Stump the Geeks

Lessons from a departing tech columnist

May 26, 2013 

I was about 10 years old when my family got its first home computer, a chunky, beige NEC running the Windows 3.1 operating system.

I hated it more than I had ever hated an inanimate object.

I found it incredibly difficult to use. I hated DOS and remembering what to type in the command line to run my copy of “Star Wars: X-Wing.” I hated that it was clunky and slow, and despite being brand new would frequently crash and lose my carefully crafted MS Paint artwork.

My disdain for this machine eventually grew into a blanket prejudice against all computers. I opted out of keyboarding class and avoided the vocational computer engineering courses in high school, where instructors helped students piece together their own machines.

But at some point, all of that changed.

It wasn’t some sudden light bulb moment. It was just a gradual change in my perception, an eventual realization that I needed to get comfortable with this stuff now or regret it later.

By the time I took over this column in the fall of 2011, I considered myself a pretty tech-savvy guy.

But after a year-and-a-half of challenging questions from readers and expert answers from my go-to geek specialists, I’ve experienced a second slow-motion tech epiphany.

With every bit of advice, I was able to spot my own bad habits – recycled, simplistic passwords, a lack of backup systems, constant neglect of general maintenance – and make changes.

My methods now are far from bulletproof, but without these changes, I would have eventually regretted my bad choices.

This is my final Stump the Geeks column, but before I go to pursue another job opportunity, I wanted to reflect on some of my most valuable takeaways.

Don’t be like me

So much of our lives is now exclusively digital. Family photos, important documents, our online reputations – these things are nearly impossible to replace if they’re hacked or lost.

But if we plan for failure – something I never did two years ago – it’s possible to protect the electronic information we value most.

Adopt a robust security system by creating unique passwords for each of your accounts. These passwords should be as long as possible, with complex combinations of letters, numbers and symbols. Store them in a password management system or some other secure location so you don’t have to remember them. Wherever possible, enable two-factor authentication to make accounts harder to hack.

And always have a backup. More services than ever allow users to download their personal data. Take advantage of that, and use a physical or cloud-based storage device that automatically backs up your hard drive.

This advice applies to mobile devices as well.

Embrace skepticism

The most potent technology scams are those that don’t rely on technology at all – they target the user through social engineering. These attempts to collect personal information used to be easy to spot, but they’re growing in sophistication.

Be skeptical of seemingly legitimate emails asking for login information. Be skeptical of call center employees who tell you your computer is on the verge of catastrophic failure. Be skeptical of Facebook messages from friends who say they’re stranded overseas and need money.

It’s much easier to avoid scams when you’re constantly vigilant.

There are no dumb questions

Who knew there was an app called unwhatever.me capable of filtering Kim Kardashian news from your Facebook feed? Or that the best way to wipe a hard drive of personal information is to utterly destroy it with power tools?

Someone did.

I unfortunately haven’t been able to answer every question I’ve received during my time as the Stump the Geeks columnist, but the ones I did select came from people across a broad spectrum of computer literacy.

Whether it’s a technology column, a techie friend or a specialized online message board, find a trusted source and fire away. Chances are, someone else has experienced the same problem, and tapping the knowledge of others is one of the best ways to learn.

The answer is out there somewhere. But you’ll never know until you ask.

Send technology questions to stumpthegeeks@newsobserver.com. Please include your name, city and daytime phone number. Sorry, we can’t answer every question.

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