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Computer Stupidities

Listen Already!

Right up there with calls from people who insist they know more about computers than the tech support personnel in the frustrating calls department are calls from people who refuse to do what they are told.

clicka..clicka..clicka..clicka..clicka..clicka..clicka..clicka clicka..clicka..clicka..clicka..clicka..clicka..clicka..clicka

Repeated taps of the spacebar resound.

Tap, tap, tap goes the spacebar.

There was a pregnant pause, then a series of touch tones.

More touch tones.

More touch tones.

Touch tones again.

Touch tones yet again.


I was working at a company with an in-house IT helpdesk. One day the port on the firewall that we used for FTP was down. I'm not a techie, but I knew something about the process. I called the helpdesk.

Bring it on.

I used to work as a technician at a computer repair place. A laptop was assigned to me with the symptom "goes real slow." I booted the thing up, and it took over 20 minutes. The system showed only 10% available resources, the Task Bar was completely solid with programs running in the background, and the Desktop was full of icons.

I told the owner that the system was running slow because of all of the programs running in the background. His response was that this was a "State of the Art" system (it wasn't) and should be able to handle it. I told him that I drove a Chevy Sprint to school and work. It physically had enough room for 10 bags of concrete, but if I put that many bags in it, it would not go very fast if at all. I offered to let him back up his data, and I would restore the system.

He didn't like my analogy or solution and proceeded to call the "experts" at the company that manufactured his laptop. He shipped it to them, and they restored it without backup, and it ran fine. Then he came into the store complaining to me about the service. I said, "You asked them to make it go faster, and they did." At that point he got verbally abusive and had to be escorted out of the store.

His last words were, "I know you have my programs and data somewhere in here, and my lawyer will be suing you to get it back!"

We never saw him again.

From all I could tell, everything went fine from then on. The configuration was right, and everything seemed to be working. But on a visit to the client's site later, we discovered multiple shortcuts all over the desktop and quicklaunch bar, files placed wherever, and general disarray.

My co-worker once downloaded a small program off the Internet, to her PC. She wanted me to copy it to a floppy so she could install it on her computer at home. That was fine, but she insisted I copy it from the icon she used to open the program, right off the desktop. No amount of explaining the concept of "shortcuts" would deter her from having it done that way. So I copied the icon to a fresh floppy disk.

She took it home, couldn't understand why it wouldn't work, came in the next day, and asked me about it. "Maybe I need a higher density disk?" she asked.

Repeat for another ten minutes.

Me and a friend live in a small student hall of residence where we have gained a reputation for helping people sort out their computer problems. Last year a fresher electrical engineer upgraded his motherboard and CPU. He came down to dinner that evening and complained that his computer kept freezing up shortly after booting. We offered to take a look at it for him, but he insisted that he and his roommate could sort it out themselves. A week later the problem was still there, but his roommate had 'found out' that it was a problem with the sound card, so they were going to buy a new one the next day. I asked if I could just take a look at it before they bought it.

After much persuasion, I got him to remove the case.

It turned out he had tried to fit the fan on upside down. The fact that the arms only bent the other way didn't deter him, even when they snapped off. Of course the problem was a simple case of the CPU overheating. Now every time I now see him holding a screwdriver with a look of purpose on his face I want to run screaming.

Two friends and I were standing around one day. One of them was fiddling around with his computer, playing a game. He recommended the game to us. But my other friend said that he couldn't install it, because installing it would take up all of his memory, and he'd need to get a new computer.

Several hours later, I overheard him having a conversation with his roommate. This conversation contained the phrase, "I'd get it, but if I installed it it would take up all of my memory, and I'd have to get a new computer." I just closed my eyes and sighed.

One day a girl came to me and complained that she couldn't install Macintosh's OS 8.5. When I got to her room I discovered she had a system running Windows 3.1.

Last I heard she was still searching for someone to help her.

I spent some time helping the school librarian learn about computers. On one day, there was a CD in the drive that was deeply scratched beyond repair. I showed it to the librarian.

(This was before AOL "coasters" became the big trend, mind you. I was ahead of my time.)

This repeated for about five minutes.

