The fix is in

It’s amazing the number of ways technology can turn around and bite you.

Sometimes mischance strikes at the worst possible moment, and sometimes the catastrophes are self-inflicted wounds.

Jesse Torres and Peter Sideris are techie types who have seen it all: hardware failures, software

blowing up, lost machines, destroyed machines, viruses – most of the ways a user’s computing life can be disrupted in the most unpleasant fashion. Their book, Surviving PC Disasters, Mishaps and Blunders, chronicles ways to prevent many bloopers, and diagnose and fix other problems ranging from e-mail that won’t mail to hard drives that won’t boot, and everything in between.

In just under 400 pages, they intersperse horror stories with practical tips on avoidance or recovery from a wide range of hazards. And they’re not just related to issues with equipment. The final chapter deals with the issues – and the consequences – of piracy.

Each chapter picks a topic area and deals with it in an easy-to-read question and answer format. Scattered throughout are grey boxes containing anecdotes describing a related problem, and explaining how it could have been prevented.

The tone of the book is light and friendly. For example, in the chapter on power adapters and batteries, it describes the four thermal states of an A/C adapter as Warm, Hot, Too Hot to Touch, and Smoke and Melted Plastic (which, it goes on to say, is cause for concern), and the chapter on wireless networking contains a handy chart comparing the various flavours of 802.11 by rating features Good, OK, or Bad. The advice, on the whole, is sensible and not intimidating, and the authors make it clear to readers when an expert should be called in.

There’s the odd mistake, though. For example, the authors explain that reversed mouse and keyboard connections can prevent the machine from working properly, and then they tell you the wrong colour codes for the plugs (the mouse connector is green, and the keyboard often purple, not the other way around). Luckily, there aren’t too many of these slip-ups in the book.

The authors spend time discussing virtually everything a user would want to do, from installing and removing software to setting up wired and wireless networks. They even go through the steps to perform if you suspect someone is “borrowing” your wireless signal.

They also spend a lot of time educating users on how to recognize that there’s something wrong with what they’re seeing on the screen. Things like fake error messages and other stunts from various sorts of malware (which the authors have dubbed “junkware”) are explained, with useful screen shots to illustrate how convincing these scams can be.

They discuss drive-by downloads, and offer suggestions for browser configurations in Internet Explorer, Firefox and Avant browser (a free browser based on IE) that may help. However, they don’t discuss Opera or Mozilla, which are both better known than Avant.

I don’t think that they emphasize the dangers of ActiveX enough (and they talk about ActiveX controls without really explaining them), but the advice is a good starting point. My major quibble is that they assume a browser’s default configuration is secure enough to prevent unwanted downloads. That’s not necessarily true; even with Service Pack 2, Internet Explorer still needs a tweak or two.

The junkware prevention checklist offers solid advice, however, as do the suggestions in the chapters on spam and Internet fraud. You’ll read enough horror stories in these sections to make you acutely aware of the hazards of the online world, and enough reassurance to keep you from abandoning it entirely.

Actually, the whole book offers reassurance, even to the complete novice, that computers are quite manageable.

Bottom line: if you need a friendly helper when life’s hazards get the better of your technological companions, in most cases this book will help get you out of trouble. And, as a bonus, it’s fun to read too. 

Surviving PC Disasters, Mishaps and Blunders, by Jesse M. Torres and Peter Sideris. Paraglyph Press, 2005. $43.99.


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