March 26, 2014

We Started Nothing

So, after a decade or so of working in jobs that provided cell phones with personal use policies, I am now at a place that doesn't provide a cell phone.  That's not a huge deal, as it is nice to be off the night time and weekend on-call list. 

With a growing family, I need to be connected when I'm out and about, as well as keeping costs under control.  I looked into the major carriers, and while a basic phone wasn't bad, to go up to a smartphone was cost prohibitive for something that is used sparingly.  

After doing some research I found that a bunch of MVNOs that run carriers on Sprint's network and had decent pricing, but I decided to go with Ting, the wireless brand of TuCows.  I looked into using Glyde to buy a phone to bring over, but didn't find what I wanted for the price I wanted to pay, so I bought a phone on eBay.  It is a little riskier, but it turned out fine.  Fifteen minutes after I received my phone through the mail, I had my new iPhone up and running with voice, text and data on Ting's network.



On the bad side there are a few things.  There are limits on which handsets that you can bring over.  I was able to bring an iPhone 4s onto Ting during their beta program, but you can't just use a CDMA handset that is meant for Sprint and bring it online.  That is a risk if you buy on eBay or any other service, as if the phone doesn't have a "Clean ESN", you might not be able to use it on the network.  The other issue is coverage.  Sprint has terrible coverage.  I'm not the first to say this and I'm not complaining.  The voice and text portion of the service roams seamlessly onto Verizon's infrastructure in my area and I have had no problems with that portion of the service.

What doesn't roam is the data plan.  This is why the service is less expensive and could be a deal killer for some people.  In my case all the places that I need data indoors, I also have WiFi and fast Internet, so I never even use up my data plan.  When I am outside, Sprint's data service is pretty decent, but nothing to write home about.

In my first month of service, my iPhone bill was $18.20.  $17.00 in usage plus $1.20 in taxes and regulatory fees.  So, for below the price of any of the other carrier's minimal data plan, I was able to get voice, text and data service.  Hard to beat.

It goes without saying, but I will say it again, any public post that I make is a personal opinion and not the views of my employer and should not be seen as an official endorsement by any organization. 'Nuff said. 

And yes, the title is an obligatory reference to The Ting Tings, better known to the parental crowd as "the people who sing that birthday song on Yo Gabba Gabba"

February 17, 2014

Feature Wishlist for Chromecast

It is official.  I'm sold on Chromecast.  The whole KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid!) concept seems to work out well.  Things are smooth with all the officially supported clients.  I have a 95% success rate with the Casting extensions running on the x86 release of Chromium on Linux.  For software that isn't officially supported, it really isn't that bad.

I hate to whine about something so simple, but this is the Internet and that is how we do things here.

Things that I would like added to the Chromecast in order of importance.

