Digital Life

End of an era for our technology whizz

After almost 15 years, 747 columns,  and about one million words worth of questions and answers, this will be the  final Silicon Kid column.

When I started writing this column in 1998  (when still at school in Year 9) computers  and the internet were much simpler – I recall answering questions about DOS 6.1.1, Windows 3.1, and Windows 95, followed shortly after by Windows 98 (which only came on to the market a few months before the column starting on September 1, 1998).

Expert: The "Silicon Kid" Matthew Purcell with Canberra Grammar School student George Rayns, 16.
Expert: The "Silicon Kid" Matthew Purcell with Canberra Grammar School student George Rayns, 16. 

These reasonably simple operating systems  lent themselves quite well towards a computer  question-and-answer style newspaper column,  so during the second half of 1998 I sent an  email to the editor of the Techno section of  The Canberra Times offering my services (and  intentionally omitting to mention my age).

After some emails back and forth, together  with some trial questions from staff at The  Canberra Times office, they decided to run  with the column, starting off as a fortnightly  fixture in Techno (which was a large lift-out  section of the paper at that time).

Matthew Purcell began writing the column as a 14 year old.
Matthew Purcell began writing the column as a 14 year old. 

The column got off to a bit of a slow  start, but after about six months it gained  traction and started to attract large numbers  of questions, and this popularity grew even  further over the 15 years – to give you an idea,  right now my inbox has more than 100 emails  with questions awaiting answers, which date  back to March 2010.

A lot of people ask whether I answer all  the questions, and up to a few years ago the  answer was yes – I usually tried to answer  the questions in a reasonably chronological  order. Unfortunately, over time the volume  of questions in the queue always grew, rather  than decreased, so to a degree in the later years  I needed to become a bit more selective and  pick questions which applied to the largest  number of potential readers.


This is also a good opportunity to answer  some of the more common questions people  ask me which relate to the column itself, rather  than computers.

Many people ask whether I receive repeat  questions. When the column first began  this was quite common, seemingly because  computers were much simpler, so frequently  people ran into the same issues. However,  in recent times this has changed due to the  unique configuration of most users’ computers  (which doesn’t lend itself towards the same  problems) together with the launch of the  Silicon Kid website which contains a searchable database  of all questions and answers.

Another question I get asked is if I receive  any strange or weird questions. You would  think that after 15 years of writing this  column, I would have some good stories to  tell, but the truth is I haven’t received any such  questions. Pretty much all the question which  have been sent to me are genuine technical  computer questions.

Probably the biggest question you may  ask is that since the column has been going  successfully for 15 years, why stop now?

While the questions I was being asked when  the column first began were reasonably  straight-forward and could be answered fairly  clearly in a question-answer format, it was  inevitable that over time computers were going  to get substantially more complex.

Examples most recently are operating  systems such as Windows 7 and Windows  8, which are far more complex than the  earlier versions such as Windows 95 and  98. This complexity is not necessarily a bad  thing, as usually when technology advances  and offers more comprehensive features, an  increase in complexity is a side-effect of this  advancement.

However, this has also made the job of  answering technical questions quite difficult  as it’s often no longer the case of changing  a setting to get things working, but instead  requires a large amount of research and  troubleshooting to determine the root causes  and suggest a solution, not to mention the  variances in different configurations which  computers are running.

Additionally, the advent of very good  internet search engines (combined with  huge amounts of information available on  the internet about most kinds of computer  problems) has somewhat made advice columns  a bit out-dated since much of the information  is available online.

So, now that the column is finishing you  may be wondering where you can go to get  advice about how to fix particular problems  on your computer. In short, the internet. This  also provides a good segue into discussing the  methodology which I use to provide advice on  the questions readers send to the column.

A lot of people asked whether I was the  person answering the questions or whether  I was a front for a group of people working  behind the scenes to provide the answers. I  can assure you I was the person writing all  the answers to the questions, but it would  be unrealistic to expect that I know all those  answers myself.

The key to providing the advice in the  column was doing comprehensive research on  each question using the internet. In most cases,  the problem which you experience has already  been experienced by many other people.  Therefore, a search of Google (for the error  message, a brief description of the problem  or such like) is likely to yield results from  various discussion forums, blogs and websites  providing advice on how to resolve the issue.  You will be amazed about what you can learn  (and fix) by searching the internet.

Regarding what’s next, for the past 15  years I have been providing advice to the  local Canberra community on how to fix their  computer problems. Now, somewhat going  full-circle, I am now a full-time teacher, back  at school teaching the next generation of tech  experts how to program and engineer computer  software.

Before finishing, I would like to say a big  thank you to The Canberra Times for providing  me with the opportunity to write this column.  In particular, a special thanks to Simon Grose  (the editor of Techno back in 1998) for his  support and taking the risk to employ a school  student all those years ago.

Additionally, I would also like to extend  a thank you to all my editors and sub-editors  across the years, particularly the editors  who have inherited the Techno supplement:  Bruce Brammall, Jeff Centenera and Liz  Bellamy.

Thanks also to those organisations who  have supported the column, including the ACT  PC Users Group (for providing past hosting of the Silicon Kid website, along with inviting me  to speak at their meetings) and the Australian  Computer Society and ACT Government (for  presenting me with the 2008 ACT Pearcey  Award in recognition of contributions towards  IT in the ACT).

Of course, I would also like to say an  enormous thank you to all my readers. It  seems that across the years the column has  attracted quite a following, and without you  submitting your questions this column would  not have been possible or nearly as interesting  for me to write.  Even though the column will no longer  be in the newspaper, you can still access an  archive of all the questions and answers at

Given that I have mentioned quite a bit  about the history and foundations of the  column, it seems fitting to sign-off with a  reprint the first column which was published  on September 1, 1998, (note, this is quite old –  so some of the advice may change if you asked  me again in 2013).

1. How reliable is the ACT power supply and  what is the best product to guard against  power surges to protect your PC?

It is normally stable but you should not use  any electronic equipment during a storm.  With all expensive electronic equipment I  recommend that you have a surge buster (or a  more expensive option is a mains filter which  filters and smooths out the power supply).  These are available at most computer and  electronic stores.

2. Why do you need to shut down Windows 95 and 98 on the task bar?

This shuts down all the system files and  the shell safely. The shell is the Windows  graphical interface, which you use your mouse  to navigate through. This is not the “guts”  of the computer though, it is just a friendly  interface that is easy to navigate, rather than  a prompt that requires you to enter complex  commands, therefore it is named a shell.  Shutting down Windows from the task bar will  therefore decrease the risk of damaging system  files on the computer.

3. Why is it difficult to load and escape DOS programs on Windows 95 and 98?

Your program may not be designed to run  under Windows 95 and 98. Some programs  require exclusive use of your computer’s  resources and while Windows is running it  does not have exclusive use. To get around  this, go to Start Menu > Shutdown and select  “Restart in MS-DOS mode”. Then you can run  your program from the MS-DOS prompt (to  restart Windows 95/98 just type “exit” and the  prompt).

4. I can’t work out how to delete out-dated documents from Word. How do I do it?

Open the Windows Explorer, then click  on the drive that you want to search for  the documents. Click on the tools menu.  Find “Files or folders”. When the Find  dialogue box is up in the named box put  “*.doc” (without the quotation marks) and  then click on the date tab. Click the “Find  all files” radio button and in the drop down  box next to it you can choose what you want  to search for (Modified, Created or Last  accessed). Click the “between” radio button  and enter the date range you want to search  for. Then click the “Find Now” button. To  delete the files just highlight them (click on  them once) and press “Delete” or drag them  to the Recycle Bin.