Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

No patience for technical support

I had to go to Target at 8:30 last night and buy a new wireless router.  Okay, “had” is a strong word, but I got to the end of my patience, and was fortunate enough to recognize that and throw this stupid Netgear piece of shit I just bought a few months ago into the garbage and start fresh with new gear from a different vendor.  This is typical behavior, and the reason why I don’t spend any free time screwing with Windows machines, because I simply don’t have the patience to fuck around with reconfiguring IRQ interrupts and re-flashing BIOSes every time I want to print double-sided pages.

My own tech support flowchart typically goes like this:

  1. Power it off and then on.
  2. Unplug everything but the bare minimum of what needs to be plugged in.
  3. Check the power supply and that I didn’t plug it into one of the god damned outlets that are connected to a wall switch and/or start flipping wall switches that don’t do anything.
  4. Do whatever you have to do to reset the whole fucking thing to the default factory configuration.
  5. Throw it in the garbage and buy a new one.

And this is the point when half of you start in with the “huh huh, I have a perfectly good router I found in the garbage,” and other various comments about how I’m a dumbass for paying someone else to change the oil in my car blah blah blah.  That’s not the point.  The point is, I used to change my own oil and spend way too much time screwing around with my /etc/modules.conf file to get it so my soundblaster card wouldn’t crap out every time I triple-clicked my mouse button, and now I don’t.  Even more, I used to answer the phone for people who would call me because they couldn’t find the “any” key on their keyboard, and spend hours trying to walk them through how to use the vi editor over the phone.

How the hell did I ever do that?  I mean, I remember first getting a job as a computer consultant, and it wasn’t because I had an innate desire to help people.  It was because I knew some amount about computers, and it beat my previous campus job, which involved scraping uneaten food off of cafeteria trays and wearing a hairnet and a stupid smock probably manufactured by inmates at an insane asylum somewhere north of Indianapolis.  Making fries at McDonald’s paid $4.25 an hour, and answering people’s questions about WordPerfect 5.1 paid $6.10 an hour, so it was a no-brainer.  And once I got my foot in the door, the goal was always to get better at it, or at least good enough that I could take another baby step up the ladder and find another position inside the UCS system that involved more computer and less people.

But in between my departure for Seattle in 1995 and my very first consulting gig in 1990, I must have burned through several lifetimes full of patience.  I mean, at IUSB, we had these stupid piece of shit Leading Edge Model D PC clones, which even in 1990 were so behind the curve, I think the main campus had sold them for scrap and the South Bend campus quickly put them back into service.  We’re talking a Daewoo-manufactured machine that originally came out in ’85 as a low-end clone, with a 4.77 MHz 8088, 256K of RAM, and a built-in video card that pushed out 640×200 video.  Our units didn’t even have hard drives; they came with a set of two 5 1/4″ floppy disks, which lead to many stupendous problems as a consultant.

First, a machine with no hard drive can’t boot, unless you put a bootable floppy in the A: drive.  We had a vague system of letting people check out bootable WordPerfect disks to people. Or when you took C101 or whatever, your instructor would probably format one of your disks (or most likely, your only disk) so it would boot.  These were the days before Windows, or at least before this campus would see it, so re-formatting a disk wasn’t a matter of right-clicking or just inserting a blank and clicking OK when it asks you if you want to format it.  It involved booting into DOS and doing a FORMAT /S.  More importantly, it involved every third question out of people being something like “I PUT A BRAND NEW DISK TAPE IN THIS MACHINE AND TURNED ON THE POWER AND IT WON’T START.”

Anyway, nobody at IUSB knew anything about viruses.  When I was at the IUB campus, they ran Norton or whatever, and when you booted from the hard drive and put in your floppy, it got scanned.  Here, you had everyone booting from their own floppy, or booting from one of the lab’s boot disks with WordPerfect on it.  So one genius brings in a floppy with whatever virus was new in 1990, and it’s suddenly spreading across every damn person’s boot floppy like HPV in a Thailand whorehouse.  I printed up a bunch of signs telling people to stop booting from their own disks and let me scan them on the consultant’s computer, and when that didn’t work, I called someone at the student newspaper (this 8-page free thing they handed out in the cafeteria) and dictated to them verbatim this diatribe about how viruses were all over the god damned place, and if you didn’t stop booting from your floppy, a computer like the one from WarGames was going to swoop in and launch every nuke at our own cities and blame the whole thing on your good buddy George HW Bush.  (I think the reporter misspelled or misquoted every seventh word, so I’d love to see this piece of journalism today.)  This eventually slowed down the spread of the virus, but it also meant that instead of spending my four-hour shifts telnetting into different BBSes trying to pick up chicks (that were probably morbidly obese dudes) in Iowa, I had to sit around and scan everyone’s floppy disks on the consulting machine, and it wasn’t like I could just minimize my telnet window and email window, because this was DOS which didn’t have windows, and you’re talking about a machine with so little memory, loading the text of a shopping list would cause a meltdown.

Here’s another funny floppy thing that happened that demonstrates that at one point in time I had way more patience than I do now.  I’m helping a real professor teach one of those intro to business computing classes, where you learn how to run the spellcheck in WordPerfect and how to print a spreadsheet in Lotus 1-2-3, and some middle-aged housewife on the forever plan came up and told me she put her disks in the computer and they vanished.  (The forever plan: when someone takes one class a year with hopes of finishing their bachelor’s degree about two years before the sun supernovas, which I think is going to happen six billion years from now.)  So I go to investigate, and there are no floppies in the machine.  You can’t just put floppies in the machine and have them get “eaten” in the back, because the back of the drive is sealed or something.  And then I take another look and see the problem:

She had crammed two floppy disks into the narrow crack between the top and bottom floppy drive, turned on the power, and then sat there for 45 minutes, wondering why the hell her spreadsheet didn’t load.

I’m not typing this from prison, which shows you I had an infinite amount more patience back then.  I think I even managed to somehow MacGyver a couple of paperclips into the narrow gap and pull out her disks, because of course the machines were all security cabled down and I didn’t have an awesome tool set like Jeff Spiccoli’s TV repairman dad.  And something like this happened pretty much every day I consulted, so five years of that shit is infinitely more trying than a piece of garbage Netgear router that inexplicably refuses to acquire an IP address anymore on day 91 of a 90 day warranty.

The new router’s nice.  It says “best in class” on the box, so I’m hoping it lasts me at least until Christmas.