Posts

  • Reverse engineering a ceiling fan

    Tonight I was visiting a friend of mine, and noticed a strange looking switch on the wall. My friend explained that it was a wireless controller for his ceiling fan. Since we’re both radio geeks, and I happened to have my BladeRF with me, I got the idea to reverse engineer it.

    The first step was to figure out what frequency the controller was transmitting on. The BladeRF makes that a fairly easy task, since it has a bandwidth of 28 MHz. I fired up gqrx to get a nice waterfall view of all that bandwidth. My first guess was that the signal might be on the 902-928 MHz band, and sure enough, I spotted a signal popping up at 911.24 MHz whenever I pressed a button on the controller. But it was quite weak, which led me to suspect it might be a harmonic. Indeed, when I tuned lower I found a very strong signal at 303.747 MHz, and I could easily detect it from across the room.

    The next step was to check what modulation scheme the controller used. Most simple devices like this are using either on-off keying or frequency-shift keying. Zooming in on the signal in gqrx, I saw only a single peak, which suggested on-off keying.

    I knew my trusty RTL-SDR dongle would be more than capable of receiving and demodulating the signal, so I threw together a very simple GNU Radio flow graph to show me the amplitude of the 303.747 MHz signal over time:

    ceiling-fan-rx-flowgraph

    Here’s what I saw on the scope, once I set it to trigger on a rising edge and pressed the “light” button on the ceiling fan controller:

    ceiling-fan-ask

    The transmission was short enough that I could just read the bits off visually: 1011011001011001001001001001001001011. And by measuring the time from the start to the end of those bits, I worked out that the symbol rate was about 3211 baud.

    In fact, all the buttons generated very similar 37-bit patterns:

    off:   1011011001011001001001001001001011001
    low:   1011011001011001001001001011001001001
    med:   1011011001011001001001011001001001001
    high:  1011011001011001001011001001001001001
    light: 1011011001011001001001001001001001011
    

    The bits were repeated for as long as a button was held, with about another 37 bits worth of zeroes between each repetition.

    Given this information, it was trivial to build a flow graph to transmit an on-off keying signal using the BladeRF:

    ceiling-fan-tx-flowgraph

    My first attempt was unsuccessful, but it turned out the problem was just that the output gain wasn’t set high enough. Bringing it up to about 15 dB was sufficient to reliably control the ceiling fan!

    The whole reverse engineering project took only about a half an hour, which really demonstrates the power of software-defined radio.

    I’ve already added the receiver and transmitter to my sdr-examples repository on Github:

    Receiver: ceiling_fan_rx.grc
    Transmitter: ceiling_fan_tx.grc

    Update: Looking at the bit patterns above, it is apparent that the bits come in groups of three: either 001 or 011. Presumably, 001 represents a baseband 0, and 011 represents a baseband 1. That is, a narrow pulse represents a zero and a wide pulse represents a one. That would make the baseband bit patterns as follows:

    off:   0110100000010
    low:   0110100001000
    med:   0110100010000
    high:  0110100100000
    light: 0110100000001
    
  • Digital amateur TV on 70cm, 33cm and 23cm

    I love my BladeRF! It’s a very versatile SDR transceiver, and I’ve used it to receive and transmit all sorts of signals. Most recently I got it transmitting DVB-T digital television signals on the amateur radio bands, with my trusty NooElec TV28T serving as the receiver. (It is a TV tuner, after all, so why not use it as one for once?) In this post, I’ll show you how to replicate what I’ve done.

    First off, you’ll need two laptops running Linux: one to transmit, and one to receive. The transmit laptop needs to have the latest version of GNU Radio installed. If you’re running Ubuntu, the easiest way to get that done is to use OZ9AEC’s package archive. At a command prompt, run the following:

    sudo add-apt-repository ppa:gqrx/snapshots
    sudo apt-get install gnuradio gnuradio-dev gqrx libboost-all-dev libcppunit-dev swig liblog4cpp5-dev
    

    Once that’s done, you’ll need to install YO3IIU’s DVB-T package for GNU Radio:

    git clone https://github.com/BogdanDIA/gr-dvbt.git
    cd gr-dvbt
    mkdir build
    cd build
    cmake -DCMAKE_INSTALL_PREFIX=/usr ../
    make
    sudo make install
    sudo ldconfig
    cd ..
    

