Computers can be our friends if we get to know them


January 18, 1993|By Michael J. Himowitz

A few days ago I got a call from a friend of a friend (I get a lot of calls from friends of friends) who wanted to know how to transfer a file from his computer at home to the computer at work with a modem.

Bob wasn't exactly computer illiterate. He knew how to use his word processor, and he knew he had a communications program. He just didn't know how to make it work.

Now communicating by computer isn't as complicated as brain surgery, but if you're trying to explain it over the phone to someone,it might as well be.

I spent 15 minutes talking about things like baud rate, parity, data bits, stop bits, error checking protocols and the other esoterica you have to know to send information from hither to yon. I could almost hear Bob's eyes glazing over, but he dutifully wrote everything down and said he would give it a try.

A few days later I asked my friend how it had turned out. He told me Bob had spent two hours trying to link up with his work computer but had finally given up in disgust. He's still carrying floppy disks back and forth to the job.

I wasn't surprised. For all the talk you hear today about "friendly" hardware and software, computers are still too hard to use, even for many simple jobs.

The problem is partly the fault of hardware and software makers, and partly the fault of people who use computers. They're just human.

From the outside, a computer is deceptively simple -- a keyboard that looks like a typewriter hooked to a monitor that looks like a TV set. If you know how to type, you can sit down at any typewriter and knock out a letter in a couple of minutes. Likewise, you can sit down in front of almost any TV set and figure out how to tune "Oprah" without spending a couple of hours buried in a manual.

But a computer is much more complex. It's a wonderful tool that can publish a newsletter, create pictures, balance your checkbook, do your payroll, calculate a profit-and-loss statement, keep track of your appointments, store your recipes or put you in the cockpit of an F-16.

Unfortunately, we expect to be able to do all these things the minute we take the computer out of the box.

You can go to Sears with a wad of cash and come home with a trunkload of power saws, routers, drills, sanders, jointers, dadoes and other gadgets. But you're not going to turn out a Queen Anne sideboard the next day. You'll have to spend some time learning how to use those tools. And you'll probably skin a few knuckles along the way.

The same goes for a computer. You'll have to put some effort into learning how to use it. But the effort will pay off in the long run. Here are a few tips:

*Spend some time with the manuals that come with your hardware and software. No one likes to read books, but today's manuals are far better written and organized than they were a few years ago. Almost all of them have a "getting started" section that can get you up and running quickly.

*Learn a little bit about the basic operation of your computer. Whether you're using an IBM-compatible with the cryptic DOS prompt or a fancy and allegedly friendly graphical interface such as Microsoft Windows or the Macintosh operating system, you'll need to understand your computer's basic filing system. That means learning a bit about files and directories on an IBM-compatible, or about documents, programs and folders on the Macintosh. Once you learn how your computer stores programs and information, you'll be able to find what you're looking for.

Spend some time with basics such as formatting floppy disks and copying files back and forth from your hard disk to floppies. It's important to back up your critical information, whether it's your payroll, your bowling league's membership list or the Great American Novel. Too many new users never learn how to do this, and they wind up losing weeks or months of work when the inevitable hard disk crash occurs (and it is inevitable).

If you're using your computer for critical business programs and data, consider buying a tape backup unit. They're quick and easy to use, and a regularly scheduled, full backup of your hard disk on tape can save your business if your computer is ever stolen or damaged.

*Avoid the temptation to let your cousin's kid, the computer wizard, set everything up for you, unless you get him to teach you what he's doing.

It's nice to be able to sit down at your computer and type "GO" to get your word processor running, or find a pretty little menu of programs waiting for you. But if Freddy goes off to college, you're stuck with what you have. You can't even install a new program unless you know what Freddy was up to.

Likewise, if you're running a business, avoid having only one person in the office who knows how to use the computer. If the second person has to be you, so be it. It's insane to put the key to your livelihood in the hands of someone who can walk out the door unless you have a duplicate in your head.

*If you're serious about using your computer, get some formal training, or invest the time and money to train your employees. Look to your local colleges, and your community college in particular.

Colleges offer all kinds of noncredit personal computing courses, ranging from the basics of using a computer to advanced word processing, spreadsheets and data base management. They'll often have many options, such as courses that run once a week for six to eight weeks, or crash programs that pack everything into a single day. Some cost as little as $50; others may cost several hundred dollars. Even the expensive courses are cheap, considering the time they'll save you and your employees.

(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)

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