Friday, January 23, 2009

Technology Triumphs Over Entropy, this week, anyway

I had a genuine technological triumph last week. After several false starts that involved returns and receipts of electronics parts, I managed to get my DirecTV receiver hooked up to the Internet via a wireless connection that will allow me to access video on demand. I shall spare you all the technical details and instead sum up my experience as follows:

Plug-and-play, my ass.

Still, the point ultimately was not that I entered the magical kingdom of video on demand. The point was that I managed to make the damn thing work even after it proved more difficult than I had expected. Now we'll see how long it works, though I'm rather hopeful that the solution is at least semi-permanent. And if there are problems, I've at least learned an awful lot more about the arcana of the world of IP addresses, subnet masks, and WiFi standards 802.11b, 802.11g, and 802.11n.

I've been doing a lot of technological upgrading lately, perhaps starting when Monique and I bought Lenny the Lumpymobile, our Honda Civic Hybrid, at the end of the Summer. Among the options that it came with was a combination satellite navigation system and XM satellite receiver. We probably wouldn't have ordered it up that way, but since it was the package on the available car, we took it. And I have to say that if I had it to do again, I would order it up that way.

The upgrades really started to pick up speed at the end of November when Monique gave me an iPod Touch for my birthday. And now in 2009 I'm blogging, Facebooking, and hooking up WiFi on a whim. The rising tide will probably reach its crescendo next week when my new laptop arrives.

But all of this stuff takes time and effort to figure out. And it seems that as soon as you've established a nice all-around equilibrium, everything starts to slowly degrade again. Software gets outmoded, network connections change, giant piles of snow fall on your new car and destroy its new roof, and then when the body shop hands it back, the XM antenna still isn't working (apparently much to their surprise, too, since the FM antenna was just fine. They were very nice about it when I brought it back and immediately ordered up a new antenna.) And so the work of technological maintenance goes on, sometimes preventatively, but more often when something just stops working.

Thus Lenny the Lumpymobile is at the body shop today, getting a new XM radio antenna installed, and thus our ol' pickup Sprout will be at the mechanic next week getting a power-steering leak fixed.

It's a big complicated ball that we all roll uphill when we seek to make things happen. And the minute we stop pushing it begins to roll back over us. In short, it's a reflection of our old friend the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the universal law of increasing entropy. In any system without an external source of energy, the level of disorganization will always increase.

Perhaps an additional information-technology corollary might be that in any system without an external source of money, the number of parts that don't work will always increase.

Still, my little technological triumph has put me in a rather philosophic and optimistic mood about the whole thing. As people we keep rolling that ball uphill in dozens of different venues: home repair, cleaning, cooking, tending children, manufacturing things from automobiles to little paper umbrellas for drinks. It's what we do. Every day we seem bent on defying the second law of thermodynamics in our own localized systems.

Good for us!


  1. Enjoy you have named your autos. I may need to know in the future how you did the wireless dish thing...but you have no idea who I am. Huh.

  2. As you know, I think you have the pacience of a saint when it comes to working through odd Internet connectivity protocols, standards, and mismatched hardware/software issues.

    I'm glad the success of getting the WiFi set on our TV has left you in an upbeat and philisophical mood.

    So, any idea who SpeedyMAc77 is? I'm curious...

  3. Well, speedymac77, I know you're someone who comments on Susan's blog. That's a start!

    As for the specifics of my pain, the quick summary is that I used a Linksys WGA600N Wireless Gaming Adapter as the WiFi ethernet bridge to hook our DirecTV High-Def DVR to the Internet. The good thing about that specific device is that DirecTV supports it, so there's a wireless setup wizard already on your DVR. That means that if you have a fairly standard WiFi network installation in your house, you should be fine.

    I think my problem stemmed from the fact that we have a bit of an atypical wireless setup because everything was really set up to support the wired server for my wife's home office, and because our wireless modem seems to have been set up to *not* broadcast its SSID as part of that setup. In theory this isn't usually much of a problem with wireless setups because you can just enter the name of the system you want to hook to and proceed. the DirecTV setup wizard allows you to enter your own SSID. But in this particular case you can't do this because there is a bug in the DirecTV software itself, so when you try to enter the SSID via the number pad, all you do is change the channel on the tuner. This is an evil, evil bug.

    I got around it by hooking the WGA600N to my laptop and configuring it manually via the Advanced Settings. But it took a while to noodle out exactly what I needed to do.