No Beep, No Cry

This week a quietly panicked new customer called for help. She uses her computer for business and for club duties. For some time it had been suddenly stopping, but she rebooted and it would work for a while so she pressed on. Finally her computer simply gave up the ghost. She heard about me from some friends and decided to call.

“I’m flattered to be on a recommendation list for repairs since my specialty is tutoring, but why call now?”

“It changed,” she said, “and now it won’t boot at all.”

“What brand is it and what system are you running?”

“It was made for me by a guy, and it has — let me see — Windows XP.”

That narrowed it a bit. Now different people mean different things when they say a computer will not boot. So I asked how far it got before locking up. She said that at first she got some of the usual white letters on black background, but now she does not even get that. “When I press the button in front, the light comes on and it makes a noise then everything goes quiet.”

“This noise — does it beep at you?”

“No, no beep.”

“I can stop by and take a look, but I will likely have to take it away. Can you be without it for a day or so?”

“Look, I needed it yesterday. Please do what you can — and hurry.”

Her house was extremely neat and tastefully decorated. The computer lived in a nice niche under a neat desk. In contrast to the rest of the house, the back of her computer had a thick layer of dust on it. On impulse I opened the box and found a suitable scene for Halloween. It was full of dust and even had cobwebs. The heat exchanger for the CPU was totally plugged. I didn’t really say much, but she looked both surprised and horrified.

After the usual lecture about cleaning out the box when she changes the batteries in her smoke alarms (and useful mnemonic — but it only works if you do change the batteries. You do it twice a year, don’t you?), I told her the power supply was out and I would have to take her computer home to put a new one in and test it. At the same time, I would clean everything.

Before closing it up, I noted that only one of the three DRAM slots was occupied. I asked her if she knew how much memory she had, and she did not know, but she did say that on some of her large spreadsheets she gets a warning about low memory.

It turned out that her computer was a respectable 2.8 gig P4 with a 110 gig HD. Cleaned up with a new power supply and another stick of memory, it now works like a charm. Of course I let it run overnight just to make sure it would not fail again. Before returning it, on impulse, I downloaded and installed Spybot Search and Destroy, which found about 100 pests. Since I did not have her permission to change anything, I did not fix them. In fact, I was feeling a bit queasy about having downloaded new software without clearing it with her first. My concern was unfounded. She was glad to know of the new tool. She opened some programs to assure herself that it was working and thanked me profusely. “Now I have to get to work.”

And that is the point of this whole posting. She is absolutely dependent on this computer and had no idea how to care for it or diagnose simple problems. That would be okay: not all clients want to become technicians, but until someone suggested she call me, she had no idea of how to proceed. Given time she would likely have called a store and got connected with a service, but for something that is so important, she should have a trusted resource. She probably has an automobile mechanic where she takes her car for regular maintenance. I emphasized to her that I am primarily a tutor who does some repair and maintenance and maybe she should prepare a list of use-related questions that I could help her with. Her response was guarded. She might sign up for some tutoring, but I doubt it. She has time to be offline with a non-operative computer, but no time for lessons.

Click here to read about my new tutorial on helping seniors. The new version has grown considerably over the original. It has more topics and anecdotes, and fewer typos. While you’re at it, check out my expanded tutorial on decision theory.

[tags]senior computing, adult education[/tags]

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  • Ken

    Wow!!!!!! She really pissed you off, didn’t she? I get the feeling from that last sentence that you really don’t like fixing broken computers, especially those that break through lack of routine maintenance. She sounds like she would have been more interested in letting you do the P/M work on her machine than in learning how to do it yourself. Of course, if you’re not happy doing repairs, I bet you’d loath doing P/M on other people’s machines.

  • Rowena

    Please could we seniors have a lesson on cleaning our computers.
    My computer also died of thick dust!
    While i regularly back up my files perhpa si should set outlook to remind me to clean my trusty work horse.
    Any hints on the best way to ensure the insides are kept clean would be gratefully received.

  • Sherman E. DeForest

    Ken, It’s wrong to say she pissed me off. Frustration is more like it. Her distress was real, but unnecessary. I feel sorry for her, but also puzzled that she has become dependent on something without taking the time to learn about it–and the fact that this is a common occurrence. As to working on hardware, I actually enjoy it, but do not consider myself to be a qualified tech. I prefer to think of myself as a tutor. The fact is that one cannot tutor seniors unless one can also diagnose and repair problems.

    I take that back. I like working on computers and build my own, but I don’t like fixing them when they have been abused or infected with hundreds of pests. But that comes with the territory.

  • Sherman E. DeForest

    Rowena, In the post I mentioned cleaning twice a year when you change the batteries in your smoke alarm. That is as good as anything.

