Thursday, June 28, 2012

Field Day 2012

Somehow, I hurt my back. Well, I say somehow, but I know how. I over-did it at karate. It's hard when a 51-year-old man tries to keep up with the teenagers. Too much jumping and kicking, and I ended up in so much pain the Thursday before Field Day that I could barely stand. 

Fortunately, I managed to get it under control by Field Day and work some stations from the Micro-shack. I started by putting the 80/40m dipole back up. A rope had frayed in two where it went over a branch. An hour's worth of work and that end was once again up in the trees. I spent some time raising the other end and managed to get it a couple of meters higher. 

I used the Elecraft K2/100. The K2 is really designed for field day. It worked out really well. I borrowed a 12v deep-cycle battery from my camping trailer to operate class 1E. I did end up getting a Low Batt indication after about 3.5 hours, but I reduced power to 50 watts and continued one.

Conditions weren't great. I found nothing on 10m, very little activity on 15, which means everything was crammed onto 20 and 40m. At one point, I could not find a clear frequency on 40m CW -- there were signals every 200-300 Hz. It almost sounded like 160m during the ARRL 160m contest.

Managed to do a bit of running, but this one was mostly S & P. I must say that field day operating technique is significantly below the standard of most contests. There were several occasions where I was calling CQ, someone called, I answered, and they disappeared. It even happened a couple of times when someone else called CQ. I guess people got key (not mic) fright.

Took one break to take my wife out to dinner. About 0300z, my back had had enough of sitting and I had to pull the plug. Maybe next time, I'll be able to stay up a bit later and work more on 80m.

Two memorable contacts. Worked W4DOC -- the Atlanta Radio Club, with whom I have done innumerable field days. Also worked W8SP -- a club which my brother Ben, NJ8J, used to join for field day in WV. I had never worked W8SP before.

Call: AA4LR
Operator(s): AA4LR
Station: AA4LR

Class: 1E LP
Operating Time (hrs): 5.5

Band  CW Qs  Ph Qs  Dig Qs
 80:    3            
 40:  119      5     
 20:   54     18     
 15:   10      3     
Total:  186     26      0  Total Score = 896

Club: South East Contest Club

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Scratching the (Microsoft) Surface

Microsoft announced this week a new line of tablet computers running Windows. The announcement event had more than it's share of balky demos and unresponsive machines. The most curious thing, however, was the most distinctive feature of the Surface devices -- the embedded keyboard/cover. Although Microsoft had "hands-on" event, none of those present were actually permitted to try the keyboard. Add to this the fact that no pricing was announced and it just gives the entire event a forced feel -- like the products just weren't quite ready to announce.

John Gruber has perhaps the best analysis of this: "I presume Microsoft timed this event to jump ahead of anything Google might be announcing at their I/O conference next week — and the consensus seems to be that Google is going to announce much the same idea: their own Google-branded, Google-designed tablet that will put them in direct competition not just with Apple but with their own OS licensees."

Contrast this with Apple's announcement of the iPad. There were certainly plenty of rumours that Apple had been developing a tablet device. They had been circulating for years. In fact, the Apple rumour mill had gotten very tired of this story by the time of the announcement in January 2010. But Apple's announcement event was smooth and polished, full pricing information was given and pre-orders were taken within 60 days.

There's no doubt that the iPad has been a complete breakthrough product. And despite a host of challengers introduced in the last two years, none have really made an impact. Currently, there is no "tablet" market. Not yet. There's only an iPad market. 

I welcome Surface, just as I've welcomed the other iPad competitors. Competition is a good thing. When Windows Phone Series 7 was introduced during PDC '10, I thought it was a good thing. Frankly, I'm disappointed that it hasn't done better in the market. It's natural for any market to have three or four strong competitors, all pushing each other to produce better and better products and more attractive prices.

On this note, the personal computer market was a complete anomaly for over two decades. At first, it was dominated by the IBM PC. However, due to bad management, IBM had leaked enough technical details to allow their product to be copied, so the market became dominated with PC "clones." IBM tried to remedy this situation by introducing the Micro-channel Architecture, which required vendors to license certain technology in order to produce clones. (I fondly remember walking around COMDEX in the late 80's, finding some cool ISA hardware board, and then asking them if they had an MCA version available) But the market had already been wrested from IBM's hands, and placed in those of Microsoft, who's MS-DOS ran on all those clones.

Microsoft leveraged that OS monopoly into another, with Windows. Soon Microsoft dictated the hardware requirements to the clone makers, and stifled any upstart OS that threatened to emerge. Sure, there were competitors, such as Apple, who made arguably better computers, but they held an insignificant portion of the market. But it didn't last.

The problem with monopolies like this is they tend to stifle innovation. The best example is Microsoft itself -- with Internet Explorer. Microsoft recognized in late 1994 that the internet was a threat to their OS monopoly. They bought the Spyglass browser and turned it into Internet Explorer 1 in August 1995. There ensued a frenzy of innovation effort which brought us to IE 6 within six years. And then -- nothing for over five years. By 2001, Microsoft had achieved complete market dominance with an 85-90% market share in the browser space. Only when competition appeared again in the form of Mozilla and WebKit-based browsers did they again release new version of Internet Explorer. 

And, today, the browser market space is dominated by four strong competitors, each with 20-25% market share. That's a normal market.

