For a brief time I attended a senior users group this week. No specific discussion topics had been published in advance, but when the group assembled, the leader said that one of the members had some serious questions about wireless Internet and her laptop. Then he looked at me as though I was about to get thrown to the lions. “Sherman can probably answer this one easily enough.”

Yeah, sure! I have no idea of what the issue is, but send me in, coach. I’ll handle it. There’s nothing like settling down with a hot cup of coffee and suddenly finding you have been put on stage with no script. I would rather run naked through a convention of feminists with a sign labeled “Male Chauvinist Pig” tied around my neck than stand in front of a users group and make more of a fool of myself than necessary.

In fact, I don’t think we ever answered the first question because we immediately got bogged down in other issues on the way to addressing her problem. The woman had taken her new laptop on an international trip and wanted to check her email. At home she simply clicked on Outlook Express and everything happened automatically. It was not even clear to me whether she had a wireless account, or if she simply had trusting and generous neighbors. In the hotel, her email did not come up even though the literature said they had free wireless Internet access for guests. She took her laptop to the concierge, who “did something with the keys” and then it worked. But when she got back home, it didn’t work until her son “did something else with the keys.” She wanted to know what to do with the keys.

Before I could even begin to ask some questions, other members of the group started asking about public wireless access, like at Starbucks. So I backed up and gave a quick rundown on how wireless connections work and repeated my story about going around to my own neighbors and warning them to encrypt their signals. Then I said that since I am a belt and suspenders type of guy, when using a public system, I always make sure I am not logged on with administrator privileges or with sharing enabled. We never got beyond that point. It quickly became obvious that no one had ever thought there might be a hazard to being continuously logged on to a public “hotspot” with full privileges, no password, and sharing enabled.

The instructor wanted me to walk the group through what I was saying using his laptop. It turned out that his own computer had a null password, and all users (he and his wife) had full privileges. I also noted that it came up without doing a three-finger salute. At least he had not enabled sharing, but in this case, that wasn’t much of an issue.

So I defined a new user for him with limited privileges and gave my usual pitch about using long passwords (or passphrases). The whole group watched and asked good questions. None of them had ever been in that part of Windows before! I try to be sensitive to the background of my clients, but I had grossly overestimated the knowledge of the users group.

These people are not dull. They use computers and the Internet in their daily lives and pretty much get the things done that they want to do. The things I was showing them were things I had picked up, but were not things they should have to worry about. If they had not had a reason to learn something, it didn’t exist.

About that time I got a call on my cell phone from another client in need with a time-critical problem. I made my excuses and left. We will likely take up the subject again next week when I have been asked to set up a temporary wireless router to show the user group how simple it really is. I told the leader that I would do it, but I needed to come early to do a dry run and make sure everything works. He looked puzzled and asked why I would want to do that. Maybe it’s just me.

Thank you for all the kind words in response to my disclosing the sickness we have had in our family. Our daughter’s recovery has gone much faster than I ever expected – she drove to school today to pick up the grandchildren! That is one week after having major surgery. With luck, she will be completely free of it.

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]troubleshooting,hotspot,internet access,laptop security,wireless account[/tags]