A Mukherjee World - Inside Insight


Computers and Associated Paraphernalia

By Anamika Mukherjee

It started with a single computer. Just one. A desktop, not even a branded one, but that’s where the trouble began. First, I remember, there were relatively minor challenges to tackle. For instance, the kind of cabinet it used. Once upon a time, a cabinet was a large piece of furniture that you kept your stuff in. Now you have cabinets that need to be turned off manually and cabinets that turn themselves off automatically when you shut down. If you have the latter type and you don’t realize it, you will keep pushing the button every time you want to turn the thing off, and that turns it on again, which endless loop can result in being hopelessly late for whatever crucial meeting you were running late for (or, alternatively, burning the rice, again!).

Oh for such childishly simple problems. I should have known that from this auspicious beginning things would certainly get worse.

It was only a matter of time – and not very much time at that – before we got an Internet connection. The joys of configuring the pop server to download mail were left to Amit, whom they kept in happy entertainment for many long hours. Downloading mail had several prerequisites, the main one being the installation of Linux. Windows used to be what you opened to let some breeze in (or let the climate come in, as an erstwhile teacher used to proclaim). Nowadays, it appears, it only lets viruses in. Linux was duly installed in dual boot mode (nothing to do with footwear), as dummies like me could hardly be expected to survive without Windows. Now I had to be alert when starting the computer to promptly jab appropriate keys, or else, without further ado, the computer would boot Linux and leave me floundering helplessly in its murky, non-GUI depths.

Slowly, and at immense cost to Amit’s patience, I started unraveling the mysteries Linux. There existed between the three of us a perpetual state of cold war with occasional hot flashes. Typically, the situation would develop something like this:

Me: How do I…?
Amit: Type $*(&#*(TY(PY(H(PT^*%* at the shell.
Me (typing furiously): That won’t work
Computer: It appears you are speaking a different language or are from a different planet. Switch to one of 35,667 languages that I speak.
Me: It’s not working. This stupid computer…

From there on, the situation would deteriorate rapidly, with me and Linux trading insults and Amit trying to justify why the computer was right and I was wrong.

Amit, eventually hit upon a workable solution. We would get another computer. Then we would use the Linux only for mail and for his occasional weekend fling with the computer. The “other computer” we would use for all “normal” activities on Windows. That way, we would be safe from viruses and also have a workable computer.

I’m not quite sure how, but somehow the second computer evolved into a laptop. This would not have mattered, but for the added dimension: wireless capability. Very soon, a wireless router had been flicked from a friend and was cluttering our telephone table with wires (not as wireless as it sounds)!

Amit was mightily pleased because it meant that he could surf the Net from the bathroom, but I had to come to grips with telephone connections. One wire from phone line to router. One wire from router to modem. One line from modem to cordless phone (also not very cordless). One wire from each to electric mains. All it needed was tomato sauce and you’d have a veritable spaghetti bolognaise over there behind the telephone table.

Now, instructed Amit, to use the phone, pull a wire from here to here, but don’t pull this one, pull that one. To use the Internet, do the opposite. Oh, and if you want to dial up directly from the laptop, pull that wire there and put it here. That way, you use the internal modem, so you can be online even if there’s a power cut (provided the laptop battery is up to it). And by the way, if you want to know the status of the connection, just glance at the modem. If all eighteen lights are glowing, you’re online. If only half of them are glowing, you’re offline. (If none of them are glowing, turn on the mains and try again.) But only if you connected wirelessly. If you connected via your laptop, it’s the internal modem, remember.

No, I didn’t remember and I still don’t. I am continuously puzzled about why the modem is lit up like a Christmas tree when the telephone wire is clearly plugged into my laptop (because he neglected to mention that you can still dial up wirelessly even if the wire is in fact connected to the laptop). Or why my internet connection drops when there’s a power cut when he specifically said it wouldn’t (because if you connect wirelessly, you depend on the wireless router and external modem getting a continuous power supply he explains patiently through gritted teeth for the umpteenth time).

Meanwhile, the geography of our home kept changing significantly. At first, the telephone line had to be close to the desktop, so that the desktop could dial up. Later, the telephone line had to be close to the telephone set, which had been moved miles away from the desktop. So a very long telephone wire was bought, which would stretch across the living room, across the dining room, across the hall, and across the study, to the back of the desk on which the desktop sat. Of course, after disconnecting from the Net, one had to wind up this never-ending length of wire as well.

