The Forgotten Role of Technology: One Step Away from Magic

I’ve noticed an increasingly more prevalent theme this year. The core theme is the concept of technology that is so ubiquitous and elegant that it appears to work like magic. For most of us that is rarely our experience. Often technology, whether we’re using an electronic tool that performs some physical work, or a piece of software that executes a virtual action, rarely seems like magic.

Some of this is simply due to the fact that most of us have developed a specific level of expectation over time through gradual changes that occur across the span of decades. There are certainly many things that might be perceived as magical to someone from an earlier time, whether it was someone from five hundred years ago or only a decade ago.  Perhaps magic, in this context, might be defined as something that is done for you that you didn’t even think about when you made it happen. Like turning on a light switch or opening a door, except the level of interaction is subtler.

Earlier this year I was fortunate to have the opportunity to join a college at a conference where Josh Clark, a user interface design expert, presented along with several other experts. While there we also had the opportunity to speak with him directly at one of the lunches, where he joined our table. Much of our discussion was on this very subject as was his presentation. His topic, of technology functioning like magic, was engaging and, in my opinion, a change heading toward us rather quickly.

I love technology. I enjoy learning about new innovations and gadgets and I have spent several late nights and weekends just tinkering with devices and software, sometimes without a defined goal. Some of those projects were dead ends. Others were successes. I learned from each one.

Yet, over the years, I continue to notice one problem with much of the technology that we have at our disposal.

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2014 Year-End Review of Enduring Tech

Over the years I’ve published several posts about various devices. Frequently, I’ll return to the original posts and add notes describing my experiences with those gadgets that include details such as whether or not I still use them or if they turned out to be as useful as advertised.

For this post I’ve chosen to highlight the devices that I still use, at least a few times each year, that have endured and remain useful. Though I’ve acquired some excellent gadgets in 2014 I’ve chosen to exclude those here as those items have not yet been used for an extended period.

Unfortunately this won’t include every device worthy of this recognition – only those that I’ve previously highlighted in this blog. In addition, I chose not to write about all of the devices that have since failed, or failed to live up to expectations – those experiences are typically available in the older posts.

But my search for technology that works well, and meets or exceeds expectations, is the reason that I maintain this blog. Over the years I’ve chosen to share several experiences in the hopes that they’ll either serve as good recommendations or, unfortunately, as suggestions to avoid certain products (or at least know what to expect from them).

I’ll begin with the oldest item first.

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Macs Unable to Connect to Wi-Fi After Changing Network Mode (Cisco Wireless Router)

One day, while modifying the wireless settings for our Cisco wireless router, I discovered a rather stupid problem. It surfaced when I changed the Network Mode for the 5 GHz network from Mixed to Wireless-N Only. This seemed to make sense since we don’t have any devices using Wireless-A. This is in reference to 802.11a in case anyone was wondering if I had actually meant 802.11ac, which my current router does not support.

And that’s the moment when I was disconnected from Wi-Fi and unable to reconnect. Two different Macs (one MacBook Pro and one MacBook Air) were unable to connect. Once again, I resorted to searching and found the solution. It seems, that for whatever unknown reason, when Wireless-A is disabled on my router then all Macs will decide that they require a different feature enabled in order to connect. In this case WMM (Wi-Fi Multimedia).

The reason for this seems more absurd considering that the support doc implies that it must be enabled in the first place but, before changing the Network Mode, those devices connected just fine with it disabled.

Enabling this capability on my router solved the problem. I’m not sure why. It doesn’t seem to be a feature that should be required simply to connect to a wireless router but there’s no question that enabling it resolved the problem. More details are available via the linked support page included below:

Wi-Fi: Unable to connect to an 802.11n Wi-Fi network

My Experience with Google Chromecast


A few months ago I picked up a Google Chromecast from Best Buy. I was curious about them for a while and at $35 I wasn’t going to be out very much cash if I didn’t find it useful.

