Cut off again

For some time now, my ‘net connection has been up and down like the proverbial whore’s drawers.  But for a succession of feeble reasons, I didn’t get around to doing anything about it until today.

Well, that’s not entirely true.  First time it happened I thought it could be a repeat of a recent nationwide cockup, and configured DNS to bypass Virgin.  But subsequent outages showed that it wasn’t DNS, it was overall connectivity that was disappearing, sometimes for hours at a time.  So although I did something, it wasn’t actually relevant to the problem.

I think last night was typical.  Connectivity vanished at about 10pm, returning at 12:26[1] for a tantalising 4 minutes before disappearing for another hour.  Bedtime obscures the record of what may have happened overnight, but in the morning it vanished again at 9:21[1].  It showed no sign of coming back anytime soon, so I finally got around to trying to contact Virgin and ask WTF is going on.

Easier said than done.  For some reason I don’t understand, my connection sharing app (joikuspot on symbian) was unable to acquire a connection either last night or this morning.  So I had just a hopelessly slow 3g connection and a 3-inch screen to try and wade through Virgin’s notoriously crap-filled website and make contact.  And since my home ‘phone uses VOIP, I had only the mobile on which to try and call them.  In other words, everything I do is challenging and very slow, and any ‘phone call going through endless menus and adverts has the add annoyance of mobile costs.

Anyway, I made it to Virgin’s status page, which told me my broadband was just fine – though there might be problems with cable telly.  Then I made it through various help/support options to run a test on my line.  Now it tells me the test was unable to run, and gives me a ‘phone number (hurrah)!

So I ‘phone them.  There’s no option to speak to a human, so I just have to go through lots of menus interspersed with adverts.  These include supplying my details and repeating the same test I’d just run online, which is at least mercifully quicker to fail on voice than on 3g.  After that it told me it was putting me through to an operator.  It didn’t: instead there was another caricature[2] of an advert for the telly and some more menus, before it again told me it was putting me through to an operator.  And finally a denouement so splendidly appropriate to the whole experience I transcribed it verbatim:

Sorry, this number is not in service.

All that call in vain.  No chance of getting through to a human.

OK, back to the 3-inch screen and the crap-filled webpages.  Find another ‘phone number, try it.  Soon converge with a horribly familiar sequence of menus and hang up.

The phone is getting uncomfortably hot to hold (due only in part to it being the hottest day of the year).  I’ve been struggling alone for long enough: time to try and enlist some moral support.  None of the neighbours are around, so I call John, who I expect probably has a decent-sized screen in front of him.  Enlist his help in finding the address of the Virgin shop in central Plymouth, with a view to getting on the bike and demanding to speak to someone who deals with broadband problems.  He also finds – with a lot of difficulty despite a full-size PC screen – another couple of ‘phone numbers.

I try the number for the shop, and after hearing opening hours and adverts, and declining to get directions for it, find myself back in the same menus I’ve learned go nowhere.

By now it’s past noon, and I see next door’s front door is open.  Knowing some of my neighbours use Virgin, I decide to ask.  Karen is just back from work, and confirms her internet is dead too.  So it’s not just me!  She also tells me the TV and phone – also supplied by Virgin in the same bundle – are working fine (so much for that status page)!!!  Using the Virgin ‘phone, a call to 150 is free to her, and takes her through the same rigmarole as my first call.  Only this time, it ends with her being put through to a human.  Hallelujah!

Turns out the human is, to take a charitable view, suffering from the time difference between the Uk and India, and has probably had a good night out or a rough night.  That ‘phone call must’ve broken all records for the number of times Karen, and later I, repeated our respective addresses to the same person.  But we got some information: yes there is a fault in the area, and they anticipate a fix on July 29th.  Aaargh!!!  YOUR WIFE IS A BIG HIPPO!!!!

