Sad Day For Pebble

Black Pebble Time SteelYesterday the rumour from the weekend about Fitbit acquiring Pebble were confirmed. Sadly though, the details made it clear that Fitbit didn’t really acquire Pebble at all. They acquired Pebble’s software platform and are offering some of the engineers jobs at Fitbit. The hardware will no longer exist.

That is very sad as the closest thing Fitbit has to a smartwatch is the Blaze, and to be frank it is perhaps the ugliest smartwatch on the market. As the product page makes clear, it is really a wrist-worn fitness monitor first, second and third (though, somewhat ironically for a fitness device, it isn’t water proof beyond “sweat, rain and splash proof”). Then somewhere, much lower in the priority list they added a watch and some basic smartwatch features (answer/reject phone calls and see notifications). No mention of custom watch faces. No mention of third party apps – my Pebble is configured with one button access to my Nest so I can monitor and adjust the temperature in the house from my wrist. And there any many, many more apps for the Pebble platform that allow people to do what they want to with their watch.

I think Pebble have said it before, but they set out to design a watch first. Something that would look good, and work well as a watch. My current Pebble Time Steel looks like a watch. I’m hoping that as well as the platform, some of the design from the Pebble platform will start to appear in future Fitbit, but it is sad to realize that the features supported by my watch will start to degrade over time (either because of changes to iOS, or, as BoingBoing suggests, because cloud support features get turned off by Fitbit).

Fitbit have missed an opportunity IMHO in not taking the hardware designs forward too. Most of the things that I think put Pebble ahead of everybody, including Apple, were hardware features (water resistance, long battery life, always on screen, simple button based UI that actually works). Sure, there were some software features too (the web based developer environment was fantastic, the new iOS app looks great too, and, of course, the choices of third party watchfaces were amazing).

Over the years they had their bad moments too. Support was always a bit of a crapshoot. Sometimes it was great, other times not so much. At the end of the day though, things normally improved (at least until the next iOS update broke them again – which is not Pebble’s fault at all).

Despite its shortcomings, it might actually be time to switch to an Apple watch. After several years of Pebble use (from the original Kickstarter edition, to a Pebble Steel, to a Pebble Time Steel, and I backed the PT2 as well), going without a smartwatch isn’t an option and not having it be waterproof and support basic apps is a non-starter too. So, sorry Fitbit, I’ll be sticking with my One for step tracking, but I don’t need a wrist-worn fitness tracker; I need a smartwatch.

Comcast: Failure to Manage IP Network

Over the last few days I have been posting about my recent interactions with Comcast concerning an issue we see every night around 10pm here with poor network performance, which, based on trace route data seems to be caused by one node in their IP network, in Sunnyvale based on the hostname, becoming overloaded. Our neighbors here also see the issue (one I spoke to has decided he cannot do video calls with Asia at 10pm because it repeatedly drops the call). This has been going on for over a year now though, and still they are continuing to focus on the modem. So, I thought I would create a full timeline of this issue:

October 30, 2015

Initial report of the problem on Twitter, complete with trace route data showing the problem. At this point, the router wasn’t dropping packets, it was just extremely slow:

1-cr01.sunnyvale.ca.ibone.comcast.net (68.86.90.93) 12.915 ms 11.091 ms 2893.567 ms

November 7-9, 2015

More traces sent via Twitter DM, all showing packets being dropped completely at the 5th hop (which is the Sunnyvale one):

0 192.168.1.1 27.53ms 1.74ms 1.51ms
1 73.162.38.1 162.18ms 169.54ms 162.59ms
2 …0-6-sur03.hayward.ca.sfba.comcast.net (68.86.248.125) 208.8ms 186.68ms 182.83ms
3 …0-ar01.santaclara.ca.sfba.comcast.net (68.87.192.209) 192.47ms
3 …1-ar01.santaclara.ca.sfba.comcast.net (68.87.192.213) 191.39ms 201.32ms
4 – * * *
5 …1-pe02.529bryant.ca.ibone.comcast.net (68.86.86.146) 292.25ms 306.23ms 305.94ms

Following these, the response from the Twitter support team was to send somebody out to check the local connection. Despite the data being very clear that the issue was not local to me.

