Monday, December 31, 2012

"Refreshingly cool" ride to Lake Iroquois

Author's note: This is an older post that never got published.  The original date was sometime in October, 2012.

The weather app on my smartphone says today is a "refreshingly cool" 60 degrees Fahrenheit.  I think my frozen self would have used a different adjective to describe how cold today's ride was, from home to Lake Iroquois and back.

The goal was to see the beach at Lake Iroquois.   This is my second attempt at this trip.  The first time, I really botched it, making wrong turns, picking the toughest roads, and making the trip needlessly painful and long.  This time, though still fairly long and hilly, it was much better.  Only one road that was rough, which I knew about and decided was worth it for the distance saved.  I was careful and didn't hit any potholes or washboards.  Figured out the best place to avoid the washboard on a dirt road is in the dead center.

The fall winds are brutal, and definitely have a noticeable impact on efficiency.  Most of the trip I kept it around 18-20 mph so I could pedal, extending my range (and keeping me warm!).  Battery that usually busts through 30 miles with ease, was pretty close to kicked when I arrived home after a 27 mile ride.

Distance: 27.2 Miles
Current used: 17.0 AH
Power used: 0.835 kWH

Diesel Haulin'

In the final days before the snowstorm, I managed get my act together and squeeze in the acquisition of half a cord of wood.  

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Pre-Winter, Auto Mechanic Intermission

I've been fortunate to have had a pretty long break from playing home auto mechanic, but lately things have been wracking up quite a bit, and for a number of reasons, I had to take action.  The most recent project was on my 2002 VW Golf TDI (for more about this car, you can have a look at my old blog, Veggie Golf).  I was going to hold off, but the oil building up in the driveway was an indication that I really needed to get on it.

Items to fix:  Leaking cam seal, timing belt replacement (maintenance interval reached), rear brake rotors and pads, and a few other odds and ends.  When I got into the timing belt cover, it was pretty clear the cam seal was doing very little to keep the oil in the engine.
This is the lower timing belt compartment after I cleaned it up a lot. 

Any doubts were sufficiently quelled when I drained the oil from the crankcase, and got about 2 qts. max out of it.  This is dangerously low, especially for a diesel, and even more especially for a turbo equipped engine.  Feeling lucky, I went ahead and ordered the parts for the timing belt change, including belts, tensioners, and bolts.  Most of the operation went pretty smoothly, although I don't remember ever having so much trouble getting the engine mount bracket in/out.  I probably spent about 2 hours screwing around with that thing alone.

The new cam seal went in pretty easily.  The old one didn't seem damaged, but rather appeared to have come unseated from the camshaft somehow.  I didn't spend too much time worrying about it, but I paid close attention to how I put the new one on.  All back together now, have to pressure wash the engine bay and then off to the muffler shop to fix the broken flex joint, which is causing exhaust to go into the car.  All told, probably about a 10 hour job for me (I'm definitely out of practice).

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Comcast to the rescue (too bad there was nothing wrong)

Comcast keeps calling me and leaving messages (I don't answer) saying that my modem "is not capable of receiving the full range of their speeds".  This has been going on for months.  I upgraded to a Motorola SB6121, a DOCSIS 3.0 modem, about 6 months ago.  Everything has been working fine, speeds are around 30 Mb/s download.  So I finally decided to call Comcast and... pretty much just see what they had to say.  I figured at best I could get them to stop calling me.

After almost 3 minutes of menu surfing, I finally was on my way to speak to a human.  The person I talked to verified my identity and had a look at my account.  She asked me if I had 2 modems.  (Wondering why this matters): "I only have one connected..."  Apparently the reason why she asked is that the other modem was shown as a Comcast rental.  I have ALWAYS owned all of my modems.  She put me through to the "Internet department" (haha) and I spoke to someone else, who asked me most of the same questions.  After I explained that I own all of my modems, she said she would need to create a ticket, and someone would do "research", and call me back.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Repairing broken Kurzweil keyboard

In for repair we have a Kurzweil 88-key K2500X, with weighted keys.  This beast weighs about 80-100 lbs. It had reportedly fallen off a keyboard stand.  It came in with several "sticking keys", one chipped key, dented front, and a broken end cap.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

New e-bike born today

Well, finally got my shipment, and today I converted the first of a line of e-bikes that I plan to offer to the general public for sale.  I've decided there needs to be a dealership in this area, and I love building bikes.  So after lots of research and decisions, we have this:

It's a direct drive, brushless 36V system, with a 9AH battery.  The controller is in the back.  Lightweight, stable, and unassuming, it's almost completely stealth to the untrained eye.  It complies with all the laws in the state of Vermont.  Definitely a little more of a leisure ride than my 48V 1000W system, but it's still plenty of fun.  Retail price will be around $1195 USD.  Actual bike model pictured is an example, and may vary.

