Dealing With Technical Support

Everybody who reads PChuck's Network will eventually experience a problem that, regrettably, can't be fixed by reading PChuck's Network. As will the majority of the world's population, those who don't read PChuck's Network.

So you will eventually have to deal with Technical Support, for the product or service that isn't performing properly.

Now support techs have heard everything, so yelling at them, in any way, will cut no ice. Just be very calm and objective, but don't take no for an answer. Be persistent.

Sometimes even persistence doesn't produce results.

I spent half an hour on the phone discussing the problem. I was very polite, and the tech on the other end was likewise. But it was obvious, to me anyway, that we were getting nowhere.

So I closed the conversation. I played a little dirty here.

May I please speak to a supervisor?

Please hold.

(A minute on hold)
I'm sorry, we don't have anyone available today.

(WTH? They work without supervision?)
OK, I guess we will have to work on this tomorrow?

(a few seconds for the tech to start closing the ticket)
May I have a ticket number?

Thank you. Are you filling out the ticket? Did you indicate how polite I was?

Please indicate in the ticket that the customer was very polite, but indicated at the end that he was extremely pissed off.

Please hold.

(5 minutes on hold, and I waited patiently)
And I got a senior supervisor, that had some ability to deal with the problem.

Be very objective and polite, don't take no for an answer, and hit them hard when they don't expect it.

There are other ways to deal with them too. If you have a connectivity problem, for instance, using a tool like PingPlotter, to identify a time pattern, and / or where the loss of connectivity is occurring, is a good start.

If this is your first call to a given Tech Support group, go prepared to ask and answer questions. Get a ticket number, and be prepared to contact them again with more information.

If this is your second (or more) call, you know (sort of) what to expect. Documentation, or an organised description of the problem, can go a long way towards making them listen to you. As will an objective demeanour.

Most tech support people really would like to solve your problem. Try and meet them half way, but make it clear to them that you expect results. Work with them, and both of you may be pleasantly rewarded.

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What Is A CrossOver Cable, and Why Do I Need One

In any conversation between two people or computers, you speak and the other listens. Or it speaks, and your computer listens. This means that your mouth has to connect to the ear on the other end. This is called cross-over.

If you look at any hub / switch / router 10 years ago, you would probably see the various ports labeled "X-1", "X-2", "X-3"... This meant those were cross-over ports. Your computer would speak (transmit) thru a pair of wires in the Ethernet cable. When the connection went into the router port at the other end, the cross-over function connected the transmit wire pair from your computer to the receive port at the other end, and the receive pair from your computer to the transmit pair at the other end.

If you had to connect a pair of routers directly to each other, you would have a cross-over port at one end connecting to a cross-over port at the other end. This would cause a cancellation of the cross-over function, so you would use a cross-over cable.

If you connected a pair of computers directly, you would similarly need a cross-over cable.

This meant that everybody with a computer network had to have cross-over cables handy.

To eliminate the need for using cross-over cables, router manufacturers developed Auto-MDIX. A router port with Auto-MDIX will listen to see if it is connected to another cross-over port, and switch itself to non-cross-over mode if necessary. Some computers, likewise, have Auto-MDIX. If you connect a pair of computers directly, and one (or both) have Auto-MDIX, you can use a straight-thru (aka patch) cable, and they will connect just fine.

Auto-MDIX is a significant development, in the networking world. Having said that, I don't believe that Auto-MDIX can be relied upon, as a complete solution. I will still advise you to have a cross-over cable, or connector, handy for diagnosing network problems.

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Firewall Behaviour - And Windows Networking

The classical personal firewalls, which would be installed on most personal computers in a typical Small Office / Home Office environment, block only specific network traffic. By default, they are open, and pass all traffic.

Modern firewalls, used by more cautious network experts, permit only specific network traffic. By default, they are closed, and pass no traffic. After installing this type of firewall, you must run a manager and configure the firewall to pass your desired traffic.

My suspicion is that the nVidia nForce hardware firewall falls in the latter category. If you don't run the firewall manager, it will pass only a minimum of traffic, probably just enough for you to surf to the nVidia website and get software upgrades. This intentionally blocks SMBs (whether NetBT hosted, or directly hosted), and protects against the dangers offered by Windows Networking. If you're going to use Windows Networking over TCP/IP, you must run the firewall manager, and intentionally configure it for Windows Networking.

Short of configuring the firewall for Windows Networking over TCP/IP, you have no choice but to install an alternate transport such as IPX/SPX or NetBEUI, which bypasses the firewall completely.

