Once Upon a Timepiece

Posted by Kathy on March 15th, 2014

abacusI attended a conference this week for writers in higher education. During one of the sessions, I sat next to a woman who intrigued me because she was wearing a device on her left wrist that looked foreign to me.

In my tech job at work, I thought I’d seen everything. Devices are getting so much smaller these days and they do so much that it’s like walking around with an entire computer in your pocket.

But this thing she had strapped to her wrist was something that really baffled me. This device looked like jewelry, but wasn’t quite a bracelet. It had symbols on it, but didn’t light up. I wondered if it was taking her pulse or counting her steps or something.

Curiosity got the better of me, so I just blurted out “What’s that thing on your wrist?”

“It’s a wristwatch.”

“A wristwatch? What’s that?”

“A wristwatch is something you wear on your wrist to tell time.”

“Tell time? You mean, it speaks to you? Like Siri?”

“No, you just look at it.”

Look at it? But I see it’s not digital. How can it possibly tell you the time? Does it beep and remind you of appointments?”

She drew it a little closer to me. “See, it has hands that move. The shorter hand points to the hour and the longer hand points to the minutes.”

“So it keeps moving throughout the day as the time changes?”

“Yes.”

“But does it alert you to appointments?”

“No. You just have to glance at it when you think you’re getting close to an appointment time.”

“That must be hard.”

“No, not really. You just think about when you need to be somewhere and you check whether you’re close to it. Observe. I’m going to look at it right now and determine that I have to be at the next session in fifteen minutes.”

“Wow. That’s remarkable. No beeps. You mean you use your brain?”

“Yes, I use my brain.”

“Huh. Brain. I don’t see you have a place to plug it in. How do you charge it?”

“You don’t. You wind it. It’s mechanical. It’s powered by a spring mechanism.”

“A spring mechanism?! What is this madness?”

“You have to wind it periodically to make it keep accurate time. The spring tightens as you wind it and drives the watch as it unwinds.”

“So you’re saying that when it runs low, you don’t have to run all around looking for a place to plug it in?”

“Right. You just turn this little dial here a few times and you’re done.”

“Fascinating! So listen, did you get that last comment the speaker made that sounded really important? I didn’t type it on my laptop.”

“As a matter of fact, I did. I wrote it down.”

“Wrote it?”

“Yeah. I used this thing. It’s called a pen. “

“A pen? What’s that?”

MOL. It’s Like LOL, Only Felinier

Posted by Kathy on October 17th, 2013

laughing catSo today I was remotely troubleshooting a client’s software problem when I happened to realize why her User ID reminds me of something.

A key part of her ID is “MOL” and I blurted out “OMG! You have MOL in your User Name!”

She’s like “What’s that?”

I’m all “It’s what Internet cats say in response to funny comments. You know, “Meow Out Loud.”

Silence.

I explained further “All Internet cats use that. It’s hilarious because they’re not LOL-ing, they’re MOL-ing. Get it? So cute!”

Silence.

I started to list all the famous Internet cats that I know who MOL to see if she recognized any.

She didn’t.

I immediately shut up about meowing out loud Internet cats and resumed working on her computer problem like a normal person.

But now I’m permanently that weirdo she has for tech support.

Awesome.

I Don’t Have the Remotest Idea

Posted by Kathy on September 30th, 2012

remote controlYou know how I’m always doing monumentally stupid things?

Well, pull up a chair and let’s talk about last weekend.

One of my TV remote controls has a label stuck to the back of it. The label gradually began peeling away and left glue behind that stuck to my fingers as I channel surfed.

Of course, this annoyance had to be solved immediately and without forethought.

For the record, we have a second remote that did the same thing, one where I successfully removed the sticky residue by scrubbing it with a damp SOS pad. All smooth. No glue. Life was happy.

But for this remote, and for reasons unknown, I decided to scrub it directly under a stream of water. Water seeped into the bowels of the remote, which of course rendered it useless.

Dumbass.

I cursed my stupidity, removed the batteries and pointed a hair dryer at it for five minutes. This didn’t help, so I gave up and set it on a windowsill to let a breeze run over it all night.

Twenty four hours later, I picked it up and noticed that pressing some buttons illuminated them and I thought “Eureka! It’s dry!”

However.

Pointing it at the TV and pressing buttons resulted in nothing. It was still working in a broken kind of way.

It occurred to me that since I’d given my remote a bubble bath, I might need to reprogram it to work again with my DVR and TV.

Enter “Remote Control Manual for Synergy V.” Now just go look at that thing. It’s like 40 pages long and I was already tired and ready for bed.

But I had a manual and a mission and so I set out to fix this bastard.

According to the Manual from Hell, you have to enter certain codes for your model of DVR and TV. They give you several possible codes and if one doesn’t work, you try another until you get a match.

Within minutes, I successfully reprogrammed the DVR, the TV and the audio, which meant I could channel surf again.

However, I still couldn’t call up the list of recorded shows. I also couldn’t record anything new.

And so I did what stupid people do and go all Angry Birds on the buttons, press something really wrong and now we have no joy on the TV.

Only a message that reads “No Signal.”

Son. Of. A. Bitch.

I was so close, yet in a moment of keypad frenzy, I ruined all the progress I’d made.

And so I was left with the option no one wants. Ever.

I was going to have to call RCN cable tech support.

I dial, make my way through a maze of options and then hear something that makes me cry.

“All of our operators are busy. Your approximate wait is 20 minutes.”

I listen to horrible little RCN jingles and advertisements for services I don’t want for what feels like an eternity.

Eventually a nice man gets on the line and I tell him how dumb I was by cleaning an electronic device with actual liquid and would he kindly save me from myself.

Our goal was to get a signal to the TV and he sends reset instructions to my DVR, but this does nothing because the problem isn’t with the DVR.

It’s with the TV itself.

He has me walk over to the TV and look for a menu with Input on it somewhere. I start pressing buttons haphazardly and he asks me to slow down and tell him what’s going on.

I work in tech support and I’m surprised at how spastic and uncooperative I’ve become. Chillax, Kathy!

And so I slow down.

I press Menu and see Input listed as an option. But there’s no “Set” or “Enter” button that lets me lock anything in.

Tech Guy doesn’t know what to tell me because he can’t see what I’m seeing and I just know I’m explaining things to him like a three-year-old.

Button not go isn’t work what the can’t set help me waaaaahhhh!

