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Computing At Chaos Manor:
March 11, 2008

The User's Column, March, 2008
Column 332, Part 2
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2008 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.


I am still doing my main writing on the Imogene the iMac 20", using the Microsoft Wireless Laser Keyboard and Mouse. Imogene still sits on the funky old sewing machine table that was once the home of Ezekial, my friend who happened to be a Z-80 computer and who now resides in the Smithsonian; and she's usually a joy to use, although she can be temperamental.

I am still installing software and learning the Mac Philosophy of Computing. Sometimes the lessons are intuitive, but often the lessons are hard; at least they are for me. And I suspect that Imogene gets a kick out of fooling around with my long-accustomed-to-Windows head. Macs can be mischievous.

I am still mildly unhappy about the total lack of indicator lights on the Mac. I badly want a Power On light , and I would like a disk activity light. Neither need be large, and I have no objection to a software means of turning off; but a soft glow in the big Apple logo below the screen when the machine is on would be very useful to me. Of course I know this isn't going to happen.

The Mac story will continue. This week, we're concerned about the iPhone.

The iPhone Saga

This is a long story and parts of it are painful; but all parts of the story have a happy ending, and the bottom line is that I am very fond of the iPhone. It really is a pocket computer, and it can be very useful.

It can also be a real horror to set up.

My first problem was that the iPhone would not properly activate. I started at 5 PM on Thursday. At first it all seemed simple. I followed instructions, plugged the iPhone cradle into the Belkin USB Port expander, and put the phone in the cradle. The iMac immediately offered to activate the phone, and I told it to do so.

I was asked if this would be a new phone number or an existing one. I already had an AT&T Cingular mobile account, and I gave it that phone number. I was given a couple of plan options — the least expensive being ten bucks a month more than my current plan, hardly exorbitant since it would include unlimited data acquisition — and once I chose my plan there was much trundling, after which the iMac congratulated me on activating my phone.

A minute or so later, mail arrived in my Mac mailbox telling me that AT&T believed my account was activated, and congratulating me again.

The telephone, on the other hand, didn't believe it was activated. It said it had no services. Meanwhile, my old Nokia telephone was still working using the same phone number.

Thursday nights Roberta has choir practice, and for me it is meeting night for the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society. Niven and I had planned to meet there, where he would turn over to me the galley proofs of Inferno. This is the original Niven and Pournelle Inferno published in the 1970's and subsequently in 18 languages and over 20 editions. Tor Books is bringing it out again in conjunction with the new sequel Escape From Hell (Niven and Pournelle), both due out sometime later this year. We both got galley proofs of the first book, and Niven took his pass through. Now it's my turn, and I needed to pick up those pages.

Given that they're zapping my head with hard X-rays daily, I don't think it's a good idea to go out without a working telephone. The iPhone wasn't working, but at any time it might start up, in which case the old Nokia would become a brick; so I carried both the iPhone and the old phone just in case.

Of course nothing happened, and when I went to bed the only working cell phone was the Nokia. It was the same when I got up in the morning, so after our morning walk I called the AT&T service number that had been included in the mail message congratulating me on activating my phone.

Mr. Gregory Leaks answered after a very short — well under a minute — wait. He needed the model and serial numbers off the iPhone box. Once I gave those, it took him a while to investigate, and involved his supervisor and another technician, but eventually Mr. Leaks informed me there was nothing they could do: AT&T truly did think my iPhone was activated. The problem was the iPhone hardware: there was something wrong with it. And by the way, he had deactivated my Nokia.

I now had no cell phone at all. What, I asked, was I to do?

Swap out the iPhone, either by mail or go to an Apple store.

Off to Fashion Square

There is a good Apple Store in the Fashion Square mall in Sherman Oaks. I packed up all the stuff I could find that had come with the iPhone, put it in the iPhone box, and off I went.

The store was crowded. I got there at 1:04 PM, found someone to tell my story to, and waited. She went off to talk to management. At 1:10 I was told to stand in a line. At 1:30 I got to the head of the line, and got to start over, as if I had never spoken to anyone before. I then watched two managers converge and talk with the sales person who had listened to my story. At no point did they talk to me. A couple of times they went into a back room.

But things did happen, and by 1:45 I had a brand new iPhone and a proper receipt for it. Since I had received the original iPhone by mail and had no receipt for it — it was a gift — I wasn't astonished that the swap took a while. Indeed, I was a bit surprised to find that the swap happened at all.

