Category Archives: Technology

Memories of my days as a computer shaman

Back before I became a hired pen literary professional, I used to be a computer shaman. My business was moderately successful, and it was good social therapy. I got to thinking about this after watching a video on Cracked, which I suggest you take a gander at as well:

Five Reasons the Guy Fixing Your Computer Hates You

Mostly I didn’t hate my clients. I liked most of them. I liked helping elderly ladies on Social Security get connected so that they could see pictures of their grandbabies, research their osteoporosis and keep in touch with their friend Adna in Wisconsin. I liked being able to reach into the middle of their mess and get rid of the thing they’d installed (very unwisely) that was causing their Windows installation to throw up. Most of them were polite and courteous to me. It was evident that most of them were philosophically pretty different from me, in terms of socio-political-spiritual outlook, and none of them seemed to care.

I went to houses of guys I was pretty sure were retired underworld figures. I went to sheds in east Pasco where huge dogs threw themselves to the ends of heavy chains in forlorn hope of attacking me. I went to mansions. I went to two-bedroom apartments containing three families. I went to farms and I went to garages. I went to the homes of old mercenaries (the real kind), old doctors, and old just about everyone. In the end, the business was a casualty of the $500 PC. It just no longer made sense for anyone to pay me $50/hr to fix a problem that if it took much time, it was easier to upgrade their abacus to something modern.

Here’s the stuff I didn’t like…

Directions.

Everyone adores giving directions, but I couldn’t tell people that I was using map software and would just print myself a map. The minute I asked for the street address, everyone launched into lengthy, arcane directions, full of information I did not need and landmarks that did not matter. I learned to just shut up and let the storm blow past. One way I knew I was about done in the business was when I became candid about it. After five minutes of meaningless directions, someone would ask (because I hadn’t responded), “Are you writing all this down?” I’d answer, “no, because none of it will help me find you. I have your address, the color of the house, whether the numbers are on it, and a printed map. But everyone loves giving directions and there’s nothing I can do to stop them, so I’m not interrupting you. But no, sir, I’m not actually absorbing any of it, to be honest.”

Dogs.

Now, I’m not a fan of dogs. All I want is for them not to come near me. That means they will not put salivas on me, leap on me, startle me by bumping my leg under the desk, or anything else that increases my tension. Chief use of my briefcase? As a shield when dogs would charge at me. And almost without fail, the syrupy, whiny explanation:  “Oh, he just wants to loooooooove you!” Maybe he does, ma’am, but I already have a lover. How I wish you’d just control your animal. Of course, most clients with dogs could not process the concept of someone who could not do his best work with a dog in his face. And it’s the dog’s house, so it’s not like I have any standing to object. I just had to endure.

Great-nephews.

Oh, how often I saw it. I’d come in to a PC with a relatively fresh Windows installation. Mrs. Miller: “Well, my hard drive wasn’t downloading to my e-mail, and I couldn’t get my disk working, and my Windows web browser wouldn’t connect to my Microsoft Works, and my printer wouldn’t print the blue ink anymore. Now, I am a total computer dufus. My great-nephew is a computer god, he works at Hanford, he programs Excel, he knows everything about computers. He told me I needed to just wipe everything off, reformat and start again, so he did some stuff. Now I can’t find my e-mail at all and the Internet is broken. All my book chapters are gone and there is no Works at all. How much do you charge to put it back the way it was?” I was thinking: ma’am, if your great-nephew were here I’d take out the VGA card and cram it into his posterior. Why do these little hotshots do this, and then not help Auntie preserve or reinstall her data? It was hopeless and I could do little to change it.

Political types.

I provided services to two quite prominent local politicians, plus some other folks many people had heard of. Some were great. One political activist was about the biggest jerk I ever did service for. First time at his door: “So, are you a [party name]?” I looked at him with calm, suppressed indignation. “Sir, right now I’m a businessperson, and my priority is to resolve your printer problem.” On another visit, he started the “I’m not sure if you know who I am…”, clearly jonesing for free services–assumption being that I owed him for his political activism. I always believed that business was business and politics was politics, and that I should not introduce mine and they should not introduce theirs. Some simply couldn’t refrain, sitting next to me, dropping hints designed to suss out my political perspective.

