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Computer Stupidities


The quintessential input device, the keyboard, despite its similarities to the typewriter, is nevertheless the subject of great confusion. Some of the most important, basic keys are misunderstood. Some even fail to recognize that hitting a letter on the keyboard causes the same letter to appear on the screen. With a keyboard as a prop, hysterical antics of many sorts can follow.

We have a service contract at a local college. I got a call one day from someone who said that their Mac IIsi was having a problem. Upon questioning him, he said that whenever he typed on the keyboard, the image on the monitor was shaking. All sorts of monitor problems ran through my mind. I asked him if it was only when he typed and he replied yes. Well, since it was a contract, I figured we'd better go see what was happening. My tech called me about ten minutes after arriving and reported that the problem was not the computer, but his desk. The desk vibrated every time he typed on his keyboard. I am still shaking my head on this one. The sad thing is that this guy has "Dr." in front of his name and is a professor at a major college.

For a computer programming class, I sat directly across from someone, and our computers were facing away from each other. A few minutes into the class, she got up to leave the room. I reached between our computers and switched the inputs for the keyboards. She came back and started typing and immediately got a distressed look on her face. She called the teacher over and explained that no matter what she typed, nothing would happen. The teacher tried everything. By this time I was hiding behind my monitor and quaking red-faced. I started to type, "Leave me alone!"

They both jumped back, silenced. "What the..." the teacher said. I typed, "I said leave me alone!" The kid got real upset. "I didn't do anything to it, I swear!" It was all I could do to keep from laughing out loud. The conversation between them and HAL 2000 went on for an amazing five minutes.

Etc. Finally, I couldn't contain myself any longer and fell out of my chair laughing. After they had realized what I had done, they both turned beet red. Funny, I never got more than a C- in that class.


Once I got a call about a noisy keyboard. I went over, and, sure enough, every time I pressed a key, I heard a crackling noise. I pulled the keyboard apart, and imagine my surprise when 40 (yes, I counted them) paper clips fell out over the desk.

Seems that every time a crumb of whatever she was eating fell into the keyboard, she would try to clean it out with a paper clip, mostly losing the clip into the keyboard too.

Many people have called to ask where the "any" key is on their keyboards when the "Press Any Key" message is displayed.

I have a friend who just bought a computer and was instructed to load a program by typing "A:" and then the name of the program.

My friend told me it would not work because his keyboard was no good. He said he couldn't type the "dot over dot thingie" and that every time he tried to type the "dot over dot thingie" he kept getting the "dot over comma thingie" no matter how careful he was to press only on the very top of the key.

When I taught him about the shift key, he thought I was a genius.

Our last receptionist called me to complain that the keys on her new keyboard were hard to push. She asked me to install a program to "soften up her keyboard keys."

My journalism teacher was the most computer illiterate person that I have ever met.

This went on for a few more minutes, and eventually I had to tell her the truth: that it really doesn't do anything.

One user told me he couldn't find the 'OK' button on his keyboard.

I had a call from a customer who was complaining that when she typed, the wrong letters came up on the screen. After some investigation, I learned she had pried off all the letter key caps off her keyboard and rearranged them in alphabetical order. You'd think she'd have figured out the problem herself when her computer stopped working afterward.

I had an otherwise computer-literate friend who would put the caps-lock on and off every time he wanted a capital letter. He thought the shift key was just for the symbols on the number keys. This probably went on for years.

A few years ago, I was working at a small studio in my home town, the studio belonging to Comcast (the TV company). The head director of the studio performed editing on an extremely old computer, something along the lines of Windows 3.1 (this was post-Windows 2000). I was helping him with editing. Since most of the text in TV shows is in all capital letters, his caps-lock key was on. But when it came time to do the credits (which are capitalized in the normal fashion), instead of turning off the caps-lock, he held down the shift key to type the lower case letters. When I showed him the caps-lock feature, he was amazed and thought I was brilliant.

I was helping my tech teacher out a few days in July, and I got some calls from potential customers. One of them was this little boy who couldn't have been more than six or seven. He was almost in tears. "Everything I type is in caps. What do I do? My Mom's going to kill me!"