December 27, 2015

After reporting the problem was still present, I get this response first:

I apologize for the internet speed issues you are experiencing, are you directly connected to our modem or over WIFI connection? -Will

Pointing out that the issue is in Sunnyvale, and so the method I am using to connect to the modem is somewhat irrelevant (especially since it works just fine for most of the day), I get this back:

I have created a internal escalation (ESL02290781) per your concerns, generally these issues fix themselves. -Will

The conversation then moves to email, and for much of January I was collecting and sending data; including a period of time where I ran pings every minute and recorded the times. That resulted in this graph for them:

Comcast Ping Times

I also demonstrated just how unpredictable it was with this series of speed tests, run just one minute apart:

Speedtest 9:44pm

Speedtest 9:45pm

Speedtest 9:46pm

That email thread got nowhere, and my final message on it (February 5, 2016) was not replied to. Comcast just seemed to decide that there was nothing they could (or would) do about the problem and dropped it.

May 29, 2016

After months of seeing the same thing night after night, I finally reported it on Twitter again hoping to find somebody at Comcast who understood IP networking (rather than just assuming all problems are in the cable modem or the local wiring). That was a waste of time, with this being the initial response:

I would like to recommend setting up an appointment for a technician to come out to your home. Please let me know a good time and date that is best for you and I will see what we have available for you. – Chad

When I point out that we’ve been down that path, and that really my modem & wiring cannot affect the performance of the router 45 miles away in Sunnyvale, I get this back instead:

After reviewing your account, I saw your modem has reached the End-Of-Life (EOL) list. Please visit, mydeviceinfo.xfinity.com/device.php?dev… to preview your device. If you would like to purchase another modem, please visit, mydeviceinfo.xfinity.com and select the speed tier you are subscribed to and a list of Comcast approved modems will be provided below to choose from. After you purchase your device you will need to provide us with the Make, Model, and the MAC Address to add your device to the account. – Chad

What is even more amusing about that is that the device I had at the time, an SB6121, is still on the list of approved modems on their site today. It is not end-of-life at all. It is listed as a fully supported modem:

SB6121 Supported

At the time, I was paying for a 25 Mbps tier; the support page for the modem clearly states it will support up to 75 Mbps. Additionally, outside of the times when the Sunnyvale router was overloaded, I was getting 25 Mbps down. Clearly it was not the modem, nor the wiring. But Comcast tech support was unable to accept that.

May 30, 2016 – June 7, 2016

More data sent showing the same problem still existing in the Sunnyvale node, around the same time at night. That resulted in this response on June 3, 2016:

Our team has reviewed this matter, and wanted to provide update with findings and resolved. The short version is that ICMP packets (the type of packets used in ping and traceroute) are, by design, low priority packets. If a router is busy, it will respond slowly or discard those packets instead of responding. A router is optimized for routing packets, passing them to a new destination, and low priority packets designed to stop at it can generally be responded to last or discarded if the CPU is needed for doing it’s actual job, forwarding packets. In many cases, routers are deliberately configured to drop these packets as a defense against certain types of DDoS attacks. The important part of the information from traceroute is how long does a packet take to make it through Comcast’s network, is there a pattern of packet loss or latency to all stops after a certain point. -AD

Finally, an admission that the node must be busy: “If a router is busy, it will respond slowly or discard those packets instead of responding.” But they are using that as an indication that it is behaving correctly. Of course, at one level it is, but the problem is when it gets to the point where it is dropping my ICMP packets, it is also dropping other packets making web content and streaming video unbearably slow, or even failing completely.

On June 4, they just wrote it off as not being a problem:

Our engineering team has review this matter, to ensure it’s no possible routing issues.with you explaining what you experience and neighbors I wanted to make sure we thoroughly reviewed and research this matter. They have reviewed your device and confirm it’s no issues. They have review plant integrity which is 100% also confirm device levels have been good since April. We have exhausted all options with engineering leadership team and the findings have confirm no possible routing issues with your device or area. -AD

And yet it continued to be a problem every night.

June 14-16, 2016

More data sent to them, and once again we are back to the modem as the problem:

I checked the area and modem, signal wise. I’m now seeing some slight noise on your connection, unique of the neighborhood. Would you open to having someone come check it out? – CR

I allowed them to waste their time sending somebody to the house, and that tech arrived on June 16. He found no issues at the house at all, with all the signals looking good. Additionally, when he looked at the data I had been sending he was confused as to why he had even been sent out for a problem that was clearly in the IP network in Sunnyvale and nothing to do with the cable modem or even the network in Alameda/Hayward.

Of course, there was still no change in the behavior with the network slowing down, or failing completely around 10pm almost every night as before.

June 20, 2016

This time I get a response saying that the modem I have, the SB6121, is indeed not end of life at all (that is only for rentals), and is a supported modem:

Hi John, the sb6121 is only marked end of life for rental units. We are continuing to activate retail modems on our network, and it is supported for the performance tier of service. Going back through your traces, they are much improved over previous, but it doesn’t appear to be an issue with Sunnyvale. There had been an area issue around that time that may have been related. How is the connection tonight? – CR

While the claim here is that a different problem was impacting performance, my data continued to show the same thing: the Sunnyvale node was overloading and dropping packets.