In my old office, we had software made for Volkswagen Group car dealers. We used to send them to the dealers offices in a small package. Quite often, on some computers, the program refused to start because of some data access component not up to date. As it was a common problem, the problem and solution was clearly illustrated with pictures in the manual, and the updater was on the same CD as the program.

I tried in several ways to get the users to read the manual for installation and troubleshooting, which was provided both in printed form and in electronic form on the CD. At the end of the installation, a window would appear saying, "Please read the user guide." A link to the User Manual was installed on the desktop and in the start menu. The first time the program was launched, the User Manual would open automatically. A button for the User Manual was on the main menu of the program, and if the error occurred, the alert window would say, "This is probably caused by a not-updated Data Access Component. Please consult the user manual and follow the instructions for the update."

We still got calls from irate users. I walked one person through the update process, and at the end of the call, he asked, "But if it's so common, why don't you write these instructions somewhere?"

I was taking a COBOL course at my undergraduate institution. One day I was working in the lab and need to look up something in the manual. The students had access to one in the student support room, usually staffed by students just off the lab. The procedure was just to go in and ask for the manual.

I turned, and I saw what looked to be the correct binder there on the shelf.

I grabbed the binder with "COBOL" and "manual" on it.

I opened the book and looked and inside.

I later commented to someone that they were hiring incompetent student help. The response I got indicated that the person I had spoken to wasn't actually a student but a university staff member in charge of various computing services and student help desk staffing, and he even taught a course. Needless to say, I never took the course.

A customer called to order a copy of Windows 3.11. I looked up her record our our files and discovered her computer was an old 8086 system with a single floppy drive. Our general policy is not to sell products to customers we know won't work, so I advised her that Windows would not run on her system.

A few days later, I got a call from the lady. She had purchased Windows 95 on a CD and wanted to help her install it.

This was a few weeks ago. Since then, he bought the Windows 98 upgrade and wanted to know if I could help them install it. He was still convinced that that was all he needed.

In my college days, I was responsible for a lab of about sixty desktop PCs. It was open to the public, and there was a particular gentleman who hung around quite a bit and tried to pick up what knowledge he could. We often had to shoo him out, as when young students would come in, he'd attempt to use jargon. (I once caught him teaching a student how to telnet to the keyboard.)

When a machine became corrupted for any reason, we had a boot floppy that had the ability to format the HD and pull from network an appropriate disk image for that machine, basically resetting it to an error free state.

After seeing this, the man begged us for a copy of the disk. We explained that without our servers, the floppy would do him no good. He was sure it would however. "I've been watching you! You put the disk in and all the software you guys have shows up. I need that at home for my new computer!" After we made several attempts to explain, he stomped out, frustrated.

The next day, unbeknownst to us at the time, he broke into my office and stole a boot floppy. It destroyed his computer's contents, and he admitted it two days later when he returned the disk. Of course, he admitted it because he expected us to help him solve his problem. We didn't, knowing full well he'd have to figure it out himself or we'd be doing it again.

Investment bankers usually do quite a bit of work from home and outside normal hours, so the majority of calls we took were nightmarish dial-up issues. My personal favorite was when one older gentleman called because he was unable to dial-in to the network. I made several attempts to walk him through some simple instructions to no avail. Each time he would botch the password or just not listen to me and then power the notebook off without shutting down. I warned him not to do that, because he could corrupt the OS or cause a hardware failure, then tried again. Yet again, he botched the password, instead of re-entering it, he shut off the notebook again. Then he said, "Damn it! Now look what you have done to my laptop. It won't even power up!" The person I was training over the phone was laughing so hard while I was on mute that he was crying.

I work for a major computer company as part of their direct sales phone line. Occasionally, customers will call to find local retailers that sell our products in their area. We can do that easily. Unfortunately, someone called me and wanted to take it a step further.

The conversation continued for another five minutes.

I work for an ISP. One day a woman called up with problems getting Netscape to locate any sites. After a couple questions it was obvious that she wasn't getting connected. So after a few minutes I got her to the 'connect' window.

I have no idea why she thought she needed to print this screen. Even after I explained that she didn't need to print the screen, she still wanted to know how to print it.

A automated inventory program, recently added to the network had confused the hell out of many of our users. Each PC at our site has a large white sticker next to the power switch with a simple four digit asset number on it. When the audit program runs for the very first time, the user is asked to enter the asset number and told that this is the number on the sticker beside the power switch on their PC.

