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What Should People Understand About Computers? 962

Posted by Cliff
from the correct-the-misconceptions dept.
counterexample asks: "It seems to me that there aren't very many good books out there that explain to the layman what is really going on with computers. My mother cannot go to the bookstore and pick up a book that will make her understand the strange language that we IT people speak, or why her computer would be susceptible to a virus. So, I intend to write such a book. I have a fair idea of what should be in it (history of the Internet, how computers talk to each other, what a hard drive does, etc.), but I'm interested to see what you all have to say. What do you wish your users knew? What kind of questions are you so sick of answering because you hear them every week? What does the general public think they understand, but really don't?"
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What Should People Understand About Computers?

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  • by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:08PM (#14493123) Journal
    My ancestors (parents and grandparents) are a naturally inquisitive people. Any attempt to teach them things about computers may only leave them more confused and full of questions.

    You are about to undertake a Herculean task in that you are now required to omit certain things which we may all know. I think your strategy should concentrate on figuring out how simply you can describe something without causing more confusion and questions.

    I would suggest analyzing The New Way Things Work [houghtonmifflinbooks.com] by David Macaulay because he does a good job at using simple illustrations and brought me up to speed on a lot of engineering ideas when I was only in fifth grade. I would try to mimic him and use his level of detail as a template into what the common person is ready to ingest.

    Perhaps you should also change your strategy from "What do I include?" to "Where do I draw the line?" Start with a computer and describe the monitor, mouse, keyboard, box, printer, etc. in a high level. These are the obvious things you see. Then you can take and chapter by chapter explain each component down to as much detail as you want to. I would then have a chapter on communications and the internet that doesn't go all the way down to protocols.

    Allow me to illustrate what kind of people you should aim this book at in this telephone call between me and my mother:

    Me: Ok, tell me what the screen says now.
    Mom: It's blue.
    Me: What do you mean "it's blue"? What does it say?
    Mom: It says, "9F D8 34 7B ..."
    Me: Um, that's ok, ma, I don't speak hex.
    Mom: "... FA 25 3C A2 ..."

    One more thing, I shudder at the possibility of the history of computers being taught to my parents. This is more information that isn't really pertinent to what a layperson needs to know about computers. I would suggest delving into this as little as possible but historical facts always make reading interesting if you want to include little side notes.

    As with most projects undertaken--keep it simple, stupid!
    • by Rei (128717) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:27PM (#14493348) Homepage
      People need to understand that computers are magical boxes that run on white smoke and fairy dust. Never, ever open your computer, or even risk hooking new devices up to it; you might cause the spell to fail. Understanding how it works is of course beyond any normal mortal; computer geeks are a different breed of human utterly different than you or I.

      All software installed on the computer when you get it is part of a complex enchantment; to attempt to remove any bundled software or to even look at configuration options is to destroy the enchantments and render your computer a worthless heap of metal.

      The internet is an evil place where every website is either a lie or an attempt to lure children to molesters. Of course, email from your friends is always safe - after all, your friends would never send you a malicious file.
      • People need to understand that computers are magical boxes that run on white smoke and fairy dust.

        Reminds me of that BOFH issue where the BOFH got a user to fry his power supply. "See that puff of smoke? Your computer doesn't work any more because you let the magic smoke escape!" Priceless.
      • The internet is an evil place where every website is either a lie or an attempt to lure children to molesters.

        This is also the place where your kids learn to build bombs and shoot guns. According to my local TV station it seems that society went for years and years without murder or bombs but since this internet thing... woo! crimes just everywhere and what motivated all these people to suddenly apply their high school chemistry knowledge? The Internet of course.

        They also said that playing video games is
      • Frankly, I am more and more coming to this point of view, as far as users are concerned. Let them think the tiny god could become angry with them if they browse the wrong folders, or tamper with the holy configurations.

        You can't teach them enough to be fully competent. If you teach them a little, you just make them dangerous, able to screw up on a much more profound level.

        Solution? Teach them as little as possible.

        This goes against my grain. I love teaching people things. But whenever I show someone how to do something, inevitably, destruction ensues.

        How many user problems arise from them trying to install software? Solution: make it so they can't install software. Give them access to system files? Not if you don't want them to throw them away later, out of boredom. Let them configure their own apps? Are you out of your MIND?

        I used to work in my university computer lab. When you logged into a computer, it would build your system profile for you, from stored settings (not thin client, mind you, it pulled down everything you needed and wrote it on the local harddrive). Applications were served from central servers. Files were saved in your serverside directory.

        When you logged off, it went through and ran a cleanup app that expunged every trace of your presence, checked all the system files, and replaced any that had been modified in ANY WAY. Five minutes later, a perfectly clean machine was ready for another user. The only real problem we had with it was that it was rough as hell on the harddrive, so the replacement rate was pretty high.

        Every place I've worked since then, I've longed for that level of control. No viruses, no wierd errors. Worst case scenario, you replace the harddrive and run a build script.
        • I understand your feelings on this, but imo people should be able to at least have the ability to experiment with computers. The only reason I know the things I know now, is because I messed up and had to figure out a way to repair the damage.

          Maybe an easy to use version of "system restore" would give people the nerve to try some things, and if whatever they try fails: just push some reset button and a default OS magically respawns. Fear of doing something wrong again after a bad experience with computers s
        • by iangoldby (552781) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @05:59PM (#14494976) Homepage
          If you teach them a little, you just make them dangerous, able to screw up... Solution? Teach them as little as possible... make it so they can't install software...

          Every place I've worked since then, I've longed for that level of control.


          Unfortunately, you give the game away with your last statement. Systems administrators love to have absolute power and it does avoid all those tedious problems of sorting out machines their users have broken. The problem is that unless they are really well resourced they won't be able to do everything the users need doing in the timescales that are necessary.