June 29, 2016

Again, after sending data from the evening of June 28, I receive the standard modem focused response:

Hi John, I’d like to send a signal to your modem that may interrupt your service for a few minutes. Can I do that now? -VG

Of course, as with all the previous threads, this got nowhere at all.

July 22 – August 2, 2016

Still been an issue, and still nothing is being done to even investigate the real problem. The response I get this time from the support folks is this:

This is something that we can’t repair here or view remotely. Thank you for your address, Now I can schedule a maintenance tech to go out to the affected area to see what’s going on and work towards getting this addressed and resolved. -KJ

So, once again, we’re back to the myopic focus on the modem and the cable connection in spite of all the data pointing at a problem elsewhere in the network. After much back and forth, and more and more data, all pointing at the same place, I get this:

Hi. Our engineer team sees no erroneous activity on the node and wanted me to verify if you were using wifi with these tests. Also, the modem has not been refreshed in over 56 days. Could you please give it a hard reset? If you are using wifi please try testing with ethernet if you are able. Thanks. -FL

Incredibly, they are back to the modem and the connection in my house which somehow can make packets drop in Sunnyvale. But not anywhere else. Where do they recruit these people? Not one of them has been able to explain how my modem, the wiring in my house or whether I am using ethernet or Wi-Fi for the local connection could cause packet loss in a router 5 hops away, while not impacting the ones in between. Oh, and of course, we get the IT standard response: reboot it.

August 10-14, 2016

I point out that other neighbors are seeing the same problem, and even provide some data from one of them showing the same thing happening at their house, again around 10pm. This is not isolated to my house, so I am hoping this will get them to move on from the modem/wiring issue.

On the 14th I get this back:

The node is showing no problems. I can also confirm that it is very far from being overloaded. Once you get a chance check it out and let us know. If the problem persists then we will have someone out to take a look free of charge. Thanks. -FL

OK, probably true at the time you looked, but how about at 10pm? When earlier you admitted it would drop ICMP packets only when it became “busy.” And it shouldn’t be dropping other packets unless it is actually overloaded. And “if the problem persists” is a ridiculous response to a problem that I have been reporting for 9 months already. Of course it is persisting.

August 20, 2016

A response about the meaning of the trace route data leads to a discussion about that. Really, they have actually been trying to suggest that dropping ICMP is something that happens, and is not an indication of other issues. Of course, since, as they noted earlier, it only happens when the node is getting loaded, that is nonsense. Furthermore, since the speed tests, web page loads and streaming video connections were also failing, I am pretty certain the problem is overloading somewhere, and the only node dropping ICMP is the Sunnyvale one. Doesn’t take a genius, but apparently it takes somebody smarter than a Comcast employee.

At the end of that, I get this:

Hello. A suggestion was made by one of the network engineers to possibly upgrade your modem to one with more channels. The SB6121 is 4×4, it is recommended that perhaps an SB6183 would work better for you. They are also interested in the make/model of the router you are using and are curious if the results you’ve provided are with ethernet directly to the modem without the router in the equation. Thanks. -FL

Yes, amazingly, they are back to the modem causing the packet loss in Sunnyvale. I don’t know what it takes to get these people to move on from the modem. Apparently almost a year of data pointing at the IP network in Sunnyvale isn’t sufficient. Either that or they have the most unreliable cable network in the world, and suspect that it will fail there all the time.

End of August through September, 2016

After sending a troubleshooter to the house to discover that the connection and signals there are still perfect, he installs a parallel modem taken from one of their offices in the house. During the next month, I collect data over both showing that they both experience the same thing. I was hoping this would rule out any further suggestion that it was the modem, but no. Instead, they send me a list of approved modems and tell me to buy one and they would reimburse me. I point out that my current one is still on that list, but they insist on a newer model. So, on September 19, 2016 I replace the SB6121 with an SB6183. The problem is unchanged of course since it is not a modem issue.

I send a lot more data, and get no response.

