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Guest Editor's Note: On The Road Again

Jul 22, 2005, 23:30 (3 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Rob Reilly)

One of the coolest parts of being a Contributing Editor for Linux Today is getting to occasionally write the weekly editorial.

For this editorial, I decided to write about my Linux and WiFi adventures, from the road while on our family trip to Indiana. It had been a few years since we were there and I was anxious to see if it was any easier to stay connected while on a cross country road trip vacation.

Since you probably don't care about all the little family things, I figured I'd share a few new portable computing problem-solving tips that could save you some heartache while on a similar jaunt. After all, Linux Today readers should enjoy their vacations too. Being a geek shouldn't create undue anxiety, just because you can't connect to the web or will be cooped up in a minivan for 16 hours with three little kids.

Solving The Big Problem First

I had been fretting about setting up the new HP Pavilion notebook so the kids could watch DVDs, while rolling through Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Providing entertainment for the kids, is an important problem to solve, before a cross country road trip.

Xine filled the bill as a DVD player because my 10 year old could easily control the program, with minimal instruction. It also has a big volume control knob that could be adjusted while moving. Out of the box SUSE (I use version 9.3 Pro) won't play some DVDs, so you'll have to either get an enabled version of Xine or look up how to run the locked movies.

Being a do-it-yourself kind of guy, I built a little shelf out of 1/2 inch plywood, that was securely bungied to the front seat arm rests. The rearward facing laptop sat on the part of the shelf that projected toward the back seats. It too was securely bungied to the shelf. This allowed for quick setup and takedown, because I don't like to leave the laptop in the van when we stop for bathroom or meal breaks.

Electrical power for the laptop was supplied by a Vector 400-watt power inverter that I bought at Home Depot. It was a bargain at around $40. It produces a "modified sine wave" that worked fine with the HP Pavilion and my cell phone charger.

The low voltage alarm sounded a few times when we first started the laptop, but after a couple of minutes everything settled down and worked great. The Vector easily handled the laptop's power requirements and never even got warm. I simply stuffed it under the front seat and plugged it into a nearby 12-volt outlet.

Solving Dynamic Problems

In typical geek fashion, I originally chose to solve computing problems as they came along. When my common sense returned, the day before we left, I scurried around collecting the little odds and ends that I might need, to solve my "dynamic" problems. They included:

  • A 6-foot long roll-up CAT 5 cable
  • A 6-foot phone cord
  • SMC 802.11b Barricade router
  • Wall worts for the cell phone, Gyromouse, router, and iPAQ
  • SUSE 9.3 Linux Pro DVDs
  • 12-foot extension cord

All these things packed easily into my day backpack, along with my iPAQ and a few folders. The laptop went in a different bag, along with it's power supply brick and cord. The laptop's power cord is easily forgotten in the heat of packing, so it's best to double check that you have it.

The reason I packed the router was that I knew that my various in-laws had broadband and I might need to provide my own connection from the cable/DSL modem back. Yes I'm spoiled with broadband and wireless.

As it turned out, I was unable to use the WiFi connection at my sister-in-law's house in Indianapolis. I hadn't fiddled around with WEP on the new Pavilion and didn't have time to troubleshoot. The simple solution was to plug my CAT5 cable into the back of her router and use the wired connection.

Later, I fired up my SMC router and worked out the kinks in my encryption configuration. Making WEP work with the Broadcom chip in the Pavilion turned out to be a no-brainer, by adding the encryption key and 128-bit key length values in the /etc/sysconfig/network/ifcfg-wlan0 file.

I was under the gun to work out the WEP connection details because I was slated to man the Linux Today site, while Managing Editor Brian Proffitt got a little R&R on Thursday and Friday.

I had arranged to use my brother-in-law's broadband connection in Evansville, but found out that he didn't have the passphrase string for his WEP installation. Having my own (working) wireless router made the solution as simple as replacing routers at the cable/dsl modem and connecting to the net. When finished I could just plug his router back in and everything would be back to normal. So, the end-of-the-week Linux news is brought to you courtesy of Eric and Charlotte in Evansville.

Finding Things

I'm happy to report that it's getting easier to stay connected while on the road.

For example, in spite of getting to Macon, Georgia at 10 PM, we were still able to find a Comfort Inn with free WiFi. Everybody got settled in and I was able to check email and cruise news sites from my room.

I've come to really depend on my little WiFi enabled iPAQ to sniff out available access points. Sure beats dragging out the laptop, getting it all running and then finding out that there aren't any in the area.

These days you're likely to find access points in a lot of interesting places.

During an iced tea and ice cream stop at a Dairy Queen in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, the iPAQ picked up an access point right there in the story. Sure enough, I was able to cruise the Web for a few minutes, while the kids cooled off.

Sadly, I wasn't able to find any WiFi hotspots at Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana. Coming from the land of Disney (Orlando) I really expected to find a few at this top notch theme park. In spite of the lack of connectivity, I am happy to report that Holiday World is a great place to take your family. It has to be the cleanest park I've ever seen. System admins will appreciate the organization and attention to details. Make sure to pack your swimsuit and towels, because the water park is a truly great time, especially with your kids. They also thoughtfully provide wagons to carry around all your gear, for a few bucks. The roller coasters were thrilling as well.

Speaking of roller coasters, I spotted a Red Hat Linux emblem on a backpack in a wagon parked near the Legend, at about 4 PM on Wednesday, July 19th. Now whenever I see a Linux insignia in an amusement park, I try to wait around for the owner, so we can talk Open Source. I eventually had to move on. Sorry I missed you, drop me an email, if you get the chance.

No doubt the Linux-oriented backpack's owner and his/her family were having as good a time on vacation as we were.

That's it from the road.