A month ago, I wrote, for better or worse, about the confidence you need in order to employ technology without letting its shortcomings dictate how you use it. This is so important.

I am technical support for quite a few people.  At Lamont-Doherty, I often help the science geniuses with very specific data wrangling in particular programs.  In my personal life, and outside of work, I often answer more general questions.  For example, I get phone calls from my uncle every so often.  He is a doctor who lives in Rhode Island, and he calls with general problems, like “I can’t connect to my iCloud.” (For our non-iPhone users, cloud computing is a method by which files can be stored in a large centralized supercomputer, and accessed via an Internet connection.  This is the concept behind Apple’s iCloud, Microsoft’s SkyDrive, and Google Drive, to name a few.) But of all the people who ask me for my help, no one is quite like my mother.

My mom can make literally anything.  An artist, she has extremely fine skills that most people can never aspire to.  But she has little to no regard for technology, even though she has a laptop and iPhone of her own.  She asks me questions when I visit home, and I answer them.  I show her what I’m doing (assuming she hasn’t already walked away and washed her hands of the whole thing), and I stress that she write it down so she can handle it the next time something happens.  But she just doesn’t want to know.  She confesses this, and I walk away.

tech_support_cheat_sheetImage via

About a year ago xkcd.com posted the flow chart above.  I sent it to everyone. My friends saw it and identified with it. My family “clients,” who I thought desperately needed to know the truth about troubleshooting, found it very helpful.  It is definitely a little satirical, but I absolutely endorse the method outlined in this comic.  Before you go on a random clicking spree, make sure you’ve saved your work so that you can get it back should anything go wrong (like you accidentally delete the entire novel you’ve been writing). It might even help to write down the problem on paper so that you can do some semi-targeted clicking rather than randomly tapping your index finger. 

Whatever you do, it is important to remain calm and focused on the problem.  If you decide, like my mom does, that you’d rather head out and make a sculpture and hope the problem solves itself, you will get nowhere (except maybe your kid will expose your anti-tech attitude online).  Even if the problem gets solved by little elves (daughters), you won’t have learned how to avoid it in the first place, much less what to do if it should happen again.

So click away and write down the solution.  Here are a few tips for general maintenance.

Unplug your laptop, tablet, phone, dishwasher etc., to lengthen its battery life. Not all laptop batteries are the same, and some are more robust than others when it comes to holding a charge for long periods of time, or being plugged in for long periods of time.  Make sure that you know what the deal is with your battery life and performance when you buy something new.  If you’re not sure what to do with the laptop you currently own, search for the model on Google, or call the store you bought it from.

If you’re using a laptop all day, keep it from overheating by propping up the corners so air can flow underneath.

Turn off/restart your computer.  This often fixes little quirks.  Definitely restart your computer if you’ve installed new software or updates.

While we’re on the subject, update your software, plug-ins, and apps.  This is very important.  Out-of-date programs will perform worse and worse.  The most extreme case of not keeping up to date is when your operating system is so old that you can’t update iTunes anymore.  It might be a pain, but if you call up any technical support staffer, the first thing you’ll be asked is, “Do you have the latest software?”  You may as well get a head start.  You can configure your computer’s settings to remind you to do this, or to automatically do it for you.

There are certain things you shouldn’t touch if you don’t know what you’re doing.  I stay away from the Windows Registry, for example (and I recently somehow did away with the “create new folder” button on my computer. Side note: even though this is slightly more serious, since it’s a problem with Windows Explorer, my computer is still fine.  I still haven’t broken it.)  The best rule is that if you don’t understand most of the words you see on your screen, don’t mess around until you know what they mean.  At this point you should call someone.  I’m booked until November, but there are plenty of offspring and little elves who  can help. 

  • Alexandra May 29, 2013 at 10:42 am

    thank you for your responses! very encouraging.

    let me know if there’s a specific topic you’d like me to talk about. it’s very likely i would learn something myself in the process…

  • patricia yarberry allen May 25, 2013 at 3:50 pm

    I am so thrilled with Alexandra’s clear guides about technology for our site. Since she outed her mother, I will confess that she has also served as a “consultant” to the “one who saw her first” as well.

    My girls all do something wonderful and do it better than anyone else! U of Chicago first then a real job with a salary in the Polar Geophysics group as a day job while hanging out with peers who talk about Big Data as a hobby… We here at http://www.womensvoicesforchange.org are so glad that there are young women like Alexandra who are challenging the male dominance of science, math and the big problems of our time.

    Alexandra, those of us who have been too lazy to do the work to become computer literate, are grateful to you for your thoughtful advice. I love the cartoon!


    Dr. Pat

  • roz warren May 25, 2013 at 11:56 am

    Invaluable. Thanks.

  • Merrily Swoboda May 25, 2013 at 10:52 am

    I am one of those competent-in-MANY-areas-except-the-technical seniors, and I appreciate this article. It has inspired me to NOT “walk away” (or turn it over to my spouse) the next time I need to trouble shoot a computer problem! THANK YOU, Alexandra! (Gotta go now and explore what a “gravatar” is . . . )

  • Diana May 25, 2013 at 10:08 am

    Some basic knowledge helps…but if rebooting doesn’t “fix” the problem I’m just plain screwed.

  • suetiggers May 25, 2013 at 9:49 am

    this was a good one..I passed on to two techie friends to save for the non-pc peeps …..like me 🙂

  • Diane Dettmann May 25, 2013 at 9:25 am

    Great tech article, Alexandra! Thanks for the helpful suggestions and the diagram. Also plan to check for updates soon. My husband will be so impressed with my computer expertise. 🙂


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