Wednesday, May 25, 2005

High Speed Cable Diary

We moved to a home that allows us to get high speed internet service. Up until now, we were stuck with dial-up, which, in this age of digital music, digital cameras, and video, is abysmally sloooow.

We chose Comcast Cable since it was available, and looks to be faster than DSL. The old cable days of sharing lines with your neighborhood are supposed to be over, and so cable promises to have the fastest speeds available.

We called and ordered the service. They promised installation next week inside a two-hour window. We asked for an earlier date, and they said they would try to accommodate. The next day, they called with a new time, which ended up being yesterday between 9am and 11am. They were on time. I was unavailable at the time of installation -- my mother-in-law is staying with us, so she was there during the installation. When I got home, it was working.

We bought a Linksys cable modem. I like Linksys, mainly because Cisco bought them, and I am a fan of Cisco. However, while the cable modem was working fine, the power supply was buzzing like a banshee, and so I took it back to where I bought it and got a new one.

And the problem started. I plugged the new one in, and it did not work. I looked at the paperwork that Comcast left, and noticed some interesting pieces of information:

1. My user name.
2. My password.
3. My IP, or Internet Protocol address (this is the unique address on the Internet or World Wide Web).
4. My "MAC" address -- "Media Access Control" address -- of the cable modem.

The MAC address is the underlying hardware address of a network card. Your computer can run a number of higher-level network protocols, or types, such as Internet Protocol, Novell's IPX/SPX protocols, AppleTalk, etc., but in each case these protocols work "on top" of a physical network. The cable modem (at least this one) runs a protocol called "DOCSIS," which means "Data-Over-Cable Service Interface Specifications." My home network runs Ethernet. Each of these low-level networks have MAC physical addresses, and TCP/IP, the protocols of the Internet, run "on top" of these physical network types.

As a quick aside, that's the beauty of TCP/IP -- it runs on all sorts of physical networks, and yet all the computers running it can communicate as if they were all on one huge physical network. You don't know or care what the physical network that a particular web site is sitting on, all you need is its internet address, or its "URL" (Universal Resource Locator), which translates into its internet address. More on this at a later time...

One interesting thing about MAC addresses: they are universally unique. No two network devices have the same MAC address. It is part of the specification that manufacturers agree to when they build network cards. There is nothing that will bring a network down to its knees like have two addresses that are exactly the same, so the rule is rigid.

Turns out, Comcast, and all other cable internet providers, register your cable modem's MAC address as part of your account information, and match the MAC address to the IP address it gives you.

Therefore, when I replaced my cable modem, Comcast did not know anything about my new modem, and my service did not work!

This should be easy to fix. I suspected this when I saw that they had written the MAC address on the form -- it meant that it mattered for some reason. I also noticed that they wrote down my IP address. This means that it does not change (or else, why write it down?).

So, I called Comcast. The usual wave of "voice prompts:" "Press 1 if you want instructions in English, 2 for Espaniol..." Finally, I got a guy on the phone. I told him what was going on, and to make a long story short, he said my computer was faulty, and I needed to get my operating system disks. This was absolutely false. Nothing changed except I had a new modem. I fed the tech information like the new MAC address of the new modem, which he entered into his system, but he maintained that the computer itself was a fault. Knowing this was not true, I thanked him for his time, and hung up.

So, the cable was no longer operative. Now what?

I did what we all should do in times like these: RTFM. This means "Read The Freakin' Manual." I turned off the computer. I turned off the cable modem. I read the instructions that came with the cable modem, which are very easy to read, in large type. I turned the machine on. I saw that I had the correct IP address!

I ran the browser. I got redirected to Comcast's start-screen -- the new user registration screens. I said I was an existing user. They asked me to download their installation program. I did. I ran it.

The installation program noticed I had another cable modem on the account, and what did I want to do: add a new one, or replace it? I chose replace it. The program did so, and reset my modem. When it was done, lo and behold, everything worked!

This was really all I ever had to do.

Now, some twists: I added an internet router. This is important, as Uncle Mark said in earlier messages. What did I do there? I turned off the modem, RTFM (this time, the router manual), connected up the router, connected the PC to the router, and turned it all on, and everything worked!

One note -- I had to release my IP address on the computer ("ipconfig /release"), and then renew it ("ipconfig /renew"). This is done from the command line, which you get when you go to the Start Menu, click "Run...", type "cmd" and then click OK. Why? Because Comcast named my computer, and just renewing my address (from the router, using "ipconfig /renew" left the name alone. You can't have two machines with the same name on the Internet, so the router could not get my computer's address, and therefore it failed. This is really techie, so:

1. Turn off everything - the modem, the router, the computer.
2. Turn on the modem. Wait a few moments.
3. Turn on the router. Wait a few moments.
4. Turn on the computer.

