No Beep, No Cry

This week a quietly panicked new customer called for help. She uses her computer for business and for club duties. For some time it had been suddenly stopping, but she rebooted and it would work for a while so she pressed on. Finally her computer simply gave up the ghost. She heard about me from some friends and decided to call.

“I’m flattered to be on a recommendation list for repairs since my specialty is tutoring, but why call now?”

“It changed,” she said, “and now it won’t boot at all.”

“What brand is it and what system are you running?”

“It was made for me by a guy, and it has — let me see — Windows XP.”

That narrowed it a bit. Now different people mean different things when they say a computer will not boot. So I asked how far it got before locking up. She said that at first she got some of the usual white letters on black background, but now she does not even get that. “When I press the button in front, the light comes on and it makes a noise then everything goes quiet.”

“This noise — does it beep at you?”

“No, no beep.”

“I can stop by and take a look, but I will likely have to take it away. Can you be without it for a day or so?”

“Look, I needed it yesterday. Please do what you can — and hurry.”

Her house was extremely neat and tastefully decorated. The computer lived in a nice niche under a neat desk. In contrast to the rest of the house, the back of her computer had a thick layer of dust on it. On impulse I opened the box and found a suitable scene for Halloween. It was full of dust and even had cobwebs. The heat exchanger for the CPU was totally plugged. I didn’t really say much, but she looked both surprised and horrified.

After the usual lecture about cleaning out the box when she changes the batteries in her smoke alarms (and useful mnemonic — but it only works if you do change the batteries. You do it twice a year, don’t you?), I told her the power supply was out and I would have to take her computer home to put a new one in and test it. At the same time, I would clean everything.

Before closing it up, I noted that only one of the three DRAM slots was occupied. I asked her if she knew how much memory she had, and she did not know, but she did say that on some of her large spreadsheets she gets a warning about low memory.

It turned out that her computer was a respectable 2.8 gig P4 with a 110 gig HD. Cleaned up with a new power supply and another stick of memory, it now works like a charm. Of course I let it run overnight just to make sure it would not fail again. Before returning it, on impulse, I downloaded and installed Spybot Search and Destroy, which found about 100 pests. Since I did not have her permission to change anything, I did not fix them. In fact, I was feeling a bit queasy about having downloaded new software without clearing it with her first. My concern was unfounded. She was glad to know of the new tool. She opened some programs to assure herself that it was working and thanked me profusely. “Now I have to get to work.”

And that is the point of this whole posting. She is absolutely dependent on this computer and had no idea how to care for it or diagnose simple problems. That would be okay: not all clients want to become technicians, but until someone suggested she call me, she had no idea of how to proceed. Given time she would likely have called a store and got connected with a service, but for something that is so important, she should have a trusted resource. She probably has an automobile mechanic where she takes her car for regular maintenance. I emphasized to her that I am primarily a tutor who does some repair and maintenance and maybe she should prepare a list of use-related questions that I could help her with. Her response was guarded. She might sign up for some tutoring, but I doubt it. She has time to be offline with a non-operative computer, but no time for lessons.

Click here to read about my new tutorial on helping seniors. The new version has grown considerably over the original. It has more topics and anecdotes, and fewer typos. While you’re at it, check out my expanded tutorial on decision theory.

[tags]senior computing, adult education[/tags]