So. Back to Chaos Manor, where I started the installation and activation process. Within half an hour that was done, and five minutes after that the iPhone chirped. It had bars. I was on line and could make calls. My Nokia was a brick, but I have a shiny new iPhone and it's beautiful.

It also works without a headset. There's a speaker hole in the right place on the face of the iPhone, and the microphone on the bottom edge of the iPhone works just fine. It's comfortable to hold in my hand, the voice quality is very good — what with the X-rays to my head, my hearing, never good for 50 years anyway, is execrable — and in general using the iPhone as a telephone is a pleasant experience. It really works.

First Defect

The first major defect I noticed was the lack of a lanyard cleat. The iPhone fits nicely into a shirt pocket, and for me it works without a headset; but it's slick, and a bit hard to fish out of my pocket sometimes, and I am a bit afraid of dropping it. A small lanyard anchor cleat could be ignored by those who don't care, and would be a great boon to people like me who tend to be clumsy when answering the phone. I'd love to be able to slip a lanyard cord around my wrist while using the iPhone.

The Wi-Fi Debacle

Actually there were two Wi-Fi debacles: getting the iPhone to talk to my internal Chaos Manor Network, and getting it to talk to the T-Mobile Hot Spot at the local Starbucks. Eventually both worked, but there's a long story with each.

At first everything looked good. I told the iPhone to log on to my local wireless network. I was asked for the password, and gave it. At Chaos Manor we use WPA, which has always been good enough. I gave the password, the iPhone connected to the net, and the Wi-Fi symbol appeared up there by the AT&T bars. It really looked as if we had connected without problems.

Alas, it was not to be. When I invoked Safari the iPhone web browser, I couldn't connect to the Internet. Not only was the Wi-Fi not working to connect to the Internet, but the AT&T data channel connection wasn't working because the iPhone thought it was using Wi-Fi! No web browsing with my new cell phone.

By now it was Friday night. I had a cell phone but no web. We went out to dinner, and while at dinner I tried the iPhone. I touched the Safari symbol, and Voila! There was the Internet. The AT&T connection wasn't particularly fast, but it wasn't all that slow either. I could go to www.jerrypournelle.com and read my latest musings, and over to www.chaosmanorreviews.com and see the columns and mail, and Google stuff, and everything, It might be a bit slow, but it was working.

When I came back home it stopped working. The iPhone glommed on to my network, flashed the Wi-Fi active symbol, and stopped communicating with the Internet. The remedy was to turn off my local Wi-Fi and let AT&T take over. That worked, but Chaos Manor is in an RF hole: I was only getting dialup speeds. Better than nothing, but not a lot better.

At least I knew that the iPhone would surf the net using AT&T.

T-Mobile Hot Spot

I eventually solved the local network Wi-Fi problem, but not without difficulty. We'll get back to that. My next step was to see how well Wi-Fi worked at a local T-Mobile Hot Spot, namely the Starbucks at the corner of Ventura and Vantage in Studio City.

When Sable, my red Siberian Husky, and I set out for our 11:30 PM two mile walk, I carried the iPhone with the intention of coming home past the Starbuck's and logging on to T-Mobile with it.

There were problems. My fingers kept missing keys. The iPhone doesn't show passwords, just dots, as you enter them, so you can't be sure you have typed it in right. I was trying to log in from across the street, controlling a Husky, managing a hiking staff, and trying to manipulate the iPhone and the result was total failure. It didn't help that I had forgotten my user name and kept giving it the wrong name. In any event, I sure didn't get logged in.

When we got home I looked up my T-Mobile user name and password that I have had for ten years and more. I initially bought into T-Mobile because that's what I found in the Admirals Club at American Airlines. I have a lifetime Admirals Club membership that I got by trading in my old Half Million Miles club membership forty and more years ago. One thing about Wi-Fi is that once you get a laptop logged in properly to a hot spot, it will automatically log on when it sees that net, and you don't have to remember your user name and password. This is great once you get established but makes for problems with new equipment...

When we took our morning walk we headed to Starbuck's again. Again I tried logging in. This time I was successful: I got a message saying that the service I requested wasn't compatible with my plan! It also gave a toll free number to call.

I went home in fury and called their support line. Once again I experience almost no wait whatever — this on a Saturday morning — and was connected to an American lady named Jocelyn. She couldn't figure out what the problem was: that is, I shouldn't get that message because I certainly had the right kind of account, and I ought to have been connected.

