ACARS and Error Checking

I recently discovered something interesting about ACARS. There’s no error detection or correction. None. To be honest, when I was told this I wasn’t exactly surprised, but now that I’ve had time to think about it – I’m somewhat appalled.

Note : I have recently received feedback that some of my contentions in this article are incorrect, specifically that CPDLC messages are in fact NOT encrypted. I am endeavouring to souce more accurate information and will update when I have it. For the moment – Caveat Emptor.

Some background – ACARS

ACARS : Aircraft Communicatons Addressing and Reporting System

ACARS1ACARS is ubiquitous in most of today’s aircraft. Originally developed by ARINC in the late 70’s, this system is subsequently maintained by SITA and facilitates the communication of relatively short, heavily proscribed (no emoji’s!) text only messages between the aircraft and ground. Think SMS for Aircraft.

Fundamentally an Aircraft to Operator (and back) system, the infrastructure was co-opted to support the FANS CPDLC (Future Air Navigation System – Controller to Pilot Datalink Communications) initiative in the last decade. However messages sent by ATC to the aircraft are not only error checked – but encrypted as well. While no system is 100%, the likelihood of a message from ATC to the Aircraft using CPDLC (or the reverse) being eavesdropped or interfered with is extremely remote, if not impossible.

On the other hand – messages sent between the Company and the Aircraft are not, and this is an inherent weakness in the system. Rarely are these messages (or more correctly the accuracy/privacy of them) a personal concern – Weather, NOTAMS, ETA’s, Parking Bays, Messages about the Football) – all of these are zipping their way back and forth in real time, all the time. And can be read by anyone – such as here or here.

As you can see from the image included, not all messages are official. In fact when I write my memoirs, I have several anecdotes to include that refer not only to pilots (and company agents) forgetting not only that messages sent over ACARS are liable to be eavesdropped by a third party, but that messages sent to “Ops” go not only to an Operations Controller, but are often copied to an ever widening email distribution list that includes a wide array of line managers, training/standards managers, technicians and other parties …

A quick note on error checking for the technicaly interested (challenged).

CRC – Cyclic Redundancy Checking

ACARS3CRC is an acronym I mentally associate with disk errors. In the old days of DOS and early versions of windows – CRC messages after a Chkdsk (Check Disk) occurred where I was given information that did not really need to be actually understood in order to communicate clearly to me that I needed a new (bigger, faster) hard drive.

In essence CRC when applied to messages sent to/from an aircraft is part of the ARINC 702 A standard for FMS communications on transport category aircraft. The ASCII contents of the message are subject to a complex algorhythm that results in a short string that reflects the content of that message. As such any changes in the message can be detected by comparing the calculation result for the message received.

So apart from sending the message, the sending system also sends a form of “checksum” result of the CRC check along with the message. The receiver subjects the message part to the identical algorithym – and compares the calculated resulting checksum with the one sent alongside the message. If the checksums don’t compare (can you hear the FMC saying “check”?) there’s a problem and the message is rejected by the receiving system.

All messages sent to the FMC Flight Management Computer (Flight Plans, Wind Uplinks, Performance Data) in the aircraft are subject to this CRC process, and validation fail is indicated by the scratchpad message “INVALID (ALTN / TAKEOFF / ATC / FLT NO / FORECAST / PERF INIT / ROUTE / WIND DATA) UPLINK”. There are other reasons for the INVALID … UPLINK message, but a CRC fail is the main one.

I’m told that the requirement for CRC dates back to the early days of the system when the ARINC/SITA system was less “Robust” and is less applicable today, although still enforced for the more critical uses of the system – such as data sent straight to the FMC, of CPDLC comunications. For a somewhat cynical view of the concept that complex systems increase in reliability over time – see below.

But in essence, messages sent between the aircraft and the airline using the ACARS system (which despite some pre-formatting options are fundamentally free text messages) for all sorts of purposes – are unsecure (not encrypted) and not subject to any sort of data validity checking.

OK – so why is this a concern?