This is the point where I ask Karen if I can have a word with them, to try and ask what they can do for me in the meantime.  A connection over oldfashioned copper?  A 4g dongle?  No use, and asking to speak to her supervisor doesn’t help. Well, actually he refers me on to Customer services when I ask about alternatives, but after several more minutes on hold I regret that.  Where can I send the bill for my time, and for finding an alternative?

At least now I know the Virgin shop in town would be a waste of time.  How soon can I get a connection from someone else?  Fibre broadband is now available here, so there should be alternatives.

Try plusnet.  I was their customer for over ten years, with fewer problems than other ISPs I’ve used.  And there I can get to speak to a human when necessary!  Their website is unusable from the ‘phone, but I have their number.  Dammit, they tell me there’s a 15 minute wait, and the muzak is utterly horrendous.  Guess that’s what happens when a medium-sized ISP gets borged by BT :(

Hmmm …

What about a 4G dongle?  Would Currys or PCWorld sell me one?  Do we have 4G coverage?  I just about manage to access EE’s coverage map, which tells me yes I should.  OK, worth a try.  So braving the early afternoon heat, I trundle over to Currys, who can indeed sell me one, and a subscription to EE.  Great!

Actually not a dongle.  It’s a gadget that gives me another wifi signal, but whose connection to the outside world is 4G.  But it’s an emergency, and beggars can’t be choosers.  Indeed, in principle it’s a rather good solution: my problem with it is just the wifi-less macbook.

Is 4g as good as its enthusiasts claim?  Maybe I can make it my regular connection and ditch Virgin?  Guess I’ll find out over the coming week, and thereafter if I continue to use it.  Interesting times.

[UPDATE] Composing this on the wifi-less macbook, I’m now disconnected again, so this post won’t appear today.  If I have no connection tomorrow I’ll cut&paste it to another machine and publish from there.  Grrrr …

[1] These times are approximate, taken from when an IRC client – configured to connect automatically – notes connection and loss of connection.  The computer, and with it the IRC client, sleep when I’m not at a computer with IRC (which includes when I’m at the ultrabook, where screen space is too limited to run IRC unless I have a specific reason).

[2] I suspect I’m being over-polite in describing it as a caricature, as that would imply some kind of self-awareness.  Virgin’s current owners “Liberty Global” seem more likely to be the kind of corporation that gives the ‘merkins a bad name for being utterly oblivious to irony.

Turkish WordPress?

OK, WTF has happened to WordPress?  Why does it suddenly think my blog is in Turkish?  Not of course the contents, but all the template stuff, and – far worse  - the settings and preferences that should (I guess, though I never actually tried it) enable me to switch to my choice of language.

Confirmed it’s not my browser playing sillybuggers by accessing it from three different browsers[1] on three different computers.  Chrome offers to translate this page, but that’s not going to help with a bunch of clientside-scripted menus!

OK, try another tack.  ssh in to a remote machine on another continent and check the blog with lynx.  Aha, it’s now in English!  Hmm, could that difference be because I’m not logged in?  Try to log in, but fail because Lynx rejects WordPress’s SSL certificate and refuses to talk to it.

OK, what happens if I fire up a spare browser that’s never logged in from a local desktop?  It’s in English.  And when I log in with Safari, it’s still in English.  This is getting silly!

Resolution: when I reload this composition page in Chrome, it’s reverted to English.  Someone or something was playing sillybuggers but got fixed.  Was WordPress hacked?  Did some sysop at WordPress screw up?

Or could it even have been some sysop at my ISP running a supposedly-transparent proxy that messed with browser preferences?  That’s the most worrisome: I got email from them recently inviting me to “protect” myself, and I suspect they’re implementing some Endarkenment.  A glitch in something more sinister?  My next test would’ve been to route my (turkish-infected) desktop browser through another network, but the return to English pre-empted that.

I don’t know when whatever caused the Turkish first appeared, only when I first saw it – which was a little before 09:00 UTC.  Anyone else see Turkish wordpress in recent hours?  Or even – if you’re a Virgin broadband user – other sites unexpectedly in Turkish?

