The Frustrations of Computers

August 08, 2000

For some 17 years I have made my living working with computers. I have been writing software of one form or another for 23 years. While I am not holding myself out as a guru or expert I like to think that I know more than the average home computer user. What I want to know is what does the average Joe do when faced with the always cryptic messages and dialogs that appear when the denizens inside the computer decide not to get along.

Most people view their computer as "one" thing. Sure it has 4 physical parts (the keyboard, mouse, monitor, and CPU), but they all work together, so it's just "the computer." However, inside the computer are several different electronic parts containing a few hundred components, and running on this hardware is a vast collection of programs. Each program is its own universe of complexity. Just the operating system on most computers is a miracle of modern engineering. Millions of lines of code working in forced harmony with each other to provide you, the computer user, with an unparalleled experience playing Solitaire.

So when "it" breaks where do you start?

Recently I bought a network router for my home computer network. Basically this gizmo (a highly technical term meaning I know what it is but not well enough to explain it in English) allows all the PC's on your network to share one Internet connection. If you work on a PC in an office setting you are most likely using a router without even being aware of it. At home I have a nifty cable modem which allows hackers and other nefarious types 24-hour a day access to my valuable personal files (mostly my FreeCell scores). Prior to the router we had been using a software solution the required two network cards in one of the PC's. One to communicate with the Internet, and the other to communicate with the LAN. This solution worked, but it made the one PC very unstable. Frequent daily crashes were not uncommon, and to make matters worse it often took multiple re-boots to get the whole thing up and running again. A better solution had to be found. Enter the router.

(One of the joys of a dedicated, high-speed Internet connection is that it works both ways. You can send and receive data to the Internet, and the Internet can send and receive data from you. If you are worried about such matters, and I am, you install anti-virus software and things like firewalls to keep the Internet out unless you invite it in. In my case the combination of the firewall and the software that shared the connection was more than my elderly computer could handle.)

This router gizmo is in effect a computer. There is no interface other then the various ports where the network cables can be inserted. The idea is simple. You hook the Internet connection to the router and all the PCs to the router and magic happens. All the PC's on the network appear to have their very own connection to the Internet. No longer is the whole thing dependent upon one PC's shaky stability. And, as a bonus, the router acts as a firewall by hiding all the PC's on the local network from the Internet. (Who knew that as kids playing "hide-and-seek" we were really practicing for life on the Internet?)

The first step was to remove the extra network card and associated software from the shaky PC. Then make all the hardware and wire connections and hit the power switch. Almost immediately the connection is configured and we are on the Internet via the router. Excellent. Now on to the other PC on the network.

Make the connection between the other PC and the router using the brand-new cat-5 cable, turn on the PC and, no connection. Okay. Now what? Read the directions for the first time. I am, after all, a guy. We "know" how to do this stuff without the directions. It's just like hooking up the cable, TV, VCR and stereo. And that works just fine. Well, sort of fine. Okay, it works some of the time as long as you understand 45 buttons on three different remotes. But that is another article.

The PC booted just fine. No error messages, no cryptic messages, and no Internet access either. First I redid all the connections. If you do them harder the second (third, fourth?) time it'll work. Still no connection. Now, I know enough about networking and the arcane language of network addressing (TCP/IP) to be really dangerous. I was able to figure out that the network card in the second PC didn't have the right address. But for reasons I couldn't figure out it wouldn't take the right address even when I entered it. Oh, I could change it to anything I wanted it just wouldn't talk to the router. I even swapped cables to make sure that wasn't the problem.

Several hours passed. My simple little change that was going to improve our home connection to the Internet was just going to "take a few minutes, Honey." Ha! By now, of course, it is past the time that the "customer service" people go home. No matter when you finally throw in the towel and decide to call for help it is just past the quitting time of the person with the answer. But I called anyway because I love spending 10 minutes listening to various cryptic phone menu choices and canned elevator music. In the end I went to bed.

The very next day I started all over and got the same results. I repeated this a couple of time just to make sure the computer was playing a joke on me. My wife tells me that doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. Reminded of this fact, I decide to call the support people again. After 30 minutes on hold I get to leave my name and number for a callback within 2-4 hours. This never materialized. Support people get their jokes from the same place as the PC, apparently.

Finally, with the help of a friend who wasn't personally involved with my battle-to-the-death, we were able to sort it out. Turns out there were two problems. The cable was bad, but the network card was also setup incorrectly. With the card wrong I couldn't see any difference in the cable used. With the card right and the bad cable in place it looked (to me) like the card was wrong. Once the card was right, swapping the cable completed the connection. Now my wife can get all the spam she wants again.

The moral of the story is this; never buy a computer. Seriously, computers are a massively complex collection of hardware bits and software bytes. Getting so many different pieces from many different vendors and manufacturers to work at all is a minor miracle. Getting them to work long enough for you to play along with ABC's "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire" is a major miracle.

My advice is to cultivate a geeky friend who spends all of his or her time immersed in the depths of computers and the Internet. When your setup fails skip all the phone calls and troubleshooting and invite your personal geek over for Jolt-cola and pizza, and while they are there casually mention that your router gizmo isn't fram-a-staning with the network wonky-do and could they sacrifice a sheep for you to fix it?

Author's profile picture

Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.