A wise man once wrote:
“Unlike the precocious child who will taunt you mercilessly, knowing just how to report the beating they deserve to their school teacher in a manner that will have you in Police custody before lunchtime, hardware is sneaky.“
I couldn’t agree more.
Hardware and I have never really got on, but we’ve always maintained a queasy peace – my laptop may not hibernate properly under Ubuntu, but it sort-of works. Likewise the machine behind my sofa refuses to charge its CMOS battery, but as long as I reboot it rather than shutting it down, it manages to come back without manual intervention.
Last weekend, though, hardware declared war. And it did so under the guise of a familiar occurence – a phone call from a family member about some “computer trouble”. Mum and Dad have their internet courtesy of now-defunct Tiscali UK, which was taken over by TalkTalk. For about three years, the Tiscali-branded black box router had been sitting in their study and working. It didn’t feel like the highest-quality piece of kit in the world, but it did manage to keep the connection open and serve one wired client – a desktop PC – and my sister’s laptop over WiFi.
Three years on, it died. No problem, I thought. I ordered a reasonably priced replacement to be shipped over there, and the next weekend I tried to talk Mum through installing it over the phone. No good – we eventually established, after much frustration, that the router was not DOA, but partially-alive OA, and kept dying within 30 seconds of being plugged in.
Sigh. Grit teeth. Pack it up, return it, buy something a bit more expensive from Netgear. Talked Mum through installing that, no need for WiFi just yet, job done.
Fast-forward to last weekend when my sister rocked up wanting to use the WiFi. No problem, I thought (you’d think I’d know better by now…) – the router is configured with the same network name and password as the last one, so it should Just Work™.
Guess what, it didn’t. So I stepped into the breach, fired up Vista on her machine, point it at the right access point, find it asking me for a PIN. Gah? Turns out that since I last played with this stuff, WiFi protected setup has been invented. And for sure, it sounds like a good idea, but in this case, I don’t want it. Please just let me specify the password by hand. Vista, as far as I can tell, won’t let you do this.
OK, disable WPS on the router, change the network name to make devices forget everything they think they know about it, try again. “Wireless authentication failed because of a timeout”. And no further progress was possible. Much Googling suggests that the Atheros wireless chipset in the laptop is incompatible with certain Netgear routers, and nobody has a solution to this.
Great. At this point, the urge to throw all the blasted computers out of the nearest window was strong enough that I decided it would be a good time to hand my sister the 100 metre Ethernet cable and give up. And it was at this point that Mum wandered in and said “the internet isn’t working”.
Sure enough, the desktop PC had lost its connection. What’s more, it had lost all knowlege of containing a network card, and no amount of poking, prodding or re-seating would make it work. It still had flashing lights on the back, but nobody was home.
It was at this point that I looked up from the screen with bleary eyes and realized I had to be back at work in the morning.
I’m not really interested in aportioning blame for all this, but I do find it depressing that after 10 years, WiFi is still about as friendly as a cornered rat when it goes wrong, and badly implemented all over the place.