December 5-7, 2016

Monday night it was bad as usual, but my wife wanted to watch something on Netflix and we couldn’t even get the Netflix app on the Roku to launch as it was not able to contact Netflix’s servers. Once again, I posted the trace data from my iPad:

Trace Data

On Tuesday morning I get the typical response, and we’re back to the modem being the issue again:

I reviewed the account and the signal for the area and the signal history on the modem. At this time all the signal in the area is prefect. I am showing the modem has been online for 47 days. Regularly reboot your modem and router help keep it running smother. Software updates are made from time to time that require a restart – just like any other consumer device. You can easily and automatically reboot your Xfinity equipment by using our My Account app. You can also use the app to view, change or share your WiFi network name and password. -CN

That thread ends with this statement:

I would be more then happy to assist but currently after reviewing the signal for the area and on the modem there is no issue. -CN

Of course, because as I have been saying for over a year now, the problem is nothing to do with my modem, the wiring or the connection to the headend. It is in Sunnyvale. In the IP network. And it only happens at 10pm. Seriously, I don’t believe these people “review” anything when they say they review the account. And they certainly didn’t bother reading the detail in the blog post (it was the tweet about the post on Monday that they responded to first on Twitter).

Then this morning I get this:

Hi, John. I completely understand your frustration 100%. I reviewed the signals in your modem and I’m reading T4 time-outs that would be best resolved by a tech visit. I would highly recommend this as they can file any requests for maintenance in the area. Is there a date and time that would work best with your availability? I really want to get this resolved for you. -CE

That despite the fact that the speed test results just after he sent that showed a very acceptable throughput. And since yesterday when it was all OK.

Speedtest on 12/7

And then they claim they cannot resolve the issue because they need to send a tech to look at my modem. This guy needs a new job:

I understand completely. I’m a corporate staff member for Comcast and again, I really want to help. As my colleagues have previously mentioned, to best assist you, we need to have a tech come out and take a look at your equipment in-person and diagnose what is causing your service issues. Otherwise, we are unable to proceed with reaching a resolution. Feel free to reach out if you change your mind. Our corporate Digital Care team is available 24/7 on social media. -CE

Hopefully after this lands on his boss’ desk he will rethink his position and perhaps try to get somebody to review the load history on the Sunnyvale node. Perhaps looking at what happens between 10pm and midnight rather than checking in the middle of the day and writing it off as ‘all OK’ quickly.

Comcast Responds: Reboot the Modem

I kid you not. First they respond on Twitter with the standard “please DM us” – ostensibly to get my account number but this is really about getting the conversation out of the public channel. 

Then, when I respond via DM that they have all the information and I just want to speak to somebody at this point who can see beyond the modem and the wiring at my house, I get this back:

I reviewed the account and the signal for the area and the signal history on the modem. At this time all the signal in the area is prefect. I am showing the modem has been online for 47 days. Regularly reboot your modem and router help keep it running smother. Software updates are made from time to time that require a restart – just like any other consumer device. You can easily and automatically reboot your Xfinity equipment by using our My Account app. You can also use the app to view, change or share your WiFi network name and password. -CN

Never mind the details I provided last night, and all the information over the past year. 

Never mind the information about having the modem replaced and even having Comcast install their own alongside mine to check in parallel. 

Never mind the fact that I said this happens almost every night. So the 47 days is irrelevant. It happens almost every night. 

All their support people are capable of is sending canned responses now. Clearly, his review of the account must have been very cursory or he might have seen the information they’ve been sent and that several people have checked the wiring at the house. And the modems. And the router. 

Totally useless. 

Update 1

I pointed out that it wasn’t the modem. And that we have totally exhausted that route. Here’s what I get back:

I would be happy to help get this corrected. Since the modem has been online for 47 days I would like to start by pushing a provisioning signal to your modem. This will make sure the speeds and firmware are correct on the device. This will take the modem offline for 3-5 minutes. -CN

I am amazed they can get anything done with responses like this.

Update 2

Still insisting that the dropped packets in Sunnyvale, ~45 miles from Alameda, are caused by the modem it seems, as I got this back:

In order to properly troubleshoot we have to start at the modem and then work down the line. In order to start to help you I will need to reset the modem since it has not been reset for 47 days. -CN

Update 3

Finally, moved away from the modem, but apparently still not understanding that the signal quality in Alameda at 1:30pm is totally irrelevant to an IP problem in Sunnyvale that happens around 10pm:

would be more then happy to assist but currently after reviewing the signal for the area and on the modem there is no issue. -CN

And throughout this, my requests to either escalate to somebody who understands the trace route or to get a VP to call me have been ignored. Totally ignored.

Comcast Can’t Handle The Traffic

For more than a year I’ve been reporting that around 10pm every night our Comcast internet becomes unusable. Streaming video fails, web pages start timing out. Media content in Facebook and Twitter stop loading. Every time I have looked, the problem is the same: the Sunnyvale node is dropping packets. Like this:


That 5th node is Sunnyvale. In this run it wasn’t even able to get the reverse DNS for that node.

