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Alligators

January, 1994


The Mailbox Alligator raised its ugly head the other day when I sent a document to the wrong address on America Online (also known as AOL). I misaddressed the mail myself, mea culpa, but having sent it to an unknown person, I wanted it back... before it was read. The document was an early draft of an opinion editorial about a hot and gnarly current event, namely, the Compton's patent claims, and I didn't want it leaked before the final version went to press.

First thing I did was look everywhere in the pull-down menus of the AOL software for a "Discard" or "Retrieve" command. Nothing came close. I was confused, too, because AppleLink DOES have such a command; I know because I have used it.

So then I tried to find out more about the person I sent the mail to -- the address was only a character different from the person who should have got it... There was, alas, no information in that person's biographical Member Profile. It was empty.

AOL offers real-time online help - you can "chat" by keyboard with a technician. So I logged into the help section using my account name, Timestream. There were twelve other questioners and a couple of AOL answerers working the help hotline:

OnlineHost: Welcome to the auditorium! Remember, your comments are seen only by other members of your row.

Timestream: (1) I sent mail to wrong address, how can I delete it?

TECHLiveDL: (1) Times, you can't delete mail you've sent.

Timestream: (1) DL - Can I find out where it went when there is no member profile?

TECHLiveDL: (1) No, it is not possible. I can't give that info out, Times.

Timestream: (1) DL - We have a problem. I will phone CS.

TECHLiveDL: (1) Times, there is the 800 number.

I dialed the Customer Service / Tech Support number for AOL (800-827-6364), and worked my way into the voice-mail tree. When I punched the option to talk to a real person, I held for 17.3 minutes of Brahms, interrupted every 60 seconds with an apologetic message. It pays to have a speaker phone, and I like Brahms. If it had been a toll call, I would have hung up.

I explained the situation to the lady who finally answered. She said sent mail can't be retrieved, like it was something technical with the system. I asked why not, and pushed some jargon buttons and sort of wrestled with this alligator until the lady went away to get a supervisor who could explain it. The difference between "you can" and "you may" had been grilled into me by my grandmother, and I was sure this was a "you may not" situation, not an "it can't be done" situation.

The technical reply when the nice lady came back to the phone ran like this: "Sending mail on AOL is like the post office; once you have put it in the slot, you can't get it back. It will be delivered." "Bad analogy," I thought, remembering the time I sprinted down my hill to retrieve an outbound letter from the postman still making rounds in his funny truck, and corrected an address, no sweat.

But I knew by now that it was hopeless, and the lady was so patient and really sweet. She couldn't change the rules no matter how hard I pushed. But this is policy, not a constraint of the system -- at AOL, there is no remedy for stupid mistakes made in addressing your messages. The Mailbox Alligator is alive in the E-mail swamps!

So I sent a brief note to the unknown wrong address:

Hi there... I sent mail to you from my Timestream account by mistake. Please delete it. Sorry for the inconvenience!

After a week or so I checked the status of the mis-sent message, and it hadn't been read yet. Maybe this address is inactive, or the person who owns it is on vacation. AOL will automatically erase it, anyway, after a few weeks.

The Surf Alligator (Morphs Outpost, October, 1993) recently reappeared in my office wearing the Macintosh Quadra 840av colors again. For some reason, I had been unable to format and occasionally to even read 800KB and 1.4MB floppy diskettes on my new computer. I figured the FDHD floppy drive was bad, and wasn't looking forward to the hassles of replacing it on warranty. In the worst cases, I would read disks on a MacIIci or even a MacPlus, then bring them to my 840av across the network. But I saw something on the bulletin boards that pointed me to another probable cause for the floppy problem: the type of RAM chips on my $720 16MB add-on SIMM could be wrong.

It turns out that there are two kinds of single in-line memory modules (SIMMs), composite and non-composite. Apple recommends using only the non-composite type -- a recommendation not found in the user manual. As you might think, a composite SIMM uses multiple RAM chips to simulate a single, higher-capacity RAM chip. My supplier had sent me the wrong SIMM!

If you have a newer Macintosh that uses 72-pin SIMM strips, specify non-composite when you purchase additional RAM! The top-of-the-line 840av 16/500 CD (Part Number M1837LL/A), for example, ships with 16MB RAM on board, using two 8MB SIMMs, each of which contains sixteen 4MB chips, eight on each side.

I exchanged my 16MB composite SIMM for the proper non-composite variety, and all works fine, now. I even got some money back. It's amazing, the things you need to learn and do when you surf along the frothy edge of the technology wave. Is there a better way to spend your time?