Main      Site Guide    
Computer Stupidities

Operating Systems

Most computer users understand that you need an operating system to use a computer practically, even if it is not clear why. But many users don't.

A girl walked into the computer center where I work. She said she was having problems with her Mac. I asked what kind of Mac she had. In an indignant voice, she replied, "Duh, Intosh."

After conferring with her husband, it turned out she owned a Macintosh with System 8.1.

A kid in my class joined a conversation I was having about older computers.

One time I had to walk a Windows 95 user through a particular procedure.

Overheard in a classroom:

A customer called in with modem problems.

Lucky me, I made it to the the mute button in time!

I can't even count how many people I argue with about this, yet they insist there is an operating system call "Windows 95 NT."

One day I got a call toward the end of the day from a sales rep in Chicago who couldn't get his computer to boot up. We went round and round for about two hours -- nothing worked. I was ready to pull my hair out, but I don't like losing. To lighten the tension of the moment, I started chitchatting with him as we're waiting to see if the machine will restart. He has an IBM ThinkPad, and I told him how much I like mine.

I was calling to sign up with a new DSL provider. When the guy asked what operating system I was using, I said, "Linux." I was put on hold for five minutes, and then a supervisor came back and told me, "You can't use Linux to connect to the Internet. It's a hacker tool, anyway." I almost fell out of my chair.

In about 1993, Cambridge University had a few rooms of 486s, for use by members of the University. You could get into the rooms at any time of day if you had a key, and the site security would walk around every hour or so at night.

One policy, introduced after a few too many noisy games of network Doom, was that playing games wasn't allowed. One evening, however, I saw someone using eXceed (an X-Windows server for Microsoft Windows) to run Motif. Apparently he was doing something on one of the UNIX machines over the network. The security guard came up behind him, and the conversation went something like this:

Even the other two people in the room couldn't persuade the security bloke that it wasn't a game.

Overheard in a software shop:

Last year, the temp agency I was working for was arranging a contract for me, and some additional "computer skills" tests were necessary. The branch manager asked what kind of computer I was comfortable with. I said, "Windows PC," although I had used several others. She cut in right then and asked, "Word or Excel?"

Then it took me fifteen minutes to convince him that he had a Mac. Even after showing him "About this Macintosh." I spent another fifteen minutes trying to convince him that Windows 98 wouldn't work on his Mac. He said it should work because Windows 98 is for PCs, and he had a PowerPC. I think he's still trying to get it to read that CD, because I never could convince him.

Two night forepersons at our company were discussing our new computer network after just having been to a brief orientation session. One of them wanted to know what "windows" were, so I explained. Just as she seemed to be catching on to the concept, the other foreperson piped up. "Well that's great, because we have ninety-five windows on there!"

For my work-study job, I work tech support at a small college. One night I was working Help Desk and the phone rings. I pick it up to have a student telling me she can't get the computer to work.

Back in the early days of Windows 95:

My father decided that it would be a nice surprise to install Windows 95 on my seven year old computer. He had one of his employees give him step-by-step written instructions but neglected to mention that my computer is so old. When I got home he had Windows 95 installed and was struggling to install the first piece of software.

I looked at the instructions and saw that he had backed up everything and wiped the hard drive.

A friend just got his new Aptiva/Win98 system and bought a bunch of software to go along with it. He installed everything, then complained that when he started his computer up, the screen was so cluttered he was having a hard time finding his desktop. I talked him through the process of making his desktop a more simple place by turning off fancy wallpaper, toolbars, and so on. He rebooted and said it was just as bad as it ever was. Sighing, I took a quick trip over to look at it.

Somewhat to my amazement, I discovered that every time the computer booted up, a half dozen or so program groups opened up on the desktop, and all sorts of programs were spilling their menu contents onto the screen. After some poking around, I discovered that he had installed everything -- everything -- into his StartUp folder.

I asked him why he installed all his programs in there. He said, "Well, I wanted to be sure they'd start up when I needed them, so...."

My father likes to delete things from the Windows System directory because he's convinced that's where the swap file lurks. I have to reinstall Windows 95 almost every day.

A friend of mine had an old system with a small hard drive and not much memory, so she continued to use Windows 3.1 rather than suffer under the strain of Windows 95/98.

She called me one day to help her because her computer will no longer run Windows. Past experience had taught me most of her computer problems were self-inflicted, so I asked her what she had done to the computer recently.

