When you have eliminated the impossible...

Publication date: 24 March 2012
Originally published 2011, in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 24-Mar-2012.


You'd think I'd be better at this stuff by now.

You'd be wrong.

I was upgrading some hard drives, you see. My policy of replacing HDs with bigger ones when they're only two or three years old is hard to stick to in practice, even when DriveImage XML doesn't spend the 10 hours it said it'd take to copy some stuff and then announce that, on second thoughts, there's still 20 hours to go.

But I was finally really and truly doing it.

So I got the first new drive out of the anti-static bag, looked for spare SATA sockets on the mobo, didn't find any, and considered rummaging around in the Big Box of Random Expansion Cards. (Roll up, roll up, and try your luck! Will you get a giant fanless Radeon 9700? An ISA Sound Blaster? The nine-year-old SATA controller you're actually looking for? Or any of a dozen possibly-functional network adapters, including one for an Amiga 2000?)

Then I stopped considering that, and just did it the relatively easy way. Plug new bare drive into extremely inexpensive SATA-to-USB adapter doodad, tolerate the only-USB-2, could-be-worse-could-be-USB-1, transfer rate. That'll do, at least for this first drive-upgrade (of three).

Plugged it in, partitioned and quick-formatted, started some copying, off we go.

And then, my Internet connection went to hell.

It was the darndest thing. Never seen it before. The DSL adapter disconnected, then re-negotiated a connection, then grabbed itself an IP address from the ISP, then worked absolutely A-OK with no problems at all for a total of no more than ten seconds.

Then it disconnected again, re-negotiated, et cetera.

Over and over and over. About once a minute. It was as if some invisible goblin was waiting until he saw all of the green lights come on and then whipping the phone cable out of the back of the DSL adapter, then immediately plugging it back in.

I tried a new phone cable. I tried a whole new DSL adapter from my Replacements for Show-Stopping Components shelf. I power-cycled everything in sight. I tried the new DSL adapter hooked up to a laptop in its own little two-node LAN. I wandered outside to see if someone was mucking around up a telegraph pole.

I, finally, called my ISP's support line.

After some quite pleasant conversation, they admitted defeat and booked a technician visit.

I then WiFi-ed some fresh Internet from a tethered mobile phone and got on with my life, while watching the data usage like a hawk.

Then, after a few hours, it occurred to me that the moment when my Internet went all manky was also the moment when I plugged in that USB-adapted hard drive.

It made no sense whatsoever that that was the problem, which is why I'd not bothered to test it. I certainly didn't want to abort a 10-hour USB-2-speed drive-cloning operation unless I really had to.

I could, however, move the DSL adapter and laptop to another room and try connecting there.

It, of course, now worked perfectly.

I cancelled the support tech visit.

When I approached the USB-to-SATA contraption armed with an AM radio, yea, great and fearsome was the RF interference. Which, I suppose, was being picked up by the un-twisted phone cable wires (the susceptibility to outside interference of straight conductors is exactly why Ethernet-cable conductors are twisted), and delivered to the DSL adapter.

The DSL box couldn't cope with the noise, and so dropped and renegotiated the connection, over and over again, faithfully hoping to one day see the Internet through a hole in the smog.

Banishing the noisy USB-to-SATA gadget and reconnecting everything as it used to be fixed the problem.

I'm always vaguely surprised when something I do inside a computer doesn't result in catastrophe, so this story hasn't much of a moral for me. But if it has a moral for anyone else, it's "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth", as some bloke reminiscent of Gregory House once said. I thought it was negligibly probable that the USB adapter had thorked my DSL. But it was clearly possible. I should have figured it out much faster, too, given that the problem started at the same time as my disk cloning.

I'm still keeping an eye out for that bastard little goblin, though.

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