Tag Archives: computer shaman

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.

The golden secrets of diagnosing computing problems

Since that’s what I’m doing this morning–specifically, trying to figure out why Firefox is messing up Castle Age for me, and not for the rest of the world–a good subject seemed to be the things many people don’t grasp about trying to correct, or at least track down, most computer problems.

Long before I turned freelance writer than freelance editor, I was a computer shaman. I hate doing my own diagnostics, and I was never a great tech, but I learned the basics of how to solve problems. Most people are doing it wrong. So, here:

No result is diagnostic unless you can reproduce it. In order to make the problem go away, you have to know how to make it happen.  In this case, I can reliably say that with all my Firefox paranoia add-ins enabled, both Castle Age (a Facebook game) and Facebook chat are partly broken.  I have had them occasionally work correctly, but in general, it’s about 99% reproducible.  This is good.  It’s the intermittent failures that’ll send you around the bend.

No result is diagnostic unless confirmed from a fresh start. This is especially true of instabilities.  Once you see your first instability or oddity, there is the chance that further instabilities and oddities are consequent from the first one.  The true test is if you get the same reproducible result from a fresh start.  When I was a computer shaman, I can’t tell you the number of people who reported ‘dozens of errors’ without restarting Windows and trying again.  It was hard to get them to understand that only the first error told us anything, and then only after a fresh start.

Change one thing at one time. If you alter more than one thing at once, and the result changes, you cannot know which change on your part made a difference.  Never, never, never go into your Options or Settings and change five things at once–you won’t know what solved it, and you might mess up something else.  In any case, you will muddy the waters and probably forget what all you changed, thus making it impractical to put it back the way it was.  One change at a time, then test.

Therefore, the basic concept–and why computer nerds seem to be able to solve things that mystify you–is not as mystical and shamanic and otherworldly as it may seem.  What they’re doing is just good science–and this is also why all the DSL tech support people first make you reboot everything, in case you wondered.  Restart whatever it is.  Try again immediately, in a deliberate effort to reproduce the problem.  Once you can reliably reproduce your problem, you can begin trying one thing at a time to address it.  If the change doesn’t address it, put what you changed back where you had it, and try something else.  Knowing this will save you headaches and money.

In my case, I strongly suspect that one of my add-ins is preventing CA and FB from doing things.  Thus, the process is tedious but will yield useful information:  disable something, shut down Firefox, restart it, reproduce the problem.  If I can still reproduce the problem, my change didn’t fix it, so I should re-enable what I disabled, disable something else, restart Firefox and test again.  If suddenly I can no longer reliably reproduce the problem, then I have a very good idea which add-in is the culprit.  I then have to decide if it’s one I can live without.