Over the course of the year, I have sent them pings, traces & speed tests over my network. From neighbors who all report the same thing, and even over a modem they installed in parallel with mine here (when they were claiming it was my modem in Alameda causing the packet loss in Sunnyvale!). It is always the same. Around 10pm the network becomes intermittently unusable, and it is always the Sunnyvale node that is dropping packets. It will stay bad until after midnight most nights. 

I’ve been told that the router dropping ICMP is normal (not true: it is true that it will drop ICMP packets first when overloaded though, so the high loss rate indicates an overloaded router; the failing video & web downloads tell me it is dropping other packets too).

I’ve been told it must be my router, my modem or the cable into the house. Nobody has been able to explain how any of those things could result in packet loss at Sunnyvale though. 

When the network is working, Speedtest results look like this:

Just after 10pm that periodically changes to this:

Every time I report it we go through the same sequence. First there is the request to send a tech to my house to check the wiring (total waste of everybody’s time since it is obvious the problem is in Sunnyvale, about 45 miles from here), then the request to send the logs (I’ve been sending them for months). Then radio silence. Until I ask again, when they repeat the process. 

At no point do they ever get the networking team to admit their network is becoming overloaded. A year after I first reported it, their network is apparently still unable to cope with the traffic passing over it between 10pm & midnight. Not continuously though. It is intermittent. Randomly, there will be a few minutes where nothing works, then it will be back. Streaming video fails, web loads timeout. My neighbors tell me they get dropped from conference calls too, making it hard to do late night calls with overseas teams. 

I am starting to wonder whether Comcast actually knows how to run an IP network. It certainly seems that every time I contact them they try to find a fault in the cable TV related parts of the system. Never in the IP network. I can’t believe they don’t have load charts for that node. Or statistics on packet drop rates. I just suspect they aren’t even looking. 

Time Dock Pebble 2

Around the time I signed up on Kickstarter for the Pebble Time 2, I also backed a project to create the second generation of a charging dock for Pebble Time watches. The gadget to the right arrived recently in the mail.

Up until now, when I charge my watch (roughly once a week), I leave it lying on the desk with the factory charging cable attached underneath. This turns my watch temporarily into a desk clock, so I can still see notifications etc while it charges. 

The Product

Firstly, what is it exactly? Well, it is an anodized aluminium (that’s aluminum for US readers) stand with a magnetic charging connector that allows the watch to be mounted on it, held in place by the two magnets, with the strap still attached whether it is a loop, or a two piece band. Not sure how well it would work with a single band NATO strap which goes under the watch, covering the charging port, but with my two piece Clockwork Synergy band it works well.

Behind the stand, a standard micro-USB connector provides the connection to power, and there is a notch in the base that grips the provided USB cable tightly, keeping it neat & tidy.

In Use

In use, the watch snaps easily onto the magnets & remains visible as a small desk clock thanks to a slight angle back:


Charging functions the same way as with the factory cable, but now it is held safely in place while it charges.

It is designed to be compatible with the Pebble Time 2 as well, so when that arrives I should be able to keep using it to charge the new watch as well.

When Cloud Based IoT Dies

Update November 7, 2016:

It looks like the Lono cloud service is back online. This was not a normal outage however as their domain completely disappeared from DNS. The bigger question of what they will be doing to ensure that the device works locally, even when the cloud is unavailable still deserves an answer (and I filed a support ticket this evening asking both about the outage & about plans for graceful degradation of service should the cloud component fail again).


A while ago now I backed a project on Kickstarter that was creating a more modern sprinkler controller. That actually wasn’t hard to imagine since the user interface of the one our home’s builder attached to wall consisted of a rotating switch, some buttons and an LCD display which could handle numbers & a few other preset things. Like something from the 1980s.

That project was Lono, and, like most Kickstarters, it delivered late & somewhat incomplete. But the hardware looked good, was dead simple to install & seemed to work. The software less so. Over time, things improved a bit though.  I could access the controller, via the iPhone app, from anywhere. Scheduling was added, as was weather and a few other features. I don’t think I saw the truly smart scheduling that was promised, but it was delivering what I needed. Until today.

Cloud Dependency

Today, the Lono died. Well. More specifically, the cloud service behind the Lono died. Now the attractive black & green box on the wall of my garage is essentially useless. Obviously, that is frustrating because I can no longer control my sprinklers, even from home when my phone & the Lono are on the same network. But it frustrates me on another level too. These IoT devices are clearly more powerful when connected to the cloud, but they should not be designed to be dependent on that cloud to do anything. 

