Archive for March, 2004

Wi-Fi: Strength Through Security

Friday, March 26th, 2004

After fiddling with my Netgear wireless router for the better part of the last week, I concluded that the router was unable to let my wireless Mac laptop access the Internet through an encrypted connection.
Okay, lemme back up for a minute for those of you who aren’t part of the wi-fi universe yet (don’t worry, neither was I until 10 days ago). Wi-Fi, or Wireless Fidelity, is the common name for a technology that allows you to connect to the Internet wirelessly. (Picture walking around your house with your laptop or palm pilot and having Internet access without being plugged into anything — that’s what it’s all about.) It’s been around the for the last decade or so — I remember seeing presentations by wi-fi pioneer/Colorado cowboy Dave Hughes back around 1995 and 1996 — but it’s only caught on as a mainstream consumer technology in the last few years. For 50 to 100 bucks, you can go out and buy a little box with an antenna on it, then connect it to your DSL or cable modem to set up a wireless network in your home or office.
The downside, though, is that being wireless means that you’re opening yourself up to others accessing your Internet connection — and potentially your computer and everything you send over the Internet. Sometimes this type of open access can be a very good thing — the cafe below my old apartment in DC, for example, offered customers free wireless access, while others set up public networks so anyone can show up at the local park and go online for free. But for the typical home wi-fi user, beaming your wireless signal into the neighborhood isn’t a good thing, because neighbors or anyone going out war driving (cruising neighborhoods with a wi-fi computer in search of networks to explore or hack) could access your connection and computer.
So, the powers that be created a variety of ways to secure your wireless connection using special types of encryption. With encryption, anyone who tries to access your network will need to crack a 10-digit password to get inside. Sure, it’s possible, but for the casual neighborhood slacker, it’s usually adequate.
My problem: because I own a Mac, I was unable to set up my Netgear wireless router to use encryption to protect my network. I spent several occasions on the phone with Netgear’s nice tech support people in India, and they pretty much came to the same conclusion — the router will work on my Mac only if I don’t use encryption.
Fortunately, the folks behind the Best Buy empire were prescient enough to offer their customers a 30-day, no-questions-asked return policy. So I packed up the Netgear router with all of its accoutrements (warranty info, CD-ROM, incomprehensible startup manual, twist ties, the works), and walked back to the Landmark Center to the local Best Buy. I swapped the Netgear router for a D-Link router, which according to online hearsay was a bit more Mac-friendly than Netgear.
Back at the apartment, the basic set-up went by easily — desktop Mac connected, laptop connected. Then I tried to set up the encryption; once again my laptop got cut off. So I called their tech support (someone with a southern US accent rather than a southern Indian one) and went step-by-step through the process a couple times over. No dice. The tech support guy put the phone down to read the Mac manual (oh, the price I pay for loyalty) while I fiddled around on my Mac.
After 30 minutes of this, I managed to get the encryption to work and connect the laptop wirelessly. “Okay, I got it working,” I said. “Thanks for your help….”
“Woah, wait a second,” he replied. “Tell me exactly how you did it so I don’t have to go through this again.” (I couldn’t tell if he was curious, annoyed or both; probably both.)
I spent another five minutes trying to recreate what I’d just done — I wasn’t totally sure myself. But it ended up as being as simple as letting the Mac guide me through the configurations process rather than having me do it all manually. It was just a matter of selecting the “assist me” option, and the Mac asked me all the right questions, setting up the laptop for flawless, encrypted wireless Internet access.
So now it’s approaching 6pm, and I’m sitting in my living room in our black lounge chair, listening to Georges Brassens sing “Je M’Suis Fait Tout Petit” while our orange tabby stretches out on our liquor cabinet. Look ma, no wires.
Stay tuned for my next trick — this weekend I’ll try to figure out a way to get my nine-year-old, totally obsolete Mac powerbook 1400cs onto my wi-fi network….

