Be still my geeky heart – digital spirograph!

Be still my geeky heart – digital spirograph!

Someone created a digital Spirograph. Oh, be still my heart! Yes, someone took the effort to convert the old toy from the 60s, into an online version. Nathan Friend created the digital Spirograph in 2014, and it’s still running. Check it out here Inspirograph (nathanfriend.io)

Opening screen for the digital Spirograph

Inspirogram is spirograph for adults

Digital Spirograph vs Traditional Spirograph

The digital spirograph is more fun than the original. My sister had Spirograph, back in the 60s and she adored it. She spent endless hours cursing the little gears for not staying in place and hunting for pens to use.  She created impressive designs. I was envious of her peculiar patience in working with the toy’s limitations.

Spirograph was insanely frustrating because I could never keep the gears from slipping, or the pens poking holes into the paper. Trying to figure out which gears made which pattern was irritating. I’d be humming along with a great design and then use the wrong gear and the pattern was destroyed. I preferred freehand drawing.

I have to admit, I was fascinated with the gears moving around and the possibilities. I still have a thing for gears and have a little box with old gears I’ve stripped from dead watches. I don’t do anything with them, just like them. But as for Spirograph itself, I would q with quickly get bored with it and wander off to draw birds and cats. Far more fun and I could use my pencils. I also have a weird thing for collecting pencils. Assorted brands, different leads. And pencil sharpeners. I love pencil sharpeners.  But I digress.

Folks on Facebook were chatting about old toys they had in the 60s and Spirograph came up. Someone pointed out a digital version of Spirograph existed. You have to love the internet, it’s filled with millions of ways to waste time. The digital Spirograph is called Inspirograph and it blows the manual version out of the water. No pen slipping, don’t like the pattern tap ctr z and remove it, change backgrounds, more colours than a jumbo box of Crayolas and you can save your masterpieces to download.

Digital Spirograph – more fun than a barrel of monkeys

Inspirograph is insanely addictive and memorising. You don’t need a mouse, just the arrow keys to move the gears around. I haven’t tried it on a touch screen, so I’m not sure if it works.

My first try at digital Spirograph - geometric patterns

Stars ‘n circles, oh my

White backgrounds are ok, but black is easier on the eyes.

Just tap the colour you want to use and start spiraling.

Inspirograph geometric design on black background

A person could waste an entire afternoon playing with this

The site is simple to master. No tricks, no bad code to trip up your design. Just a clean, functional site that offers a lot of distracting fun. When you stop to consider this was created in 2014, it’s a testament to Nathan’s skills that the toy works better than many newer online time wasters. 6 years and counting is old for the internet.

Digital spirograph - a flower burst on black background

I think of this as a flower bursting open

Go, have a ball, ignore Covid for an afternoon, download your art and put it on the fridge.

Here are a few articles I’ve posted about drawing, mechanical pencils and more. Enjoy

Search | Bitter Grounds Magazine Articles on drawing

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It’s time to examine your password insecurities

It’s time to examine your password insecurities

It’s time to look at insecure passwords and unhealthy habits. Every year, about this time, I visit lists of commonly used passwords around the world. It’s a tech support horror show of bad practices and lazy behaviour. I drive some customers up the wall with my harping about basic password security. Passwords are your first line of defense, but many don’t take them seriously. Yes, they are inconvenient, but unavoidable.

What makes a bad password?

The short answer is anything easily guessed.

That includes your children’s names, 123456789, simple dictionary words, the word “password”, your name, your street address, qwerty, 1111111, Mozart, and a host of easily guessed combinations. I’m never surprised anymore when I sit down at a customer’s computer and they can’t find their passwords. Too often, I can figure it out in less than 10 min. Invariably their response is “how’d you do that?” Yes, I figured out your password by looking at the name you have on your router Wi-Fi. No that is not a good way to remember your email password. Then comes my lecture about password security.

Lazy thinking

Most of the simple passwords are a result of lazy thinking and inertia. They’re picked because they are easy to remember. Worse still, many people never change their passwords. If a company is hacked, you may not know about it for months and even years. If you are in the habit of changing your passwords every 4 months, you decrease the chances of having someone hijack your account and not knowing until it’s too late.

