The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Computer Users

The recent headline news of the industrial-grade hacking suffered by Sony Pictures Entertainment (currently being blamed on North Korea) has data security on the minds of consumers and corporate executives alike. Some experts theorize that a minimal amount of second-level security could have prevented the embarrassing and costly hack that has brought Sony to its knees (both in terms of reputation and money).

Hard drives crash, theft occurs, natural disasters destroy delicate hardware, viruses infect, and thousands of files are sometimes inadvertently wiped out with a single keystroke or tap of a touchscreen. In the digital domain, we seem to be our own worst enemy. Procrastination, sloppiness, ignorance, or just a lousy attitude toward disaster prevention often conspire to wipe out our most precious digital memories.

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The sad part of this equation is that it can all be prevented. Don’t blame the hard drive crash, because you should have had a backup. Don’t blame that flood or roof leak that damaged the spare bedroom where your computer was residing, because you should have had an offsite backup.

Don’t blame the fact that your data is scattered across several devices, because you should have centralized it. And don’t blame the hacker or the virus they gifted you, because you should have been running good, current anti-malware software.

And don’t ever blame the black hat hackers who guess your pathetically weak passwords and steal your identity or siphon your bank account, because you should have created strong passwords—and then changed them on a regular basis.

Yes, all of these very common, yet very painful, digital disasters can be avoided. The TME (time, money, effort) required to secure the digital side of your life isn’t trivial. However, it’s minor in comparison to the possible (and, over time, probable) consequences of mismanaging your valuable data.

Your precious photos, home videos, and school/work documents—and the delicate devices on which these ones and zeroes are captured, archived, viewed, and shared with others—can be secured more easily than you may think. And with a boatload less effort and trauma than if you suffer a digital disaster.

1) Centralize Your Data

Store your files on a single device. No, not your laptop. And no, not even your desktop. I highly recommend a dedicated network access storage device, also known as a NAS. They’re affordable ($100 to more than $1,000 if you want to get fancy), super easy to use, and make backups a snap.

Cost? A few bucks. Effort? Minimal. Simply unbox the NAS, plug it in, and all your wi-fi and Ethernet-connected devices should recognize it.

2) Backup Your Data

Backup software costs from free (build into Windows or Apple’s OS X desktop operating systems) to a few bucks (Second Copy is a great value at only $30). Remember the three golden rules of data backups: Backup on a regular basis (this depends on the rate at which you acquire new data or modify existing files), always make two backups, and always take one copy offsite. Offsite doesn’t mean your basement. Or your neighbor’s house. It also doesn’t mean the other side of the country. It means far enough away from your domicile (or office) that a flood, tornado, or hurricane won’t affect the offsite copy.

The majority of consumers never—as in never, ever—make a single backup of their data. Of those that do manage a backup now and again, they typically never make two and take one offsite. Aside from backing up in the first place, going offsite is the number one delinquency on the part of data owners and businesses alike.

3) Have a Good Firewall

Many devices on your network may provide a firewall. According to Wikipedia, a firewall is “a network security system that controls…incoming and outgoing network traffic based on an applied rule set. A firewall establishes a barrier between a trusted, secure internal network and another network (e.g., the Internet) that is assumed not to be secure and trusted.” Your internet router probably provides a firewall. Your computers may each provide individual firewalls. But don’t play a guessing game. Know which devices have active firewalls, their basic configuration, and learn if you can improve things by updating the rules by which your firewalls allow and deny incoming traffic.

4) Keep Anti-Virus Software Current

The “a virus ate my homework” horror stories have been pervasive enough for so many years that I perceive most people have anti-malware software installed on most of their computers. There’s no excuse for not having a current subscription going on all computers. Why all? Well, your computers are networked by this groovy wireless technology called wi-fi. A single unprotected PC in your home is a gateway for hackers to gain access to your network and all PCs on it.

And don’t give me the excuse that anti-virus software is too expensive. My favorite (and what I use on all of my Windows computers) is Webroot. I purchased a 3-PC, one-year license for $17 on Amazon. Data security doesn’t get any easier or cheaper than this.

5) Have Unique, Strong Passwords

There’s a reason I dedicated a full chapter to the topic of strong passwords in my book Understanding Personal Data Security. If the state of data backup in the United States sucks, then the quality of the average password is even worse. Consider this January 2014 blog post from Slate.com: “The good news is that ‘password’ is no longer the most-popular password on the Internet, according to the latest report from SplashData. The bad news is that it’s still the second-most common—and ‘123456’ is the first.”

Wow. We’re not doing a very good job of securing our online accounts, folks. In the effort of being terse (not my strong suit), let me sum it up, according to Stanford University’s Password Requirements Quick Guide: Longer passwords are better, but shorter passwords are permissible if they are complex. According to Stanford, this means:

  • 8-11 characters: requires mixed case letters, numbers, and symbols
  • 12-15 characters: requires mixed case letters and numbers
  • 16-19 characters: requires mixed case letters
  • 20+ characters: any characters you like

Those are the requirements. But unless you were one of those kids who was actually happy with a passing grade of a C-, Stanford recommends that passwords are a minimum of 16 characters. But how does one remember such a long password? Stanford recommends using passphrases, which are combinations of common words to create a truly unique and uncommon password. An example is “windowelephantpeachrocket.” This 25-character passphrase is considerably more difficult to crack than the most popular password, “123456,” which can be guessed in about one second by even a relatively inept hacker.

For more information (and a really cool infographic), see Stanford University’s Password Requirements Quick Guide.

