Monday, August 10, 2015

Bell Canada's Mobile Technical Support Strives for New Lows

Previous blog entries have chronicled some of our issues and problems with Bell Canada's cellular based Internet service. Up until a month or two ago we were actually getting fairly good and reliable service from them. Then we started to have issues with low signal strength on our cell phones and noticed that the signal strength on the "Turbo" Hub had dropped as well. Calls to Virgin Mobile (our phone service provider) have yet to be resolved regarding the regular loss of service in our area.

But today after several intermittent periods of extremely bad Internet service I got fed up and called Bell Mobile Tech support. The sweet talking rep was clearly well trained as she started going through the standard steps of trying to get me to find problems with my modem. I draw the line when they get to the part about removing and re-inserting the SIM card from the modem as if this has something to do with poor response times and transfer speeds through their towers. After refusing to transfer me to someone that can help I restated that I had already restarted the modem but would not remove the SIM card and then she immediately hung up on me in mid-sentence. Unbelievable! They clearly couldn't care less about their customers.

The SIM card has not been removed from our modem since it was installed several years ago and there is no possible way for it to be related to the problems I'm having. I cringe when thinking about the thousands of Bell customers who's time an patience has been wasted with these ridiculous requests by telephone support staff. Not only that but Bell Canada wastes millions paying these people to waste our time when they could be investigating real problems that might be affecting hundreds or thousands of customers in a given area.

So I once again begin the search for service alternatives in rural Ontario. Sigh.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Downloading Picasa Albums with Python...

Well, I'm ready to move my photos out of Picasa onto a new website (more on that later), so I wanted to download all my albums in their original resolution so I can edit and upload to the location. Well, after digging around out there I found that the Google api's will make this easy and there were even some Python bindings to make it easier. However, the api's are not exactly well documented (at least from what I could tell). I searched around for some open source or examples and there are a few out there, but the ones I tried either didn't work or they only downloaded low-resolution images. So it was time to try the DIY technique.

Starting with some of the sample code that comes with the api and using a lot of inspection of object methods and types I was able to put together a script that downloads all the albums. One of the trickiest parts was figuring out how to get the original resolution. At first all attempts seemed to always download 512 resolution samples. It turns out there's a magic option that you need to insert on one of the url's to get it to switch to the full-res download: "imgmax=d". The api doesn't seem to give any clue about this.

Anyway, without having to learn too much about the nitty gritty details of the api I was able to get what I needed. So, in case this helps someone else here it is:
------------------------------------------------------------------------------
import sys, os
import gdata.photos, gdata.photos.service

pws = gdata.photos.service.PhotosService()
pws.ClientLogin('yourid@gmail.com', 'your password')

#Get all albums
albums = pws.GetUserFeed().entry
print dir(pws)

for album in albums:
    print "ALBUM: %30s [%3d]" % (album.name.text, album.numphotos)
    uri = album.GetPhotosUri()
    uri += "&imgmax=d"

    photos = pws.GetFeed(uri).entry
    aname = album.name.text
    aname = aname.replace(" ", "_");

    for photo in photos:
        pname = photo.title.text
        print "PHOTO:", photo.title.text, int(photo.width), int(photo.height)

        url = photo.GetMediaURL()
        media = pws.GetMedia(url)

        # print media.file_name, media.content_type, media.content_length
        data = media.file_handle.read()
        media.file_handle.close()

        filename = "%s/%s" % (aname, pname)
        print "Output: %s" % filename
        sys.stdout.flush()
       
        if not os.path.isdir(aname):
            os.mkdir(aname)

        out = open(filename, 'wb')
        out.write(data)
        out.close()

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Raspberry Pi - Adjusting the audio output volume

