Friday, May 1, 2015

Adventures in SDR: Software Defined Radio For Cheap

Background (Not For TV!)

My quest originally involved looking for a cheap TV tuner while I stay out in a cabin in the woods, rehabbing my sister's property in a very rural area. I can get satellite but I don't watch much TV. I could stream Netflix or something but I'm lucky to have this semi-reliable, low-bandwidth Wi-Fi connection across a small valley to the neighbor's house.

So I bought this $13 dongle from Amazon which says "TV" in its name. I didn't catch that other identical versions of this product from other sellers had obvious reviews complaining that this USB dongle did not decode ATSC, meaning you can not use it to watch TV in the USA. The only reviews I noticed just mentioned how awesome this device is.

For anyone who doesn't understand, the irony of these USB devices based on the RTL2832U chipset is that they can basically receive anything but TV.

I was about to return this dongle when I did a little research, stumbling on one of the coolest hobbyist toys I've ever owned, and the second most fun I've ever had for 13 bucks.

Software Defined Radio: SDR

It's exactly what it sounds like: a programmable tuner. Mine has the Rafael Micro R820T tuner in it, meaning it can receive radio frequencies from 24 MHz to 1766 MHz, which is a very wide range for something under 20 dollars.

Lucky for us, an electronics enthusiast discovered a fluke (?) in the chipset of these dongles a few years ago, and now there's a whole community and a boat load of software making use of this dongle. There are applications for Linux, Android and Windows which can do everything from receive FM radio transmissions to police scanners and even some exotic things like pick up airplane transponder data and satellite signals.

Magnetic base stuck to a wood screw!

What Can It Pick Up? 

This dongle can basically pick up any signal in its frequency range, which is wide. Not only is the frequency range large, but so are the implications for its use because most of us take for granted all the little wireless gadgets we have.

  • CB: Citizen's Band
  • FM Stereo Radio 
  • Standard Police and Fire Frequencies
  • Weather and Emergency Broadcasts
  • CDMA and GSM celluar signals from phones and towers
  • Family Radio and other store-bought walkie talkie frequencies
  • Store bought baby monitors and similar devices
  • Automotive key fobs and garage door openers
  • Weather balloons
  • Radio Astronomy
  • Airplane transponder data

Jeez, What Can't It Pick Up?

  • American ATSC TV, which it doesn't have the bandwidth for.
  • Ham radio is below its range, and so is AM radio
  • Wi-Fi is above its range
  • Most land-line wireless phones are above its range
  • It obviously can't decrypt encrypted radio transmissions

The Sky Is The Limit

Actually since this thing can pick up signals from airplane transponders and satellites, so the sky isn't the limit. For the most part, the capabilities of this device is limited more by the software than the hardware. It can't fully decode ATSC television signals, though there is an app which can partially decode TV and give you an almost clear black-and-white TV picture ... no thanks.

The great thing about these RTL2832U dongles is that they run on so many platforms. I just ordered a Raspberry Pi 2 kit yesterday and I intend to hook it up to my dongle and put my SDR device on the network.

SDR# Software For Windows

If you are using this device for Windows, which most of us are, then your best best is probably SDR# which is pronounced "SDR Sharp" because it is written in the C# language and is open source. Here is a link to their web site. Once you download the ZIP file, all you need to do is:
  1. Unzip the ZIP file into its own folder
  2. Run the installer batch file and let it download the software
  3. Run the zadiag.exe diagnostic program, list the devices, and install the driver for your dongle
  4. Run SDR sharp and choose "RTL-SDR / USB" for your device
  5. Press the Play button
To listen to FM radio, just tune somewhere between 88,000,000 and 108,000,00 making sure to select "WFM" as your modulation setting. What's nice about SDR#'s built in FM radio is that it picks up the song and station information as you can see in the screen shot below. I've seen it called "the most complicated way possible to listen to FM radio"

There are lots of plugins on their web site, and I use one as a scanner, where I can set the frequency range and cut it loose to listen to local fire, police and medical. Below the scanner stopped to listen to the local police dispatch. 

More Resources for Software Defined Radio

The SDR Wiki Page is a good starting point
RTL-SDR.COM is a good resource
OSMOCOM who are the experts
SDR# is a must if you are using Windows
Hack RF is a powerful but expensive alternative platform
Web SDR radios can be connected to and controlled over the web!
Reddit has a whole community devoted to SDR

Friday, March 27, 2015

Petco Spammers

I love Petco. The wife got to keep the Petco account with our recent breakup, so I went ahead and got my own rewards card, which obviously you have to put your email on. I mentioned that I love Petco, right? So I gave them my real email address, and that's where I started liking them less.

The first couple days I got probably a dozen emails from them. Well I just signed up, so maybe they have a lot of good deals to tell me about. And then the next day, just as many emails, and the day after that.

