All posts by Jerry Stern

Did you Break the Internet?



When it looks like the internet is dead, there are some basic troubleshooting steps you can take to see if you’ve really broken it. (And so far, the answer has been ‘no’.)

Reboot First. And Then Take a Step Back

I know that most of you live in Outlook. Or maybe QuickBooks. So separating the outside world (“internet”) from your computers and networks is, well, fuzzy. Badly defined. Vague-ish. But Outlook is a horrible test of whether or not the internet is up. Testing the internet with Outlook is like saying that if your car can’t move, Interstate 95 is a parking lot. It’s sometimes true, but not really useful for troubleshooting traffic.

So if Outlook stops working, first check if you can reach a popular web page, basically a site that never goes down. Open a browser and see if you can get to Amazon.com or CNN.com. 

No, not Google.com, because Google’s plain white website is so clean and empty that you can’t tell if you’re looking at Google, or at your computer’s memory of Google, what it calls the ‘cache’.  (More on error messages below.)

Is it Down, or Just You?

So if the web page works, and your mail does not, what does that mean? Well, it’s either Outlook (got a bad update, got a bad third-party add-in, got muddled), or your mail server, or the connection in-between. It’s too complex a topic to cover in detail here, but the quick check is to test the web page that matches your email address. If you can reach that, it’s probably an Outlook problem.

For example, if mail isn’t working, and your address is admin@yourdomain.com, check that the web page yourdomain.com is up and working. If it’s up, probably an Outlook issue. If it’s down, your next step is to see if the site is down for the rest of the world, or you have some local issue. You do that on this website:
https://DownForEveryoneOrJustMe.com/

It works just like it sounds. Enter a web page address, and it will tell you if it can see the page, or if it’s just you.

Big Site Down?

If you are trying to reach a popular site, and it looks down, you can test that, too. If Facebook goes down, or Verizon, AOL, Comcast, or a few hundred other popular sites, check it here:
https://DownDetector.com/

The pages are sorted on DownDetector by the number of people checking to see if a page is down, so the with the most reported errors are at the top. Use the search box to look for other sites. Click the site logo to see details; there is a complaint list, newest-first, and an outage map. Frequently, DownDetector will show a regional outage faster than AmericaOnline or Comcast will update their outage pages.

Error Message Numbers

If it isn't here, that's 404.

The internet has error numbers. They tell your browser anything that isn’t an actual web page. If you try to visit a page, and it replies to your browser with a 404, that means something.

  • 404 Not Found (Check your sppellin’)
  • 301 Moved Permanently (and here’s where it went. Google, re-index this.)
  • 302 Moved Temporarily (Be right back. ‘till then, look here.)
  • 403 Forbidden (Sure you shouldn’t have a login for that page?)
  • 500 Server Error (This web server has gone stupid. It’s not you, it’s me.)

These are not totally reliable. If a web page editor changes the name of a page, and you go to the old address, you will see either a 404 (Not found), left no forwarding address, or a 301 (Moved Permanently), change of address to this trendy new place. It takes a human to file that change of address, er, I mean to add the 301 to a list of forwarded addresses. 

There are more, many more errors, mostly of no use to end users. They’re handy for computers talking to each other, and it’s not just web pages, but can include other internet communication: 

  • 407 Proxy required
  • 408 Request Timeout (slow internet or overloaded web site)
  • 200 OK

And then there’s this one:

  • 418 I’m a Teapot

That’s what happens when you tell an internet-connected teapot to brew coffee. OK, it was an April Fool’s gag in 1998, and it got stuck. It’s now an officially-accepted reminder that the internet was designed by humans, with all that implies. More here:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyper_Text_Coffee_Pot_Control_Protocol

http://save418.com/

What’s a Google Alert?

Search

Do you know what’s going on around you? Do you keep an eye on your neighborhood? Google Alerts does that. It helps you watch what’s going on. Basically, it searches the web on a schedule, and sends an email when it finds what you wanted.

First, Google Alerts is online here:
https://www.google.com/alerts

You can use Google Alerts to tell you when your name (or your street name) shows up in new search results, or news, and get an email announcement and link. You can choose how often you are notified, what language to look for, or just look for very specific things. Search wording that works in a normal Google Search will work in an alert as well. (More on that below.)

So you should have an alert at Google for your name. And your kids’ names, maybe a news alert for your neighborhood. But how about your business partners, suppliers, and customers?

Example: If you use a company to run 1099 and W-2 forms for your staff’s tax forms, you should know if they have a security breach. Like this one:
https://krebsonsecurity.com/2018/07/human-resources-firm-complyright-breached/

That article tells about a security problem at ComplyRight.com. In short, they’ve been hacked. There is no notice on their front page or their news page. But wait, they’re better known by another name, efile4biz.com, which lists a ‘family of brands’, not including ComplyRight, of PosterTracker, TrackSmart, I-Rdirect, and PosterGuard.  How would you know? A Google Alert would tell you as soon as it was mentioned on any web page indexed by Google.

In my own case, I have permanent search alerts on key business partners. For example, web service companies, really cloud companies of any type, tend to merge out of existence and go away or become something else. The ‘RMM’, or ‘remote monitoring and management’ providers, have been very active lately–you can’t tell who used to be what without a lineage chart. I have Google Alerts in-place on any service company I would have a problem moving away from quickly, so that I know about mergers before they’re implemented. 

Banks are also bad that way, constantly merging. Google Alerts tells me about mergers months before there are any notices directly from a bank that’s about to merge.

How about evil? Well, yes. There have been times when I wanted to have early notice if certain characters showed up in newspaper crime reports or bankruptcy notices. Alerts can do that, too.

