Trip to the US - part 1

Well, somehow time has really flown by. Here it is a month since we got back home and I haven't done the detailed entries for our travels this summer. So I figure I better get to it before I completely forget what happened. Old age is coming on, you know.

Fixing computers and networks seemed to be the major theme of my visit to the US this summer. My trip was kind of like the world's longest IT service call. In more ways than one - distance and time. In Madison I started by buying a wireless router and installing and setting it up for the Findleys. PC's are easy, but networking can be a bitch. A router is a good idea to allow a home network and provide a hardware firewall, but I wouldn't recommend trying to configure a router if you don't have some experience. Come to think of it, even then I wouldn't recommend trying to configure one. It took a lot of time and finally a call to tech support to get the router working with their broadband provider. But once we got it working it fixed a problem that we have always had when we visited. Whenever we tried to connect to the internet it would take several hours for the provider to time out and recognize a new computer. For that time no one could connect. Really a nuisance. But with the router we could all connect to the internet anytime. I got the firewall in the router configured and bought a wireless network card for Devin's computer. I installed that and got him connected to the internet as well. Whew! Then I got security set up for wireless and got everyones laptop set up for the network. Important to do! With a router and hardware firewall in place home networks are pretty secure, but if someone gets in on the other side of the firewall via wireless it's all over. Then we visited my father-in-law's condo where I got his wireless network set up to be secure as well and got everyone's laptop working on it. And oh yeah, we had to set up his laptop to work with Findley's network as well as his own. Sandy's too. Time to move on to the next town and the next computer problem.

Dinner at Louie's with John and Laura (and MB who took the picture)

I never did get Devin's antivirus and spyware software set up, but it was time to head for Milwaukee to visit my family (and their computers) for a while. I like taking the bus from Madison to Milwaukee. It is relatively cheap, runs a couple of times a day, and is comfortable and stress free. I just read and listen to my iPod and let someone else worry about the driving. While I was in Milwaukee I stayed with my parents.

Turns out that my dad had been having problems with his internet connection for months, ever since I had been there late last year. It was very unreliable - he would lose his connection frequently. It basically made it unusable. My dad had been on phone support with Roadrunner a number of times and they had tried everything from reconfiguring his PC software to sending a guy out to boost his cable tv signal levels. But since I had my laptop we were able to try and use that to isolate the problem. And after working on it for a while we had some good luck - it stopped working completely! Whatever was causing it to drop our once and while just wouldn't let it connect at all. As anyone who has done any debugging at all knows, a hard failure is waaaaayyyy easier to diagnose and fix then an intermittent problem. Now it didn't take us long to figure out that it was the cable modem that was the culprit. To get it fixed we had to have a guy come out on a service call. We told him what we had figured out but he insisted on adjusting the signal levels first. This got my dad pretty upset as he has already had a guy come out and do that and it hadn't helped. But we let him do his thing first. Then when he replaced the cable modem it took care of the problem. When he finished with that he was nice enough to help me configure the router, even though roadrunner says they done't support it. Voila! It was kind of funny though when he started throwing around a lot of technical terms that neither dad nor I was familiar with. At first we thought he was full of it, but after he left we were scrambling to read about cable tv. We learned a few new things. And we thought we were pretty good electrical engineers! But the good news was that the internet problem was fixed and the router was installed and working as well. Now I could get connected too and Dad had a hardware firewall. Everything was copacetic! And that pretty much occupied my first visit to Milwaukee. It was time for me to fly to Boise and meet Sandy there.

Will hike for treats

The visit to Boise turned out to be short. On the flight in I could see that there was smoke from forest fires over just about all the mountains of Idaho. We had planned to go to Stanley and spend a few days hiking, but decided that with all the smoke and haze it wouldn't be worth the effort. We cancelled our reservations for the mountains. But we were able to visit with Mickey quite a bit over the weekend. And we had a chance to visit with some friends and eat at some our favorite places like Louie's, Hugo's and Idaho Pizza Company. They still recognized me at IPC and remembered my standard order! But there were no computers to work on. So I went back to Wisconsin early.

Since I had flown from Milwaukee I had to fly back there. But next day I caught the bus to head back to Madison. Now I was doing research on SlingBox. This is a really cool device that connects to any tv signal (antenna, cable or satellite) and also to a home network. Then it is possible to connect to the SlingBox over the internet and watch any tv program. We wanted to have this in place so that we could watch college football games when we went back to Singapore. But there was a lot of research to be done. First job was to make sure that it would work through the firewalls I had set up on everyone's home network. We also wanted to be able to record tv shows and watch them at convenient times. Most shows in the US are on in the middle of the night or early morning for us in Singapore. But everything I found indicated that it would take a complicated setup of a SlingBox and TiVo to do that. Since everything seems to end up being harder than expected, I decided to start out with a simple configuration. And I decided to set it up on my parent's network.

I did do one other project in Madison. Sandy had a good tshirt idea. I took some pictures of Laney and used them to put together a new Darth Dog item on CafePress.

Then I headed to Milwaukee for my final week in the US. For this time, we had arranged for Mickey to come out and visit at the same time. He was flying into Midway Airport, so we rented a car that I could drive to Milwaukee and use to pick him up from Chicago. I'll cover our activities in another post, but basically it was baseball, baseball, and then more baseball.

Dad takes Lorri's new computer for a spin

While we were in Milwaukee I bought a SlingBox and installed it on my dad's network. It was easy to set up and worked great. Later I tried watching tv from Madison and it was fine. It was interesting to compare watching the Brewers on Fox Sports in Madison and watching the exact same game over the SlingBox from my parent's house. The SlingBox lagged the tv broadcast by about seven seconds. Probably the compression/decompression time. Even in Singapore though, the SlingBox works great. The picture quality is ok. Actually, football is about the worst thing to watch. Since so much is changing on the screen in a typical play, there are quite a few compression artifacts. But baseball and regular tv shows look pretty good. And even from Singapore I am able to consistently stream between 450k and 500k bytes per second. Not bad for shipping (lots of) bits half way around the world. So we can watch anything that is on time warner cable at my parents house from Singapore. We can control it remotely - my parents can't even tell it is there. It really works well. A cool device.

It is amazing how much stuff we can get from the US. I can listen to local US radio stations and read the local newspapers over the web. I have conversations almost every day with friends or family with Instant Messenger. And now we can watch all our favorite sports and television programs. It does show how connected the world is. I did a foreign assignment for three years in Great Britain in the mid-eighties. At that time, we used to think we were lucky if we could get three day old baseball and football scores in the expat paper (the International Herald Tribune was pretty much our only source of news from home). It is considerably different now. In fact, I would have to say that it feels less isolated now being in Singapore in 2007 than it did in the late seventies when I moved from Milwaukee to Boise to start at HP. And I didn't even mention the wonders of blogging.

It was just about time to head back home. But there was one more important computer task. Lorri's system had so many performance issues that it was essentially unusable. I tried to reinstall it, but it was a really old system and in the process I killed it (hey, even Super Tech isn't perfect). She decided that she was just going to get a new system. I went out with my sister Lorri to help her pick out her new PC. Then AFTER an evening baseball game I had a last night late night marathon. We got the PC set up and running. Then we installed and configured a router and firewall for her (another call to tech support!). But everything was working and now she has been able to use her computer more. And her and I have kept in better contact with IM. She also uses her PC for some of the new business opportunities that she is pursuing. So it was well worth the effort.

By now we had been traveling for six weeks. It was fun to go to new places, to see some old places, to visit with family and friends. But I was feeling like it was time to head home. I missed our own place, our own bed, and my own computer!