Telephones and Telegraphs - Not Internet

Wow. AT&T kicked me in the balls pretty hard at the beginning of this month. I didn't pay my bill because I didn't know it was due. Apparently AT&T prefers some kind of antique Pony Express kind of notification system using dead trees. Since that's buried under so much AT&T spam packing the mailbox in my yard, it's easy to let a couple of them slip by. But I got that sorted out.

I remember during one of my many hours on the phone with AT&T customer service telling someone of the impossibility of using AT&T's web site to do simple things like pay a freaking bill. But I was assured it was not just possible, it was easy. So I tried again. And shaking my head in disbelief, I requested that AT&T send me an online registration number by Pony Express. That arrived and I have the number! Great! So I fill in the web form. Then I fill it in again because of shockingly stupid restrictions on username composition (which made the stupid restrictions on the password look less criminally insane). Great. Account created! Super.

Except not. Except instead of logging into my account, I see this:

Then I click the "contact us" link in the error message and I click the topic related to logging in. It then suggests I log in. Which produces the same error. Grr. Getting out of that loop I start to compose my description of the situation and there is some unspecified limit to how much I'm allowed to say? WTF? At the very least that space should be as long as AT&T's freaking terms of service which they wanted me to read!
I'm totally not amused here. I don't even use this idiotic land line. I just need it for my internet connection and it follows that I want to do my business over the internet. This would be less ridiculous if AT&T was not claiming to be the post 19th century company that they wish they were. No, AT&T keeps sending me dead tree spam trying to get me to use them as an internet provider too. Hell, why not just go with carrier pigeons?
Internet provider that can't bill its customers using the Internet: Epic Fail


DSLexia Extreme

My internet per se comes from DSLExtreme (which I call DSLexia Extreme) and that requires an old school telephone land line. The economics barely are worth it, but I like to pay AT&T as little as possible. My recent nightmare has fully developed that sentiment. AT&T (ironically for being a major ISP, for example all iPhones before last year) has a shitty web page with shitty features to manage your phone account online. I could not figure out how to pay bills on line. I'm pretty sure it's not simply my computer-using clumsiness. I timed one AT&T promotional web page loading in *eight* minutes - at SDSC.edu, best network in town! So something is rotten with AT&T's web page and that's just a start. They force me to call with a telephone and press buttons to pay my bill. No email reminders, but rather paper bills hidden among as much of their paper spam. I missed a couple of these among the spam bin that is my snail mail and lost track of when I'd last called and suddenly one day, no internet.

I call DSLexia who kept insisting that to figure out why I had no internet, I'd need to give Steve Ballmer a foot massage. Finally *I* figured out that, hey wait, no phone line (because I don't use it for anything else because of AT&Ts dirty surreptitious habit of charging "long" distance rates for calls to points I can reach in 30 minutes - by bicycle!). Once I realized that it was the phone that was really dead, I called AT&T and told them to turn it back on. To their credit they lied to me the good way, they said it'd take 40 hours and it took about 25.

Great! I thought I was back in action. Only the DSL didn't work. Then back to DSLexia. These guys really were exasperating. I called at least a dozen times and spent at least as many hours on hold. Some "tech" "support" personnel still wanted to do the old "Press the Start button" script (moot for Linux) but since I knew the root cause of the problem, I could usually get them to move on to their next phase - being completely stultified. They would consistently elevate my call to tier 2 support and after a while the tier 2 guys would start to realize what was at issue and they believed it wasn't a technical problem, but rather one of re-signing up for service. They'd transfer me to billing. Then billing would deem it a technical problem and transfer me to tier 1. Then the process would repeat. About half of the time the wait times were about 10 minutes. The other half, they were indefinite.

But this was wasting valuable time to experiment with just how long they could keep me on hold after promising to come back in a minute. Eventually I learned that billing and tier 2 will *not* eventually pick up your call if it's not conventional weekday business hours (didn't figure out which US time zone exactly). We could have saved a lot of trouble had the tier 1 staff been honest and/or knowledgeable about that.

Finally I talked to Danielle in California (not the Philippines) who was not clueless. She knew my problem in a familiar been-there-done-that way that made me believe what she said. She also didn't seem eager to lie to me about the prospects of when I might get my connection back. I had been assuming all this time that all that needed to happen was someone just resets my connection and I'm done. But she made the reality sink in that basically a new order was going to have to be placed. This meant a projected outage of almost two weeks.

