Having to find multiple levels of internet access — oh, fun!

Disclaimer: I am musing on the challenges I faced while trying to secure reliable internet I required during a recent set of business trips, and the process of developing various solutions to these challenges. These challenges are, in a general fashion, typical of the routine logistical challenges I face when in-the-field, and no doubt of other field technicians. In no way am I trying to reflect negatively on my employer, who for the purposes of this entry shall remain nameless.

I was recently on a couple of business trips, depending on an iPad as a critical part of the execution of the contract. This trip was to a small city of 25,656 (according to Wikipedia), big enough to have plenty of internet access points, cell phones, and cell phone data. As far as I was concerned, in fact, I was in a mini-mini version of Montreal, home for me, to those who haven’t figured it out yet.

The way the iPad is set up, wifi internet access is required to transfer building plans needed to do the work to the iPad, and transfer back files and data collected from my field work. I have made no bones mentioning to some key people heading the overall project that this is a potential Achilles’ Heel to the execution of the project, since, at least in the overall project’s fringe locations sufficiently beyond population centres, internet access would be a spotty luxury at best. My trips were at least symbolically close enough to the edges, underlining the potential problem.

One of the first challenges I found was that the iPad didn’t seem to play well with the internet supplied in the motel (DataValet); although I did manage to get it to work once, it proved a bit too frustrating to get working reliably. A colleague confirmed that he’d had similar problems getting Apple products to connect to DataValet. I had no trouble getting my personal computer running Fedora 21 Workstation to work with DataValet: In fact, besides not recalling having trouble over the years connecting to wifi that wasn’t specific to Linux or Fedora, I would actually say that the experience was even easier than in the past, since the daily leases seemed to automatically renew, although it seemed to insinuate itself by a “convenient” automatic popup window. In parallel, my work Windows-based machine also worked flawlessly throughout with DataValet, although if I remember correctly, I may have had to occasionally open up a browser in order to renew the leases.

Add to this challenge, my employer’s local office didn’t seem to have wifi, or at least, assuming that it *was* there as a hidden network, my work computer didn’t automatically connect to the corporate wifi when not plugged in to the corporate network, which it normally does at my home office.

My first solution was to fulfill a purpose of my having asked for a company smart phone in 2014: Create a hot spot using the data plan on my work phone to do data transfers when not in a wifi zone that works well for the iPad. However, it seemed, between the picture-heavy data and the fact that the iPad seems to do automatic background backups when hooked up to internet — a feature to which I initially had a (negative) knee-jerk reaction that nonetheless actually was useful at one point and since — my phone appeared to run out of my data plan for the month, as evidenced by the sudden stop of internet connection through the phone while still operating just fine as a phone. Having quickly checked the phone’s data usage logs and determining that I’d certainly gotten to the neighbourhood of the limit I believed I had (2 gigs), I assumed that the phone’s contract had a limit set by my employer to turn off the data plans until the month rolls over in order to avoid overage charges. I later learned, upon my return home and standing in front of the IT tech responsible for the corporate cell phones, that the problem was presumed to be an unusual set of settings probably set by some esoteric app (of which I have have very few, esoteric or otherwise, on my work phone), or possibly a SIM card problem, which turned on off the phone’s data capabilities, and that in any case the company has no such policy to ask the cell service provider to turn off a phone’s data access when it reaches the limit of “included data” in the plan, until the rollover date. The lack of internet on the phone is “solved” by resetting the phone to factory settings; I should get instructions on how to do it in the future should I be faced with the problem again. 🙂

This led to a second solution: I used my personal phone to create a hotspot and consumed a bit of my personal data plan, which didn’t bother me too much, at least until it were to involve overage charges. Not that I checked, but based on the little amount of time I used it, I’m sure I never got into that area.

The next solution also created another challenge due to a flub on my part: My client finally gave wifi access to the iPad at her various locations; however, I should have requested that she also enable my work computer, since I had a secondary need for internet given that I developed a need to produce or modify extra plans several times once arriving at some sites, and as such a need to transfer the plans off the computer and onto the iPad.

Finally, I realized that when I have wired access, I had yet another solution available to me: I could set up my linux laptop to create a wifi hotspot. This was rather easy, at least under the current gnome version in Fedora 21 and I believe has been for quite a while under the gnome 3.0 series, and probably before too. Unfortunately, this was wasn’t a solution at the motel since it only had wifi and no wired access, and I didn’t have an external wifi receiver with a cord to provide the wired internet and free up the wifi card.

