{ Michael Gale } | Web Developer - Melbourne, Victoria

Everything I've Learned Fixing Family Computers

I love the modern tech world, kinda, sort of.

I love the modern tech world, kinda, sort of. The Amiga 500 was our first family computer (to my knowledge), and I feel blessed to have started my digital life in the Graphical User Interface (GUI) era. I missed out on all that nasty punch-carding and command-lining stuff. My childhood memories are in full-colour, with no black and white screens. The Amiga 500 had a sweet GUI called “Workbench”, with a calculator and a clock. I also really enjoyed the long spools of dot-printer paper.

One of the earliest memories I can associate with computing is attempting to animate a series of sprites that I thought I could somehow import into the popular-at-the-time video game, Lemmings. From the late 80s to the 10s, I feel I’ve been around computers and other tech gadgets long enough to safely try my hand at any of the different entry points on the “tech spectrum”. I’ve blowed dust out of cartridges, wound back cassette tapes with pencils, tried not to dance too hard so the vinyl didn’t skip, Kazaa’d and burned CDs, iPod’d, MySpace’d, Snap-chatted, insta-grammed and web-designed my way into adult life. But like anything in life, loving something intensely can eventually leave you feeling jaded.

An example? Maybe think twice before coming to me for any advice on something you could have learned from a basic computing course or by using a search engine. You may be treated to an all time eye-rolling extravaganza, like you’ve never before seen.

Tech-wizzardry

I like to think I’m a a pretty good digital citizen. I keep my software up to date, I keep all my files and folders neatly organised. I use basic concepts for organisation that have worked for me since Windows 95 - Documents go in ‘Documents’ and pictures go in ‘Pictures’, easy! I’m also one of those weird people that absolutely LOVES making a fresh start on their entire computer. Getting rid of clutter clears the head and gets me ready to take on new projects.

In saying all of this I don’t mean to sound ignorant to how alien using a computer must feel to generations that have grown up without using them. I just can’t help but feel disheartened to stumble upon a computer with a seemingly untreatable virus I’ve never heard of. A recent one actually SPOKE THEIR ADVERTISEMENTS ALOUD in an intrusive robotic voice. It’s absolutely awful to hear of disaster scenarios where important files aren’t backed up in the cloud and end up being corrupted and lost forever.

It’s not all bad

For all the disheartening things I’ve witnessed, I do feel that there is a lot to be gained from saying YES to situations where one might be able to help a less fortunate digital citizen; and unlike some other articles out there - I don’t regret saying yes the first time.

Here’s are ten reasons why; in a conveniently labelled and easy to read, ordered list.

1. Be prepared for everything.

When people ask for my help with a computer issue, I never quite know what to expect. The process has traditionally started with a text message from Mum; maybe explaining how her writers group friend needs a hand, followed by a fairly vague description of the problem, which will almost always require a follow-up call. I’ll then try to diagnose it over the phone if possible if only to avoid driving out over something that might only be a small issue. This usually results in making that drive anyway.

The next step is to think hard about the problem before that drive, so that I may know how to best equip myself for the intense battle with the ferocious robotic beast that awaits me. The thing to avoid here is a second long drive.

Tips:

  • Tell the poor soul to back everything up (don’t forget the files scattered all over the Desktop), just in case things are extra dire.
  • You’ll likely need to keep track of hundreds of usernames and passwords. So start an action plan for that; be it pen and paper, or some service like 1password.
  • Don’t forget to synchronise Chrome bookmarks. You do use Chrome, don’t you?
  • Got a screw driver and an asthma puffer?
  • Will you need to take coffee and snacks? Probably.
  • Don’t forget petrol money.

2. You can never be prepared, so learn to be resourceful

After all that prep work is done, and you’ve driven out to start the ground level reconnoissance work, you’ll probably find you were completely wrong about your assumptions and realise you’ve brought a cap-gun to a knife fight.

Usually that means scrounging under kitchen sinks for makeshift tools like an episode of The Walking Dead. There’s nothing worse than frantically undoing a rusty, threaded screw with a blunt screw driver, whilst avoiding static discharge from your dust-covered tracksuit pants - but I’ve done it. And in an Australian summer. And now you can tell people you know me!

If you’re building the computers you end up repairing, I’d also suggest thumb and finger screws for all PC case builds. :)

3. Sometimes you have to drop a grenade and get out of there

910 times, the patient is too far gone and we have to put it down. The reason we tell you to back up your stuff? We know you’re going to ruin everything with bad habits and will need to shoot your computer in the face some day. Be prepared for this. Go out and buy and external hard drive and set yourself up with a OneDrive account.

4. Helping people is awesome

This is something I learned while working as a guitar tutor and then again as a fully qualified high school teacher. People shouldn’t be left to suffer because of their level of education or the size of their budgets. The fact is that computers are important for getting stuff done these days, and if you’re not sharing your knowledge with others then what are you even here for?

5. Beer is a totally legitimate and highly encouraged form of payment for services rendered

At the end of a frustrating gizmo-fixing experience, receiving a plastic bag containing frosty beverages really is a nice reward (thank you Helen M). Mum usually goes for coffee and a biscuit. That’s nice too.

6. You’ll enjoy bragging rights with other folks who can relate

“Oh man, I know that feeling”, or “I’ve been there” are common responses to the melodramatic tales of a family computer fixer. At least you have something in common with someone.

7. Most horror stories can be avoided through simple routine cleaning, duh.

It might be inconvenient to vacuum your house, but the dust mites will eventually kill you. So just do it.

8. It’s nice to feel like a wizard

I’m not fixing most of your problems by magic. I’m most likely doing a lot of googling myself to get to the crux of the issue, and weighing the results against my own previous experience. There’s something wonderful about being perceived as the only person that could have solved a particular problem.

As you spend the last 15 minutes of your coffee break feeling like a God, you will start to forget how frustrated you were for the previous four hours. Hopefully. Probably best you try to forget, eh?

What you can do to help

Really quickly, here are some takeaway tips to keep your computer running nicely, and minimise harm.

  • Back everything up. Buy a portable external hard drive for your computer and schedule an automatic backup if need be. Alternatively, save your important files to the cloud using OneDrive or Dropbox.
  • Get used to updating. Updates keep your work environment bug-free, and safe from viruses.
  • Install C-Cleaner (free), and run it once a month. This cool program will scan your computer for ‘ghost’ files, and delete them for you. Put simply, when you move files around your computer, the computer will try to remember where the file was kept and where it went. More common though, is that programs themselves will move files all over your computer without you even knowing, leaving a trail of redundant mess all over the system. This program will get rid of them, and you may notice your system runs much more smoothly.
  • Use a free Anti-virus software. Such as AVG or Avira. Don’t go visiting any web sites you aren’t familiar with. Even links from trusted friends on Facebook can be dangerous without proper precautions.
  • Monitor your children’s use of your family computer. Disregard their ‘right to privacy’, they’re probably selling organs on eBay.
  • Don’t play spammy pay-to-win games, and don’t install browser any untrustworthy browser extensions. If you’re not sure, Google it. Remember good search queries like “Is Candy Crush a virus?”, “What is [programe].exe ”,

Thanks

If you’ve been helping to perform miracles to help out a family member with their IT problems - I commend you!

This article originally published: Front End Adventure - Jan 12, 2016.

An Amiga 500 PC photoshopped onto an outer-space background