Joining the Wi-Fi Universe

Saturday, March 20th, 2004

Yesterday at lunchtime I ran down the street to the local Best Buy and picked up a wireless router for my apartment. I’d just gotten a new Mac G4 12″ laptop for work and wanted to be able to use it at home, but our other Mac was already teathered to our broadband Internet modem. So setting up a wireless network made a lot a sense – that way, I could jump online with the laptop without unplugging my desktop Mac from the Net and plugging the ethernet cable into my laptop. Even better, a wireless network would let Susanne and me both work from home at the same time without jousting over who’d be online at any given time.
So now I’ve got a Netgear wireless router running in our sunroom/home office, allowing me to walk around the apartment with the laptop and type this very blog. (Right now I’m sitting at the table in our breakfast nook with our cat Dizzy sniffing the LCD screen.) The wireless connection is working well, but I’m having some issues setting up the amount of security I’d like to have. The tech support folks at Netgear were rather evasive, basically saying they weren’t sure about how to set up all of the various security features on the Mac unless I kept it plugged into the router — and what’s the point of that if you’re trying to be wireless?
So, I’ve got a few weeks of trial time to figure out whether I can add a stronger wireless firewall to my new network; otherwise I’ll just have to send it back to Best Buy, bite the bullet, and buy the Apple-branded wi-fi system, AirPort, which costs nearly three times as much as the Netgear unit…. -ac

Settling Into Our New Home

Monday, March 15th, 2004

We’ve just completed our first full week in our new apartment in Brookline. Slowly but surely the apartment is looking less like a warehouse and more like a home. We’d started with over 100 boxes to unpack, and now we’re down to around half a dozen, but they’re probably the most challenging — we’re trying to avoid having the place get too cluttered, but we’re running out of closets to store our stuff. So much of the last week has been a series of pilgrimages to the local Bed Bath & Beyond, as well as the neighborhood hardware store, picking up a variety of storage solutions — a pantry for the kitchen, sliding plastic drawers for the closets, flat boxes that slide neatly under the bed.
Meanwhile, Susanne has become a master civil engineer, finding creative ways to store our things in every available nook and cranny. She’s managed to pack a precarious amount of stuff into one particular closet, affectionately known as the Tetris closet — a disjointed vertical wall of boxes, lamps, guitars, milk crates and other junk that appears to have fallen from the sky, piling ever higher to the ceiling. If we can manage to keep the pile growing without an avalanche, so much the better, but it’ll probably require us speaking only at a whisper within 10 feet of the closet, lest the vibrations give gravity the opportunity to wreak havoc.
Over the next few days I’ll try to take some pictures of the apartment and post them on the blog…. -ac

The Move to Boston, Part 2: Jersey to Brookline

Sunday, March 14th, 2004

Around noon we managed to get our flat tire situation behind us, so we continued our drive northeast. As expected, I-95 was a particular nightmare, an obstacle course of roadside construction and 18-wheelers. Fortunately, Mapquest had shown mercy on us and generated directions that had us divert from the highway towards Hartford, allow us to take an alternate route. The drive improved dramatically as we veered north, then east, entering Massachusetts southwest of Worcester.
The rest of the drive went by quickly, even though we needed to stop for gas near Framingham. By the time we reached Brookline’s town hall, it was just past 4pm, giving us plenty of time to pick up the necessary permits for the movers to park while delivering our belongings.
We spent the night at the Holiday Inn in Brookline, just a 10 minute walk from the apartment. Our cats seemed to like this hotel better than the one in New Jersey, probably because the room had a view of the car port in front of the hotel. After inspecting the room and spending a brief foray under the bed, Dizzy and Winnie set up shop by the window, observing the taxi cabs and tourists coming and going from the hotel. The two of them would spend the better part of the next two days standing guard over the car port.

