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Computer Stupidities

Online Folly

Even people who understand computers by themselves can't grasp the concept of networks. Dazzled by the feats networked computers can accomplish, people are frequently deluded into believing they can perform miracles they can't. Other people don't understand the function of an online service provider. (Why not? These same people understand phone and cable companies.) Still others "just don't get it."

A member of America Online called me (a member of the tech support staff for an Internet service provider with no affiliation with AOL) asking what her email address was. After figuring out she wasn't registered with us, I politely pointed out that we were not America Online and she might get a better answer to her problem if she called the American Online support number.

I was selling a PS2 to a man who had a thick European accent. We were going over features, when we got to PSOnline.

One time I was helping a friend to download a file that he wanted. He had a slow modem at the time and asked me, "If I disconnect, will the file keep downloading?"

Five minutes later, she called back.

Five minutes later, she called back.

Several instances I had customers say something similar to this after a "no response from modem" error message:

A lady called, claiming to be a new member. I looked under the screen name she gave...couldn't find her. I looked under her phone number...couldn't find her. I looked under her name...couldn't find her. I resorted to her credit card number...couldn't find her. Finally, I asked her if she was sure it was America Online that she signed up for.

Got a call today from a gentleman who was upset because ABC's "This Week with David Brinkley" show had run long, causing the first twenty minutes or so of a sporting event to be preempted, and he had seen AOL's blurb at the end of the show.

A lady bought a new computer from us. Two days later she called to say that her computer wasn't working. She said it wouldn't connect to the Internet. I asked her what happens after she double clicked on the globe, and she replied, "You mean I paid over two thousand dollars for this, and I still have to click on something to get on the net?" She was really, truly upset.

Our information technology teacher was explaining that he has been working on computers since the early days of the Internet.

Luckily for her, she was within her 14-day cancellation time limit, or she'd have been tied into a 12 month contract.

I was talking with my friend online one day, and he said something about he had to go delete some files because a web site had uploaded his whole hard drive. I told him that was impossible, because it would take months to upload gigabytes of information on a 56K connection. He said he had gone to a web site that had a link saying something like, "I have your hard drive, check it out," and it pointed to C:\. It took me an hour to convince him that no one had uploaded his hard drive.

Once I had a woman call me saying she couldn't connect to her company's LAN remotely. It turned out she had taken her network cable (RJ45) and somehow jammed it into her phone line connection (RJ11).

On this call a customer was having problems with his fax modem. It took fifteen minutes for me to make the guy understand the concept that one must plug a phone line into the modem for it to work. At the moment he grasped this concept, all I got for a response was, "Oh, so I need to unplug my--" (click)

This conversation occurred in our tech support chat area:

Further discussion revealed that he had bought a CD from us but thought his modem was broken because he was unable to connect without installing the client software. He believed that in an emergency, you could use the cdrom drive instead of the modem because, "They're about the same size." He also thought he ought to be hearing the words he typed, since his computer came with speakers, and the salesman who had sold him the cdrom drive had told him it would play music.

Email from a customer:

We are going to have a second phone line put in for our computer. What steps do we need to take in order to switch our account over to the new phone number? And do we have to pay to have the account switched?

I mailed her back saying just to move the computer to the new line and conduct business as usual. She mailed back:

But what about receiving my e-mail? I thought it came to the phone number.

I had been using the net for about nine months, and was spending a lot of time on it, so I decided to shift to a flat-rate provider, of which there was only one in our area. I headed on over to their site and spent half an hour trying to find a way to download the installation software. I got there in the end and tried to download the software.

Regrettably, it required a user name and password -- more specifically, a user name and password for this ISP. In other words, you had to be a member of the thing to be able to download the software to become a member.

So I phoned their tech support (no other way of getting a setup disk. After only 45 minutes, I was able to talk to someone and persuade them to send me a setup disk. I also informed them of the error regarding their FTP server.