Takeoff Performance & ACARS

ACARS2Most airlines have progressed away from referencing paper manuals to determine critical takeoff performance and instead rely on some form of computer based system. While the administrative burden and cost to the company (and environment) of printing and flying around all those manuals cannot be under estimated – a number of compromises have to be made to produce a relatively simplistic set of printed solutions to the incredibly complex set of calculations that takeoff performance is in a modern aircraft – so the result is by it’s nature less than optimal. Additionally while the administrative burden of maintaining this system is clear, the potential for aircraft to be carrying around out of date manuals for months is not just folklore …

ACARS4The newer computer solution can be a tablet/PC (but not a Mac!) on the flight deck used by the pilots themselves, or via a remote system where the pilots use ACARS to request a takeoff solution, specifying in the message the various parameters of Airport, Runway, Takeoff Weight, Ambient Conditions, etc. A person at Ops with a tablet/computer or (ideally) a computer server uses these values to calculate a solution and sends them back to the aircraft as a pre-formatted display on either a screen or a printout – again via non secure, non error checked ACARS. Can you see where I’m going with this?

Why not use onboard tablets/computers exclusively? As usual the devil is in the detail. Just like having books on the flight deck, keeping all those laptops/tablets up to date with a host of airport/runway and most particularly obstacle data is a significant burden – and a significant opportunity for error. Maintaining a central repository for this information reduces the cost as well as the complexity. Hence airlines save money and produce safer results with the ACARS system.

But …

If this system is used to send this takeoff performance information directly to the FMC, then as mentioned the message itself is subject to CRC and the possibility of an error being introduced is extremely remote. But (as I’ve recently discovered) – very few airlines (none that I’ve found so far …) use this option. Instead the message comes to the pilot as a pre-formatted screen/printer text display which the pilots review and manually enter into the FMC. Apart from the manual entry error problem (don’t get me started) – there’s an inherent assumption on the veracity of the ACARS system which so far I haven’t been able to evaluate.

Complex Systems get Worse, not better, with Time.

At a recent discussion, CRC was referred to as a system that was required when ACARS was in it’s infancy, rather than the developed, robust system we have today. While that’s fine as far as it goes – but in general computer based systems don’t improve with time. As time goes on, complexity invariably increases as systems once developed to achieve a pre-determined scope and volume, are forced to work outside those limits and are (eventually) expanded and developed to deal with such changes and basic growth. Those change programs are rarely projects that are well scoped/funded and rarely involve any of the programmers who built the system in the first place. If you have any interest in this at all, I strongly recommend reading through to the end Quinn Norton‘s missive “Everything is Broken“. I’ve been reading Quinn’s stuff since the early days of Boot Magazine, and she is awesome – but this particular post should resonate strongly with anyone connected to a computer (and who of us is not?)

Your average piece-of-shit Windows desktop is so complex that no one person on Earth really knows what all of it is doing, or how. Now imagine billions of little unknowable boxes within boxes constantly trying to talk and coordinate tasks at around the same time, sharing bits of data and passing commands around from the smallest little program to something huge, like a browser. That’s the internet. All of that has to happen nearly simultaneously and smoothly, or you throw a hissy fit because the shopping cart forgot about your movie tickets.

NASA had a huge staff of geniuses to understand and care for their software. Your phone has you.

When we tell you to apply updates we are not telling you to mend your ship. We are telling you to keep bailing before the water gets to your neck.

You get the idea …

This seems to me to be a very good reason to move towards using the system as it would seems to have been intended – Secure, Checked Data, straight into the FMC computer that needs it, skipping the Human altogether.

After all – when has that ever gone wrong?

Excel FIFO Calculator

After 6 years on the outskirts of Parramatta, our simulator is moving to Brisbane airport. For our small fleet of 5 aircraft and 150 pilots, it’s a big change. As part of the process I had a look at the simulator slot timings, especially since we would be moving to 24×7 operation for a disparate workforce spread mostly up and down the East Coast. Coupled with this is the implication of Fly In And/Or Fly Out for single simulator sessions, which we do quite a lot of. I freely admit the project got away from me somewhat – the spreadsheet attached is the result.


FIFO Analysis Spreadsheet

The premise of the sheet was to analyse various simulator session start times and determine how many domestic sectors a start time for a particular session facilitates for either (a) fly in before the session; (b) fly out after the session; or (c) fly in and out for a single session in a day. Early sessions don’t facilitate fly in (unless they’re “very” early and you’re talking about flying in late the night before); similarly late (or early) finishing sessions don’t facilitate fly out, other than sessions that finished before the first departures of the day from BNE. Broadly speaking the east coast domestic network is an 18 hour a day pattern, with a dearth of flights between eleven pm and six am. Not that anyone really wants to be doing sim that late at night anyway.

