What is my computer’s file-storage system about?

Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro convertible notebook at Rydges Hotel Melbourne

How is your data organised on your computer, whether on its main disk or any removable storage connected to it>

A computer always needs to be able to hold programs and data in a non-volatile manner so users can get back to this data when they switch the computer on again. Here this has evolved through different methods and technologies that answered these needs in different ways.

What were these technologies that were available for home computers?

Initially, home-computer users used to have to use audio cassette tapes to store this data. Subsequently, the magnetic diskette, commonly known as the floppy disk due to it being like a piece of card, became the preferred storage method for computers. Typically, the better computer setups would end up with two floppy-disk drives so that two disks can be accessed at once.

USB external hard disk

A USB external hard disk

The early 1980s saw some manufacturers offer high-capacity fixed-disk drives, which were known as “hard disks” as a storage option for computers with this being preferred by business users. These storage devices earned this name as them being seen as an alternative to the old floppy disks.

Subsequently, Sony brought forward the hard-shelled 3.5” “micro-floppy” and this was brought out alongside a similar technology offered by Hitachi and a few other companies. It was to provide a higher-capacity smaller data-storage magnetic disk that was more rugged than the previous designs and appealed to the design of highly-portable computers.

The optical disk, which is based on CD technology, came in to being as an affordable software-distribution and large-data-distribution technology during the mid 1990s. Subsequently, solid-state non-moving flash storage came to fruition from the late 90s as a removable storage medium for digital cameras and PDAs but became more viable for regular computers since the late 2000s.

Since the magnetic disk came on the scene, there was an increased importance placed on organising where the data existed on these storage systems, with an emphasis on such concepts as file systems, volumes and folders or directories. This was because the various magnetic-disk systems were becoming more and more capacious and users needed to know where their data existed. Here, the file system effectively became a hierarchical database for the information you store on your computer and provided a logical relationship between the files and where the bits and bytes that represented them existed on the storage medium.

Desktop computers required the ability for the user to insert and remove any removable media at a moment’s notice but this required the user to be sure that all the data that was written to the medium before they could remove it. This is in contrast to what was required of mainframe and similar computer systems where an operator had to type commands to add the disk to the computer’s file system or remove it from the file system as part of physically attaching and detaching these disks.

This concept changed when Apple brought in the Macintosh computer which used the Sony 3.5” microfloppy disks. Here, they allowed you you to insert removable media in to that computer but required you to “drag it to the Trashcan” before the disk could be removed. Some advanced removable disk types like the Zip disk implemented this kind of removal in the Windows and other operating system by providing what has been described as a “VCR-style” eject routine due to its relationship to how you used an audio or video recorder. Here, you pressed the eject button on the disk drive which would cause all the data to be written back to the disk before the disk came out.

Now the modern computer has at least one hard disk and / or solid-state disk fixed inside it along with USB ports being used for connecting USB-connected hard disks or memory keys. You may also be inserting your camera’s SD card in to an SD-card slot on your laptop computer or in to an SD-card reader module that plugs in to your computer’s USB port if you were downloading digital images and videos. Some of you may even have an optical drive integrated in your computer or connected to it via a USB cable and use this for archiving data or playing CDs and DVDs.

Your operating system’s file manager

Windows 10 File Manager - logical volumes

All the logical volumes available to a computer – representing hard disks with their logical partitions along with removable media

The operating system that runs your computer will have a file manager that allows you to discover and load your files or move, copy, rename and delete files amongst the logical volumes available to your computer. In Windows, this used to be known as File Manager, then became known as Windows Explorer but is now known as File Explorer. The Apple Macintosh describes this file manager simply as Finder.

This used to be a command-line task but since the arrival of the Apple Macintosh, the file manager is represented using a graphical user interface which shows a list of files, folders or logical volumes that you are dealing with.

Clicking on a folder or logical volume will bring up a screen to show you what is in that folder or logical volume. But clicking on a file will cause it to be opened by the default application or, in the case of a program, cause that program to run.

Moving or copying files nowadays is simply a drag-and-drop affair where you drag the files from the source to the destination, but you may have to hold down the Shift key or use the right-hand mouse button to modify a default move or copy action.

As well, the modern file managers have a “two-stage” delete action for files on a hard disk or other fixed storage where they end up in a “holding-bay” folder known as the Trashcan or Recycle Bin when you delete them. This is to allow you to find files that you may have unintentionally deleted. But to fully delete them for good, you have to delete the contents of this “holding-bay” folder, something you can do by right-clicking or Ctrl-clicking on this folder to bring up a context menu and selecting an “Empty” option.

What is my computer’s file storage system about

The logical volume

Most operating systems represent as their storage system every logical volume be it a removable disk or each partition of a hard disk as its own element. It was the only way to work in the early days of computing because each fixed or removable disk didn’t hold much in the way of data and was its own element. As hard disks became more capacious, there was a requirement to partition them or break a single physical hard disk in to multiple logical volumes because the operating systems of the early days couldn’t hold much data per volume. You can also set up some operating systems to present a folder on a NAS or file server available to you over a network to appear as a logical volume, a practice that was important before networks were commonplace and personal-computer operating systems could address network resources directly. All removable media are still represented with one logical volume per disk, card or stick.

Each logical volume would have the ability to be given a volume name and be represented as a distinct icon which is part of a “Devices”, “Volumes” or similar cluster in the file-management system that is part of the operating system. The icon is typically a crude representation of the storage medium that the logical volume exists on.

Windows, harking back to the Microsoft MS-DOS days, would also assign each logical volume a “drive letter” owing to the fact that each disk drive on the original IBM PC was assigned its own letter with A and B reserved for the floppy disk drives.

The Apple Macintosh represented on the right side of the Desktop screen a “disk” icon for each logical volume currently available to the system. But recent iterations of the Macintosh’s operating system provided a setting so that all of the logical volumes that represented the computer’s fixed storage didn’t appear as desktop icons.

The mid 1980s showed up a situation where an operating system had to identify what kind of disk a logical volume was on because hard disks were becoming more viable and a computer could have multiple disks of different kinds. This was also being augmented by the arrival of networks and file servers where you could “pool” your files on a common computer with larger storage, and CD-ROMs in the early 90s being a cheap way to deliver large amounts of software and data. Thanks to the graphical user interface, this was represented via an icon that represented the kind of disk being handled.

How are they represented?

In Windows, each logical volume, whether fixed or removable,is represented in Windows Explorer or File Explorer by an icon in the left hand panel under “This PC” or “Computer” or something similar depending on the version. If you click on this icon, you will see a list of all the logical volumes available to your computer.

On the Macintosh, you would normally have each of these volumes represented by an icon on the right hand side of your desktop, where you would click on that volume to invoke a Finder window to see all of the files in this volume. On the other hand, Finder would represent all of the volumes in a separate left-hand-side pane.

In both cases, each logical volume would be represented at least with its logical volume name and icon. With some systems, if there is a device that can hold removable media like an SD card reader, floppy disk drive or an optical drive, you will see that device listed but greyed out or de-emphasised if there is nothing in it.

Some operating systems like MacOS X may represent a removable volume like an SD card, USB memory key or optical disk with a distinct icon to highlight their removeability. This will typically be an “eject” symbol which you can click to safely remove that volume. Windows even lists the “eject” word in the right-click option menu for all of the volumes that are removable.

Folders

The folders that exist on a system disk

All the folders that exist on a hard disk, this time the system disk

The Macintosh and, subsequently, MS-DOS and Amiga brought around the concept of directories or folders as a way of organising data across increasingly-larger data volumes. Here, you could organise the data in to smaller clusters that relate to a common theme or purpose with the ability to create a folder within another folder.

Some operating systems like some versions of the Macintosh operating system allowed you to represent a folder with a graphical icon but this was used mainly by software developers when you installed software on the computer.

But all of the computers typically allocate a special folder on the main logical volume for storing all the programs that you run and, in some cases, even create a temporary folder for keeping data that a program stores on an as-needed basis.

How are they represented

On the graphical-user interface, these were represented as a folder icon that is  a part of how the contents of a logical volume was represented. Clicking on this folder icon will allow you to see the contents of that folder.

What is the main or system disk of your computer?

The Main Disk or System Disk for a Windows computer

The Main Disk or System Disk for a Windows computer

The main disk on your computer, which is a hard disk or fixed solid-state-device, stores all the files that are to do with its operating system and all the applications you run on your computer. Such a disk is listed as C: in Windows or MACINTOSH HD on the Macintosh. It is also described as the system disk or the boot disk because it has the operating system that the computer has to load every time it is started, a process described as the “boot” process.

