17 March 2013

almost free vpn

i'd been surveying the vpn offerings from companies like Tunnel Bear, Private Internet Access and Strong VPN. after boiling down my use cases to exactly one immediate need/desire, I decided to roll my own.

that use case is getting secure browsing when connecting mobile devices to any wifi that isn't the one in my house.

happily, my new Asus router has a PPTP server built-in. and unlike my adventures in dd-wrt land, i was able to get this vpn server working.

though PPTP isn't the most secure vpn, i think with what the asus has onboard, it will be secure enough for my purposes. for encrypted authentication, it has chap v1 and v2; i configured the router to leave that at "auto". for encrypted traffic, i selected MPPE 128-bit.

the router also allows config for dynamic dns. that's the "almost free" part -- last month, dyndns finally stopped offering free service, now it's $20/year. leave it to me to not sign up until immediately after their policy change.

on the ios side, i was able to use the dyndns account to connect, but my authentication kept failing. turns out, my 18-character password was a bit much, so i knocked it down to 16-characters and i could now authenticate (i've yet to find documentation about password length, so there was some trial/error in here. it might also be why i couldn't get the dd-wrt vpn to work).

the last bit to solve was that, even though i was connected, i could not load anything from the internet. that was solved by disabling the option on the router vpn page that said "connect to DNS servers automatically" and instead hard-coding the DNS entries for my ISP.

after that, i could connect from my iphone and get internet. the speeds are reasonable, too. over 4g, i usually get around 1 megabit download, but saw 3.7 Mbps download yesterday. (frankly, i'm surprised AT&T's 4g allowed that).

someday, when i need more vpn capability, i'll probably re-investigate Tunnel Bear and the others, but for now i've got what i need.

11 March 2013

aaand the cable is coming back

in an hilarious update, comcast has sold me on restoring cable!

instead of $60/mo for (officially) 20 Mbps internet and (officially) no cable TV, we'll be getting 50 Mbps internet for $50/mo -- for a year -- plus a non-DVR basic cable service w/ 6 free months of HBO.

iow, comcast jumped when i mentioned potentially switching to RCN.

10 March 2013

cable is cancelled! aaand i still get TV through comcast.

i finally told Comcast to cancel the cable TV last week. this ended a series of frustrating phonecalls with them trying to gather enough information to decide if i wanted to. e.g. such hard hitters as "how much will my internet cost if i cancel the cable portion of my service?"

(after being passed around to several departments, i ended up speaking with a woman in California who had no access to my account and was demanding to know why i wanted to speak with her).

my other question was about how the TV portion worked. i'd read that, when getting internet, the cable providers still push some basic cable. seems it used to be required, now they're allowed to encrypt it. trying to get an answer from comcast on if/how that worked was more than useless.

instead, i waited for it to be cancelled and then plugged the 75-ohm cable into the TV and told it to scan for channels. half an hour later, it had found 98! Looks to be the same channels offered over the air digitally, and comcast had not encrypted it (it's called QAM).

lovely! except i'll confess i miss the DVR conveniences of pausing live video and scheduling recordings. for the moment, we'll see how we like the combination of QAM, Hulu, Roku, Amazon Prime and Plex. we'll probably add Netflix before too long.

should we miss DVR too much, i may invest in the combo of the HDHomeRun tuner and eyeTV osx software. in addition to DVR, it would have the added benefit of bringing the QAM signal through the receiver and the better speakers, instead of relying on the tuner built into the TV.

all of this is much more complicated than having cable, but good god is it cheaper. even when factoring in the cost of the mac mini to run plex and the monthly fees on the content, it won't take long to break even.

and the answer to my original question is $15/mo. internet bundled price was $50, unbundled is $65 for 25 Mbps down. after bitching about the price, was given $5/mo off for the next 6 mo. So the answer is actually $10/mo, for now. Let us note that RCN is offering DSL (over fiber, it seems) for $50/mo for 30 Mbps. might have to check into that, though i'm wary of DSL, and i did buy that cable modem. hate to have to retire it so soon.

router madness

in an effort to 1) increase my wifi throughput and 2) set up a VPN server, i took the gf's old Linksys WRT54G wifi router and flashed it with ww-drt.

