Welcome to the latest post in our Expert Interviews section.
Solid technical expertise, brilliant writing style and outstanding dedication: Meet Al Fasoldt, the tech-writer behind the world’s longest newspaper and online coverage of computers, software and consumer technology.
Al has been writing tech-columns for The Post-Standard newspaper in Syracuse, NY, since 1983 and has also been running his own blog, Technofile, for many years now. I got in touch with him about a year ago and have been an avid fan of his posts ever since. They are not only thoroughly informative, but his touch of humour, and words of wisdom make each of his posts a uniquely personal read. In this interview he talks about his background and writing career, the workshops he and his good wife, Nancy, run in computers and about PC and Internet privacy issues. We would like to thank him for taking the time to respond to our questions.
East-Tec: Could you tell us about yourself?
Al Fasoldt: I was born with a silver transistor in my mouth. Actually, I owe my curiosity about how things work to my father’s father. My grandfather was the last in a line of Fasoldt clockmakers from Germany. He took care of me when I was too young to go to school, and that meant day after day in my grandfather’s little clock factory. He made me feel like I was helping him - a smart approach when you’re taking care of a rambunctious kid all day - and, best of all, he showed me how every part of every clock worked. He made grandfathers, grandmothers, lyres, banjos, mantles - kinds of clocks, in case this is confusing - and made every part himself. He even went out to the woods with me in tow to chop down cherry trees for the wooden cases.
And so I learned, even before I set foot in school, that mechanical things worked for a reason. Just as importantly, they didn’t work for a reason. I was eager even then to find out how and why everything worked. That’s the soul of my lifelong dedication to explaining technology in my newspaper columns. At first, I wrote about cars. Then sound. (I had a long-running magazine column about audio, separate from my newspaper articles.) Then, captured by the allure of the most exciting development in technology I had ever seen, I became a computer and software columnist.
Unlike most computer journalists, I taught myself to program, and became a programmer, editor and instructor at my newspaper, The Post-Standard, a daily in Syracuse, N.Y. During my own hours, I was the tech columnist. I was paid for the columns as if I were a stringer. There must have been a tax advantage for the newspaper. I doubt that any of my readers knew I was a programmer, editor and instructor by day and a tech writer by night. Whenever I was introduced as a speaker at computer clubs and civic organizations, I was only referred to as a columnist.
I’ve been writing about consumer tech since 1983. I’ve never missed a column, writing them in advance if I knew I’d be otherwise occupied. During a difficult cancer operation and a long recovery, I wrote my columns from my hospital bed against the advice of my doctor.
My wife, Nancy, and I have taught for a decade or so at our local OASIS branch, which serves as an educational center for those 55 and older. We teach computers, tablets, software, security and, my first love, photography. I’ve had three exhibitions so far of the photos I took while a war correspondent for the Stars & Stripes newspaper in Vietnam. (For reasons that will never be clear, the Pentagon ordered all my negatives burned recently, so I restored my photos from the tiny contact prints I had brought back from Vietnam. This required wizardry and patience.)
Nancy and I have three grown children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandson. I keep fit by a lot of bike riding. I own a Burley recumbent bike and a cruiser with 32-inch wheels.
East-Tec: Your technology-focused articles, reviews, commentaries have been both online and in print for 31 years! What’s the secret of that amazing dedication? What’s your main source of inspiration, as a writer?
Al Fasoldt: There’s no secret to writing a lot. You simply sit down and write. But there IS a requirement if you are an expert on something your readers care about: You say exactly what you mean, without trying to placate anyone. This is what readers respect, and, after a few years, what they always expect.
My inspiration comes from my passion for explaining things. I think the world is a better place when we can understand why things happen the way they do.
I’m also inspired by another passion. I think children are precious resources. If we respect their curiosity and never talk down to them, never try to make them feel unimportant, we’ve done something that goes beyond education.
Many times, I’ve been asked in private what careers young people should pursue. I’m usually not very good at this; parents are better by far. But I’m reminded of an incident long ago. Sometimes you have no idea what will come of casual conversations.
A teenager called me at the office. She didn’t give me her name. She said she was trying to choose a college curriculum. She wanted to go into computers, but her parents wanted her to follow her father’s career into medicine. They had argued about this for weeks, and finally her dad suggested that she call me. “Whatever Al says, I’ll go along with,” he said.