          But worse still, in your effort to protect the unsophisticated users from themselves, you inevitably hamstring the more sophisticated users.

          It's all very well saying that all requests for new software have to go through IT support. But then one of your sophisticated users wants some highly specialised piece of software that could just be downloaded and installed in 15 minutes. No one in IT has even heard of it before. It has to be approved and scripted, and while there is one user waiting for this there are 200 clamouring for the upgrade to MS Project. The result is that you're lucky to get it any time in the next 10 weeks. Something you could have installed yourself in 15 minutes if only IT would drop their one-size-fits-all policy and give trust where trust is due.

          Sorry, rant over :-)
          • The problem is that unless they are really well resourced they won't be able to do everything the users need doing in the timescales that are necessary.

            Well, it's pretty common to spend 5 minutes fixing the users reported problem and then the next hour or more fixing all the damage they did trying to fix it themselves.

            But worse still, in your effort to protect the unsophisticated users from themselves, you inevitably hamstring the more sophisticated users.

            I don't know if it works like this everywhere but of
        • Ok, so draw the distincton between teaching people what they can usefully know vs. enforcing a correct system administration policy.

          The problem with the "teach them nothing" idea is that unless you blindfold them and stuff their ears with cotton every moment of their lives -- and force the enterprising Helen Kellers of the world to wear boxing gloves -- the user will somewhere, at some time, pick up something that they'll want to try.

          Consider them contaminated at that point.

          In the case of a little dangerous
        • I agree because I am one of those users who knows enough about system configurations to destroy every goddamn system I work on.

          And I'm a computer programmer!

          Every system I work on has been loaded with so many mods, filled with so many performance tweaks and hacks, had everything overclockable overclocked, that nothing I touch is stable anymore. Sometimes I wish I didn't know about any of this stuff just so that I wouldn't ruin my system and have to do an OS reinstall monthly. I'm a living testament to

    • by Goalie_Ca (584234) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:36PM (#14493455)
      It seems to me that there aren't very many good books out there that explain to the layman what is really going on with computers...

      My ancestors (parents and grandparents) are a naturally inquisitive people. Any attempt to teach them things about computers may only leave them more confused and full of questions.

      Maybe i'm a cynic but I believe that most people don't care about computers for the same reason they don't care about anything else. The average layperson isn't curious at all! Slashdot is full of nerds. We read about nanobots, particle physics, and GPL drafts in our spare time. Besides, when's the last time an average person has read a book? (bonus points for non-fiction) Inquisitive people, like you or I, are the type of people that will read a wikipedia page and then read all the connecting pages until a good hour has been spent. Curious people have enough self-motivation to do their own research and will do so from multiple sources.
      • Actually I disagree. I think most people are curious, at some level, about computers. (Actually I think most people are curious about a whole lot of things.) However they find that asking them questions usually doesn't get them anywhere, and so they learn to treat the computer as a sort of 'magic box' and ignore whatever curious impulses they might have over how it works.

        Think of what most people get if they ask a question about computers. If they don't outright get told that there's 'no reason for them to know,' or 'it's too complicated for me to explain,' either they get some sort of patronizing explanation that they themselves know isn't true, or one so loaded with technical detail that they feel like an imbecile for asking. It's either the children's book or the technical manual; there's no middle ground. And it really only takes one bad experience to throw someone off a subject that they're only peripherally interested in.

        I don't think this is necessarily specific to computers, though. Most people don't really know how their television, automobile transmission, or microwave works. Every once in a while they might get curious and wonder what's going on inside, but they know that if they ask a really knowledgable person a question (e.g. if they ask a mechanic about a transmission) they'll probably either get brushed off or get an incomprehensible response. So they shrug and go on in ignorance.

        Personally I think the internet is very slowly beginning to change that. When you have immediate access to information on practially anything -- and especially technical topics -- it becomes a lot less painful to fulfill that momentary impulse to learn. You don't have to go to a library, you don't have to find an expert, and you can read as much or as little as you like. "More than you want to know about just about anything" is just a HowStuffWorks, Wikipedia, or Google query away.

        Just as a personal anecdote, I've noticed that my father (who is in his late 60s, and was until recently of the ardent conviction that typing was for secretaries) uses the internet constantly when he's watching television. The last time I was home, we were watching a movie he saw as a young man (Ben Hur, I believe) and he recalled that when the movie had originally been released, a big deal had been made of how it was shot in "Panavision"; however he'd never been totally clear what Panavision was. So as we were sitting there he grabbed his laptop, typed "Panavision" into wikipedia, and answered a 47-year-long 'mild curiosity' in about ten minutes.

        My point in all this is that you have to present information to people in a way that's easily -- perhaps instanly -- accessible. Start simply, and work up from there. Don't try to force anything on them; if and when they want to know something (if you do your job right) they'll find you and satisfy themselves. I think Wikipedia and HowStuffWorks are great because it lets someone who's just mildly curious about something to find an answer to their question in a satisfying way, so that the next time they're curious about something, they won't repress the urge to find out. Plus if they're more than just mildly curious, they both provide ways to learn more about a topic, or about related topics.
      • Besides, when's the last time an average person has read a book?

        I've spoken to people who have bragged that they've never read a book since they graduated from High School. I also have a friend who's severely dyslexic, but reads more books than most people every year, because he doesn't let his dyslexia stop him. Not only does he read, he reads science-fiction, mostly, and is proud when he can finish a book in under a week and comprehend it. For him, that's a major achievement. What really gets me is

    • by vettemph (540399) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:36PM (#14493457)
      >>>shudder at the possibility of the history of computers being taught to my parents.

