Monday, 26 January 2009

Changing The Gas Meter, Part 2

Following a failed attempt by British Gas to have my meter changed, I received some paperwork from National Grid. They want to charge me £110.65 to replace the door on the meter box. I reckon it can wait. In the meantime, I'll investigate with British Gas to find out why they want to change the meter in the first place.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Changing The Gas Meter, Part 1

A few weeks ago, I received a letter from Siemens Metering Services saying that they had been tasked by British Gas to change my gas meter and that they had provisionally booked an appointment for today, between 8:00 and 20:00. I then arranged to be working from home today and called Siemens to confirm that the date was fine and that they were welcome to come and change the meter. Unfortunately, they couldn't give me a more precise time so I made sure I could spend the whole day at home, waiting for an engineer.

The Siemens engineer arrived shortly after lunch, which I was rather pleased with, and proceeded to find out which of the three meters mine was. It took him a minute or two, after which he looked at me and said:

The covering box your meter is in is broken so I'm not allowed to change it, the box needs to be changed first.

Indeed, the box in question is missing its door and has been missing that door since before I purchased the flat. Considering this is not a completely unusual occurrence as I can spot a few meters in my street that have a damaged box, my neighbour to start with, and the engineer confirmed this was common, you'd have thought that, in all their wisdom, Siemens could have mentioned in the letter they sent me that their engineers could only change the meter if the box was intact? Had I known, I would have checked and told them when I confirmed the appointment that the box needed changing, we could have organised the change immediately and it would have saved everybody a good deal of time and effort. But no, that would have been too easy! Of course, what makes it even more complicated is that it won't be the same company that changes the box. So I'll have to sort that out, work from home the day they change the box, re-organise the meter change, work from home that day again and finally I may have a new meter. The fact that I never asked the meter to be changed in the first place, and that I have no idea why British Gas feel they have to change it at all, means that I am of course extremely motivated to do all that and not at all annoyed by it.

The silver lining in all that is that the Siemens engineer was a very nice guy and said he would organise the paperwork to do the box change to be mailed to me. So Siemens may be useless in their written communication but at least the guys they send out to do the work are nice and sensible. That's half the customer service done properly. Well, we'll see if and when I have the promised paperwork.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Tuning a Wi-Fi Router with Linux

Nowadays, with Wi-Fi broadband routers becoming the de-facto standard in the home, comes a new problem for people who live in cities: interferences between neighbouring wireless networks. This can lead to slow connections or even dropped connections. A few years ago it was not a problem, few people had Wi-Fi routers at home and if you had one your router would work great out of the box. Nowadays, everybody's got a Wi-Fi router at home, whether it be a traditional router or a phone that masquerades as one. Wi-Fi was designed to avoid interferences by being able to work on a number of frequencies and every single router allows you to choose what frequency to use by selecting a channel. In the UK, you will typically have the choice of a channel value between 1 and 13. Just go to the wireless settings area of your router administration page and you should be able to change the channel, as shown on this example from a Netgear router:

Netgear wireless settings screen, set to Channel 4

Netgear wireless settings screenshot

That's simple: change the value, ensure it's applied and, depending on the manufacturer, reboot the router. But what is a good value that will ensure a good connection? Well, it depends on your environment. As you want to avoid interferences, this value should be as far as possible from other routers in the range of your equipment. But how do you tell what channel other routers in your area use? The Linux wireless tools come to the rescue, and in particular the one called iwlist. If you have a Wi-Fi laptop running Linux, it will have this utility installed as standard. The basic command we want is:

$ iwlist [interface] scan[ning]

To do a full scan, we need to run it as root so we'll prepend sudo to it. It is not necessary to specify a network interface but you might as well do so to avoid scanning non-wireless adapters. On my laptop, the wireless interface is eth1 so here is what I obtain by running iwlist against it:

$ sudo iwlist eth1 scan
eth1      Scan completed :
          Cell 01 - Address: 02:1D:68:4B:6D:F6
                    Protocol:IEEE 802.11bg
                    Frequency:2.412 GHz (Channel 1)
                    Encryption key:off
                    Bit Rates:1 Mb/s; 2 Mb/s; 5.5 Mb/s; 6 Mb/s; 9 Mb/s
                              11 Mb/s; 12 Mb/s; 18 Mb/s; 24 Mb/s; 36 Mb/s
                              48 Mb/s; 54 Mb/s
                    Quality=27/100  Signal level=-83 dBm  
                    Extra: Last beacon: 240ms ago
          Cell 02 - Address: 00:1D:68:4B:6D:F5
                    Protocol:IEEE 802.11bg
                    Frequency:2.412 GHz (Channel 1)
                    Encryption key:on
                    Bit Rates:1 Mb/s; 2 Mb/s; 5.5 Mb/s; 6 Mb/s; 9 Mb/s
                              11 Mb/s; 12 Mb/s; 18 Mb/s; 24 Mb/s; 36 Mb/s
                              48 Mb/s; 54 Mb/s
                    Quality=29/100  Signal level=-82 dBm  
                    Extra: Last beacon: 248ms ago

... and so on

Each Cell section provides the details of a wireless hub in range. For each of them, the line we are interested in is the one that start with the word Frequency. So, if we use grep to filter the data, we get:

$ sudo iwlist eth1 scan | grep Frequency
Frequency:2.412 GHz (Channel 1)
Frequency:2.412 GHz (Channel 1)
Frequency:2.412 GHz (Channel 1)
Frequency:2.427 GHz (Channel 4)
Frequency:2.442 GHz (Channel 7)
Frequency:2.442 GHz (Channel 7)
Frequency:2.462 GHz (Channel 11)
Frequency:2.442 GHz (Channel 7)

This shows that I am in range of 8 wireless hubs. The one I am using is the fourth one, set to use channel 4. But that's because I changed it yesterday. It used to be configured with its default setting, using channel 11, which was clashing with the one before last. In fact, running the command at different times, it appears that all routers in my area use channels 1, 7 or 11. With a possible set of channels between 1 and 13, there are 5 unused channels between 1 and 7, 3 between 7 and 11 and 2 above 11. So the best choice is halfway between 1 and 7: channel 4. And since I reconfigured the router to use that channel, speed has improved significantly and dropped connections have been a thing of the past.

Now, why router manufacturers don't design their products to be able to scan neighbouring wireless networks at start-up and choose a frequency that doesn't clash with other hubs, I don't know. By any means, leave the ability to power users to explicitly specify the channel but a little bit of automation would go a long way in making Wi-Fi easier for the average home user.


After all this, I had to change the router's channel again earlier, as more access points were switched on during the evening. At one point, a full scan showed a grand total of 24 wireless networks! So I changed my router to channel 13 and it all seems fine so far. Methinks I'll have to do something about improving the range of that router. While I was at it, I also upgraded the firmware so we'll see if it makes a difference.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Parcel Delivered on Time Shocker!

DPD Logo

I was expecting a parcel delivered today. As usual I was quoted a delivery time of between 8am and 6pm, which meant I was stuck at home until it arrived. I was fully expecting to wait all day, make several calls to the courier company and not get the goods delivered today, as has happened several times in the past and as recounted by Toastboy and Coofer Cat. But how wrong I was: the parcel was delivered before 10am by a courteous and smiling driver!

So credit where credit is due: well done DPD, it was perfect and I shall feed this back to the supplier.

Canon and Linux, part 3

For the background to this post, see part 1 and part 2.

I got an answer from Canon on Tuesday:

Dear Customer,

Thank you for your query regarding the Firmware update for your EOS 5D.

As the versions available for download are only compatible with Windows and Mac, we could produce a zipped up version of the .FIR file so that you can update your firmware on your Linux computer.

Please note that whilst we try our best to ensure the file we provide you with is virus free, you must install the firmware entirely at your own risk.

Could you please also confirm that you have an EOS 5D.

Some progress then. However, they ask me some more questions, to which I can give the answers but you can't reply directly to their support email address, you have to go through the standard form on the web site again. I did that and asked the following question:

Dear support,

Yes, I can confirm that I have an EOS 5D and I am happy to update the firmware at my own risks. Have Canon got any plans to offer a zip version of the firmware in the future in order to support all their customers equally?

So now I'm waiting for the next answer. This whole malarkey of going through the web form every time means that there are potentially 2 to 3 business days delay for the answer to each new question even if it relates to the same problem, which can potentially drag things out a lot, especially considering the web form is limited to 4000 characters!