Where the programs that you run exist

It will also contain the data you create but all of the files needed to run the operating system and the applications will be kept in particular folders. For example, the  “Applications” or “Program Files” is kept aside for the applications and games the user installs, with each application you install creating its own subfolder of that folder. This is while a separate folder like “Windows” or “System” is kept for the operating system’s files. Some operating systems like MacOS may also use another folder for keeping plug-ins, fonts and similar common application resources while others may keep these with the applications / programs folder, usually as a subordinate folder.

Where the Desktop is represented

As well, all the icons and files that you store on the Desktop will be kept on a “Desktop” folder which represents everything that exists there.

The data you have created

But you will also end up with user-data space like “Documents”, “Photos” and the like where you save all of the data you create with your computer’s applications. Your e-mail program may store your emails in that folder or in a separate folder on this same disk.

Some operating systems, most notably Windows and earlier iterations of the Macintosh operating system, even let you create folders on the System Disk that aren’t earmarked for a purpose for you to use as your data folders. This also includes other programs keeping the user-created data in their own folders.

The secondary holding place for deleted files

Then there is the “Trashcan” or “Recycle Bin” folder which is used as a holding space for files you delete should you regret deleting them. When you delete a file from one of your folders on the main disk or other fixed disks in your computer, these files will end up in this “holding space”. Then if you want to remove them permanently, you have to delete them from this folder.

Removable Storage

USB memory key

USB storage device – an example of removable storage

All of the removable storage devices work on a freeform method of organising data across each of their logical volumes because there typically isn’t a requirement to keep certain folders for certain system processes.

This is except for memory cards associated with digital cameras because of the digital photography industry’s desire to implement a “Digital Camera File System”. Here, you have a DCIM folder for all digital-camera images and your camera will keep the pictures and videos you take in a subfolder of that DCIM folder, This was to simplify the searching process for digital images when you used a printer, photo-printing kiosk or electronic picture frame. There is also a MISC directory where DPOF print-order files are stored when you order photos to be printed using your camera’s control surface and either insert the camera card in to you multifunction printer or a photo-printing kiosk.

When you delete a file from removable storage, it is gone for good. As well, you need to make sure that you properly remove memory cards, USB memory keys and similar removable storage because most operating systems won’t write back all of the data changes to that storage device as they occur. Some operating systems like Windows allow you to immediately remove the classic floppy disks but most of them require you to use a “safely remove” or “eject” routine to properly write all the data to the removable medium before you can remove it. The Macintosh even allows you to drag the removable medium to the Trashcan to safely remove it.

Conclusion

The file system that your computer has is one of the key tenets of managing your data on your computer and it is about how your data is organised across multiple storage devices and within these storage devices.

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Should I use Windows Photo Viewer or my presentation program to show those photos?

Microsoft PowerPoint

Microsoft PowerPoint can do the job easily for some applications

Previously, I wrote an article about how to use Windows Photo Viewer to show a collection of digital images on the large screen like your projector. Usage classes I was targeting this at included churches and other houses of worship who were showing digital images from the mission field, businesses with a lot of new products to show, people going through a large collection of newly-taken images and the like.

But you think about whether the dedicated presentation or playout program like PowerPoint, EasiSlides or Screen Monkey does the job better in this situation compared to something like Windows Photo Viewer.

Image in Windows Photo Viewer

Windows Photo Viewer comes in to its own with a collection of many photos

The problem with these dedicated presentation or playout programs is that there is more rigmarole involved in putting an image in to the presentation and this can open up room for mistakes. This may not be an issue if you are only needing to deal with an image count of between five and 10 JPEG images being necessary for your event. You also may be factoring in using the presentation or playout program to handle the rest of your program’s visual content like PowerPoint presentation material, textual material or song lyrics.

But Windows Photo Viewer would come in handy where you are dealing with a collection of many digital images that you took with the digital camera but want to show on the screen. A good rule of thumb to work with may be at least 11, perhaps 24 to 36 images which was the equivalent of the number of slides that could fit in the slide boxes that mounted 35mm slides came in after the film was processed. Here, you would be wanting to show those images in a manner equivalent to the old-time slide show, showing them in a sequence that matches the flow of your presentation.

Here, different programs can answer different needs and this is more true when you are dealing with presentation or AV playout needs in your small business or community organisation.

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Creating your own electronic signage for your organisation

Any of the flat-screen TVs on the market including the 4K models can serve as electronic signage

Any of the flat-screen TVs on the market including the 4K models can serve as electronic signage

One use you can put flat-panel displays (including TVs) and projectors to is as an electronic signboard for your business or organisation. This can be alongside a computer that you set aside for that task or a having the display itself or a video peripheral like a Blu-Ray player do the task of showing the signage.

Here, you can use common computer software to create the signage that you can keep revised and updated as your needs change and either show them using this software or create JPEG files of the signage to show using your display or video peripheral.

Create the signage material

Microsoft PowerPoint - useful for creating electronic signage

Microsoft PowerPoint – useful for creating electronic signage

Use a presentation program like Microsoft PowerPoint, OpenOffice Impress or Apple Keynote to create your slides. Here, make sure you have the page layout set up for a 4:3, 16:9 or 16:10 screen when you set up your presentation with the aspect ration dependent on what most of your equipment can work with natively.

Sometimes, you may find that the DL paper size may be able to provide that “wide expansive look” for your signage on a 4:3 or 16:9 display. Other layout sizes that can also work include the “business-card” size or the classic 3:2 layout associated with still images taken on 35mm film.

Some of you may base your signage on other printable collateral that you have created like handbills, flyers or business cards. The best formats for the collateral that you want to use would be most of the common paper sizes with the document set in landscape format. In this case, you simply make a high-resolution JPEG or PNG bitmap from the PDF master file for the printed collateral.

You may decide to implement animation in your signage using the presentation program if it supports that feature but the program must be able to export these signs as a video file that most devices can understand. Here, you may want a particular sign to have an animated effect for the duration of that message, including an effect that happens when it appears and another when it disappears.

If you are using an electronic picture frame or a tablet purposed as one and you have this set up in a vertical (portrait) manner, you may find that you could use a vertical page layout here.

How should it look

You may find that your electronic signage may work really well if you use bright features like text or graphics set against a darker background. This will effectively make the text and graphics “pop” against the background and is also more flexible for use with video projectors.

As well the text is best set up using sans-serif fonts like the Helvetica or Comic Sans font families rather than serif fonts like the Times Roman or Courier font families. This is more so where you are using a projector or a large display that is likely to be viewed at a distance. Here, such text becomes easier to read from a distance. But you can make use of mixed-case lettering to make best use of the space as well as allowing for improved legibility.

Learn from example

Presentation shown on retractable screen

These presentations can be a good example of what you can do for electronic signage

If you are looking for good examples to work from, pay attention to some of the work others have done in this field, especially if this is your first effort at visual merchandising.

For example, look at the slides that are shown before the main film when you are watching a movie at the cinema, or the slides shown at business presentations during any conference or expo you attend. Similarly, when you are loafing on that couch watching TV, look at the announcement or advisory slides that are shown before or after the TV shows or any of the menus and warning notices shown before DVD or Blu-Ray video content.

Here, you observe things like text pitch and layout along with how the text and other highlights look against the background. Similarly, it may be worth noticing different colour combinations that are used in this material.

Export your slides to high-resolution picture or video files

PDF2PNG or PDF2JPG can come in handy for creating bitmap images of your electronic-signage PDFs

PDF2PNG or PDF2JPG can come in handy for creating bitmap images of your electronic-signage PDFs

Once you have finished with creating your masterpiece slides and you are satisfied with them, export a PDF copy of the presentation. Then you use a PDF-to-JPEG export site to export your PDF-based presentation to high-resolution JPEG files that work with most TV screens. I have highlighted this process in my article and SlideShare presentation about how you can create better high-resolution JPEG output form PowerPoint.

This process is important if you aren’t using the same or compatible presentation tool to show the electronic signage or are using consumer-electronics devices as the display tools.

If you create a highly-animated screenshow using your presentation tool, export it as an MP4 (H.264) or other common video file which your displays will support. Here, you don’t have to add any sound to the file because this will come alive with just the vision. If you have to convert the animation file, you may find that most video-editing or video-conversion utilities can do this job very adequately. Here, you may find that you could make video files for each slide rather than for the whole presentation so as to allow for devices to randomly show the slides or to allow a mix of animated and still signage.

