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Lo, in the twilight days of the second year of the second decade of the third millennium did a great darkness descend...
January 23, 2012 9:28 PM   Subscribe

In Which I Fix My Girlfriend’s Grandparents’ WiFi and Am Hailed as a Conquering Hero.
posted by homunculus (167 comments total) 76 users marked this as a favorite

 
If you like this, you'll love /r/talesfromtechsupport
posted by thewalrus at 9:32 PM on January 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


All hail larger-than-normal servings of Jell-O salad!
posted by zarq at 9:33 PM on January 23, 2012


I get a taste of this sort of response at the library. What do I know about computers and tech support? Almost nothing! But I do know that computers sometimes - for some reason - start working again after you reboot them. And, sometimes, this is enough.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:36 PM on January 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


I am one of the happy few who has an effect on computers from a distance. If someone is having a problem, and tells me about it, as soon as I consider the steps required to get the problem solved, about 80% of the time, things just start working again. This even works at a distance.

It is as if my merely knowing about a problem and considering it, is enough to send a wave of intimidation out through subspace and back to the offending system, which promptly starts acting normally, lest I bring over my Leatherman Tool and start disassembling things.

I've known a person who had the opposite effect, her stuff just died, quite often, even though she actually did everything correctly and carefully. She switched to a less computer intense career choice, and is now happier.
posted by MikeWarot at 9:45 PM on January 23, 2012 [23 favorites]


Mike, the term for what you are is "computer whisperer".
posted by benito.strauss at 9:48 PM on January 23, 2012 [36 favorites]


Believe it or not, if you're working in IT that technique, never, ever changes. I've gone from fixing printers and $50 linksys routers to working on $50,000 core routers at ISPs, and a ridiculous percentage of the time, the ultimate fix is to reboot a card, replace a card or unplugging a cable and plugging it back in again.

Where it gets difficult is figuring out which card to replace. When you're only dealing with a router and a couple of computers, it's easy. When you're dealing with a nationwide ISP network, not so simple. Hell, sometimes even when you know which router is flaking out and you have someone on site, just finding the damn thing is hard.
posted by empath at 9:50 PM on January 23, 2012 [12 favorites]


With virtualization, nfs, and bad records, it's entirely possible to loose servers that you can ping and log in to.

Ok... "computer whisperer" it is, thanks for the new title.
posted by MikeWarot at 9:53 PM on January 23, 2012


All that, and he didn't update their browser?

C'mon.
posted by hippybear at 9:54 PM on January 23, 2012 [20 favorites]


The fancypants term for turning it off and turning it on is 'Power cycling'
posted by hellojed at 9:55 PM on January 23, 2012 [8 favorites]


Yes, this is my life as a mid-20's white male who works with old people. I am feted and told they've found something I would look good in inside their Kohl's catalogue.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 9:58 PM on January 23, 2012 [9 favorites]


All that, and he didn't update their browser?

C'mon.


A wise warrior knows his limits. He does not uninstall the AOL and the Ask toolbar.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 9:58 PM on January 23, 2012 [51 favorites]


But the legend of out hero will eventually take on the sinister dark tint of history, as years later down the road any hiccup from the browser, any popups, any stall from the router will be met with anguished cries of "Oh what did he do? It always worked until he meddled with it that one time!"
posted by sourwookie at 10:07 PM on January 23, 2012 [84 favorites]


My personal horror story was seeing a woman who had somehow installed every toolbar ever released for IE. Her actual browswer window was only a few square inches, the rest was toolbar.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 10:16 PM on January 23, 2012 [9 favorites]


I've seen that too, CheeseDigestsAll. Just today I was installing a printer driver for my mom and noticed in the search box of Firefox she had typed "gmail.com". That must be how she gets to every site, by googling the URL.
posted by MattMangels at 10:19 PM on January 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


I've seen people google 'google.com', click on the first result, and then proceed to type their actual query.

*shudder*
posted by wayland at 10:21 PM on January 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


Her actual browswer window was only a few square inches, the rest was toolbar.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 10:16 PM on January 23 [+] [!]


Ah, yes and several of them were stubborn Yahoo! toolbars that will return again and again when deleted. Yahoo! is determined.
posted by Cranberry at 10:22 PM on January 23, 2012


Every time I enter my parents house, I have to fix something electronic - and I have degrees in the social sciences. 90% of the time it involves the computer. 10% of the time it involves the TV/VCR button. TiVo? Fuck off. I have to fix VHS. I have to think 3 decades in arrears.

My Dad only just recently found out that you could email multiple people. When I told him, the look on his face suggested that I knew how to shoot $50 bills out my ass, and that I'd had this ability since Grade 3, and that he could have been lying in the sun on Maui for decades instead of toiling away in a classroom. Previously he'd been typing each email separately to each recipient. No cut and paste. Oh no. One email, henpecked out at a pace of about 30 words per hour, to as many as a dozen people. Hotmail would often time out it took him so long to type.

If my Dad goes to a new computer, he can't find hotmail because it's not on his home page and he can't find a homepage because if the browser button isn't in the same place he can't find the browser - this is because he doesn't know what a browser is. The Internet Explorer icon is 'Hotmail'. He doesn't use the computer for anything else.

Sorry I had to get that out.
posted by jimmythefish at 10:30 PM on January 23, 2012 [116 favorites]


But the legend of out hero will eventually take on the sinister dark tint of history, as years later down the road any hiccup from the browser, any popups, any stall from the router will be met with anguished cries of "Oh what did he do? It always worked until he meddled with it that one time!"

O best beloved, it is not wise to eat of the tree of knowledge good and evil. For though you may be praised with great praise for correcting issues with the wireless router, you have thereby admitted that you have had congress with the dark gods of technology. Those who pass into the shadow of those mysteries are, like devotees of Set, forever changed by their traffic with the occult. The taste of that wisdom is bitter, bitter, even if it means that you don't call people at midnight because FarmVille is inaccessible and your farm is going to die.
posted by winna at 10:31 PM on January 23, 2012 [7 favorites]


Last week I received a call from a woman less than 10 feet away in another office. She was filling out a form. She had to enter the email for our business. I asked what she'd put, knowing she had emailed me hundreds of times, and nodded sagely when her answer began with www.

Keeping my voice from sounding patronizing or condescending while I told her to enter the @ dot actual email address will go on my list of "good deeds" in the afterlife.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 10:33 PM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


No matter how many times I see it, I still cannot get used to see a group of crows referred to as a "murder."

This whole Geek Squad thing isn't working out. I think we should refer to a group of tech guys as an ostentation (which is apparently the noun for a group of peacocks?). As in "Don't worry, an ostentation of tech guys are coming to save the day!"
posted by Deflagro at 10:35 PM on January 23, 2012 [19 favorites]


I did a dramatic reading of this for my boyfriend a few nights ago. It lends itself to that.
posted by ocherdraco at 10:38 PM on January 23, 2012 [7 favorites]


This whole Geek Squad thing isn't working out. I think we should refer to a group of tech guys as an ostentation (which is apparently the noun for a group of peacocks?). As in "Don't worry, an ostentation of tech guys are coming to save the day!"

I would suggest that a group of tech geeks is a "packet", and when moving they are always said to be "on route".
posted by vorfeed at 10:43 PM on January 23, 2012 [74 favorites]


Now if he can just fix it so "mcsweeneys.net" stops loading up the Borowitz Report.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:44 PM on January 23, 2012


A few summers ago I was sent a support ticket for a printer issue ("Nothing happens when I hit print. Should be coming out of printer 4A.") at a building that was partially under construction. Due to all the work that was going on, temporary offices had been erected, which led to some people ending up on a different PC. This of course led to things coming out of different printers than what users were used to, and I figured this was the case again.

Except, once I tracked down the offending PC, the printer was straight up gone. Turns out printer 4A had been disconnected and placed in storage during the summer. Technically, yes, "nothing happened" when they hit print, but it's always helpful when end users mention that file-cabinet sized hardware is missing out of its usual corner.


Sigh. Being a computer whisperer only gets you so far some days.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 10:49 PM on January 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Her actual browswer window was only a few square inches, the rest was toolbar.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 10:16 PM on January 23 [+] [!]


Bad enough when it is a civilian. I get screenshots from QA professionals that have 10-12 toolbars installed.

I don't even bother to say anything anymore. I'm just glad Bonzai Buddy isn't around anymore so I don't have the see the ape on top of the software I worked so hard on.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:49 PM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


But when your washing machine freezes up, who fixes it, huh? DAD does, that's who. Because Dad knows that a washing machine has a transmission and a drive belt and a pump pulley and God knows what else, and he bought the tool that's made for fixing it from a guy who knows a guy who used to work at Whirlpool just in case this ever happened and it's been hanging on a pegboard in the garage for fifteen years and while he's here would you get that damn map thing in the car to work? It's driving your mother crazy.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:57 PM on January 23, 2012 [129 favorites]


Worst one that happened to me:

I had a business partner who had an office in Ithaca New York. He called me up to tell me his staff couldn't work, their LAN was down. I walked them through rebooting the router, had them check all the plugs and nothing worked.

I took a train to Ithaca and went to the office, I spent about 45 minutes crawling around under desks in a suit until I found the problem. They had an switch under some guy's desk, an RJ45 connector was halfway unplugged. Plugged it in and everything worked. They felt kind of bad so he said he wanted me to send him a bill, I said Not to worry, consider it a favor. He insisted I send him a bill. We ended up getting so heated over this I sent him a bill for my hourly rate for travel time and the time spent crawling around and 30cents a mile extra. The bill came to over 3000. He never paid it, and never spoke to me again, after about 6 months I dissolved our company. I considered it cheap to get rid of him.
posted by Ad hominem at 11:03 PM on January 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


We have a corollary in our family: One does not introduce New Technology to our parents unless one also agrees to personally support said Technology. It's a good rule.
posted by mosk at 11:18 PM on January 23, 2012 [17 favorites]


believe it or not, if you're working in IT that technique, never, ever changes. I've gone from fixing printers and $50 linksys routers to working on $50,000 core routers at ISPs, and a ridiculous percentage of the time, the ultimate fix is to reboot a card, replace a card or unplugging a cable and plugging it back in again.

The problem with this is that actual tech support people never ever believe you when you tell them you know what you are talking about and that won't help.

I had to call our internet provider several times when we moved into our new house, because they kept failing to come out and connect our internet as they had promised to do. (For some reason known only to them they claimed they had to actually come to our house to do it, and we had to be home, and then they kept failing to show.) I had this conversation with one of them when I called up to let them know they had stood us up again:

Me: "So, you were going to come out and connect our internet today, but we've been waiting and no one has been."
Him: "Okay, I want you to unplug your modem and count to ten and then..."
Me: "It's not plugged it, because we have no internet service yet."
Him: "Just bear with me, please. Often people think their internet isn't working, but it's just the modem. So please unplug it at the wall..."

Another time I tried to book flights on a website on my macbook, and I got to the final step where I was putting my credit card details in, and I got a pop up saying the website only works on Windows. So I went over to my desktop and booted up into Windows, and went through the whole rigmarole of booking the flghts again, only to find they had increased by $50 in the time I had waited. I suspected they hadn't atually increased, either, but that my other booking was being held somewhere and that counted as the last seat at that price. So I called the airline, and explained the background. As soon as they heard it had to do with the website, they told me to reboot my computer, and that would probably solve the problem. I pointed out that the problem was the flight was more expensive, and I was pretty sure rebooting was not going to fix that. Being reasonable, I asked if she meant there was a cookie from the first booking affecting the process somehow, and pointed out that even so, I was on a different computer now. But she just kept saying, "Please, ma'am, just switch your computer off, and turn it on again."
posted by lollusc at 11:37 PM on January 23, 2012 [19 favorites]


I once had an issue at an old company I for which I worked that had partially deleted my installation of Office 2007 due to some stupid update that somehow overwrote it to 2003. The tech support guy would not believe what the issue was because obviously my lady brain was incapable of comprehending the hermetic mysteries of IT. Our computers were locked down without administrator privileges, so I couldn't fix it myself.

