The last 18 months have been tough on everyone, including our children. Each family had their own challenges: for mine, it was the UCAS personal statement as my son applied for university. No college meant no after-college activities. Closed shops meant no weekend jobs. Closed charities meant no volunteering. How could he stand out from the crowd? The answer came with online learning and volunteering.
As things return to normal, we’re finding that these are still great ways of building skills and knowledge, whether it’s for a UCAS statement or gaining career skills or simply if your school days are lost in the mists of time but you still want to learn. As Henry Ford said: 'Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.'
We started with a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). Lasting weeks rather than years, MOOCs can be free and often have no formal entry requirements. Courses use online media – typically video lectures – so you can study at your own pace. There are online tests to assess your progress and you can chat on the forums with other course participants.
There are several sites offering MOOCs, but our go-to is Coursera. From Edinburgh to Melbourne, Tokyo to Yale, universities all over the world host courses on Coursera, from beginner to Masters level. Courses offered by commercial companies such as IBM, Google and Microsoft and organisations like The Museum of Modern Art offer job-relevant learning. Higher level courses and those offered by commercial partners are rarely free, but there are still over 1800 free courses on a myriad of subjects. Anyone fancy ‘Big History: Connecting Knowledge’, ‘Successful Negotiation: Essential Strategies and Skills’, ‘Science of Exercise’, ‘Astronomy: Exploring Time and Space’, ‘Our Earth's Future’?
For something lighter we turned to Zooniverse for some online volunteering. As they say themselves: ‘The Zooniverse enables everyone to take part in real cutting-edge research in many fields across the sciences, humanities, and more. The Zooniverse creates opportunities for you to unlock answers and contribute to real discoveries.’ My son picked a project classifying gravitational waves – ripples in spacetime. Other projects range from identifying clouds, classifying whale vocalisations, transcribing information from architectural photography to capturing 19th-century tide gauge data from around the UK to study climate change and sea level rise. Personally, I love counting penguins in their Penguin Watch.
In 2015, Microsoft said that ‘Windows 10 is the last version of Windows’. The Verge explained, ‘While it immediately sounds like Microsoft is killing off Windows and not doing future versions, the reality is a little more complex. The future is “Windows as a service.” … Microsoft could opt for Windows 11 or Windows 12 in future, but if people upgrade to Windows 10 and the regular updates do the trick then everyone will just settle for just “Windows” without even worrying about the version number.’ So why, in spring 2021, am I reading ‘Windows 11 leak reveals new UI, Start menu, and more’? Have Microsoft abandoned the idea of ‘Windows as a service’. Well, yes (sort of).
In June, Windows 11 was officially introduced. So, what does this new Windows bring? The full 2021 Microsoft Windows Event is on youtube.com/watch?v=q5egaM2hibs, but here are the key points:
The upgrade – planned for release in the ‘holiday season’ with a slow rollout into 2022 – will be free for Windows 10 users for at least the first year. The big caveat is that Windows 11 may only run on newer CPUs. If you bought your PC before 2017 you’re probably out of luck, unless Microsoft change their minds in the coming months. If you can’t or won’t upgrade, don’t worry; you can continue using Windows 10 until support ends in 2025.
My first impression is that there’s nothing earth-shattering in this new Windows. But it’s still early days and new information is coming out all the time – check my TechTips for the latest news and reviews.
I need to start with an update on my last article. Just hours after the newsletter it's published in went to print, LastPass sent me an email telling me that the free version of their password manager would no longer work across multiple platforms. That left me having to decide whether to pay for the premium version or to find a new password manager.
This brings me to a topic I've been planning to write about for a while …
One of the things I usually love about technology is that it's constantly innovating, looking for new or better ways of doing things. This video is an eye-opening reminder of just how far Windows has come since 1985.
But not all the changes are for the better – and even the good ones can take some adjusting to. A client recently asked me ‘How do you find out about these things?’ Another told me that even when she Googles for solutions, she doesn't know which information to trust. So let me share with you some of the websites that may help.
You can also use these sites, and others such as The Verge, Digital Trends, Windows Latest and even Twitter, to get ahead of changes by following their tech news. 70 Tech Websites to Follow in 2021 is a great list of sites that you can read to keep yourself updated on the tech industry.
For the record, having done my research on a replacement for LastPass, I've switched to Bitwarden. While its ‘Free forever’ personal plan lacks style, it has all the functionality I need. I even find its mobile app easier to use than LastPass's.
Keep on learning!!!
How do you deal with passwords? Do you use the same one for every account? [Please, please don’t do this!] Do you write them down in a notebook? [Better; two cross-referenced notebooks are better yet.] Do you reset the password each time you log in to an account? [That’s actually really safe, but such a hassle.] Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you only had to remember one password, ever?
I have good news for you! You can! With a password manager.
A password manager is a safe space – a vault – where you can store information about all your accounts, including your passwords. The only way to open the vault is with a master password – the only one you’ll have to remember. Just make that password very strong and consider setting up two-factor authentication. Be aware that if you forget your master password, you may be locked out of your vault forever.
The advantages of password managers:
Encryption: the information you store in the vault is encrypted – transformed into complete unreadable gibberish that hackers won’t be able to decipher. Good password managers employ the encryption standard used by banks and the military and encrypt your information before it even leaves your computer.
Strong passwords: because you don’t rely on your memory, you can set up strong, unique passwords for every site. Many password managers even help you generate these.
Easy login: install the password manager’s browser extension and it can fill in your details when you login to a website. Do, though, read HowToGeek’s article on the dos and don’ts of using autofill.
Sychronisation: if you work across multiple devices you can access your information on whichever device you’re using, wherever you are.
Security checks: good password managers advise if you’re using the same password on multiple sites, if any of your passwords are weak or if your email address has been leaked in any known security breach.
What are the downsides? Obviously, because of the nature of the data stored, password managers are a target for hackers. However, researchers from the University of York who recently highlighted security vulnerabilities in some “still recommend their use to businesses and individuals alike, as they continue to be a more secure and useable option than resorting to password recycling or trying to memorize them all.” (WeLiveSecurity)
I’ve used the free version of LastPass as my password manager since 2014 and still find it more than adequate. SafetyDetectives deem LastPass “great choice for both beginner and tech-savvy users who are looking for a secure password manager”. If you’re considering a paid version, take a look at Tom’s Guide review of “The best password managers in 2021”.
The presents have been opened. Christmas dinner is eaten. You’ve taken a walk along the Ridgeway or up Yew Hill. Now the night is drawing in, but you don’t want the day to end. An idea hits you. You install the Freerice app. You open it and see:
Now I agree that 5 grains of rice don’t sound like much. But they soon add up. Last year, the equivalent of over 45 tonnes of rice were donated. (This year’s totals, sadly, will be lower; prior to July 30, each question generated 10 grains, but this has been temporarily reduced to 5 due to a collapse in the advertising market from the COVID-19 pandemic). “WFP doesn’t use the funds raised via Freerice to only purchase rice. Instead, money raised via Freerice funds a variety of WFP projects around the world, depending on where needs are greatest.” freerice.com/about.
I’ve played Freerice since 2013. Then, the only questions available were on English Vocabulary. These days, you can test yourself on topics such as Climate Action, Healthy Eating, World Landmarks, Famous Quotations, 6 different languages, Multiplication Tables, Chemical Symbols and, because this is 2020, CoronaVirus: Know the Facts.
You can now also create groups so you can compete with family or friends to see who can donate the most rice. Or you can play together with your kids to help them learn in a fun way – Freerice has an extensive list of banned industries and advertisers, so no inappropriate advertisements should ever appear.
Christmas is a time for giving. It’s also a chance to have fun with the family. Now you can do both with Freerice.
I get my love of technology from my Dad, a real technophile who, until Alzheimer’s made it difficult, was never happier than when trying out a new gadget or experimenting with a new app. My Mum, on the other hand, is discombobulated by it all. She's fine doing familiar tasks on her laptop but gets thrown when something different happens. She's the first to admit she needs a lot of handholding – and she isn't alone in that.
When the Covid-19 lockdown happened and she knew I wouldn't be able to pop over and help with her list of problems, she panicked! Fortunately, the technology that scares her also came to her rescue, in the form of Quick Assist.
Quick Assist allows you to help someone less confident by giving you remote access to their computer. Its big advantage over better known alternatives such as TeamViewer is that it's built into Windows so there's nothing to install - although we still struggled a bit getting Mum to find the app on her computer. There are three ways to bring it up, and I think we tried all of them before we got it going:
For a comprehensive guide on using Quick Assist, take a look at this Computer World article.
When I started writing this in February, I thought it was quite niche. But when restaurants and pubs closed because of Covid-19, home cooking became the new eating out and it's now surprisingly relevant.
I've always been a keen cook and have a shelf of recipe books, a box full of recipes ripped from magazines and a random collection of bookmarks for recipes all over the web. Over the years, I've tried to organise all these. I wanted something that was visual but also had great tagging and searching to help me manage my collection.
Most of the food-specific apps were very expensive. The free Yummly is an amazing treasure-trove of recipes but it didn't have the flexibility I wanted. I tried Pinterest, Trello and Airtable, which are great solutions for some projects but none of them worked for my recipes.
Then I found the answer: CopyMeThat. I discovered it while hunting for a recipe that was on a website that had closed. That's the beauty of CMT; it doesn't just bookmark the recipe, it saves a copy so that you still have it even when the original has disappeared. Web pages are ephemeral things!
Things I love about CMT:
Downsides? It doesn't have the user base of sites like Yummly so I can't guarantee it'll be around for ever. If it doesn't, you can export your recipes to an HTML file – complete with pictures and the links to the original recipe sites – which you can use as a Word document. I must also say, it's functional rather than beautiful.
Check out my recipe collection; I hope it inspires you.
“I’ll Google that”. Like Hoover and Xerox, Google has become a verb in its own right. And there’s a reason for that:
“Google – unquestionably being the best search engine out there, makes use of powerful and intelligent algorithms … to let the users get the best out of a search engine with a personalized experience.” – It's FOSS
But I’ve tried something different: “I’ll Ecosia that”.
Why? Ecosia is a search engine that plants trees. Each search you carry out earns a point; for every 45 points, Ecosia plants a tree.
How does it work? Like every search engine, Ecosia is paid for by advertising. Their difference is that they use their revenue to fund not-for-profit organisations who plant trees in places where it will have a significant impact; current projects include Madagascar, Brazil & Spain.
Is it legitimate? Ecosia is certified by B Corp to
“meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.”
Each month, they publish their financials so you can see exactly where the money goes.
Is it private? More people than ever have concerns about Google tracking their data (hint: if you don’t want your searches to be tracked at all, use DuckDuckGo – duckduckgo.com). Ecosia does use trackers but commits to anonymising all searches within one week, encrypting your search and not selling your data.
Is it environmentally friendly? Ecosia’s own servers run on 100% renewable energy. But the search is powered by Microsoft’s Bing search engine and Microsoft aren’t quite there yet, although they’re moving in the right direction:
“by 2025, we will shift to 100 percent supply of renewable energy” and “by 2030 Microsoft will be carbon negative, and by 2050 Microsoft will remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975.” – Microsoft blog
Even on current figures, Ecosia estimates every search removes 1kg CO2 from the atmosphere due to the carbon-negative effect of the trees they plant.
Is it effective? I’ve been using Ecosia for a little while now. It does come up with different results from Google but it almost always finds what I’m looking for. And if it doesn’t, I just add #g to my search term and it redirects to a Google search. Likewise, among other search tags, #w searches directly in Wikipedia, #a in Amazon, #b in Bing, #yt in YouTube.
Any downsides? Other than having to allow ads, my only complaint is that it doesn’t work with some of my security extensions like Bitdefender’s TrafficLight.
Try Ecosia on ecosia.org. If you like it, install the browser extension, change the default search in your browser’s settings and/or download the app on your phone.
Save the earth by searching the web!
This article was originally published in the Winter 2019 edition of the Badger Farm & Oliver's Battery Community News. Here I have added much more information than I had space for in the original.
When Santa receives letters like this, I do hope he has a techie-elf in his workshops to help him find a good computer. But if not, here are some pointers he (and you!) can use.
My choice is the Intel Core series, which come in four flavours: i3, i5, i7 and the newer i9. The latter two are for gaming and other intensive tasks such as media creation. A Core i3 is great for light use – the internet, office work and basic photo editing – but a Core i5 will, in general, be more powerful.
The extra bits. You'll often see a processor described as, for example, Intel Core i5-9300H Quad-Core Processor. This can give you clues to how good it is:
4Gb is adequate for day-to-day computing but 8Gb or more will definitely make a difference.
How much RAM do you need? on Digital Trends is a great article that helps you understand why and when it's worth investing in extra RAM. I love their analogy that explains the difference between memory (RAM) and storage:
A desk is a useful analogy to consider the difference between memory and storage. Think of RAM as the top of the desk. The bigger it is, the more papers you can spread out and read at once. Hard drives are more like the drawers underneath the desk, capable of storing papers you’re not using.
Internal storage comes in two types. The traditional HDD (hard disk drive) is a mechanical device so runs slower. The newer SSD (solid-state drive) has no moving parts and runs much quicker but is more expensive, although prices are dropping. One option is to have two internal drives: install Windows and all your applications on a small (128Gb/256Gb) SSD so that they run super-fast and have a larger (1TB) HDD to store everything else.
One of the most intensive tasks for the computer is displaying everything on the screen. To take the pressure off the CPU, all computers have a graphics processing unit. 'If you want to play high-end games or do serious 3D modeling, you need to get a laptop with a more powerful, discrete graphics chip from Nvidia or AMD that takes over from the Intel GPU when you launch graphics-hungry programs. However, most mainstream users can get good enough performance from Intel's built-in' (aka Integrated) 'graphics.' laptopmag.com/articles/intel-hd-graphics-comparison
Screen size is obvious: weigh up portability, battery use and, most importantly, usability. Think about the screen resolution too. Look for at least 1920x1080 Full HD. 1366x768 HD screens may be priced more attractively but you could pay for the lower resolution in a lack of clarity and possibly with eyestrain.
Make sure there are enough USB – preferably the faster 3.0 – ports to connect all your devices (mouse, external hard drive etc). If you want to connect to a monitor or a TV you may need an HDMI port too.
USB 3.0 / 4.0 release dates and maximum speeds on userbenchmark.com. This is a very technical article, but it's worth a read if you're interested in the differences between the different USB variants. It also discusses the new USB 4 specification which will be released later this year.
September 2020: Thunderbolt 3 vs. USB-C: What’s the Difference? from HowtoGeek and ReviewGeek's USB Explained: All the Different Types (and What They’re Used for) probably cover everything you need to know about the USB connectors in all your gadgets.
Be aware that, as most software is downloaded these days, not many laptops come with a CD/DVD drive. It is, however, possible to buy an external optical drive which you plug in to your computer when you need it.
Christmas Greetings from my own techie-elves! I hope they help you as much as they help me :)
As well as being Winchester Computer Tutor, since the spring I've been the editor of a local newsletter, the Badger Farm and Oliver's Battery Community News. I've enjoyed redesigning the newsletter and when setting up my first edition I took a long time choosing the fonts. Font choice is like housework – no-one notices when you do a good job, but everyone notices when you don't!
The right font can make a difference in the way you get your message across, not just in publications like Community News, but in work and personal documents and even in emails. If you're designing a website, font choice becomes even more critical:
‘it can have a real effect on your site's bounce rates and conversion rates, especially if you choose a font that's hard for your visitors to read.’ kinsta.com/blog/best-google-fonts.
Windows 10 comes with around 100 fonts already installed, with a few more available from the Microsoft store. While that sounds like a lot, you may still feel that you can't find the perfect font for your project. So where can you get new ones?
It takes time and effort to design a great font, so many cost a lot of money and have restrictions on, for example, commercial use. There are sites that offer free fonts, but some are notorious for pirating copyrighted fonts or including malware, so you must choose carefully.
If in doubt, go with the big boys. And they don't get bigger than Google. With over 900 free fonts at fonts.google.com, your problem may be that there's too much choice. You can use the search tools to find fonts based on their type (serif or handwriting, for example), language or other characteristics. You can also use the font pairings recommendations to find fonts that work well together. When you've found your ideal font, select, download and install it: HowToGeek will guide you through this process.
If the Google fonts don’t meet your needs, other reputable font sites are dafont.com, fontspace.com and fontsquirrel.com.
Some of my favourites for fun projects are Ink Draft from the Microsoft store; Courgette, Parisienne, Poiret One from Google; Kingthings Wrote, Montez and 1942 report from Font Squirrel. The medieval section of FontSpace has a great collection of illustrated letters and there's a party atmosphere in the Mexican section of daFont!
One word of warning – too many fonts can slow down your computer, so don't get too carried away.
Summer means holidays. Holidays mean photographs. Lots and lots of photographs.
If you're like me, when you get home and go through them, you'll find a few that you want to do more with. Or one special one that would make a perfect painting, but you just don't have the artistic skills. And if you're really like me, you'll wonder if there's some technology to help you make the most of them.
The free versions of both apps have their limitations. With Prisma you need to pay to unlock HD quality and many of the styles while Deep Art shows ads while it is processing the image and places a small watermark in the bottom corner of the final picture. But I think the end results are worth it.
I’ve rebranded my column from Computer Corner to Tech Talk. Why? To reflect how computers have evolved from “the PC sitting on your desk” to “the tech you carry around all day”.
Think back to the days when the family would crowd round (or fight over) the only computer in the house. When you used dial-up internet and waited for 10 minutes for a song to download. How things have changed. Now, you catch up with your favourite shows on iPlayer while tweeting on your tablet and messaging on your phone. Then you jump onto your laptop to do some research or your console to play a game with friends. Switching from wifi to mobile data, you carry on regardless of whether you’re in the house, on the bus or even half-way up a mountain.