    Next, grab my collection of SDR examples:

    git clone https://github.com/argilo/sdr-examples.git
    

    Included in that collection is dvbt-blade.py, a script written by W6RZ that lets you transmit DVB-T from the command line using a BladeRF. Since amateur stations typically operate at much lower power than commercial broadcasters, I’ve modified it to use the lowest available bit rate, which should maximize the distance at which the signal can be received. (If you want to experiment with higher bit rates, you can change the “channel_mhz”, “mode”, “code_rate”, “constellation” and “guard_interval” variables. You’ll also need to adjust the mux rate of your transport stream, which can be calculated using W6RZ’s dvbrate.c.) The script is configured to transmit at a centre frequency of 441 MHz, so be sure to attach a suitable 70cm antenna to your BladeRF’s TX port before transmitting.

    The script expects to be given an MPEG transport stream as input. Fortunately, we can produce one in real time using avconv. It can record video from the laptop’s webcam and audio from the laptop’s microphone, and encode them into a suitable transport stream. To let avconv and dvbt-blade.py talk to each other, we’ll create a fifo:

    mkfifo in.fifo
    

    Then we launch dvbt-blade.py and tell it to read from the fifo:

    sdr-examples/dvbt-blade.py in.fifo
    

    You’ll see some output, but nothing will be transmitted yet because no data is arriving in the fifo. To fix that, open a second terminal window and run avconv like so. Be sure to replace XXXXXX with your own call sign, which will be displayed in the lower right corner of the video.

    avconv -f alsa -i pulse -f video4linux2 -s 640x480 -i /dev/video0 -vf drawtext=fontfile=/usr/share/fonts/truetype/freefont/FreeSerif.ttf:text="XXXXXX":x=440:y=420:fontsize=48:fontcolor=white@0.6:box=1:boxcolor=black@0.2 -vcodec mpeg2video -s 640x480 -r 60 -b 4000000 -acodec mp2 -ar 48000 -ab 192000 -ac 2 -muxrate 4524064 -mpegts_transport_stream_id 1025 -mpegts_service_id 1 -mpegts_pmt_start_pid 0x1020 -mpegts_start_pid 0x0121 -f mpegts -y in.fifo
    

    You may need to install additional packages so that avconv has access to all the codecs it needs. If all goes well, your two terminal windows should look like this:

    dvbt-tx-script

    dvbt-tx-avconv

    Now, over to the receiving laptop, which will use an RTL-SDR dongle to pick up the signal. Since support for the RTL2832 chip was only recently added to the Linux kernel, you’ll want to be running a recent Linux distribution such as Ubuntu 13.10. Make sure you have vlc installed:

    sudo apt-get install vlc
    

    Then launch vlc like so:

    vlc dvb://frequency=441000000:bandwidth=6
    

    If all goes well, you’ll see your video and hear your audio!

    dvbt-tx-ve3irr

    Now that you’ve succeeded on the 70cm band, you may want to try this on the 33cm and 23cm bands as well. Unfortunately, the Linux drivers for the RTL-SDR dongle currently limit its maximum frequency to 862 MHz, a bit below the 33cm band. Until the drivers get updated (I’ve already submitted a patch request), you can work around the problem by patching the kernel modules on your receiving laptop using the dvb-freq-fix.py script in my sdr-examples repository:

    sudo sdr-examples/dvb-freq-fix.py
    

    If everything worked correctly, the script should print out “Success!” twice. If you saw that, then reboot, and you should now be able to tune all the way up to 1750 MHz. On the transmitting laptop, change the “center_freq” variable to 913000000 for 33cm or 1279000000 for 23cm, put an appropriate antenna on your BladeRF’s TX port, and fire up dvbt-blade.py and avconv again. On the receiving laptop, fire up vlc again, putting the appropriate value in for the “frequency” parameter.

    In my experiments, I found that the BladeRF put out the most power on the 33cm band. I was able to receive the signal all around the house, using a rubber duck 33cm antenna on the BladeRF and the RTL-SDR dongle’s stock antenna. I’ve had a QSO with VA3DGN on 70cm. To get the signal beyond my house, I hooked the BladeRF up to a Down East Microwave 70cm 25 watt power amplifier.

    Have fun with DVB-T! I’d love to hear back if you make any contacts.

  • Tracking planes for $20 or less

    My new favourite toy is a cheap $20 USB TV tuner. It’s made to receive DVB-T signals, which aren’t even used in North America. So what use could I possibly have for it?

