It was the night of the Leonid meteor showers -- the perfect opportunity to break out the
evil opaline liquor, get madder than hatters, and test wireless ethernet hardware...
Would the plunging meteorites interfere with the 2.4GHz band? What about our delicate
I have been curious
about 802.11b wireless networking stuff for a long time, but until recently it's been too
costly to dicker with. And just plain improbable. Who in her right mind would believe
that for a few bucks dropped at an online computer store, it would be possible to
actually trasmit MP3s, pr0n and other crucial Internet traffic through the air?
I've also had a long
history of disappointment with wireless technology, going way back to when I was a kid.
Frickin' walkie-talkies never worked the way I wanted them to. I had some of
those cool-looking Star Track kind that had little flip up covers ("Beam me up, Captian
Uhuru!"). Like all the walkie-talkie sets back then, they sucked. They had a range of
maybe 12 feet, and they continually blared white noise, making them useless for all of
the bad things they held potential for, such as spying and whatnot. I suspected that
wireless LAN stuff would suck too. The idea that I could actually get rid of at least
some of the huge rat's nest of ethernet cable that exists in my home just seemed too good
to be true.
However, I wasn't really bothering with this wireless stuff for myself.
See, my parents live in an old house with no elegant
way to wire it for ethernet. The house's DSL connection comes in upstairs, but my Dad's
computer is downstairs, and there is just no good way to run cable down to it, short of
boring a massive 17" hole through a hardwood floor and beams and all kinds of plaster. To
get ethernet to his machine, he has one of those big, fat coaxial cables running out an
upstairs window and into a downstairs window, and it connects up to a hub next to his
computer. It's not even weather-resistant cabling. Because of this Rube-Goldbergness, and
a number of other reasons, I've been looking around for a long time for a solution to
rewiring my parent's network. I had been racking my brain trying to figure out what to
do about the situation, when one evening -- over a six-pack of the new Guinness Draught
in the bottle -- it ocurred to me that wireless might be the answer. Why not give those
radio waves another go?
After some cursory Web research, I bought a bunch of Linksys crap: a BEFW11S4 wireless
4-Port Cable/DSL Router, a WPC11 PCMCIA wireless card, and a WDT11 wireless adapter (for
the WPC11). This is a weird bunch of hardware...
BEFW11S4 thing has two antennas on it that stick up like rabbit ears -- sort of like an
old television antenna from back in the olden times before digital cable. It has an
integrated four-port land-line ethernet hub, and it's a "firewall" (really just a port
blocker) and DSL/Cable modem router to boot. I wanted to get a dedicated router
thingermagig anyway, so I figure it was a good deal. As far as wireless specs go, it
seems typical, and it also has a good rep on the wireless mailing lists as something that
One annoying thing about wireless cards is that most of them are made for laptops.
They are tiny PCMCIA cards. My dad's computer is a stationary desktop computer. What you
typically have to do if you want to wire up (unwire?) a non-portable machine is buy a
sick PCI adapter card, and then stick the little tiny PCMCIA card in it. Thus, I had to
buy the WDT11 adapter. Crazy but true. It's sort of like "Master-Blaster" in Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome.
Master-Blaster was actually two characters: "Blaster," a huge, dumb, monster-man in an
iron mask, and "Master," a little brainy midget who rode around on Blaster's back,
manipulating him. You can buy normal PCI wireless cards if you look hard enough, but
they seem to cost more... and well, when there's a crazy option and non-crazy option, why
not go for the crazy option?
It wouldn't be proper to just install this
stuff with out thouroughly testing it first, preferrably with lots of bad liquor and
"test data" around. Special Ed Ward, the reclusive Pigdog digital artist and fibre
channel guru, had just recently received a huge batch of absinthe from the European
continent, and he had invited me down for an evening of computer debauchery and the green
cocktails. So I quickly tossed the networking hardware and some absinthe spoons in a
doufle bag and hit BART, heading South.
The plan was that after imbibing a gallon or two of
absinthe, we would step outside, and report on the spectacle of Leonid metoer shower,
live, via a newly implemented 802.11b link to the Internet.
The EFW11S4 router was a cinch to
setup, although we eventually discovered that UDP (e.g.: DNS) would not work over the
802.11b connection until we upgraded the firmware. The stupid WPC11 wireless card was a
bitch-and-a-half to setup on Special Ed's laptop, which runs Windows NT. Mainly, I
think, because we were really drunk by that time. Or maybe it was the poor
documentation. We eventually got rid of the IRQ conflict that was screwing everything up,
switched it into "infrastructure" mode, and -- wallah -- ethernet packets began to flow
like fresh beaujolais nouveau!
The amazing thing about
802.11b is that it really, actually does work! Sort of. It's "rated" at 11mb/s (that's
megabits), but around Ed's apartment we were only ever able to get it to do approximately
two. But who gives a donkey?! Ed's DSL barely pulls 1.5 mb/s. So we had fast wireless
Web snarfing everywhere. It only dropped down to .5 mb/s when we went outside, which is
still pretty decent. Unfortunately, if we walked just a few yards further, like into the
driveway, the signal went dead. So, once again, I was a little dissappointed with the
world of the wireless. Bad walkie-talkie flashbacks ocurred, which I am unable to
Speical Ed says that there is some terrible interference around his apartment, and
that he has trouble even tuning in the FM radio. Apparently, there's some sort of huge
Or, perhaps the meteors were to blame...
totally forgot about the meteors after about the first couple quarts of abinthe. I think
we never even looked up to the sky. Our eyes were transfixed on the signal quality and
strength meters that came supplied with the wireless card.
we can catch the next big
spectacular Leonid show in the year 2099, when we are all cyborgs with robot tentacle
arms and artificial livers.
Back inside, we decided to hook the laptop up to Special Ed' s monsterous home
entertainment system to see if we could stream media to his 80" television -- through the
ether. And, well, It worked like a charm! So we installed lots of bad Winamp plugins,
just for no good reason at all. It was good that we had everything configured and
running, with full entertainment capability at that point, becuase I'm sure if we needed
to do any more serious hardware tweaking, we would have damaged something severely. It
was official -- we had our drunk on!
The one big take-away lesson that that
I've learned about 802.11b from this experience is to buy a wireless card that will allow
one to hook up an external antenna to it. I'm still not satisfied with the range of this Linksys
But I think it's actually pretty typical for what it is. Apparently, good antennas can
be made cheaply from a can of
Pringles (!!). 802.11b is fantasticaly better than my old Star Track walkie-talkies
ever were, but it would be very nice to have more distance (More power Sulu! I need more
power!). I am also slightly apprehensive that my dad's computer will be too far from the
wireless access point to receive a strong signal. The ability to add an antenna to the
wireless card is an absolute must have feature, especially if you want to hook up
to any of the sweet homebrew 802.11b networks that are cropping up all over the country.
So don't get a crappy Linksys WPC11 card!
That's about all there is to this story. We finished the evening by watching a
bootleg copy of Battle Royale, and it can
now safely be said that 802.11b networking and absinthe mix very well indeed. Beuajolais
to all, and a good night.