Some years ago, my brother's girlfriend was doing some clerical work. Her boss insisted on sending memos IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, ALL THE TIME. After fruitless appeals from the staff, finally one worked: somebody mentioned that regular "sentence case" should be used, because it "took up less space." Obviously, the meaning was that, with proportionally-spaced fonts, lowercase letters were smaller on the screen, but the boss thought it meant that uppercase letters took up more space in RAM and on disk. He promptly issued a memo telling the staff to refrain from using uppercase whenever possible.

This, while fixing a problem starting up the system:

I received a call from one of the top managers in our company.

I turned to my co-workers and said, "You won't believe the call I just got..."

I am a computer science student in my senior year. One day the professor asked the class if anyone knew who's the biggest PC retailer in the market nowadays. Of course, many said "IBM," which is not true.

"The correct answer is Dell," smiled the professor.

Then a girl from my class who was sitting behind me whispered to her friend: "Oh, right! That's why there's that 'Dell' key on all those keyboards."

To which her friend answered, "Ohhhhhhhhh!"

One user noted that MAC keyboards are typically relatively small, but that IBM keyboards are "big" things with "keys all around the top and down the sides" and so forth. He figured that this might be one of the reasons why IBMs and MACs "don't like to talk to each other."

I was helping an executive-type over the phone with a VMS command. I kept giving him a command to type, something like "whois xyz1234". He kept getting an error back. Finally I asked him to read exactly what he was typing, letter-by-letter, "w-h-o-i-s-s-p-a-c-e-x-y-z-1-2-3-4". I told him to type a blank instead of the word "space." He then asked me how to do that. Trying not to laugh, I explained what that long key at the bottom of the keyboard was for.

I was doing usual work in my Computer Literacy class, when a kid came in and sat at the computer next to me to type up a report for another class. I went to get something I had printed off to turn in and glanced at his screen. He wasn't double-spacing, like the teacher had told us to, I though maybe he forgot.

He proceeded to type a word, hit the spacebar twice, and continued typing. He then asked me how to make it so that whenever he hit the spacebar, it would make two spaces.

I'm a network administrator at a local school district, and I get some doozies.

In the first day of an introductory computer science class, the teacher explained the basic parts of a computer, how to boot, etc. At the end of the class, the teacher asked if there were any questions.

I taught in colleges and technical schools. I taught all level of classes from rank beginner to the very advanced in databases and worksheets. One of the best things for any student to do is to be able to type. Being able to find your way around the keyboard is important. In one of my beginner classes, I had an elderly gentleman who bought a computer to track his stocks. He was at the computer that I connected to the overhead projector that displayed the monitor for the entire class to see. We were in Word, and I asked the class to type the word "book." This gentleman looked at his keyboard for the letter 'B'. I could see him looking across each row, searching for the letter 'B'. He searched and searched, then with a smile, typed the letter 'B'. Then he began looking for the letter 'O'. He searched and searched for the letter 'O', once mistaking the zero key for the letter 'O'. He searched some more and finally found the letter 'O'. He pressed the 'O' key. Then he began searching for the next letter 'O'. At this point, the other students and I knew we were in for a long class.

I'm a librarian for a public library. Once a 12 year old girl asked me, "Why is it that when I hit the 'L' key, the computer puts a one on the screen?"

A friend of mine was typing a letter up in Notepad and called me saying that the letters were upside down. I've heard a few things in my time but never heard of upside down letters. So I went over and had a look. Everything looked fine, but she said no, the L's are upside down. It still took a minute to figure out what she meant. But, yeah, a lower case L looks like an upside down upper case L.


First call, Monday morning. I knew it was going to be one of those days right from the start. The call wasn't going well at all. Bob, the customer, just wasn't getting it.

He became known as Two-Loop Bob from that moment on. His saga has been passed down from from each call center generation to the next.

I teach an introductory programming course. The first assignment is to write a program to evaluate an integral. A common question I get is, "Where's the integral key?"

I was helping a customer type in an email address. When it came time to type the '@' sign, he said, "Now where's the AOL key?" I cried.

A few months ago, a co-worker came into work and told me that his daughter brought home a school assignment. She was supposed to convert Roman numerals into Arabic and vice versa. He wasn't able to help her since he wasn't exactly a model student when he was in school.

