When I was going to high school, somewhere back near the invention of electricity, being a nerd was more of a pejorative than positive. This was before movies glamorized us wearing taped-up glasses and calculators on our belt loops. Now lots of people wear their cell phones there, and we have reality shows that pair up nerds with beauty queens (I guess I was born in the wrong century). And Gates is conquering world diseases with all the dough he has collected from us, just to make it clear who has really won. Being a nerd means that I am often the go-to guy when something computerish breaks around here. Sometimes that responsibility is hard to bear, especially when word gets out around the neighborhood.
In one town where lived for many years, it was fun to solve computer problems at first. This was back in the 1990s, when people were just getting started with broadband Internet. Soon it seemed that everyone had a problem, and I was glad when I moved to the Midwest that I didn't have to play the neighborhood support tech and could live in relative obscurity.
But then I have truly passed the nerdship mantle on to my children, and it is interesting to see how the younger generation has stepped up to the plate and taken over as the new front line of support.
Both my stepson and my daughter have risen to the challenge, each in their own way. My stepson Jeremy has been supporting a friend of his whom we'll call Pete. Pete never really had a PC before and Jeremy helped guide him to upgrade an old computer lurking around his basement. He patiently spent hours on the phone talking him through some issues, helping him get a DSL connection once Pete realized that dial-up wasn't going to cut it, and then through at least three re-installs of Windows because of the various spyware and other garbage that Pete managed to collect in his surfing of questionable Web sites to build up a substantial image and video collection, if you get my drift. Pete and Jeremy both don't like going to movie theaters and have managed to download many DVDs, most of them of questionable provenance. They can find just about any video online, showing me how useless DRM is. But that will be for another column.
Jeremy is a natural PC support technician because he does telesales and has to listen to people complain and ask stupid questions – my hat is off to him, believe me I wouldn't last more than ten minutes listening to some of his callers. To help Pete out, he installed VNC to do remote diagnosis and control because he lives about 30 miles away. Then last week Pete called in a panic. He thought that Jeremy had connected to his PC and was wondering what was going on. Jeremy wasn't online, but he quickly dialed into Pete's PC and saw that someone else had found the open VNC port. Naturally, Pete didn't have a password to protect the connection, and was using the default ports of 5800/5900. The hacker was opening command windows, installing all sorts of spyware, and generally having a good time with Pete's wide-open machine. Pete had installed anti-virus and a firewall, but because he had re-installed XP so many times he had blown through his allowed licenses.
Of course, he was about to re-install XP for another time, once he disconnected from the Internet and could take control of his machine again. Perhaps now Pete has learned his lesson, although I think another re-install is in his near future.
My daughter Maia is also called upon from her college friends to help with their computer problems, and sadly had her own disaster this week with a hard drive that went south, without any backups. She is more of a Mac person because of her dedication to iPods and her own extensive collection of audio downloads. She even taught me a few things, such as the $15 iGadget tool that will allow you to copy music back to your Mac from your iPod. Maia, like Jeremy, is also adept at using the Web to find stuff, and was the first in the family to do video Skype chats. I think she was responsible for converting about a dozen of her friends to Macs.
One of the reasons that I did tech support for the 'hood was that I always learned something out of the encounters. When you poke around someone's computer, you get to see a lot of interesting stuff, sometimes things that you would rather not know about your neighbors. (Oh, the stories I could tell!) I even wrote a book about how to survive your home network (now hopelessly outdated, otherwise you know I would link to Amazon and nag you into buying a copy). So it is nice to see both kids learning new things from their experiences, and becoming the good kind of nerds.
Whether they will have their own reality TV shows remains to be seen. But at least they are now doing backups and running firewalls.
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- David Strom
- David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.