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Your cheat sheet for talking about tech this Thanksgiving

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No, hoverboards aren't real

Holiday dinner table talk can be rough. When you’re not slicing up a strange hybrid turkey or serving up dishes of root vegetables, it’s easy to feel as though you’re both moderating a political debate and taking on the role of family IT support.

When the conversation veers into politics, Vox.com has you covered. But if you are the de facto tech expert in your family and updating the software on everyone’s iPhone isn’t enough, there’s a good chance you’ll be called upon to explain some of the tech news that's happened recently.

So forthwith, here are the topics you’re most likely going to have to hold court about this Thanksgiving — and also, what to say if you’re not quite the expert your family thinks you are.

What, exactly, is VR?

Better to show than tell here. Come equipped with Google Cardboard. Download the NY Times app. Watch your relatives’ awestruck, head-rolling reactions. Take a sneaky selfie with them when they're staring into virtual space. Rinse and repeat. Seriously, if you do nothing else this Thanksgiving, be the giver of VR fun.

Should I buy an iPad Pro?

The iPad Pro might actually not be the best tablet you could buy, and it’s unlikely that many people really need a $1,000 tablet-plus-accessories that sort of makes a full computer but isn’t quite there yet. You might want to suggest an iPad Air 2 instead, and for fun, watch the video below comparing the iPad Pro and Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4. Bottom line: it’s a very nice, very big iPad. But it’s still an iPad.

Are hackers really fighting ISIS?

Too soon to say, but signs point to "not really." Not only are there concerns that Anonymous could hinder the real fight against ISIS, but some reports say the hacktivist group could actually be targeting the wrong Twitter users as it attempts to take down ISIS-connected social media accounts.

If I have nothing to hide, why should I care about encryption?

A lot of politicians are currently arguing that spying on everybody is the best way to fight terror attacks? That's a reductive way of thinking about it, but if our leaders are going to oversimplify the issue, I guess we will have to do the same. Some are also calling for mandatory backdoors into the apps we use to talk to each other. This is one of those debates that's likely to end badly, but if you want to engage this article from a couple of years ago is a good starting point. If you end up needing to bail, just say that Tim Cook is against letting the government read your iMessages and then break out the VR headset to change the subject.

Microsoft made a laptop. Is it any good?

Actually, yes! It's really good (although, on the heavy side, like all of us, after this meal). The trick is that you can pull the screen off to make a very large tablet. Everybody is trying to figure out how to merge the laptop and the tablet right now, and nobody really knows how to do it. But Microsoft just said, "Hey let's make a great laptop and it happens to offer this tablet thing if you want."

Why did Microsoft make Windows 8 so terrible?

Microsoft had big plans to get everybody using Windows on tablets, and those plans kind of fizzled. But there's good news: Windows 10 is free for most people and just wildly better than Windows 8. You're probably going to end up being asked to help with the upgrade, but it's usually not that hard and totally worth it.

What's new with the new iPhone?

Ah, this old question, so common that Apple is making commercials that directly answer it. It's an S year, which usually just means speed bumps and camera improvements. But this year, the iPhone 6S has 3D Touch. It can detect how hard you're pressing on the screen and do different stuff. Is it a game changer? Well, probably not, but more and more apps are being updated to support it and it is kind of cool.

Is my Dell computer really hacked?

A security issue was discovered earlier this week in an unknown number of Dell laptops. So it’s possible, if you have a Inspiron 5000, an XPS 15, or an XPS 13, that your laptop may be vulnerable. But the company apologized quickly and posted instructions on how to permanently remove the problematic certificate from affected laptops. (Warning: You will now be asked to perform this task.)

Is the Apple TV an actual TV?

It’s a good question. Everyone talked about the new Apple TV for so long — even Apple proclaimed it to be the future of television — that it’s easy to see how someone might think it’s a TV. In short, no. It’s a $149 box that plugs into the existing TV to show stuff like Netflix and YouTube and iTunes and Crossy Road. By the way, there are lots of other boxes that do this too. And if you tell some family members that they can now get HBO without actually subscribing to HBO through cable, you might just blow their minds.

What exactly is the deal with Tinder?

Everybody is talking Tinder right now. Partly because at least 15 percent of your holiday guests are swiping right or left on their smartphones under the table, partly because Tinder’s parent company just went public, but also partly because Tinder’s CEO made some bizarre statements in an interview last week. I recommend, actually, taking the conversation in another direction at this point, unless you want to discuss the precise definition of sodomy at the dinner table.

Who cares that Mark Zuckerberg took parental leave?

Regardless of how you feel about Facebook, it is a big deal. The US has continually lagged behind other developed countries when it comes to offering paid parental leave to workers, so up until this point the engine for change has primarily been powered by private-sector companies and high-profile public figures. On the one hand, Zuckerberg didn’t take the full four months offer to Facebook employees; he is, after all, running one of the top tech companies in the world. But he did announce that he would take two months leave after his daughter was born, which hopefully will help diminish some of the stigma that exists when it comes to people — men especially — taking significant amounts of time off to be with their families.

Why did Google rename itself Alphabet?

This is kind of a tough one. You can say it’s sort of like if your parents one day got sick of their 30-year-old children mooching off of them and decided to change the family name and insisted that some of the kids started pulling their own weight. Then, you can admit that it’s confusing, but the truth is that even Google doesn’t quite know what it all means yet, either. Then steer the conversation toward Google’s moonshot projects, because they’re more interesting, anyway.

What’s the story with Amazon’s CEO landing a rocket?

Yes, Bezos landed a rocket and yes, it's a big deal. But maybe not a huge deal and maybe not as big of an embarrassment to Tesla CEO Elon Musk as you might think. The separate rocket launch efforts made by the two entrepreneurs aren’t really comparable, at least right now. Musk’s Falcon 9, which is meant to launch payloads into the area around Earth’s orbit and beyond, and Bezos' New Shepard rocket, which is designed to take people into suborbital space for a few minutes, have notably different designs and capabilities. In short, comparing sub-orbital spaceflight to orbital spaceflight is a controversial thing. Still, for all of Musk’s Tony Stark-ness, Bezos might easily win a popularity contest here among your family members, if only because a $99 Amazon Prime subscription is a lot more accessible than an $80,000 Tesla.

So hoverboards are real now, right?

No. Well, sorta. Look, actual hoverboards are either elaborate ads or require a huge copper track. What everybody is referring to are those two-wheeled things that are shipped out by so many different companies that we don't have a good name for them yet. Except most people have just given up and are calling these weird Segway descendants "hoverboards." Heck, Mark Cuban is getting in the game now. You may as well just give into it, too, and then watch this video of people dancing to a Justin Bieber song with them.

What's the best phone / TV watching gadget / smartwatch / drone / [insert gadget here]?

Perennial questions! We have a nice little series called "This is my Next" that gives you the answers. And lots of people (including us!) are big fans of The Wirecutter. But be careful answering any of these questions: what you say could put you on the hook for future tech support.