20 July 2007

What else I did in Paris

After my lunch in Argenteuil with old friends last Sunday, I drove into Paris to spend the evening, night, and part of the next day with another long-time friend CHM. He is a Parisian who lives most of the time in the U.S. but still has his apartment in Paris, where he often spends the summer. He and I worked together in Washington DC from 1983 to 1986.

When I got to CHM's place at 7:00 p.m., he had a light dinner ready. To start, we each ate half of a nice sweet melon, which is similar to a cantaloupe. I haven't had an American cantaloupe in so long that I couldn't begin to tell you what the differences are.

Melons are in season in France in June and July, and they come mostly from Provence (melons de Cavaillon, Cavaillon being a town in Provence) or from the French southwest (melons charentais, Charente being the name of an old French province). Charentais is evidently the name of the variety, because CHM said the melon charentais we were eating was actually grown in Spain.

In France they tell you, in the supermarkets and the outdoor markets, where the produce you are buying was grown. In other words, there's an indication of geographical origin on the signs in the supermarket produce section or on the vendor's stand at the market. It's considered important to know that the melon charentais you're thinking about buying was not actually grown in the Charente, or that the strawberries you are about to buy were grown in Spain (they are beautiful and are probably tasteless!).

OK, now I've turned this topic into one big digression!

After the melon, we had a thin slice of cured pork roast and some cornichons, or pickled gherkins. Then we had some cheese (Morbier from the Alps and Bleu d'Auvergne from the center part of France), as well as some goat cheese that I brought from Saint-Aignan, with bread of course. Then a banana, very ripe and good, and after that some black-currant sorbet. Doesn't that all sound good?

To those of you who say you read my blog early in the morning and start the day hungry, be consoled by the fact that I write my blog entries early in the morning and start my day hungry too. Is it time for lunch yet?

After the evening collation, CHM and I decided to work on his Internet connection. It was about 9:00 p.m. He had opened a new account with France Telecom to have DSL (called ADSL in French) activated on his phone line. He had rented a combination modem-router from France Telecom, as most people do here (three euros a month). The modem-router is called a livebox (English names are very much in vogue) and also gives you the option of unlimited phone calling over an ADSL connection.

We weren't even sure that the DSL signal was actually active on CHM's phone line. CHM had read the livebox documentation and understood the basic installation process. I sat down and skimmed through it while he got his computer up and running. We installed DSL filters on the phone jacks and plugged the livebox moden-router into the electrical and phone outlets.

To get connected, the first thing to do was enter into the computer's network configuration utility was a password that seemed to be hard-coded in the livebox wireless router and that was about 30 characters long. The long and the short of it is that we must have entered and verifited that password at least 25 times over the course of the next three hours, with no success. CHM's Mac wouldn't let him copy and paste the interminable password into the password field on the configuration screen, so he had to type it each time and then read it back to me to make sure he hadn't made a typing mistake while entering it.

The password as printed on the livebox packaging and the livebox itself was in the format XXX XXX XXX etc., with spaces separating each group of four characters. Did we need to enter the password with or without the spaces? Who knew? At the end of the password ("wireless security key" was the official term) there were two characters just hanging there, CD. Were they part of the the key or not? Who knew? Nothing worked.

We needed to get the wireless network up and running so that we could "get into" the router and configure it by entering other passwords and user names that would allow CHM to be connected to the Internet through the modem.

At midnight, we gave up. I told CHM that his livebox was D.O.A. He started calling it his boîte morte.

I went to bed pondering the problem we were having. CHM's apartment is on a courtyard on the back of a building that faces a big schoolyard planted with tall trees. The view from his windows makes you think you are in the country, when in fact you are right in the middle of Paris. It's an amazing place. As the weather was was hot and muggy, the big French window next to my bed was wide open, and there was a mosquito buzzing in my ear off and on.

Sometime during the night, as I dozed and tossed and turned, intermittently slapping at that damned mosquito and wondering whether I was better off completely under the covers, which was too hot, or uncovered and therefore vulnerable to insect bites, it dawned on me that we might be able to hook up the livebox to CHM's computer, temporarily, using a wired ethernet connection. The wireless connection requires a security password (to prevent neighbors from glomming on to your network) but the wired connection does not.

When I woke up at 7:00 a.m. it was pouring rain. There was lightning and thunder. CHM was already up, so I made some noise to let him know I was too. We had tea and bread for breakfast. I told him I had a plan for getting the router configured.

We decided to spend the morning, if necessary, working on the livebox. And my idea worked. We got into the router over the wired ethernet connection. First there was a screen asking for an Internet connection password, which France Telecom had provided. Zap! We had Internet.

Then there was a screen where we were instructed to enter the 30-character wireless network security key again. Not again! Yes, again. I figured we'd be there all morning, entering it again and again, with and without spaces, with and without those last two characters. We pretty much knew it by heart now.

Surprise, surprise! The first time we entered it, it worked. Instead of an error message, we got an OK confirmation. We unplugged the ethernet cable, but we still didn't have a connection to the wireless network. Without that, we were hosed. Then I remembered that we had to press a button on the bottom of the livebox to put the wireless router into something called Association Mode. In that mode, it would recognize any computer that was trying to connect to it — as long as the computer "knew" the 30-character password.

And that worked. So more than 12 hours after we had started — but with a sleep break — we were up and running.

Don't you wish you could spend some time in Paris having as much fun as all that? Actually, we joked and laughed all through the process. It was frustrating, but as we say: Tout est bien qui finit bien.


  1. What Ken forgets to say, being too modest, is that without him I would never had been able to figure all this out. Electronics! CHM

  2. Sleepless nights can be worth something I see. Bravo for the brainstorm. Your story reminds me of the feeling of accomplishment I felt when I got on the Internet the first few times. It was a bit of a hassle, but worth it in the end.

  3. Ken! The button story at the end reminded me of what the lady from the hotel at Saint Aignan had told me after giving me that paper with the longish number.
    It also reminded the first time I installed an Internet connection, eons ago, not a DSL one, on worldnet. I tried and tried and tried and it never worked. So I went to bed and the next morning, what do you know? Everything was in working order and I discovered by going to one of the worldnet forums that worldnet had been down that evening.
    Congratulations on your success ;)

  4. Oh la! My husband will not go to bed until he has things like that up and running. Lucky for CHM to have you there to help!

  5. @ Claude, exactly. That's what I thought of when I read in the livebox docs that you have to press a button on the router to put it into Association Mode and let a new computer connect to it. But you only have to do it once, as you discovered at the Grand Hôtel. After that, it just works.

    And yes, that's the main problem when you are working with networks and the Internet — you can never be sure if it is your computer or the network itself that is causing you trouble. Sometimes the only solution is to turn it off and come back to try it again later.


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