it was an interesting adventure, though not fruitful in the end. i was able to figure out which package to use for the router, but not by using the handy "find my firmware" tool on the site. instead, i crawled through wikis and forums to learn that that tool is out of date and could brick your router. hurrah!

i got as far as getting basic internet and wifi working, with WPA2+AES wifi security. sadly, it did not perform as well as my old Linksys WRT54G router, which still has Linksys firmware on it.

i was not able to get the PPTP VPN working. i went through many, many forum posts and wikis, trying to navigate the inconsistent, out-of-date and contradictory information. i had to call upon old unix skills to telnet into the router and update bourne shell scripts, run sed commands and the like. i took all the bits of info i could find and tried them in all the combinations i could, but still no vpn connectivity.

so i bagged that and set about trying to increase the wifi throughput. comcast internet is coming in at a zippy (for the US) 25 Mbps d/load speed, but over wifi it was 14 at best with the linksys firmware, and 10 at best with dd-wrt. i read through a number of threads about increasing wifi performance (one key parameter made available with dd-wrt is the transmit power of the radio, plus other cool stuff like assigning Tx/Rx to different antennas), but again was met with contradictory information.

each tweak i tried, guided by user recommendations, actually *decreased* performance. i got it all the way down to 3 Mbps. hurray internet!

after undoing most of the recommended tweaks, i was able to get it back up to a reliable 11 Mbps; still not as good as the stock firmware.

so in the end, i punted by putting back the router with the linksys firmware and ordering an asus RTN66U router. i'm hoping the n-band will provide wifi speeds closer to the 25 i'm getting through the modem, plus it comes with vpn capability. i'm reading that not only is the router software open-source, but its extensive configurability was based on open firmwares like dd-wrt and tomato.

now, here's hoping that the year-old threads i'm reading about the vpn issues with the asus are not indicative of an ongoing problem...

20 February 2013

IL crosswalk law: good intentions and probably more deaths

some years ago, when commuting to Park Ridge for work, i noticed a curious plastic sign in the middle of a crosswalk. it had a pedestrian symbol, a stop sign symbol, and the text "State law: Traffic must stop for pedestrians in crosswalk."

And for the most part, traffic did stop. It was all very civil.

But i had not heard of this law, and saw no other mention of it. Until recently.

Recently, Chicago has been placing these plastic signs at seemingly random intersections in the city. I've noticed they're not quite as successful as that first one in Park Ridge, but about half the drivers seem to get it.

But Chicago is doing a couple curious things. First, they're not putting them everywhere, and where they don't appear, drivers don't stop. Second, they'll move them about, as if they only have a handful to spread around. So any given intersection may lose its sign, and as before, drivers no longer stop.

This is causing havoc. I'm worried as hell that, as a pedestrian, any given driver may know the law or not. And even if one does slow down or stop to let me cross, who knows if the guy coming the other way -- or the one behind who thinks the first guy is an idiot and whips around to pass -- is going to yield to me?

in fact, as a driver, on Damen last week a couple walked out onto the street right in front of me (which turns out is against the law) without warning. had i been paying just a tad bit less attention, it's quite possible i could have hit them. yes, they were in a crosswalk, but no, this one did not have the temporary plastic sign. imho, the pedestrians were a bit too optimistic about driver behavior.

given the general ignorance of the law, and infrequent signage, nobody knows what to expect anymore at any given intersection whose rules are not already indicated by a stop sign or traffic light.

to make matters even more confusing, the city has been painting new crosswalks here and there, but with different patterns. on the corner near my house (pictured), they've got two different styles going. is it supposed to mean something? as both a pedestrian and a driver, i have no idea what they mean and how my behavior is supposed to change. at least until the plastic sign makes its temporary appearance.

i like the zebra crossings in London. i think it's smart that they're not as prevalent as Every Single Intersection, and doubly smart that they're frequently not at road intersections, so drivers can react to the pedestrians only, and not worry about turning or other vehicles crossing their paths. i think there are far too many crosswalks in Chicago to make this practical, if pedestrians expect to be able to step in front of a speeding car and survive every time.