Thoughts about passwords on Computer Security Day

According to those online calendars with daily “holiday” listings — Sandwich Day, Love Your Red Hair Day, etc. — today is Computer Security Day. Since computers are vital organizing tools for so many of us, this specific holiday caught my attention.

While I can’t find any computer security organizations promoting this event, I did read this advice on daysoftheyear.com:

One very important thing to do for your online security is to have strong passwords and keep them updated regularly, as this reduces the chances of your personal data falling into the wrong hands. ….

One strategy is to mix upper and lowercase letters with symbols, as this can be harder to guess and also difficult to hack – and passwords increase in difficulty the longer they are. … And don’t use the same password over and over for every online account you have – this ensures that if someone manages to get into one of your accounts, then they can access all of your accounts. Bad idea. So make strong passwords, don’t recycle them, and update them regularly.

However, expert advice on passwords has changed over time — and part of this advice is now dated. As Katie Reilly wrote in Fortune, “The man responsible for the widespread requirement that passwords include letters, numbers and special characters is now walking back that advice.”

Bill Burr came up with those guidelines in 2003, while working at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. As Robert McMillen wrote in The Wall Street Journal, Burr said, “Much of what I did I now regret.”

Jo Craven McGinty explained the problem in another Wall Street Journal article:

The rule makers didn’t anticipate how people would apply the guidelines when they invented passwords.

If forced to include a number in a password, they tended to tack a “1” onto the end.

If compelled to use a special character, they were inclined to use substitutions like “$” for “s” or “@” for “a.”

If obliged to throw in an uppercase letter, they might lead with it, as if the password were a proper noun.

In short, they were predictable.

Predictable patterns lead to insecure passwords, since hackers know all the patterns. So now the advice has changed, quite radically. The NIST released its new report this past June, with very different recommendations for those creating sites or systems with passwords. They should:

  • Allow passwords as long as 64 characters, with a minimum length of 8 characters for user-selected passwords
  • Allow any combination of characters, with no requirement for upper and lower case letters, numerals, or special characters.
  • Disallow easily compromised passwords: a single dictionary word, repeating characters (such as aaaaa), sequences (such as 1234abcd), etc.
  • Stop requiring passwords to be changed periodically. Only require a change if there has been a security breach.

Now, you probably use sites with password rules that violate these guidelines, and there’s not much you can do about that. If the site requires your password to have at least one letter, one number, and one special character, you’ll have to comply — and, for security’s sake, try not to follow the patterns noted above. And many sites don’t accommodate passwords over 8-15 characters.

But when you have the option, it’s wise to choose a long password — especially if you’re protecting your finances, your email, or critical information of any sort. That password might well be a phrase that’s meaningful to you and no one else, which makes it fairly easy to remember.

“I eat applesauce and pancakes every night in April” is easier to remember than “2zdfY9?bky.” (No, I don’t really eat like that. It’s just an example of a silly phrase that I’d have no problem remembering.)

For more suggestions about organized approaches to passwords and password management tools, you can read our articles from May 2017 and April 2014.

Easily save and sort Gmail with G-Save

This is no surprise, but Unclutterer readers are a productive, clever bunch. Recently, a reader wrote in with a project that further reinforced this fact. Kate shared a great Google Chrome extension that she and some co-workers created called “G-Save,” which makes the company’s Gmail service just a little more pleasant to use.

Google Chrome Extensions are “…small software programs that can modify and enhance the functionality of the Chrome browser.” Chrome extensions often make a certain website or service easier to use, by adding additional or alternate functionality, etc. There are many extensions available across multiple categories, including productivity-enhancing gems like Papier, which lets you quickly jot down notes and random thoughts, and Taco, which lets you easily enter tasks and other information into the project managers Wunderlist, Evernote, Asana, Basecamp and Trello.

Installation

Kate’s G-Save has a sharper focus. Specifically, it lets you quickly and easily save emails and their attachments to some location outside of you email client, like Google Drive, Drop Box, Outlook…really anywhere you what.

