The heartbreak of technology

It is an internet connectivity trifecta:

  1. The phone company configured your DSL line wrong.
  2. The new DSL modem supplied by your ISP was a dud.
  3. Your brand-new Airport Extreme wireless router does not work. It’s under warranty, but to get it replaced, you must endure another hour-long session with Apple technical support. You’d rather chew off your own leg. (Update.)

It’s really a fourfecta. The phone company fixed the DSL line, but didn’t tell the ISP. They didn’t even tell their own service technician. Dude showed up to fix a line that wasn’t broken. You wonder what the guys in his Anger Management class had to say about it.

Two and half weeks into the void, a light bulb moment: Maybe it’s the modem. ISP sends new modem, you get your speed bump.

But only when you plug directly into the modem. For your new Airport Extreme wireless router cannot find an IP address even when you enter it manually. Indeed, this remarkably attractive piece of technology cannot be configured in any meaningful way. It cannot even restart without hurting itself.

You read that the new Airport Extreme works great. Alas, there was one lemon in the production line. You got the lemon. Trifecta.

Two faces

You tell PC users you bought an Airport Extreme because it was time for a new router, and Apple computers work best with Apple routers. Besides, Apple has that whole 802.11n thing going. That 802.11n is just so much better than the outdated spec they’re using. They just wouldn’t understand.

You tell Mac users you bought an Airport Extreme to replace a perfectly good third-party router, because OS X 10.4.x is semi-incompatible with third-party routers. All too frequently, one of your OS X 10.4.x Macs becomes unable to find a wireless signal sent by your ancient Linksys router.

You didn’t have to buy the Airport Extreme router. You could fix the compatibility issue by adjusting a setting on the old router. To do so, go to Fresh Kills, dig your old G4 tower out of the landfill, boot into Virtual PC, and log into the old router.

Can’t find the old G4 tower in the landfill? Buy an Airport Extreme. Apple makes it. Their stuff just works.

Support

The Lithium Woman in Apple Technical Support was unable to suggest anything beyond restarting the hardware and sticking a pin in the Reset hole—things you tried many times before breaking down and calling Apple. Why this tech support call took an hour is a mystery. Why it is called “support” is a more profound one.

At the start of the call, you said all you needed was help accessing the Manual Configuration panel to type in the WAN I.P. address, because for some reason the Manual Configuration Panel would not load. But the Lithium Woman made you plug stuff in and unplug stuff and turn stuff on and off for an hour. It was the stuff you’d already done, and you explained that, but that’s how tech support works, so you did it.

At the end of the hour, having sufficiently atoned for your sins, you again asked for help accessing the Manual Configuration Panel, as you needed to type in the WAN I.P. address, and the Manual Configuration Panel just wouldn’t load.

The Lithium Woman said you shouldn’t have to type in an I.P. address.

Impasse.

After a while, feeling bad for her, you offered her a face-saving way of ending the call without having helped you.

You figured, once your new DSL network was set up, your Airport Extreme router would just work.

But let us pause

Most readers stopped after the first paragraph. A few hardy souls made it all the way here. Thanks for sharing the journey.

Die-hards will want to suggest solutions. For them, a few details.

Automatic setup and manual configuration both end in “please try again” error messages.

The router freezes and crashes without ever connecting, suggesting that the problem is software based. We’ve wiped Airport Utility off the hard drive with App Zapper, removed preferences, reinstalled from disk, and run Software Update to download and install the latest version. That kind of reinstall usually does the trick. Not this time.

Resetting the device with a straightened paper clip is the only thing that briefly lets you access Manual Setup. You enter the IP Address, Subnet Mask, Gateway (Router), and DNS Servers. You verify the data. The device restarts itself. You bite your nails. The software congratulates you. You open a browser. You are not online. And you can no longer access or change settings. Unless you restart the device with a straightened paper clip.

Nothing works. You are the proud owner of a piece of modern art. The object is beautiful, but it has no heart. There is no network, no nothing. George and Martha. Sad, sad.

Noware

I’m on one of the oldest DSL installations in New York City—you should see the copper in my closet. It is also one of slowest DSL connections still in active use in the world, I believe. Maximum throughput never exceeds 32 KB/second.