The perception that a generalist could easily fix all things.

Hardware, software, connectivity. To them it was all ‘the computer.’ “Can you just fix it or not?” Some people would not grasp that, in order to see on a single visit if their problem was a flaky stick of RAM, I’d have to either carry every kind of RAM with me at all times, or run and get it and swap it in, then wait a few days to see if the problem repeated. How many hours of time was all that? Was I not to charge for that fetchin’ and gettin’? Was I to cart around a van full of stuff (constantly changing with the times) just waiting for this or that to be someone’s problem? If it were that simple, and that easy, sir, I would “just fix it.”

M-CAFee.

Not McAfee, as in MAC a fee, but mc CAFF ee. So many times. “I think I have a virus, my friend says I sent her one, but I don’t see how. This came with McCAFFee.” Did she ever note that it was a three-month trial version? No. Did she ever pay them to keep the virus definitions current at least, even if it was the worst virus protection software out there? She had no idea she needed to. “But I should be safe. I do a full scan every Sunday night!” You scan your computer with an obsolete virus detector. And you don’t understand why something newer than that just sent itself to everyone in your Outhouse Express e-mail directory. It was horrible. All could have been solved with a free one online.

People unwilling to learn.

I was a generous computer shaman, with my time and energy. Most people were doing some very stupid things that caused most of their problems. And when I’d tell them what the problem was, they’d smile that stupid little smile that says, Oh, you’re so cute, with your ideas of good computer use. Do you really think, young man, that I am going to abandon my habit of shutting off my computer by shutting off my surge protector? Well, the answer was frankly no, I didn’t think they would. But I had to try to at least tell them the problems it caused. They never learned. “But I like my WeatherBug!” It was spyware. They didn’t care.

Some of it, I admit, kept me in business. I told myself over and over: Shut up, idiot, and be glad they don’t do it right. That means they have to pay you. Fair enough. But not all the situations were solvable, and if things don’t go right, people tend to think the computer shaman didn’t do a good job. In other words, if they can still break their Internet connection, that must be my fault because I didn’t make it strong enough.

In the end, the frustration became too much, and I was making more money writing and editing. So I just focused on that.

Advertisements

Sprint taken for a huge ongoing scam

First, I refer you to this fascinating article:

How Sprint loses millions monthly

The amazing thing here is the utter toxicity of the culture there.  There are so many people in on the game that they can undo the efforts to stop it.

Deb and I can relate because the last time we renewed with Sprint, it was such a complete goat rodeo that we swore to fire them as soon as our contract was up, which is not far away.  I really cannot wait to be rid of this outfit, especially when I realize that my costs are higher because of losses from internal scams Sprint lacks the intellect or will to prevent.

Container of bubbles

This feels very weird.  I’m writing on a netbook from a hotspot in a Starbucks in Renton (that’s south of Seattle).  It is noisy in here, and 80% of those present here have their faces buried in computers.  This isn’t a coffee shop; it just looks like one.

It feels so Seattle.  It’s even cloudy outside, with rain threatening.  Air’s humid, though it’s not cooking hot.  And not a single person in this Internet terminal that happens to serve coffee would voluntarily have a conversation with any other person, unless they met here on purpose.

This is what I do not like about cities.  I understand wanting to have one’s bubble of not dealing with random people; I really do.  But if you look at this situation right now, this place of ass-numbing hardwood chairs and crappy music, it is all just a container of bubbles.  There is another human being three feet from me on the right, and if I tried to have a conversation with him, I would absolutely shatter all the social rules.  I would be marked as fundamentally odd, probably dangerous, and quite irritating.

Technology may be connecting us with people far away, but it is isolating us from people who are close enough they could grab each other’s junk without leaning.

My dumbest computer user ever

You’ve all heard the computer-idiot stories about the executive who complained that his computer’s coffee cupholder no longer retracted, right? I have a true-to-life one.