Finally, Google Alerts on your own trademarks and company name tell you when you are getting noticed on the ‘net, in reviews or in social media. Google yourself, but use automation.


Google Searching, Slightly Advanced

You can improve search results at Google by adding some extra instructions. Example: It’s not safe to search for a phone number at Google for any electronic product. The results are poisoned. That’s a real term for search results that include dangerous links, either hoaxes or malware. Here are what different searches can do.

Hewlett Packard printer tech support phone 

This results in a page that includes BOTH real and fake tech support numbers; half of the first page is to service companies who will say “We are the tech support for this product” when they definitely are anything but that. We want to avoid that problem.

site:hp.com printer tech support phone 

Better, adding ‘site:… ‘ creates a list of ONLY web sites that are at hp.com, and related sites like support.hp.com, and there are no dangerous results in the list. 

Local Searches

If you type ‘hotels’ into Google, it will, by default, show you hotels near your location. It just knows, based on your IP address, or your signed-in account at GMail, or through a cookie from DoubleClick (owned by Google), or in many other ways. If you actually wanted a hotel listing for a specific area, you can search by location with the name of the city and state, or the zip code.

Hotels near 90210

That gets you to Beverly Hills.

Reminders of Math Class

Some of you studied Boolean Arithmetic, or remember Venn Diagrams. They’re related; both deal with sets of things. As it applies to search, looking for “eggs and bacon” versus “eggs bacon” is not the same thing. The ‘and’ means that every entry in the results must include both items, and “eggs bacon” shows results that include eggs but no bacon, and bacon without eggs, as well as all the results that include both. Venn Diagrams would call that the intersection of the sets, versus the Superset. Boolean Algebra uses ‘AND’ to show ONLY the search results that include both words, or ‘OR’ to include either/both/any results.

The reason why Google search results have always been better than other search sites was, at first, that they defaulted to all ‘and’ searches, while most sites, twenty years back, used ‘or’ searches by default, because their computers and indexes were too slow to narrow that search. Now, Google results are still ‘and’ searches, but there is also considerable computer work based on trying to show what you want instead of what you typed, and that takes a lot more than just studies of supersets.

Egg dishes -bacon

Adding a – before a word means that you don’t want results that include that word. So this search will show you egg dishes but not include any that have bacon. Bonus: Adding the dash for a negative search word also works on Amazon and eBay. (Boolean version: egg dishes NOT bacon)

“Your Full Name” 

Placing a search inside quotes means that you want everything in that search just as you typed it. Without the quotes, Google looks for pages that include all those words in any position on the page, and in any order. 

related:jeep

This tells Google to look for sites like that you entered. The results tend to be less about buying a thing, and more about news or competitors.

There are more ways to search, and an article of search tips here:
https://www.lifehack.org/articles/technology/20-tips-use-google-search-efficiently.html

How to Talk Tech

Wine Error

When you need an answer from tech support, from me, or from an overseas support desk, there are some basics that will make it easier to get an actual answer. As in any writing, we have to anticipate the questions that will result from what is written, and just go ahead and answer them in advance. Here’s how you can best communicate with techies. Including me.

Tell us Where the Issue is

While I may know what computer you are most likely to be using, many of you have two, or an office full of them. Specify which computer. If it has been a while, or you’re emailing those support desks in Asia, also mention what version of Windows is in use. 

“It doesn’t work”

“It doesn’t work.” doesn’t say anything for a tech; we already knew that because the message arrived. The pronoun ‘it’ provides no clue what doesn’t work. Second, “doesn’t work” could mean any of these:

  • Nothing happens
  • Fails, with an error message
  • Something else happens
  • Menu or button isn’t where it was
  • Some other program takes over

Instead, tell what you tried to do, and then what happens.

What you Tried to do

So say what you are trying to do. There’s no need to be technical about it:

  • Tried to create an envelope in Word 2013
  • Trying to send an email in Thunderbird
  • Couldn’t edit font size in WordPerfect
  • Tried to run my specialty database
  • Tried to open QuickBooks

The program name is important. And the ‘Internet’ or ‘AOL’ is a web site, not a program. The program name usually shows up at the top-left of your open program.

What Happened

And that’s where you include a picture, because trying to describe an error message is usually not going to work. They’re mostly too long, and they don’t stay on-screen while you’re typing that email. So a screen capture is the best approach. Refresher course–here’s how to do that:

The Windows shortcut to capture the top window is alt-Print Screen, sometimes shown as PrtScrn on your keyboard–it’s usually at the top-right.  Nothing appears to happen when you press those keys–that’s OK. Go to uour email in Outlook or Thunderbird, and paste in the image; Control-v will generally work.  

Or if you’re using webmail or Gmail, open Microsoft Paint, or Word, or WordPerfect, and use paste (ctrl-v) to add the image. Save that file, and attach it to your email.

There’s also ctrl-PrtScrn. It works, but will take a picture of the entire screen, not just the top window. If you have multiple monitors, it will capture all of them. Mostly, alt-PrtScrn is easier, as it will only capture whichever window is on top of your desktop.

Some screens can’t be captured, usually the infamous Windows BSOD, or ‘blue screen of death’. For those, write down the error number, usually something like “0xc0000007e”, and send that. Or use your phone to take a picture and email it.

One Topic

Emails asking techs for answers should have just one topic. The overseas tech will normally glance at a message, and paste in canned response number 17, whatever that could be, because they saw a word that mentioned something vaguely 17-ish. That might not be the important answer you needed, or even useful. The best tech questions are about just how to fix one issue.

That even applies for me. I will send a quick short answer if you ask one question. If you also ask a question that needs research, or a price quote, it will take a lot longer.