Meanwhile, my husband is calling me from my cell phone and keeps beeping into the call. There’s no way I’m answering it.

I’m not about to risk a hang-up on Tech Support Guy, who is right now the most important man in my life.

I email my sister and tell her to call Dave and ask that he stop calling me, as I’m in tech support hell.

She writes back and says she couldn’t reach him and left a message.

I email her again. He’s not going to listen to voice mail! It’s my phone! Call him again until you reach him!!! He keeps beeping in!!!

Tech Support Guy is still mystified why I’m getting no signal on the TV, but I’m happy now that the incessant Dave beeping has finally stopped.

I return to the set and start pressing buttons again, but this time I realize that if I choose HDMI-1 and wait a beat, then it sets to that option.

A football game appears on the screen. Yippee!

I run through all the resets again on the remote, codes galore, but then I surf and realize I have no HD channels.

I report this new misery to Tech Guy and he sends another reset to the DVR. At once, all my pre-recorded shows display, I can record new shows again and all the HD channels are back.

Halleluiah!

We share some laughs and I thank him profusely. I ask him if he’s close by and if he is, I’d like to come over and give him a hug. He is duly creeped out.

As we prepare to end the call, I ask him if he could please fix something that bugs me in the Manual from Hell.

“What’s wrong with it?” he asks.

“Well, every place where there should be an “its” is spelled wrong. There’s an apostrophe where it doesn’t belong,” I report. “It’s full of wrong “its”!”

Dead. Silence.

“Hello?” I say.

“Uh. Yeah, well, um. The people from the remote control company wrote that manual, and they just gave it to us to post. We can’t fix it,” he replies.

I reluctantly accept the fate of the manual. I’m sad that it will remain forever incorrect, but then I count my blessings because I have a TV signal and all systems are go. Gotta pick your battles, right?

Tech Support Guy prepares to jettison me off this phone call so he can tell all his co-workers about this stupid woman who washed her remote control and who also happens to be a Grammar Nazi.

You just don’t get calls like that every day, and if you’re in tech support, nor do you want to.

The Best Tech Support Call I Ever Got

Posted by Kathy on August 23rd, 2008

keyboard A computing consultant by trade, I tend to stay away from discussing tech support calls I get on this here blog.

Not because they’re not chuckle-worthy sometimes, but because there is an understood doctor/patient-type confidentiality agreement in place with the clients I serve.

But I think I can let one story slide. I feel I’m safe to share it because it happened many years ago in a former job and the woman who called has long since retired. I’m required to share it because it involved boobs.

The call went something like this:

Caller: Kathy, I’m having trouble getting to my forms for data entry.

Me: What screen are you on now?

Caller: It doesn’t have a screen number and I don’t know what it is.

Me: How did you get there?

Caller: I’m not sure.

Me: You should be able to get back to the main menu by pressing the F10 key.

Caller: Not working.

Me: Tell me more about what’s on the screen. Still not sure where you are.

Caller: It’s got some help stuff on it and it doesn’t have a place to enter a new screen number.

Me: OK. It sounds like you’re in a sub-menu. Try pressing the Esc key once, then F10.

Caller: Yes! That worked! Thanks!

Me: No problem. Boy, that’s a weird one. I still can’t figure out how you wound up there.

Caller: (Whispering) Well, I was a little embarrassed to tell you. I dropped a pen on the floor and when I leaned over to get it, my boobs smashed a mess of keys on the keyboard. I didn’t know which ones they took out.

Me: Oh, that’s rich. I don’t think I’ll ever get a call like this again in my entire career.

And I never did.

Remember, ladies. Watch your aim.

——-

Check out Humor-Blogs.com. It’s smashing!

How to Show a Picture With Your Comment

Posted by Kathy on March 13th, 2008

junkdrawer You may notice in the comments section that some people have a picture associated with their names, and others just have the default Junk Drawer icon (shown at left). How is that done?

This blog uses a WordPress plug-in called Easy Gravatars, which harvests images (or avatars) associated with email accounts registered with My Gravatars. It’s a free service, where you enter your email address (you can create more than one) and then associate a picture with it. When you use that email address on a blog comment, the picture you choose will appear along with it.

Sign-up is simple. Go to Gravatar.com and enter the email address(es) you use on blogs. Choose an image to use for that email, crop it and then associate it with that address. When you leave a comment on any gravatar-enabled blog, your picture will show up next to your name.

If you have any questions, or if you want to test it out, drop a comment in the drawer.

Note: I got some help with my Junk Drawer icon from The Awesome and Talented Kev at Special Kind of Stupid. He was able to tweak a larger logo I created using Flickr images. Eventually, another version of this icon will appear at the top of my blog. Thanks, Kev!

Feed Me

Posted by Kathy on March 8th, 2008

rss It’s the weekend, but school’s still in session. Click the Feed Me tab in my blog’s header to get a tutorial on subscribing to my blog via RSS feed or email.

I also include an explanation and fix for a recently-discovered problem with Blogger’s page redirection. Thanks, Google. You’re the crappy gift that keeps on giving.

Can’t Read Light Text on Dark Backgrounds?

Posted by Kathy on January 20th, 2008

my eyes hurt Some of my favorite blogs are designed with white (or light) text on a dark background. There’s only one problem. I can’t read them.

Evidently I’m one of those people who finds the contrast straining on the eye. It’s OK for a minute or so, but if I’m reading a lengthy article, after a while my eyes get very tired and I have to stop.

Also, when I click onto another page, the image from the light-on-dark page remains, sort of like a picture negative.

So what do I do to keep reading those blogs? I created a little bookmarklet in my Firefox web browser that contains java script to swap the color contrast. When I click the button, light goes dark, and dark goes light. Ahhh! Much better.

The only problem is that I can’t find a way to do the same thing for my readers who use Internet Explorer. Believe me, I’ve tried. If anyone knows how to create a bookmarklet for java script, let me know and I’ll post it.

To create this bookmarklet in Firefox, make sure you have an active Bookmarks Toolbar. Click View > Toolbars and make sure Bookmarks Toolbar has a checkmark next to it. If not, click it and it’ll be activated.

Drag this link up to your Bookmark Toolbar and drop it there. It’ll create a button that you can rename if you want. Right-click the button, left-click Properties and in the Name field enter something like Switch Contrast or whatever you want to call it. Click OK.