    Back in February, Linux kernel developer Antti Palosaari discovered that certain USB TV tuners can be configured to send the raw, unprocessed radio signal straight to the computer for decoding in software. (They use this mode when tuning FM or DAB radio signals. Think of it as the Winmodem approach to radio.) Palosaari realized that by running the right software, almost any radio signal could be received by these tuners. Not long thereafter, the RTL-SDR project was born, allowing these tuners to be used in Linux.

    I should note that receiving (and transmitting) radio signals in software is nothing new. Software-defined radio has been around for years, but the hardware required (such as the Ettus Research USRP has generally been expensive. The availability of a $20 software-defined radio receiver has truly opened up the world of radio to anyone who takes the time to learn.

    Since getting my hands on a compatible TV tuner, I’ve been able to listen to police radio, pager networks, garage door openers, air traffic control, and lots more. I recently tweeted that I had succeeded in tracking the aircraft in my area by using my TV tuner as an ADS-B receiver and feeding the output into Google Earth. This caught the interest of a pilot friend of mine, so I thought I’d put together a tutorial for anyone interested in capturing these signals. Although the tutorial is specific to ADS-B, keep in mind that the software tools (and in particular GNU Radio) can be reconfigured to tune in virtually any radio signal.

    So let’s get started!

    1. Purchase a USB TV tuner based on the Realtek RTL2832U chip. For best results, choose one that uses the Elonics E4000 tuner, which will let you tune in the widest range of frequencies, from 64 to 1700 MHz. The OsmoSDR site has a list of supported hardware to get you started. I chose the Newsky TV28T tuner, which I purchased from Aliexpress. (I paid 40 USD for two tuners, shipping included.)
    2. If you’re not running it already, download and install Ubuntu Desktop 12.04 LTS. I would recommend using the 64-bit version.
    3. Install all the available Ubuntu software updates using Update Manager and restart.
    4. Download, build and install GNU Radio using the build-gnuradio script. This can be done in a terminal window by running the following commands:
      cd ~
      mkdir build-gnuradio
      cd build-gnuradio/
      wget http://www.sbrac.org/files/build-gnuradio
      chmod a+x ./build-gnuradio
      ./build-gnuradio
      

      Note that GNU Radio is quite a large piece of software and has a lot of dependencies, so the install process can take a long time.

    5. Download, build and install gr-air-modes. This is the piece of software that knows how to decode the ADS-B signals that many planes transmit. In a terminal window, run the following commands:
      cd ~
      git clone https://github.com/bistromath/gr-air-modes.git
      cd gr-air-modes
      cmake .
      make
      sudo make install
      sudo ldconfig
      
    6. Plug in your TV tuner, and check whether you can receive ADS-B traffic by running the following in a terminal window:
      uhd_modes.py --rtlsdr
      

      If it works, you should see output like the following:

      (-42 0.0000000000) Type 11 (all call reply) from c0636c in reply to interrogator 0 with capability level 6
      (-41 0.0000000000) Type 17 BDS0,5 (position report) from c078b2 at (45.199942, -75.541590) at 30050ft
      (-39 0.0000000000) Type 11 (all call reply) from c078b2 in reply to interrogator 0 with capability level 6
      (-39 0.0000000000) Type 17 BDS0,9-1 (track report) from c078b2 with velocity 443kt heading 259 VS 1664
      (-40 0.0000000000) Type 17 BDS0,5 (position report) from c078b2 at (45.199616, -75.544069) at 30075ft
      (-42 0.0000000000) Type 17 BDS0,5 (position report) from c078b2 at (45.199265, -75.546504) at 30100ft
      

      We’re already seeing some GPS coordinates and altitudes! Press CTRL-C to stop it for now. If you don’t see any traffic, try going outside for better reception.

    7. To see the output in a more convenient form, we’ll use Google Earth. Download the 64-bit .deb version from the download page, and open the file to run the installer.
    8. For nicer-looking fonts in Google Earth, install the xfonts-75dpi and xfonts-100dpi packages by running the following in a terminal window:
      sudo apt-get install xfonts-75dpi xfonts-100dpi
      

      Then log out and log back in so the new fonts will get loaded.

