A Blast From The Past

I was pawing through the latest issue of Circuit Cellar when I came across an article describing a new development kit from Zilog for their new eZ80acclaim! modules.

I remember playing with Z80 hardware and assembly programming 20 years ago! Before I knew what was happening, the credit card jumped out of my wallet and ordered one of the kits. $99 later, I had myself an eZ80F91 module, a development board, an in-circuit emulator, an ethernet switch, and all the cables I needed. Some manufacturers want to gouge you for their evaluation kits – not so here.

The kit comes with a full function C compiler and IDE. A few minutes after hooking up, I was compiling and loading the sample apps. Very easy to use. Who’d have thought – a Z80 with ethernet!

Nothing Better Than Finding a Virgin

I love listening to Internet radio stations using my Slim Devices MP3 player. However, recently, my favourite Internet radio station Wolf FM stopped broadcasting their Shoutcast stream. Very disappointing – all they offer is a Windows Media stream now.

Not more than 48 hours after that devastating discovery, I found that my favourite broadcast radio station, Virgin Radio now offers an MP3 stream!

It was a little difficult to find, but I was able to manually craft a playlist file with the following URL in it:


Bypass Telus’ IVR Voice Recognition Hell

I’m not a big fan of Telus – our incumbent telecomminications carrier in BC. I’ve had many run-ins with them over the years. Their customer service sucks. Last year, they added insult to injury and installed a hellish automated voice recognition system that you have to navigate before you can actually reach a human. It’s infuriating. It insults you. Pounding zero gets you a “Here at Telus, we have several kinds of operators. Tell me more about what you’re looking for so I can direct you to the right kind of operator.”

After another morning wasted getting bounced around from department to department at Telus (at one point, a Telus employee gave me the number of 310-1010 as the ‘short-cut’ to the department I was looking for. That number actually directs me to Pizza Hut!) I finally got through to a Telus employee who was actually helpful. In fact, the most important piece of information I got was a phone number to completely bypass the IVR hell! The number is 866-468-3587. Write it down. Use it. It works! Tell everyone you know!

Is the Dell Exploding Battery Problem Bigger Than They Admit?

A funny thing happened to me the other night. I was at home. It was late. The rest of the family had gone to sleep, and I was up late trying to win a few more levels on Lego Star Wars 2 on the Xbox. At about 1:30am, I decided to go to bed. As I was switching off the lights, I smelled a strange hot plastic kind of smell. Following the smell, I suddenly realized it was my wife’s Dell Inspiron 9200! The charge light was blinking orange and green. The smell was awful. I quickly yanked the power cord out of the back of the machine, and flipped it over. The heat coming from the bottom of the laptop was incredible. I literally burned my hands while ejecting the battery from the laptop. After placing the battery on the balcony, i returned to inspect the laptop. Thankfully, there was no damage – the unit still powered up with the AC cord, and there was no visible heat damage.

Weeks ago, I had already checked the battery serial number against Dell’s battery recall site. This battery wasn’t recalled, so I thought I was safe. Time to call Dell. At 1:30 in the morning, I was shocked to get to a human in less than a minute – and a human in Canada no less! I explained what had just happened, and explained that I had already checked the battery on the recall site, and that it wasn’t a recalled battery. He checked the warranty status of my machine, and told me that it was a year and a half old – well past the one year warranty that Dell places on batteries. He gave me some safety tips on how to store the battery (“Don’t put it back in the machine”, “store it in a plastic or metal container”, “don’t handle it excessively in case it leaks”, etc). He then told me that Dell would send out a replacement battery, and once I got the replacement to package up this battery in the special bag supplied and ship it back to Dell. The interesting thing is I didn’t give Dell the serial number of the battery! They just automatically replaced a smoking out-of-warranty non-recalled battery without any questions!

Lego Star Wars saved my life. If I hadn’t stayed up way too late playing the game, I would have gone to bed not realizing I had a smouldering time bomb sitting on my wooden kitchen table. Dell replaced the battery without question. Does this mean that they’re aware of other batteries having defects in them that aren’t listed in the official recall? If so, isn’t that a scary situation to be in? What happens if someone is injured by a non-recalled battery?

I called Dell back today to discuss the strangeness of the no-questions-asked battery replacement and whether they had a policy of replacing all batteries whether recalled or not. The helpful service rep passed me on to a supervisor, who advised me that there is no hidden policy about unlisted Sony batteries (although if it was hidden, I’m sure he wouldn’t tell me about it, would he?). He did satate that Dell has a policy of replacing any component in any Dell product that exhibits a safety issue, even if the Dell product is out of warranty, for as long as Dell has those parts in stock. I re-confirmed his statement and asked him if it was okay to state that comment on my blog, which he confirmed.

