For help, press arrgh

Phoning a computer help desk is seldom fun, especially when you don't speak computer.

Calling a computer help line probably ranks somewhere below having your income tax statements audited by Revenue Canada, as far as “enjoyable life events” go, unless you really like being made to feel like an idiot by someone several decades younger than you. It’s not normally something I have to worry about, since I have a teen-aged son in the house, and if my computer decides it doesn’t want to play anymore I just ask him to fix it while I go make a cup of coffee (I’ve had to introduce a strict “no eye-rolling” policy, however).

A couple of weeks ago, however, I had a major problem with my work computer outside office hours, and needed to call the Black Press help desk. I dialled the number, and found I had the option of leaving a message for after-hours assistance. Since this was less a “My computer is running kind of slow” issue and more a “Houston, we have a problem” affair, I made sure that my message conveyed this, maintaining just the right “Keep calm and carry on” tone, while suggesting I was on the verge of tears, with a touch—just a touch, mind you—of barely controlled hysteria in the background.

It worked. A short while later I received a call from a very helpful and pleasant young man I’ll call Justin (not his real name), who must have realized within seconds that he was talking to someone who doesn’t speak computer. He listened to my halting explanation of the problem, and advised me to go to our main computer and power down the first box.

I stretched out a hand. “Is it the silver box the monitor is sitting on?” I asked.

“No!” he replied, a note of barely controlled panic in his voice. “That’s the Mac mini. Don’t touch that.”

I pulled my hand back as if the Mac mini was radioactive. “Okay. The next silver box, then?” Justin said yes, so I did as I was bidden. Then I did the same to the next one, and the next. Justin, who had remote access to the computer, made a series of noises that could best be described as discouraging. He then had me plug and unplug a frankly bewildering array of cables linking everything, all the while muttering phrases like “Uh-oh”, “I don’t understand”, and “This isn’t good”, none of which suggested that a solution was imminent, or even probable.

When plugging things directly into my computer didn’t work, I asked Justin to tell me, on a scale of one to 10, how hooped I was. He paused.

“It’s—awkward,” he replied at last, before asking if I had a cable with a mini—not a micro, a mini—USB on it. “Er—I’m not sure,” I said, and just knew he was rolling his eyes. Then inspiration struck. “My son will know,” I said. “We probably have one at home. I can ask him to bring it down.”

“That would be great,” said Justin, in a tone of profound relief. “Ask him to bring a small Phillips screwdriver as well.”

My son came down with the requisite cable and tools, and I put him on the line with Justin, who was obviously happy to be speaking with someone who could tell a mini USB from a micro one. Within 15 minutes they had everything sorted out, and all was well with my computer. So the next time I have to call the help desk, I’ll save time and have my son do it, while I go and make a cup of coffee. Justin will surely thank me; and they can both roll their eyes to their hearts’ content.

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