Let me explain in a little more detail. Years ago (over 10 now), Bell’s Sympatico email was hacked. It was a mass hack and thousands of emails and passwords were stolen. By changing my passwords on a regular basis, I prevented a catastrophe. How? Well, those email passwords are still floating around on the internet. I go into my security settings and look at all the failed attempts to log into my account, by people who have the email address and the old password. Some days there are dozens of attempts to gain access to the account.

As an experiment about 2 years ago, I switched the password back to the stolen one. A couple of us were curious as to how long it would take for someone to gain control. Since I rarely use the email, I wasn’t too worried. I changed it back and was staggered. Within 2 min, the account was breached and within 10 min spam was flooding out of the account. I changed the password, cleaned up the mailbox and went in to check the mail forwarding and reply. Both had been changed. This meant any replies and all my regular mail would have been automatically sent to this new email address. That password was stolen (at that point) over 8 years prior but was still kicking around the internet.

Consider this. If I used the same password on multiple accounts, it wouldn’t have taken long for those accounts to be breached as well. It’s a cascading disaster.

Image showing various passwords - decoder ring, give up in despair, randomzie passwords

Pick your poison

How to keep passwords secure

Have unique passwords for each account. This means don’t use one password and change the last character for each account. If you use Hotdogs (not a good password!) on your email, don’t use Hotdogs123 for your banking account. If you have difficulties creating passwords, get a password generator. Those are apps that will generate difficult passwords that don’t fall into an easily recognized pattern. I started using one years ago when I realised my passwords all tended to use one side of the keyboard. No idea why I do that, but it’s a nasty habit.

I also use an encrypted password keeper. Face it, it’s impossible to remember even a fraction of the passwords that guard our accounts. I have over 200, all different. There are several excellent ones on the market. Dashlane is a popular and easy to use option. It combines both a random password generator and an easy-to-use interface for storing passwords. It also synchronizes across platforms. I have a customer who syncs between a Windows laptop, an iPad, iPhone, and an Android device.  Once everything was setup, she rarely had issues.

The free version will save 50 passwords. After that, you need to invest in a subscription. Look around and ask for recommendations from people you know and trust.

What you want to look for these features:

  • easy to understand screen
  • encrypted
  • password generator
  • easy to organise passwords into categories
  • easily synched between devices
  • options to upgrade if your needs become more complicated
  • cost. If you don’t have a lot of passwords to maintain, look for a “free for home use” option.

If you are given the choice, use Two Factor Authentication (2FA)

Many accounts will allow you to set up 2FA for your passwords. For some reason, whenever I think of 2FAs, my mind flashes onto those old decoder rings that came in cereal boxes. 2FAs are more secure, but not as fun. Two Factor Authenticators tie your smartphone to your online accounts, making it difficult to access email (for example) without that phone.

Let’s continue to use email as an example. When you sign onto your email, you’ll be greeted with a window prompting you to type in a randomly generated code. This code will be supplied by an app like Authy or Microsoft Authenticator. Fire up your smartphone, open the authenticator, tap on the program you want to access, and a random number will appear on the screen. Type the number into the prompt box, tap enter and bingo, you email opens.

Here’s a tip: if you use 2FA, make sure it’s backed up or you’ll be faced with a nightmare if you lose your phone.

The quick takeaway

Stop using “monkey” and “password”. Change your passwords regularly. Use 2FA when offered. Use a random generator. Stay safe.

Uninstall Adobe Flash now – a plain language explanation

Uninstall Adobe Flash now – a plain language explanation

If your website still relies on Adobe Flash, it’s time to update the site. It was time to ditch Flash years ago, but a small percentage of designers still use it. By the end of 2020, Adobe will no longer support or offer the Flash player and it will be removed from all major browsers.

As previously announced in July 2017, Adobe will stop distributing and updating Flash Player after December 31, 2020 (“EOL Date”). We made this announcement in collaboration with several of our technology partners – including Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Mozilla – which issued complementary announcements with more technical detail on what the Flash Player EOL will mean for developers, enterprises, and consumers using their specific OS environments or browsers. Adobe

Why is Adobe Flash a problem?

Flash is a bundle of insecurities and has been in its death throws for years. Despite the many signs of obsolescence, there are potentially millions of sites still using it. According to W3Tech’s Web Technology Survey, approx. 2.6% of all websites still employ Adobe Flash. How many of those sites have been abandoned is unknown. The number of Flash enabled sites may have decreased quite a bit since that article was written.

