Sunday, 1 February 2009

The times they are a-changin'

Recently I got a call from my dad, who was having some problems with his computer, along the lines of "there's something wrong with the damn internet again". Since I was the one who set it up for him, I don't mind fixing problems when they occur, but I find that the hardest thing with these debugging sessions over the phone is to get him to quote the exact messages he is seeing. It's kind of interesting, as if the words and concepts are so alien to him that he zones out after only a second, and is actually unable to read them aloud. A typical exchange goes like this: -So, dad, what does the error message say? -Oh, something about the Internet. -OK, but what does the text say, precisely? -I dunno, Microsoft and Internet something. -Dad, can you please tell me exactly what the text says? -I just told you, it says it can't find the Internet. -Where is the message, I mean, what program does it come from? -Well, dammit, it's right here, on the screen!

And so on.

This time, though, the problem turned out to be kind of funny. He really needed to log in to his online bank, and it was important, so although the symptoms sounded as if it was a problem with the remote site (something about an invalid certificate), I promised to take a closer look. Last time I was at their place, I made sure that remote desktop was enabled, and that their router would forward the right ports, so it would be easier to handle these situations. However, I still needed the IP of their router, so I had to spend some time voice-guiding him step by step through the router's web interface until he could quote me the address. Armed with this, it was no problem to log in. (I had the administrator password already.)

It turned out that he was absolutely right, the bank (and any other secure site he had tried) would complain about the certificate being outdated. But it was outdated in an unusual way: "this certificate will not be valid until ...". For a couple of seconds, I stared blankly at the screen, and then I moved the mouse down to the right corner and hovered over the clock widget. It said it was January 2003.

So the clock had reset at some point (I knew that the BIOS had had some hiccups lately), but for some reason the automatic clock synchronization didn't correct it. I checked, and it was enabled and it was pointing to a good NTP server. So I tried to force a new synchronization. The result: a message saying that the local time was so much off that it wouldn't even try. Well, thanks for nothing: in a situation where you really need to be saved by an external time source, it simply won't do it. There might be some good technical reason for that, but I can't think of one right now, so I think about punching Steve Ballmer instead. (Mmm...)

Anyhow, this just shows again how hard it is to foresee what kind of problems might occur with a setup once you leave it on its own for some time. No matter how well you've configured it so that nothing can possibly go wrong, something will eventually find a way to go wrong, and if you're particularly unlucky, it will be in such a way that the symptoms are quite far removed from the cause: in this case, a hardware glitch that reset the clock had no apparent effects, except that dad was suddenly not allowed to log on to his internet bank.

As long as this kind of thing can happen (and much too easily), how can we ever hope to give grandma a computer that "just works" and that won't suddenly barf up some weird messages on the screen and transform into an expensive brick?


David K├ągedal said...

To find out the IP address, you can tell him to point his browser at a site like or similar (I believe there are many).

Or you could try using something like Fog Creek Copilot (I been considering it myself but have really needed to yet).

Richard said...

Ah, that would have been useful. Anyway, the post got so long that I forgot to mention it, but while I was logged in, I also set up a hostname using my account, and installed DynDNS Updater, so now I can find it at all times.

JesperE said...

I think the problem is that NTP was not designed for home computers, it was designed for mainframes where it was equally important that the time did not make sudden jumps (especially backwards). I installed "NetTime" on my wife's computer which has a broken bios battery, and it actually seems to be able to set the time regardless of the current time.