She suggested resetting my password to something very simple. I could then go down and log on, reset it back to the user name and password I prefer (and which all my laptops know) and thus break out of whatever odd loop I was stuck in. Since I had no alternative plan I agreed.

I put the iPhone in my explorer shirt pocket, grabbed Orlando the Lenovo T-42p ThinkPad, and headed to Starbucks again, this time by car. I parked not far away, got a weak signal, logged in using the new password, and once logged in changed the password. I could use the T-Mobile hot spot to surf the web with the ThinkPad.

Now the acid test. I closed the ThinkPad and took out the iPhone, and went into Starbucks for a cup of coffee on the theory that it would be easier to log in while sitting at a table.

Again I had some problems with typing properly, but I managed. I am told that the iPhone learns how you type. I don't know. I suspect I learned how to type with it. In any event, within five minutes I was connected to the T-Mobile Hot Spot and surfing the web using it. It worked just fine.

And now, whenever I get near a T-Mobile Hot Spot, the iPhone automatically logs onto it, and uses that for Internet access rather than AT&T's data access. It all works invisibly and smoothly.

One problem solved.

The Local Wi-Fi Network

My local Wi-Fi network bridges into the internal Chaos Manor network through a Belkin Pre-N Router. That has worked for years, ever since it replaced a D-Link G router. When we installed the Belkin Pre-N the coverage area doubled for all our computers even though none of my laptops have Pre-N wireless cards. In other words, just changing to the Pre-N router with no alteration in any of the laptops, I was suddenly able to work out on the patio, and down at the breakfast table, with any of my laptops. This has been enormously convenient and I would hate to lose that capability.

The Belkin Pre-N uses WPA security. I am told that the iPhone will use WEP, WPA, or WPA2 security protocols. Other Apple experts including people from Apple tell me that the iPhone prefers either none — wide open — or WPA2. Searching the Apple knowledge base reveals that much of this isn't well understood, or at least not well documented. This may or may not have something to do with our problems; I have a dozen theories as to what went wrong. It was clear something was goofy with the DNS service, but it wasn't clear what that problem was. And the iPhone has a habit of thinking it has passed a password test when it has not.

I won't go through all the steps I took in futile attempts to remedy the situation. Suffice it to say I tried a lot of things, but I always got the same result: if I allowed the iPhone to connect to the Pre-N network, the Wi-Fi symbol would appear, the iPhone would drop its attempt to use the AT&T data service, and all access to the Internet would cease. This was repeatable in a dozen ways.

The iPhone has a settings button, and under that the Wi-Fi category. If you choose the connected network under that category the iPhone will display — and allow you to edit — all the stuff you see if in Windows you go to a command line and enter ipconfig /all, including its IP address, Primary Gateway, DNS server addresses, and such. Those seemed all right, but now I wonder if I overlooked something. As you will see I have the problem solved, and I confess I don't at the moment have the heart to go back to where I was and resume troubleshooting. I will probably try it another time, and when I do I'll let you know, but for now, it remains a bit of a mystery.

One of my problems was that the Belkin Pre-N network was working perfectly for all my PC laptops. I can work in the back patio and at the kitchen table, and I like that, and I don't intend to give it up. I don't want to fool with it. It ain't broke.

Research on the web convinced me that one part of my problem was that the iPhone really and truly wanted WPA2 security. That wasn't going to happen with the Belkin Pre-N which can't be upgraded to that protocol. If I needed WPA2 I needed a new router.

I had a new router, a D-Link Xtreme N Gigabit Router. Would that work? My first attempt was to plug that router into my local Ethernet — WAN connection on router to a random Ethernet switch that was part of the net — and see if I could use a browser to look at the default address of 192.168.0.1 that the router defaults to. For some reason my local computers couldn't see that router. Bob Thompson has several suggestions as to why this should be so: they add up to IP address conflicts and the wrong data mask.

Of course I could configure it by simply connecting it to a switch, connecting the switch to a laptop, and connecting nothing else. That would let me configure the router including changing its IP address to something that can't be in conflict. It also seemed a remarkably unattractive thing to do. I invoked my victim status — hard X-rays to the brain ought to be good for at least one funk — and disconnected the whole thing. I'll experiment another time.

