Category Archives: internet

Customer service – the Kafka model

Time to go public here.  This is one of many matters I’ve been meaning to blog about but wasn’t getting around to.  But this deserves to be on record somewhere public, and I don’t want to rely on Virgin’s forum where I have been posting it.

My broadband service from Virgin has been misbehaving again.  I’m not sure when it started: it was sometime last year I found myself frequently getting very poor VOIP call quality, which in retrospect was probably a symptom.  Other visible symptoms of the boiling frog included timeouts on the web, and from my mailer.

It’s slightly reminiscent of my previous troubles with Virgin , a nightmare that bears re-reading.  In some ways not as bad: I haven’t had extended complete cut-offs.  But in other ways worse: it was bad enough running the gamut of menus and adverts trying to phone them before, but this time that’s been replaced with an “on hold” noise that’s some yob screaming extremely aggressively: the kind of thing you’d beat a hasty retreat from if you heard it coming from a nearby street.  I didn’t catch any words, but the sound was a most emphatic “F*** OFF”.

Anyway, visiting the website, I find there’s no way to file a support ticket, only supposedly-interactive ways to call them, and a community forum.  The interactive ways don’t work, as will become clear below.

The Forum – once I’ve signed up (groan) – does work, and gets me some helpful replies.  But these aren’t from Virgin, they’re just members of the public.  My thread “Contacting Virgin” there tells the story.  This morning, one post was removed from there.  Not an important post, but if they can remove that then I reckon it’s time to copy the important contents, and not just to the saved page I already have.  So here goes.  My posts verbatim; replies omitted in case any other poster might be bothered by copyright on their words.

Jan. 30th: 15:53

I have a problem with virgin broadband: it’s very slow (less than 1% of the theoretical speed[1]) and so intermittent that many things are simply timing out, and phone (VOIP) has become unusable.

So I tried to contact Virgin. First online, where it tells me their support team are unavailable (yes, this is within the opening hours advertised – most recently today about 15:20). Then by (mobile) ‘phone, where after 4 minutes of menus it puts me indefinitely on hold. Then today I went in person into a Virgin shop, where the staff could (or would) do absolutely nothing, and wouldn’t even let me try to ‘phone customer support from there.

How the **** do I contact them?

I have just now taken the precaution of cancelling my direct debit. Maybe that’ll prompt them to contact me?

[1] e.g. http://www.speedtest.net/result/6991612663 , http://www.speedtest.net/result/7004521118

[first reply tells me I have contacted them by posting, but it’ll take “about a week”, and advises me to post some info from my router]

Jan 30th: 17:06 (as I was about to head out):

Thanks Tony. Yes, I’m at my desk, working wired (I use wireless too, but not for things like speedtest). Both are equally affected.

Sadly this editor won’t accept cut&paste from my router’s status pages. Well, actually it looks fine when I paste it in and in preview, but then rejects it when I try to post. I may try again later, but not now.

I could add my earlier experience of Virgin failing here, especially https://bahumbug.wordpress.com/2014/07/24/cut-off-again/

Feb 8th: 08:32

Well, my broadband appears to be back. In fact, it’s faster than it’s ever been before, or than I ever asked for: http://www.speedtest.net/result/7040027720 . In fact I seem to recollect that when the man from Virgin came to install my kit for a 30 Mb/s connection, he mentioned explicitly throttling something back for that.

That (still) doesn’t resolve the issue of contacting Virgin. If it’s pure coincidence that they fixed it after my attempts to contact them. that leaves me in limbo again next time something fails. Alternatively, if something I did (like my session with their menus from the mobile phone, or my posting here) prompted them to fix it silently, that’s an extremely unsatisfactory way to treat clients.

Either way, there needs to be a way to contact Virgin and get either a fix or at least an acknowledgement that a fault has been logged and will be checked out, rather than leave a customer in limbo! Not to mention an acknowledgement of known faults on Virgin’s status pages (this fault may have been unknown to Virgin until my attempts to contact them, but the one that led to my blog post referenced above was certainly known to them).

Tony, do you act for Virgin here, or am I still completely un-acknowledged by the company?