What does this mean for the average computer user? Not much. You may not be able to see some video content or an online game you like playing until the owner switches over to a supported technology. Almost every major, large scale website stopped relying on Flash years ago. The onus is on web designers to change their sites. As a user, the only thing you can do is find a different spot that has similar content. Removing Flash from all browsers is an excellent move that will protect the unwary user from phishing and zero-day attacks.

Flash will no longer be supported by either Microsoft or Apple by the end of 2020 and Adobe is pulling the plug on maintaining it on Dec 31, 2020. You can keep Flash running in your computer, but it won’t receive security updates. And that is a big problem that needs to be stripped out of all computers.

Continuing to use a Flash enabled site after all support is removed will be foolish. Vulnerabilities will multiply, especially if the website is no longer updated by the owner. Abandoned sites are a substantial risk for hijacking. Once a bad faith operator takes control of the website, they can use it to launch an attack on any older browser that has Flash enabled. So, if you are tempted to continue using one that supports Flash, just to play an old game, don’t. You are putting your computer at risk.

Adobe will remove all installations from their website. That means, you won’t be able to download any version of Flash. There will be no more authorized versions, no security patches, or updates for existing installations.

Adobe Flash logo

Adobe Flash Logo

Microsoft will also uninstall the irritating automated notification, “Security Update for Adobe Flash Player” that pops up from time to time. A Win10 update, later in the year, will delete it and future versions of Win10 will not be shipped with the control panel feature.

Despite Microsoft removing the automatic update notifications, Flash itself, will still lurk in your computer so go ahead and uninstall it now. You don’t need it. Will some sites be affected? Maybe. As I pointed out, there are still games that depend on Flash and you may enjoy playing them.  Leaving Flash in your computer represents a risk that just isn’t worth it.

The quickest way to uninstall Adobe Flash:

  • Right click on the little Windows icon bottom left corner of your screen
  • Left click on Apps and Features (should be top of the list that pops up)
  • In the new window, scroll down until you find Adobe Flash
  • One left click on the icon then click Uninstall when it appears
  • You will be asked if you “want to allow this app to make changes”. Say yes or the software won’t uninstall.
  • Wait while Adobe Flash is removed. Won’t take long.

Voila, you are done. Flash is no longer in your computer. If you land on a site that nags you to install Flash to see the content, ignore the message. Eventually the site will get with the program and fix their webpage. I removed Flash a while ago and I haven’t encountered any problems.

Updated to include instructions on removing Adobe Flash on a Mac

If you own a Mac, it’s important to remove Flash if it’s still hanging around. First, find which version of iOS your system is running. Then skip down to the appropriate instructions below.

  • Click on the little apple icon, top left of the screen
  • Click on About this Mac
  • Version number appears just under the big apple logo

Once you’ve determined which version, download the correct uninstaller from Adobe. Before starting the uninstall, make sure you know your computer password. You may be asked for it.

IOS X 10.4 and higher

Download the Adobe Flash uninstaller – Uninstaller for IOS X 10.4 and higher from Adobe. The uninstaller can be found in the Downloads folder. Open it and locate uninstall_flash_player_osx.dmg. Close your browser before the next step. Once it’s closed, double click on the file to start the uninstall process. Wait until it tells you it’s finished.

Once the software stops go and delete these two folders that are left behind.

  • <home directory>/Library/Preferences/Macromedia/Flash\ Player
  • <home directory>/Library/Caches/Adobe/Flash\ Player

Once you remove the folders, go ahead, and verify Flash has been removed by clicking on this link – verify Flash has uninstalled.

IOS X 10.1 to 10.3

Download the 10.1 version uninstaller. The one above won’t work, so make sure you know your IOS version. The program will be in the download folder. Drag it to the desktop and close the browser. Once it’s closed, double click on the uninstaller, and follow the instructions. When Flash is removed run the verify uninstallation is complete. You’re done.

A special thanks to the reader who pointed out how I forgot to include Macs in this write up. 

