Automation is not Laziness

It occurred to me recently that when I have been doing things around the house that automate something, those activities have often been branded as me being lazy.

The Roomba

The Roomba was the first example of this, though at the time I just ignored the labeling. Having a device that can trundle around cleaning the floors for me without my needing to be pushing it is great. The argument was made that the Roomba was not as effective, nor as fast, as the Dyson in the closet. But that argument is false. On paper, the Roomba clearly does not have the suction power of the Dyson, but it can do the job unattended, meaning the floors are vacuumed more often than they would be with the Dyson. As for the speed, while it does take much longer for the Roomba to complete the job, it doesn’t expend any of my time at all. That makes it infinitely faster from my perspective.

Is it lazy though to push vacuuming onto a robot? I don’t think so. Especially not if I am spending the time I would have spent pushing the Dyson around doing something more valuable. It also impacts the overall quality of life for the family; one less chore that needs to be delegated.

The Dishwasher

Another one the household appliances that was seemingly tagged as making people lazy was the humble dishwasher (though, oddly, I have not heard the same complaint about the washing machine in our laundry room). For me, the dishwasher not only saves my time, it also typically does a better job at getting things clean, and saves on water. Once again, it can run when I am doing other things around the house, or it gives me some time to spend with the kids rather than standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes.

Alexa

Just before Thanksgiving, I finally bit the bullet and upgraded the Insteon hub here in the house to the newer version that can integrate with Amazon’s fantastic Alexa gadget (something we’ve had in the house for a long time now and been using for music, weather, news, shopping lists and more). In addition to the Insteon lights, I hooked up the Nest and August integrations, so Alexa could control the house lights, the thermostats and our front door lock (she will only check the status or lock the door though, not unlock it).

My kids were hooked on the light control immediately, and our five year old has been showing everybody who visits Alexa’s newest trick. But is it laziness to ask Alexa to turn a light on or off rather than getting up and walking to the switch? Or to have her adjust the temperature on the thermostat instead on getting up and adjusting it manually? Of course, in both cases I could also just pull out the phone and use that, and in the case of the Nest, I can even make the change from my watch. I imagine those are also considered “lazy” options.

Is voice control ever useful? Sure! in the month or so we’ve had it, I’ve already used it a few times when I’ve had my hands full and needed a light turned on or off. I don’t think that is laziness; I see it more as improving efficiency.

Oddly, even though controlling the lights or thermostats remotely is laziness, I noticed that controlling the TV without getting up was not considered to be lazy. I wonder if the TV remote control was branded as laziness when it was first introduced?

Smarthome

Right now, I have the basic elements of a smart home, but I don’t think the home is really that smart. Sure, the August can tell the Nest when I go out. The Nest smoke detectors can tell the Nest thermostats when there is a carbon monoxide issue or a fire (and have the heating shut off). The thermostats also tell the smoke detectors when we are out so they can run self-tests without disturbing us.

But I am looking for more. I’d like the August to turn on the lights inside when I unlock the door at night. Or if the Roomba could disable the motion sensors on our home alarm system while it was cleaning, and re-enable them once it was done (so I could schedule the vacuuming to run while we are out without it resulting in the police breaking the door down to check for intruders).

Luckily, for this there are more and more options coming online, connecting the various APIs for each service. All I need now is some time to set them all up. And to keep replacing components in the home with ones that have APIs. I’d love to have our home Wi-Fi router be able to report when certain devices come and go, or trigger other activities based on who is at home, or who is arriving home. Our Apple Extreme cannot do this, but perhaps the next router I buy will have that capability (or something else I can connect to the house will).

Presence (for the future)

The next step I suspect will be to add beacon sensors in certain rooms so the house “knows” which room I am in based on either my phone, or my watch or some other wearable device that I choose to register as synonymous with me being present. Would it be lazy to have the kitchen lights automatically come on, and perhaps have a coffee start brewing when I come down at 6:30am to make lunch for our pre-schooler? Maybe Alexa would even know I walked in and greet me, or start my flash news briefing or a review of my calendar automatically too.

None of this is actually that new. I attended a lecture talking about “smart” badges probably 20+ years ago in the UK. But the age of Bluetooth wearables and smartphones makes a special badge unnecessary. And services like IFTTT make all of the interconnects simple too. We live in exciting times, as long as you think beyond automation being lazy of course!