After three hours of arguing with the man that he just had to push THREE BUTTONS to fix it that were ON THE SCREEN AT THE TIME it occurred to me that, as he was remotely connected to my machine, it would be a terrible thing if he was accidentally disconnected from my machine by some strange mishap to the network cable while he had my administer privileges unlocked. Why, if that happened, I could fix it myself!

Mysteriously indeed, ten seconds after I came to that realization, my network connection went down. I was profusely apologetic, and as it was late I told the young man that I would call back the next day to fix it because I had to go home. But somehow or other my installation of 2007 fixed itself and I never had to call again. I think it was divine intervention.
posted by winna at 12:00 AM on January 24, 2012 [73 favorites]


The only worse thing than helping your elderly parents with their computer is helping them with said computer after another elderly friend has tried to help already. "Mom, you're going to have to throw your computer out."
posted by maxwelton at 12:02 AM on January 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


The problem with this is that actual tech support people never ever believe you when you tell them you know what you are talking about and that won't help.

Insert mandatory IT Crowd link >>>here<<<.
posted by rongorongo at 12:02 AM on January 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


"The problem with this is that actual tech support people never ever believe you when you tell them you know what you are talking about and that won't help."

Oh, god, L1 tech support. Sigh. It's like that scene in Parks & Recreation where a salesperson approaches Ron Swanson at the hardware store and Ron immediately says, "I know more than you" and walks on.

Unfortunately, that doesn't work with L1 tech support. You have to go through their freaking script. This is the worst with cable/phone internet support because they assume that you've installed their stupid software and such and I'm like, dude, I'm watching the connection status web page on the router that your company provided me and it's getting a DHCP IP address but not a PPPoE connection and that's the problem, no, I'm not going to tell you what your software I don't have installed says nor am I going to pointlessly power-cycle my router because I've already done that and I can see right here what the problem is.

I go to great lengths to avoid having to ever talk to any L1 techs anywhere, for any reason.

I've told this story before, because I tell this story a lot, but in 1997 sometime, for about three weeks, because I was desperate for an immediate job, I worked as an L1 PC tech for the Sears-owned company that did support for, really and truly, Sears and, incidentally I discovered, also on contract to BestBuy and Circuit City and others, and it was a damn nightmare. Not the customers who called, but the fuckwits I had to work with who a) never stopped making fun of customers even though most of them hardly knew much more, and b) just told almost everyone after one minute to "reformat and reinstall". This, basically, is what all L1 techs everywhere are. Yeah, including some that worked for me later that year at another job. They're basically useless almost without exception.

As you said, they don't believe that you know what you're doing and that's partly because they often don't know what they're doing.

"I pointed out that the problem was the flight was more expensive, and I was pretty sure rebooting was not going to fix that."

This is both funny and infuriating. And entirely believable.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:03 AM on January 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


4am, I wake up to the ringing phone. On the line is an old family friend, who has been told that maybe I can help diagnose his internet issues. Of course, he has forgotten that I'm in the US, six hours time difference from northern Sweden... I tell him to restart his modem and router, really just in an effort to wake up a little before trying to help him- he's a nice old man, after all. And hey pronto, it works again! Years later, he still considers me a tech wiz.

I am not normally a huge fan, but this piece had me smiling and laughing knowingly.
posted by gemmy at 12:13 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah L1 peeps are just reading a script and going through a decision tree someone wrote for them. I've written support procedures and I put as many steps between telling the user to reboot and waking me up at 4am.

At work I am on a list so they just do what I ask, I have to call help desk to get tickets opened to start the process, but I can just tell them " I need a SEV 1 ticket and I need you to contact the network group" and they just do it. IT nerd hierarchy is cool like that, developers outrank support guys unless they are like enterprise architect level.
posted by Ad hominem at 12:17 AM on January 24, 2012


You guys think you have it bad, but I have had to uninstall the Ask toolbar for my husband multiple times. I'm like, oh my god you are not even 35 yet what is wrong with you my parents know better than this and neither of them can center their heads in the video chat window. When strange internets ask you if you want to install something, do not click yes. ("But if I click okay, it stops asking.") Do you know what syphilis is? YOU ARE GIVING OUR COMPUTER SYPHILIS. STOP ENSYPHILATING OUR COMPUTER.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:18 AM on January 24, 2012 [106 favorites]


MattMangels: "noticed in the search box of Firefox she had typed "gmail.com". That must be how she gets to every site, by googling the URL."

BOTH my parents do that as well. For some people Google is the internet I suppose.

I'm pretty handy/knowledgeable with computers now, but when I was a kid I thought it was a brilliant idea to delete core system files on our $2000 Compaq computer (hey it was the 90's - 2 gigs of hd space w00t). Now I obviously know better, but my Mom still thinks if I touch her computer I'll break it. She keeps saying that she had viruses on her computer and keeps insisting to take it somewhere to get it looked at. I don't want her to pay for something that could be done for free by me, but whatever. One less headache.
posted by littlesq at 12:25 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


empath: Hell, sometimes even when you know which router is flaking out and you have someone on site, just finding the damn thing is hard.

Similarly, one of the all time classics from bash.org: #5723
<erno> hm. I've lost a machine.. literally _lost_. it responds to ping, it works completely, 
       I just can't figure out where in my apartment it is.

posted by titus-g at 12:27 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


an ostentation (which is apparently the noun for a group of peacocks?)

Who came up with this nomenclature?

And what would the term be for a group of mefites?
posted by panaceanot at 12:37 AM on January 24, 2012


A beanplate of Mefites, duh.
posted by hincandenza at 12:40 AM on January 24, 2012 [10 favorites]


Sigh. Being a computer whisperer only gets you so far some days.

You've been techiezoned.
posted by srboisvert at 12:48 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was a rockstar for a while for helping an office get their printer working. I plugged it into the wall - the socket was hidden behind the table and it must have loosened during the cleaning lady's visit.

Just bend over and fiddle fiddle adn voila! you can buy me lunch!
posted by infini at 2:03 AM on January 24, 2012


How did this guy get in my parents house and what's he doing monkeying with my parents Internet??

Seriously tho, I was just being tech support at my parents house. They had had some guy in a few months back the do some stuff. He charged them for and installed a router and did some other stuff.

Once I started poking around I discovered that all he did was put a router on the desk and throw the power cable down the back. He didn't even bother to uncoil it. I was livid.

Man, parents and technology....they also left a DVD player I got them in the box for a year because they were convinced they wouldn't be able to install it.
posted by nevercalm at 2:18 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


18 years ago when I worked tech support the colloquial term was computer wizard. I always joked around with another guy that we should become computer shaman and computer witch doctor instead. Think of it - you'd get to shake the bones of an older computer when you first arrived on-site (perhaps a single stick of 512KB RAM, and some old keys from an old IBM model M). Then once you knew what evil spirits possessed the computer, you could sacrifice various .DLLs and registry keys to get the machine working again. Plus, it might be interesting bringing a live chicken into a cubicle environment. May the spirits protect your soul though if you repeatedly cause s paper jam.
posted by Nanukthedog at 2:47 AM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


And, sometimes, this is enough.

You misspled "99% of the time", but otherwise I'm in agreement.
posted by ShutterBun at 2:47 AM on January 24, 2012


As a generalized principle...
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:50 AM on January 24, 2012


Anyone else have to endure my favorite L1 torture device? That is, when they ask you to do something basic like powercycle/reboot AGAIN? Even though, not only have you done that already, but you did so when YOU WERE ON THE PHONE? WITH THEM? ON THE SAME CALL? ("Yes, I know I had you do that 15 minutes ago sir...just do it one more time for me, please?")

Mind you, I'm not talking about processes that actually take two reboots or whatever. I'm talking about when they are taking stabs in the dark and have decided they are just gonna put their script on an infinite loop.

Anyone else cope with L1 torture the same way I do? That is, pretending to do the obviously-not-it thing they ask, waiting an appropriate amount of time, and then say, "Okay, I just did that..."
posted by mreleganza at 3:02 AM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


You misspled "99% of the time"

Every time he pleads the Fifth, but it's rarely appropriate.
posted by rory at 3:03 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I used to work tech support in my various incarnations of "the computer guy", and I've got the usual collection of user stories. The two incidents that come to mind, though, are both from when I was working at a natural history museum:

1.) The museum had a small science library with a dedicated catalog PC. One day after a move the librarian called me up because the PC wasn't working. When I arrived, I discovered that she'd plugged it into a power strip and the power strip...into itself.

2.) The museum's entomologist--a man with a PhD, and from what I understood fairly well-respected in his field--called me in to fix his computer. This was an old, old early PC model, one of the big bastards with the chunky orange power switch on the side...and he couldn't figure out how to turn it on.

Incidentally, the librarian was a lovely person and apologetic about the whole thing, and brought me chocolate the next time I came up there. Somehow she always mysteriously bubbled up to the top of my to-do list along with the woman who worked down the hall, who also brought in IT guy snacks.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 3:17 AM on January 24, 2012


"But if I click okay, it stops asking."

I've got my mother well trained never to click "okay" if she doesn't understand the alert. TOO well trained, in fact. At Christmas I wanted to show her something online on her laptop, so I looked at it, and saw a shortcut to Chrome on the desktop. "You use Chrome for your browser?" I asked, vaguely remembering I installed it for her once. "Yes", she said, "But I get to it by clicking on the little 'E' in the taskbar."

I didn't even want to get into why she thought she was using Chrome by clicking on IE, so I opened Internet Explorer, and the pop-up "This is not your default browser. Would you like to make Internet Explorer your default browser?" appeared.
"So you DON'T use this browser?" I asked.
"Yes I do," she said. "It always asks that. But I didn't know what it was asking, so I always just close the pop up without clicking 'okay'. Like you showed me."

She's been doing that for FOUR YEARS, people. Four. Years.
posted by lollusc at 3:25 AM on January 24, 2012 [9 favorites]


(Okay, 3 years. However long Chrome has been around.)
posted by lollusc at 3:27 AM on January 24, 2012


In the unfortunate six weeks I spent in the salt mines working on cell phone tech support, turning it off and then on again was always step #1, and yes, we were supposed to call it power cycling.
posted by Yowser at 3:31 AM on January 24, 2012


1.) The museum had a small science library with a dedicated catalog PC. One day after a move the librarian called me up because the PC wasn't working. When I arrived, I discovered that she'd plugged it into a power strip and the power strip...into itself.

I'm so glad I'm not the only one this has happened to. Novel power generation method needed to make that work...

I had a "client" (I knew him from the pub, he paid me either in beer or £20 every time I helped him out) who was backing up his Sage payroll to stacks of floppies that he kept stacked on top of a 28" Trinitron monitor. Needless to say they were not in a very good state.

And once a cow-orker who when told to put the tape in the tape drive and type "backup" at the end of shift (which I thought was pretty foolproof) didn't hit enter.
posted by hardcode at 3:37 AM on January 24, 2012


My personal horror story was seeing a woman who had somehow installed every toolbar ever released for IE. Her actual browswer window was only a few square inches, the rest was toolbar.

I fixed that for my father once. The top third was toolbar, the bottom half was ads. I removed all the crap (successfully! permanently!) and asked him if he never noticed that he didn't have much space to see anything. "Yes." Did he not notice that at home, he could actually use the entire computer? "I never thought of that."

He's gotten much better, though if he cannot figure out how to do something his first response is always to call me and we sometimes argue if I also don't know how to do it so have to sit down and fiddle with it to figure it out instead of walking him through it. I don't know why he wants to be walked through it, though, since by the time he has the problem again he will have forgotten the solution.
posted by jeather at 3:54 AM on January 24, 2012


If I were run down by a bus tomorrow, every piece of electronics in this house would remain in the state it is presently in, until it decayed away or experienced a catastrophic failure and blowed up real good. Mr. Carter is a very smart man, and can fix anything he can put his hands on... he can work wood and steel and red-hot iron. But electrons are mysterious magical beings, and every object from the VCR to the home Linux network inhabits a strange other-space where only my arcane skills can make things obey.

