Dan's Data letters #210

Publication date: 24-Aug-2012.
Last modified 06-Oct-2012.

 

Mobile-phone bondage and discipline

OK, I use tethering from my company iPhone when I'm on the road - it's paid for by the company so I can stay connected, get my email and so forth when I am in a motel with their notoriously horrible wifi service.

However, my nephew just mentioned he can link his iPad to his Android phone via bluetooth and get on the net when he is away from wifi without ever having enabled tethering. It used to be that on my carrier you could do that, but over the past few years you cannot and they will ding you big time if they know you are doing that - even if you stay below their 2 gig caps. They REALLY want their tethering fees.

The question becomes, how can they know? Is it simply that they see your data usage skyrocket, or do the devices send a unique ID that the carrier picks up on or what? I have a grandfathered, unlimited plan and it would be nice to make use of my data (I don't use much data, ever, on my phone) without getting nailed for an additional tethering fee when I never come close to using even the base amount of data sold to new customers.

I realize this is a bit out of the usual psycho science realm, but it's worth a try.

Mike

Answer:
In the ghastly mobile-telephony market of the USA (From The People Who Brought You, "Paying To RECEIVE A Text Message!"), it's normal for mobile-phone companies to have custom firmware for their phones. So Phone A from, say, T-Mobile, will be slightly different from the same phone from, say, Verizon. It is of course easy for the special firmware to notice and report when a phone's been tethered, so the carrier can charge the extra fee, disconnect you for violation of your contract terms, block tethering apps altogether, or whatever.

(This is changing; the FCC recently fined Verizon and forced them to allow tethering apps on certain phones on its network.)

Even without special firmware, though, it's not very hard for a carrier to discover when a phone's been tethered, since all of the data you send and receive goes through the carrier's servers. Even if it's encrypted, a sudden sustained pipe-filling data transfer from a phone that previously didn't do anything more heavy-duty than look at the occasional YouTube video is a bit of a giveaway.

And if the data isn't encrypted, it's quite easy to detect BitTorrent traffic, multiplayer game traffic, whatever the hell it is that Diablo III sends and receives from those wonderful DRM servers that let players enjoy lag in their one-player game, et cetera. The carrier doesn't really need to know anything at all about the format of the traffic if they can see it's all to and from, say, the Eve Online servers.

You can root your phone and install the manufacturer's reference firmware or an improved version, and probably just be voiding your warranty rather than actually doing something illegal. But that won't help you hide traffic that's obviously from software that nobody can run on a phone. Using a VPN or in-application encryption may allow you to hide tethered traffic that doesn't use a lot of bandwidth, but again, if they can see where it's going and the endpoint isn't something a phone can make use of, you're busted.

Here in Australia, I'm pretty sure we escape this bullshit. Every ISP worth bothering with and I think also every mobile-phone company which sane people use just gives you a bandwidth allowance, tells you what it is, and lets you do whatever you want with that bandwidth. You can still find yourself an Unlimited[asterisk]! account if you buy your communication products from people who advertise on TV at two in the morning, but it's not the norm.

 

Hamburger-pedal problems

I have one of those USB foot pedals, and it seems like it should be monumentally useful, only it isn't - at least not for what I want to do with it.

Here's the deal. I want to use it as my push to talk button while I'm playing WoW (and other games, but WoW is my thing right now). In the past, my PTT has been left control, so I bound it to that with predictable results. I can't press a lot of buttons while talking, obviously, and you have to press a lot of buttons to slay internet dragons. This results in some occasionally very entertainingly broken up conversations during a battle.

Next I tried binding it to right-control, but apparently the software I have (from Sound Blaster - I got this one when I bought my World of Warcraft headset) or else the pedal itself, doesn't know the difference between left control and right control. I then tried binding it to a few other keys before I gave up. I always wound up with the same problem: I can't hold down the pedal (or any key I've tried on my keyboard) and still use WASD to move. I have to release the pedal the same as I would if I was using L-ctrl or space bar or what have you. I can still move by using my mouse, but I can't strafe or press other hotkeys, and a lot of WoW requires those sorts of things.

Is there any button on my keyboard (Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 if it matters) that bypasses this behavior? Or is there another solution entirely that I'm overlooking?

Thanks for your time and articles, Dan.