Say goodbye to every .DLL and unassociated file on her system. She was somewhat indignant when she found out she would have to find some Windows 3.1 install diskettes and reinstall every piece of software she wanted to use.

Back in the early nineties, when I was doing PC/LAN support, I was approached by a nervous salesman. He was very concerned because Excel did not work on his computer anymore. I asked when it had stopped working and what he had done. He explained that he had tried to speed Excel up by deleting some spreadsheet files that he did not need, hoping that that would boost performance.

Now, whenever a user gets into trouble after deleting something, this usually needs immediate attention. So I asked him to tell me exactly what he deleted. The horrifying answer was that he had used the File Manager to delete all Excel files he found -- you know, files of type EXE.

I went pale. He said, "That was bad, huh?"

About two months ago, a client called in screaming profanities at me and demanding that I either give him a refund on his one year old system or send a technician out to repair it immediately. His problem was that the taskbar was on the right-hand side of his screen, and he couldn't get it back to the bottom.

A few days ago, a client called in wondering why he couldn't delete items off the Windows desktop. It was soon discovered that he'd already dragged Internet Explorer, MS Outlook, and a few other items off into the recycle bin, and was trying to delete 'My Computer' and 'Network Neighborhood.'

I saw two older looking ladies trying to figure out the computers at a local store. I knew one of them would say something that I could send to Computer Stupidities, so I tried to listen in.

My coworker (who uses Windows 95) was having trouble downloading a self-extracting archive off the net. In an attempt to make it easier to open the file with WinZIP, he associated *.EXE with WinZIP.

Nothing worked after that. Every program he tried to run would load WinZIP first. He couldn't even run REGEDIT to delete the association.

He ultimately had to reinstall Windows 95 and all his programs.

From a Windows 95 user:

I work at an office supply store. When Windows 98 came out, we had a sale on new computer systems. There were more than a few people who were completely taken in by buzzwords and had no idea what they were talking about. The worst case was a person who spent five or ten minutes looking through Windows Explorer, apparently trying to find something. Trying to make the sale, I stayed with her, helping her when necessary. Eventually, I asked to know what she was looking for. "I'm trying to run Windows 98," she said.

Read in a message board of a local BBS: "I try to avoid using Microsoft. That's why I use MS-DOS."

At least three people from our company have come to me panicked, almost crying. They all say, "I think I just erased a program!! Help!!" In reality, it turns out they just minimized the window. When I open it again, they gasp, "What did you DO?!?!?"

We maintain a 24 hour, 800 number call desk for our maintenance contract customers, a very expensive undertaking. Non-contract customers can call as well, but our per-call maintenance charge is $250/hour, with a minimum of three hours. If you only call us occasionally, it's a lot cheaper than a contract, but it's clearly designed to discourage trivial calls.

In 1996 a per-call customer called. "What does MSDOS stand for?" she asked. We told her. Her firm paid the $750 bill without demur.

One time a user was trying to clean up his hard drive. He saw a folder called "system" which took up lots of space but only had a few things in it. So he moved the fonts and sounds to a new location and deleted everything else.

One of our users, upon receiving his new computer, deleted most of the files in the system area. He said he didn't know what those files did, so he got rid of them. For some strange reason, the system refused to work properly afterward.

Had a user that called the other day, complaining that all her files were "garbage" and that I should take her computer back and fix them. It turned out she was looking at system files. She couldn't read the binary code and assumed, therefore, that the files were corrupted.

I was asked to fix Word Perfect once, when it had apparently "just quit working." They didn't know why, but it didn't take long for me to find the problem. They had cleaned up their hard drive by erasing all binary files because "they weren't readable."

One user -- a regular caller of ours -- got herself into some serious computer trouble when she set about cleaning up her system. She had been exploring the hard drive in the file manager and discovered hundreds of files in the Windows directory with all different file extensions. Being of an orderly mind, and with several hours of free time, she had created a TXT folder, a COM folder, a DLL folder, and so forth, and moved all the files into these subdirectories.

There is a gradeschooler who lives in an apartment complex down the street for whom I built a 486 some time ago. It's running Windows 95, and I am forced to fix it for him constantly. One day he called me up and said that his computer is opening up all of his files. I grabbed my coat and hat and popped over to see what he had done to the poor thing. He had selected everything on his desktop and made shortcuts of them in a new folder on the desktop, in the quick-launch, and, worst of all, his startup folder. Imagine booting all the MS Office 97 applications at startup on a 486...quite painful.

