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A Tale of Two Notebooks

Stuart Woodward

Lying here, in bed, in hospital recovering from a broken hip, I thought it would be a good idea to tell you about some of the things I have learnt over the last couple of months, computer related or otherwise.

The first thing I would recommend is to be prepared for disaster. Those of us who have been communicating electronically for several years now (gee... almost a decade) may find it very inconvenient to go without e-mail for an extended amount of time. In fact, those people who I am closest too, regardless of which continent they live on, are all able to be contacted via a quick e-mail. There are actually several friends I am touch with electronially whose real address or telephone number I may not even have!

So, most important of all, I would say to keep your address book up to date and keep a current copy on your PDA or print it out in a 6-point font and keep it in your wallet.

Secondly, if you live on e-mail and suddenly find yourself away from your monster machine at home, what will you do? I was lucky enough to have an almost complete setup on my Notebook at work, so as soon as I was wheelchair mobile a colleague brought it to the hospital and got me online again. It is really worthwhile being able to get hold of a Notebook computer at short notice.

When I got my Notebook, things didn't go smoothly. Firstly, by sheer bad timing, the BBS moved from under my feet and I couldn't connect. There's no solution to this type of misfortune but to get on the phone to someone. I didn't think of calling the hotline which would have given me the new numbers or at least allowed me to contact someone who knew.

Also, since I usually connect to the Internet from work via a network based connection, my machine wasn't quite set up correctly for accessing Internet via my ISP, GOL. A quick call to them reminded me of the local access number and I thought I was all set.

My first reaction, when I knew I would be in hospital for sometime was to give GOL a call and get them to unsubscribe me from some high volume mailing lists that I was reading. This they did and I even got a visit from Roger Boisvert the next day as he was in the area and having been in a similar situation a year ago, in bed, immobile in a Japanese hospital, was sympathetic to my plight. Unfortunately, I couldn't remember the full details of the mailing lists, so this plan didn't work out as well as I had hoped. My fault entirely, so next tip. Everytime you subscribe to some mailing list, make a note - and not just on your home machine - of how to get off or to contact the administrator. Within days, my e-mail limit had almost maxed out the 4MB limit mainly because I was regularly receiving 300K listings of British computer jobs that I recently haven't even been reading. A good tip for anyone is also: don't subscribe to information you don't need.

Once I got back online again, I immediately tried to fix my e-mail and download the messages waiting for me. I was thwarted again and realized that my work Internet setup and the dailup setup were different and I would need to enter an address for the DNS server that is not needed in my work setup which gets its address automagically. The big clue is when your favourite programs such as Netscape refuse to connect to ALL of your favourite sites and if Yahoo, Netscape, IBM and Microsoft all seem to be down, then it's probably your problem and I bet it's your DNS setup.

DNS (Domain Name System ???) is the Internet's underlying "telephone book". DNS servers simply return to their users a computer-friendly numeric address corresponding to a user-friendly domain name. In the early stone age Internet, machines connected to the Internet had to keep their own lists of names and numbers, but rapidly this became cumbersome and some wizard found a way of automating the whole process. Voila, DNS! You can see a fossil remnant of this old method in your own Windows directory (ouch! the nurse is taking my blood as I now type one fingered...) in the hosts.sam file (you will need to rename it "hosts" to use it). Knowing about this file can save the day under some problematic circumstances, but I digress.

So with another call, I got the IP address of the GOL DNS servers and was able to connect successfully again. So, on to the next hurdle. I don't know why, but it seemed like, if your mailbox is at a maximum, the whole system grinds to a slow speed. I found that my mail program (Agent) was timing out and giving up, so I had to find a way around this. I did this by going to the start button and under Run... typing "telnet". This allowed me to log on to their Unix machine and read my mail with the Unix based Pine mailreader directly on the server.

I quickly found the mega-mails, several 300K monsters, and deleted them. Then, I quit Pine, you can't mess with two mail readers at once, and restarted Agent. As if by magic, it kicked in and started downloading the 300+ mails I had waiting.

If I had prepared, I could have given an Internet-aware friend a list on day one and had all these mails stopped immediately, leaving me with a quick first time connection. You may have a similar problem the night before you go on your holiday, if you don't have a note of how to unsubscribe yourself from the info torrent.

