Keep a missionary mobile (2)

31072012151Keep a Missionary Mobile is a campaign which we launched earlier this year to help Syzygy provide transport for mission workers on home assignment in the UK.  This is a much needed service and one recent beneficiary commented:

It gives me so much freedom to travel!  I just couldn’t do home assignment without it.

You can read more about this ministry here.

Our faithful but ageing Ford Galaxy is nearing its sell-by date and we are looking to raise funds to buy a newer and higher-spec Toyota Previa which has been offered to us.  We anticipate many years of service from this dependable vehicle, which has seven seats and is ideal for families on home assignment.

Will you help us to Keep a Missionary Mobile?  You can give through our Everyclick account, at Give.net, or through Stewardship (if you have an account with them), or by sending a cheque payable to Syzygy to 46 Wingate Close, Birmingham B30 1AA.

The Syzygy car ministry expands

MondeoSyzygy is pleased to announce the expansion of our fleet with the addition of a Mondeo, which will help us meet the needs of mission families.  Together with our Galaxy and Fiesta, we’re now able to lend cars to even more mission workers on home assignment in the UK.  We are very grateful for the donation of this car, and really appreciate the generosity of our supporters who help us help mission workers.

Obviously, the addition of a new car to our fleet significantly increases our costs, and we would be grateful for any donations towards the cost of running our car fleet.  You might like to organise for your church or youth group to fundraise regularly for us as part of our Keep a Missionary Mobile campaign.  You can read more about the Syzygy car ministry on our resources page.

Keep a missionary mobile!

31072012151Finding transport for a short visit to the UK can be one of the biggest headaches for mission workers.  With a need to travel around the country to be reunited with friends and family, visit conferences and churches, often with equipment for presentations and personal luggage, public transport just doesn’t do the job.  But it’s too expensive to rent a car for 6 to 8 weeks, not long enough to justify buying one, and even if somebody lends them a car, the cost of insuring it for just a few months can be prohibitive.  What to do?

Syzygy has its own solution to this problem – we have our own car ministry.  Our three cars – a Fiesta, a Mondeo and a Galaxy – are loaned to mission workers for up to six months.  There’s no insurance to arrange and the cars are delivered to the mission worker wherever they want them – even to the airport.  All they have to do is get in and drive away, and if they are too tired to do that after a long flight, we’ll even drive them to their destination.  You can read more about this ministry here.

Many mission workers coming from a variety of mission fields have testified to the fact that this ministry is a huge blessing to them, and that they could not have done their home assignment without it.  The fact that over 40 people last year asked to borrow one of our cars indicates what an important service it is.  It is our privilege to serve them in this way.

The costs of this ministry have increased significantly in recent years, largely due to the rising cost of insurance.  The Fiesta costs Syzygy over £200/month to run and the Galaxy nearly £300.  It has always been our hope to make this service available free of charge to mission workers, but in recent years we have been forced by these rising costs to ask them for donations to help with the running costs.

If more people became involved in supporting this work we would be able to reduce the amount that we ask mission workers to contribute.  Is this something your church or youth group could be involved in and so have a practical impact on world mission?  This could well be a way for your group to establish contact with mission workers for the first time.  There is no lower limit (or upper limit!) on the amount raised as every pound will make a difference.  Here are some examples of the sort of costs that we face. Could you or your church be inspired to meet one of them?

Description Cost for the Fiesta

Cost for the Galaxy

10 litres of fuel £14 £14
A pair of tyres £90 £190
One month’s insurance cover £95 £110
MOT £100 £150
One month’s running costs £220 £290
Annual service £250 £450

Will you help us to Keep a Missionary Mobile?  You can give through our Everyclick account, at Give.net, or through Stewardship (if you have an account with them), or by sending a cheque payable to Syzygy to 46 Wingate Close, Birmingham B30 1AA.  If you would like a Gift Aid Form, or would like to set up a standing order to our bank account, please email info@syzygy.org for the details.

Tech notes: podcasts

1084232_headphonesOne of the ongoing challenges for mission workers is the need to ensure spiritual input.  One of the major reasons for burnout is that we continually give out at a faster rate than we take in.  So we need to make sure we have ample access to good quality teaching.

There is an extent to which, due to isolation or security needs, some mission workers can’t meet together easily for Bible study, and the local churches in which we minister are not always geared to meeting our needs.  But the internet makes good resources much more accessible than the days when our churches used to post us cassettes of the sermons.   One such benefit is the podcast, which can vary in length from five minutes to over an hour, and is an easily accessible resource that can be used in a variety of contexts: while setting aside time for study, or travelling, jogging – even on a flight.

Many churches now put their sermons out as podcasts, and even if the quality is not always consistent, it does have the benefit of keeping you in touch with what’s going on in your sending church.  But you can get them from other churches as well.  You might like to try, for example, Holy Trinity Brompton, Mars Hill, Gold Hill Baptist Church, Saddleback Church, St Helen’s Bishopsgate, or Willow Creek.

165809_headphonesSome famous speakers podcast regularly, sometimes even daily, though the quality of these can be variable.  Try out Mark Driscoll, Joyce Meyer, N T Wright, Max Lucado, David Pawson or (from beyond the grave!) Derek Prince.  Even classics such as My Utmost for his Highest and The Practice of the Presence of God are available as a podcast.

Other organisations such as the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable  programme and Christianity magazine also have regular and thought-provoking podcasts, and Member Care Media, which we have highlighted before, issues daily podcasts aimed specifically at the mental, physical and emotional wellbeing of overseas mission workers.

Individual podcasts can be downloaded from the website appropriate to your preferred church or speaker (as linked above), but it’s a lot easier to subscribe to them through iTunes, or go to One Place, a Christian resource for bringing lots of Christian teaching resources together online.  You can download podcasts to your computer or phone, and though for some people download speeds at home are often a challenge, you can get round this by going to an internet café or office where they may have a better service.  If you’re in a country where you need to think about security, make sure you regularly alternate between different cafés.

There are of course many more online resources such as Bibles, commentaries and guides, sermon resources, audio books and devotionals, and Oscar has a full list of these.

Tech notes

It’s been a while since we gave you a tech update and so we’d like to take this opportunity to tell you about a couple of things you might be interested in.  But before we do, we’d like to remind you about Everyclick.  It’s a search engine, which uses Yahoo technology.  Instead of a silly logo it has the advantage of an attractive photo on the homepage which changes every day, but the real benefit is that it donates half its profits to charity.  To date nearly £3,000,000 has been dispensed in this way.  Each of the 200,000 charities benefiting from it is allocated a share of the profits in proportion to the number of searches made by their registered supporters.  So if you nominate Syzygy, we get money every time you do a search!  So far we’ve received nearly £70 just by searching!

You can also give directly to Syzygy (as you can through Everyclick) via Give.net, a new initiative set up by Stewardship.  Just go to my.give.net/Syzygy and follow the simple online instructions.  It’s easy for charities and individuals to donate, and it’s fully integrated with Stewardship’s existing systems so if you already have an account with them, they already know where to send the money.

Those of you who have a phone which enables you to download apps may be interested in The Examine App (http://examineapp.wordpress.com), a useful new tool from the Headington Institute.  We have mentioned before the role of the daily Examen in developing spiritual awareness and managing stress, and this app is a simple way of bringing technology to bear on that centuries-old discipline.  It asks you a few simple questions about how you are feeling, and records your answers so that you can look back over time and observe your progress.  It also gives you opportunities for reflection and response.  We recommend you use it daily for best effect.