Comcast: Now It’s The Wi-Fi

Last Thursday I spent almost 2 hours on the phone with a couple of engineers from Comcast. The one who lead the call was sitting in the Hayward head end location, connected to the same network I was using (I’m not sure where the other one was physically located – he was dialed into the call). Around 10pm, we both started to see “anomolies” in the Speedtest results. As well seeing packet loss in the traceroute results from the Sunnyvale router. We also saw longer than typical ping times to Google (normally low tens of milliseconds from my home).

He tried a number of things, but nothing made a difference. Until, at 10:20pm, it rapidly went back to being normal. The pings improved. The Speedtest results improved. The traceroutes started showing responses from Sunnyvale again (and by 10:30pm they were also consistently good times). Unfortunately, it didn’t go bad again that night while we were on the phone, but I was hopeful that having had two of their engineers see what I was seeing there might be a light at the end of the tunnel. I should have known better.

Wi-Fi

During that call there was a question about how I was connected to the network, and we even switched my computer between the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands on my Wi-Fi to verify that made no difference. It did not. Where I live, both bands are pretty clear of interference. Normally I have the two bands using the same SSID, but during the call I switched the configuration so they were separated (allowing me to easily switch between them).

I did also point out at the time that it was somewhat irrelevant since I had seen and documented the problem in many configurations, from many devices, including some of my neighbors homes and even some friends in other bay area locations.

To be clear here, I have seen the problem:

  • On Wi-Fi connected computers (both bands)
  • On Wi-Fi connected mobile devices (both bands)
  • On ethernet connected computers through my router
  • On ethernet connected computers direct to a Comcast-provided modem
  • On both our wired and wireless Roku boxes

Additionally, at other times in the day there is no problem at all from the same computer I was using during the call. Here is a speed test from that same computer taken around 6:45pm this evening, while we were streaming HD video from Netflix on the Roku and a visitor was watching a basketball game on his Mac. As I’ve made clear throughout this, outside of the 10pm to midnight (some days a little later) window, the performance is very acceptable.

That was run from the browser on my Mac Mini connecting to the internet over the same Wi-Fi network. The only difference was I ran it at 6:45pm rather than 10pm.

Home Visit

So, today’s call from the engineering team did not go well. Firstly, even though I saw the slow down over the weekend and yesterday (I was not online at the right times on Sunday or Monday), apparently the equipment in the Hayward location saw none of it.

Furthermore, he now believes that the “anomalies” seen in the Speedtest results during our call last week were related to Adobe Flash and not the network. While I am not going to defend Flash at all, I will say that Speedtest is rock solid, and the versions I am running are not Flash based, so that doesn’t apply to my results.

Finally, it was suggested that perhaps the issue is in my Wi-Fi network and they should come to my house to check the setup in the house. Really. I am not kidding. Once again they are concluding that their network is fine and any issue must be in my house.

When I pointed out that several of their engineers have already been here, and perhaps he should just pick the phone up and call one of them, I was told that they would need to come out to see it themselves. I guess they don’t trust any of their colleagues to check the modem and signal quality.

Once again, Comcast folks, if you believe that something in my house is the cause of this, please explain to me how so many of my neighbours see the same issue. Is my Apple Airport Extreme somehow managing to interfere with them all?

Also, I’m willing to accept that the packet losses in Sunnyvale are coincidence, if you can show me what else in your network could cause so many people in this area to see this issue. And why they correspond so well in terms of time to when the network quality is poor. Right now, when the network is working well, I see this from my traces:

5 be-33651-cr01.sunnyvale.ca.ibone.comcast.net (68.86.90.93) 11.224 ms 16.193 ms 13.003 ms

The only time I see slower ping times or no responses from that node is when all the other things I try are bad too. What are those other things? Well, here’s a list of the things we often see when it is behaving poorly:

  • Web pages, Facebook content, Twitter content and emails not loading;
  • Netflix and Amazon Prime video not being able to load their index screens;
  • If we have the index loaded, Netflix and Amazon not being able to start playing videos;
  • Videos that are playing keep pausing to load, which can take many minutes to recover from, and in many cases times out;
  • Speedtest shows results under 1Mbps for download (compare to the speed above when it is working)

Experience

What I haven’t mentioned to Comcast until today is that I have a little bit more knowledge about Wi-Fi than perhaps their regular customer. Having been working in a Wi-Fi software company since 2003, and even been part of the creation of some of the Wi-Fi standards, I think I am pretty well placed to know whether my Wi-Fi setup here is likely to be the cause.