Here are some screenshots of how easy it is to setup a wifi hotspot under Gnome 3:

step 1

step 2

step 3

step 4

step 5

Feeling a bit curious along the lines of “shouldn’t this be relatively easy under Windows, too?”, I checked on my work computer, and while it seemed possible, and indeed my brother once did it for me with his Windows computer, it was not obvious at all; in fact, I gave up after about four or five click-throughs with little end in sight.

Hence, at the local office and having set up my laptop to create a local wifi hotspot, I’d created a mildly-amusing-to-me setup on my temporary desk, plugging in my personal laptop to the corporate network, running a hotspot using its wifi card, and using my work computer normally over wifi as well as doing data transfers from the iPad.

Back at home and at my home office, I mention my difficulties in getting internet access to my supervisor (who isn’t a computer techie type), who thought that creating a hotspot under Windows couldn’t be done, or at least he didn’t realize it could be.

Further discussing this with him, I explained the situation saying “I don’t mind trying to find other solutions — that *is* my job — but after not having two A Plans (the motel internet not working for the iPad, nor having wifi at the office), then suddenly not having a plan B (the company cell phone internet not working), having to depend on my personal phone’s data plan, then having to depend on the client’s internet access but not having enough access for all devices, and finally coming up with a part-time solution to replace one of the A-plans — using a second of my personal resources in the form of my personal laptop — there’s a problem here,” to which he agreed.

Jovially, he did however suggest that “in the next leg of your travels, I happen to know that if you can go to the local library, they have free wifi”. This made me realize that if necessary and if possible, I could also try the free wifi at the local Tim Hortons (a popular Canadian chain of coffee and doughnut shops), assuming that there is one in the remote town where I’ll be visiting next.

Which has me really thinking about the problem:

– not all the field techs in the company have smart phones with data plans, and as such not able to create a needed hotspot in order to enable the execution of a project;
– not all the field techs have personal smart phones with a data plan, nor should field techs in general be required to use their personal data plans, let alone go into overage charges, in order to enable the execution of a project;
– at least at first glance, it doesn’t seem to be a quick and easy thing to turn a windows machine into a hotspot in order to enable such work — and I don’t want to hear from the peanut gallery on this one, since I *know* that it *can* be done; my point is that at first glance, even a moderately savvy user such as myself shouldn’t have to say “It’s easy under Gnome 3, why isn’t it about as easy under Windows? Boy it’s a good thing that I had my personal laptop with me!” (On a side note, usually the stereotype is that “Windows is easy, and Mac easier, but isn’t Linux hard?” 🙂 )
– and, only a limited number of computer users are using Gnome 3, where it is easy to set up a hotspot if you either have a wired connection to the internet, or two wifi cards on your computer. (I’ll have to check with my brother, who uses XFCE on one of his laptops, which is on a technical level identical to mine, to see how easy it is under that desktop; obviously, it’s technically possible; I imagine it’s just a question of how easily different desktops enable the functionality.)

Which leads me back to the above-mentioned problem of “what do you do in remote, small villages where you don’t have a corporate office with wifi, motel / B&B internet access is spotty at best, there’s no cell phone coverage, and there are few if any public wifi spots like a restaurant or a public library?”

I just hope that the library’s free wifi isn’t provided by DataValet. 🙂

Katadyn Pocket Water Filter

During the summer of 2012, I bought a Katadyn Pocket water filter. It took a bit of research, but in short order the decision to buy this model over just about any other was clear: Most water filters seemed to have a capacity of a few hundred gallons or maybe up to 1,500 gallons; the Katadyn Pocket filter has a capacity of up to 13,000 gallons, or 50,000 litres. Given the price difference — anywhere from $75 to $250 for most of the rest, and $300 to $350 for the Katadyn Pocket, there was little to decide.

The unit has a 0.2 micron ceramic filter with silver impregnated in it in order to act as a bacteriostatic agent, although you have to be careful about that (see below).