Some three weeks later (!) the setup disk arrived -- it was an unformatted blank disk with a fancy sticker on it. So I tried again to download their software from their web site -- no such luck. Another phone call to tech support. This time I got a fancy CD and another promise that the web site would be fixed.

As of a month ago, when a friend of mine was joining, some two years after I signed up, they still had not fixed their web site.

One woman called a customer service number and said she always got a busy signal when her computer called the modem pool. She kept on calling and calling, complaining about busy signals. Finally, we decided to clue her in on an experimental phone number that pointed to a few new-at-the-time 14.4Kbps modems. But she insisted, "No, I can't put in that number; I have to put in my home number." No amount of reason could get her to understand that the computer at her home had to call the number of the modem at her service provider. Last we heard, she remained unconvinced, calling herself and complaining about the busy signals.

My friend was having trouble with her dial-up connection and was convinced that she needed to type her new home phone number into some property dialog to get her connection to work. I told her I didn't think that was important.

I work on the helpdesk of an oil company. One of our users, a very high level executive, is traveling throughout the United States and calls us, long distance, to ask a question about setting up his dial up networking connection: "Do I have to dial a '1' before the number if I'm calling long distance?"

Police? Ok, whatever.

I am sure the phone company would appreciate her calling so that they could hold all her calls. Yeah, right!

A woman called the ISP I work for asking to cancel her service. When I asked why, she said it was her company's account and they hadn't been able to connect since she started the job two weeks earlier. Standard practice, in such situations, is to persuade the customer to try fixing the problem in order to keep their business. She seemed open to this.

It turned out it was a simple username/password error. After having her make sure she had the right info and retype it three times, she finally noticed that she was putting three 'j's instead of two. This officially confirmed my suspicion that she was clueless. She seemed happy to be connected and asked what she was supposed to do next. I spent the next twenty minutes explaining her Internet browser and email program to her.

One day I was in the school's computer lab with my class, and one of the computers could not connect to the Internet. Since the lab attendant nowhere to be found, my teacher asked me to help with the problem.

When my teacher left the room, I checked under the terminal. The phone cord had been kicked out of its socket. I put it back in. When my teacher came back into the room, he noticed it was working again.

I had given her my email address, and I got a letter from her the next day saying: "Thanks for the help, but I fixed it myself. It works fine now. Thanks for trying."

I work for an ISP. This one happens to me almost daily.

Dings and dongs sound from error messages popping up on the customer's screen.

A friend of mine and I were talking about AOL.

I do some unofficial tech support for friends around campus. One day, a couple of my female friends asked me to look at their computers. The symptom: "They're broken."

After much tinkering and safe-mode booting, I saw that many, many weird (and obsolete) network drivers and protocols have been loaded, causing the computers to freeze at the Windows login screen while they looked for a whole mess of NICs that weren't there. I fixed it and asked how so many of these things had been loaded.

Heard from a customer, while I was setting up his new T1 line:

I work for a prominent online service and was talking with a fellow employee. He asked me where he could find QuickTime for Windows. I told him to try He had a puzzled look on his face for several seconds. Then he meekly said, "You do mean the net site, right?" I said, "What else could I mean?" He replied, "I thought you meant like -- the DOS file."

A man called, and he was EXTREMELY upset. He was yelling and carrying on, very angry with his last ISP. He wanted to know our prices and services, so as always I told him what we offer and what we could do for him.

It was really painful to repress my laughter.

At the time, I was a junior in high school sitting in our recently built (and still to this day broken) Novell network. After about ten minutes of the first day I began playing with the instant message features built into Netware 4. It didn't take long for everyone else to start using this constantly.

Later in the week, our clueless sysadmin (who was a welding instructor before he was promoted to district wide technology head) had botched up several student accounts, rendering them unusable. When the student raised her hand to complain about the login window rejecting her password, the teacher blamed all of the "instance messaging" flying around, "bogging the network," and that our messages "had too many misspellings which were confusing Netware."