I have spent perhaps too much time inside shielded rooms helping access point manufacturers fine tune their software to squeeze the maxiumum performance from their Wi-Fi stacks. I am well aware that the 802.11ac system I have here far exceeds the capabilities of the Comcast network it connects to for Internet access.

I have spent too much time connecting to Wi-Fi networks all over the world and running performance tests on them (my wife is regularly upset by me searching for public Wi-Fi to use and test when we are out).

Tonight

Of couse, tonight I didn’t see any issue while I was reading on my iPad (normally I will encounter a period of time when media in particular doesn’t load), and my timed download script didn’t see anything either tonight.

Android 7.1.1 and no LTE on Nexus 5X Phones

I have been carrying a Nexus 5X for a while now, and for the most part I love it. Having a pure Android experience, rather than one with a UI skin forced over the top of it, makes the Android experience very close to the iOS one for the most part in my opinion.

Partly because it is not the only phone I carry, I also decided a few weeks ago to sign it up for the Android beta program. I was already running Nougat (Android 7.0), but I wanted to see what else they were planning in the Wi-Fi space particularly. Everything seemed to be going well until the beta 7.1.1 drop landed on the phone. At that point, I started having problems with Wi-Fi stability and, worse, lost LTE completely.

After a few days of that, and at least one attempt to find where I could send feedback that might be noticed (Google really needs to learn from Apple here and include a dedicated beta program feedback app in the builds), I gave up and worked out how to get the phone out of the beta program. This is one place where Google beats Apple; as soon as I did that on their site, the phone indicated that it had an “update” to revert me to Android 7.0. It was a full install (so all data wiped), but that’s OK.

Missing Backups

At the end of that I opted to setup using a backup. There was the first problem. The latest backup it showed me was from my old Nexus 5. Nothing from the 5X despite it being setup for backups all the time I’ve been running it. No big deal, the Nexus 5 backup will be 90% or more, and the photos (which are all I really need) are all in Google Photos anyway.

The process was as smooth as usual, and in no time I was back to running Android 7.0 and my LTE signal was connected again. Then, it offered me an update to the public Android 7.1.1 release. This had a different build ID to the one I had been running, so I took a chance (didn’t really have much to lose).

Public Android 7.1.1

This is an OTA upgrade, so not a full wipe & it doesn’t take long. When it was done, the phone restarted and my LTE was gone again. Seriously. In a public release of their new flagship OS, LTE is not working on the Nexus 5X device (connected to AT&T). It works fine with Android 7.0 (and previous releases too). It amazes me that nobody at Google had noticed this before they shipped it!

Android Marshmallow / GMail Data Use

I upgraded my Nexus 5 to the latest Android version. 6.0 aka Marshmallow, and didn’t really think much of it. Then, on Monday, I needed to run a test on some software that required the Wi-Fi to be turned off. I noticed at the time that the GMail app was having some problems; I received regular crash notifications from it (while it was running in the background).

Then tonight I checked in on my test and was surprised to see an Android mobile data warning in the notifications area. Tapping through, I saw that in the last few days I have consumed ~5GB of mobile data. On a phone that has been sitting on my desk without me touching it. The culprit? You guessed it, the GMail app was responsible for almost the entire 5GB. In less than five days.

Massive Data Consumption

I also received an OS update this evening, and since then the GMail app seems happier. I am back on Wi-Fi now though and will continue to monitor it. Had I been on a 3GB plan, I would have been more than a little annoyed (and had to pay for the extra data). As it happens, this phone is on a 20GB shared plan, so I have some headroom.

Canon S120

Earlier this week I noticed that the Canon camera I had been thinking of getting, the S120, was on sale at Amazon so I ordered one. With their Prime service it arrived here quickly (actually quicker than I expected as OnTrac delivered on Saturday even though it was slated for delivery on Monday in the tracking info.