There is absolutely no reason why the Lono, discovering it could no longer reach its cloud based control center, couldn’t have dropped back to a LAN only mode. Whether the outage is caused by the company failing (which seems to be the case here), or other things (maybe an ISP failing, or being temporarily offline), there really is no excuse for these things to stop working based on their last known settings & reverting to more local control.

Kickstarter 

I’ve backed a number of different things on Kickstarter & Indiegogo. Typically, while they may have received firmware updates etc, only a couple were really dependent on a cloud based service & only Lono has failed. It does make me think I will be more wary of cloud backed IoT projects in future. Perhaps such projects will need to explain their plans for this scenario. At the very least, it would be good to see they’ve considered this & have some level of “disconnected” functionality baked in.

If they want to truly impress me, they should have hardware design, firmware & app software in an escrow service, with public (or at least customer) release triggered on company failure. Then, maybe, the community could rally around and perhaps continue support for these devices. 

Micro Suspension Scooter

Our five year old started Kindergarten this autumn, and since his school is close enough to walk to, I had been planning to walk him every day (at least when it was dry, which is pretty much always in northern California these days). Dropping him off is not just a drop off though; instead they do a “morning read” session where parents are encouraged to stay and read to a group of kids. That was making it hard to get to the ferry on time, so I came up with a solution: the Micro Suspension scooter.

Research

After a lot of online research, I concluded that the Micro Suspension scooter was going to work best for my commute. Additionally, my five year old could scoot it on the way to school with me walking, making his route to school a bit easier too. I was hoping to get it from Amazon, but at the time I purchased it they were not selling the suspension model (they are now). I bought it direct from Micro Kickboard, but oddly I cannot find it on their site any longer.

The Good

We’ve had it for several weeks now, and overall it has been working out really well. The kid loves riding it to school, with the handlebars lowered. When we arrive, I can fold it and carry it into his classroom for the morning read session; then, when it is time for parents to leave, I simply unfold it, raise the handlebars and scoot to the ferry terminal. That ride takes a little over half the time it took me to walk, so I arrive in plenty of time for the boat.

Once in San Francisco, it also reduces my time to get to the office by about as much. The final climb up Bryant St I walk, but the rest of my route I can scoot easily. It is also saving me a fortune since I can’t ride it and drink a Starbucks, so I am bypassing the Starbucks completely and just drinking the office coffee instead (sorry Howard; if it is any consolation, the coffee I drink at the office is normally Starbucks Verona).

The combination of the large wheels & the suspension makes light work of even the bumpy San Francisco sidewalks. While not as smooth as some of the early reviews I read, the suspension helps a lot over the worst of the bumps and does not impact the handling at all as far as I can tell. 

The Bad

There is nothing really bad about the scooter. The only things I would say that could be even slightly negative are: (a) the weight of the scooter, for when you need to carry it, (b) the brake.

The weight was not more than I expected up front, and the suspension model does incur extra weight that could be skipped easily by simply getting something like a Micro Black or White instead, but carrying it too far would be tiring. On & off the ferry, or into my kid’s classroom is not a problem.

The brakes issue might be caused by the long, steep downhill from my office to Embarcadero in SF. Riding down the hill I tend to have the brake partly on to regulate my speed, and that seems to be causing some uneven wear on the rear wheel:


I don’t think it is causing any problems right now, but I was not expecting the brake pad to cause such uneven wear for sure. 

Anti-Charter School Nonsense

I heard an ad for this clearly political campaign a few weeks ago, but tonight a postcard arrived in the mail from them. The claims being made are, in my opinion, exaggerated at best, but more often just false. 

I don’t have a lot of experience with either traditional or charter schools yet, but in researching schools for our five year old it was clear that the charter options near here had better results, and spent more of their money in their classrooms. 

Open to All

One of the falsehoods put forward in this postcard & on the associated website is that charters are not open to any students. Instead, they claim charters are discriminating to select stronger students. That was certainly not the case for the charter we selected for our now kindergartener. The selection process was explained to us in writing and at the information night; it was a lottery with priority being given to siblings of existing students. In fact, we had less information about the AUSD process, and had to take time off work (something that is not easy for all parents to do) to attend an in-person meeting at the AUSD offices (which was, frankly, a total waste of my time & could easily have been done online, or via the mail).

It appears that have been a few questionable charters, but that is as much the responsibility of the school districts that are meant to provide oversight of those schools, as it is of the schools themselves. I do agree that having charters overseen by their local district is a mistake, and was bound to lead to cases where that oversight was lacking. It was also bound to set up awkward situations, such as was demonstrated in Alameda where several school board members were decidedly anti-charter on principle. Moving the oversight to a central, state level body seems to make far more sense to me. 