      I agree.
      The book should take on the angle of driving a car.
          ANALOGIES
      Controls: keyboard and mouse
      Engine: OS
      Bumpers: AV software
      Crooked mechanic: Windows update
      Lemons: Windows (please pass a lemon law for this crap OS)
      Mclaren F1: GNU/Linux (or is linux an original VW which became a porsche?)
      Car Jackers: script kiddies/spyware/adware

        Of course You need road signs, maps, short cuts, scenic routes and many other things. "Drivers training" should be a requirement.

      (copywrite Ken Wood 2006) :)
      • by dotgain (630123)
        Bullshit. Analogies with cars will always fall down. And anyway, people don't understand cars any better.
        • by StalinsNotDead (764374) <umbagaNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @04:30PM (#14494098) Journal
          You're absolutely correct. Analogies using cars work about as well as your average Pontiac Fierro.
        • by Tony Hoyle (11698) <tmh@nodomain.org> on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @05:38PM (#14494772) Homepage
          Analogies in general work well.

          True story: I was in a major computer store when a perplexed looking man, probably about 60, asked me if I knew anything about the USB keys they had. He wanted to store some letters on it (probably saved from Word.. didn't ask), and his outlook contacts list.

          I started with 'well a 16mb is cheap and will do what you need I think' but he looked perplexed.. time for an analogy. '1 megabyte is about 1 floppy, so 16 megabytes is 16 floppies'. It was like watching a light switch on - the analogy had allowed him to make the connection between something he knew (floppy disks) to something he didn't know (what a megabyte was). His next question was, 'ah, so that one is the size of 256 floppies'.. and he was well on his way to making an intelligent buying choice.
          • by default luser (529332) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @05:56PM (#14494936) Journal
            Right, analogies are key. I also have had great success with encouraging people like my mother to be more outgoing when it comes to GUIs.

            Like most people who just "get by" using computers, she is terrified of messing with options, and jumping through menus.

            Whenener she has a problem with a piece of software I've never touched (yet I'm expected to "fix"), I make it clear to her that I have no clue exactly how to fix it, but I tell her what kind of thing I'm looking for...a settings window, a configuration wizard, etc. And I explain to her quite clearly that she can't break anything by messing with these options...she can always undo something.

            Now that she realizes that many programs offer similar basic features, but just present them in their own way, she is more confident with finding the solution to common problems she encounters (and calls me very rarely about problems).

            It is all about the approach. I used to have to install GAMES for this woman.
            • Slightly off-topic... Well, actually, I guess it's on-topic... but I've found that it's really easy to explain file-compression to layfolk by comparing it to sudoku.

              A sudoku puzzle, when complete, contains more digits than it does when unsolved. Yet there is only one solution to a given sudoku puzzle. So the starting state, which contains far less information, implies a larger volume of information which is unique to that starting state. Thus you can express the outcome of 81 digits using only some sma

            • by Hosiah (849792)
              You know, if I had one wish for computer literacy, it would be to have the entire population each get a 2/386 out of the recycle bin, and thrash the hell out of it. Since it's a garbage computer with no data of theirs on it, they have complete freedom to open every folder, click every option, move files at random, and even tear open the case and rip out the chips and shiff them and feel them. They can at last *explore*, because they have a sandbox!

              I mean, would you have ever have learned to drive if your

      • Another analogy (Score:5, Insightful)

        by yashinka (891973) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @07:04PM (#14495535)
        I would guess 99% of all people don't know the difference between memory and a harddrive. I once gave a speech about the basics of computer hardware and I found this analogy useful (although somewhat limited).

        Imagine you are going to solve a problem and you have no long term memory. You have only a notebook, a calculator and a library.

        - The CPU is like your mind and calculator: Fast enough for simple problems but you can't do everything in your head.
        - The Cache is your short term memory. You don't need to reread things in the front of your notebook over and over.
        - The Memory is like your notebook. You can look through it fairly quickly but it can only hold so much.
        - The harddrive is the library. It holds vast amounts of information but takes a long time to find what you need. Once you find it you can photocopy things and add them to your notebook. If your notebook is full you will throw away old papers.

        You can expand on this analogy to say that some books hold information while others hold instructions and references to other books.
    • by usrusr (654450) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:36PM (#14493467) Homepage Journal
      Me: Ok, tell me what the screen says now.
      Mom: It's blue.
      Me: What do you mean "it's blue"? What does it say?
      Mom: It says, "9F D8 34 7B ..."
      Me: Um, that's ok, ma, I don't speak hex.
      Mom: "... FA 25 3C A2 ..."


      That's a very important point, no matter how much we know about the technical details of computer operation, the biggest difference between "us" and "them" ( = the proverbial mum) remains the mental "spam filter" that allows us to focus on the relevant parts of the UI presentation.
      • by thc69 (98798) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @04:15PM (#14493931) Homepage Journal
        All of the above boils down to this:

        My parents must read every character on the screen before they can gather a single piece of data from it. They cannot interact with the computer until they have viewed, thought about, squinted at, photographed, printed the photo of, discarded the photo of, composted the photo of, and grown a new tree out of that photo, of every pixel.

        Users can't read you the part you need because, with the possible exception of something that is obviously a cheesecake recipe, everything on the screen is nonsense to them. Maybe Cliff could attempt to quantify and describe the filters used by us geeks to read only the important stuff. Extra credit if you can teach them to correctly operate "OK" and "Cancel" buttons in other languages/broken video cards/buggy software (more extra credit if they can do it ambi-interfacedly -- mouse and/or keyboard).

