October 2014 Column, Part 1


Computing at Chaos Manor

Column 370, October, 2014

Part 1 of 3


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Wi-Fi, Apple Airport Time Capsule, Tablets, and Windows 10

This month continues the story of upgrading Chaos Manor. Some systems haven’t been looked at since early 2008, when I began the hard X-ray treatments for brain cancer.  The cancer was gone by June of 2008, but recovering from radiation sickness took a bit longer.  In early 2008 I acquired a number of Mac items, including an iMac with a Apple Airport Time Capsule. They were installed. As Peter Glaskowsky once observed, with the Mac everything is either very easy or nearly impossible. They were easy and worked well. Then somewhere back then Time Capsule but not Airport got turned off. It’s back on now, as you’ll see.

Much of the column will discuss important things about Word that you probably don’t know; I know they surprised me. Mostly I use Word to create simple manuscripts of fiction and non-fiction; but my son Alex, who uses Word for very complex documents involving NASA purchases and sales, didn’t know them either, so I suspect you don’t.

We’ll also refer to a dialogue on Ontology between Sheldon Cooper and Amy Farrah Fowler.

Making Wi-Fi Work Properly

I have spent a month now trying to get The Precious, our sort-of-new Microsoft Surface Pro 3, set up to work in my breakfast room. In the course of that we learned a lot about Wi-Fi in old houses with lath and plaster walls and ancient electrical wiring.

The original Chaos Manor Wi-Fi network was run by a Belkin Pre-N router: that is, we set it up before the IEEE 802.11n standard was adopted, upgrading from 802.11b or g or whatever we had before that; and it was enormously better than anything we had before.  It was put in an upstairs window in my office suite, and for the first time I could sit out by the pool in the back yard and have good Wi-Fi service.  This was also the first router I owned which supported multiple antennas; we take that feature for granted now, in phones, computers and tablets, but at the time the added reliability was a revelation.

We also sort of had Wi-Fi in the TV room in the back of the house, and Good Enough Wi-Fi in the Monk’s Cell. That is a room in another part of the house, an upstairs that doesn’t connect to my office suite. It was the room of the oldest of the boys still living in the house when any of them were still here. It serves as a guest room now, but I keep a Lenovo ThinkPad with Microsoft Comfort Curve keyboard and big flat screen monitor at a writing desk I use when I want to get away from the telephone, house noises, and other distractions. The room has its own window-mounted air conditioner, and a lamp stand at the writing table – and nothing else other than some high school textbooks. No games, and the Wi-Fi service up there is good enough to use for Google but nowhere speedy enough for on-line games.

Wi-Fi was never good enough in the breakfast room, which is where I really want to use a tablet while I am reading the morning newspapers.

Over the past week we installed new Wi-Fi and Internet routers.  I’m going to let Eric Pobirs, my long-suffering associate, tell you about that adventure.

Report by Eric Pobirs

    I’m going to cut to the chase and put the solution first. The powerline bridge in Roberta’s office, which served as the connection point between the Cat5 and powerline networks in Chaos Manor, decided to go on strike. This was a Trendnet model that had been used to get the TV room at the far end of the house on the network. The one in the TV room had been replaced with a Netgear powerline Wi-Fi Extender, which is the same generation of powerline bridge with an 802.11n AP on board. Another had been installed in the dining nook off the kitchen. Because these are sold in kits with a bridge, there were two unused bridges left from the purchase. Installing one of those in place of the elderly Trendnet restored service. It is unclear as of this writing whether the Trendnet failed or just needed a reset. It should also be noted that this was the same location where a switch recently needed to be reset.

    Now, the problem is solved but the process of how I got there is another problem. Several somewhat expensive items were purchased that ultimately had no bearing on fixing the problem. It can be said that two of these items were desirable upgrades anyway, and the third added a useful bit of versatility to the Surface Pro 3; but in a situation where no upgrades were planned this would have been a costly misadventure due to inadequate troubleshooting. Some aspects would never have come up in a more, shall we say, boring household but such is the life of a tech journalist.