6) Respect Your Hardware

Ever see people sitting on their bed with their laptop perched on a quilt or blanket? Completely blocking the air intakes, which typically reside on the bottom or sides of the unit? Overheating is one of the primary ways in which delicate electronics get flakey or die. Prevent overheating by positioning your laptop on a flat surface. For desktop units, ensure that intake ports remain unblocked. Airflow is key!

In fact, here’s a cool trick: Take your vacuum cleaner hose and routinely suck out the air intake and “exhaust” of your laptop and desktop computers (desktop units should actually be taken apart and more thoroughly sucked free of dust and pet hair, if possible). Dust and hair (from both humans and pets) forms a blanket on delicate silicon chips and circuits, insulating them and holding in their heat.

This simple trick can extend the life of your computers more than you’d imagine. Do it now!

7) Avoid Distractions

If you’re trying to get work done, avoid the distraction of too much multi-tasking by closing tabs in your browser or otherwise limiting the potential pestering of social media. That ding in Facebook, saying nothing more than one of your hundreds of friends has commented on a stranger’s post, is costing you productivity. For the duration of your work, seriously consider shutting down your email, Facebook, LinkedIn, Vine, Instagram, Ello, and however else you engage in social media. Your work, career, and boss will thank you.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Smartphone Display Size: Two Perspectives

Of all the modern mobile devices available to consumers, smartphones surely grab the lion’s share of both headlines and water cooler chatter. Not even the revered new kid on the block, the tablet, can keep as much of our collective attention as its smaller cousin. However, this back pocket technology can be confusing for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, smartphones are such a dynamic and rapidly moving target. You can be a genius regarding the latest smartphone functions and technologies, but two years later you’ll barely be familiar with available models and won’t recognize half the acronyms.

Yes, stalwarts like the iPhone and top Android models like Samsung’s Galaxy, HTC’s One, and LG’s G3 will probably be around for years to come. They’re all great and can easily make you very happy. Most will serve loyally for the duration of a two-year service contract. If treated politely, they will last well into a second life as a hand-me-down for a teen or whoever buys it on Craigslist.

iphoneBut how do you cut through the marketing and product review hype, manifested as a thick fog of new age corporate babble, hipster imagery, and obscure acronyms, to purchase a phone that’s best for you and your lifestyle? How do you escape the primitive and illogical concept of a phone that’s “best” and instead seek out one that’s most appropriate—all while potentially costing you less than many competitors?

Simple. Determine your priorities.

In terms of a mobile gadget like a smartphone, these priorities pertain to digital media. Specifically, images and video. Smartphones are single-handedly crushing the camera and camcorder markets. Consumers are choosing to replace their point-and-shoot and even high-end, bulky DSLR cameras with svelt smartphones. This is a real validation of the fact that some smartphones are very good at capturing data, such as photos and high-definition video (including super-slick panoramic images). Premium models like the iPhone, Google Nexus 5, and Motorola Moto X (as well as many others) all capture high-resolution photos and high-definition video (sometimes with stereo sound). It’s the type of stuff that you can display on a huge 70-inch TV hanging on your wall and say “Wow, that looks really great.”

Smartphones are increasingly good at displaying a variety of media, specifically video and photos. Larger displays (even from traditionally conservative Apple) are allowing smartphones to better accommodate high-definition video sources from Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu Plus. Stereo speakers are helping improve the audio portion of the equation, even though this is still the Achilles heel of mobile device media playback (and one reason headphones are so popular).

Choosing the best phone for your particular needs, and getting the best deal on it, is a matter of determining which function—capture or display—is most important to you.

Samsung-Galaxy-S5-3Personally, I favor capture, not display. However, I’m also the unofficial family archivist, an amateur photographer, and work out of my home office (where, if I want to consume video, I’ll use Chromecast or AirPlay to toss it up on a 60-inch plasma display with subwoofer-enhanced surround sound). I capture tons of video and photos and grab a few on nearly a daily basis. For me, the size of the display (the current obsession of the marketing efforts of so many smartphone companies) isn’t very important. Because most consumers upgrade their smartphones every two years, along with their service contract, a given model will typically provide only a couple years of service. However, the audio, video, and images captured by your smartphone will be archived for (hopefully) hundreds of years. (To learn how to preserve your data for centuries, check out my Understanding Personal Data Security book.)

Because I’m so picky about the quality of the media I capture and the memories of friends, family, and special events that are so precious, I really have little regard for the size of a smartphone screen. In fact, larger phones are more cumbersome and less comfortable stored someplace like the back of my jeans or in a jacket breast pocket. And less comfortable means I’ll be less likely to have the device on me. Meaning fewer Kodak moments.

If you’re a person who travels a lot or, for whatever reason, spends lot of time sitting around sucking down a variety of media, a smartphone with a larger, higher-quality display (OLED technology is a big winner among the Android phones) and a nice set of in-ear headphones might best serve you. If, however, you’re more like me and it’s all about the media you capture and plan to keep forever, a phone with a smaller display—but superlative camera and camcorder functions (like the iPhone 5S and 6 variants)—is the ticket. After all, what you capture amounts to more than mere photos and videos. These are the digital heirlooms that you’ll pass on to your children and grandchildren.

As the PR machines choke and sputter and everyone gets excited about the latest generation of the most popular smartphones in our annual hypefest of product introductions, remember that sometimes smaller is better. All you really care about might come down to capture quality, not video playback. Besides, think of all the money you can save buying last year’s model instead of that fancy new-and-improved toy, ala nothing more than a bigger display that’s helping write all the headlines for lazy journalists and bloggers and eating up your disposable income.

Happy shopping and choose wisely, grasshoppa.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.