Home Networks: Part 1

rather than trying to crack games, I’m beginning to realize a far more useful way to spend a Saturday afternoon is meddling around with electronics. 

For a long time, I was frustrated with the very poor networking setup at home. 

Imagine the flat like a triangle, each corner being a place where I need connectivity – but the router’s being used more as a switch than a wifi signal broadcaster, which means it needs to be in one corner (where my TV and PS3 need to be connected onto the net) with one long cable going into another corner (which had my computer). The router couldn’t be in the center without a mess of ethernet cables draped across the hall, and putting all other devices in proximity would turn my living room into Lamington Road and still not solve the issue of connectivity in other parts.

Back when you’re a penniless sales exec who just needs a single dedicated connection to a computer (and maybe a cheap wifi that easily reaches every corner of a pigeonhole apartment), the single-router method would work – and besides, wires and cables just added to the ambience at that time, the rest coming from discarded pizza boxes, beer cans, ashtrays and laundry. 

Now unfortunately there are other considerations – there are already 5 mobile devices that like wifi, 3 more that want an ethernet cable with this number likely to expand… and cables draped across the room being out of the question, I have to get creative. 

First off, I leave the better router (a Linksys E1000) at the core of the network in one corner. 

The dedicated ethernet line to the computer is taken to a point midway in the middle of the flat, maybe a bit further towards the non-wifi side, and my old Dlink DIR300 gets hooked up here. 

You can’t use 2 routers on a single modem / line, unless you want to end up with 2 networks (which would be fun but not very user-friendly for the other residents) so it’s better to repurpose this as an access point. Setting up an access point is fairly easy – 

  • Get the network name, IP address, SSID, subnet mask, and network mode from your primary router. You can get this by logging onto the router’s admin panel from your browser – usually 192.16.1.1, but google ‘default ip address for (your router model) to confirm what it’s going to be for you. Write this down. 
  • Plug a cable into any ethernet port of your second router (not into the internet-in port) and get into the admin there as well. You may need to factory-reset (just stick a pin into the reset hole at the back) the modem to factory, I had to – and set the same details exactly the same as your primary router. 
  • Switch off / disable DHCP server on the secondary router, save settings. 
  • If you don’t have a wifi password set, then set them – especially if you’re not on an unlimited plan and moderate to low speeds. Free wifi will be very easily picked up by any number of devices, your bandwidth will get used up, and you’ll never realize it until the bill comes – and it’s not just other computers and laptops, but also smartphones, PSPs, ipods, the works. 
  • On my PC, now disconnected from the cable, I put a USB wifi receiver dongle. You can get relatively cheap ones easily. 
  • The ethernet cable coming from the primary router needs to be plugged into an ethernet port on the secondary (NOT the internet-in port).
  • For a more detailed step-by-step, see here and here. I found these to be the best advisories, and they have pictures. 

And that’s it. I now have wifi connectivity all over the house, fewer cables trailing into the PC room (and they’re damn painful to manage if it needs to go through a door – either the door will never close again or the cable will keep getting damaged), and the original core system in the living room is unchanged – and I didn’t even lose an ethernet port!

Talking of which, I’m thinking about adding a network storage drive – any suggestions? I need it to store my movies and stream them to either the TV directly, or the PS3. Tried setting up a mediaserver on the PC, but it slows the system down dramatically and doesn’t always refresh – and besides, I don’t want 2 TB of media clogging up my drives. 

That’s going to take my last available port, so I guess that means I need a switch as well. But that’s for the next post, once I pick up and install the network drive.  

Hardware

This one is slightly off-topic compared to the rest, but felt it’s a better fit here than any other blogs.

Last month, my fairly ancient Nvidia 9400 burnt out, unable to bear the pressure of several hundred hours over the last year of high-end games, days-on-end downloads, and varied voltage fluctuations. Having had some pretty pathetic customer service from my regular dealer, I decided to skip the middleman this time and go straight to the source. So, I present –

How to research and upgrade your GPU. 