The Move to Boston, Part 1: DC to Jersey

Tuesday, March 9th, 2004

Susanne and I hit the road on March 2 for our move from Washington DC to Boston. After two days of working with the movers to pack and load our possessions, we picked up a rental car, loaded our two cats, their litter box, and our minature bamboo tree into the backseat, and headed north.
We broke up the drive over a period of two days: four hours on Tuesday, four hours on Wednesday. This was the first time either of our cats had been in a car for longer than a 15 minute stretch (our cat Dizzy hadn’t even been in a car in nearly three years), so we were rather apprehensive of how they’d handle the roadtrip. Images of screaming, carsick little felines had been haunting us for several weeks, so we were quite relieved by how well they handled the drive. At first, both cats seemed pretty wired, unable to relax, but they stayed very quiet and resigned themselves to the fact that they’d have to hang out in their sherpa carriers longer than either of them would have liked.
The first half of the trip — DC to New Jersey — was very straightforward. We arrived at a Holiday Inn in South Plainfield at 6pm, just in time for the hotel’s bar to be packed with a group of burly, fortysomething fluid mechanics who’d assembled for some kind of conference. (It was a revelation to me that fluid mechanics went to conferences, but maybe this was a particularly precocious group of gearheads.) We had a quick, but thoroughly unsatisfying dinner at the local Red Lobster and went back up to the hotel to make sure the cats weren’t too freaked out by their temporary digs. Both boys were under the bed, eyes dialated, wildly alert; fortunately they came out and joined us to watch eight contenders duke it out on yet another episode of American Idol.
The next morning we left the hotel just after 9am, hoping to get to Boston for a late lunch. We needed to get to our new hometown, Brookline, in order to pick up parking permits for the moving van before the town hall closed at 5pm, so we wanted to make sure we had plenty of time to spare just in case we needed to run other local errands.
About five minutes into our morning trek, amidst the morning traffic on 287 South, the road started to get bumpy. Then very bumpy. Then downright scary. We soon realized the road was just fine, and that we were burning rubber at an alarming rate — our back right tire had blown out. I kicked myself over and over in my head — just before leaving Boston I’d noticed the tire pressure was a little low, but soon forgot about it after giving it a quick blast of air at the local gas station. Big mistake. The tire was a total loss. We were just short of the closest highway exit by around 200 yards, but there was no way this car could go any further.
Thanking our lucky stars we finally got cell phones last year, we called Hertz and asked them what we should do about it. They said they’d call a tow truck to come and help us with the spare tire; then we could either go to a repair shop to get the tire fixed, or go to the closest Hertz dealership, wherever that might be, for a replacement vehicle.
Before the tow truck could arrive, a truck from the New Jersey Department of Transportation came by and said they’d put on the spare for us at no charge. I called back Hertz and told them to cancel the tow truck. Soon we were mobile again, but the spare wouldn’t get us to Boston, so we took the next exit to go to a repair shop that’d been suggested by the NJDOT driver. Unfortunately, when we got to the shop, they said they only had one guy working, and it would take all day for them to fix it. They told us to check out a small gas station down the street that had a repair crew on staff.
A few minutes later, we were at the gas station, and they said the tire was damaged beyond repair, so they’d have to put on a new tire. Hertz had told me I would need their approval first if I wanted to get reimbursed for the tire, so I called them back. This time I got another operator who must have worked for an HMO in a past life; she insisted that only a particular brand and model of tire be used for the car, rather than several other brand-name tires available at the gas station.
For the next hour I played phone tag with Hertz trying to get final authorization for the tire; meanwhile we waited for Hertz’s pet brand of tire to get delivered to the gas station from another repair shop 20 miles away. Susanne and the cats sat patiently in the car, with all of our luggage strewn on the pavement, since we needed access to the tire storage space in the back trunk. Eventually, the tire arrived and the mechanic managed to get it on the car in about 15 minutes. By the time the car was ready to roll again, it was noon. Depending on traffic we’d get to Boston some time between 4pm and 5pm, perhaps too late to get the parking permits for the moving van we so desperately needed…. -ac