Author: Joe Wilcox

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Blame It On Murphy

Recently, I had the unfortunate experience of helping a friend, who is an accountant, troubleshoot a computer problem. Unfortunate, because we couldn’t easily solve his problem. He had a major PC meltdown.

While no computer genius, my friend knows enough to poke around the inside of his PC. He had bought a second printer, this one color, from a local store—and a LPT card so he could run two printers. The process of opening up the PC, inserting the card into the right slot, closing up the box, and restarting the computer should have been easy. He knows enough about a PC to do this confidently. But, as Murphy says: “Anything that can go wrong…” 

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So, You Need Help?

Good help is hard to find—and that is especially true when it comes to mastering computers. Things eventually go wrong. Where should you turn to solve your problem? Corporations staff a Help Desk to field employee questions or troubleshoot breakdowns. If you work at home—or live in some out-of-the-way place like northern Maine—you probably don’t have that luxury. But you can create your own pseudo Help Desk for handling problems.

Most computer problems are user problems—and there are two basic categories: You don’t know how to make something work or the product is actually broken. Most of the time you simply won’t know what you’re doing—and experience is the only way to learn. Most people think that because computer hardware or software do not work the way they expect, something must be broken. Is it the auto dealer’s problem you bought a new car and don’t know how to drive? It’s not a computer company’s problem you can’t tell a computer from a television, either (though they sure make it hard when turning computers into family entertainment centers). When dealing with any problem, first you have to identify whether you have a real crisis or just don’t understand what you are doing. Most problems will be a lack of training. 

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Vaccinate, Don’t Procrastinate

I am an advocate of anti-virus software. Before writing on technology, I was editor for an academic publication in Washington, DC. It was policy professors make submissions on diskette—which invariably were infected with computer bugs. And on a network this was a disaster. Idiot editors would copy files from unchecked disks to their PCs and infect every computer.

You might think you are safe from this kind of contamination, but, believe me, you are not. Of potentially disastrous consequences to small businesses is a new type of macro virus that targets word processing or spreadsheet documents, mainly Microsoft Word and Excel. Since most people use these programs, this is a big problem. 

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Farming the Internet

Local dial-up Internet access came to northern Maine in early February—thanks to the state’s oldest service provider, Agate, and the local farmer’s association, Maine Farmer’s Exchange. It’s strange how none of the banks, insurance companies, or other professional organizations could do this. It took farmers’ foresight to get the job done right.

My dilemma—slogging along America Online at 2400 bps or paying heavy long-distance fees—is fairly typical of rural users: the folks who need the information most pay premium for it. I was lucky enough to get on as a tester for AT&T WorldNet; this meant free access. But the network was slow via the 800 number, and I wore down a spot on my desk drumming my fingers waiting for Web pages to load. 

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Smooth Operator

You would think that in this day of Windows dominance, choosing an operating system would be easy. Not so. There are currently three different Windows in the marketplace—3.11, 95, and NT—as well as IBM’s OS/2 Warp. And choosing the wrong OS can be costly to your business.

Folks here in the Maine Outback are typically cautious. Until a few months ago, DOS/Windows 3.11 was the favorite desktop operating system. Now Windows 95 reigns king. But not with everyone. Many businesses are holding fast to the older Windows or waiting to see if the new Windows NT will outshine 95. 

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Color Your Clients

Any northern Maine school kid in Winter can tell you white is boring. With an average 110 inches of snowfall a season, kids get quickly sick of white. But with a box of food coloring, white can be a great canvas for breaking the monotony.

The point: If you aren’t using color in your office, you are doing a disservice to yourself and your clients. Color ink-jet technology has advanced so far that the the quality of printed pictures can rival true photographs. And there is much you can do with a color printer that will save you money, too. 

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You Have the Power

Power is vital to running a business. Without the pulsing of electricity pushing through your office, all work—except maybe using the telephone—would come to a halt. But the quality and consistency of the electricity you receive is important, too.

When I worked in Washington, DC, I thought little about this. The nation’s capital is well supplied for obvious reasons. But things are different up here in the Maine outback. Outages have been too frequent, and, as I have come to learn, the quality of the electricity is sometimes below par. 

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Get Smart

Good reference is essential to any business. If you need fast answers to important questions, digging through dusty almanacs won’t do any good. And if you are writing—whether to a client or colleague—what you say needs to be sharp and correct; good resources can add charm to your words.

My local public library understands this. The institution recently installed a fast PC with 4 CD-ROMs to provide a digital encyclopedia, dictionary, and atlas for townsfolk. The setup is popular with school kids. If they can use digital resources for homework, why shouldn’t you?