The new home network, part II

Previously, on Prison Break:

For the past nine years, a venerable Asus DSL-AC68U wireless modem/router has dutifully been providing access to the pipes filled with cats to all my devices. It’s done its job so well, faultlessly, that I feel like I need to put it out to pasture while it still can be repurposed as someone else’s wireless router. Besides, it’s 2024 now, and the Wi-Fi 5 that it came with is positively pedestrian compared to what we have now, putting aside the glaring limitations of Australian internet speeds or your device’s ability to utilise that kind of speed. Plus, WPA3 is also a thing now too, and any security upgrade is always worthwhile.

The MikroTik Hex has been rock solid as a router. After a solid week of Googleing and configuring, I think I have it set it up just how I want.

In many ways, RouterOS reminds me a lot of when I played with dd-wrt all those years ago. There’s just as many options to configure, and while that means there’s a bit of a learning curve, especially if you want to start from scratch, basically everything is configurable, and there’s very little hand-holding. Want to use one of the Ethernet ports as WAN? Of course, take your pick. Want to remove one of the Ethernet ports from the bridge and use it as a backup/dedicated management port? No problem! RouterOS will tell you when your config is invalid, but it won’t stop you from doing something stupid if it is technically possible. It’s absolutely possible to lock yourself out from your router if you’ve configured management interfaces to be only accessible certain interfaces/network ranges, so it’s absolutely possible to shoot yourself in the foot. If you want, you can start from literal scratch; no DHCP server, no DNS, no firewall rules. I can tell you now; you haven’t truly lived unless you have setup your own DHCP server, even if all that really means these days is ticking a box to turn it on and configuring a few options like your desired IP address range. The next best thing is customising the one that comes with the standard default config, which is what I ended up doing.

But did the Hex fix what marginal levels of bufferbloat I had? Yes, absolutely, although I don’t have SQM1 enabled all the time. For whatever reason, Opticomm FTTP connections are usually over provisioned in that I get slightly faster speeds (usually around 110 Mbps down, 45 Mbps up) than what I actually pay for (100/40), so I have SQM disabled outside of peak periods so I don’t miss out on that little bit of extra speed. It’s a small thing, but the way SQM is most noticeable is when I’m downloading something and watching a YouTube video at the same time. With SQM off, when that download is saturating my connection, my YouTube video drops quality and starts stuttering like it’s buffering over a dial-up connection. But with SQM enabled, I can download something and watch YouTube at the same time, without any loss in quality and without any buffering pauses. It’s a small thing, but SQM has made a minor but appreciable impact on my internet quality. If nothing else, now I can use my internet connection with impunity. Not like I didn’t before, but now I know it will actually work when I want it to, irrespective of whatever else I might be doing.

And yes, the Hex has limitations in terms of throughput with SQM enabled, but thanks to Australian internet speeds, I can save money by having a cheaper router. As it stands, apparently the Hex is good up to about 200-500Mbps with SQM enabled. Given that I’m not planning to upgrade my internet speeds anytime soon, that’s plenty, but if and when I do, a RB5009 (or its successor of the time) has my name on it. I’m still tossing up whether I want to “upgrade” to 250/25 for $4 more per month. While that may not be worth it, I can absolutely recommend SQM on any modern internet connection. If you have a one person household it might not be that big of a deal, but even I’ve noticed it, so I can only imagine how great it would be in a family home.

But honestly, the Hex is too fully-featured for my meagre networking requirements. I’m not running my own ISP, nor do I need any kind of failover. Fancy routing rules for specific traffic, or complicated NAT rules, are also outside of what I want out of my home network. I’m not even using VLANs or anything that would require me to know more about networking than I currently do. But it’s good to know that I can, if I want to in the future, or if my networking circumstances change, I can do all of that without having to redo my entire home network setup.