[another helpful reply telling me – among other things – this forum is the best way to contact virgin and suggesting 7-10 days for a reply from staff]

Feb. 16th, 22:44 (after nasty email from their billing)

No contact here after two and a half weeks. Perhaps I have to go to ofcom?

(Ofcom website tells me there’s an ombudsman, but I have to wait 8 weeks before trying them).

Feb 16th, 23:05 (after an attempt to reply to billing unsurprisingly bounced).

Seems I can’t reply to their email, either. So for the record, here’s what I just tried to send. There’s a “contact us” link in their email, but that just brings me straight back here!

On Fri, 16 Feb 2018 14:50:08 +0000
“Virgin Media” <Letters@virginmediacollections.co.uk> wrote:

> Important information about your Virgin Media Account
>
> Account Number: ********
> Overdue Balance: £33.23

I have no idea if this address reaches a real human, but
I shall reply in the hope that it does.

I need to be able to contact Virgin Media concerning my
service. I have tried in various ways, without success.
Please see my thread at
http://community.virginmedia.com/t5/QuickStart-set-up-and/Contacting-Virgin/td-p/3638012

At the time of the original problem, or probably even of
that post, I’d have accepted being able to get through to
a call centre droid. I think now it’s gone beyond that,
and I’d be looking to speak to a real person, and to
get at least an apology for the lack of service.

Another helpful reply commenting on the difficulty contacting them, and concluding with a paragraph that really, really deserves reproducing here:

A cynic might conclude they do not want to make it easy and do not want you to have any record of their statements, but surely that is just being paranoid?

Note, the three replies mentioned above are all from different posters.  What they have in common is forum labels describing them respectively as “Superuser”, “Super Solver” and “Knows their stuff”.  I presume those labels are based on their track records in Virgin’s fora.

Getting up to date, here’s Feb. 19th, 10:31:

Unbelievable!

They’ve just ticked another box in a diabolical blame game.

That is to say, half an hour ago, I got a call to my mobile ‘phone, showing the caller as Virgin Media. When I answered, it wasn’t a human, but a robotic voice asking questions to answer on the keypad.

Question 1: am I me? Press 1 for yes. OK so far.
Question 2: enter some password. Erm, WTF? Even if I had a clue what password they’re talking about, how likely is it I’d have it to hand at the moment they call me?

So now they’ve ticked a box. Call the customer, check. Customer confirms identity, check. But customer hangs up. How many customers could hope to explain that to any kind of adjudicator without appearing now to be firmly in the wrong?

Well, if anyone’s still reading, thank you.  I hope you’re duly amused.  I shall aim to update here as and when things happen, but no promises.  I do still have a 4G device, which is a faff to use but means at least I’m not completely reliant on Kafka’s castle at Liberty Global.

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Under attack

Yesterday morning I woke up to several hundred (or was it thousand?) messages from the online contact form on my website.  They came from what was clearly an automated dumb probe: all within a few minutes just before 4 a.m.  The probe had tried filling different fields with all kinds of payloads: fishing Unix paths, fishing Windows paths, escaped and unescaped commandline sequences including shellshock, SQL injection attacks, Javascript/XSS fragments, attempts to send mail or proxy HTTP.  Oh, and some fragments whose potential purpose eludes me.

OK, no big deal: just a few minutes of my time.  Dumb bots attack websites all the time.  Whatever vulnerabilities my server has (and I’m sure there are some), that kind of bot probing my contact form is no threat – except insofar as it could become a DoS.

This morning, another 740 messages.  From an even briefer probe: all at 03:59 and 04:00.  Checked the IP they all came from, and firewalled it off.  With a DROP rule, of course.  If it recurs from elsewhere, I’ll have to take a view on whether this approach can be extended or is useless.

If I can be arsed, maybe I’ll stay up and tail the log tonight, starting 03:50 or so.  Wonder if the perpetrator can be pwned while in action?  On second thoughts, maybe not at that hour, doubly not after the couple of pints I regularly enjoy on a Thursday evening.

I blame Google

When google comes under attack, I’m usually one of the voices in the peanut gallery defending them.  That’s because most of the attacks on them, particularly the anti-trust stuff involving regulators, is grossly ill-informed and follows an Agenda that seeks to subvert Google’s central purpose of supplying the best possible search results for the person searching.