[geek note: I could also have tested for a rogue browser preferences setting by visiting a multilingual site like Apache server docs that display in Turkish if your browser asks for it.  But that would've left open the possibility of misdiagnosing a glitch associated with an ISP-run database having different routing/rules for different sites].

[1] Iceweasel, Firefox and Chrome, in that order.

The new workspace

Since buying the treadmill desk I’ve been enjoying some benefits.  I’m just as fat as ever, and the back is neither better nor worse, but I’m getting a lot less neck and shoulder pain.

I’ve also bought a 27″ monitor and desk-mounting arm to go with it.  I think 27″ was a mistake: 24″ with the same (1080p) resolution would’ve served me better.  Either way, I now have the luxury of sufficient width for three working windows at full height and without overlap, which is very nice.  And the sound surprised me by being rather better than the old monitor, though of course neither was bought with sound quality in mind.

The monitor works fine with both laptops.  As a matter of convenience I’m using it with the macbook.  Here I can use a wired internet connection where it’s needed, and wireless from the ultrabook when I’m elsewhere in the house (or away).  This is a real shame, because it loses me the benefit of the macbook’s own screen, whose display quality is far and away the best of any I have.

As for the treadmill, I felt tired very quickly for the first day or two but rapidly grew accustomed to it.  On a working day now its computer clocks up double-digit distance (measured in Km) at speeds usually between 3 and 4 km/h (all speeds feel faster on the treadmill than in normal life, probably because the stride is much more constrained and one needs to keep the body much more static to use the ‘puter).  The fastest I’ve sustained was 5km/h, though that worked up too much of a sweat for anything more demanding than browsing the ‘net.  Of course, I still always alternate working at the treadmill with other places, though alas the ultrabook’s screen is far from adequate to take advantage of the summer weather and work outdoors.

A sacrifice on the altar

Communities Minister Eric Pickles

The Thugs’ Best Friend

I had to spend a lot of time in Brighton over the autumn, winter and spring.  Just a few minutes walk from George Street in Hove, a satellite-town-centre shopping street.  George Street has long been pedestrianised during shopping hours, making it a pleasant place to go for one’s shopping, or for a refreshment at one of its many pubs or cafés.  The only fly in the ointment was that on Sundays it was open to cars, turning it from a pleasant place to a stressful no-go area.

This winter was different.  I went there several times during regular weekday shopping hours, only to find it infested by cars.  After a little while I learned to treat it as a no-go area at all times.  A sad loss: there’s no comparable shopping street for some distance.  I don’t know why such a street has been sacrificed.  The local council is run by the Green Party: perhaps they’re as false to their roots as all the rest, but even so this seems extraordinary.

Today’s news: our towns are yet again to be sacrificed on the altar of the Great God motorcar.  This time it’s parking, and no matter how much commonsense and/or the law want to save an area for people, councils are to be deprived of the practical means to enforce anything.  Of course the propagandists wheeled out several motorists with legitimate-sounding horror stories of having been fined unreasonably, yet none of those were caught by the enforcement systems they’re banning!

The thugs’ best friend has struck another blow against humanity, and no doubt driven another nail into the coffin of many a town centre.

Triple-headed monsters

Can we please have a Beppe Grillo in UK politics?

Not that I actually like Signor Grillo (Mr Cricket), but he serves a useful purpose, and one of which we’re evidently in need.  A genuine protest vote that is not actively harmful.  A “none of the above” for an electoral system that doesn’t accommodate any such thing.

In UK politics now we’re faced with two three-headed monsters.  The LibLabCon establishment, parties of government, of Osbrownomics, of the advancing police state, and numerous other common themes.  Three parties that have all betrayed their roots and their supporters and lost public support and trust.  A triple-headed dog wagged by the common tail of some real or imagined swing voters in marginal constituencies.

Yes, faced with those three we need a credible none-of-the-above protest option.