Showing them on the screen

Using your network and UPnP AV / DLNA technologies

DLNA collections listed as sources on the TV

DLNA content collections listed as sources on a Samsung Smart TV

If you have a NAS or file server that is running DLNA media server software, (most of these would be), you can use UPnP AV / DLNA as a way to show the electronic signage. Here, you use a TV that has DLNA functionality integrated in it like most, if not all, of the smart TVs; or have a TV, monitor or projector connected to a DLNA-capable video peripheral like a Blu-Ray player, network media player or games console.

Here, you use the remote control on the TV or video peripheral to “pull up” the images that are in a folder shared by the server device’s media-server software. Or an increasing number of devices can respond to DLNA-standard media-controller software like the “Play To”/ “Cast To Device” function offered in Microsoft Windows operating systems since Windows 7, allowing you to “throw” the pictures up on the screen using your regular computer or mobile device.

Pioneer BDP-160 Blu-Ray Player (Pioneer Europe press image)

Pioneer BDP-160 DLNA-capable Blu-Ray player – can enable a cheap flat-screen TV, monitor or projector to be used for electronic signage

But you have to have all of the “signage” slides in a folder that is accessible to and shared by the DLNA media server software. On some NAS units, you may be able to add an option for a shared-folder tree anywhere on the NAS to be indexed and shared by the DLNA media server; or you may be required to keep your media content under a certain shared-folder tree. Then you maintain sub-folders that relate to particular occasions or campaigns and put the relevant electronic-signage JPEG files there.

Removable Media

Panasonic VIERA AX900 Series 4K UHDTV press picture courtesy of Panasonic

Just about all flat-screen TVs could work with USB memory keys to show electronic-signage images

Most of the large-screen TVs, Blu-Ray or DVD players, network media players or similar devices are providing the ability to show still images held on a USB memory key or SD card. Similarly, you could burn a CD or DVD full of digital images and show these on most, if not all, recent-issue DVD and Blu-Ray players  As well, an increasing number of the portable video projectors are even offering as a differentiating feature the ability to allow you to show pictures or videos from a USB memory key or SD card.

Here, you can upload a campaign’s worth of images to a USB memory key and plug it directly in to your display device or video peripheral. To the same extent, you could put these images on an optical disc and show them using most recent DVD and Blu-Ray players.

Using removable media works best if you are working with one or two display devices to show your signage material. Similarly, it can work very well if you are not likely to change the material very frequently.

You may also find that some of these display devices or video peripherals will run the images at the sharpest resolution that the display can support. Here, the playout hardware integrated in the display is working directly with the display rather than at an “agreed” resolution.

A computer connected to a large display

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Ultrabook

Desktop or laptop computers when used with external displays can earn their keep for electronic signage

Some of you may customarily hook up a computer to a large display like a projector and will want to use it for showing the electronic signage. It would be of importance for churches and other houses of worship where a computer is used to show worship material; or cinemas and theatres where a computer is used to show the program material.

Here, you could use a presentation program to do the job especially if you used the same presentation program or a compatible piece of software to create those slides; or just get by with a photo-viewing or media-playout tool like even Windows Photo Viewer to do this job without installing extra software. I have written up some instructions on how to press this program in to service with a larger display when you have a dual-display setup like a laptop connected to a large screen or a desktop with a monitor and a projector for showing to the audience.

Sometimes you may find that the one presentation tool doesn’t answer all of your needs with your computer or some of these tasks may be difficult to perform with that tool. For example, you, as a church AV manager, may find that a worship-lyrics program of the EasiSlides ilk can cut it just fine for the song lyrics that are part of your worship service while a program like Windows Photo Viewer can cut it for showing many JPEG images. On the other hand, you may come across that presentation tool that can satisfy main-program applications as well as the electronic signage applications.

An iPad or similar tablet

One of these tablets could work as counter-top electronic signage

One of these tablets could work as counter-top electronic signage

Most tablets have a screenshow application but you would have to upload the signage in to the tablet whether via Dropbox or similar cloud storage; connecting the tablet to your computer to transfer the files; or plugging in a microSD card or USB thumbdrive in to an Android tablet that supports USB OTG or removable media. You may also find that a DLNA media client running on your tablet can also fulfil this task effectively if your tablet and NAS are part of the same network.

It can be taken further with an Apple TV or Google Chromecast device that purposes your TV screen as the external screen for your tablet. Similarly, running a DLNA media-controller client on that tablet to “throw” the signage to DLNA MediaRender-capable devices like Smart TVs could answer your needs. But these situations may not allow you to use the tablet’s screen and the external screen simultaneously.

These would work well when you want to have this signage on a bar or reception desk for your visitors to see up close.

Conclusion

Once you know how to use your favourite presentation program to create electronic signage and that you can use cost-effective equipment to display it, you can then have a digital display that you can always have updated regularly with new information.

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Product Review–Brother P-Touch P900W label printer

I am reviewing the Brother PT-P900W Wi-Fi-capable label printer which is the latest in the range of labellers based on Brother’s P-Touch thermal-print labelling system. This uses the same “drop-in” label-tape cassettes as the rest of the P-Touch labellers such as the TZe-261 wide white tape that came with this machine.

There is a premium variant called the PT-P950NW which implements extra connectivity options. These come in the form of integrated Ethernet connectivity so you don’t need to use a Wi-Fi link to use it as a network label printer, USB host connectivity to work with USB-connected barcode scanners and similar devices along with the ability to work with an optional Bluetooth interface that only works with Bluetooth barcode scanners.

Users can also purchase a rechargeable battery pack if they want to run it on battery power and this charges with the supplied AC adaptor. As well, you can also purchase a serial adaptor to work with input devices like scales or barcode scanners that implement traditional serial connections.

But the piece de resistance that Brother puts forward is a touch-panel kit with LCD display that allows the machine to be purposed as a task-specific label writer. This includes the ability to work with pre-defined label templates or where you may have to enter numeric data.

This unit is part of Brother’s P-Touch thermal labelling system which uses TZ-series label cassettes and came with the TZe-261 label cassette which had a wide writing space.Brother P-Touch PT-P900W label printer

 

Recommended Retail Prices

The Brother P-Touch label printers

PT-P900W
– Wi-Fi, USB to computer, serial connection
RRP: AUD$699
PT-P950NW
– Ethernet, Wi-Fi, USB to computer, USB host, serial connection, optional Bluetooth
RRP: AUD$899

Optional accessories

Serial Adaptor
– connect to scales or barcode scanner with RS232C (DB9) connection
AUD$29.00
Bluetooth Interface for PT-P950NW
– connect to Bluetooth-capable barcode scanner
AUD$149.00
Rechargeable Battery Base AUD$99.00
Rechargeable Lithium-Ion Battery AUD$199.00
Touch Panel for PT-P950NW
– converts to standalone solution-specific label writer
AUD$199.00

The label printer itself

How you load the Brother P-Touch PT-P900W label printer

How you load the Brother P-Touch PT-P900W label printer

The Brother PT-P900 family of printers has a similar look to Brother’s latest business inkjet printers like the MFC-J5720DW inkjet multifunction thanks to the black housing with the rounded edges and flat top reminiscent of some 1950s-era home appliances. But it is easy to load and unload thanks to a lid that opens to reveal where the label cassette is.

Previously, I ran the Brother PT-P900W as a printer connected to my computer and it has worked as expected with the software installing properly after I had downloaded it from Brother’s Website. It also was a chance for all the P-Touch Editor software that was on my computer to be updated, which would represent a situation if you have one or more other P-Touch labellers that are customarily hooked up to your computer or on your network.

The Brother PT-P900W implements a highly-sophisticated network functionality for its Wi-Fi network. Here, it can work with 802.11g/n networks but needs you to set it up for a network that doesn’t implement WPS-based “push-to-setup” connectivity on its router or access point – thankfully most “Mi-Fi” portable Wi-FI routers can answer this call if you are setting up a mobile wireless network.

This unit can also be set up to work with WPA2-Enterprise wireless-network segments found in larger businesses where there is individual user-based login to the network. But you may have to upload EAP-TLS certificates to the device from a regular computer. As well, it is future-proof in that it supports IPv6 in a dual-stack form.

Brother PT-P900W label printer connected to Samsung Galaxy Note 4 Android smartphone

This smartphone is connected to the Brother PT-P900W label printer via the home network while the label printer is being its own access point

I set the Brother P-Touch PT-P900W label printer with my home network’s Wi-Fi segment and it worked properly, both with my phone connected to the home network and to the unit’s own Wireless Direct access point.