    9. Launch Google Earth.
    10. If Google Earth fails to launch, it may be because it can’t find libGL. (This happened on one of my two laptops.) To fix it, run the following command in a terminal window:
      sudo ln -s /usr/lib/i386-linux-gnu/mesa/libGL.so.1.2 /usr/lib/libGL.so.1
      
    11. Run uhd_modes.py again, this time telling it to write its output to a KML file, the format used by Google Earth. In a terminal window, run the following:
      uhd_modes.py --rtlsdr --kml=planes.kml
      
    12. In Google Earth, select “Network Link” from the “Add” menu. Enter “Planes” in the “Name” field, then click the Browse button next to the “Link” field and choose the “planes.kml” file in the file chooser. Click on the “Refresh” tab and set a time-based refresh to occur periodically with a frequency of 5 seconds. Click “OK”, then zoom in to your location. With any luck, you should see some planes start to appear and move around!
    13. To see more details about a plane, click the “X” that appears on the map. Or go to the “Places” section in the left sidebar and expand “Planes” and “Aircraft locations”. Here’s a screenshot of Air Canada flight 839 coming in for a landing at YOW, with several more planes at cruising altitude in the background: Screenshot of gr-air-modes in Google Earth

    I hope you find this tutorial useful, and that you’ll do more exploring with software-defined radio once you’ve succeeded in watching planes!

  • Moving from Tomboy to Gnote in Ubuntu 12.04

    Gnote in the tray

    Yesterday I updated from Ubuntu 10.04 to 12.04. As usual, I did a completely fresh install, only copying over the things I still need. Tomboy is at the top of that list, so I copied over my ~/.local/share/tomboy/ directory. I read that Gnote is now the preferred replacement for Tomboy, so I installed it and was pleased to see that it read in my Tomboy notes automatically. But it didn’t put an icon in my tray, and that was my favourite Tomboy feature. To get the tray icon back, I did the following:

    Fisrt, I added gnote to the systray whitelist:

    gsettings set com.canonical.Unity.Panel systray-whitelist "['JavaEmbeddedFrame', 'Wine', 'Update-notifier', 'gnote']"
    

    Next, I set Gnote to auto-start:

    mkdir ~/.config/autostart
    cp /usr/share/applications/gnote.desktop ~/.config/autostart/
    chmod u+x ~/.config/autostart/gnote.desktop
    

    Finally, I turned on the tray icon in Gnote itself: Edit → Preferences → Use Status Icon. After logging out and back in, Gnote started up in the tray just the way Tomboy used to.

  • Using the Raspberry Pi's serial port

    The stock Debian image for the Raspberry Pi uses the UART as a serial console. I was able to connect to it from my Ubuntu laptop via my 3.3-volt USB FTDI TTL-232 cable. I connected Raspberry Pi’s ground pin to the ground pin of the FTDI, the Rasberry Pi’s TX pin to the FTDI’s RX pin and vice versa. (The Raspberry Pi’s pinout is available here.) Then on my Ubuntu laptop I installed minicom (sudo apt-get install minicom) and fired it up with:

    minicom -b 115200 -o -D /dev/ttyUSB0
    

    After typing in a username, I got a password prompt and was able to log in. Also, the serial console allowed me to see all the kernel output during boot, which could be handy someday.

    But I wanted to use the Raspberry Pi’s UART for my own purposes, not as a serial console. To achieve that, I did the following.

    First, I made a backup of the /boot/cmdline.txt file, which contains the kernel parameters:

    sudo cp /boot/cmdline.txt /boot/cmdline_backup.txt
    

    Then I edited it:

    sudo vi /boot/cmdline.txt
    

    Originally it contained:

    dwc_otg.lpm_enable=0 rpitestmode=1 console=ttyAMA0,115200 kgdboc=ttyAMA0,115200 console=tty1 root=/dev/mmcblk0p2 rootfstype=ext4 rootwait
    

    I deleted the two parameters involving the serial port (ttyAMA0) to get the following:

    dwc_otg.lpm_enable=0 rpitestmode=1 console=tty1 root=/dev/mmcblk0p2 rootfstype=ext4 rootwait
    

    I rebooted (sudo reboot) to confirm that kernel output was no longer going to the serial port. But the serial console was still available. So I edited /etc/inittab:

    sudo vi /etc/inittab
    

    I commented out the following line:

    2:23:respawn:/sbin/getty -L ttyAMA0 115200 vt100
    

    Finally, I rebooted again and confirmed that nothing was touching the serial port anymore. Then, to test it out I installed minicom on the Raspberry Pi:

    sudo apt-get install minicom
    

    And ran it:

    minicom -b 115200 -o -D /dev/ttyAMA0
    

    After firing up minicom on my Ubuntu laptop again, I was able to send data in both directions!

    Now to get the Raspberry Pi talking to an Arduino…

  • Making the Raspberry Pi a little less British

    Raspberry Pi

    After a month and a half of obsessively checking for status updates, I finally received my Raspberry Pi yesterday. I love it!

