Guest column: Could you fix my PC?

First of all, if you sent "Backspin" any messages November 24-27, please resend them -- my ISP's mail server lost its mind and sent me trashed versions of some 350 messages that had been queued up while I was travelling.

My travels were interesting. I went to speak at a conference in Portugal, which was great except that it was held over Thanksgiving, a holiday I enjoy even more than Christmas. That aside, the trip went very well.

Now, some advice: If you are like me and think that the only way to survive the boredom of an airplane flight is to fire up your CD player and your computer and get some work done, don't fly Air Portugal.

The airline's service is otherwise fine, but the fact that the airline doesn't allow any electronics to be used while flying is, well, strange. I didn't know that any airline was this restrictive, and the fact that Air Portugal's preflight video (shown on minute TV monitors, for heaven's sake) discussed where and when you could smoke on board lent a certain air of surrealism to the electronics ban.

For that matter, I have always wondered why airlines allow passengers to transport large amounts of highly flammable liquids, otherwise describable as duty-free booze. Given most airlines' avowed commitment to safety (which is apparently why flight attendants are no longer stewards and stewardesses -- they are there to ensure your safety and, on some airlines that shall remain nameless, that has meant to hell with service) this seems decidedly strange thinking.

This nicely leads us into this week's topic: How people think of our skills. I was recently at an end-of-season party for my son's soccer team and at one point, our hostess cornered me and said, "If you're not rushing off, perhaps you could look at our PC. My husband did something to it and now it is running slow."

I was so surprised, all I could reply was, "Sorry, we have to go." I should have said, "Are you kidding me?"

I don't know if you've had this kind of experience, but I suspect it is not unusual -- it has certainly happened to some of my friends.

Apparently there are lots of people out there who seem to think that being knowledgeable and competent with PCs is somehow a minor skill that ranks alongside house cleaning or pruning roses.

In my case, our hosts were acquaintances, not friends, and the husband (who for the sake of simplicity we'll call Herbert) is a partner in the practice that my lawyer works for. I'll bet that if I turned round to Herbert at a party and said, "I wonder if you'd spend an hour or so on this contract while you're here?" I'd get a definite "No" for an answer.

Hell, I know that there were plumbers and doctors at the party, but would she have asked any of them to fix her sink or examine her lumbago while they were there? I rather doubt it.

But for some strange reason, having computer knowledge is respected but treated lightly in our culture. The fact that someone has spent five, 10 or 15 years in the industry learning the arcane knowledge of how to make PCs and networks work doesn't seem to be a serious thing. Do they think what we do has little intrinsic value? Do these people think that PC knowledge is not important? Do they perhaps equate PCs with game consoles?

I am at a loss for an answer, and your thoughts would be most welcome. Now if you'll excuse me, I must try to recover my trashed messages. That is, unless you've got a few moments to take a look at them for me. ...

Send help to nwcolumn@gibbs.com.

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