We can bend the laws of physics for your super-yacht, but we can't break them

Make it work like it does at home


On Call In this week's episode of our On Call column, an exasperated Register reader nearly walks the plank after failing to break the laws of physics.

Our tale comes from "Rob" (not his name) and concerns the time he was working for an ISP that sold satellite connectivity to the super-rich on their super-yachts.

He had an issue with one customer regarding iffy service at sea. "It was an ongoing case that had resulted in replacement of lots of expensive hardware for stabilized satellite platforms and DVB-S modems over the course of the last couple of weeks," Rob recalled.

The problems persisted, and eventually the customer demanded that someone be sent out to fix things in person. The support fees were eye-watering so Rob's boss agreed. Rob was packed off to diagnose and deal with the issue.

The yacht, thankfully, had been moored somewhere warm and sunny, meaning only a flight and a short trip out from the dock was needed.

Loaded with gear, Rob set to work. "I started ripping the guts out of the platform. Testing each leg, each router, switch and server that I could get my hands on. Nothing. Not a blip. Service was showing no hold-ups, no congestion. They were on a clean transponder frequency so there shouldn't be any upstream congestion.

"The boat was anchored in the right direction for the chimney stack to not be in the way etc... All these things checked out."

Rob had yet to meet the owner of the yacht. Instead, he conversed with the crew and tentatively asked if they knew if the issue was happening at the moment. The answer was a resounding "YES" and the customer was very, very unhappy that Rob had been unable to find, let alone fix, the issue.

"I was stumped. I had ripped the whole installation apart and tested everything... and it was operating to exact specs."

He would have to see the issue in action. Which meant meeting the owner.

Being very important and very wealthy, the owner could not possibly spare a minute to demonstrate the issue to a lowly IT engineer. There would be no opening in the schedule until the following day. And so, tail between his legs, Rob traipsed back to shore and checked into a hotel for a few hours' sleep.

He returned to the super-yacht the following day, bereft of much sleep or breakfast. Brought face to face with the owner, he donned his best customer service smile and asked to be walked through the problem.

Browser open, the owner clicked a link, "and within a millisecond is pointing to his browser bar where Internet Explorer is doing the 'I've had a response, now I'm waiting for a data' spinny thing."

The crux of the complaint was that it was taking a second or so between the click of a link and the receiving of content.

Rob fought the urge to facepalm and instead explained how things worked (at least back then). TCP handshakes were detailed, session time-outs were described, and we'd wager the word "latency" might have put in an appearance when discussing round trips to satellites.

"No sooner had I finished my calm description of some pretty fiddly but very cool tech for the time, then I get the words 'But it doesn't happen at my home, why can't you make it like my connection at home?'"

Lack of sleep and frustration from weeks spent trying to work out what was going on caught up with Rob all at once. His calm evaporated.

"Before I could gather my thoughts, compose myself and filter them through Customer Service Face, my brain and mouth uttered the words, 'We can bend the laws of physics for you, but we can't break them'."

"There may have been slightly more 'clarity' in my tone of voice than perhaps Customer Service Face would have liked," he added.

There was a lengthy silence, thankfully not punctuated with a "Don't you know who I am?" from the owner.

"I wasn't exactly thrown overboard," recalled Rob, "but I imagine if the owner could have gotten away with making one walk the plank, that would have been a very real option."

He was instead returned to dry land, very politely, but very swiftly.

"Funnily enough, I wasn't called back to that customer again," he said. "All routine work was scheduled for my colleagues... for which I am grateful."

Ever found yourself explaining the laws of physics in words of one syllable of less? Or did you manage to shatter them? Tell us, with an email to On Call. ®

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