Jerry Pournelle: Computing at Chaos Manor - InformationWeek
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01:46 AM
Jerry Pournelle
Jerry Pournelle

Jerry Pournelle: Computing at Chaos Manor

Getting broadband for the beach house.

Just after I finished the last column, I came down with something insidious that pretty well laid me low. I also got caught up in a number of tasks and events that, while necessary, used up a lot of my energy. The result was this long hiatus. But now I am back.

Once again, welcome back, BYTE. Gina has the kind of energy the old BYTE people had, so this should be fun.

Road Warrior

Many years ago, during one of the mini-recessions following one of the bubbles in the last century, we invested some of the royalties from a best-seller I wrote into a beach condo in San Diego. Periodically Roberta and I go down there.

Originally, I had high speed Internet connectivity in the place. But, for reasons I won’t go into, that recently ended.

I found myself using dialup.

Dialup works -- in the sense that my ThinkPad knows how to connect to my telephone access account. It's slow. Worse, some ISPs don't want to accept email Earthlink sends via dialup. Presumably, it's the source of a lot of spam and that's why.

At dialup speeds, Internet browsing is difficult to say the least. Many sites have enormous advertising burdens and the sites call dozens of ads. In general, the whole thing is painful.

In my case, it was worse than painful.

I'd had years of more than satisfactory – indeed, in my case, epic – service from boutique hosters Greg Lincoln and Brian Bilbrey. But they decided to get out of the boutique hosting service they had been providing for a few commercial clients and friends on a server they named "zidane." They were closing that service down. Fortunately, they were willing to help me find a landing place.

Rick Hellewell, a security expert, web designer and consultant who has done more than 30 web sites, offered to oversee the transition to make sure I didn't invite disaster. The problem was, the change was coming on a weekend I would be in San Diego -- a weekend without high speed access.

I needed something reliable and fast. I needed a solution.

AT&T coverage at the beach house is good, and there's an AT&T store a couple of miles from Mission Beach. I decided to go there. AT&T is seldom the low-cost solution but I figured that, at AT&T, at least it wouldn't be hard to get things set and working fast.

I used my iPhone to find the store and a map of how to get there. And off I went.

I found the store in a big block of stores near Rosecrans and Stadium Way. It's still The Phone Company. At least that was my first impression. A young lady I presumed to be the receptionist – it was hard to tell because she was standing near the reception sign talking to someone else – pretended I was invisible.

So I stood there, looking around.

Eventually I made enough noise that she at last abandoned her conversation with some young man and acknowledged my existence. She asked a bunch of questions about what I wanted, seemed to make notes on some kind of tablet, took my name, and told me it would be half an hour before anyone could talk to me.

There seemed to be about four customers in the whole place. They were all talking to people at consoles. Two teenaged girls were spread out with their things on the only seating the store had. The girls were watching a series of AT&T ads on a big screen.

I wasn't keen on standing around for half an hour. Across the parking lot I could see a Radio Shack. So I went there for my half-hour wait.

Now, at Radio Shack, I learned there were gizmos that would connect me to the Internet with 3G wireless service. But it turned out AT&T had to activate them. Radio Shack couldn't.

There were no other alternatives, the clerk at Radio Shack told me. That was a pity. I later found out that Verizon might've had a better, cheaper solution for me. At any rate, the Radio Shack clerk didn't seem very familiar with any of this and little enthusiasm for telling me more. So I headed across the parking lot back to AT&T.

As it happened, while I was out looking into AT&T, Henry Vanderbilt sent me this:

You mentioned $50 a gigabyte for your dialup? I've recently found a cheaper, faster mobile option. For $35 a month from Verizon, I have a mobile hotspot that seems to work anywhere my cell phone works. Decent data speeds (slower than cable, far faster than dialup) and the $35 covers the first three gigabytes per month -- it's $10 per extra gigabyte after that.

That isn't quite good enough to do all my Internet on--at least not without severe bandwidth-saving tricks--but it sounded just fine for when I'm away from home a few days here and there. I took a look. That's clearly what I should have been looking at. But I was in a hurry that day. I didn't have a way to connect the ThinkPad to the Internet, except by dialup, and I hadn't brought the ThinkPad along on my shopping excursion. That's why I had to go back to the AT&T store.

