Couple find their priority in PC foul-up

March 21, 2002|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

This is a story about technology and matrimony, which often coexist uneasily. The basic facts are true, but the names and a few details have been changed because my wife threatened to strangle me if I told everything.

The tale involves Hank and Sandy, a happily married couple who suffered from a failure to communicate.

Or rather, their PC did. Hank had installed security software on their home computer at the request of his office. The program, which apparently had never been tested anywhere, made Hank's computer so secure that it couldn't communicate with anybody, including their Internet service provider.

Hank tried uninstalling the software, reinstalling it, and uninstalling it again. He talked to his PC maker (no luck), the security software vendor (no luck), and his tech support staff at work, who told him they'd heard there might be some problems with the program, and would he please let them know how it worked out. Ya gotta love these guys. Luckily for them, Hank has a sense of humor.

While he was spending two weeks trying get the machine back onto the Internet, Sandy became increasingly impatient without e-mail. Wives are like that when their husbands take too much time tinkering with broken gadgets they want to use right now.

Eventually, Sandy got fed up and asked my wife if I might be willing to help. I was dubious. Hank is a certified, card-carrying rocket scientist who's used to dealing with things that blow up, like computers and rockets. And Sandy's a mathematician. If these brainy people couldn't figure it out, what could a mere journalist do?

But I called Hank anyway and we had the usual tech support chat. I asked Hank what kind of PC he had. Nothing special, he said. Just a plain old Pentium box that was a couple of years old and really boring. He described the network problem and his frustrations, and we droned on about TCP/IP settings and Windows registry entries. After a while, it dawned on me - Hank's heart wasn't really in it. There was only one thing to do.

"Hank, this machine is fouled up beyond any hope of repair," I declared. "The only way to set things straight is to buy a new computer."

"Really?" he said, brightening for the first time. "There's honestly no other way?"

"Absolutely not."

My wife, sitting across the room, gave me one of those what-the-hell-is-he-doing looks.

"So what do you recommend?" Hank asked.

"Let's see, you're a rocket scientist. So you need something with real horsepower, like a 2.2-gig Pentium 4 with 512 megs of RAM, an 80-gig hard drive, one of those new NVIDA GeForce4 MX video boards and 350-watt power supply - and maybe some extra cooling fans. These babies run pretty hot."

"Hmmm, sounds good," Hank said. "What else do I need?"

"Well, you want the system to sound great, too - probably one of those new Sound Blaster Audigy Platinum cards and a Klipsch ProMedia 5.1 surround-sound speaker system. That'll rattle the windows."

By this time, my side of the conversation had my wife's full attention. Now, she's hardly a Luddite - she's an extraordinarily intelligent woman who uses a computer every day. But to her it's strictly an information appliance - a fridge with a database and e-mail. In her world view, fooling around with computers because they're cool is as socially useful as say, stealing hubcaps. And she was giving me one of those you'll-really-enjoy-sleeping-in-the-dogh ouse looks. But I was on a roll, and Hank was growing cheerier by the minute.

"Anything else I should get?" he asked.

"Well, you absolutely need a DVD drive with a dedicated hardware decoder for movies - and a PlexWriter 40X CD-burner. Of course, you could use your old monitor, but it won't be as good as one of those new, 17-inch flat panel screens."

For the first time, Hank sounded absolutely happy. "You're absolutely sure we need this?"

"Hey, I'm the computer guy - trust me. Just tell Sandy I said so."

"So what about the old PC?"

I thought about this and said, "Take it to your tech support guru at work, dump it on his desk and say, `Hey pal, your software broke it - you fix it.' If he can't make it work, you've still got the new machine. If he does fix it, donate it to a school and take a tax deduction."

Hank was ecstatic as we hung up. I felt great, too - there's nothing like solving a problem the right way.

My wife was less sanguine. "We'll see about this later," her look said as she bade me good night.

Indeed, a few evenings later she casually mentioned that Hank and Sandy had called someone else about the computer, and they'd managed to get it fixed - or at least working well enough that bizarre error messages popped up only now and then. So they didn't need a new PC after all.

"I sent an e-mail to Sandy, and we agreed that it was better to spend the money on jewelry," she said with a smile.

I haven't had the heart to call Hank. He'd obviously learned his lesson - if you have a choice between a new hard drive and a new necklace for your wife, there's no choice at all.

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