Derrill

Answer:
That's odd. I haven't seen the pedal ever interfere with other keys, unless of course it's bound to S and you're holding W, or something.

What seems to be happening is that your computer is only seeing the held-down pedal "key", not the others. This sort of thing can happen on a single keyboard, if you hold down more keys than it can simultaneously detect; cheap keyboards can only have a few keys down at once, and keys all over the keyboard may be able to interfere with each other. Better keyboards let you hold down more keys at once, and have multiple "zones" of keys that don't interfere with other zones no matter how many keys you're holding within one zone. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rollover_(key) .)

But this shouldn't happen between _two_ keyboards (or between a keyboard and a pedal-pretending-to-be-a-keyboard).

For me, if I bind the pedal to "=" and hold it down while running around in Skyrim or Saint's Row 3, it works fine. Holding pedal and a movement key simultaneously is not a problem, and if I hold the same keys in a text editor I get "=d=d=d=d=d=========a=a=a=a=a=a=a=a=", et cetera. Perhaps you could hunt for a working key by doing the same thing, but I presume you've already tried pretty much every key. Try another keyboard, too; it really shouldn't make any difference, but when you have eliminated the impossible...

(Also, it'd be an excuse to buy a monster clicky keyboard! If this page is to be believed, though, your current keyboard actually has BETTER rollover than my old IBM; it missed only one character with both shift keys held, whereas when I did the same test I got only "HE QUIK BROWN FO JUPS RIGH OER HE LA DOG"! I can't think of any way in which a better rollover could cause a problem, but who knows.)

Is there, at least, an option for the push-to-talk key to be a _toggle_? Press once to start, once to stop. Even if there isn't, you might be able to make that happen with AutoHotkey or something.

Other possibilities:

* Try different VoIP software - Teamspeak, Ventrilo, whatever you're not using now.

* A long shot, but easy: Try a different audio adapter. Get one of those $2-delivered "USB sound cards" off eBay, and plug your mic into that.

Derrill got back to me after this, and said:

Well.

I bound it to = since even as a touch typist I don't use that side of the keyboard while playing, and it just works. It's been ... 6 months since I've thought about the pedal, so I can't say for sure how many different keys I tried - other than "not enough", clearly. There are certainly a bunch that I didn't try, since I use those for commands in game, and I will admit the possibility that I gave up early.

I'm glad I thought to ask you when I saw your article on the pedal.

 

DIY mains wiring: Exciting! Convenient! Sometimes fatal!

I'll be moving from the USA to Germany soon. I've already read about all kinds of fascinating ways to burn your house down by mixing and matching American electronics with European mains, and worry I may have just invented another.

With the proliferation of switchmode power supplies - seriously, at last count well over half of my not inconsiderable number of doo-dads and gee-gaws use them - it looks like "make this plug go into that socket" will be a more common problem for me than "make this socket output half its customary voltage".

This is where my inner bad scientist started whispering to me that hey, if I just got a plug adaptor for a power board or multi-outlet extension cord, and plugged all my switchmode supplies into *that*, I'd need about 1/6 as many adapters.

So: aside from the obvious hazards associated with forgetting which plug boards have or have not been stepped down, what else can go wrong with my crazy scheme? My so-so understanding of Watt's Law suggests that the cords shouldn't run any hotter or blow their insulation (probably), but I can't shake the feeling this is a disaster in the making.

James

Answer:
This is another of those great situations when I can advise someone to do things that're probably safe, but quite possibly also illegal.

In brief, yes, this would probably work fine. I can't even think of a way you could barbecue yourself by accidentally swapping active and neutral when you wire the German plug onto a US powerboard. But even seemingly simple things like toasters can be surprisingly different in different countries, so I could very easily be missing something. All care, no responsibility, tell your next of kin not to sue me if you zap yourself.

Using a power cable from a two-hundred-and-something-volt-AC country in a one-hundred-and-something-volt one is not a great idea, because lower voltage means higher current for a given power, so the conductors in cables in the higher-voltage country will probably be thinner than the conductors in cables in the lower-voltage one. The skinnier wire will thus drop more voltage per unit length and, more importantly, run hotter, if it's used in the lower-voltage country.

But you're moving from the 120V USA to 230V Germany, so any cables you bring with you will, if anything, be thicker than the standard German cables. No problem there.