If I have hesitations about the Hex, is that it’s fairly basic in terms of features. While it does have a microSD card slot and a USB port, there are “only” gigabit Ethernet ports on the thing, no 10G SFP+, no PoE, and I can’t run containers on it like you can on some higher-end MikroTik hardware. It feels bad buying networking gear with only gigabit Ethernet in 2024, but unless I want to spend many hundreds more dollars and buy one of those little fanless mini-PCs that come with 2.5G/10G SFP+ ports and run RouterOS on that, I’m stuck with the hardware that MikroTik currently offers. I think the RB5009 would be great, but as it is, I can probably wait until the next iteration, as there’s basically nothing the Hex doesn’t do for me today. That changes if I get gigabit internet, but I can’t see that happening anytime soon, especially with the state of internet infrastructure in Australia right now. Further compounding this is that while you can get gigabit internet on NBN, the problem here is that Opticomm doesn’t seem interested in competing with the NBN2 or even offering higher speed tiers, so the fastest that I can get is 500/200 at roughly triple what I currently pay. For a one-person household, that just doesn’t seem worth it.

So for now, the Hex has this strange dichotomy between incredible software with mid-tier hardware — fine, capable hardware that’s more than enough for home network usage, but lacking a few niceties and/or esoteric features that would have been “nice to have” in 2024.

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The new home network

Asus DSL-AC68U wireless modem router

Next year will be 10 years since I bought any new home networking gear. Compared to typical IT gear lifetimes, where you’re normally replacing gear every couple of years, hitting double digits on anything is an impressive feat that usually represents one of two things. Either you over-invested to begin with in the name of “future-proofing”, even if you couldn’t fully use the gear at first, or there have been so many other expenses/upgrades ahead of it that you haven’t even thought about upgrading something that works perfectly well. As the old adage goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

But look, I’m not here to judge your personal technology choices. Merely provide some insight into some of my own, a cautionary tale or two, and some helpful anecdotes along the way. If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll get all three in a single post, but if not, two out of three ain’t bad.

For the past nine years, a venerable Asus DSL-AC68U wireless modem/router has been dutifully providing access to the interwebs to all my devices. It’s done its job so well, faultlessly, that I feel like I need to put it out to pasture before it starts getting ideas and starting the robot uprising that every sci-fi has warned us about. Besides, it’s 2024 now, and putting aside the glaring limitations of Australian internet speeds or your device’s ability to utilise that kind of speed, the Wi-Fi 5 that it came with is positively pedestrian compared to what we have now. Plus, WPA3 is also a thing now too, and any security upgrade is always worthwhile.

When I was waiting for the internet to be connected in my first apartment, I was able to plug a USB 4G modem into it and have the AC68U share it to all my devices. And when that same apartment joined the 21st century and upgraded to NBN, albeit on the slightly-inferior FTTB version, the AC68U just kept on working. And now that I’m on Opticomm (i.e. non-NBN) FTTP, it just keeps on working. I have no doubt that it would keep doing so until one of two things happened: it releases the magic smoke and spontaneously combusts into a small pile of ash, or the heat death of the universe. Whichever comes first.

That means it’s time for an upgrade! But to what?

Home networking gear is boring in the best possible way. The ideal scenario is that you set it up once, and don’t ever touch it again unless you’re changing something. But if you’re like me, you’ll spend a few weeks every ten years fiddling with it, then never touch it again. That’s basically how I’ve run my AC68U over the years, besides upgrading the firmware every now and again, or forwarding a port here and there. Like I said, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

I have basically three options for upgrading my home network.

I consider myself pretty lucky (for the purposes of picking home networking gear), in that I live by myself in a small apartment. That means I don’t need a fancy mesh system, or multiple APs to cover the whole thing. Because I’m the only one that uses the network, I can wire up all my computers for the latency and consistency advantages wired connections provide, put everything else on wireless, and have a pretty simple setup overall.

It would have been easy to pick up something like the 2024 version of the AC68U, an all-in-one wireless router. This time around, I won’t even have to buy something with an ADSL modem, because I’m not planning to live in a place with ADSL ever again. But as ugly as the aesthetic of most of today’s wireless routers are, surely there are better options? Some of the Wi-Fi 7 wireless router options from TP Link don’t look too bad, although they are a little on the pricey side. But what if I wanted a slightly less consumer option? After almost a decade with the Asus and never touching all the marketing buzzwords in its web interface and going straight to the advanced settings, what if I wanted to step it up a notch?

