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Preparing your home network for remote learning

This is a set of guides that is intended to help you ensure your home networking is working as well as possible so that you’re ready for remote learning in the 2020 school year. There are a lot of things that are important that I won’t describe, like getting a good desk, having lighting, and other things like controlling distractions. But if you’re going to attend a virtual class, this should help identify some common problems with your configuration that might be getting in the way.

Before reading:

  1. I would like input on this!  I’d love to know what questions you have, whether this addresses your questions, whether it’s understandable, etc.
  2. If your set up is working for you, then you may not need this guide at all.

My hope is that parents of kids who will be participating in remote learning in fall 2020 can have the best possible experience for their children to participate in the school year, so I’m writing this with that audience in mind.  I hope it’s useful.

The main ideas you want to focus on are (a) understanding how good your network connection can be, (b) measuring how good it actually is, and (c) understanding how you can improve it if it isn’t working as well as it can.

  1. Understand how good your network connection can be (i.e. what are you supposed to get from your ISP?)
  2. Baselining your performance (i.e. what are you actually getting?)
  3. Understanding “performance” of your connection (what do those numbers mean?)
  4. Improving . . . your physical connection
  5. Improving . . . your wifi
  6. Improving . . . your software configuration

I have personally done all of these things and need to do some of them again periodically when things don’t seem to be working ideally, so I will use direct examples when possible with the hopes this gives practical input as you assess your setup.

0. Can’t you just give me a short version?

Sure:

  1. You should double-check what you are paying for from your ISP and then try to ensure you’re actually receiving that at your home because you might not be.
  2. You may want to perform a nightly reset of some or all of your networking devices.  Rebooting these devices is almost never harmful and very frequently beneficial.
  3. Otherwise, if you have a problem, there are lots of ways you can look to see where the bottleneck is that is stopping you from getting good performance.

Without further ado, here’s the full guide…

1. Understand how good your network connection can be (i.e. what are you supposed to get from your ISP?)

This is an important step you should not skip. Go to your account with your internet provider and confirm what you are paying for. Additionally, shop around and ensure the play you’re paying for is the one you want.

Personal stories and tips:

  1. I am currently paying $65/month to Century Link for 940Mb/940Mb (“gigabit”) fiber.  Personally I think this is a screaming hot deal that anyone should take advantage of if they can get it, though I don’t know if CenturyLink currently offers it.
  2. My basic setup is:
    1. A networking modem from CenturyLink that receives a fiber optic signal.
    2. An Asus AC68U wifi router that offers 4 physical connections to my network at gigabit speeds + wifi routing.  All computers connect to this.
  3. Before this, I was paying Comcast about $80/month for maybe 100Mb Cable Modem.  And during that time with Comcast there were at least two times things changed in my account that I did not immediately take advantage of:
  4. One time Comcast made my account better, but it required a DOCSIS 2.0 (or 3.0?) cable modem.  I never leased Comcast’s equipment (note: I believe this was a good idea and it saved me a couple $100 over the years they were my ISP), but I could not get the new, better service until upgrading my modem.  When I did, my performance immediately improved a lot.
  5. Another time something else changed in my billing and I started paying a lot more than I expected.  Quite possibly this was my own goof and perhaps I mentally set the expectation “I’m paying [the intro rate] for my connection” and later I realized my bill was $80, I was unhappy.
  6. You may be more diligent and on top of your account, but I believe my point is valid: it’s important to verify that what you think you’re supposed to get is what you’re actually getting from your plan.
  7. I’ve also found that rumors seem to be true that if you call your ISP and tell them you are thinking of cancelling because you see a better deal, they may offer you better service or may offer a renewed “introductory fee” period offer on your current plan to convince you to stay with them.  Attempting to abuse this probably won’t work, but shop around, look for a better deal, and then tell your current ISP you plan to jump ship and see what they do.

2. Baselining your performance (i.e. what are you actually getting?)

Go to https://www.speedtest.net/ and measure the ping latency, download, and upload that you currently get.  Keep some notes of this because it will help you understand which devices get what speeds, how it compares with what you are supposed to get (per your account contract) and based on other conditions.  You will probably repeatedly visit speedtest.net and from different devices as you work to get your connection working as well as possible.

Personal stories and tips:

  1. Don’t reset your router, wifi, etc. before you get this baseline. You may learn something useful.
  2. I currently get 2ms ping, 8.76Mbps down, and 9.41Mbps up.  That sure doesn’t look like I’m getting the 940/940 I previously mentioned, does it?  Results like this are part of why I just said not to reset all your devices.
  3. This is usually best to do with a computer that is physically (with an ethernet cable) connected to your internet connection.  Your wifi devices may be limited due to wifi dead spots in your home, wifi configuration issues, or other issues.

3. Understanding “performance” of your connection (what do those numbers mean?)

OK, so you have seen a latency, download, and upload for your connection, but what do they all mean?

Latency: is how fast the network responds to your requests.  High latency = slow responsiveness = worse.  I actually don’t know how to fix bad latency if you see it, but if your speedtest results tells you that your ping latency is >10ms, you should search the web for tips on how to improve this.  If you just want to start a Netflix or YouTube video stream, then this might be OK.  Typically, though, you are doing something interactive in your computer and latency can make the experience very painful.  Think of online chat where you type messages back and forth.  Perhaps every keypress has some small, but non-0 overhead associated with it.  Bad latency == death of a thousand cuts.

Download: Is how fast traffic can get to your computer.  High download = fast = better.  This is pretty straightforward and well understood and you should just expect your measured speed (from speedtest) to be about what your advertised speed (from your ISP) says.  You will probably never see faster measured speed than your ISP says you should get.  Depending on the kind of network connection you’re paying for, you may very frequently see really irregular performance with typical speeds much slower than your advertised rate.