Read More:

Windows announces end of Flash support – https://blogs.windows.com/msedgedev/2020/09/04/update-adobe-flash-end-support/
Adobe announces end of Flash – https://www.adobe.com/ca/products/flashplayer/end-of-life.html

 

Microsoft Editor grammar check extension

Microsoft Editor grammar check extension

It’s been a while since I looked at browser extensions.  In the past, I’ve been frustrated by the lack of quality and choice. That meant I had little motivation to check the Microsoft store for new or improved extensions. Recently I took another look and found Microsoft’s Editor extension available for Edge.  It’s also available for Chrome users.

Logo for Microsoft's Editor extension

Available for Edge and Chrome – sorry Firefox.

Microsoft Editor for browsers

If you use Microsoft 365 (formerly called Office 365), you may be familiar with Editor. For the past month or so, I’ve been using it in Word. It’s handy at catching the usual spelling and grammar suspects. I don’t rely upon it heavily because the grammar rules used are too rigid for a casual conversational style website. But overall, it’s a sound addon for Word. Before installing the editor, make sure you have a Microsoft account, or it won’t work.  If you want anything beyond barebones features, you’ll also need a Microsoft 365 subscription. A Microsoft account is free but 365 isn’t. One positive aspect of Microsoft Editor is the simplicity of accessing the checker. Red, as expected, signifies typos and blue, grammar issues. No right click is needed. Left click on the underlined word or phrase and suggestions will be offered. I’m not sure why right clicking irritates me when I’m working on a document, but it’s one of those irrational bits of my mind.

Screen capture from Microsoft Editor for browser showing a drop down list of alternative phrases

Pretty helpful now that it works.

The good news is Microsoft Editor supports an extensive list of languages, not just English. You can check out the list here – Microsoft Store.

Fatal flaws in Microsoft Editor?

I’m not sure what happened when I installed the software, but it was … quirky. Very quirky. I have a 365 account so there shouldn’t have been any issues, but there were. So many issues. They ranged from insisting I speak a different language to non-functionality of most features.  When I first tried to use Editor, I almost removed it because of the frustration I felt.

Basic issues with grammar checkers

I dutifully setup the correct language, English (Canada) and tried to use the extension on this article when it was in the initial stages. Basic spell check worked fine, but it didn’t catch any capitalization at the beginning of a sentence. It still ignores the issue. When writing, I tend to type very quickly and often miss upper-case letters at the start of a sentence. Having it flagged makes editing faster. I’ve gone through the meager settings and there is no option to correct this oversite. It’s excellent at catching extra spaces within a sentence and missing commas, not so good at proper nouns and sentence structure.

Another flaw is its failure to be consistent when flagging double spacing between sentences. I learned to type on a manual typewriter. That meant I was taught to add 2 spaces after the period. This has gone the way of the dodo, and one space is all that is required. My brain still inserts double spacing when I’m typing rapidly. MS Editor would flag some but miss the majority.

One other irritant was the pop-up screen offering suggestions. If you’re working on a web address that has been flagged as a typo, you can’t copy/cut the line until you click “ignore”. Not a big issue but was a little aggravating until I figured out what was going on.

Grammar checker is okay, but it works best if you already have a solid grasp on how to construct sentences. It’s helpful, but if you aren’t aware of the pitfalls of conversational vs formal grammar, you may end up with a stilted article. Microsoft Editor is better than the old grammar checker from the early days of word processing which was comical on many levels.

But I don’t speak Welsh

Initially, I experienced a lot of issues with the extension. At first, I couldn’t figure out why everything was underlined. And what Sillafu and wibies were?

Screen capture from Microsoft Editor showing a almost every word as wrong and offering Welsh alternatives

Microsoft Editor looks like it committed suicide on my post

Another question was why synonyms weren’t available. Then a light flashed in my brain. I have a cousin who lives in Wales and thought the Sillafu looked vaguely familiar. Language was still set to English, but the spell checker was stuck on Welsh. No, I don’t have a clue as to why this happened. It is funny, after the fact. To solve this, I used the tried and true trouble shooting technique of “turning it off and on again”. I turned off the extension, closed the browser and then started over. Suddenly, Microsoft Editor was using the correct language.

The issue that hacked me off the most

Spell check worked, except for the previously mentioned issue with capitals at the beginning of a sentence.  The real issue was, and remains, with the synonym finder.  At one point, synonyms began to work but they were in Welsh. Another reboot of the browser and extension sorted that out. Alternate words were now being offered, but only if there was a spelling mistake to correct. Typos allowed me to see different words or phrases. I could correct the initial spelling error, but the synonym was not clickable. I was faced with manually typing in the suggestions. At this point, my frustration became too much, and I put the article away and ignored the extension. When I returned to it 24 hours later, all the issues were gone. Microsoft Editor seemed to work.