Sim Slot Timings

A simulator session is a four hour block of time, preceded by a 90 minute briefing period and followed by a 30 minute debrief, which are fixed. In terms of FIFO, place before this a minimum period of transit between arriving in from a flight and signing on (basically airport transfer time); and follow it with another minimum transit period after the session to catch a flight home. Note that while there’s a minimum transit time between flight arrival and the briefing period – there’s also a reasonable maximum value – you can’t have crew arriving in to the airport 4 hours before they’re due to present for training.

Between each simulator session is a gap period (nominally 10 minutes) which gives the engineers time to service the simulator (software resets, oxygen mask replacement, etc) and allows some handover time for the crews. These vary from 15 minutes, 10 minutes, to nothing at all in some operations. I settled on 10 minutes, which we are using at the moment and a couple of the other BNE simulators are also using.

Our simulator will have the company of 5 other simulators in BNE and this introduces an additional constraint. Ideally we want to avoid having the 10 minute break between sessions at the same time as occurs for the other simulators. While there’s more than one team of engineers on duty at any time – overlapping handovers places a strain on everyone involved. At least two of the existing simulators have the same slot schedule already …

FIFO1

 

 

 

 

 

It can be seen that the basic simulator slot time, with the brief/debrief and transit periods, the flight themselves and the EBA sign on/off periods outside the flights, sets up a basic pattern. While it certainly makes for a long day (Sign On, Flight to BNE, Airport Transit, Brief, Sim, DeBrief, Transit, Flight Home, Sign Off) – it’s certainly feasible with the right flight connections – or the right sim slot timings to meet the existing east coast flight schedule. By the way this is of course all impacted by the change of Daylight Savings – or more accurately the lack of change in Queensland …

FIFO2Finally, the use of 4 hour simulator slots with 10 minute breaks means you lose the use of the full 6 simulator slots per day. Basically you end up with a 3 hour break somewhere along the line. Engineering require a period of two hours a day anyway (not always to be used) for regular maintenance and complete power down / power up cycles. Typically this takes place in the middle of the night when the sim is not being used.

Flight Schedule

I wanted the sheet to automatically select from a flight schedule for SYD/BNE/SYD and MEL/BNE/MEL when different sim slot timings were selected. I cast around for some kind of data set I could use but there really wasn’t anything readily to hand. I ended up simply entering into a sheet all the flights for a particular (weekday) in late October after daylights savings started in (most of) the east coast states. Strategic updates to schedule would need to be done to continue to use the sheet, But I determined this wasn’t necessary for my purposes. I had a quick look at the weekend flights as well, but rather than code in day based schedules, I included the basic weekday pattern (MTWTFSS) in the data so that it was clear when certain flights didn’t operate.

FIFO3Variables

I wanted the sheet to be able to account for certain variables. Quite apart from simulator slot start time, I wanted the user to be able to change sim slot gap, Sign On/Off periods, Min/Max Transit times and limitations on Duty Period.

Changing these variables in the spreadsheet changes the flights that appear to the Left (Fly In) and Right (Fly Out) of the simulator sessions.

Counting Flights

At this point I now had a sheet that responded to changes in variables, selecting available flights based on the constraints in the variables. Flights that arrived too early for the Max Transit before a simulator slot would not show. Flights that arrived too late for the Min Transit after a simulator slot would not show. Flights that exceeded the parameterised Min Transit, Max Duty, etc – are either hidden or flagged in the sheet, depending on how bad they exceed.

FIFO5At this stage the sheet can be used to tweak the parameters to match the work rules, then try a range of first session simulator start times to see the sheet update the slots (and the breaks) and see how the flights propagate across the simulator slots. At this point I added columns on the right to count how may fly-in and fly-out and fly-in-out simulator slot/flights there were. These numbers are not a true measure of the specific availability of a simulator slot for Fi/Fo – but it facilitates a metric across which different sim slot patterns can be measured.

