Give of yourself (2016 edition)

The holidays are upon us, and with those holidays come the rituals we perform year in and out to help get us into the spirit of things. In addition to banging out holiday tunes on the piano, upping my consumption of minty treats, and arguing with my spouse over the most appropriate image for the holiday card, I take to BBEdit to offer a few hints about how the appropriately inclined can give of themselves to those who find modern technological life confounding.

This year—when the world has seemingly determined that a return to the sterner aspects of the Middle Ages may be an intriguing change of pace—it’s particularly important that we lend a greater hand to our fellows. And when better to start than during a visit to friends and families over the holidays? If you have the know-how (and patience), give these tips a try.

Survey the situation

After dispensing with the initial round of familial hugs and greetings, I sit down with the target of my affection and ask, “So, what’s not working for you?” Putting aside “Your cousin, Graham” for another time, I may follow with, “How’s your computer running? Is it slow? Are you able to make and receive phone calls on your mobile phone? Are there things you want to do with either one that you can’t? Is there any particular technology you’ve heard about that you’d like to explore? You’re using passwords, right? Have you printed anything in awhile? Does it work?”

More often than not, this person has been waiting for your arrival to address exactly these kinds of issues. Get their list of concerns early so that you have enough time to troubleshoot their problems and, if necessary, procure a new cable, printer cartridge, router, or adapter.

Use their stuff

It’s fine to be aware of a loved one’s concerns, but it’s even better to uncover issues they didn’t know they had. For instance, when last visiting my mother, she remarked that her “Internet was slow.” I fired up the Speedtest app on my iPhone and checked her network. As someone relegated to DSL at home, I was envious of the speeds she gets. So her “Internet” was just fine. 

I then moved to her computer and opened her browser. Sure enough, it ran like molasses. After clearing the cache and restarting the computer, the browser was frisky as the day it was born.

I also checked the wireless coverage in her home and discovered multiple dead spots in heavily traveled areas. With the addition of another wireless router to extend the original, the dead spots came to life.

Likewise, I asked her to take out her iPad and show me all the things she does with it on a daily basis. With that, we rolled through Facebook, Mail, and some Safari browsing. 

When we got to the Netflix app she said, “I wish I could watch movies on this, but I use my computer instead.”

“But you can watch Netflix on your iPad. What’s the problem?”

“It asks for my password and,“ she replied a little sheepishly, “I don’t know what it is.”

Speaking of passwords

If you’re That Person for your friends and family, you’ve heard the “I don’t know my password” response more times than you can recall. It’s an ongoing issue for almost everyone and despite a lot of companies’ best efforts to auto-generate and retrieve strong passwords, it’s a step too far for many people.

It’s never a bad idea to outline the advantages of password generation and retrieval within a device’s operating system and demonstrate the power of tools such as 1Password, but don’t be surprised if you’re told it’s more than they need or want. You can configure a device within an inch of its life with these tools, but if your friend is going to resort to “1234” or “password” because they find other solutions too complicated, work with them on a strategy that they’ll actually use.

In my case I first talk about terrible passwords—first initial, last name; simple number sequence; home address; etc—and instead talk memories; passwords recalled by calling up a familiar phrase or event from their past. For instance, “Write down the first letters from the first words in your favorite poem, the last two numbers of the year you had your first kiss, and capitalize the first two letters of your high school town.” This might result in the password, “towamfn67AR,” which beats the hell out of “secret.” 

And then comes the hard truth: You mustn't use the same password for multiple purposes. When explaining this I use the skeleton key analogy. You would no more use a single key to open everything in your life—the front door, the car door, your safe deposit box, the padlock to Uncle Stan’s dungeon—than you would use a single password for your mobile phone log-in, email, Amazon, bank account, and Netflix.

Next, take the time to devise as many passwords as necessary to cover their needs. Then write them down and put them in a safe, out-of-the-way place that they’ll know but your less-than-professional burglar won’t. Take a picture of them with your phone’s camera and save it for that inevitable moment when they call and ask “What’s my Netflix password again?”

Set up their gifts

If you’ve determined that a friend or relative would benefit from a new hunk of technology, enjoy their reaction when they unwrap the new toy and then, after their smile has faded and it begins to dawn on them that they haven’t a notion how to actually use the thing, help them set it up. Once set up, walk them though the tasks that they’ll use routinely until you’re sure they know what they’re doing and see the advantage of having the thing.

Sideline shopping tip: I’m increasingly keen on smart home technology—lights and switches, in particular. I love how I can control this stuff remotely and with voice commands, but I wouldn’t saddle someone in my family with it who prefers to simply flip a wall switch. Be realistic about their needs rather than advocating your own.

Back up

You know they need a backup but they may not. If they’re an Apple user, set up iCloud backup for their devices. An onsite backup via Time Machine on an external hard drive for their Mac is another good idea. Windows surely has some automatic backup scheme as well. Just do it.

Safety and sanity

It’s a regrettable truth that lies and deceit are now seen as perfectly acceptable ways to get what you want—whether it’s stripping senior citizens of their savings via phishing scams or claiming you won the popular vote when you didn’t. And so—now, more than ever—it’s time for The Talk.

The Talk includes these points:

Password protect everything. It’s that important that it bears repeating. Yes, it’s inconvenient. So is identity theft.

Avoid phishing attempts. When contacted by text, telephone, or email, never, ever, give someone your password, social security number, or financial information. If you receive an email message that requests this kind of information, don’t click any links within the message. Go to that institution’s website, log in, and see if there’s a real problem. 

If the person you’re helping can grasp the idea, hover your pointer over one of these bogus links and show them that the resulting URL has no relationship to the company that allegedly sent the message.

No, you don’t have a security issue. Anyone who calls and tells you that you must rush to your computer to deal with a security issue is a criminal. In most cases, you should hang up immediately. In the case where you have a particularly keen sense of humor, respond, “Oh my god! Hang on a minute while I transfer phones!” put the phone down, and let them cool their heels until such time that they realize you’re messing with them and they hang up.

Living with liars. The web is full of lies and liars. In what some cynically term the “post-truth era,” we must be increasingly vigilant about propaganda disguised as news. Regardless of your friend or relative’s political persuasion, it’s important that they understand that there are both reliable and unreliable sources of information on the web. And it’s up to you to demonstrate what they look like and how to learn what is and isn’t true.

One way to go about this is to pull up a fake news story on Facebook, click on it, and make a note of some of the story’s salient (though untruthful) points. Then perform a search for the “real” story that discounts the fake one. Point out that sites like Breitbart and pundits such as Sean Hannity and his ilk are in the propaganda business and anything they produce is to be taken as toxic. 

Scan legitimate sites and note that linked “stories” from aggregators such as Revcontent and Taboola are just as crap-laden as the worst of the political stuff. If you believe your family member can handle it, show them how to use an ad blocker, and employ it to filter the worst ads from the sites they visit. (Show them how to whitelist sites that they want to support.)

Terminate the trolls. There’s a new sickness in society that causes some people to direct their aggression at perfect strangers. Until such time that social networks take responsibility for the actions of this vermin, it’s up to you to show your loved ones how to deal with them. Demonstrate techniques for muting, blocking, and reporting trolls. Console them that very few of these people are a true threat. They’re simply sad, sad individuals.

Happy holidays

Yes, more of a downer this year than years past, I admit. But we live in a challenging time that only promise to be more so as we enter a new year. To balance the many distressing things we can’t control, consider taking the time to make a positive difference where you can—with those you care about most.