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June 15, 2009

What's missing: how things work

We’ve done a lot of really cool stuff on the Internet in the last dozen years or so. Here’s something we haven’t done: explain how it all works in a way non-technical people can understand.

Don’t tell me there’s an Internet For Dummies book out there, because I’m sure there is. That’s not the point. That sort of book tells you how to double-click on the Internet Explorer icon, and how to tell the difference between an email address and a web address. Maybe it explains how to dissect a web address into a protocol, hostname and path, but I doubt it. That’s all fine as far as it goes (except for the Internet Explorer part) but there’s important information people need when things go wrong, and they’re never told they need to know these things, or how to learn them.

Here’s a good example: Most relatively competent people understand what domain names are. I wonder what percentage understand IP addressing? I don’t mean understanding the various ways of carving up address space, like class blocks and CIDR, or even the concept of localhost (there’s no place like and unroutable addresses (, anyone?) but just the bare fact of the numeric addresses under domains, and how they’re mapped to each other. And when I’m talking about understanding DNS, I don’t mean recursive queries, I just mean something as simple as “you send a request to this server asking for the numeric address of www.example.com, and it answers with the correct address.”

The fifteen minutes it might take to understand that concept might save five hours (or five days) troubleshooting a connectivity problem.

I’m thinking about this because tonight I fixed an email problem for a local couple who will remain nameless here because it’s not their fault. They could receive new email, and read it, but they couldn’t send any. Was this a virus?

Nope. It was their helpful ISP blocking port 25, the universal “I’m sending email” port, in an anti-spam measure which, while possibly effective, neatly shifts the burden of unsolicited bulk email off the sender and on to the confused customers of a big, faceless telco. Because seriously, what’s a port? And where were they supposed to have learned that?

There’s a generation of us out here who open up our car hoods and are completely mystified, because they work so well we never need to know the difference between a loose belt and a busted alternator. There’s also a generation who knew how to check their own oil and could diagnose engine problems by listening to them. (“Sounds pretty rough; have you looked at the timing belt recently?”) On the internet we seem to have skipped directly from the user class who wrote their own network drivers to the ones who don’t know ports from IP numbers, but we haven’t yet reached the stability that second group really needs.

While we’re working on the stability, how do we teach them the troubleshooting?

Posted by pjm at 8:34 PM | Comments (1)

June 8, 2009

A very little cash for a laptop

We replaced A’s laptop last fall, and when, this spring, she gave me the OK to dispose of the old one, I went looking for a route which would not lead to a landfill.

What I eventually found was CashForLaptops.com, which has an attractive model: you tell them what the machine is and what its condition is, they give you a quote and then send you the packaging (and a postage-paid UPS label) and you ship it back to them. They then cut you a check based on what they received.

This last stage is the part I wasn’t impressed with. The quote I was given for A’s laptop, a 4-year-old Dell with visible wear on the case and a bad monitor connection (an external monitor was needed to use it) was $55. The check we eventually received was $5.

My brother had slightly better luck, trading in my 2001-vintage G3 iBook with a busted hinge for $25 (original quote: $65).

I think the problem here is that the up-front questionnaire used to generate the quotes does not ask enough questions, or the right questions. It doesn’t ask how old the machine is, if the case shows wear, or the condition of several components, all things which are eventually used to set the final price. There is a check box for damaged LCD, which I checked, but nothing for estimating the condition of the case, for example.

To be fair, I might have had a more realistic quote had I called the listed toll-free number and questioned the original quote directly rather than simply sending in the machine and waiting for the quoted check. I haven’t seen much online feedback for the site; all the articles I can find read like they were paid for by the site owners (and some of them read like practice essays for a writing test).

In the final analysis, however, the laptop is not in a landfill (or at least most of it isn’t, I assume) and we didn’t have to pay to dispose of it, so I’m marking cashforlaptops.com as a net win.

Posted by pjm at 8:36 AM | Comments (0)

June 7, 2009


The most exciting things happening at work (aside from that there are three of us now) are clients we don’t actually have yet, so I can’t talk about them. (You’ve heard of them. Unlike our biggest client to date, which is huge in Europe but most Americans I’ve mentioned them to shrug and ask, “Who?”)

I’ve posted most of my recent writing projects on my running blog. I have an interesting one due for release soon in a not-exactly-running periodical, which I will probably mention when it goes out.

Step trash can with retro-fitted handleSo I wind up writing about how I multi-task on my walk back and forth to work (NPR podcasts, charging the wind-up flashlights) and the odd photo which went through my Flickr stream recently. That would be how I avoided throwing out a step-to-open metal trash can (used for Izzy’s scooped litter) when the lid hinge broke.

I dug in to my toolbox to find a handle from a previous Ikea project (three drawers and handles which came two to a packet, I think). I used an eight-penny nail to whack holes in the can lid, and screwed on the handle. Now the can works again (A says better than before) and the handle is a lot more solidly built than whatever flimsy plastic bit broke in the hinge. Built to throw away, indeed.

Posted by pjm at 6:07 PM | Comments (0)