So far, we've had, "WIN" from the Win3X users who are used to entering 'win' at the keyboard after logging in to the network. We've had "STICKER" entered, several times. A number of people have entered their initials. And one poor fool entered "Intel Inside."

Here is the side of the phone conversation you would have heard if you were sitting next to me during this phone call to a customer.

I work for an accounting software company doing telephone support. A user called in, obviously confused, and asked me:

About two hours later I got a call from the same guy.


I work in the tech support department of an ISP.

A friend of mine called me up in the afternoon, complaining that his Windows 95 won't start. After half an hour of futile attempts to correct the problem via the phone, I came over to his house. The first thing I did was boot from a bootable disk and do a DIR C:. I saw nothing except directories in C:, no, no io.sys, etc. As it turned out, my friend decided to get "top notch" performance out of his computer, so he started removing all excessive "junk." Unfortunately for him, he considered all files in the root dir of C: useless and erased them all.

Having no other better solution, I reinstalled Windows 95. Afterward, I told him not to erase any files from the root directory of C:. I went back home. Twenty minutes later I received a call from him complaining that Windows 95 broke again. Despite my warnings, he cleaned up all the files in C:\ again.

I do graphic design for a newspaper, and often an advertiser will want to design its own ad and email it to us, which usually makes my job easier. Not in this case. One day, Outlook Express began freezing every time I tried to receive mail. I called a client I was waiting on an ad from and told him about the problem. As it turned out, he had already sent me an email with an attachment in HTML format. The email tech had said that that was the problem, and it should be fixed as long as no one sent me any more HTML attachments. That sounded a little strange to me, but I didn't have time to investigate further. I checked my email and found another email from the client with an attachment called "FINISHED 1" -- no extension on the filename. I couldn't read the file, so I called back.

Click. He hung up on me.

He sent the file again, and again, and again. I got three separate emails from him, in which he saved the ad still as an HTML file, a simple text document, and, last but not least, a Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet. I copied and pasted the contents of the attachment into the ad, and the guy ended up paying $300 for a 4"x5" square in our newspaper that looked like this:


Needless to say, he never advertised with us again. Lucky for me.

I received a phone call from a woman on the fifth floor saying the software I wrote for her was broken. (How does software break?) I knew I had never written software for her or anyone else on the fifth floor. But I went up to investigate.

She was using Crosstalk (a modem communications package) and for some reason it wasn't dialing into a computer downtown. I checked the settings in the software; everything looked normal. Just for fun, I removed the cord from the modem and plugged it into a phone. No dial tone. The cord was disconnected from the wall. So I crawled under her desk and plugged it back in. I assumed the cleaning people knocked it loose.

A few days later I got another call about "my" software being broken again. Once again, the phone cord was yanked out of the wall. I tucked the phone cord away so there was no way a vacuum cleaner could knock it loose. But this continued to happen.

Then I noticed something. This woman would sit with her legs crossed, and one of her legs was kicking back and forth faster than a hummingbird's wings. I told her she was kicking the phone cord loose. I went back to my cubicle to get tie wraps and a shorter phone cord.

No sooner had I collected these items than my boss' boss and his boss were standing there. Apparently this woman called and told them I had written Crosstalk, and it wasn't working, and I had blamed her for the problem. I tried in vain to explain to them that I had not written Crosstalk, that it was a commercial piece of software, etc. They didn't care. All they knew was I had better debug my Crosstalk program and make sure she didn't have any more problems.

After I secured the phone cord, she didn't have any more problems.

I went into a shell and sent email to the customer, watching it as it passed through our servers and was accepted by the other domain.

Click. Hysterical laughter.

The problem was that her DNS numbers had mysteriously disappeared. I helped her restore her settings.

Oh well. It wasn't new software, was it?

(Skip twenty minutes of troubleshooting.)

Here's something that occurred while I was reading your page:

At my company, we regularly tackle connectivity issues with clients. I recall one call from a client that ate up three hours of my day while I investigated why he couldn't get on the network with our Network Operations group, the Operations Manager, as well as the Production Control team. Keep in mind that per Standard Operating Procedure, I asked him the basic questions when he called to report the problem: "Have you changed any configurations on your end?" "Have there been any area-wide communication problems involving the phone company in your area?" etc. I spent the better part of a morning trying to diagnose the problem with the aforementioned teams, none of whom could find a problem on our side.

