Computer story proves the folly of tinkering

This Just In...

February 07, 2000|By DAN RODRICKS

THIS IS MY personal computer story, but -- wait! -- before you leave me for the obituary page, please understand that I am no geek and the geek factor in this column is about minus-zero. If you think personal computers are grand but understand virtually nothing about them, if you can't tell RAM from ROM and don't really want to, if you admire Bill Gates -- and don't really want to -- stay a while and listen to my computer story.

Until a few weeks ago, I didn't have a computer story. I didn't really want one. Worked to avoid one.

It's not that I'm fighting a troglodyte battle against computers. The Internet is hot. E-mail is cool. I feel lucky to have a PC. It has improved aspects of my working life and made informal, regular contact with friends and relatives a breeze.

It's that I spend minus-zero time thinking about what goes on inside the Hewlett Packard 7125 Pavilion that's been next to my desk for three years. And that's because, when it comes to handling computer information, I'm just like my PC -- slow processor, not enough disk space, and already two generations removed from the cutting edge.

I was born without techno-tendencies, too.

So unless you're talking about a nifty Web site or describing a piece of helpful software or computer game, forget about it! I can't hear computalk. My ears glaze over.

I'm hardly unique.

Most of us don't want to bother to learn this stuff. We want to be told what to do, not why we're doing it. We look at the PC as just another appliance -- a microwave oven with a mouse -- and we just want it to work. Word processing, creating documents, accessing the Internet, getting e-mail -- most of us are content with those basics.

If something goes wrong, we consult the experts. We don't mess with Mother Board.

"To keep every cog [See Rod-ricks, 4b] and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering," said the naturalist and philosopher Aldo Leopold, who would be shocked to find himself quoted in a computer story.

Indeed, there's a huge difference between tinkering and intelligent tinkering.

I indulged in the former, and that has made all the difference. That's why I have a computer story today.

It's embarrassing, so let me get this over with -- in one, long, ugly sentence:

I didn't have enough disk space, so I started innocently tinkering and clicking around with my mouse, looking for various programs I didn't need, when I spotted something called Internet Explorer and, knowing how Bill Gates and Microsoft had forced computer manufacturers to install its Internet Explorer in new PCs -- a heavy-handed marketing maneuver by the federal judge who pronounced Microsoft a monopoly last year -- and not knowing that I needed Internet Explorer to get to the Internet through America Online, and being a pathetic computer trog, I deleted Explorer from my system.

Bang!

But I had tinkered badly. I had committed an act of rebellion against the Evil Empire. I had caused a disturbance in the Force. (I swear, somewhere out there, Bill Gates knew what I had done.) I could no longer get to the Internet.

The real fun started when I realized my error. I tried to recover Internet Explorer by reinstalling Windows 95, except that I couldn't find my Windows 95 start-up disk -- or whatever it was I used when I first got the computer going in 1996 -- and my PC would not reboot Windows 95 without it.

So I called the wise guys at Dial-A-Nerd and they said that, because I had been thinking of upgrading to Microsoft Windows 98 anyway, this would be a good time. I'd get Internet Explorer back when I did.

Fine. But to do that, I needed more RAM, and I'm not talking about a pickup truck. I'm talking about some tiny piece of Japanese circuitry that cost me $150, installed, at Best Buy.

I thought this would get me back on the Internet.

But when I installed Windows 98, The Empire struck back.

Windows 98 "could not detect a modem" in my computer, even though I had one and had used it successfully for three busy years. I tried to convince Windows 98 that I had a modem, but it just wouldn't listen. (It must have still been mad at me.) So I was back where I'd started -- unable to get to the Internet.

I called AOL, and a guy named Jeff said I needed "special drivers" to make Windows 98 detect my modem. Jeff said to call Hewlett Packard, the manufacturer of my computer, for information.

So I called HP, but they wanted $25 per question.

Defiant, I scrambled to another computer outside my home and zipped to the HP Web site for free information about those "drivers." (I'm still not sure what a driver is.) I clicked around and searched for three hours and never found an answer -- never really got to ask a human being a question.

So then I sent messages to Microsoft about the problem. I'd just purchased one of its products -- Windows 98 -- so I figured Bill Gates' techs would be helpful. They weren't at all, and it took them a week.

I was just starting to appreciate the Unabomber when Al called from North Linthicum.

Al is my pal. He's blessed with techno-tendencies. He came over the other day and calmly and expeditiously installed a new modem, and I got back online. Everything seems fine again, though the computer graphics are grainy. (Apparently I need to upgrade some "system colors" to get it right for Windows 98, but let's not go there.)

Having Al come over was a blessing. "It's nothing," he said. "Once you know how to do something, your friends always give you a call. It's like fixing toilets."

So there it is -- my personal computer story. Thanks for listening, friends. And remember: Don't tinker. If you do, just make sure you have a pal like Al. Against the Evil Empire, he's Obi Wan Kenobi -- our only hope.

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