September 2014 Column – Part 1

Computing at Chaos Manor
Column 369 – Part 1
September, 2014

The reboot of Chaos Manor Reviews starts with this installment discussing Moore’s Law and Good Enough, and continues with discussion on a new Cable Modem and Wireless and Internet. We recommend that you sign up for the Chaos Manor Reviews newsletter (on the right side of this page) to be notified of additional installments of the Chaos Manor Reviews September column.

Moore’s Law and Good Enough

It has been more than 36 months since I wrote the last Chaos Manor Reviews column. I had many reasons for ending with column number 368 after over twenty years of writing Computing at Chaos Manor. I hadn’t really intended to end it, but early in 2011 I came down with something, had other projects I should have been working on, and missed a column deadline for the first time in the history of the column.

Of course the deadline was self-imposed: BYTE was no longer my publisher. It was hard work trying to keep up with all computer technology, and although there were many changes and advances, the stuff computer users could already get was good enough – given what we started with in this computer revolution – and while I had built new systems, and had new hardware and software, writing it up on deadline wasn’t something I just had to do. And having missed one deadline, I recovered from whatever had laid me out, restarted the column for a while, and found my heart still wasn’t in it.

I had fiction projects to pursue, and my day book The View From Chaos Manor took up time, and having missed the deadline there wasn’t so much incentive to continue, I was recovering from radiation sickness from the successful cancer treatment, time went by, and that’s about all the excuses I’m going to make.

But Moore’s Law is inexorable, and the advances in computer technology continued, and what was Good Enough at the time of my last Chaos Manor Review no longer is. Everything is faster and better, and in many cases easier to use and Good Enough changes very rapidly now.

One principle of Karl Marx’s theory of everything was “The principle of the transformation of quantity into quality.” What he meant was that myriads of tiny little changes, none of them very noticeable, could transform a society, or a theory of economic, or of physics, and this could happen before you noticed. Small computers and Moore’s Law operate this way: look at what’s happening with 3D printers. Two years ago it was a stunt. Yesterday I saw a chap driving a car he had printed.

You can get along with older stuff to do the things you used to do, but these little beasts can already accomplish far more than we ever expected them to. The advances are mostly incremental, not revolutionary, but they come about quicker, and now you can get a terabyte of disk storage for what you used to be happy to pay for a gigabyte. That sort of thing happens a lot now. Exponential curves are like that.

We’ll start with how we have brought Chaos Manor up to date since the last column – and what still needs to be done. As usual we’ll continue to experiment with new stuff, and as always, the emphasis is on using this technology to accomplish things that need doing.

That covers a lot of modern life. As of Summer 2014, a large percentage of jobs – I now believe more than 45% within ten years – can be done by a robot costing no more than a year’s salary to the current human worker. With the government keeping interest rates low this raises the temptation to borrow capital and – instead of paying it to a worker – using it to buy a robot that will pay for itself after a year, and thereafter require only maintenance and power, and when that robot is no longer useful it can be scrapped rather than being paid to retire. This will have an inevitable effect on the economy. It may have a direct effect on you.

I got into the computer revolution when my mad friend Dan MacLean talked me into investing $12,000 dollars in 1978 money – a considerable sum in those days – in an S-100 bus 2 megahertz 64 Kilobyte computer, a large green screen monitor that displayed 16 lines of 64 characters, and a Diablo printer that looked like a huge typewriter and which would print several pages a minute on fan-folded “computer paper”.
My wife thought I was mad, but my productivity increased enormously. No longer did I have to use Correcttape and various liquid paints and carbon paper. What I wrote improved, because I could rewrite sentences when needed as well as fix the torrent of typographical errors I made without having to retype the entire page after an edit.
The system paid for itself in a few months. I had already published a number of science fiction stories by the time I met Carl Helmers and we agreed that BYTE needed a User’s Column written not by a computer scientist but by a writer doing useful work on these little beasts. I still continue that tradition.

The point of that story is that in their forty or so years of existence, affordable small computers have completely changed the writing profession, and the changes continue now. It’s the same with the music profession: before small computers, performers were at the mercy of producers and publishers who had the enormously expensive equipment needed to make professional quality recordings, as well as the means for publishing musical works.
That’s all changed. For the past decade any competent performing group can either buy professional quality recording and editing equipment, or hire that work done for reasonable fees. They no longer have to sign egregious contracts giving nearly everything – sometimes including their own names – to the publisher, resulting in the ridiculous situation of one major performer changing his name to “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” so that he could publish his own works once he could afford to.

Similar advances in technology are changing the movie industry and the health profession. They have caused the invention of podcasting, and improved many other human activities – and of course technology is changing computer programming.

Other professions have been transformed. Think of the effect on what lawyers do.

There was a time when “public stenographer” was an important white collar job/profession: getting thoughts into a form that could become the printed word took considerable skill. My first decade as a fiction writer was made possible because I could hire a good typist to take my marked-up edited manuscripts and turn them into clean text, inch and a quarter margins all around, 25 lines of about ten words per line on each page, page numbers and manuscript identification in the right places.