Before I was a computer shaman, before I was an assistant MIT at an investment company that managed ten-figure sums, I was a computer salesman about five miles from the Micro$oft campus.  I worked for a very wise entrepreneur from Taiwan, Mr. TeLung Chang.  Mr. Chang (who had literally been an American longer than I had) gave me opportunity, guidance and consideration.  I returned his kindness by being contrary, troublesome and having the highest profit margins in the company, so I was a mixed blessing for him.  He passed on in 2008, and the world was the poorer for it.

This was from 1988-1990, and the main computer sold was the AT (80286) clone in some form or other, gradually giving way to 80386-based machines.  IBM was trying to make the world want MicroChannel PS/2 machines.  The world was laughing at IBM’s doddering distance from reality.   A woman named Nancy bought an Acer 900 from me, a great big can of an AT clone.  She ordered it with the standard 1.2MB 5.25″ floppy, a standard 40MB hard drive, and the usual 640K of RAM.  It was for her plastics company in south Seattle.  She had bought it over the phone, and picked it up while I was at lunch, so I never met her in person.

That afternoon, I get a call. It’s Nancy.  “Jonathan, Jonathan!  My computer’s no good!”

“It doesn’t work?”

“No, it doesn’t.  The disk is broken.”

“Your hard drive won’t start up at all?”

“No, I don’t have the hard disk, the little one.  I have the big kind, the floppy kind.”

I then had to explain to her the the hard disk was inside the case, and that the 3.5″ disk was actually a floppy, just with a firmer case, so yes, she did in fact have a hard disk. Then:  “So what exactly is the problem?”

“Well, my disk is broken.”

Clearly we weren’t communicating.  “You must mean that the floppy drive is broken, then?”

“Yeah.  It’s stuck.”

I brightened.  “Oh.  So there’s a floppy stuck in the drive and it’s not working?”

“Yes.”

“Just out of curiosity, Nancy, what’s on this floppy? Is it important data?”

“No, it’s my dose disk.”  At this point, I admit, I put the conversation on speaker so my colleagues could hear the rest of it.  Mr. Chang would most definitely not have approved, so I’m glad he didn’t come upstairs right about then.

“It should boot up to a C: prompt.  How come you put a DOS disk in?”

“Well,” she snipped, as if explaining the obvious to an imbecile, “I opened the manual that came with it and it said to insert your MS-dose diskette in drive A.  So I did.”

I then had to explain to Nancy that we had actually loaded DOS on her hard drive when we assembled the machine, and that while we included the DOS manuals and floppies because she’d paid for them by buying DOS, she did not need to do anything with them but hang onto them.  Might be useful to look up some DOS commands, if need be.  Then back to the problem-solving:  “So this is your DOS floppy and it’s stuck in the drive.  Is the arm broken?”

“There is no arm!”

“Then there must be a little spindle where it used to be.  Perhaps somehow it came off.  That could explain this.  Is there?”

“No, there’s just a slot.  There’s no arm and no spindle.”  The 5.25″ floppies of the day always came with a closure arm that engaged the drive and locked the floppy in place.  It could be removed, or could slip off or break, but never without a trace.  What she was saying was absolutely impossible.  Unless…no, surely not…

“Nancy, where exactly is this slot? On the right side of the case are three rectangular bays, one with a floppy drive and two covered with faceplates, all the same size.  Is it over there?”

“Yes.”  Oh, no…

“Let’s narrow this down very precisely. Where exactly is the ‘slot’ in that area? How high up is it, and how much room does it have?”

Her frustration with my stupidity or obtuseness grew worse.  “It’s right about a third of the way from the top! It’s the width and height of a disk!”

She had.  She had actually managed to stick a floppy into the small, 1/8″ high space between drive bays, failing to notice the authentic floppy drive immediately above it.  I had a sudden burst of hilarity, which I had to strangle.  The effort broke my voice.  “So, what you are saying is that you stuck your DOS disk in the small space between the faceplates, and therefore, you think your computer’s broken?”  I am lucky my colleagues didn’t have worse control; I was beginning to tear up with suppressed laughter.

“Yes!  This is a design flaw!  This shouldn’t be possible!”  Now she was angry.  And I was about ready not to care.

“Well, Nancy,” I croaked, “most people do not traditionally do this.”