  1. Step 1: You need to know your system in exquisite detail. Assuming you’ve lost the original packaging, open up the cabinet and start googling all the product codes you can find. The make should be fairly prominent, but the exact version number will be printed somewhere around the PCI slot. You’ll also need to know exactly what slot you were using – is it an older AGP or a PCI / PCI-e, and which version. Google these as well, sometimes newer cards will have problem with older slots. www.hardwaresecrets.com, www.tomshardware.com will be useful.
  2. Step 2: Once you know the slot used, start looking up the options for a GPU. Don’t worry about GPU RAM – it’s independent from your system RAM, so you can use DDR3 even your motherboard has DDR2.
  3. Step 3: Check your power supply. Older systems had 300W, so some of the newer cards – especially the high-performance ones – will have issues. 400W is ok, 450W is good, but allow for a decent margin, especially if you’ve got a lot of stuff running off a single power supply – multiple internal HDDs, DVD drives, and multiple peripherals running off the USBs.
  4. Step 4: Software compatibility. While most systems have a Windows OS, which will work, you need to check for known issues among your shortlist if you have any other OS – for example, I had a Ubuntu 10.4 which has issues with the ATI/AMD Radeon 6xxx series (and I mention that explicitly is because that’s what I discovered after purchase and installation)
  5. Step 5: Purchase. First of all, look up the current prices to have an approximate idea. You already know your budget, and you have a shortlist of the models you want – Flipkart and eBay both are good sources for current prices, and knowing the base price here will stop you from getting ripped off. If you’re buying on your own – and I recommend you do – head down to Lamington Road in Mumbai. Google for the good stores before you go, or you’ll be lost – there’s hundred of them everywhere. You won’t find much difference in the prices shop to shop, they’re all networked and don’t undercut each other, but the better ones will be able to help you decide and replace if there’s any issues with the product. This is also where you’ll get the lowest prices. There are other distributors across the city, but prices will be higher, and range smaller. Around (within a 5-minute bike ride) the distributors there’ll be lots of small retail computer stores – these will have the poorest range, the highest prices, will push old stock on you and are probably the most familiar face of your hardware experience, but it’s time to move on, isn’t it?
  6. Step 6: Actual replacement. Again, just google what you’re about to do (and make sure you have the page open on a laptop / second computer / printed out beforehand) and shut down, open up, remove old card, insert new card, do not force or struggle, tighten the screws, and you’re done. GPU replacements are probably the easiest to do, other than RAM – no cables to manage, as most GPUs run direct off the PCI slot. If it needs an external power supply, make sure you’ve identified where that goes. I’m not going to talk about crossfiring, I don’t know enough about that – try it on your own.
  7. Restart and let the system detect the new hardware, run the manufacturer disk, and you’re set.
  8. Emergencies – in case there’s any issues, you can always get a working (non-gaming) system by simply using the motherboard’s own VGA slot for the monitor instead of the GPU slot. You can also use this when your GPU’s about to fail / has failed, leaving you with a blank monitor.
Next post – since I messed around too much with Linux’ graphic driver settings, I’ll be wiping that and upgrading to Oneiric Ocelot; review coming soon.

Resistance is futile

  • There’s an app for that.
  • Google it. 
  • Check Wikipedia.
  • Tell me the landmark for my GPS. 
  • Heard on Twitter…
  • Can you give me your mobile number in case of emergencies?
  • Check the forums in case someone figured out how to fix it. 
  • How are the reviews?

 

How often do you hear any of the above? The interesting thing is, a lot of these are moving from being brand names / objects towards activities, verbs. Google it. Tweeted. Others are getting there.

There’s a more subtle shift happening under the surface, too. It’s not just that these are some tools / applications that are becoming popular to the point of ubiquity, indispensability. It goes even deeper. Look at the unspoken assumption that lies behind Googling something, searching for an app that can do what you want, looking up an address on a GPS, and assuming everyone is 10 digits away at any time.

It’s an assumption that there is, there in the Cloud, a repository of data, information, and knowledge that exists. Someone, somewhere in the world has had the same problem we have had, and has found an answer. That answer is out there and accessible.
I don’t need to know how to fix something, know something, as long as I can correctly identify and find the person who has.

It seems kinda obvious – that’s one core concept of the Internet, anyway – but the point I’m trying to make is, it goes deeper. Our brains are starting to operate on a Cloud paradigm. Don’t need to remember, only process. Knowledge belongs to the community.

Sounds very… Borg, doesn’t it? 

On The Turning Away Of The Face(book)

Hi Ashish,
We’re trying out a new feature to reduce the amount of email you receive from Facebook. Starting today, we are turning off most individual email notifications and instead, we’ll send you a summary only if there are popular stories you may have missed.
You can turn individual emails back on and restore all your original settings at any time.
Thanks,
The Facebook Team

But with Facebook, is anything ever as easy as it seems?

Think about the implications of this for a moment. If you’re a normal facebooker, you will check in fairly regularly, and what prompts the check-in (usually) is something that gives you a feeling that something’s happened. An alert mail. Somebody commented on your post. Somebody tagged you in a photo, mentioned you in a note. Friended you. etc.

This is usually in your mail. Which can come on your mobile, your POP account…

Also look at that little sidebar that came up a few days back – there are all your alerts! It’s a very… twitter-esque interface, also in the sense of it’s impermanency… an update that gets pushed down is gone.

Psychologically? You feel cut off. You feel you don’t know what’s going on in your social world when you’re off FB, and are flooded with information, real-time, when you’re on it. Interactivity and presence is encouraged. Absenteeism is literally punished with silence – FB’s shunning you.

Result? FB is always-on, increased timespends, interactions, pageviews…

Good call, Zuck!

To or not to… work from home

The whole concept of ‘working from home’ is fraught with pitfalls, not the least of which is a highly negative connotation it’s come to acquire, at least in the Indian concept, standing as shorthand for ‘on leave without using up leaves’. However, there are positive aspects as well, and then some surprises.