I think altogether he was a fine choice of spouse, but I can't help but wish that someday I won't have to attach his pictures to his emails for him.
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 4:06 AM on January 24, 2012 [6 favorites]


I have a coworker that just this week, learned how to fill out a form in Excel, save it and email it to me. He also learned how to attach multiple files to an email. I've known him for 14 years and I totally expect that next week, he'll forget one or all of these things (because this is the 804th time he's been shown how to do these things) but I'm trying to be optimistic.
posted by jaimystery at 4:13 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Dear old Doug got his first PC years ago. He called me up when he'd had it a week or so and said "I'm typing away and the cursor's moving, but nothing's showing on the screen".

He'd changed his font colour to white, of course.

I was his hero until the day he retired.

-------------------------------------

Let's look on the bright side - we hardly ever use cd-roms any more so we have full use of the cup-holder again.

-------------------------------------


PS: curse you colonials with your wiggly red line under "colour" :)
posted by Boggins at 4:20 AM on January 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


computers sometimes - for some reason - start working again after you reboot them.

The only thing I hate worse than people who fix computers by rebooting them is computers for which that works.
posted by DU at 4:32 AM on January 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


I get very tired of these things being framed in such a "LOL old peoples" way. I can assure you, there is no end to 20, 30, and 40-somethings who are just as equally baffled by technology when it goes south for no apparent reason.

I'm no techie by any stretch of the imagination. Yet, somehow, I am often the go-to person when someone has an odd problem with their computer, simply because my work requires me to sit at the infernal machine all day. I've had no end of frustration trying to explain to a grown adult the difference between accessing their Gmail online vs. using an email client to download the email locally. Yes, people actually don't quite get that "in the cloud" doesn't mean "on my computer". Is this their fault for not obviously and immediately understanding the latest shiny geek fetish? Or is it the fault of the geeks to explain it in clear, normal english without any hint of condescension?

And, as a layman...someone with no actual training, no certifications, no EE or CS near my name, no indoctrination or immersion into (or particular love of) the tech world I fully understand their confusion and frustration. This shit doesn't make sense. From an outsider's view, it quickly becomes apparent that these technologies seem to be largely cobbled-together over time. Layering shiny-new-shit over the top of older-shit, which was itself layered over even-older-shit.

Any other appliance (and, sorry, computers are appliances) that required unplugging/replugging to make it work right again would quickly be declared faulty/broken/poorly built/poorly designed, and scrapped. With computers, though, this behavior is considered normal, somehow and, instead of eliminating the behavior, the geeks simply giggle at the old fogies who don't "get it". What the fogies actually don't "get" is why the people who create and perpetuate this stuff, seemingly highly-intelligent and creative people, seem willfully blind to just how stupidly low-quality this crap is. And why this situation never seems to change, as the snarky attitudes of the ones who fix it never change.

nowgetoffmylawn
posted by Thorzdad at 5:28 AM on January 24, 2012 [28 favorites]


I work tech suport because after 20 odd years trying to find a career I realised that deep down, I just love it. Since I was about 8 I've been the one people call to fix things which have any sort of display on them. Tried management, tried development and eventually found a job that pays enough to justify my 20-odd years experience in this industry but still allows me to actually you know, support shit. Turns out my natural talent is in actually picking the phone up and getting shit fixed.

I know I'm an outlier, but I work in a team of outliers and more and more there are teams like us. The humble phone monkey job has evolved in the same way as the IT Guy job has evolved. The flow of freshly minted CCwhatevers who I have to explain that just because one of my staff answered a phone they're not some sort of drooling idiot is never ending. Just because they had the social skills and empathy of a housebrick when they had to ask grannies to reboot their PCs they assume everyone else took the same career path.


Like this...
IT nerd hierarchy is cool like that, developers outrank support guys unless they are like enterprise architect leve
Nah, they just think they do,

I think I've only once come out the wrong end of a "do you know who I am" moment with some tiresomely awesome code monkey with a perspective problem and that was because he was related to the CTO. Oh and that one time I mistook a board member for a third line wintel engineer and I sure as fuck didn't know who he was.

I answer phones all the time, I answer other people's phones if they ring. That doesn't mean I'm stupid and that doesn't mean that it wouldn't be quicker to get over yourself and listen before you have to ring your boss who rings his boss before someone tells you who I am and you should "just do as you're fucking told".

Sometimes I have the opposite conversation where some developer who doesn't know how to fix something won't admit defeat and get someone who does. I don't particularly care if it's a right old head scratcher, speak to the person who can fix it because this is costing about 10 times your salary every hour. (see, I can blithely over simplify shit as well!)



Most places have incredibly shitty service desks because they are cheap. Most L1 support people trudge through the script because they will be sacked if they don't. If you want to get it fixed quickly then let them jump through the hoops and give them the power to escalate. They can't pretend to ask you to reboot because their call is recorded and their screen is scraped.

That said some of them are fucking imbeciles, but look around you, some of your colleagues are too. In the same way that you cringe when Bob rushes off to not fix something before calling you for help sometimes you get passed through to Bob the phone monkey. Politely end the call or make up something about a security issue and ask to speak to their manager. You have to give them a reason to escalate and shouting obscenities or industrial-grade condescension hasn't been a good enough reason for about 10 years.

Sometimes it's impossible though. I just had an issue where a L1 phone monkey refused to log a call for a super secret, super serious, super sensitive problem (I fucking hate not being able to be specific on MeFi but you now, then I'd have to kill Matthowie). I gave him the name of his vertical's director as the authoriser and he said "I have no idea who he is". to which I replied "I'm so sorry about this, because you're about to find out." You can't make someone do something over the phone. I explained the situation as best as I was allowed, I explained it's in the guy's interest to believe me but sometimes even an ape like myself can't cut through the fear and bureaucracy. So I woke up his boss' boss' boss' boss' boss (we worked it out) and dropped him in the shit. Didn't want to, tried to speak to one of his colleague's but the poor dude was determined to become famous.
posted by fullerine at 5:29 AM on January 24, 2012 [11 favorites]


...there is no end to 20, 30, and 40-somethings who are just as equally baffled by technology when it goes south for no apparent reason.

I not only 20, 30 and 40-somethings but they have advanced science and math degrees AND program computers for a living who STILL can't figure out basic issues like how to set the time and such.
posted by DU at 5:31 AM on January 24, 2012


How timely. This morning, my first act of the day was to 'Power cycle' my router.
posted by MtDewd at 5:38 AM on January 24, 2012


Fortunately the Old People some of you are making fun of are your parents, so they love you anyway, even if you are smug. (And yes, this middle-aged person jokes the same way with *her* older mother.)

But as for the Tales of IT Dept. Horror Stories some of you are relating - you should hear what some of the rest of us say about you when you're not around.

When I was unable to send a graphics file attachment to a vendor an IT guy gave me all kinds of BS excuses, then finally told me to do what he does - send it via my personal e-mail! Too bad it was one of those days where our Net access was so spotty I couldn't even open my personal e-mail.

And then there was the time a Clutter of IT guys (I think that'll be my name for it) showed up for a minor repair on my phone. And without thinking I blurted out, "It takes three of you to do this?" May not have won brownie points with them but at least it gave my boss a good laugh.
posted by NorthernLite at 5:39 AM on January 24, 2012


I decided years ago, after decades of being called upon for tech support, to just claim ignorance.

"Joe, I've got a virus! What can I do about it?"

I shrug.

"I dunno. I'm a Mac person, myself."

That's actually a lie. I'm reasonably conversant with the dark arts of Windows, having spent a couple decades stuck with business managers who don't quite understand why the tech support division only recommends PCs. There's an undercurrent of self-protection there, it seems, but we're a culture built on the conservation of momentum.

"I think there's something called Norton, if memory serves," I'll add, listlessly.

I should be more helpful, being a bit of a commie who honestly believes that those that have ought to help those that need, but a few years ago, while struggling with yet another system where the desktop is so densely covered with icons that they're all stacking up like endless piles of turtles leading to the beginning of time itself and where the email app is groaning under the weight of eleven years of email, I decided to just cast myself as a dick and be done with it.

My mother is a brilliant woman. She designed the version of the Kiwi shoe polish can used in the seventies and early eighties, she's an accomplished artist, and she ran a small business with considerable aplomb. She can't seem to grasp the difference between a search box and where you type the URL, no matter how clear it is.

"This box is where you enter the URL, or the address of a page. This one is where you enter something you want to search for."

She's not alone, not by a long shot. When Chrome came around, I did many happy dances.

I've also become a dick when it comes to advocating computers at all, particularly now that the advent of the tablet mode of computing has made it possible to do 98% of what any normal human being would want to do with a computer without operating system madness.

"What kind of computer should I get, Joe? You like Macs, right?"

Oh no, darlin', I'm not falling for that one again. Recommending the Mac switch means that you, as that rare Mac guy at the family reunion, automatically become a one-man Genius Bar, albeit without the resource of all those secret Apple diagnostic tools. I'm currently the tech support division for about eight people in my family/social circle, but I'm not looking to expand that reach.

"They're okay. Personally, I think you're better off without a computer."

"But what about surfing the web?"

"iPad."

"Don't you need a computer for that?"

"Nope. Not since iOS 5. Just set it up."

It's not that I'm lazy, or that I'm a jerk, or that I don't get some satisfaction in fixing broken things. It's that every time I end up sitting in front of someone's junked-up, bloated, spyware-encrusted despair machine, I feel as if it's somehow making me die faster. According to the year of my birth, my circumstances, and my age, I've about 32.6 years left to live, and every second I spend in someone's lopsided Walmart desk chair, trying to unravel the Gordian puzzle of which chain of random clicks has delivered them into the morass is another second in which I'm not dancing naked in the woods of Big Sur with giddy hippies. I don't dance naked in the woods of Big Sur with giddy hippies as a rule, but I could be doing that if people would just take their tools seriously enough to open a book for Dummies™, Complete Idiots™, and Gibbering Imbeciles™ or just skip the despairing well of loneliness that is Facebook and go for a nice long walk in those empty woods near the power lines. It's ever so pretty in winter, just a heathery paradise of soft grey and the sound of the half-frozen creek burbling away.

When I was a kid, I tried to convince my great aunt that she needed a computer. She had a lovely little house in Thomson, Georgia with knotty pine walls and a breezeway that took you to the garage where her perfect gargantuan Impala rested between her occasionally careening trips to the Winn-Dixie. She had roses, an enormous kitchen garden with which she got everything she ate that didn't come from a can or the slaughterhouse.

"You can balance your checkbook with a computer!" I said, in that bright, empty-headed way that we celebrated the paltry non-business uses of an Apple ][ back in 1981, never really considering that setting up eighteen hundred dollars worth of computer to do a task that took a retired woman in her seventies about twenty minutes a month with a scratch paper and an actual abacus that she'd been given in 1961. She'd run the numbers, write them into her checkbook in pencil, check them again, then carefully overwrite them in blue ink with a fountain pen, blowing on the page to dry it before gently erasing the pencil marks.

While she was visiting, I brought her to the throne of the mighty Apple, overcome with glee and with the encouragement of her genuine curiosity.

"You put a disk in here," I said, inserting a floppy into drive one, "and you turn it on like this."

BEEP! Chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk-wakiiisssh-chunk-chunk-chunk.

I brought up a program I'd typed in from a magazine, and showed her how we'd balance our checkbooks in the bold world of the future, going at the clunky keys with graceless enthusiasm and watching the figures shuffle by in green luminous lines.

"Oh my, that's wonderful. I think it's probably a little complicated, though."