Setup is so minimal it’s barely worth a mention. First, open the Chrome browser on your computer and navigate to G-Save’s home. Next, click the “Add to Chrome” button in the upper-right. You’ll get a confirmation window. Click “Add extension.” That’s it. You’re done. A small, red Gmail icon appears on the right-hand side of your browser’s toolbar.

G-Save is platform-agnostic, so it doesn’t care if you’re using a PC or a Mac. Here’s how to use it.

Use

With installation complete, it’s time to try this out. Open Gmail in Chrome and you’ll see a new button labeled “Save Email” beneath the familiar “Compose” button. To save a message, simply select it in the list and then click Save Email. The message and any attachments it contains are saved in a universal EML file, with any email client can read.

This appealed to me because I’m a huge opponent of using your email client as a filing cabinet/to-do list. G-Save lets you move messages out of Gmail and into relevant folders, be they for a project, reference storage and so on.

When a new email message arrives, you must ask yourself, “What is this?” It sounds silly but it’s crucial. There are three possible answers:

  1. It’s garbage
  2. It’s something I need to do
  3. It’s something I might refer to later

That’s it. Every message you will ever receive will fall into these three categories.

The first one is simple. Spam, advertising you aren’t interested in, messages from old mailing lists you’ve lost interest in, etc. It’s all in the garbage category, so trash it — immediately.

The next category is the action category. These messages require someone — typically you — to do something. For instance, “Call Jane about the committee meeting,” “Forward the presentation to Frank,” or “Ask Faith about the camping trip next week.” Once you’ve identified what the required action is, make note of it in the appropriate place (on your to-do list or calendar) and then delete the message. Unless your company requires you to retain your email for legal reasons, then move it to an archive folder.

The final category is reference material. These messages do not require action, but they do hold information that could be useful someday. Identify what that information is, (sewing patterns, recipes, etc.) store it in the appropriate place and then delete the email. Yes, delete it. G-Save makes this simple.

Do what must be done

This step is a biggie. Just as you don’t pull a hot turkey out of the oven without first knowing where you’re going to set it down, you should’t delete that email message until you’ve identified a trusted place to put its important information. This is what David Allen calls a “trusted system.” Essentially, it’s an obvious, reliable stake in the ground that holds your information.

Congratulations to Kate and her colleagues for creating such a useful tool. Thanks for sharing and I hope you, dear reader, find a place for G-Save on your computer, too. I know it’s on mine.

Backups aren’t just for computers

I’ve written prior posts urging you to have good computer back-ups, and I’ll take this opportunity to do so one more time. Here’s a reminder that fits the Halloween season:

👻OOOOOooooooOOOOOOO
The ghost of future hard drive failure reminds you to back up your data
oooooOOOOOOooooooo
— Hannah A. Brazeau

But what I mostly want to discuss are two other kinds of backups you may need.

Backups of important paper documents

Some documents you might keep tucked away in a safe deposit box or a home safe, but there are also important papers that you might use regularly and need to keep close at hand. And those papers are susceptible to being lost or damaged.

Author Susan Orlean wrote about the following problem:

Had a small flood in my office. Some handwritten notes are now abstract watercolors. Fortunately I’d typed them up, but yikes.

And then there’s this sad story from Gene Young, who wrote about his Day-Timer:

I accidentally left my little book in my shirt pocket and it got washed and dried but good. My schedules were all in little bitty pieces.

Do you have any similar papers, where losing them would be a significant problem? One way to give yourself a backup for such papers would be to take photos of the important pages or to scan them, perhaps with a scanner app on your smartphone.

Backups for critical technology

Vince Dixon wrote for Eater about a problem that happened last May:

A Square service outage … lasting roughly two hours forced restaurants, coffee shops, and food carts around the country to turn away customers and lose sales, bringing into question whether relying solely on new technology and software to make business transactions is a good idea.

Nate Snell, the owner of one such business, learned his lesson:

He has emergency plans for greasy spills and fires, but was caught off guard by the technical glitch. “I don’t think we realized that the entire Square system nationwide would go down,” Snell says. “I immediately got on Amazon and ordered an old-fashioned [credit card] swiper.”

While this type of contingency planning is critical for businesses, it might also apply beyond the typical business environment.