Now when you visit a blog or web site that uses light text on a dark background, click that button and the colors will be inverted!

If you don’t have Firefox, you can get it here. I’m not a fan of Internet Explorer, so I take every chance I get to sing Firefox’s praises. If you need some help with this tip, drop a comment in the drawer or email me at kathyblog07 [at] gmail [dot] com and I’ll be happy to help you!

Post addendum: Whoops! I need to clarify that I did not write the java script. I created the bookmarklet from script I found on the web. I cannot properly credit the person who wrote it because there is no linkback to his site. All I know is his name is Robert. That’s all I could find at the site I found the script on. So, thanks Awesome Java Script-writing Robert Somebody. You’re saving our eyes!

A Tech Tip From My Cat

Posted by Kathy on December 29th, 2007

shadow Until now I had only considered my cat Shadow’s butt to be a weapon of mass destruction. Last month I wrote about how she mortified me by dropping a fart grenade in front of my plumber.

Today I’m happy to report that Shadow can use her butt powers for good, as well. It dispenses tech tips.

Here’s how it happened:  My husband Dave was doing some online shopping when Shadow decided the keyboard would be a fine place to get comfortable. She laid down across the whole keyboard and her butt landed hard enough on some keys to screw up the screen Dave was viewing while he was scrolling with the mouse.

The screen content went from normal size to gigantic with that little trick of hers. Once he shooed her away from the desk, Dave had to figure out which key caused the screen text to enlarge so much. After some fiddling around, he discovered it was the CTRL key. It seems if you press CTRL while scrolling up or down, the screen’s text size enlarges or minimizes as you scroll.

In almost ten years of working in the computing industry, I have never known about this little tip. And I can really use it now, since my eyes are not what they used to be. The beauty part is it’s not just for web browsers. The technique works in programs like Microsoft Word, where the view is enlarged, but your font size stays where you want it.

What makes this technique better than other text enlarging maneuvers is that you don’t have click around menus inside each program to find what does the job. That’s what I used to do — for years. Now it’s just a simple CTRL and scroll!

Thanks, Shadow, for sharing your buttalicious talents. See how much better it is to use your powers for good?

7 Windows XP Time-saving Techniques You’re Not Using

Posted by Kathy on September 7th, 2007

In my line of work, I frequently stand over the shoulder of someone I’m helping with a PC problem. Often I ask them to replicate their problem and when I see how slowly they navigate through Windows I take the opportunity to show them a faster way. Their response is almost always "Oh my God. I’ve been doing it the hard way all these years!"

Improve your efficiency with these 7 time-saving techniques:
  • Close programs via their Taskbar buttons. Don’t maximize each window, then close it by clicking "X" in the upper right corner. Instead, right-click the program’s button, then click Close.

  • View your Desktop in one click instead of manually minimizing each open window until the Desktop is all that’s left in view. First make sure you have Quick Launch enabled. Right-click and empty area of the Taskbar, click Toolbars > Quick Launch. Now you will see the Show Desktop icon next to the Start button. When you want to quickly get to your Desktop, just click that icon.

  • Stop digging around for Windows Explorer in the programs menu. Open it by right-clicking the Start button, then click Explore.

  • Add program shortcuts to the Taskbar. First, enable Quick Launch in the Taskbar (right click the Taskbar, click Toolbars > Quick Launch). Next, unlock the Taskbar so you are able to resize it and make room for shortcuts (right click the Taskbar, click Lock the Taskbar to remove the checkmark). Finally, drag shortcuts to the Taskbar and release.
  • Pin frequently used programs to the Start Menu (only available in the Windows XP Start menu, not the Classic Menu). Click Start > All Programs. Locate a favorite program, right-click on the program’s icon and select Pin to Start Menu. Now that program will always appear at the top of the Start Menu.

  • Find files faster. When using Windows Explorer you can type the first letter of a file or folder and Explorer will jump to the first file or folder starting with that letter. Single left-click (not double click) on any folder or file, then type a letter to jump ahead to it.
  • To grab several adjacent files at once using only your mouse, position your cursor just outside the files you want to encapsulate, then drag the mouse around the set of files you want to copy so they are shaded. Release the click and you’ll see the files have been selected and you can act on them all at once (copy, cut, move, delete, etc).

7 Ways to Get Better Tech Support

Posted by Kathy on August 18th, 2007

At one point or another, you’ve been frustrated with a computer problem and needed to reach out and call the tech support line. It’s possible you would rather have your fingernails pulled out, one by one, than talk to a help line person. It doesn’t have to be a bad experience if you follow these 7 suggestions:

1. Relax. The person you’re calling is there to help you and probably will do a good job of it. Give them a chance. Avoid screaming and ranting, as that tends to get the support person’s back up against a wall and that won’t do either of you any good.

2. Take good notes. If you are calling because you received an error while using a program, it’s extremely helpful to write this down. You can even take a snapshot of it for reference (CTRL+Print Screen, then Paste into MS-Word). Your problem can be solved much quicker if you have the entire message handy.

3. Patience, Grasshopper. Understand that the person you are calling likely has other customers or clients in the queue already. Try not to jump ahead, claiming your problem is an emergency. Most of our calls are emergencies. That’s why we get calls. You not only frustrate the tech support staff, but you also force other people to wait. If you were in the queue already, would you want someone else trying to nudge ahead in line?

4. Show respect. It takes a healthy amount of education and training to provide good technical support. A common complaint among my colleagues is that we do not feel our profession is well-respected because society thinks "anyone can do it." Doing it, and doing it well are polar opposites. Trained professionals do it exceptionally well.

5. Ask for training. Many computer problems can be avoided with a little user education. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know how to do something. Use your problem as a learning opportunity. Good technical support staff will offer additional help past the point where an immediate problem is resolved. It never hurts to ask, and it shows you are willing to learn and minimize your computing problems down the road.

6. Fess up. If you’ve tried and failed to solve the problem on your own (and perhaps made things worse in the process), it helps to know what transpired. Often, we can reverse-engineer the problem, which almost always leads to a faster solution.

7. A little humor never hurt. We all know how stressful computer problems can be. Try to take the edge off and use a little humor. It sets both parties at ease and usually leads to a more satisfying experience for everyone.

5 Ways to Manage your Email

Posted by Kathy on August 15th, 2007

Research reveals that the average American worker spends from one to two hours handling email every day. Depending on your job, that number may be higher. For some — much higher. Email revolutionized the way we communicate at work, but it can also be the bane of our technological existence. If you find yourself the victim of email overload, try some of these tips to manage your mail and reclaim your workday.