"Oh no, it's easy. If you had a computer, you'd have more time to do stuff you enjoy."

I didn't grasp, and wouldn't for many years, that she only did things she enjoyed, and that her manual, simple world was actually already pretty wonderful. These days, I do my best to stave off computers, suggesting alternatives for the people who really just need a browser and email.

I'm not living by example, of course, with my knapsack packed for work this morning with a netbook, a Nook, an iPhone, an iPod Shuffle, and an iPod Touch, but I still feel like I need to take a stand for all those perfectly contented old women typing letters on a glossy black Corona Four and chase after something that's probably almost impossible at this point.

We frame our historical perspective on luddites with this sort of smug modernism, pitching them as ignoble savages sabotaging the comfortable future with their clogs, but the reality is far from our misremembered past. Sometimes, you just have to ask if the new thing will really improve our lives enough to make the new thing worth the lifetime of support. In a culture where we're all essentially accountants working at the feet of other accountants, why don't we ever do the cost-benefit analysis that might change how we make these decisions.

Will this thing be worth what it costs me?

It's a question that's not asked nearly enough.
posted by sonascope at 5:40 AM on January 24, 2012 [59 favorites]


Oh this is wonderful.

All that, and he didn't update their browser?

C'mon.


That's a totally separate (and much longer) horror story.
posted by odinsdream at 5:43 AM on January 24, 2012


I had to phone support my mother through using her new iPad to check her e-mail - which required time and patience.

The thing is, she came of age when the hot gizmo was a radio the size of a washing machine. And if my own experience is reliable, the ability to assimilate new tech eventually goes the way of hairlines and spontaneous erections.

So cut the geezers some slack. You'll join their number someday, if you're lucky.
posted by Trurl at 5:43 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


the advent of the tablet mode of computing has made it possible to do 98% of what any normal human being would want to do with a computer

Ugh. Program or be programmed. Don't recommend down to a person's current level of use. Recommend their use UP to the power of a real computer.
posted by DU at 5:45 AM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


You young punks stop whining about your parents and grandparents. You are the ones who installed a webcam and Skype for me last Christmas, and keep asking me if I have tried it yet.

No, I haven't used it yet, none of my old friends and relatives have even heard of Skype!
posted by francesca too at 5:50 AM on January 24, 2012 [7 favorites]


When I was unable to send a graphics file attachment to a vendor an IT guy gave me all kinds of BS excuses, then finally told me to do what he does - send it via my personal e-mail!

Hopefully, he lifted the 4 or 6 meg file size limit many IT depts impose on their email servers. I can't tell you how many times, in my position as the company art department, I've had files stripped from both incoming and outgoing emails because they ran-into the file size limit. There's no more "special" time spent like the hour spent begging the IT geeks to lift the limit so you can get the rush sales brochure to the vendor today.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:57 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


My
dancing naked in the woods of Big Sur with giddy hippies
is
sitting in front of someone's junked-up, bloated, spyware-encrusted despair machine, trying to unravel the Gordian puzzle of which chain of random clicks has delivered them into the morass
I sometimes choose to do L1 support because I love fixing stupid things like that.
I gave up trying to stop.
I'm basically tubgirl for spyware and lost shortcuts.
I'm so ashamed
posted by fullerine at 5:57 AM on January 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


The problem with this is that actual tech support people never ever believe you when you tell them you know what you are talking about and that won't help.

Well, the vast majority of time when they talk to customers who claim to know what they're talking about, they don't. And most people in level 1 tech support don't know how to tell the difference, or they wouldn't be in level 1 (at least not for long).

In any case, I have to deal with, i dunno, level 3 tech support now, and I just refuse to deal with tickets if they haven't gone through the whole list of things we've asked them to do before escalating it. Obviously, I'd prefer that level 1 guys only ask pertinent questions and be able to troubleshoot simple problems with their brains instead of going down a list, but that's not going to happen, so failing that, I absolutely need to know that they already every single dumb question that it's possible to ask, because there's nothing I hate more than spending an hour or so tracking down a non-existent problem on our network because they didn't check to see if the customer had their router plugged in the right way. In fact, I generally won't even do troubleshooting on customer equipment at all, I'll have level 1 dispatch a tech with a laptop, connecting directly to our modem, to verify that our connection works, and if it does, then I'm done with the ticket, and if it doesn't I'll just figure it out with the tech, because walking a customer through checking their ip, explaining the difference between a modem and a router, etc, over and over is just fucking exhausting.
posted by empath at 6:02 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


In all seriousness I'm not (quite) even 40 yet and if one of you can tell me how to get Acrobat Reader to stop asking me to update it every half hour, I'll give you a lifetime pass to my lawn.

Also, the handwritten, multipage notes my father has prepared for my mother so she can get the TV and PVR to work when he's out of town should be in the Smithsonian or something. Priceless artifacts of sociology, and/or an accidental manifesto against counterintuitive design. If only Steve Jobs had lived long enough to build a universal remote . . .
posted by gompa at 6:04 AM on January 24, 2012 [6 favorites]


Have you tried turning it on and off again?
/obligatory
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:07 AM on January 24, 2012


I can't believe I screwed that up... that would be "off and on again"
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:08 AM on January 24, 2012


In all seriousness I'm not (quite) even 40 yet and if one of you can tell me how to get Acrobat Reader to stop asking me to update it every half hour, I'll give you a lifetime pass to my lawn.

Ah, the number one skill of tech support people: Just fucking google it.
posted by empath at 6:09 AM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


You could also install foxit and get rid of the bloated adobe piece of shit.
posted by empath at 6:10 AM on January 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


I can't believe I screwed that up... that would be "off and on again"

Have you tried turning it off and throwing it away?
posted by hardcode at 6:11 AM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


1) I can't explain why, but I NEVER get tired of reading these kinds of stories, from way back in the day of "the CD tray is not a cupholder" and "you don't put the mouse on the floor an use it like a sewing machine pedal." Keep them coming, internet!

2) My stepdad is 80 and my mom is 77. I'm so glad they are proficient in the use of their computers. The only "support" I ever did was showing my stepdad the basics of web design using Dreamweaver about 10 years ago, and he promoptly dove in, set up hosting, figured out how to set up his midi keyboard so he could compose and share music on his own website. I hope in another 20 years I still want to learn new things.
posted by The Deej at 6:15 AM on January 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


Mike, we may call you the computer whisperer, your talent is called engineering intimidation...
posted by Yellow at 6:20 AM on January 24, 2012


I've told the "left handed" mouse story before.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:29 AM on January 24, 2012



My MIL is still using AOL dial up. Back in the day in the Kentucky backwater where she lives, dial up was it. But she could get a modem from the cable company and converge with us here in the 21st century. She chooses not to because she has friends on AIM.

Her desktop at the house is about 10 years old and I believe that the damn thing is held together by malware, spyware, toolbars and popups. If you somehow got rid of all that junk, all you'd have is Windows 97 and the world's largest modem.

She got a netbook that she uses on the wireless connection at her beau's house, and it too is corrupted with garbage.

I'm not even going to get into my parents's Gateway. (Look! The box looks like a cow!)
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:38 AM on January 24, 2012


This fellow will never work for the Mormons. Entirely too few instances of "and it came to pass"...
posted by falcon at 6:43 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'll happily fix any relative's computer when I am in town to visit.

Of course, I charge a 12er of Newcastle Brown. It's a win/win.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 6:47 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think the thing that invariably floats a little grey rain cloud over my head is the dogged resistance people have to learning any sort of diagnostic practice at all. A problem arises, the hands go up, and that's about it for troubleshooting, and I think that's a reaction that computers have turned from a minor thing into the baseline response for nearly every adult, because we've had twenty years of them being engineered to be cheap rather than to be good.

We have incomprehensible file systems that behave one way sometimes and another way other times, we have this network of applications and operating systems that are "updated" with the constant introduction of gimmicky new features rather than, you know—fixing the parts that don't work. Little evolutionary leftovers fill the main drive, Flash cries out for constant updates, office suites develop new ways to irritate people with B.A. degrees in English, underlining things that are perfectly fine, goddammit.

When the Jitterbug phone came around, I thought it was a perfectly wonderful device, despite the obvious opportunities for satire, because it's just a phone. It's not a game, it's not a map, it's not a record player, it's not a TV, it's not a typewriter—it's just a little thing that you use when you'd like to make a telephone call. There's a lot of snorting and hurf-durfery associated with the idea of simplicity, which is why there's not one single car on the market that has anything remotely in common with the once great people's cars of the twentieth century. We've bought into this cult of multi-tasking to the point of lumbering every device and application with a thousand functions a person will never, ever need.

Options are good, but we don't get many of those. Everything has to be all things to all people, but they don't do any of those things particularly well. When my inappropriate generalized computing platform goes awry, it's been made so absurdly complex that it's natural to feel like there's nothing at all we can do. I don't want to have to monkey with the Terminal or jigger with a batch file, for pete's sake, even if the smartest guy in Mumbai is on the phone, explaining each step. I just want simple things to work in simple ways.

I feel a bit optimistic, though, whenever we talk about the "death of the desktop" and the sort of sea change that's in progress right now, because it seems like the marketers are finally catching up with the people, so there might end up a possible universe where we can have specialized computing platforms for simple tasks and traditional ones for power users, and where the average person can actually determine which of these tools is best suited to their uses.
posted by sonascope at 7:04 AM on January 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


I love it when the oldsters talk my oldster into buying a new computer because the old one is too clogged up/worn out which is what makes it slow. They get a new computer, I come over and set up some sensible defaults, I get a new to me computer that isn't more than a year old--albeit of the Gateway/Compaq variety.

For some folks, it is better to buy a new computer every nine months than it is to learn about proper user accounts, elevating privileges only when installing something, and that every single Mahjong clone out there need not be installed on your computer. Because we've had that talk, set up stifling account restrictions with offers to come over and evaluate every proposed install, and it has been decided that it is not acceptable to not be in the driver's seat and feel the instant gratification of having PopCap drop whatever it wants all over their system.
posted by Fezboy! at 7:06 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


A good 25% of my job is telling my boss' boss how to use the OCR in Acrobat. And why it won't work very well on a copy of a copy of a copy.

On the other hand, I'm still terrified to update the OS on my iPhone or synch it with my PC. The first time I tried it erased all my apps! This is it, right? I'm officially old now.
posted by JoanArkham at 7:11 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


> Any other appliance (and, sorry, computers are appliances) that required unplugging/replugging to make it work right again would quickly be declared faulty/broken/poorly built/poorly designed, and scrapped. With computers, though, this behavior is considered normal...

Of course, computers are also more complex -- often by several orders of magnitude -- than most other appliances. Which is not to say that that gives geeks the right to be condescending or patronizing. Cars break down all the time too -- but we consider that "normal" as well, and I'm grateful whenever someone can fix mine, and I'm hopelessly lost once and if they try to explain to me what went wrong. But it's not the car's fault I don't understand it, much in the same way that it's not a computer's fault that the user doesn't understand it.
posted by a small part of the world at 7:13 AM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


>the advent of the tablet mode of computing has made it possible to do 98% of what any normal human being would want to do with a computer

Ugh. Program or be programmed. Don't recommend down to a person's current level of use. Recommend their use UP to the power of a real computer.


I'm not sure I get this. We're all programmed, whether we have the illusion of freedom on a generalized machine or the comfort of the walled garden. I recommend "down" to a person's current level of use because that way, the specialized computer can be the tool to do a job. Moving "up" is the pathway to creating more jobs for oneself, and more complexity, and more hindrances to ever completing a task. It's the same sort of thing as how labor-saving devices in the home rarely save labor, because they're not used as replacements for the original tools in practice—they're used to escalate the standards one is expected to meet.
posted by sonascope at 7:16 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


> "I recommend moving 'down'"

What some of us fear about moving "down," though, is the furtherance of a computers-as-appliances culture, in which understanding and modifying computers and their programs becomes a hieratic art rather than something everyone is free to do as they see fit.
posted by a small part of the world at 7:18 AM on January 24, 2012


If my grandma were to learn computers for real, it would in fact give her more power and more options for what to do with the computer. She hates options. She likes power, but only if someone else has to deal with the fiddly bits.