Do you have any technology you use all the time that could cause a significant problem if it malfunctioned or became unavailable? I rely on my computer and its internet connection for a few things — sometimes a smart phone isn’t enough — and I once lost that connection for a couple days when someone drove into and destroyed a major piece of phone company equipment. Fortunately, my backup plan was as simple as taking my laptop to a local coffee shop — and making regular food and beverage purchases to compensate for using its WiFi. But if I had a desktop computer rather than a laptop, finding a backup solution would have been much harder.

If you rely on a mapping program to provide driving instructions, what would you do if that service went down halfway though your drive? Would you have another way to find your destination?

If you assume any technology might fail at any time, and then plan for working around any significant problems that could cause, you may save yourself some panicked moments in the future.

Download, store, and organize your Google data

Google is a big part of many people’s digital lives. Services like Blogger, Google Photos, the note-taking app Keep (my thoughts on Keep are here) and the Fit app — not to mention the Chrome browser — receive a lot of data every day, in the form of family photos, blog posts, notes, workout data, and more.

That data is safe in the cloud (i.e. Google’s servers), but did you know that you can download a copy of this information to your own computer? With just a few clicks you can retrieve and then store a local copy of your Google data. Here’s how (and why) to get started.

Why should you backup Google data?

So-called “cloud computing,” which is the system that allows you to save information on a network of remote servers hosted on the internet, offers convenient, near-ubiquitous access to our most important digital information. There’s peace of mind in knowing that data is stored and cared for by people who specialize in such things. But according to Jack Schofield, it’s not enough.

Jack has written what are now known as Schofield’s Three Laws of Computing. His Second Law states that data does not really exist unless you have at least two copies of it. In short, never assume that your data is 100% safe. Making two backups doubles your chances of a successful recovery if and when a catastrophe strikes. Are your photos safe at photos.google.com? Of course. Can I guarantee that they are 100% safe? No.

Now that we’ve got a good picture of why you should backup your Google data, let’s look at how.

How to back up your Google data

Before you begin, you’ll have to make two decisions. First, identify specifically what data you’d like to save, and second, where you plan to store it.

Pick your target data by visiting https://www.google.com/settings/takeout. You might have to sign in to your Google account first. From there, you’ll see a list of all the Google services currently associated with your account.

Depending on what services you use, it can be a pretty long list. On the left-hand side of the list, you’ll see each service’s name. To the right you’ll see a small disclosure triangle and a green toggle switch. Click the disclosure triangle to view details on exactly what aspect of that service can be downloaded.

For example, when I click the triangle next to “Google Photos,” I get the following options:

  1. Include all photo albums (selected by default)
  2. Select photo albums

Clicking the latter lets me pick and choose the albums I want to download. All photos and videos are downloaded in their original format.

Finally, the toggle switch is green if a service’s data has been selected for download, and grey if it has not. Once you’re made your selections, scroll to the bottom of the list and click “Next.”

This summary screen presents three options:

  1. File type. Choose between .zip, .tgz and .tbz formats.
  2. Maximum archive size. If your archive is larger than your selection (for example, 2 GB), it will be broken down into parts that are 2 GB (or less) each.
  3. A delivery method.

Number three requires special attention. It’s likely that a backup will be very large, so choose your destination carefully. Google lets you receive a download link via email, or it can send your archive to Drive, Dropbox, or OneDrive.

If you choose the email link, make sure your computer has room for the download, as does your eventual local destination (connected hard drive, etc.). A great option is a large, connected drive (like this one) that’s regularly backed up by a service like BackBlaze or CrashPlan. That way your data lives in three locations: Google, your local drive, and the backup service of your choice. Take that, Mr. Schofield!

Cloud computing is convenient and yes, a great way to safely store irreplaceable files. But don’t become too reliant on it. A simple routine like this will help ensure all of that precious data will be available for years to come.

Being organized about protecting your computer (and your smartphone)

You’ve probably heard about the ransomware attack that hit numerous computers earlier this month, with hospitals in the U.K. being some of the major victims. When computers became infected with the malware, their files were locked unless a ransom was paid to unlock them.

