"Can You Help Me With My Computer?"

No, I probably can't help you with your computer; if you use your computer regularly, chances are you know it better than I do.

"But I thought you were a computer expert!"

Ah. Yes, fair enough. Permit me to elaborate:

I could probably tell you a lot of interesting things about how your computer works on the inside. I could tell you how your hard-disk uses the same algorithms as elevators in skyscrapers do, and why. If you like that sort of thing, I could go on at great length about how network information packets get routed, or how Web search engines find data. If your interest doesn't flag, and I'm feeling particularly malicious, I might even talk about how the scroll-bar behavior in Microsoft Windows reveals that the implementor actually wrote extra code to get it wrong.

But no, I probably can't tell you how to enlarge the font in your word-processor, or why your printer isn't printing. I could explore the menus, and suggest that you look in the manual, but you already know all of that.

So where is this so-called expertise?

Let's move to a more familiar technology: the automobile. Take the mechanic at the local garage. She knows all about cars. She's been inside the engines of the domestic models, the imports, and everything in between. She's taken them all apart, and put them back together. She's followed every wire from front to back. She knows the various ways in which a steering column can be connected to the wheels, and what tends to go wrong with each design. Just by listening to the engine run, she can probably figure out where to start looking for the problem. Everything having to do with the "mobile" part of automobiles, she knows — the main part, the important part, as she thinks of it. All the rest is window dressing: she couldn't care less about the color of the upholstery, for example.

Our mechanic is a reference library unto herself, a repository of information that can only be obtained by exploring the innards of hundreds of cars. She is a living treasure, verily.

So you come to her with your big question, the bee in your bonnet. It's had you stumped for days, but you're dealing with an expert now, so the answer will be made clear in short order. Brimming with optimism, knowing you've come the right place, you pop the question:

"Can you tell me how to adjust the front seat?"

Do not be surprised when she sits down on a discarded tire rim, looks wearily off into the distance, and says nothing.

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