A Weather Observatory In Your Pocket

Your cellphone is a miracle of modern science. Along with all the features we think of most phones also have an array of sensors. Nowadays most smartphones know which way is up, how brightly lit their environment is and even have a feel for the Earth’s magnetic field!

Some phones can even sense the weather. That’s a big deal. Samsung’s Galaxy S4 knows the barometer, temperature and humidity.

Some clever geeks realized if they could assemble all this environmental sniffing it might add enough new observed data points to be useful. So began “WeatherSignal,” an Android app (sorry iPhone folks) which sucks this info off your phone for further analysis.

Understand, as weather observation platforms go your phone alone isn’t very good. The temperature in your pocket, purse or family room isn’t the same as the temperature outside. However, once you look at light sensor readings and combine hundreds or thousands of temperature and pressure observations, a pretty accurate picture emerges.

We’re still on the ground floor. A few universities and government weather offices have begun looking at this data and trying to find ways to use it to improve short term forecasts. Over time suites of sensors like what’s inside the S4 will become more, not less, common.

It’s sort of crazy to think the next breakthrough in weather forecasting might not demand satellites or super computers. In fact the next breakthrough weather observatory might be in your pocket right now. Crazy!

My Internet Connection S-L-O-W-S to a Crawl

Sunday evening, playing poker on the laptop, I first noticed the problem. My Internet connection would stop for a few seconds – sometimes 10s of seconds – before resuming. The poker site I play at allows you to check the connection of the others at your table. They were fine, I was not.

Comcast has been very dependable. So, I did nothing, figuring all would be well on Monday morning. Guess again.

Helaine asked me what was going on. Her connection was slow. Steffie later chimed in with the same complaint. “The Internet is sketchy,” she said.

Between the three of us we spend an awful lot of time online and we’re spoiled with reasonably fast connections. This was totally unacceptable.

I decided to call Comcast when I came home from dinner. I worked my way through the phone tree (press 1, press 2, press 1 again). My hold time was somewhere around 10 wasted minutes.

On hold systems have two options:

1) Incessant announcements (which drive you nuts when you start hearing them the fifth, sixth, twentieth time).

2) No announcements, just a little light elevator music. That was Comcast’s choice and it’s really not much better.

While on hold I wondered if I was really in the queue? Maybe I’d be listening to these European studio musicians for the rest of my natural life!

A pleasant sounding woman, from Central Ontario it turned out, answered the call. She made me jump all the usual hoops – reboot, unplug, replug, etc. She could see there was a problem with packet loss and offered to send a service tech, but the system wouldn’t let her schedule one. Could I call back later?

After work, and on whisper mode with Helaine asleep in the next room, I dialed Comcast again. As I was waiting for a live person, I scooted over to DSLreports.com to see if anyone else had reported this trouble. The Comcast Connecticut thread was four pages long! I had plenty of company.

This time a Canadian guy (I didn’t ask if he was Canadian – but I worked in Buffalo, just across the Niagara River from Canada and know their regionalisms, eh) picked up. He started to do his dance and talk about sending a technician to the house, but I stopped him.

The problem isn’t here, in my house. It’s far away at some router. I even know the router’s address: It’s owned by AT&T and probably serves as Comcast’s connection from Connecticut to the Internet in general.

If I know this, why doesn’t Comcast’s tech support guy? Why spend money and send technicians when there’s no problem they’ll fix? Why not tell me loads of others have reported problems, we’re working on it?

If I asked someone high up at Comcast whether they wanted this fixed right away and wanted their customers informed, I’m sure the answer would be yes. They want the best possible result spending the least amount of money. Yet their actions show there’s a disconnect between what would benefit them and their customers and what they’re delivering. And, they might not know this customer service problem even exists.

There is no one served by what went on tonight. Not me. Not Comcast. Their phone people were polite and pleasant but never even brought me one step closer to satisfaction.

I really don’t want to have to call back on this tomorrow.

Two Computer Related Problems

Things are supposed to go smoothly, but they never do. I’ve just suffered through two computer related problems – one taking a full ten hours of time without a solution.

First things first. I notice earlier today that I had only received a few emails all day. Normally, I get 100-200 emails a day, the vast majority of which are spam.

I went to my webhost’s site (not Comcast, my ISP, but hostforweb.com who runs the server you’re getting geofffox.com on and also my mail server) and used their tech support chat. It didn’t take more than a few minutes for Fred to tell me something had hung and all mail sent to me (or at least the vast majority of it) had be sent packing.

As best I can tell this had been going on for 24-36 hours. Oh well. There’s really nothing I can do. I’m not sure about he actual bounce message returned, so some might be re-queued and re-sent.

The second problem was much more time consuming and sinister. My friend John has an old Compaq Armada laptop and a pristine copy of Windows 98 from a desktop machine that’s no longer in service. All I had to do was load it up and he’d take it back. This is something I’m glad to do for a friend.

The Armada 1590 is a Pentium 166 laptop that was loaded with Windows 95 and originally came with 16 MB of RAM. Today, that’s a ridiculously small amount of memory. Windows 98 might have run, but it would have run ponderously slow.

I reformatted the hard drive, checked for and installed a BIOS update and then set out to load Windows 98. This is a task I’ve done dozens of times… and never with a problem.

Windows loaded fine, but as soon as I got to the first screen after the installation and the computer began to play it’s little “I’m Ready” music, it locked up tight as could be. It would neither respond to keystrokes or the mouse/touchpad. Rebooting brought me back to the same problem.

I went on Google’s Usenet site which often has great tech support ideas, only to read a series of unhappy Armada owners who tried and never quite got Windows 98 to work.

I reformatted and tried again from scratch. Each time you do that, figure an hour or so until you’re at the first workable screen. I loaded Windows 98 totally at least four times.

After a while, and after staring at those cryptic Microsoft error messages (never had so many words and numbers given so little insight into what’s going wrong), I decided the problem might be with the audio driver on the Windows 98 disk. For some reason it didn’t seem to get along with the hardware which was, after all, designed long before Windows 98. I turned off the audio hardware from the control panel and booted again.

Success – but not for long.

Even a freshly loaded Windows 98 (or XP for that matter) PC needs loads of updates, patches and fixes. The more I downloaded and fixed, the more unstable the laptop became. BSODs (“Blue Screen of Death”) came fast and furiously.

Finally, I got to load DirectX 9. I have no idea what DirectX does, other than to say loading this update into the laptop brought it to its knees! Not only did the laptop crash but the Registry (which tells the computer where and what all the programs on it’s drive are) was now corrupted. Windows 98 was more than glad to restore a prior version of the Registry, which of course brought me back to square one.

I played this game twice.

Finally I called John on the phone and said, “No mas.” OK, actually it was Roberto Duran who said that, and neither John nor I speak Spanish, but you get the point.

Can this laptop be made to play nicely with Windows 98? Maybe. But, is it worth it? Probably not – I’m not really sure – oh who knows. I’m just so frustrated at this point.

The few fleeting moments I did have it running, it seemed reasonably nimble with web browsing. And, in that there’s some Internet wisdom that needs to be shared. This computer is only a Pentium I at 166 MHz. Lots of people throw machines of that speed out as too slow. With enough RAM – and John had boosted the 16 to 82 MB – even a slower Pentium is plenty fast for working the web.

Would I play games with it or edit video or run Photoshop or other high end multimedia programs? Hell no. But, most of what everyone does on the web demands much less horsepower. The laptop I use most is a Pentium II 300 MHz and it kills.

As for John’s laptop, before I attempt any more software loading, I am going to bring it near the sink with the water running full blast and explain what we do to computers that don’t cooperate. That trick always works.