The Geek Report

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Adam Darack is the IT guy for the town of Edgartown. He’ll be writing The Geek Report every other week, addressing the technological troubles and traumas we all share. Got a question for the Geek? Send it to OnIsland@mvtimes.com.

Many people feel that geeks have a near hypnotic ability to make technology work, similar to the way a mechanic can will a car to start using what I can only refer to as “the force.”  I feel a bit like a magician unveiling how he does his tricks, but I am here today to assure you that all of us have tech horror stories, so please feel free to laugh at me. At my own expense. Really.

Home phones ring when they are sent an electrical ringing signal. Think old school here, not cell phones, not VOIP phones, just old rotary and push-button phones.

Living off Island in 2003, I decided to run my own phone cables during a home remodeling project. I wanted to learn how and had a friend who told me how to do it. Running the cables was easy enough, but then I had to “punch” the wires into a piece of equipment to make all the phones communicate with each other. When I finished, one of the phones wasn’t working so I pulled out the cable, stripped the insulation off, and looked at the wires. At that moment, I wondered how much current would have to be sent through those tiny wires to make a phone ring, but it was only a passing thought. After carefully checking and double checking things, I touched the copper wires I was looking at for some unknown reason. I simultaneously heard a phone in the other room ring and felt the jolt, making me wonder if “the” bright light was about to appear. It wasn’t horrible but surely a mistake I’ll avoid making again. Pavlov had it right by ringing the bell and providing a reward. The sound of a phone ringing made me wince for a couple of days. In round one, Pavlov has staggered me with a right hook.

I usually say that easy tech stuff should take 15 minutes to fix. This could be a quick email setting, checking to see if a cable is unplugged, or rebooting a computer and testing some functionality that had been problematic. At home, that 15 minutes sometimes is an out and out lie. It doesn’t happen often, but that short time estimate has turned into three to four (non billable) hours plenty of times, usually ending around 2 am. Things that should work don’t, or some little anthill of a project turns into a mountain. While crawling through hot attics, I have sweated for hours in the heat while checking every inch of cable only to find out that an end was defective after going in thinking something would take no time at all. I have seen 500 feet of coiled cable turn into a rat’s nest in 30 seconds, inducing hours of migraines, and I have even occasionally struggled with programmable remote controls. That last one likely strips me of my manhood, but again, feel free to laugh at me, I can take it. In round two, uncooperative cables have wrestled me to the ground while a remote control has sucker punched me below the belt.

Surveillance cameras are the rage these days and camera installations can provide good comedy. There is a vast collection of screenshots out there taken by various friends’ cell phones of me adjusting cameras while standing on things like spinning stools, fences, and every type of furniture. These are not flattering pictures and have even been known to provide photographic evidence that I have in fact had my tonsils removed.

Common camera cables have a total of four ends, two for video and two for power. The power cords have distinctive male and female ends. I once ran a 100-foot cable through a floor, down a wall, over pipes in a ceiling and through a nearly endless crawlspace on my hands and knees. Remember that distinctive male and female end regarding the power cable? I didn’t. I can assure you that running it the second time so the correct ends were where they should be took a fraction of the original time, thankfully. If I couldn’t laugh at myself in these situations, I’d be out of the field and living like a hermit. The Times would also have an empty page here, so I’ll do my best to avoid that. In round three, surveillance technology finishes me off with a Three Stooges eye poke. I’ve been bloodied, but always come back smarter, more determined, and usually laughing.

Again — these are exceptions, not the rule. For every epic failure there are plenty of successes but those are nowhere near as entertaining to share. It’s the summer and between traffic, sunburns, and frantic camp drop off/pick-up schedules, I felt the need to provide some humor at my own expense. The next time you struggle with technology, stop, laugh, and don’t feel so bad. It happens to us geeks as well, I promise.

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Cool uses for technology.

Adam Darack

Adam Darack —

Adam Darack is the IT guy for the town of Edgartown. He’ll be writing The Geek Report every other week, addressing the technological troubles and traumas we all share. Got a question for the Geek? Send it to OnIsland@mvtimes.com.

Technology comes at us from every direction, at a confusing and sometimes overwhelming pace. We are introduced to new innovations through friends, advertisements, and even geeks who decide to blog. How do we process it all? What do we really need? What’s hype and what’s useful? I’ll single out three uses of technology that might come in handy for you this summer. In a simple phrase, it’s all about content: sharing and streaming.

My grandparents are 95 years old. They are among my favorite people in the world, but unfortunately they live off Island. My kids (their great grandchildren) play baseball, tennis, hockey, soccer, and are obsessed with the fishing derby.

For one of their recent birthdays, I was struggling with what to get them when my inner geek shone through. I bought them a digital photo frame made by Pix-Star that was able to connect to their wireless network. I can manage the frame’s pictures over the Internet and send new ones to it by simply emailing them to the frame’s email address. My son laughing with his baseball teammates — it’s on that frame 10 minutes after I take the picture. My 6-year-old daughter proudly holding up a derby pin-winning fish — the picture can be on their frame before the smell is washed off her hands. This functionality can be accomplished with different frames from other manufacturers, tablets, and smartphones. No matter how you utilize it, it’s one of the coolest uses of technology since a programmer turned the concept of a yellow circle (the female version with her red bow) eating white dots into something that became iconic for a generation. This is one of those “aha” technology ideas that works brilliantly for both tech-savvy and technophobic individuals. So much technology out there attempts to invent a societal need, but this one actually fills one that many of us have.