Nearly a year ago we told you about the benefits of using Dropbox to keep your files and photos on somebody else’s server and so facilitate sharing and backups.  However some people are worried that although the data encryption is of a standard that will prevent your files being hacked, the geeks at Dropbox can still look at your files, if they want to.  For some of us that is an unacceptable security risk.  If that’s you, you might want to take a look at Spideroak.  They claim that their ‘Zero-Knowledge’ privacy commitment means that they can’t see your files, even if they wanted to.  Neither can foreign governments.  While there are some chatroom grumbles about slow syncing speeds and even slower customer service, it’s had good reviews from some reputable PC mags, and for people with large networks there is no limit on the number of computers that can be linked to it.  You also get your first 2 gig of storage free for life.

If you come across any technological solutions that might be of use to mission workers, please let us know at technical@syzygy.org.uk

Dropbox

Continuing our series introducing you to technological solutions, this month I’d like to show you Dropbox.  This is a method of storing files online so that they can be easily shared and accessed from more than one computer (and your mobile phone) as long as you have an internet connection.  If you don’t have a reliable internet connection where you live, don’t stop reading, as it may be useful to you for sharing files.  If you’re a Mac user, you’ll already have access to iCloud, but you might find Dropbox helpful as well.

What is it? Dropbox is a very simple online storage facility which adds a new folder to your documents folders.  Into this you can drag any existing document, which is stored by dropbox independently of your computer.

How does it work? Whenever you update a file in your dropbox, the online master will automatically be updated.  When you log on with another computer, the copy on that one will be updated automatically by the one held on dropbox.  If you’re sharing files with someone else, the copy on their computer will automatically be updated almost instantaneously.

Why do you need it? Dropbox means that all your files are kept in one place, not on your computer.  So if your computer breaks down or is stolen, your documents are still safe.  You also never need to back them up again, as Dropbox takes care of this for you.  If you use more than one computer (for example, one at home and one at work) you no longer have the hassle of transferring files between them.  It also makes it easy to share files with colleagues.  You do this by inviting another person to share a folder with you.  They can then see, and amend, anything in your computer.  So in future there are no more problems copying files to one another, and being uncertain who has the latest version.

What are the drawbacks? If you don’t have reliable internet access, you may not have access to the cloud copies of your files.  You can still work on the copies stored on your computer, but if you have previously made changes to the dropbox copies, you will have to reconcile the two files.  This could become a significant problem if people sharing files are frequently offline, but if two modified files clash, dropbox informs you so that you can sort it out between you.

How do I share files? Create a folder and drag the files you want to share into it.  Then using my computer, right click on dropbox, and select ‘share this folder’.  Enter the email address of whoever you want to share this with, and hit send.  When they respond to an email they’re sent, they will be able to see (WARNING: and amend!) all the files in this folder.  They will, however, have no access to your other folders on dropbox.

Is it safe? Adam tells me that the data encryption is of good standard and the risk of your documents being hacked is a low as it can be.

What do I do now? Go to www.dropbox.com and join up!  It’s simple and they’ll talk you through it.  WARNING: if you drag and drop all the files on your computer into dropbox, it can take a very long time to upload them, particularly if they’re photos.

 

If you have any problems, email technical@syzygy.org.uk for support!

 

 

Introducing Google+

Back in July we suggested that skype was one essential form of social media you might like to use, and many of you will be familiar with this great way of communicating with family on the other side of the world.  Yet you will also be aware of its shortcomings.  The call quality is often poor and the video can lag behind or freeze if your bandwidth isn’t wide enough.  And if you want to video call with more than three people, you have to pay.

Now Google has introduced its antidote to skype: Google+ and we think you need to be on it.  It only went live last month, so it’s early days, but it already has over 25 million users.  The platform uses the familiar facebook format of friends and status updates, but incorporates a conference facility called ‘hangouts’ which we think you will like.

One innovation is in the area of ‘friends’.  On facebook, there is no distinction between different groups of friends, so your boss, your maiden aunt and your 13 year old daughter all see the same information about you.  G+ is more discriminating, allowing you to create ‘circles’ to put your friends in, for example ‘work’ or ‘family’ so that you can keep discrete groups, and share different info with them.  Friends can be added to more than one circle.

To hold the equivalent of a skype conversation, you start a hangout.  Up to 10 people can take part in this, they can all use video, and there is a large central video picture which automatically moves to the person who is talking.  The one drawback is that anyone else in the your circle can just butt in on your conversation.  So if you need a private conversation, you need to make sure that the people you’re talking to are in a small circle.

Getting started is easy.  If you already have a Google account, just login as normal.  If you don’t, you’ll have to sign up, but that’s not particularly onerous.  Once you’ve done this, in the very top left hand corner of your screen, where you see the tabs for gmail, calendar, and so on, you’ll see a tab called +You.  Click on it, and it will take you through a simple registration process.  The rest is intuitive.  There’s no software to download, though you may need to install a plug-in to get your webcam working.  I was up and running in under five minutes.  After that, from your Google account, just click on the same tab (now personalised for you) and you’re in.  No password to remember.

Expect this to be big, and pretty soon people will be trying to connect with you through it.  Needless to say, access to G+ is blocked by some countries, including China and Iran.  In some ways that’s good, because you know Google isn’t trading your information for permission to operate.  Even so, don’t rely on it to be secure.  I didn’t give it my real date of birth for example.  Just in case.

Also expect skype and facebook to retaliate with product innovations before they lose too much business!

 

Why every mission worker needs to use social media

Many mission workers (particularly ones of a certain age!) are completely unable to understand the fascination with things like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (other social media tools are also available) yet these applications are considered almost indispensible to a younger generation.  Together they are referred to as social media, and they have become a key feature of how people relate to one another, keep in touch, form community and express themselves to the world.

For a lot of mission workers there is not the perceived need to be involved in this seemingly self-obsessed activity in which many people can spend a significant amount of their time.  Why would you want to, when there’s already so much work to do?  Here’s why: one of a mission worker’s greatest needs is to be able to communicate effectively.  We all need to ensure that our supporters buy into the work God has called us to, know what to pray for, and how they can support us, particularly in an emergency.  Many of us spend up to 10% of our time communicating with our supporters, which may feel like a distraction from the work we’re here to do, but if we communicate effectively, we maintain the support that keeps us doing that work.  Using social media enables us to communicate quickly and effectively to a large number of people, and the added bonus is that it’s free!

Facebook now connects over 400 million people.  You have a ‘status’  which tells people what you’re doing, or more frequently how you’re feeling.  If you’re having a difficult time, just type ‘FRUSTRATED!!!’ into your status and see the rapid and empathetic response you get!  Facebook also gives you an opportunity to post photos of what you’re doing, and if you have family on different continents, grandparents can see how their grandchildren are growing up.

Skype is an internet application which allows you to use your computer or mobile to make free phone calls to another.  The quality is highly dependent on your connection but it’s a great way to talk to people on the other side of the planet!  You can also use a webcam to see the people you’re talking to, although this can damage the audio quality.  If you have a good enough connection, you can also try conference calls, which cuts down the need for international travel.

WordPress is a simple way of building a website using templates already created for you.  You can keep it simple, and just have a blog page, or build something more complicated if you feel adventurous.  You’re reading a WordPress screen right now.  You can use it to tell people what you’re thinking, doing or feeling.  It’s important to many people as a way to express themselves and it’s a great way of communicating with supporters.

