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802.11b and Absinthe
2001-11-25 04:25:45


The Green Goddess
 
This is a problem for which a chemical solution exists.
-- Johnnie Royale

 

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 brain waves?

Okay, let's get this party started! 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?

Hey, this is a patriotic article.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.

It's crappy because it has a limited range, and no way to attach an
external antenna.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...

This thing is actually pretty friggin' cool. The 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 actually works.

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?

Schweet!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.

Hey, look at these crazy spoons! These are really nice patterns! Tour
Eiffel, etc.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.

French sugar (rectangular bricks, rather than cubes) is hard to find! Ed
was out.  So we have to use this crap.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!

This is good quality shit.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 share.

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 transformer outside.

Or, perhaps the meteors were to blame...

Ed FTP's some crazy plugins for Winamp.Unfortunately, we 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.

Ed really loves this plug-in. Or his TV. Selah! Maybe 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 land of Else.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 equipment. 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.

Over.  End of Story.  Go home now.

uzerboozer@pigdog.org


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