Slate's Farhad Manjoo answers your questions about Wikipedia, Google, and more.

Slate's Farhad Manjoo answers your questions about Wikipedia, Google, and more.

Slate's Farhad Manjoo answers your questions about Wikipedia, Google, and more.

Your tech questions answered.
Jan. 14 2010 4:54 PM

I Want To Kill My Mac

Slate's tech-advice column on how to make it look like your computer died of natural causes, how to get unflattering stuff off of Google, and more.

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If you've got a burning tech problem you want solved, please send a note to farhad.manjoo@slate.com, with "I've got a tech question!" as the subject line. (Your question may be edited.) You can also read previous "Dear Farhad" columns here and here.

Dear Farhad,

I love my computer with every beat of my heart. But it just won't give up on me! My parents bought me my Mac in 2006, and now it's beginning to show its age. I am a college student, and they have told me that they'll buy me a new one when my current model "bites the dust." But these Macs are so well-constructed that I am convinced that this thing will keep going on and on and on. So I wonder, how can I render my computer inoperable so it appears that it died naturally of old age?

—Mac Kevorkian

Dear Mac Kevorkian,

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This is a bad idea. I don't begrudge you trying to get a new machine, but killing a perfectly usable computer isn't the right way to do it. For one thing, there are lots of people around the world—probably even at your college—who'd love a three-year-old Mac. Perhaps you could appeal to your parents' philanthropic impulse—explain to them that if they buy you a new one, you'll donate the old one to a classmate, and thus they'll be improving the lives of two needy college kids. If they're not the charitable sort, you could tell them about Macs' relatively high resale value. Depending on the model, your old computer could fetch hundreds of dollars or more on eBay. That would make a good down payment on a new machine.

That said, your question is interesting as a purely intellectual exercise. When I asked people on Twitter how they'd kill a computer without leaving any obvious clues, I got back some plausible ideas. The best thought—as suggested by Kevin Marks—was to stress the hard drive and processor by constantly running a diagnostic program (for instance, Apple Hardware Test) while also subjecting the machine to extreme temperatures (if it's a laptop, put it in the freezer or a warm oven). Another idea was to simply remove the hard drive—the computer won't boot and the drive will appear to have crashed, and unless your parents take it to the Genius Bar, they'll be none the wiser.

But again, don't do it. Your machine is worth less dead than it is alive.

—Farhad

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Dear Farhad,

Is it possible to remove or reposition information about myself on Google? Several years ago, my ex-husband filed a tawdry lawsuit accusing me of all kinds of sexual issues. The case was dismissed by the court. But the complaint and the court's decision come up first when someone Googles my name. I want these links to go away or at least be on the 20th page of the search results. I have a successful business, and I'd rather that came up first. Is there any way to get rid of these documents?

—Embarrassed in Connecticut

Dear Embarrassed,

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In the abstract, Google's mission to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible sounds noble. Then you start Googling yourself and wonder what in the world the company was thinking. There's a lot of terrible stuff on the Internet, and some of it might be about you. So what can you do about it? Alas, most of the time, nothing much—or, at least, nothing very easily.

Sure, there are things you could try. First, aim to get the documents offline. If the court papers are being hosted on a site that you may have some influence over—your ex's personal blog, say—you could try a direct appeal. Explain to your ex-husband that it would be best for the both of you to let the past stay in the past. If he agrees and takes the papers offline, they should drop out of the Google results within a few weeks.

But if your ex balks, or if the documents are being hosted on a court site or at some other place that refuses to remove them, you've got to try another tack. Several years ago, blogger Anil Dash wrote an influential post about how to manage your identity in the Web age. His advice: Take control of your online persona. There's a reason Google returns embarrassing court documents for your name—it has no better links to go with. The best way to correct the record is to give Google something better.

You mention that you have a business. If you would like that site to come up for your name, try to make it more Googly. For instance, start a blog on the site—give it a name that includes your name, like Embarrassed's Thoughts—and write frequently about your industry. Send the links around to colleagues—or start up a Twitter page for your business, and post the links there—in the hopes that other sites will link to your blog. Note that for this to work, you've got to write at least marginally interesting stuff—don't spam people with useless links. It's also a good idea to create pages on other social-networking sites—a Facebook page for yourself and your company, a profile on LinkedIn, a collection of photos on Flickr, etc.

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If all of this sounds tedious, that's because it is. It is also not guaranteed to work, at least not immediately. But persevere—over time, Google will likely come to recognize all the new content as providing a better picture of you than old, sleazy legal documents. That, or you could change your name.

—Farhad

Dear Farhad,

Over the holidays, every Wikipedia page I visited kept bugging me to donate money. Why does Wikipedia need my cash? What do they do with it? And should I be worried—is the company in the poor house?

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—Worried for Wikipedia

Dear Worried,

Fear not, Wikipedia is not going under. The site runs a donation drive at the end of every year. Its appeals for money sometimes sound a bit desperate, but they're effective. This year the Wikimedia Foundation—the nonprofit that oversees Wikipedia (in English and other languages)—reached its fundraising goal of $7.5 million, an increase over the $6.2 million it took in last year.

Why do they need the money? Because articles about Butt Hole Road don't write themselves. Wikipedia is enormously popular—it's visited by more than 300 million people a month, making it one of the world's top five sites. All of that Web traffic requires a lot of resources—the foundation maintains more than 400 servers, it develops software to keep improving the user experience, and it pays the salaries of a small staff who keep the whole thing working. Still, the enterprise is remarkably efficient; Wikimedia's annual budget for the 2010 fiscal year is $9.4 million, which is probably less than what other Internet companies pay in gas each year to shuttle their employees from San Francisco to Mountain View.

All of this money comes from donations. Wikipedia operates without any commercial remuneration whatsoever. It carries no ads, offers no subscriptions, and doesn't even solicit public radio-style corporate underwriting. So if you're a fan, consider giving when Wikipedia starts its next annual appeal at the end of 2010.

—Farhad

Dear Farhad,

Let's say I post a photo on Facebook and set the privacy page to allow only my close friends to see it. But wait, there's more: What if I then "tag" my best friend Bill in the photo—and on his privacy page, Bill allows everyone to see tagged photos of him. So who gets to see this photo—just my close friends, or all of Bill's friends (and enemies), too?

—Too Many Tagged Friends

Dear Tagged,

The short answer: Only your friends—and not Bill's friends—get to see that picture.

Facebook allows both the person who posts a picture and the people who are in said picture to control how the snapshot is displayed on the site. If those two groups have conflicting privacy settings, it can cause a bit of confusion. But remember this rule of thumb: Facebook considers the person who uploaded a photo to be its owner. If you post a photo, your settings determine who can see it—regardless of how the people who are tagged in the photo set their privacy.

Of course, this means that when someone else uploads a photo and tags you in it, the picture might be shown to people you don't approve of. On Facebook's main privacy page, there is a setting for you to restrict who gets to view "Photos Tagged of You." But as Facebook explains, that setting doesn't actually block anyone from looking at a picture—it only removes the link to your profile from the photo. For instance, say Bill posts a picture of you carousing at a bar. He tags you in the photo and makes it viewable by his friends. If your "Photos Tagged of You" setting is set to exclude your co-workers, then your profile won't highlight the photo to them. But if Bill has friended some of your co-workers, they'll still be able to see the picture. In other words, you don't just have to worry about what you post on Facebook. You have to worry about what idiot friends like Bill post, too.

—Farhad