That is a pair of preferences which I do not appreciate or agree with. It might, in some sense, be bad for her as well; she might come across some challenge that she needs technical skills to solve, where at her current level of inexpertise, she cannot even describe such problems usefully. And it might well be better for society to have a certain level of computer-literacy be considered as fundamental as regular literacy, much as how the ability to drive a car is presently considered fundamental in much of the United States.

None of that makes much of a difference to her. On a practical level I'll never convince her. But supposing I could--what difference would it make? She'd be hard to train, and wouldn't have many years of life left to use those skills, and if she did encounter a situation where she needed them, it would inconvenience her until she got a person with the skills to diagnose the problem.

I'd kind of like to learn how my pharmacist does their work; I rely on medication enough that some skill with it would be useful. And yet, as long as I can get the assistance of a good pharmacist, I don't need to. It's not a high priority.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:26 AM on January 24, 2012


I recommend an iPad for parents who can't use a computer. My mom is terrified of her computer and instantly forgets anything I show her. I handed her my iPad, though, and she started clicking into everything without any concern whatsoever. When iPad III comes out she's getting my old one and I'm throwing her PC out the frigging window.
posted by Huck500 at 7:26 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you're trying to promote computer-literacy, teach people who want to learn it, and who might teach it to others.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:27 AM on January 24, 2012


Cars break down all the time too -- but we consider that "normal" as well...

Fact is, cars don't break down nearly as often as they used to. The manufacturers have worked hard to make even the cheapest car far more reliable than even the most expensive cars of years ago. And, when one does break down, it's hardly considered normal. It's considered an aberration.

Computer makers, otoh, seem mostly disinterested in such improvement in reliability and these age-old problems remain despite decades of complaints. But, hey, you an install this neat new toolbar!

Ironically, when one of today's cars happens to break-down, the culprit is, quite often...the computer.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:27 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


What some of us fear about moving "down," though, is the furtherance of a computers-as-appliances culture, in which understanding and modifying computers and their programs becomes a hieratic art rather than something everyone is free to do as they see fit.

So what? I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm a professional developer who loves introducing people to the joys of programming (aka "dude python is awesome.") But why should everyone have to know how to modify and program a computer? Why is that a Universal Skill? I sure as hell don't know much about my car, because it mostly just runs, I take it to a pro who makes sure it mostly just runs, and that's that. I could learn a lot more about my car, but I have Other Things To Do with life. My sister knows very little about computers; she spends her time and energy learning about the functions and growth of children's brains. Pretty important stuff! But why should it have anything to do with modifying computers or writing code, beyond the stats stuff she actually uses? My uncle's an architect. He can design a building that will not fall down. Which is pretty damn cool. But other than his specialized CAD skills, he knows barely a damn thing about computers. Why should he? What possible advantage would that give him? He has lots of other things to do than modifying his software.

Expecting or desiring everyone to "understand and modify computers and their programs" is absurd. The whole point of modern civilization is that not everyone has to know everything. Computers are the only thing we use commonly that crash and fail on us all the fucking time, and - speaking as a member of the community that makes the damn things - that is a fucking travesty and we should fix it, so that more of us can get on with life.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:30 AM on January 24, 2012 [7 favorites]


Yeah, this aint an "old person" thing. I'm 40. Every time I go to my parents' place, I have to fix something for them. But similarly, I have several friends in their 20s who rely on my technical support. I recently had to advise a 28 year old friend that yes, her $800 smartphone could actually connect to the internets! My next task will be getting it connected to her home wireless network.

"connected generation", my arse
posted by Diag at 7:32 AM on January 24, 2012


I recommend "down" to a person's current level of use because that way, the specialized computer can be the tool to do a job. Moving "up" is the pathway to creating more jobs for oneself, and more complexity, and more hindrances to ever completing a task.

Wha? How is 3 dozen specialized computers as tools for particular jobs less complex and hindering than one computer to do those same jobs and more? This is especially the case when, when you have the freedom and knowledge to use your computer as you want, many of those jobs collapse into one (i.e. a lot of the "specialization" of computers is really just deliberate incompatibility created for market lock-in).
posted by DU at 7:51 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


But why should everyone have to know how to modify and program a computer? Why is that a Universal Skill? I sure as hell don't know much about my car, because it mostly just runs, I take it to a pro who makes sure it mostly just runs, and that's that.

Because your workplace, government, economy and media aren't being run on cars.
posted by DU at 7:52 AM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


I complain about my father and not my younger sister not because she is even vaguely competent (I am not sure she understands the concept of search) but because I don't feel the need to help her.
posted by jeather at 7:52 AM on January 24, 2012


The whole point of modern civilization is that not everyone has to know everything.

Which is why we have a small dedicated group of people devoted to knowing the non-critical skills of reading and writing. Why does a mechanic need that stuff?
posted by DU at 7:55 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


On the other hand, I'm still terrified to update the OS on my iPhone or synch it with my PC. The first time I tried it erased all my apps! This is it, right? I'm officially old now.

Nah, that's a perfectly healthy paranoia to have in the face of iStuff's predilection for wiping their storage whenever confronted with an unexpected computer.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 7:56 AM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also, the handwritten, multipage notes my father has prepared for my mother so she can get the TV and PVR to work when he's out of town should be in the Smithsonian or something. Priceless artifacts of sociology, and/or an accidental manifesto against counterintuitive design. If only Steve Jobs had lived long enough to build a universal remote . . .

The Harmony remotes are kinda spendy, but totally worth it for this kind of thing. Of course, somebody has to program the remote. And programming the remote requires creating an account w/ Logitech's online software. Which makes for an interesting experience when you try to program the new remote your parents bought to replace the broken one and discover the broken one was programmed by a Geek Squad tech who didn't tell your parents the ID/password he used to set it up.

posted by cnelson at 8:02 AM on January 24, 2012


Which is why we have a small dedicated group of people devoted to knowing the non-critical skills of reading and writing. Why does a mechanic need that stuff?

Right, because everyone needs to read and write, everyone also needs to know the osi seven layer model and how to field strip an m-16
posted by empath at 8:07 AM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Sarcasm and deliberate distortions aside, yes.
posted by DU at 8:14 AM on January 24, 2012


I feel like computers, generally, are at that stage where cars had manual chokes and carbs and hobbyists would get into boring and stroking and slapping on some Edelbrock 4-barrels and a racing cam and oooooowhheeeee....

Meanwhile, most people just want the thing to freaking work so they're not late to work AGAIN why the hell won't this thing start I just had it tuned up a few months ago and oh God I think I just flooded it.

Normal people got shit to do and, maybe in another couple of decades, won't have to fetishize computers to get it done.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 8:15 AM on January 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


Because your workplace, government, economy and media aren't being run on cars.

You're fooling yourself.
posted by gauche at 8:16 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


So my Mom's brand new computer starts throwing an error after a week getting email.

It's not user error. It's a protocol error, it's some obscure incompatibility in IMAP between Microsoft and Google. It's barely even diagnosable, some message or header that arrived at gmail triggered it.

What the whole "make them learn computers" philosophy ignores, among other things, is that a substantial percentage of the issues with computers today are nothing more than loose ends left by and shoddy work produced by the industry. The idea that any one should spend money on these products in order to educate themselves rather than buy the product that works is ludicrous.

Another part of the "make them learn computers" philosophy is the idea that, lo, what a coincidence, that thing that I happen to know and be interested in, turns out to be the most important field of human knowledge, the essential component of the valuable human. The arrogance is transparent and pathetic.

Perhaps the fact that she's retired is important, but the idea that my Mom needs to learn more about computers is a joke.
posted by Wood at 8:21 AM on January 24, 2012 [7 favorites]


My life basically depends on my car working, and yet i've never changed the oil myself, couldn't tell you the difference between a carburetor and and alternator, and only have the vaguest idea of how the internal combustion engine or an automatic transmission works.
posted by empath at 8:21 AM on January 24, 2012


Which is why we have a small dedicated group of people devoted to knowing the non-critical skills of reading and writing.

Well, yes. Actually, that's the other 75% of my job.
posted by JoanArkham at 8:28 AM on January 24, 2012


> lo, what a coincidence, that thing that I happen to know and be interested in, turns out to be the most important field of human knowledge, the essential component of the valuable human. The arrogance is transparent and pathetic.

I'm not an IT professional, I have no formal training in IT, and I certainly don't think Grandma should either. Nor do I see anything silly or benighted in wanting a consumer product that "just works." What does worry, me, though, is that "just works" products often lead to walled-garden ecosystems in which one is locked in, and dependent on the good will of largely unaccountable corporate or institutional entities for help.

Being in favor of freedom for the end-user does not mean that I'm in favor of mandatory IT re-education for the unwashed masses. I'm not sneering at anybody. I'm just honestly worried about the decline of general-purpose computing.
posted by a small part of the world at 8:29 AM on January 24, 2012


What bothers me isn't the "civilians" who really just don't know any better, it's the "techies" who do, and who use that information to take advantage. It's one thing to be paid an honest wage, it's quite another to charge $200 per file for a format conversion that takes 30 seconds. True story:

A while back I was hired by the director of a children's theater in another state to produce some backing tracks for a stage production. We worked out the details and I delivered the audio files to her a few weeks later. She had told me she was on a tight deadline because their new website was being built and she wanted to add audio samples to one of the site pages.

So I sent the files to her and she said they all sounded great, good job, thanks for all your work, etc. I moved on, didn't hear from her for two weeks. I went on vacation. The second morning of my vaction trip while I was checking into a hotel room I decided to look at me email on my phone. The director from the theater had emailed me with an urgent request for help.

The basic gist was that I had sent the audio to her in an Apple lossless format (.m4a), which had worked fine for her because she was also a Mac user. Normally I always remember to bounce my files to .wav but for some reason I had forgotten and of course she didn't notice because she didn't have any knowledge of formats to begin with.

The problem was that when she had sent the files to her "web developer" he told her he couldn't use them because of the format, and he would charge her $200 per song to change them over to a format he could use. She emailed me, desperate to get me to email her the tracks in a usable format for this useless developer, but I was out of town and didn't have access to the files.

I felt terrible about this oversight, so I emailed and said "I can't do this right now, but if you google '.m4a to .mp3 mac' I bet you'll be able to do it." She emailed me back an hour later, having been able to find the right tools and convert all the songs based on that simple google search...it had only taken her twenty minutes to do the whole thing and it ended up saving her $2000. She was ecstatic.

Curious about what kind of website a developer charging those kinds of rates might build, I asked her for the URL and checked it out myself. It looked like the afterbirth of a geocities-angelfire orgy. I advised her to finish the contract with the guy and never hire him again.

Christ, what an asshole.
posted by Doleful Creature at 8:33 AM on January 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


I wish my immediately younger generation would learn some skillz, but they have grown accustomed to their middle-aged mother's whiz-bang in-house tech support.

Really, you just can't tell. I am the tech support for my entire family of origin too and I am probably the same age as some of your mothers. Never had a job in IT either, just awesome powers of deduction. But I can't fix bikes. I am grateful that the brother that has set up a bike repair shop in his basement also has constant computer issues (or as he says "My lovely wife has a Master's Degree from the University Chicago, but will say yes to any question that pops up on a computer screen"). I will get a text that says "Your bikes need anything?" and they always do as I am one clumsy fool and we swap our specialties.
posted by readery at 8:34 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Lots of people are worried about corporations and institutions, that's why some people make their own guns and grow their own food... pick your battles, she's a better gardener than sysadmin.
posted by Wood at 8:35 AM on January 24, 2012


What the whole "make them learn computers" philosophy ignores, among other things, is that a substantial percentage of the issues with computers today are nothing more than loose ends left by and shoddy work produced by the industry.