The supplied Brother P-Touch Windows software is very flexible when it comes to printing needs and it can allow you to “gang” multiple Brother PT-P900W / PT-P950NW label printers with the same labelling tape for “round-robin” multiple-machine printing jobs. This can help with dealing with intense jobs like a stocktake or large delivery for example.

As expected for devices based on the Brother P-Touch system, the output quality was very crisp and I had found that the TZe-261 label tape that came with the review unit could answer most labelling needs. This is more so if you, for example, make use of two lines for your labels.

Other people’s opinions

Brother PT-P900W label printer turning out a label

Brother PT-P900W label printer turning out a label

I brought the Brother P-Touch P900W label printer out to the church I worship God at in order to demonstrate it to a friend there who works as an electrician and obtain his opinion on this device. I used it along with my smartphone to turn out a label and he noticed that the machine turned out the label which he wanted to use on one of the mixing desk’s faders very quickly and clearly. It didn’t take long for the Brother labeller and my smartphone to set up together and I was able to have the label turned out very quickly.

But he noticed that this machine looked a bit bulky and mentioned to me that he wouldn’t find it suitable for regular portable “on-the-go” use. He reckoned that it would work well for office-based applications and occasional transportable use.

Limitations and Points for Improvement

Personally, I would like to see a manual override between Wireless Direct and Wi-Fi infrastructure operating modes, which can come in handy if you want the unit to start quickly or to deal with difficult situations.

Similarly, I would like to allow for mobile-based app-driven Wi-Fi setup similar to a lot of Wi-Fi-based wireless speakers and similar devices are set up. This is where you can have the opportunity to select Wireless Direct, connect your mobile device to the label writer’s Wireless Direct network, and use a mobile app to upload your infrastructure wireless-network segment’s parameters to the printer.

The WPS “push-to-setup” functionality could also be extended to client-device setup so you can enrol your “open-frame” mobile device to the Brother labeller’s Wireless Direct network at the touch of a button.

The baseline unit in this family could implement a USB Type A socket for barcode labellers and other data-input devices that use USB because this connection standard is being seen as the way to connect peripheral devices. This could be extended to having the machines recognise the standard USB keyboard or, in the case of the Bluetooth interface, Bluetooth keyboards as an input device so they can quickly be purposed as a label writer

Conclusion

Personally, I would see the Brother P-Touch PT-P900W and PT-950NW label printers not as being for use on the road but as a tool for office-based workflow labelling with a regular computer or mobile device such as a smartphone, especially where the mobile device is likely to be used frequently as an input tool. Examples of this could be inventory control for the “reserves” at the back of a shop; or in a kitchen to keep control of foodstuffs and their expiry dates.

This is whereas the Brother P-Touch PT-E550WVP handheld heavy-duty label writer can earn its keep in the back of a tradesman’s van for on-site labelling.

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FLAC–now the audio filetype for archival use

Naim NDS network audio player

This high-end Naim NDS network audio player is an example of equipment that can handle the lossless FLAC file type

If you work with audio content, whether to “rip” CDs to the hard disk or home network, or record speech or music content for audio projects, you may have been dealing with various compressed filetypes like MP3 or AAC as your main recording format.

But most of these filetypes work on a lossy principle where data is effectively lost and when the file is played back, the software reconstitutes that file to make it something to listen to. Now an open-source file format has been released to allow for lossless compression of audio content.

This recently-issued format, known as FLAC or Free Lossless Audio Codec, has answered many audio technicians’ prayers because the sound is encoded in a manner as to prevent the loss of audio content through recording or playback. This is in a similar manner to how a ZIP or RAR “file-of-files” is prepared in order to conserve disk space or bandwidth. You still have the advantage of a compressed file not taking up too much storage space or transmission bandwidth. Being an open-source free codec, it means that audio applications can implement this codec without the need to pay royalties to particular organisations and there are very few other encumbrances on that codec.

FLAC re-rip of CD

FLAC – a better archival format

One of the best analogies that I came across for using FLAC in the audio-archival context is that it is like if you are a wine collector and you purchase a premium wine-cellar to keep your collection. Here, the wine-cellar is keeping the wine collection at an ideal temperature and humidity for long-term storage. But when you want to serve that drop at the dinner party, you have the bottle sitting on the sideboard and resting until it is at the ideal serving temperature.

Previously this required a user to download and install a FLAC codec on their computer to be able to record, play or edit these files. Then the Linux and Android operating systems had native support for this filetype built in to tie operating system and various audio applications provided application-level support for working with these files. Similarly, high-end sound cards and USB DACs furnished this codec as part of their software. Now Windows 10 has provided native support for FLAC files including ripping CDs to these files.

How can I use FLAC in my audio workflow

Creating your digital-audio content

If you use a computer or a file-based digital-audio recorder (including some digital mixers) to record audio content, make sure that you record as a PCM form like a WAV or AIFF file; or as a FLAC file. You may find that some equipment like a lot of the digital mixers with integrated USB recording abilities may only work with USB hard disks or solid-state drives that use high-speed data transfer if you have them record to WAV or similar files.

Then you use an audio editor like Audacity, NCH WavePad, or Rogue Amoeba’s Fission; or an audio converter program like NCH Switch, dbPowerAmp or Foobar2000 to convert the WAV or AIFF file in to a FLAC file. You may find that some video converters may offer audio-to-audio conversion for the FLAC file.

dbPoweramp Music Converter - one of the audio converters worth using out there

dbPoweramp Music Converter – one of the audio converters worth using out there

You could do this to your audio file once you have that file in “master-ready” condition – you have edited it and applied any audio transformations to that file to get it sounding right and it is ready to distribute. On the other hand, you could also create a “raw” FLAC file from the WAV or AIFF you have recorded before you perform any of the editing and audio transformation work. In this situation, you then use this “raw” file as your reference file if you needed to approach the editing in another way.

Even if you are salvaging audio content from legacy media like LPs, open-reel tapes or cassettes, you can still use FLAC as your audio filetype for these efforts. Here, you can use theses FLAC files simply as the digital archive for this media.

As you create or edit a FLAC file, you can add metadata about the content you recorded to that file and, like with MP3 files, that data which describes the song title, performer, genre, album and other attributes stays with that file. This will work properly with smartphones or media players that play these files; along with DLNA media servers that distribute these files across small networks – these servers can index them and have them found according to the metadata that describes the content.

Distributing your FLAC-based audio content

When you distribute your content, you can then use the FLAC file as your source file – you could simply copy that file if you are targeting newer FLAC-compatible  “open-frame” equipment like Android or Windows 10 smartphones or Windows computers, or convert to MP3, AAC or Apple Lossless for Apple and other equipment that doesn’t support FLAC. Similarly, most current-issue DLNA-capable NAS units can work from FLAC files especially if you have FLAC-capable playback equipment on the network.

The FLAC file is also useful as a “master” audio file if you are creating an Audio CD because it is a compressed audio file that has has the same audio qualities as a PCM WAV or AIFF file. Similarly, you may have to convert the FLAC to a WAV or AIFF if you are importing it in to a video editing program for use as part of your video project’s soundtrack.

Conclusion

Once you use FLAC as your main file type for audio recording and editing or simply convert legacy audio files to FLAC, you are then ending up with a digital-audio file that can be used as an archival or distribution-master form.

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Mobile-device power-supply accessories always a valid Christmas gift idea

It is Christmas time and you want to buy some gifts for those people in your life.

A high-capacity slimline USB power bank - valid as a gift idea for mobile-technology users

A high-capacity slimline USB power bank – valid as a gift idea for mobile-technology users

One gift idea worth looking at for most people would be a power-supply accessory for their mobile devices. These come in the form of power-banks / external battery packs, multi-device chargers or charging devices that use other energy sources. They can also benefit mobile-device accessories like Bluetooth headsets or wireless game controllers that obtain their charging power from USB sockets.

The power banks or external battery packs have their own high-capacity battery but are charged from a USB-based power source like another USB battery charger. There are some of these battery packs that can work from four AA Duracells, which can allow you to charge up your phone from a set of batteries you buy at the local convenience store.

