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Fast Forward's Rob Pegoraro
AOL Tech Support

Friday, February 25, 2000, at 1 p.m. EST

Is AOL making your life difficult? Again? Do you not feel like waiting on hold to talk to their tech support? Take your question to the Fast Forward staff instead! Rob Pegoraro takes your queries, scrambles madly to get answers to them from the collective Fast Forward brain trust and replies within mere minutes. Bring your questions to Friday's discussion, or submit them here ahead of time.

You can continue the discussion among yourselves on the new Fast Forward message board.



Rob Pegoraro: Man, is it nice outside! (Just got back from lunch.) What the heck are y'all doing in front of your computers, anyway?

No matter... our biweekly experiment in technical support (some would say it's more like group counseling) will not be interrupted by freakishly warm weather. So let's get to the questions...



Herndon, VA: I am a five year AOL subscriber. I'm noticing more and more than I'm getting bumped off-line while I'm in the middle of doing something. All of a sudden I'll hear "Goodbye!" What gives?

Rob Pegoraro: If you've been using the same modem and phone line all along, it's not your fault. (Even if you'd changed modems or phone numbers, it's still not your fault!) Sounds like AOL has changed something at its end and is now getting overloaded or jammed with line noise. This kind of thing does happen with all Internet providers.

So I'll give you the same advice that I've given to others in your situation: Ask AOL what's going on. Give them a chance to fix things. If they won't or can't, the next "Goodbye!" heard should be you moving to another provider.


Fairfax: Rob, what's the word on DSL in the area? Is AOL's offering any good - is it even for real yet? I hear awful things about Bell Atlantic and am about to sign up w- a CLEC - any advice there?

Thanks!

Rob Pegoraro: DSL, another popular three-letter word around here...

AOL's offering doesn't exist; don't wait for it. I have heard bad things about Bell Atlantic as well (there's a thread about their DSL in the dc.general newsgroup); you're wise to be looking at one of the competing provider. (CLEC = Competitive Local Exchange Carrier, somebody like Covad, Rhythms or Northpoint in the case of DSL.)

I haven't heard too many complaints about any of the CLECs. But you should also choose your ISP wisely--have a look at DSLReports.com before signing up with anybody. Good luck!


Gaithersburg MD: i say lots of very personal things in chat rooms and in private chats.I do so because i assume i have anonymity. Is this stuff achieved on hard disk at AOL? can it be subpoenaed in a private lawsuit? Does AOL ever disclose the real names of peoples screen names? I heard that an airline actually was able to obtain individuals personal computer in a lawsuit in a labor dispute & thats scary

Rob Pegoraro: I'm pretty sure the answers are yes, yes and yes. AOL, like any other Internet provider that doesn't specifically guarantee anonymity in legally binding language, has to give up its users identities on a court order. (Though IANAL = I Am Not A Lawyer... don't take this as gospel.)

If you want real anonymity online, you're going to have work to establish it. See www.epic.org for some background on privacy and anonymity issues.


Alexandria, VA: Hi Rob. A couple of weeks ago you advised me to run Disk First Aid to diagnose the problem with my Performa 631CD to find out why the computer wouldn't boot up from the hard drive. I did that and the message was something to the effect that problems were detected, but could not be repaired by First Aid because of an "invalid node structure" or some such thing. Is there a fix for this? If so, is complicated-expensive? Would my best bet be to call it a wash and just reinitialize the hard drive?

On another -happier- note I've got a new iMac DV. I'm interested in playing some PC games on it. Will Virtual PC allow me to do this on its own or will I need to install Virtual PC AND Windows to get those games up and running? What's your opinion on how well the latest version of Virtual PC works? Thanks for answering all my questions!

Rob Pegoraro: Hello again, Alexandria...

Bottom line: You're probably hosed. Have you tried one of the third-party disk-repair utilities? (TechTool, DiskWarrior, Norton Utilities.) If they can't fix it, yup, it's time to back up as much as possible and reformat the disk.