  1. Don’t need it? Delete it! If you’re a packrat, you’re in trouble. One of the biggest email problems users face is the sheer volume of messages they receive every day and the tendency to keep everything. Some tricks: Pick off the easy ones first. If you have a quick answer, send it, then delete the message. And not just from the Inbox – get rid of it in Trash, too. Stop re-reading the same message. Be realistic. If you know deep down you’ll never reply to the message, delete it and move on.
  2. Set aside time to review email. Establish a routine for checking email. It may be that you block off time at the start of the day, again after lunch and then before you leave the office. Don’t allow yourself to be interrupted during this time. Deal with messages immediately: Delete it, forward it, schedule it, respond to it, or file it. Consider closing your email program outside of these scheduled times so you won’t be compelled to check for new messages constantly.
  3. Setup a filtering system. If you belong to a listserv or receive daily messages from the same place (such as bulletins or announcements), filter them out of the Inbox and into another folder. Then when you have time, go to that folder and read them at once. This will keep your focus on one topic and minimize the time it takes to deal with them.
  4. Setup a file folder system. Many of us keep messages for reference purposes only. Build a file folder system that categorizes these reference messages for quick access later. The important thing is to get them out of your Inbox.
  5. Limit unnecessary responses. You don’t have to respond to every message, especially just to say "Thanks" or "OK." The more email you generate, the more someone else has to act on it.

Slingo: The End of an Era

Posted by Kathy on August 11th, 2007

For those following activities in The Dad Zone, you’ll know that I was planning on getting him Verizon DSL soon. That day came today. The setup was a breeze and Dad’s now surfing the web infinitely faster than before. He’s so thrilled that his internet polka stations are playing smoothly, every last one of them. He can’t get enough of this new (to him) technology, he’s going to get right on the phone and brag to all his friends that he’s using broadband now. Good for him!

So after getting DSL configured and working, I decided to try migrating him over to Mozilla Firefox for times he’s reading his news websites and playing the radio feeds, simply because AOL does a lousy job of rendering these sites and doesn’t always know what media players to use for the stations. Firefox is so much easier, plus he knows how to quickly enlarge text on screens with a touch of a button. Something else AOL sucks at.

After moving all his AOL Favorites over to Firefox and getting him used to the new interface, he asked me a question I’d been wanting to hear for years: "Now that I’m using Firefox, what do I need AOL for?" I told him all it’s good for now is playing Slingo.

What he said next made me want to both strangle him and hug him at the same time.

"I don’t need Slingo."

"WHAT?!?!?!?!?! It’s ALL YOU TALK ABOUT!!!!! And if you stop playing it on AOL, you’ll lose your lifetime score!"

"Eh…. I can live without it. Besides, I can’t get higher than 108."

So, incredibly, I’m in the position to get him off AOL, stop paying the insane $250 annual subscription fee, get him browsing the internet the easy way, and stop hearing about how he can’t crack the Top 100. What a glorious day this is. I only wish I’d asked him years ago if he can live without Slingo. As crazy as it sounds, no one ever thought to approach him with that question. His Slingo score was all we ever heard about.

I intend to download a "free standing" version of Slingo for him, which means he can still play the game. It just won’t know about his AOL lifetime score and he’ll have to start anew. We also have to wait until Slingo Deluxe works on Windows Vista. Right now, it’s not compatible, but I expect it will be in the next few months.

Rot in hell, AOL.

Knock knock. Your modem’s here.

Posted by Kathy on August 4th, 2007

I received my dad’s modem from Verizon already. I only ordered the DSL service for him on Wednesday. I’m not very anxious to get down to The Zone any time soon. I’m granted a reprieve of sorts. Verizon said I can’t install the modem or the software until the service is turned on remotely by them. This won’t be for a few days. So for now, I just have to gear up for the visit and maybe beg my sister Ann to come with me, if only to keep Dad at bay. Poor thing. She returns from a relaxing beach vacation tomorrow. Maybe I should wait a day before calling.

Weirdest tech problems resolved

Posted by Kathy on August 1st, 2007

I see all kinds of strange PC problems in my line of work. Sometimes the simplest steps can resolve the most perplexing problems. Here’s a list of some crazy things to try that you might not have thought would help.

  • If you use a wireless mouse, and all of a sudden your system doesn’t respond, or responds strangely to your mouse movements, check the batteries. They’re probably dying.

  • If you suddenly can’t print and you know you don’t have a paper jam, unplug the printer (don’t just turn it off). Remove and re-insert the plug, then try to print again. This technique cures a lot of printer ills.

  • If you use a flat panel monitor and suddenly all of your icons look really big and unclear, pull the plug from the back of the monitor and re-insert it.

  • If you use USB flash drives with Microsoft Windows, always remove the device via Windows before yanking it out of your system. This minimizes the chance that you’ll corrupt the drive and the data on it. To remove it in Windows, right-click the little green hardware icon at the lower right of your screen. Left-click the drive you want to remove. When it’s safe to physically remove it, Windows will tell you so.

  • Can’t get your wireless connection to turn on your new laptop? Look for a wireless ON/OFF switch on the sides or front of the laptop. Some models have physical switches that override whatever your wireless setting is configured for in the operating system.

  • As dumb as it sounds, reboot your computer every now and then, especially if you’re prone to leaving it on 24/7. The refresh will do it good.

PC a little sluggish lately?

Posted by Kathy on August 1st, 2007

Most people are aware that they need to protect their PCs from viruses, but they take few measures to prevent against spyware, an equally annoying threat to your PC’s happiness. Spyware can slow your system down over time, cause numerous unwanted pop-ups and make your system unstable.

Follow these instructions for downloading, installing and running a free program, called Spybot, to protect your system from spyware. Your PC will love you for it.

http://www.lehigh.edu/computing/docs/spybot/guide.htm

.

Broadband in The Dad Zone

Posted by Kathy on July 31st, 2007

For those of you familiar with The Dad Zone, you know I still had work to do. One of my chores was to get my Dad broadband access so he could do his own "iTuning." And because I’m a bad daughter, I hadn’t gotten around to yet. Until today.