  • Ethernet Jack.  I know, I know, the future is wireless.  Tell that to my neighbor with a 2.4Ghz phone from a decade ago.  Things are streaming great and then *splat*.  Regular Youtube content just buffers, but it breaks the DRM on the content streaming from the Google Play Store.  Which brings us to...
  • Dual Band WiFi.  Actually this is probably cheaper than adding wired Ethernet.  In my neighborhood that 5GHz band is wide open and the 2.4GHz band is heavily utilized.  I can imagine in a high density housing situation like an apartment complex, dormitory or condo that it would be much worse.  
  • Ability to use local (network) media.  This is probably the most requested feature and I can see why you aren't giving it up easily.  The dongle is a loss leader for folks to use your services.   Even if you limited something like this to Google controlled hardware like Chromebook, I'd probably buy your hardware just to allow me the convenience.  I know you can cast a whole screen including the audio (which is in beta), but I'd rather have an experience similar to what Songza provides for the Chromecast, but with my local media. 
  • Application Partners that don't require a login.  I get it, Netflix, HBO to Go, Hulu Plus and the like are subscription services.  Pandora does both subscription and free models, but why should I have to authenticate with their site to cast their service to the Chromecast.  Songza has it right.  Redbull.tv has it right.  
  • Application Wrappers for Interested third parties.  An example would be a streaming audio site like SomaFM, which I enjoy.  If an API wrapper were to be created that would allow anyone who is a Google Adsense vendor to cast various application from their site, with Adsense taking 1/2 or 1/3 of the screen real estate for ads and the rest for the customer, it would be a win-win situation.  They would get revenue from the advertising, you (Google) wouldn't have to host the service or pay for the bandwidth and the content can be governed by the current rules of Adsense that doesn't allow it to be used for the purposes of explicit content. 
  • A bit more security.  You know that these things are going to be used to connect large projectors to laptops at conferences and conventions, right?  You made such a neat little product and people won't be able to help themselves.  God help the Hello Kitty convention that has some pervert blasting Goatse images or renaming the units with the iPhone client to objectionable words that get displayed on the idle screen. 
  • Digital Audio Out.  A minor thing.  Not all of us have upgraded our HiFi systems to do HDMI switching.  I take an optical output from my tv and run it into my surround sound setup.  Either a coax or toslink/fiber SPDIF output would be great, but you guys are probably saving that for some sort of set top box that will make us forget GoogleTV.

Most likely your marketing guys have already figured out this stuff, but if not feel free to bring Google Fiber to my street as compensation.

February 02, 2014

Chromecast on Linux

I was recently pondering purchasing a Google Chromecast unit to mess around with at home.  The price is so low that they are almost giving them away.  I assume that is so Google can harvest your viewing habits and resell them, but that is another story.  Originally I was thinking about using a Raspberry Pi unit with XMBC to do media streaming, but as cool as it is, I don't have the time to install, configure and train my family... even if it is way cooler and would give me way more geek cred.  While Minimum System Requirements for using the Chromecast includes most of the normal equipment to be found on my home network, it doesn't support Linux.  Now, thanks to the best (and in depth protocol) explanation from Paul Donahue on the AskUbuntu forum, I know that I'm covered with my Linux devices at home.  Now all is right with the world again.  Thanks again Paul, you made my day a little better.  Now if Google would officially support it as a product and not a beta, that would be cool.

Screen Capture Edit/Addition: I actually wrote this a few weeks ago but never ended up publishing it.  Since then I've bought two Chromecast units to hook up to various TVs around the house.  I would rather have a direct Ethernet connection to them, but they never skip and you really can't beat the price.  I mainly use Ubuntu 13.10 with Chromium to cast content to the Chromecast units, but my kids use the iPad client and it is seamless.  Sometimes less is more.

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January 20, 2014

Shady Unsubscribe

Recently I was going through my SPAM filter and looking to see if there was anything that I legitimately signed up for and could unsubscribe to.  I found about twenty different vendors that I was getting newsletters or random marketing pieces from, that at one time I was interested in, but ended up getting classified as SPAM over the years without my notice due to disinterest in their message. 

The bulk of the unsubscribe mechanisms were pretty straightforward and I applaud that.  A few of them were somewhat sneaky, making you read the verbiage twice to make sure that you really took the course of action that you intended.  Then there is Unilever.  At one point they had my e-mail address for some marketing or coupon campaign that I have since forgotten about.  To unsubscribe from their SPAM, here is what is required:

unilever.. oh boy 

So originally they had my e-mail address, now they want everything by my SSN to unsubscribe.  No thanks!

 

November 28, 2013

Splunk Revisited

A few years ago I was evaluating a cool log analysis package called Splunk for a project at work.  I had a few instances running on a development machine at work and on a server at home.  I found that I was able to drill down to very specific events to debug what was happening so I could correlate problems among various devices and software packages.  When I upgraded my home server a year ago I didn't spend the time to reinstall Splunk, as I was busy with moving into a new house and having children, so it went to the back burner. 