The main reason that people like me are needed to troubleshoot stuff for people who 'don't know computers' isn't that they don't know how computers work, but that either they don't have basic problem solving skills and the ability to use google, or they just don't have the time to figure it out, or don't want to be bothered.

What 'knowing computers' really helps you do, instead of helping you to fix stuff, it helps you A) know what computers are capable of and B) know how to use them to engineer solutions.

But the ipad and iphone ecosystem, in general, is really good at providing both of those things for you without you having to roll your own solutions.
posted by empath at 8:37 AM on January 24, 2012


they don't have basic problem solving skills

I'd love to take a get-off-my-lawn approach to this, but unfortunately this seems to be a trans-generational issue. I work at a software development firm with very high standards for hiring, and it amazes me how many folks I work with still lack basic critical thinking skills. Some of them even have Ivy-league credentials and couldn't think their way out of a paper bag.

It's not about tech know-how, it's about know how to ask useful questions. Why is this so hard to do?
posted by Doleful Creature at 8:42 AM on January 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


Wha? How is 3 dozen specialized computers as tools for particular jobs less complex and hindering than one computer to do those same jobs and more?

In this case, I would make the parallel between my Leatherman Wave and my toolbox. I can do many jobs with a nice generalized multitool, but it is not a tool that would be particularly useful if I wanted to replace the cruciform selector on my scooter. Specialized tools are almost always better at the task for which they're designed than one-size-fits-all tools. When you're on the side of the road fixing something, the Leatherman rocks, but when you want to open an engine case without rounding all the nuts, you use a socket set.

In a musical computing context, I use an instrument called a Nord Modular in my live performance work. It's a very specific DSP-based computing platform that does just one thing, but does it flawlessly, and for a musician, without crashes or glitches or weird housekeeping issues. I could use something special and amazing and wonderful like Reaktor on a desktop or laptop machine, but you couldn't pay me to depend on it live, because it has all the baggage of an OS, of a file system, of all sorts of little side processes, and there's nothing quite as humiliating as having your laptop fail mid-way through an intricate spoken word and music piece, leaving you to essentially freestyle while the computer goes "screeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!"

The nice thing, though, is that better specialized computers doesn't mean less generalized or modular ones. The explosive growth of Arduino lets computer wonks go hog wild at the same time that you can have a brilliant constrained system like Animoog running on an iDevice and produce glorious music without having to care about interrupt cycles. The market is getting bigger, not smaller.
posted by sonascope at 8:58 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


The number one thing that will help you fix computer problems, including most of the computer questions people ask about on ask metafilter is just breaking down a big problem into small parts, and then ruling out each part in turn.

Say your problem is "I can't get to the internet":

There's like 50 or 100 different reasons that might be the case. Where do you start?

Did you change anything recently? Try undoing the last thing you did.

Well, try a different computer if you have one.

Try plugging in without using wireless.

Try pulling out your router and connecting directly to your modem.

Try a different network cable.

And so on. Every step you take eliminates potential causes, until you're left with the only thing that could be the problem.

You don't really need to know that much about computers to figure this stuff out, really. It's basically the exact same process that a car mechanic would use, or even a plumber.
posted by empath at 9:02 AM on January 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'd love to take a get-off-my-lawn approach to this, but unfortunately this seems to be a trans-generational issue. I work at a software development firm with very high standards for hiring, and it amazes me how many folks I work with still lack basic critical thinking skills. Some of them even have Ivy-league credentials and couldn't think their way out of a paper bag.

Problem solving is not always taught well. Think of all the complaining you hear when people say 'I don't get word problems, I hate word problems." (Referring to math exercises) These are very simple problem solving applications, yet somehow, they just don't stick to a certain portion of the population. Unfortunately, this continues on throughout life. Good troubleshooting and problem solving skills are rare, and seem to be self-taught by the proportion of the population that does possess them.
posted by defcom1 at 9:04 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


@Thorzdad: Computer makers, otoh, seem mostly disinterested in such improvement in reliability and these age-old problems remain despite decades of complaints. But, hey, you an install this neat new toolbar!

Computer makers, for the most part, don't write operating systems. OS programmers, for the most part, do not create browser toolbars. Blaming the computer manufacturers for instabilities in the most-commonly-used OS and/or brought about by the most-commonly-installed browser toolbars is a bit like complaining to Dodge because your tires have gone flat.
posted by hanov3r at 9:09 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


My heroic IT story: I once got my mom to add some entries to the .host file on her Windows box, because her gmail access was getting really slow and unusable. She lives in Shanghai and I'm in the States, so I had to walk her through the steps over the phone, with her reporting what the interface options there were in Chinese. When that restored gmail for her, I was prouder of my mom and I more than I can adequately express.
posted by of strange foe at 9:23 AM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


The main reason that people like me are needed to troubleshoot stuff for people who 'don't know computers' isn't that they don't know how computers work, but that either they don't have basic problem solving skills and the ability to use google, or they just don't have the time to figure it out, or don't want to be bothered.

What 'knowing computers' really helps you do, instead of helping you to fix stuff, it helps you A) know what computers are capable of and B) know how to use them to engineer solutions.


This is what I disagree with 100% (or 60%.) It's certainly true to an extent, but I think it ignores the extent to which computer troubles don't require basic problem solving skills but instead rely on arcane knowledge of what are essentially the errors and shortcomings of the industry.

In my experience of helping someone set up a new computer for a few hours I see many many things that I know how to do because I've been doing this for many years but that simply do not make sense.

The terminology and description of security is arcane and cryptic. There shouldn't be security options, there should only be secure. Disagree? Well, keep your "general purpose computer" but the computer that does less and removes options that are marginal will keep selling. The symbols and colors that we use to denote important concepts like, this site is secure, this one is sort of secure but it's been signed by so and so, this one is pretty secure but your password isn't secure that first time, this wireless link is secureish, you're backed up, but what exactly? Is it just "my" files or can I get back to precisely where I was before my disk crashed? There will be time enough to figure that out afterwards...
posted by Wood at 9:36 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


An anti-hero tech support call. Once, I was on the phone with tech support with HP. Our workgroup Laserjet 4 was nearly always pulling two or three sheets of paper for every sheet printed, and we wanted it to stop.

The HP guy initially claimed it was because I was in Minneapolis, which is known to be humid. Yes, but I was in an air conditioned building, so that didn't make sense. He supposedly was "checking with the next level of support", so I was supposedly on hold.

My boss asked me to come into his office for a meeting, and I said "I'm sorry, I'll be in for the meeting as soon as I'm off hold with this dumbass tech support guy."

The tech support guy was simply playing possum. He was listening, and then (amazingly, foolishly) he looked up the records for our equipment, found the email for my boss, and wrote an email condemning me for daring to call him a dumbass. My boss and I had a good long laugh about that. I miss that boss.
posted by Invoke at 9:37 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


mosk: We have a corollary in our family: One does not introduce New Technology to our parents unless one also agrees to personally support said Technology. It's a good rule.

A"good" rule? It's the only rule!
posted by wenestvedt at 9:43 AM on January 24, 2012


Things I can't do that at least one of my parents can: So, I cut them a break when I have to come over there and explain how to change the font in Word.
posted by desjardins at 9:45 AM on January 24, 2012 [17 favorites]


There shouldn't be security options, there should only be secure

Would that it were so easy.
posted by a small part of the world at 9:45 AM on January 24, 2012


I didn't even think about the implication that the people in the post were ignorant because they were old, because the people who ask me for help are of all ages.

Maybe it's just paranoia, but I don't understand why people want to use the computer and not learn even small things about it. It's not a question of people who don't know how to open the cmd window and do a ping to validate they're connected to the network- it's people who apparently think that the help file in any program will explode their computer if they open it.

It is too easy to be taken advantage of if you depend for everything on other people. That's why I understand the basic of how cars in general work and mine in particular, because I can't count the number of times that it was only by demonstrating to the mechanic that I KNEW he was full of bullshit that I've avoided huge repair bills on non-existent systems. (this becomes less possible with proprietary computer systems that run the car, although you can look up the error codes yourself with most of it if you buy the factory service manual so as to avoid ludicrous lies.)

But people don't want to bother reading the help file when they can just come over to my desk and whine until I make the bad excel file do what it should.
posted by winna at 10:04 AM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


Computer makers, otoh, seem mostly disinterested in such improvement in reliability

Well, I'm not sure that "computer makers" really have that much influence. Apple might, I suppose, but the other manufacturers really don't drive the market. They're just desperately trying to produce whatever the hell they think people want to buy.

And users, by and large, have not been interested in purchasing reliability. Reliability isn't how computers are sold (except in certain industrial or commercial applications); features are.

This is very different from cars, where reliability really is a defining feature, and something that people will base their purchasing decision on. (Much to the chagrin of domestic manufacturers when they missed this particular boat.) I know quite a few people who have a certain make of car because it comes with an absurdly long warranty. And it makes sense -- the car is critical to their personal and economic existence as an adult person in their sub/exurban community, so they damn well want one that's not going to break down and leave them a practical cripple.

You could easily say the same thing about a computer, but I think we're just not at the point yet where enough people realize just how essential they are. It took several generations for automobiles to become so critical to society that they started being sold with 10-year warranties; my expectation is that computer equipment will eventually become like that. (It probably has to hit something of a technology plateau first, where it's not becoming obsolete so fast.)

My prediction is that as the pace of features slows, and using a computer (of some sort or form) becomes increasingly critical to being an adult in our society, they will become more reliable. Actually, it's sort of already happening: as "computers" absorb other devices, like telephones and televisions, they've become less flexible, but in the process become more reliable. The embedded system running on a new HDTV is effectively a full computer, but it's locked-down so hard that you can't easily louse it up with spyware or search bars. Same with the little box that provides Vonage telephone service. As 'computers' are pushed into more essential roles, where failure isn't as acceptable as it is for a desktop, they magically become more reliable -- but do so at the expense of flexibility and features.

Right, because everyone needs to read and write, everyone also needs to know the osi seven layer model and how to field strip an m-16

Well you're sort of begging the question, which is about what skills are necessary for every adult in our society to have, and which can safely be left to a small minority of specialists.

You can easily find historical examples of societies where reading and writing were left to specialists (scribes or monks), but where most everyone would have had some sort of basic skill with weapons, because that was considered essential. Today the situation is basically vice versa, but there's no reason why the set of "essential skills" should or will remain constant. A century ago, being able to drive wasn't nearly as essential as it currently is, and there were places where riding a horse probably still was.

In an increasingly technology-dependent society, it's not difficult to imagine that some sort of basic computer literacy, or better yet, computer-troubleshooting ability, might become regarded as an essential skill -- at least at the level that, say, being able to change a lightbulb without electrocuting oneself currently is.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:11 AM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


This is what I disagree with 100% (or 60%.) It's certainly true to an extent, but I think it ignores the extent to which computer troubles don't require basic problem solving skills but instead rely on arcane knowledge of what are essentially the errors and shortcomings of the industry.

In my experience of helping someone set up a new computer for a few hours I see many many things that I know how to do because I've been doing this for many years but that simply do not make sense.


Oh, believe me, I know. You should try using the bullshit java interfaces I have to deal with for some of our routers and servers.

But experience like that just lets you solve problems faster the second time you see them. It doesn't let you solve a new problem that you're presented with for the first time. And I run into people a lot who only can solve problems that way, and they have kind of a cargo cult mentality of just trying stuff that worked before without having any idea about why it worked or what it could possibly apply to what they're trying to fix.
posted by empath at 10:11 AM on January 24, 2012


My boss asked me to come into his office for a meeting, and I said "I'm sorry, I'll be in for the meeting as soon as I'm off hold with this dumbass tech support guy."

The worst thing I ever did while I was on tech support was accidentally put a guy on speaker instead of on hold and said something like this to a coworker, "Oh my god, this is the most frustrating goddamned customer I've ever had to work with."