Among the 300 mails were some gems. I got a mail from a cousin of mine, who may be in Australia or Scotland, who had got married and thus changed names. We haven't spoken for possibly 10 years or more! She picked up my e-mail address via my uncle as I had sent it out on all my New Year cards. Even when sending a snail mail to offline friends, include your e-mail address as the world is getting online rapidly even some of the most unlikely people. I recently helped a friend in his 60's to set up his Mac - which I knew nothing at all about before I did it. He rapidly became a net-junkie. He knew he wanted e-mail, but I threw in the Web as well. After 30 seconds of browsing, he caught on that this was something amazing and now logs on everyday. He also now produces a paper based newsletter for his friends, keeping them up to date with interesting stuff sucked off the web! He has also bought a Casio Cassiopeia, the new Windows CE handheld machine so that he can use e-mail while on holiday!

I was lucky, I was already set up with all the right equipment, cables and internal PCMCIA modem so getting a machine was no problem. On my floor in the hospital there was one of the new "ISDN" public phones. If you have never used one for getting online, it is quite simple. Firstly get everything ready to dial. I usually prepare the machine at my bedside and then send it to sleep using the "Suspend" option. When you get to the phone open the little cover at the bottom and insert your modem cable into the analog jack if you have an ordinary modem. Next, wake up your machine and press the "Switch" button at the bottom. You must now insert the telephone card and your machine is ready to tone-dial directly. If you have an ISDN terminal adapter just plug into the ISDN socket and you are away. I was amazed at how easy ISDN was to use, don't let the four letter acronyms scare you away.

When your machine hangs up the connection, the phone card will be ejected. Initially, being in a wheel chair was a great advantage I could sit down next to the phone and use my lap as a support for my machine. Also note that with the new phones you can insert two telephone cards at once to avoid the panic when your card runs out of units in the middle of a call.

After getting online, I started to have problems. The connection became very slow and I suspected there may have been a hardware problem as the modem was acting strangely with both Lotus Notes and HyperTerminal.

I gave a quick explanation to my wife and a shiny new TDK PCMCIA 33.6K modem card appeared on the next visit. PCMCIA installation was over in 30 seconds. I must say that I love the way that Windows 95 knows exactly what PCMCIA card you have inserted in the slot and asks you for the maker's disk automatically if it is being used for the first time.

The new modem did clear up a problem that I had been having when logging on via PPP's mini terminal window, but did not significantly change the speed problem. I then started to suspect that the phone connection was bad.

Enter Ken. Ken moved into the neighbouring bed to mine and is not only a programmer, but an Internet user equipped with two Notebooks, CD-ROM and digital camera. I told him about my woes and he tried to log on with his machine which was soon up and running. Drat. I felt I could live with a bad connection, but if the line was OK it was probably my machine that was bad.

The most fundamental difference between his setup and mine was that my Windows 95 was a very old version installed over some beta versions. It worked (famous last words!) so I never fully updated it with the recent service packs. So I decided then that it was time to try with NT 4.0 which I had on my spare removable hard disk. I managed to connect and NT's basic e-mail software in Exchange kicked in and started to download the headers of the mail. On one failed attempt, NT gave me a very specific error message about exactly what went wrong. Windows 95 tends to give messages more in the line of "Sorry, no good", but NT is much better in this respect. NT proceeded to download the headers, then KAPOW! The blue screen of death appeared - NT 4.0 had crashed on me! Unbelievable. This happened once again when trying to change some properties in Internet Explorer 2.0. Hmmm. If NT crashes immediately suspect your hardware. NT shouldn't crash.

Next, Ken had the bright idea of installing e-mail software on my other hard disk which had a more recent copy of Windows 95. After 30 minutes of trying we gave up as my setup didn't have the dial up networking software installed or the cable connectivity software installed. He had Windows 95 on a CD on his machine and I tried everything even trying to make install disks, but it seems you can't make a disk one easily by hand! This is probably purposefully so. We never did work out how to get the direct cable connection to work between two machines. Is anyone using this successfully?

So, seeing that we weren't going to be able to install via cables I decided to make a quick call to work and ask to borrow a PCMCIA SCSI card and a CD-ROM drive. My colleague John brought this on the National Holiday and we proceeded to reinstall Windows 95 in case that was the problem. This went fine until we got to the dialog box that asked for the product number. The CD-ROM was already in the drive and the box which had the product number sticker on was sitting on the desk at work. No, worries though, I only really wanted to reinstall the PPP support files and I knew you could do that without needing a full install by uninstalling and then reinstalling the dialup networking software.

