Family tech support

Ross wrote the other day:

If you are reading this, you are probably an early adopter. So when the holidays come around you spend time with your family doing In-law IT.

Yes, and yes. None of my immediate family owns a Mac (Ross’s suggestion to make life easier for us tech supporters was to get everyone to buy a Mac), so I ended up working on my father-in-law’s laptop over the weekend. Since they live in Virginia, most tech support calls are of the “when I click on this it does that” variety, but actually getting the error to reproduce can be tricky. Many users don’t know where they clicked, or don’t recognize that hitting enter can dismiss a dialog box (“It just went away!”), so “fixing” things can be quite frustrating for both of us.

Solution? I installed a dynamic DNS client on his laptop, signed him up for and installed RealVNC on his laptop. Dynamic DNS gives his laptop an addressable “name” — so instead of needing to know his laptop’s IP address (go ahead and try to get your father-in-law to give you his IP address), I can just go to (no, I was tempted, but that’s not the name I used). The client app on his PC periodically logs its IP address with, so that always points to his laptop.

RealVNC is a remote desktop app that includes clients for all platforms. I installed the server on his machine and put an icon on his desktop to start and stop the server. Now, whenever he’s having problems, the first step is to start the VNC server; then I type in his address on my laptop, and within a few seconds I see his desktop. I’ll have complete control, so I can bounce around his laptop, check settings, diagnose problems directly — and he can watch the whole process, so he can learn what it is I’m looking for.

Also upgraded him from Firebird preview release to the full release and upgraded him to Thunderbird 1.0 for his e-mail. Ran into an interesting hiccup with Thunderbird’s address book: it choked on the lengthy text in the “notes” field of the csv file I exported from his old copy of Outlook contacts. Turns out Thunderbird’s text mapping for csv files isn’t so good… but it’s mapping of Outlook Express fields is great. So we had to do a two-step import: first from csv to Outlook Express address book, then from OE to Thunderbird. Bingo.

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