When we went wireless, the use of this wire slowly dwindled, and the desktop was very rarely connected to the Net (Linux and security issues notwithstanding). Then, one day Amit came up with the bright idea of connecting the desktop’s large monitor to the laptop. This done, it was inevitable that keyboard and mouse should follow suit. So now the desktop was just a box, bereft of its input/output devices. What on earth do we do with it, we can’t use it now, I pointed out. Oh, that’s not a problem at all, said Amit blithely. He switched it on, attached a spare keyboard and mouse (but not the monitor) to it, pressed a few buttons and waited for Linux to boot invisibly. Then he started a tool on the laptop, which on the large monitor displayed the desktop of the desktop. Now the desktop’s Linux was appearing as a window on the laptop’s Windows, displayed on what had thus far been the desktop’s monitor (but was now the laptop’s) – if that makes sense to you.

This set up was quite effective, once you got used to it (which took a while). The only problem was when there was a power failure. The desktop and the monitor were both on the UPS, and the UPS had a very short life. Its life could be maximized by turning off the monitor, which made it quite impossible to shut down the desktop. Of course, if the desktop were already off when electricity went, then all you had to do was to turn off the monitor, and your dependency on power was at an end until the laptop battery failed. The thing was, a couple of times Amit actually forgot that the laptop had a monitor of its own. So when, following my own impeccable (for once) logic, I turned off the laptop:

Amit: You nincompoop! Now how am I going to shut down the computer.
Me (innocently): Which computer?
Amit: The laptop!
Me (really worried now): But can’t you just leave it on? You can even continue working on it.
Amit (scathingly): And how am I supposed to do that?
Me (nervously opening the lid): Like this?
Amit: Sheepish grin

But then there’s IR. This wasn’t a problem as long as we had only a laptop and a desktop, but then my office went and gave me a laptop, so now there was a total of three of these troublesome things at home. If there’s no electricity at home, but both laptops’ batteries are charged, they can still talk to each other using their infra-red ports (though why they would want to I don’t know; just showing off, if you ask me). But you have to make sure they are aligned just so. Since on one laptop even the most thorough scrutiny has not divulged exactly (or even vaguely) where the IR port is, getting the two IR ports to see eye to eye (as it were) has turned into quite an interesting exercise, somewhat like introducing two highly pedigreed dogs to each other in the remote hope that they might agree to mate. Both machines sit there, sniffing each other disdainfully and refusing to make contact. Push them this way and that, nudge them sideways, turn them at right angles to each other and suddenly there it is that magical ping that announces contact has been made. Now, don’t touch them, or you might lose it, which happy event will be announced by another loud, joyous ping.

The worst part is that on no two successive attempts does the exact same orientation seem to work. I do believe the IR ports – at least the unidentified IR port – move around from day to day, or even from hour to hour, though I am assured that this is not possible.

The advent of my office laptop also introduced a new dimension to the Internet connectivity puzzle. This laptop came with its own dial up connection, which would connect it directly to the office network. By the time I began using this, I had it firmly in my mind that any time one computer at home was connected to the Net, all of them were connected, thanks to the wireless network (provided the desktop was connected to something with an Ethernet cable). But this assumption was no longer valid. At least, in theory it was possible, if my office laptop had been set up as a gateway, which it hadn’t. This, again, led to some interesting situations:

Amit: Are you online?
Me: Yes, I am.
Amit: Ok, tell me when you are going offline.
Me (busy at work): hmmm… ok
An hour later…
Amit: Are you done yet?
Me: No, I’m still online, you can continue working, I’ll tell you when I am going offline.
Three hours later…
Amit: Ok, I really need access to the Net now!
Me: Oh! I was just about to disconnect. Haven’t you been using it all this time?
Amit: You %(&*#$_&!!! How could I be using it, you’ve been online all day!
Me (tentatively now): Yeah, but that means you’re online as well, doesn’t it?
Amit (explosively): How many times do I have to tell you! When you are connected to your office network, I can’t get online!!! Your laptop is not configured as a gateway! You $&()#*$&56&%$()W&%

Now, I am told, at last a clear and simple solution has been worked out. We will get DSL. Then we can both be online all the time, without our phone line being held up, and we can both connect to our respective office networks using something called VPN. Tomorrow, the lineman will come to install yet another mysterious box with wires. This box has to communicate with the wireless router, two laptops and a desktop (Linux!!!) and connect all of them to the Net, jointly and severally; clearly a tall order. What worries me is, does this mean that I will now have access to Amit’s office network and he to mine, if each of us is working on our own laptops??? I guess it should, after all, we are all connected wirelessly. Aren’t we?

I think life was simpler when everything was wired up and stationary.

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Comments and information welcome. Write to anamika dot mukherjee at amukherjeeworld dot net
Copyright 2008 Amit and Anamika Mukherjee. All rights reserved.