The problem began when Jerry found he couldn’t connect to the wireless network from the Surface Pro 3 aka the Precious. This appeared to be limited to just Precious but it became clear in testing that while other phones running iOS and Android were seeing the Starswarm-Pre-N SSID, they weren’t making a usable connection. This appeared to be a repeat of a problem in Larry Niven’s home where a room that had been connected by powerline successfully for several years would no longer allow it. Powerline networking was still functional in other parts of the house, where it was driving Wi-Fi extender modules. The same thing appeared to be happening at Chaos Manor but in two locations at once. We tested a number of conditions but it wasn’t until much later that I checked to be sure that the bridge between the network types was still working, which should have been one of the first things I examined.

 But upgrades beckoned and that siren call could not be ignored. The existing Wi-Fi had, or at least we thought, consisted of an aging Belkin Pre-N (802.11n before the spec was finalized) router in bridge/AP mode, a D-Link router whose radio may or may not have been turned off, and the two Netgear powerline Wi-Fi Extenders servicing the two downstairs areas. If powerline was no longer an option, we’d see if more up-to-date Wi-Fi equipment could be made to reach those areas. The Belkin Pre-N was positioned by the window of the large storage room upstairs, overlooking much of the downstairs area it hoped to serve. The D-Link router lived next door in the utility room with the cable modem, main switch, D-Link NAS box, and various tools and implements of destruction. The utility room is fairly noisy in the RF sense and cuts a fair amount of the signal from any radio inside, thus the rationale for having a separate AP in the other room.

     All of the radios went by the name Starswarm-Pre-N as their SSID, though their MAC addresses remained distinct, of course. It was hoped that client devices would automatically choose the AP with the strongest signal and switch as needed. This is Netgear’s advice in their manual for the powerline Wi-Fi extender. In real life, some do and some don’t. When moving around the house it could be necessary to disconnect and tell the device to rescan. Still, this meant less clutter to the device’s list of connections than having a distinct name for every AP. But this also made diagnosing the failure more complicated.

In pursuit of upgrading the network infrastructure and finding the point of failure, we picked up three items. First was the APA20 Access Point by Amped Wireless (http://www.ampedwireless.com/products/apa20.html ). This device was pretty much the only option, as everything else I found was much older and lower powered. In any case, retailers no longer bother to stock dedicated Access Points and instead favor routers with a bridge mode in their firmware. That should be adequate and in fact the APA20’s feature set makes it clear that it is a router in all but firmware. But I’ve had hassles in the past with equipment that implemented bridge modes poorly and didn’t want to have an ongoing battle between two devices that both thought they should be performing the same service to the network. The annoying aspect of this is that these days consumer APs sell in lesser numbers and are thus priced higher than the router model that are the exact same hardware and only distinguished by the firmware.

The unit is pretty loaded. Dual-band 802.11AC Phase 1. Five gigabit ports, one for connecting to the main network and four for serving local devices. (These can be given their own range of DHCP addresses and kept separate from the larger network.) USB 2.0 port for making flash or hard drives available on the network. A very good feature set but I’d trade some of it for a lower price in this usage case. One nice aspect of the AP firmware is that it will attempt to configure itself for your network automatically. This would be very handy for novices so long as they don’t mind using the pre-configured SSIDs and encryption keys. On the downside, it appears the USB storage functionality doesn’t include DLNA support, which is used by devices like Blu-ray decks and game consoles to find content like video files on a network. (A search on ‘DLNA’ at the Amped Wireless site produces several hits but none of the documents contain the term. Also, the logo for certified devices isn’t found on any of the product pages I examined.)

  Next up was the Netgear R6200 Wi-Fi Router. (http://netgear.com/home/products/networking/Wi-Fi-routers/R6200.aspx#tab-features) Another good feature set at a bit over $100. If they’d put the power specs on the outer packaging or on the web page, and if the signal power was comparable to the APA20, and if I was confident of it being well behaved in bridge mode, I might have instead have gone with two of these for a significantly lower cost. Among the notable features of the Netgear is USB 3.0 for much better throughput from the attached storage device (assuming USB 3.0 on its part) and a button on the side that switches the Wi-Fi on and off. This is handy when there is already Wi-Fi present that you don’t want to interfere with or need to diagnose a problem with multiple Wi-Fi sources in operation. Also, the USB storage is presented as a DLNA volume for devices that use that to find local content.

