Toddlers + paint – adults = mess + expense

Two kids in a living room, covered in white paint.

I came across this picture again today, originally spotted on Digg.com a few months back, entitled “Why you shouldn’t leave a gallon of paint with unsupervised toddlers”.

I don’t even want to think about where they started cleaning up; I can only hope that it was emulsion. I just love the expression on the face of the boy on the left: he looks so pleased with what he’s done.

(I think Neil ‘Neebs’ Costley will be proud of my title.)

Troubleshooting broadband connection problems

Call centre

This week I learned something important about technical support call centres: they can sometimes be more “call centre” than “technical support”.

Tuesday

On Tuesday I called BT Broadband Support (0845 600 7030) because I was experiencing connection problems (no, really, I was!), which were being manifest in three ways:

  1. My Broadband Talk connection (VoIP phone line) was disconnected.
  2. I would try to visit a website and it wouldn’t load until I’d hit Refresh a couple of times.
  3. I couldn’t connect to any FTP site, e.g. the server that hosts this blog

I got through fairly quickly and spoke with someone who told me that:

  1. She’d pass on my VoIP problem to someone who could look into it and they’d get back to me — fair enough!
  2. Each time I experienced the connection problem I should simply reboot the router — hmm, not great given that it was happening about every second site I was trying to visit.
  3. They don’t support FTP — what?! But half the internet is built on FTP!! That’s a bit like a car manufacturer saying “Yes, but we don’t support our cars driving on streets! Roads and motorways: yes; streets: no!” Crazy!

I hung up. They never called me back. My VoIP service wasn’t restored, the connection problems continued. I went to bed in pain.

Wednesday

I called back yesterday afternoon, having done some more tests to try to prove that — in the words of that favourite of ‘tech support’ phrases — the problem is not at my end!

Troubleshooting

As anyone who has done any basic networking will know there are a few immediate things you can do yourself to try to determine the problem when you are experiencing network connection problems. Or rather to eliminate what it’s not.

  1. Router
    I had to make sure that it wasn’t my router that was causing the problem. So it was back to that other favourite trick of tech support: switch it off and switch it back on again. It wasn’t that.

  2. PC
    Next I rebooted my PC to make sure that it wasn’t something conflicting with the network connection. On reboot I experienced the same problems.

  3. Other computers on the network
    Next step was to see if the same connection problems could be experienced using other computers on the network. And as it happened they could. Both Jane and my laptops were also experiencing these intermittent connection problems, and neither could either connect to an FTP site.

  4. FTP Server test
    On the off-chance that the FTP connection problems might have something to do with my FTP server I telephoned a friend to see if he could connect to my FTP server. He could.

  5. Networking tools
    So having made sure that it wasn’t immediate hardware problems at this end I used Windows’ built-in networking tools (PING and TRACERT) to do some basic online sleuthing.

Packets

The first thing to bear in mind is that all data transferred across networks is first broken down into small parts called “packets“. That way large amounts of data can be transferred more efficiently.

PING

The PING command is really useful for finding out if there are connection problems. What it does is send an ICMP (Internet Control Message Protocol) echo request to check whether the remote computer is available.

In other words, it says “Hey other-computer, are you there?” And if it is then it replies saying “Sure am, mate!” Or something like that. But better than that, it does it four times — by sending four packets — and counts the replies. A bit like Jesus asking Peter “do you love me?”, only one more time.

Open a Command Prompt (in Windows XP go to Start > Run… and type in CMD then click OK) and then enter the command PING followed by a space and then a URL (either as a web address or IP address), e.g.

ping www.google.co.uk

ping 64.233.183.99

What you should get in return is something like this:

>ping www.google.co.uk

Pinging www.l.google.com [64.233.183.104] with 32 bytes of data:

Reply from 64.233.183.104: bytes=32 time=58ms TTL=237
Reply from 64.233.183.104: bytes=32 time=56ms TTL=237
Reply from 64.233.183.104: bytes=32 time=56ms TTL=237
Reply from 64.233.183.104: bytes=32 time=56ms TTL=237

Ping statistics for 64.233.183.104:
Packets: Sent = 4, Received = 4, Lost = 0 (0% loss),
Approximate round trip times in milli-seconds:
Minimum = 56ms, Maximum = 58ms, Average = 56ms

One of the most important things to note about the results is the bit that I’ve highlighted above: how many packets were sent and received. Ideally you don’t want any packets to get lost.