This is the "bunny run" way to do it, but it'll get 'er done, as they say.

From all of this, what can we learn?

1. Your cable account, if you have one, is mapped to your specific modem. If you change your modem, you need to re-register it with the cable company.

2. Technical support, at least for the home user, generally stinks across the board. Do not think I am picking on Comcast here. I have had very similar conversations with SBC (their DSL service), Intuit (their "Quicken" software), Earthlink, South Valley Internet (a local service provider in San Martin, CA), and others.

3. Let everything have its head. Isolate and do things one at a time. Everything turned off. Cable modem turned on, then checked to ensure all lights are as they should be. Then router. Then computer. Time between to allow each to start up fully. Discrete changes.

4. If your computer works in the morning, and the internet is working, but at night the computer seems to be working but the internet is not, and you do not see or smell smoke, it is not your computer or its settings that are wrong! Something happened on their end.

In other words, do not believe them if they say you need to reinstall your operating system or buy a new computer.

Now, a caveat here. You can only pull the number 4 card above if you have a computer built in the 21st century, are up to date in your operating system patches, have up-to-date virus control and definitions, the power is on, all cables are connected properly, and your dog, cat, or baby has not decided to eat part of your computer system that you can't see.

Support people have a protocol they follow when they answer calls. They check some basic things, and they ask you for some information. They assume you do not know what you are talking about (but they are usually polite about it), and they will not deviate from the script. The guys who write their scripts are company guys, and they reach the part where their service is down at the end of a very long and dragged out procedure, which includes, in many cases, blaming your computer and having you reinstall everything. I used to follow along with them, knowing I could recover from whatever they do, but I don't anymore. I once spent half a day on the phone with SBC on a DSL problem that ended up being that one of their main service stations had a blown board (which I basically stated at the start of the conversation) - but it took half a day!

So, what to do? Do the basics, as above. RTFM. Call the provider. And if they have you pulling out system CDs, stop right there, and Ask Uncle Mark!

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

German Spam

Some of you have been getting innundated with German emails. This is not "spam" in the usual sense, which is an advertiser blanketing you with emails, but is rather the result of a modified Email virus.

This article on PC World talks about it.

There is a class of email viruses that infect your computer, searches your computer for email addresses, and then sends itself to these email addresses. McAfee's Virus Information Library calls it Sober.p -- here is the link to the info.

Those of you that are up to date on your anti-virus files and Windows patches only get annoyed by the spam from your infected neighbor. Those of you who do not have adequate anti-virus controls may be the ones sending the spam!

So, if you are getting flooded with these German spam messages, this is the cause, and it will die down once this virus gets under control.

Friday, May 06, 2005


A humorous aside -- I received this link for the "ScreamBody." It is amazing what technology can do. The video is a must-see.

The ScreamBody is the work of Kelly Dobson. She is a PHD candidate at MIT Media Labs. Check out her site -- Blendie the voice-activated blender is a must-see as well. I like that she mixes her research with a tongue-in-cheek attitude.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Internet Lesson from 2001


When going through my email today, I came across the following note I send to friends and family in June 2001, which I copy below.

Rule number 1 of internet web cruising and emails:
Believe Nothing. Assume a hoax until proven otherwise.

I ran across this story today that is revealing:,7558,497418,00.html

[Note: you have to register to see this -- free]

This reminds me of one of the great business scams of
the modern era -- another case of someone taking
advantage of the gullible:

[Alas, this was an article from the Industry Standard -- that venerable guide of the Internet Bubble Era. It is no longer available. See below.]

Both articles are enlightening. It is unfortunate that
some people choose to dupe others, or just plain lie.
The internet makes it much easier for people with
these tendencies to ply their trade, so to speak.

I guess the guiding principle is: "Caveat Web-tor"



The first article is about a website dedicated to a girl, Kaycee Nicole, who was dying of Leukemia. The website was updated by her mother and captured the pain of childhood cancer. Eventually, Kaycee died. Many, many readers and well-wishers read the site, offering gifts and sympathy. Except, the site was a hoax! Kaycee did not exist. The writer was a Kansas woman whose site and story got away from her. She wanted to be a voice for cancer victims, and ended up creating the personna of Kaycee, and it steamrolled.

The second article was an article in the Industry Standard that tells of an "Internet Technology" company that had a product that sped up internet downloads by 100-fold. Except that there was no product -- it was all vapor. The company CEO got millions in funding from unsuspecting (and internet-greed-crazed) dupes -- mostly doctors in Southern California. Turns out the "CEO" was a small time con who saw big-time opportunity in the bubble. The article was written in 1998, and was the cover story for that week's Industry Standard. I have it in "hard copy" (computer-dude speak for "on paper") somewhere in my boxes.

So, "Caveat Web-Tor!"