Ok, I have to admit that Linux can be quite obtuse and difficult to use for the non-technical user. Luckily I've had over 30 years of working with computer software to help me wade through the geek world that Linux basically is. One of the geek barriers to break through on the Raspberry Pi was figuring out how to change the audio output volume. This is done using the amixer command which has a really bizarre syntax and interface which I guess is complicated by the need to support a variety of output devices. Anyway, I won't claim to know all the details of using this command but I did figure out how to get it to change the volume on the Raspberry Pi. So I put together a script to make this a bit easier

Without arguments it tries to report the current volume settings. I'm just assuming that the two numbers are left and right volume. Can anyone confirm that? If you give it a number between 0 and 100 it will try to set the volume. Let me know if you have problems or suggestions. I'm only using the audio jack so I don't know if this works for hdmi audio.
#!/usr/bin/python
import os, sys

def setVolume(id, percent):
   p = os.popen("amixer cset %s -- %d%%" % (id, percent))
   if p:
      gobble = p.read()
      p.close()


def getVolume(id):
   p = os.popen("amixer cget %s" % id)
   c = p.readlines()
   p.close()
   if len(c) > 2:
      range = c[1]
      value = c[2]

      # STUPID OUTPUT FORMAT:
      r = range.split(',')
      min = int(r[3].split('=')[1])
      max = int(r[4].split('=')[1])

      v = value.split(',')
      left  = float(v[0].split('=')[1])
      right = float(v[1].strip())

      range = max - min
      volume = [left, right, range]
   else:
      print
      volume = [-1, -1, 0]   # ??

   return volume


def showVolume(id):
   [left, right, range] = getVolume(id)
   print "Left: %d%% Right %d%%" % (int(left / range * 100.0 + 0.5), int(right / range * 100.0 + 0.5))


id = "numid=3"
p = os.popen("amixer controls | grep \"Master Playback Volume\"")
if p:
   c = p.readlines()
   p.close()
   if len(c) == 1:
      parms = c[0].split(',')
      id = parms[0]

argc = len( sys.argv )

if argc == 2:
   arg = int(sys.argv[1])
   percent = 0 if arg < 0 else 100 if arg > 100 else arg
   setVolume(id, arg)

showVolume(id)

Raspberry Pi - An amazing computer

Well, a couple of months ago I finally received my long awaited Raspberry Pi and I have to say this is an amazing little machine. Having been away from Unix for a long time I'm finding it great to get learning how to work with Linux and re-use a lot of my old Unix knowledge from many years ago. I'm hoping to start regularly blogging about using this little device for useful (and maybe not so useful) tasks. So watch for ongoing posts with RPi tips and tricks and other tidbits.

Cheers.

Garmin eTrex 30 review - Very disappointing.

Well, as promised a while ago, I'm finally getting around to putting together a summary of impressions on my hiking GPS the Garmin eTrex 30. I'll admit that I'm a GPS newbie/novice so I don't have any basis for comparison with other portable GPS devices. What I do have is over 30 years experience as a developer of interactive software. As you can tell from the title of this post, I'm not at all impressed with this device. I've been using it now for several months and overall I'm rather irritated by how difficult this unit is to use. I've been trying to come up with a list of positive aspects but I haven't been able to think of too many.

Positive points:

  • It seems to be very solid and well built. Although the little joy-stick thingy seems like the most exposed fragile part which contrasts with the rugged design of the rest of the unit.
  • Overall it does generally work, so, depending on your expectations, it's possible that this unit will fit your needs quite well.
  • It takes regular pen-light batteries which is good.
  • The battery life seems to be quite long. I haven't actually measured it but it hasn't been a serious problem thus far (as long as you remember to turn the unit off). See one of my comments below regarding power management problems for more details.
  • It's quite compact although I'm not keen on the form-factor (it's almost 3.5 cm thick, including the wasteful bulging hunk of plastic on the back of the battery cover). I would have much preferred a thinner unit with a larger screen. It's small size actually makes it somewhat difficult to manipulate when operating the buttons - it might be fine for someone with smaller hands.
 Well, it's not hard to find things about this device that leave a lot to be desired. Let's cover the most critical ones from my point of view:

Negative points:

  •  The user interface on this device is the biggest negative aspect of the entire experience. You would expect the main screen on a device light this to be the map view, but no, Garmin has decided that a huge menu of mostly useless choices is what you want to see the most. Counting them there are 27 options to choose from on the main screen. Do I have time to even figure out what all 27 of these are for? I'm sorry, life is too short. I think I use maybe 3 of the items on this list regularly. Now try to imagine how painful it is to find the 3 that you use the most each time you come to this list of 27. Sure, you learn where they are but how many button pushes does it take to get there. Let me tell you, it's really irritating. [Note, I've since discovered that you can remove and re-order this main list of options - so save yourself some pain right off the bat and go through the list and eliminate the 90% that you will likely never use. You can always add them back later once you learn how to use more features.]
  • Speaking of the map view, one would hope that some of the most common operations would be accessible from the map itself - but no, you can do almost nothing useful from the map view. The menu on the map screen has only 3 entries: setup map, measure distance, restore defaults. I've only ever used the setup - and in that choice only the select map option. I can't manage my tracks from here (my most common operation). I can't set waypoints from the map. No, to do these things you must go up to the main screen and search through the entries there to do what you want. 
  • As mentioned creating and managing tracks from my hiking is the main reason I purchased this product. On this aspect there also is a lot left to be desired. One really irritating issue with the track management is when you go to save your current track the software generates a track name for you using the current date. This is great and I use the default name all the time because typing in a new one every time would not be fun. However, the format they chose for the default track name is DD-MMM-YY HH:MM:SS. Can you guess what's wrong with this? Once you have tracks spread out over several months, the list of tracks ends up in order sorted by the day of the month. This makes it really painful to find the track you're looking for by date. The strange thing is that they use the correct year-month-day based naming for the auto-archive track feature. Go figure.
  • I forgot to mention that when you first buy this device it's almost useless until you go find some usable maps to install on it. There are free resources but I personally didn't have the time to research and try any of them out. I wish I had because I chose to purchase topo maps from Garmin and later discovered that I couldn't even get it to download maps of eastern Newfoundland. Their technical support for this problem turned out to be quite useless. Apparently there's a full topo map of Canada available online but it's quite large so you may have to purchase an expansion card and figure out how to download and install it.
  • I hinted above that there are some power management issues. On one of my trips I decided to use the GPS to create a track but when we got home I forgot to turn the GPS off. When I discovered this a day or two later the batteries were completely dead. By this point I wasn't really surprised that this device would disappoint yet one more time by not having an auto power off feature. It shouldn't really be too hard for it to know that it's not moving and not being used for some time period that could easily be configured by the user. To add insult to injury, the next time I used the unit after this power loss, I discovered that all the tracks that I had previously set to display on the map were no longer displayed. So it failed to retain some of my custom settings. This made it really difficult for me to get all my hiking trails displayed on the map again.
  • Another surprise aspect of this unit was the lack of precision. There are many cases where I go out on a hike and return by exactly the same trail and yet, when the track is offloaded, it shows that my return path can be as much as 20 to 30 meters away from my outgoing track. So if you need consistent accuracy don't rely on this unit.
  • I could go on about the many user interface issues that make the Base Camp software somewhat difficult to use. Once you figure out how to use it though it becomes an integral tool used along side the GPS unit.
So to make a long story longer, overall this unit has been very disappointing. The unit works, and along with the software can be used effectively, but the experience can be very frustrating. Your mileage may vary. In my opinion, Garmin needs to invest in some serious user interface testing and improvements in order to stay competitive.Soon many smart phones will likely be able to compete with these units (or already can?), so either the price will have to drop or the features improve to provide a customized and easy to use experience for outdoor trekking.

