Good ideas and horror stories


AN ENGLISH TEACHER for whom I have great respect once told me that a good writer starts a composition with one theme and sticks to it. The same English teacher also told me I should never start a sentence with a conjunction.

I never paid much attention to her second admonition. And when you have a lot of small items to report, it's hard to pay attention to the first. So, my apologies to her for this collection of odds and ends, entitled "Good Ideas and Horror Stories."

Good Idea: The Everex Evercom 24 Modem. I ran into this nifty little item when the local computer store ran out of the brand I usually buy when I set up systems for friends and colleagues.

Besides all the normal features of Hayes-compatible, 2400-baud modem, the Everex has a little button that turns the box into a speakerphone. Your software dials the number, and you can talk with your hands free.

It probably didn't cost much to add this feature, since a standard modem already has about 90 percent of what it takes to be a telephone. But it's a good idea, and it works very well.

The Everex has a sliding volume switch and a mute button, so that you can shut off your end of the conversation if you want to talk privately with someone else in the room.

The voice quality was reasonably good, as speakerphones go. I had no trouble hearing people on the other end and they had no problem hearing me, although all speakerphones give your voice a vague, talking-into-a-barrel ring.

Most personal information managers, mailing list programs, client trackers and similar programs come with built in dialing capability. Some word processors will even pick up a phone number from a document and dial it. So there's plenty of software to put this kind of gadget to use.

The modem is available for under $200 on the street. It's a bit more expensive than bargain basement 2400-baud modems, but the entire package reeks of quality. It even has a manual that makes sense. If the idea appeals to you, the Evercom 24 is probably worth the small premium.

Another good modem idea: "SendFax" modems that allow you to transmit any standard text file stored on your disk to a fax machine.

There are a half dozen manufacturers making these hybrids, some as cheap as $150. While you can't receive a fax with them, they can come in handy if you have to get a document to someone who has a fax but no computer.

It's quite possible to add a full-scale fax board to any computer for two-way transmission of facsimiles. But fax boards are expensive ($300 to $1,000) and tricky to use. If you do a lot of faxing, you're better off buying a regular fax machine. But if you only fax occasionally, the "SendFax" modem doesn't cost much more than a standard modem and does the job.

Horror stories: Full-service computer stores that don't deliver working systems.

When you order a computer built to your specifications, you should get a machine that works when you plug it in. But I've heard a lot of grim tales lately.

One store around town is in the habit of providing the wrong cables to hook the computer to a printer or modem. No harm done, but the guy who buys it spends three hours trying to figure out what he does wrong, then winds up making another cross-town trip to the store. Sometimes two trips if the clerks don't get it right the second time.

Another outfit, a chain that advertises itself as being "customer driven," specializes in IBM-compatible systems that have improper configuration information stored in their read-only memories.

A couple of novice users I know bought these systems and had no idea anything was wrong till they tried to format floppy disks. All they got were error messages. After a couple of hours of

frustration, they called me.

It turned out that the systems arriving from the factory were set up for 3 1/2 -inch floppy drives. But the buyers wanted 5 1/4 inch drives. The store installed the larger drives but never ran the setup program that told the computer it had different equipment installed.

I called the store manager, who was properly apologetic.

"We were really busy, and didn't have enough technicians to put all the machines together. So our salesmen had to build the systems. But we've got that straightened out now," he assured me.

Sure enough, the next system I saw from the store had the right floppy drive information.

But whoever put this one together had forgotten to tell the computer it had an extra 512K of memory installed. It wouldn't boot up, which anyone in the store would have noticed he bothered to turn it on before delivering it.

This is a company that sells almost a billion dollars worth of computer equipment each year. I wonder how many thousands xTC of hours their customers waste dealing with foul-ups like this. Or how long they'll be in business if they keep it up.

Corollary to the above: What's the difference between a computer salesman and a car salesman? A car salesman knows when he's lying.

Good idea: Teaching kids to use computers at an early age.

I'm not talking about "educational software," but about using programs such as simple word processors to do schoolwork.

My older son, who's in the sixth grade, recently had a major book report to do. He likes to read, but like most boys his age, he doesn't like to write longhand. In fact, he hates it. We've fought a lot of battles over it.

Wisely, he took this project to the computer and turned out a three-page report in remarkably short order. We went over it with him and pointed out the trouble spots. He called the report back up and made the changes. Then he went over that version and made more corrections.

If he'd been doing it longhand, there would have been three full rewrites and a half-dozen family fights. But with a word processor, he only had to fix what was wrong. Instead of concentrating on on a mechanical act he hates, he willingly spent his time making the report better.

Now he tells me his class is spending a couple of periods each week in the computer lab, learning how touch-type with a word processor. It's a good idea. Too good to leave until high school.

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