The USB external battery packs do come in a variety of styles from a small cylindrical style similar to a lipstick tube, through something as big as a small padlock, to a flat “candybar” style that doesn’t take up much room in your pants pocket while it powers your smartphone. But most of these units have differing battery capacities and power outputs and the units with a large battery capacity and 2.1A power output can earn their keep with the tablets or the high-end smartphones. As well, those battery packs with the high capacity can work well with situations where you make heavy use of your phone’s features like using the maps and navigation function, play music, use workout-tracking software or play games.

Similarly, these battery packs will earn their keep with those of us who spend a lot of time talking on our mobile phones because this can eat in to the phone’s battery’s runtime and the external battery will typically give you that extra battery power so you can talk longer. For example, I have used one of my USB battery packs to allow someone who was using their smartphone to counsel another person over the phone to talk longer with that person without fear of being cut off by a dead battery.

Another power-supply accessory worth considering are the multiple-outlet USB battery chargers, devices that I often refer to as “charging bars” but are also referred to as “charging stations”. These devices plug in to the AC power and can charge at least four USB-connected devices at once. What’s more is that they have a very high power budget with some of these devices even having the ability to give at least one of these sockets a dedicated supply of 2.4 amps. This can allow the device to comfortably charge one or two tablets and many smartphones concurrently, with the ability to provide the right amount of current to charge them quickly.

These “charging bars” avoid the need to plug multiple USB chargers in to a powerboard to charge or power many personal-electronics devices at the same location. One area where these devices earn their keep is the kitchen bench where a household will be “topping up” their mobile devices’ batteries for the day while they are having breakfast for example. Or, you may find that in an office a group of workers have their smartphones or tablets nearby and want to run these devices from external power to avoid compromising their devices’ battery runtime.

They also can be useful for charging up USB external battery packs and other accessories in such a way that you could charge your smartphone, a Bluetooth headset, an external battery pack and something else at the same time.

There are some other mobile-power-supply gifts out their that harvest energy from other sources like the sun or heat from a fire. A lot of these devices have been pitched as “novelty” devices and some of them won’t provide enough power to your smartphone or tablet from that energy source. Here, you need to be sure that the device can store a significant amount of power in an onboard battery because the energy source can easily fluctuate which is more so with solar panels or you have to hold it in a certain position to get the maximum power in to your mobile device.

As most of us use mobile devices “to the hilt” for multiple purposes, especially online, gaming or multimedia activity, we are going through our devices’ batteries very quickly. This is where devices like USB battery packs or multiple-USB-outlet “charging bars” are becoming very relevant as gift ideas.

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Samsung implements auto-focus on the Galaxy S8 to make it a selfie smartphone

Article

Samsung Galaxy Note Edge press image courtesy of Samsung

The front camera on the next premium smartphones could end up being equipped with auto-focus technology

The Galaxy S8 may provide better selfies thanks to autofocus implementation | Android Authority

Previous coverage on “selfie” smartphones

What Makes That Smartphone A “Selfie” Smartphone

My Comments

Increasingly smartphone manufacturers are paying attention to the kind of photos a smartphone’s or tablet’s front-facing camera takes. This has been driven by the phenomenon where young people are using these cameras to take “selfies” – pictures of themselves. Even venue owners and event hosts are catering to this trend by providing “selfie photobooths” with the appropriate decorations and props so they can take the funniest-looking selfie.

The way most of the manufacturers have approached this issue includes front-facing cameras with a resolution not dissimilar to the rear-facing camera, use of a wide-angle lens on the front-facing camera or even integrating software logic to remove blemishes from the photos that are taken.

But Samsung has gone further with their front-facing camera by implementing an auto-focus mechanism. Typically, a smartphone would be equipped with auto-focus on the rear-facing camera because this is the one used for general photography but the front-facing camera gets a fair bit of use for both videocalls and selfies. But implementing an auto-focus camera for both of the smartphone’s cameras would be costly and not worth it due to the close proximity of the subjects.

Here, they have implemented an auto-focus cameras on both the front-facing camera and the rear-facing camera for their new Galaxy S8 Android smartphone. This will be seen as a way to differentiate their premium smartphones from the rest of the pack due to the ability to yield that sharp videocall image or selfie.

As the cost of auto-focus cameras for smartphones and tablets that yield acceptable resolution goes downhill, it could become a trend for front-facing cameras on the smartphones, tablets, laptops and similar devices to have this feature for the best Skype videocall or selfie.

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Keeping the download-to-own music market alive

A lot of Millenials are preferring to use Spotify or similar “online jukeboxes” as their main music source, having the music play out of a wireless speaker or a network-capable audio system that supports these services.

What are these online jukeboxes?

Spotify

Spotify – the preferred only music source for many Millenials but can be used as a music discovery tool

These “online-jukebox” music services all work work primarily on a subscription basis where you don’t effectively own your music library, rather you stream down the music from these services after you pay a nominal amount per month or year to use these services. Some of them offer a free ad-supported variant of their music service, usually as an on-ramp to the main subscription-funded service.

But some of us, like myself, use the above-mentioned “online jukeboxes” more as a music-discovery tool so we can identify musical content that can fit in to our library. Examples of this include playing playlists that convey particular musical styles or moods, or discovering and “trying out” artists, albums and tracks that pique our interests.It includes situations where a company may offer a branded playlist with songs that represent what they are about.

In my case, I showed some interest in one of the “yacht-rock” playlists on Spotify and there had been a few songs that piqued my interest, some of which would be hard to find on CD in Australia. What I had done was to visit one of the transactional download-to-own music stores that is run as part of a platform’s app store and subsequently bought these songs as audio files that I could download. This meant I could add them as part of a personal playlist that existed on a microSD card as well as on a NAS that is available on the home network.

How can the “download-to-own” music services fit in

iTunes Store

iTunes – still going strong as a download-to-own music store

The way some of us add this content to our libraries is through a transaction-based “download-to-own” service like iTunes or Amazon Music. Increasingly most of the app stores associated with particular regular-computing or mobile platforms like the Windows Store and the Google Play Store are adding “download-to-own” music as part of their offerings.

Such services allow us to buy songs or albums as common media files to download to our computers or NAS drives, with a similar experience to buying the physical media where we effectively own it, but in a digital form. There used to be many of these services before the subscription-based music-streaming services took over the online music marketplace.

Microsoft Store - Muisc

Microsoft Store -Microsoft’s latest entry in to the “download-to-own” scene, providing music as MP3 files

What used to be an advantage was for these services to sell most of the songs as single tracks rather than require the user to buy a complete album. This was very similar to the era of the 7” 45rpm single where people could buy these records for cheap if they are after a particular song. This appealed to people who were buying to build up playlists of particular songs typically to set a particular mood.

There is also the value that you are not dependent on whether the content you like is still available at the online streaming music service or whether you have burnt up your mobile download allowance by streaming your music while on the road. Some of the online music services provide for offline listening but the files that are stored are kept in a proprietary form that can’t be readily played with anything other than the software provided by the online service.

Viable niches that these services can answer

Some of these services still exist but could be taken further to support a range of viable niches whether in the form of content types or audio-reproduction standards.

Answering new and upcoming talent

The typical answer to this issue is to offer these services as an “on-ramp” for upcoming talent like new musicians, basement bands and DJs. Here, these artists who typically have a handful of content but aren’t discovered could be able to sell their content through these services. They offer a simplified “on-ramp” for this kind of talent and may even provide the promotion that it needs to be exposed.

You may find that some of these “download-to-own” music stores will have their “artist and repertoire” teams who “suss out” local gigs, buskers and community radio to hunt down the new talent whose material they can sell.

Supplying particular kinds of content

To the same extent, there are some suppliers who sell particular kinds of “download-to-own” music that suit particular tastes.

Beatport

Beatport – the dance-music download-to-own store

One of these is Beatport who sell electronic dance music to DJs and those of us who like that kind of music. This is similar to how some dance-music record stores like Central Station Records in Australia existed, catering to this user class and were pulling out the stops to hunt down the latest beats.

Sometimes some record labels that specialise in particular kinds of content may run their own shopfront instead of or alongside the traditional distribution channels. It may be seen as a way to bypass import controls that some distributors and retailers value highly for controlling what is available in certain markets. As well, this approach effectively provides direct access to the talent the labels represent.

High-quality file-based audio

Another way would be that file types that represent high-quality audio could be available either as a standard or premium option. This can appeal for those of us who value high-quality audio or regularly use a top-notch hi-fi system. As well, there could be the ability to obtain high-quality masterings of the recordings that are available, including the ability to obtain a version prepared with or without high dynamic range.