Recently I was having a conversation on system monitoring architecture and Splunk came up.  I decided to take a look and see what a few years of maturity has done.  First of all, the basic software is now free for individual use.  While there is a reduction in enterprise features and there is no password/account authentication, the core functionality is all there. There is a 500Mb limit on the amount of data you can processes, but if you have half a gig of syslog/logfiles/etc to parse a day, then you shouldn't be so cheap and just buy a full license.   If you were paranoid, it would be very easy to use this software and to only share the management port to localhost, so you would have to use a SSH tunnel to get into the box to be able to view any of the data.  I know that is pretty hokey, but it does work as far as anyone with account access to the box gets to see your data.  Beyond that you could always run Splunk within a virtual machine. 

Beyond the cool factor of being able to drill down into your data, it runs well on pretty anaemic hardware.  The server I installed this software on is cobbled together from remnants of several dead computers that are at least six years old, yet the response time from the database with around half a million events is surprisingly fast.  

November 26, 2013

Home Automation

I am always looking for new things to try to automate tasks around the house.  Recently our lawn sprinkler timer started acting strange after a big power surge.  Instead of debugging it or replacing it with another Home Depot special, I decided to replace it with something that was network connected.  A family friend installed the Irrigation Caddy a few months ago and was really happy with it.  I search around on eBay and Amazon, but couldn't get it as cheap as I wanted.  In my search I found several different options, including the OpenSprinkler platform.  While it is pretty bare bones, the price is right.  I ordered it right away and soldered together the kit the day after I received it in the mail.  They also have a higher end unit that uses SMT chips that is assembled and a bit more expensive.  They did not have any of the injection molded cases in stock for that unit, so I build a small box using leftover lexan.  I was able to re-use the 24volt AC wall wart to power the unit.

OpenSprinkler Web Interface 

The unit is pretty basic and the web interface is very sparse, but it does exactly what it is supposed to do, water my lawn and plants.  Hey, it synchronizes time using NTP, so you don't have the issues that come up with a traditional dumb unit.  That being said, there is very little security on this and if you actually password protect it, the passwords are passed over HTTP as plaintext in the URL.  As long as you are aware of this and accept the risk, it is not a big deal.  If I need to access this while I'm away from my house, I would use an SSH tunnel or VPN connection to my home LAN.  The commands for this unit are sent via HTTP get requests, so if you were to use a port forwarding solution and were to lock it down to only be accessed by certain I{ addresses or ranges, you could still control it by spoofing the source address.  I haven't looked into it, but Ray's Hobby also has a sprinkler subsystem that works with the Raspberry Pi as well as the Beagleboard, so that could afford you some extra security if you needed it.  While my sprinkler system is far from a SCADA system controlling nuclear enrichment centrifuges, I sure would be annoyed with a soggy lawn.

My next stop is to add a rain/freeze sensor, but that is for another weekend.  I have a lot of friends and co-workers that are big fans of the Raspberry Pi line of single board computers, but this project has shown me how powerful the Arduino line is. 

 

October 11, 2013

Day 10

I don't discuss politics online for a lot of different reasons.  But in this one instance I'll give you some insight into how I see things.  As we run into Day 10 of the shut down of the US Government, I've had a chance to talk with many people as I've been out and about taking care of my children, instead of performing a job critical to national security.  In a nutshell: Natural born American citizens have no idea how their government works or how it is supposed to work.  In my interactions around the community, I have head name calling from both sides of the aisle without any valid arguments.  The sad fact is, even college educated adults can't explain the different parts of government, the idea of checks and balances, the difference between a Senator and a Congressman (or the difference between a State Assemblyman and a Congressman).  You should know all you need to know by 8th grade.  Didn't anybody watch Schoolhouse Rock?

I am ashamed to say that the only person that I've talked with that had an accurate working knowledge of our government was the hair stylist who cut my son's hair, who happened to be a naturalized citizen who emigrated from Vietnam.

Some people have no idea of what a wonderful advantage they were born into when it came to the birth lottery.  

And this is why we can't have nice things...

 


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