Sunday, August 12, 2012

Toys, to hack @ IXR

Okay nobody told me ... I should be celebrating International Hack Day (August 11th), so I present my hack for today (a day late a dollar short ;-) ).

Okay, so I joined IXR to meet people of similar interests and to hack computer hardware. It appears I have some toys to hack. :-) IXR has these LED displays that are popular in small stores to post information, such as the current lottery payout. Each display can be programmed with an IR remote.

The displays store the messages and actions and the displays can display the messages and do a few fancy tricks such as flash. Well I opened up the device and found a simple Intel 8039 processor in it. There is an RJ11 connector on it and it appears to be connected to the INT line. My guess is that it's part of the IR signal communication that is sent to the device. I'll pop the bus pirate on the pin and see what it does. In the mean time I have ideas what to do with these displays (big evil grin). I should be able to reprogram the displays to accept new commands even to possibly communicate across a network (RS485 or XBee or Bluetooth possibly). That way messages would not only display on one display but could communicate across many displays. This would allow for more fine grain control of the messages and interface to a PC (using the remote is painful). The current EPROM is a 2764 (8K) so it shouldn't be too difficult to add a larger EPROM if the address lines are not in use. If they are then I'll need to be a little more creative.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Internet Access failure and resolution

My Internet connectivity at home has been very problematic of late. I've been having an intermittent problems, the kind that are very difficult to diagnose. It began a few years ago when my modem would suddenly lose the connectivity to the CMTS. During these times I couldn't even poll the cable modem as it wouldn't respond until it had connectivity to the CMTS. It would occur during extremely hot weather (>100F) or extremely cold weather (<30F). I'd call it in but not much would be done (truck roll, new ends). I ignored it because it only occured once or twice a year. The Tx power numbers were living at the edge (52-54, not good). But in the last few weeks I've been experiencing the problem almost everyday between 3 and 5 PM. I still had the smae power numbers, only this time with TV outages. Then, last week, the problem started occurring randomly. During that time the field techs measured the signal strength at various locations (the drop, the modem, the pole, etc.). The all the cable ends were replaced (greatly improving the power numbers), problem still existed. I then re-cabled the coax for the TV & cable modem, problem still existed. The old cable modem coax was installed in 1998 but it was actually pretty good Tx:44.5/Rx:3.2/SNR:34.2 @ the modem. Finally they replaced my TJ715 modem (DOCSIS 2.0) with a Ubee DDM3515 (DOCSIS 3.0) modem, problem still existed. Then things really got bad. I started to have lot of short 2 minute outages and a few 20 minute outages. This time when I called the telephone support person informed me that they also had a problem with people not being able to order a PPV event. It took almost an entire day to resolve the issue but now it seems to be fixed (I hope).

First let me make it clear that the customer service for Comcast has improved. Also I work for a competitor which doesn't service this area. The people I dealt with on the Internet side of the house were polite, professional and seemed knowledgeable. On the TV side of the house, I dealt with only one person. So the outcome:

  • If you have a problem with Internet and TV, call the Internet help line. They'll be more helpful. The TV side of the house seems to be only able to send a signal to 'reset the cable box'.
  • I now have new, high quality cabling for my Internet and TV. I have some training on cable installation and I worked in a network lab where I built various custom cable as needed. So have some experience with cables so I think I did a good job.
  • It's installation is tidy and unobtrusive. I installed and purchased all the materials and tools for less than $200 and I have left over material should I need it for future use.
  • I now have a DOCSIS 3.0 modem and I am ready for native IPV6, if it is in my area. I now need to bring up my new router with it's firewall and IPV4 & IPV6 configuration.
  • I now have to figure out a way to hide the cable modem as those LEDS are bright and eye catching (very annoying).
  • I've been upgraded from 12/3 to 22/5. Not that I really needed the extra speed but I'll take it! ;-)
  • I now need to revamp my Perl code from the TJ715 code to the Ubee DDM3515 code. And from SSH and command line commands to SNMP polls. Yes I monitor the network equipment.
While the above is useful it came at a bad time. Issues with work, family and health would make me wish this came at a better time. Instead I was forced to deal with it now. Also the support folks were asking me if any of my neighbors were having similar problems. That one really surprised me. I would expect that a service provider would be aware of their own local issues (we call that a database and data mining). Had Comcast not found the problem that week I would have begun the process to moving over my Internet and TV to Verizon. I must say that Comcast got lucky.

What I have learned is that businesses still seem to handle customer problems as an after thought. So here's my take on this event:

  • It appears that businesses don't have procedures for handling difficult problems. They have scripts to deal with the simplest of problems. The support people to deal with the majority and I'd guess the last 20% are left up to luck or to letting the customer escape to the competition.
  • Businesses rely too much on the 'Microsoft fix' method of restart the equipment/software. This isn't a fix for the problem, it's a way to push it off until later.
  • If that doesn't work then swap out the equipment. Soemtimes that makes sense sometimes it doesn't. This time it made sense in that the equipment I had was old and no longer on the supported list.
  • Sometimes they resort to the 'warm body' fix. If you send out a person (a warm body), a repeat problem will be magically fixed. My opinion is that if the problem can't be fixed in 1 or 2 truck rolls there's a more complex problem.
  • Businesses make it difficult to get to higher support when needed. Now I understand that the these tech wizards can't be the front line folks. But there must be proceedures to get to them.

Monday, August 06, 2012

IXR uMonday's for Monday Aug 6

IXR's Monday night Microcontroller madness @ InfoAge in Wall Township, (just off Rt 18, exit 7 or 7A), 7 PM,get your maker on! ;-)

So Starting @ 7 PM, IXR will have it's weekly Microcontroller Mondays. the last few weeks have been fun. I started out with no projects and now I can't keep up with them. :-). The first project I worked on was figuring out how to connect an Arduino to some rather odd LED displays we have (M8647AHR). It's a pair of 2 segment LED displays (plus dp) that takes 36 bits shifted into it to display the characters. We have 16 pairs of these. So far I've setup 2 pairs and I'm demonstrating a simple count down timer. To drive all 16 I'll need some additional electronics such as a 4 to 16 demux (74LS154) and a buffer chip.

I also want to spend a few minutes taking apart an LED display IXR has. There's a RJ45 port on the back and no mention of it in the manual. I suspect a communications port but I'm not sure. A little time dismantling it with help give up its secrets and if not, it won't be much more difficult to figure out it works (reverse engineer) and to burn a new EPROM to make it do what I intend. :-)

Finally there will be the most important thing to work on! The 3D printer. Monty proposed building a couple of 3D printers so I decided it would be a good idea. We have the motors (10 of them, 5 for each printer) and the driving electrons. I really wanted to spend some time putting them together but found no spare time during the week (argh!).

I'm also going to attempt to start a few project boxes. The idea being that if you have nothing else to do you can try working on a project box. My first one is the Internet clock radio. I have some digital AM/FM chips coming in, a Raspberry PI (running Debian Linux) and an AM/FM Alarm Clock Radio. I do intend on working on it but at the moment it's not at the top of the project list.

As a bonus Martin has given me a challenge, to build a control head for a Micom 2E radio. This looks like an intersting project. And he has some need of some X10 wireless protocol devices. Let's see where that leads us.

As always, I have more ideas than time but with ISXr's help I'll start tackling some of these projects. :-)