In 1985, I needed help fixing a bunch of corrupt database files. I paid a guy $150 to come to my office and spend the morning showing me how to do it. Today I'd find detailed info on the Internet and handle it myself. (Quick aside: It was Ashton-Tate's dBase II, the predecessor to Fox Pro.) In this column, and next week's, I'll take you through my own self-help steps.
You'd be disappointed if I didn't have something sneaky up my sleeve, like a hidden agenda. I do: I want to reduce the amount of e-mail I get from readers asking for help. At the same time, you'll be able to crank out immediate responses to help your novice associates.Get Help From a Geek
You may have missed my magazine column on this topic. In addition to a caricature of me with an uncharacteristic smile, it provided a handful of links and tools for finding and organizing online help. "Helpfulness Is Next to Geekliness" is the title [thanks, Dennis] and it's a quick read. Pay attention to the nifty help sites and the specialized sites for overworked IT and MIS folks.
I had a slug of e-mail from readers telling me about their favorite help sites, along with their success stories. (My thanks to all of you who wrote.)
Steve Williams finds Pacman's Portal useful, especially for start-up problems.
T. Powers says that the PC Guide Discussion Forums are moderated by helpful, knowledgeable and courteous people.
Carey Holzman gives Protonic.com high marks for fast, accurate responses.
Werner Griesshammer thinks that Experts Exchange needs a mention, and I agree: It's a terrific place to go for answers. The downside is you have to understand what I think is a convoluted point system--or spend $10 per month to essentially buy your "points." If you just want answers quickly, see "Rummage Around the Web" later in this newsletter for how to do a Google search on this site.
And one from me: If you don't mind paying for tech support, try PCPinpoint.com, which charges $15 for a one-time problem or $50 for the year. I tried it on two occasions: once for my mom's PC, and the staff accurately diagnosed the problem as a BIOS that couldn't be upgraded; and again for my system, when they tackled and resolved a grueling com port hassle I was experiencing. The PCPinpoint.com folks guarantee to solve or identify the problem, or give you your money back.
Dig This: If you think only dumb people in the U.S. call the police emergency line asking stupid questions, you're wrong. They do it in England as well. Get a load of four audio streams of actual calls. The strangest? Potatoes... [With thanks to Tom L.]Rummage Around the Web
One of the best ways to dig up help when you're not getting answers is by searching the Web. My favorite engine is Google, without a doubt. Here are two quick tips for digging up tech help.
Limit your search. If you spend lots of time searching specific sites, you'll want to use a shortcut. The syntax is the word or phrase you want to search on followed by site: and the domain that you want to search. For instance:
IE Toolbar problem site:experts-exchange.com
Stick that into the search field and Google looks only on the experts-exchange.com site. Substitute any other domain--say, microsoft.com or pcworld.com--to tighten your search. Important: Make sure not to insert a space after the colon, or the syntax won't work correctly.
What you're doing is shorthand for what Google does in an advanced search on one site. To see this in action, go to the Google Advanced Search page and try an advanced search on Microsoft's site: Type Windows blue screen in the "with all of the words" field, then type Microsoft.com in the "return results from the site or domain" field and click Google Search. Now look at the search field at the top of the results page. You'll see Windows blue screen site:microsoft.com.
Mess around with search syntax. It's essential to experiment with words and word order. Also, use quotes within the search field. For instance, let's pretend that some of my desktop icons changed their position or disappeared altogether. Here are the search phrases I used in hunting down a solution, and why they worked--or didn't:
icons change position (Awful--nothing I can use.)
lost icons (This is too broad--few PC hits.)
lost icons on desktop (This is better--about five useful links.)
icons disappear on desktop (Mixed--about 20 hits, but nothing valuable.)
"icons disappear" XP (Knowing that the phrase "icons disappear" works, I wrap it in quotes and try to find specific links for Win XP. Get hits, yes, but no answers.)
restore desktop (I take a different tack and try a phrase that says what I want to happen, a "restored desktop," rather than what's wrong, the fact that the icons have disappeared. I hit the jackpot: Not only do I find Restore Desktop, a free utility that saves and restores my desktop, but I also find Align Icons, another freebie that keeps icons orderly. Both programs are available at Softwarium.)
Quick Tip: If you want a taste of next-generation searching (and if you're willing to make a toll call), try using Google's voice search. Go to the Google Voice Search Demo page and dial the phone number listed, then carefully enunciate the words "PC World." In a second or two, a voice will prompt you to click "Click this link" on the search page. Amazing, eh?Use Google to the Max
I recently wrote a feature titled "Maximum Google," and it was grand fun. (Can you believe I was actually paid to do it?) The article's long--six screens--but it's packed with tips that'll bump up your productivity when you do Google searches.
BTW, since my article hit the newsstands, Google's introduced a distributed computing toolbar that lets you share your unused CPU cycles with Stanford University.
But how about taking a break from Google? Try Kartoo, a too-cool search engine that's not only great fun, but actually makes some search results easier to understand. Sure, I could describe it ... but try it yourself and you'll see why I think it's cool.
Dig This: I don't own a cat, nor do I have any intention of having one around my home office. Nonetheless, I'm intrigued by software that claims to protect your PC from unwanted kitty input and train your cat in the bargain. You can read more about it at the PawSense site, or play a sample "sound that annoys cats" that goes off when the program detects feline mischief. (I tried it on my copy editor, but it got no reaction.) In an unscientific test, a PCWorld.com staffer played one of the sounds--a harmonica--and gleefully informed me that it does indeed annoy her cat.
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