There's too many writers in the computer press who are used to the anomaly -- with one competitor completely dominating the market. After all, it makes their job eaiser. All they have to do is follow the market dominator.

You'd think the press would embrace Apple's dominance in the tablet space. But no, it can't possibly be Apple. Apple was too long the beleaguered also-ran. By 1997, the press had given them up for dead. And there was certainly a lot of evidence for that. 

Apple proved it could successfully dominate the market with the iPod, another product many competitors tried unsuccessfully to compete with. Yet the press still looks to Microsoft.

After Apple announced the iPhone, Palm's Ed Colligan said, "PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They're not going to just walk in." Of course, the funny thing is -- they did. And not just once with iPhone, but a second time with Android. There's always room, even in a crowded market, for innovative products.

So, while I welcome the Surface to the market, I'm not really considering buying one. But I welcome the innovation it brings -- because this benefits all consumers. If nothing else, I can't wait for the next iPad...

Thursday, June 21, 2012

2Wire 2701HG-B Disconnect Problem - SOLVED

It's been eleven months since we got AT&T internet at the parsonage. At first, we ordered Comcast internet. They even sent us a modem. But there was this little problem of not actually having a cable plant out in the country where the parsonage is. They did finally quote us a price -- $5400 to install cable. No thanks.

So, we were thankful to get 6 Mbps/.5 Mbps AT&T DSL. They installed the 2Wire 2701HG-B Modem/Router/Wireless access point. This has been OK, except for one nagging problem.

Randomly, without warning, the router INTERNET indicator would go dark, the DSL indicator would go red and start blinking. Soon, the DSL indicator would turn to green blinking, then solid green, and the INTERNET indicator came back green. This takes 8-10 seconds, all the time the internet would be inaccessible. This might happen a couple of times a day, but more like twenty -- and more often, it seemed when someone was actively trying to use the internet.

This was especially bad when I was using Skype or my cell phone (my microcell is connected through the same internet connection). Or if I was using a virtual private network connection (VPN) to my work computers. That disruption would reset the VPN connection, and I'd have to go through a ten step process to reconnect. Perhaps two minutes later, I could try to work again. At least until it tries to reset.

Last weekend, I finally got tired of it. So I searched the web for information. Using some of the diagnostic pages inside the 2Wire router, I determined that the sequence of flashing lights represented a DSL Link Retrain. Those of you old enough to use analog modems will remember the distinctive sound of tones just before the modem connected. A DSL Link Retrain is much the same think -- only at 300 kHz instead of at audio frequencies.

Further searching revealed several articles by those unimpressed with 2wire products. One of the options is simply to replace the router. Being a ham, I'm not one to want to rush out and spend money I don't have to.

The AT&T Community Support forum unearthed an excellent thread: AT&T 2Wire 2701HG-B Disconnects / Drops. This had six pages of comments, and it took nearly an hour to read.

One of the suggestions was to measure the throughput of the connection using SpeedTest.Net, in order to determine that the DSL line was provisioned correctly by the phone company. When I tried this, as soon as I hit the uplink test -- DSL Link Retrain. I tried it a half-dozen more times. Every time I hit the uplink test, the router would do a DSL Link Retrain, save one. I now had a reproducible test, so I could try the various suggestions.

  1. Turn Packet Flood Attack Detection to Off - the theory is that activity on the router looks like a denial of service attack. Easy enough. Turn off the settings and try again. DSL Link Retrain.
  2. Move the Power Supply Brick to the Wall Outlet - theory here is that the 2Wire devices have marginal power supplies, and any reduction in voltage might cause a random glitch when the device draws power when doing something. Another easy test - replug and try again. DSL Link Retrain.
  3. Switch to 802.11b Wireless Networking - the theory here is that the 2wire devices can't internally handle the speed of 802.11g (54 Mbps) and the slower 802.11b (11 Mbps) allows the device to work correctly. Change the settings, re-do the wireless connection on the computer and try again. No DSL Link Retrain in five tries. 
At this point, I switched back to 802.11g, just to be sure the problem didn't just randomly go away. DSL Link Retrain. OK -- I'm not real happy about running 802.11b all the time. Not because of the internet connection, because it is only 6 Mbps/.5 Mbps anyway. No, two things bother me. First, I have other devices on the wireless network, such as iPads and iPhones, and I don't relish synching them at 11 Mbps. Second, the results from SpeedTest.NET were about 10% slower on 802.11b than on 802.11g.

I did notice that the router does have a speed limit setting for 802.11g. I switched it to a limit of 12 Mbps and tried again. No DSL Link Retrain in five tries. OK -- that works. And my 10% improvement in internet speed over 802.11b is back. Good. Try limit of 24 Mbps. DSL Link Retrain. The only other setting between them is 18 Mbps so try again. No DSL Link Retrain.

I've been running like this for most of a week and am pleased to say that I have suffered no further DSL Link Retrains logged by the router. It seems that high wireless speeds cause the router to reset the DSL connection. 

Frankly, this seems to be a product defect. It might be best to disable the wireless access point in the device and instead use a separate wireless access point connected to one of the Ethernet ports. (Unless, of course, that triggers the problem) I have not tested this.

A better solution may be to replace the 2Wire equipment with something that actually works. If anyone has suggestions, let me know. In the meantime, I'll be enjoying my slower (but working) wireless internet.