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Being a Good Beginner in the Big Bad World of Computing
by Robert L. Seltman

Updated in 2000 from the original in Kinki Times August 1994 and translated into Japanese by Daisuke Sasaki in 2004.

As friends continue to express an interest in getting a computer or learning to better use the one they already have, I invariably refer them to KMUG. Kinki Macintosh Users Group is a community of friendly and helpful souls, people I continually find willing to guide this dimwit through the many dark woods and treacherous ravines here in Macintosh jungle. There are user groups in every corner of wide wide Apple World. Yet these same novice friends return from their first meeting with "Everybody was talking over my head" or "Everybody is an expert but no one can agree on how to solve my problem". These and other criticisms are of course half true and half a confession to beginner stubbornness.

Two disturbing beginner stances, both of which I too have been guilty of, are:

No matter what you say, I will play the helpless damsel in distress; "I don't know anything about machines, and I never will, so Pretty Please solve my problems for me…" and it's macho opposite "I ain't stupid, so don't treat me like I don't know anything, talk to me in simple English, this is suppose to be user friendly right, this is suppose to be a users group right… so tell me what to do in plane English…"

When asking help with computer problems, I suggest you take notes. Think of it as a board meeting of equal yet different specialists trying to mutually solve a particular task. Ask reasonable questions but be prepared to return back to your office ready and willing to look up and learn about vocabulary and concepts you noted but didn't quite grasp at the meeting. Then follow the suggestions as they were given, applying what you have since learned by reviewing all your reference material such as instruction manuals, the Macintosh Bible, notes from the meeting, etc.

Record on paper what you tried, and what happened. If the problem persists, write down all your questions, check your reference material again, and after stepping away from the task for a coffee break, try again to solve the problem yourself. Now when you go back to ask your friend for assistance you will be able to zero in to the next level of problem solving, which will again require note taking, new vocabulary, and further research and testing. It sounds laborious, yet it will quickly make you a competent amateur, and, if enough time is invested, eventually you will get to play the tech whiz at the next KMUG meeting.

Another brain twister is ‘what computer is best for me’ or ‘how does someone new to computing know which computer model with what options to buy from the beginning?’. If I were a computer salesman, or if you were spending someone else's money, I would say go for the biggest, fastest, neatest-looking computer you can afford and then buy the next model up. But since I know how little you're bringing home after a hard day's work, I will give you some good-old grand ma advise. Don't buy your dream machine first, instead buy from a friend their old but perfectly good slightly outdated equipment, for a fair market price (read- dirt cheap and at a fraction of its original price).

You can buy an earlier Mac, for under 80,000 yen ($700) but I would not recommend any system prior to OS X. Listings in the Internet Mac dealerships include various used or refurbished computers at bargain prices. To get a ball park figure on what a machine is worth in the USA, the current street prices are listed in Macworld Magazine. There are also Mac pricing lists on the internet, search the model you are looking for, and compare these to the prices listed in the reviews of the latest models to see how prices shift in time.

Are you the type who would give your 16 year old boy a brand new red corvette for his first car, or would you let him make his first few fender benders on the old rusted Chevy in the garage? Crash the ¥20,000 ($150) hard drive on an old Mac and you'll curse and then laugh. Burn out the ¥120,000 ($1,500) motherboard on a top of the line G5 or equally advanced Windows PC and learn why computer hackers go bald early.

Have fun with your cheap Mac, experiment, learn the ropes, open the back, look inside, try changing the ways things look, add and subtract various peripheral stuff, and then donate it to your friend's kids or a local school when you feel you really know what computer suits your lifestyle (actually I would recommend keeping that old Mac as a back-up, something I've always found helpful in a pinch). After three months to a year playing with the basics you should have a better idea whether or not you actually like computers, and what features, from which companies, are worth investing in.

Most of us can recommend our favorite fantasies, about what we would buy if we were you, but all of us have had second thoughts about the choices we made when we bought our last computer. It is a fact of computing life, which keeps the industry alive, you will seldom be perfectly satisfied. But also, if you try to unload any computer you bought with ill advice, you will get only a fraction of what you paid for it new. As grand ma would say 'Buy a little scooter, and take it to work a few weeks during the rainy season, before buying that Harley-Davidson.'

Finally, where should I go for help with my new computer? My first suggestion is develop self reliance. Try reading the manuals, reviewing the basics, carefully and gently experimenting with your options. Next develop a mutual aid society, find friends who too are learning how to use the computer and share your experiences and frustrations. Often their discoveries will compliment your needs. An old pro will know the answers, but discovering them on your own is more helpful in the long run.

Attend a users group like KMUG and/or join in on discussions on the net, learn how to post questions and try and decode the answers sent by the various experts (or helpful amateurs like yourself). You have also the service bureaus of the company where you purchased any new software or hardware, but this may mean long distance phone calls, with being kept on hold.

Generally I find others helpful when I've gotten over my initial panic. . . But before calling anyone for help, remember what our Greek ancestors carved over their temple doors, 'Read the manual first'.

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