Ubiquity seem to be the current flavour of the month for their prosumer networking gear. Their new-ish UniFi Express is a nice little all-in-one that I could probably recommend pretty comfortably to anyone who wanted something configurable, but backed with a great user interface that makes setting it all up easy enough. I can even see myself trying out a UniFi Express to see if I like the Ubiquity ecosystem as a whole, as it’s also a pretty cheap entry point into the UniFi ecosystem. It would probably also be suitable for someone to deploy at a “secondary” site like their parent’s house to replace their ageing network gear, too, and even comes with cool features like remote management.

But as nice as the UniFi Express is, it “only” comes with Wi-Fi 6, so wouldn’t be that much of an upgrade. It’s also lacking some features. There’s no USB port, for example, if you wanted to share a 4G/5G USB modem between all your devices, just like I had to do while I was waiting for the internet to be connected at my place after moving in. That isn’t a huge deal these days given the relatively fast provisioning times of NBN, but it’s a nice to have. There’s also only one LAN port, like Ubiquity expect you to have a switch if you plan to network a few computers together like it’s 1999 or something. It’s a reasonable assumption, but would it have killed Ubiquity to put a few more Ethernet ports on the thing? Fortunately, this also isn’t a big deal for me as I already have a switch connecting my computers together on a LAN like it’s 1999.

Which brings us to the third option, separate out my router, switch, and wireless access point into three separate devices. While there’s nothing particularly wrong with having an all-in-one wireless router, sometimes you just can’t find the right device at the right price. There’s also something about the modularity of having three separate devices, meaning that if you want to upgrade something in the future, you can do so without having to replace everything. But now instead of having one decision to make, I have three! Make that two, on account of the fact I already have a switch. It’s an 8-port, 2.5G RJ45 switch with one 10G SFP+ port from Keeplink, which you can also have for the low price of around $70 if you’re willing to buy it from AliExpress.

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A set of four Polaroids taken with friends

I have a love-hate relationship with my Polaroid camera.

On paper, my Polaroid is the perfect alternative to the point-and-shoot nature of my iPhone. It’s the ideal analog equivalent to digital photos that might as well only exist on your phone, or at most in a post on social media or group chat somewhere. I love that it produces real, physical photos that people can then take home and put somewhere they’ll see it, like on their fridge or wall, to remind themselves of a nice moment in time. The photos have character that you just can’t get when you take a photo with any modern phone, even if they’re not always perfectly in focus, timestamped, geo-tagged, or include a little two-second movie.

But in practice, there are just as many negatives as there are positives to shooting Polaroids, even though the film it uses doesn’t use negatives. Sorry, little film photography pun there.

The film that it does use is expensive, expires if I don’t use it within a certain timeframe, produces sub-standard photos if I don’t store it properly, and the photos produced are so widely inconsistent as to be basically unusable half the time.

When each photo costs you at least $3, it’s not something that you can just snap away with. I’ve been limiting myself to only taking photos of people with my Polaroid for that very reason, because if I’m going to spend that much on physical photos, I want them to be of something real, and not just some nice scenery or whatever.

But because opportunities for nice photos with friends don’t come around all that often, and I’m not taking that many photos when they do, I often find myself with leftover film. Yes, even when each pack is only eight shots, which makes a 36-shot roll of film seem limitless by comparison. I then have to either force people to take more photos to finish off a pack of Polaroids, or contend with storing it and hoping that it will still be good the next time an photos with friends opportunity comes around, then hoping that the film hasn’t expired in the meantime. Improper storage or outright expiration of the film probably isn’t that big of a deal, but with photos being so wildly inconsistent and the photos themselves costing as much as they do, I want to give myself the best possible chance of getting good photos, which is ideally with film that’s within its use-by date and has been stored correctly.