Here, such recordings can be seen as a premium option for those of us who want something that is more special than what the online streaming services offer. An example of this has been the PonoMusic store that Neil Young started out with but is undergoing some renovation.

How can they complement Spotify and co?

But to continue making sure that these services maintain popular appeal, “download-to-own” music stores that want to cover a large market base have to have access to the current and back catalogue offered by most, if not all, of the major labels across the world. This includes being able to sell these recordings in to other countries, which may raise concern with music labels who don’t like the concept of parallel-importing of content in to other markets.

Similarly, they could partner with the likes of Spotify to offer the recordings that these subscription-based “online jukeboxes” provide for playback as a premium download-to-own option. For example, a media-management program that works with a “download-to-own” store and one of the “online jukeboxes” could offer a “buy this playlist offline” function where you can effectively buy your own copy of a playlist. Here, it would check which of the songs are downloaded or “ripped” from your CDs, then allow you to buy the remainder of the playlist from the “download-to-own” stores.

Conclusion

What has to happen is that, like the way radio and packaged pre-recorded music complemented each other, the download-to-own music services and the “online jukeboxes” of the Spotify kind need to be positioned in a manner to complement each other in the file-based music world.

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Z-Wave to be the first standards group to mandate secure IoT

Article

Nest Learning Thermostat courtesy of Nest Labs

Z-Wave now requires a secure-by-design approach for Internet Of Things devices using its technology like these room thermostats

IoT gear will need better security to win a Z-Wave badge | PC World

Previous coverage on this topic

A Clear Reality Surfaces With The Internet Of Things

EU wants to establish a security baseline for Internet Of Things

August responds to its smart lock’s security weaknesses by patching its software

My Comments

The recent Mirai botnet denial-of-service cyber-attacks including an attack against a data-security journalist have raised serious questions regarding designing the software for dedicated-purpose devices like network-infrastructure devices and the “Internet Of Things”. Here, it raised concern regarding default or hard-coded passwords along with poorly-maintained software as being a few of the issues that lead to lax security proactices for the dedicated-purpose devices.

This led to the European Union wanting to call a baseline standard for device-software security, with a customer-facing indicator similar to energy-efficiency labels on appliances or nutrition-rating labels on foodstuffs. Here, the standard wanted to look at “default-for-security” setup routines along with the issue of software maintenance.

But Z-Wave who establish a short-range wireless-connectivity standard for home-automation devices have had to answer this issue by requiring that devices using this technology implement their Security 2 (S2) secure-operations framework before the device can wear the Z-Wave logo. It is similar to various standards logos like Dolby noise reduction, DLNA or HDMI where equipment has to be compliant to these standards before they can show these logos and customers can see that logo as an indicator of compatibility.

Here, the requirement includes the use of a human-readable PIN number and/or a machine-readable QR code for authenticating devices to a Z-Wave network. As well, Z-Wave setups must implement a strong secure key exchange along with implementation of a Transport Layer Security 1.1 data tunnel for IP setups. It is mandatory for the endpoint devices like light bulbs, light switches and thermostats along with “hub” and similar devices that connect Z-Wave devices to the home network and Internet.

A question that may be raised with certain device classes like smart locks or security systems is whether a PIN number that you set using the device’s control surface, especially an “administrator” or “master” PIN number, does constitute a PIN number for the Security 2 (S2) framework.

At the moment, what Z-Wave have done is to address the issue of “secure setup” for this class of device. They haven’t dealt with the issue of software maintenance which is still a thorn in the side for dedicated-function devices and this may be something that others in the industry may need to deal with.

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Silicon Valley starts a war against fake news

Article

Facebook and Google to block ads on fake news websites | Adnews

Facebook Employees Are In Revolt Over Fake News | Gizmodo

Google and Facebook Take Aim at Fake News Sites | New York Times

Does the internet have a fake-news problem? | CNet

Google CEO says fake news is a problem and should not be distributed | The Verge

Want to keep fake news out of your newsfeed? College professor creates list of sites to avoid | Los Angeles Times

My Comments

Since Donald Trump gained election victory in the USA, there has been some concern amongst a few of Silicon Valley’s tech companies regarding the existence of “fake news”.

This is typically a story that is presented in order to refer to an actual news event but doesn’t relate to any actual news event. In some cases, such stories a hyped-up versions of an existing news item but in a lot of cases, these stories are built up on rumours.

The existence of Internet-distributed fake news has been of concern amongst journalists especially where newsroom budgets are being cut back and more news publishers and broadcasters are resorting to “rip-and-read” journalism, something previously associated with newscasts provided by music-focused FM radio stations.

Similarly, most of us are using Internet-based news sources as part of our personal news-media options or or only source of news, especially when we are using portable devices like ultraportable laptops, tablets or smartphones as our main Internet terminals for Web browsing.

Silicon Valley also see the proliferation of fake news as a threat to the provision of balanced coverage of news and opinion because they see this as a vehicle for delivering the populist political agenda rather than level-headed intelligent news. This is typically because the headline and copy in “fake news” reports is written in a way to whip up an angry sentiment regarding the topics concerned, thus discouraging further personal research.

But Facebook and Google are tackling this problem initially by turning off the advertising-money tap for fake-news sites. Facebook will apply this to ad-funded apps that work alongside these sites while Google will apply this as a policy for people who sign up to the AdSense online display-ads platform.

There is the issue of what kind of curating exists in the algorithms that list search results or news items on a search-engine or social-media page. It also includes how the veracity of news content is being deemed, even though Google and Facebook are avoiding being in a position where they can be seen as “arbiters of truth”.

The big question that can exist is what other actions could Silicon Valley take to curb the dissemination of fake news beyond just simply having their ad networks turn off the supply of advertising to these sites? This is because the popular search engines are essentially machine-generated indexes of the Web, while the Social Web and the blogosphere are ways where people share links to resources that exist on the Web.

Some people were suggesting the ability for a search engine like Google or a social network site like Facebook to have its user interface “flag” references to known fake-news stories, based on user or other reports. Similarly, someone could write desktop or mobile software like a browser add-on that does this same thing, or simply publish a publicly-available list of known “fake-news” Websites for people to avoid.

This is infact an angle that a US-based college professor had taken where she prepared a Google Docs resource listing the Websites hosting that kind of news, in order to help people clean their RSS newsfeeds of misinformation, with some mainstream online news sources including the New York Magazine providing a link to this resource.

The issue of fake news distributed via the Internet is becoming a real problem, but Silicon Valley is looking at different ways to solve this problem and bring to it the same level of respect that was associated with traditional media.

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Keeping hackers away from your Webcam and microphone

Article

Creative Labs LiveCam Connect HD Webcam

Software now exists so you can gain better control over your Webcam

How To Stop Hackers From Spying With Your Webcam | Gizmodo

My Comments

A privacy issue that is being raised regarding the use of cameras and microphones connected to your computer is the fact that malware could be written to turn your computer in to a covert listening device.

Those of us who use a traditional “three-piece” desktop computer and have a physically-separate external Webcam may find this an easier issue because you cam simply disconnect the camera from your computer. But the issue of your Webcam or your computer’s microphone being hacked to spy on you would be of concern for those of us who have the camera or microphone integrated in the computer as with portable or all-in-one equipment, or the monitor which is something that could be offered as a product differentiator by display manufacturers.

The simplest technique that has been advocated to deal with this risk is to attach an opaque sticker or opaque sticky tape over the camera’s lens. Some computer and monitor manufacturers have approached this problem using a panel that slides over the Webcam as a privacy shield. But you wouldn’t be able to control the use of your computer’s integrated microphone unless it had a hardware on-off switch.

Most of the mobile computing platforms require that newly-installed software that wants to use the camera, microphone, GPS device or other phone sensors have to ask permission from the phone’s owner before the software can be installed or use these devices. The Apple iOS App Store even vets software to make sure it is doing the right thing before it is made available through that storefront and this is also becoming so for software sold through the Google Play Android storefront and the Microsoft Store Windows storefront.

Lately there have been some software solutions written for the Windows and Macintosh platforms that allow you to take back control of the camera and microphone due to the fact that these regular-computer platforms have historically made it easier for users to install software from anywhere. But I would also suggest that you scan the computer for malware and make sure that all of the software on the computer, including the operating system, is up-to-date and patched properly.

One of these solutions is Oversight which has been written for the Macintosh platforms and can detect if software is gaining access to your Mac’s Webcam or microphone. It also can detect of two or more programs are gaining access to the Webcam which is a new tactic for Webcam-based spyware because it can take advantage of people using the Webcam for business and personal videocalls and record these conversations. The user has the ability to allow or block a program’s access to the Webcam or microphone.