    The first thing I noticed after booting up the stock Debian image was that things are set up for British users. Most annoyingly, the symbols on the keyboard weren’t where I expected them to be. To arrive at a more Canadian configuration, I did the following.

    First, I changed the system locale, turning off en_GB.UTF-8 and turning on en_CA.UTF-8:

    sudo dpkg-reconfigure locales
    

    Next, I changed the keyboard layout:

    sudo dpkg-reconfigure keyboard-configuration
    

    Next, I changed the time zone:

    sudo dpkg-reconfigure tzdata
    

    And finally, I changed to a Canadian Debian mirror by editing the “sources.list” file:

    sudo vi /etc/apt/sources.list
    

    On the first line, I changed “ftp.uk.debian.org” to “ftp.ca.debian.org”:

    deb http://ftp.ca.debian.org/debian/ squeeze main
    
    # Nokia Qt5 development
    deb http://archive.qmh-project.org/rpi/debian/ unstable main
    

    After rebooting (sudo reboot) and updating my package list (sudo apt-get update) I had a pleasantly Canadian Pi. :-)

  • WIND Mobile: A bad first impression

    I’ve been wanting to try WIND Mobile for a while now, but my phone (Nexus One) didn’t support the frequency bands used by the new carriers. But recently I replaced it with a Galaxy Nexus, which supports the frequencies of all the Canadian carriers. WIND had a great deal on ($40 for unlimited everything), so I grabbed a WIND SIM card and signed up online.

    I didn’t want to port my number over until I was sure WIND’s coverage was adequate, so I declined the option when I activated my SIM. A few days later I was satisfied, so I called up WIND customer care to request the port. The person who answered my call told me it was impossible to port a number to a SIM that was already activated, and that I was stuck with the number that I had been assigned. Not happy with this response, I asked whether there wasn’t some other possibility, and I was told that I could go to a WIND store and get a replacement SIM, which could then have my number ported to it.

    I phoned my nearest WIND store, and was told it would cost $25 to get a replacement SIM. Obviously I had no intention of paying $25 to fix a problem on WIND’s end, so I headed to Howard Forums to see whether other customers had faced the same problem. It didn’t take long to find several discussion threads on the topic. Some customers had managed to get a free replacement SIM at a WIND store, and others had eventually convinced WIND to cancel and re-activate their existing SIM, entering a port request with the new activation.

    I called back, hoping to get a different customer care rep. This time, the rep was happy to put through a port request for me, but said the request would need to be handled by their back office staff, and would take three to five business days. While this seemed like an awfully long time for such a simple request, it sounded like a better option than making a trip to a WIND store, so I asked the rep to put through the request. She took down my information and gave me a reference number.

    After four business days had passed, I was getting impatient. So I called back and gave my reference number. The rep told me that the reference number didn’t exist in their system. He looked up my account, and found that no port request had been made. I explained what had been done on my previous call, but the rep insisted that it was not even possible; I could not port a number to a SIM that had already been activated. The rep told me I would need to go to a WIND store and get a new SIM, which he insisted I would not be charged for.

    At this point I was irate. How could my request have disappeared into thin air? I called back one more time, hoping there was somebody in customer care who could actually help me. The fourth rep again couldn’t find my request from the previous week, but after explaining my situation he told me that my number could easily be ported in to my existing SIM. He only had to cancel my existing SIM and re-activate it. He was able to do that within minutes, and my number was ported within the hour.

    Clearly WIND has a big problem with insufficiently trained customer care reps. Two out of the four reps I spoke to didn’t know it was even possible to help me, and one was too incompetent to do it properly. My tweets to @WINDmobile during the ordeal went unanswered, as did an email to customer care. While I plan to stay with WIND for the time being, in the hope that their network is better than their customer care, I will definitely not be recommending them to friends. Koodo will remain my recommendation.

  • Getting rid of tearing in MythTV

    I just upgraded to MythTV 0.24, and so far it’s looking great! Closed captions look much nicer and the revamped on-screen display looks very sharp. But one problem I’d seen occasionally in 0.23 seemed to be worse: tearing in video playback. I used to see tearing only occasionally in HD playback, but after the upgrade I started to see it more frequently, and in SD playback as well. After a bit of quick googling, I found a solution in the MythTV wiki. I added the following to my frontend’s /etc/X11/xorg.conf file:

    Section "Extensions"
        Option "Composite" "Disable"
    EndSection
    

    After a quick restart, the tearing was completely gone. Yay!