Which brings us to the other part of the problem. I’ve had such varied results shooting Polaroids that there’s always a small part of me that wonders if it’s worth it. I don’t know whether it’s because I don’t have much experience with it to get a good feel for what works and what doesn’t, or because I’m too used to my iPhone camera and its ability to produce perfect photos every, single, time, and keep trying to pull off technically challenging photos with my Polaroid, but getting good photos out of my Polaroid seems like such a coin toss at times that I wonder if there’s anything I can be doing to help my chances of getting photos I would be happy to stick up on my fridge or on my wall.

What’s interesting about all of this is that I don’t have these kinds of inconsistency issues with film. Yes, I’ve shot hundreds more frames of film that I have Polaroids. But with film, I know that when a shot turns out blurry, it’s usually my fault for not nailing the focus using the manual focus lens. Or when the image turns out under or over exposed, it’s because I intentionally wanted it to be. My film rangefinder has automatic metering which prevents the possibility of too dark or too light shots when using aperture priority, but it also doesn’t have the benefit of a flash. By doing away with any kind of adjustable shutter speed or aperture and relying on fixed-focus lenses, theoretically the Polaroid should be able to produce consistent exposures due to how simplified the whole exposure triangle is. But maybe that’s one of its limitations, in that it can only produce exposures in a few limited scenarios, and it over-relies on the flash to compensate for less-than-ideal lighting. Even in the early days of shooting film, when my very first film rangefinder didn’t have (working) metering and I had to manually meter every shot using my phone before dialling my shutter speed and aperture into the camera before taking the shot, I was able to take OK photos most of the time. Yes, in the beginning I might have had a photo that turned out too dark, or too bright, of been blurry due to too slow a shutter speed. But I feel as though I was able to pretty quickly learn what worked and what didn’t and compensate accordingly. The Polaroid, by comparison, seems to have a mind of its own when it comes to exposing correctly. What I think should be exposed correctly isn’t, and what shouldn’t be exposed correctly, is! It’s madness!

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The best worst keyboard

A Dell QuietKey keyboard from roughly 2010.

The Dell 0T347F QuietKey Keyboard — The Best Worst Keyboard

It’s a fine morning in 2010. I’m sitting in one of the tutorial rooms at uni, in a computer lab setup with rows of computers for students to use. The desk is terribly setup; the screen sits on top of the computer, which takes up so much depth on the desk that there’s basically only room for the keyboard in front of the computer and absolutely nothing else. Even the keyboard is almost hanging off the front edge of the desk. Ergonomics weren’t a thing in those days, it seems, but this was par for the course in this kind of ancient history.

Strangely, the keyboard grabs my attention. It’s a standard Dell keyboard, the kind that comes free with your new Dell computer and if you don’t know any better, the one that you start using with your new Dell computer. It feels surprisingly good to type on. It’s not mechanical, but the half-height keys are responsive in a way that I wouldn’t expect from an OEM keyboard – certainly not any OEM keyboard I’ve used up until that point, not even the white plastic Apple keyboards I used back in high school. The keys don’t have the same solid action or tactile bump that mechanical ones do, but they still feel great to type on, with a bouncy springiness that puts the typing experience leaps and bounds ahead of the lethargic key feel of any other rubber-domed keyboard of its time.

I like the keyboard so much that I end up buying one for the princely sum of $22, or about $30 in today’s money. It’s the cheap and cheerful nature of it that appeals to my frugal sensibilities, back in the days where I was a poor uni student that didn’t have a hundred dollars to spend on a mechanical keyboard, much less two hundred. I don’t end up using it as my daily driver keyboard — that privilege is reserved for the aluminium Apple keyboards of the time, but it’s far better than the rubberised, spill-proof, roll-up keyboard I’m using for my gaming PC at the time, as evidenced by this blurry photo.