I'll add a plug here for a very handy website: http://www.gpsvisualizer.com/  This site will take tracks exported from Base Camp and allow you to view them overlaid on Google maps or in Google Earth. Very cool and useful for sharing your hiking adventures with family and friends.

Cheers and happy hiking.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Binary Destiny?

As a computer scientist I've often been superstitiously pleased that most of the places I've lived in had numbers that involved powers of 2. The first house that Heather and I purchased together was 32, matching the number of my parents house that I lived in from grade 4 onward. Our recent house in Barrie was 16, another good omen. Only our house in Newmarket of many years didn't quite fit the pattern being 108. Although the 1 and 0 are somewhat binary and the 8 is a good number. Perhaps this non-power of 2 home explains why Samantha eschewed a potential career in C.S. for one of Anthropology. Our new home being 284 is not a power of 2 but has auspiciously pleasing power of 2 digits. And this morning I'm thinking I recall our birth home in west Toronto as being a 22 with a certain double binary emphasis. May the power of 2 be with you. ;^)

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Coming soon: Review of Garmin eTrex 30

So I recently purchased a Garmin eTrex 30 GPS for tracking all the hiking trails near where I live. I've been using it now for a few weeks and will be able to give you a beginners view of the pros and cons of using this portable GPS unit. There's certainly more cons than pros, so watch for my review in an upcoming blog entry.

Cheers.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Another Bell Turbo Hub performance update...

Well, today I found out for sure that there is no real correlation between signal strength and download speeds. A few days ago I noticed that my signal strength light had turned blue (which is good) and the router status page showed something like -81 dbm which is the strongest signal I've ever had. Upon running some speed tests I found that there wasn't any significant difference or improvement. Bandwidth was variable as usual and averaging around 1-2 Mbps down and 1 up.

Now, today for the first time ever I noticed my signal strength light had turned yellow (never seen it yellow before) and the status page showed -101 dbm. A quick speed test resulted in the fastest download speed I've ever had: 3.67 down and 0.89 up (usually my upload speeds are actually faster than my download speeds). So clearly the performance is actually limited by the systems they have in place at the cell towers and/or the local cell traffic load. I now see that my signal strength light is back to its usual green status with a strength of -89 dbm, which is about what I usually see.

I think the best way to monitor your performance is to simply use tracert and watch the packet transmission times. When things are really good all the times I see are below 100ms. When things are really bad you see some complete timeouts "*" and/or times up aroung 3000 to 5000 ms (3-5 seconds) which is horrendous. The problem is that seeing the numbers doesn't really help you since you have absolutely no control to change or improve them. The only control you have is to call Bell and complain when you're getting really bad performance.

I have to say that my average performance has improved over the past couple of months, so consistent calls to Bell regarding the problems does seem to help. They never call us back to tell us that they did anything so we can only guess and assume that they're trying to make it better. It's still hit or miss though when it comes to watching videos, listening to online radio or using voice apps like Skype. This can be frustrating.

Cheers.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Picasa now officially sucks big time.

Several years ago I started using Picasa to publish my photo albums to the web and to share them with friends and family. I found it to be an easy to use application for creating albums and a nice user interface for viewing photo albums on the net. Now that Google has basically raped this great photo sharing mechanism and shoved it up the Google Plus asshole I find that the photo viewing online is now mostly unusable and the tight connection to Google+ is totally offensive and counter to the original intention of the site.

I'm now officially searching for a new photo sharing site that doesn't have some corporate ulterior motives to serve their own frigging world domination objective. God it's so f'ing irritating that these companies continually just try to increase their network dominance. It's like we're all caught in this frigging testosterone driven dominance game.