YouTube is an easy way of posting videos onto the internet where anyone can watch them.  You can use it to show people where you live, where you work, and what you do.  Using it helps maintain the link with your supporters.  Record a simple greeting to your church once in a while, upload it to YouTube, and the church can show it during a meeting.  If a picture’s worth a thousand words, a video’s worth a million.

Twitter only allows you 140 characters to communicate with ‘followers’, but its brevity is its strength.  It forces you to distill your thoughts when you might be tempted to ramble on.  In urgent need of prayer?  Send a text to Twitter and hundreds of followers can be praying within minutes.  Use it to post links to your blog, other websites, or just tell people what you’re thinking.  Be careful not to overdo it as your followers may get bored with constant tweeting.

Of course, your ability to use all these tools will be highly dependent on the quality of your connection, but even if you’re using 56k dialup it’s still worth having a go.  See Adam’s post from last March for help on making the most of this, or try using your mobile either to surf or to connect your computer to the internet.

Please remember that if you’re in a creative access nation some of these tools can be risky to use, but BlackBerrys are pretty secure devices and so is the IronKey which we reviewed last year.  You can also use a false name known only to your friends, and password protect your video postings so that only your closest confidantes can watch.  But still be careful what you put out on public media.

 

Next month: Adam will explain how to get started on Facebook

Short-term mission trip: Brazil

Brazil is a massive country which takes up half of South America and crosses three time zones.  Bustling cities give way to vast expanses of jungle, beautiful beaches, rugged mountains and endless plains.

Brazil is also home to some of the biggest cities in the world – and some of the largest slums.  It has a population of nearly 200 million and is one of the worlds biggest economies but it is estimated that there are also 8 million street children in Brazil.

This summer Tim is leading TWO short-term teams organised by SoapBox to Belo Horizonte, the country’s third largest city, to support a local Christian ministry which works with children with a variety of needs who can no longer live with their families.

The teams will be building walls, repairing a leaky ceiling and painting the living areas.  They will be staying at the same home as the children so there will be plenty of time to play with, teach, and encourage the children.  Please pray for them all as they undertake this expedition to communicate the love of Jesus to some of the world’s poorest  and neediest people.

 

KEY DATES

20th July        Team 1 leaves England

7th August      Team 1 leaves Brazil

12th August    Team 2 arrives in Brazil

25th August    Team 2 arrives in UK

 

TEAMS

Team 1 (A youth group from Ashwell, Baldock and Royston in Hertfordshire): Jen (co-leader), Amy, Callum. Kia, Millie, Rosie, Rufus, Tom

Team 2: Helen (co-leader), Jennie, Jono, Marie, Sam, Val

KEY PRAYER POINTS

Pray for:

  • the team to know Jesus working in them and through them
  • God to work in the lives of the many hurt children they’ll be helping
  • health and safety as they do manual work they’re not used to
  • protection and safety as they travel
  • leaders to be able to do an excellent job and work well together
  • team members who are under 18 to be able to cope well away from home
  • them all to be able to cope with the culture shock of experiencing a different world

 

This expedition is organised by SoapBox, a charity which provides opportunities for short-term mission projects throughout the world.  It has a childcare programme that operates in the countries where they have practical aid projects. They also work in UK prisons and schools.

 

Missions 2.0 – spreading the gospel using social media

I’ve been pondering the ways in which ministry could use internet technology and social media in the missions context – particularly as it relates to micro-enterprise and missions-based social entrepreneurship.  There is a cornucopia of social media communication tools to help you get your message across, and if you’re not using them, you’re not getting technology to work for you in the postmodern, hyper-connected world.

Pick up a crayon and get creative. Blogging, podcasting, and video blogging offer unique opportunities for spreading the gospel.  If you can use a microphone, a camera, or email you can pretty much do all the above. Cameras are super cheap these days.  You can buy a Kodax Zx1 for around £80 to £100 which is a (super) small hand held camera you can use to record key church events.  And you should be able to grab a tripod on ebay for around £15-25.  Also, most new Macs come equipped with technology and software to be multimedia studios (you can purchase a new mac for £1,200 – £1,600 or a used one for half that price).  You could post lessons and sermons, as well as short 1-3 minute updates about what God is doing in the lives of people in your church.

Get that in writing. If you go the video or audio direction, you may want to pay for transcription.  You can find cheap transcription via one of many outsourcing websites like Get a Freelancer or e-Lance.  Search engines can’t ‘see’ your video or podcasting content, so it helps people find your content.  Also, it can help people spread your content by simple cut and paste.  You may also choose to use Safari’s summarize function to create an executive summary of your lessons.

It’s all about show and tell. The use of Slideshare to post existing powerpoint presentations slideshows online.  It’s a very easy to use tool and you can create groups around issues like ‘missions, ‘theology’, ‘sermons’, ‘evangelism’, or ‘Christian social justice’.  This would allow mission workers to stay in visual contact with churches without having to visit each and every church.

 

Adapt to your audience(s). Think about the bi-lingual nature of your ventures.  Add a Google translator and even consider having a church member translate your content if you can’t do it yourself.

Start a digital water cooler to connect for free or almost free. You may want to consider a Ning social network, a message board to share information and ideas internally, a wikia Change.org website based on your particular issue of concern.  There are tons of options for using social media platforms for Christian communication and kingdom ends.

Create an inviting digital living room. Look into simple, user friendly navigation which can be provided by WordPress (like the one your reading now).  With WordPress you can get inexpensive webdesign for under £300 by purchasing a professional looking premium theme. Ask in your prayer letter if anyone is willing to create you a website for free as part of their support.

Plan for the future. Down the road you may think of creating a group blog that key members of your staff or volunteers can blog.  Or you may want to target one blog for the surrounding community and one blog to churches overseas that have funded your ventures.  This will allow you to target your message to a very specific audience.

Ignore these Droids. They aren’t the ones you’re looking for. Don’t fall for “shiny new object syndrome.”  You don’t need to stay up to date on the technology.  You only need to learn how to use it.  The technology is only an enabling platform.  Creating relationships is clearly the goal and focus.

It’s a Balancing Act: Creating an information diet, time management and workflow are all issues you will want to consider.  The key is to find time you weren’t using before, such as surfing online, playing video games, or watching television.  All in all stay focused on God and relationships and you should be fine.

Principles to Consider:

• Focus on God’s word and God working through you.  In other words, ask how your story and your community’s story tell His story.

• Once you’ve listened a while, it’s important to dive in to explore to get your feet wet.  Its actually a lot of fun.

• It’s easy to be come a stats-o-holic.  Be forewarned.  Connections beat stats everyday.

Next time: why mission workers need to be using Facebook and Twitter!

 

 

Adam Brown, Technical Director

technical@syzygy.org.uk

More tips for faster browsing

This week Adam explains how downloading some simple software can increase your browsing speed.

Download accelerators. Some programs claim to be able to speed up file downloads by splitting the file into several parts and downloading them simultaneously, increasing the overall speed of the download, or in some cases compressing the page data to increase speed of download.  One such program is Ashampoo Internet Accelerator, in testing, it showed a significant improvement.  I will be detailing how to use the software in a later post, but for now, you can download the program here, it is free, and clear of malware.

Download managers. Most modern browsers incorporate some kind of basic download manager, allowing interrupted downloads to be resumed, which can be very useful.  But if you download a lot of files you may wish to use a proper download manager, these can queue downloads to take place after you have finished browsing the internet, so your surfing is not slowed to a crawl, by downloads happening in the background.  My favorite download manager is WackGet which you can download free from this source.