Ezekial, my friend who happened to be a Z-80 computer, would do that for me time and time again, never complaining and never introducing new errors. (I now know that the prophet’s name is Ezekiel, meaning ‘May God strengthen him,’ but I didn’t have a spelling program when I named him and I actually thought it was spelled that way.) There are very few public stenographers today. And of course at one time the very ability to read and write was a profession: scribes were an important part of the mechanism of government. (Bob Thompson observes that given the state of the public schools those days may return.)

So it is with computers; for a long time a key skill was to teach the little beasts to do what you wanted them to, and learning that teaching skill was itself a job qualification. That is still the case at the highest levels of programming, but more and more of the tools for producing programs are available to the person who wants the job done. A dentist doesn’t have to learn how to do computer programming; he can just buy a program. Many programming tasks have been replaced by scripting or ‘simplified programming’—anyone building a 10,000 cell Excel sheet with VBA is a programmer, even if they don’t recognize it. And if, when I was in Operations Research (OR) in the aerospace industry, I had available even an early version of Microsoft Excel I’d have been the best OR man in the country. We could all come up with complicated models for complicated operations, but no computer available could solve them. Now that power is available to anyone.

A New Cable Modem

Moore’s Law doesn’t just apply to CPUs. The performance increase for mixed-signal (combined analog and digital) silicon is at least as remarkable, improving communications speeds nearly everywhere: Cellular communications, Wi-Fi, Powerline, DSL and cable modems, just to name a few.

Bringing Chaos Manor communications up to date started when Eric Pobirs, Chaos Manor Advisor and Associate, called to say Time Warner has upgraded the high speed Internet service in his neighborhood to the DOCSIS 3 standard. DOCSIS 3 supports a much wider frequency range (108 MHz to 1.002 GHz), channel bonding (up to four simultaneous channels), and more complicated signaling (up to QAM128).

It also turns out that DOCSIS 3 modems benefit from the newest chips, which incorporate all the lessons learned since DOCSIS 2 became standard. This makes everything just a bit better, even if that wasn’t a design intention, and the cumulative effect is important.

Getting in on that required a new cable modem, and when Eric saw a sale on those modems he called to ask if I wanted one also. I have no notice of Time Warner planning to upgrade service in Studio City, but I see reports that they’re upgrading the Valley, so they’ll probably get around to us.

Meanwhile, I’ve been using the modem they supplied years ago and paying them ten bucks a month for it: for six months of what I’m paying I can own the new modem, and take advantage of any improvements Time Warner may have made without telling us. This is exactly the kind of thing we do at Chaos Manor and I asked him to go ahead.

He brought over a Netgear High Speed Cable Modem Model CMD31T supporting DOCSIS 3.0. It proclaims on the box that it is compatible with “Cablevision, Charter, Cox, Time-Warner Cable, Xfinity & more,” and below that in large red letters repeats XFINITY Time Warner Cable. When Eric installed his out at his house, he got a performance boost of about a factor of five, from a download speed of 20 Mb/s to about 100 Mb/s, upload speed from about 2 to 10. That sounds as if Castaic has been upgraded to DOCSIS 3, but T/W says they have not done that yet. I didn’t expect that kind of result here, but we could always hope.

The installation took about twenty minutes and was straightforward.

Of course there was no high-speed service here after we disconnected the Time Warner cable modem. It took about half an hour for Time Warner to notice the new modem, but then everything kicked in, and when we did a speed test we found we had about a 10% improvement in download speed, and a smaller but appreciable improvement in upload speed. Even without the upgraded head-end for Studio City, we were benefiting. Altogether worth doing, and in six months it won’t even have cost anything: and of course I am now ready to take advantage of any new Time Warner improvements. Of course I haven’t got around to actually taking the old cable modem out to Time Warner to turn it in and start getting those savings. Real Soon Now.

This is a perfect example of the theme here: our old cable modem was Good Enough when we got it, and still would do all it ever did; but the world around it has moved on, and now it is worth replacing it to take advantage of the improved environment.

Improving Wireless and Ethernet with One Package

Once we had additional WAN speed courtesy of the modem replacement, it was time to revisit communications within Chaos Manor.

Chaos Manor was built in 1932, in two phases. The first was the house itself, one story, with a medium sized living room, a dining room, kitchen, master bedroom with bath, and (separated by a hallway) a large airy room with bay window and doors both to the hall in the house and directly to outside. This served as a physician’s consulting room and office. It had a full wall of bookcases, and an east facing bay window shaded by an apricot tree: the perfect writer’s work room.

In those days Studio City was largely rural, and this was about the third house in an apricot orchard. The studio part of Studio City was – and still is – about a third of a mile away, near Ventura Boulevard (then known as Highway 101 to Ventura, Santa Barbara, and eventually to San Francisco).

Immediately after the front part of the house was finished, it was expanded, and what amounted to a whole new two-story house with garage and bathroom was added in back. The result was a very livable house, but a bit bewildering in layout – and a very complicated electrical system with several 1933 era junction boxes and fuse boxes, which now coexist with various updates.