        That reminds me: One thing that should definitely be covered is the 3-way "Save file" dialog that comes up when exiting a program/shutting down, and similar dialogs, that offer "Yes", "No", and "Cancel". This confuses the heck out of many users, and it's not reasonable to expect them to figure it out on their own unless they're geeks. They need to know that "Cancel" is a sure-fire way to get nothing done and be back where they started, and that they need to click "No" if they want to continue exiting the program but don't want to save the file. A sidebar should explain that walking away from the dialog will result in the computer waiting forever, and probably an "End task?" dialog will come up too.
        • I work with this guy whose whole job is to maintain a legacy mainframe. He can look at an outqueue, just glance at it, and tell you immediately what jobs failed. He'll call me up if the filesize on the input files is off kilter, and can tell from the most hopelessly obscure error message what the actual problem is.

          Thirty years experience will do that to you. Moreover, thirty years experience will do that to any of us. We have built in junk filters because we've seen the amazing bluescreen a zillion times. Our eyes automatically zero in on the actual error, because we've trained them to do it, error after error, for 16-19 years now.

          The problem is, there is no way you can teach experience. In a way that's good because if you could, most of us'd be out of a job. But in situations like this, is damn inconvenient.
    • Recommended Books (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Alien54 (180860)
      I like this series of books [mcfedries.com]. They explain things that most books assume you already know.

      Things like the difference between the left mouse button and right mouse button. (primary and secondary click, secondary click = menus, etc) Which everyone one knows, but not really, not for true beginners.

      Lots of visuals, with just one concept covered per page.

      Strangely enough the cartoon floppy disk character pointing at important things actually improves the effectiveness of the text for beginners, instead of usin

    • First rule of tech support: NEVER ask someone to tell you what they see on the screen, because they will. All of it. No matter how hard you try to stop them.

      Yes/No questions are your best friend.
    • by hackstraw (262471) * on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @04:16PM (#14493943)
      Me: Ok, tell me what the screen says now.
      Mom: It's blue.
      Me: What do you mean "it's blue"? What does it say?
      Mom: It says, "9F D8 34 7B ..."
      Me: Um, that's ok, ma, I don't speak hex.
      Mom: "... FA 25 3C A2 ..."


      What kind of computer program does that?

      Modern computers have a little screen that pops up if the OS crashes, that tells you in 5 or so languages to hold down your power button for a few seconds, and restart the machine. They also ask you on reboot if you want to send a bug report back to the manufacturer so they can fix the problem.

    • by elhaf (755704) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @04:30PM (#14494102) Homepage
      Conversation from last week:
      Me: Ok, now that I've installed your first DVD player and shown you the play and stop buttons, let me explain the menu.
      My Mother-in-law: No, I really don't need to know about that.
      Me: Oh, it's simple, you just move these arrows around, and you can select the scene you want to jump to, and so on.
      M-I-L: No, I think that will just confuse me.
      Me (remembering that she didn't know how to work the thermostat after her husband died): Yeah, OK, maybe all you need to know is the controls that work like the VCR: fast forward, rewind, play,...
      M-I-L: Which, frankly, I never really understood...
    • by UnrefinedLayman (185512) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @04:41PM (#14494202)
      Me: Ok, tell me what the screen says now.
      Mom: It's blue.
      Me: What do you mean "it's blue"? What does it say?
      Mom: It says, "9F D8 34 7B ..."
      Me: Um, that's ok, ma, I don't speak hex.
      Mom: "... FA 25 3C A2 ..."
      Your post was great, and I think a lot of it will help the person that asked. Having said that, it's important to point out that a lot of the frustration that people feel is borne of the feeling that the person providing support knows exactly what they're doing and the person seeking support doesn't.

      It's kind of like taking your car into the shop. A lot of people will be nervous in front of the mechanic and not want to describe what the problem is with the car because they don't know the terminology or where the problem could be. Instead they'll say it sounds like the catalytic converter is overheating the timing belt on the radiator exhaust manifold piston: a bunch of useless information. Nervousness breeds uncertainty breeds impatience breeds hositility, and the same is true with computers.

      The problem is often that the person providing support doesn't ask the right questions. Some of the best support I've gotten has been from people that led me to the answers. The questions in your example are perfect: "What does the screen say?" and "What do you mean 'it's blue,' what does it say?" Screens don't say anything, they have things printed on them, and when the user gives you an answer, it doesn't help to ask them a ridiculing question ("what do you mean, 'it's blue?'" (hint: they mean 'it's blue')) and then repeat your original question. It gets you nowhere (as you demonstrated). When it's expected that there's a whole lot of useless information (a hex dump) and a little bit of useful information (IRQ NOT LESS OR EQUAL TO), it's the job of the person providing support to lead the user to the answer. Try the exchange:

      You: "The screen should be light blue with a white box for a password below your username. Do you see that?"
      Mom: "The screen's dark blue and it has a bunch of white text."
      You: "OK, there should be a bunch of random text at the top, with the letters A through F and the numbers 0 through 9. Ignore that part; we're looking for the first line below all the random text that has actual words in it. Read me that line."

      Like you said, people aren't dumb and they're naturally inquisitive. Leading them through the troubleshooting steps makes support a lot easier and productive. Most of the problems I see with support analysts is that they don't know how to ask the right questions, not that the user is too dumb to understand. Even the dumbest user can be helped if they're willing and if the support person has the right skills.
    • There's lots of legacy concepts on computers today that might be confusing to a layperson but make perfect sense with a little bit of explination. The "Floppy Disk" that's not floppy at all (3.5" floppies) comes to mind.
  • by towaz (445789) * on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:09PM (#14493126)
    How about... Norton internet security and Mcafee will cause them more problems then they fix. Windows XP firewall and a free virus checker like AVG will save them a lot of grief. A good spyware program (how I wish pack.google.com did not include norton) like ad-aware or spybot and how to use it, anyone offering you a million pounds over email are scammers.
    Stop using the web for free porn and crack sites (mostly if using ie) firefox and thunderbird replace the normal xp offerings well. You don't need a computer that is all singing and dancing just to use word and msn, or just buy a mac.
    Buying a centrino laptop doesn't give you magic access to the internet (legally), stop plugging in usb stuff without the drivers first; erm, and the cdrom is not a damn cup holder!
    use linux, openoffice ect...
    • by Traa (158207) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @04:04PM (#14493816) Homepage Journal
      I would leave all that stuff out because it is so 'today'. Every product you mentioned might help a user today, but unless they get updated with what the hip anti-malware program is 6 months from now their computer will be a mess again. Educating users about scams and malware in general should open their eyes and keep them open for years to come. My parents emailed me that they have been deleting emails from governament officials in Nigeria offering them money. Not because I taught them about 419 scams, but because I tought them about internet scams in general.
  • I got one (Score:5, Funny)