Paying a little to boost your dial-up connection. It is possible to give your dial-up connection a boost by using a content compressor such as the popular Onspeed program (£24.99).  This gives you a faster connection by compressing some components of web pages before they are sent to your computer.  Tests using pages from various sites showed that the html code is compressed to about a third of its original size.  Images are reduced in size by reducing the quality. I found that dropping the quality/speed slider lower than halfway made the images too poor, even by my lax standards, but on the middle setting quality was acceptable.  Depending on your browser, it is possible to reload images at full quality forsaving, or viewing.

Note: Using Opera it is not possible to reload individual images; you need to disable Onspeed and reload the entire page.  Onspeed also does something strange to the reported sizes of gif images, increasing them in size.  Onspeed can also block banner adverts and compress Flash files though file downloads are not speeded up by Onspeed.

The Onspeed advertising claims increases of up to ten times on dial-up; this is
a bit misleading, it is probably possible with images set to the lowest quality, but they are then so poor, they might as well be absent.  With the images set to a reasonable quality there is a noticeable speed boost of perhaps twice normal speed in general surfing, although if your ISP or phone line does not support modem compression, you may notice a larger increase.

After my trial period with Onspeed, I definitely noticed its absence and missed it, particularly if I downloaded a file while surfing.  I did have one problem with Onspeed initially: I could not access Google, but a quick email to the support desk, gave a solution the very next day – nice to see a company with good customer care!

If you are on pay-as-you-go dial-up, I would definitely recommend Onspeed, as the increased page loading speed will cut your time on the internet, thus
effectively paying for the program.

The Onspeed web site: http://www.onspeed.com

Removing page content to boost speed. As mentioned, Adblockers are a great way to streamline your browsing speed. Most modern browsers have Ad blockers as additions to them, the best of which being AdBlock Plus.

Adblock Plus is available for Firefox and Google Chrome, offering automatic blocking of all adverts while browsing the web.  This will remove non useful content from your web pages (adverts,banner ads etc) therefore reducing the page load and speeding up your download.

Adblock Plus for Firefox:

https://addons.mozilla.org/en-us/firefox/addon/adblock-plus/

Adblock Plus for Google Chrome:

https://chrome.google.com/extensions/detail/cfhdojbkjhnklbpkdaibdccddilifddb

Next time: Why mission workers should be maximising their use of social media!

Adam Brown, Technical Director

Making the most of your 56k dialup

Despite the rapid spread of broadband, in many countries a large proportion of internet users still use a dial-up connection.  For general surfing, emailing and smaller downloads, a dial-up connection should be fast enough for most people, providing the small amount of bandwidth is used efficiently.  On a 56k connection you should expect a connection speed of around 30k – 45k, although depending on the quality of your phone line you may get a higher or lower connection speed.  Here are our tips for making the most of your connection.

The first thing to check is the hardware. Your extension cable from your modem to the phone point should be as short as possible, and a high quality one, preferably stating that it is suitable for use with a modem.  Also avoid knocking or jiggling your phone connections while you are online.  Only your modem should be plugged into the phone line, so unplug any phones as you want all the available line capacity.  Also note that some modern phone features such as call waiting can affect your modem badly, so check to see if they can be disabled while you’re online.

Although 56k modems are available very cheaply, the more expensive makes do give a better connection and upgrading to a better quality modem can give a noticeable increase in connection speed.  Better quality modems also allow you to continue surfing without errors while downloading a file (albeit rather slowly).

The quality of your phone line is of course the most important factor in deciding your connection speed.  If there is a lot of hissing and clicking when using the phone, then a modem connection is going to be poor.  Your telephone provider has a responsibility to provide a reasonable phone connection, but not a good modem connection, but if you have a very poor connection, contact them, explain the problem and they may be able to help, although there may be a charge for any improvements, so check beforehand.

Your ISP (Internet Service Provider). The big advantage of using dial-up is that you can sign up for as many different pay-as-you-go services that you want, as you only pay for the cost of the phone call. So you can try different ISPs, to see which one gives the best quality connection.  There can be a considerable difference between providers, with some being difficult to connect to and prone to cutting you off frequently.  If you find that the connection with your chosen ISP gradually becomes less reliable over time, complain, and they will probably give you a new number to call.  If not, vote with your feet!

Useful web site – Find ISP. A site listing available ISPs by country, along with features and comments.  Very useful if looking for a new ISP.  A very good list of ISPs globally is located here:  http://www.whichisp.com/finddialup.php

Using the right browser can make a difference. Independent tests at Browser Speed have shown that the fastest browser currently available is Opera.  Its greatest advantage over Internet Explorer is not the speed at which it displays pages, but how it stores previously viewed pages (caching).  This enables it to instantly return to previously viewed pages, something IE struggles with.

You can also turn off some web features, such as sounds in web pages, java and plugins such as Flash. This reduces the amount you need to download and reduces the work your browser has to do.  Do not turn JavaScript off, as this will affect the way that many pages display, although you can stop some of its affects, such as resizing windows.  You can place a tick box on your toolbar, to turn any of these options on and off, which can be useful if you like Flash games, as I do.

The very popular Firefox browser is rather slow to load initially, but once running performance is on a par with Internet Explorer for loading new pages and significantly faster than Internet Explorer when loading previously viewed pages. Firefox is however quite heavy on resources and not the best choice for older computers, although tweaks are available to streamline it somewhat. I would personally recommend Google Chrome for older machines, its streamlined interface and optimized browsing engine works well on older machines.

Some web pages will only work with Internet Explorer, for instance if you are registering or buying something online.  In cases like this it is wise to use the browser extention IETab, for GoogleChrome and Firefox

Keep it streamlined. Avoid having too many applications running at once while on the internet. This is particularly important if you are using a older computer.  For best performance have only your browser, firewall and antivirus running, only run your email program if you need to check for messages.  If you use an instant messenger program, use a multi protocol one that is light on system resources, such as Miranda.  Close any browser windows that you no longer need.

Turn off automatic updates. Far too many programs automatically check for updates in the background, consuming bandwidth, so always set update checks to manual.  This includes Windows and antivirus updates.  Manually check for updates once a week, downloading once you have finished browsing the internet.  Pro Tip: Despite the dire warnings of security experts, providing you practice safe surfing it is not necessary to update your antivirus program every few hours.  If an alert is released for a particularly virulent virus, do an extra manual update as soon as possible.

In Conclusion. Hopefully this article has shown that with a little effort and inventiveness, browsing on a 56k connection need not be a negative experience.  Even with a slow connection it is still possible to play Flash games, download files, be active in forums, run your own web site and generally have fun.

Adam Brown Technical Director

Tech notes: Tips for creating strong passwords

“Treat your password like your toothbrush. Don’t let anybody else use it, and get a new one every six months” – Clifford Stoll


When you create an account on a website, you may have the “password dilemma” for a second.  The dilemma is whether you should provide a weak password that is easy to remember or a strong password that is hard to remember.  Here are some rules and guidelines that may help you in overcoming the password dilemma and help you in creating a strong password that is secure.  These are the things that I’ve used over years based on my own interest in the area of keeping the password safe and secure.