Google is the new Microsoft. The corporation that we all hate because of their focus on world domination. Time to find some new alternatives.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Update on Bell Turbo Hub performance issues

Well, believe it or not it seems that Bell actually does at least try to solve network performance problems. Sometime after I started calling them on a regular basis I seemed to notice some improvements in the network performance. The really long (3 to 10 seconds) delays in connectivity seem to happen much less often, however transfer speeds were continuing to show very inconsistent results which were sometimes simply pathetic (0.1 Mbps). My guess is they either added some hardware to the local tower or tweaked the settings on their systems to provide better response times. One of their techies at one point told me that they can also tweak the antennae arrays on the tower to adjust the signal strength in different directions.

Anyway, at some point they said that the network people have done their testing and the signal strength in my area was ok. So then they started blaming the problem on my hub. They wanted me to take the hub into a Bell store for testing or to take it to a different location to test. Well, I told them that the results are so inconsistent and the conditions here would be nothing like the conditions elsewhere (e.g. internal vs external antennae) that such a test would be useless. Not to mention the fact that I don't have time to do this testing on their behalf. I also pointed out that they are the ones claiming that the problem was with my hub (I still think the hub has nothing to do with these problems) and so they agreed to send me a new router to replace my existing one.

Well, after switching to the new hub a few days ago I still can't really notice much difference. However, I was able to Skype into a conference call that lasted over an hour with only a few drop-outs of more than a few seconds. This is a big improvement from when I started and Skype was completely unusable. My guess is that this was due to tweaking done to their network hardware.

So if you're having problems with your Bell connectivity call them and get them to open a support ticket. Each time you call back give them the ticket number and tell them you want to know what progress has been made. Be polite but persistent. Remind them that you're paying for what they advertise.

If I continue to get less than 1 Mbps download speeds then I will continue to complain that I'm paying for high speed but I'm not getting it. Right now it's hit or miss and things like watching YouTube videos can still be a very frustrating experience.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Technical Note: How to find out what directory a drive letter is mapped to on Windows.

It took me a while to dig up this information so I wanted to create this note to help others find it. Apparently directories are mapped to drive letters on Windows using the "subst" command. So if you want to find out what directory a mapped drive letter is pointing at, open a DOS "cmd" window and type "subst".

Of course this is not the same as viewing network mapped drives. Oh no, let's not try to confusing people by using the same command for two completely different things (read sarcasm here). To view network mappings type the command "net use".

It seems totally bizarre that you can't get the mapping information for a directory mapping from the mapped drive properties dialog. Network drive mappings show up right in the top level windows explorer view of your computer. Ah well, such is the love/hate relationship with Windows.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Bell NetGear MBR1210 Turbo Hub - There's no Turbo here.

Well, the external antenae is up on the roof and it's pointed directly at the cell tower which is about 4 kilometers away. The hub signal strength light is green but the performance sucks!!! I've run many speed tests over the past week and it's clear that the actuall speed you get at any given second is basically random. The fastest I've seen is about 2.5 Mbps, but that is extremely rare. Even when you do get a burst of fast speed it typically only lasts a few seconds and then it just stops. There will be delays and stops and starts as it sputters along. Most of the time the speeds are in the range of 0.1 to 1.0 Mbps. This combined with the sputtering starting and stopping mean that our connection is absolutely useless for any kind of streaming audio or video. We can forget about using Skype or watchin YouTube videos. It's just an exercise in frustration.

The fact that we can get reasonably good speed on occasion tells me that signal strength is likely not the problem. I would guess that this kind of performance would be caused by some type of traffic management or signal multiplexing problems. I know basically nothing about 3G technology so I can't really make much of a guess about this. Perhaps someone that knows more about this can comment on likely causes of this type of traffic problem.

So complaints to Bell have resulted in a "escalation" to their "network team" which may just be their way of putting us on indefinite hold. Speaking to one of the phone support agents I learned that there are quite a few people in our area (even closer to the tower than I am) complaining about performance problems. I will continue to nag them to provide the performance that they advertise and that we are all paying for. If anyone has suggestions on how to get Bell to respond to these problems please let me know.

I will continue to report on this issue as it develops. Cheers.