Now I’m going to attack.  It may be true (as I’ve argued here before) that there’s a certain historic inevitability to the Enclosure of the Commons.  But that doesn’t excuse Google’s crucial role, particularly in the demise of the Usenet commons.

The suicide and resurrection of an online community in which I participate has reminded me of that.  It started on November 3rd, with an an announcement that a set of discussion boards was to close on Nov 17th.  Just two weeks notice: quite a large number of boards and a thriving community. The reason given was problems with old/unmaintainable software (which had indeed left a lot to be desired), but we suspect that the more fundamental reason was that the website (which has, in other areas, a number of paid staff) was losing money.

Why they didn’t try to sell the boards – with community intact – to whomsoever thought they could make a go of it – eludes me.  But that’s now water under the bridge.  And it may be a long-term blessing, if a highest bidder might’ve been under financial pressure themselves and perhaps trashed the site with intrusive levels of advertising.

Of course, discussion turned to ideas for how it might be replaced.  My own preferred option of a decentralised solution – individual blogs with an aggregator to focus the community – was a non-starter on that timescale, even if it could in principle have gained traction in the absence of time pressure.   But someone else had a practical solution: they set up an alternative site at a new domain with well-chosen name, and phpbb driving a replacement set of boards.  They announced it within hours of the closure notice, and rapidly gained traction.  The community has been rapidly migrating to the new site, which now also has tremendous goodwill.  Early days, but it seems we have a level of continuity, albeit with archives about to be relegated to what may be found in dusty attics.

So what has this little tale got to do with Google or Usenet?  Well, the old boards originated in January 1998.  The second half of the ’90s was precisely when lots of websites were making a land-grab for online discussion fora, and a rising non-techie user base would follow the best-advertised route oblivious to inherent limitations like private (often quixotic) control and single points of congestion and failure.  As soon as a community moves from the Usenet commons to the private gardens – walled or otherwise – of a website, it becomes vulnerable to all kinds of things, like a rug being pulled.

Google’s role comes in their own land-grab, and in what they did to Dejanews.  Actually, come to think of it, the first time I ever heard the name Google was in that context: they were a company that had bought Dejanews.  So now the folks who run the fantastic Usenet search engine now also have web search, and … it turns out to be rather good, returning results more-or-less as good as Altavista but without all the clutter and crap that had made Altavista a pain to use.  Nice!

But it turned out to be part of a much more sinister agenda.  Google Groups started life as a WWW gateway to Usenet: all good.  But the waves of new users coming through Google weren’t being told that: they saw web fora, with thriving communities.  If memory serves, it was the whole of Usenet (less some of the wilds of alt.*) that had been hijacked in an audacious land grab.  Old-timers found ourselves fighting a losing battle against the impression that the whole thing was Google’s territory.  Google were far from the only people doing that (and public mailinglists got similar gateways), but they were unique in owning Dejanews.

But Dejanews itself disappeared.  Or rather, became just a tab in an integrated Google search frontend.  Then the tab wasn’t even labelled “news”, which took on the obvious meaning it still has today.  Then the “groups” tab vanished: after all, the content was Google Groups, and that’s just Web content like any other, right?  Over the following decade or so, Usenet content simply vanished, increasingly much of it literally so.

The community mindshare had been grabbed, except for old-timers.  Search had been lost gradually and the community, like a boiling frog, had failed to react to incremental changes and create an alternative.  In the face of such trends, the will to put much effort into other things like newsreader development and combating the rise of spam, also waned.  The land grab has happened, the commons are lost, we live in a world of private gardens.  Worse still, many including the biggest (Facebook) are walled off against us: access is limited to their registered users!  And it’s very largely all Google’s fault.

If I can be arsed I may post a followup to this, proposing a new alternative.  It won’t be Usenet: that ship has sailed.  It will be based on aggregation and syndication of distributed content, under the control of individuals.  Damn, am I fighting the same battle I pooh-poohed Moglen for?

