It has been said, "A computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any other invention in human history, with the possible exceptions of handguns and tequila."
PCs, as well as software and printers and other peripherals, also make plenty of mistakes themselves. Whether you call them bugs, conflicts, or incompatibilities, you're going to run into them. Then there's "malware," the viruses, worms, phishing attacks, and other traps created by bad guys to steal from you or just cause mischief.
Sometimes a PC or Mac will just wear out, with its hard disk crashing, its memory going bad, it power supply conking out, or its keyboard sticking. Or maybe it gets zapped by a nearby lighting strike, or maybe your laptop breaks because you dropped it on the pavement.
Computer problems can make you want to throw your computer out the window.
Fortunately, there are usually things you can do yourself to make things right when things go wrong. And there are things you can do to prevent problems in the first place.
The first thing to do when things aren't working right is to start over. Simply turn your computer off, wait thirty seconds, and turn it back on. The same applies to losing your WiFi connection and even to having flaky TV reception. In such cases, unplug the power cord, wait 30 seconds, and plug it back in.
Sometimes you'll need to unplug the data cable, too. Or you'll need to reboot the PCs on the network. Check to see if the problem is with one website, or all. The problem could be with your Internet service provider--with a phone call or just waiting, doing the trick for you.
The magic of restarting is that it resets the system, clearing out settings that may be in temporary conflict with each other.
Another fantastically simple solution to some problems involving computers, printers, and much else is to make sure things are plugged in right. Pull the cable out, then push it back in securely. A plug not completely connected is a common culprit.
If you're still stuck, take out the manual, access it online, or pull down the online help system. To put it politely, RTFM (Read the Friendly Manual).
Many people seem allergic to manuals but they can sometimes be surprisingly helpful. They typically provide a troubleshooting guide, so taking a few minutes to look through it can quickly solve common problems such as printer paper jams.
The best way to prevent problems is to protect yourself. Make sure that you're using Internet security software that includes both an antivirus and a firewall component. An antiphishing tool can help, too.
My favorite pay solution is Norton 360 (www.symantec.com), which comes with everything you need and includes some useful automatic tune-up tools as well. If you go the free route, AVG Free (www.free.avg.com) combined with Windows Firewall, which comes with Windows, is a good combination.
Spybot Search and Destroy (www.safer-networking.org) and Malwarebytes (www.malwarebytes.org) are available in free versions, donation requested, that can sometimes solve problems that other security tools can't. Just don't keep them running all the time along with your regular security software because this can cause conflicts.
The second best way to prevent problems is to keep up to date. Older programs and operating systems are more vulnerable to attack. With whatever security software and operating system you're using, enable automatic updates. With programs that don't update themselves automatically, periodically check manually for updates, usually through the Help menu.
Data, whether it's your income tax records, your family photos, or the business plan for your small business, can be far more valuable than hardware or software. The often repeated and often ignored solution is to back up important files.
Options include using an Internet backup and file sharing service such as Dropbox (www.dropbox.com) or Google Drive (www.drive.google.com), a USB flash drive, a rewritable optical disc, an external hard drive, or a backup tape.
Sometimes despite your best efforts to fix things, you just can't do it yourself. If a friend or family member can't either, you can call in a pro.
With the demise of free tech support, more and more companies have cropped up that provide third-party support no matter what product is causing the problem. Examples include Geek Squad (www.geeksquad.com, 800-433-5778) and Rescuecom (www.rescuecom.com, 800-737-2837).
Then there's the decision of whether to repair or replace. As a general rule of thumb, if the equipment is older than three or four years, it can be more cost-effective to replace.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.