  • Paul Higgins

    High, Sherman,

    I read and enjoy all of your posts in Lockergnome- windows fanatics. I am a self taught tech, if there is such a thing and have gleaned a wealth of knowledge from people such as you. I now do pc repairs for people who know me, hoping they will pass their experience on to others and maybe I can make a bob or two out of it. (I live in the UK so you would perhaps say a buck or two!) Thanks to people such as yourself. I have learned how computers work, how to diagnose problems and rarely now have to ask for advise, having built several pc’s for myself and family. I mention this purely to give you and your colleagues the recognition you deserve. I have had many friends say they need to buy a new pc because their current machine is too slow. One comment I shall always remember ‘can you put a new processor in this? It’s too old and slow’. Telling him that a 2gig processor wouldn’t run on that board invited looks of amazement! A spring clean, such as the one you have done for this lady and a clean up of dross from the drive surprises them when they find their pc running almost as new. I’ve yet to have a pc problem I couldn’t resolve. (Again, thanks to you and your colleagues wealth of knowledge, absorbed over the years.) Even when friends have said the shop couldn’t fix it. Anyhow, to get to the point. Your comment ‘I downloaded and installed Spybot Search and Destroy, which found about 100 pests. Since I did not have her permission to change anything, I did not fix them. In fact, I was feeling a bit queasy about having downloaded new software without clearing it with her first.’ Here’s my take on this situation. The owner has given you the pc to put right. My opinion is that this is effectively permission to do what is necessary. I always make this clear first. If I run programs like this I always check what might be removed and if I think it is related to a program they might wish to keep I contact them and explain first. Otherwise, if it is ‘stand alone’ and obviously nefarious, I remove it. I ask them, when their pc is returned if they want protective/cleaning programs installed and tell them I will only use those I use myself and have used for years with confidence . They usually agree, and I offer to show them how to use these programs. I can guarantee the next time they have issues and ask me to help again they have removed or disabled the protection I have installed for them. Because rather than learn how to modify the program for their own installation and use, they switch it off. The drive is full of the crap I had previously removed and they can’t understand why. I tell them the first line if defence is YOU. It does get a little discouraging to keep doing the same stuff. But I do love the challenge- me versus the hackers/malware purveyors. I don’t like the ‘you fix it for me’ attitude. I should charge them, but how do I tell my brother, friend etc ‘that’s £50’. I suspect I am just a mug! Definitely not a businessman.
    Anyhow, keep up the good work. Without non-techs, what would we do with our time?

  • TK_M


    I always enjoy your articles and find myself in a simlar position of tutoring some retirees.

    However, do you repair and maintain your own car – Your own A/C if the house has it? Do you bake your own bread? We all only have so many hours in the day and only so many grey cells to go round. So things we are just not clever enough to do, so we just don’t have time to do, while others; well; we just have better things to do with our time.

    I appreciate what you are saying and agree that in an ideal world, we would all know how to look after ourselves and everything we have. I fear you might also be misjudging her? Sometimes people use reasons such as “lack of time” as covers for fearing they are not “intelligent” enough to know these things. Often it’s for fear of damaging something further from not knowing exactly what is wrong in advance. Most geeks will just get stuck in, thinking they will learn as they go along and can always put things right if they mess a setting up in the process. Not everyone is like that though. I am, and I believe you are not afraid to get your hands dirty either (as are most of your readers probably). I am eternally grateful that I am lucky enough to be like that though.

    WHY should people have to know how to look after their computers? You rightly point out how important it is to her and she certainly would be a lot happier and confident if you were to show her basic maintenance. But computers are always changing and keeping up with them a life-long task. Perhaps she is just not wanting to take on that sort of committment of her time? A back-up computer might help (depends on how many vital files need to be transferred in the even of a problem).

    Personally, I feel uneasy unless someone has some sort of firewall (hard or soft) plus anti-virus and and anti-spyware on their computer. Spybot finding so many pests is alarming and a clear sign that she could do with at least one lesson on basic security from you. I do not personally encourage beginners to use Spybot, as it is too powerful – Stopping some programs and patches from installing properly. You have to know when to turn it off, then it is a wonderful little adjunct to a secure computer.

    If the client can afford it, NOD32 is what I recommend at the moment – If not; then Comodo Firewall (or Zone Alarm for an absolute beginner), with AVG Anti-Virus and Spybot (or Windows Defender for a beginner). I know Avira Anti-Virus is preferred by some, but I’ve had an a lot of false positives with it and went back to AVG to cut down on the alarmed phone calls.

    I also suggest CCleaner to those concerned about privacy, plus “Eraser” for those confident and competent enough to use it. Teaching the rudiments of this lot will take about 2 hours though (perhaps three if you include installing & setting preferances).

    Regretably, your main point seems to be very wide-spread and very much valid. Would you ask a driving instructor to change your tire for example? Unfortunately, many people have the attitude “oh, he knows about computers” and so the job falls to you, when it is not really what you do. I am often asked to design websites, but I know very little about it and have to decline as politely as I can. You can almost see the hurt in their faces when you do – As though you do not consider them “worth” helping, or they then think everything you have said is unreliable, since you are now perceived as “not knowing about computers after all”. Ho hum…can’t win.

  • Charlie Semple

    It may help this woman and others who present such routine maintenance and minor repair situations to suggest they find a computer User Group or computer club.

    Most of these situations and some that are more complex are routinely dealt with in our meetings and via “help lines” offering help from other members.

    “Find a user group” on
    is a good start.

    Charlie Semple
    Los Angeles Computer Society

  • Bruce

    If you get a machine that stays slow after spybot S&D, adaware, online virus scan or housecall.trendmicro, I suggest Counterspy by Sunbelt software – It is free for 2 weeks and I have used it on 5 machines over several years insluding one that has Spybot,and adaware running on it and I had the owner run Symantecs’ online scan in safemode with networking- all reported the unit clear but it ran slowly and slowed even more when we reinstalled the automatic updates. The owner ran Counterspy and before i called him the next day had paid for two year subscriptions for 2 computers – it found one trojan that had latched onto windows updates and/or the OEM update program. Once that was cleaned out the system ran bette than it had for 2 years – The customer had many programs installed and really didn’t like the idea of a system recovery – counterspy saved him from that. I use it as my last resort since it does have a limited time use.
    Another issue with users who rely on their computers is the lack of a backup program. There are probably many online backup services but the one I know of and have recommended to be installed on owners computers is there are multiple servers in multiple cities with antivirus scans and security incorporated – I advise people that they are responsible for knowing thier password/access code since that is the only way to get their data back if their computer fails and they ned to get their busines up and running.