The relative safety of colleges and computers

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I, in no way intending to compare myself to the Great Author, can understand how James Thurber must have felt. Following the admonition of his 7th-grade Creative Writing teacher to “write what he knew,” he undoubtedly found himself largely alone in conversation with the dog at the annual family picnic. Granted, he wrote occasionally unflattering things about members of his family, but is that any reason to instruct members of the succeeding generation and the infirmed numbers of the preceding to avoid eye contact and, if possible, move to the opposite side of the street when he approached?

My empathy comes from the reactions of my own family to items that appear in this blog and my Mac 911 column. Of course I use their woes as column fodder and, for the entertainment of my readers, make them look as foolish as possible. How could they expect otherwise? And yet, after one of these entries sees the light of day, I receive, like clockwork, a missive that begins:

Dear Uncle/Brother/Son/Husband Jerk,

Was it really necessary to….

I mean, sheesh , you lend a helping hand, take a few literary liberties in return, and what do you get? Grief — grief and effluent-dipped holiday cards.

Take the case of my niece, for example. Lovely girl in her first year at a highly regarded Ivy League school. Her mother calls me at the shag end of the day, explaining that just as her daughter was about to email the year’s most important paper to one professor or another, her MacBook bit the dust. Would I please call her and see if there was something I could do to protect the family escutcheon.

I dutifully called. Spent about 10 minutes on the phone with the poor girl who valiantly pretended that her tears of distress were due to an unseasonable cold. And was no help at all because the gear necessary to fix the problem was nowhere at hand. Without going into great detail, allow me to say the lesson learned was that fizzy libations (alcoholic or otherwise) and computers do not mix.

With the idea that no caring relative likes to see their kin put in such situations, I’d like to offer this short list of items that every parent should pack with their school-bound child’s laptop.

Keyboard skin Liquids — soft drinks, coffee, tea, and higher-octane beverages — are part and parcel of the college life. Because college students often live in cramped quarters (and are sometimes less-than-careful when mixing those liquids with their personal technology) potentially disastrous spills can occur. For this reason, invest in a keyboard skin. My colleague, Dan Frakes, recommends both the iSkin ProTouch and zCover TypeOn keyboard skins. These skins can keep liquids spilled on the keyboard from sullying the more intimate areas of your computer.

FireWire cable After offering words of comfort to my niece, my main goal was to save her data. I hoped to do so by having her tether her MacBook to her roommate’s Mac with a FireWire cable and then walk her through the process of mounting her MacBook’s hard drive via Target Disk Mode. Of course she didn’t have a FireWire cable on hand so that avenue was closed.

A video cable I asked her exactly what her computer was doing. The display wasn’t lit up but the power light was on, the Caps Lock light switched on and off, and the hard drive sounded like it was working. Maybe only the screen was on the fritz. Let’s plug in an external monitor and find…. Oh, no monitor adapter cable? Damn.

Apple Remote Desktop It would have been lovely if I could have remotely glommed onto her MacBook via . But, of course, it wasn’t installed. Were I a relative savvy in the ways of the Mac and a young member of the clan was being sent out into the world equipped only with a fine sheath of optimism and an all-too-vulnerable laptop, I’d make sure I could remotely take control of that laptop in an emergency.

During the summer I intend to spend some quality time with each of my nieces, exacting exactly these kinds of protective measures. Any others you’d recommend?

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