August 1996

O Brave New Net!

by Ellen Blais

First of all, let it be understood that I am not a Luddite in computer matters, although I've read perfectly principled arguments for that position. And I'm not a total neophyte, either, having entered the computer world via a Commodore PC and WordPerfect 4.2 in 1989. So when I say I'm having trouble communicating with my computer manufacturer (whom I shall call Gates Turner, Inc. to avoid libel suits) and my Internet access company (one of those local outfits where a few techies and a business type cobble together a "service" mainly from programs downloaded for free, whom I shall call SEPTIX to avoid, etc.) you know that the true new-to-the-cyberworld hopeful hasn't a chance.

My first mistake was allowing myself to be seduced beyond the word processing that is really the only serious thing I, a teacher and writer, need from computing. All the rest is bells and whistles. My Commodore wasn't finicky, it wasn't high-strung or temperamental. I used it for six years, and it probably would have gone on indefinitely. But last year at work we were upgraded, catapulted several light years ahead of where we had been with machines similar to my home Commodore. We got 486's, we got Windows 3.1, we went on the Net.

So, to maintain parity between my home and work computers, I replaced my Old Faithful Commodore with a Windows 3.1-based 486, and since it seemed impossible to find anything simpler, threw in a color monitor, CD-ROM, speakers, and a 14.4 fax modem. Now I know this machine was obsolete several months before I bought it at drastically reduced prices from a New York City computer super store, but it was certainly more than enough of a machine for one whose experience was limited to the Commodore with 256K, using basic DOS commands and no mouse.

About this time, SEPTIX started up in my area, so I told myself that if I needed the Net at school, I needed it at home too. I could research articles on the Web, I could scout out restaurants and movies in Ithaca, I could check the weather online, I could share information on the newsgroups... and I bought it. So that is how, barely literate in Windows procedures and still feeling all thumbs with the mouse, I signed up with SEPTIX and loaded the three diskettes they sent me, adding a window with entrancing icons for things like MIRC and WNVIN newsreader and Telnet. Immediately the trouble began.

When I clicked on SEPTIX's WINVIN newsreader icon, all I got were error messages, denials of entry, and "no server" admonitions. So I dialed SEPTIX's technical support staff. This was before I'd learned that technical support is a major oxymoron. A snotty supporter named Matty accused me of having faulty software in my new computer or having screwed up when I loaded SEPTIX's diskettes. This is when I learned the Problem is never with SEPTIX. But I was new at this, so I meekly agreed to delete the program and reinstall it.

The Problem was still there, so I went back to Matty, who was evidently the only techie available when I needed support. She was still convinced I hadn't done something right, but on the off chance that there was something wrong in the WINVN area, she condescended to help me FTP a new one in from the outer reaches of hyperspace. To that end, she rattled off a series of thirty or so commands for me to execute, taking me into software innards I'd never expected to see and areas of DOS my Commodore had spared me from entering. Matty was a fast talker, so at point twenty-six, "Click on the folder called MIR and double click pkz204g.exe," I was still scribbling down point twenty, "Go to the menu File and type c:mirc where the From field says"

I said, "Slow down. Where am I now? At the FTP window or the File Manager?"

Whereupon the supportive Matty sniffed, "Look, if you don't know basic Windows procedures, you can't expect me to help you."

And I, close to tears, said, "But all this is too complicated, it isn't clear." I don't get close to tears easily. The last technical problem that had so reduced me was rolling out my first pie crust about twenty-five years ago.

But Matty was pitiless. She said, "There is nothing wrong with my directions." I said, "I'm an English teacher. I know unclear directions when I hear them." She said, "I have a Masters in education. My directions are perfect."

I said, "Well, I have a Ph.D. in English, and I'm not that sure of my perfection. Yours is obviously the superior degree." And soon found myself speaking with a supervisor who informed me that if I didn't get it quick, I'd be charged 75 cents a minute for the "free" technical service.

To save emotional wear and tear, I began communicating with technical support via email and received their many-stepped clicking procedures in writing. After only a couple of weeks I had a functioning WINVN program and was posting on the newsgroups with the best of them.

But a Florida sabbatical took me temporarily away from SEPTIX, and when I recently reconnected, they had abandoned their old system for a Netscape-based system. After I had installed the new software, I couldn't make even the initial connection via the SEPTIX Dialer icon. This, of course, meant I couldn't email in my problem, so I put in a call to technical support.

I gave a sigh of relief when I didn't get Monstrous Matty, as I had begun to think of my erstwhile SEPTIX supporter. And a fit of civility seemed to have seized the SEPTIX technical staffers. This one was friendly, slow-spoken and in no hurry to diagnose the Problem. We waltzed around my file manager, SEPTIX's .exe and .ini files, and "Modem" under "Properties" in the Dialer window, lost in contemplation of ways to "get around the Problem." Which of course was my Problem (in running Setup in the first place) or Gates Turner's Problem (in providing me with an atypical modem initialization string: "Oh, God," moaned the techie, "they use a Rockwell-based modem. What you need is a Hayes Compatible"), but certainly not a Problem with the software SEPTIX provided. We proceeded to change various settings, mark and unmark various boxes, and had, we hoped, taken care of the Problem. The techie wished me luck.