I. Two essential password rules.

Following two rules are bare minimal that you should follow while creating a password:

Rule 1 – Password Length – Stick with passwords that are at least 8 characters in length.  The more characters in the passwords the better, as the time taken to crack the password by an attacker will be longer.  10 characters or longer is even better.

Rule 2 – Password Complexity – It should contain at least one character from each of the following group.  At least 4 characters in your passwords should be each one of the following:

  1. Lower case alphabets
  2. Upper case alphabets
  3. Numbers
  4. Special Characters

I call the above two rules combined as “8 4 Rule” (Eight Four Rule):

  • 8 = 8 characters minimum length
  • 4 = 1 lower case + 1 upper case + 1 number + 1 special character.

Just following the “8 4 Rule” will be a huge improvement and instantly make your password much stronger than before for most of you who don’t follow any guidelines or rules while creating a passwords.  If your banking and any financially sensitive website passwords doesn’t follow the “8 4 Rule”, I strongly suggest that you stop everything now and change those passwords immediately to follow the “8 4 Rule”.

II. Guidelines for creating strong passwords.

  1. Follow the “8 4 Rule”. Like I mentioned above this is the foundation of creating a strong password.
  2. Unique Characters. Should contain at least 5 unique characters. You already have 4 different characters if you’ve followed “8 4 Rule”.
  3. Use Password Manager. Strong passwords are hard to remember.  So, as part of creating a strong password you need a reliable and trustworthy way of remembering the strong password.  Using a password management tool to store passwords should really become a habit.  Anytime you create a password, note it down on a password manager tool that will encrypt the password and store it safely for you. I recommend Password Dragon (Shameless plug. I’m the developer of this software), a free, easy and secure password manager that works on Windows, Linux and Mac. This can also be launched from the USB drive. There are lot of free password manager tools available, choose the one that best suites your taste and use it.
  4. Use Passphrase. If you don’t want to use password management tool, Use Passphrase to easily remember the passwords.  You can use the initials of a song or a phrase that is very familiar to you,  e.g. “Passwords are like underwears, change yours often!” phrase can be converted to a strong password “Prlu,Curs0!”

III. Guidelines for avoiding weak passwords.

Avoid the following in your passwords.  Even part of your passwords should not be anything in the following items.

  1. Password same as username or part of the username.
  2. Name of family members, friends or pets.
  3. Personal information about yourself or family members.  This includes the generic information that can be obtained about you very easily, such as birth date, phone number, vehicle license plate number, street name, apartment/house number etc.
  4. Sequences. i.e consecutive alphabets, numbers or keys on the keyboard, e.g. 12345 or  qwert.
  5. Dictionary words.  Dictionary words with number or character in front or back.
  6. Real words from any language.
  7. Words found in dictionary with number substitution for word look alike,  e.g. replacing the letter O with number 0  i.e. passw0rd.
  8. Any of the above in reverse sequence.
  9. Any of the above with a number in front or back.
  10. Empty password.

IV. Common sense about passwords:

All the following points are nothing new and very much common sense.  But most of the time, we tend to ignore these items.

  1. Create a unique password every time.  When you are changing a password for an existing account, it should not be the same as the previous password. Also, do not use incremental passwords while changing it. i.e password1, password2 etc.
  2. Change your passwords for all your accounts once every 6 months.  Since passwords have a fixed length, a brute-force attack to guess the password will always succeed if enough time and processing power is available to the attacker.  So it is always recommended to change the passwords often.  Schedule a recurring appointment on your calendar to change your passwords once every 6 months.
  3. Never write down your passwords.  Creating a very strong password and writing it down on a paper is as bad as creating an easy to remember weak password and not writing it down anywhere.  There are several interesting surveys done on this subject, where it was found that several people write down the password and keep it somewhere next to the computer.  Some of them think keeping the post-it note below the mouse pad is secure enough.  You should never write down the password on a paper.  If you want to carry your password along with you all the times, use a password manager tool that runs from USB stick and take that with you all the times.
  4. Don’t share with anyone.  Anyone includes your friends and family.  Probably you might have heard the phrase “Passwords are like underwear, don’t share with anybody”.  We teach our kids several things in life.  Teaching them about online safety and not sharing the password with anybody should be one of them.
  5. Never keep the same password for two different sites.  It is very tempting to create one set of passwords for all your emails, another password for all the banking sites, another password for all the social networking sites etc.  Avoid this temptation and keep unique passwords for all your accounts.
  6. Don’t type your password when someone is looking over your shoulder.  This is especially very important if you type slowly and search for the letters in the keyboard and type with one finger, as it is very easy for someone looking over your shoulder to figure out the password.
  7. Never send your password to anybody in an email.  If you follow #3 mentioned above, this should not be an option.  But the reason I’m specifically saying about this is because several hackers send emails as a support person and asking for your user name and password through email.  Legitimate websites or organisations will never ask you for your user name and password either via email or over the telephone.
  8. Change your passwords immediately when they are compromised.  Even if you have the slightest doubt that someone might have stolen your password, change it immediately.  Don’t even waste a minute.
  9. Don’t use the “Remember password” option on the browser without setting the Master Password. Don’t use this feature of the browser to store your username and passwords without enabling the “Master Password” option.  If you don’t set master password on the firefox browser, anybody who uses your firefox browser can see all the passwords that are stored in the firefox browser in plain text.  Also, be very careful with this option and say ‘Not Now’ in the remember password pop-up, when you are using a system that doesn’t belong to you.
  10. Don’t type your password on a computer that does not belong to you. If possible, don’t use someone else’s computer that you don’t trust to login to any website, especially to very sensitive website such as banking.  It is a very common practice for hackers to use key loggers that will log all the key strokes on a system, which will capture everything you type including the passwords.

Adam Brown, Technical Director

Cleaning your PC – literally!

If your PC’s been humming along under your desk for more than a year or two, I’ve got news for you: the chances are that inside the case, half a dozen dust bunnies are dancing around your hard drive, leeching onto your CPU fan and fluttering about your motherboard having a grand old time.

This is not good.

Today we’ll go over how to clean out the guts of your computer, tighten, tune and oil things up to make your PC happier, healthier and more likely to stick around longer.

Note: Your best bet is to do this type of cleaning next time you’re inside your PC’s case, like during a new RAM or hard drive installation.  If it’s simply been years since you’ve looked inside your computer – especially if you’re a pet owner or smoker, or if your computer’s fan’s gotten noisier over time – it might be worth the dust bunny evacuation now, upgrade or not.

This past weekend I added some memory to my PC and used the instructions in this excellent article at PC Stats (http://www.pcstats.com/) to clean my PC’s innards while I was in the neighborhood.

What you’ll need (from left to right):

1. A Phillips head screwdriver.

2. Mechanical oil with a dropper.
I used 3-in-1. PC Stats, with good reason, does not recommend WD-40.

3. A can of compressed air.
Pick one of these up at any computer supplies or electronics store.  If you can’t get hold of one easily, you can use a vacuum cleaner with a brush attachment, but do it gently.

First, prepare the computer for cleaning.

Before anything else, back up all your data (better safe than sorry).  Then disconnect the power cord, monitor, keyboard, mouse and any other peripherals.  Take the tower to a well-lit place outdoors on a porch or to the garage, or maybe to the basement.  Do not skip this step because the compressed air is going to blow up a cloud of dust and chemicals you don’t want in your home office or in your eyes or nostrils.  Open up the case.  My Dell goes on its side and when you push the release on the top and bottom, it slides open like a Delorian.  Your case may (most likely will) vary.  Consult your computer’s manual for how to get yours open.

