Explaining Troubleshooting

April 10, 2012

Unfortunately, troubleshooting computer and digital device problems is all too common an occurrence. But how does one explain the concept of troubleshooting?

Fortunately, there is a wonderful analog in the real world: physicians. Troubleshooting is what your doctor does for your body’s aliments, and for the most part, the process is the same. It starts with a review of the symptoms and when they started. Then, knowledge-based analysis kicks in: how are the symptoms related? Are they related, or are they coincidentally occurring at the same time? What are all the possibilities that could be causing them? The treatment — the fix — is based on the diagnosis, which sometimes requires additional research.

With a computer, this process works the same way. Troubleshooting is something that a computer can attempt to do itself, but often, this task still falls to the owner/operator. Here’s an example…

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Explaining Computer Viruses (with zombie chefs)

February 8, 2012

Ever wondered how to explain the concept of computer viruses? My PC recently acquired a virus. While I was killing it (using my anti-virus software), one of my children observed, “Oh! Computers get sick, too?”  Cute? Well, adults often have the same question. So here’s an answer and explanation using analogies and a fun story involving zombies…

No, computers can’t get biological diseases. Like most personal computing concepts, the term is metaphorical, borrowed from the real-world equivalent. A real human or animal virus is an entity that intrudes — gets into the inside of the body — and goes about doing something it shouldn’t, usually causing harm.

The same is true in computing. In The Ultimate PC Primer, I explain that computer programs (software) are really sets of instructions, like a recipe. The computer is just a mindless machine following these instructions. In fact, it knows nothing else except how to follow its instructions — precisely. And ideally, that’s what you want from a computer: consistency and precision in obeying the instructions given it. That’s what makes it useful for you. It follows instructions presumably intended to produce a helpful result. But what would happen if some instructions were given to it that were designed to do something harmful?

Imagine you are entering a cooking or baking competition. You must organize and direct the efforts of five chefs who will prepare five dishes you have selected from five recipes. The completed dishes will be presented to the judges of the competition. The chefs will follow any instructions exactly. (They’re like mindless chef-zombies who know only about following recipes.) All you need to do is provide the instructions for how they are to prepare each dish. So you select five sophisticated recipes from your recipe collection or cookbook and set them out for the zombie chefs to follow. But… Read the rest of this entry »


Me speak no PC

April 12, 2011

This was a new one to me. I was listening to an industry-leading expert talk about upcoming technology, and heard this statement uttered when difficulty was encountered changing file manager settings on the Windows-based computer driving the projector:

“I don’t know what I’m looking at because this is PC stuff.”

Wait. What?!?

The majority of the world’s computer users are on Windows-based PCs, and an expert invited to provide insight and training doesn’t know anything about one? What’s going on?

I’m not a big proponent of the Mac vs. PC sort of battle. Truly, I don’t care that much about which one is “better,” (meaning “better for everyone,” though I do have my opinion on which is now better for newcomers). But it does surprise me when an industry-leading speaker can’t figure out how to use a basic feature of Windows because she spends all her time on a Mac. (No, she didn’t work for Apple.)

Trust me, there are differences between those operating systems, but they shouldn’t be that monumental. So what’s going on? You die-hard Mac users out there, help me out on this one. Would you really be unable to figure out how to move files from one folder to another if you had to use a non-Mac platform?

Don’t get me wrong. File management concepts are something to which I dedicate most of an entire chapter of The Ultimate PC Primer. But I didn’t think Windows Explorer and Mac OS Finder were all that different once the core concepts of file management were understood. So, speaking of core concepts…

Could this be another case of core concepts never understood? (It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve witnessed a speaker baffled by a PC during a presentation.)


4 Hard Lessons for Older Adopters of New Technology

December 18, 2008

Whenever a person unfamiliar with modern technologies decides to jump in and adopt, there are a number of hurdles to be overcome. The difference between current technologies and older, non-digital (or non-software-based) equivalents (if comparisons even exist) can be difficult to grasp for the older adopter. The challenge is not insurmountable, but older adopters of new technologies aren’t always prepared for what lies ahead. Current technologies aren’t produced, marketed, sold, or supported like technologies were 20, 30, or 40 years ago. Cultural assumptions for technology knowledge and usage are radically different, as well.

So with the holiday giving season upon us, a time during which many younger users will gift new technology to those older, I’d like to highlight four difficult lessons such new adopters will often learn the hard way: Read the rest of this entry »


Is our technology stable enough to use?

December 4, 2008

Oh, how many times I’ve asked myself that question while sitting in front of a crashed computer! PCs are known for their bugs, freezes, crashes, and “Blue Screens of Death.” I was chatting with a friend over lunch and learned that his digital camera had crashed with the BSOD! Personally, my cell phone has frozen, requiring me to remove the battery to “unfreeze” it.

Ah, yes…Technology! It is laden with errors and almost infamous these days for unreliability and frustration. Yet, we grow increasingly dependent, if not addicted, to it. It begs the question: is this stuff really stable enough for our world to depend on? Think about all the technology items we consume for the following: Read the rest of this entry »