Re: Virtual PC on an iMac DV... Virtual PC includes a copy of Win 98, so you don't need any other software. But it's going to be too slow to run games. If you don't need to run any Windows business apps and are only looking to play games, I suggest you take the $100 you'd spend on VPC and get a PlayStation instead.



Sterling, VA: For the 2nd time, for no reason, when I've clicked on the AOL icon to sign on, I've gotten a message that I will need to reinstall the software. I reinstalled it the first time; however, the second time I said forget it -- removed 5.0 and am happy with 4.0 so far. What causes this?

Rob Pegoraro: The computer gods definitely have a sense of humor, that's for sure. It might be that some other program you installed after putting AOL on overwrote one of AOL's .dll files. AOL 5 does implant a *lot* of stuff on the hard drive, as John Breeden documents in his article in today's section. Also, do you have any third-party utilities running that might interact with installations--say, some particularly stringent virus checker?



Arlington, VA: Rob,

I've recently purchased a copy of Aladdin's new product, TweakDUN. It's supposed to speed up the download process of my home computer. -I use dial-up access.- I haven't installed it yet but wanted to get your opinion on the product, does it deliver?, do you recommend it?, etc.? Thanks for anything you can tell me about the product. -And thanks for doing this online chat...I've learned a lot thanks to you!-

Rob Pegoraro: Hey Arlington--thanks for the kind words.

We wrote about TweakDun and other related programs last summer; have a look at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/tech/ffwd/0899/feature20.htm (basically, they do work, although their interfaces could be less propellor-head-oriented).

BTW, my colleague Mike Musgrove (who should be doing actual work now, damnit!) notes that another option for playing non-Mac games on a Mac would be picking up a copy of Connectix's Virtual Game Station.



Mt. Vernon Square: Hi Rob. I finally got the Norton Works -whatever that is- to rid myself of a virus. It was a Stealth_Boot.B virus. It's now gone but my computer is slow to logon and won't really unless I work online.

It says that my "command.com" is missing. I don't have the Windows 95 CD to reload and I didn't copy any files onto a floppy before the virus scan. To make a long story short, where is "command.com?" FYI, I have the emergency disks 1, 2 and 3 - that's what I had to use because my CD wouldn't load the program. Thanks in advance.

Rob Pegoraro: Command.com is one of the legacies of DOS. From Microsoft's Knowledge Base:

"Command.com - Windows command line processor

This program is the Windows command line processor.

This file is necessary for the proper operation of Windows and should not be deleted."

Well, that's helpful! My guess is that the boot virus infected this file, so Norton AntiVirus deleted it? (Maybe..) You could try reinstalling just command.com, after copying it from a friend's computer with the same version of Win 95--but that might not do anything at all.

Or you could reinstall Win 95 in its entirety, once you get the CD back. Blech...



Springfield, VA: Rob,

Just an update on my 2 -old] Macs with the faulty floppy drives...cleaning the dust out didn't help, so I swapped in newer drives from an LCII and Quadra 650. They both work fine now.

Thanks,

Karl

Rob Pegoraro: Glad things worked out for you, Springfield. (See, sometimes I'm actually of some use in this chat :)


College Park: I use BA DSL and I find it works great. I'm happy with it. Took a week to connect to Account Server but since then...I'm pleased.

Rob Pegoraro: A favorable vote for Bell Atlantic's DSL...


Eldersburg, Maryland: In the last several weeks I have lost connection to AOL on at least 6 occasions -evening hours-. Last night it happened twice. Each time I lost connection in the middle of some activity. I was not being "timed-off" because of inactivity. Of course, when I talk to AOL they tell me it is probably a problem on my end. Any advice as to how I might correct this problem?

Rob Pegoraro: Sounds like AOL tech support is reading off of the usual script ("well, this works fine on my computer!"). That's not too helpful, is it? If you had changed modem drivers or something on your computer, that might explain things... but I tend to doubt that. Most people don't muck around with system drivers at all.