I'm spending the next few days putting it through its paces, measuring mileage, etc.  It's hard work, but somebody has to do it.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Beautiful late summer ride to north end

Just got back from an uneventful ride up to the north end of Burlington.  The temp was perfect, a little breezy but mostly calm.  Efficiency was through the roof, but I was light on the throttle and not in a hurry.

Stopped at overlook park on the way home.

Took all bike paths on the way up, and main roads on the way back.  I thought it would be treacherous with the rush hour traffic, but it wasn't too bad.  Stayed in the bike lane or on the sidewalks for much of the ride.  Laughed as I rode by all the motorists who were parked on Shelburne road, during traffic jam.  22 miles, 12.4AH.  Could have easily gone twice as far.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Nice ride home in the dark

A nice ride down to Charlotte to visit the ADV Garage today.  It's about 9 miles each way - about a 5 or 6 out of 10 on the "hilly-ness" scale.  Started out with a fresh charge, pedaled a little (not very much) mostly because I was going too fast to pedal much.  The ride down (during the day) was very easy.  A little chilly, but not too bad.  Traffic was down as it's Sunday afternoon/evening.

Had a great dinner and watched the sunset, then headed out when it was completely dark.  Man, I was glad I brought my new wind breaker (early birthday present from father-in-law),  Doing 30 mph in 50 degrees is COLD.  The new headlight performed like a champ.  The more I use it, the more I appreciate the beam pattern and throw.  It's a very wide beam pattern, which keeps you from getting claustrophobic, but the throw is still plenty good enough to dodge a pothole in pitch darkness, at top speed.

The trek home was paced by a convoy of my neighbors (who all were headed home from the same place).  I had a tiny bit of a lead on them, they passed me about 1/2 of the way home.  Then about 2/3 way, they hit the construction/paving on route 7 and had to wait for the flag man.  I caught up to them, jumped on the sidewalk and blew by. Slowed it down a lot when I saw a cop car at the end of the work zone.  I was far enough out of the way to be harmless, but I figure it'd be hard not to notice a bike going 30 mph down the sidewalk at night.  Pretended to pedal my bike like an average Joe, and then gunned it out of the hole when I was far enough out   As the bike lane ended and the speed limit dropped, I merged with car traffic and rode along for a while, just ahead of the neighbor pack.  Back to the bike lane. An unknown who had been behind me passed me and yelled out their window "that thing is so FAST!"

The neighbor pack once again passed by as we reached the final leg of the 9 mile trip.  I ended up getting home just behind them, about 3-4 minutes.  Not bad for a bike.

Trip mileage: 18 miles
kWh used:  .73

Electricity cost: $.10

CO2 produced (based on electricity national average): 1 lb.

Alternative to: ~1 gallon of gas, $3.60, 19.4 lbs. of CO2 (in an average car)

For more info about how all this is calculated, see this interesting blog post.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Fun quotes from first time e-bike peepers

From time to time, I hear fun comments from people who see me on my e-bike.  Here's a couple that I've heard in recent times:
"I guess my bike sucks."
 -Stoner guy at the package store

"You're cracking me up.  I'm watching you go up this hill, and you're not even pedaling"
-Guy in car next to me, going up fairly steep hill in Charlotte.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Flat tires, battery frustration, and new DIY headlight

My e-bike has been working pretty well, barring some occasional frustrations.  These are chiefly centered around flat tires.  I've had the back tire (the powered wheel) get punctured 3 times now.  The first 2 times I found small pieces of 22 gauge wire, which I'm willing to concede might have come from my garage floor.  The last time, I picked up a carpet nail!  It was right around the construction area on Shelburne road, where they tore up the pavement.  There were lots of little pock marks in the pavement for something like a nail to hang out in, at odd positions.  I learned that getting a flat is worse than having a controller blow up or a dead battery, because you can't even ride it home.  On the bright side, I found out it's an hour walk to my house from Burger King (2.79 miles).  Pushing 70 lbs. of dead weight on a floppy rim, that is.