  • Switching to WordPress

    I was starting to get tired of Drupal, so I thought I’d switch my blog over to WordPress. So far I’m impressed. The installation was simple, and I was up and running in minutes. I thought of using a script to copy my old blog postings over, but since there weren’t many I just did it by hand. Now I’m putting the finishing touches on. Please let me know if you notice any problems.

  • My submission to the Copyright Consultation

    I just sent my submission to the Canadian Copyright Consultation. There’s still time to submit, if you haven’t done so already. I’d recommend reading Professor Michael Geist’s submission to get some ideas.

    Here’s my submission:

    Having read over the previous copyright bill (C-61), I would like to voice my opposition to the inclusion of anti-circumvention provisions in the new copyright bill. My reasons are as follows:

    1. The anti-circumvention provisions in bill C-61 would have made it illegal for consumers to unlock their cell phones. This would further stifle competition in Canada’s wireless sector by making it more difficult for consumers to switch carriers, since they would have to purchase new hardware. It is my view that competitiveness would be maximized by banning the practice of cell phone locking, rather than protecting it in law. The owner of a cell phone should be free to use it with the carrier of his or her choice.
    2. Users of the Linux operating system, myself included, must use a circumvention tool (libdvdcss) to play legally purchased DVDs on their computers. I see no reason why the use or distribution of this tool should be restricted, since it has many uses which do not infringe upon copyright.
    3. The anti-circumvention provisions in bill C-61 would have allowed copyright holders to take away users’ fair dealing rights simply by applying technological protection measures (TPMs) to their works. Fair dealing rights are a critical part of our copyright legislation, and we must not allow them to be taken away by anti-circumvention legislation.
    4. Technological protection measures can be harmful to consumers. For example, in 2005 Sony sold music CDs containing software intended to prevent unauthorized copying. This software installed itself without requesting the user’s consent and could not be un-installed. It also made the user’s computer unstable and vulnerable to attack. Other copy protection schemes use a central server to decide whether to allow users to access content they have purchased. When this server ceases to function, whether intentionally or unintentionally, users lose access to their content. In 2008, this occurred when Yahoo shut down its DRM server. I believe that rather than protecting TPMs in law, we should be protecting consumers from them by limiting their use.
    5. Technological protection measures can harm competition. For example, until recently, users who purchased songs through the Apple iTunes music store could only play such content on Apple iPods. A user wishing to switch to another brand of music player would be unable to do so without losing access to their purchased content. It is my opinion that users should be able to access legally purchased content on the device of their choice. Protecting TPMs in law would undermine this goal.

    I would further like to make the following suggestions for the upcoming copyright legislation:

    1. Crown copyright should be abolished. I believe that the benefit to the public of putting works produced by the government into the public domain would greatly outweigh the resultant loss of revenue to the government. This model is used in the United States, where works produced by its federal government are not entitled to domestic copyright protection.
    2. The term of copyright protection should be reduced. In my opinion, twenty years from the date of publication should suffice, since most works cease to be comercially exploitable before that point anyway. This would vastly enrich the pool of works in the public domain, upon which creators could freely build.

    Clayton Smith
    Ottawa, Ontario

  • Using your PVR to read a long list

    Tonight I watched the season finale of the Rick Mercer Report. It was a pretty normal episode, but one of the jokes nearly made me fall off my chair. It was in a spoof ad for “COLD-fX Drip”, an intravenous version of the medication once hawked by Don Cherry. Near the end of the spoof, a list of things you can do while using the medication zoomed by on the screen. Since I have a PVR, I jumped back 10 seconds to watch the list in slow motion to see if anything funny was in it. Lo and behold, Rick had anticipated my move! As it turns out, COLD-fX Drip is great to use while “using your PVR to read a long list!”

    Here’s a screen capture for your amusement:

    screenshot of the Rick Mercer Report

  • Compiz on my Inspiron 5100

    My laptop is an Inspiron 5100, and for the longest time I couldn’t figure out how to get “Desktop Effects” (compiz) going in Ubuntu. I didn’t think my video card (Radeon Mobility 7500) was compatible, but it turns out it is. I just needed to change a couple settings.

    First, I put the following in /etc/drirc:

    <option name="allow_large_textures" value="2" />
    

    Then, in /etc/X11/xorg.conf I changed my DefaultDepth from 24 to 16. Finally, I restarted X with Ctrl-Alt-Backspace, and enabled compiz in System → Preferences → Appearance → Visual Effects. Voila!

    I found these instructions here.

  • New machine

    I’ve been thinking about building myself a new desktop machine for a while now, but I finally got around to it this weekend after the motherboard in my old machine failed. Here’s what’s in the new one:

    • Intel Core 2 Duo E6750 (2.66 GHz)
    • Asus P5K-V (1333 MHz FSB, integrated video)
    • 2GB Corsair Twin2X PC2-6400 (4-4-4-12)
    • Antec Solo case
    • Corsair VX450 power supply
    • WD Caviar 500 GB SATA hard drive
    • Asus DRW-1814BLT SATA DVD burner

    It also has a few components from my old machine, namely a 250 GB PATA hard drive, Hauppauge HVR-1600 ATSC/NTSC tuner card, and M-Audio Omni sound card.

    Initially I was experiencing choppy sound and mouse movement whenever the hard drive was active, but I solved the problem by downloading the latest drivers for the JMicron PATA/SATA controller from the manufacturer’s website. Also, the memory was running at 5-5-5-18 timings by default, but I easily fixed that in BIOS. I used Norton Ghost to move Windows to my new SATA hard drive.

    This machine is smokin’! Prime95 is running about three times as fast as before, and I can’t believe how fast BeyondTV starts up. The new case is great too. It has way better ventilation than my old one, and I love having USB ports and audio jacks on the front!

  • Free at last

    It’s been a month now since all my Rogers services were canceled, and I couldn’t be happier. The National Capital Freenet is providing me with great DSL service at a great price, and over-the-air television is working out wonderfully thanks to my digital/analog TV tuner card. Watching the Senators destroy the Sabres in high definition is great. :-)

  • Rogers cancellation hell

    Since moving to Ottawa, I’ve been getting cable television and internet from Rogers. It wasn’t bad for the first year or so, but since then they’ve been raising their prices every six months, sometimes significantly. It had reached the point where it certainly wasn’t worth it any more, especially considering that Teodora and I don’t watch much television. Mostly we watch CBC shows (Air Farce, 22 Minutes, and Rick Mercer), and CBC has been broadcasting a digital high-definition signal in Ottawa since September 2006. So I took the plunge, and bought a hybrid (digital/analog) TV tuner card for my computer (Hauppauge WinTV HVR 1600) and a set of rabbit ears.

    At first I wasn’t pleased with the tuner card, due to the abysmal quality of the software that came with it. But at the recommendation of several reviewers of the card, I downloaded the trial version of a piece of PVR software called BeyondTV. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a vast improvement over Hauppauge’s software and it’s quite usable. Watching high-definition TV on the computer is great, and being able to skip the commercials makes it ever better!

    To replace our internet, I decided to switch to DSL service from the National Capital Freenet, a not-for-profit internet service provider and the world’s second free-net. Unfortunately, I’m quite far from Bell’s nearest central office and thus limited to a download speed of 2.5 Mbps, compared to 6 Mbps with Rogers. But the NCF’s price is significantly less, and some things are actually faster with NCF, for example BitTorrent downloads, which Rogers slowed significantly using traffic shaping.

    Yesterday I reached the point at which I was satisfied with the new television and internet setup, so it was time to pull the plug on Rogers. First I had a look through the FAQ on their web site to figure out what I needed to do to cancel my service. I was disappointed to learn that they require 30 days advance notice, but what can you do? I also read that cancellations can be done by phone any time from 7:00 am to 2:00 am, seven days a week. But after phoning them up and navigating through the annoying interactive voice response system, I reached a department that was currently closed, and would be open during their “normal business hours”, which they neglected to specify.

    I phoned again, taking a different path through the IVR with the hopes of getting a real human being on the phone. I succeeded, but the person who answered my call wasn’t able to handle cancellations, and forwarded my call to the same place I had reached on my previous attempt. I called a third time, reached a different person and asked again to cancel. When she proposed to forward my call, I told her about the “normal business hours” message and she told me that indeed that department was closed, and that the mysterious normal business hours were 8:00 am to 9:00 pm, seven days a week. I was surprised to hear that, considering that it was currently 6:00 pm. Upon pointing this out to her, she corrected herself and told me that the weekend hours were actually 8:00 am to 5:00 pm.

