Annoying Tech: July 2008 Archives
At the end of Jacques Futrelle's classic (and not just because it was written in 1905) mystery story, "The Problem of Cell 13," (read it online!) asked how he would have solved the problem if the plan he executed hadn't worked, Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen (a.k.a. "The Thinking Machine" *) replied, "There were two other ways."
(* Which always makes me think of the line from the a classic parody, which I can't identify offhand although I think it was Robert L. Fish, '"Was it Wednesday?" asked the Thinking Machine, thinking he was a washing machine.')
That's often how I feel about tackling computer problems...although, far too often, there turns out to be no (good) way, or, sometimes, the problem resolves itself (mysteriously stops being a problem).
Case in point: The "afternoon of network heck" on Wednesday, July 10, when, abruptly, my Internet connection went wonky.
Suddenly, the browsers (FireFox, with Opera as backup, MSIE only when absolutely necessary) on my near-new XP Pro desktop weren't accessing the web. I had a Putty SSH session open, and it kept working, so it wasn't the connection proper...but foolishly, I closed Putty, and couldn't regain the connection.
And, apparently, it wasn't just me having the problem, as I discovered a little later.
I remembered that a little earlier, Zone Alarm had "detected it was on a new network"... given that my desktop has a wired connection to my router, that's a little odd. I tried checking Zone Alarm for odd signs, but didn't see anything amiss. (I may not have looked at the right stuff, however.)
Events like this are often, of course, the result of some change, but at the time, I couldn't think of anything that might have been.
So I began to try things, starting with the easy and obvious:
- A quick check of the TV confirmed that cable service per se was still on.
- Ditto blinky-lights on the cablemodem, so I hadn't inadvertantly tapped the STANDBY button (which disconnects things).
- Transient glitch? Rebooting the computer, and then the cablemodem and router, didn't help.
- Loose network connection somewhere? I removed and re-inserted everything in the path.
- Bad router jack? The box has fallen a few times. I tried the other router ports.
- Bad Ethernet cable to the computer? I tried another CAT5 Ethernet cable between router and desktop.
- Try another computer. The press-loaner Vista notebook could access the Internet, via my 802.11 WiFI. This was partial clue I didn't pay enough attention to.
Then it was time for some serious Plan B's. Since at this point there seemed to be WiFI Internet access, I went rooting around for a WiFI adapter for the desktop, but:
- And old Travel Access Point's "simple three-step instructions" sheet showed, in Step 3, cranking open a browser window to configure something... but didn't actually give the IP address. (And the manual, which I was able to grab via the notebook, wasn't much more help.)
- I found a USB WiFI Adapter -- but not the CD with the driver. And the vendor web site showed drivers for two models -- neither of which was the model I found. By the time I'd reached tech support and got the URL for the driver, I no longer had enough net access to get to it. (And, as it turned out, this wouldn't have helped.)
- In case the problem was my desktop's NIC card, I started to try a USB Ethernet adapter -- but although I had the driver CD, I remembered this was pre-XP enough that I was nervous. (I had another USB/Ethernet right in front of me, but didn't see it.
Now it was time to call Comcast, my broadband provider, in case they knew something I didn't. However, the wait-time was too long, so I decided to talk Grep (our dog) out for a walk. While out walking, I called one of my colleagues, Ernest Lilley, who said "If you're using Zone Alarm, crank its firewall setting down a notch or two."
Since I couldn't do that until I got back, I tried calling Comcast, my broadband provider again, while still out walking. Aha! A few menu choices down, the recording advised me there was a known problem with a new Microsoft update conflicting with Zone Alarm--uninstall the patch and then check the ZoneAlarm site for further advice." (This assumed that the un-install would resolve the immediate problem, of course.)
And, in fact, it did.
That let me get to the ZoneAlarm web site, where they acknowledge the issue and offered a little more advice. They initially put this on their main page:
Sudden loss of internet access - Microsoft Update KB951748 is known to cause loss of internet access for ZoneAlarm users. We recommend that users uninstall KB951748 using "Add or Remove Programs" until the issue is resolved.
I conceded to Ernest that he was right enough in his solution -- although Zone Alarm feels that lowering the firewall security levels is somewhere between ungood and plusungood (to cop a phrase from George Orwell's 1984 reduced-vocabulary lexicon). But, as I pointed out, he hadn't actually identified the cause of the problem.
A few hours later, there were news stories confirming the problem, workarounds and solutions. By the next day, Thursday, July 10, Zone Alarm made updated versions available "which solve the loss of internet access problem," which should make it safe to allow Windows to (re) apply the patch. (I haven't yet done the Zone Alarm update, but I will.)
Let's gloss over the annoying fact that Microsoft's "Add/Remove Software" doesn't have any (obvious) way to sort updates based on when-applied, much less a separate "Update/patch manager" the way some applications seem to. The Add/Remove approach worked, at least for me.
Had it not, there were, as Professsor SFXvD noted, at least two other ways I can think of. One, use Microsoft's System Restore facility to revert to the most recent Restore Point. (Memo to self: Create a new Restore Point at least once a week. I try to do one before any software install, but even so.) This might sacrifice an install and/or config -- I _think_ that doing a Windows "Save State" would give me some way to re-recover. But it sure should undo that nasty update.
Two, since it was a system problem rather than a network problem: Have a bootable Linux CD, with whatever key utilities I might need. I don't know if this would be able to see my Windows NTFS file system (hard drives), worth finding this out when I'm not in a hurry.
Three, crank up my old IBM ThinkPad, which wouldn't have the dread update, since it's normally off, and therefore should work.
Four, dial-up. I've got a modem card in my desktop. I think I've got dial-up access through an account -- another Memo To Self, find a zero-maintenance-cost dial-up provider for backup.
Or do without connectivity for a while, or trot over to the library where there's Internet computers... if they're not already in use by fellow XP/Zone Alarm sufferers.
Or, of course, copy files to a USB stick and go to the library and use one of their computers.
(If I had a Blackberry or whatever, I could always use that for checking/sending email.)
("Get a Mac" or "Go Linux" don't count as solutions; for bad or worse, I'm working in Windows. I'm used to it, it ain't bad most of the time, and it's what most of my readers use.)
The challenge, of course, is which solutions to invest time making ready, and keeping solutions up to date.
Computers. Networks. Pfui.