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Is it time to tame the electronic monster? This month's column is for those who still do not use a computer, or who wish to help someone else start using one. Most of the non-computer users I meet are...

March 1, 1999  By Pulp & Paper Canada

Is it time to tame the electronic monster? This month’s column is for those who still do not use a computer, or who wish to help someone else start using one. Most of the non-computer users I meet are in my age group (50 plus) and do not need to use a computer to survive in the working world. Kids and those who must have computer knowledge for their work are already over the initial learning hump and are comfortable with a computer as an everyday tool or toy.

There are many advantages for virtually everyone reading this magazine, as well as most of their spouses, colleagues and perhaps parents, to learn to use a computer. At work, most people will find life easier if they can use a computer first-hand, instead of relying on a secretary, assistant or other colleague to hit the keyboard, read the E-mail, etc, on their behalf.

In personal life, computers are great for accessing the Internet for news or amusement, as well as for communicating with friends, children and grandchildren. Despite the steady reduction in telephone costs, E-mail still has many advantages for parents communicating with itinerant offspring across time zones.


While the newspapers and TV provide lots of news, the Internet is the best source of news on issues that are not widely popular. Try finding an update on the current round the world yacht race (http://www.aroundalone.com/index.fhtml), or the progress of the independence movement in Scotland (http://www.theherald.co.uk/home.html), the minutes of the Black Liquor Recovery Boiler Advisory Committee (www.blrbac.org), or last Saturday’s soccer scores in Australia on CBC Newsworld or CNN. These items are all on the Internet, at any time of your choosing.

Most newspapers around the world have summaries on the Internet, so you can obtain local news on your hometown or a location to which you may be travelling.


The two most common uses of a computer are writing letters or reports, and reading the Internet.

It is a lot easier to write anything longer than about five lines with a computer than to write it by hand. If you wish to produce typewritten text, then it is a LOT more convenient to do so directly than to hand write it, have it typed and then check it.

Many people also use computers to develop tables of numbers (using spreadsheet software), and preparing presentations for slides or overheads. If the computer is properly set up, anyone who has the know-how to draft such documents on paper can learn how to use the computer sufficiently well to save time, with only an hour or so of coaching and practice.

The most common reason expressed by most engineers, managers and others in similar job positions is that they do not have time to learn. Today, virtually no time is required, provided that someone else takes care of setting up the computer as described below.

For new users, learning to use the beasts should be like a teenager learning to drive Dad’s car. He/she need only learn to drive safely around town, and will, at least initially, probably not be interested in where and how to buy a car, which car to buy, when to get maintenance done, etc. If dad takes care of everything, the child might not even have to know how to read the gas gauge, or know what insurance is all about.


Does not matter much. While it is an asset to be able to touch-type at 80 words per minute like the secretaries of old, two-finger hunt-and-peck is still faster than writing by hand.

For managers, it may well pay off to draft documents, and have a skilled secretary or other computer user tidy things up, type in material that you may wish to copy from a paper document, and to rearrange tables, etc.

The best machine is the fastest you can buy, with an 8 Gb+ hard disc, 128 Mb RAM, and a 21″ screen, costing about $5,000. However, a beginner will get 90% or more of what he/she wants out of any computer that runs Windows 95 or Windows. A reasonable second hand 486 computer will cost about $500.

Unless you are on a company network, a modem is necessary for Internet access, whether for E-mail or browsing the web. 14.4 kbps is the minimum practical speed, 28.8 kbps is OK and 56 kbps is recommended. If you have access to the Internet by cable TV, (as much of Montreal does), that is better than a telephone modem.

While I prefer a PC, the MACintosh is also an excellent platform for beginners.


Someone experienced with computers should set up a beginner’s computer, so that it need only be switched on to work. All the hardware and software should be checked, at the user’s desk.

Any moderately experienced person can set up a computer so a beginner, not interested in the gory details, can use it conveniently. The following is required: (the details refer to Windows. Concepts on the MAC are similar, but the vocabulary differs).

A screen icon should be set up to access each software package of interest with one click. This will probably include word processor, spreadsheet, E-mail and Internet browser.

Internet log-on should be automatic, avoiding typing passwords unless you really need the added security.

The new user should learn how to open a new file, save it often (Ctrl S in most software nowadays), print and exit a file.

Software should be set up with a suitable default directory of saving files, so that the user need only save, without worry about where his file is. Once the beginner has too many files for one sub-directory, he can be taught about arranging files into a suitable range of folders.

For E-mail, set the computer up to connect to the Internet and/or internal E-mail, and download messages automatically. The user need only learn how to send a new message and reply to one received. If he can learn to attach files to his E-mail messages, all the better.

If possible, set up the word processor and spreadsheet to send a file by E-mail under the “File” menu.

Finally, the beginner needs to have a resource person he can call when stuck. After the first week, the frequency of calls will drop close to zero.


It is not yet popular to use the TV to access the Internet. This is changing but it still requires a phone or cable TV connection, and incurs the same monthly charge (about $25) to the Internet service provider. While a TV screen is large, the text quality is lousy, so reading news and E-mail is less than satisfactory.

Web TV equipment is a little cheaper than a second hand computer, and is easier to set up. However, if you have access to a little help setting it up as described above, I think you will be much happier with the computer.

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