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PC Repairs and Learning About the Internet

by Thomas Caldwell

When your PC breaks

"Tom, where can I get my PC fixed when it breaks?" "Whom can I trust to come to my home and fix it quickly?" "Do all PC engineers charge ¥35,000 an hour?"

During the time I've been writing this column, I have yet to address often-asked questions like these. Not that I can't find answers, but because you may not like them.

Yes, PCs break -- rarely, if they are made right, but they do break. Most of us are either too busy or too inexperienced to fix them ourselves (or so we are led to believe by those touting the phrase "service and support"). Unfortunately -- for smaller companies, and certainly for the private user -- fixing your computer is something you must consider doing yourself. Cost is a major factor these days; in Japan, professional labor is insanely high, and English-speaking labor is even higher.

Getting your PC's software set up properly is another important concern. Anyone with a near-average IQ can install most software these days, but tweaking things to work properly can take time and know-how. Windows and its applications can be configured so many ways that it makes no sense to hire a highly paid technician to do it in a way that doesn't suit you. There's only one way you'll ever get your personal computer to work the way you personally want it to: Learn how to do it yourself.

A PC is just a metal box, after all, with several circuit boards connected to one another. If one breaks, you throw it away and replace it with a new one. Simple. There are all sorts of tools you can buy, but the only items really necessary for simple installation and repair are the following:

* assorted screwdrivers (for taking things apart and putting them back together)

* chip tongs (for pulling chips out of their sockets; these look like little ice tongs)

* a screw retriever (looks like a syringe with several wires on the bottom; great for getting dropped screws out from inside a PC).

Almost every company I checked into that provides PC repair for small companies and individuals has both a good and a bad reputation, depending on whom you ask, so I think it unwise to recommend any specific company here. Instead, I would advise everyone reading this to get used to the idea of fixing your own box if it goes down, or ask a more up-to-speed friend to do it for you. PCs are becoming like TVs: so well put together that it is easier to throw it away when it breaks and buy a new one. Paying ¥50,000 or more to fix a two-year-old, ¥200,000 machine is not worth it. Fixing it yourself is.

Internet lessons for beginners

Most people who bought their first computer back in the days when 64K of memory meant something usually had one very specific application in mind for their marvel of silicon: word processing. Today there is a second wave of people who are becoming PC enthusiasts for another specific reason: the Internet. And like the buyers of 64K Apple IIs almost two decades ago, these "newcomers" have a lot of questions, but few places to go to get them answered.

There has always been an arrogance among people who really know computers when they come into contact with people who don't. I've noticed this attitude has gotten worse since the Internet became part of our daily lives, which is unfortunate since it is turning off or scaring away people who could learn and benefit from the bonanza of information now available online.

The oldest continuously operating BBS in Japan is run out of a corner of Akihabara by two old Japan hands: Pete Perkins and Gary Guthary. They run the BBS/Internet system called Janis II -- the descendant of the Apple II-based Janis BBS that began operation some fifteen years ago. Janis II has maintained much of the charm of the local BBS that seems to have been wrecked by traffic on the Information Superhighway. (Online services used to resemble coffee shops or yakitori bars; many now resemble a place the Hell's Angels would be scared to hang around in.)

Perkins and Guthary, both ex-US military technicians, have put together a classroom in Akihabara to teach their customers the ins and outs of everything from World Wide Web programming to how a modem works. It isn't a cyber cafe, but it is a nice, comfortable place to sit down and learn without being intimidated or laughed at for not knowing something. And it is free if you are a member of Janis II; they only ask for donations to pay for the refreshments they serve.

If you are looking to get online, and are sick and tired of being talked down to for what you don't know, you may want contact Pete or Gary at MRT, Inc.: phone 03-3255-8880, fax 03-3255-8857, or the Web at

Query columnist Thomas Caldwell is chief radio correspondent and marketing & technical operations manager of the Tokyo bureau of United Press International. You can e-mail him at, or check his Web page at