What we have is the fringe: parties with just a few elected representatives, whose rhetoric has been spared exposure to the harsh realities of government.  A “Green” party that alas embodies far too much loony left to take seriously.  A pair of nationalist parties, one of them working-class and left-wing in the manner of old-Labour, the other well-heeled and economically right wing, but with common goals of withdrawing from the EU and strong racist and xenophobic tendencies.

Except there seem to be more than just the two “nationalist” parties.  The crap coming through my front door tells me it’s not just the [B|UK][N|I]P, but another group calling itself English Democrats with an agenda detached from the UK superstate on the very reasonable grounds of England’s indefensibly asymmetric relationship with Scotland, Wales and NI.  Alas, their agenda as printed on the junkmail looks a lot more like BUKNIP than Scotland’s altogether more credible[1] nationalist party.  Is this another triple-headed monster?  Actually there might be yet another malign growth on this monster, as there’s yet another bit of election junkmail from someone previously elected on a UKIP ticket but now standing separately after (presumably) a falling out amongst thieves.

The sad thing is, one of those three heads appears to be picking up a lot of none-of-the-above protest vote support.  UKIP with its strong Establishment credentials and favourable media coverage (including a leader who gets more BBC airtime than any other single UK politician) has done the country a favour by driving a juggernaut through some of the taboos of Political Correctness that have long defeated the working-class outsider BNP (and previously National Front).  But they’ve brought all the nastiness, and very likely now a chunk of the support base, with them.

Where’s our harmless protest vote?  Who will be our Beppe Grillo and see off this second three-headed monster?

(For the avoidance of doubt, there are things to support in all the parties’ programmes: LibLabCon, Green, and BUKNIP.  Alas, much more in their words than their deeds).

[1] though far too socialist for me.

Walking at work

OK, I have finally bitten the bullet and got myself a treadmill desk.  So now I can walk as I work, and see how much it helps my back, neck and shoulders.  Indeed, I am walking as I blog, and apart from work I can equally walk as I read, browse the ‘net, or play :)   Though in practice I expect I’ll alternate walking with all my traditional postures: sitting at a desk, sitting on a sofa, lying down.  The treadmill is good for six hours a day, which I’m sure is ample!

First impression: walking indoors is a lot harder than walking the streets, let alone the green spaces.  The first things I felt were the need to open a lot more window than the small top-windows I always open for ventilation, and a desire to go and get myself a glass of water.  The motor is also a bit noisy, and rather negates having an ultra-quiet ‘puter :(  I expect I’ll adjust to it with time, and learn how best to use it.

I’m also thinking: this is just the excuse I need to buy a shiny new 24″ desk-mounted monitor, with HDMI input I can use with a laptop.  That’ll also enable me to use the wifi-less macbook as a desktop box with wired connection!  Wondering if I can get a monitor with a mounting frame instead of a stand?  I tried both our local superstores (PC World and Currys) on the retail park, but neither of them has any such thing.

Also, glad to report myself back in the land of the living.  I was originally due to take delivery last week, but had to cancel because I was down with a nasty lurgy, incorporating fever and ague alongside lots of coughing and wheezing.  It was as much as I could do to get myself up the steps to the house, let alone a huge heavy package!

Macbook wifi dying

Has anyone seen these symptoms?  Googling gets me lots of networking issues all of which are rather different, and whose suggested solutions I had tried before googling.

The symptom: networking (over wifi) just stops working.  The mailer sits and spins, or the browser times out trying to load a page.  Same happens when I try the router’s page.  Anything from the commandline hangs until DNS lookup times out.  Meanwhile, if I fire up the other laptop it works just fine, indicating that the router and its outward connection are just fine.

Nothing too unusual so far.  But trying to diagnose it, it begins to look like a hardware issue.  It won’t “search for networks” as it normally would.  And turning airport off, it simply can’t be turned back on: that is to say, I turn it on from – for example – Network Diagnostics – but it remains resolutely off.  Similarly the networking wizard bombs out when it tries to activate airport.