For the Windows platform, a similar program called “Who Stalks My Cam” detects events relating to your computer’s Webcam such as software wanting to acquire material from it.  This has the abilities for you to stop a program that is using the Webcam running or to shut down the Webcam process. But there is also the ability to track processes that are running while the computer system is idle because some spyware processes can be set up to come alive when the system isn’t being actively used. The program even allows you to “whitelist” programs that you trust like over-the-top communications programs or video-recording software so that it doesn’t get in their way.

The ability to track usage of attached / connected cameras and microphones or similar hardware like GPS units by software running on your computer will end up becoming part of a typical desktop/endpoint security program’s feature set as people become concerned about the use of these devices by spyware. This is in conjunction with operating systems also hardening access to devices that can be used to spy on their users by implementing software certification, sandboxing, privileged access and similar techniques.

It is definitely another threat vector that we are being concerned about when it comes to data security and personal privacy.

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Celebrity gossip sites–attractive to malware distributors

Articles

Who Weekly celebrity-gossip-magazine Web site

Be sure you stick with trusted news sites when you are after celebrity gossip

The most dangerous celebrities to look up on Google | BGR.com

Searching for celebrity news on Google can be dangerous for your computer | Panda Security

Malware parasites feed on PerezHilton.com gossip fans | BBC News

My Comments

An issue that has been raised is that searching for the latest news and gossip about a celebrity can be risky for your computer’s security. Panda Security even described it as being of risk to a business’s computer systems because office workers would do it during slow times in their workday. It is though this activity is still today’s equivalent of looking through the gossip magazines at the supermarket checkout or in the doctor’s waiting room.

This is because the Internet has made it easier to push up “fly-by-night” gossip Websites that are laden with malware and have these advertised.

Online ad - to be respected like advertising in printed media

Ads on sites like here need to be secure to obtain the same respect as magazine ads

It is also because there is a weakness that exists in the online advertising marketplace is that ad networks and publishers don’t subject the advertising that comes to these networks to thorough scrutiny on a safety perspective. This then allows online advertising to become a breeding ground for malware with such things as “malvertising” where scripted ads are used to “push” malware on to users’ systems. This is a topic I have raised because I am wanting to see the rise of a quality online ad marketplace that has the same level of respect as the advertising seen in traditional print media.

A similar situation happens whenever a new album or movie featuring a popular entertainer is released because sites and torrent files would pop up claiming to offer the material for free. To the same extent, this could include offers of “exclusive” photo, audio and video material relating to the content or its performers for free. The same thing also can happen with surveillance, personal-album or similar material that features celebrities in compromising situations and ends up being “leaked” to the public arena. Again these sites and the torrent “file-of-files” available to download would be a minefield of malware files if you aren’t careful.

The situation becomes worse during the time surrounding entertainment-industry awards events, the release of new headline content featuring the celebrities or whenever there are major personal events affecting these people such as new relationships or relationship breakups. The articles cited that people involved with the Hollywood entertainment scene are more likely to be targeted with fly-by-night malware sites, malvertising attempts and similar skulduggery. but I also would place at risk of this treatment the British Royal Family or past and present popular Presidents of the United States.

What can you do?

  • Make sure your regular or mobile computing device is running the latest version of the operating system and you are using the latest version of the Web browser(s) and other software that you surf the Web with. It may also be a good practice to run an up-to-date version of a desktop / endpoint security program which can scan for flaky links and files.
  • Most importantly, think before you click! When you are searching for information about a particular show, recording or star, get it “from the horse’s mouth” – go to the publisher’s or broadcaster’s site that relates to what you are after. Also visit the online presence of the mastheads that you know and trust when you are after the celebrity or entertainment-industry news. Examples of these would be those magazines available at the supermarket checkout
  • But be careful about anyone offering links to resources that are too good to be true, especially where words like “free” and “exclusive” are bandied around. These sites are the ones that are the malware traps.
  • You may find that using tools like search engines or browser plugins that verify Websites’ reputation may be of assistance when it comes to staying away from flaky Websites.
  • As for online advertising with sites that are suddenly popular, be careful about following through on these links or make sure you are using desktop security software to protect your computer against malware.

Conclusion

You can engage in the digital equivalent of browsing the gossip mags safely as long as you are sure of the resources that you are heading towards and don’t fall for the bait.

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Advanced business Wi-Fi–what needs to be done

OpenMesh managed access point product picture courtesy of OpenMesh

OpenMesh managed wireless access point

A class of Wi-Fi network setup that is appearing in the business networking market is what I would describe at best, “advanced” Wi-Fi. This typically is positioned as “managed Wi-Fi” or “virtualised Wi-Fi” due to the way these systems can be managed to suit business requirements or set up to serve multiple networks.

What does advanced Wi-Fi offer

But what does it offer? These networks are dependent on a Wi-Fi network controller that connects to compatible Wi-Fi access points using a Cat5 Ethernet wired backbone which also links them back to the Internet and other business network resources. Some of these systems may provide this kind of management through a cloud-hosted controller rather than a controller appliance installed on the premises.

The IT department can control these systems using a single dashboard, whether this is in the form of a Web-based front-end or a native client program.

The tricks that these systems have up the sleeve include:

  • the ability to adjust the operating channel, transmit power and other parameters of the access points to achieve the desired network coverage and bandwidth for the whole network;
  • to implement a combination of VLAN (virtual local area network), multiple ESSIDs (wireless network names) and related technologies to allow the same group of Wi-Fi access points to serve multiple networks thus creating a “neutral-host” or “multiple-host” Wi-Fi network; and
  • to work as Wi-Fi intrusion-detection/prevention systems to protect the network’s users against rogue wireless-network activity.

What are the current limitations

But there are limitations that need to be looked at to make this technology viable across all business types.

Lack of vendor independence

One is the lack of vendor independence and interoperability. Here, most of these systems are dependent on hardware and software offered by the same vendor which can be very limiting when a business wants to expand their Wi-Fi network’s footprint or replace end-of-life equipment in their system. It can be especially very frustrating for situations where their vendor doesn’t have an access point that ticks the necessary boxes for a particular application such as, for example, a weatherproof outdoor design that supports dual-band 802.11ac or the software doesn’t support the functionality that a customer is so after.

The same situation can be very frustrating whenever a vendor declares end-of-life for a particular managed-wireless-network platform, ceases to trade or is taken over by someone else. This can raise various support issues whenever you need to replace older equipment or improve on your existing system.

Here, you could end up dumping all of the access points that you bought for an advanced-WiFi setup if you had to change to a new platform or vendor, rather than allowing for a gradual changeover where you can keep existing equipment going.

Systems placing small business out of the equation

As well, not many systems are designed to cater to small-business users who want to effectively “start small” and “grow up”. A classic situation that may occur is for the business to use a single access point or router but as they grow, they add another access point to obtain an increased footprint such as to cover the neighbouring shop they just leased.

Typically, most of the managed Wi-Fi systems require the use of an access-point controller and the compatible access points for them to work. But this could be facilitated through the use of software-based enablement of this functionality for business-grade access points and routers where you only need to download particular software to these devices to add on this functionality.

Such a concept can be facilitated through network-hardware vendors adopting an “app-store” approach where they can offer additional software that a user can download to their network hardware, similar to what happens for smartphones and tablets.

Lack of secure inter-network data exchange abilities

Small businesses - Belgrave shopping strip

Shopping strips and similar developments could benefit from open-frame advanced Wi-Fi setups

Another missing feature is the ability to exchange data between multiple managed wireless networks to permit cohesive operation amongst the multiple networks. What could this feature offer?

Such a feature would benefit building-wide or development-wide wireless-network optimisation for multiple-occupancy developments including to create a “ring of protection” around the building for the occupants’ wireless networks. But it would require that the individual occupants can be able to have control of their networks.

The feature can also support secure authenticated access to private wireless networks via other trusted wireless networks. Such a setup could cover a multiple-occupancy building’s communal areas like lobbies, food courts or garden areas; or for extending private Wi-Fi coverage to business partners’ offices or local “watering holes” like hotels, bars and cafés. The concept here is about creation of a “neutral-host” or “multiple-host” Wi-Fi network in the communal areas or “watering holes” where all of the occupants have access to their networks in the same manner as what would happen when they discover and log in to the Wi-Fi network on their premises.  This situation is becoming increasing real as an increasing number of multiple-occupancy developments are heading towards the “mixed-use” direction where there is office, shopping, entertainment, residential, hotel and/or other space within the same development.