The features that drew me to this one were the Wi-Fi capability (so I can pull photos from the camera to my iPhone or Nexus 4 anywhere I am, even without a wifi based internet connection), the high speed lens (f/1.8) and the 1080p HD video. The only real negatives were the limited 5x zoom, and the relatively low pixel count compared to other similar offerings from other companies. But 12MP is still respectable, and the zoom is OK for most uses I will actually have for the camera. 

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International Calling

One of the things that most ex-pats will likely need to deal with is calling home to friends and family, and doing so in a way that doesn't break the bank. When I first arrived in the US I used calling card services to call back to the UK, and while it was cheaper than regular international calling, it wasn't something I would want to do too often.

Now that has all changed, and there are a plethora of technologies available for solving the problem. I have three that I use regularly, and most of my calls are now free.

Call Centric

First on that list is a VoIP service called Call Centric. To make this work I set up my mother's house and mine with relatively cheap SIP adapters from Linksys' Sipura range, each connected to a regular cordless phone. That gave my mother something she was familiar with to call me. Her account is free since it is outside the US (phones located in the US need to pay a $1.50 monthly 911 fee), but she can only call my Call Centric number from it. My line also has credit loaded into it allowing me to call regular PSTN numbers anywhere in the world at competitive VoIP rates (calls to UK landlines are currently about 2¢ per minute, and UK mobiles about 20¢ per minute).

The time difference often means that the best time for me to call home though is not while I am at home. To solve that, I have a couple of tricks:

  1. SIP Broker: a free service allowing me to dial a local phone number (they have numbers all over the US) and from there dial a SIP number. I have this sequence programmed into my iPhone so I can simply tap a contact line and call my mother's Call Centric line from my mobile, incurring only the minutes from my mobile plan for a domestic call. They have local access numbers worldwide, making it easy to get into the VoIP system from just about anywhere. You will need to know the prefix for your callee's service though which is a little annoying (to dial a Call Centric number from SIP Broker, prefix the CC number with *462). Check their online provider list to see if your VoIP service is peered with them.
  2. Call Centric has what they call a calling card feature where I can dial into their service, enter my account number and a security PIN, and then dial any number using my VoIP plan. The cost is a little higher as you pay for the domestic call component as well as the international one, but it means I have super cheap rate international calling from my mobile. As with SIP Broker, I have the sequence programmed into my contacts so I don't need to dial it all manually each time.

Call Centric covers almost all my voice calling needs, and apart from one time when they were being subjected to a DDoS attack, they have been very reliable.

I do also have two SIP clients on my iPhone, both configured with my Call Centric account, that I can use to make calls directly. The ones I have are Zoiper and 3CX.

FaceTime

The one service that we use that Call Centric doesn't work for is video calling. Having a toddler in our family who doesn't get to see his British family very often in person meant we needed a video calling solution too. As soon as my mother was equipped with an iPhone, that became a lot easier.

While not as flexible in terms of where we can make calls from, we have managed FaceTime calls from Starbucks and over hotel WiFi networks. It is a shame my AT&T plan doesn't allow them over LTE too, but since public WiFi is something I a more than a little familiar with, finding a hotspot to call from is rarely a problem. Most of our FaceTime calls are from home at the weekends anyway.

Skype

Relegated to something of a backup solution now, my mother and I both have Skype plans too. Before she got her iPhone, we used Skype video calling either with one way video to her first generation iPad, or two way video to her computer. I would say it was slightly less reliable than FaceTime, and usually lower quality images too, but it works across platforms which is a big advantage if either end of the call is not using Apple kit.

I also keep credit on Skype so I can use it to call her on her landline in case Call Centric fails for any reason.

Skype quality though has become very unpredictable. When it works, it is great, but all too often it will drop calls or the quality will disappear and noise is all we hear. I have heard good things about Viber as a possible alternative to Skype, but right now Call Centric and FaceTime are good enough that I don't need to look into an alternative to Skype just yet.

No reviews?

No reviews...Devicescape’s new application, a version of Easy Wi-Fi especially for AT&T, has been in the app store now for a few days. The screen shot here from my iPhone shows that it has no reviews (and if you scroll down to the bottom, the place where the link to any reviews is found also says that there are no reviews.

So what? It’s only been a few days after all. But wait, if you click on that button to open the reviews page, you get this:

But really five reviews!

So there are actually five reviews. Why doesn’t the app store app indicate that?