    So this morning, a bit after 8:00 am, I resumed my quest. Taking my original path through the IVR, I got the same old “normal business hours” message. I called again, taking the path that would bring me to a human. I got forwarded to the same place again. I called a third time, and the person who answered told me that she would be unable to make any changes to my account due to technical difficulties. I called a fourth time, and miraculously reached someone who didn’t decide to shunt me off to some other place after hearing what I was calling about.

    She of course told me that I wouldn’t be able to cancel my service for 30 days. I asked whether I could at least cancel my internet immediately, and she told me even that would not be possible. But luckily, I was able to switch my connection speed to the slowest available, thus avoiding most of the wasted cost.

    Anyway, I’m glad that in a month’s time I’ll finally be Rogers-free. I’ll be paying less than half what I was before while hardly giving up anything (and even getting a bit extra thrown in, namely CBC in high definition and fast BitTorrent downloads). And hopefully Rogers will stop sending me junk mail once a week! Well, maybe that’s too much to hope for…

  • Action Figure Party

    A while ago, I was fooling around with a couple of the music recommendation services, Last.fm and Pandora. They didn’t suggest much interesting, with one notable exception: Action Figure Party. I heard their song “Everybody Ready” and loved it. I just received their CD, and I’m pleased to report that the rest of the tracks don’t disappoint. In fact, I’ve listened to most of them at least five times now, and love them more with each listen. “Where’s The Moment”, “Clock Radio”, and “Action Figure Party” are also exceptional tracks. There’s tons of vintage instruments: Arp, Moog, Wurlitzer, Hammond, Rhodes, Clavinet, you name it. One track even has some theremin. Definitely check it out if you’re into funky, jazzy music.

  • Voting for a winner

    For the first time in my life, I’ve voted for the winning candidate in an election, namely Paul Dewar of the NDP! In fact, he ended up winning by a fairly large margin, which surprised me. Another surprising thing is that the NDP ended up with more seats than ever in Ontario!

    Below are the final results. As you can see, both predictions came very close. Teodora and I ended up making about $27 on the stock market, which is not bad interest for an investment of $400 over a month!

    Liberal: 103
    Conservative: 124
    NDP: 29
    Bloc Quebecois: 51
    Others: 1

  • The predictions are in!

    Well, the Election Stock Market closed last night, and final prices would put the parties as follows:

    Liberal: 93
    Conservative: 127
    NDP: 33
    Bloc Quebecois: 54
    Others: 1

    The Election Prediction Project, which does a riding-by-riding analysis based on user-submitted commentaries, calls for:

    Liberal: 104
    Conservative: 118
    NDP: 29
    Bloc Quebecois: 56
    Others: 1

    Things are looking good for the NDP, but then again, the Election Prediction Project greatly overestimated the NDP last time, so I’m not getting my hopes up. In any case, it looks like Teodora and I will end up about $20 ahead in the stock market!

  • Election Stock Market

    Here’s a cool idea: a stock market where you can trade in shares of the political parties. The final values of the shares will be determined by the election results, so if you can accurately predict the results, you can make some money by buying shares that are undervalued and selling ones that are overvalued. It’s all done with real money, so you have a financial incentive to make serious predictions.

    Teodora and I have been participating since the market opened on December 13, and so far we’ve managed to lose $10 or so. But there’s still a couple weeks to go, so hopefully we can make that back and maybe end up a bit ahead.

    This is definitely a cool project to get involved in if you’re interested in politics. It’s actually a research project being done by the University of British Columbia. They’ve had similar markets for previous elections, and they’ve done a pretty good job of predicting the final results.

  • World record prime number

    Since 1998, I’ve been a participant in the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, a project which aims to find huge prime numbers. Just a couple weeks ago, the project broke the world record for the ninth straight time. The record-setting number is 230,402,457-1, which weighs in at 9,152,052 digits! We’re getting awfully close to finding a ten million digit prime and winning the $100,000 prize offered by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

    If you’d like to participate in the project as well, it’s very simple. Just download and install the GIMPS software, which you won’t even notice running in the background. And who knows, you just might get lucky and win a share of that huge prize!

  • A new year, a new site

    Well, it’s the start of a new year, and I thought I’d start things off by finally getting off my butt and putting together a new web site. I’ve had an Esperanto site for a few years now, but a lot of my friends don’t speak Esperanto and have been asking for an English site. I always thought maintaining two sites would be a pain, but thanks to a nice piece of content management software, Drupal, it should be a piece of cake.

    Anyway, I wish everyone all the best in 2006, and I hope to hear from you soon. Leave a comment here or send me an email, and let me know what you’re up to these days.

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