Once the new software was in, it was back to the public phone. I tried to download again and managed to get some new messages albeit at a slow rate. Since it was almost time to eat, I had to give up on mail and decided to make another run for it in the morning. I noticed that it said I had 94 new messages, I managed to get about 15 downloaded before having to quit as I wasn't able to delete the monster mails beforehand.

The next morning after the 6:30 a.m. questions about how you feel and how your bowels are doing, I went to the phone and logged on again. I decided to delete the monsters first using the UNIX mail system and then download the 80 or so remaining messages. The first thing I noticed when using Pine was that it was very slow and also that I had 485 messages on the server! Things didn't go very well and after losing the connection with Telnet and timing out with Agent I was beginning to get a bit desperate. For no sane reason at all, I decided to try and use Netscape's mail client to read my mail, even though it would result into a mass of uncategorized mail if it worked. And whadyaknow? It worked. After a ponderous start Netscape started chugging along and mail 1 of 485 started to be downloaded. After mail 20 or so, I started to notice something which caused bells to ring in my head. "Hey, that mail looks familiar, and that one, and that one, AND that one!".

At first I cursed the Internet gods, daemons and wizards for sending me all my mail again and then I checked the settings I had used for Agent and kicked myself. The setup I was using, was originally my work setup, so I had set it NOT to delete mail from the Server after downloading, I had wanted to keep another copy of the mail at home in case anything important came.

The unreasonable delays now had a partial answer. There were in fact still over 400 mails on the server and everytime I logged on, Agent had to slog through all of them all to determine which were new. It never told me of the enormous efforts it was making on my behalf. The timeouts may not be related but Agent was indeed going through a great deal of work and many more server communications than were necessary to get the new mail. Later I found that I had also set my friends Mac up to do the same and he had 500 mails on the server; every e-mail he had every received!

Also during the downloading, I saw an amazing happening. Before my eyes, the ISDN phone rebooted! I panicked and restarted the connection, which may not have been necessary as I think the actual phone connection will work if the power is not present. A very strange event indeed and something which didn't inspire confidence in the phone at all!

I left Netscape running for a while to clean up my mailbox and sent a message to GOL support to delete all the e-mails up until the end of January that I know I have already downloaded and any huge 300K+ monster mails.

While looking in Ken's Japanese ASCII magazine, the new Toshiba Libretto caught my eye. It is a very small, lightweight Windows 95 subnotebook, only 850g and is pretty fast powered by a Pentium. The specifications make it an ideal e-mail machine that will probably be fast enough to last a couple of years. After looking at the catalogue and deliberating for a couple of days, I decided what the heck and asked my wife to buy one.

So, the next day she came with YANT (Yet Another New Toy) on which she had kindly done the initial setup and installed Windows 95 for me. I left it charging overnight and the next day, at 6:30 a.m. bounced out of bed and successfully downloaded the 180 e-mails that were waiting.

Among the mails I found a message from GOL's support who commendably wanted a telephone confirmation before doing drastic surgery on my e-mail box. They did delete the monster mails for me and now, online again, I was able to unsubscribe from the service that was sending them. I also found a new mail from a University friend who found me with an Internet search. We had not been in contact for eight years!

My conclusions on the other machine is that the PCMCIA port is bad or has become bad. In the summer I was having problems with using the modem overseas and I blamed it on the international telephone lines.

  • NT crashing also makes me suspect that the hardware is strange or is doing something strange.
  • The fact that both Windows 95 and NT have modem problems rules out the PCMCIA driver setup being bad - I think they are independently written.
  • Both modems being bad rules out the modem being the cause of the fault.
  • Lotus Notes reports "too many port errors", HyperTerminal shows line noise on an error free connection and TCP/IP running unbelievably slowly eliminates the software being a problem.

So, a final tip, if you have a notebook and you don't currently use it for your e-mail machine. Set it up and keep it ready for use as an emergency e-mail machine. Make sure that it actually works when it is outside of your normal familiar surroundings and you will be in touch as if nothing had ever happened.

© Algorithmica Japonica Copyright Notice: Copyright of material rests with the individual author. Articles may be reprinted by other user groups if the author and original publication are credited. Any other reproduction or use of material herein is prohibited without prior written permission from TPC. The mention of names of products without indication of Trademark or Registered Trademark status in no way implies that these products are not so protected by law.

Algorithmica Japonica

April, 1997

The Newsletter of the Tokyo PC Users Group

Submissions : Editor

Tokyo PC Users Group, Post Office Box 103, Shibuya-Ku, Tokyo 150-8691, JAPAN