Welcome, computer users! And computer fans. Computer foes, too. Or computer don’t-know-yets. I’m glad you came to Bit Cafe.

Hello from a “computer guy”

I’m a heavy computer user since… oh, about 1979. The machine I got my hands on then was something kids today would barely recognize. A black screen with tiny white letters (no “graphics”, thank you!). Huge clunky case. Giant floppy disks – they were actually floppy, like thick paper – for storing data. From there I moved through all kinds of computers, up to today, where my computerized phone packs magnitudes more power than that first machine.

I’m not a “computer pro” in the sense of working as a software programmer, hardware designer, system analyst, or some such. But everything I do related to work – and lots of non-work stuff too – takes place on computers. I’m experienced. The true professionals might not include me among their ranks, but I use computers to design brochures, crunch business numbers, build databases, edit and subtitle video, and create DVDs. I’ve set up wired office networks, wireless home networks, data backup systems, and miscellaneous servers. I’ve built dozens of web sites, some of which are simple collections of pages, others complex creations with user-contributed content, polls, newsletters, dynamic galleries, and much more. I’ve put together computers from parts of old ones, hacked at systems to improve features, installed and used hundreds of applications (i.e., programs), and written some simple programs of my own. I’ve given presentations on computer topics to user groups and industry associations. I may not be a top expert in any area, but I’m a jack of many computer trades. (Along the way, I’ve thrown tens of thousands of dollars at computers, software, and related toys – some of that money well spent, some of it buying just a painful lesson.)

Are you getting along with your computer?

If you do enough tech-ish stuff like the above, it’s inevitable that you become “the computer person” to those around you. Time and time again people have asked for help with a task or a problem, and I’ve done my best to lend a hand. Do you know what strikes me every time, though? It’s that so many people have troubles that they shouldn’t be having. I’m talking about smart people, who have built businesses or raised kids or otherwise succeeded at tasks that are far more demanding than printing out a web page or installing a new application. People much smarter than I am! Yet for some reason, they struggle as soon as a computer comes into the picture.

If that describes you, I propose that the struggling is not your fault. Lots of futzy computer stuff feels difficult, but it’s not because you’re somehow not up to the challenge – not smart enough, or not young enough, or whatever. Rather, it’s because there’s unnecessary confusion built right into computers and applications. Like any human creation, they’re loaded with imperfections and inconsistencies. Making things worse, computer education – whether formal classes and books, or just the “how to” explanations that people pass along in homes and workplaces – is full of misleading info. My claim is that if we can dispel the confusion and clean up the education, you’ll probably find yourself saying “Oh, is that all there is to it? That’s easy!”

What I’d like to help you with is not computer “mastery”. It’s not about becoming an “expert”. That’s not what most of the people with problems are looking to achieve; I don’t know how you’d even measure “mastery”. Rather, the goal is comfort: the ability to do what you’d like to do, and to find out on your own how to tackle tasks a little out of reach. It’s also the ability to enjoy doing those things – burying past hatchets and making friends with your computer, so to speak.

I want to help you finally “get” your computer. That won’t make you a technical genius, or let you answer every question people throw at you. It just means that you’ll be able to do a whole lot of nifty things, and have fun, too.

Are you a “computer person”?

I’d like this site to help two groups of people. The first group is the people I addressed above: everyone who struggles to “get” computers. The second group is the more experienced users who try hard to help the strugglers. The ones who try to recover lost documents for coworkers, or who tell Uncle Fritz on the phone to first calm down and them make sure the keyboard is plugged in. “The computer gals” and “the computer guys”.

My message for that second group is this: You likely don’t have time to write how-to documents for everyone who asks for your assistance. If this site can help the people around you, please send them here! If this site is missing info that would do the job, please let me know what you’d like to see added. I make no guarantees, but I welcome suggestions!

Also, I’d love to incorporate your own experiences: what trips up the computer users around you, and what does or doesn’t help them get comfortable. What explanations have you used to help people understand some tricky point? What how-tos or cheat sheets have you come up with? Please share your experiences! (Comments, forum participation, and direct contact are all great.)

How I try to help

In answering countless questions about computers, I like to use following methods.

1. Emphasize the ease

I really dislike computer explanations shrouded in technical jargon. It’s my conviction (or conceit?) that what a home or business user needs to know can be described in pretty simple, natural language. I don’t see reason not to do so.

I hope that readers with lots of computer experience won’t think I’m talking down to readers. Far from it. I believe that getting along with computers is genuinely within the reach of even people who think they’re “non-technical”, and that a plain-language overview will show just how easy things really are.

2. Use analogies

If you’ve taught others about using computers, you’re probably familiar with common analogies for explaining how computers work. Like “Think of the computer as a car…” Or “Imagine the computer as your brain…”

And you’ve probably seen how quickly those analogies break down.

Still, I think some analogies can be pretty useful. In particular, I like to compare computers to a workplace, like a kitchen or a garage workshop; I think those analogies do a good job of explaining how the computer, applications, and so forth work together.

Needless to say, if you’ve got better analogies, I’d like to hear them!

3. Make technology personal

“Don’t anthropomorphize computers. (comic pause) They hate that.”

I like that one. Jokes aside, I also like to describe the workings of computers or applications in very human-like ways. I use explanations like this:

When you drag the image file’s icon to the Preview application’s icon, you’re saying, “Hey, Preview, I don’t want the usual application to open this file. I want you to do it.” And Preview says, “All right! Let me try.” 

Some technical writing purists may object: an application doesn’t “talk” like that. But I think the above is a great way to describe goings-on – both because it’s easy to understand, and because it does accurately describe the thoughts of the human programmers who set things up to work that way.

4. There are no dumb questions!

It’s true. I love the really basic questions like “When do I click once and when do I click twice?”, or even “Just what exactly is a ‘file’, anyway?” Those aren’t dumb at all! They’re excellent questions that get right to the heart of things. Questions like that will take a learner far.

Sadly, basic questions like that can also earn unfriendly responses from some unkind souls out there on the Internet (or even in person). I’d like Bit Cafe to be a very different place. Let’s make it so.

What’s a “Bit Cafe”?

It’s just a name. A bit, in computer terminology, is the most basic unit of information. A cafe is a friendly, informal place to relax. Together, the words don’t mean a lot, but they get the site’s concept across in one nice, short name.

Please help!

I’m not a professional educator. I have an interest in the way computer usage is taught, but I need to hone my own knowledge of where the pitfalls are and how to overcome them. I’d love to hear from experienced teachers, experienced users, and beginning users about what works, what doesn’t, and what I could be doing better. Please contact me!

That’s enough talk. Jump in!

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