I put my foot in my mouth rather firmly once. I was teaching a new user some basic UNIX commands just so she could get around on the computer when she needed to. I thought I was doing pretty well, but, in a moment of self-doubt, she said that she didn't think she'd ever learn how to use a computer. My feeble attempt at consoling her follows:

Talking to a Mac user:

A customer walked into the computer store I work in, wanting to return a computer.

I decided the moron had to solve his life before he could buy a computer.

A guy at our company asked to have Lotus Notes installed on his Mac. He said he'd be away for a couple days, and I could install it then. When I went to do it, there wasn't enough disk space, but there was about 96 megs in the trash. Ah, I thought, he's forgotten to empty it.

When the user returned to work, he came straight to see me after switching on his machine.

Recently, I had a guy from the local tech school come in for an interview for my computer assistant job opening. I was taking him around the office, trying my best to explain to him what my job entails and what he'd be doing if he worked for me. One of the very first things I showed him was our NT server, which runs Wincenter Pro, a third-party enhanced version of Windows NT Server which allows us to have multiple people logged into the same NT box and to start up a remote NT session from an X-Windows desktop. He was pretty impressed by that, having been trained in a vanilla NT environment. The next thing I showed him was one of our old DG 300 UNIX workstations. He scoffed along with me when I explained that the workstation used an old 16mhz Motorola processor, so it was not exactly fast. The interview seemed to be going well up to this point, with the guy seeming to understand most of the stuff I was throwing out (even the stuff I wasn't too sure about myself) until I happened to mention that the DG workstation, along with all the other workstations and servers in our office (save the NT server, of course) ran DG/UX 5.4R3.10:

He stares blankly. My heart sinks.

He stares blankly. So much for this prospective employee.

Two girls walked into the University's Linux cluster one time. They were obviously unfamiliar with computers and chatted with each other trying to figure everything out. I was doing my own work and had tuned out a lot of the conversation, but at one point one of them turned to me and asked how to get into Windows. "Type startx," I replied, for the Linux machines booted to a shell prompt, and you had to type "startx" to get into X-Windows. I never did find out if that worked for them or not, but they spent quite some time trying to correlate the instructions they had on paper (presumably given out in one of their classes) with what they were seeing on the screen. A full hour and a half passed, and finally one of them turned to me again and asked if this was the Microsoft Windows cluster. "No," I replied, "that's downstairs." It was hard to stifle the laughter until they were gone. An hour and a half before they realized they weren't even using the right operating system. Wow.

A lab technician (legendary, where I work) deleted a large and seemingly useless file named /vmunix from a Sun workstation. (This file is the UNIX operating system image.) The machine worked fine until I tried to reboot it.

In what seems more and more like another life, some 15 years ago, I was an assistant in a computer lab belonging to the computer science department of my university. The lab consisted of a bunch of 286 IBM PS/2s with only a 3.5" floppy drive -- they had to boot with an operating system disk and then put in the program disk, and so forth.

One day a student was having problems booting up the computer. I went to see what was happening, because she was becoming increasingly vocal about the quality of the hardware and the incompetence of the people (me) who were supposed to maintain it. I found that she was trying to boot off a floppy with no operating system. So I tried to tell her that she needed a DOS diskette to boot the computer.

She stormed out of the lab and filed a formal complaint with the department's secretary. The worst part was that I got reprimanded, because, apparently, the senior management didn't know any better than she did. Yes, she graduated a couple of years later.

A member of posted and asked for someone to write an operating system for him. It had to have all the features of Windows XP Professional. In return, he would be willing to pay $20 to $100.

The listing:

I need someone to program me a new OS (Operasting System) that looks different than Ms Windows XP etc. but has the same style. It does not need to run on a mac but all the other PCs. It's supposed to have a stylish look with clear edges etc. And ITS NOT SUPPOSED TO BE JUST A REDESIGNED WINDOWS as I'm going to sell that operating system later on. These are some important points :

It should have ALL THE FEATURES that Windows Xp Professional has. ALL the files that run on Windows XP ust also run on the BlueOrb OS. It must have a very user-friendly interface (like MS WINDOWS XP) When it gets Installed, the user needs to insert a serial number. It HAS to be HACKER SAFE! It must be quick and good looking.

Here's the listing on