Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Sniffing Out Computer Trouble:

I've worked with computers for forty-seven years. I'm a software person, a programmer. I've learned an awful lot about hardware, operating systems, the Internet, and major software applications, but I'm not an expert on any of these. Whenever there's something seriously wrong with my computer, I'm likely to throw myself on the mercy of gurus, or make desperate calls to my vendor's technical support people. But – you know – working a lot with computers, you develop a sensitivity to problems and their causes. Take this morning, for example:

I woke up to find that my laptop could not access any web sites. When that happens, I open a DOS box and try to “ping” Yahoo. If the ping fails, I restart my DSL modem and my Router. But today, “ping” worked fine. That meant I could access both a DNS computer and Yahoo itself. (The job of DNS computers is to remember the “hard address” of named computers. When I try to ping Yahoo, a DNS computer tells the ping program to talk to [].) And yet, Firefox could not find Yahoo. What was going on?

We've had a bunch of forced upgrades from Microsoft lately. I became convinced that one of these upgrades had knocked me off the net. This was the “sensitivity” step. I had no solid evidence, but I was sure I was right. Now I asked myself: what if I'm right? The whole nternet is abuzz with this disastrous security update, and they're talking about how to fix it. But I have to get on the net to see that.

We have three Windows computers. (Pause here for sympathy.) I rushed to the second one, and it had just rebooted from a MSC upgrade. It had the same problem. I tried the third. Miraculously, it was able to access the Internet. Now at this point I remembered another part of the puzzle: Right now, the Intenet is experiencing an amazing upgrade that coordinates changes by 81 companies, to fix a security problem in the way that DNS name servers work. I felt I was in a hurry. Microsoft could push its fix on this third computer and knock it off the net at any moment. So I went to Google News and searched for “DNS patch.”

And I found my problem, but with all my “experience” I was still lucky. A little item in Google news stated that Microsoft's DNS patch had knocked users of ZoneAlarm Anti-virus (that's me) off the Internet. ZoneAlarm recommended uninstalling a particular Microsoft patch for now, and that's how I've gotten my laptop back on the Internet. I was lucky to find this out. I think that ZoneAlarm ought to post this problem on their front page, but instead they are discussing it in a forum that I might never have noticed.

How do 'ordinary' users survive problems like this? Maybe ordinary users don't use ZoneAlarm ...
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