The syrup-slow pace keeps me honest as a web designer: if our page weights cause pain, I feel it and we fix it. Still, when every YouTube video stutters, and every emusic.com preview times out, maybe it’s time for a speed boost.

After An Event Apart Boston, I ordered a DSL speed upgrade. I should have harpooned myself repeatedly in the thigh. It would have hurt less and been quicker.

No matter who you choose for an ISP (I use the Mac-friendly company Speakeasy), upgrading DSL service in New York City almost certainly means working with Covad and Verizon. Those two companies installed my original DSL network back in the go-go, dot-com 90s, and it was up to them to flip the switches once again.

It’s been an amusing two weeks of reboots and service calls—of voice mail that never hangs up, and an internet connection that never connects. For your pleasure, I will share two conversations that actually took place:

The phone call

Two weeks in, the DSL technician from Verizon phones me.

He asks what the problem is.

I say, doesn’t he know what the problem is?

He says nobody tells him anything. This turns out to be true.

He doesn’t know I’m a Verizon customer.

He doesn’t know Verizon works with Covad and Speakeasy to provide DSL.

I ask if he is the guy in charge of DSL for Verizon and he says yes.

He asks what the problem is.

I explain that the modem isn’t getting an IP address, and there is no internet connection—not even when you manually enter all the IP data.

He says, “So you have a synch problem.”

I say, because he seems to want this, “Yes. I have a synch problem.”

He says he’ll be right over.

This really happened

Using my phone, the Verizon technician calls Covad to initiate tests. The Covad operator tells the Verizon technician to hang up at once.

“No wonder he doesn’t have the internet if you’re using his phone,” the Covad operator says.

“What are you talking about? That’s a feature of DSL, that you have an internet connection even when you’re on the phone,” the Verizon technician explains to the Covad operator.

This conversation really happens. I’m right there.

Noware

Adam Greenfield has famously said, “The age of ubiquitous computing is here: a computing without computers, where information processing has diffused into everyday life, and virtually disappeared from view.”

I believe him. But meantime, I need to use computers and phone lines.

During the blackout of 2003, when there was no electricity in the northeast, and no water in New York City apartment buildings above the sixth floor, Adam Greenfield less famously told me, “Infrastructure’s a bitch.”

Adam Greenfield is right.

Gas

When I walked our dog this morning, two muscular officials were urgently pressing our young doorman to rouse the building’s superintendent on the phone.

The super is a Romanian with a warm heart and an unfortunate resemblance to Saddam Hussein. His voice came blaring up on the intercom.

“The gas leak is in the school,” I heard him say, meaning the high school that abuts our apartment building. “Everything here is hunky-dory.”

“Nothing is hunky-dory,” said the younger of the muscular officials into the intercom. “The leak is in the Chinese restaurant, too. It’s definitely in this building.”

As I worked through the early morning morning, I heard many fire engines.

The Wife called to tell me that a natural gas odor was being reported all over the city. We decided not to panic, and to phone each other again when we knew more.

A while later we knew more. We knew the “smell of gas” was being reported from Battery Park to upper Manhattan, and in parts of New Jersey.

We knew that the smell was not natural gas but mercaptan, a chemical that is injected into natural gas to let people know when there’s a leak.

We knew that some trains to New Jersey were suspended. Some buildings had been evacuated. The subway was still working.

We discussed sending our two-year-old to Brooklyn with a baby-sitter, in case Manhattan blew up.

If we were going to do it, we’d better do it while the subways were still usable. If a state of emergency was declared, the underground would clog with terrified human beings, trampling each other.

We decided, on the basis of no evidence one way or the other, that Manhattan was not going to blow up today.

A little while later, the mayor said the same thing.

Train service to New Jersey was restored before lunchtime.

Nobody knows what caused the smell.

Tanks

During his time in the military, a man I know served in Psychological Operations, or as it is better known, PSYOPS. Psychological Operations are designed to attack the enemy’s morale, undermining confidence and introducing fear.

Stationed at South Korea’s border with the North, my friend’s job was to create soundscapes. By mixing sound effects loops, he created the audio illusion of an apparently endless procession of armored vehicles. To the North Koreans, who could not see what was on the other side, it sounded like an immense army was mobilizing at their border.

My wife recalled this story during a dinner last night at an elegant restaurant. At least, it was elegant until we showed up. Our two-year-old daughter had missed her nap and was conducting a series of terror attacks on the linen, cutlery, and staff.