About the third day after getting my new rewards card, I went to their site and opted out of all their emails. They sent me confirmation that I had opted out, and reminded me in the email that it would take a while to "process" my request. So they continued to spam me for about 24 hours after that.

I had almost forgot about them when I started getting spam yesterday. Just a few little spam emails, not the onslaught I originally got. But I have opted out of all email communication from them. You would think in this age of big data, a large database would not "forget" that I told the company I didn't want any more emails from them.

There's no excuse for companies like this to push the envelope with not only my decades of good will as a customer, but the law as well. I'm sure if I could magically talk to one of their executives, they would say something like "oops, we're still working on that" when we all know it's in their best financial interest to make lots of mistakes with their email marketing. Mistakes that I'm guessing are all in their favor.

So, I'm doing about what anyone can do, which is make my complaint on my blog where a mega-company like Petco can't spin the facts, and the fact is that they don't honor their opt-out email operations.

Over the last couple months I've really cut down the spam in my many inboxes, mostly by holding legitimate companies to their opt out, which I'm sad to say almost never happens simply by opting out. I normally have to make a big production out of it.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Raspberry Pi 2: A New Slice

Today Raspberry Pi announced a new version of their massively popular single-board computer system, used by faithful hobbyists worldwide. The really awesome thing is that they didn't change the price. Now you get a quad core ARM-Cortex A7 and a gigabyte of RAM for the same price of 35 bucks!

Better still, they claim full backward compatibility with the original Raspberry Pi, and it supposedly even fits in existing enclosures. Four cores running at 900 MHz opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for the device. It's frankly exciting to see a quad core hobbyist computer for 35 bucks. I believe the old version is going to stay the same price. I wouldn't be surprised if they dropped the price on the original version eventually.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Comcast Is An Abomination, Part Three: Stealth Outages

For the most part, our Comcast Internet connection has been remarkably stable over the 10 years we've had it. The service is fast, and there's never any excessive latency on the connection ... when it works. Every once in a while it goes down, and when it does, it's usually down the better part of the day while they fix or replace whatever they are working on, while we sit by and wait for them to fix it, knowing that calling their office would be fruitless.

With a connection as good as we've had all these years, it's perfectly acceptable that it goes down for routine maintenance, or a piece of equipment fails. Stuff happens, right?

But there's a problem: Whenever the Internet does go down, Comcast gives no warning and will not admit there is even a problem. It was down most of the day yesterday. I could see on my DD-WRT enabled router that Comcast was having issues on their end. I could also see the modem losing sync and sitting there with the US (upstream) light flashing, trying to sync.

So, I did what many customers would do: I went on my Android phone and installed the XFinity "My Account" app, which can show you outages in your area, among other things. If you've been following my rants against Comcast, you'll know what their app said. Basically it said good news, there's no outage in my area and the problem is on my end.

The app offered to troubleshoot my connection. Because it claimed the problem was on my end, it gave me all sorts of useless tips to try to get my connection to work, none of which made any reference to a cable modem that wouldn't sync, which ironically is required to connect to the Interwebs.

Did I call their customer service? Every time I have what I deem a routine outage, customer service's computers show no outages, and proceed to walk me through the script of rebooting, etc., usually until I say something like "does it matter if my computer is powered on if my modem does not have sync?" which is beyond the 1st tier and has to be escalated until the problem resolves itself. At that point a tier 2 tech usually calls me to tell me congratulations, everything is working fine. Thanks.

I got to thinking, this must be on purpose. If I were manager of one of the offices, would I tell my corporate overlords that we screwed up and half our office is down? All the local subscribers pissed off? Not at all. So they do the "right thing" and claim everything is fine, and let their customer service call center in a different location spent hours on the phone walking people through problems that are not theirs.

Having spent decades in corporate America, there's the prevailing attitude that customers are stupid, that "buyers are liars." Kids toys are made purposely low quality, because the company knows that the parent will blame the child for a broken toy just as likely as not. And companies like Comcast will put their own technical issues on you if they can.

There's another reason these outages are "stealth outages." If they admitted that the reason your Internet was down for a whole day was THEIR problem, they might be on the hook for having to offer you a free day of credit if you call to complain. If I called to complain today about yesterday's full-day outage, I guarantee they would be telling me that their system shows that there was no outage in my area, and that the problem was on my end, and where would be the fun in that?

Friday, January 2, 2015

Comcast Is An Abomination, Part Two: "Our high prices are your fault"

There's a long tradition of trying to curry sympathy by demonizing the victim. It often works for the worst kind people, so it's honestly not surprising to hear first hand about Comcast using the tactics of a serial rapist to blame high prices on the consumer.