For ongoing discussion about this issue, see these threads in the Microsoft Public WindowsXP Network_Web forum:

  • Selling my soul to the devil is the next step...
  • NVIDIA "hidden firewall" causes networking problem, by the Original Poster in the previous thread
    If you have the NVIDIA nforce networking controller with onboard LAN, you may have a "hidden firewall" interfering with your network connection. I'll describe my own situation and how I resolved the problem. I owe great gratitude to Chuck, frequent poster in this group, who worked with me for about a week, and had suggested the possibility of the NVIDIA "hidden firewall", but I was reluctant to accept that because, well, it really was hidden and I couldn't find it (and still can't). But it was there. (For those who want to review the original thread, it was posted in this group under the title "networking only works one way" on 08/04/06.)

  • Networking only works "one way", with only my part of the thread provided, because the Other Poster's content was not archived.

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Newer Spammer Tricks

As the public becomes aware of spam, and more resistant to it, the spammers have to be creative. It may take 10,000 pieces of spam to get one hit (an actual inquiry from a possible victim), rather than 1,000 (as it might have, a year ago). Spammers started out sending email, but now they have adapted to changing times.

Some people have given up on email, for communication with anybody that they really care about. They will use an Instant Messenger for direct, real time communication with individual friends, and broadcast information of general interest by blogs or other websites. With Instant Messaging, you can choose, at any time, who is allowed to send you messages. With blogs or websites, you can selectively browse those belonging to people that you know. If you have a lot of friends, you can automate checking your friends websites using a syndication feed newsreader.

So rather than just sending out email, spammers, too, are using Instant Messaging, and blogs.

Now, the email system is rather old, and was originally designed with very little restrictions in the network. Every server that transports email will accept email from any server sending, and send to any server receiving. The reality of spam has necessitated changes in that philosophy, but basically, any restrictions are patches on top of a pretty spam friendly infrastructure. And email travels at a level not seen by most users of the email.

But with email spam being less productive for the spammers, they've had to send more spam to get the same amount of money. This is not a problem - spammers don't send email directly from their computer, they use botnets as email relays.

Blogs and Instant Messaging and websites, on the other hand, are much more obvious to the users. It's harder to get any volume of spam through either of those, so the spammers have to be creative.

One of the ways the spammers are being creative is handling Captchas. Now, even if you don't know what a Captcha is, I'm sure you've used one. If you've setup an email account, or a website, or posted a comment in a guestbook anywhere, you've had to deal with one.

A Captcha, or "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart", is a word puzzle, that "humans can solve, but computers can't". Generally, you'll see a set of 4 to 8 alphanumeric characters, jumbled and mangled, in a box, and you'll be asked to type those characters into another box. If you type the correct sequence of characters, you'll be allowed to do what you want to do, and open an email account (for instance).

So the spammers are using people to read the Captchas, and type the answers. And there's no shortage of people to do this, even as they don't realise what they're doing. Captchas are so common these days that any time we see one, and we're doing something intentionally, such looking at pictures of dancing pigs, we solve it, without thinking about what we're doing. In this case, we're helping the bad guys.

The spammer's program, while setting up another email account, is presented with a Captcha - as you are, when you setup an email account. The spammer uses you, and others like you, to solve the Captcha.
  • The spammer's computer takes a copy of a Captcha, which has been presented to it for solving, and displays that same Captcha on its website.
  • You surf to that website, which has a link
    Check out the dancing pigs!
  • Eager to see the dancing pigs, you click on the link.
  • You see the request
    In order to continue, please enter the scrambled text from box A into box B.
  • You obediently type the answer, so you can see the dancing pigs.
  • Your answer is compared with the others answers.
  • With any number of identical, independently provided, answers (from you and / or the others), that identical value is used as the answer to the captcha.
  • The spammers website routes the answer back to the email setup program, and on to the email setup server, as if an actual person had just intentionally typed the answer.
  • The spammer gets another email account.
  • You, and the others, get to see the dancing pigs.

Think this is fiction? See the Google video featuring Luis von Ahn of Carnegie Mellon Institute: Human Computation, and read about a commercial product that uses a script to bypass captcha protection.

For a description of an alternative technique for breaking CAPTCHAs, that uses lots of money and CPU processing, see Dancho Danchev's Blog: Spammers and Phishers Breaking CAPTCHAs.
a great example of the adaptation process
That would have to be some pretty unimaginative spammers, to spend mucho bux on a CAPTCHA breaking system, when they could just use folks who want to see dancing pigs.