While this specific attack probably didn’t affect you, it’s a good reminder that you can take an organized approach to protecting yourself from future attacks by following a couple simple strategies. These won’t protect you from all malicious attacks, but they are critical parts any strategy for keeping your computer files safe.

Keep your software up to date

The computers that got infected this time were those that had not installed the relevant security update from Microsoft, which was released two months prior to the attack. And some of computers were running Windows XP, a version so out of date that patches weren’t even being released unless special support contracts were in place. (Microsoft later made the necessary patch available to everyone.)

Whether or not you enable automatic updates of your computer’s software, it’s important to install any security patches promptly. This is not a time to procrastinate! Besides the operating system (Windows, OS X, macOS, etc.) you may need to install security updates to software such as your web browser — I just did an update to Safari. Adobe Flash Player is another bit of software that gets frequent security updates.

While updates can be complicated in corporate and industrial settings — think about operating systems embedded in things like MRI machines — in most cases it’s much simpler for those of us with our personal computers.

Keep your smartphone updated, too

Smartphones and tablets can also need software updates for security purposes, so don’t overlook those. The phones that get security updates the fastest are Apple’s iPhones and the Android phones that come directly from Google rather than from a third party vendor. As Kate Conger explained on the TechCrunch website back in March:

Google has spent the past year working with third-party manufacturers and phone carriers to improve its update system for Android, which is often criticized for not being fast enough to protect users from known vulnerabilities. And while Google says it has made some progress in this area — Android issued security updates to 735 million devices from more than 200 manufacturers in 2016 — about half of Android users still aren’t receiving important security patches. ….

While Google-manufactured Pixel and Nexus phones and tablets receive automatic updates, hundreds of manufacturers that run Android on their devices don’t push security updates to their customers immediately. This practice can leave customers waiting for months to get updates, and their devices are vulnerable in the meantime.

Also be aware that some older phones may no longer have guaranteed security updates, so you may need to replace your phone to keep it secure. As Google notes for Nexus phones (with a similar statement for Pixel phones):

Nexus devices get security updates for at least 3 years from when the device first became available on the Google Store, or at least 18 months from when the Google Store last sold the device, whichever is longer. After that, we can’t guarantee additional updates.

Do your backups

We’ve written about the importance of backups here on Unclutterer in the past, and ransomware attacks are just one more reason these matter so much. Backups won’t protect your computer from being infected with malware — but if you have good backups in place, you could use them to recover from any such attack.

Expand Evernote’s usefulness with the Web Clipper

Here at Unclutterer, we love Evernote. I’ve often called it “my external brain,” and consider it just that. I’ve used it to create a digital journal, manage recipes, and Erin has used it to organize her busy family life. Today I’ll talk about an oft-overlooked feature: the web clipper.

Evernote’s web clipper can be added on to your web browser to act as a useful go-between from the internet and Evernote. That is to say, it lets you quickly move information — links, articles, quotes, etc. — from a web browser to Evernote without requiring you to open the software. It’s fast and saves a lot of time. Today, I’ll show you the basics of using the Evernote web clipper.

Installation

Go to evernote.com/webclipper to download the version your browser needs. You’ll be guided through the simple process. From there you’re ready to go. To do what, exactly? Let me explain.

Use

I’m using Safari for Mac in this article. While there will be slight variations across browsers and operating systems, everything will be largely the same.

I often use Evernote to save online articles I’d like to read later. I can save the URL, open Evernote, find the appropriate notebook, create a new note and paste in the URL, but that’s too many steps. The web clipper makes it much easier.

Once installed, just click the little elephant icon that launches the web clipper (the installation process will put the icon front-and-center on your browser for you). When you do that, a new window appears (right) with five options:

  1. Article – Save the entire article as you see it.
  2. Simplified Article – Save just the text, stripping out ads and other non-essential images.
  3. Full Page – Grabs everything you see on that web page.
  4. Bookmark – Only grabs the URL.
  5. Screenshot – Takes a screenshot of the web page (or a portion thereof).

Below that you’ll find the “Organize” section. From the drop-down menu, select the notebook you’d like to use as a destination. You can add tags and even “remarks” (brief notes to yourself) for future reference and context. It all takes a fraction of the time you’d spend by launching the software itself.