Could have been a lot worse, I've gone as far as 25 miles from my house before.  I put a spare tube and patch kit in my panniers, in case it ever happens when I am far enough away to justify the effort of a field change.

Besides that, I'm really getting tired of having so much weight on the back rack.  I am constantly sweating hitting even a moderately-sized bump at high speed, and breaking the rack or damaging the battery.  I wish I had a smaller battery for shorter range travel, or perhaps a 15-20AH LiPo pack, which would probably weigh about half as much as my LiFePO4 20AH.  The trouble is that the cost would be around $300-$500, and I just can't justify it right now.  I've been studying tons about LiPo batteries - buying options, how to build a battery pack (series/parallel combinations), charge them, balance them, etc.  Once I know enough, I will probably get into building my own battery packs out of used cells or pouch cells.  If I get good enough at it, maybe I'll sell them.

Some good news: I finished my headlight.  It's built out of a 3up Cree XPE, a 700mA BuckPuck, and a snazzy aluminum housing.  I mounted it on a swivel and hooked it up to a small 12 volt LiPo battery pack.  Easily removed for anti-theft.  It puts out 750 lumens, plenty bright enough for night riding at 30 mph!  I plan to sell these for $160 USD.

Adult Contemporary Music - Old School Crap Lives On

I find it both interesting and disturbing that, for the most part, when out and about listening to the radio in the car, shops, etc, the general public pretty much listens to a body of work consisting of about 500-1000 or so songs (by my estimation).  The majority of these songs were written 20-40 years ago (classic rock, 80's, disco, R&B). I'm talking about stuff like Lionel Richie, The Bee Gees, Madonna, and of course, Michael Jackson.  Only songs have withstood the test of time as being "at least listenable".

My earliest memories of the Champlain Valley Fair are probably from about the ages of 6-10.  That would put the years around early 1980's.  I remember walking down the midway and by the rides, all blaring AC/DC, Def Leppard, Ozzie Osbourne, which at that time was only a few years old at the most.  I went to the fair on Monday, and guess what?  It's the same exact songs.  It's like the whole thing is frozen in time.

The unfortunate part about this is, there are lots of new adult contemporary artists out there, but their music will probably never become part of this overplayed catalog.  Not for lack of quality, but because it doesn't have the reputation of being "trustworthy".  Places of business are generally not going to put any effort into their music selection, they just want to play stuff people recognize and accept.  

Friday, August 17, 2012

E-Bike Rack Fail

Apparently my bike felt left out, and wanted to get in the game of things that are failing.  Riding home from downtown last night, very late, hit a sewer cover pretty hard (it was hard to tell how uneven it was at night) and busted my battery rack.  It was not a catastrophic failure, but the rack lowered down to the tire and started dragging.  Enough that I had to stop and figure it out.  So I was sitting on the ground in the parking lot of the Jolly, with the bike almost completely disassembled.

Bike rack, sans busted lower brackets.

Busted aluminum lower brackets.
The bottom part of the rack attaches to the frame via a tapped tab, and an L shaped, aluminum bracket with graduated tapped holes.  The aluminum obviously saw quite a bit of impact load when the 30 lbs. battery came slamming down.

This is the second rack I've bought, and I'm really not interested in spending more money to deal with this issue.  (But I probably will have to).  Wondering if maybe I can make a custom, tougher piece to clamp the rack right where I want it.  If I only had a welder...  Or a lighter battery.

Galaxy Nexus Tales of Woe

One of my ongoing battles with my Gnex is the charging port.  In the past, it has stopped working, and after lots of Google searches, I found out that a common issue is the little inner tab not making contact with the cable (fixed by bending it up slightly).

After a recent vacation, I found once again that my phone wouldn't charge.  This time, it seemed that the charging port was somehow mutilated, and the cord didn't seem to go in correctly.  The contacts were bent inside the phone.  I don't have the insurance, and I'm kind of used to being on my own warranty after rooting, ROMing, etc.  After researching, I promptly ordered this replacement USB flex board, for about $50 w/ shipping, and replaced the board following this iFixit how-to.

The procedure was a little tricky, but not too bad. In general everything felt like it went smoothly, and I expected no issues.   However, after putting the phone back together, the phone still wouldn't charge.  I disassembled the phone again, double-checked all my connections, and tried multiple cables.  It's a very curious (and frustrating) issue.