Upload: Is, again, pretty well understood.  High upload = fast = better.  Most ISPs forbid people from running servers off their home residential networks and you typically see an asymmetric configuration with high download, much slower upload.  It usually doesn’t matter if this is pretty slow, though video conferencing typically video upload, which can be fairly expensive.

4. Improving . . . your physical connection

First, if your measured speeds reflect what you expect to get from your plan, then your work is mostly done.

If not, congratulations!  You have found you probably have a bottleneck that you may be able to diagnose. It could be in your networking devices (cable modem, DSL modem, some other routing device), or your networking card(s) in your computer.

  1. I have needed my ISP to improve the attenuation (signal strength) of my internet connection.
  2. I have worked with my ISP to learn that signal strength was impaired due to a tight bend in a cable somewhere in my internet installation.
  3. I mentioned previously that I needed to upgrade to a more current DOCSIS-compliant device to get faster performance.
  4. You probably have a wifi router between all your computers and your internet connections.  Your wifi router may only have 10Mbps or 100Mbps physical connections (which may be stopping you from getting 100Mbps or 1Gbps speeds)
  5. You might simply need to reset your networking devices for some reason.
    1. Previously I stated that I got 2ms ping, 8.76Mbps down, and 9.41Mbps up.
    2. While composing this post I rest my wifi modem and ran speedtest again.  Now I get 3ms ping, 806Mbps down, 773Mbps up.  I don’t know why, but I need to reset my wifi router about weekly to restore my gigabit speeds.  I should learn what the problem is or fix this, but simply knowing a quick fix for a problem is useful.
  6. Your computer may have a 10Mbps or 100Mbps network card which could also present a bottlenck.

5. Improving . . . your wifi

Now you’re ready to test your wifi speeds with speedtest.net, so go ahead and do that.  Again, you might be getting the advertised speeds for your plan and there is nothing to do.  Otherwise, again, you’ve found a bottleneck.

  1. The first places to look for bottlenecks are, again, the problems with the physically connected computers (networking setup, networking device capabilities, resetting your networking devices).
  2. Next you should look at the capabilities of the wifi antenna in the device you are using.  For phones, laptops, and tablets, you probably need to look up the device you have to learn what wifi card is in it and what the maximum capabilities are for your device.  Your device may not be able to take full advantage of the network that comes to your home.
  3. You should look for whether you have dead spots for the wifi in your home.  You can typically just look at a wifi signal strength icon on your computer/laptop/tablet/phone and tell whether your wifi connection is good in the places you need it to reach.  If it is not, you can try a few things:
    1. Avoid dead spots.  This is probably the easiest.
    2. Move the wifi router.  You should try to have it centrally located in your home to have the greatest reach throughout your home.  Don’t put it in a cupboard or closet because wifi range is impaired when it has to travel through walls.
    3. Adjust the antennae.  I’m not a radio-frequency engineer, but every wifi router I’ve owned has antennae that can be aimed, so I trust the guidance to aim them orthogonally to one another.
    4. Does your router offer 5GHz and 2.4GHz wifi and can you choose to connect to a 5GHz connection?  You’ll probably get better performance if you can connect to a 5GHz connection.  This is because the 2.4GHz band has become increasingly “congested” with other devices that run on that frequency.
    5. Maybe your house is just too big for a single router?  I don’t personally have this problem, but there are “mesh” wireless router sets (Google, Samsung, and Eero make them – probably others) that create larger wifi networks.  I hear these are pretty great.

You should keep running speedtest.net to measure whether you’re happy with your performance or not.  Here’s a summary of what I tested so far, what I found, and some notes:

Test Latency Down Up Notes
Advertised by ISP n/a 940Mbps 940Mbps This is the advertised speed for my plan.  These are the numbers I really want to see.  My ISP does not tell me what latency to expect
First wired test 2ms 8.76Mbps 9.41Mbps This was my first test.  Something was wrong because the down/up are so low.
Wired after reboot 3ms 806Mbps 773Mbps Rebooting my wifi router immediately put my network performance in range of what it should be.  This is not 940Mbps so perhaps I can do more to make it better.
Phone WiFi (after reboot) 5GHz 2ms 342Mbps 287Mbps I never get, over wifi, the same speeds I can get from a wired connection.  I am usually OK with this performance after eliminating the other bottlenecks.
PHone WiFi (after reboot) 2.4GHz 2ms 89.3Mbps 95.0Mbps The 2.4GHz connection is always much slower than the 5GHz network.  I *don’t* configure my devices for the 2.4GHz connectino
Final wired test 2ms 850Mbps 842Mbps I ran speedtest again from the wired connection and found it closer to the 940/940 rate advertised by my provider (though still 10% shy of the advertised product).
Phone LTE 42ms 8.16Mbps 2.98Mbps For fun, I turned off wifi on my phone to see the comparable performance from my phone carrier. Those are pretty poor numbers (that ping is terrible).

6. Improving . . . your software configuration

There are still more things you can do and more things you should be aware of.  So far, everything I’ve discussed has to do with understanding, measuring, and changing things in your network infrastructure, and those are the right first steps.  In 2020, most modern computer software is written to try to make smart decisions based on your network performance to try to respond to changing network conditions and give you an experience that is (a) consistent and (b) as high quality as possible.

  • “Consistent” usually means it will try to understand your sustained throughput and latency and give you an experience that is not constantly changing (buffering, dropping) because it *thought* you could support XMbps, but for a 20 second period, your network could only sustain (X-1)Mbps.
  • “As high quality as possible” means you’ll get the best quality possible, but probably not fully utilizing your network (because it doesn’t want to sacrifice consistency) and video will degrade before audio (because humans tolerate video degradation, but “your ears don’t blink” and people freak out when audio is poor).