    by TheRealMindChild (743925) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:09PM (#14493127) Homepage Journal
    "What does the general public think they understand, but really don't?"

    Women.
  • by voice_of_all_reason (926702) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:09PM (#14493129)
    Design a mechanical arm that comes out from between the pages and stabs the reader in the face every time they confuse "memory" with "disk space." You'll be doing us all a great service.
  • by jellomizer (103300) * on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:10PM (#14493136)
    The biggest problem I tend to face is that people don't know where the hardware ends, and where the OS Begins and where the OS Ends and the Applications begins. When they are doing something over the network or locally. They are just completely lost on the system. It it like they know how to drive but they don't know where they are now.

    They will always blame the wrong part for their problems.

    My Computer is Broken! When When MS Word fails to open.
    Windows Sucks! When the system wont Boot because the computer hardware failed.
    The Internet Is Down! When Windows somehow lost all its drives and fails boot.
    My Computer is slow, I need a faster one! When there are 1000s of spyware apps running

    What people need to know is what part of the computer does what type of job and how to at least say where the problem is.

    They should know when the Harddrive is clicking away or when sending information over the network.
    • The biggest problem I tend to face is that people don't know where the hardware ends, and where the OS Begins and where the OS Ends and the Applications begins. When they are doing something over the network or locally. They are just completely lost on the system.

      That is so true. And the reason is to us is that we don't know where to start to fix their problem. My mother actually calls everything she sees on the screen as "Microsoft". Scary.

      I don't know how to fix the problem. I mean, most people have
    • What people need to know is what part of the computer does what type of job and how to at least say where the problem is.

      No, what they need is a machine that's reliable so that if something goes REALLY wrong, they don't feel stupid about calling a computer technician or taking it to a repair desk to fix it.

      e.g.:

      My Computer is Broken! When When MS Word fails to open.

      MS Word shouldn't be so darn fickle. There are hundreds of ways to break it, that will easily put a user out of commission. My favorite? When Wi
  • For Dummies (Score:2, Informative)

    by debianlinux (548082)
    It may not have been updated but I read a book of the "For Dummies" variety several years ago that covered exactly the material you describe. I was reading it from an already very advanced POV, too.
  • Be sure to have a chapter dedicated to the on/off switch on both the main case and the monitor (hell, that might be two chapters right there). A chapter on when a cup holder isn't a cup holder. And don't forget the chapter on magic smoke. Covering those things should take all the mystery out of computers...
  • by StressGuy (472374) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:12PM (#14493158)
    Assuming that's where you keep the manual for you car. All you really need to know about your car is how to operate it and how to take care of it (what kind of fuel, when to change the oil, belts, plugs, etc.). It's not really necessary to know much about how a car works to be able to properly use it. Such information is available to those who want to know, but it's not necessary to know the Brayton Cycle for example, to operate a car.

    I would suggest that this be your state of mind when writing your computer manual. I.e. focus on how to use it and how to take care of it.

    • I think the car analogy breaks down. Cars are meant for basically one purpose: they are a vehicle to transport people and things, their user interface is mostly the same and you're talking 10 controls or so only, the manual in your glove compartment is more than enough for it, the majority of people don't even need it. Computers have a virtual infinity of uses, and each program/operating system/computer has slightly different user interface to do what it does. Much more is needed than a glove compartment gu
  • by sterno (16320) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:12PM (#14493159) Homepage
    But I was thinking about how such a book should be structured. It occurs to me that there's a lot of stuff that a person might like to know but might not need to know. And so I'm thinking the book should begin with an explanation of what's right in front of them. What each object on their desk does, how they relate to eachother, and the basics of how to interact with all of them.

    Then from there, the next sections would go one step beyond that. So the first part would be to talk about what the computer is, then the second part would talk about how memory works, etc. So at any point if the person gets spooked by any of it they can just stop where they are and have a good amount of knowledge. Make it easy for it to be a gentle progression.
  • lost cause! :P (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Klanglor (704779)
    i say its a lost cause, there is soo much 101 book about computer. if u can't explain it to your mom. don't expect any book to be able to.

    People tend to learn on a step by step basis depending on the interest in any specific subject.

    meaning if i am interested in learning quantum science. no mather how hard it is, I will keep on trying. well if i don't fell the need for it, i will give up and say its non sense.

    So just grab your latest for dummie book and hand it over to your mom. If she REALLY wants to under
  • by TeachingMachines (519187) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:13PM (#14493165) Homepage Journal
    ... but I'll only provide them if your book is to be released under the Open Document license [wikipedia.org].
  • by lilmouse (310335) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:13PM (#14493166)
    What kind of questions are you so sick of answering because you hear them every week?
    It's broke - fix it!

    I think that's the wrong approach - it's like asking a calc TA what questions he got asked most during the term. How do I do problem #3 isn't terribly useful to put in a book - next year they'll have to know how to do problem #4. So it goes with computers. Many questions can be "answered" without giving any real insight to the end reader/user. Be careful - you have to teach basics :)

    That said...