 The third item was a Trendnet USB 3.0 to Gigabit Ethernet Adapter.  (http://www.trendnet.com/products/proddetail.asp?prod=315_TU3-ETG) This was for use with the Surface Pro 3 to determine if a wired connection could work when the Wi-Fi offered by the same powerline module did not. It’s also a handy item to have when traveling with a device like the Surface or an ultra-slim notebook that may lack a dedicated network port but does have USB.

I decided early on to do away with the ‘one SSID to rule them all’ approach and give everything a unique name in order to have a better idea which radio was in use at any given moment. This led to a surprise that could only happen in this house. First we put up the new AP in place of the old Belkin. It was broadcasting as Starswarm-1 for 2.4 GHz and Starswarm-1-5 for the 5 GHz band. Then the new router took over in the utility room with SSIDs Starswarm-2 and Starswarm-2-5. (It remains to do a better survey and pick the best channels for each radio.) At this point the two powerline Wifi extenders downstairs should be the only remnant of Starswarm-Pre-N but it was still not only visible upstairs but quite strong. How could this be? If the signal was that good and delivered internet access, why was it unusable in far closer proximity? And was this eating into the valuable shared RF spectrum upstairs?

    I pulled out my old Asus TF201 tablet and ran WiFi Analyzer, a handy free app from the Google Play app store. One of its features is to look at MAC addresses and tell you what company produced each signal it detects. It said Starswarm-Pre-N was coming from an Apple device. What? Why? Where?

    After some looking around I came across a box for an Apple Time Capsule, which includes 802.11b/g/n among its functions. At least now I knew what I was looking for. After some more searching I found it, on top of the old HP Windows Home Server and under an accumulation of papers. I switched it off and sure enough, Starswarm-Pre-N became a faint signal as one would expect at that range from the extenders downstairs. I then turned it back on. It wasn’t harming anything now that I knew it was there and the iMac nearby was possibly expecting to use it for a scheduled backup. It would probably be best to give it a more distinct name at some point but that was low on the agenda. Meanwhile, John Dvorak had come visiting and we were all headed out to dinner. It was while we were eating that it occurred to me that I’d never verified that the powerline bridge in Roberta’s office was working correctly.

    Changing out that module for one of the spare units I happened to have in my car resolved the problem that started all of this. The Netgear recommendation of using the same SSID across multiple APs turned out to be ill-advised in practice. Too many client devices aren’t smart enough to change connections as needed and the lack of distinct names made it more difficult to find the point of failure. Given an enterprise-class WiFi network, where the network intelligently hands off clients from one AP to another, this would have been fine but such are still far too costly for homes and most small businesses. The Ruckus gear we (LocationConnect) use for events has a device called a Zone Director to manage the network and perform load balancing between APs regardless of how smart or stupid the client devices might be. We’ll eventually see this in SOHO gear but not for a few more years.

    Now that service had been restored to the far end of the house, there were a few more things to do. Jerry had a Seagate 4 TB USB 3.0 hard drive just sitting there waiting to be put to use. I connected it to the new Netgear router and let it apply the default settings. A few minutes late a new node was on the network: a shared drive named ReadyShare with 3.6 TB of available space. Further, this volume would be visible to devices that spoke the DLNA protocol, such as the LG BP-220 Blu-ray deck in the TV room. (I favor LG for this purpose because they support a much larger range of codecs and file formats than most. TiVo DVRs can use DLNA storage but are limited to MPEG 1 and 2 video, MP3 audio, and JPEG pictures.)  I threw some video files from the flash drives in my pocket onto the volume and looked to see if they could be played in the TV room.  They weren’t to be found but the video files that had been factory installed on the Seagate drive were visible and playable.