Despite this:

  1. You may have enabled a quality setting that overrides your software’s ability to auto-select the quality level where you said “give me a high-quality audio/video/both experience.”  You should probably leave these settings on “auto”
  2. You may be competing on your network with someone watching streaming video, games, or even a hacked device that is conducting a denial of service attack elsewhere on your network.  The other device(s) may be constraining your (possibly limited) network resources.  Try to understand if something is hogging the network and to stop this.  The best way to measure which devices are doing what on the network will probably be from an admin interface in your wifi router.

Final comments

I hope this is useful and accessible.  It got somewhat long, but all of it has been important to me at some time or other.  If you know me and have feedback, drop me a line and I’d be happy to try to improve this article.

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Video conferencing with Jitsi

After some experimenting and thanks to the introduction from my friend and FOSS advocate, Adam, I’ve landed on jitsi as my favorite system for group video chat.

“Another mult-person video chat system?  Why?”

You probably have a system that works well enough so you might not care, but these are two neat things that Jitsi lets you do that other systems may not:

  1. You don’t need an account either to set up nor to participate in a meeting.  You can simply create a meeting at the website and people can join via their browser.  To join from a mobile device, you simply need the Android or iOS app, but then it simply works without need for an account.
  2. No limits.  The free version of zoom caps meetings for 3+ attendees at 40 minutes.
  3. Reasonable security?  As far as I know?  Maybe it’s actually pretty secure?  I don’t know – it’s all open source, which is typically pretty good because it’s possible for people to look for and exploit holes (so they tend to get found and closed).

“OK, I’m willing to give it a try – what do I do?”

  1. Go to https://meet.jit.si/
  2. Give your meeting a name (MyCoolMeeting212) and start it
  3. Send the link to people to have them join https://meet.jit.si/MyCoolMeeting212
  4. Have fun

“What else might I want to do?”

  1. Add *a little* security by adding a password – this should prevent many people from casually dropping in on your meeting
  2. Change your name in the meeting to identify who you are (remember, anybody can join without jumping through hoops like creating an account, so it doesn’t know who they are)
  3. Set up recording
    1. Jitsi seems to record pretty simply to Dropbox
    2. You may also set up a YouTube creator account (this takes 24 hours to complete in YouTube) and then you can make your Jitsi meeting “go live” on YouTube
  4. Observe call quality – Jitsi shows you whether participants have a weak connection to the meeting (which is handy and simpler than the common “is it me? — I think it’s you…” conversations about call quality.

“This sounds too good to be true, what’s the catch?”

I don’t know…please try to figure it out and tell me.  Cloud compute is not free yet somehow these cats are giving away for free what Zoom charges $15/month for.  I agree that doesn’t seem to add up.

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Shopping online during the pandemic

I may have mentioned that I work at Amazon. If I haven’t, I do. I think Amazon’s great and I do most of my online shopping there but the pandemic is forcing me to do more shopping at more sites in the search for product availability of things I we want or need. Here are a few tips that have been helpful:

  1. Look beyond your favorite retailer. I typically shop Amazon, but I’m finding a lot of things sold out, so I’ve searched or turned to Target, jet, and Staples for things we want.  You might not think of places like Staples, but disinfecting wipes are definitely an office supply product and they have been available there.
    1. Reminder: if you *do* shop with Amazon, use smile.amazon.com when placing your orders.  When you complete orders from Amazon and use Smile, a portion (0.5%) of your order is donated to the 501(c)3 charity of your choice.  If you don’t use Smile, that money either goes to a referrer (who sent you to Amazon) or just goes straight to Amazon (which is actually not terrible…I mentioned I work for Amazon, right??)
  2. Beware price gouging. This really isn’t necessarily an Amazon-specific problem, but Amazon makes it very easy for Joe Random Stranger to sell anything online. This includes advertising things in the catalog at wildly inflated prices (I saw a simple contact thermometer this morning for $130).  I won’t say anything about what (little) I specifically know about what Amazon might be doing about this internally, but there is public reporting covering Amazon’s response to this which is to try to stop the practice. You’re making your own shopping choices but I just caution people to be aware of whether you think you’re being price gouged because there is still a lot if it right now (as the thermometer example makes clear).
  3. Look for product variations. You might see a page from any of these retailers who lists different variations for the same product on the product listing page.  Perhaps it’s wipes in a different scent or different unit count.  You might land on a page where the default variation is unavailable but clicking through the product variations will find you one that you want.
  4. Expect some delays, but don’t let that tempt you to hoard. Some things might not come for two weeks or more and this may make you want to hoard.  Obviously, please don’t buy excessively above a reasonable extent.  “Can’t get toilet paper for 2 weeks” needn’t trigger a Pavlovian response to buy a 6 month supply of toilet paper.
  5. Consider that some manufacturing is ramping up.  Related to the last point, consider that some things you can’t get today might become more plentiful in the coming weeks if factories are able to safely ramp up, so you *might* be able to cancel an online order in a week when local or other supplies are replenished.

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Keeping in touch during self-isolation via computers

We’re all responsibly self-isolating because we don’t want to get sick ourselves or spread COVID-19 to others.  Here are some ways to chat or video chat during this time.  The “notes” below are optional and can probably be skipped.

Can you cut to the chase and suggest the best option for me?