Grab only the text you want

This is a super cool feature. As soon as you click the little elephant, you may notice a little yellow square next to your cursor. This is the highlighter, and it lets you grab just a portion of the the text on a page. Simply click and drag to highlight it in yellow, then click Save on the Web Clipper.

Share your clips

Once you’ve grabbed a clip, you might want to share it. After clicking Save as described above, you’ll be presented with a new window that offers to share what you’ve just saved. Click the drop-down menu for several options, including email, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, and more. This is useful if you’re coordinating information for a family trip, group work project, and so on.

This was just a brief overview and I hope it prompts you to check out this often-forgotten feature. It saves me a lot of time and lets me save a lot of great info I might otherwise forget.

Uncluttering old computers and phones

I recently got rid of two old laptop computers and I’m very happy to have them gone. I had originally kept them to serve as backups if my current computer — an essential business tool — needed repairs and was unavailable to me for multiple days. But now that I have a tablet, I realized I could get by okay for any repair period just using that tablet.

The following are the steps I followed to dispose of my old computers. Similar steps could work for smart phones, too.

1. Decide whether to sell, give away, or recycle the computers.

I didn’t have anyone in my circle of family and friends who was interested in either of my computers, so I knew I wanted to sell them if possible, and recycle them if not.

2. If selling, recycling or donating, choose your service provider.

While selling the computers on eBay or some similar marketplace would probably have provided more money, I was more interested in having a hassle-free experience. One computer was nine years old, and the other one was five years old and had some problems — so neither was going to be worth much, anyway.

Since these were old Apple laptops I started out looking at Apple’s Renew program. (This program handles PCs and various brands of smartphones, too, not just Apple products.) The older computer wasn’t worth anything but would be accepted for free recycling. I was offered a small sum for the newer one, payable in an Apple gift card. I was fine with the offer, so I didn’t investigate further.

You could also choose to sell through sites like Gazelle (which I’ve used successfully to sell old phones) or do trade-ins at places like Best Buy, where you get a gift card in exchange for your phone, tablet, computer, or gaming hardware. And other manufacturers, such as Dell, have programs similar to Apple’s.

If you’re donating or recycling, there are many options to choose from. One easy-to-use choice is Goodwill, since many Goodwill locations accept old electronics, working or not, for either refurbishment or recycling.

3. Back up your data and then erase it.

Apple provides pretty clear instructions on how to prepare to sell or give away a Mac, and I followed those instructions. Note that you may need to deactivate some services before you erase your data.

I didn’t need to do a backup of my old computers, since all the data had been migrated from computer to computer as I got new ones — and my current computer is backed up both to a cloud service and to a series of external hard drives.

But I did need to erase my data. Again, Apple provides instructions for doing this, and those worked fine for the newer of my two computers, but not the older one. So I took that older one to an Apple Store and had the staff there do the erasing for me — and they took care of the recycling, too. Erasing the data took about seven hours using the most secure option, but it was worth it to me.

Other vendors may provide similar instructions. For example, Microsoft tells you how to remove information from a computer, phone or gaming device.

4. Ship off or drop off the computer or other electronics.

Now I was ready to actually get the computers out of my home!

When I filled out the online form and got my tentative quote (subject to evaluation when the computer arrived), I also received a shipping label. I took the label and the computer to the closest FedEx store and the staff boxed it up and shipped it off at no cost to me. Gazelle’s service works similarly, using FedEx’s packing services for some items and the U.S. postal service (along with a free shipping box, which is sent to you) for others.

And now I can enjoy having a closet that doesn’t waste space holding old computers I never used.

Family tech support

Happy holidays! Everyone at Unclutterer hopes you’re enjoying some time off work, to relax and enjoy the company of family and friends – and for many of you, helping them figure out how to use a new gadget. Nothing says “holiday” like family tech support. With a little planning and organization, it can be a pleasure to help family members and friends enjoy their new electronic devices or answer questions they’ve compiled since the last get together. Here’s how to prepare for family holiday tech support.

The list

password notebookMaintain a list of pertinent information regarding your family’s devices. You can create a simple text document, enter the information in a spreadsheet, or use a notebook dedicated for this purpose.