(If you're only running plugpacks from a powerboard, of course, it will of course not be drawing anything like its maximum current rating. And nobody's likely to accidentally plug a toaster oven or electric jug into it, if it's got US sockets and you're in Germany.)

Insulation could be an issue, though. The higher the voltage, the thicker insulation needs to be, so your fat American powerboard cable could have insulation too thin to be safe at higher voltage. The main purpose of the outer insulation on an extension cord or powerboard cable is to mechanically protect the conductors from the world and the world from the conductors, so it's likely to be much thicker than it needs to be to keep the moderately high voltage inside away from people. The insulation of the individual conductors inside the cable or US-spec powerboard, though, may not be thick enough to be safe if you plug a US cord into more than 200 volts.

It's generally the case that domestic power cables have much thicker insulation than they need, so even after they've been kinked and trampled and left in full sunlight for years they'll still probably be safe. But if they're not technically up to local code, and your house burns down and investigators find the foreign powerboard in the wreckage, your insurance policy may be void.

US power strip specifications are governed by the Underwriters Laboratories UL 1363 standard (which calls them "relocatable power taps"). The UL is one of those annoying organisations that won't let you download anything for free, but I found a 2001-dated PDF of the relevant standard here, and it doesn't mandate cable voltage ratings any higher than 125V. Even discount-store power strips ought to be up to code (well, almost always), and I would not be surprised if it's quite easy to find a power strip with a several-hundred-volt cable rating. But for safety's sake, unless the cable has a nice high voltage rating printed or stamped on it, I'd ditch US cables altogether, buy an extension cord in Germany, chop the end off it and connect it to the powerboard, and maybe even rewire the inside of the powerboard if it doesn't have nice little 250V-or-higher markings.

(This, again, may or may not be legal; doing your own "non-permanent" wiring is explicitly legal here in Australia and in various other countries, but I am once again not an authority on this subject, all care no responsibility, and look! Over there! A flying saucer! [sound of retreating footsteps])

 

Here we go again, again, again.

I was looking into magnets and weird stuff online. I went to hacknmod.com to look for a iPhone jailbreak. I got the information I wanted there. Then I saw projects for old PC hard-drives and to turn one into a high speed grinder/sander. I was led to your website somehow through hacknmod.com to instructables.com then to dansdata.com. Anyway, you talked about your magnet collection - which is pretty cool - and you tell some cool info. I forgot how, but I stumbled upon a YouTube video of a "moe-joe cell" that has a bismuth core. Then I started thinking. "How would that ferrofluid react to bismuth?" Can a moe joe cell be more effective using both bismuth and magnets?!?"

Before I go off jabbering a lot I thought you'd be interested in experimenting with bismuth, magnets, that oily ferrofluid liquid, and moe-joe cells (HHO).

Stephen

Answer:
A "Joe Cell" with bismuth and ferrofluid and who knows what else in it will be exactly as effective as it was before, which is to say, not at all.

No version of the "Joe Cell" does anything useful. In this respect it is the same as the very large number of previous attempts to make things that output more energy than goes into them - commonly known as perpetual motion machines, though recently often camouflaged as "over unity" or "mileage improver" devices.

Countless people have spent countless years of their lives attempting to make things like this work; here's a starting point for information on the subject, at the Pure Energy Systems Wiki, where new and... innovative... physical theories usually get a very friendly welcome. (PesWiki has a page about the Moe-Joe Cell, too.)

Every possible thing that could have a magnet put on it, be made out of some outlandish material, or be connected to some other thing in pursuit of "free energy" has been magnetised, manufacturered or connected. There has never been the tiniest hint that any of these devices work, if you don't count people who make mistakes like trying to weigh vibrating things on a bathroom scale or measuring complex AC waveforms with a cheap multimeter.

Oh, and testimonials don't count, either. If you think testimonials do count, then Elvis is alive and Queen Elizabeth II is a reptilian alien.

(Elvis may be one too.)

(The "Moe-Joe Cell", a fancier spherical version of the basic Joe Cell, is alleged to have something to do with orgone energy. People who share the beliefs of the above-linked David Icke, the guy who reckons the Queen is an alien reptile, tend to be rather keen on orgone energy, too. The guy really is a one-stop woo shop.)

As I said to this guy and this more famous one, I implore you to find something better to do with your time.

If you want to ask me a question, feel free - but please read this and this first.

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