Identity and Trust

Folks who know me will know that I’ve been taking an interest for some time in the problems of online identity and trust:

  • Passwords (as we know them today) are a sick joke.
  • Monolithic certificate authorities (and browser trust lists) are a serious weakness in web trust.
  • PGP and the Web of Trust remain the preserve of geekdom.
  • People distrust and even fear centralised databases.  At issue are both the motivations of those who run them, and security against intruders.
  • Complexity and poor practice opens doors for phishing and identity theft.
  • Establishing identity and trust can be a nightmare, to the extent that a competent fraudster might find it easier than the real person to establish an identity.

I’m not a cryptographer.  But as mathematician, software developer, and old cynic, I have the essential ingredients.  I can see that things are wrong and could so easily be a whole lot better at many levels.  It’s not even a hard problem: merely a more rational deployment of existing technology!  Some time back I thought about setting myself up in the business of making it happen, but was put off by the ghost of what happened last time I tried (and failed) to launch an innovative startup.

Recently – starting this summer – I’ve embarked on another mission towards improving the status quo.  Instead of trying to run my own business, I’ve sought out an existing business doing good work in the field, to which I can hope to make a significant contribution.  So the project’s fortunes tap into my strengths as techie rather than my weaknesses as a Suit.

I should add that the project does rather more than just improve the deployment of existing technology, as it significantly advances the underlying cryptographic framework.  Most importantly it introduces a Distributed Trust Authority model, as an alternative to the flawed monolithic Certificate Authority and its single point of failure.  The distributed model also makes it particularly well-suited to “cloud” applications and to securing the “Internet of Things”.

And it turns out, I arrived at an opportune moment.  The project has been single-company open source for some time and generated some interest at github.  Now it’s expanding beyond that: a second corporate team is joining development and I understand there are further prospects.  So it could really use a higher-level development model than github: one that will actively foster the community and offer mutual assurance and protection to all participants.  So we’ve put it forward as a candidate for incubation at Apache.  The proposal is here.

If all goes well, this could be the core of my work for some time to come.  Here’s hoping for a big success and a better, safer online world.

Internet Non-Service

I don’t know how I should describe the nonsense I pay Virgin (“Liberty Global”) good money for.  It’s supposed to be an Internet Service Provider, but it falls well short of that far too often, and sometimes for extended periods.  Back in the summer I was stranded without service for several weeks.

This morning (or, more precisely, yesterday morning) I found myself unable to read my mail.  I also couldn’t ssh to the server.  Lynx could get the front page, but only after a long delay. This looked exactly like something that happened last week, when only after rebooting (from the rackspace console) and calling rackspace support did I realise the problem was with Virgin, and traceroute was hanging on a Virgin machine after just a few hops from here[1].  Using my EE 4G connection, all was well.

Today as last week I could see the server was fine, as I could access it from an apache.org machine, but anything from home just timed out.  I let that pass, and again used the EE connection to read mail.  But after a full day of downtime I thought I’d check a little more.  This time traceroute gives me an entirely different destination: 62.252.172.241, which is a machine owned by Virgin!  A simple DNS lookup tells me the same.  So this time it’s a DNS cockup.

Except …

If it’s a DNS cockup, how come I can still browse my website (at least using Lynx, which doesn’t time out first)?  There must be a HTTP proxy – with valid DNS – on 62.252.172.241.  Smells like deliberate sabotage!  And how come this didn’t appear to affect other sites I’ve been to today?  For example, $work email (c/o gmail), or this blog @wordpress?

Probing further, this time (unlike last week) I can route to the server by IP address.  So it’s definitely just DNS.

WTF is going on?  I think it’s time to drop this sick joke of a non-ISP.  Maybe get a second 4G connection from another provider for a bit of redundancy: that connection seems good most of the time, but wifi to the 4G modem is totally flakey so I have to use it via USB, which is a poor second-best.

[1] Yeah, of course any geek should have tested that before going to rackspace.  In my defence, I was flat out in bed with a nasty lurgy and in no fit state to browse the web, let alone fix a problem on it.

Endarkenment

I’ve been on the ‘net a lot longer than you.