In an effort to save the restaurant from destruction and our family from shame, we tried bribing, coddling, and various distractions. When nothing else worked, we resorted to an escalating series of empty threats. Eventually, if only for a moment, we prevailed.

Gently removing sauce from her delicate blouse, my clever wife observed that parenting is like PSYOPS. You want them to think you have the tanks.

A Jewish King

We’ve begun asking our two-year-old daughter how she’d feel about acquiring a sister or brother. Last night while I was diapering her, she said, “I want a baby.”

“You want a baby?” I said.

“I want a baby!” she said.

“What kind of baby?”

“A Jewish baby,” she said.

I wasn’t sure I’d gotten that.

“You want a what?”

“I want a Jewish baby,” she said. Then amended it: “A Jewish king.”

Now I was sure of what I was hearing, but I wasn’t sure I was awake.

My wife entered as I finished snapping the child’s hippo jammies.

My wife said, “Did I just hear what I think I heard?”

“Uh huh,” I said.

Our attentiveness pleased our daughter.

“I want a Jewish king,” she said.

“Okay, honey,” I said to our daughter, “you’re freaking us out a little bit, now.”

She grinned to show she understood. “Jewish king!” she said.

Children say strange things, many of them meaningless. No doubt that’s the case here. Still, this morning I started checking real estate listings in Bethlehem. Just to be on the safe side.

Kiss the sky

Rose 4:30 am. Wife and Kid in car service 5:30 am—off to airport, then Michigan. The Kid, not yet two, gets airplanes. On Fire Island, during a vacation which ended weeks ago but seems to have taken place in a separate century, she flew a toy airplane “to Jamaica” for several afternoons running. Not only that, she pointed out the real airplanes and helicopters occasionally flying over the island, and distinguished correctly between the two types of airborne vehicle.

Before this same vacation was halfway over, a mini-tornado touched down in nearby Queens, New York, initiating a week of hard rain. To find out if we needed to evacuate the island, we turned on the beach cottage’s small TV and watched the local news broadcasts, which were only slightly less operatic than The Sopranos. Panting TV journalists interrupted their Katrina-like reportage of the weather event to hype airline terror threats that turned out to be pranks or mistakes. When the TV showed three airplanes in a row as part of its “terror in the skies” coverage, The Kid pointed, clapped, and cried, “Airplane! Airplane!”

And when The Wife was called to her ancestral home last week, The Kid, not yet two, understood that Mommy was taking an airplane to give Grandma an all-better kiss.

Now they are both flying to the ancestral home to see Grandma. As I write this, they must be nearing their landing place. But I am not with them. I go to Seattle.

My grandfather, for whom I was named, died in a plane crash when my mother was eleven. The incident colored every moment of her life. I grew up afraid of flying in consequence—convinced I would die like my namesake. I don’t know when I stopped being afraid. I do a lot of flying, and my main worry, when traveling solo, is to be sure I’ve packed a book I love. (When traveling with The Kid, my anxieties revolve around liquids, snacks, diapers, and naps.)

I do a lot of flying, but not nearly as much as I could. I could speak in a different place every week if I said yes. These days I am careful about yes. Not because I fear, but because I love.

Today it’s Seattle. The book I’ve packed is The History of Love.

Five years

I’ve dug up some things I wrote from New York City and posted here on September 11th 2001 and in the first days following:

9 1 1
“My part of New York City is not burning.” Written 11, 12, and 13 September 2001. Posted about a week later, when telephone and internet service were restored.
Day four
“Tonight, for the first time since Tuesday, we were permitted to cross 14th Street.” 14 September 2001
The angry flag vendor
“The peaceful vigil at Union Square has turned into a carnival of sorts.” 23 September 2001

These mini-essays are not art. They are not reportage, either (but what is?), and may not even be accurate. We were all a bit dazed—although not so dulled as now. The shock and sorrow were fresh. The events of September 11th had not yet been branded, nor turned into tools of partisan rancor, nor made into a mini-series, nor used to justify atrocity.

Silent phone, secret phone

Two weekends ago, my office phone line and an unknown number of other phone lines in my area went dead. I was in Chicago so it didn’t bother me. By Monday night, Verizon had apparently fixed the problem, and phone service was restored for me and my neighbors.

