1. Archive

Take heart: Things don't always compute for gurus

I stumbled upon an unspeakable truth the other day.

I was chatting with other computer columnists on the Internet. As you no doubt know, there are places where we pundits gather, after the day's pronouncements have been pronounced. We drift off to our little cybercrannies to places where we can let our hair down and just be ourselves.

To be honest, I have always felt a little sheepish with my fellow gurus. I keep thinking, boy, these fellows would kick silicon in my face if they ever saw me trying to troubleshoot some computer problem. Because I _ how shall I say this? _ I was not born to the task.

So it occurred to me to ask some of my fellow gurus if they, too, have difficulties making things work. I sent E-mail to a half-dozen well-known names, asking this question. And _ what do you know? _ several of them were generous enough not just to reply, but to admit that they, too, could be brought low installing new products.

Here's what Bill Machrone, PC Magazine columnist, had to say:

"The PC's resources (ports, DMA addresses, interrupts) are so limited that products step all over one another all the time. As a result, installation is still much too difficult. I talk to people all the time, Mike, and many of them are very frustrated. The happiest ones are those who get a configuration working a certain way to do a limited number of applications and never touch it. The most frustrated are those who fiddle all the time with settings and are constantly installing and de-installing hardware and software."

Like _ say it _ "columnists." I thought that was somewhat revealing, given Machrone's title of VP Technology at Ziff-Davis Publishing. But I wanted more. I came closer with someone who's been like a god to me for the past decade: Jim Seymour, ace columnist for many years with PC Week and PC Magazine.

"Configuration problems are always the worst," he told me. "I don't especially mind popping the top on a PC to get inside to stick a card in or mount a new hard drive. But I hate the IRQ/DMA-channel/memory starting address/memory exclude craziness. There has to be a better way (and there is, of course: It's spelled "Mac').

"On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 hardest, 5 a reasonable threshold of pain), most Intel-based PCs today are about 8s or 9s. Even the simplest ones are still 6s at best.

"The problem here is that practically everyone who could make a difference in this is an old hand with PCs, on their third or fifth or maybe 20th PC. And they just can't remember what it was like not to know how to share COM1 and COM3 on a single physical serial connector!"

And here's what David Churbuck, tech editor for Forbes Magazine, had to say:

"Where do I begin? Got a few hours and a handful of Prozac? If Dante were alive today he would have to create a new circle of Hell, this one known as the Windows General Protection Fault, where sinners spend eternity in the 386enh section of their WIN.INI file wondering what "aperture-base 100' means."

Churbuck does not claim to be a techie. "While the clock on my VCR has been blinking high noon at me for five years, at least the machine plays a tape when I shove one in. Microsoft's ads ask me where I want to go today. I want to go to a land where my computer does what I mean, not what I type, where SCSI addresses, IRQ conflicts, DMA channels and dynamic link libraries all live together, in harmony.

"Using a PC is like getting a dog to mate with a cat."

There you have it, the dirty little secret: Computing is hard for everybody. I personally feel kind of liberated by this insight. Next time you find yourself wading through the smoking rubble of a blasted motherboard, you will know Jim Seymour has been there. Wherever a user is reduced to tears waiting for tech support to answer the phone, know that Jim Seymour has been there. Whenever a user drops a PC off a bridge, Jim Seymour has been there, too.

We are not worthy!

_ You can contact Michael Finley via E-mail at on the Internet.