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Computing With Bifocals
by Nancy Carroll Gravley

A column for people who remember what
the world was like before there was color.....

Of Children And Experts
October 28th, 1998

I recently had a conversation with Miss Mandy Bennett, age 13, concerning computers. (My granddaughter -- a charming child.) Mandy lives in a small town in Texas served by a small school district. She has been using computers at school since she was six and started learning to touch type in third grade. She uses computers at school and at home and estimates she spends about 12 hours a week on a computer chatting, doing homework, or playing games. She uses a Mac at home and is totally comfortable doing research and operating the system. It is clear that she accepts a computer oriented world as natural and normal and no big deal. She can even tell me what kind of upgrade she would like (The Imac).

Those of us who remember the world before computers (heck, lets be honest here, I remember the world before TV) need all the help we can get to make the most of this technical world, not necessarily to compete with the youngsters, but to live in harmony with, and use to our benefit, the computer technology that the youngsters take for granted. Therein lies the need for experts upon whom we can call for help. There are two things that distinguish a Macintosh expert. The first is that they know how to do the technical things related to a computer; i.e., they know how to install and teach you how to use programs such as Stuffit, how to set up print drives, how to replace memory, and how (when you have done something REALLY dumb) to bring your Mac back to life . The second distinction is that they are more than willing to share their skills with you without the necessity of either impressing you with how much they know (that you don’t), or talking to you in language you don’t understand. Since this column is designed for those of us who are not technical experts, I hope you will find it useful to occasionally get helpful hints from these experts.

My favorite expert is Mr. Perry Young. You won’t find Perry hanging around any computer offices, or working with systems on a daily basis. In fact, he has a Master’s Degree in Social Work and works with the mentally and physically disabled. Perry represents the value of the Macintosh system. You can become quite skilled if you are interested and have the aptitude because it is all so logical and user friendly.

I asked Perry to share advice with us this week, particularly in the area of maintaining your system. He replied that he strongly recommended that we periodically zap the PRAM (pronounced pea-ram) and rebuild the desktop. I said uh huh. However, ever to the rescue, he explained that this is simple maintenance similar to routine care of your car. By periodically performing these two tasks we can deal with problems that may not be visible such as corrupted files, or programs that don’t open, or even a slow down of the system. I pointed out to Perry that I "periodically maintain my car" by taking it to someone else to do it. Perry told me that I could rebuild the desktop by holding down the command (Apple Key) and Option keys during start up or the Command-Option-P-R keys during start up to zap my PRAM. It may have been the dull glaze that instantly took over my eyes or just his kind generosity, but Perry then told me that there is a free shareware tool to help us accomplish this task. Ever ready for free, I went to the trusty and downloaded TechTool 1.1.6; produced by MicroMat Computer Systems, Inc. of Windsor, CA. The tool is completely free, but you are asked to register. This version may be used for any Mac system up to 8.1 (US version). It serves to rebuild the desktop, zap the PRAM, test for damaged system files, properly clean the floppy drive, and display system information about your Macintosh.

It is extremely important that you read the documentation before attempting to use this tool. The directions are detailed and easy to understand. They also explain why the different tasks should be done. I found myself understanding more about the basics of how my Mac operates.

While I will not presume to explain all the steps of using the tool (they do that superbly) I would like to mention a few of the facts that they cover as an introduction to the need to use the tool. The Parameter Ram is a chip located on the motherboard of the Mac, containing user and system-defined settings that must be retained after the computer has been powered off. Corruption of files, from whatever source, can affect the PRAM, affecting vital memory locations and file segments. In the worst case they can "render the machine completely useless or riddled with crashes and freezes."

Hints from the manufacturers of TechTool include:

  • Don’t use Techtool like a shotgun because it makes finding the source of the problem more difficult.
  • Start with extensions turned off as it can prevent potential difficulties and increase the speed of some aspects of the tool.
  • Save the PRAM and desktop databases before zapping.

The directions for using TechTool are very easy to follow. When you open the tool there is an opening screen that offers you choices. The directions tell you to push a button (for whatever you are trying to do) and then walk you through what will happen next, what you should do, and why. I don’t think they could have made it any easier to follow.

I recommend that you investigate and use TechTool. Not only will you have the opportunity of feeling completely virtuous for taking care of your Mac properly, you should end up with a more efficient system.

Any comments or experiences relating to this, or other recommendations will be gladly reviewed and included in a future column.

Other Notes: The recent column on family trees drew lots of letters and comments. People are struggling, on different levels of competence, to research and work in this area. Don’t get frustrated if you are having problems. It is apparent from the responses that you are not alone. Several writers recommended Reunion, a commercial software application, as being their favorite, however since the manufacturer’s review policy did not match that of The Mac Observer, I was unable to review it.

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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