Come the following Sabbath, Verizon rested again.

If you called my office Saturday morning, you would have gotten a busy signal. If you tried Saturday afternoon, also a busy signal. The same on Saturday night.

Things got interesting on Sunday, if you consider no change interesting.

By Monday morning, the phone line was still dead. Noon brought no sudden restoration of telephony. 2:00? A disappointment, quite frankly. As the sun sets on a New York Monday, the absence of phone service attains a mystical sheen. Call me now. Busy signal. Dial again. Busy signal. Busy, busy, busy signal.

I tried using Verizon’s website to find out how to report the problem but it was like searching the moon for goats.

So I went downstairs to the Verizon pay phone, jotted down the “repair” number listed beside its little coin slot, and dialed it on my mobile.

See, if a pay phone goes down, that’s a problem.

That pay phone repair number was honey. After a mere six minutes of voice menu negotiation, I received my prognosis from the computer voice emulator that provides Verizon’s customers with quality service.

Thus spake Verizon:

“At present there is an outage in your area. Verizon is committed to restoring your phone service by … 8:00 … P.M. … on … Wednesday … June … 14th.”

“Committed to restoring” is the sweet part.

As far as I can tell, the problem involves phone lines, so you can see why it would take one of America’s largest phone companies five days to tackle a brain teaser like that.

Fortunately I only use my telephone to run my business, contact my family, and report medical emergencies. So the next few days should be just fine.

Baggage

Eight hours after leaving Laguardia Airport, I must go back.

I’ve got the underwear and striped shirts of a Mr Mbutu Alibekoglu (not his real name) from Fort Wayne Indiana (not his real location) in a suitcase that looked just like ours when I grabbed it off the American Airlines luggage carousel at Laguardia late last night.

I’ll return Mr Alibekoglu’s suitcase; hopefully ours will still be there. American Airlines Lost Luggage couldn’t tell me, mainly because they never answer their phone.

In other news, my office phone was out all weekend, but Verizon seems to be fixing the problem remotely this morning. Already, the phone works again in a buzzy, clicky, clacky, poppy way.

Not that I’ll need an office phone where I’m going.

I’m going to Laguardia, lugging a stranger’s suitcase I picked up by mistake at the end of a weary day. It’s the kind of error you make when tired and travelling with a toddler. You beat yourself up for it, blowing the whole thing out of proportion. But it’s a mistake, not a moral failing; a three-hour chore, not a descent into hell.

Mr Mbutu Alibekoglu’s suitcase contains underwear and socks, not anthrax and grenade launchers. The FBI won’t pounce on you and whisk you to Gitmo when you drag his suitcase into the airport.

Probably.

All in

Three Saturdays ago, my father had a heart attack. Last Saturday, we rushed our baby daughter to the emergency room. In-between, my wife had to undergo scary and uncomfortable medical tests.

Everybody is fine, even my dad (truth in advertising: aspirin really can save your life) but my once-brown goatee has gone shock-white.

Everybody is fine, so take a deep breath and savor the unusually high pollen count.

Something else took place in these same tense two weeks: I finished my book. Designing With Web Standards, 2nd Edition (DWWS 2e) left my hands last night and will reach shelves this summer.

When I agreed to write DWWS 2e, I mistook the job for a quick spruce-up. After all, what I’d said in the first edition about the benefits of standards-based design was still true: accessibility and semantics make your content easier to find and faster and cheaper to distribute. And the browser most people used when I wrote the first edition hadn’t changed in five years, so how tough a rewrite could I be facing? I figured I was looking at an updated screenshot or two, a changed URL, and maybe a couple of sticky notes.

About four months into the grueling (but also magically riveting) process, I realized that what I was doing was writing a book.

A lot of 2e will be familiar to the book’s fans, but a lot is new. And new is work. New is infinite wash-loads of work. Messy, exhausting. At some point in the infinite rinsing and lathering I was told the book had to be finished by last night. And so it has been.

I wouldn’t have made it alone. Erin and Ethan were right in there, carrying me.

I finished. I finished while grappling with sudden existential crises involving the people I love most. But then, my mother died while I was finishing my first book. Books kill.

This is me being cheerful after completing a rather strong second edition.

2e! 2e! My father and daughter and wife are well. My book is good. My song is sung.