The various lines are summed at the top of each SYD/BNE/SYD and MEL/BNE/MEL section, then summed at the top of the sheet into an overall FIFO Table to show a summary of numbers. Once again, these specific numbers aren’t necessarily valid in terms of the number of crew flying in and out – but taken overall allow you to see how the sim slot times compete with each other. Except …

FIFO6Except that I’d now built a one shot system which allowed you to evaluate different sim slot times, but not really facilitating the comparison of multiple scenarios. I played with the What-If feature and the Excel Scenario Manager for a while (never been a big fan of these, but they have their uses) – before deciding to move onto something more ambitious. By this time I’d played with a number of simulator slot start times all through the day and had realised the results were not quite as I’d expected.

Automation

I decided to automate the sheet. This consisted of constructing an Analysis Table to track the results across various time slots. I decided since the basic gap is usually no less than 10 minutes – working through all of a?24 hour period. Then some automation code to make Excel increase the first simulator slot session start time by 10 minutes, then copy the results of the FIFO table into the Analysis Table.

FIFO7Graphing The Numbers

Having got the table sorted, I then set about graphing the result. The graph is a combined line/area graph differentiating between Fly In, Fly Out and Fly-In-And-Fly-Out across MEL/BNE/MEL and SYD/BNE/SYD. The colored areas indicate FIFO for MEL, SYD and Both. The lines indicate FI or FO for MEL, SYD and Both. Depending on what your focus is – you can see that certain simulator slot start times – remembering the simulator slot start time at the bottom is that of the FIRST session – different levels of FIFO are facilitated.

The Analysis

The analysis indicated that in fact the peak Fi/Fo simulator start time is late afternoon. This is because when you start the simulator at this time – the back of the clock sessions (which as it turns out are the best for facilitating flight access for FIFO) – are available. Meanwhile the maintenance period takes place mid morning, when it’s difficult to fly in for the simulator because of the 18 hour a day nature of Australian East Coast services.

Of course regularly scheduling back of the clock simulator training has some other considerations. Quite apart from the crappy nature of these slots for training and particularly checking – Engineer maintenance shifts are already focussed on the early morning period for down time maintenance (not that they would mind shifting, I suspect).

Video-Coolness

At one point I ended up with the sheet open twice, clicking the run button, and watching the spreadsheet populate and repopulate with the changing simulator slot times, building the graph as it made it’s way across as each simulator slot start time – which was pretty cool. The two vidoes here show (most of) the analysis sheet and graph during automation, and then just the graph.

Now, back to work.


The Result

As it turns out, practicalities override the analysis. The maintenance period needs to be back of the clock; and one of the highest productive sessions (in terms of Fi/Fo) is back of the clock and undesirable for training. That just left me with about a 90 minute window to finesse the start time to ensure maximum flights. Still, it was an interesting exercise … Now all we need is a simulator!

Sim2?Sim3?Sim1

Carlos, from Apple Care

apple-logoSo those who know me well, fully appreciate that I am not an Apple Fan Boy. I’ve written obliquely and directly on this issue.

My experience of the iPad over the past 12 months has certainly not endeared me (as a previously committed android tablet aficionado) to Apple, continually frustrated by a device and an operating system that tries hard, and continually falls short of expectation.

Neither has the events of the past 4 days endeared me to the hardware, or the software. But yet again – dropped firmly in the sh!te by the Apple “system” and perhaps my own efforts to do things my own way – I have subsequently been subject to a phone line support experience truly unparalleled in the annals of computer technical support. Let me start now as I will finish – Carlos, of Apple-Care (and the other two people I spoke at length to over the past 4 days) – I salute you.

[Read more…]

Android Apps

Here is a collector post where I’ll review and update the software I use and recommend on my Android phone. I’m now on my third android phone, through at least 4 major operating system upgrades and a host of minor ones. I use my phone for work and pleasure, to tell me where I’m supposed to be, listen to music, watch movies from my home server, navigate in the car, on the footpath and on the bus/train – and tell me where I parked my car.

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ezPDF Reader

There are no end of PDF readers on Android – including Adobe’s Acrobat Reader – but I’ve found ezPDF reader to be the best. I use it on my phone as well as tablet. I do a LOT of PDF reading. To get an idea of it’s capabilities – have a look at the user guide. It uses finger gestures for interaction and includes extensive markup and highlighting features. You can also add bookmarks to PDF documents to expedite navigation of large documents.