The only thing that bugs me a very little bit about it is that it’s a filter only (albeit very good), not a purifier. Unfortunately, the purifiers don’t have the capacity that this filter has. This works out to the fact that the unit can effectively remove all bacteria and cysts — and of course cloudiness — in water, but theoretically it can’t remove viruses due to their being far smaller than the pore size (unless they electrostatically attach themselves to a particle which can be filtered out by the unit). It also means that it doesn’t remove any other contaminants smaller than 0.2 microns, including the usual nasties one might think of such as dissolved heavy metals, pesticides and other such nasty contaminants, and the more benign but nonetheless undesirable tastes, odours and colours that aren’t due to cloudiness.

There are two ways of dealing with these issues:

1) Choose a clear water source — that you might be tempted to drink without treating it at all (your natural “yuck” factor will help you out with this) — and this will reduce the likelihood that these are problems to begin with. By itself, most people — including myself, a trained water techie — can’t just look at clear water and tell whether it’s contaminated with the poop of 30 deer 100 feet upstream, or the dumpings from some illegal leather tanning shop 200 feet upstream. But, generally, you can tell the difference between clear, running water in the middle of the woods far away from just about anything and that doesn’t have any smells to it, and stagnant, cloudy and smelly water in the ditch surrounding a garage.

2) Bring around a small bottle filled with bleach and an eye dropper (*). I find that depending on the water source and the strength of the bleach (typically 4% to 6% sodium hypochlorite), 1 to 3 drops per imperial gallon (4.5 litres) has worked well on the filtered water. Melted snow from my cottage could do with 1/2 drop per imperial gallon, given that the bleach taste still often comes through quite distinctly on such (presumably) relatively pure water. As a reference, the USEPA (here’s my archive) recommends to use two drops per quart when using bleach to disinfect untreated water, or about 8 drops per US gallon (3.78 litres), or about 9 drops per imperial gallon (4.5 litres).

(*) This won’t deal with a bunch of dissolved metals, and can’t completely deal with tough contaminants, so choose your water source carefully!

Now, putting aside that I’m a water techie, why would I, who stopped being involved in Scouting and most forms of camping and hiking in 1999, need such a device?

The family cottage doesn’t have running water in the winter, and I usually spend a week over Christmas and typically a weekend a month at the cottage over winter, when the water is off. I’ve been starting to get tired of carrying up big jugs filled with water. I’ve been getting tired of running out of water or at least having to be careful about how I use water. And, particularly, I’ve been getting tired of depending on a few neighbours for their goodwill. The operative notion here is “depending”; a lack of goodwill is not the issue, although the variability of whether or not two of the immediate neighbours would be around all the time is a concern alongside the inconvenience of having to go out to get clean drinking water in the middle of washing dishes.

One of the first things I had to figure out the hard way is the importance of keeping the unit clean (go figure, a water techie needing to be reminded of the importance of keeping drinking water treatment equipment clean): Over almost two weeks in the summer, I’d used it three times, and ended up with a good case of diarrhea which took a couple of weeks to clear up. So note to myself, and those considering buying any camping water filter: Keep the unit and the outlet hose in particular clean — it can get contaminated easily — and when you’re going to leave it sitting around for more than a day or two or pack it away for a while, run a bleach solution through it first and dry it out.

So, does the filter work? And do I get the runs any more?

Of course, and of course not.

This year over Christmas, I found it quite useful, although I did bring up a good supply of water anyway to begin with, given that I was coming up for a week and the long-awaited testing grounds had finally arrived. I needed some kind of starting point, in case I found out that “making” water was a lot more work than I’d bargained for, especially given all the freezer cooking (and therefore dish washing) I do over that period.

I also confirmed what I had begun observing for years while melting snow for things that didn’t require drinking-quality water: You’d be surprised how much dirt and debris comes through when melting “pristine” snow in the middle of cottage country, far away from the city. It’s but a little more appetizing for drinking, cooking or rinsing the dishes than dishwater — so of course I don’t bother filtering the melted snow for my “put the dirty dishes in hot soapy dishwater” part, but of course I use filtered water for rinsing the dishes.

Regarding the amount of bleach to use, I have found that the filtered water from melting snow needs about a drop per imperial gallon, while the filtered lake water can handle about two drops per imperial gallon, before a distinct bleach taste comes through. This is a little testing based on working with the filtered water and after having first consulted some tables on how many drops of bleach per litre to use for treating water (here’s my archive) (instead of just calculating it myself). As a reference, the USEPA (here’s my archive) recommends to use two drops per quart when using bleach to disinfect untreated water, or about 8 drops per US gallon (3.78 litres), or about 9 drops per imperial gallon (4.5 litres).