I felt so bad after I noticed what I had done, because he was actually a really nice, patient guy, but it was impossible to get him to understand the most simple tasks, an after an hour of it, I couldn't take it any more.
posted by empath at 10:16 AM on January 24, 2012


Computer makers, for the most part, don't write operating systems. OS programmers, for the most part, do not create browser toolbars. Blaming the computer manufacturers for instabilities in the most-commonly-used OS and/or brought about by the most-commonly-installed browser toolbars is a bit like complaining to Dodge because your tires have gone flat.

You describe a world where each discrete part of the system never communicates with the other parts. Baloney. Dell talks to Microsoft. They both talk to Intel. 3rd-party software makers talk to the OS maker. And on and on and on. You talk as if none of them are aware of the effects the others have on each others products, or have any influence on the others products. They completely understand the symbiotic relationship they're in, yet choose not to do anything beyond maintain the craptastic status-quo.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:21 AM on January 24, 2012


There's no incentive in the windows ecosystem for them to cooperate to make a better user experience. That's why Apple's model works.
posted by empath at 10:33 AM on January 24, 2012


If there were so much communication and cooperation between different vendors, Thorzdad, then presumably the status quo wouldn't be so "craptastic"? I just don't think that the incentives for smooth, better-for-everyone cooperation are there. I'm no fan of Microsoft or Dell,* but I don't think that they've secretly entered into a cartel of mutually-assured incompetence.

*or of Apple, for that matter, but empath's right that their ecosystem succeeds where others have failed
posted by a small part of the world at 10:38 AM on January 24, 2012


Hopefully, he lifted the 4 or 6 meg file size limit many IT depts impose on their email servers. I can't tell you how many times, in my position as the company art department,

Art department? Then you’ll appreciate this – they took the duties of overseeing the website from me and others with experience in marketing communications people and gave it to the IT folks. And just like some people don't know much about computers? Well, turns out some tech guys don't know a lot about marketing communications, writing or design. (I KNOW!)

So now, in turn, IT is just telling each department to be in charge of their own webpages. After the people in my department had worked to bring the website up to a certain standard of brand ID, coordinated look on different areas, constantly updated content, etc., you can imagine how quickly it's devolving.
posted by NorthernLite at 10:38 AM on January 24, 2012


I just got off the phone with someone who found ALL HIS DOCUMENTS GONE from his work computer. All of them. He assumed the computer itself had been replaced without his knowledge over the summer.

He called up, asked for help, and somehow missed all of our followup emails. Apparently, he's just been living with it for that past 6 months. What actually happened is that the system got transferred to Active Directory and somehow missed his account, his data's just fine. "... yeah, it would be nice to have all my bookmarks back."

I almost prefer when people call up and yell when we haven't fixed things for them.
posted by BungaDunga at 10:54 AM on January 24, 2012


Oh, best troubleshooting story:

"When I click on an email in Mail.app, sometimes it goes to a fullscreen view and not a split-screen view, and I want the split screen view!"

*cue ruling out any software issues short of nuking Mail.app entirely*

"WAIT. Try a different mouse."

"Hey it works!"

Turns out, his mouse was old and not properly de-bouncing, so it double-clicked occasionally, at random. Guess what a double click does in Mail!
posted by BungaDunga at 11:18 AM on January 24, 2012


Yeah, yeah, yeah . . .

I know we are all proud of ourselves to talk about how we all understand computers and go on about our prowess with browsers and search bars and malware and all.

But I notice that none of us are willing to broach the subject of the article - routers. and that's because we know that routers aren't like other computer problems. Routers are magic.

And not good Glina/Wendy magic, but bad magic. JuJu, rotting-loam magic. The article lies --unplugging and restarting will not work -- or worse, it might work, but only for ten minutes. Then its out again. The only thing that can possibly fix a router problems is to throw the router away and buy a new one. But not today. Because today is a day of router problems and anything you do today will only make things worse.
posted by rtimmel at 11:23 AM on January 24, 2012 [9 favorites]


Just bend over and fiddle fiddle and voila! you can buy me lunch!

I had a job like that once but it all ended when I caught the clap.
posted by Foam Pants at 11:26 AM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


But I notice that none of us are willing to broach the subject of the article - routers. and that's because we know that routers aren't like other computer problems. Routers are magic.

I do routers for a living, and I can confirm this is true. And switches are even worse.

Try troubleshooting spanning tree problems on a metro ethernet network with 4 different hardware manufacturers involved.
posted by empath at 11:36 AM on January 24, 2012


But I notice that none of us are willing to broach the subject of the article - routers. and that's because we know that routers aren't like other computer problems. Routers are magic.

The saddest error message I get at home is 'please contact your network administrator'.
posted by winna at 11:53 AM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Fortunately, I live with a network engineer! I pay him in grilled cheese sandwiches.
posted by desjardins at 11:55 AM on January 24, 2012 [5 favorites]



Heh, computers.

Couple years back had an nforce 3 motherboard, 2005 vintage. Real piece of rubbish. While trying to fix a persistent lockup bug I flashed my own BIOS and bricked it.

Rather than take this as a harsh lesson and move on with my life, I launched into an obsessive research program trying to find out whether it was fixable and if so how.

Established over a week of searching that there was a reset function, but that it wouldn't work because I'd already tried to use it or some other bullshit reason.

Then, sleepless at 3.00 in the morning in an incense and absinthe shrouded haze I stumbled onto a distant corner of the internet where the imaps no longer worked and the stars were strange.

There a madman accosted me, babbling of manual reset procedures and earth pins. I swallowed his dark wisdom, though it brought me nothing but pain, and reached with quivering hands for my thrice shrived needle.

The necessary sacrifices complete, I jammed the wire into the very innards of my cold machine, searching for the points of contact that would spark it to dark, sputtering life. I will not speak of the promises and exhortations I breathed into its silicon corpus, for they are of a sort that would echo strangely in daylight ears.

But whether as a result of them, or perhaps the intercession of the blasphemous entities I glimpsed in those distant corners of the Net, enshrouded in obscene and nameless protocols ... the whir, and beep, and blessed phosphors of the POST were mine once more.

Yet know this... they seem things of calmness and certainty, these magic boxes with which we power our windows onto the halfworld. But there are those out there which are as far beyond our feeble sureties as the sky from the sea.

Since I fixed it, at night I sometimes hear my computer start up by itself, in the cold room at the far end of the house.

I never go to see why it has awoken.

Instead I lie there, eyes unblinking, staring into the comforting dark.
posted by Sebmojo at 12:18 PM on January 24, 2012 [21 favorites]


I've often said, every IT guy trading hilarious "cancel google" stories about "easy" things they had to fix for people, there's a doctor, or a mechanic, or an electrician (or etc.) who thinks they're a drooling simpleton for the same reasons.

I work in IT myself, I know I'm not House.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 12:35 PM on January 24, 2012


, that doesn't work with L1 tech support. You have to go through their freaking script. [...] I go to great lengths to avoid having to ever talk to any L1 techs anywhere, for any reason.

This was one of the up-sides of my last ex -- he worked in IT at Bloomberg.com's corporate offices for ten years. So while we were dating, whenever I had computer issues and had to call tech support, I'd have him next to me on standby, and when I got someone on the line I'd say "Hi, my name is [blah] and my account is [blah], and now I'm going to hand you to my associate." And then I'd hand him the phone and he'd say something like, "hi -- okay, we tried a cold reboot, we tried a power recycle, I can pull up the cmd prompt and ping things like Google and the response rate is 8.5 seconds,, and the router setting is [blah] but we still can't get the display and the baud rate is showing as...." Basically, he knew all the buzzwords to drop that would let the L1 people know "oh, wait, this is someone who knows what they're talking about," and they would either dump the script or escalate immediatley.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:46 PM on January 24, 2012


Shibboleet
posted by empath at 12:52 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


BitterOldPunk: "But when your washing machine freezes up, who fixes it, huh? DAD does, that's who. Because Dad knows that a washing machine has a transmission and a drive belt and a pump pulley and God knows what else, and he bought the tool that's made for fixing it from a guy who knows a guy who used to work at Whirlpool just in case this ever happened and it's been hanging on a pegboard in the garage for fifteen years and while he's here would you get that damn map thing in the car to work? It's driving your mother crazy."

Actually, the last time our washer went on the fritz it was electrical, not mechanical - a $500 controller board that went out, and only the fact that an equivalent new washer was $800 kept us from flat replacing the entire thing. Repair guy said there were 3 such boards in the machine, one of the three was out, but the service codes didn't tell him which one. He said the company (Whirlpool, actually) didn't give out accurate info to 3rd-party repair guys like him, ans suspected they intentionally overpriced their replacement parts to push consumers to buy rather than fix. But he worked his ass off on the thing, and between him and I we managed to make it go again. Took multiple visits. He only charged us for the first visit, and he still isn't sure that the board he replaced is the right one (as it flaked out once or twice since), but he has the second board on hand and our original just in case.

In any case if your washer electronics go out anywhere in the Twin Cities area, and your dad can't fix it, call me, 'cause I know a guy who does good, honest work for cheap (and no extra charge for weekends!).
posted by caution live frogs at 1:20 PM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


Try troubleshooting spanning tree problems on a metro ethernet network with 4 different hardware manufacturers involved.

That's the kind of thing where if "...OR DEATH" is the other option, you have to sit down and give it a good think.
posted by elizardbits at 1:25 PM on January 24, 2012


My in-laws have internet access when they are in Texas for the winters. They generally throw the old laptop I gave them into a bag and don't touch it all summer when they come back north. Which means I have 4-5 months to get it updated, working, cleaned up, and try to show them how to use it, at a time when they are close enough for me to see it BUT not at a time when they are actually actively using it, so they are really either not paying attention to what I tell them or haven't done it enough times to understand what they need to do.

So to make it easier when they hit Texas this year I installed TeamViewer, so that I could see their screen. Except it didn't work because after three hours on the phone I was able to figure out pretty conclusively that my father-in-laws lax habits about what sites were "safe" to visit online had gotten the computer so infected with something that I told them buy a new one, I gave up.

They bought a new one. Which really surprised me. No more fiddling with external webcam, no more 2 minute battery life, no more flaky half-broken mousepad. Unfortunately, new OS (they went from XP to 7), new browser (I had them on Firefox), no other software set up or anything. They couldn't get to Gmail. (Apparently Bing is such a godawful search engine that searching for Gmail and clicking the top link doesn't take you to Gmail. WTF. And if you type in the address bar in a default IE install, it SEARCHES rather than going to the address you just typed in? More WTF!!!) I literally had to put a link on my personal website (which they could find by googling me) that had a direct link to Gmail for them. I also added a link to a ninite installer, and talked a friend of theirs through running it to get their Firefox back, get Thunderbird set up to access mail more easily, and get Skype up and working in time for Christmas videos of the grandkid.

70% of the time the computer works for them, but it still requires a call to me almost every damned time they want to do anything other than read the news or check mail (and I have to tell my mother-in-law every freaking time to turn on Skype video, she gets so excited she can see us that she forgets we can't see her). Still can't get things completely set though because the router at their retirement community is screwed up and won't let the Windows 7 screen sharing app through. I didn't try to get them working with TeamViewer yet.

I will be happy to see them again in the spring, but am not really looking forward to the mess of recovering their old data from the dead computer. But I am definitely going to install a massive hosts file on the new one, and remove admin privileges from their user account. That should help a little.
posted by caution live frogs at 1:52 PM on January 24, 2012


I've seen that too, CheeseDigestsAll. Just today I was installing a printer driver for my mom and noticed in the search box of Firefox she had typed "gmail.com". That must be how she gets to every site, by googling the URL.

This drives me a little crazy, but on reflection I think it's sort of smart and secure. If you're not the world's best typist you are ensuring you don't end up at a spoofed domain like gmal.com since Google will be smart enough to give you the right result.
posted by idb at 2:18 PM on January 24, 2012


Years of being unpaid tech support for my family have basically forced me to be kinda a hardass about supporting family computers.

