Coping With Computers

Okay, so you're frustrated with your computer, our computer, a software application, or maybe life in general. Well, I can give you some timely advice based upon my years of experience on the matter.

  1. Don't punch or kick the machine! It's only a machine. It can't fight back. Be patient with it. Calm down, take a few deep breaths, and try to figure out if the problem is with the hardware or the software. Once you figure that out, you can go down a certain path and determine what the cause of the problem is. For example, maybe you have faulty memory that's causing your computer to die on occasion. If that's the case, one of my Chemistry Computing colleagues can diagnose the situation and make recommendations for replacing a part or two.
  2. Everything within reason is solvable. The laptop or desktop you use is faster than the departmental servers we were using a few years ago. Lots of really cool people wrote the software you use on your computer. There's a software application for everything. You just have to Google search for it on the Internet. A lot of useful software is developed by your colleagues at other universities. Most of this software is free and ready to download BUT... I should warn you about downloading software off the Internet... make sure you have your firewall and Norton AntiVirus turned on just in case. You never know where the virus-infected files could be coming from. Zone Alarm is a decent free firewall and you can obtain Norton AntiVirus for free from Penn's Supported Products page.
  3. Beware those dreaded viruses. Many users have downloaded or traded something they shouldn't have. This is risky behavior because you never know what's out there. Something that runs fine and saves you $500 can turn out to be the worst problem you'll ever face come the next holiday. That's viruses! They're quite popular and can attack your computer on someone's favorite holiday. Files and disks have been wiped or corrupted. System commands that you normally trust to do things can do the complete opposite of what they're supposed to do. What's a computer user to do? Answer: Don't download or trade stuff illegally. It's not worth it!
  4. Computers slow down over time. With every release of system software, we get new features sometimes at the expense of slowing down the system just a little. In rare cases, we may get a performance improvement in a certain feature of the operating system that most people never use. The more software we add to our computers, the more extensions we add, too. This slows down our super-fast G5s and Xeons to something that feels like the computers of yesteryear. What can we do about this? Well, one thing you could try is having dedicated machines to do dedicated things. Have every one of your computers run a specific set of things instead of having every computer do everything.
  5. RTFM, or "Read the Fantastic Manual," the motto of most computer support people. When all else fails, open the manual and figure out why something isn't behaving the way it should. Oftentimes, users will find that the new edition of their favorite software gains a few features, renames other features, shifts function key commands, or removes still other features entirely. The manual should say so. Think of the manual as a recipe book for looking up often-used procedures. A good manual will have a good index.