Any charter that is discriminating in enrollment is already breaking the law. Proper oversight would catch that sooner & could have it addressed. 

For Profit Schools

As their domain name suggests, another blatant falsehood being pushed by this campaign is that charter schools are being set up for profit, and backed by “billionaires” for their own personal gains. 

The billionaires concerned, being successful business people & investors, might simply be horrified by the amount of money school districts are spending on overheads. By my estimates, roughly 25% of AUSD’s annual expenses goes towards non-teaching salaries and benefits (about 50% goes towards teaching salaries and benefits). Backing charter schools, which tend to have lower overheads, means more of the money will make it to the classroom. 

If they were looking to get into the business of for profit schools, starting a private school would seem to be a better choice than starting a charter. Perhaps they just care about improving the standards of education in California, which, when I compare it to my UK education is sadly lacking, especially in the sciences. 

Standards 

On that subject, one of the attractions of the charter we picked was that it claimed to be able to keep kids who have attended preschool & have basically covered the kindergarten level work already, interested by having different levels within the same classroom, or even by mixing K & 1 groups based on ability. I have yet to see that happen, but I am certainly going to be asking very soon if we don’t see evidence of it.

Ours also had capped classroom sizes & a full time teaching assistant in each kindergarten classroom in addition to the teacher. All of which leads to better standards. Right now, our five year old has an 11:1 teacher to child ratio.

iOS 10 Tone Dialing

Maybe this is not a common thing for folks to do with their phones these days, but I have a few numbers programmed into my contacts that include access codes, or similar, to be dialed after the main number. Some of them are conference service access sequences, one is a calling card from my home VoIP provider (CallCentric) that lets me make international calls at VoIP rates (a fraction of what AT&T would charge me if I just dialed direct from the phone) and one connects me to my mother’s SIP line in the UK via a service called SIP Broker, giving me free calls to her even when I am on my mobile phone here.

While I certainly could remember all the access codes, PINs and even my mother’s SIP number, it is much simpler to just program them into contacts so they are dialed automatically. This has worked beautifully on all my iPhones to date and even on my Android phones. Until iOS 10. When I first upgraded my iPhone 6s to iOS 10 GM, I noticed that the tone replay was much faster. I also noticed that SIP Broker was having trouble understanding it sometimes (I would estimate around 25% of the time). When the iPhone 7 arrived though, that failure rate jumped to 100%. I could not get these numbers to dial at all unless I did it manually.

I believe the tones are long enough on iOS 10, but I suspect the gaps between them are too short. That is somewhat confirmed by the fact that adding a pause between each digit allowed it to work (but it took nearly 30 seconds to dial the number!).

Analyzing the Tones

Since the tone replay is audible, I fired up Audacity on my Mac and simply recorded three phones replaying the tones to access the CallCentric test number via a local SIP Broker PSTN gateway:

(415) 594 0355,*462,17770000001

On the iPhone 7 (running iOS 10.0.2), the trace looked like this:

iPhone 7 / iOS 10

You can see from there that the gap between the tones is very, very short. In fact, just 5-10ms compared to a tone time of around 200ms. This reinforces the belief that it is the gap that is the problem.

For comparison, here is iOS 9 running on an iPhone 5c:

iPhone 5c / iOS 9

This one has slightly longer tone periods (about 250ms), but the gaps are much, much longer at around 100ms. That is 10x the length of the gaps on the iPhone 7.

Finally, I tried my Nexus 5X running Android 7 to see whether they’d had the same idea of reducing the gaps, but no, the Nexus has both longer tones (over 300ms of tone) and longer gaps (around 150ms):

Nexus 5X / Android 7

What Does the Spec Say?

So, there was always a chance that this is something that an engineer at Apple, for whatever reason, decided they could adjust to make their tone replay feature more compliant with a standard specification. Indeed, there is a specification for DTMF (pdf) from the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). In that specification there are defined minimum durations for both the tone and the pause between tones.

The tone duration is defined like this:

Where the DTMF signalling tone duration is controlled automatically by the transmitter, the duration of any individual DTMF tone combination sent shall not be less than 65 ms. The time shall be measured from the time when the tone reaches 90 % of its steady-state value, until it has dropped to 90 % of its steady-state value.

The pause duration is defined like this:

Where the DTMF signalling pause duration is controlled automatically by the transmitter the duration of the pause between any individual DTMF tone combination shall not be less than 65 ms. The time shall be measured from the time when the tone has dropped to 10 % of its steady-state value, until it has risen to 10 % of its steady-state value.

