Network nightmare

This is the tale of dealing with the frustration of an intermittent WiFi connectivity issue and finding a solution.

It’s almost 5 years since we moved into our present house. Because I had been experimenting with WiFi Internet sharing using my iMac as a base station in our previous house I was confident we would manage networking without cables in the new house. Shortly after we moved in I signed up for ADSL broadband and hooked up a Belkin ADSL modem-router which worked well for sharing the connection with the laptop my wife used from toward the back of the house.

Just more than 3 years ago we moved my wife to an Intel Core Duo Mac Mini that allowed her to run some Windows embroidery software using Parallels. Its WiFi connection to the Internet via the Belkin router worked well until a few months ago when it began to occasionally drop, or not make, its connection.

I tinkered with it, as we do, and noticing the presence of other WiFi networks in the neighbourhood, surmised that there might be interference. Using CoconutWiFi I was able to see that at least some of the time one or other of the other networks was on the same channel so I tried selecting and locking to a different channel.

The intermittent connectivity problems continued and appeared to be getting worse so in the week between Christmas and New Year I decided it was time to find a solution. I also decided that it was time I implemented WPA security rather than relying entirely on filtering by MAC address – effective for keeping interlopers out but inconvenient when adding guests.

I began by confirming with my iPhone and laptop that I had plenty of signal at the mac Mini and beyond. That should have told me something about the nature of the problem. If some devices could connect from the troublesome location and beyond it was unlikely that interference or signal strength could be the problem.

Confident that I had signal, I implemented WPA security and managed to get everything, including the Airport Express on the stereo system back on the network and operating. The Mini had intermittent problems with connecting at all or getting other than a self-assigned address from the DHCP server. My iPhone and iPod Touch had similar problems so I recalled that I had read that cycling power and creating a new network could fix such problems. I shut everything down and brought them up with a different name and passkey on the network. The problems persisted.

I tried moving the Mini closer to the base station. That worked sometimes, mostly when it had been off for a while, but not at other times. At one point I had it sitting beside the base station and unable to see the signal and connect. I began to think that the airport card might have a fault, possibly temperature related. Short of buying a replacement computer – likely to happen in 2010 but not yet – I needed some way to get a WiFi connection to the Mini without using the internal airport card (or paying to replace it). Searches of the likely producers of alternative WiFi cards with USB connections came up blank – at least for devices with easy to install Mac drivers.

I played briefly with the Airport Express but discovered it would not do the necessary bridging to the Mini ethernet port. However, in my searching I came across some mention of ProxySTA using the newer 802.11n version of the Airport Express. That, and an Airport Extreme for the near end, gave me the solution I needed. The Belkin box is now functioning as a simple ADSL modem with PPPoE and DHCP handled by the Airport Extreme. Moving to N should increase range and the Airport Extreme is dual band which allows for additional flexibility down the track. The fix cost me more than I would have preferred but at least the extra pieces of equipment represent an upgrade to the home network and should be useful for the next several years regardless of what eventually replaces the Mini.

A little flakiness in KeyNote ’09?

I’ve owned the past few versions of KeyNote (since it was first bundled in iWork) but I really have not used it seriously in that time. I had played with it occasionally but, mostly because our campus is resolutely Windows fixated and everybody expects to be able to view PowerPoint presentation files but cannot view KeyNote files, I had not attempted a presentation in KeyNote.

This time, because I was preparing an actual ‘keynote’ for an EdNA workshop (likely attendance of about 50, so no big deal) I thought I’d give KeyNote a whirl. It helped that I fancied myself controlling the presentation remotely from my iPhone. After all, what’s the point of having gadgets if you cannot show them off occasionally.

I’ve been using various versions of PowerPoint since about 1987 so I’m used to working its way. KeyNote is different enough that I struggled for a bit to get my head around it. Then I found that it has some nice features that do certain things better than PowerPoint – mostly that’s looking better. However, I found it more difficult to adjust to the outlining style and it is missing some of the nicer points of the most recent version of PowerPoint (2008) which has some very effective diagramming tools and easy to use themes that swap colours and fonts throughout. I have not yet found the equivalents for those in KeyNote – if they exist.

Wanting to play safe, before I got too far into developing my presentation I decided to export a copy to PowerPoint in case I needed to jump back to familiar territory. Oops! Export failed with an unknown error. I pressed on and completed the presentation file but this afternoon decided to have another run at producing a ‘safety’ copy in PowerPoint. Export failed again.

Thinking that the problem might be with one or more of 3 short video clips I had embedded, I made a copy of the KeyNote file for experimentation and removed the 3 video clips. Export failed. I decided upon a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy. I split the file into half and tried exporting each. The first half failed but the second half exported without problems. I split the first half and repeated the process until I had isolated the problem to a relatively simple slide with just 2 text boxes. I then tried versions with just one of the text boxes and found that one box appeared responsible for the problem. I reworked that piece of text, confirmed that it worked in my test file, and then replicated the fix in my presentation file. That version exported without error. If I need to use it I’ll have to hook in the video clips that were exported separately but I won’t do that unless I need to.

I really cannot imagine what it was about that simple text box that was causing a problem. I am pleased to have managed to repair it and complete the export using a simple problem solving technique. I’ll probably try KeyNote again if this presentation works well but I hope I don’t get a repeat of this export bug.