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A Bit of Free Advice

I am constantly being asked through e-mail or the odd phone call for advice on how to fix this or that problem with a reader's computer, or how to quash the latest computer virus or bug. So I am always happy to hear about a Web site to which I can refer people for free computer advice.

Over the weekend, a friend directed my attention to Protonic, a free technical-support site run completely by volunteers. Most of the volunteers are professionals who have day jobs and answer tech-support questions in the evenings. One of Protonic's experts, Michael Cohn, is a neuropsychologist who said he offers a few hours of his time each evening to Protonic because he enjoys solving problems.

"Instead of getting home and watching the tube, it's like solving a puzzle," he said. "Plus, you get to help people, and when you finally fix something for someone, most of the time they're incredibly grateful."

The site handles 20 to 50 new requests each day, but could easily handle more, Cohn said. Turnaround times range from a few minutes to a few weeks, depending on the complexity of the question and how responsive the questioner is to follow-up e-mails. That's because in roughly 90 percent of cases, the people asking for help haven't provided enough basic information about what type of computer or operating system they are using.

Questioners also can increase the likelihood that a volunteer will answer by giving their queries interesting subject lines, Cohn said. "A lot of these question titles are so alike, but if you give me an interesting or funny or descriptive title, it's going to get a lot of attention real quick."

Cohn said the site pays for itself through donations, but that questioners will never be asked for one. He added that the site also is always seeking new volunteers.

Incidentally, if your question is hardware- or software-specific, you might consider doing a Web search to see if the manufacturer has an online forum where users can help each other and sometimes even get their questions answered from support personnel at the company. With most user forums, however, anyone who reads your post can respond, and it is up to you to check back at the site periodically for answers. Also, do not be surprised if the first few replies are questions about your current hardware and software setup.

By Brian Krebs  |  August 4, 2005; 2:19 PM ET
Categories:  Safety Tips  
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from Washington Post if you want to keep it for reference.

Posted by: | August 5, 2005 11:37 PM | Report abuse

I have found a very useful general resource in this area is Eric Raymond's article: "How To Ask Questions The Smart Way" -- -- a good guide to not only phrasing the question, but parsing the answer, as well.

Posted by: Michael Rudas | August 6, 2005 5:21 PM | Report abuse

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