In my defense, I was in a situation where time was far more limited than money. Actually, I had only a few hours to take advantage of that, anyway. The offer I'd be interested in ended that weekend.

The moral of the story: stay connected whenever possible. On the gripping hand, I wouldn't have saved much because I wasn't looking for anything long term. I was, after all, just trying to get G3 connectivity for a couple of weeks.

In a note to me, Peter Glaskowsky wrotet:

Verizon's $30/month plan-- which requires a contract-- provides only 2 gig of data and is specifically NOT allowed on mobile hotspots.

Verizon's cheapest prepaid plan (no contract) seems to be the same as AT&T's-- $50/month and 1GB of data. And it isn't allowed on mobile hotspots, either. So I think that's as good a deal as I was going to get.

Back at the AT&T store, I wandered about looking at exhibits. One seemed interesting: a portable Wi-Fi hot spot. Set it up, turn it on, and there's your local network. It would let me use the iPad, my iPhone via Wi-Fi and, of course, the IBM ThinkPad.

The problem was that it was expensive. The box itself would be nearly free with a long enough commitment. But that turned out to be a total cost of $840. I didn't anticipate needing that much telephone access bandwidth. It would be an option worth considering if I were doing a lot of traveling. After all, I often pay $10 a day or more to a hotel service to connect to the Internet. On the gripping hand, sometimes it's free. And I'm not on the road all that much anyway.

Finally I asked the "receptionist" if there were a place to sit. For such a large store, there sure was a conspicuous lack of chairs. She looked a bit flustered, said "of course," and went over to speak to the teenagers waiting on the only bench. The girls removed all the stuff they had distributed on the area between them and moved to sit together at one end, leaving room for two other people on the bench. So now I was able to sit and watch the AT&T advertisement stream, too.

Eventually someone called the teenagers. I was next. So, about 40 minutes after finding the AT&T store, I found myself talking to Gerard, a pleasant enough young man. He stood on the other side of a counter, mostly looking at a screen I couldn't see. Sometimes he remembered that I couldn't see it.

I explained what I wanted. He discouraged me from the mobile Wi-Fi hot spot -- it was needlessly expensive, he said. Eventually I settled on the AT&T USBConnect 900. It looks a like a large thumb drive at about 4 inches long by an inch wide.

There is no long term contract. You prepay by the day, the week or the month. The rates are: $15 for a day with 100 megabytes, $30 for a week with 300 MB and $50 for a month with a 1GB. We were planning on being in Mission Beach for two weeks. It was pretty clear that what I needed was the monthly plan. So I prepaid on the spot and finally went home.

AT&T USBConnect 900

Installation was simple enough. Disconnect the telephone line from the ThinkPad and plug the 900 into a USB port. If you buy the AT&T USBConnect 900 without setting up an account, the first time you plug the device into a Windows machine able to see enough AT&T 3G bars, it'll offer to sell you the account.

In my case, it just offered to connect me to the Internet. That all went simply and easily and there were no problems.

The connection also shows bandwidth usage. I connected mid-afternoon. By midnight, it showed that I had used 169.12 megabytes. That was 17 percent of what I had bought for a month. What in the world was using so much bandwidth?

I wasn't watching YouTube or other videos. Indeed, I wasn't doing a great deal of anything other than Outlook mail. There was a lot of spam. A very great deal of spam. Could that be it? I looked for something else and found it.

My bad habits were to blame.

I tend to leave a lot of Firefox tabs open. It turns out that many of those periodically update themselves. These each bring in fresh new advertisements, update their pages and do other stuff, too. Closing a bunch of those pages cut down on bandwidth consumption.

The moral of that story is that, if you are paying for bandwidth by the megabyte, close all your tabs!

I'll have a lot more on my adventures in San Diego soon ...

Jerry Pournelle is BYTE's senior technologist. An award-winning novelist and columnist, he's back at BYTE with Computing at Chaos Manor. Find more of Jerry's stuff at Email him at

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