I got the call at work. When I saw Dad’s number on the caller ID, I almost didn’t answer. You all know why. So he tells me he got a great deal in the mail to get Verizon broadband access for $14.99/mo and he only had until TODAY to sign up. One eye roll and a mental groan later, I’m on the phone with Verizon trying to order it for him. He had called himself, but his attempt at getting the poor sales rep on the other end to fill out the online request for him failed. So that left the job for me.

It was an easy process, I have to say (bless your hearts, Verizon). I’ll be receiving the modem and installer CD in the mail in a few days. I’m just praying that installation goes well. But as we all know by now — THINGS WILL GO WRONG.

One little tidbit I learned from my Dad. He can get the $14.99 deal for one year and if he calls Verizon when the year is up, he can renew another year at the same cut-rate price. See, they don’t tell anyone that. The only reason he knows this inside information is because he asked the rep "So what’s the price going to jump when the year is up?" They told him as long as he called them (they won’t notify him when the deal is over), he can continue at the lower price. This is interesting because I just got a great deal after fighting with RCN over my own broadband. I’ll have to file a reminder to call them in a year and see if I can continue at the slashed price.

Moral of the story: Be like my Dad and complain about the prices of things these days. You never know what rewards you might reap.

Early tech support

Posted by Kathy on July 30th, 2007

Tech support isn’t as bad as this, but some days it comes pretty close.

Adventures in Tech Support: When your 82-year-old father wants to be on the bleeding edge of technology

Posted by Kathy on July 29th, 2007

tech support It all started Christmas of 1997 and I hold myself completely responsible. For years my siblings and I would get our parents the least exciting and most utilitarian Christmas gifts imaginable; the gift card to their local grocery store, sweaters, robes and slippers, and the ever boring cash. Then one year I had the crazy idea that Mom and Dad might like a computer. It was borderline ridiculous; given their idea of high tech was a touch-tone phone.

Indeed, they saw no good reason to give up their 1950’s Western Electric 5302 model rotary phone that woke up the house when it rang. They were disappointed when Ma Bell broke up and you had to return your old phone to the Bell Atlantic store and buy a cheap, light plastic one that was no substitute for Old Reliable. Still, I thought a little advancement in the technology department would be good for them, and what fun it would be to see the looks on their faces when they opened up their gifts that year.

Dad had been in retirement for a while by that fall. After many grueling years running his own small business, he was finally getting his overdue rest. He and Mom had their usual routine of going out for breakfast, running to the store and making a few errands here and there during the week. But other than that and some weekend trips to Atlantic City, their retirement years were fairly monotonous. So I thought we could jazz things up a bit with a computer and get them on the Internet and check out this thing called AOL that was, at the time, still in its infancy.

 A few months before that Christmas, I suggested to my brother and sisters that we split the cost of a desktop computer. Surprisingly, no one balked at the idea. I wish now someone had the sense to ask “And what are they going to do with it?” so we could have realized our mistake and bought them something easier to use; you know, like a mass spectrometer.

It was really exciting when we delivered it to the house Christmas day.  Dad came to the door, and in a jolly bewildered voice yelled “What the heck is this?” He couldn’t contain himself and neither could Mom.  Clearly, this wasn’t going to be a gift certificate Christmas. Before anyone could even think of opening their own gifts, we had to have them open up theirs first. Mom didn’t want to open such a big gift because she never asked for anything in her life and felt so weird about opening up something so huge. But Dad was intrigued.

 The looks on their faces when they saw what it was couldn’t have made us happier. A computing consultant by trade, I was anointed the one to configure everything and so began the proceedings. I plugged everything in and got right down to the good stuff, getting them on AOL, which we kids also chipped in together to get.    This was a truly momentous day.  Mom and Dad were entering unknown territory. They were going to surf the web.

slingo The decision I made next would ruin me for years to come.   After we got online and poked around a bit, I showed him how to play a game on AOL called Slingo. It’s basically a flip-card game where you click numbered tiles on the board that match ones that appear at the bottom of the screen whenever you click the spin button. Harmless, I thought.  It’s just a silly game, something to show him you can do on the computer.

Fast-forward ten years and – as God is my witness – he’s still playing the game.  In a good game, one averages about 5,000 points, as long as “The Devil” doesn’t appear in the bottom row to steal all your points and you have to start collecting them again. His lifetime score as of today is 1,495,678,435. Yeah, billion. You do the math.  OK, I’ll do the math. That’s about three hundred thousand games.

 He should be in a mental institution by now, rocking back and forth and hearing Slingo buzzes and dings in his sleep. But he’s not. He’s trying to crack into the top 100 positions on the scoreboard that’s been keeping track of everyone who’s ever played the game in the last ten years. Since his efforts began, he’s achieved Slingo Masters status. It can take months to move up just one position in the list. He’s at 108. I do believe he will not actually allow himself to die before he’s in the Top 100.

Games aside, he’s using the computer for some other fun things, although email’s not one of them. He prides himself on not using email because “I don’t get any spam that way!” As a computing consultant at a local university, I’d like to see how it would fly if I told my clients “Hey, you know how you can avoid all that spam in your inbox? Don’t give out your email address or send any email!”

 In addition to occasionally browsing the Internet for news stories, he also discovered Internet radio. This is important because there are only so many polka radio stations in the area. Yes, polka. There may have been a local one at some point, but it’s probably defunct now because they only had two listeners, my Mom and Dad.

How much do they love polka?   Well, you know how teenagers are prone to blasting their stereos so loud the cops are called by the crabby neighbors who hate hearing “that music the kids play these days?”  That wasn’t our house exactly.  The cops didn’t come to shut us down. They came after the neighbors complained about Dad’s infernal polka music being blared from our insane stereo system with two gigantic speakers that were so big you could serve Thanksgiving dinner on them. These were teeth-rattling speakers and when you blasted them, walls shook, babies cried and the cops came.

So Dad loves the idea that he and Mom now have worldwide access to their beloved polka music from stations near and far.  He’s managed to locate stations from states you’d expect polka not be mocked as a musical genre, but embraced and loved, like Wisconsin and Ohio.  But he’s also found international stations that broadcast from Germany, Austria and Hungary.

It doesn’t matter he can’t understand what the announcers are saying. All he knows is he can get stations that play the most beautiful music he’s ever heard. But one thing makes him totally lose his mind – when the station feeds stutter and break their connection. Which leads me to the reason for my pain.

“Kathy, can you do anything to make my music keep playing?”

