‘It is a dumb device that we have glorified and filled with complexity and fear.” With this initial description of the personal computer, Winston Maddox, computer science instructor at Mercer County Community College, sets his students at ease. The problem is that marketers and our own innate technological awe have petrified our curiosity and given us a skewed view of the now-ubiquitous putty-colored, gently-humming boxes.

To help replace fear of computers — and especially of their innards and their propensity to flash mysterious messages — with knowledge and confidence, Maddox leads “Introduction to PC Hardware and Software,” a 13-session course beginning on Monday, August 28, at 5:40 p.m. on Mercer’s West Windsor campus. Cost: $244.50. Call 609-570-3311.

Maddox’s course provides far more than finger-tapping familiarity with the computer.

During the first session students take a machine apart and analyze its guts. They later learn how to disassemble, reassemble, insert, and troubleshoot new elements. By course’s end, students can build a system, install software, and even design a simple network.

Maddox himself shifted his sails toward the technical when he felt the winds of change coming through his own corporation. Growing up in East Norwalk, Connecticut, in a not overly geeky household, he attended the University of Hartford, earning a liberal arts degree in l972. He then proceeded to Bowling Green State University, where he gained a master’s in higher education and administration. Upon graduation, Maddox became a manager, first for General Electric and then for Digital Inc.

About midway through his tenure with Digital, Maddox was offered a 12- month intensive computer training course to prepare him for a technical sales position. “Many of my fellow managers urged me to keep fast tracking in management,” he says, “but I could see that this tech stuff was sweeping around me everywhere.” So he studied the computer for a solid year, 40 hours a week, in addition to his full-time job and ended up with 10 very happy years in technical sales.

Probably one of the biggest misconceptions about the computer Maddox sees is the sense that the machines are delicate, short- lived complexities requiring replacement at least every two years. Part of this is a marketer’s ploy. Why limp along with the repaired and serviceable computer when you can shell out for the newer and glitzier model? But equally at fault is the zero-maintenance attitude we give our machines.

What this country needs is a computer that lasts as long as your auto. Even as long as your dad’s old auto. While computer owners moan about the expense of replacing computers, Maddox finds that few do any maintenance at all on their machines.

Upgrade versus buy a new computer. “If your car’s fuel pump breaks, you don’t buy a new auto,” says Maddox. But when the old computer begins to slow down a bit, too many of us head straight for the Circuit City showroom.

Before doing so, says Maddox, conduct a time-motion study on yourself and your computer use. Is it games, graphics, word processing, or storage that you seek? Evaluate the kinds of software that your system needs to accommodate these needs. While assembling these software requirements, try to find out if your system will be able to handle the newer versions, which will inevitably come out in the future. This takes a bit of prognostication, but often such expertise can be found in the local computer users’ group.

Frequently, it’s merely a matter of memory. New functions and old archives just add baggage and make your once-slick machine sluggish. The solution may be a memory card. Or you may want a new hard drive to handle the new functions. These can be added at minimal cost.

If a new computer really is the answer, Maddox suggests that students ask themselves which, among those on display, runs the programs they want, is it fast enough, and does it offfer all of the internal and external communication that they need.

Cleaning outside. Remember all that dust covering the old sock that you pulled out from the bed? Such is the monthly blanket that accrues on the modem and major electronic units placed under the desk, on the floor. This inhibits the fan’s cooling and may substantially slow the speed of the machine. Hitting all floor items weekly with one of those feathery, multicolored dusters will work wonders.

The monitor and keyboard only require such attention if they sit in a shop environment. In offices, Maddox says that monitors need attention. He suggests that moist, static-free wipes do a good job of keeping the monitor clean, and help eyes handle the strain of the magnetic screen.

Cleaning inside. Most of the computer’s speed-hindering baggage, however, occurs electronically — and within. In addition to dumping old files and E-mails periodically, Maddox suggests hitting the “empty cache” key regularly. This will not slow site-to-site connectivity and will speed up everything else. Also, most important and most ignored, click on your hard drive, go to the C-drive, and look for the list of all the cookies in your machine.

Certain cookies, for websites used constantly, may be worth saving. Others are necessary to the system and a warning comes up if you try to delete them. But all the rest can and should be deleted for the sake of your computer’s health.

Then look at your files. Do you really need the full text and notes of last year’s novel and the photos of the Altoona vacation right at your finger tips? By developing a dump-and-backup regimen, your computer is free to shuffle only through a short list of current files.

Put the older files on CDs or zip drives, label them, file them away, and watch how much faster your computer will run.

As a final maintenance caveat, Maddox advises that every PC be armed with a separately purchased spam filter, firewall, and virus software. Invariably, the ones that come with the machine are never quite adequate, and your information needs top protection. In selecting from the many available brands, make sure that the software is automatic, is constantly checking, and offers continual updates.

With Maddox’s computer manifesto, “you are in charge,” ringing in my ears, I turned from the interview and began tapping out this article. Midway through, PSE&G decided to cut my power and, upon its return, everything came back up except my computer. I jiggled all the plugs, tried other sockets — all the recommend steps. Finally, Jack at Creative Computing ordered me to lug it over to his shop on Nassau Street.

Huffing it up the stairs, I plunked it on Jack’s desk. He smiled sympathetically at me, plugged it in, and viola! It worked instantly. “It will be O.K. now,” he said. “Take it home.” I did as I was told, plugged her in and, true to prophecy, all was fine.

While Maddox doesn’t mention this in his course, it appears that some computers also need a little fresh air, a chance to sit among other friendly computers for a few moments, and the knowledge that they are not being taken for granted. I fulfilled its wishes and the article got finished. One of us is truly in charge, but I’m not so sure it is I.

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