After some more thorough testing, the situation seems to be as follows:

  • The microphone and notification light, also part of the replacement board, are working (ruling out a missed connector or a completely non-functional replacement part).
  • The phone WILL charge off a wall AC adaptor, at the fast rate.
  • The phone WON'T charge off my 12V lighter charger, which used to charge at the fast rate.
  • The phone WON'T charge, or acknowledge a connection in any way, to a computer.  It's like it's not even plugged in, to both the computer and the phone.
So that rules out pretty much everything as I understand how the port works.  I could see maybe some of the pins not working in the port, but the 12V charger and the wall charger should be using the exact same pins, so I can't see how only the wall charger would work.  And above all, I don't see how a brand new replacement part, with such a straightforward replacement process, would fail to work in any way.

Not really sure what I'm going to do.  The temptation is to buy a used replacement off eBay, they seem to be selling for around $250-$300.  

Thursday, August 16, 2012

E-Bike for your (mental) health

The first time I rode an e-bike was probably about 7-8 years ago.  I thought it was pretty cool, but I'll be honest, at the time I wasn't really grabbed by the idea (it probably didn't help that, at the time, they were more expensive, heavy, and had very limited range).

At some point this year, I started to pay attention to e-bikes.  After watching countless YouTube videos of people doing their own builds, I finally took the leap.  I wanted a bike that was reasonably "stealthy" (could easily be mistaken for a normal bike), powerful enough to be on moped terms, yet still able to be operated like a bicycle.  Originally I intended to buy a conversion kit, and spent about a month researching reviews to figure out which of the many options I should pursue.  The process was suddenly abbreviated when I found a Craigslist ad for an already-converted bike.  It was 48V, 1000W, right in the area I was looking for.

E-Bike purchased from Craigslist.
My trusty old steel frame mountain bike.
Upon getting the bike home, I determined that beyond the motor, controller, and battery, there wasn't much of the bicycle itself that was worth keeping.  The pedals were stripped, the crankset was cheap plastic and wobbled, the disc brakes would not adjust, and some other problems.   Even on the electrical side, the battery management system had had some kind of fire, and there were melted leads, connectors, cheap fuse holders, and other issues.
Cannibalized frame.  Anyone want a Chinese mountain bike?
I had my trusty old bike who I had just decommissioned in favor of a lighter bike (which was to remain conventional).  The Univega Rover 303, known for being very rugged (albeit heavy), steel framed bike.  It was the perfect candidate.  In about 3 hours I had swapped the motor, controller, throttle, rack/battery, etc. over to my bike.  Ran into a few snags, but nothing too bad.  I had to slightly widen the frame at the rear axle, and the throttle wouldn't easily fit with my gear shift.  I then rewired and installed serious connectors, fuses, and made everything safe and reliable.  Presto, the whole thing is now ready to go.

Converted!  The small bag in the center is the controller, and the panniers hold the battery. 

It does 30 MPH, range is somewhere around 40 miles.  Since the build, I have taking daily rides, and getting familiar with it, and ironing out the little details.   Things like getting a kickstand that can support the extra weight, a serious bike lock that stows away, a powerful headlight, better seat, gloves, etc.  These things all matter 10x as much when you are going fast and far.

Most of the trips I have done are between 20-30 miles round trip.  Just exploring the area around Shelburne, Hinesburg, Williston, and thereabouts.  Eventually, I'm planning one long trip out to my folks house, which will be about 50-60 miles round trip (charging required).  I'll try to post some recaps of some trips and what I learn/experience.  All-in-all, e-biking is incredibly fun.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Assessing A Gun Ban

What happened in Colorado is a horrible and despicable act of an individual.  If it is decided that guns should be banned for everyone, ask yourself:

1. What is the likelihood that crazed individuals will still manage to obtain a gun and commit heinous acts?

2. What is the likelihood that a gun ban would ever be lifted if it was ineffective?

Helicopters and Recording Sessions

The other day we were recording the band Flowting Bridge in our Randolph studio, a large garage. We have a decent live room area, and a wall to separate the control room. We were doing live recording with a miked amp, and since there is a back entrance to the live room, we had the bright idea to use the great outdoors as the "amp room". So we put the amp out there with an SM7 on it.