    I remember having to go through contortions to explain the concept of a "file" and "directory" to my mom. Just how technical *do* you get? "Any file is just a bunch of data" can be a bit confusing...

    --LWM
  • While I find books quite useful for learning about coding and such, many other non-technical people might find it more useful to use an online resource like http://computer.howstuffworks.com/ [howstuffworks.com]

    There are plenty of visual aids and easy to follow diagrams. Give that a shot and see if it helps or inspires your book.

    http://religiousfreaks.com/ [religiousfreaks.com]

  • Do not log in as admin

    Have other accounts besides owner or User

    Use Firefox

    Use Firebird

    Use AVG Free

    Try not to use Windows :-)

    When in doubt-be paraniod!

    • What is a computer? (hardware: memory, disk, screen, keyboard, ...)
    • What is an operating system? (file, directory management, task switching, ...)
      • Examples: windows, mac, linux
    • What is an application? (mail, text editing, web browsing, ...)
      • Examples: Outlook, Word, Firefox
  • Even if you are running MS Windows, no matter what you do to the computer, it will not blow up. Yeah yeah, I ran X back in the day when you could burst a monitor into flames with the wrong refresh rate but those days are mostly gone. So look at all the options under everymenu and read a whole lot to understand what you are looking at.
  • What a joke. The main reason some of us even make a living at all is the flat out refusal of most people to read a manual.

    Good luck with your book, you're going to need it...
  • Proprietary Design (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Codename46 (889058)
    Most people don't understand the facts about the proprietary designs many brand-name PC's use. A lot of proprietary PC's are hard to service and a pain to upgrade. They should be informed of the brands that are proprietary like Dell, their proprietary advantages/disadvantage, and the brands that aren't proprietary like PowerSpec, and their advantages. I'm a salesman at Micro Center, and almost every customer whom I sold a computer to didn't know what proprietary design meant and what brands are proprietary
  • That a computer is no more than a pocket calculator with a memory to store what buttons one would have pushed, the results from that calculation, and branching instructions to deal with special cases. Everything else is just window dressing.
  • Most people don't have the slightest understanding of how the Internet works; for them, it is indistinguishable from magic. It would be nice if users understood how their machine fits into the Internet, how one computer communicates to another (at a high level, not necessarily the gritty details), and precisely what sort of hazards that subjects them to (and doesn't subject them to - e.g. everything that goes wrong on your machine is NOT necessarily the fault of a "virus").
  • by Sax Maniac (88550) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:16PM (#14493206) Homepage Journal
    The big box that you put the CDs into is not a CPU.
    • by pclminion (145572) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:50PM (#14493625)
      The big box that you put the CDs into is not a CPU.

      Of course not. According to one of my ex-GF's, that box is properly referred to as the "modem."

      • Ahh, ex girlfriends.

        My Internet connection once went down, and since I NAT to the rest of the house nobody else could get online either.

        So my ex tried to fix it.

        End result: I came in, turned on my PC, watched the Win2K bootup screen scroll by and then wondered why the flipping fuck I had Netware on my PC, 2 different firewalls enabled and TCP/IP disabled for the LAN card.

        Took about 5 minutes to fix but I never let her anywhere near my PC with admin privileges again.
  • by sckeener (137243)
    I do not know how many times I have to tell an attorney that they can not edit the text of a scanned picture by just typing over it.

    They do not understand that if they want to edit the document they need to OCR the document.

    Then there are the Attorney's that want me to call up Microsoft and get them to fix everything before they sue them.

    Or how about the people that try to open documents or programs from inside other applications.
  • by Dunx (23729) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:17PM (#14493217) Homepage
    A request for the format of your book - organise the explanations by things people actually use their computers for.

    - writing a letter: how a program starts, how different document formats work, how saving a file puts it onto the hard disc, how printing works

    - looking something up on Google: how the internet works (good luck with that one!), how web sites work, how computers talk to each other over the internet, how firewalls work ... and so on. This kind of task-based organisation should make it easier for the lay person to understand what is going on because they can relate it to something real they actually do.
  • Most people think that computer attacks/hack attempts are personal and thus think 'Nobody would want to hack MY computer'. Explain that these attacks are not personal and are often carried out automatically by an infected computer. Explain that there are only ~4Billion possible internet locations the computer can search and it will only take a few days for a computer to search all possible locations on the internet. Remind them that a computer can do over a billion things a second which is why it can search so many computers locations so quickly.
  • by Timesprout (579035) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:19PM (#14493243)
    Maybe most people are capable of understanding computers but most geeks are such shitty communicators they just cant explain things clearly enough, often because they just dont understand the subject well enough themselves half the time.
    • by pclminion (145572) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @04:01PM (#14493771)
      Maybe most people are capable of understanding computers but most geeks are such shitty communicators they just cant explain things clearly enough, often because they just dont understand the subject well enough themselves half the time.

      A lot of it has to do with the patronizing or downright condescending attitude that many geeks assume while trying to explain things. Believe me -- knowing this shit (or thinking you know it) does not make you Master Of The Universe, nor does it even imply that you are particularly intelligent. When you're having trouble communicating concepts to a non-savvy person, this usually indicates that You Fail It, not that they do.

  • by Schlemphfer (556732) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:20PM (#14493255) Homepage
    After reading your question it seems you haven't yet made a distinction between the two possible kinds of books you could write. One would be giving the reader a fundamental understanding of how computers work, while the other would be giving them the basic knowledge needed to become either a casual or power user.

    These two books are completely different and you should know which one you're writing, and not mix things up.