Next, create a dust storm.

Use the can of compressed air with the thin narrow straw attached to the nozzle to blow the dust off all the components inside your PC’s case.  Keep the can upright as much as possible to avoid liquid coming out of the can, but if it does, it shouldn’t harm the computer’s innards.  Don’t do this near kids or pets, and know that as you use the can, it will get cold in your hand.  Be sure to get into all the cracks and crevices, and do dust the grill on the back of the machine as well. PC Stats says that compressed air should not be used to clean fan blades because it will make them turn faster than they were meant to and this could cause harm.  The fan is plastic anyway and can be cleaned with a damp cloth, which we’ll do next.

Thirdly, clean the fan.

There are two fans in your computer: one inside the power supply and one over the processor.  The power supply fan on my machine was sealed tight and inaccessible; so I cleaned it as much as possible from the outside grill.  We care about the fan over the computer processor.  Airborne dust, pet hair, smoke and particles can build up over time and slowly break this fan down and eventually overheat your computer.  Some cleaning and a drop of oil can prevent this type of catastrophe, or at least put it off.

In my particular Dell (a Dimension series), the processor fan is covered by a green hood that flips up and snaps off.  Using the screwdriver, dismount the fan from the inside of the machine without disconnecting the cords.  Wipe down the plastic blades and casing with a damp cloth. I’m not a smoker or a pet owner but you can see my fan was blackened with dust.

Finally, lubricate the fan mechanism.

Pull up the sticker on the fan.  PC Stats says some computers may have a rubber plug over the bearing inside; my computer did not.  If yours does, pull up the plug with a fingernail or screwdriver.  Then place one single drop of oil over the axle part which turns the fan.

Then replace the sticker and remount the fan, hood and any nearby parts you had to remove to get to it.

Before you close up your case, make sure all the connections inside your PC are tight and that no wires are hanging loose or pulled too tight.  Firmly tighten any screws mounting PCI cards or drives and close up the case.  Return the PC to its home location, reconnect all peripherals and boot up.  If possible, place the machine on your desk instead of on the floor to reduce dust exposure.

After the cleaning, your lubed-up, clean PC should run quieter with a much reduced chance of a hostile dust bunny takeover – that is, until the cat starts rubbing up against it.

Adam Brown, Technical advisor

Protecting yourself online (part 2)

Last month, Adam had so many good ideas for making sure you keep your computer and your information safe, that we had to divide it into two chunks!


Taking technology on your side…

19. It’s a matter of trust: An important question is, can you trust the site’s certificate to be authentic?  VeriSign was guilty of issuing security certificates to sites that claimed to be part of Microsoft not so long ago.  The latest versions of browsers, Internet Explorer 7 and Opera 9 will soon be able to provide users with Extended Validation SSL certificates that assure them of being on a genuine site.  The address bar shows green for the good guys and red for the doubtful ones.

20. From phishers with greed: Emails can also be spoofed. The only way you can be sure they are not, is to use clients that support S/MIME digital signatures.   First check if the sender’s address is correct, and then look for the digital signature.  This is a pretty effective anti-phishing tactic as the signature is generated by the client after the mail has been opened and authenticated, and because it’s based on robust cryptographic techniques.

21. Keep up or else: Make sure your operating system and browsers are UPDATED regularly.  Check for the latest patches and apply them immediately.

22. Build that fence: PROTECT your computer with effective anti-virus and anti-spam software, and set up firewalls to keep those sneaky Trojan horses out.  They are capable of the worst kind of phishing – installing surreptitious key-logging software on your system that captures all your keystrokes and transports them to the crooks in some unknown location.  What’s worse is that the infection spreads from your PC to other systems on your network, till all the computers are compromised.

23. Not just a token: Consider using an ID Vault USB TOKEN that encrypts all your user ids and passwords and stores them on a flash drive, which can then be used to securely log onto websites.  Most tokens come with a list of legitimate sites and also prevent key-logging software from working effectively.  The device itself is password-protected, so thieves have an added layer of encryption to tackle.

24. Hashing to confuse: Software plug-ins are joining in the fight against phishing, an example being the PwdHash, or password HASH tool developed by two Stanford professors that scrambles any password you type, and creates a unique sign-on for each site you visit.  Even if phishers are given a password, it’s the wrong one.

25. I spy no spies: Another application developed along the lines of PwdHash, and also created by the same two Stanford professors, the SPYBLOCK tool prevents Trojan horse key-logging programs from stealing your passwords.

26. Extending protection: Browser extensions like Antiphish (used as a plug-in by Mozilla’s Firefox) offer protection against phishing attacks by maintaining LISTS of passwords and other sensitive information, and issuing warnings when users type this information on fishy sites.


Prospective protection against phishing…

27. Sending positive signals: New technologies like the Sender ID Framework (SIDF) are joining in the fight against spoofing websites by verifying the source of each email.  In the pipeline from Microsoft and CipherTrust.

28. Not barring trust: TrustBars, which are secure and tamper-proof components of browsers, allow VISUALIZATION of information related to sites.  Users are alerted by visible warnings when there is a discrepancy in the visualization on the bar.

29. Slow down those attacks: Another technique, the Delayed Password Disclosure (DPD), protests against pop-up windows that ask for sensitive details (aptly termed doppelganger window attacks).  It works against phishing attacks when users enter passwords letter by letter, one following the other only after a corresponding image is recognized.

30. Proof positive: Websites that wish to prove they are authentic can use HTML extensions called PROOFLETS to enhance a server’s contents.  These are verified by browsers through the use of special web services.

Alternative approaches…

31. Mobility in scams: As consumers are wising up to their scams, phishers are moving on to newer media to launch their scams. Mobile phones, a necessity in today’s world, are the latest targets.  Text messages purporting to originate from your bank warn you that unless you confirm your account information, it will be deactivated.  IGNORE these messages, they are always spam.

32. Voicing doubts: Another hot sphere of activity, the VoIP technology, is being harnessed as a phishing tool with alarming regularity.  The crooks find it COST-EFFECTIVE to make numerous calls and earn a sum well above the incurred expenses.  This is doubly dangerous because people who would look at an email with suspicion, generally tend to believe phone calls.

Make a difference…

33. Join the fight: If you come across a phishing scam, REPORT it at once to the Anti-Phishing Working Group, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the FBI through the Internet Fraud Complaint Center, both of whom work to shut down phishing sites and catch those responsible.

34. Say goodbye: If any of your accounts have been compromised, CLOSE them at once.

35. Change is good: If you even suspect that your any one of your passwords has gone to the wrong hands, CHANGE all your passwords and pin numbers on online accounts immediately.

Adam Brown, Technical Advisor

Secure communication – the Holy Grail of mission workers in CANs

One of the principal challenges for mission workers in Creative Access Nations is the security of communications.  All of us have heard stories of people whose visas have been rescinded because the word ‘Christian’ in an email has been traced back to them.  The risk of their communications being intercepted and something incriminating being found is a major concern to mission workers in large parts of the world, as it is not only their own ministries which are vulnerable, but the work of the mission and the safety of local believers.

Syzygy is therefore happy to bring to your attention something which may solve this problem once and for all – the IronKey.  This is a flash drive which inserts into the USB port on any computer.  The difference is that we believe it to be significantly more secure than anything we have found to date.  While nothing is ever completely secure, the physical structure of the IronKey prevents it from being taken apart for analysis, and it is utterly durable.  The data on it is 256-bit encrypted, which is a military standard.  If it detects any unauthorised attempt to decode it, the data on it will be destroyed.  We believe that it is so hard to get into, that it will just not be worth anyone’s while to invest the resources necessary.