Information about the devices should include make, model and year of release. For example, if dad owns an iPhone 5, you will know where to look for troubleshooting tips, help with updates, etc.

You should also include details about any services they’re using such as iCloud, Office 365, Dropbox and so on. You should also be aware of their backup systems. This makes it easy to retrieve something if you need to do a restoration.

When you assist your family members, you will most likely need them to enter their passwords to authorize software installations or on certain websites. You should encourage people to keep track of their own passwords and ensure they have access to the passwords during their “tech support visit.” To help my parents, I gave them a notebook designed for recording their passwords. It is easy to use and lets us avoid the frustrating experience of trying to remember usernames and passwords before we can start to solve a problem.

The sit-down

When mom and dad visit, we find a few hours of quiet time to sit down with their iPhones, iPads or computers and go through questions they’ve noted over the past year. Some require a quick fix while others take some time to figure out. The list I compiled earlier makes this a lot easier, as do the following tools I always have with me:

  • A notebook and a pen. Sure, we troubleshooting tech gadgets but you can’t beat a notebook and a pen for jotting things down. I use it as my short-term memory when I need to quickly store a password, setting or URL.
  • An internet-connected device of my own. When I come across a problem that I can’t solve on my own. I rely on an internet search for answers.

With these tools in place, I’m ready to tackle almost any problem. It’s satisfying and I’m happy to do it. With the list of questions complete, I move on to my own to-check list, which follows.

Updates

One thing I always do is make sure their devices are running the most recent version of the appropriate operating system. I’ll also check to make sure that apps and software are up-to-date or at least running the most appropriate version for their device. For example, an iPhone 4 probably shouldn’t run the latest version of iOS. This is why creating a list of hardware make, model, and year is so important. Many devices “max out” at a certain version of an operating system and function best with that version.

Backing up

It is crucial is to ensure that the software, apps, and documents on their devices are being backed up regularly and successfully. I recommend a “set-it-and-forget-it” system such as Backblaze. For just a few dollars per month, you get everything on your computer backed up without having to lift a finger. If you need to retrieve something, it’s there.

I also recommend people keep certain documents in a Cloud storage service such as a Dropbox folder or Google Docs. Photos can be stored via Apple’s iCloud or Google Photos. iPhones and many Android phones have built-in backup solutions that, once set up, do their job without any prompting.

It’s easy to bemoan the responsibility of family tech-support manager, but taking the time to prepare and organize information ahead of time will remove much if not all of the headache. And remember, when you finally resolve that one annoying problem, you’re the hero of the holiday!

Last second holiday shopping: software

Many people love to receive tech-related gifts during the holidays. Phones, computers and tablets are sure to make the gadget-friendly name on your shopping list very happy, myself included. The neat thing is that in 2016, software is a valid gift option for techies and unclutterers alike. Here’s how to gift apps and software this holiday season.

Apple App Store

Gift cards

Apple’s App Store has been providing software to iPad and iPhone owners since July, 2008. Since then, it has delivered apps to customers more than 130 billion times. That’s a lot of software on a lot of devices.

If you’d like to give that perfect app as a gift, it’s easy to do. You’ve got two choices. The easiest is to simply buy a gift card that is redeemed by the recipient. You can send buy a physical card like the one linked above from Amazon or from your local grocery store.

The other method is to buy a digital gift card. It’s a little more involved, but still not difficult. Here’s what to do.

  1. Open the App Store either on your iOS device or Mac.
  2. Scroll down to the bottom of the page.
  3. Tap Send Gift.
  4. Enter your lucky recipient’s email address.
  5. Enter the amount you’d like to give.

By default, your gift is delivered immediately. However, you can opt to have it show up on a certain date. To make that happen, tap Today and then select your custom delivery date.

Gift specific apps

If you know the exact app you’d like to give as a gift, you can do that, too. Once you’ve found the app you’re after, tap the Share button (it looks like an arrow jumping out of a box) and then follow these steps:

  1. Tap Gift.
  2. Enter the recipient’s email address and if you’d like, a custom message.

Again, the app will be delivered by default. You can change that by tapping Today, and then selecting your own date.