I work on an ISP help desk and got this call once. This is my work log, with the names edited out and clarifications made:

August 1998:
   User cannot connect.
   User has MAC.
   User is getting: "Failed" when trying to connect.
   I can connect with this ID.
   User is running 8.0, 8.1, and 8.5 beta OS.
   User says he cannot connect now with any OS.
   User reports connection problems throughout the past week.
   Frequently he tries to connect, and it says he is connected, then he
      gets disconnected.
   He says it takes a couple of retries and reboots to connect for sure.
   User says he cannot get into email.
   User opened his browser, and he is not connecting.
   User says information occasionally disappears from his configurations.
   User reports: "His website is private. And the Government has scanners
      on the Internet that scan people's computers. He can always tell
      when he is being scanned, because his computer starts running
      really slow." He would not confirm if, when this happened, he just
      pulled the plug. After that, he seems to lose information in his
      Interner/Browser configurations.

A user who is attempting to dial in from home calls in for help. Nothing works. No matter what communications port he tries, no matter how he sets up his software, nothing works. This goes on for most of a day, as the user calls, is given something to try, tries it, calls back, is given something else to try, etc.

Finally, on about the eleventh call, our intrepid support person hears some odd noises, and asks out of simple curiosity what they are.

Modems and pay phones don't mix. I hotwired my laptop in to the mouthpiece of a payphone and proceeded to do system maintenance on a customer's machine. The sheriff arrived shortly afterward and proceeded to interrogate me. Someone had called complaining that I was using a computer to steal money from the pay phone.

A customer had a problem logging in.

We started an ISP service at our company, and I was one of the people assigned to customer support. One customer filled out a mail-in form, and in the requested password field, he had filled out, "Mother Maiden Name."

We thought it was a bit of an odd password, but we entered it into the system. The next day he called up, saying he couldn't log into his account.

I'm an audio/video technician for an educational medical school in Philadelphia. One day a professor wanted to use Power Point for a presentation. We were able to borrow a laptop from the Information Tech Department. I brought it in, set it up, booted it, and it came up with a password screen. I explained to the professor that I had to call up the Information Tech Department to find out the password, but the professor told me not to bother.

He tried his own name and password. And he kept trying it, repeatedly, for the next hour. I explained to him that this would not work, but he was insistent and kept trying. So I just sat back and laughed to myself.

I caught the end of one of those cable TV Internet programs. In the last five minutes, the host said, "Every week we get thousands of pieces of email asking 'How do I get online?'" Neat trick.

One employee couldn't log in to her new computer account and asked me for help. I asked all the routine questions, including, "Are you sure this is the right password?"

A gentleman called tech support, as he was having problems uploading his newly-made web page to his shell access. He told me the error message he was receiving: "User anonymous access denied." I explained to him that in order to log in to his shell account he needed to supply his username and password. He got very upset, claiming to be a "network administrator" and that he knew what he was doing, and obviously the problem was on our end.

I tried explaining the situation to him several different ways, but he was insistent. Finally, I asked for his password and told him to hold on for a moment. I logged into his shell access and told him (more irately than I should have to a customer), "I'm on your shell account right now. If I wanted to, I could have a web page up in your account in 15 seconds."

He was so upset at my "refusal" to help him, that he said he'd call back when a "more qualified" techie was working.

A customer called our PC tech support line. She had problems getting her modem connection to work correctly.

I work for an ISP. One day a woman called, furious.


I've worked closely with the sysops of a local BBS, who are always amazed at the users that download a file from the system, decide that it's not what they expected, and return it by re-uploading it.

While managing files for a site that offers a large number of shareware programs and game demos, I personally observed at least two people who had downloaded software and then contacted tech support to ask where they could upload it again so others could have a turn.

I've lost count of the number of people who I've heard ask tech support if they can download with their computer off. Often they just assume that they can, but then ask if they will be charged the regular hourly rate. I witnessed at least one individual asking if he would get in trouble for downloading with the computer off, thinking he was the first to have discovered this amazing loophole.