Reading the fine print of my "Installation and Configuration Manual," I discovered SEPTIX had formalized the 75 cents a minute threat. They promised users one free hour to iron out setup problems with a techie, after which the meter started clicking. No wonder the techie had been so patient. He'd managed to use up 45 minutes of my free hour, yet another attempt to connect revealed we had not taken care of the Problem. Being charged 75 cents a minute does encourage self-help, so I reread the SEPTIX manual's section on "Troubleshooting." Here I found something like my Problem and more or less the solution the techie and I had spent forty minutes creeping up on. With an addendum. "If this doesn't work, make your changes, exit Windows, reboot the machine, and try again." Ever game, I tried, and, miraculously, this worked.

I thought the Problem had been taken care of until the next time I clicked on the SEPTIX dialer. After a series of alarming woofs, scritches, and glugs from the speakers, I was told, cryptically, "No Carrier." Again. So I plunged back into "Properties" and found the changes I'd made hadn't remained changed. Now the only way I could connect was by making all the changes, exiting everything, turning off the machine, and rebooting. I thought, "This can't be right. This is not what I'm paying $20.00 per month for. This is not why I have a hotshot machine with a 540K hard disk, 8mgs of RAM and `Intel inside.'"

So I went back into conference with yet another techie (I think they must hire them for the day from street corners), hoping we could fix this glitch in my 15 remaining free minutes. No such luck. The new techie said, "I don't know why he told you to do it that way. [I've noticed techies rarely agree with each other.] This is a Gates Turner problem. You must call Gates Turner and ask for your modem's initialization string. And you'll need three numbers from your machine. They would be on the Gates Turner "System Credentials" sheet. People never save those for some reason [implication, you users are so dumb], so you'll probably have to get them off the back of your machine."

I stifled the urge to tell techie two that I'd saved everything from my transaction with Gates Turner. Or ask why techie one spent forty minutes giving me the wrong advice. At 75 cents a minute one stifles a great deal of witty repartee with the techies.

Looking at my Gates Turner twelve-step setup sheet, I found an 800 number for hardware problems and an 801 number for software problems. Which was this? I decided software, noting with some bitterness that Gates Turner charges for diagnosing software problems, which must be, ipso facto, dumb user problems. Someone at the 801 number answered immediately. I'd had enough experience with computer support operations to know this was suspicious. "This," she said, " is a hardware problem, let me connect you with hardware support." Before I could point out that I was technically still on an 801 connection, and therefore paying for the call, I got a recorded message telling me I could expect a ten minute wait but my call would be taken in the order in which it had come. Some New Age musical pap ensued. Not so fast, I thought, and hung up to redial from the 800 number. I should have quit when I had a connection, any connection, because now the 800 number was busy. It continued to be busy whenever I dialed, and I tried several different times of the day, night, and wee hours of the morning.

So after my next SEPTIX connection maneuvers, I intrepidly clawed my way through various search engines to the Gates Turner homepage where I found a technical support email address. I wrote an abbreviated version of my sorry odyssey through SEPTIX's technical support, listed all the relevant numbers identifying my machine, and requested the initialization information SEPTIX said I needed. Then this helpful advice appeared in my mailbox:

"The initialization string is not a set thing. Initialization strings are groups of commands used to get the modem to react a certain way to certain things, depending on what you're trying to do. The most common would be: AT&F which sets the modem back to factory settings, using the most common standard setting for the modem to connect to other systems. Try that."

Well that was certainly specific enough. I had no trouble getting my modem to "react a certain way to certain things." They were just the wrong reactions to the wrong things. But not to worry. If this trenchant advice didn't solve the Problem, there was always Gates Turner's Premier Support, for which two numbers were provided: a 900 number for which I would be billed $2.00 per minute or an 800 number for which I would be billed a flat $29.00 per call. Because, after all, these services are "a kind of training." Do tell.

Ever game, I found my way to the SEPTIX Dialer's initialization string, found it consisted of AT&F plus a bunch of other things, simplified it, and tried to connect. There was the Problem, intransigent as ever. So I emailed Gates Turner's message to SEPTIX. Gates Turner professed not to be able to give me what SEPTIX insisted I needed to know. The ball was back in their court.

For a week, SEPTIX maintained a majestic silence on the whole subject of my Problem. And I scanned the attack newsgroup for suggestions about my latest interesting symptoms.

Then one day, I asked a hacker friend to just look at what I had to do to connect with SEPTIX. Like a car that refuses to make its persistent weird sound in the presence of a mechanic, my SEPTIX software refused to refuse to perform the connection. Instead, we connected just the way the "Installation and Configuration Manual" promised we should have, lo these many weeks ago.

"Well, that's SEPTIX for you," sneered the hacker, who had just described his own direct connection with the Net, made possible by his superior knowledge of Unix-based programs. "They probably screwed up something with the DNS numbers and now they've fixed it. But they'll never tell you that."

So now I'm more or less surfing and collecting email and posting on the newsgroups and gathering information for my writing. Of course, it's been weeks since I've actually written anything other than witty email essays to various technical support addresses. But now if I have any trouble with SEPTIX or the Net or Gates Turner's soft- or hardware, I just do what every secretary at work knows to do with a computer Problem: I turn it off, tap the top of the CPU three times, pirouette before the monitor, and turn it back on. Works every time.

Ellen Blais ( teaches writing and literature in the English Department at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pennsylvania. Having been dragged kicking and screaming into the computer age by a department decree seven years ago that all composition students must use computers for their writing, she is now hopelessly hooked and probably couldn't enter the classroom if her computer crashed.

Copyright © 1996 by Ellen Blais. All Rights Reserved.

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