24/07/2012

Just call me Neo

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"
 - Arthur C. Clarke
I had a fun experience the other day. I got to be a magician.

We moved and transferred our cable broadband account to the new house.  Two engineers came to install it, one about my age with a seen-it-all demeanour, and his junior partner, a gawky young apprentice. They  pulled out their toolboxes, prised the covers off the existing boxes on the outside of the house and started testing connections with some neat-looking devices. I asked some desultory questions and got convincing answers about signal strength.

So far, so hardware, it's all a bit over my head. Or rather, under my feet - I've never really had much interest in low-level infrastructure.

They connected up a shiny new cable modem/router and waited for it to boot properly. It didn't work. They got another out of the van and tried again. It looked like it was working this time, so they asked if I had a computer. "Several," I answered, "what do you need to do on it? Does it need Windows or can I use Linux?"

"Linux?" the older guy asked, looking confused. "I just need Internet Explorer." OK, we can do a browser without having to resort to Windoze (or <deity> help us, IE), so I got out my Ubuntu laptop and fired up Chromium. After struggling for a minute or so, he handed it back to me and asked to go to a web page. Nothing. No connection.

They got another hub from the van and tried it. Looked good, so we tried the web site. Still no response. They were just about to go and see if they had any more in stock, so I asked them to wait a moment. "Let me just try something," I said. "It looks like the DNS isn't resolving."

I opened a terminal window and typed a quick command in. Here's a screenshot of what I did.


"Looks like it's resolving now," I said, "let's try the web site again." Sure enough, it worked this time.

The engineers were absolutely flabbergasted. "Did you see that?" said the older man, "he's like Neo in The Matrix! We've been sending these hubs back as broken and it just needed this guy to sort them out!"

I tried explaining that we'd just left the router long enough for it to sort itself out, but they weren't having it. As far as they were concerned, I'd employed strong tech-fu to make it work. They were still talking about it twenty minutes later when they left.

I guess if you've never seen a command line before, it's all like ... magic.

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