The IronKey is of particular value to missions workers in CANs because it contains its own browsing software and virtual keypad, so that it can be used in any internet cafe in the world without passwords being hijacked or an IP address being traced.  Emails are completely secure as the recipient can only open them when armed with a predetermined code.  This of course means that you can’t instantly email everyone in the world securely, but with a bit of planning you can have a new level of confidence in the security of your communications with your family, church and mission headquarters.

For those of you who are interested in the full details, our Technical Adviser Adam Brown has written a product review – just click here.  Or read more of the official stuff at https://www.ironkey.com/

While the cost of this amazing piece of technology is not cheap – currently $71, Syzygy is hoping to negotiate a discount on bulk supplies, so if you are interested in getting one, email tim@syzygy.org.uk.  We are also exploring a cheaper alternative which will look more like an ordinary flash drive but will have enhanced security at a fraction of the cost.  If you’d like us to contact you when this is available, please let us know.

Protecting yourself online

It’s a scam that generates billions of dollars even when only 5 percent of the darts hit the target, it threatens the integrity of online transactions between customers and e-business houses, it’s a constant cat-and-mouse game between the perpetrators and the security guys hot on their heels – phishing, carding, brand spoofing, web spoofing – call it what you will, there’s no escaping the fact that the threat of this swindle is getting more dangerous by the day.

The offenders have at their disposal an arsenal of weaponry – seemingly innocuous links embedded in emails that redirect to fake sites, pop-up windows that encourage you to enter sensitive information, URL masks that conjure up real Web addresses, and keystroke loggers that are lurking around waiting to capture your user ids and passwords even as you type them. You don’t necessarily have to be tech-savvy to protect yourself from phishing attacks, it’s enough if you keep your wits about you, are a little aware that not all sites on the Internet are the genuine article, and follow one or a combination of the following tips.

1. Never trust strangers: The same rules you were taught as a child come into play here; DO NOT open emails that are from people you don’t know. Set your junk and spam mail filter to deliver only content from those in your address book.

2. Sidestep those links: What happens if your spam filter is fooled into delivering junk mail to your inbox, and you happen to open it? Simple – NEVER click on links embedded in your email.

3. Guard your privacy: Your mouse just happened to move over the link and lo and behold, you’re transported to another website where you’re asked to provide sensitive information like user names, account numbers, password and credit card and social security numbers. Just one word for you – DON’T.

4. Fear Not: More often than not, these phony websites come with threats or warnings that your account is in danger of being deactivated if you don’t confirm your user information, or that the IRS is due to pay you a visit if you don’t comply with what’s written on the page. Just IGNORE them.

5. Pick up the phone and call: If you are in doubt that it just may be a legitimate request, and that your bank is actually asking you to reveal sensitive information online, CALL your customer service representative before you do anything foolhardy.

6. Use the keypad, not the mouse: TYPE in URLs instead of clicking on links to online shopping and banking sites that typically ask for credit card and account numbers.

7. Look for the lock: Valid sites that use encryption to securely transfer sensitive information are characterized by a lock on the bottom right of your browser window, NOT your web page. They also have addresses that begin with https:// rather than the usual http://.

8. Spot the difference: Sometimes, just the presence of the lock alone is proof enough that the site is authentic. To verify its genuineness, double-click the lock to display the site’s security certificate, and CHECK if the name on the certificate and the address bar match. If they don’t you’re on a problem site, so get the hell out of there.

9. Second time right: If you’re worried that you’ve reached a phishing site that’s masquerading as your banking page, sometimes the easiest way to check is to enter a WRONG password. The fake site will accept it, and then you’re usually redirected to a page that says they’re having technical difficulties, so could you please check back later? Your original banking site will not allow you entry.

10. Different is the keyword here: Use DIFFERENT passwords for different sites; I know it’s a tough ask these days when most functions of the brain are being passed on to technology, but this is a good way to prevent phishers from getting at all your sensitive transactions, even if they’ve managed to compromise one.

11. Keep your eyes open: A spam email is littered with grammatical errors, is generally not personalized, and usually has either some link or a suspicious attachment. RECOGNIZE and report them as spam.

12. Familiarity breeds contempt: Not sure that you can spot a phisher’s email when you receive one? Well, take a LOOK at these examples and you’ll know how they’re generally framed. By and by, you’ll learn how to spot the fake ones.

13. Greed doesn’t pay: NEVER be taken in by offers of money for participating in surveys that ask for sensitive information. These are always fraudulent attempts to get hold of your personal details. You may get the $20 that’s promised, but there’s also a high probability that you may find your account cleaned out.

14. No stepping out: Do not leave your computer UNATTENDED when logged into your bank account or when you’ve provided credit card information on a shopping site.

15. Proper exits count: Once you’ve finished your business, LOG OUT properly instead of just closing the browser window, especially if you’re using a public terminal.

16. You can never be too careful: LOG INTO your bank account on a regular basis and keep tabs on your money. You don’t want to wake up one fine day and find that a phisher’s been siphoning off a few hundred dollars every now and then.

17. A little knowledge is not dangerous: Keep yourself up to date with the latest news and informationon phishing.

18. Hard evidence: Be very careful when disposing of old computers and hard disks. Recycled computers have been found to retain confidential information pertaining to Internet banking. Use software to ERASE and over-write data on your hard disk to ensure that it is not recoverable.

Adam Brown,

Technical Advisor

The Great BlackBerry Showdown – what does it all mean?

You may have seen in the news over the last few weeks a lot of chatter from Saudi Arabia (and lately India) regarding the use of BlackBerry mobile phone handsets in their respective countries.  The question has to be asked, why does the Saudi government feel it necessary to consider tighter controls on the use of BlackBerrys?  It all boils down to privacy.

Research in Motion’s (RIM) BlackBerrys, much like any modern smartphone, can send and receive emails.  Unlike other devices (the iPhone for example) when a a BlackBerry retrieves email, it is not retrieving them directly from the email provider, instead the BlackBerry is obtaining its new email from the BlackBerry server.  This has the advantage of taking less time, as the emails can be compressed, taking up less space, and therefore taking less time to send. It all so allows RIM to offer other services direct to the handset, like calendar and instant messaging. Anyone who has used a BlackBerry will attest to the fact that this is a great idea, offering speed and rich functionality.

In order to provide an enterprise-level service for its corporate customers, RIM has to ensure that all the emails and other data stored on its BlackBerry servers is secure.  To do this, they encrypt it, and this is what the Saudi and other governments have an issue with.  With the data encrypted, they can’t look at it.

What does this mean for you?

The short answer is, not a lot. Although from September 1st RIM are allowing the Saudi and other governments a limited amount of access to its secure data, this does not mean that you are being ‘snooped’ on.  The government cannot see the full text of your emails or audio recordings of your phone calls.  Although it is not known exactly what level of access governments have, it is reasonable to assume that at most they are able to audit the send/receive trail of emails, nothing more.  In a recent press release RIM commented that “RIM cannot accommodate any request for a copy of a customer’s encryption key, since at no time does RIM, or any wireless network operator or any third party, ever possess a copy of the key.  This means that customers of the BlackBerry enterprise solution can maintain confidence in the integrity of the security architecture without fear of compromise.”  In essence, even if RIM wanted to give governments full access to your email and IM logs, they cant.  You’re safe.