Google Play Store

Let’s say the techie on your list uses an Android device. You can easily buy a Google Play gift card just about anywhere (grocery stores, shopping malls, etc.). You can also buy a digital gift card by following these simple steps.

First, visit the Google Play Store in any web browser, select the amount you’d like to gift, enter the details and off it goes. Unfortunately, as of this writing, you cannot gift individual apps from the Google Play store. It’s a bit disappointing but the recipient can use the gift cards to buy his/her favorite apps.

Some would argue that a gift card isn’t the most personal gift in the world, but because it lets someone choose precisely what he/she loves, gift cards are fine with me. Happy digital shopping.

Why computer backups matter

160930-externalhddIt’s been over a year since I last encouraged you to have a computer backup strategy in place, and some recent news made me want to emphasize this once again. More than ever, many of us store precious photos and documents on our computers, so taking the time to back them up properly is vital. The following stories illustrate just some of the reasons for having those backups.

Protecting against fire (or other natural disasters)

The following story by Matt Sledge in The New Orleans Advocate had a happy ending, but it could have ended tragically:

Gideon Hodge, 35, describes himself as a playwright, novelist and actor. When his fiancée told him that their apartment was on fire, he left work in Mid-City and rushed to the scene. That’s when he realized that his only copies of two completed novels were on a laptop inside. …

Hodge dashed into the building. He ran past the smoke and the firefighters yelling at him to stop and managed to grab the precious laptop.

“Anybody that’s ever created art, there’s no replacing that,” Hodge said. “It’s got pretty much my life’s work.”

Hodge could have been seriously hurt, and his laptop could have been unsalvageable. Fortunately, everything worked out fine. But if he just had an offsite backup, he wouldn’t have felt compelled to take such a risk.

Protecting against hard drive failures

The Advocate has an eye-catching photo of Hodge running into his home to get his computer. But as Dinah Sanders wrote on Twitter:

No one is going to take dramatic photos of “Writer frowns quizzically as hard drive just up and catastrophically fails one day.”

Such failures are an ongoing risk computer users face every day, and backups mean we’re protected when they happen.

Protecting against accidentally deleted files

Another situation where backups come in very handy is when a computer update goes wrong. Josh Marshall wrote in great detail about his recent experience using a new feature of Apple’s latest operating system for the Mac. He has both a home computer and a work computer, and when he tried using the new feature, things went very wrong. Without going into all the details (some of which are specific to his set-up), the following is one excerpt from his narrative:

In a flash all the files on my desktop disappeared and were replaced by the files from my work desktop.

Arghghgghhgghgh!

Anyone who has had an update go wrong can imagine how this would feel. Fortunately, Marshall had a good up-to-date backup and was able to restore all his files.

Protecting against theft

Michael Zhang wrote about one sad story on the PetaPixel website, where the lack of offsite backups was devastating:

Oakland-based photographer Jennifer Little had her home broken into last week, and her loss was devastating. In addition to stealing 8 of her cameras, the burglars also took 21 hard drives containing Little’s life’s work as a professional photographer.

Our precious computer files are the opposite of clutter. I would hate for any Unclutterer readers to lose any such files, so please take the time to create and implement a thoughtful backup strategy (if you haven’t already) that includes files on your computer and any files you’ve offloaded from your computer to external hard drives, thumb drives, CDs, or DVDs.

An organized way to bring a new gadget into use

Whenever you receive a new goodie, like a new phone or tablet, it’s an exciting time. But don’t just tear into the box! There’s an organized way to bring a new gadget into your life, and the following is advice for making that transition as smooth as possible.

Carefully open the packaging

This might sound ridiculously obvious to you or it might seem just ridiculous. “Dave, it’s the box. Who cares?” There are several reasons to care, and the first is the gadget’s future resale value. I upgrade my iPhone every two years. I always sell my current model to help pay for the new one. Having the pristine original box helps with shipping and final asking price. Also, if you aggressively tear into a box, you could affect the contents. You don’t want to scratch a screen or case before you even turn on the device. Finally, think of returns. There’s always the possibility that your new doo-dad won’t work as advertised. A UPC code, the security tags, and intact contents are essential when trying to make a return.