I had a customer who called to get our BBS number. I gave him the information and told him about setting up his modem. The caller said impatiently, "Yeah, yeah, I got it," and hung up. Later that day he called back, saying he had been trying all day but could not get through to our lousy BBS. I checked but the system had plenty of lines free. I asked him about his modem settings. He didn't have a modem. He had spent the day calling the BBS from his telephone.

My son said he wanted to order something online. He asked me how to pay for it, and I informed him we could pay online. He said there was just one thing he couldn't figure out -- where the slot for the money was.

He cracked up after I gave him further information and wondered whether or not this story could be used on Computer Stupidities.

[some rustling sounds]

I decided to see exactly what she was talking about. My fears were confirmed when I arrived at her cubicle. She had been trying to slide the card into the floppy drive and managed to push it all the way in. I decided to have fun with her and told her it was being electronically sent over the line to the web site. She stared at me with a look of shock on her face, and said something I'll never forget: "Is that what they mean by 'Credit card transactions can take twenty-four hours to process.'?"

Sure just STUFF IT in there!

Cut from our support log -- note that this is the entirety of the message:

This is the 1ST time on america online. I''m as clueless as a pole right now, & I would be so happy if You could heLP me a little with my cluelessness Maybe a hint or two.

We were having problems with one of our workstations -- it wasn't communicating well over the LAN, and we kept getting ethernet timeouts. We tried replacing the transceiver, but that didn't help, and we tried shortening the network between that workstation and the next (we were on the old thinnet lines then) but that didn't work either. We'd even recently installed a repeater to help with some of our LAN problems, and that didn't work.

I knew what the problem was -- we'd had it before with one of out other workstations. It was a bad network chip in the workstation, and all we had to do was call the DG Field Engineer, and he'd come replace the system board and that would be that. But my boss wouldn't do it. It's not like it was going to cost us anything, we had a flat fee maintenance contract, but the guy just wouldn't call the FE and get it fixed, swearing that it was something else and that we'd find it if we just kept looking. So I was sitting at my workstation, with my usual Incredible Hulk GIF background, and we were working on the problem. We tried something (I don't remember what it was, now) and then tried to transfer a big file from that workstation to the server. And we started getting the usual network timeouts.

I gave him the most incredulous look ever, and he just said, "Just humor me, will you?" and insisted I try it. So I did. And of course, it didn't work.

Here's a silly incident which happened to me when I was trying to renew my account in a local ISP in Malaysia. I was trying to renew my account, and after consulting my computer dealer, I had to do it through the bank. Two days after I sent the money, I checked if my account was rebalanced and renewed. It wasn't. My account had been terminated once last year -- I was not even informed, and I only knew this after a ten minute session with technical support. I wasn't enthusiastic about seeing another reoccurence, so I sent a message to the ISP, stating, "I reviewed my account but it seemed that it had not been updated yet. Please do it so as it may be an inconvenience if my account is terminated without notice again like the last time."

It may apparently be a simple request, but the ISP botched it. They thought I was asking them to terminate my account -- and send a notice about it. I was given a notice politely telling me that my account would be terminated within three days.

I work at an ISP, primarily in tech support, but I do sales sometimes. A woman called to sign up for Internet access a few weeks ago. After taking some information, I asked her what she wanted as her login name. She supplied me a name, which I checked in the system, and replied, "I'm sorry, but that name has been taken. Try something else."

The woman became very upset, insisting that she needed to use that name and no other. I was curious enough to ask why, and the story came out. It seems this lady had just purchased her computer, and it booted into Windows 95 where it asked for a password to go with the login she had supplied me.

After having tried numerous passwords, she finally decided that she needed to sign up for Internet access so that we could supply her with a password to login to her own computer!

Struggling to contain myself, I suggested that she tried pressing 'Cancel', which would pop her right into Windows 95. Once she realized she didn't need a password after all, she hung up on me.