  • If you’ve got iOS and only care about talking with people on iOS, probably just use FaceTime.
  • If everybody you want to chat with has an Alexa Show, that works well and is easy to set up.
  • Otherwise Google Hangouts or Microsoft Skype are great – or maybe WhatsApp

What you need (you probably already have most of this)

  1. A video camera.  Most likely, this will already be integrated into a cell phone or a laptop, but you can also use dedicated webcams that plug into a computer.  This is how you’ll send videos to other people.  In this, I’ll talk about the mic being attached to a computer, but it could be a phone.
  2. A microphone and speakers.  This is almost definitely integrated into your phone, laptop, or the webcam you’ve already got.
    1. One note: You might find you are better off with the sounds being on your head rather that on the computer.  The two main reasons for this would be (1) there is sound feeding back into the mic you don’t want to send through the chat (like if you type on your keyboard it will create thumps that your computer mic can’t mute out) or (2) you might want to walk around a little while you leave your camear in place (like if you leave a phone in a kitchen while cooking and you walk away a little from the mic and speakers).  The best way to improve this is to use some kind of headset – either a bluetooth hands-free kit or just a wired headset.  Personally I don’t think it is worthwhile to spend a lot of money on this.  I use these $30 Anker headphones for running, but there are plenty of adequate headphones available for <$20.  There are also lots of terrible headphones available at that price point, so don’t just sort by lowest price.
  3. A network that can support video chat. This is pretty easy to understand, but can be tricky to get right in practice.  Basically you need a fairly fast download to get video(s) from the person (or people) you want to chat with, plus the ability to send video to them and a reasonable uplink to send your video out.  You can test your download/upload speeds by using the test available from Ookla’s speedtest.net (or from the app available for phones)
    1. One note: depending on the system you use or your home network (if using a PC) you might need to jump through some additional hoops to configure your network to allow the video chat to work.  You should get stepped through testing and fixing this during the setup of your video chat software.
    2. One note for phones: You might actually learn that your phone gets faster performance when not connected to wifi (when connected to your cell phone carrier).  If you are using a phone, I suggest getting the ookla speedtest application and testing your bandwidth on and off of your wifi.
  4. Software.  This is where there are the most options available and the next section will describe different options, why you might or might not choose them.
  5. People to keep in touch with.  This probably seems obvious, but it’s impacted by the software choice because not everyone is on all software and not all software can do the same things as one another.

What are the hardware and software options?

In alphabetical order.  All of these have a “con” that they are limited to interact with people with accounts in that system (e.g. you can’t use an Alexa device to chat with someone who is on Hangouts or vice versa)

  1. Amazon Alexa / Echo. $230 for (optional) Echo Show device.  Free with Alexa app on phones.
    1. Basic features and who you can chat with: one-to-one video calling between people who have an Amazon account and a phone number.
    2. How to use: Installing the app on a phone, log in with Amazon account, register by validating your telephone number.  You can then place calls to your contacts using their phone number (which they must have validated, also).  You have the option (from your app) to call their phone, or to call their Alexa device.
    3. Pros: Good integration with Amazon’s devices.
    4. Cons: Only allows person-to-person calls (No group calling)
  2. Google Hangouts. Free with Hangouts app on phones.
    1. Basic features and who you can chat with: Audio or video chat, one-to-one and group, with your contacts.
    2. How to use: Installing the app on your phone or visiting the website, you log in with your google account.  You can then do audio, video, text chat with your contacts who you look up by their Google account.
    3. Pros: Good integration with all of Google’s services (like Gmail), supports multi-person video chat, can work in the browser (from http://hangouts.google.com/) without additional software.
    4. Cons: No callouts.
  3. Microsoft Skype. Free app for phones and computers.
    1. Basic features and who you can chat with: Audio or video chat, one-to-one and group, with your contacts.
    2. How to use: Install the app on your phone or computer, log in with your Microsoft account, and find contacts by email, name, or SkypeID.
    3. Pros: Multi-person chat. Skype is one of the oldest platforms for video chat and has a large base of people with an account.  Never-the-less, for whatever reason it does not seem to be the most widely used.
    4. Cons: No callouts.
  4. WhatsApp. Free app for phones (and, it seems, computers?
    1. Basic features and who you can chat with: Audio or video chat and walkie-talkie like video messaging.
    2. How to use: Install the app on your phone, register and login.
    3. Pros: Multi-person video chat (up to 4).  Pretty widely used by young people.
    4. Cons: No callouts
  5. Zoom. Web-based chat, frequently used for business and group settings
    1. Basic features and who you can chat with: More professional system that supports chat that functions more like a meeting (time is scheduled, large groups are supported, attendees may dial in from a telephone without a computer at all).
    2. How to use: An organizer registers a zoom account and sets up a meeting (requesting a time) and meeting connection information is then shared with selected meeting invitees.  Invitees then connect to the meeting at the scheduled time using (A) the meeting ID and (B) meeting pin (distributed with the meeting information).  Invitees may join from a telephone.
    3. Pros: Good free platform for meetings with a large number of people and including people who only want to join via telephone.
    4. Cons: Cumbersome to set up ad hoc or spontaneous chats.

Apple has a thing too, called Facetime.  Like most Apple things, it only exists in their closed platform and unless your friend or family has an Apple phone or device, you cannot communicate with them.  I specifically don’t recommend it because at a minimum it requires someone go spend hundreds of dollars on Apple’s expensive platform.

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Signs of life

Is this thing still on?

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What to do when your cable modem doesn’t work

I got a call from my sister about her internet connection dying.  Here’s what I do in this situation – my internet is cable modem (CM) and my ISP is comcast.