At one point during the day, a helicopter flew over at low altitude (coming in for a landing in town). Fortunately(?) this happened while we were on break. My first thought was, "phew, glad that didn't happen while we were recording..." and my next thought was to BOLT inside and hit record on the console. I ended up with a "field recording" of the flyover, which the boys decided they will use on the album as a hidden track. If you'd like to check out the sample, I uploaded it to here. Enjoy:

Friday, July 13, 2012

Shure Microphone Shootout

After recently acquiring a Shure SM7B, my first "big boy" microphone, I decided to do some tests so I could get familiar with its characteristics.  I'm posting some of my tests online along with some of my conclusions as I go.

The Microphones

This test consisted of the SM7B, SM81, MXL 990, and a good old SM57.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

iPhone Users: Should You Switch to Android?

Before we dive into this, there are iPhone people who love their phone and would never look at another kind of phone.  This post is not for those people.  There is another kind of iPhone user who has an iPhone because they needed a smartphone.  A lot of those people are now considering an Android phone.  While there are a variety of reasons for this, the main ones are most likely:
  • Their friends have stopped complaining about how unstable Android is
  • They are tired of not having a phone with 4G capability, 3D Nav, and some other features
So with that in mind, let's take a quick look at the current state of Android vs. iPhone.  The main things Android phones can offer over the iPhone are:

  • 4G network capable phones (higher speed)
  • Google's awesome 3d navigation tool
  • Phones with bigger screens than 3.5"
  • Real multitasking
  • A lot more freedom and control as to how you can configure your phone and what you can put on it
With the exception of the last couple of points, the new iPhone is rumored to address many of these.

Down sides
  • No more iTunes (Actually, I probably should put this in the advantages section)
  • Android does not share the reputation that iOS has for its seamless integration of apps, robustness / crash proofness, and user interface simplicity.  However, I can honestly say that there is not much of a difference.  Susannah got an iPhone last year, and I got an iPod
    touch, and in that limited experience I have seen just as many issues with iOS as Android is reputed to have: Apps crashing, settings that are hard to find and figure out, and updates that break things.   So it's hard to say that iOS is necessarily better than Android in this regard.
  • There is a different version of Android for almost every phone out there.  95% of the apps available work on any phone, but there is that 5% or so that may not work because you have a Verizon Weebleschnifter 4G instead of an HTC Longleblockerdoodle.  To my knowledge this isn't a problem for iOS (although I suppose you could make the case that there are apps that only work on iPad vs. iPhone vs. iPod).

In summary, if you can make it until September, you probably should.  If nothing more than to see what we are really dealing with on the iPhone front.  Otherwise, there are some excellent Android phones available right now.  I recommend the Samsung Galaxy S III, or Galaxy Nexus, two great phones that run Google's latest version of Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich).  They are available on AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

If Tax Prep Options Were Airlines

1040EZ Airlines
Upon your arrival at the airport, you are given a red Radio Flyer wagon with the airline logo on the side, and a bag of peanuts.

Private CPA / Accountant Airlines
You book your own private jet.  The pilot meets with you and then decides how you are going to get where you are going.  Because of a ton of transportation regulations, the route ends up going half way around the world, and stops at 18 airports before you finally arrive back at the place you actually started from.  All of the ticket price is refunded, and you walk away bewildered and empty handed.

H&R Block Airlines
You line up with other passengers at the front door of the aircraft.  Eventually the flight attendant comes the door, and directs you to a seat.  The seat is a perfectly square box with only enough room for an average size man or woman.  Depending on your luck, the pilot is either a seasoned, ex-NASA aeronautics expert, or a nervous young pilot fresh out of flight school.  When the plane takes off, it goes directly to Kansas City, MO, regardless of where you bought your ticket for or how much you paid for it.  When you land, you're told that you owe thousands of dollars for your ticket, with no explanation given as to why.  Everyone is given a folder, business card, and a mint as they deplane.

TurboTax Airlines
You walk down the jetway and are shown into the cockpit of your own plane.  You are told you will be flying the plane yourself, however, instead of touching any of the actual controls, you will be just be interviewed by a computer program written by an ex-pilot.  As you fly, the computer program asks questions like "Where did you fly last year?", "what does the gauge labeled 'airspeed' read right now?", and "do you see any other planes in the sky?".  As the flight progresses, the altimeter reading varies all over the place from -10,000 to 30,000 feet, seemingly without any regard for what's actually happening to the aircraft.  Finally, either you safely land at the airport and are given thousands of dollars for reasons you don't fully understand, or the plane runs into the side of a mountain.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Unleash Your Galaxy Nexus Screen: Tweak Auto Brightness

When I was shopping for my next phone, one of the main selling points of the Galaxy Nexus was its beautiful SuperAMOLED screen.  Because the screen pixels are actually light sources (as opposed to a more traditional LCD in which a backlight is filtered by an LCD screen), the contrast ratio and color vibrance are theoretically unmatched.  So why is it that, weeks after getting my long awaited gem, my assessment of the screen is that it is more lackluster than my 3 year old Moto Droid?