Apple Plays Nice with Apple

One maxim: Apple equipment works with Apple equipment. It's one reason Apple is in the hardware business. They don't have to be compatible with anything else, although they try — sometimes not very hard — to be. If it works with Apple, why worry about what else it doesn't work with? And Apple makes an insanely good router, the AirPort Extreme; use that and you'll have no worries. Why bother with compatibility with other people's equipment?

Better yet, Apple makes the Time Capsule in both 500GB and a full terabyte. This is a wireless storage device that works with OS X Leopard and contains what amounts to an AirPort Extreme in addition to a storage system that works with Leopard's Time Machine software.

I have Time Machine implemented on Imogene the iMac. It stores restoration points for the iMac on a Seagate 500 GB drive connected to Imogene by FireWire. In addition I have the Western Digital My Book, also 500 GB, also connected by FireWire (in fact in a daisy chain from the Seagate), running its own automatic backup software.

If that were not enough, I have, but have not yet installed, the Seagate 1 TB FreeAgent Pro external hard disk that will backup not only Imogene but my various PC systems. I haven't installed it yet, but I sure intend to. I have a lot of confidence in Seagate. Seagate also offers a new version of the Mirra Personal Server I was very fond of before Seagate bought them out. Mirra was good indeed. I'll get FreeAgent installed shortly, and meanwhile I strongly suggest that if you are interested in backup solutions, you look long and hard at Seagate's FreeAgent Pro.

And if that were not enough, I employ my usual backup strategy of copying all important documents from all my machines to other places, and once in a while burning off a DVD of important files. In a word, I am about as backed up as a person can be, so I don't need a new Time Capsule.

On the other hand, I have to find things to write about, and Time Capsule sounds intriguing: a backup system and a wireless router capable of creating a local wireless network all in one $299 unit (as opposed to $179 for the AirPort Extreme alone).

And on the gripping hand, there's a lot of discussion of Time Machine on the web, and since I started this series on going to the Mac I have a lot of new subscribers with mac.com email addresses, proving there is a lot of interest in the Mac community in what I am doing here.

Given all that, I set out to the Apple Store to buy a Time Capsule.

AirPort Extreme

Alas, I arrived at the Sherman Oaks Fashion Square Apple Store just after they sold the last Time Capsule. Now I had a decision to make. I really wanted a happy ending to the problem of connecting the iPhone to a local Wi-Fi network; and I have always been compulsive about having a happy ending to my columns. The radiation treatments I'm getting seem to compound that compulsive streak.

In any event, I made my decision: I bought and Apple AirPort Extreme for $179 plus tax.

I brought it home, plugged it into the same Ethernet switch port that I had vainly tried for the D-Link router, and inserted the AirPort Extreme disk into Imogene.

Imogene had her laughs: nothing happened. By that I mean absolutely nothing.

Apple Defect

Apple doesn't think it's a bug, it's a feature: there are no trays or buttons or release holes to be accessed with a paperclip on the Mac wonder drive. There's a slot. Insert your disk and Have Faith.

Alas, in my case that faith wasn't justified. Yes, there is an eject button on the Microsoft Wireless Laser Keyboard. Pressing that key put a large EJECT symbol on the iMac screen — and nothing happened. Nothing.

Apple really and truly needs some means of dealing with the problem of overlooked disks that can't be ejected.

Success at Last

There was nothing for it: use the power button. I pressed and held the iMac power button for ten seconds. She shut down reluctantly. When she was entirely off, I pressed and held the power button again. She came up, and Lo! There was the AirPort disk icon on the screen.

Peter Glaskowsky comments:

"There was nothing for it: use the power button. I pressed and held the iMac power button for ten seconds."

Argh. That's not good for the machine and didn't do anything useful in this case. Nothing was interfering with the operation of the machine. You should have just used Restart or Shut Down as usual to get the same result.

When you boot a Mac, holding down the mouse button will eject any ejectable media in the machine such as a CD or DVD. This happens before the machine attempts to read the disc. Apple doesn't publicize these little shortcuts very well either.

For example, few Mac users have seen this page:

http://docs.info.apple.com/article.html?artnum=75459

But even this doesn't document the mouse-button eject function.

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Of course missing from the desktop were the icons of Roxanne-C and Alexis-C, two networked PC drives I need to access from Imogene now that Imogene is the main writing computer here at my desk. They always vanish when I have to power down and start up again. It takes more than two minutes to restore them. Ah. Well.

