About a week ago, I received a message from a frantic parent who had just received a monthly telephone bill for $700. The parent said the family had just purchased a computer, which came with an offer for a month's worth of free Internet access through a commercial Internet service provider.
When I called the parent, I learned the family had checked the bill and found out that no one in the family had done anything out of the ordinary -- no repeat calls to pricey 900 numbers or anything of the sort.
It seems the Internet access number they called from their home was a toll call, so that while the access itself was free, all the time spent on the Net was costing the family plenty.
While this cautionary tale won't help this particular family, it's worth repeating, if only so others can avoid paying a huge telephone bill.
The basic Internet idea involved here is something called a point of presence, or POP. This is essentially a telephone number that people using their computer modem call for access to a computer system -- whether it is a commercial service like America Online or the Internet -- through a local or regional Internet service provider, or ISP.
The availability of a local POP is probably the single most important factor in choosing a Net provider. Issues of service, reliability and speed are really secondary to making sure the number you call to access the Net is indeed a local (that is, non-toll) call.
In the proprietary software that most commercial Net providers like America Online and CompuServe offer, for example, there is usually a list of available POP numbers and it's up to the user to select the one number that is closest to his or her home.
If there are doubts, check the front of your telephone book for information on what exchanges (the first three digits of a telephone number) are local. If there is still some doubt, call your telephone company and ask if a specific telephone number would be a toll or local call.
NIFTY NET TOOLS: Two shareware programs, one for the Mac OS and a second for Windows 95 and NT users, offer users some valuable computer-related information and assistance.
The Windows shareware, called NeoTrace, is an update of a DOS command line program, TraceRoute, which has been floating around the Net for several years.
NeoTrace 1.0 is an updated, graphically intensive program that does essentially what TraceRoute did, which is to follow the path information packets take from your computer to a specific domain site. Every time you try to access a Web site, packets of information are sent from your computer to the requested site.
NeoTrace works with any number of Net protocols, but because most people use the World Wide Web, we'll use a Web site as an example.
Let's say you are trying to access a specific Web site, but can't. Before you call your own ISP and complain, you should launch your version of NeoTrace and enter the Web site's Uniform Resource Locator, or URL. Hit return and a series of images will pop up on NeoTrace's screen. What you'll see on the screen is the exact path your information packets take, traveling from your machine through your ISP and on to other sites, and, finally, through to the final URL you requested.
Along the way, each server your information packet passes through becomes an icon, usually a small computer; the screens of the small computers are color-coded, so that you can tell if the server in question is running very fast, fast, slow, or very slow.
What's more, you can get some information on the specific geographic location of each server along the way, the name of the company that owns the server and their location. Sometimes an address is included.
This is a good tool not only for diagnostic purposes, but for teaching, because it gives users some clue as to how the Net -- especially the World Wide Web -- operates.
To download this nifty piece of shareware, visit the NeoWorx site at www.neoworx.com and click on the New Products link from the company's home page. NeoWorx is the company that developed NeoTrace.
The download is free, but I'd recommend that you register your copy. This will cost you $15, plus $5 more if you would like to have the company send you a copy of the registered version on a floppy disk. (They also have options to send users registered copies as an attachment to an e-mail or through a Web Browser.) By registering your shareware copy, you also are eligible to receive free updates. A new version, NeoTrace 1.1, is expected by the end of March.
If you don't have Windows 95 or Windows NT and want to experiment with the older version, it's available at ftp:ee.lbl.gov/old as a compressed file.
Another new shareware program for the Mac OS is TechTool version 1.1.6, which was just released last month.
This does several things. It rebuilds your desktop and it also zaps (rebuilds) your Mac's PRAM. This stands for Parameter Random Access Memory and, according to Apple's Web site at www.apple.com, is "a small amount of memory continually powered by a lithium battery to retain its contents even when the machine is shut down. PRAM maintains information such as background color, default video selection, network information, serial port information and default highlight color."
If parts of your PRAM (pronounced pea-ram) become corrupted, odd problems can develop. This is why you should only rebuild your PRAM if you are having computer problems. One common problem associated with corrupt PRAM is the inability to properly shut your Mac off.
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TechTool also helps clean your floppy disk drive -- a very common problem for all computer users, and an especially serious problem for many versions of Mac OS machines -- and offers some other useful information, like the date your computer was manufactured and the number of hours the computer has been in use.
As with any diagnostic tool, users would do themselves well by reading the help files that come with the program. Whatever you do, don't download this program and then rebuild the desktop and zap the PRAM without reading about the possible consequences of doing so.
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TechTool is at several places on the Net, including www.shareware.com, where it was among the most downloaded Mac OS programs last month.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service