Thanksgiving Tips For Geeks

We all have friends and family who keep sneaking in a request for tech advice. Here's how to help without turning your home into a 'trouble ticket.'
If family and friends are pumping you for broadband advice over Thanksgiving dinner and you find yourself extracting the latest virus from your brother-in-law's PC instead of eating your pumpkin pie, it's time to reevaluate your role as the family geek.

As difficult as it is to just say no when Mom asks you to restore her hard drive, it can be even harder to turn down a chance to bend technology to your will after-hours. Technology tinkering is fun, and it can be rewarding to strut your stuff at home to help out a loved one.

If you're not careful, though, the fallout from IT support gone bad can be worse at home than it is on the job. Sometimes it's just best to beg off (See "Top 10 Excuses," page 59). If you just can't help but help, stick with installing and supporting only off-the-shelf applications rather than creating custom code. This will give you some wiggle-room if you don't want to become a long-term support person for your relatives and buddies. One Network Computing editor, who wishes to remain anonymous in the interest of keeping the family peace, wrote a custom medical-office system for his father 10 years ago and is still supporting it today. That's what happens when no one has the source code and no vendor will touch it without a time-and-materials charge. (Take our Geek-O-Meter test on page 58 to see if you're the one who needs help.)

Family and friends typically rely on their favorite geeks for backup and recovery, malware and Internet filtering help, according to Network Computing readers who identify themselves as "go-to-geeks." So how do you minimize risk while satisfying your need to be a Good Samaritan? Here are some tips on how to strike that oh-so-delicate balance. (Join in more geeky fun by contributing your tips).

If your spouse isn't backing up his or her data reliably and regularly, expect to suffer through a protracted data-recovery session, complete with wailing (your spouse's) and teeth-gnashing (yours). But don't overcompensate by treating it like a data-center problem. Resist the urge to set up your spouse with a tape drive, tape rotation, success-and-failure-logs and so on. The bottom line is that tape backup comes with too many moving parts and overhead for the typical home user. If tapes cost $35 apiece, your spouse isn't likely to rotate them that often, causing incremental problems. One Network Computing reader tells us he set his mother up with a tape system, but she never changed the tape or checked the logs. When it came time to restore her data, the then-defective tape in the drive was worse than having no backup at all.

CD burning is a better fit for data backup at home. There's no head-cleaning and the media is less expensive than a data tape--CD-ROM rewriteable media costs around $15 for a 25-pack compared with $20 to $80 per tape. Someone still has to change the disk eventually, and if the disk goes bad, your spouse will be calling on you or, worse, ignoring it. The good news is that CD-ROMs don't have the failure rates of tape drives and tapes.

Another backup option is file synchronization with rsync, Unison or Robocopy. This approach is more hands-off: Set it up to synchronize with a location that gets backed up, and no one has to change media or worry about errors. Some go-to geeks say they merely sync to another hard drive in the house, which costs very little. We don't recommend that. Say a virus corrupts your family photos and you have copies on another hard drive. If that hard drive gets sync'd every night, chances are it will have sync'd with the corrupted files, and your precious moments are lost forever.

Online drives like XDrive are good, but they have the same potential corruption problem, so remote backup services are the safest bet. Check out Netriplex, at $19 per month for 1 GB of backup storage, or First Backup, with prices from $40 per year for 50 MB to $14 per month for 1 GB.

Even if you set up a solid backup for your family member, you'll eventually need to recover his or her hard drive. A $1,000-plus clean-room hard-drive recovery facility isn't realistic, so try a DIY recovery, particularly if the alternative is the trash bin. CG Security's TestDisk is a free option that can be useful. We've used this recovery tool for lightly damaged drives, but haven't had much luck using it for heavily damaged ones.

Whether you're going with a free or commercial tool, first get the raw hard-drive data to an image file and then use the recovery tool. The freebie "dd" tool with the "noerr" and "sync" options keeps all bytes in the correct position and replaces bad data with NULs instead of reorganizing it. This is important because file tables are record-size oriented, not delimited. Why acquire the image first? You don't want the recovery tool working on the hard drive while it's in the middle of failure. "dd" is available for Linux, Unix and even Windows through the Cygwin project. On the commercial side, R-Studio, which starts at $80, recovers badly damaged hard drives and captures the image to a file.

A growing technology problem for home users is that their computers are being slowed down by malware infestations--spyware, adware or Trojan. There are even infomercials touting solutions for this headache.

Your loved ones invariably will call on you for help with this. Just what you can do to help is the question: It's a spyware smackdown out there, with consumer-grade packages being erased and malfunctioning when freeware fixes are installed. One reader says AdAware destroyed Norton Internet Security without notice. It wiped out several modules as possible pop-up software, and Norton would no longer run. Before he realized the problem, he says, he reinstalled Norton and reran AdAware, which again destroyed Norton.

Anti-malware tools touch your mom's PC on a system level, so this is dangerous territory. It can be tempting to simply avoid messing with anything and let your mom go ahead and run the anti-malware you've recommended. But it's best if you do the install to ensure backup and quality-assurance procedures are in place. Among the tools we recommend are the Google toolbar, HijackThis, SpyBot Search & Destroy and, of course, AdAware, all of which are free.

The Internet can be a dangerous place for kids. But it's also perilous for the grown-ups. Questionable sites can subvert their PCs, leveraging the latest patched and unpatched Internet Explorer bugs. You can save yourself a lot of grief (and time) by encouraging your friends and family to put filters on their PCs. You can't tell them how to use their PCs, but you can warn them that filtering will make their Internet experience safer, especially if their PCs are used by other members of the family as well.

Installing a Squid proxy server with filtering capabilities may work at the office, but NetNanny ($40) or CyberPatrol ($40) makes more sense for the family. These tools filter out inappropriate sites and can set time limits on gaming and restrictions on instant messaging.

Although client security may be equivalent to no security in the enterprise, it's all you've got for your mom's PC. And these consumer-level tools do the job just fine for your family and friends' systems. Technology never sleeps, but maybe you'll finally get to.

Jonathan Feldman is the go-to geek for his family in Georgia and New York. Write to him at [email protected].

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