To reiterate my usual shibboleth: You do have a vote with your credit card; use it if you must. Don't do business with companies that let you down.



Baltimore, MD: I subscribe to AOL through a cable modem provider. AOL offered to "update my Internet Explorer and make it Y2K compliant." I did this and now the IE from AOL has taken over everything and I cannot use my shortcut to access the internet through the cable ISP. When I click on the shortcut, AOL comes up. I downloaded Internet Explorer again but the AOL version won. Is there any way to stop AOL from controlling all of my ISP connections? I have indicated under "preferences" that I did not want AOL to be my primary ISP.

Rob Pegoraro: We seem to be getting quite a few dissatisfied AOL folks here today, eh?

What's AOL telling you here? It sounds like you should look at uninstalling AOL, then reinstalling from a fresh copy--and, of course, clicking "No" on that "make us your default connection?" question.


Washington, DC: Rob, I recently had to reinstall Win98se on a four-month-old Dell after an installation of Windows 2000 didn't go so very well -ahem-. Now, after what appears to be a successful enough reinstall of Win98, the control panel only gives me the option of displaying in 16 colors or -2- colors -no joke!- Is there anything you can recommend I try doing other than trying another reinstall?? -Sorry this is a little off-topic...-

Rob Pegoraro: Sounds like the system is defaulting (emphasis on "fault") to the minimum, safe-mode video driver. Do you have an .inf file for your monitor? Try going to the PC manufacturer's Web site and looking for that. (I'm sure that will be fun in 16 colors...)


Philadelphia, PA: It takes forever to pull up other sites, and once there another "forever" to get around within the site, my question is: how do I know if it is my Microsoft Explorer or AOL that is the culprit?
Thank you.

Rob Pegoraro: Good question, Philly. If it only happens at one or two sites, it's likely to be an overloaded Web server. If it happens all the time, it's your provider's fault. Another option to consider is trashing cache in your browser (the cache is the browser's store of previously visited pages.) Deleting these temporary Internet files sometimes works in speeding up a browser, although I don't know why it should make much difference.


Reston,Va.: I am fed up with Aol. With increasing frequency, when I log on. I get messages: Carrier fails to respond, Seeking network attention- with no response-.
I am also tired of having to close small boxes each time."Buddy Chat" "Aol New Feature". How can I turn these off permanently?
In addition, you persist in asking "Do you want to stay online" right in the middle of when I'm actively using AOL. Isn't the answer obvious? If I didn't want to stay online, why am I still interacting with AOL.
Wake Up Aol!

Rob Pegoraro: Hey, Reston... you sound like you are stuck in an abusive relationship here. So I will give you the Carolyn Hax reply: If you don't like AOL, you should dump 'em. Don't give money to companies that make you unhappy. Simple as that. I think your question "why am I still interacting with AOL" touches on this point.

(This is not to slam AOL in particular. I've said the same thing to dissatisfied Erols, Prodigy, Bell Atlantic, etc. customers.)


Washington DC: The Win98 OS was removed during a format of the hard drive. How do I go about reinstalling it. A system disk was not made prior to the format.The CD-ROM driver is not available. It's a SONY PCV-E201. SONY's suggestions assumed that the OS was intact, their ideas didn't work.

Rob Pegoraro: Bad computer! Bad! Can't Sony send you some new system disks? Their PCs should come with a "system restore" CD-ROM that will put all the original drivers back in place--I know the Sony desktop I reviewed two years back included one of these.



the swamps of jersey: My girlfriends housemate has a new imac -obviously a computer newbie if dealing with one o' those- she loaded AOl 5.0 and after a month or so her computer kept crashing. She unistalled AOL and no uses access only through UMD-- computer still crashes. Anything suspicious I should look for in her systems folder -or wherever the kept the important stuff on a mac-?