In the 1980’s we built a new second story, my office suite, with stairway down into the old consulting room which had been my office (and the reason we bought the house). The new second story doesn’t connect to the old one; there’s a reason it’s called Chaos Manor. It all worked well, but the electrical system is a nightmare, with much of the wiring more than sixty years old.

We built the new addition just before Ethernet became affordable. We had installed ARCnet, which ran on coaxial cable. The reason we didn’t install Ethernet is that the bare chip set for Ethernet cost about $900 per station at that time; now they’re darned near free, a perfect example of the effects of Moore’s Law in action. And indeed, within four years of installing ARCnet, Ethernet cards for PCs were well under a hundred dollars, and of course made for much faster and more reliable internal computer networks. Long time readers will understand just how marvelous that all seemed when it happened: at one time it was faster to move big programs from one machine to another by burning them onto a CD-R and carrying that across. We called it sneakernet.

Interestingly, we were using sneakernet long after Ethernet chip sets were cheap, because the hardware and software to set up networks hadn’t been developed. They hadn’t been developed because the drop in Ethernet chip set prices took many developers by surprise. Meanwhile there were computer to computer file transfer hardware and software products, many like LapLink very good, but also nearly all incompatible with each other. All of those are gone now, replaced by Ethernet, and Ethernet drivers are built into the operating system.

When usable Ethernet became cheap, we strung Ethernet cables in the front part of Chaos Manor – it was pretty well designed for it. Getting Ethernet into the back part of the house was far more difficult, and doing it by direct cable without stringing cables outside proved to be impossible. This led us to the next triumph of Moore’s Law.

Some years ago Eric wanted to try using the electrical system to extend our Ethernet network to the back of the house; that’s called powerline networking, and despite the complexity of the Chaos Manor electrical system, it sort of worked. Sort of: it wasn’t very fast at best, and the speed varied sometimes for no reason we could discern, but it was good enough to allow us to network the back room and in theory to connect the TV back there to one of the computers.

Background: This is Ethernet over your power wires, alias powerline networking. An example is HomePlug. They use existing electrical wires (110V here in the States) to network without new wires. The concept has been around since the BSR X10 days, but it became the hot new concept with the HomePlug 1.0 standard in 2001. Compaq and others were going to build it right into their computers, and it would be a boon to anyone who couldn’t or didn’t want to add new wires to their house.

In practice, the HomePlug rollout became something of a punchline. The technology didn’t work and got returned by the truckload. But the designers never gave up, and the silicon kept getting better.

In theory, the existing HomePlug were 85 Mbps units. In practice they were clunky enough that I never much used it—actual speeds were far lower. But the incentive to have Ethernet in our TV room has been growing, and while Eric was shopping for the new high speed cable modems he noticed some new Netgear Powerline 500 AV500 Ethernet and Wi-Fi gadgets. About the size of a thick pack of playing cards, they plug into the electrical system.

You connect one to your own Ethernet network (there’s an Ethernet jack on the bottom of the gadget); then you go about the house looking for places to plug in another. Theoretical maximum speeds were 500 Mbps. The lights on the little box indicate whether you have a good Ethernet connection (red is no, orange is sort of, and green is ‘good enough’). In my case, Good Enough is more than 100 Mbits/s: Astonishing given the complex electrical system here.

The same box also rebroadcasts Wi-Fi, and it’s a bit like magic. In general, it Just Works. Sometimes my iPhone will lock on to the primary wireless router up here, and when I go downstairs it tries to stay on that, resulting in no real Wi-Fi connection; but all I have to do is open the Wi-Fi control panel and search again, connecting to the nearer Powerline signal.

Peter Glaskowsky reminds me that the current version of the IOS allows a shortcut: a swipe upward from the bottom of the iPhone screen will open the Control Center, and I can use that to turn off the Wi-Fi for a second by tapping the Wi-Fi icon; then tap it again and it will turn on in a mood to hunt up the best known network.

The result is that I have good Wi-Fi all over the house now, due to the improved silicon of the Ethernet over power chipsets.

Now that we’ve got better internal communications, it’s time to look at the newest Wi-Fi standards. We have been using 802.11n (Both ‘pre-N’, before the standard, and ‘real’ N) for several years, but the newest standard is 802.11ac Phase 1, supported by the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus and MacBooks. With a recent software fix, even the Surface Pro 3 supports this faster communications standard, so I’m ready to try it. Stay tuned. We’re up to Good Enough now, but it’s frightfully easy to get used to better Wi-Fi speeds, then think what you have is too slow and want to upgrade; and the way prices keep falling, that makes good sense.

The bottom line is that right now Chaos Manor networking Just Works. I have wired Ethernet and strong Wi-Fi all over the house now, and I can casually connect with the iPhone, iPad, and the new Surface Pro 3, as well as my old but very serviceable ThinkPad. I struggled along with what we had for years, but it wasn’t really Good Enough. With time, and Moore’s Law, it has become so.

The next installment of the column will discuss Updating Systems, Hard Drive Lifecycles, and Faster and Faster. Sign up for the newsletter to be notified of publication.

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