“Yeah, you need broadband access.”

“But I think it’s the computer. The computer isn’t fast enough.”

“No, Dad. It’s because you’re using a slow dial-up connection.”

“But Walmart has this sale on Dell computers. Look!”

He hands me a flyer from the newspaper.

“Dad, it says they have only four in stock. This is ‘bait and switch. They’re going to get you in the store, not have any left, and sell you something you don’t want or need. And, besides, that’s not going to help with the music.”

“But….but…..”

“Ok. At least let me find you a decent system for a good price.”

So here we are again, buying Dad a new computer. I’m dreading the call to my siblings to ask for more money. My case is this: “Dad insists a newer computer will solve his music-playing problem and I told him it wouldn’t, but he disagrees and if you guys don’t give me $200 towards a new PC for Dad, he’s going to go to Walmart and buy a Flintstone computer and then I’ll have to support THAT!”

The checks started rolling in the next week. If there’s one argument to be made for forking over money to me it’s the thought that at least they don’t get calls at all hours about how this or that doesn’t work and can you fix it?  They’re basically paying for not having to play the tech support game.

A couple weeks went by while I shopped for the best price on a desktop and when the price was right, I locked in and bought it. The computer arrived at my office a mere four days later. I configured it with some software he might actually use, threw some spyware protection on it and then installed AOL. When I configure new computers for my clients in the office, I install a myriad software applications and test a bunch of stuff.

 On Dad’s computer, there’s only one thing that needs to work, and that’s AOL. More specifically, Slingo. If AOL ever decides to trash the game, I don’t want to be in the country. I want to be somewhere that Dad can’t reach me because it’s going to be a sad, depressing day. Remember, he’s working on cracking the Top 100. Please AOL, if you do anything right in this world, do not get rid of Slingo or I’ll have to kill myself or at least move away and get a new identity.

I delivered Dad’s new computer on a Friday after work, when I’m most exhausted and have already dealt with every confounding computer problem possible during the work week. I called my husband to say I was setting up Dad’s new PC that night and he said “Don’t do it. You know how you feel by Friday afternoon.” I knew I shouldn’t go, but I also didn’t want to spend all day Saturday doing it. I needed to get it out of the way right then. So I loaded up the car and off I went.

I was really fun setting up the new PC with its monster 22” flat panel screen, which made Dad drool. Again, I plugged everything in, cleared away all the old equipment and then loaded it in my car to cart away. Then we stood back, marveling at this amazing, rockin’ fast system that would surely play better music than the one before. Or so I thought.

First things first. We launch AOL and make sure that Slingo works, because we just bought him basically a thousand dollar video game. Up next, we check out the Internet radio stations he’s got linked in his Favorites folder. Within minutes a song that’s playing skips a beat. And so did my heart.

“Dad, you NEED broadband to make songs play smoothly. I told you it was the speed of your connection that was the
problem, didn’t I?”

“Yes, you did. So how to I get broadband access? What is it anyway?”

“Oh my God, Dad. It’s how fast the connection brings data down to your PC, how fast data moves out. We’ve been through this before.”

“Ok, so can you work on that next?”

“Yes, Dad.”

For the time being, he’s happily surfing and playing his Slingo, while Mom’s on the couch reading her book, having never gotten interested in the computer, even since the first one. She doesn’t have to be entertained by bells and whistles and games and surfing. Give her a good book and she’s content. She probably reads two books a week, and we think she might have actually read all the books in the small library in Wilson Borough. She’s working on all the holdings of the Easton Public Library now. We don’t know what’s going to happen when she finishes all those. Does the New York Public Library deliver?

ipod Then Dad says something that makes my eyes roll to the back of my head. He wants an iPod next so he can listen to his music while he goes on his daily walks with Mom. “Hey! I don’t even have an iPod!” I also don’t feel like being tech support for that, which means my sister Ann is designated as the iPod support person because I know she has one. I inform her of this that night and I get a feeling she thinks he’s joking, but the very next day, he went straight out and bought one. “Ann, Dad’s got you on speed dial. Be ready.”

So she gets the call for help the very next morning. She decides that she’s going to try and squeeze in the visit before going to a picnic at a friend’s house. I told her “Ann, you’re a nurse. You save people’s lives every day. But this is tech support. It’s much, much harder. You need to know that it’s probably not going to go well. Nothing is ever as easy as you think. Problems always crop up and they’re never resolved in the time you think you can get them resolved. You need software and have to install the device. It might go all right, but it probably won’t, so gear up for that. And did you forget, it’s Dad you’re dealing with?”

I tell her that she’ll have to install iTunes, the software that the device uses to download music. “Do you have the installation CD?” “I don’t know,” she says, “but mine came with one so he must have one, too.” I tell her “Well you’re screwed if he doesn’t have it because then you’ll have to download the software from the Internet and you can’t do that over Dad’s slow dial-up connection. The file is monstrously big.”  She completely ignores every single one of my warnings and goes anyway.

One hour later, I get the emergency call while I’m trying to take a nap. “Kathy! He doesn’t have the installation CD and I’m trying to download the software and it’s taking forever and it’s really big and it’s only at 5% complete and that took 20 minutes and Dad’s hovering over me and I don’t know what to do!” “Oh my God, Ann, didn’t I say you couldn’t download it over the Internet and that the file was huge? Does NO ONE ever listen to me?!?!?!”

One thing that being the tech support person for your 82-year-old, legally blind father makes you is sympathetic to anyone else who has to deal with his computer problems. So I make an offer she can’t refuse. I offer to go with her the next day to setup the iPod. We synchronize our watches. We’ll meet at 5:00PM.

The next day, I make sure to eat a good protein-rich meal. I know that I’ll have a brutal, exhausting, stressful time of things in what we now call The Dad Zone, and like a professional marathoner training for a triathlon, I will have to be well-fed, well-rested and well-prepared.

 Before heading down to The Zone, I first stop at Ann’s house to download the iTunes software onto a borrowed flash drive, a device that can hold a ton of files and makes copying and moving data very easy. Or so I thought. Ann doesn’t have a flash drive of her own, and I don’t feel like driving to campus to get mine. So I suggest she borrow one from her neighbor who works in the computing industry. Unfortunately, he’s not home, so she calls another neighbor and borrows his drive.