Regarding the “one litre per minute” claim, it mostly works out to that, sort of, I guess — which means, not really. In practice, though, I suspect that that’s based on filling up one litre or one quart water bottles commonly used, especially in camping and hiking circles. For larger amounts of water, it takes longer. The best test I’ve had — since filtering water while being distracted by the TV at the cottage isn’t much of a test — was when I recently filtered about 23 litres of melted snow undistracted for a future batch of beer, and it took me about 40 to 45 minutes. This admittedly but importantly included a stop about halfway through to open up the filter and clean the ceramic filter, which had become sufficiently dirty from the dirt in the “clean” snow that I’d melted, making filtering the water difficult. A comparison between the 100 metre race and the 3,000 metre race in the Olympics would be apt: You sprint in the former race, but you pace yourself at a somewhat slower running speed in the latter in order not to get too tired right away and be able to make it to the end of the race.

Anyway, I like the filter, and it should get several years’ worth of use before I have to start thinking about buying a replacement filter cartridge.

Update 08 June 2016: Katadyn water filter capacity — update

My participation at FUDCon Tempe 2011

(I know, I’m a month late on this.)

I went to FUDCon for the first time this year; it was the first large gathering of Linux / Fedora /Computer people I’d attended, and I’m glad I went. I was also pleased to finally see so many Fedora desktops — over time I’ve become mildly frustrated being the only Fedora / Red Hat person in the room, often in a sea of Ubuntu.

One of the more difficult things was figuring out in advance how the nuances of how things would work: Not ever having been to a BarCamp style event, I had no clue how or whether a presentation I had prepared would be accepted, let alone inserted into the schedule.

My participation:

Friday

After a day of touristy stuff in downtown Phoenix, I showed up about 5:30pm ish to the courtesy room at the Courtyard in Tempe. After helping stuff nametags into plastic nametag holders on neckstraps, I actually managed to regale people with my stories about crossing the Canada/US border and get plenty of belly laughs. Harish and I managed to exchange a quip to the order of “Oooh, I get to meet the myth!” — first by my stating amazement at finally meeting someone who had once actually installed SLS Linux, and in turn being on the receiving end from Harish when I confirmed that I’m one of the Trekkie myths. In between, the two of us held court on the subject of rotary phones, much to the amazement of Ryan — a university student under 20 — at the anachronism. In the meantime, opensource.com was celebrating its first birthday and supplied pizza, beer and cake.

Saturday:

BarCamp pitches, voting, and State of Fedora Address

The pitches were an interesting experience — Of the 170 or so actual participants, it seemed as though at least a third if not half the room got up to pitch their presentation! During the voting process, near the end, I was quite pleased to note that approximately 30-40 people had voted for my presentation. Afterwards, Jared from Red Hat give his “State of Fedora” address, the audio of which can be found here (here’s my archive). His main messages dealt with growth and working together; Fedora is strong, not just because of the bits on the CD but because of the people. His ultimate message was that “Fedora will be stronger tomorrow because of the work today.”

Presentations:

Open Source Anthropology / Diana Harrelson

This was one of the more interesting presentations I attended. Diana did some research for her master’s degree on online communities, and chose the Fedora community as her test subjects. Some of the things that we as linux users — both Fedora and the greater Linux community — know about ourselves were confirmed. One such point that she underlined was the

Future Fedora and Reducing Bureaucracy / Max Spevack and the Fedora Board

This was an “interesting” session — perhaps not the best for me. What I found most interesting was how bureaucratic the meeting felt, and not just because of the subject being discussed. Of course it discussed how frustrated people are with how to get others involved in the Fedora project.

Fedora Security Lab and Securing Linux / Joerg Simon and Donald Buchan

Joerg’s presentation was interesting — he talked about one of Fedora’s spins, tailored to include a bunch of tools on how to test system security by measuring all sorts of parameters — open ports, security holes, and the like. I’ve downloaded it and plan on taking a look at how it operates.

My presentation worked out ok; people seemed (at least politely) receptive to my talk, the subject, and my suggestions. The most contentious issues? Root access, root passwords vs. keys, and su vs. sudo.

