Book helps users solve PC puzzles

March 06, 2000|By Mike Himowitz

We all know that computers are still too hard to use. Part of the blame falls on software designers, who still haven't figured out how to make PCs work the way humans think they should. And part of the blame goes to humans, who think computers should be as easy to use as toasters, even though they can do a lot more than burn the English muffins.

Whatever the reason, hardly a day goes by when I don't get a question or complaint such as, "I downloaded a file from the Internet and now I can't find it." Or, "How do I save something to a floppy disk?"

Like most computer problems, these have relatively easy solutions -- the real problem is finding the information to solve them, which is why so many people ask me where to find a good, basic book on computers.

One source is a small publishing house called Green Tree Press, which just sent me a copy of "Computer Friendly!" by Raymond Steinbacher, a superb guide for beginners that tells you everything you need to know to get comfortable with a PC in less than 100 pages.

Steinbacher, a computer salesman turned writer and Web master, is one of those guys everybody in the neighborhood turns to when they have computer problems or questions. He understands what makes computers tick, but more importantly, he understands what makes people tick when they sit in front of a PC.

The result is a simple, straightforward tutorial that covers the basic operation of hardware and software in simple, nontechnical terms, without the gratuitous cuteness and distracting cartoons of the "Dummies" books that seem to be everywhere these days.

Starting with a brief tour of the computer itself, Steinbacher walks the reader through the basics of making it work -- how to open, close and resize windows, how to move things around with a mouse, how to run programs, print documents, find things on your hard drive, save and delete files, connect to the Internet and use a Web browser. Each chapter ends with a little quiz and a set of exercises that reinforces what you've learned.

You won't find fancy graphics, bad jokes or other frills, just good, basic information and advice. While "Computer Friendly!" will help any novice, its layout and large typeface makes it particularly friendly to senior citizens. Even the publisher's Web site is designed to make reading easy. At $12.95 (plus $6.50 shipping), this book is a real bargain. You can order it directly from Green Tree's Web page at www.greentreepress.com or call 800-834-3888.

Not getting there is half the fun: How many times have you typed a Web address into your browser or clicked on a link and found yourself on a page with this cryptic message: "Error 404 -- File Not Found."

The infamous 404 error is a code transmitted by the Web site telling your browser that you're lost, that you've asked for a page that doesn't exist, either because you typed the address wrong or somebody removed it from the Web site.

Most of the time, the 404 page is one of those little annoyances of online life, but a handful of creative Web designers have seized the opportunity to entertain us, inspire us, or prove that there is life on other planets. You'll find a superb collection of links to these bizarre error pages at the 404 Research Lab (www.plinko.net/404/).

Web master Jenni Ripley has organized unusual 404 pages into categories such as Cool, Informative, Funny, Strange and Interactive. I enjoyed the philosophical 404s, including one that offered this desperate greeting: "The horror of it all! To lose our way amid the chaos of false paths, broken lanes and desolate byways that is the net! Is there no hope? Can we find no beacon in the gloom to point us back toward civilization?"

The interactive 404s are the most fun, with the all-time champ at http://1-1it.net/notHere.htm. You'll get an error message, all right, but along with it you'll find a pretty good knockoff of the old "Centipede" arcade game. This will undoubtedly entertain you much more than the page you were actually looking for. If you have some time to waste, check it out.

Speaking of time wasters: I couldn't believe I was actually standing over my scanner the other night, trying to arrange a dress shirt so I could get a good image of the collar and first three or four buttons.

I'd been suckered in by a Web site called Luxuryties.com, which (as the name implies) hawks upscale neckwear from Hunters, the British clothing manufacturer. The premise of the site is that you'd be a fool to spend $80 or $100 on a necktie without knowing whether it matches your shirt. So Luxuryties provides a virtual dressing room where you can click on an image of a tie and then "drag" it over to the shirt of your choice.

Hunters offers a variety of generic shirt images in different patterns and colors, but you can also scan in an image of your own shirt and use it for a perfect match. Strangely enough, this actually worked when I tried it. If you're into British old-boy fashion (is that an oxymoron?) and have a flatbed scanner, give it a try.

The party's over: A few weeks ago I wrote about a Canadian site called iCraveTV.com that was broadcasting U.S. network television programs over the Web in RealAudio format. The quality was so awful that the site was never more than a curiosity, but the entertainment industry was not amused.

In January, an army of lawyers representing broadcasters, movie studios and sports interests invaded U.S. District Court, charging the start-up with copyright violations. Although the site's operator claimed he was operating within Canadian law, he gave up under the onslaught of suits last week and agreed to stop the transmissions.

So for now, the only way to get television broadcasts on your computer is to buy a TV tuner card or external receiver. These gadgets cost anywhere between $80 and $150, but they work a lot better.

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