The best worst keyboard with my two other keyboards of the time

I’ve had a bit of a storied keyboard history. On the one hand, I’ve been using a mechanical keyboard since about May 2012 or so, with the Das Keyboard being my very first mechanical keyboard. Before that, my setups often featured the standard Apple keyboard, with its instantly recognisable, if divisive, low profile, laptop-style chiclet keys. When I started my first corporate job and had my own desk, I specifically went and purchased a nice mechanical keyboard with macro buttons and RGB so I could have an excellent typing experience at work. That’s not really a thing these days, thanks to workplaces moving to mostly hotdesks in light of Covid and people appreciating the flexibility of working from home, but you can still do it if you’re willing to lug around a keyboard with you, or keep it in a locker or something at work. As much as I enjoy using nice mechanical keyboards, I’ve used plenty of less-than-stellar keyboards as well. There are photos of me with those rubberised, roll-up keyboards at LANs, where all I needed was something that made it possible to WASD around, no matter how mushy it felt, or how awful it was for any typing.

These days, my setup is generally two keyboards on my desk. The further back keyboard is currently a CODE Keyboard which is always connected to my Mac, while the keyboard directly in front of it is whatever keyboard I’m using with my gaming PC. For the last few years, that’s been a Corsair mechanical gaming keyboard with Cherry Red switches. This setup works pretty well. I don’t do that much typing on my Mac anymore, at least nothing like I used to do, but when I do need to type out the odd phrase, sentence, or even paragraph, the CODE Keyboard with its Cherry Green switches provides such a sublime typing experience that I find myself wishing I did. And when I’m in leisure mode and carrying games with Muerta in Dota 2, it’s nice to have a keyboard that I know I can rely on to give me the exact keys that I press, safe in the knowledge that if I accidentally hit a key, or fat-finger a skill in a teamfight, that’s on me.

Unless my keys flat-out doesn’t work, of course.

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Thirty Three

Do you think you’re still young, Melissa?

Because I can tell you right now, I think I still am. A little, anyway.

This past year, all I’ve heard from people is how I don’t look my age. They say it’s due to my Asian genes, which makes it one of the few positive traits I’ve been able to claim because of them. Not a bad one, as far as positive traits go. Perhaps even a great one, now that I have a better understanding of the value of such a trait in the first place. Obviously, when you’re young you don’t care about looking young, because you actually are. But when you’re a little older, you’re hopefully a little wiser, too, and with that comes the understanding that looking younger than you are can be a good thing. Some of the time.

I started a new job in a new org this past year, and that has meant meeting more new people that I normally would. Most of them are surprised to hear how old I actually am, usually followed up with comments like “wow, you don’t look that age at all!”, or “must be those Asian genes making you look younger than you really are”, or even “wow, I would never have guessed you’re that old.” Thanks, I guess? It’s always meant like a compliment, even though sometimes it doesn’t feel like one.

I had a short stopover in Singapore recently and was ordering some kaya toast at the airport. I had just spent three weeks in Malaysia, so initially I said “satu kaya toast” before correcting myself and saying “one kaya toast”, like any normal English-speaking person would. Turns out the guy serving me was from Malaysia anyway so he understood me fine. He asked me where I was from, I said that I had just come from Malaysia, but was heading back to Australia. He asked me to study or work, and I said to work, and he replied “oh, so young!”. I laughed and agreed. I wasn’t entirely sure how he thought I was young given I was wearing a mask that covered most of my face, but I wasn’t about to correct him, either, mainly because I knew that if I did, I’d probably get the same “wow, you look so young”-type comment that I had heard plenty of times before.

Maybe it’s because I’m still single and unmarried, but I think there are other measures of how old someone is besides their age. But just because someone has less major life experiences than someone else, does that mean they’re younger? Just because someone has never gambled real money at a casino, or has never married, or had kids, does that mean they’re younger than someone who has? Not necessarily, right? Isn’t it possible they just have a different set of life experiences to you? What about if they have own their own place, but have never owned their own car? What if they were the youngest person to accrue long service leave at their previous company? How old would that person be, exactly?

I think there’s a not-insignificant difference between how old someone is (their age), and how mature they are. It’s why you hear terms like “they have an old soul” to describe people who are mature enough to be distinctly different than their peers who may be as old as they are, age-wise.

So if we’re making the distinction between age and maturity, then I think there’s every chance that I’m still young, even though I’m in my early thirties. Anecdotally, my small bubble of the world seems to agree. From where I’m observing, people seem to be getting married later and having kids later in life than their parents did. Teenage pregnancies and shotgun weddings not withstanding, of course.