She gives it to me and I insert it into her computer so we can download the software over her high-speed internet connection. I grab iTunes, and some other stuff I forgot to install on Dad’s PC on the first go-around. When I go to pull the drive out, after safely telling Windows I was about to do so, the drive won’t give. It’s stuck in the port! I know that God hates me now. For everything that could go wrong does go wrong. I do manage to pull the drive out by its metal end, which has unbelievably separated from its plastic casing.

Ann, this NEVER happens! I’ve used a hundred flash drives and this NEVER happens. God hates me. I tell her that taking a faulty drive down to Dad’s is just asking for trouble and we debate whether to run over to a nearby Staples and buy a new one. I don’t feel like dealing with traffic over by Northampton Crossings because I’m stressed already and I might run over people who look like they’re having any kind of fun whatsoever. After chewing this over for ten minutes, we ultimately decide to chance it and go anyway with the flash drive from hell.

We pull into Mom and Dad’s apartment parking lot and take a deep breath. From my past experience in The Zone, there is no doubt that this is what will happen next:

  • Mom and Dad will NOT have the air conditioner on and it’ll be a sauna in their apartment.
  • Dad will have the TV on and blasting and will be asked to turn it off so we can think straight.
  • Dad will hover over each of us in front of the computer and ask a question after every click we make. “What are you doing now? What’s that? Are you done yet?”
  • Dad will throw in some bonus questions about things completely unrelated to the task at hand and we’ll have to say “Later, Dad. We mean it.”
  • Dad will get a time-out. “Dad, just sit there in the corner and don’t say anything until we’re finished.”
  • Mom will be reading a book quietly on the couch.

What didn’t help matters is that Ann brought her 10-year-old daughter Regan along because she has a clarinet lesson in an hour and it’s close to Mom and Dad’s apartment. Ann thinks we’ll finish up quickly and she’ll be able to get her daughter to her lesson in time. But I know different. She’ll have to leave midway through our session because – all together now – THINGS WILL GO WRONG.

And they do. In spades. I insert the faulty flash drive and up comes an obnoxious warning that the drive I’ve just inserted appears to be corrupted and files might not open or be able to copy properly. Should have gone to Staples for a new drive! Curses! We have not started our work yet and I’m already being screamed at by Windows that I’m, indeed, an idiot. I pray very hard to the tech gods that at least the iTunes installation file will be displayed on the drive and that I’ll be able to run it. Mercifully, it does. We’re making progress now. Or so I think.

smiley face We get iTunes installed successfully, but that’s only half the battle. You now have to attach the iPod to a USB port and let Windows detect it and install it. Then you can use the software with it to begin downloading songs. This much went OK until we attempted to load the iTunes Store, where you can search for songs you want to download. The stupid store would not open and no thanks to the iTunes people, you don’t get any meaningful error to help you figure out the problem.

 At the same time, Dad’s hovering around us and for some inexplicable reason, reaches for the iPod cable that’s connected to the PC. We both scream very loud, and in unison, “Don’t touch that!!!!” To which Dad replies, “OK, OK! Just looking.” “No, Dad, you were just touching. You were touching. Now go sit down over there with Mom.”

So at this stage, we’re in a holding pattern until we can figure out the problem. We’re staring at the screen, clicking randomly and desperately trying to get something working, the whole time wondering how it’d be possible for Dad to climb out of a mess like this himself if we weren’t there to help. The feeling of doom was palpable.  Meanwhile, I’m cursing my niece because she’s been text messaging her thousand and twelve friends on her cell phone that Ann just bought her the day before.

It now occurs to Ann that it’s about time for Regan’s clarinet lesson and I’m laughing to myself because I just KNEW we wouldn’t be nearly finished like she thought. So she decided to drop everything and run her to her lesson, while leaving me behind to figure out the most recent complication. While they were gone, I Googled the problem a little more and realized it had something to do with the firewall setting for iTunes. The tech gods have thrown me a bone. I managed to open the firewall for just that software and then I was able to search for songs.

Ann returns a short time later and I silently bless her for even returning. I imagined how she felt coming back to The Zone, sort of like Dead Man Walking. But she got me into this. If she hadn’t come back, I was going to have to find her. She’s pleased to learn I’ve resolved the store problem and now we can search for songs to buy and transfer to the iPod. Since we both know what genre of music he’s going to target first, we start scrolling around looking for it. We glare at each other when we simultaneously realize that polka is nowhere on the list. This is not necessarily a surprise, as there are only sixty eight people in the country who enjoy it and two of them are sitting behind us.

We inform Dad of this bad news, but gently remind him he can always transfer his polka CD collection to the iPod later, but for now he should pick something else. “OK, so what do you want to download first?” There are about a dozen songs that make my ears bleed when I hear them. They stick in my head for days on end and I curse the musicians who recorded them, more so if they were actually popular and made a lot of money. One of those songs is Margaritaville by Jimmy Buffet. This is the song he wanted to get because God hates me.

Ann very quickly searched for and found the song. She played a sample so Dad could actually confirm this was the exact version he wanted because he pretty much hates live recordings of his favorite songs. Whatever. The song gets his blessing and Ann begins the download. On a high-speed internet connection, downloading an iTunes song takes less than a minute. On Dad’s dial-up connection, however, it took fifteen. While we’re waiting, I’m getting increasingly sweaty and hot under the collar, literally, so I put on the A/C to keep me from melting while Mom’s on the couch reading and now freezing in her double cotton knit robe in the middle of July.

Dad knows we’re irritated, so he makes an attempt to relax the both of us by offering us food. What would have really helped was ice cream, cake or pie. What he gave us was peaches.  A “peach offering,” it was. There’d be no reason to have junk food in the apartment, as Mom is diabetic. So we can’t fault them for not having something better to tide us over. It was a gesture that’d been offered once before in my memory, my wedding day. I’d received a bad hair styling that morning and was freaking out in the bathroom trying to fix it. Picture Bridezilla of the highest magnitude.

Mom was the only person in the house who was allowed to interrupt the madness and try to make things right. What she did was bring me some food to settle me and try and calm me down. What she handed me was a snack I always used to have as a kid. Little pieces of torn up French bread with tiny pats of butter on them. I’ll never forget that. I was blubbering about my hair and eating my snack prepared with love, and things turned out OK in the end.

noose But back to tech support hell. The song finally finished downloading and what’s supposed to happen now is the song should automatically synchronize with the iPod. And, of course, it didn’t. By now, Ann is dying a slow death and she let a curse word slip. We do not curse in our family. But she let it fly and nobody blinked. This was some serious business and cursing was not only allowed, it was encouraged and celebrated, if for no other reason than it kept her from punching Dad square in the face for buying an iPod.