Well, that won’t apply to all readers.  This blog is aggregated at Planet Apache, so is likely to cross the feeds of some true veterans.  But I’m sure I’ve been online far longer than any of the politicians or journalists who are getting into another frenzy about online porn and ‘protecting’ the children.  Without getting into the nitty-gritty of what counts as an ancestor of the modern ‘net, I first accessed a computer remotely in 1983, subscribed from home and saw my first online pics (of sorts) in 1987, and got my first access over a ‘net using today’s protocols in 1990.

And in all that time, I’ve never encountered anything I’d describe with any certainty as porn.  The most dodgy material I’ve seen is at the sites of trashy newspapers: specifically the Daily Mail (to which I occasionally follow a link) and Pravda (which I use as a test site when developing internationalisation software like mod_xml2enc).  Both of those seem to bombard me with lots of pics of scantily-clad young people, predominantly female.

And violence?  I don’t read novels online, though I might indulge in occasional dodgy media.  Far and away the most violent content I’ve encountered is music from less politically-correct times, setting words from that ultra-violent text, the Bible.  Blessed is he that taketh the children of the heathen, and casts them upon the stone.

So how is this relevant?  I think it firmly gives the lie to the myth that you can stumble inadvertently on anything nastier than you’d see in your local newsagent or bookshop.  If you want porn, you have to seek it out proactively.  And if you seek proactively I expect you’ll find it, regardless of anything idiot politicians do to try and stop you.

The Rape of Lucretia: Illegal online?

We already have the censor blocking a widening range of contents.  Now apparently we’re to have a whole new raft of Big Brother legislation.  So as a very minor protest, I just googled for contents that will become explicitly illegal.  Tizian’s Rape of Lucretia looks pretty unambiguous: it’s not merely a representation of rape (enough to make it illegal), but true, violent rape!

In fact, I think today’s news just prompted me to seek out the nastiest image I’ve seen in 30 years online.  The further they go in the direction of book-burning and aggressive censorship, the more I shall feel inclined to opt out.  I certainly won’t accept filtering of my ‘net contents while I have any choice[1], and if choosing Shakespeare over Bowdler puts me under suspicion from Big Brother then so be it.

I have no interest in porn (and 30 years to prove it), but now legislating to make it ‘impossible’ introduces an element of interest.  How might I go about finding it?  A search for “Rape of Lucrece” finds the soon-to-be illegal image here[2], but what search term might find something more modern?  Maybe I can get a handle on some search terms by looking at the spam appearing on – and more usefully being filtered from – this blog.  Here’s a sample, though those particular search terms are probably long-since outdated.  I’ll leave the details as an exercise for the reader, but if you start a blog at WordPress.com you’ll have access to an akismet log containing lots of clues, likely to be more current than any stupid block-list.

[1]  Unless our governments were to do something genuinely useful and take serious action against spam.
[2] At least, logically speaking.  I expect they’ll find a loophole for anything that can get itself classified as art.

Online shopping coming of age

I’ve just taken delivery of a new phone, to replace the one that drowned.  A similar model, but I won’t dwell on that in this post.  What impressed me today was the delivery.

It wasn’t cheap.  The retailer (Handtec) didn’t offer a free delivery option, and I decided to pay a couple of quid extra for next day delivery rather than spend several days potentially in limbo.

What happened next was rather good, and suggests that online shopping may be finally taking the problems of delivery seriously.  On placing the order I got the customary acknowledgement email, followed by the email telling me my order has been cleared and is being dispatched.  Another hour and a message from the delivery company (GPSK) telling me it would be delivered on Tuesday, but giving me options to select another day.  Better still, this morning another message giving me a one-hour delivery time window (12:43-13:43), again with the option to request a different day.  So on hearing a diesel van pull up at 12:53, I looked out of the window, saw the logo, and went down to take delivery.  All very smooth!

Both the messages from GPSK came both as text and email to maximise the chance of reaching me in good time, if I had wished to make a change.  And both contained embedded reply mechanisms to request a change.  This attention to detail is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been asking for, and suggests that the business of online ordering and delivery is finally reaching a decent level of maturity!

Whither FTP?

I recently installed an update of a software package running on an Amazon EC2 host.