The answer lies in the combination of two factors:
  1. Different colored LEDs respond differently to various power levels, in terms of their brightness.
  2. The default screen-brightness-to-ambient-light mapping offered by Ice Cream Sandwich on the Galaxy Nexus (in auto brightness mode), is inadequate.
Here's the proof:  Turn your display brightness all the way up instead of using auto mode.  The screen looks beautiful, the colors are vibrant, and the promise of the SuperAMOLED screen is realized (not to mention that you can actually see the screen reasonably well in sunlight).  Ok, so it's probably not appropriate to leave your brightness cranked all the time, for a lot of reasons, but it's clear enough that there is a different world. 

So what's going on here?  Let's look at item #1 first.  Different colored LEDs respond differently to various power levels.  The reason for this is that different materials are used to create each color, and each respective material has a fairly unique, non-linear brightness curve.  So lowering the power going into the screen means that the colors will not be dimmed uniformly, causing color distortion.

#2, the auto brightness mapping just doesn't seem to cut it.  This is a complaint I have had with all of my Android phones, but this one is especially pronounced, perhaps because of the LED display.  The screen is very often too dim for a given situation.  The ambient light sensor is extremely directional, and if you are standing outside on a bright day, the display will very often switch down to around 50%!  This is unacceptable.  The other symptom this creates specifically on the Galaxy Nexus, is a dull and unremarkable screen color (greenish or yellowish tint, with reds and blues being very subdued).  In practice, it very rarely, if ever, actually gets to full screen brightness, which I found quite annoying.

My theory is that Google errs on the side of conservation in order to protect battery life.  However, in the face of some of the other battery drainers, and the rate at which they can consume energy, this seems like a drop in the bucket.  For me at least, I will take this small hit so that I can appreciate my phone when I am using it.  Let's talk about options.

Option 1: Leave your screen on full brightness all the time.  While this is certainly an option, this will have an unnecessary impact on battery life. Furthermore, this would be obnoxious when it is actually dark out. 

Option 2: Remap the brightness the way it should be.  This is possible with a custom ROM, such as Codename Android.  Codename Android's MO is to start out with all of its customizations the way they would be in stock ICS.  After that, the ROM allows you tweak lots of things, including the auto brightness mapping.  This does mean you will need to backup your phone, unlock it, root it, and install a custom ROM.  That's more than I want to get into on this blog post, but there are plenty of resources out there to get you started.

What I will offer is a brightness mapping that I have created, tested, and found to be very reasonable.   It's much simpler than the stock mapping, which has something like 20 discreet levels (which just seems like nonsense to me). 

First, you need to turn on the features of Codename Android to better manage the brightness.  Go to Settings->Interface (under CODENAME)->Automatic Backlight.  Enable the first checkbox, under "LIGHT SENSOR FILTER".  This will provide a moving average of the light level, which will help with the highly directional nature of the ambient light sensor (ideally, an actual ambient light sensor would be omnidirectional, but that's difficult to design into a device that is flat.  A better design would have a small semi-spherical protrusion, but I digress).   Change window length to 30 s.  This means that it will take 30 s before the light level perceived by the device is what the senor reports, assuming it stays the same for that long.  Until then, it will ramp up or down slowly to meet it.  Change the sample interval to 2 s, since it really doesn't need to be faster.

Next, let's edit the mapping.  Go to "Edit Other Levels..." and you will see a map of lower, upper, screen, and brightness.  This may look a little intimidating, but it's really simple.  At the very top, you can see what the sensor is actually reporting (raw), what the current average is (filtered), and what the resulting screen brightness is.  I believe "buttons" is reserved for devices that have separate backlit hardware buttons, as opposed to the onscreen ones that the Galaxy Nexus has.  We'll leave those alone. 

Push "set number of levels" and change to 7.  Now push each button for "lower" on the left side, and enter the numbers as shown above.  Then select the screen levels for each range and, again, enter the numbers as shown above.