  1. Attempt a reset by the ISP.  Through remote reset, the ISP can re-initialize your router and this may help.  If they *can’t* remotely reset your router, that seems like an indication that they may need to physically send someone to your home, doesn’t it?
    1. Gory details: Cable modems function on a standard called DOCSIS.  You probably don’t hear about this or think about it much but periodically your ISP may start nagging you insisting you need to upgrade your cable modem to a newer model to get the best service.  This probably means there is a new DOCSIS standard out, or they are offering support for a new standard and unless you get a newer modem, they won’t be able to sell you more expensive service.  You’ll probably only find yourself in this situation if you choose to buy your own cable modem rather than leasing one from your ISP – and you should almost definitely do that.  Newegg offers a bunch of DOCSIS 3.0 Cable Modems for under $60 and that’s what you’d probably pay in lease fees after 1 year.  Plus, why pay Comcast for this?
  2. Attempt to reset it yourself through power cycle.  Simply unplug the CM, wait a minute, then plug it back in.
    1. Waiting a minute may or may not be a magic amount of time (depending on your ISP, your CM, or the service you’re getting from your ISP with your CM).  Go ahead and wait a full minute though.
  3. Attempt to get in to the configuration for the cable modem and figure out what’s wrong from the logs.
    1. If you lease your modem, then your ISP has probably locked this down and you won’t be able to reach it (so go back to 1 or 2).
    2. Otherwise, it might be http://192.168.100.1 – so give that a try.
    3. Or, it might be printed on the bottom of your CM so get a flashlight and go try to take a peek.
    4. Or, you can do a web search for your CM model and probably find its default address that way.
    5. Assuming you were able to reach your cable modem’s configuration page, as it boots, you should be able to see a few useful bits of data:
      1. Where, in the connection negotiation process, it is failing.  This may or may not help
      2. Signal strength information.  The two most interesting values will probably be signal-to-noise (should be ~32dB or higher) and power (should be between ~-10dBmV to +10dBmV).  If your numbers aren’t in those ranges, you probably have an issue with your line connection somewhere and a technician will have to come to the house / line to assess where the problem is
      3. Full logs.  If you’re hitting a problem, you’ll probably find your logs end when they hit that snag and you may be able to research based on that information.

I hope this is useful!

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TVR 2013 Recap

tl;dr

I haven’t been running much but aimed for 9 “miles” (6:40 pace/1600, 1:40 pace/400) for the TVR 1hour classic.  I hit it (pretty precisely; to paraphrase Stephen Colbert: Niemeyer, it’s German, bitch) and just a little over.  Thanks to Greg Crowther for being the kind of visible, competent runner to do things like this and make shlubs like me try, too, and thanks especially to Katie for her support and Elizabeth for some day forgiving me for being the reason she spent an hour of her life before her 2 month birthday hanging around a track.  Maybe next year I can aim for 16,000?

This year I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend Greg Crowther’s run for the Titus Van Rijn 1-hour classic. I didn’t make it, but I was motivated enough to take part myself.  So with the road to hell being paved with good intentions, I waited until flag day to finally drag myself to the track at Lower Woodland Park, near Green Lake and I put in my hour.

I haven’t been training much (my first daughter was born just over 6 weeks before race day) and I initially thought “OK, I’ll aim for 30 minutes at an 8:00 pace and take it down to 7:30 and see how I’m feeling.” This would have been 7.75 “metric miles.” I’m no contender for anything in any local races but it turns out I’m not that out of shape, nor am I that unambitious, so instead I decided to just aim for 9 metric miles.

“What’s a metric mile?”  Most tracks are 400m and 4 laps on a track is 1600m.  A mile is slightly longer than this (1609m) but for this I set my goals laps – so “metric miles.”

So, flag day (the deadline by which people participating in TVR must complete their runs) rolled around and after work Katie agreed she would come with the baby and they would support me on the event. Fortunately, most people have better things to do on a Friday night than run around a track for an hour, so almost no one was there for my 36 laps.  It might make some sense to warm up a little for a distance this short, but I didn’t really, and after a quarter lap jog back and forth, I started my watch.

My target distance comes out to 6:40 pace per 1600 and 1:40 per lap, 0:50 per 200.  This is nice and easy to calculate and check splits many times throughout the hour.  I’ve only been on a track two or three times in the past 2 months, but my first quarter split was right on and basically all my miles were, too.

The first mile felt a little more challenging than it probably should have, but I started getting into a groove shortly after that.  I’d left an Ultimate Direction gel flask on one of the benches with a little water and one Gu in it and I grabbed that for a sip after I cleared mile 3.  Unsurprisingly, this was actually super refreshing.

The middle third was when things started to feel a little challenging.  Katie is the best support anyone could ask for, but Elizabeth was getting restless and on every lap at least 50m before I got to them, I could hear her starting to cry a little. You might think “the sound of my crying baby might really get a fire burning in me and help me knock out some solid splits!” but you would probably be wrong.  It makes you want to quit and want to help your baby.  At least that’s how it made me feel and how I bet it would make most parents feel.  So I asked if she could take the baby on a stroll (the vibration of our new – and excellent! – Bob Revolution knocks her out) and got a few laps where I could just focus a little more.

The remainder of the event was pretty typical. It was hard, it got harder, I disassociated a little, focused on my breathing a little, focused on my form a little, thought about the event happening at the same time in Iowa City for my cousin that I was missing, and before I knew it, I was in the 7th mile – the last third.  At this point I was pretty sure I would make it but still wanted to quit pretty badly.  All of my miles had been very close, but I was afraid I was losing a couple seconds in the aggregate (I was watching the splits and if I hit 6:40.8 for 6 miles, I would have almost 5 seconds to make up if I wanted to get my target). I grabbed my gel flask and drank the last two sips as I headed toward the home stretch (meaning “remaining 12 laps”).