In the configure step I found there was an unsatisfied dependency: it wanted ossp-uuid, which was not available on the system.  Neither was yum able to find it: there was an alternative uuid, but no hint of anything from ossp.  Turned up some problems with yum too (a hung security-update process from weeks ago and a corrupted database), but that’s another story.  Checking my box at home, the reason I hadn’t stumbled on the dependency is that ossp-uuid is installed as a standard package here.  A case of different distros having different packages in their standard repos.

In the absence of a package, installing from source seemed the obvious thing to do.  So I made my way to ossp.org, from where navigation to an ossp-uuid source download is easy.  Reassuringly I see Ralf Engelschall is in charge (whois lists him too), but worryingly none of the packages are signed.  A summary look at the source package reassures me it looks fine, though I don’t have time for exhaustive review.  In the unlikely event of a trojan package having found its way to the site, I expect some reader of my blog will alert me to the story!

Anyway, that’s getting ahead of myself.  The unexpected problem I faced was actually downloading the package, which is available only through FTP.  Firefox from home timed out; lynx or perl GET from the ec2 machine returned an unhelpful error.  Looks like a firewall in the way of FTP building its data connection.  Installing an old-fashioned commandline ftp I found neither active nor passive mode would work, meaning neither the client nor the server could initiate the data connection.

Before going into an exhaustive investigation of those firewall components over which I have control (my router being #1 suspect at home), I decided to try other routes.  The problem was resolved when I was able to access the FTP server from my own (webthing) web server, then make the package available over HTTP from there to the ec2 box.

In the Good Old Days before the coming of web browsers and bittorrent, FTP was THE protocol for transferring files.  In 1990s web browsers it shared equal status with HTTP and others, and even into this century it was widely seen as a superior protocol to HTTP for data, particularly bigger files.

Now by contrast, the widespread use of blind firewalls requires me to jump through hoops just to use the protocol.  The rant I once published about everything-over-HTTP is coming to pass, and is not a good thing.

Whatspot?

I guess once wifi hotspots became a strategy for big telcos, it was only a matter of time before they reached us here.  And so this week it has come to pass: two new unprotected wifi access points labelled BTFON and BTOpenzone-H.  They provide a decent signal level too, second only to my own router from where I type.

So I connected to one, then the other, and took a look.  They appear to be offering the same service: evidently like buses they’re social and cluster together!  Indeed I suspect they may be no more than different aliases for the same physical router.  Unsurprisingly they’re a BT service.  Equally unsurprisingly there’s a catch: all they actually connect to is a sandbox.  A website promoting a BT service, and inviting me to pay for access to …. what exactly?

In principle this could be an interesting offering.  Indeed, if sufficiently reliable, such a service together with VOIP phone SIP exchange might even replace the landline and ADSL connection altogether.  But its value depends entirely on whether it provides full internet access.  If it’s one of those mickey-mouse services that blocks everything but web (and maybe mail) ports even after I’ve gone to the trouble of paying and logging in via the sandbox I can access, then no thank you!

Now, guess what information I can’t find anywhere on the sandbox site, after following every remotely promising link like “technical information” and “FAQs” (erm, yeah, right, everyone is frequently asking questions whose answer is immediately obvious to anyone who can formulate the question in the first place).  Yep, that’s right, they’re not going to tell me whether they supply any bloomin’ service beyond a bit of point-and-drool.

Solitary Confinement

What do you do when you’re anticipating a long session on the ‘puter, naturally including ‘net access, only to find your connection is dead?  A call to your ISP gets you a recorded message about a major ‘net outage, though only after you’ve listened through a tedious spiel telling you please use their website to deal with problems(!)

If you have any sense, you get on with something else once you’re done cursing and swearing at it.  Something you can do offline.  And so I eventually tried to do: started hacking on something I could do quite a lot of without having to google anything.  It didn’t work: my concentration span was shot to pieces by wanting to look up the latest updates from my ISP (which I could access from the pocket-‘puter over O2’s mobile data network).  And, worse, I felt a perverse need to browse all my regular websites using the small screen and inadequate keyboard.

Is that a symptom of addiction?   It’s not at all so bad having planned offline time, e.g. when travelling without the laptop.

(This was Wednesday evening, from early evening through the night to Thursday morning, when the problem was finally fixed.)