“Well, I want it fixed!”  Raising her voice.  I didn’t care.  I summoned my composure.

“No problem.  I can give you two options.  The warranty is not on-site, so for $75 an hour I’ll send a tech out.  He will fish the floppy out of there, then put scotch tape over those gaps so that this ‘design flaw’ will be remedied.  Or, if you feel technically competent to do so, you may open the machine and push it out, then apply the tape yourself.  If none of that is satisfactory to you, you can bring it here, and I’ll fish it out and put the tape on it for you for free.  How’s that?”

“Fine!” she snapped.  “I’ll be there in about an hour!” I’m not sure now if she hung up on me, but the conversation was at an end.  As soon as I buttoned the phone off, my fellow sharks howled with laughter.  At least someone could benefit from this. But it wasn’t quite over.  About fifteen minutes later, Nancy called back.

“What’s up, Nancy?”

She sounded miffed. “I don’t need to bring it in.  The disk slid out while I was loading it in my trunk.”

“Great!  All’s well that ends well, then?”

“Yes,” she growled, her tone making clear that it hadn’t ended well, that she was very dissatisfied with my equipment and me.  Thank the gods.  I hoped she never called us again, or if she did, that she got another salesperson.  It was the last I heard from her.  But here’s to Nancy, who brightened a few days by giving me a funny story to tell.

Microsoft = IBM

Today John Dvorak wrote a pretty good article on why Microsoft’s stock is, in his words, dead money.  Yeah, I know it’s on Murdoch’s news service, but Dvorak’s old school and knows his stuff.

It is so odd how things cycle.  When I was hustling machines about five miles from the Redmond campus, I hated the IBM reps.  Every one of them.  They were not merely arrogant (though nothing like the Apple reps, the very snottiest of all), they were stupid (which the Apple reps were not).  We were making 5% margin on IBM machines.  We made 20% on others.  Also, no one wanted IBM.  Why should we sell it? Well, because it’s IBM.  In reality, we were selling them at cost to keep our dealership.  We couldn’t get to a profitable discount level with IBM unless we sold more.  However, when we had a line on a big account and were willing to go out at cost just to advance our business with IBM, IBM would go direct and undercut us (and we were to understand and accept this, that ‘business was business’).

Their attitude was that everyone should want IBM and we should push everyone to IBM, even when a retarded goblin could see that IBM was the very worst deal going.  Even when they came out with a good product, people didn’t want IBM’s MCA (‘MicroChannel’) architecture.  They had a great portable and I had a client interested in two.  He asked about the architecture, and I said ‘MCA’.  His words, quoted exactly as I recall:  “Not that f***ing MicroChannel.”

Microsoft, by contrast, was swift and slick and witty and inventive.  It was eating Lotus’s lunch, WordPerfect’s lunch and just about everyone else’s.  It was the smartest kids in the room.  Some of its stuff was dumb (remember ‘Bob’?) but a lot of it took hold.  Even IBM used Microsoft’s DOS (which M$ didn’t actually invent, but bought in desperation early on).  And when IBM tried to make everyone buy OS/2, the market said ‘meh.’  You could tell the Microserfs when they came into the store.  They looked like hippies gone full geek, total slobs.  You didn’t make judgments.  They were often FYIFV (‘f*** you, I’m fully vested’) tycoons and they might well write you a check for two brand new laser printers.

Now M$ is the dinosaur rather than the juggernaut.  It invents nothing.  It follows and tries to appropriate the market, and the market increasingly sneers.  In the process of its rise, its ruthlessness made it many, many enemies who yearned for the day M$ would become irrelevant.  I was one, as I labored on supporting M$ products in the workplace as an IT jock, basically forced to deal with them as the world was once forced to deal with IBM whether it liked IBM or not.

Dvorak’s right.  MSFT is a lousy buy, even though its price has been flat for years while the market has risen.  They’re not going to invent anything.  If they weren’t sitting on so much cash, and if they didn’t have so much inertia due to the past with regard to installed base, they’d collapse.  They are in much the same situation as IBM once was.  They can say what they want, but people no longer care.