Don't forget to push "Save and apply".  You may wish to make tweaks to the suggested levels, which you can do at anytime by coming back to this screen.  My advice is to note the sensor reading under "raw" when the screen brightness is something other than what you would prefer, and then you can modify the brightness for that range, or adjust the ranges themselves as necessary.

Now enjoy your Galaxy Nexus screen, the way everyone should have been able to from the factory!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Connection Between ICS, Battery Life Issues, and VOIP

Most of the smartphone owning population doesn't know or care about VOIP, or Voice Over IP.  They get phone calls through their cell provider (not to mention the phone itself), solely over cell tower signals, and that's that.  But as some know, there is another dimension to calling, and that is the world of VOIP.

VOIP allows a phone or computer user to make and receive phone calls over any medium that can carry IP.  This includes not only your 3G/4G data plan, but via a Wi-Fi signal at home, work, or in many public places.  It also means that you can make and receive these phone calls without necessarily being tied to a certain company or contract.  You can even use your own hardware to host these calls, and connect these calls to the outside world in a variety of ways in an openly-competitive market (in contrast to the world of cell carriers).  In short, VOIP is most likely the future of all calling, though the cell carriers will do their damnedest to delay this inevitability as long as possible.

As an Android user and VOIP fanatic, intrigued by the possibilities of combining cell and VOIP for the ultimate voice connectivity, I am constantly fiddling with my phone settings, and trying what most would consider to be "experimental" configurations.  Besides my usual cell phone number and contract, I have had at least the following VOIP connections configured on my phone in one form or another, since I got my first Android phone 2 years ago:
  • SIP connection to a cloud hosted PBX (
  • Google Voice via Groove IP app (VOIP over Google Talk/Jabber/XMPP protocol)
  • SIP connection to my home Asterisk box server 
  • SIP connection to various other Asterisk boxes, such as those built for clients, test and demo units, etc.
  • Maybe some other stuff that I am forgetting
On Froyo and earlier, I used to use a third party SIP client (namely Sipdroid), as that was the only option.  I remember when Gingerbread came out and had native SIP support.  I was rather excited about that, since it meant two things:

  • As a memory starved OG Moto Droid owner, I was hopeful that this might offer a way to support my SIP habit without having to keep a 3rd party app running background all the time.  It also would be a little more elegant/less clunky.
  • Obviously this was a step forward for the VOIP world, if Google felt it was worthy enough to build it into the OS.
So since Gingerbread came out, I have been using the native SIP client on some level.  It's always worked pretty well, albeit with some reduced functionality and configurability (without getting into too many specifics right now), but simpler is sometimes better anyway.   All of this worked pretty well, on my OG Moto Droid running Gingerbread.  My phone would connect automatically to my home asterisk box when I got home, so I could use my phone like a cordless extension.  When I was away, the local IP address would be unreachable, and it would automatically disconnect.  I also had my work number through, and I had configured SIPdroid to connect to that.

Over the last few months, some things have changed.
  1. I switched to GrooveIP exclusively for my work number
  2. I decided to stop using a 3rd party SIP clients
  3. I moved our home number to the cloud PBX
  4. I got a Galaxy Nexus running Ice Cream Sandwich
I'm not sure about the exact order in which all of this stuff happened.  I had about a month or so of good time with my new GNex, but at some point, this is what I started having:

That's my phone chewing through over half the battery life in under 4 hours.  The only information I could get from the phone about why this was happening:

"Android OS".   Not very helpful.  After searching, searching, searching, online, I only found that other people were complaining about the same exact thing, and that this appears to be referred to in the singular as "the ICS battery bug/issue".  So that's what I had to work with.  With many different apps that are part of my regular Android setup, finding the culprit was like looking for a needle in a haystack.  The only other clue I had was this:

On Wi-Fi, the battery consumption was much BETTER, even normal(-ish).  At least what I would consider normal for a modern, powerful phone.

I spent the next month or more trucking around my charger and 2 spare batteries just to keep my phone running while I was traveling.  The phone would get extremely hot in my pocket, to the point where it was uncomfortable to even keep it there!