Mile 7 was tough and 8 was tougher, but the weather was cooling.  As I started the last mile, I looked at my cumulative time on my watch: 53:26.  This means my last mile would need to be 6:34 which isn’t crazy at all, but definitely let me know that I would need to push to make it.  And I wanted to quit – blah blah blah the same things every runner says – however here it was a little different because this isn’t a race, there wasn’t (really) an audience (OK, Katie understands this a lot better than I and she would know if I blew it or not), and I haven’t been training at all. But I thought of a couple things: first, I was 90% of the way done and now is not the time to throw in the towel.  Joe Gray said something similar to that in a recent interview I read – how it’s not until things start getting challenging and you see how you deal with it that you really start to understand what you’re made of. And, also, my cousin who I felt I was – if only in some personal and ceremonial sense – running for.  So I plowed through, crossed the 9 mile line with time to spare, started to stop, heard Katie yell “Go all the way through!” and picked it up a little to run until the full hour was complete, adding 33 meters on to my target.

Ultimately, races are tests of mental and physical fitness and they shouldn’t be that different from workouts.  The line between race and workout is certainly a lot thinner with the TVR 1-hour run, but it adds a new, interesting dimension on all of that and I’m very glad I participated.  I’m also super happy I was able to pull off that time because it wasn’t clear that I should be able to, given my training the last months with the baby, so I feel great about that, too.  And of course I’m incredibly lucky to have a good support crew – including one of the runners I respect most.

The event doesn’t end on the track, though.  Afterwards, participants are encouraged to indulge in a black cherry soda so before the night was over I had to find, and drink, some of that, too.

Splits – Friday 6/14/2013, Lower Woodland Track, Green Lake, WA. Sunny+warmish at start (~7:20) to overcast+coolish by finish (~8:20PM)

  1. 6:39.70
  2. 6:41.70
  3. 6:39.86
  4. 6:39.38
  5. 6:41.14
  6. 6:39.40
  7. 6:45.26
  8. 6:40.49 (53:26.93)
  9. 6:33.98 (last 433m)

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Thanks for the socks

As I got off the bus near the Space Needle – I noticed I missed a call from my dad and noticed it was from his cell phone.  This is weird – it’s never been entirely clear that my dad is able to turn the phone on (the last time it showed a sign of life, I realized my sister was visiting and sending text messages from it).  I called back and greeted my dad:

“Hi – I missed your call this morning?”

“Oh – Patrick – you got my voicemail?”

“No – I just called right back…”

I didn’t make it to Iowa City this past December for Christmas.  Tickets started at about $800 and seemed to just keep going up – but I found a much more affordable fare after the holidays and I spent a cold January weekend in Iowa. I’d talked with my grandmother around Christmas and she was, as always, a delight to talk with, but I could tell she wasn’t feeling well.  She’d been up and down with some sickness and injuries during the year and I remember her telling me on one call “You know, Patrick, I’ve lived a good life.”  It’s really hard to hear someone say this.  It’s not really made easier when you know it’s true, but I suppose it might help.

When I visited in January the latest news was pretty promising.  I’m really a rube when it comes to human health, but it seemed her symptoms might be a sign of pneumonia-of-some-type or maybe-some-cancer and it looked like Marian might be feeling symptoms from the pneumonia (which had a less-bad prognosis).  A few hours and one call later, it was pretty clear it was the cancer.

I visited as much as I could over the weekend but it was pretty clear that entertaining company – though she was, again, as always, great company – wasn’t really easy on Marian. We had a nice dinner at Blackstone.  I came nattily dressed in LL Bean’s finest addition to their catalog for winter 2012, but the weekend really came and went quickly.  In the 6 weeks since then, the news has been pretty clear and pointing in the same direction: her health was getting worse and pain increasing.

So it shouldn’t have come as any real surprise as I stopped while taking with my dad under the shade of a tree near Seattle Center where the homeless seek refuge from the rain.

“Marian died this morning.”

But of course it was a surprise, and awful, and I stood there sobbing in the rain and not knowing what else to do.

My dad put my mom on, who had been spending a lot of time with her mother these past months. My mom told me how Marian was still getting around and doing all sorts of things that I know would have made me think “You really shouldn’t be doing that…”  And I could only think that yes, she did live a good life.  I know she knew she was loved and she made her love known to the people that were important to her.

There are a lot of ways we measure our successes and failures in life, but really that’s about all that it comes down to, isn’t it?

IMAG1049

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Programming a key for the Toyota Prius

Recently the key in my Prius has gotten really worn out. When I have asked my local Toyota dealer about getting a replacement key and getting it programmed for the car, I’ve been quoted a price of ~300-500 per key. Obviously, this is crazy, so I’ve been doing some research, ordered a replacement key off eBay, and found a number of things I wanted to collect more neatly for my own future reference or for others.

I’m not done with this process – I will update this post as I learn more or make more progress.

Dismantling the key and its main parts

The key fob consists of a few main parts – a good visual overview of this is on this site.  The entire block is referred to as the fob.  On the top of the fob is a small sliding lever.  If you slide this ~60% open, you can slide out a conventional metal key.  If you slide the lever all the way open and then apply pressure and push up on the back (the no-button side) of the fob, this will slide the case off of the fob.  From here you can see a sticker indicating your fob’s part number – mine is a B31EG.  There are multiple Prius key fobs for different car models, some of which have smart entry and start, some which just have the remote control keyless entry feature.  Below the sticker is a small, square plastic cover attached by four screws.  After removing these screws, you can replace a CR2032 watch battery that powers the fob for two of the key functions described below.  On the front of the fob (at least with my B31EG) the keyless entry buttons are surrounded by a sealing, rubber face.  This can be peeled back and I did – however I think it probably destroys your fob.  On mine, none of the buttons or keyless features were working already, anyway, so I had nothing to lose – but keep this in mind.