Rob Pegoraro: Hey, Jersey. I haven't been super-impressed with AOL's Mac software; Mac customers seem to be a lower priority to the company, to judge from the release schedules of their Mac software (AOL 5.0 for Mac isn't out yet; your pal must have AOL 4.0). I also know their Mac software puts a ton of junk in the System Folder.

Try this: Open the Extensions Manager control panel, then scroll through the list of extensions (it's llooonnnggg) and look for things listed as having been installed by AOL. Uncheck them--that will place them in a disabled extensions folder.



Tysons Corner: Rob,

A couple of weeks ago, I was getting a bizarre "AOL is not accessible through this method" message when I would try to log on. It appears temporary - things are fine now. Any clues?

Rob Pegoraro: Tysons, were you trying to access AOL through another ISP or network connection? It might be that your office's sysadmin was not allowing connections to AOL through the office firewall, then reconfigured things to make that possible.


Gaithersburg, MD: Rob, thanks for this site, its great. What utility software do you recommend for keeping Windows 98 running at its best? I run defrag and scandisk regularly, and also empty the temp files. I have read that Cleansweep or something like it will get rid of all the garbage files that build up over time but does that really improve performance? I have no shortage of disk space. Also what do you recommend for keeping memory at optimal performance. thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: Sounds like you're doing your household chores on schedule, Gaithersburg. The other thing to look at, as you note, is monitoring the buildup of .dll files in the windows directory. We had an article on that a while back:

"The best solution is a third-party program that automatically checks and edits--make that, decontaminates--the system registry. Two popular options are Symantec's Norton Utilities 2000 (Win 95-98, $50; http://www.symantec.com) and Mijenix's Fix-It Utilities (Win 95-98, $50; http://www.mijenix.com). Of the two, I prefer Fix-It for its ease of use."


tina- falls church: FYI- falls church is sponsoring no. va. first pilot program to recycle computers. It will be mar 25+26.No monitors accepted. Info: 248-5176.This is a possible answer to the " where do I bring my old dinosaur" question.

Rob Pegoraro: Tina - thanks for the tip. Is there a Web site for more info? Also, if you e-mail the what, where, when info to ffwd@washpost.com, we can put a note about this in our e-vents listing for that week.



California, MD: What's the scoop on the new Orb removable drives that hold 2.2 megs on a $40 cartridge. I've had bad experiences with unreliable Jazz drives; are these any better?

Rob Pegoraro: Veteran FFWD contributor Daniel Greenberg has been checking out Castlewood's Orb drives for a while. He says:

If by better you mean faster, greater capacity, more durable cartridges and more reliable all-around performance, Id say yes, Orb is better. Of my first dozen Jaz carts, Ive had to send back about half. Orb is much newer, and I only have a few carts, but so far, none have had to go back.



Broken Windows in Maryland: Rob, I have one of those persnickity Windows 98 problems that is more irritating than anything else. When I go to shutdown, everything goes fine until the very end, when the screen goes black, except for thousands of white dots in perfect rows all over the screen, with a locked up blinking cursor. From here I have to power off. When I boot up again, nothing seems offkey, but it happens everytime I shutdown. Can you help?
BTW, I can't associate it with any recent software or hardware change.

Rob Pegoraro: I think this is why there's so much money in Windows consulting, Maryland... have you looked at the programs running in background mode? I.e., before you shut down the PC, hit Ctrl-Alt-Del to bring up the task manager. See what else is running there, and also have a look at how many icons show up in the "tray"--the right end of the taskbar. Try shutting off as much of this stuff as possible before you shut down the machine. It's a big game of trial-and-error.


Tina - Falls Church: I have had erols for two years and have pretty good luck w- tech support providing 1- choose the time of the call wisely, if possible use off peak times and 2- make them stay on the line to be sure the advice works. They are anxious to get to the next person and have left me to dial and wait on hold again to tell them the first suggestion did not work. I always have a crossword puzzle at hand to keep my sanity while on hold.

