I got a wonderful letter last week that began this way:
"I enjoy reading your column every week, even though I don't really understand the things you're writing about. . . ."
This of course, did wonders for my ego, since I like to think that I can explain technical things in a way that normal people can understand them.
In any case, the writer went on to say that he wants to buy a computer but knows absolutely nothing about them. (This undoubtedly accounted for his difficulty with my prose -- it's like reading a bridge column every week when you don't know how to play bridge.) He wondered if I could recommend a good book for the electronically challenged.
As luck would have it, a terrific volume came in the mail last week. The Little PC Book by columnist Lawrence J. Magid (Peachpit Press, $17.95) is one of the best beginner's books I've come across.
Clearly written without being condescending, and humorous without being terminally cute, Magid's book will teach you what PCs are, how they work, how to buy one, and what to do with your PC after you get it.
The Little PC Book is divided into short chapters that cover the basics -- the system unit, monitors, memory, disk drives and printers, with clear explanations of such novice-puzzlers as expansion slots, serial and parallel ports, modems and video boards. With clever cartoons, it explains all those confusing little plugs and openings on the back of the computer and tells you what to plug in where, and why.
The book even answers the age-old question of why those hard little plastic 3 1/2 -inch disks are called floppies. (The floppy disk is inside the case.)
Magid tackles difficult topics such as files storage, autoexec.bat, config.sys, and the DOS and Windows environments clearly and nTC logically. He gives brief but informative rundowns of types of software -- word processors, spreadsheets, databases, financial programs, entertainment titles and educational programs, and his recommendations are largely on the money.
At the end of the volume are The DOS Cookbook and The Windows Cookbook, which provide step-by-step instructions for basic activities such as managing your hard disk, copying and backing up files and other basic activities that are often confusing for novices.
If you don't know much about PCs, or you've just bought one and you don't really know what to do with it, The Little PC Book will set you straight. And kids, it's a great gift for your parents.
Speaking of basics, about this time every year I give a little lecture about the dangers of summertime computing and how to avoid disaster at the hands of Mother Nature and your friendly utility company.
Mother Nature, of course, provides thunderstorms which can wreak havoc with your electrical supply. Utility companies, in addition to dealing with Mother Nature, can create their own potential problems for PC owners by lowering voltage during periods of peak air conditioning demand. Under worst case conditions, they may even black out large areas for short periods.
The circuits in your PC are very delicate. Most of them operate at 5 or 12 volts, and they depend on the PC's internal transformer and regulation devices to reduce and condition the 110-volt power supply from your wall outlet.
Your PC faces two main dangers. The first occurs when the power dies suddenly and then returns. Even if nothing else goes wrong when the lights go out, there's likely to be a voltage surge when they come back on. While your PC can handle small surges on its own, a bad spike can do some real damage.
A more likely problem can occur if your PC is in the act of writing to its hard disk when the electricity goes off. If you're lucky, you'll get a scrambled file or two. If you're not, your hard disk could be rendered useless.
There are three ways to protect your PC from summer damage. The first and cheapest is a surge protector, which essentially clamps down on the voltage during a spike and saves your PC. Surge suppressors, now built into many power strips, range in price from $12 to $100. The cheapest suppressors won't help you much, but a better unit can provide some real protection. They're also a good idea for PCs in commercial office buildings, which seem to generate spikes and surges of their own all year.
The best bet for keeping your PC safe and sound, however, is an uninterruptible power supply, known in the trade as a UPS. You plug the UPS into your wall outlet, then plug your PC or power strip into the UPS.
UPS units do two things. First, they condition the power that comes out of the wall, protecting against surges, brownout voltage drops and other problems -- usually more effectively than simple surge protectors.
More importantly, however, a UPS contains a battery backup that switches on instantly when it senses a sudden voltage drop. It will keep your PC running for a short period until you can shut down the system.
You can find UPS units for as little as $100. More money generally buys more power and a longer battery life. An inexpensive UPS will power a single PC and monitor for about 15 minutes. Larger units can handle multiple computers or other devices for longer periods.
If your business or livelihood depends on your computer, a decent UPS is the cheapest disaster insurance you can buy.
Finally, the best insurance policy of all is a regular backup of your hard disk. Without the information on that disk, you're sunk -- summer, fall, spring or winter. At the very least, back up your critical data files to floppy disks on a regular basis. Better yet, get a tape backup unit and make backups of your whole hard disk on a regular basis. Tape backups that fit in your computer and can store 250 megabytes of data are available for as little as $150 to $200. If you don't want to mess around inside the box, external tape drives that plug into your printer port are available for about $400. The tape cartridges go for about $20 and are reusable. It's a small price to pay to keep yourself in business.
Michael J. Himowitz is a staff writer for The Baltimore Sun.