A flaw in Microsoft Editor

Editor is handy to have on the browser, but I doubt I’ll rely on it for anything more than catching the most grievous errors. A bigger issue is embedded in the design. Microsoft will flag words or phrases it thinks should be looked at and offer suggestions. But there is no way for the writer to manually trigger off synonym suggestions. It won’t spot multiple uses of a phrase or word nor will it allow writers to change them on the fly, unless flagged by the extension itself. This is significant. There is no sense in having a synonym checker if it depends solely on a piece of code to offer suggestions. Flawed, but useful is my thinking. I’ll keep it installed for quick checks and rely upon my own judgement. There’s always Roget’s Thesaurus and Oxford Concise sitting nearby for a quick consult.

Where to find Microsoft Editor

Microsoft Store here
Chrome store here
Firefox is not compatible, but you can always use the Grammarly extension.

What is my IP for beginners?

What is my IP for beginners?

“What is my IP” is something I’m asked occasionally. When a mildly confused customer emails me with that question, my first response is to ask why they need it. I’m not trying to be a pain, I’m just a little wary about the reasons. Let’s start from the beginning.

What is an IP address for beginners?

IP address simply means Internet Protocol address. It’s a string of numbers like 194.188.2.1 and serves as a home address. Everything connected to the Internet must follow a set of protocols or rules. Think of it as your mailing address for the web. Why do you have one?  Your internet provider assigned you one with your account and uses it to direct traffic to and from your browser. That string of numbers is how computers interpret website addresses. It’s not just computers that have IP addresses. Printers, for instance, that connect to the internet have one. If you’re on a network, you have an IP address.

Think of the IP address as your home address for computers. Anyone that can find it will have a general idea as to where you are. No, your home address isn’t attached nor is your personal info, but it’s pretty handy for narrowing down where a computer is located. It’s just a way to geolocate the nearest connection to your internet provider.

Here’s an example:

Type in 172.217.9.174 and google.com will pop up. Give it a try. Your browser basically translates the numbers into a name you understand. It’s much easier to remember google.com than 172.217.9.174. If you type in your IP address, you’ll be directed to the nearest connection supplied by your provider, but not exactly where you are am, the general area.

Static vs Dynamic IP address

Most users have what is called a dynamic IP address. That means it changes every time you connect to the internet or reboot your modem. Some, for a variety of reasons, have a static IP address. That means they are assigned a specific address that never changes. I’m not going to go into all the nuts and bolts about this now. Suffice to say, the majority of home users have a dynamic address.  Dynamic IP addresses are a little harder to hack because of their changing nature. Today you may be 192.155.698.1 and tomorrow you might be 192.155.698.8 (I used random numbers as a demonstration).

Why would anyone need to know their IP address?

Most people who ask don’t really need to know it. However, it is pretty handy when troubleshooting network issues, such as speed tests and finding out why something won’t connect to the network properly.

I did encounter a person who suddenly couldn’t connect to a few sites they used for years. A bit of detective work helped here. Their IP address had been blacklisted because of spam coming from it.  Because their IP address was dynamic, it had changed at one point and they were assigned the troublesome IP. In this case, the solution was quick – unplug the modem and plug it back in again. They were assigned a new address and could access the site.

Not all blacklisted IPs are that easy to fix, but when dealing with dynamic IPs, it can be that simple.

What is my IP address Image showing 3 computers & a geolocation marker with caption "you are here"

What is my IP address?

Ok, so what is my IP address?

No problem. It’s easy to find.  Before we go there, a word of warning. You have no reason to give you IP address to anyone unless it’s your tech support person that you have dealt with in the past. If someone emails or calls and asks, decline to give it to them. Their trolling for info.

It’s pretty easy to find your IP address. You can use an online service that quickly ids it.  There are many sites online you can access just by googling “What is my IP address”. I find the website What is my IP address helpful. Not only does it display all relevant info, it also has a handy little button to check if your IP has been blacklisted.

There are other ways to find your IP address, but for most people, just using the link above will do. It’s pretty easy.