I went home and downloaded a conversion program to a floppy disk for him. He's not very computer literate so I tried my best to make things as simple as possible. It was an executable file, all he had to do was click on it and enter whatever number he wanted, and it would convert automatically.

After a few days, I asked him if he ever loaded the program I gave him. He said, "No, I didn't do it. My keyboard doesn't have Roman numerals."

The keyboard plug was unplugged. The user was trying to pull out the whole PS/2 port.

I once watched our new system administrator trying to bring one of our servers up. He needed to type "i386" which was part of a path name.

This guy calls in to complain that he gets an "Access Denied" message every time he logs in. It turned out he was typing his username and password in capital letters.

My girlfriend told me she used the "central alt delete" key to reboot her computer.

I was teaching a computer class for beginners, and one student got angry because the notes said "Cntl" but the key said "Ctrl."

A friend's computer had crashed. He told me to press "Colt, Alt, Del." It turned out that he always referred to the control key as "colt."

Back in the good old pre-PC days we sold a system that required the user to hit Ctrl-A in order to sign on. We sold one to some outfit in Canada. Well, trying to get them going over the phone took an hour. We'd say, "Hit Ctrl-A," and they'd say, "Ok, we hit Ctrl, eh? And nothing happened, eh?"

I saw a woman sitting patiently at her desk, staring directly at her monitor, doing nothing. Figuring something was up, I looked over her shoulder to see that she had typed her name on the command line. I asked what she was waiting for, and her reply was that she was waiting for the computer to log her on. Only problem, she hadn't hit the "LOG ON" key. She'd have sat there all day.

Back in the 1980s, I was installing a computer system in a remote operation we just acquired. The assistant manager was an MBA in his late 20s. When I tried to teach him how to login, I told him to type "user1," and he just stared at the keyboard. After about 15 seconds, he reached out and hit the "u." Ten seconds later, he typed the "s." After about ten more, he finally found the "e."

When he went to type in his password, it was something like "apple." He found the "a," then he found the "p," then he stared at the keyboard trying to find the "p" again.

By the time I left, I had trained him to leave one finger on a letter if he knew he would need it again soon.

Another user called in one day with an installation problem. I talked him through the process of getting to a DOS prompt and asked him to type, "D I R Space A Colon" and press Enter. I heard 5 slow erratic key clicks followed by a very long pause. Finally, he asked, "What's the colon look like?" I told him it's the key with one dot below another dot. "Oh!" he exclaimed, "The two-dots key! Why didn't you say so?"

I worked in computer support for a medical staffing company. One day, a doctor called and said that he "wanted to call the Internet." I instantly knew it was going to be one of those kinds of calls. I instructed him to open his browser. "What's a browser?" he asked.

After a brief walk-through, he was ready to go. Then I told him to type in an address.

I had a customer the other day that called the "plus" sign a "prostitute" sign.

A friend of mine had just discovered email, and I noticed him pause for a few moments, examining the keyboard. "What's wrong?" I asked. He said, "Where's the smiley key!?!"

I once overheard a support representative tell a customer that she types slowly because she has a left-handed keyboard.

I worked at the computer help desk at Dartmouth College last year. Once, one of my co-workers finished a call, then looked at me blankly, then started laughing. The caller had spilled soda on her keyboard and removed the bottom row of keys on her keyboard to get the liquid out. She called us so we could tell her the order of that row of keys.

I worked at a help desk for a bank. I had received many calls from a lady who insisted on drinking coffee by her computer, even though she tended to spill it. One day the lady called yet again.

A user called me with problems installing her PC Access and it sounded like it might be a defective floppy, so I had her get to a DOS prompt. I told her to type "D I R Space A Colon" and press Enter. After a long pause she asked, "Do you want anything in that space?"

I work in Front Line Support, and usually we dial into our customers sites to troubleshoot problems. One evening a co-worker was not able to dial into a customer's site, so he was working with the customer by phone and trying to walk him through displaying system messages. The user was in the computer room where there were multiple servers.