Now all I have to do is get out there and do the things I want to do. You know, while I’m still young.

What are those things? I’m still figuring that part out.

I miss Vita so much

The exterior of the Vita Place building

It’s March 17, 2023. My last day of employment for the foreseeable future.

While my official record reflects 16-odd years of service, that’s not the whole story. Through various acquisitions and job changes, it’s more like 16 and-a-bit years split up into a few different chapters. From work experience at Next Byte and my first ever retail job, then moving to Brisbane and starting my first corporate role on an IT Service Desk, all the way through to making mistakes and learning even more as an enterprise applications administrator, it’s been a hell of a ride.

Looking back on it now, all I can remember are the good times.

It’s true what they say. As the years coalesce into each other, no one remembers what you did or said in specific scenarios, only how you made them feel. And I feel so, extremely privileged to have been able to work with not just some of the best and brightest, but also, and more importantly, the nicest and kindest people.

In the first few years when I started, when we had quarterly meetings with the rest of IT, and I was exposed to everything else IT was doing — not even the rest of the business, just what we were doing within IT — that made me, just a lowly IT Service Desk lackey at the time, feel like such a small cog in the machine.

And a little later on, after I had a little more experience under my belt, every time I was starting a new project and in a meeting with other people from other departments, I felt so proud to be working alongside those people. Almost none of which I knew all that well, at that early stage — but who all seemed to know what they were talking about. It made me feel like part of a team, knowing that everyone had their own little speciality, and just needed some IT glue to put it all together. The entirety of Vita support was such a small team, occupying maybe 120 seats in total, give or take, but though the power of collaboration and ruthless efficiency, we ended up doing so much over a period of years that I often wonder how much big businesses get anything done with so much overhead.

How does it feel?

It feels strange. To know I’m leaving behind people I’ve worked with for years, just like all the people I’ve worked with in the past that have already left. To know that it’s probably extremely unlikely that I’ll work with those people ever again, or that we’ll never ask each other what’s for lunch, or commiserate over the work that needed to be done, or laugh at whatever crazy thing just happened (again). I feel sad that we’ll never bring up issues to the attention of the group, that we’ll never problem solve together, or collectively come up with some brilliant solution that ends up being the silver bullet to all our problems.

But as they say, all good things come to an end. Maybe not to an end of your choosing, but that’s just how it goes sometimes. The important thing isn’t to be sad that it’s over, but be glad that it happened at all. I’m so grateful for the experiences that I had at Vita, and especially the people that I worked with. I know it’s probably not that healthy to have such a large attachment to your work, but with work occupying such a large portion of your waking hours, I feel as though it’s at least partially justified.

Chances are I’ll never find a place like Vita ever again. Now that I’m a little older and wiser, I wonder if I’ll ever again feel the wonder of what it’s like to know that everyone else is smarter than me, or that I know nothing and they know everything. And because I carry those experiences with me to my next job, I’ll be able to lament the lack of email address consistency at my new gig, question why things are done a certain way, or wonder if the lack of meeting attendance punctuality is a symptom of more deep-rooted problems, or just another example of individually poor time management. Probably a little of column A, a little of column B.

Above all, I miss being close enough to not just the coworkers in my direct team, but those colleagues in other parts of the business that I worked with on a frequent basis. I miss being able to just go and hang out or catch up. Not necessarily to talk about anything work-related, but just shoot the breeze. I realise that this kind of camaraderie can be built up, over time, but the timeline for this sort of thing is years, assuming the people I work with don’t leave during that time. I’ve been at my current workplace for four months, so I’ve still got a long way to go in this regard.

But I miss Vita so much. I miss working in the city, for however a brief period we were there. I miss being the guy that people came to ask questions to, the guy that knew what they were talking about, most of the time, by sheer virtue of being around for so long. I miss knowing how most parts of the business operated. I miss knowing who to go to if I had a problem I needed help with. I miss having that pre-established rapport to know that they would usually be willing to help, be willing to answer a question or two, or even show me how something worked if I had no idea.

I miss Vita so much. But mostly the people I worked with.