This happened recently to a family member. She was being overcharged for her service, which was a legitimate issue. But before Comcast corrected the billing errors after numerous phone calls similar to my experience, they claimed to her that the ever-increasing cost of her service had to do with consumers demanding a la carte service.

Yep, Comcast actually told her that it was her fault as a consumer that prices were so high. Basically that they were the good guys trying to keep prices low by bundling all the crap channels nobody wants to see together. But no, the uneducated consumers complained about those channels being bundled, and now Comcast can't keep the prices low and it's on you, the consumer. That's the gist of what they told her.

I'm sure it wouldn't have anything to do with their lobbying efforts to thwart competition or "our billions in profit aren't enough" mentality of the mega-corporation it is. Just like a cancer cell, a giant corporation must keep growing. It must keep generating more and more profit to meet the shareholder's expectations and add a few pennies to their stock value.

Capitalism says that if you don't like a company, then don't do business with it. But in this case, the company I don't want to do business with has the only high speed Internet available in my area and uses its billions of dollars to keep it that way. These days Internet is just as important as electricity or running water. For me as a technologist, there's no choice.

It's bad enough that Comcast almost seems intent on a) generating lots of billing errors and b) making sure that all billing errors are in their favor and c) making sure you can't leave. But most of the time they are smug about being the supreme assholes they are. As an uninterrupted customer of more than 10 years, I have not seen a single instance where they didn't take every single opportunity to be douche bags, with the latest being "Our supervisor claimed he tried to call you several times and you never answered, and we believe him over you, sorry, so now you'll have to wait to talk to one because you're wasting our time." spiel they gave her a couple weeks ago. Shameful.

Comcast is an abomination. Oh, and since we went to just Internet, they are now spam calling us with recordings telling us how awesome our lives would be if we upgraded.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Comcast Is An Abomination, Part One: "Oops, we overcharged you"

Deceitful, arrogant, insincere. These are just some of the words I would use to describe Comcast customer service. It seems like every week I read about someone with a horrible experience with Comcast. the senior management apologizes and re-iterates how much it needs to change. Nothing changes, and if anything, they are much worse. I've been reading these stories for years and I'm convinced that insincerity goes right to the top. They say "we need to do better" and then wait for the furor to die down.

Unfortunately, our story is fairly common, and from what I can tell from talking to others, here is the basic formula of how they maximize their profits day to day.

1. Comcast overcharges you. For a while you pay it, but it bugs you.

2. You call them up, and instantly hit barriers. They say "sorry, but our system can't do that" when it can. They say "we'll have our supervisor call you" and the call goes straight to voice mail. Sometimes a "Quality Assurance" supervisor calls you to ask how your talk with the imaginary supervisor went, at which point the original supervisor claims they tried to call you and you didn't answer.

3. Congratulations! You made it past the first few barriers. It is now more expensive for them to keep taking your calls than it is to actually fix your problem--you know, the one where they overcharge you ever month no matter what you do. They've tried to wear you down, and for most people this is where it ends: with the realization that you need Internet access and you're not going to call and cancel because they've made sure that there's no competition in your area.

4. So, now their tactics switch. They've tried to wear you down and found you to be tenacious and resilient. Now they start what I call the "bullshit phase" where they just admit their mistakes and tell you that their on it, and to check next month's bill to make sure everything is fixed to your satisfaction.

5. Except they didn't fix your problem, and if you're very unlucky, your bill could've even gone up. At this point they are admitting their mistakes, except the process of fixing your mistakes creates more mistakes and either another loop through the imaginary supervisor queue, or a real supervisor says "oh gosh" and promptly fixes your mistake for real this time.


There's a word for a group of people who continually try to take money which isn't theirs and then drag their feet when it comes time to paying it back: swindlers. We have been an uninterrupted customer of Comcast for over 10 years, and in that time they have never once had our billing right. We've had years go by where we just didn't have the energy to call every day and fight with them. They admitted they overcharged us for years and then ... wait for it ... gave us free HBO for a year after a week on the phone.

As a technologist, I absolutely need a fast Internet connection day-to-day, so I am at their mercy and they know it. The big incumbent carriers out there like Comcast are lobbying for laws to throw the consumers under the bus and eliminate what little competition they have.

This is why I say that Comcast is an abomination in every sense of the word. The world is a worse place with Comcast in it. Like some of the big banks, they tend to screw over the customers who can least afford their service. And for what? To please the stockholders?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

NBC News Goes Down

Today I can no longer connect to Since NBC is owned by Microsoft, my theory is that their servers are running old versions of Windows Vista. For years I kept my home page set to MSN, until it became a platform to push Bing down everyone's throats. Then I switched to CNN, didn't like it and then finally switched to NBC News home page.

Looks like I need to keep looking for a browser home page: