Lots of clients ask me whether there is anything they can do to tidy the mess of cables that gather and tangle around their computer. The short answer – as far as I know – is “no”. We seem to be stuck with cables for the foreseeable future. Small inroads into the problem have been made:

  • Bluetooth and radio connections instead of cables – wireless mice (mouses?) and keyboards now work well, although I still have problems with some bluetooth-connected devices (except on my Mac, where they work perfectly for both keyboard and mouse). You can also now buy bluetooth-connected speakers, but I understand that the quality of the output may not match cabled speakers.
  • Wireless printers. These are now easier to set up and keep working than when they first came out a few years ago, but they can still be tricky. They only save one cable, but that can be useful as it’s the data cable to the computer. If the computer is a laptop, it can be easier to carry around if it is connected to a wireless printer rather than a wired one.

Accepting that most of our cables are here to stay for now, what can we do to tame them?

Have plenty of socket extension boards so that plugs aren’t constantly being connected and dis-connected to make way for each other. It is almost magical how cables wrap themselves around each other under the desk, but the process is definitely exacerbated by constant plugging and unplugging. Buy enough extension boards for all the devices so that the plugs (and cables) stay put.

Restrain the extension boards from moving around. I have screwed several extension boards to the modesty panel beneath my desk and this undoubtedly helps.

When buying a new computer desk, consider one that has holes in the desk to allow cables to pass through. Some desks even have channels built into them that can take not only the cables but even extension boards as well.

Plastic cable ties - available from MaplinPlastic cable ties are available from places such as Maplin. These keep cables in place (in bunches), but they can not be removed and put back on. Once in place they have to be cut off to be untied.

 


 


 


 

Velcro cable ties - available from MaplinVelcro cable ties are also available from Maplin, They are easy to take off and put back on and they’re supplied in several colours for the uber-nerds among us who think it’s worth colour coding such things (ok, I admit it, I use red ones for the cables that are supposed to be in my bag, available on any client visit).

 


 


 

Spiral cable tidy - available from MaplinPlastic spiral tubes that hold lots of cables in one bunch are a no-no as far as I am concerned. They may keep cables tidier than they would otherwise be, but they are a real pain to get off and on whenever you want to remove or re-locate a cable. They are fine for situations where you don’t think you’ll need to disturb the arrangement, but otherwise they are more trouble than they are worth. I suspect, though, that there may be a quicker way than I have ever found for deploying and removing these things. Answers on a postcard, please, or, better still, a comment on this blog.

On a slightly different note, but while we’re crawling about in the dust under the desk, it’s well worth putting a simple label on each plug describing what it is connected to. I know this sounds really nerdy, but it can save a lot of time when adding or removing devices, and when trying to tidy things up.

While we’re still underneath the desk, if your computer is a desktop one that is mis-named because you keep it on the floor, then be aware that it is even more prone to dust-collecting than a laptop or “actually-on-the-desktop”. Even if you don’t fancy taking off the cover to ensure that the dust is not collecting badly inside, do make sure that the air vents on the cover are cleaned from time to time. Vacuum cleaners are not thought to be a brilliant solution for this as they can create static electricity, but an air duster (can of compressed air) or one inch paintbrush can do the job in seconds.

And, finally, please mind your head when coming out from under the desk. Or is it just me that mis-judges where the edge of the desktop is?

Just two quick tips this week:

Re-booting a frozen computer

On/off switchIf your computer has frozen solid and simply won’t respond to anything at all that you do, then there is an easy and certain way to get it to-reboot – just depress and hold down the on/off button for a minimum of five seconds. This will definitely cause your machine to re-boot.

This is not to be done lightly as it does immediately delete the entire contents of the computer’s memory, so any unsaved work could be lost and there could just be unpredictable consequences in other respects (since the programs that were previously loaded haven’t had an opportunity to perform any “closing down tasks” before being rather brusquely dismissed). Nevertheless, I would recommend this method over simply yanking out the power lead. There is one situation in which it may be the ONLY thing you can do if your computer has frozen, and that is if you have an Apple Mac laptop with a battery that is not removable.

Lost Internet Connection

Sometimes your internet connection may disappear without any obvious reason. You can usually tell that it is a connection problem outside of your own computer if a red light appears on your router/modem. If this happens then I recommend doing the following:

  • If you have a telephone on the same line as your broadband connection then see if you have a dialling tone. If you don’t, then report the fault to your provider as a telephone fault – don’t even think of reporting it as a broadband problem if the voice line has gone. It’s far easier to get them to investigate a voice line failure (which will also be the reason for your internet connection failure).
  • Assuming that you still have a voice line, re-boot your router/modem – ie switch it off (or, more likely, remove it from the power supply as they don’t usually have on/off switches) and re-connect it after a minimum of 30 seconds. There is a very good chance that after you’ve given it a minute or so to get itself started then your connection will return.
  • If re-booting the router doesn’t work, then re-boot the router and the computer at the same time – ie switch them both off before switching them both back on.
  • If that doesn’t work, then disconnect your router from both the power supply and the telephone line and leave it disconnected for 30 minutes. This gives the equipment further back up the line the opportunity to see that you’ve “gone away” so your connection will be closed (and re-opened when you re-connect).

I estimate that about 80% of internet connection problems are resolved by carrying out these simple steps and it can be a very great relief to regain your connection without being subjected to the torture of speaking to the average ISP’s technical support department.

There is no doubt in my mind that it is becoming increasingly difficult to get decent technical support from ISPs. It doesn’t matter what you try and tell them. They still absolutely insist that you jump through all their hoops, exactly as they demand, despite what you may have already tried. There have been several occasions in the last few months when I have spent hours – yes, hours – trying to persuade ISPs that we have investigated all the possibilities of problems at the client’s end and that we now want them to carry out a line check. There is no doubt that they carry out support by following a very rigid pre-defined set of steps and they will not deviate from this. I can’t offer any help here – just sympathy and the hope that simply re-booting your router will save you from this Kafkaesque nightmare.

Finally, I don’t apologise for plugging my own ISP – Zen Internet. Their technical support (based in Rochdale) is still first-class. Maybe they are not quite alone, though. I had reason to contact PlusNet a few days ago and their response was also fast and human. Yes, this is the same PlusNet as the one that lost the plot regarding technical support about 3 years ago. Maybe they have learned from Zen how to do it. I can’t help thinking that it’s probably not just a coincidence that PlusNet have been running a television advertising campaign boasting of their technical support based in Yorkshire – not a million miles from Zen in Rochdale.

By the way, several Mac clients have pointed out to me that it isn’t always obvious if I’m talking about PCs or Macs in these blogs. I’m going to start to categorise them so that it is more obvious. In the meantime, the topics in today’s blog are equally applicable to Macs and PCs.

You are browsing the web when a popup message box suddenly appears suggesting that you have been infected with something, or are at risk of something, or you are being offerred something unexpectedly (and suspiciously).

You don’t know whether it’s genuine or not and you may or may not be familiar with the website that you are visiting.

The options it seems to offer may be clear or ambiguous, attractive or unappealing, well-written or illiterate. Actually, none of that matters very much. What matters is whether you think that the message is genuine or is something you would prefer hadn’t popped up and which you’d like to get away from as quickly as possible. If you think that the message is benign and you are prepared to go along with what it suggests then the rest of this article does not apply.

If you are still reading, then you are concerned about the situation and you do not trust the message.

What do you do?

My advice is straightforward:

DO NOT

  • Click on the option that seems to offer a solution to a problem you didn’t have 30 seconds ago (and which you probably don’t have now)
  • Spend five minutes agonising over the potential consequences of the different options.
  • Try to work out the motivation of the perpetrators
  • Click on the “X” at the top righthand corner of the box to close it. Note: I just said DO NOT click on the “X” ……….

DO

  • Get out of the situation ASAP

    Clicking on any button in the box – even the “close” button – can have any consequence that the perpetrator has designed. All (s)he is interested in is getting you to click on something so that the master plan is triggered into action. I repeat, do not click on ANYTHING in the box – even the close button.

    Instead, close the browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox etc) immediately using the Task Manager. This is achieved as follows:

    Task Manager window with browsers loaded

    1) Right-click on the clock at the bottom right-handcorner of the screen.
    2) Left-click on the “Task Manager” option.
    3) Left-click on the “Applications” tab.
    4) Look for the line(s) in the list that relate to your internet browser. In the example here I have four different browsers running – Chrome, Opera, Firefox, and Internet Explorer. Note that the description against each browser icon is the title of the web page that is being displayed in that browser window at the moment (eg I am looking at the BBC website in my Chrome browser). In this example, I have no programs loaded other than the four browsers. You would normally see the entry for your browser amongst entries for other open programs (eg Word, Excel).
    5) Click on the line for the browser in which the popup has just occurred.
    6) Click the “End Task” button.
    7) If you happen to have that browser open in several windows, such that there are several lines for it in the Task Manager, then I would recommend closing all of them.
    8) Close the Windows Task Manager by clicking on the “X” (top right-hand corner).

  • Run the “on demand” scanner of your antivirus program to check whether you machine has been infected

    As far as I know, all antivirus programs have the ability to run a complete scan of your computer “on demand”. If you can find that option and run it then it will provide some peace of mind. If you can’t find this option then your antivirus program is probably set to run a complete scan automatically once a day anyway so you will probably know in 24 hours if you did, in fact, “catch” something.
  • Consider downloading and running an antimalware program

    Be very very careful if downloading any other antimalware program as some of the offerings are exactly the opposite – malware disguised as antimalware.

If you need more help, remember that my remote control support service is available – see http://www.davidleonard.net/remote-support/

@ sign bouncing on a trampolineThis is a continuation (and conclusion) of last week’s post.

More clues to look for in the text of the (rather cryptic) bounce message

Unable to relay or relaying prohibited

There could be several reasons for this message:

  • Your email connection might require authentication by logging onto your incoming server before attempting to send anything out (a setting in the email configuration if you use an email program such as Windows Live Mail)
  • The smtp mail server (ie the outgoing or sending server) that you are trying to use will not allow you to use it as your IP address does not identify you as a legitimate user of that server (for instance, if you are using a laptop with a wifi connection other than your own router at home)
  • The return address of the email message is at a domain other than that of the smtp server

Blacklisting

There are dozens of lists on the internet containing the names of servers that are known or suspected to send spam. Your own ISP’s email servers could have got onto one or more such lists. Although completely innocent, your email may be failing to reach its destination because the recipient’s email server found your ISP’s email server on a blacklist they check against.

If this happens to you, you need to contact your ISP, explain that you think they’re on one or more blacklists and ask them to act to get themselves removed. A client of mine fell foul of this problem a few months ago. The reaction of the ISP was somewhat underwhelming in that they said they had tried to get removed but it was outside their control. Not very useful. In the end, we took advantage of a facility provided by Google whereby you can retain your own email address but have your messages routed through Google’s servers. Free of charge and it’s been working ever since (but a bit messy to set up).

Whitelisting

This is not as serious as blacklisting. What it means is that the recipient’s email system will only receive email from specific (ie “whitelisted”) email addresses. You would need to contact the recipient by a means other than email in order to get your email address added to their whitelist.

Spam Filters

Look in the bounce message for words such as “blocked” or “suspected spam”

Your email may have been rejected by the recipient’s server as it looked like spam. There are certain things you must avoid when composing emails – eg don’t write in capital letters, don’t use multiple exclamation marks. I was just about to give specific examples of what not to do but then realised that the newsletter version of this blog post would probably get caught up in everyone’s spam filters. The reality, though, is that you are unlikely to know that your message has been rejcted for being suspected as spam. Spam messages aren’t normally bounced – just discarded or held in quarantine.

Non-Delivery Without Bounces

There are times when the recipient claims not to have received your email but you did not receive any bounce message. There are several possible causes of this:

  • Spam Filters – If your email has been blocked by a spam filter then you may not be informed by a bounce message. Your message will seem to have simply disappeared into the ether.
  • Junk Folder – The recipient’s email software (as opposed to the recipient’s email server) may have intercepted your message as spam and moved it directly to the recipient’s Junk folder. So if someone says they haven’t received your email the first thing to do is ask them to check their Junk folder.
  • Email Rules – The recipient may have set up their own rules in their email software to semi-automate the handling of incoming mail. One of these rules may have caught your message and dealt with it in an unexpected way. If you have reason to suspect this, you might ask the recipient to to perform a Windows search on some specific text in your email. If the message is in their system but has been moved somewhere unknown by a rule or filter then this may explain what’s happened.
  • Message or attachment too big – If you suspect this is the problem, try sending a short email with no attachment. If it gets through then it may have been that the incoming server rejected your message because either the message or an attachment was too big. Some email servers won’t accept attachments bigger than 5mb, others 10mb. If I’m sending someone a large attachment I always ask them to confirm receipt.

Conclusion: although bounces are a nuisance, the bounce messages often contain useful information – you just need to glean the information and ignore the machine-speak.

@ sign on a trampoline - bouncing email…..and what you can do about it

What is a Bounce?

If an email message can not be delivered to the inbox of its intended recipient then it is said to “bounce” – ie the sender receives a message advising that delivery failed.

Bounces that aren’t

The first thing to do when you receive a bounce message is to identify the message that wasn’t delivered. There will be a reference to it in the bounce message. If there is no reference to any message originated by you then be careful as this may be spam or a virus and not a bounce at all. In particular, don’t open any attachment if you’re not sure that this message is actually a bounce relating to a message you sent.

Another possibility of a bounce message that did not originate with a message sent by you is known as “backscatter“. Spammers are able to make their messages look as if they came from completely innocent and legitimate email addresses (eg yours). If the spam they send out is bounced back then you will receive that bounce even though you had nothing to do with the original message. It’s an unsettling experience, but all you can do is delete the bounce message.

Real Bounces

A real bounce will refer to a message you sent. If it is a “hard bounce” (the message was rejected by the email server to which it was sent) then you will probably receive the bounce within a minute or so of sending the doomed message. If it is a “soft bounce” (accepted by the email server but ultimately undeliverable to the recipient) then it may be days before you receive the bounce as the server may have made several attempts to deliver it.

To determine what you can do about a bounced message, you need to look for intelligible phrases in the bounce message:

Some common phrases to look for amongst the gobbledegook are:

user not found
not our customer
mailbox not found

All of the above – and others like them – are suggesting that the recipient’s server accepted the message but then couldn’t deliver it to the user because there is no valid user with that username. The username (more properly known as the “local mailbox part”) is the part of the email address before the “@”, so in “fredsmith@example.com” the user (local mailbox part) is “fredsmith”. The cause of this error is very likely to be just a spelling mistake or typo (wrong key hit) on your part. Alternatively, the email account may have been closed so that email address won’t accept any more messages.

The pedant in me insists that I point out that, in theory, the local mailbox part is case sensitive. In other words “FredSmith” is not the same as “fredsmith”. In practice, I have never come across an email failing to get through for this reason. Bizarrely, the “domain name” part of the address (the part after the “@”) is not case sensitive, so “Example.com” is the same as “example.com”.

If the bounce message includes a phrase such as

quota exceeded or
mailbox full

then the user has filled up the disc space that they are allowed to use for email and must move or delete some of it before they can accept more email. If you need to get your email through then it’s often quickest to phone the recipient so that they can do something about it. This is an example of a soft bounce. The server may attempt to deliver the message for two or three days before telling you that it failed.

Another common explanation for a bounce is given as

Host unknown

This either means that the domain name (the part of the address after the @) is incorrect or the server of that name is unavailable. For example, the “example.com” part of the email address “fredsmith@example.com” may be incorrect. Check that you’ve got the email address correct and try again. It could just be that the email server is temporarily busy or unavailable. In that case, sending the message again may result in a normal delivery. If I’ve been having a problem like this, but then the message doesn’t bounce on a re-try, I will sometimes send another message asking the recipient to confirm delivery of the first one. If, however, your second attempt results in a second bounce and you are sure that the address is correct then try a bit later (say, an hour or so). If you haven’t managed to get it delivered in a day then it’s probably best to contact the recipient.

There are other reasons for bounces and sometimes a message doesn’t seem to reach the recipient even though you don’t receive a bounce. I’ll be returning to this topic next week.

© 2011-2017 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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