I am quick to admit that televisions suck productivity from our lives at an alarming pace. Regardless, my next segment of technology centers around them. At one point our TV options were simple; color or black and white and only a handful of stations unless you were the lucky one in the neighbor with this new “cable TV” thing. I vividly recall getting the rabbit ears in just the right position to be able to watch George “The Animal” Steele eating turnbuckles and Creature Double Features. Nowadays, the external antenna is long gone and all you need is a set-top box to stream almost any show, movies, and other content to a TV. Content providers such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon have apps that can stream content to these devices. We are beyond Bruce Springsteen’s 57 channels and nothing on: now we have hundreds of channels and nothing on. Island Entertainment in Vineyard Haven will rent you a movie, and I love that they are here. Part of summer vacation tradition includes occasionally sitting around, eating popcorn and watching a family film. If you aren’t going to go to the video rental store, one of these streaming devices allows any TV to function as a “smart TV” providing content from the Internet for you to watch. Some popular examples of set top boxes are made by Apple TV and Roku.

Bluetooth technology allows devices to communicate with each other wirelessly. Speakers with this functionality are becoming favorites at summer barbecues and beach parties. Streaming music to cell phones is fairly standard these days using services like iTunes, Pandora, and Spotify. Most cell phones can “pair” with a bluetooth speaker to play this music. A quick search on Amazon resulted in a wide range of bluetooth speakers priced anywhere from $30 to $600. I currently use a $30 unit made by HDMX, and it held up great at a little league end-of-season party last Saturday.

I hope this article helps clear up a bit of the cluttered technology landscape for you this summer. I’ve tried to focus on a slice of the technology pie that has the potential to be relevant.

Commenters: What’s your favorite tech gadget and how does it come in handy?

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The Microsoft Scam

Adam Darack sm.jpgAdam Darack is the IT guy for the town of Edgartown. He’ll be writing The Geek Report every other week, addressing the technological troubles and traumas we all share. Got a question for the Geek? Send it to OnIsland@mvtimes.com.

Scams come in many shapes and sizes, from the lonely Nigerian widow looking to transfer millions into my bank account to free iPad offers and everything in between. The one I’ll address this week starts in a way that would catch most of us off guard. The people I know who have been hit by it are not normally gullible types, which made me take notice of this scam above the countless others I hear about on a weekly basis.

The phone rings. When you answer, the caller claims to be from Microsoft. A heavily accented voice spouts off information about you — your address, a former address, your birthday (all publicly accessible information). The caller tells you your computer has viruses which have been sending error messages to Microsoft, which, they say, prompted their call. They instruct you how to open your event log, which will show a bunch of errors because…well, it’s Windows and issues will always appear in these logs. The caller then acts surprised to hear the high number of problems with your computer and claims this is because your version of Microsoft has expired. They say can renew your license for another two years for $300. This will be done by remotely connecting to your computer, but a credit card is required to continue, this information imparted with undertones of fire and brimstone.

Once they have access to your computer (and all of your information), a program will appear to be running on your screen, then you will be told the problem is worse than originally thought and more money is needed to continue. When you refuse, they get angry and threaten to lock you out of your computer. At that point, they change your password and hold your computer hostage, disabling your access. Hanging up on them will induce another four or five calls per day for weeks on end. If your password has been changed, you won’t be able to login to your computer and are in a tough position. A legit, local computer technician might be able to attempt to change your password back, though it’s not likely. If not, there are creative ways to get your data off your hard drive, reinstall Windows, then put your data back on the computer.  There are great tech companies out here; ask a friend who they use or look one up in a phone book.

So here’s what you need to know: First off, nobody from Microsoft will ever call you to say your computer is sending error messages – and, additional licensing is never needed to run a registered, legal copy of Windows. Secondly, every version of Windows has and always will have errors show up in its event log. No matter how convincing these people sound, it is a scam.

So what should you do? If anyone ever calls regarding a computer issue and wants access to your computer and/or a credit card, give them a piece of your mind and hang up. If you happen to let them into your computer in a momentary lapse in judgement, the quickest and easiest way to disconnect them is to hold the power button down on your computer for five to ten seconds until it shuts off. This is far from the recommended way to shut your computer down, but it’s quick and will work. Do not turn the computer back on until you have called your computer technician or someone you trust who is knowledgeable in the IT field, as a door will potentially remain open into your computer the next time it connects to the internet.

This is more of a public service announcement than the regular articles I’ll be writing twice a month for the Times, but an important one. In reading this, it’s clear I am describing a scam, but when someone on the phone sounds convincing, things can get confusing.

Theses scammers finally called me recently and my first words were, “Thank you, I’ve been waiting for your call.” I proceeded to ask the person on the other end of the phone how he’s able to sleep at night when his whole life is centered around deceiving people and hurting them. I detailed exactly how their scam works, what they do, and precisely what I thought of him and his coworkers. The actual words I used in that conversation, well, we can just call those “not fit for print.” I did it as payback for those I know who have been victimized.