Human Computation (Luis Von Ahn: July 26, 2006)

Luis says
We see spam, allegedly, in our email, in online forums, and in the web, in general.

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Your Neighbour's WiFi

One of the limitations of WiFi is that it's not scalable, and it has a finite capacity. You cannot get more than (currently) 108M bandwidth. You simply won't be able to stream the latest movie in 3D multi-colour to every media computer in your house without seeing some performance limitations. And that is your own performance limitation. If your neighbour has a WiFi LAN, you will also have to share the bandwidth with him (her). WiFi simply does not have unlimited bandwidth, new technology or not.

In any domestic situation with neighbours, for a problem like a loud stereo, the tendency is to turn your own stereo up. Crank that sucker. This is, however, not a good, long term solution.

  • You possibly have up to 8 immediate neighbours, and more beyond them. Some of those neighbours, also currently suffering from your neighbour stereo, now have to suffer from yours too.
  • Your neighbour will probably turn his volume up yet again, to overcome the new "noise" from your system.

Like every analogy, this one suffers from a major problem. With loud stereos, it's easy to find where the noise is. Just follow your ears. Then call the police, and have them deal with the problem.

If your neighbour has a "loud" WiFi LAN (ie SuperG or MIMO), you won't be able to follow your ears. Nor will, I suspect, the police be interested in becoming involved. You're going to have to find your neighbour, and you're going to have to convince him to turn his stereo (WiFi) down. Or suffer in silence.

You can start with NetStumbler, and triangulate the problem. Then, you'll have to use diplomacy, not technology. You'll not solve the problem by getting a high power AP.

I, and others like me, have seen this situation coming for some time. Here is one possible real life example, and here is a second possible real life example. And even if neither discussion is diagnosed with this cause, this scenario is coming. Channel saturation, and unexplainable intermittent bandwidth variation, will become the norm, not the exception.

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If You Have Windows XP, Without SP2, Please Upgrade Today!

One of the problems with Windows, in general, is its stability and security problems. One of the causes of stability and security problems is the need for Windows to support various versions of different software, its own as well as third party products.

Periodically, Microsoft issues rollup updates, which give it a baseline to work from when supporting their own product. SP2 was one of those rollups. By continuing to use Windows SP1, and by possibly encouraging others to do so, you are requiring useless complexity in Windows.

Now, any pretty good knowledge of computer security is a good start, but any real knowledge will tell you that keeping your computer up to date is essential.

XP SP2 has been out for an extremely long time. Its time to put SP1 to bed, and prepare for SP3 or Vista, which ever comes first. As Windows customers move to SP3 or Vista, support for SP2 will continue. But support for SP1 should not.

Move to SP2. Windows is bad enough with it - its worse without it.

Having applied SP2, proceed directly to malware analysis. If you've been running with SP1 this long, you probably have something you're not aware of.

Now if you're reading this specifically because your computer has problems, but you already did malware analysis, yet you can't find the source of the problem, your computer may be now part of a botnet. In this case, the only solution is for you to "flatten and pave".

  • Immediately, disconnect from the network.
  • Repartition, and reformat the drive.
  • Re install Windows XP.
  • Upgrade to SP2, and all security patches.
  • Reconnect to the network.

I'm aware that this is brutal, and maybe rude, advice. But if you're advised any less, we're essentially saying
Look, you can solve your computer problems without upgrading to XP SP2. It's OK to run XP SP1.

But, it's not OK. Windows XP SP1 isn't supported by Microsoft, as of October 2006. Period.

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Choose Your WiFi Client Manager Carefully

When I got my laptop, it came with built-in WiFi, and with 3 programs ("Client Managers") to manage the WiFi connection.

  • HP - The laptop vendor.
  • Intel - The WiFi card vendor.
  • Microsoft - The operating system vendor.

The problem is, only one program can manage a WiFi card at any time. Multiple managers = confusion = random disconnects. Each Client Manager program will be different.
  • Information displayed.
  • Organisation of wizards to make settings changes.
  • Security options.

The Microsoft product, Wireless Zero Config, has one major advantage. WZC runs as a service. If you depend upon your computer having connectivity without you being logged in, or even immediately after you login, you may find this a useful feature.

Just make sure that only one client manager is run, at any time.

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Manual Network Setup Procedures

The Windows Network Setup Wizard, provided on computers running Windows XP, is a convenient way to setup your network. Sometimes though, you need to setup things manually.

In cases where you can't use the Network Setup Wizard, you'll be using the Network Connection Wizard.