This functionality would require the use of tag-based or port-based VLANs (virtual local-area networks) as a way to link private LANs to the access points, and this may be already in place with multi-occupancy buildings where a business may occupy office and/or retail space across differing floors. Or it can be facilitated on a WAN-based effort through the use of box-to-box VPNs, typically used to link business locations across the world.  There could be the opportunity to have this kind of private-network-access enabled on a long-term basis such as through one’s tenancy or business partnership; or on an “ad-hoc” basis where it is enabled as required such as for a conference.

Less relevance to home-network users

Yarra's Edge apartment blocks

Apartment blocks and other residential developments can benefit from advanced Wi-Fi setups

At the moment, advanced Wi-Fi network technology is not being perceived or pitched as being relevant to home network users even though there is a use case for this technology amongst this user class.

This technology can be made relevant for home networks established in high-density or multiple-dwelling environments including the “mixed-use” development reality that I have outlined above. This is because these kind of environments involve many home and other Wi-Fi networks operated close together through that development.

Such networks can be set up for automatic channel and signal-strength optimisation across a block or street while these networks can be integrated with access points installed in common areas that can provide access to the development’s occupants’ networks on an ad-hoc basis. As well, if a development has one or more businesses or facilities of benefit to all the occupants like a food court, café or bar, the households could “extend” their Wi-Fi network to the meeting place for the duration they are in that location.

What needs to happen

Standardised secure data exchange within and between networks

The main requirements that would improve advanced business Wi-Fi would be the network to exchange configuration and instrumentation data in XML files that are defined by the industry for this application.

Rydges Melbourne

Hotels can also benefit from an open-frame managed wireless network so that it is easier for businesses to securely “extend” their networks to these places when they organise events or lodge employees at these facilities

As well, the established secure-data-interchange standards need to come in to play for exchanging data between the devices in a managed Wi-Fi network and between managed Wi-FI networks. For inter-network access, the ability to implement VLAN connections via Ethernet, xDSL or fibre-optic setups using the same physical link as an Internet service link can be investigated for intra-building setups while manufacturers need to research simple-yet-secure VPN setup procedures for setups that traverse multiple buildings and logical networks. This also can appeal to convention / exhibition facilities and hotels which businesses make use of very frequently to host their events or lodge employees who are attending business events.

The secure-data interchange could be based on SSL standards for data-in-transit encryption while a set of XML data schemas and filetypes can be used for defining the data that is transferred.

Similarly, a system of trust needs to be established to permit exchange of data between networks especially where inter-network instrumentation is involved. It also includes determining an effective “range of influence” for managing Wi-Fi networks from outside the logical network. This could be based on a “hop-count” or similar mechanism for inter-network data exchange and may require that a high-density or multiple-occupancy development be equipped with its own network electronics that covers all services in that development.

Shared network discovery

In the case of high-density or multiple-occupancy developments which have common areas, there needs to be a way to discover the existence of configurable common-area wireless networks that cover these areas. Once such a network is discovered by a building occupant’s network, it could then be feasible for the occupant to establish or configure an extension network to cover the communal area.

This would primarily be about a “publish-and-subscribe” arrangement where the building’s management or businesses who want to offer fellow occupants use of their Wi-Fi networks can share the data about these networks on a development-wide basis while the occupants can discover the communal networks they can benefit from when they configure their network equipment.

To make it work effectively as far as the end-user is concerned, it may involve knowledge of a particular Internet-based URL which may carry the data for a particular communal network or a particular development with many communal networks. A “hop-count” discovery protocol may also have to be investigated for automatic development-wide discovery of these networks.

Conclusion

So it seems like that there needs to be a lot of work to make the advanced Wi-Fi wireless network earn its keep amongst a large user base rather than just a sole-occupied corporate office.

Update (1 December 2016): A reference to “neutral-host” Wi-Fi networks which are a single Wi-Fi infrastructure set up at the order of a venue, but is set up to provide a logical-network link to other networks like business-partners’ / occupants’ own networks or public-access Wi-Fi networks.

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Clipsal offers a built-in USB charger that fits most Australian wall plates

Article – From the horse’s mouth

Clipsal

Clipsal Saturn USB double power outlets press image courtesy of Clipsal

Clipsal Saturn USB double power outlets

USB Charger Mech Product Page

Press Release

My Comments

Clipsal have recently issued a packaged-short-form USB charger module that can fit in most, if not all, Australian electrical wall plates. Here, it occupies the same space and cutout as a switch mechanism or module used on any of the recent-issue wall plates that are commonly used in Australian buildings. But they also offer this as a solution that can be integrated into control panels where the goal is to have a USB charger that can be wired to 240V AC wiring that exists behind that panel.

They are pitching it as an alternative to people plugging USB chargers in to power outlets so we can charge our smartphones, or to create multiple USB charging outlets which can be a bonus in rooms like the kitchen, office, hallway or bedroom where many of these devices and their accessories are charged at once.

The classic household example would be a kitchen where you want to free up standard power outlets for those benchtop appliances like the KitchenAid mixer or the kettle, but you still want to charge that iPhone or iPad. Here, you can have the best of both worlds by installing a double USB power outlet where you can plug in a coffee machine, kettle and charge your iPad without dealing with an easy-to-lose double adaptor and USB charger.

This USB charger module serves one smartphone or tablet per module and serve a USB charging current of up to 1.2 amps. This would charge most smartphones and provide enough power to an iPad or similar tablet to avoid compromising battery runtime. As well, it is compliant to the USB Battery Charging Specification 1.2 and also factors in the length of the cable between the charger and the device, with the resulting resistance and voltage drop.

They are pitching it as a standalone module that can be fitted to existing or new wall plates or panels; or as part of different pre-assembled ready-to-install packages with one or two power outlets and / or multiple USB chargers. Here, they even describe the packages that have the regular power outlets and the USB charger outlets as “USB power points”. They also are offering different-coloured bezels for this module to allow them to be matched to the plate or panel they are installed in, something that will be considered of importance when it comes to décor.

A question that will soon surface is whether there will be a USB Type-C charger module compliant to the USB Power Delivery specification become available for this same kind of installation. This is as we see more computing devices come on the market that are being equipped with this newer connection as a power source. Similarly, a 2.1 amp variant of these modules could earn its keep with households who have many tablet devices or want their smartphones charged up very quickly.

What is happening at last is that integrated USB-charger solutions are arriving to the Australian market in a highly-flexible manner. It is worth asking your regular “sparkie” if they have these devices available to install when you next have him around so as to reduce the chaos associated with the many chargers.

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Finnish building-management systems cop the brunt of cyberattacks

Article

There needs to be a level of cyber-security awareness regarding the design and maintenance of building-automation systems

There needs to be a level of cyber-security awareness regarding the design and maintenance of building-automation systems

Finns chilling as DDoS knocks out building control system | The Register

My Comments

Two apartment buildings in Finland became victims of distributed denial-of-service attacks which nobbled their building-management systems. This caused the buildings’ central heating and domestic hot water systems to enter a “safety shutdown” mode because the remote management systems were in an endless loop of rebooting and both these systems couldn’t communicate to each other. The residents ended up living in cold apartments and having cold showers because of this failure.

What is being realised is that, as part of the Internet Of Things, building-management equipment is being seen to be vulnerable, due to factors like the poor software maintenance and an attitude against hardening these systems against cyber-attacks. Then there is the issue of what level of degraded-but-safe functionality should exist for these systems if they don’t communicate to a remote management computer. This also includes the ability for the systems themselves to pass alarm information to whoever is in charge.

This situation has called out data-security issues with design and implementation of dedicated-purpose “backbone devices” connected to the Internet; along with the data-security and service-continuity risks associated with cloud-based computing. It is also an issue that is often raised with essential services like electricity, gas and water services or road-traffic management being managed by Internet-connected computers with these computers being vulnerable to cyberattack.

One of the issues raised included the use of firewalls that run up-to-date software and configurations to protect these systems from cyberattack.

I would also look at a level of fail-safe operation for building management systems that can be implemented if the Internet link to remote management computers dies; along with the ability to use cellular-telephony SMS or similar technology to send alarm messages to building management during a link-fail condition. The fail-safe mode could be set up for a goal of “safe, secure, comfortable” quasi-normal operation if the building-local system identifies itself as operating in a safe manner.

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