1) I won't labor endlessly on out of date hardware/software when the replacement value of a desktop or laptop is less than my time is worth.

2) I'm not going to give lessons beyond a pretty simple level of complexity, my time is valuable and honestly giving computer literacy lessons to people is one of my least favorite tasks.

3) I don't care if you have 10 years worth of email/pictures backed up on your hard drive I'm not going to sift through your harddrive to find and move them over.

4) Obvious self-inflicted harm such as visiting sites with browser hijackers and other really bad malware is going to cause me to roll my eyes. I'll give it a best effort but if it looks really bad I'll say rebuild or replace.

Basically if the organization that pays my salary goes with a triage policy and forces departments to replace shitty obsolete hardware I'm not going to support old crap for free just because of blood relations.
posted by vuron at 2:29 PM on January 24, 2012


My girlfriend got a fancy Keurig coffee maker for her birthday last year. Sometimes it won't work unless you unplug it and plug it back in again.

Life has gotten too complicated when you need to reboot your coffee machine on a regular basis.
posted by and for no one at 2:57 PM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


I was (owner, admin, and all the levels above "level 1" tech support) a small, rural ISP from 1996 to 2007, when our area got reliable and prevalent dsl/cable (yeah, I know. I said "small" and "rural", didn't I?) that pretty much killed the dialup market. Oh, I have stories. Mostly, the pain has faded -- it's been a while since I did any tech support, but back in 2008, I built a computer to replace a friend's battered Win98 box, an event which caused me to meditate (and write) about users and their computers...

I am not building a lamb for the slaughter, here. They've had lambs before. They like lambs, how soft and fuzzy and appealing they are. They enjoy the kind and gentle nature of lambs and the endearing way that they butt at you for the bottle. They marvel at the bleats, the lack of upper front teeth, the doglike tails that get docked, the texture of the lamb's wool, and the earthy smell of lanolin. They're big fans of lambs, so they get a lamb because LAMBS 'R' GREAT!!1!! They listen to more experienced farmers about the care and feeding and capabilities of lambs and they nod reassuringly. They'll take care of their new lamb because LAMBS 'R' GREAT!!1!! D'oh.

Then they take their new lamb and tie it to the bumper of their truck. They DRIVE OFF. At first, the lamb walks behind the truck. It's not so bad -- the lamb knows how to lead and the truck starts out slow. However, the people driving, they run through the gears and the truck speeds up and right quickly the lamb has to start trotting along and then it's running and running and running and the rope gets tight around the lamb's neck because it can't keep up. Before the truck gets up to speed, the lamb is taking really, really big strides, kind of flying through the air in a desperate attempt to not-die. At this point even the slow-of-thinking know it's not going to end well but the people in the truck are oblivious and keep on tooling down the Information Superhighway. (Click the banner ad! Hit the monkey! Win A Prize!!) All of a sudden, the lamb stumbles and becomes a red ball on the highway, bouncing along squishily after the truck.

Oops.

See, that's precisely what happens to lambs in the care of these people. They see nothing wrong with this state of affairs. They've had several previous lambs and the same thing has happened to each one. Things go okay at the beginning but get weirder and weirder and all of a sudden, they've got a red ball on the highway and absolutely no idea where their f*ing lamb went. I've been over and over about how they can't drive "normally" with a lamb tied to the bumper and that lambs have some limitations and require some care in handling, but they just don't seem to get the idea. Every lamb they ever get is going to die a horrible death behind their pickup truck. But they really like lambs. They do. Just ask them. Lambs are so kind and bleating and fuzzy white... lambs are great. Yay lambs. So they get another lamb and they tie it to the bumper of their pickup truck and they drive off. OVER AND OVER THEY DO THIS. ARGH!!!

I say again: ARGH!!! (And in the heart of my frustration, I hear a tiny, sibilant voice that no amount of screaming can drown out. It sounds like Hannibal Lecter, sort of, and it says thusly: Sells a lot of lambs, though, doesn't it? I hate the way my brain works sometimes.)
posted by which_chick at 3:21 PM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


"But as for the Tales of IT Dept. Horror Stories some of you are relating - you should hear what some of the rest of us say about you when you're not around."

Well, yeah. That's part of the problem. You might have missed the part where I mentioned that I briefly, horridly, worked as an L1 tech and they were idiots. Then, within a year, I became manager of the support department at a regional ISP and hired and managed these kinds of support techs. And, you know, I generally was able to find people who were around 19 years old and wanted to do this work but also mostly knew the stuff they needed to know and either knew how, or learned how, to deal productively with customers. And then after that, I was a customer support guy at the enterprise software level where, literally, I was one of the guys called in the middle of the night when AMEX's or Daimler's websites were down and those companies paid five figures a year for phone support.

The point is, I have zero sympathy with tech support people who mock their customers. That was the #1 thing I hated about that brief L1 PC support job I had. The contempt for the customers was toxic. And, anyway, all these people did was tell customers to reformat and reinstall.

I have a lot of respect for competent support techs. I was one of them. I managed them. In fact, as a director of support, I had some hard lines that I didn't allow customers to cross and I was willing to, and did, tell customers to fuck off when they were abusive to techs who worked for me.

I do understand that these L1 techs have scripts that they can't deviate from. But some of them wouldn't know how to deviate from them even if they were allowed to. And, furthermore, that they aren't allowed to is part of the problem. Yes, it makes sense given the realities of the industry and how it's usually staffed. But the realities of the industry are crap. Everything people above are saying about how PCs are absurdly difficult to use are correct. This stuff is unreliable and overly-complicated and either it shouldn't require this degree of troubleshooting support or it should provide actually competent troubleshooting support. One or the other. The status quo is a problem and it's why the PC is dying as a consumer device to be replaced by the iPad and similar truly consumer devices.

When that happens, I'll still have PCs and routers and then, if I have to talk to a support tech, maybe there'll be a small enough need for them that the ones that exist will actually be mostly competent.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 3:26 PM on January 24, 2012


There is only one kind of customer that bugs me when I do tech support and they're what I call the "aggressively ignorant". They not only don't know what they're talking about, but they're pushy and they don't listen. I can deal with belligerence, because at least half the time, customers have a decent reason to be upset. I can deal with ignorance, because educating people and helping people fix stuff is my job, but the combination of the two drives me up a wall.

You'd think it would happen less often as you move away from 'the end user', but now I get guys that try to pull rank with certifications, and they really only know just enough to be dangerous. "Look buddy, don't tell me how to configure BGP on my router, I'm a CCNA," etc..
posted by empath at 4:03 PM on January 24, 2012


Boggins: "PS: curse you colonials with your wiggly red line under "colour" :)"

Right click, add to dictionary.
posted by Bonzai at 6:18 PM on January 24, 2012


My dad is his peer group's go to guy, and that includes international calls from his friends all over.

Reading through this thread though it just struck me that he was the age I am now when he dragged home what looked like a sewing machine (IBM portable computer) in 1982 and taught himself basic and DOS 1.0 and Multimate (when it came out) and never looked back (within reason). If computers had come out a few decades earlier he'd have been an uber geek but as it is, I realize that if I didn't already have the same amount of experience on the PC as he does I wouldn't know half of what he does.

His laptop has 3 different virus checkers/mailwashers and whatnot even if he does set up his browsers weirdly. Otoh he's got the house wired and I can print wirelessly to a laser printer in the den from teh desktop in my bedroom whenever I'm home.
posted by infini at 8:00 AM on January 25, 2012


I've been working in IT since the early 90s, (and no I am not a Tech GUY) - but the worst I ever saw was the lady who called me insisting that her new mouse wasn't working, just a day after the tech had been over there and installed it for her. She said - "It's really erractic! I can't get it to do anything!" After a little troubleshooting over the phone, I hoofed it over to her office to discover that she hadn't been paying attention during the tech's demo at all - she had the mouse turned over like a turtle in distress and was manipulating the mouseball with her index finger.

And it was BONZI Buddy, not bonzai. I actually miss that stupid purple gorilla and his later green parrrot incarnation - I'd rather deal with that than ol' bloated Adobe and its once every five minute upgrades or Norton's memory gobbling or saving people's bazillion stupid macros in WordPerfect or or or...
posted by HopperFan at 10:56 AM on January 25, 2012


I can't believe no one's mentioned the Weather.com desktop app that every single old person has on their PC. Uninstalling it improves speed by 90%.
posted by desjardins at 11:20 AM on January 25, 2012


I had an experience somewhat like Sebmojo's, which was self-inflicted. Basically, I turned off the default VGA drivers while trying to troubleshoot an issue with my graphics card, whose drivers were also turned off at this point. Without really thinking through what this would do I reset the computer, to be greeted with a blank screen. That was a fun two weeks of trying to work out how to fix it - thank goodness for linux based recovery boot CDs.

Anyway, definitely agree that computer illiteracy is an all age issue - most of my students don't know that they can get adblocking add ons for their web browser, and they'd be completely at a loss if they were faced with using a command line interface.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 7:34 PM on January 25, 2012


"Basically, I turned off the default VGA drivers while trying to troubleshoot an issue with my graphics card, whose drivers were also turned off at this point. Without really thinking through what this would do I reset the computer, to be greeted with a blank screen."

Heh. That's like jessamyn banning her own account as a test, then realizing that she had to wait for another admin to correct it.

I've done this with BIOS settings, making the machine unable to POST and then having to tear it down to get to the jumper and battery to reset the BIOS. It's taken twenty years for manufacturers to build boards and BIOSes that reset themselves when they fail to POST. This is par for the course with the PC industry.

I also know I've remotely connected to machines I couldn't troubleshoot locally because I borked my ability to do so. I've had to connect to the RS-232 port on a Solaris workstation for a terminal session for this reason.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:46 PM on January 25, 2012


Yes, like the joys of using the -h argument instead of -r when trying to reboot a remote machine over ssh.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:25 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


I just have to vent.

Just now I was helping someone with a formula in Excel, leaning over their shoulder and telling them what to type and click. Inevitably, ALWAYS, people do whatever the fuck they want and don't type/click exactly what you tell them. And then they deny this and say they did what you asked them to do, but the program must have screwed up. I'm right there. I can see them.

Why do people do this? Why do they ask me for help if they're not actually going to let me help them?
posted by desjardins at 9:40 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


The other thing they do is stumble around trying to find things when you've given them explicitly clear directions.

"Click on the home tab." ... pause... "In the upper left." ... pause .... "Upper left. The one that says 'Home.' " ...pause... "Home. It's in English." ...pause... "UPPER LEFT HERE LET ME TAKE THE MOUSE YOU DROOLING MORON"
posted by desjardins at 9:42 AM on January 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


*grabs mouse*
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:44 AM on January 26, 2012


DROOLS MORONICALLY WHILE GRINNING AT DESJARDINS
posted by infini at 9:54 AM on January 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Just popped in to say I just had to tell him again. I should really start putting a quarter in a jar every time he asks, then when I have enough money, quit.
posted by JoanArkham at 10:19 AM on January 26, 2012


MOVE!
posted by and for no one at 11:59 AM on January 26, 2012


she had the mouse turned over like a turtle in distress and was manipulating the mouseball with her index finger

That's some disturbing imagery right there.
posted by rory at 1:29 PM on January 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Oh, man, I was waiting at the genius bar one time to get an iPod warranted, and there was a woman having trouble with her iMac -- the dude asked her to input a little info or something, and she had the (wired) mouse upside down, with the chord towards her wrist, so that the pointer was moving the opposite direction on screen, and the genius dude turned it around for her twice, and she turned it right back upside down both times, bitching the whole time about how it wasn't working right. He even told her the second time "you have it upside down," and she still turned it right back around.

I had to move away out of earshot.
posted by Devils Rancher at 1:59 PM on January 26, 2012


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