So, that iPhone 7 time, looks to me to be well below the minimum pause time!

iPhone 7 Thoughts

apple-iphone7Disclaimers up front: I do not have one, and have not seen one in real life yet. I have one pre-ordered (but won’t get it until October). These thoughts are mostly based on reviews and articles online.

Up until tonight, it wasn’t clear how successful this iPhone launch was going to be. The hardware design was certainly not significantly different from the previous two generations; something of a diversion from the previous rhythm of a new physical look every other year. Tonight though Apple seems to have announced that the iPhone 7 Plus models are totally sold out in pre-order (all colors), as is the jet black color iPhone 7. That suggests that there was still plenty of demand for the new phone.

There were clues: the jet black 7 was showing delivery into October less than half an hour after pre-ordering opened. The website & store apps were also struggling during that early period of ordering. Of course, the cynical will state that selling out can be a result of having too few available, intentionally or otherwise, as well as because of demand. Unless we get sales numbers from somewhere, there is no way to answer that.

The announcement, while much of it had leaked ahead of time (Apple’s famous security seems to be struggling to contain the details these days), has a few interesting points, some controversial, others less so.

Headphone Jack

Let’s get the most controversial (apparently) issue out of the way first: the removal of the 3.5mm headphone jack. Who cares? Really, why are you not using wireless headphones already? For the few occasions when you can’t, use the adapter or the included lightning headset. Apparently, most people just use the included headphones with their phones anyway, so for the majority this is totally a non-issue; for the rest, get a Bluetooth headset or headphones. Using Bluetooth headphones also resolves the charging while listening issue (I do it all the time in the office).

I have a set of Tzumi sports buds that I use for calls and listening to music on my commute. In the office, I use a set of AncStudio Noise Canceling headphones which, while not being the best noise canceling headphones out there, seem pretty reasonable to me (our CEO and VP of Engineering play Jenga a few feet from my desk, and the AncStudio noise canceling is good enough to totally mute the sound of collapsing Jenga towers). They claim to be able to work for calls too, but my experience with that has been disappointing (people say it is hard to hear me clearly and I usually switch to the Tzumi ones for calls now).

For more serious listening, I bought a Voxoa BTunes adapter for my Bose QC-3 headphones, though if I was buying headphones today I would probably go for the new Bose QC-35 ones with Bluetooth built in. Both options get you a microphone too, and unlike the AncStudio experience, the BTunes adapter on my QC-3 works well for calls.

What About AirPods?

Seriously? Fancy Bluetooth extensions aside, these seem more than a bit overpriced, especially for something that just looks odd. My Tzumi ones cost me less than $20 (on sale at Old Navy believe it or not), and while I’m sure they don’t sound as good as the AirPods, they were simple to pair with my phone, connect instantly I switch them on and they stay in my ears better than any of Apple’s headphones have ever done. They also sound just fine to me for what I use them for.

Jet Black

This was a tough one for me. My decision was always between black and jet black, but the susceptibility to scratches worried me. In the end though, I fell for the shiny object and plunked for jet black. I keep my phones in sleeve cases, so they are well protected in my pocket, but naked in use. My iPhone 6 & 6s have lived in a sleeve from Joli Originals which has worked really well. The iPhone 7 will start in the same sleeve, but I might treat it to a new one in a month or so 🙂

Cameras

I still believe the iPhone 7 Plus is too large for me, so despite the new dual camera trick being interesting, the camera that I looked for improvements in was the one in the smaller phone. OIS was a nice addition there, as was the new optics.

I do wish they’d remove the bump though (a slightly thicker phone would be fine IMHO), but I notice it more because I use the phone without a case. So, when I put it down I have to remember to place it on the case rather than directly on the desk. (On a positive note, that behaviour pattern, already learned from the 6/6s, will hopefully keep the jet black finish looking good for longer.)

As for the effects available with the twin camera design, I carry my tiny, but exceptionally powerful, Canon S120 almost everywhere. I’m pretty sure it will outperform even the fancy dual camera setup in the iPhone 7 Plus.

Water Resistant

I’m not sure how much I care about this, but I do think it is about time a premium phone like the iPhone was at the very least water resistant. I was shocked when the first generation of Apple Watch was not truly waterproof (something I see they fixed for the second generation). I don’t expect to swim with my phone, so water resistant is fine.

Storage Upgrades

A big factor in my decision to upgrade was the fact that the 128GB storage drops from the top price tier to the middle tier. That means my monthly payments for the new phone will be lower than for the old one, even with the same storage (and I don’t really need 128GB – I still have plenty of space even with the 7000+ photos and videos I have on it).