A thread on PriusChat.com indicates clarifies that there is no programming of the key, you program the car to accept the key.  A Prius will accept up to 5 keys to be paired with it (I don’t know how to purge an old key from the Prius). The Prius key fob has four functions and each of these functions is set independently.

The physical, metal key

As mentioned above there is a physical key embedded in the fob.  This is only used (on my 2004 Prius) to unlock the driver’s side door.  This is a physical key so there is no “programming” to do, but obviously it needs to be cut. Online advice recommends to have a locksmith cut it rather than simply going to a local hardware store.

The passive key that starts the car

This function allows you to turn on the car by placing the key in the car’s fob slot and pressing the Power button.  This works using some magic induction from the car (possibly passive RFID?) so if the battery in the key fob is dead, this will still work. I have successfully paired a replacement B31EG with my Prius by following instructions in this thread on priuschat.  This was pretty easy.

  1. [in/out*4] Insert old fob into slot and remove it 4 times in a row, then insert it a fifth time and leave it in.
  2. [open/close*6] Open and close the driver door 6 times (leaving it closed)
  3. [out] Remove the old fob from slot – the car is now in programming mode.
  4. [insert new, wait] Insert the new fob and leave in the slot for a full minute. Watch the blinking red anti-theft light on the dashboard.
  5. When it stops flashing and goes dark, your new fob is all set. Remove the new fob and you’re done.

Keyless entry (the remote control buttons)

This function enables pressing the remote control unlock/lock/panic buttons on the car and it relies on power from the fob internal battery.  Instructions on this vary and seem like they may depend on the model of the fob, the model of the Prius, or both.  I have not yet successfully completed this and am working on refining these steps, but the longest set of steps say to do the following:

  1. [open] With the driver door unlocked and no fob in slot, open the driver door.
  2. [in/out/in/out] Insert and remove the old fob into slot twice within 5 seconds
  3. [close/open/close/open] Close and open driver door twice.
  4. [in/out] Insert and remove old fob once.
  5. [close/open/close/open] Close and open driver door twice again.
  6. [in/close] Insert old fob in slot and close door.
  7. [power/power/power] Without pressing the brake, press power button, wait a second, press it again, wait a second, press it a third time to turn car back off.
  8. [out] Remove old fob from slot. You’ll be in “add mode” at this point. The car will lock and unlock doors to verify it is in add mode. (the precise number of times the car locks/unlocks the door is model specific – but it should do it at least once)
  9. …from this point on, the steps are not clearly written and I don’t know what works – further editing is needed…
  10. Press both buttons on old/new fob simultaneously for 4 flashes of the red LED on the fob.
    1. For a silver logo fob, the timing does not matter, but it is important to hold BOTH the old and the new FOB buttons simultaneously (e.g. hold down the lock and unlock buttons of a FOB but not simultaneously do it for both FOBs holding down all 4 buttons at the same time. I did this only once so I am not 100% certain about the sequence, but this is what I think worked for me:
    2. first press down both buttons of the NEW FOB simultaneously, car responds with locking/unlocking TWICE (not sure this step is even needed as car responding with locking/unlocking TWICE implies this is not a programmed FOB yet for this car)
    3. then, say 1 second after the car stops locking/unlocking due to step above, press down both buttons of the OLD FOB simultaneously,
    4. then, say after 1 second, press the LOCK button of the NEW FOB. Now, IF SUCCESSFUL car responds with locking/unlocking ONCE implying this new fob is now programmed/paired with this car.
      (iv) As already mentioned in previous posts, you have 40 seconds to play around with the steps in (iii) above. I had to play around a bit since it was not clear to me if one should first use the NEW FOB or the OLD FOB in the sequence of simultaneously pressing both keys. What is clear is that one needs to use BOTH FOBs
  11.  To end this programming, open a door or put the fob in the slot.
  12. Even though I don’t think it matters, I actually tried the smart key features after I drove the car for a minute while having the new fob in the slot. The smart key functionality worked fine.
Additional steps from another site:
  1. [no key, driver open, driver unlocked] The vehicle should be in the following condition-A. The key is NOT inserted in the ignition, B. The driver’s door IS open, C. The driver’s door is UNLOCKED.
  2. [in/out] Insert the Key into the ignition switch and then pull it out.
  3. [lock/unlock * 5] Press the Master Door Lock Switch 5 times from Lock to Unlock.
  4. [close/open] Close the Driver’s door then open it.
  5. [lock/unlock * 5]. Repeat step #3.
  6. Now select the mode by inserting the key into the Ignition Switch and turning it to the “Run” or “On” position. The programming mode is determined by the amount of times you go from “key off” to the “key on” position and back before pulling the key out.
    1. 1 time is the “Add” mode. This is used only on some models and it allows you to add a remote to the already existing remotes. The ECU confirms this by locking and unlocking the door locks automatically after you remove the key.
    2. 2 times is the second mode which will erase all previously programmed remotes and allow you to program new ones. The ECU confirms this mode by locking and unlocking the door locks twice after you remove the key
    3. 3 times is the third mode which tells you how many remotes are already programmed to the ECU. It confirms this locking and unlocking the door locks the amount of times applicable to the remotes coded. If no remotes are programmed then the ECU locks and unlocks the door locks 5 times. The ECU will hold up to 4 remotes at any one time.
  7. Press the Lock and Unlock buttons on the remote simultaneously for 1.5 sec and then press either button by itself for 1 sec.
  8. The ECU will perform the Lock/Unlock automatically to confirm that the 1st remote is stored by the ECU. Repeat step 7 immediately with another remote and continue until all remotes are registered.
  9. Shut the driver’s door and try all remotes.

