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Computing with Bifocals - Mac Help Scenarios I & II
by - January 31st, 2006

Since Christmas last month, I have had the occasion to spend time in our local (Austin, Texas) Apple retail store.

First of all I got some Apple gift cards and a Nano as Christmas gifts.  Naturally, the second meant that I had to spend the first.  Right?  Right.  So off I went, along with, apparently, several hundred of my closest friends, to shop at the Apple store.  I also went along for the ride while a friend visited the Genius Bar for help.  On yet another visit, I helped someone choose a new printer.

Yes, several of them do know me by name there, but that is because of my affiliation with our local Macintosh User Group.  Our local Apple retail store staff has been great  about occasionally presenting programs to our user group.  I know these men and women are really good at what they do, and they are remarkably diplomatic and patient with those of us who (1) don't have a clue what we are doing and/or (2) really mess things up and then want help fixing the damage.

Even when customers are incredibly rude, they seem to remain calm.  I often wonder why rude people don't figure out that their rudeness makes them look quite boorish, but never gets them anywhere.  But I digress.

There are two things that I have observed over and over while at the Apple store.  Both are errors of omission by the computer user.  Had the computer user not committed the error of omission in the first place, they probably would not be waiting in a long line in the Apple store praying for help.  At the early stages of my own computer use I was just as guilty of these errors of omission as anyone else in that store.  Maybe you can be smarter than all of us and just skip that part of your learning curve.

Scenario I

Well-dressed male in his early 30s, laptop in hand.  Pacing the floor, waiting his turn to get help.  Finally, he gets to the front of the line and explains to the genius that he is a lawyer and has been preparing a case for the past 6 months.  All of his data is on his computer and his computer has died.  He NEEDS his stuff.  Genius examines the computer and reports that something bad has happened, and the computer has died.  Genius asks the lawyer if he has backed up his data.  Lawyer says no.  Guess what?  He is in a world of hurt.  Genius explains that there are services that may be able to retrieve the lost data, or at least part of it.  The fee can be several thousand dollars, and there is usually no guarantee.

I left there wondering if that lawyer would lose his job just because he didn't back up his work.  In the past several months I have seen this same scenario played out by a graduate student who lost her thesis, an author who lost the book she was writing, and a woman who lost all of her tax and investment information.

Even if all you have of importance on your system is your addresses, music and your photos, you should take the time to back them up.  If you purchase music from iTunes and lose it, you will have to repurchase it.  iTunes will not give you a Kings-X and let you download it again just because you lose it.

Macs do break down.

How do you back up?  The simplest way is to save things to an external source like CDs.  The best way is to get an external hard drive and backup software and have your system automatically backed up daily, weekly, or whatever works for you.   You only have to lose everything once to learn this lesson the hard way.

Scenario II

This takes us to the second error of omission.  Failure to use the Help Menu.  Woman in her mid 50s, G5 in hand.  OK, both hands if you want to get technical.  After waiting for an hour for her turn she politely asks the Genius to show her how to e-mail a picture from her iPhoto collection.   The first issue is that she didn't have to bring her own computer to the store to get help with that question.  The staff would have gladly used a store computer to show her.  More important though she could have easily found the answer using the help menu.

I  used a Windows based machine at worked for several years.  The Help Menu was useless most of the time.  Perhaps that is one reason that I find the OS X Help Menu's to be so very valuable.  However, they can't help you if you don't use them.  Granted, the biggest issue to getting help is knowing how to ask the question and sometimes that takes a bit of practice.  But let's face it.  It has got to be more pleasant searching for the answer sitting in front of your computer, nice and comfy in your warm home, than getting in your car and driving miles to a mall and waiting in line for help. 

You should at least try.  Not only can you solve a problem, you can learn something in the process.  Had the lady mentioned above entered "e-mail photos" in the help window while she had iPhoto open she would have gotten the following instructions.


iPhoto Mail Instructions

Here are some general guides about using the Help Menu that may be useful.

  • If you want help with something related to your Mac be sure to click the Finder window before you select Help from the Toolbar.
  • If you want help with a specific application then that application should be the active window on your desktop.
  • Even with a specific application open, the Help Menu may give you information about more than one area so always look to the far right for the key to what the help topic is about (Panther operating system and below) or to the left (Tiger operating system).



Finder Help Menu Example   Address Book Help Menu Example Mail Help Menu Example
(Click the thumbnails for larger images.)

May I suggest that your New Year's Resolutions include backing up your data and using the Help Menu?  Your life will be much easier if you do. 


Copies of Nancy's book Tips, Hints, and Solutions for Seasoned Beginners Using Apple Macintosh Computers With OS X are available in PDF download versions  for US$9.57 and in print version for $18.15 plus $4.00 shipping.   To view sample pages and get ordering information visit the September 14, 2004 column.


Post your comments below.

Check out Nancy's complete index of all her columns for the most complete list of tips anywhere. The list is categorized and is a great reference when you are looking for help!

A Capacious Catalog Of Computer Tips

Talking to a generation that remembers what the world was like before there was color, covers issues for people who don't care how their computer works, but rather what their computer and the internet can do for them.

Nancy has a Master's degree in Human Services Administration and prior to her retirement she worked for almost 30 years in field of mental health and mental retardation. She has been a Mac user for 11 years, and has recently developed an avocation of teaching basic computer skills in both group and one-to-one settings.


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