So far the only solution I’ve found is to shut it down and restart from cold.  But yesterday morning I did that and it lasted only ten minutes before dying again.

Anyone seen similar symptoms?  Is there anything I can do to try and fix it?

Bleeding Heart

The fallout from heartbleed seems to be manifesting itself in a range of ways.  I’ve been required to set new passwords for a small number of online services, and expect I may encounter others as and when I next access them.

The main contrast seems to be between admins who tell you what’s happening, vs services that just stop working.  Contrast Apache and Google:

Apache: email arrives from the infrastructure folks: all system passwords will have to be reset.  Then a second email: if you haven’t already, you’ll have to set a new password via the “forgot my password” mechanism (which sends you PGP-encrypted email instructions).  All very smooth and maximally secure – unless some glitch has yet to manifest itself.

Google: @employer email address, which is hosted on gmail, just stopped working without explanation.  But this is the weekend, and similar things have happened before at weekends, so I ignore it.  But when it’s still not back on Monday, I try logging in with my web browser.  It allows me that, and insists I set a new password, whereupon normal imap access is also restored.  Hmmm … In the first place, no explanation or warning.  In the second place, if the password had been compromised then anyone who had it could trivially have reset it.  Bottom of the class both for insecurity and for the user experience.

There is also secondary fallout: worried users of products that link OpenSSL asking or wondering what they have to upgrade: for example, here.  For most, the answer is that you just upgrade your OpenSSL installation and then restart any services that link it (or reboot the whole system if you favour the sledgehammer approach).  Exceptions to that will be cases where you have custom builds with statically linked OpenSSL, or multiple OpenSSL installations (as might reasonably be the case on a developer’s machine).  If in doubt, restart your services and check for the OpenSSL version appearing in its startup messages: for example, with Apache HTTPD you’ll see it in the error log at startup.

RIP Ragnhild Kew

My mother died on Sunday.  She lost her battle with cancer, and with the treatment that was at times worse than the disease.  She leaves behind many friends and relatives, amongst whom special mention must go to my father, whose recent life has been totally dominated by caring for her.  In the past several months as she got worse, that extended to my brother and myself taking turns in supporting him.  And an array of friends and neighbours who rallied around, as indeed she had done for others in her life.

I had returned home last week for the two concerts that were a major highlight of my calendar, and so it was that at the moment of her death, I was in the final rehearsal for the Stabat Mater :

Stabat mater dolorosa / juxta crucem lacrimosa / dum pendebat filius.

The story of the mother witnessing the cruel death of her son is not a perfect fit, but nevertheless seemed strangely appropriate.  Indeed, crucifixion would (by virtue of its relative brevity) have been an altogether less gruesome fate than the horrendous treatment she was on for the last few months.  Who would treat a domestic pet so cruelly as we do a dying person?

Requiescat in Pace.


Next weekend is a real highlight of the musical calendar.  I’m due to sing in not one but two concerts, and can thoroughly recommend both of them to anyone in the area.

The first is on Saturday April 5th, where Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony is the major work in a concert by the EMG Symphony Orchestra at Exeter Cathedral.  This is the same group and same inspirational director with whom I sang in Mahler’s 8th symphony a year and a half ago, now returning to another only slightly less huge but perhaps even more glorious choral symphony from the same era.  Don’t miss it!

The second is on Sunday April 6th with my regular choir the Plymouth Philharmonic, who are performing Dvořák’s Stabat Mater at the Guildhall, Plymouth.  This is my first time in this unjustly-neglected work.  In complete contrast to the glorious exuberance of the sea symphony, this is a contemplative poem on the most tragic story in the Christian corpus, set by the 19th-century master best known for his gorgeous symphonies.  Another one not to miss, especially if, like me, you don’t already know this work!

Looking forward to an exhausting but intensely rewarding weekend!


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