Rob Pegoraro: A vote for Erols tech support. Thanks for the crossword-puzzle advice (and for the computer-recycling pointer).



Baltimore, MD: Are there any file or exe program names that I could search my hard drive for to determine if my internet usage is being monitored via some sort of software or tool?

Thanks

Rob Pegoraro: Not really; the point of Trojan-horse programs is to look like some other, perfectly innocuous, app. Use Ctrl-Alt-Del to see what programs are running. More important, don't open attached files that show up in your e-mail that have an .exe extension, and make sure your virus scanner is also set to scan incoming files. You should also visit the Shields Up! site: http://www.grc.com.


California, MD: I've got an Imac DV, and I need to get a USB hub, but
don't know if I need a powered or un-powered model.
What's the dea

Rob Pegoraro: Hiya - the difference is that a powered USB hub will provide electricity to USB devices plugged into it, and should come with its own power cord in addition to its USB connection back to your PC. You don't need a powered hub if all the devices you're connecting to the hub already have their own power supplies (say, printers, Zip drives or CD burners) or don't use power at all (digital camera connections, a Handspring Visor).


Washington, DC: You know, it seems the vast majority of complaints about America Onine have to do with subscribers getting too much spam. -And that's one reason I've avoided using it, myself.- I always thought that AOL would eventually throw some money at the problem and make it go away, but its been years -and years-. Are they not capable or do they not care about fixing this? is the question, I guess.

Rob Pegoraro: Spam on AOL isn't inevitable, actually. A few years ago, I conducted a small experiment with some unused screen names: I created a Member Profile for one but not the other two. I left the accounts dormant otherwise--never went into a chat room and never sent any e-mail from them. Almost immediately, the screen name with the Member Profile was deluged with spam, but the other ones had pristine inboxes.


Arlington, Massachusetts: I've downloaded AOL 5.0. It initializes O.K. It starts to load and shortly a WAOL "Illegal operation" box appears.
Details: WAOL caused an invalid page fault in module KERNEL32, DLL at 014F:bff78598

What to do?

Rob Pegoraro: I'd say "eject!", Arlington. You could try removing, then reinstalling AOL and see if that fixes things (hmm, I seem to give this "unistall, then reinstall" advice a *lot* here). The error message is, if I'm grokking it correctly, saying that AOL is stomping on an area of memory reserved for Windows. That's Not Good. You should also see what other junk is running in background mode (another piece of advice I keep repeating).

This stuff just is too buggy and too complicated. Who do these companies think we are? I mean, we've all got lives outside of tweaking with Windows, right?


DC: What has been your experience with buying stuff advertised in the AOL marketplace?

Rob Pegoraro: None. However, I would expect that AOL--since it's basically putting an informal stamp of approval by putting its name on that area. As with all online shopping, make sure you can trust your credit card company to go after any bad guys for you.


Rob Pegoraro: I'm getting the hook here, but Daniel Greenberg--who definitely has too much time on his hands!--has sent in a few other suggestions for some of y'all:

For the guy who needs privacy in Gaithersburg: As you search for ways to chat and surf privately, I suggest you be careful using Websites that offer private Net use. They make you anonymous, but there can still be a record of your activities at the actual Website that provides the "anonymizing."

Mt. Vernon Square: If you have been considering an upgrade to Win 98, it may actually upgrade you out of this problem. It will reinstall a lot of key files, and could fix the whole problem and give you a more stable system to boot.

Baltimore- (AOL took over his Explorer icon) You might simply try making a new shortcut to Explorer. Place it on the desktop and see if it works.

I think he wants to steal this gig from me! Anyway, I'm outta time for today, but, as ever, stop by our message boards to continue the discussion, or you can e-mail me at rob@twp.com.

Thanks for some great questions! Enjoy the weekend.

- R




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