After pulling my hair out for three hours, I called the client back and asked him if he was sure no configurations had been changed on his system.

Email from a customer with the shareware version of a software product:

As I mentioned, we are able to transfer the files with no major problem, but there seems to be one problem that creeps up after we have transferred five files. After five files, we have to re-initialize the program to be able to transfer again. I want to register the software but need to know if this problem has been addressed in the registered version. If it has, I'll immediately send a payment out so we can get it.

I emailed the user back and asked him if he had read the text of the error message given after the five files were transferred, which reads:

One user was very angry with me, because the documentation that I had written did not work for him at all. So I walked him through the document step by step. As I went along, I asked him what had happened on screen as he completed each step. When I got to step 5, I got total silence as a response. When I asked him again what happened when he did step 5, he said, "Oh, I didn't understand what that step was for, so I skipped it."

[sounds of furious clicking and typing]

My mom called one night because her ISP had a new phone number, and she wanted to know how to update her connection information. I led her step by step through the procedure, finishing with, "So next time you run the email client, it'll just dial the new number. But don't do that now because we'll get disconn--"

I got a phone call from a user who was complaining that her computer "doesn't beep anymore" when she received email. So I went up to see her. Before I go on, let me explain that all our PCs are encased in a large steel security cases, and this particular user's base unit was located some twelve feet from her monitor and keyboard.

I was immediately confused, because the computer didn't have a sound card or external speakers, so I assumed perhaps she was referring to the system speaker inside the PC...strange, but I couldn't think what else she meant.

So I sat down at her seat and sent an email back to her. Sure enough, in the distance, through the PC case and the security case, I could just make out a beep.

I sent another email, and she stood near the CPU -- sure enough, it beeped, albeit very faintly.

I once had to deal with a user who was upset because she could not edit her document. I asked her what application she was using, and she said WordPerfect for Windows. I asked her what the problem was, and she said she had loaded the document into the computer, was able to see and read the words but could not edit the text. I was puzzled until she told me she had scanned in the document; we do not have any OCR (optical character recognition) software, and she had inserted the bitmap image of what she had scanned in into the file. I tried to explain, but she didn't listen. I could only shake my head as she scanned it in again and kept on trying.

One woman called Dell's toll-free line to ask how to install the batteries in her laptop. When told that the directions were on the first page of the manual, says Steve Smith, Dell's director of technical support, the woman replied angrily, "I just paid $2,000 for this damn thing, and I'm not going to read the book."

I received a call from a customer who was having some permissions problems...grantpt wasn't working, so he couldn't get shells open, etc, etc.

So, I started going through the permissions on his machine. A ls -ld / command showed 775. This was fine. A ls -ld /usr command showed 777. This was not.

I told him this was probably not directly the problem, but that we should change it I asked him to change it to 775. I even told him the command he could use: chmod 775 /usr. He said ok. Then I asked him to cd into /usr, do an ls -l there, and tell me what he saw. He said he was still waiting. I asked "For what? The cd? The ls?" His response, "The chmod." EEK!

I didn't even let him finish before I told him to type control-C.

I ended up suggesting he re-install from scratch, because he apparently didn't have very much user data, and what little he did have, he had backups that he could restore from if need be. The original problem, in fact, had been that he had done a chmod -f -R 777 /usr, which will completely hose any setuid permissions on any file in /usr.

Most people eventually figure out that you have to press return after your login ID and after your password or Windows will gripe at you and become generally unpleasant and sullen. Not one couple, who called all of nine times and still hasn't quite managed to get the hang of it.

"Ok, tell me again; what do I do after I enter my password?" he keeps asking.

A customer called in and stated that his system locked up in a spreadsheet application. He then told me, "You techs don't care about our data that we work on. I knew that you would have me turn the computer off and reseat the video card, so in order to save my data, I reseated the video card with the system on." I finally convinced him that we needed to turn the computer off and then back on. Guess what? When we turned the computer back on, all we heard was a series of long and short beeps, which, by the way, weren't even correct beep codes.