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KELLNER: Finding answers in ‘plain language’ when technology has you stumped

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 15, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Are you flummoxed by today's computer technology? You're not alone, if my email inbox is any indication. And while such perplexity has been around since the dawn of the personal computer era in the very late 1970s, today's dilemmas are at once new and familiar.

What is radically different, however, is how you can find answers to those questions. Often these answers are easier to find than in years gone by.

As mentioned here before, how-to books are better, I believe, than they've ever been. "Plain language" is the rule, not the exception, and many of today's guides are augmented with full color illustrations, and even more detailed step-by-step instructions. Online booksellers such as Amazon.com have many of these titles available to "preview" online, so a few minutes of browsing can pay off nicely in matching your needs with a given book.

One personal point: I tend to prefer computer books that include not only an index (for quick reference) but also a glossary of terms. It's a quick-and-easy way to get over a phrase that might have you stumped.

Another thing I've found - this may seem trite, but it's also, well, true - is that reading both slowly and more than once can help in assimilating and using the information you're learning. This is, after all, a piece of technology you're trying to understand; it's not a John Grisham thriller. Slow and steady will pay off here, I promise.

Another great resource - and available for free - are websites such as About.com and eHow.com. The About.com sites, which are a unit of the New York Times Co., are very thorough in screening the "guides" they hire for each page; the editorial control process is very good. As a result, the how-to information is generally very, very good and highly reliable.

At eHow.com, you can find more than the occasional gem: in looking for ways to curb an explosion of junk email, one user I know found a very simple, and useful how-to piece at the eHow site. I reviewed the article: It was concise and correct, something that hasn't always been true of Internet-based computer advice.

Still another option - although, here, some caution is advised - is YouTube and similar video services. The other night, I had an email from a favorite reader asking about monochrome printing on the Mac, also known as grayscale printing.

Yes, you can poke around the print dialogue boxes onscreen to find the answer, or you can go to YouTube, where there's a helpful video on the subject (http://bit.ly/yfXaxf), showing step-by-step instructions with both Apple's Mail.app and Microsoft Word, although the method should work with any Mac application. The video runs for just over two minutes, and you end up with some useful knowledge, again for free.

Some of these things used to be found only through user's groups, which still exists. Mac users in the nation's capital have one of the best such groups: Washington Apple Pi (www.wap.org), which on Feb. 18 will have a tech support and tutorial help clinic at the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church, 9601 Cedar Lane, in Bethesda, Md., beginning at 9:30 a.m. If you're struggling with a Mac issue, this is one place where you may find help.

The venerable Capital PC User Group, (www.cpcug.org), appears to be in a transition phase, but its website promises a rebirth during 2012. In its prime, CPCUG was the place for not only tech help, but also demos and even launches of new products, and I certainly hope it will see more active days ahead.

The bottom line, however, is that you don't have to dangle at the end of a telephone support line, or wait in a line for a store employee, to solve a tech issue. There are other ways of finding answers, and many of these are not only quick, but also highly reliable.

Email mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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