Unfortunately, I was consistently experiencing 50% packet loss. So I did a Trace Route.

Trace Route

Next in my handy arsenal of networking tools is TRACERT, short for Trace Route. Guess what that does!

Ok, I’ll tell you: it … erm, traces the route that the packets take across a network. Pull up another Command Prompt and type:

tracert www.google.co.uk

and you’ll get back a list of all the IP addresses (of routers, switches, and bridges) that the packets are routed through to reach the destination (plus a load of other information), e.g.

  1. voyager.home [192.168.1.1]
  2. esr1.edinburgh5.broadband.bt.net [217.32.78.140]
  3. 217.32.78.13
  4. 217.41.218.1
  5. 217.41.174.66 … etc.

Which you can then PING to see where in the route the problem might lie. If any of those IP addresses are dropping packets then it’s a strong possibility that that’s where the network connection problem lies.

So that’s what I did, and discovered that packets were being dropped somewhere between esr1.edinburgh5.broadband.bt.net and core2-pos8-1.edinburgh.ukcore.bt.net. So I gave BT Broadband Support another call.

Support centre or call centre?

This time I was a little more assertive than the day before. I told them about the dropped packets, I told them that the lack of FTP connectivity was indicative of packet loss and that 50% packet loss was not good, I told them about the Trace Route and that it seemed to be somewhere on their network that the problem lay.

So the tech support bod put me on hold to consult their supervisor. And came back and asked me what anti-virus software I was using.

“THE PROBLEM … IS NOT AT MY END!” I told them. Quite firmly.

Forty minutes later, after jumping through their hoops I was transferred to the Line Faults Team. “The problem is not the line,” I assured them. And then I started to explain to this second person about my Ping and Trace Route results.

“I can tell you between which IP addresses I was experiencing packet loss,” I said. “I did a Trace Route.”

There was a silence.

“Do you know what a Trace Route is?” I asked.

“No. No I don’t,” the Line Faults tech support team member confessed.

Computer says No!

And at that point I realised that I wasn’t speaking to a networking expert who was there to help me diagnose my networking connection problem, but a call-centre employee who is paid to be polite (and they were delightfully polite to me, even during my wildest rant) and follow a pre-defined troubleshooting path on their computer.

I knew there was a problem, I knew where the problem was. Trouble was I had to get my problem past the front-line call centre team to an IT-trained networking engineer who understood what the hell I was talking about.

Conclusion

After an hour (60 minutes no less) on the phone, having threatened to leave BT unless the problem was fixed today I was promised that the local exchange would be contacted and the problem fixed; they’d call me back in three hours.

Three hours and fifteen minutes later the phone rang. It was BT: they’d fixed the problem. Turns out there was a problem at the exchange.

Who would have thought?!

I just wish there was an easier and quicker way to get these problems sorted.

Iron Maiden on Live From Abbey Road

Iron Maiden Footage from Live From Abbey Road

I’ve just learned that Iron Maiden will appear on (UK) Channel 4’s Live From Abbey Road show tomorrow evening (Friday 30 March), to be repeated the following Monday on Channel 4.

This is the last in the series and sees Iron Maiden performing “Brighter Than A Thousand Suns” from their latest — and excellent — album A Matter of Life and Death, and also the classic “Hallowed Be Thy Name” from 1983’s Number of the Beast.

You can see a sneak preview of their performance on the Live From Abbey Road website, in the “Footage” section. You’ll require Adobe Flash Player to view the site and clip.

More 4 is available on Sky (142), Cable (142) and Freeview (13).

Patient’s patience

Pills

The worst thing about being ill is the being ill bit of it.

Two weeks ago my body was working fairly well. I won’t pretend that I had the physique of an Olympic athlete, or that I was a paradigm of health — I still had dodgy kidneys, courtesy of an inherited genetic condition (thanks Dad!) — but I was still pretty healthy, all things considered.

Then last week I got squatters: some crazy bacterial family that decided to party in my bladder and refused to leave even when I sent in the cranberry police. And then they invited their friends, and the 24/7 party is still going on!

So far, yesterday was the worst day. I woke from a four to five hour sleep at 18:00 with rigors, which happens sometimes when you are fighting an infection. I think what happens is that your body tries to increase your body temperature to fight the infection and it does that by making you shiver, which heats you up.

