This page created December, 1998.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


The least reliable and most generally irksome component of a computer system is the warm soft one that spends its time staring at the monitor. In the trade, difficulties with this component are referred to as PEBKAC - Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair.

People who do technical support for a living are bitter, twisted and uncharitable. Eight hours a day of telling people what's already in the manual while waiting for those extra-special callers who insert Disk 2 without previously removing Disk 1 results in a steady and inexorable progression towards a state of depressive sociopathy.

I have done phone support. I have guided new users around ordinary windows, and listened in awe as they forgot the difference between the top left and bottom right corners of a rectangle. I have asked a user which disk they had a problem with, and received the answer "The blue one". I have hit my head on the desk, hard, over and over, while talking to a person who called purely to explain, at great length, his whimsical view of a problem and could not understand any pronunciation of the word "no". If I've ever said to you that I had to go because there was a call on another line, I was lying. And if I finished the call with "Good luck!" I always meant "You're screwed!"

But, now that I've been out of the steaming helpline tarpit for quite a while, I've mellowed. I've realised that users are not just a good way of holding down office furniture which might otherwise blow away. I've come to accept that unreasonable expectations, on both ends of the phone line, are to blame.

Say you've just got a new computer. The important point to realise is that what you have on your desk is a very, very, very complex machine, and it is unreasonable to expect to be able to use it to determine the molecular structure of transparent aluminium in the first week.

This, of course, is probably not what the salesperson said. The stores are full of round-cornered, friendly-faced personal computers which are sold like toasters. A person paid a commission to sell computers is not qualitatively different from one paid a commission to sell used cars, but for some reason buyers actually tend to believe what computer salespeople say. Verily, computer and car salesmen differ only in that the latter know when they are lying.

If the salesman says "This one's future-proof!", he's wrong. It'll be worth half as much in one year, and worthless in three. If he says "Going for a big brand gives you peace of mind", he's skirting around the fact that the most popular brands of PC clones often use proprietary components that make upgrades difficult or impossible and repairs more expensive. And if he says "This is the one the smart buyers are going for," he is, of course, pointing at the fattest commission in the shop.

Do the research. Read the magazines. Remember that your friends don't necessarily know what they're talking about. Or, alternatively, close your eyes and hand $3000 to the next person who has a beige object to sell you. It's your choice.

And if you're the bunny stuck with getting people up and running, resist the urge to impress upon them that you think they have the intelligence of aquarium snails and could crash a Game & Watch. Say instead that they can, no matter how they feel about it, do this stuff. I just have to figure out how to say "Hey, if you need to be hand-held though everything by me, when you are clearly literate and the manual is actually quite good, you must be a cretin," in such a way that the recipient of the advice leaves enlightened and refreshed and starts learning independently.

It is true that the only stupid question is the one you do not ask. It is, however, also true that protracted helpline dialogues are as much fun as filing your nails with a chalkboard. One of those humiliating books with a title like "Microsoft Word For Puddingheads" is likely to answer your question much faster. And you'll have the knowledge that you, at least, will not be labelled PEBKAC.

Give Dan some money!
(and no-one gets hurt)