And want another mystery? See that average ranking there – 3.5 stars, well I don’t know how they calculate it because all five of those reviews have 5 star ratings. Last time I checked, 5 * 5 / 5 is 5, not 3.5.

Seems the app store has a number of basic arithmetic problems! And this is not going to help developers much. The ratings and review system is bad enough as it is, but this makes it worse still. An average of 3.5 when all the ratings shown in the reviews are 5 star is pretty damaging. Have you checked whether your aggregate rating is correct?

Top Three iPhone/iPod Touch Apps

There are lots of apps out there now for iPhone and iPod users to choose from, and plenty of reviews within the App Store as well as on the web, so I’m not about to review any apps here. Instead, I thought I tell you about my three most used applications, and why I use them so much. So, without further ado, let’s jump in to the list:

iNewz, news readeriNewz
iNewz is a news reader application that aggregates content from a number of news sources, mostly US ones in the current version. I use it because I spend an hour a day sitting on a bus commuting (half an hour each way), and I guess I’m a secret news junkie. The news is organised into categories, with articles for each category from several sources listed in reverse chronological order. My top categories? Headlines first, always, then World News and Technology news. That normally fills a commute!

Easy Wi-Fi
I have to include Easy Wi-Fi since I spent so much time working on both the initial jailbreak version, and then this App Store version. But aside from that, I do truly find it incredibly useful and I use it almost every morning at Starbucks – handy having that free Wi-Fi account from AT&T simply for using a registered pre-paid Starbucks card. The iPhone normally latches on to the Wi-Fi as I walk in, and one tap gets me online. Not quite as convenient as the background mode the jailbroken version had, but still a lot faster than typing my user name and password into the AT&T web form every morning (and I only have a few minutes in Starbucks most mornings to buy coffee, sync email and load up the Daily Irrelevant).

Truphone
Last, but not least, Truphone – the voice over IP application that has been around for other mobile phones for a while (and one I use on my Nokia N95 via its built in SIP stack). Needs Wi-Fi to work, but that’s fine by me as I’m usually somewhere where there is Wi-Fi when I need to make international calls. Combined with Easy Wi-Fi to get me online in public hotspots, this means I can keep in touch with folks around the world for very little money. I called my mother over in England while sitting outside a Starbucks in San Jose last weekend – free Wi-Fi from AT&T, Easy Wi-Fi to get me online and Truphone to make a very cheap international call.

Location Tagger, AT&T Wi-Fi and Twitter

Starbucks, AlamedaI installed a new app on my N95 the other day from the Nokia Beta Labs: Location Tagger. This is one of the things that should have been built into the camera application from day one on a GPS enabled phone, but I’m glad to see they’re catching up.

The photo on the right is my first test of this new feature. The photo was automatically geo-tagged (so, if you visit the photo’s page in Flickr, you can see it placed on a map). Flickr seems to be confused about the city (it thinks Alameda is Oakland!), but it shows up in the correct place on the map.

Why was I at Starbucks? Well, I stopped by to see whether AT&T had disabled the free Wi-Fi for iPhone users. The special free login page has indeed gone, replaced by the older iPhone login page, though it did still let me on using the iPhone credentials I had stored in my Devicescape account 🙂

Finally, I finally signed up for Twitter, and added the Twitter feed to the left column on the blog. Since it is connected to my IM client (Adium, for those wondering), I can send it short messages about what I’m up to, and they’ll end up here on the blog as well as on my Twitter page.

AT&T Wi-Fi Free for iPhone Users

AT&T Wi-Fi iPhone Login PageWell, to be more accurate, free for AT&T iPhone users. If you have your service through AT&T still, then you should get this login page when you connect to the attwifi SSID at Starbucks, or anywhere else. Enter your 10 digit AT&T mobile number and you’re online.

Devicescape users can add the special ‘AT&T Wi-Fi (iPhone)’ credential type to their account, and they will get online automatically.

There have been rumours around that the same will be enabled for anybody with an AT&T mobile data plan at some point; I expect the iPhone is being used as the test platform here since they already had mobile pages for the iPhone (my N95 still sees the full page).

Update, May 4, ’08: Seems that the web page has been taken down now (guess too many folks were abusing it by changing their browser agent string and getting online with non-iPhone devices).