I started hearing a very faint beep when I was typing, but it was not consistent, and since it was so faint, it was hard to tell where it was coming from. I pondered, confirmed that it wasn't any of the obvious problems, and then started thinking that maybe my keyboard was messed up. I knew better, but maybe there was a small alarm inside my "excess wear" indicator, maybe? (I know, but I didn't have any better ideas.) Finally I decided to sit down and figure it out once and for all. I took the keyboard off the desk to begin my detective work and found, underneath the keyboard, a digital thermometer. It had been sitting under there the whole time. My typing was hitting the on/off button on the thermometer, causing it to beep.

I find it curious how you almost never see "press any key" instructions that are honest enough to say, "except Shift, Caps Lock, Control, Alt, Num Lock, Scroll Lock...."

I had so many students make the following error that I learned to warn them against it in advance. When asked to press the Caps Lock key, they would press the little indicator light instead of the key itself.

It's really bad when the computer does something stupid. Presumably, the programmers of the operating system or system software would know better. Many computers are known to report the following error message when the keyboard is not plugged in:

"Error #101: No keyboard. Press F1 to continue."

...or some variation thereof.

Email from a friend:


Emailed to a corporate help desk:

I spillced coffcee cincto my kcey boardc.c As a rcesulct, c's gcet inctermixcced with cwactever I ctypce. Plcease replace mcy kceyboard.

I work on the help desk of a small ISP. Yesterday I had a phone call from a customer wanting to know how to set up his mail. The mail server address contained a hyphen.

He seemed to know what that was, so we proceeded to enter the rest of his settings. On completion, he got an error message saying he could not be logged in to the mail server. I took him back into the settings and asked him to read out what he had entered for the mail server name. When we got to the point where the hyphen should be, he said "squiggly line."

He tried again and still couldn't connect. Back into the settings we go. When he got to the point the hyphen should be, he said it was a "horseshoe-like thingy." We tried again. Next time it was a "diagonal line." I don't remember how many times we went through this. Finally I had to direct him to where the hyphen key was physically located on the keyboard.

My father was just getting into using a computer. He loved Solitaire and would play with it for hours, so I thought I'd set him up with a different game. I set up Nascar Racing, and off he was, having a great time, until the race ended. I heard him pressing keys and getting a bit frustrated. Finally he asked me for help. He said that the game was broken. It turned out that the game was instructing him to "Press ESC," and he was hitting the 'E', 'S', and 'C' keys in succession.

We moved to a paperless office model and adopted email in lieu of paper memos. The changeover seemed difficult for one particularly senior employee. She seemed to be reading her email just fine, since she knew what was going on, but nobody could recall that she had ever sent email.

One day she came into the main office and announced that she wanted to send email. "But I have one question," she said to one of the secretaries. "How do I get the little blank space to show up between words?"

My friend was on duty in the main lab on a quiet afternoon. He noticed a young woman sitting in front of one of the workstations with her arms crossed across her chest and staring at the screen. After about 15 minutes he noticed that she was still in the same position only now she was impatiently tapping her foot. He asked if she needed help and she replied, "It's about time! I pushed the F1 button over twenty minutes ago!"

I heard three clicks on the keyboard.

I was a systems engineer working on a UNIX system for a contract for a Swedish customer. Inevitably, they wanted Swedish keyboard formats and the like which were slightly different from the British ones we were developing the system on. In the fairly early stages of development, I was the system administrator and was halfway through converting the PCs to Swedish layouts. Of course, new keyboard layouts need a little time to get accustomed to.

While logged in as 'root' (the superuser account on UNIX machines), I wanted to remove the contents of a directory and all subdirectories, so I used the command rm -r * -- which should remove all files and subdirectories in the current directory. When I looked up at the screen from my Swedish keyboard, I realised that the keyboard was set up to the British version. Unfortunately, the '*' on Swedish keyboard is in the same place as a '~' on a British keyboard, so the command became rm -r ~. In UNIX, this means remove all files in all subdirectories from your home directory. If you're logged in as the root user, the home directory (frequently, anyway, and in this case) is the root directory. Needless to say, the PC didn't boot again, and unfortunately (bad me!) I didn't have any backups, so I spent two days remaking the environment.