Juicy Software Repo Management with Pulp / Jason Connor and Jay Dobies

Even though it would have gone over my head as much as software repo management did, I wish I had have gone to Jeff Darcy’s Cloud Filesystem presentation since he’d been telling me about it on Friday evening. Unfortunately I don’t think I got anything out of this presentation, however well it was presented.

I Want to Keep on Hacking but my Hands Hurt / Mel Chua and Sebastian Dziallas

This was a fun presentation — Mel and Sebastien brought a bunch of ergonomic toys related to relieving and avoiding stresses related to using a computer. There were a lot of defacto visual gags as a result of people using the toys or assuming less harmful positions and ways to use your computer better.

FUDPub

Well as usual I showed off how horrible I am at games by agreeing to be beaten by, er play against Clint at ping pong. Food was great; burrito night! There also was plenty of liquid refreshment. I got to meet a computer science professor from Seneca College in Toronto, and thank him for the wiki he’d put up for his students’ participation in FUDCon, which can be found here (here’s my archive). Although I only found it the day before I left home, this was invaluable for framing and gelling all the little details about my participation.

Sunday

Designing UI mockups in Inkscape / Máirín Duffy

This presentation was a bit more amusing for me; at least it wasn’t over my head. 🙂 Máirín proved to be a true mistress when it comes to Inkscape, even though I suspect that for her and most Inkscape users what she was doing was basic stuff to be expected by anyone in graphic design. The coolest thing about her presentation? Her hot dog wallpaper! hotdog here too

IP Law for Hackers / Pam Chestek and Richard Fontana

This was an interesting, two hour session on how Red Hat lawyers have to deal with open licenses such as the GPL, and trademark issues related to the Fedora project. One of the main things I remember is to “keep the name of your project simple, memorable, and generic, ie. unrelated to your product.”

Lightning Talks!

Covered in another area, the lightning talks were apparently a new entry into the FUDCon format. I think that there should be a couple of such sessions, given a sufficient number of presentations. The most interesting talk? Mel talking about baking (here’s my archive). Seriously.

I did not attend the hackfests per se but I spoke with Simon about OLPC. I found his recounting of the successes of the OLPC in Bolivia (?) interestubg: The response to “we should be sending food and textbooks, not computers” criticisms is “Getting textbooks out is hard, but teachers can easily distribute educational resources with OLPC. And, the kids’ parents come back to the school in the evening to use the internet, and learn reading skills while also finding out the true price of their crops instead of being taken advantage of by unscrupulous purchasers hoping that uneducated, uninformed farmers won’t know any better.” As for having a static base (such as Fedora 7) creating a security risk, Simon reminded me that the likelier security risk is to the order of “Give me your computer, you little (censored)!”

I helped with clean up; after that I made an impromptu organization for a group of us to go to Gordon Biersch’s, a local brewpub. The whitbeer was good, and the chicken parmesan was good too. And a bunch of us organized a road trip for the next morning.

Monday

During the little road trip and on the topic of Fedora and Red Hat, I remember Brian (thank you for the driving!), a Red Hat employee, telling me about working at Red Hat and the RHEL sales model. It felt like tactics similar to a competing product.

After returning from the road trip, the hackfests on Monday were what I would consider “boring” — definitely not my thing.

The bright light for me was unfortunately at the expense of people who were stranded in Phoenix due to winter storms keeping their flights from leaving Phoenix — the Monday night party in the hotel lobby was quite a lot of fun, and even on Tuesday evening there were a few people still waiting around. I on the other hand had planned to stay sveral days later, so of course I was supposed to be there.

My thanks go to Jared, Robyn, Ryan, Southern Gentleman, Simon, Harish, Joerg, Ian, Clint, Chris, Máirín, Mel, and everyone else.

FUDCon Friend Finders

On the FUDCon 2011 Wiki page, suggested optional equipment is a Fedora Friend Finder (here’s my archive, since as of 2020 the link has long since been abandoned and bought by someone else), which is an extension cord with multiple sockets. I brought one, which has a 30′ extension cord, and it has typically had 2 to 3 plugs, including my own. Right now, I’m in the Lightning Talks, and I’m impressed: My FFF is plugged into another full FFF, and mine is full. Further, I’ve had two plug-in requests to which I’ve had to say, “sorry, I’m filled up”.