Even though I had just paid the AT&T weasels $40 to turn my phone back on, I checked into switching to cable from Warner: expensive to setup, maintain, and no quicker to get back online. I asked what it would take to get AT&T to just take over DSL and they really balked at that as if it were hardly even possible. They are emphatically moving to their Uverse technology and it sounds superior, but the up front costs are high (for a non TV watcher) and its lead time was not helpful either, weeks hence. I would add that this makes sense since it is madness to think that true *high* speed internet can come delivered over an analog phone line. Most previous experience with DSL Extreme has been them telling me to do voodoo nonsense with my physical phone wires to improve the connection. If that is really necessary, then I'm afraid those wires are too obsolete for using in that way.

Basically there was going to be no high speed internet service at my house for 2 weeks. It definitely sounds like a white person problem to be so dependent on a stupid internet connection, but it's like with a lot of people how important their car is. If it breaks, they don't get to work. Same with me and the internet. But with internet, there are no "rentals". This is a very big problem that telecommuting pioneers like me are discovering.

I did explore the possibility of borrowing a cup of internet from my friendly neighbors. But my neighbors aren't really any friendlier than I am and when it comes to the internet they are much more hostile. For the past 9 month I've let my neighbors use my open wifi if they aren't doing conspicuously naughty things, but no reciprocity in my time of need. As much as I wanted to "borrow" a connection from access point "GO_F_YOURSELF", alas, they used a strong password wpa psk scheme. I checked.

I looked into tethering and in the future this will be the correct solution, but right now, it required creepy client software (not available for Linux) or rooting the phone. Since my new smart "phone" was my last dwindling ray of light to the outside world, I did not feel like experimenting to see if I could avoid bricking it.

Not quite ready to accept defeat, it was time to open a mighty can of ancient technical whoop ass on my lack of internet connectivity. Since I had already signed up for this moribund 19th century "telephone" "service", I realized that I had, barely, all the ingredients to go back in time, almost 30 years, to use an ancient technology to temporarily solve the problem: dial up.

Getting Linux (or any OS) to know what to do with a telephone modem in 2011 is not exactly easy and without a network connection, it's very challenging. But by ferrying some things (pppd, wvdial, minicom, setserial) from work, a visit to an internet cafe, and reading man pages on my Android phone, I did it. I then found that almost all modems that could be plugged into the inside of a modern PC are "Winmodems" which means that you probably won't find necessary drivers if you use Windows and they probably won't exist if you use Linux. Amazingly some clueless people were clearing out an office building downtown and posted a NIB proper external 56k modem. They asked too much (the clueless part), but it was their lucky day since I was on a serious mission; I guess when they tell the story, I'll be the clueless character.

Once back home, the computer I was preparing for this project stopped booting and started smelling like burnt electronics. Much voodoo later, I was able to drop its power draw down and get it to boot and run. Finally, I got the modem recognized and responding, then, making calls. I'd already laboriously mapped out which of the access numbers from the dial up ISP I'd signed up for were in Zone 1 (not long distance). After some configuration issues that required me to read the C source coded of pppd, I finally got an internet connection. Then I was in more familiar territory (as a practicing professional) when I set this computer up to be a port forwarding IP masquerading gateway firewall router. I rewired a few things on my network and now, my house once again has internet. Whew.

It's not fast, that's for sure, but one of the very nice advantages of doing things in the spartan text-console-based world I like to work in is that I don't *need* very fast. I can not watch lolcat videos and stream music while using on-line office suites, but I can ssh to my main server and do all the stuff I need to do (like compose this entirely over the line, i.e. I'm at home and the editor is running at work). I even did a Gentoo `emerge --sync` which needed to happen to then `emerge iptables`. That was slow and took many hours, but it did work.

I don't know how this story will end. Maybe DSLexia was jacking me around and they'll keep billing me and not providing service indefinitely until I get legal representation to menace them with a law suit. I did, for example, find out in the course of this that their "free" DSL modem actually means "free lease". Apparently "free lease" is a euphemism for "loaned". They *loan* you the modem because when you cancel your service, they want it back or they hit you with a $100 charge. Shady bullshit like that, the necessity for paying two bills, and the questionable technical service is probably enough to make me not recommend them despite how much I hate giving AT&T any money ever.

I may be without high speed internet for between 2 and 4 weeks, but thanks to my serious effort I won't be pressured without internet while I make a more careful decision about which of these predatory companies are the lesser of evils.


Visualizing Types Of Databases

I made this graphic to illustrate how I thought of various database strategies. Enjoy.