I was working tech support for a university when I got this call:

Once while working in a tech support outfit that supported most of Oklahoma, a caller complained that she was not able to login. She complained that her password was not being accepted. We tried turning off the caps lock, but that didn't work either. So I changed her password to "3tza45bx."

A flurry of key tapping.

Good thing I hit that mute button quickly before I burst into laughter.

I was once discussing computers at a party with a very snooty girl. She was quite intoxicated and decided it was time for a game of "I'm more intelligent than anyone else in the room." She started going off on a rant on how Microsoft Network was much better than any other Internet provider. Naturally, I asked why. Her reply was (my paraphrasing):

And furthermore,

As soon as the urge to ram her drink up her nose subsided, I excused myself and kept at least ten people between us for the rest of the evening.

Some poor old lady called up because she was trying to answer the questions in order to register with our service.

Draw circle. Bang head here.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Someone here at work once asked, eyeing the blinking lights on the transceiver next to him, "Do I have to wait until the Ethernet is free before I can hit return to send my email?"

I was on the phone to one of our users who is based at an office remote from HQ. Historically they have suffered from slow network ever since we introduced the WAN.

Back in my college days, I was a resident assistant in one of the dorms on campus. One of my residents (not the brightest crayon in the box) came to me asking for help as she had been attempting to connect to the Internet with no success. I sat down at her desk, and, noticing that there were only a printer cord and power cord coming out of her computer, I asked if she had an ethernet card and if she had activated her data line.

"Ethernet card? Data line?" she asked. "What's that?" I took a deep breath and calmly attempted to explain to her how to hook her computer up to a network. I finally told her to take her roommate with her to the on-campus PC store and tell them that she wanted an ethernet card for her computer.

Two hours later, she knocked on my door again and told me that she had gotten the ethernet card, had it installed, and gotten her data line activated, but was still having problems getting online. I went back to her room, and, sure enough, she had the card but still hadn't plugged it into the data jack.

I could do nothing but look at her blankly for a few minutes before quickly retreating to the privacy of my room to laugh hysterically. She gave me five minutes before knocking on my door again. I told her if she left me alone with the computer for a while, when she came back, she'd be able to connect. After my many assurances that I wouldn't do anything "cruel and unusual" to her precious computer, she left the room to go to class. I bought some cabling, plugged everything in, adjusted her settings, and went back to my room to call my brother to tell him the story.

Half a year ago a customer sent in a message saying that he wanted another email address, and he wanted to know how much it would cost. I replied that customers were allowed up to five for no added charge. All I needed was a name and a password for each account.

I have changed the names in the following exchange to protect the idiotic.

That was the end of the email exchange for a while. My boss called the man and asked him if he had ever gotten any replies from the tech mail address. The customer denied that he had. So my boss read him one of my replies and asked if the customer had gotten it. He denied that he had, so my boss read him his next email and asked why he was replying to mail he never got.

The man then broke down and explained that he was:

My boss then spent over three hours on the phone leading the man through setting up the other email accounts.

The next day the man called tech support to complain that he had changed the mail accounts to "johnny", "jane doe", and "kitty" and that they had stopped working, so he was going to call on the weekend to have us help him again. He never called back about the email.

Three months later, his computer broke down, and he brought it to the shop. I worked on the machine. He had "uninstalled" some software by deleting the directories and then wondered why the computer would not boot up. He remembered seeing many of the programs putting things into the "windows" directory, so he had deleted as much of that as he could.

Miraculously, re-installing Windows fixed his machine. When he came in to pick up the machine, I asked about the other email addresses. He said they were too much trouble for him, and that he just started using hotmail instead. I told him that that was probably a better choice for him.

But it gets better.

Throughout the next five months, we had no less than two calls a month from this man. His settings, including the DNS numbers, email addresses, home page, and so on, would mysteriously change. He blamed viruses, his kids, the weather, and everything but than himself.