At some point, Ann picked up the iPod to turn it on and see if the device itself showed any errors. She couldn’t tell. And why couldn’t she tell? Well, of course! The menus were in Chinese!  This new wrinkle just about made our heads explode. We were already wondering how Dad was going to scroll through the menu of songs (assuming we could get more than Margaritaville on it) on such a tiny screen, being legally blind and everything. Now we had to wonder if he’d have to learn Chinese. Luckily, a quick Google search later, we discovered how to reset the device to English language. This was the only thing that went right thus far.

I determined at this point that I’d had enough for the night. I looked Ann straight in the eyes and it killed me to see her expression. It said “Don’t you even think of leaving.” But I just couldn’t stand one more minute of this odyssey, knowing of course that I’d probably be back the next day to fix things up. “Ann, I’ve GOT to leave right now.” Deep down she understood and reluctantly allowed me to leave so I could save myself. I felt like I was leaving her to lions who hadn’t been fed for a while.

Just so I wouldn’t get to slip out unscathed, Dad asked me one more question. “I’ve been trying to play my polkas from that one website run by the high school in Ohio (that’s gotta be some high school!). And it won’t play because I don’t have Real Player.” Again, because God hates me, the broadcast station requires the use of Real Player and of course I forgot to install it, and of course the file is too big to download over dial-up, and of course now I have to figure that out, too. “I’ll download it to a flash drive and bring it tomorrow. That’s it. I’m leaving.”

The drive home was a blur. I didn’t realize, while I was both laughing and screaming to myself, that I was doing 85mph. If a cop had pulled me over, I think I could have gotten away without a ticket by simply explaining that I’d just tried unsuccessfully to configure software that doesn’t work for my elderly, impatient father and I have to go back tomorrow, and please officer, have mercy on me.

When I got home, I waited an hour before calling Ann at her house to see how things went after I’d left. There was no answer and I said to my husband, “My God, she must still be in The Zone!” We both bowed our heads and said a small prayer that she’d get out alive. About a half hour later, I checked my email and there was a message from her, which read:

Could you just scream????!!!!!!! I was unable to download his purchased song to the iPod. I believe it may be a “filter” thing again. I came back with Regan and tried for 20 minutes. I could feel my blood boiling. Then I went to the gym, AND SOMEONE ELSE WAS ON MY MACHINE!!!!!!!! That never ever happened before. I was so mad that I just freakin’ left. Now I’m eating a whole box of Wheat Thins and searching FAQs regarding the download. He’s never gonna be able to do it on his own even if this latest problem is fixed. There are too many steps.

Anyway, thanks for letting me vent. And thanks for coming with me.
Ann

While I was happy she made it home after suffering this harrowing experience, I still felt ill thinking and knowing that I had to go back down there in the morning to install Real Player. What’s worse is that I didn’t have my own flash drive at home, couldn’t borrow the stupid faulty one because Ann still had it, and now had to shell out thirty bucks for a device I’d probably use only once.

The next day I went to Wal-mart for a flash drive because doesn’t Wal-mart sell everything? I must have walked around the electronics aisle for 15 minutes before realizing that Wal-mart does not actually sell everything. There wasn’t one flash drive in the whole place, so I stormed off to Staples on the other side of town, pedal to the metal.

Luckily they had one and I brought it back to my house where I could download Real Player and then drive down to The Zone again and hopefully put an end to this entire mess. While at home, Ann emailed me again to say that the answer to the iPod not syncing came to her in a dream. She remembered seeing this problem before, related to licensing and that she just had to click on some kind of authorization link in the software.  I told her I’d let Dad know about this new development when I got back down there.

devil As soon as I arrive in The Zone, Dad begins complaining that the devil in the Slingo game is appearing more often than before and stealing all his hard-earned points. I laugh to myself that it’s impossible for a game to be out to get him and begin to wonder if having played 300,000 games has perhaps damaged the part of his brain where reason and rationality are supposed to be. I tell him “Dad, you’re losing it. It’s not a conspiracy,” and turn to my mother who is of course reading a book on the couch and say “Or is it???” She looks up briefly and we both share a little giggle.

Getting that nonsense out of the way, I install and test Real Player with the high school polka broadcast. It boggles my mind that somewhere in the middle of the country, some pimply high school kids are manning a two bit radio station that plays polka of all things, instead of sitting at home in front of their own computers playing the latest video game, like all good kids should be doing on their summer vacations. He’s got the station cranked up and thing are moving along just swell. I explain to Dad that Ann finally figured out the iPod situation and would come back over later to deal with it.

Later that same day, Ann did go back and got the iPod to finally sync stupid Margaritaville. She quickly realized that with all the problems that we had getting Dad to see where to search for songs and how he’d have to scroll all over the iTunes Store, and how slow it’d be to download songs, a major decision had to be made. Ann offered to do the downloading for him on her own PC, over a high-speed connection. She said if he made a list of songs for her and brought over his iPod, she’d take care of it. Dad knew that you could also transfer songs from CDs he already owned.

She told him to just come over one day with the CDs he wanted put on the device. Doesn’t he show up at 6:45AM the next morning carrying a shopping bag full of all his music. An hour later and still bleary-eyed, Ann sent him off with his iPod packed with a few hundred songs and then promptly went back to bed. For now, he’s satisfied.

The saga isn’t over yet, and I know it never will be since new technologies come out every other week and apparently Dad now wants all the latest stuff. He’s since expressed interest in an iPhone, because thanks to the marketing department at Apple Inc., evidently we all need one.

Plus I still have to arrange for him to get broadband access in the apartment to fix the song-playing issue once and for all. Some of his CDs with burned pictures on them still won’t display properly on the computer, so that’s on my to-do list as well. There’s also some accessibility software I have to figure out that reads web page content aloud, and he likes that, except the default voices you get sound like Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey. You have to pay extra for voices that sound human. It’s always something. Maybe we should have gotten them that mass spectrometer after all.

Despite our ongoing nightmare, there is one undeniable fact: My Dad may be the world’s biggest tech support challenge, but he’s the only octogenarian in his senior apartment complex who has a computer and is not afraid to use it, and I say that’s pretty cool.