  • Please start by reviewing Networking Your Computers, if you haven't already.
  • From Settings, open Network Connections. Find the network connection that you'll be using. The most common one is called Local Area Connection. Right click on the appropriate connection, and choose Properties. Make sure the following network components are installed, in the network items list.
    • Client for Microsoft Networks.
    • File and Printer Sharing for Microsoft Networks.
    • Internet Protocol (TCP/IP)
  • Make sure that the Internet Connection Firewall / Internet Connection Sharing (ICS) (pre-SP2), or Windows Firewall / Internet Connection Sharing (ICS) (SP2) service is running - Started and Automatic.
  • Configure your firewall setup, including installing any third party firewalls, after you run the wizard.

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Local Area Connection Properties
Start from the connection items list (Start - Settings - Network Connections in Windows XP). Right click on Local Area Connection, and select Properties. This will give you the Local Area Connection Properties wizard. If you have additional or alternate network devices, your connection may have a different name.

If you need to make changes to the network adapter, click on Configure. This will give you the Network Adapter Settings Wizard.

Make sure that the required protocols, for Windows Networking, are loaded. And make sure that you know what are loaded, and remove any that aren't necessary.

You'll likely be configuring TCP/IP as your primary network protocol. Double click on Internet Protocol (TCP/IP). This will open the TCP/IP Properties Wizard.

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In most cases, you'll use automatic (dynamic) settings.
  • Select Obtain an IP address automatically.
  • Select Obtain DNS server address automatically.
If you must make manual IP settings, you'll have up to 5 values to set.
  • IP address
  • Subnet mask
  • Default gateway
  • Preferred DNS server
  • Alternate DNS server
If you're just connecting 2 (or more) computers directly, IP address and subnet mask will be the only relevant entries. If you're connecting (2 or more) computers, and providing Internet service, you'll have also Default gateway and DNS servers to set.

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If you selected Obtain an IP address automatically, you'll have an opportunity to enter alternate settings too. If no DHCP server is available, you'll have static network settings, aka APIPA. This will let you connect with other computers on your immediate network (that are also using APIPA), and possibly other networks (with a gateway on the APIPA subnet).

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TCP/IP Properties - Advanced

Sometimes you will need to make settings beyond the basic 5 on the TCP/IP Properties window. From TCP/IP Properties, hit the Advanced button at the bottom. This opens the Advanced TCP/IP Settings wizard.

If you selected Use the following IP address, you'll be able to have your computer use multiple IP addresses.

With either automatic or manual IP addresses, you'll have a chance to specify multiple gateways. If the default gateway isn't available, your computer will try an alternate gateway, automatically.

And here, you can adjust the metric for this connection. If you have multiple network connections, and one is faster or more reliable, you can influence IP routing. These selections are reflected in the static route table. This is important with a computer with multiple network connections.

On the DNS tab, you have the ability to define more than 2 DNS servers. And additional DNS settings.

On the WINS tab, you will find the most frequently checked and set selection - the NetBIOS setting, aka NetBT.
  • If your LAN has a DHCP server (not a NAT router), you can select "Default", and control the setting from a setting in the DHCP server.
  • If you have a domain, and use DNS for name resolution, you can select "Disable", and use Direct Hosted SMBs.
  • If you don't know what any of this means, or if you have a small LAN without a DNS server, select "Enable".

On the Options tab, you can set various TCP/IP filtering options.

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Finding, and Tracking, Computers On Your Network

Many people (and most of those who read these articles) have more than one computer. After a while, some of us even forget what computers we have. I know I do - my memory escapes me sometimes. So what can we do?

The most obvious answer is to make a list. But what if you forget to update the list?

So the next answer is to let your computer track your computers. If you can find one computer (and if you can't, your problem exceeds the scope of PChuck's Network for help), you can run one of these free utilities, and find the others.

Angry IP Scanner, and SoftPerfect Network Scanner, provide quick, one time IP scans of the local network, and give you a neat tabulation of all addressable devices, that respond to pings, on that network.

The Dude, on the other hand, will do an auto discovery scan of any subnet of interest, using multiple protocols - IMAP4, IP, and SNMP. And it will monitor connectivity, on an ongoing basis, of all discovered (or manually defined) devices, using those protocols and more - DNS, HTTP, IMAP4, IP, and NetBIOS. If you're tired of checking your server every couple of hours, to see if it's up, use The Dude, with its customisable polling intervals, to watch your server for you, and notify you when it doesn't respond to polling on any relevant protocol.

Maybe a couple of years ago, you would use tools like these at work, and pay well for them. These tools are free, and your home network can probably benefit from their use.

All three of these tools have a permanent place in my toolbox.

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