I told her there were a lot of college students who want to be computer techs and programmers, but not many who were willing to go through all the effort to become doctors and nurses and medical professionals of all kinds. But I also told her to do what SHE wanted to do. It was her life after all. I was sure when I hung up that I had not changed her mind at all.
More than a decade later, a group of visitors came through the office. I had to go to a meeting and didn’t get a chance to say hello to any of them. When I got back, there was a note on my desk. “I called you many years ago to help me choose a career. I just wanted to thank you for your advice.”
The visitor had written the note on the back of a business card. On the other side was the name of a doctor. I recognized the name immediately. She was one of the city’s most respected young physicians.
East-Tec: You run a weekly technology blog, called Technofile, as well as write weekly posts for The Post Standard newspaper in Syracuse, NY. Please, tell us about both.
Al Fasoldt: At one time I wrote three different weekly columns in the newspaper, all running on Sunday. At the start, the columns ran both in the newspaper and on my own bulletin board system (BBS). When the web came along, I started a website, one of the first tech journalist sites in the country. But that wasn’t enough, so I started blogging. Eventually, I ran out of energy - I had a life, after all - and stopped blogging after I realized I’d said everything I wanted to say in that medium.
My favorite column was Dr. Gizmo, which I called “Advice to the Tech-Lorn.” It ran for a dozen years and garnered a glorious mixture of honest computer questions and hate mail. I loved the nasty emails; being a younger brother, I learned while growing up how to answer in kind. And I added a touch of humor whenever possible. No one knew, officially at least, who Dr. Gizmo was. I never told, and the newspaper kept the secret. The good doctor had no degree - I had none either, quitting college after two years to go into newspapers as a copy boy - and he had no scruples, sometimes attacking me in print. The two of us had some great arguments.
East-Tec: As you know, in this section of the blog, we focus on PC and Internet privacy. What threats would you draw readers’ attention to?
Al Fasoldt: The single biggest threat is clearly social engineering. Even the smartest among us is vulnerable to a plea for help from a foreign land or an invitation to click on a link to see seven TV stars without makeup. We are human, and that means we are fallible.
In another area, I’m astonished by the number of users who have absolutely no concept of security and no thought of making backups. In my classes, I ask for a show of hands on these subjects, with my questions couched in innocent terms: “How many of you did a backup in the last three days?” (The answer is always NONE.) How many did one in the last week? (NONE.) In the last month? (Usually NONE.) “How many of you know the name of your antivirus software?” (A FEW.) “Which of you would read, or read and respond to, a strange email that came to you but called you by the wrong first name?” (ALMOST ALL.) “How many know the password for their home router?” (A COUPLE.)
East-Tec: What Internet and PC privacy best practices do you follow?
Al Fasoldt: I use Ghostery and WOT (Web of Trust) on all my browsers and ALWAYS follow their recommendations. I use Gmail and appreciate the spam filtering Google does; it’s very seldom off-kilter. I distrust everything that comes in the mail unless I specifically asked someone to send it. I run good AV software on both my Windows and Mac computers and on my Android tablets.
East-Tec: What way do you think data erasure and encryption software products can improve PC and Internet privacy?
Al Fasoldt: I don’t know. I’ve never looked into this in any serious way, since both of them are business concerns. Not my field.
East-Tec: More and more experts say that the era of antivirus and firewall doing all the protection is over. What’s your view on that?
Al Fasoldt: They need to get out into the sunlight more often. And they need to keep running good AV software and using good firewalls.
East-Tec: What precautionary privacy steps do you consider healthy for home users to take in the post-Snowden era?
Al Fasoldt: If there were such a thing as privacy, home users would need to do something about protecting it. But Snowden shows is that there is no expectation of privacy whatsoever. And, sorry to say, we are not in a post-Snowden era any more than we’re in a post-daylight era just because the sun went down today. There will always be revelations about government snooping. All that this teaches us is that the government can’t be trusted. Not at all.
East-Tec: What do you think is going to be the next big thing when it comes to privacy threats and how will we be able to protect ourselves?
Al Fasoldt: I don’t think we’ll be able to protect ourselves. I really don’t. At least not until the government stops stealing what used to be our privacy. Only then will we find ways to gain protection against other privacy threats.
East-Tec: What’s your closing message to our readers?
Al Fasoldt: Never underestimate the power of someone who’s trying to cause you trouble.