Take your time, keep things neat and store that box in a safe place if you might return or resell the item.

Read the manual

If you’re not going to read it, at least skim the manual. Some gadgets come with a “quick start” guide. I always review those. Yes, you probably know how this works, but maybe not. Read/skim the manual and then store it in a safe place for future reference. I also recommend making a digital copy after some time has passed and if you’re not planning to return or resell the item.

Register the item

This is the step that nearly everyone skips. I always spend a few minutes registering my products, especially pricey electronics. It will make service easier should you need it someday. Additionally, if there’s an update or other notification that owners need, like a recall, you’re more likely to receive that information if your product has been registered.

Buy an extra power cord

If your device charges up with a cable, buy an extra one. I keep one in my laptop bag at all times. You might bring an extra to work or simply keep it around for when the first one gets frayed or otherwise stops working. You might want to somehow identify it as your own. My kids love to steal iPhone cables, so I make sure we all know which is mine.

Scan the receipt

Finally, scan the receipt and store it digitally in a place you can easily retrieve it if necessary.

Dig into the product

Now that all this preparation work has been handled, take the product out of the box and use it. Transfer data from your previous gadget and set up preferences.

The internet of things and home organization

Last week, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the world wide web (launched August 23, 1991). The phenomenal convenience — and distraction — we know today has evolved tremendously since then, from massive computers to the gadgets in our pockets. So what’s next? Engineers and computer scientists think it’s the “internet of things.”

What is the internet of things, or “IoT”? For our purposes, a working definition is:

“Every day objects with internet connectivity that are able to send and receive data.”

In other words, objects in your home that can grab information from the internet. It’s a compelling idea that has already spawned several interesting devices. But, will it help or hinder home organization? I looked at a few of the more popular IoT products to find an answer.

The Amazon Echo

Amazon’s voice-controlled, internet-connected speaker is part music box, part storefront, and a Siri-like personal assistant. Once plugged in and set up, the Amazon Echo cylinder knows when you’re talking to it and can provide, among other things, streaming music, weather, news, and the opportunity to buy from Amazon.com. How does it fare as an organizational device?

The benefit is the growing collection of services that are available in one place. You’ll get the news stories and streaming music that I mentioned before, but the Echo can also check your Google calendar, read audio books from Audible, even order you a pizza from Dominos. Mostly, it’s about efficiency and convenience. If you like using Amazon.com and want to talk to a device instead of type, it could save you time and be of assistance. If not, the phone in your pocket most likely already does similar things.

Key Finder Tags

Bluetooth-powered key finder tags like the Tile, the Chipolo and the Duet are cute, unobtrusive little doodads (not a technical term) that you connect to items you’re likely to misplace: keys, purses, backpacks, etc. Once paired with our smartphone via the accompanying app, it helps you find where your times have gone.

These get a ringing endorsement from me for their time-saving capabilities. I include “misplacing things I need” among my hobbies. It’s an annoying hobby, but also all too real. Key finder tags greatly reduce the time I spend stomping around the house in frustration.

Smart Lights

There are many Wi-Fi ready, “smart” lighting systems to choose from, each with varying degrees of functioning. The Switchmate, for example, is a tiny piece of hardware that fits over your existing light switch. Installation is as simple as taking the Switchmate out of the box and placing it over a switch. Install the app and it’s ready to use. From there, you can turn lights on and off with the tap of an app.

Meanwhile, the Philips Hue adds more functionality. These smart bulbs can be controlled by a mobile app to turn on and off when you like, notice when you’re home, and so on. They’ll also change the very hue of the light they put out and let you save the various combinations of reds, blues, etc. to meet your mood.

Perhaps I’m a crotchety old man, but my first impulse is, “Can’t I just hit a switch?” In part this seems like a solution looking for a problem. But I see how it could be handy to have your house illuminate as you approach, or turn lights on and off while you’re out, to make would-be intruders think there’s someone at home. In short, I think smart lighting systems are a fun convenience, but not a massive help. At this point, they seem like one more thing to break or go wrong, especially if your home WiFi is out.