Of course, being wrapped in a winter coat, a hat and a duvet helped. As did the mug of Horlicks and hot water bottle. Still, it was a pretty scary hour on the sofa. (And not because Hollyoaks was on telly.) I’m not too proud to admit that I cried. A lot. (About my feeling unwell, not about Hollyoaks.)

Jane was an absolute star throughout.

Jane: Should I cancel tap dancing tonight?
Gareth: Yeah, I don’t think I could dance this evening with my bladder feeling like this!
Jane: No, I mean should I cancel it for me?

She did, and instead went to the Co-op to get me some cranberry juice and a bar of chocolate to cheer me up.

Today I ‘just’ feel sore and tired. I’m hoping that the antibiotics are doing their job — is this finally the right bug-killing combination?, and I know that the painkillers are taking the edge off the pain, when I remember to take them.

I’d much rather be at work, I can assure you. Instead, I’m in bed, waiting. I guess that’s why they call sick people patients!

Do not pass ‘Go’

Monopoly Visa card

It’s funny the things you think of when lying ill in bed. For example, this afternoon — in between angry calls to BT Broadband Support (again!) — I got to thinking about Monopoly and how I’ve never actually ever finished a game.

And the more I thought about it the more I realised: I’ve never actually ever finished a game. Sure, I’ve started hundreds of games, never actually finished one of them. If by “finish” you mean that there is one overall winner after the game has run its complete course.

In football, after 90 minutes there is an end result — or after extra time and penalties if necessary. In rugby the same is true after 80 minutes (plus injury time). In cricket there is a winning team (sometimes) at the end of anywhere between a day and 5/7 of a week! But when does a game of Monopoly end?

Wikipedia defines “monopoly” as

In economics, a monopoly (from the Latin word monopolium – Greek language monos, one + polein, to sell) is defined as a persistent market situation where there is only one provider of a product or service.

So presumably the true end of a game of Monopoly should be when one player owns everything and has pwned everyone! And by that definition I’ve never been involved in a game that has finished with one clear, Sir Alan Sugar-esque winner.

Monopoly v Poleconomy

I remember one long, summer holiday, back in the day, where a few friends got together at my house and we indulged in the best part of a week of gaming. The closest we ever got to LAN-parties in the olden days was huddled over a board, pushing shapes of plastic around and exchanging scraps of paper.

We played two games: Monopoly (which you know about) and Poleconomy (which you probably don’t). Poleconomy was like a grown up version of Monopoly that involved buying advertising and companies but with an added twist: there was a government.

As a member of the government you could determine the rate of inflation, and all prices went up in accordance with inflation. So if you were doing particularly well and your fellow gamers were struggling: whack up inflation and watch them suffer! I remember playing Poleconomy once for three days straight, and we only stopped because we completely ran out of money, having already liberated two Monopoly boxes, Family Fortunes and the Game of Life of their notes.

My grannie always said that I should finish what I started. Well, I tried but it took three and a half days and we ran out of money before we could even finish. Many a business has experienced the same fate.

Why even create a game that doesn’t come with enough money to allow world/board domination?! (Thankfully you can now download and print your own money on the Monopoly website (see the Treasure Chest).

Didn’t even pass Go

My favourite Monopoly tale, however, was for a game that didn’t even begin. The scene was our living room in Selkirk. It was the evening of the Common Riding Ball and my sister Jenni had been invited to the ball by another friend, Graeme.

He came to pick her up at 19:30.

She wasn’t ready. Because she was still making her dress! Don’t misunderstand me, she wasn’t getting into it, she was still making it. (That’s fashion design students for you!)

At 21:00 I walked into the living room where an increasingly impatient Graeme was waiting with his Mum. “Anyone for a game of Monopoly?” I ask cheerfully.

“I hate Monopoly,” came the reply.

Still, it would have been rude not to have asked. And even if we had begun a game we wouldn’t have finished that one either; by 21:30 Mum was sewing Jenni into her dress (who needs a zip or buttons!) and the grumpy couple were off to the dance at last.

Seemingly the longest Monopoly game ever played was 1,680 hours – that’s 70 straight days! The longest game in a bathtub: 99 hours; the longest game underwater: 45 days; the longest game played upside-down: 36 hours. But nowhere does it say that they ever finished a game!