Spoutin' Off: The world is more confusing without Ask Jim
By Michael Rau
June 18, 2007
Well, there truly is a smorgasbord of interesting tech items going on, and it might have been hard to pick an appropriate topic this week - that is until I read Dan Montgomery's piece about the retirement of Chicago Tribune columnist Jim Coates. How could I not write about this?
Those of you who've been reading this column for a while were probably fans of Jim's long before I showed up on the scene. Jim's been writing his column for 14 years, and it surely must be one of the most broadly distributed syndicated columns in the country.
There's a very special reason for that.
There are lots of technology columnists out here. But Jim Coates was the only one who ever displayed any true sensitivity toward the technophobic.
Those of us with some degree of technical expertise tend to forget that computers and computer systems are not terribly simple, and that many problems encountered can be utterly daunting.
How many folks have gotten their first computer and proceeded as best they can, only to discover that they have a problem they can't solve? They call "tech support" and get almost nowhere.
Now they're scared. Do they have several hundred dollars worth of junk on their hands?
Then they remember the kindly, bearded, grandfatherly visage they've seen in their local paper, and with no fear that they'll be treated like they're question is dumb, they'd "Ask Jim."
They'd send in their question, and in return, they'd get an easy-to-understand answer, with no sense presented that you should have been able to figure it out yourself.
This is Jim's talent. It's not so much that he provided the answer as it is that he eased their anxiety.
I have to admit that I rarely benefited from Jim's tips. That's not because the advice wasn't good - it's just that we both have been working on computers for a long time (I wrote my first programs on punch cards and took my first foray onto the Internet, then known as ARPAnet, in 1976). Most of the problems Jim addressed were issues that I've encountered and had to deal with a long time ago.
I'm also pretty much a Mac guy, and Jim rarely addressed issues pertaining to Macs (insert snide comment about Windows here).
But I read "Ask Jim" every week because I loved the way he treated his subject matter, as well as his correspondents. Jim obviously has a certain affection for Microsoft and seemed to treat Windows issues as he might a misbehaving child.
The idiosyncrasies associated with Windows (and for that matter, networks and the Internet and multimedia) can be daunting for anybody. I've seen IT techs (including me) reduced to pounding their desks trying to figure out what's causing the system they're working on to behave in such a manner.
But Jim made it all seem like it was just a little glitch that wasn't worth fretting over. He'd patiently walk the reader through a fairly simple approach to solving the problem, never chiding them over the simplicity of the problem they were experiencing.
I believe Jim Coates has achieved iconic status in the realm of the wired world. I can think of no one who has contributed more toward connecting the average computer user with their computer. He's like the yenta of the digital age.
While many of us in technology fields deal with some pretty complex issues, Jim dealt with the issues that affect the average Joe every day. By reading his column weekly, people could become more tech savvy in a painless and easily understandable manner.
I ask you: Who in American media has done more to help the average person make the transition into the digital age than Jim Coates? Sure, you've got Walt Mossberg (another favorite of mine), and John Dvorak and Andy Ihnatko. But these guys, and guys like me, have never had the gentle and nurturing manner exhibited by Jim Coates.
With Jim retiring, who will fill this role? Who will help those intimidated by the technology that our society practically mandates we adopt? Who will be the gentle teacher to guide America's masses toward an acceptable level of comfort with the devices of their lives?
I sincerely hope that there's someone out there that is given that opportunity. I know from the sheer number of questions I answer for family, friends, and co-workers that this role MUST be filled.
Perhaps the Chicago Tribune has someone waiting in the wings. We can only hope. In the meantime, if you have an issue you need solved, feel free to ask me. I may not have an answer as readily as Dr. Jim, and my answer might not be quite as easy-to-follow, but I'll give it my best shot.
So congratulations Jim! Enjoy your retirement.
And from someone who's been a fan for a long time, and who is a better writer because of your example, I promise that the role you've played in bringing comfort to the millions you've helped, either by answering their questions or by providing sage advice to the rest of us, will not soon be forgotten.
Fair winds, brother!
Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.
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