So, there you have it. Either this battery failed for a reason completely unrelated to the recall, or Dell is not being completely honest with the extent of the problems. I guess only time will tell. At least I learned that if I have a part fail on an out-of-warranty Dell product, the failure had better affect the safety of the product!

APRS on Google Maps

I ran across an interesting utility the other day. It allows the overlaying of APRS data on top of Google Earth. The utility is called APRSKML, and can be found here. The utility is well documented, and I was able to set it up within minutes. If you’re in the south central BC area, try the following settings (on the APRS IS screen):

  • APRS IS Server: va7ylw.ocarc.ca:14580
  • “Reconnect on Restart” checked
  • “Confirm Reconnect on Restart” unchecked
  • Filter: r/49/-119/300

Set your callsign and APRSIS auth code as appropriate. The magic comes in to the filter line (make sure you put something in here – leaving it out will swamp the software with too many stations, and it will eventually crash). The three numbers correspond to lattitude, longitude, and radius.

Echostar ordered to disable PVRs

News has just hit the wire that TiVo has won a permanent injunction against Echostar, and the judge has ordered that Echostar disbale all PVR functionality in all PVRs in the field within 30 days. As you may know, I’m a Bell ExpressVu subscriber in Canada. Bell’s equipment is manufactured by Echostar. I called Bell this morning to see if Bell was affected by this lawsuit. The tech droid I got hadn’t heard of the lawsuit. He was unable to find any corporate position on it, but told me not to worry. I’m still trying to get an official Bell position.

The potential impact of this is chilling. I highly doubt that Echostar is going to want to shut it’s customers off, so I suspect that we’ll see some sort of licensing deal between Echostar and TiVo. Unfortunately, those costs will just be handed down to us customers, who already paid for a PVR that was more than a glorified Beta Test for the first nine months of it’s existence.

Console Port on ExpressVu 9200

Yesterday, I talked about looking for a console port on the Bell ExpressVu 9200 (aka Dish 942) receiver. After completely disassembling the unit, I discovered a 5-pin pad on the motherboard labelled ‘UART’ located underneath the power supply. Interesting! I soldered a header plug and brought the cable outside the chassis.

The pin assignment appears to be as follows:

  • 1. +3.3v
  • 2. RxD
  • 3. TxD
  • 4. ???
  • 5. GND

Looking at TxD with a scope shows that it starts at 0v, and after avout 3 seconds jumps up to 3.3v. It stays at 3.3v and doesn’t appear to change at all. I hooked up a MX3232 (3.3v version of a MAX232) to convert the signals to RS232 levels.

Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to coax the serial port to life. I tried sending carriage returns at different baud rates. I’ve still got to try sending a break signal. Also, pin 4 might be some sort of CTS signal that might need to be asserted. Still lots to try!

Bell ExpressVu 9200 Talks to Other Receivers?

Regular readers will remember my recent attemt to hold Bell accountable to the GPL. As a quick update, I’ve received a couple of telephone calls assuring me that they are working to get the code posted to their website. As of this writing, there’s still nothing posted. Bell told me that they would be posting the same code that Dish released. I’m suspicious that this code isn’t the latest version that Bell and Dish are using. To verify that, I’m going to have to look at the actual code installed inside the 9200. Bell certainly doesn’t make it easy to get at the binaries. My first attemt involves looking for a serial console port. I’ll leave my serial port adventures for another post, but during my explorations of the insides of the 9200, I discovered something very interesting!

As I was disassembling the unit and removing the power supply, I noticed a cable from the motherboard to the supply labelled ‘Home Plug’. It’s a 5-wire cable, with a color code very similar to USB. The cable terminated in what looks like some sort of matching transformer made by Delta Electronics. Looking at their website showed that the 9200 indeed has the hardware to communicate via the Homeplug protocol.  Googling shows a press release coming out talking about the feature, promising the ability to distribute satellite radio throughout the house, and having receivers talk to each other and only one needing a telephone line.

After an initial flurry of press releases, I was unable to find anything recent about this ‘feature’. It certainly appears that the receivers have the ability to talk to each other. Will Dish and Bell use this to enforce multiple receivers on one account having to be in the same physical building? It’s interesting that neither the user manual nor the website mention anything about these receivers using your home wiring to talk to each other.

Determining whether Dish and Bell are actually using this feature yet will have to wait until I obtain some HomePlug hardware to see what’s going on.