Working from Quarantine

This posting is about me geeking out and describing the gadgets and technical environment I use to work from Quarantine. If it is too much feel free to skip it. 

I love my gadgets. I always tend to buy the latest and greatest, if only just to try it out. When I travel, I take some of those gadgets with me but since this trip lasts months, I brought a lot of them along. This includes my iPhoneapple watchmy iPadmy Macbook air M1my airtags, my AirPods (yes, I’m a fan boy), my Microsoft Surface Pro X2 (which I like a lot too), a Lenovo work laptop, my remarkable2 tablet (great for taking notes), my blood pressure metermy temperature metermy oximeterBose headsets (both in and over my ear), various wireless chargers, and a small 2TB flash stick. Specifically for this trip I also bought a 2nd travel screen that I can hook up to my Surface Pro X2 and to my Macbook. For good measure, I added in a small portable projector to my collection so I can watch movies and project slides. Didn’t I tell you I like gadgets?

My work from quarantine setup.

Most of these gadgets connect to WiFi and since I’m from the US most of it connects to Google. It either uses Google services, or its Cloud, or Google analytics, etc. None of that stuff works here in China because they filter the internet coming into China for forbidden content. Google is on the non-grata list and its services are not available here. This is a real pain for foreigners like me. Apps and tools don’t work or have really long timeouts when they try to resolve google analytics domain names.  For Chinese folks this is not really an issue because they have their own locally produced versions but those are all in Mandarin. While I’m beginning to collect more and more Chinese apps, I’m not fully emerged yet.

To work around this obstacle, I brought along a small travel Wifi Access Point. The GL.iNet GL-AR750S-Ext and this has been a remarkable useful device. First of all, its tiny. It fits in the palm of your hand. It runs the opensource OpenWRT stack (a Wifi access point software stack based on Linux) but they skinned it and made the GUI more idiot proof. You can still get into the full OpenWRT environment if you download the appropriate packages. It even comes with an iPhone app to make configuration easier.

The nice thing about this device is that it acts as a proxy. On the one side it exposes a 2.4 GHz/5 GHz wireless network with a DHCP server and everything else you’d expect. On the other side it can connect to wired, wireless and even a 4G USB dongle to reach the internet. In my case I hooked it up to the wired connection in my room. I had hooked it up to my hotel’s wireless network but wired turned out to be more reliable.

Wired networks are always a challenge in any hotel. I suspect that’s because they aren’t used all that much. I often find broken cables that are inserted into the wrong wall outlet. In this case it wasn’t any different. I had to chase down the cables, unplug everything, and eventually I found the active wall socket (out of 4 RJ45 connectors) that gave me an IP address. I always carry my own retractable CAT7 cables around for situations like this so that I don’t have to deal with cable issues. The network I was on had a captive portal and I had to call the reception for the password. That didn’t work at first but by guessing the appropriate capitalizations I was able to log in. 

With that out of the way it was time to set up a VPN so that all my local traffic is sent to another place in the world before it enters the Internet. While I do have my own VPN’s setup around the world, in this case I chose to use Express VPN out of convenience. My own VPN setup is based on DTLS while my WIFI Access point uses the OpenVPN’s protocols which Express VPN supports. Express VPN provides access to VPN locations all over the world, but I chose to use Hong Kong because in my experience China really clamps down the bandwidth for outgoing traffic to other countries except for Hong Kong. Although Hong Kong is technically part of China, in Hong Kong Google and friends are not blocked.

That’s how I do it. All my WIFI traffic is automatically routed to Hong Kong over a VPN. I also made sure that my WIFI SSID and key are the same as I use at home so that I didn’t have to rekey any of my gadgets.

For the real geeks among us, I’m getting ping latencies of 67ms, a download bandwidth of 6 Mbps and an upload bandwidth of 5 Mbps. Obviously not anywhere near what I’m having at home, but it is perfectly workable, and I can even watch Netflix movies or do Microsoft teams calls. My only gripe is that Express VPN doesn’t provide IPv6 addresses. My own VPN setup does. If I need IPv6, I will actually fire up my own VPN on top of the VPN provided by the Wifi Access Point. After all, it’s all just IP packets.

UPDATE: Well, my VPN fun may have been short lived. This afternoon (Saturday 5/15) after a week of functioning correctly, my Express VPN and my personal DTLS VPNs stopped working. I’ll probably be debugging this weekend.

UPDATE2: It is working again. I found a different working VPN server for Express VPN. I wonder if this is going to be a weekly occurrence of updating my VPN server.

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