It turns out that $35 is an excellent price point for this product and, compared to most similar devices, I think you may actually get a bit more than you paid for. In some cases it can be very convenient. If you already have a device such as a Roku or Apple TV this may not be very impressive, but that all boils down to how each person chooses to use it.

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OS X Mavericks (10.9) Breaks VPN Server

Updated 12/10/2013: Jon Stacey has identified a fix, which involves restoring a copy of racoon from Mountain Lion. I followed his advice and was able to successfully establish an L2TP VPN connection again. Please visit the ‘OS X 10.9 Mavericks fix’ section of his page for more information.

Updated 07/06/2014: The VPN continues to function just fine. I’ve installed several server updates since my previous updates so at this point I’m no longer certain if the previous fix is still in place or if Apple provided a proper fix via update. Regardless, I haven’t had any new problems.

Despite having updated various software packages to avoid software problems with compatibility under Mavericks I hit a wall that I simply haven’t been able to get past. The built-in VPN server in Mavericks (with and without OS X Server) is broken.

I had it working just fine under Mountain Lion, which I managed using iVPN. After upgrading it stopped working. Not long after I added OS X Server and it still wouldn’t work (I purchased OS X Server for its Time Machine capabilities, not for VPN support so I didn’t purchase it expecting it to fix this problem).

Prior to upgrading I had an L2TP VPN server working. Since upgrading I’ve been unable to get L2TP or PPTP working, though I’ve seen more activity with PPTP during connection attempts than with L2TP.

I have hunted across many forum threads and I have been unable to find a solution that works. Some users have reported success though the apparent causes and solutions are extremely varied. The majority of posts are from users that cannot find a solution. This weekend I spent several hours trying to find a solution without success.

At this point there appears to be nothing more that I can do. I’ll simply have to wait until Apple issues an update that fixes the problem. Until then I’ll have to use a service such as LogMeIn to access my desktop, though it’s only a partial solution and doesn’t provide the full access to my network that I need from a VPN server.

Using a Philips VOIP 080 Skyp VOIP Travel Phone (VOIP0801B/37) with a Mac (Mountain Lion)


The Short Version: The Philips VOIP0801B/37 Skype Phone is not fully compatible with Skype and Mountain Lion. The microphone and speaker work fine but the keypad does not.

I’ve had a Skype account for some time though I’ve never used it very often. In general, it serves as little more than a backup calling system. I’ve been thinking about using the service more often at home so I decided to try to find an inexpensive device that would serve as a dedicated Skype phone.

Earlier this week I received a Philips VOIP 080 Skype VOIP Travel Phone (VOIP0801B/37) that I purchased from Amazon for about $30. Unfortunately, I should have read several of the reviews more closely when trying to determine whether or not this would actually work with my Mac (10.8 Mountain Lion).

It partially works. The Mac recognizes the device connected via USB and the Skype software can be configured to use the microphone and speaker. However, the keypad appears to be useless. Dialing, etc has to be done from the Mac.

Before I purchased this I was well aware that Macs were not officially supported but I had the impression it would actually work. Perhaps I’ll stumble upon some trick to get the keypad working with the Mac but for now I’m stuck with a device that doesn’t work as I had hoped because I didn’t research it adequately.

Updated 07/06/2014: In the end I was never able to use it as I had intended. It’s now in our collection of yard sale items.

Plugable USB 2.0 to Gigabit Ethernet Adapter


Several months ago I lost some network ports on different devices due to a power surge from a nearby lightning strike. Unfortunately, one of the devices that took a hit was the ASUS system I’m using for managing home automation. After the surge I configured the system to use wifi but it was struggling to keep up with network traffic (the system does more than just manage my home automation setup).

After I while I decided to purchase a Plugable USB 2.0 to Gigabit Ethernet Adapter. It’s worked great ever since and as far as I can tell I haven’t had any new problems with the system (and bandwidth has clearly improved over the wifi connection). The device retails from Amazon for about $25.