    I personally would love a book that explains the basics of how RAM, TCP/IP, USB ports etc. work -- written in a way that somebody with no engineering background can grasp. But from the tone of your question I think what you're really leaning towards writing is a book that lets brand new computer users bypass the clueless stage. For this, you'd want to explain the differences between OSX, Windows, and Linux, and give users a good way to choose. You'd want to acquaint them with the main sorts of applications that exist -- word processors, spread sheets, browsers, etc. Then you'd explain a bit about each, like what a word processor is great at doing (things like on-the-fly spellcheck), and what it sucks at doing (book quality layout.)

    Basically, you want to teach people the fundamentals of using each type of application, and keep them from using a screwdriver as a hammer (using Microsoft Word to typeset a book, for instance.)

    You'd also want to write about the various peripherals you can install, like wireless cards, optical mice, and high-quality video and sound cards.

    And finally, you'd want to make the writing engaging enough that people would actually read your book cover to cover. That's the biggest trick of all, and really, the only hard trick.

  • by brunes69 (86786) <slashdot@keirste ... minus physicist> on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:21PM (#14493262) Homepage
    ...Explain the difference between "memory" and "storage".

    I can not even count the number of times I have said "your computer does not have enough memory for this" and gotten the reply "but it says I have 15 jig-a-bytes free, isn't that a lot?"

    I think this problem is 99.9% the industry's fault for choosing the word "memory" to refer to something stored short-term (should have come up with some new word like 'zoigle'), but anyways...

  • My Granny (Score:5, Funny)

    by turgid (580780) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:21PM (#14493268) Journal

    When I was 8, I got a computer for Christmas. My granny said to me, "Ask it who the Prime Minister is!"

    • by tpgp (48001) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:34PM (#14493440) Homepage
      When I was 8, I got a computer for Christmas. My granny said to me, "Ask it who the Prime Minister is!"

      Hmmmmn,

      If only there was some way to connect your computer to the rest of the world's computers and somehow query them to find out who the prime minister is.

      Hey! Thats a great idea - I'm off to patent it ;-)
  • by truthsearch (249536) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:23PM (#14493301) Homepage Journal
    Homer: Now then... computer.. kill Flanders!
    Ned: Did I hear my name? My ears are burning!
    Homer: [whispering to mouse] That's a good start, now finish the job!
    Ned: Oh, you're busy. Catch you later, compu-tator!
    Homer: Oh, five thousand dollars for a computer and it can't even handle a simple assignment!
  • by 0xABADC0DA (867955) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:23PM (#14493305)
    Page 1: reference list of book opcodes
    Page 2: program to produce page 2 text ...
    Page N: md5 sums of pages 2-N used to check for possible reading comprehension problems
    Epilogue: "Now grasshopper is one with computer."

    Now that's a book that will let them know what computers are all about.
  • by ewhac (5844) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:33PM (#14493425) Homepage Journal
    The audience you're trying to reach couldn't be bothered to RTFM that came free with their machine; what makes you think they're going to buy another book? There have been no shortage of books on the subject, and people are still underinformed.

    So I say forget doing a book at all (at least initially), and instead consider screenwriting a DVD video. People will be far more willing to give it a quick spin than check out a book. Also, it's much cheaper to duplicate, and you can distribute it over the Internet. (Technically, the same is also true of "books" in PDF format, but books are traditionally not thought of in that manner.)

    If the DVD is a success, than you can go into more depth in a follow-on book (or just leave a PDF file on the DVD).

    Schwab


    • The audience you're trying to reach couldn't be bothered to RTFM that came free with their machine;


      I haven't seen a manual shipped with a PC in a long time. Even "Getting Started with Windows" (complete with license certificate glued on the front) has gone, in favour of a license sticker on the machine itself.


      what makes you think they're going to buy another book? There have been no shortage of books on the subject, and people are still underinformed.


      Why do they want to be informed? Few people are aware o
  • by Pii (1955) <jedi@NOspam.lightsaber.org> on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:35PM (#14493448) Journal
    The book you'd like to write has already been written. It's called How Computers Work [amazon.com], and it's in it's 8th Edition. (There's also a companion book called "How the Internet Works (6th Edition)".)

    The real problem isn't that the information you'd like to convey to these laypeople has never been put into an easily readable, accessible format. The problem is that most people really don't give a damn about how things work.

    Remember that most people never bother to even learn the full capabilities of the devices they come into every day contact with, like cell phones. Do you think that people who can't program their VCRs are really interested in the science involved in storing and retrieving data from a magnetic tape?

    I'm not trying to harsh your mellow, but you need to face the facts. Most people are content to believe that the underlying technologies that make their lives so easy are simply "magical," and leave it at that.

  • "How Computers Work" (Score:4, Informative)

    by funkybluewombat (756750) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:38PM (#14493483)
    Might wanna check out How Computers Work [quepublishing.com] before getting too far into writing the new book. I've used it several times to explain concepts to new computer users.
  • by l33t-gu3lph1t3 (567059) <arch_angel16@@@hotmail...com> on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:38PM (#14493489) Homepage
    I don't understand how exactly a car works. I have a vague idea that combustion of gasoline creates pressure which is channeled into turning wheels, but that's about it. I don't have the foggiest clue how laundry soap works, or dry-cleaning for that matter. In the same token, I haven't the foggiest clue how to understand women.

    There are levels of underestanding required for the use of anything. If you break it down, malicious software exists because some jerks out there are exploiting the fact that they understanding software deficiencies better than Microsoft or you. People don't *need* to understand 100% how things work. They could, but they don't care to. Over time as people age, they accumulate a list of things they "know" and their curiosity and desire to learn decreases (the more you know, the less you care to learn).

    People care more about increasing the comfort level in their lives than in increasing the understanding of the world. Ignorance is bliss, and the more you learn, the more aware you become of your ignorance (ie, you are really learning just how much you don't understand).