One day he called to cancel. He explained that his son was moving away to college and would have access there, and so since his Internet access had only been for his son, he would no longer need it.

We threw a small office party after he hung up. We shredded his account on the server and sighed a great sigh of relief. Three days later he came in with a laptop. He wanted his account back.

Apparently he had terminated his account because his son was taking the computer with him to college. But this guy's job, "a sensitive job with the federal government," required him to have Internet access from home, and apparently it had been this way all along. His boss had apparently asked him what was going on when email to him suddenly started bouncing. So he was supplied him with a laptop so he could continue working at home.

We set up the laptop for his account, and he took it and went home. Less than an hour later, he called. He had changed his access phone number, his primary DNS number, his WINS numbers (which we don't even use), his password, his email server names, and his email address, and had put a password on the laptop that he did not remember.

We fixed it over the phone. The whole time he denied having changed anything but admitted to "checking on the settings." It took over two hours.

We are hoping for an act of nature, or that he will get fired and they will take back the laptop.

We sell routers, some of them equipped with built-in wireless access points.

After about 15 minutes of ranting and trouble hunting, we finally concluded that:

And the customer's reaction to this news?

Scene: the parking lot of apartment building.

I told him he would have to get his own connection and drove off.

One particularly innovative user decided he didn't want to spend the $200 for a modem with adapter to connect his Visor to his cell phone, let alone more for a wireless modem. Ever creative, he proposed the following solution: use a serial cradle, a null modem, a serial cable, his 56K USR modem, a borrowed analog-to-digital phone adapter from the office, and a handmade cable from Radio Shack parts to bridge to A2D box and his cell phone. He was good-natured when I said it wouldn't work and agreed when I pointed out how cumbersome it would be to carry around two pieces of additional gear both requiring AC power even if it could work. I must say, though, that it was one of the most resourceful and innovative solutions I'd ever heard.

When ISDN was offered publically, we had this one customer who had to get it right away. We configured an Ascend Pipeline router for him and went out to his site to hook it up and make sure it was working. A week later he called in yelling and screaming that his ISDN was down. Instead of traveling fifty miles out to his site to fix it, we opted to step him through it. We got to the part in the configuration that said "Your IP address," and he had in (which is an IP address designated for all machines to use for testing of their IP software -- it's not a valid IP address). We tell him what his IP address was and how to type it in. He argued for thirty minutes that we were wrong, and he was right, and after a while we convinced him to "just try it." What do you know? It came back up, and everything was fine again.

A week later he called back yelling and screaming that his ISDN was down. We stepped him through the configuration, and his IP was set to again! We fought with him for another thirty minutes about how we were certain that the IP address we assigned him was what went in that blank. After a long argument, he changed it, and it came up, but he was still grumbling that we were wrong and he was right.

This continued, every week, for two years.

A year after that, I was working at another ISP and was very happy that I hadn't heard from him in a very long time. Then one day I got an email from one of the most laid back tech support employees on my team. It read, "Have you ever had a customer you just wanted to ask to meet you in the parking lot???" I thought this was highly unusual for this particular support employee, so I went to look at the ticket in question.

It was the very same guy! Doing the very same thing with the IP address setting! I looked at the case history. He had been a customer for six months and called once a week with the same situation, but now he had a Cisco router on a 128K fractional T1 connection.

Another year and a half went by. By then, I was working for a small cable modem company. The cable modems we used could only be reconfigured with specific software, and then one had to TFTP the configuration file to the modem, and only our employees had access to any of that. Besides, we ran DHCP there, so the customer got the IP address automatically assigned when the modem was turned on.

One day I was processing new customer orders, and I saw this guy. We were on a first name basis by that time, so I called him up just to say I was glad he was a customer of ours, because now he couldn't change his configuration.

The next week I got a call from my husband, who works for a web hosting company. This guy had signed up with them, and he had insisted that his IP address was