In any event I was now able to run the AirPort Extreme installation software and did so. The instructions were very clear. I configured the AirPort as "Bridged", meaning that it would access the Internet through the Chaos Manor internal network, and it would not assign IP addresses.

I created a new network with a WPA2 password. All seemed well, so I shut down the installation program, brought out the iPhone, and got to work. First thing was to tell the iPhone to FORGET the Belkin Pre-N network. Don't ever log on to it. Forget it is there.

Next was to access the new network. Enter the password. Accepted. Wi-Fi symbol appeared. Looks good — only when I tried to go to www.chaosmanor.com I was told that it was impossible. Safari couldn't find the server.

DNS problem indeed. First on the iPhone look at the addresses. Surprise: it had a bogus DNS service IP address. Tap on that to edit it. Give it the proper DNS server. Exit and try again. Still no joy.

Go to Imogene. Run the AirPort Extreme installation program again. Lo! For reasons I cannot explain, it was NOT in "Bridge" mode even though I was very careful to evoke that mode. I fixed that.

Next, there was the same DNS server address error in the AirPort that there had been in the iPhone. I fixed that. Exited the AirPort Extreme installation program. Took out the iPhone and logged into the new Mac created Wi-Fi network.

And the story ends here. We have full Internet access through the AirPort Extreme router. It's very fast, it works, and there are no problems.

iPhone and Wi-Fi

We have full success. Whenever the iPhone gets in range of the local Wi-Fi net, it logs on to it and uses that for web access. It does the exact same thing when it sees a T-Mobile Hot Spot: it automatically logs in and uses that instead of the AT&T data service. The iPhone with Wi-Fi is a treasure, a good telephone and a good web browser. It has a decent but not great camera, too, but since I always carry the Sony DSC-T100 pocket camera that's not a feature I need a lot. Still, I can take and email pictures in one operation if I want to.

Bottom Line: I am very glad to have the iPhone even though I don't use all its features yet. It is not quite the pocket computer I described in The Mote in God's Eye in 1974, but it's getting there. I love it. Recommended.

Missing Features

The iPhone SDK is out now, and people who study such things say it's pretty complete. We can look for a spate of new applications for the iPhone.

I want to be on record as requesting two of them.

First, I want a 'To Do' list for the iPhone. I ought to be able to create that list either on the iMac or on the iPhone as I require and synchronize them. When I check an item off on either the iMac or the iPhone, the synch should see that and take care of it.

Second, I want a voice notes recorder. Why shouldn't I? The iPhone has a microphone, and a ton of both memory, storage, and computing power. If my of Compaq iPAQ can do that, then surely my iPhone can. As it happens, one of the reasons for X-Ray treatments is the growth in my head is pressing on Broca's Area, which means I have trouble talking — I think in sentences but I tend to gasp out words in short strings sounding like a drunken frog unless I am very careful — so my need for a voice recorder just at the moment is not high; but usually I carry the Olympus WS-100 for voice notes, and there's no real reason the iPhone can't take care of that task.

I'm sure other features I'd like will occur to me, and now that the SDK is out, I may see them pretty soon.

The Moral of This Story

The first moral of the story is that persistence pays. I had to trade in the iPhone — possibly because of hardware problems with that phone.; then I had to deal with wrong error messages and inexplicable T-Mobile software errors; then with the possibility of security incompatibilities between WPA and WPA2 and the iPhone expectations.

I had to deal with a mysterious shift out of Bridge Mode in the AirPort Extreme setup. Then I had to spot the wrong DNS address and fix that.

But eventually the problems were taken care of, and all was well, and it was all worth it. I have a telephone that surfs the web and when it sees a good Wi-Fi network it gloms onto it.

The second moral is that Apple can be expected to play nice with Apple equipment, but if you need to work with non-Apple hardware you may be badly disappointed. It isn't that Apple doesn't care, but it's true they don't care much if your new Apple doesn't like incompatible hardware. It is possible to set up a local Wi-Fi network with D-Link and Linksys and Belkin routers; I've since done it. It wasn't anywhere as easily done as with the AirPort Extreme. Apple will take great pains to make sure Apple equipment works with other Apple equipment.

Time Capsule

I have ordered a new 500 GB Time Capsule. When it comes I'll set it up in place of the AirPort Extreme. I make no doubt that it will work just fine. We should have a report next week.