Interestingly, this was Apple’s dream back in the early eighties. “What we want to do at Apple, is we want to put an incredibly great computer in a book that you can carry around with you and learn how to use in 20 minutes ... And we really want to do it with a radio link in it so you don’t have to hook up to anything and you’re in communication with all of these larger databases and other computers.” One of the keys to the success of this dream is the communication with the “other computers” or what we now term the Cloud.
The Cloud still has an air of mystery but is just a short way of saying “software and services that run on the Internet, instead of locally on your computer” (Re/code). With the average broadband speed now 825 times faster than that old dial-up connection, it’s now not an issue to store huge amounts of data elsewhere and access it on the fly.
So, when you store pictures on Google photos, you’re using the Cloud. When you read email on your iPad, you’re using the Cloud. When you post to Facebook, ask Siri a question, update a shared document, stream a Netflix movie … well, you get the idea!
Using the Cloud means that, whichever device you have to hand, you can carry on exactly where you left off. Of course, it helps if the apps you use synchronise across all your devices. If you’re invested in the Apple world, you should find that everything works beautifully. And Windows and Android play nicely together, a cooperation that I imagine will only get stronger as Microsoft is moving to use Google’s software in its Edge browser.
“Cloud is about how you do computing, not where you do computing.” Enjoy the freedom that it brings.
As winter approaches, it’s a good time to look back and see how well I’ve stuck to my News Year’s Resolutions. Some haven’t been great. But “Get more organised” – that’s a YES! How? With the help of Trello.
In essence a virtual pinboard, in Trello you can organise almost anything. From a simple list of chores at home to a complex Kanban-based project at work, Trello helps you manage information in a clear, visual way. I’ve used it as a recipe catalogue, a holiday planner and for information sharing on my “Tech tips” board. Other people have used Trello for lesson planning, product roadmaps, keeping up with friends, job searches, party planning, tracking life goals. There are so many ideas on trello.com/inspiration.
Getting started with Trello is easy: add a board, personalise it with a background picture, add some lists and finally add your cards. Give each card a title, then open them to include more details – notes, checklists, pictures, links, labels, documents and dates. The Getting Started Guide on help.trello.com walks you through everything from adding your first board to using Trello like a pro while the Trello Features board shows many of the features in action. For a step-by-step introduction, watch the Getting Started With Trello video.
If you have a group of friends or colleagues who want to work together on a project, you can create “teams” to allow them to collaborate on a board. Assign each card to a person and you can easily share information and track progress on everyone’s tasks.
Trello has been developed to support a wide range of users and this is reflected in its flexibility. Each board can have its own Power-Up which extends its functionality. While most of these are more useful if you’re using Trello at work, some like TreeView, Voting, Calendar or, especially, Custom Fields help you tailor your personal boards to best fit your project. See them all at trello.com/power-ups. Another useful add-on is the Chrome extension; click this to add any webpage as a Trello card. But you’re not limited to using Trello in a browser.
My only complaint is that boards with a few hundred cards warn of slow performance. But given that, even in the free version, you can have unlimited boards it’s easy to split your information into smaller boards which can be linked in an overview board. You can easily move cards between boards using the "Move..." button on the back of cards.
If your New Year’s Resolution this coming year is “Get more organised”, you might want to give Trello a go.
Genealogy was transformed by the internet. Information that once took cross-country trips to record offices or churches to find can now be accessed with a few clicks. It’s probably why genealogy is now one of the most popular online activities. If you want to give it a go, where can you start?
If later you find you want to either share your tree or have extra functionality, you can export your tree from this to an online or a paid package.
Start building your tree by talking to family and recording their information. Once you’ve got the bare bones, you’ll want to fact-check and add to it. I suggest starting with familysearch.org. While some of its finds are locked behind the paywall of its sister site findmypast.com, its collection is comprehensive and transcriptions of many records can be viewed for free. Then there’s ancestry.co.uk; from 1970s phone books to Tudor probate records, you’ll find something about your ancestors here. For details that are behind the paywall, take advantage of the occasional times they offer free access or login for free at the library.
There are also sites where genealogy is done for passion not profit. Run by volunteers, they focus either on making records available free or on amalgamating information to move you forward in your research. A few to check out:
“Some family trees have beautiful leaves, and some have just a bunch of nuts. Remember, it is the nuts that make the tree worth shaking.”
A few years ago, I couldn’t have imagined giving up on Windows Live Mail. But in January 2017 Microsoft ended support for this much-loved program, leaving it susceptible to security vulnerabilities, so I decided to hunt for a replacement. If you make the same choice, this may help.
If Windows 10 Mail is too simple, Outlook too expensive and Thunderbird too different you may find that eM Client becomes your new favourite.