I decided that I wanted to unlock & root my phone, and install Codename Android (a highly customizable ROM for the Galaxy Nexus).  My reasoning was varied, but mainly I got tired of waiting around for updates. To my knowledge, Verizon still hasn't issue an update from 4.0.2, which has an NFC tag formatting bug, and some other known problems.  Having a custom ROM that is updated often gave me occasion to format my phone on a fairly regular basis.  I noticed the problem came back after I formatted and installed the latest version of ICS (4.0.3).  After a couple more tries, I eventually broke up the initial setup of all my config and apps into 3 or 4 parts.  Between each part, I would give it a rest and see if it had the issue. By process of elimination, I found out that it wasn't any of my apps at all that triggered this problem, it was my configuration of the native SIP client in ICS.  Furthermore, it was the native SIP client's connection to, which is maintained regardless of whether I am at home or away, connected to Wi-Fi or not (cloud connection).

Before I go any further, I should point out that I DID check the box that reads "receive incoming calls (reduces battery life)", so I suppose I asked for it on some level.  Also, I guess someone could also point out that it really was "Android OS" that was consuming all this battery life, so the chart wasn't lying.  However, I'll point out that this is not the first time I have configured my Android phone this way, and I never witnessed this issue when I was running 3rd party SIP clients.

So to wrap it up, I have reached the following conclusions:

  • Something about ICS uses a ton of power (at least as compared to 3rd party SIP clients) when the native SIP client is maintaining a connection over 3G/4G, but not when using Wi-Fi.  
  • Google really needs to break up the Android OS category in the battery usage report a little bit, so that users can see whether/which something that they have control over is consuming battery %.  There are lot of other people trying to figure out what the heck in this category is causing their problem, and it's causing a tough PR issue for ICS.
  • There really should be an option in the native SIP client config not to connect over 3G/4G
  • SIP was not designed to be used over 3G/4G data connections.  It is a busy protocol, sending keep-alive packets every 30 seconds or so, constantly using the radio and keeping the phone awake, even when there is no call going on.  The future of mobile VOIP will not necessarily be based on SIP/RTP (and probably won't be).

I am back to running a 3rd party SIP client, CSIPSimple, and excellent and highly configurable SIP client that allows me to better control when it connects to my cloud PBX.  Since then, my battery life is back to "normal".  On an average day, I use my phone 10-14 hours and I still have at least 25% battery left when I put it on charge for the night.

One more conclusion I reached: the world of mobile VOIP still seems to be in its infancy, as I could not find one other report of someone connecting the infamous "ICS battery bug" to this issue.  If a lot of people were using the native SIP client in Android, I would think this information would have been much more accessible.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

AT&T Throttling Their Top 5% Unlimited Data Users

You may or may not be aware of it, but there have been reports that AT&T is throttling their "Unlimited Data" customers, essentially making a limit of a supposedly "unlimited data plan".

This has been a long time coming.  Last year, AT&T and Verizon Wireless began forcing new users into tiered (limited) data plans, with a certain amount of data allowed per month.  The typical allotments are 500MB, 2GB, 5GB, 10GB, etc.   The price of the plan rises with the amount allowed.  Meanwhile, old users are supposedly "grandfathered" into the unlimited data they signed up for.  Apparently, AT&T has decided that there needs to be a certain amount of pressure to steer people in the direction of tiered data plans.  I haven't heard of anyone having this experience with Verizon Wireless.

As a side note, I find it interesting that people use that much data on their phones.  As an example, I consider myself to be a smartphone power user, and my cell data usage is somewhere between 500M and 1GB a month.

On one hand, I think a lot of new smartphone owners are prone to much higher cell data usage than they actually need, because they don't bother to set their phones up to use their own WiFi connection at home.  Going by my own experience, I've had 3 users in the last 2 days tell me they didn't even know that was possible, let alone preferential.  At the risk of sounding like I am inciting a holy war between Android and iPhone (trust me, plenty of others have done this for me, thank you very much), I'll also point out that they were all iPhone users.

On the other hand, in fairness, I don't have 4G coverage, and I don't watch Netflix on my phone when I am not at home.  Also, after some quick research, most of the major data consumers do appear to be Android users, and that makes sense when you consider that the iPhone doesn't have access to real 4G networks.  I got a chance to play around with 4G the other day when I was out of Vermont (see my previous post about Vermonters being Verizon Wireless second-class citizens), and my first thought was, "Wow, look how quickly I rack up some serious data usage!"  Not having to wait for anything removes all of the subconscious internal limiters I have about using certain functions (or, put simply: my phone is more fun to use!)

I still think there are a lot of people using cell data when they don't need to, and as smartphones become more and more accessible, this issue will become more of a trend.