I just got off the phone with my father. Actually, I got off the phone almost 24 hours ago, and I'm just now becoming calm enough to write clearly about it. My father had a problem: he was attempting to use a computer without supervision. Now, my father is a smart man. He has a master’s degree from Harvard, he has “A Brief History of Time” on his bookshelf, and he consistently left clicks when I ask him to right click. The exact nature of the phone conversation is boring an unimportant, except for one thing. My father needed at one point to save a document in MS Word format. Since he has a Mac, he created the document in Pages. He insisted that his efforts had been wasted since (he claimed) Pages was unable to save in MS Word format. I tried to convince him that it could save not only in MS Word format, but roughly 15 others, but he was unrelenting. Finally I got him to check in the Export menu “to humor me,” and lo and behold, that’s where all his Microsoft formats were hiding. Why do people ask geeks for help, then insist that the help provided is incorrect?
I am expecting to spend at least half of my Christmas visit fixing their multiple computers, synchronizing their files, uninstalling the spyware they were tricked into installing, and generally explaining to them that no, the computer cannot just “know what you want.” And at every turn, I expect to hear dissenting opinions and accusations that I am somehow “hurting” or “confusing” the computer by what I’m doing.
My fellow computer geeks all across the country will also be making that periodic tech support pilgrimage. Just talking to the other programmers in the office I’ve discovered quite an arsenal of tools that they will be bringing with them. From special screwdrivers and thumb drives to entire operating systems and (in one case) a whole new computer, we go into the holiday season armed and ready to set ourselves up for future tech support calls.
Some of my more memorable tech support calls have been from relatives, usually helpless in the basic skills necessary to diagnose the problem over the phone. My aunt made one historic call a few years ago. They had just gotten cable internet in their small country town, and after a week or so she was having problems connecting to the internet. So after hearing about the problem I told her I was going to need her to look at the modem. We spent the next few minutes arguing about whether or not she had a modem, and whether or not the problem could have been caused by never having a modem in the first place. After concluding that she did have a modem, and it was still where the technician left it (under the sink, good one technician! bravo sir!), I asked her “what do the lights on the modem look like?” A valid question I thought, and a relatively simple one. I was expecting to hear a short list of the lights’ labels and whether or not the light was lit. What did I get? “Well, they’re about a quarter inch wide and about a sixteenth of an inch…no…make that about three thirty-seconds of an inch tall, they’re spaced about a half an inch apart…why are you laughing!?”
Another fond holiday memory is the argument I got into with my grandmother. She wanted to “get a house page on the wide world web.” I managed to correct her to “world wide web” without offending her, but then the real fun started. She claimed that “the world wide web is better than the internet!” I tried to explain to her that web pages were only a very small subset of the internet, and that the two terms really didn’t describe the same sort of thing. She decided to put it to a vote. Proudly marching into the living room she announced to the 40-so gathered people “raise your hand if you think the internet is better than the world wide web!” They all stared blankly at her for a short time. Sensing victory, she turned to me and screeched “SEE!?” and stormed out.
So this year I will gather my toolkit, my extra networking cables, my CDs with avg antivirus, firefox, spybot, hijackthis, and zone alarm, my copies of windows XP and Mac OSX, two different linux live CDs, my thumb drives, and my overworked laptop, and make the trek down to my parents house. Please, if you are reading this and you didn’t recognize the items in that list, do yourself and the geek in your life a favor: Find out what operating system you run* and go out and buy yourself the “For Dummies” book that corresponds to that operating system. That can be your gift to your geek this year. Show them that you own the book that holds most of your answers, make a promise to them to at least open the book before you pick up the phone, and you will see what it’s like when someone experiences holiday joy.
Plus, you might learn something.
*Look at the top left corner of your screen, if there’s an apple there, proceed to “Apple”. If not, look at the bottom left. If there’s a start menu, proceed to “Windows.” If there’s neither, pick up the phone and call the person who works on your computer and ask them.
Apple: Click the apple, and go down to “About this mac.” There should be an entry on the first screen called “Operating system.” That’s the operating system you have, you’re done.
Windows: Click the start menu button and look at the left side of the start menu. Your operating system may be listed along the left side. If there isn’t, hold down the windows key on your keyboard and press the “Pause” key (you never use it, it’s in the top right). A window should come up that says “system” at the top. Your operating system will be the first item under “system”