Working from home becomes possible in some specific scenarios – your work doesn’t involve frequent interaction with colleagues in the same office and is independent. Writing, creative work, design, coding, accounts, or anything involve own, small business, etc – this basically needs your brain and a task at hand that doesn’t depend on anyone else. An alternative is if your interactions are limited to phone / mail only. Check.

No distractions in the home – which means no kids / aged parents / frequent visitors / nearby construction. If you can also set aside a part of the house – say, a spare room / study, or your bedroom if nobody else is using it, that works too – but both you and everyone else needs to be disciplined enough not to break that sanctity. Check.

Discipline. It’s very tempting to catch an episode you’re following, finish off a ‘few’ pages in a book you’re reading, finish a chapter in a game you’re playing, or even just surf. It’s a black hole, a bottomless pit, that. It never ends – a few minutes becomes an hour, half a day, and then you’re basically screwed.

Laziness. The biggest advantage working from home gives you is the ability to save on travel time – in my case, close to 3 hours a day – but that can also lull you into a false sense of security, where you imagine you have a lot more time to complete a task than is actually there. Trust me, you don’t want to be sitting at home and working once the family is back and the day turns into night; even if you live alone, it’s psychologically very exhausting. Just make a deadline, a schedule, and stick to it.

Independence. This is a pitfall. When your power goes out, your internet goes down, or your computer crashes, you’re on your own. Make sure you have your backups and redundant solutions available – buy a external HD, save every few minutes, get a USB internet stick, the works. Nobody listens if you don’t deliver due to things beyond your control.

If you can greenlight all of the above, go ahead; you’ll save your office some decent rental and maintenance space, and you an extra few hours a day of leisure.

The MOST critical feature for an online retailer…

…is the humble wishlist. 

I’ve used Baazee.com, eBay, Indiatimes Shopping, Rediff, Indiaplaza, and multiple other random sites for one-off purchases. But one place I keep coming back to each time, again and again, is Flipkart. And it isn’t necessarily because of the prices or the range.

Take any standard online retailer.  Assume that the other basics are taken care of – secure payment gateways, logistics, a decent range, and good searchability is in place and equivalent for all.

The one with a wishlist feature is the one that wins out. Why? Because it’s not only your wishlist, it’s also your shopping list. Every time you finish reading the book / playing the game / watching the movie you bought on the last purchase, here’s where you’ll go back to. Every time you read a good review or receive a recommendation, you’ll look it up and add it – just for future reference. A couple of weeks later, you have a list of items that you’re not very sure where they came from – but you do know that at some point of time, you wanted to buy them. And you still can.

If the wishlist is socially shareable – I’m talking pre-birthday, pre-anniversary and pre-christmas type occasions – it makes gifting so much easier, and a much more rewarding experience. Sorry, but I’m a greedy bastard.  🙂

Items get added onto the wishlist after the search process, which differentiates it from any newsletter-based or deal-of-the-day type models. Those introduce you to items for the first time, after which you start the price-comparison checks. That works for totally unique items, one-offs you won’t find anywhere else. Commoditized items can’t work here.

Newsletters also have a slight trace of the snake-oil salesman; I may be paranoid, but if I see something at an amazing discount, my first reaction will be to wonder why. Nobody’s in the business of giving money away. Is it defective? Obsolete? Scratched? Pirated? etc. The wishlist, on the other hand, is above and beyond reproach, because you’ve put it together yourself. The items you added weeks ago may now be cheaper in a different listing, but what are the chances you’ll recheck before buying?

Ebay has a watchlist – but it gets purged with every relisting. will need to check the others.

Amazon has an awesome feature – the recommendations obviously, but most important, the ‘people who saw this also saw / bought’. Lets you leap from product to product, literally along a train of thought, always through things that you like, till you stumble upon the one you like enough to buy.

And for everyone else – especially the guys who hold inventory themselves – enable a wishlist. It’ll help.

And, Google+.

Google Plus

I’ve had this around 24 hours now, and the critical question is – can Google+ replace a Facebook?

It’s definitely miles ahead of Orkut, but that’s a given. As far as FB comparisons go, there’s one critical feature they got bang on – the issue of privacy. My biggest grouse with FB has been that there are people on it who shouldn’t necessarily know who else is on it, and what they’re doing. G+ lets you split up everyone you know into insulated groups – and everything you mention from here onwards is specifically meant for exactly who you wanted to see it. It’s like having multiple social networks on the same profile, meant for different people.

The best privacy tool is your fingers – don’t post what you don’t want people to know. But this (circles) is the next best thing – now that you’re gonna post anyway, at least keep it withing the circle that won’t blow up in your face. Advantage G+.

The other advantage that G+ has is Gmail – almost everyone I know has an account. So a readymade, ready-to-go list of people already exists on G+. You don’t need to pull them in. Even.

Same with Picasa – there’s a readymade set of images to be shared. Even.

Share links for content shares – easier for FB since they got so massively integrated. Advantage FB.

FB still has the advantage in terms of apps, games, and content – what they need to do now, really, really fast, is differentiate the one mass of friends into distinct, separate, and insulated social circles. That’s easy, and will put them back in front. Right now… it’s iffy.

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