    Most people see computers as a tool, albeit an annoying, complicated, troublesome one. In fact, from the people I have talked to, if they could get away with NOT using computers in their daily lives, they would. They'd rather spend their time with family, or recreationally, etc. As a tool, computers are rather flawed - the mere fact that they break down so easily is proof of that. Instead of thinking of ways to make it easier to learn the tool, why don't we just fix the tool itself? Make it simpler, easier to use, more reliable. What you sacrifice in perfect flexibility, you gain in adoption. The best consumer technology is transparent technology.
    • by finkployd (12902) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @04:14PM (#14493915) Homepage
      Over time as people age, they accumulate a list of things they "know" and their curiosity and desire to learn decreases (the more you know, the less you care to learn).

      These people are a cancer on human civilization. That sounds harsh, but seriously.

      We have been given (by natural selection, an intelligent designer, a flying spaghetti monster, etc) the ability to learn and the desire to learn everything we can in our lives. Those who grab a diploma from highschool or college and go "well, I'm all done learnin' time to watch some pro wrestling, nascar, and reality tv" end up not only refusing to help push civilization further, they end up being a hindrance. I'm not talking about people with actual learning disabilities, just those who think it is too hard, or that that have learned everything they need and just coast from there.

      You know the type, the people who seem positively proud to be befuddled by technology, science, politics, basically the world around them. And when they are not proud of the ignorance, they are angry or indignant that they should be troubled to have to learn anything new.

      Now I'm in no way attacking the average person for not understanding the machine code that directs their CPU, but honestly people, take an afternoon and learn a LITTLE bit about how your computer works, especially if you intend to be using it for hours every day. And for that matter, learn how your car works, You don't have to be able to build a fuel injected engine from scratch, but the concepts are quite simple and worth knowing. It seems weird that our society is begining to take pride in what we DON'T know versus what we do. Yes, you can go through life completely ignorant of how the world around you works, but why would you want to?

      Finkployd
    • I don't understand how exactly a car works. I have a vague idea that combustion of gasoline creates pressure which is channeled into turning wheels, but that's about it. I don't have the foggiest clue how laundry soap works, or dry-cleaning for that matter. In the same token, I haven't the foggiest clue how to understand women.

      I don't think you need to understand those things, really. As long as you know you can't drive your car off a cliff, or go to the store without taking off your e-brake, or not to d
  • Nothing (Score:5, Funny)

    by melted (227442) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:44PM (#14493542) Homepage
    The less they know, the more I can charge for my services. :0)
  • Some Ideas (Score:3, Informative)

    by suwain_2 (260792) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:47PM (#14493581) Journal
    Don't go crazy on the history, but you should probably go into it a little bit. People want to know how to work their current computer, not how ENIAC worked.

    I'd thought for a while about trying to help put together an introductory Internet course, and had made some decisions I think are important. One of my teachers (thankfully, not in the CS department) once started talking about how your computer broadcasts its IP address to every computer on the Internet, and that's why you get so much spam. People will parrot back information they get, without really understanding what's going on. So lay a good framework. Explain IP addresses, but on a basic level. (Don't get into configuring a broadcast address or how BGP4 works.) The analogy of a phone number works decently, and can also be used to explain netblocks. Then introduce DNS.

    I'd mention bits and bytes, and megabytes and gigabits, but on a more basic level. But if you explain it well, in layman's terms, I think you can have the average person understanding why their 60 GB hard drive holds less.

    I'd devote a reasonable portion of the book to understanding how things work. Why is spam such a problem? How do people get spam? What can they do about spam? How do they protect against viruses? (You can mention various anti-virus programs, but also encourage basic (seemingly not-so) common sense. Don't open random attachments. Don't download random programs.) Explain how some common viruses have spread: especially those that could be prevented by user training. ("Hey, check out this .exe attachment!")

    Cover wireless, and mention its security implications, as well as the potential for interference. (My 2.4 GHz cordless phone and my 802.11g router don't always play nicely.)

    Current events are important, too, IMHO. What is "P2P," and why is this R-I-A-A making such a big deal about it? (Try not to be biased!) What's Linux? How is a Mac different from a PC?

    Overall, I think it's important to cover a lot of topics, even some that the average user might not deal with everyday, as it helps to lay a good framework for actually understanding how things work. The most important thing, though, is to use a really clear, non-technical tone. In my experience, this is a "gift" some people have, and some don't, and it makes the difference between whether you just confuse people further, or whether it all makes sense when they hear you talk.
  • by joeytsai (49613) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @03:57PM (#14493720) Homepage
    One fact about computers that even technical people often forget:

    The job of the computer is to make your job/task easier - it is not the other way around.

    Yes, there is a time and place to learn a particular interface for a specialized job, to configure a certain program to get a special behavior or download some patch or driver to get some random hardware to work. But these things should be the exception and not the rule. I think there's way too much software that forces the user to bend to its design/shortcomings, rather than the other way around.

    Futhermore, I'm rather saddened by the fact that nowadays I notice most people are afraid of their computers. They don't explore or try something new just to "see what happens" - because everyone has been bitten hard by some bug or some unexpected behavior and lost valuable time and data. So they have a very simple and rigid routine, one they know "just works", even if it's completely convoluted and non-sensical. I'm sure most people here have observed the same thing.
  • by kuriharu (756937) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @04:33PM (#14494129)
    I can't tell you how many people say they're "afraid" of computers. They don't want to try too many things since they're afraid of breaking something. There is the possibility they might delete system files, but that's become increasingly rare. I'd tell people not to be intimated by what they don't understand on their own computers, then show them how to find answers on their own.

    Bottom line is most people only use computers for a narrow, limited purpose. The rest start investigating on their own.

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