Credit where it’s due: Thanksgiving tech support has gotten easier

I spend a lot of time venting about tech being a pain in the neck, but I will take a break from that to confirm that my annual Thanksgiving-weekend routine of providing technical support has gotten a lot easier over the last 10 years.

The single biggest upgrade has been the emergence of the iPad as something usable as the only computer in the house. It took a few years for Apple to make that happen–remember when you had to connect an iPad to a computer for its setup and backups?–but Web-first users can now enjoy a tablet with near zero risk of malware and that updates its apps automatically.

As a result, when I gave my mom’s iPad a checkup Wednesday afternoon, the worst I had to do was install the iOS 12.1 update.

That left me free to spend my tech-support time rearranging that tablet’s apps to keep the ones she uses most often on the first home screen.

Things have gotten easier on “real” computers too. Apple and Microsoft ship their desktop operating systems with sane security defaults and deliver security patches and other bug fixes automatically. The Mac and Windows app stores offer the same seamless updates for installed programs as iOS and Android’s. And while Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox aren’t in those software shops, they update themselves just as easily.

But the openness of those operating systems makes it easier for people to get into trouble. For example, a few weeks ago, I had to talk a relative through resetting Chrome’s settings to get rid of an extension that was redirecting searches.

Other computing tasks remain a mess. On a desktop, laptop or tablet, clearing out storage to make room for an operating-system upgrade is as tedious as ever, and it doesn’t help when companies like Apple continue to sell laptops with 128-gigabyte SSDs. Password management continues to be a chore unless (duh) you install a password manager.

Social media looks worst of all. Facebook alone has become its own gravity well of maintenance–notifications to disable to curb its attention-hogging behavior, privacy settings to tend, and propaganda-spewing pages to avoid. There’s a reason I devoted this year’s version of my USA Today Thanksgiving tech-support column to Facebook, and I don’t see that topic going out of style anytime soon.

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Weekly output: Black Hat hacks and security fixes, T-Mobile news, self-driving-car security, voting-machine security, fear of robots

Most of this week’s copy was reported and written the previous week at the Black Hat security conference in Vegas. Considering my own frequently-elastic interpretations of deadlines, I can’t complain about editors with their own crowded calendars taking a day or two to give their full attention to my own work.

8/13/2018: Hacks of Macs, Microsoft Cortana are two more reasons why you should install updates, USA Today

I used this column to synthesize my notes from a few different Black Hat talks that intersected to yield the same lesson: You are safer overall if you install security fixes for your apps and devices when they arrive instead of playing IT department and deciding which ones should wait.

8/13/2018: What could T-Mobile uncap for its next Un-carrier news?, Fierce Wireless

I wrote this curtain-raiser for T-Mobile’s Wednesday announcement twice when a late reply from one analyst and my tardy queries to others led me to file a 1.0 version that would make it into Fierce’s mid-day newsletter. The one you can read now includes quotes from those additional experts–none correctly forecasting that T-Mobile would make its next big push better customer service.

8/13/2018: How two car hackers plan to keep GM’s self-driving cars safe, Yahoo Finance

The single most entertaining talk at Black Hat was this presentation from Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek. You may remember them as the guys who hacked a Jeep Cherokee in 2015 to seize control of it with Wired writer Andy Greenberg at the wheel. The two now work for the GM subsidiary Cruise Automation, and at Black Hat they explained how they plan to stop the likes of them from remotely exploiting Cruise’s fleet of self-driving vehicles–in part by removing such attack surfaces as Bluetooth wireless and the FM radio.

8/14/2018: There’s more to election integrity than secure voting machines, The Parallax

Another Black Hat talk gave me one more chance to take a whack at the WinVote voting machines that infested polling places across Virginia–mine included–for a decade. This time around, I checked back with a couple of the experts I’d consulted for earlier coverage of electronic voting machines and learned that both wished they’d paid more attention before to such separate election-integrity issues as voter registration systems.

8/15/2018: Robot workers or human employees, Al Jazeera

I got a request from my usual guy in AJ’s D.C. bureau asking if I could talk about the prospect of robots taking human jobs–both in the private and defense sectors. I was in Boston at the time visiting family, but that proved to be no problem. Instead of them sending a car to my house to take me to their D.C. studios, they ran me over to a studio in downtown Boston, where I did my talking-head duty (overdubbed live into Arabic) wearing one of my brother’s jackets. Since I knew I’d only appear on camera from the torso up, I didn’t bother changing out of the shorts and sandals I’d put on that morning.