What can I do to protect myself?

First, you will want to back up your phone’s data, and wipe the handset of all your personal information, if you lose your phone.  I recommend Lookout Mobile Security by Lookout : http://appworld.blackberry.com/webstore/content/8469

It’s available for BlackBerry, and Android and can be obtained from the App Store on the device.   Lookout securely creates a backup of your data (stored on Lookout’s US servers).  This allows you to restore your email, contacts, and other information if you get a new handset.   Lookout also allows you to locate your phone, and remotely wipe it of all your data if you so chose.  This renders it useless to any would be thief.

iPhone users opt for the $99 per year .Mac service, that offers similar functions.

Next month, tips on how you can secure yourself online, while using your laptop/desktop.

Adam Brown, Technical Advisor

Tech notes – replacing hardware

Any time a computer component stops working, or just becomes unstable — as we all know will happen from time to time — we have to decide whether to replace it, have it repaired, or just get by as is with perhaps a temporary fix. Repair or just getting by will nearly always be the cheapest solution, at least in the short run. Replacement, however, will usually provide a good opportunity to upgrade. In fact, given the rate at which the various technologies behind computer hardware are advancing, unless you replace something a week after you buy it, you may almost be forced to upgrade.

Following are five items which, if replaced (and generally upgraded), can provide excellent benefits, from an enhanced user experience to additional compatibility, greater longevity, and stability for the whole system.

#1: Power supply

One of the most overlooked pieces of computer hardware is the power supply unit (PSU). Computer enthusiasts often brag about their blazing fast processors, top-of-the- line video cards, and gigs upon gigs of RAM, but rarely about their great PSUs.

The truth is, the power supply is the last thing we should skimp on when choosing components for our system. If a computer’s brain is its processor, its heart is the power supply. And having one that is worn out, underpowered, unstable, or just generally cheap can be a major cause of hardware failure.

Every computer’s power requirements are different, but a good minimum for a modern PC is 450 watts. Some systems, especially those with multiple high-end video cards or lots of add-on cards and peripherals may require a PSU rated at 800 watts or more. Replacing a failing or inadequate power supply can make a previously unstable system stable.

Aside from supplying enough power, that power must be supplied stably. A common cause of “unexplained” lockups and system crashes is a drop in voltage supplied to the system when under load, caused by a poorly manufactured PSU. The easiest way to find a quality PSU is to stick to the consistently top brands such as Antec, EnerMax, and PC Power & Cooling.

#2: Fans

As computers have gotten more powerful over the last decades, they have also gotten hotter. Gone are the days of a passively cooled Pentium 100; now we have fans on our massive CPU heatsinks, on our monster video cards, and on intake and outtake vents to our computer cases. All of these fans are playing important roles by keeping our computers safely cooled, and we should try to ensure that they continue doing so.

Fans are one of the few parts that when replaced will not usually be replaced with something better. But they deserve mention because:

  • As one of the few moving parts in our system, they are one of the most likely to actually break.
  • When they break, it’s likely to pass unnoticed or not cause much concern.

Also, fans are cheap and easy to replace. It generally takes about £10-£15, 15 minutes, and a screwdriver to install a new one, so there’s really no good excuse for not doing so.

#3: Surge protector / UPS

This is another item that keeps our computers safe and should not be neglected. A surge protector can be a stand-alone power strip, but one is also built into virtually every uninterruptible power supply (UPS). The surge protector guards our devices against spikes in energy that occur in our circuits at the home or office, usually due to lightning or the powering up of high-powered devices, such as hair dryers or refrigerators. Repairing a surge protector would be difficult and expensive at best; replacement is almost always the best option.

It can be tricky to know when it’s time to replace a surge protector, because the component inside that diverts excess power from surges to the ground simply wears out with repeated use. However, there is often no interruption of power or other indication that it’s done. You may still have juice but not be protected. The cheapest protectors may wear out after fewer than 10 small surges, while the better ones can last through hundreds. The safest thing to do is to get higher quality protectors but still replace them occasionally.

#4: Video card

The video card is one of the most important elements in the performance of your system and overall user experience. Even though it is also one of the priciest components, there are two good reasons to replace it should your old one bite the dust.

First, video cards are one of the components that are being improved upon seemingly every day. Just like with CPUs, a video card that’s two years old simply isn’t as fast as a current one and won’t have the newest features (such as support for DirectX 10).

Also, the video card is the number one hardware stopgap as we migrate to Vista. Manufacturers just aren’t providing new Vista-compatible drivers for lots of their old video cards. This means that many of us will have to replace our video cards whether they are broken or not, if we plan to switch to Vista.

#5: Hard drives

The computer component we all least want to fail is the hard drive. It’s easier to cope with the loss of the much more expensive processor or video card as long as we still have our precious data, so your first instinct is to try to repair it. But if you’ve been practicing good backup habits, you can actually come out of the situation better off when you replace the old drive with something bigger and faster. Generally you want to look for the largest drive you can find, Maxtor, and Seagate are good brands to look for.

Adam Brown, technical advisor

Tech notes: how to speed up your computer (2)

This month our resident guru Adam Brown continues with simple instructions on how to get more performance from your PC


1. Check if you may have a virus slowing your PC

A common reason for a PC running too slowly is that a virus has made its way on your hard drive and started duplicating itself like mad or using up valuable system resources and memory, severely slowing down your computer.

Scan for spyware or virus using your favorite virus scanner, or use AVG free antivirus software or a good online solution like MacAfee Freescan – see  www.mcafee.com/freescan

2. Disable unused network ports or other controllers

Do you have any unused network connections that you could disable, or even any other PCI slot devices that you could remove totally if not in regular use?

3. Run Scandisk

Try running scandisk to check for system file errors or bad sectors that could be repaired.

Right click on C drive –> Click Properties –> Click Tools –> Click Check Now –> Check both boxes and click Start

A scan will be scheduled for the next time you start your computer.  Beware – it can take a long time so it might be a good idea to leave it running overnight rather than get annoyed when you need to start your computer in a hurry!  Use a UPS if your power supply is unreliable.

4. Operating System needs updating

Sometimes an operating system can have certain bugs or need patches and updates in order for it run correctly.  It’s also important to get security updates to avoid getting viruses that slow down your computer. It’s best to manually update otherwise you can waste time getting a lot of unnecessary software which is what we try and avoid. :)

5. Do not show Hidden Files

Sometimes showing hidden files is useful but it also means your GUI has to load up all these random hidden files, most of which are temporary ones and this can slow down your PC.

In any windows folder Click Tools –> Click Folder Options –> Click View –> Click Do not show hidden files and folders –>Click OK

6. Check what processes and programs are running

Hit Ctrl Alt Delete (all at the same time) to start the task manager, then click processes to see which application is using most of your system resources.  Closing something using a lot of resources before running a software application can help speed it up.

Highlight the appropriate process –> Click End Process

Beware of closing any old process: look up the name on Google first to find out what it is. You can also identify primitive viruses this way so keep an eye out for things that look strange. Lots of normal programs do have strangely named processes though.

7. Slow PC in games?

You can also play around with video card settings to get the best smoothest game play while sacrificing some graphics quality.

Right click your desktop –> Click Properties –> Click Settings –> Click Advanced –> Click on your graphics card control panel and follow on-screen instructions


If none of these solutions have improved your PC performance, come back next month for advice on hardware solutions!