the form of Internet and computer scams.  If we understand the kinds of things that people are willing to do to extract money from us, then we will be better equipped to protect ourselves from scams, whatever technology is used to execute it.  An important thing to remember is that what you see on the computer screen is not necessarily a fact, just like what a sleazy salesman tells you on the phone is not necessarily fact.  People tend to give a little too much authority to things that look “real” or “official” on the computer.  Computers do not have the ability to lie, but the people that create the apps do.


The Art of Troubleshooting

November 2nd, 2015

Troubleshooting is part science, part common sense, part experience and part black art.  The science is important because we have to understand how things work, how things can be modified, and what can go wrong.  The common sense is important because everything in the universe follows logical rules; things may defy understanding, but not logic.  For example, I may not understand why humans are so prone to self-destruction, but I am sure there is a logical reason for it.  I just don’t know what it is.  The experience is essential because that is how humans learn.  Immersing oneself in an experience that stimulates all of the senses will etch what is learned from it into one’s mind much more effectively than simply reading about it, however well written, watching a video, however well produced, or running a simulation, however accurate its depiction of reality.  The black art.  Ah, that’s where we have some fun.  Everything is logical, everything follows rules, blah, blah, blah…  Sometimes, a computer’s behavior simply defies all logic.  My brain knows that I simply don’t have all of the information needed to understand what is going on.  The fist I’m pounding on the table doesn’t care.  Once I admit that I am not omniscient, I start thinking “out of the box,” doing things that knowledge suggests should not have the desired effect, while experience reminds me that my information could be faulty.  Knowing how to relatively weigh the information presented to me, and which bits could be suspect, allows me to expand the solution space.  Being able to do this in order to fix a problem without getting a migraine is the black art.  I’d call what the engineers did to save the crew of Apollo 13 black art.  It’s a right brain approach to a left brain problem.

Cryptolocker and its Ilk

October 29th, 2015

For the past couple of years the world has been subjected to computer attacks that encrypt files, then attempt to extort money from the user in order to decrypt the files.  The encryption used cannot effectively be cracked.  If your computer has been thus infected, you have little recourse.  Paying the ransom is no guarantee that the files will be decrypted, and there may be residual bits after decryption that could cause problems in the future.  It’s like herpes- the symptoms can disappear for long periods, but the infection is still there.  Recovering from such an attack generally requires reinstalling the operating system.  One way to mitigate the damage is to maintain a backup that is updated frequently.  The OS might still need to be reinstalled, but at least you will have access to all of your files.  It is a good idea to use a backup application that can save versions.  Because the cryptolocker malware goes about its business encrypting files for some time before it lets you know it is there.  During this time it is possible to back up the encrypted files.  If you don’t have versions, backed up files could become corrupted and unusable.  Apple’s Time Machine and Microsoft’s File History are good backup applications.

VISA Checkout shares data with Google

October 29th, 2015

Do not use VISA Checkout.  The system uses Google services and will transmit all information about you and how you use the account, where you use it, from what device you use it, what you buy, when you buy and everything that connects to you to Google, who will use it for whatever they want.  This is spelled out in the VCO Privacy Policy.


The danger is that Google will amass even more information about you.  Their goal is to own and/or have full rights to all information about everyone in the world.  Do I need to explain why this is a bad thing?


Google is not a financial institution.  They are not subject to the same regulations as your bank or credit card provider.  There is no confidentiality.  They have no effective legal constraints on what they can do with your information, with whom they can share it, how long they can store it, how securely they must store it, and they have no obligation to tell you if they accidentally share with, or expose to, an unintended or undesired third party.  They are not custodians of your information, but they have full access and rights to it.


Apart from that, Visa Checkout seems to be as useful as PayPal, which is their target competitor.  Like many things on the Internet VCO offers many useful features, but the price is too high- your soul.