Smart entry and start

This is the function that enables all the “magic” functions of the car.  This lets you grasp the doorknobs and will unlock the car if you have the key with you, lets you press the rubber buttons to lock the doors from outside the car (and prevents those buttons from locking the key in the car), and lets you press the “Power” button to turn the car on without putting the fob into the slot.  I have not found instructions on how to program this.

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How I make calls, starring Google Voice

I’ ve tried to explain this a couple times recently to some people and my system is a little complicated so I decided to describe how it all works. Rather than talk about all the pieces and how they fit together, I think it’s easier to understand as a story of what bits and pieces I incorporated and what made them compelling because I made this switch over the course of more than a year.

What is it?

Google voice is a free service from google (at http://voice.google.com) that can overtake, extend, and greatly improve your experience with your cell phone. When you sign up for an account, you will pick a new phone number – your google voice number – and when this is set up, you can use it for sending and receiving text messages and calls.  Additionally, there is a slick voicemail replacement system that you can point your phone to so that your voicemails are stored in and managed by Google Voice rather than using whatever your cell company offers.

Voicemail replacement

My first use of Google Voice was to use it as my phone’s voicemail system.  I think voicemail is a giant pain. 9 times out of 10, the result of listening to a voicemail is either “can you call me back so we can figure something out?” or “here is a short message that would have been much more easily consumed (by the call recipient) as a text message.”  There are a couple benefits Google Voice offered, and the switch was pretty painless:

  1. The app (for Android, but available for other phones) does speech-to-text dictation. Now I can read messages rather than needing to listen to them (usually much faster).
  2. The messages are archived online. Have you ever wanted to save a voicemail in your regular voicemail inbox? Humans are emotional animals and we build attachments to sentimental things, but boy does voicemail make this taxing. Trying to skip past “saved” messages or go back and listen to bits and pieces of messages is a giant pain. With Google Voice as your voicemail provider, you can search for these in your browser (or in the app on your phone), see individual messages and callers (no more 9-9 to skip to the end of the message and choosing to re-save, blah, blah, blah) and so on.
  3. The messages can be played via computer. This is often less intrusive to the day than spending picking up the phone, clicking “call voicemail,” waiting for the call to answer, and browsing to new messages using that terrible interface. This isn’t a giant win, but it eliminates some annoyances and it is useful.
Text messaging replacement
This took longer to decide to switch.  The ability to use this comes automatically when you get your Google Voice account, though. In the same web UI where you see voicemail, there is a small, simple to use form for text messaging.  I tried this a few times but it’s a little weird for recipients to initially start receiving messages from you from an unrecognized number. Eventually I stopped caring about that in favor of the nice features it adds:
  1. Ability to type text messages on a computer keyboard – this is way faster and more convenient than tapping them on a phone.
  2. Automatic archive of all text messages – you might not care, but having this archived and searchable is really convenient.
  3. Ability to resume a text message conversation from multiple clients – whether it’s your computer, phone, or another internet connected device (Android or iOS), you have access to your whole text messaging history. This can be really nice.
  4. And, potentially, texting is now part of your data plan – you don’t need a separate texting plan (or you can downgrade to a cheaper one)
The only exception is for MMS (image / video) messages – Google Voice can’t send these, so recipients still receive this type of messages from the number assigned by your phone carrier, not your google voice number.
Number switchover for calling
This is the only thing that’s really left: broadcasting your Google Voice as your official phone number for incoming and outgoing calls.  This effectively “changes” your phone number on people (though your old phone number still works).  Here’s why this is compelling:
  1. You can set up the Google Voice number to proxy to multiple of your phones. When someone calls my Google voice number, three phones ring: my cell phone, my work phone (during work hours), and a home phone that I have.
  2. You can take the call on whatever phone is most convenient. If I’m at home, I prefer to pick up my home phone. This phone is comfortable to hold, has good call quality, and it won’t chew up my cell minutes. If I’m at work, I prefer to answer on my work phone for the same reason and also that my carrier doesn’t have great coverage at my work. Otherwise I use my cell phone.
  3. You can hand off the call to another phone, if it’s more convenient. I’ll often make or receive a call at home from my home phone, need to take my dog for a walk, and just pressed “*” during the call. This makes my other google voice phones ring so I pick up my cell phone (which was just conferenced in to the call), hang up my home phone, and now I can go for that walk.

So what’s the setup?

  1. On my cell phone, I configured it to change the phone number used for voicemail to the Google Voice voicemail number. This makes all the voicemail stuff work.
  2. On my cell phone and an internet connected device, I have the Google Voice app installed – this lets me send and receive text messages on any of these (as well as in the browser).
  3. On the Google Voice website, I have configured my google voice number to make all three of my phones ring – I also have a rule set up so that calls are not forwarded to my work phone during off hours when I am not at work.
  4. One more thing – my home phone is not connected to any phone providers at all.  I have an an OBi100 VOIP system plugged into my internet connection and configured to interact with my Google Voice account.  This was surprisingly simple and (until / unless Google start charging for Google Voice), all my home calls are free and go over the internet.

In closing

Google Voice is awesome.  It does a lot, you don’t need to adopt all of it at once, and everything it does, it does really well (to date).

I should also mention internet calling: this is possible, but the results are touch and go. I took a trip to Beijing earlier this year and I used my Google Voice number with another, great Android app called GrooveIP to make VOIP calls. This worked amazingly well. Almost no lag, as long as I had a reliable internet connection, I could comfortably make reliable calls. The call quality was actually better than I remember regular overseas telephone calls in the early 90’s. However, when I returned to the US and tried using this, I found >1 second latency in the call (this is well beyond “noticeable”). So the promise of this seems a little ways off, still, but I think it will get here..

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