It wasn’t until later that I remembered that DLNA is designed to support very lightweight devices that lack all but the most minimal networking functionality. As such, they depend on the host to do all of the heavy listing, even for such minor tasks as displaying a directory. This means the host device has to regularly survey itself for changes and update the data it provides to clients. In this case there hadn’t been enough time for the update cycle. The automatic update can be turned off in the firmware but the default setting is ON. I’ll check it next time I’m at Chaos Manor to be sure. I have another reason to look in the router anyway, as follows.

    I also noticed that the existing D-Link NAS box wasn’t appearing any longer. I believe this is due to it having a static address and the address range used by the new router not being set correctly. This should be quickly changed on my next visit.

Narrative Continued by Jerry Pournelle

We were working on this story and the deadlines were coming up. We knew we should update the Wi-Fi network, because everything in it was several years old.  When Eric called from the computer store about what he should get, he warned me that we hadn’t investigated all the problems and we might be buying more than we needed. I considered the deadlines and told him to get everything we might need; it was time to update anyway.  Besides, I do lots of things so you don’t have to. Now we have working Wi-Fi all over the house, and it ought to last a while.

One of our problems was that everywhere we went our devices could see the old Starswarm Pre-N network.  This was odd because we had taken every wireless router out of service; how was this ghost operating? Eventually Eric discovered that buried under magazines, forgotten for years, is an Apple Airport Time Capsule (we’ll refer to it as the “Airport” and “Time Machine”) dating from early 2008, installed at the same time that we got our first Mac systems:  the iMac, iPad, and the first of my iPhones. The Airport sits there on a stand inviting use as a temporary seat for magazines and books, and hasn’t had any attention after the day it was set up: and it has been working quite well ever since.

The Time Machine half of that box has been turned off since early 2009. That discovery sparked a general cleanup of the rat’s nest of cables that have accumulated behind the main machines here. One of Pournelle’s Laws of troubleshooting is that “It’s probably a cable.” That’s not as true now as it was when I formulated it, but it’s still a good principle: if you have a problem, before you do anything drastic check the cables. Our discovery of the inactive Time Machine has generated another story, but right now we’re waiting for it to catch up with six years of missed backups. There’s a story in that, and we’ll get to it next month.

Precisely how much work that Airport has done can’t be determined, because it was given the Starswarm Pre-N name just like all the other Wi-Fi routers, so whether one connects to it or some other router with that SSID name – a complication we have now eliminated – depended on where the device seeking Wi-Fi was when it was turned on.  Since the Airport is right here, next to my desk, it’s the first thing many Wi-Fi devices see when they wake up, so it got a lot of business, and it has always handled the load so well that we all forgot it was here.

I went looking for anything I may have written about the Airport Time Machine before, and came across this: http://www.jerrypournelle.com/view/2008/Q1/view508.html . That was the daybook for a week in which I was getting radiation treatment for brain cancer. Further on down on that web page is stuff about getting into Macs and installing the Airport. There are also pictures associated with my brain cancer treatment, from back in the days when I couldn’t really talk.  I’d forgotten that one service my MacBook Air gave was as my “talker”: I could type in what I wanted to say and it would say it, back when I could think, sort of, but couldn’t speak intelligibly. I believe I even talked to the LASFS that way once.

What I can’t find is anything about the Airport itself, but it is the last bastion of Starswarm Pre-N Wi-Fi network.  It still has the most powerful signal here in this room.

The bottom line is that we have real Wi-Fi in all rooms of the house as well as out by the pool.  Devices already connected to something – like Starswarm Pre-N – may hang on to that connection after it’s no longer useful, but the remedy to that is turn off the connection and log in on another.  That may require me to learn more about how the ThinkPad software works, but that’s for another time.


Part 2 of the October column will continue with a discussion on “Precious” (Jerry’s Microsoft Surface Prod 3), Windows 8, Getting Some Work Done, and Jerry’s struggles and a partial triumph over AutoCorrect in MS Word.

Part 3 of the column will conclude with some thoughts on Windows 10, and Winding Down with the Books of the Month and other short thoughts.

Look for Part 2 starting on Oct 23, 2014. Part 3 is scheduled for October 30, 2014