Now, I’m just looking for my profits. 🙂

On another note, today I went to get an extra-large pizza at Slice’s Pizzeria around the corner. I made friends quick. 🙂 One person who joined us after the pizza ran out was a local community college professor who saw my security presentation yesterday, and enjoyed it. So much so that he asked if I’d grant permission for him to use it in one of his classes, which I happily granted.

FUDCon 2011 — Tempe, Arizona

Well, here I am, I finally did it. I’m going to FUDCon 2011 in Tempe, Arizona.

After months of saying to myself and friends “Oh I think I’d like to go do this” and asking my brother if he’s interested, and telling all sorts of people “Yep I’m doing it, I’m thinking about doing it, I’m still in the talking about it stage; I just haven’t committed to it yet”, I bought my airline tickets a couple of weeks ago to go to Phoenix, Arizona, and made reservations at the hotel. (Yes, the nice people at the hotel, months after the block was “closed”, graciously gave me the Red Hat Group rate for 6 out of 7 nights — quite the savings!)

So I’ve been working for the past few weeks at translating, updating, revising, rationalizing, etc. a presentation on System Security I presented at my local LUG a couple of years ago. (Of course it’s not in English, silly, why do you think I’ve had to work on translating it?) I’ve also been following the wiki page for the event (here’s my archive of the page).  I even have my Fedora Friend Finder (here’s my archive of the page, since the webpage disappeared) ready to bring with me.

But … apart from a few blog posts here and there, and of course the availability of the administrative notices / minutes from the planning meetings, I haven’t found what appears to be, let’s say, an online forum where FUDCon is being discussed. (Yes, I know, there’s Planet Fedora — however, it seems to discuss pretty much everything under the Red Hat sun.) The kind of place where people discuss what they’re doing outside of the formal event structure, when they’re arriving, asking questions of participants of previous such events, and so on. Basically, chatter.

I’m wondering a few things, and hope that perhaps this post will help me out in at least finding a nudge in the right direction:

– Is there a forum where people are virtually gathering and discussing the plans and attendance and logistics and so on surrounding going to FUDCon? You know, chatter?
– Assuming that my presentation isn’t tossed for being too long, too technical, too boring, out in left field, or targeted to the wrong audience (it’s sysadmin stuff, not development), will there be a projector available? Will I need my laptop — which I’ll of course have anyway — or just a USB memory stick with the presentation on it? (OO.o format, or PDF? Of course I’ll be ready for all of these circumstances.)
– Regarding my presentation, will someone be wanting it to be submitted in advance for the part about “Refereeing for technical sessions”? Or will “in advance”, in keeping with the “so do not worry about competition” part, mean half an hour before the “Orientation, BarCamp pitches and scheduling” at 9:00am Saturday?
– I signed up after the 140 cut-off mark for food and swag. I don’t have a problem with the basic concept per se: you snooze, you lose, you should have signed up earlier. However, I’m just wondering what the real implications to this are — to what food is being referred? Breakfast, lunch, and supper throughout all the event? Snacks in the hospitality suite — no green stamp on your name tag, no food? A few chits for free meals, given to the first 140 people, at the Student Union cafeteria where a lot of people presumably will eat during the breaks? Food during the FUDPub, at which Red Hat “will be treating everyone to food”? (Or just the first 140 — everyone else with a differently-marked name tag will have to pull out their wallets?) I’m just trying to figure out logistics, that’s all; I’m trying to find the ad for the advertised food, so that I know what’s being discussed. Money isn’t the issue; I’m just looking for some kind of indication, that’s all.

Well, that’s off my chest.

In other directions, I guess I now have to prepare my laptop for going through customs:
– set up an automatic login (a warning against which is in my presentation);
– do a bit of a system cleanup (a suggestion about which is in my presentation);
– remove some privileged information and make sure that it’s really wiped;
– realize that US Customs probably won’t care about my computer, and that the only people who might will be the airline — and hopefully only be amused at the XRay area when they see the square, plastic bucket I carry it in (but hopefully not say that’s it’s oversized, which it shouldn’t be. The primary airline’s limits are 23 cm x 40 cm x 55 cm; the secondary airline’s limits are 23cm x 35cm x 56 cm. I’ve just checked, and it fits.)