TeslaLED

Small but useful, it’s handy to be able to turn on the LED light built into your smartphone flash. There are dozens of apps around that do this, but I find TeslaLED to be a good one. It has a strobe feature and the ability to flash Morse code – not something I use everyday … It comes with a widget that you can place on your desktop and flick your LED on and Off.

Swype

Swype is one of the most poorly kept secrets on Android. I call it a secret because it’s not available on the Android Market – you have to sign up for the beta to get it. That said, it’s now coming as the default input keyboard on some Android phones.

The install technique is a little unusual in that it requires you to download an installer, then find and install the installer, which downloads the program, which then installs swype. Got that? Also along the way you have to register for the beta, then enter your details into the downloaded installer downloader.

But oh man is it worth it.

Many years ago, when I was very much into my Crappy Windows Mobile Phone, I used a keyboard called Fitaly. This was back in the days when you punched away at your pda with a plastic pen and typing on it was real bastard. Fitaly was a non-qwerty keyboard which was mathematically designed such that something like 80% of the most common keys were right in the middle of the keyboard. I eventually got myself up to something like 80 words a minute on this thing – it makes you cry when you look at today’s iPhone chicken scratch keyboard.

Anyway – since coming to Android I’ve discovered Swype. Let me say right now – it’s not available on iPhone. Did you get that? It’s not available on iPhone. Just in case …  IT’S NOT AVAILABLE ON iPHONE. So There. How do I make that blink with WordPress?

Swype is built on the same concept as predictive text input on non-qwerty keyboard mobile phones. Basically instead of chicken scratching your way across the keyboard, you swype your way along, pausing briefly (or not) at the letters you want typed. From the pattern you draw, Swype works out what is the most likely word. If there’s only one – it enters it. If there are several but the most likely one is very much the most likely – it enters it. Otherwise you get a list of possibilities, with the most likely being at the top and the default word if you continue swyping.

You can get VERY fast with Swype, and very accurate. I strongly suggest reviewing the tutorials and videos before you get too far into it  – it will save you a lot of frustration and lost productivity. Ask me how I know this.

ADW Launcher

I’ve never been one for replacing the standard operating system front end with something custom developed. My experience is that they’re at times buggy and often suffer when the operating system itself is updated. I’m not convinced of the productivity improvements claimed and quite frankly if I was buying something for the eye candy value, I’d probably have an Apple device, except perhaps the iPad – what the hell is the story with the tiny little icons with all that space in between them? Hello?

Then I was forced to use ADW Launcher.

I say forced, because the XDA crew decided to make it the default in Cyanogen – which I ran on my Nexus One for eight months or so. And since it was integrated with the operating system itself, I figured it would be plenty stable, which it was.

Then when I upgraded to the Nexus S and was forced to stay with the stock Android 2.3/4 operating system (still haven’t worked out how to root it) – I missed ADW so much that I bought it.

Apart from a suite of additional interface settings, I find on the fly manipulation of widgets to be extremely useful. I read about being able to re-size widgets in Honeycomb – I’m doing that now with Gingerbread and ADW. I have an extra column and row of icons on my screen, with everything sized down accordingly and spaced a little tighter. It’s an awesome bit of kit.

Juice Defender Ultimate

You won’t be using your new shiny smartphone for very long when you come to realise your battery life is crap. Gone are the days when you charge your phone every couple of days and when the battery is starting to look low you know you have until at least that night before you have to charge it.

Between these lovely big bright screens, ‘N’ wifi, 3g connectivity, GPS, Bluetooth, etc – you need a battery bigger than the phone itself to get a decent life out of it. Just one of the reasons I’m Android is because I can carry a spare battery and throw it in if I need to – try that on an iPhone.

Juice Defender give you Time of Day /  Location / Data throughput / Application aware control of the high consumers of power such as screen/wifi/3g as well as controlling application access and sync. Let me explain.

I’m in the hotel foyer in LA. I pull out my phone and turn it on. Because I’ve been there before, JD turns on the wifi and logs onto the hotel network. Depending on how long since the last one, Google Sync is started – checking mail, twitter, facebook, etc. Before this completes, I turn my phone off. In my pocket, as the data finishes downloading and the data throughput reduces below a nominated threshold, JD turns off the Wifi.

I leave the hotel. Every 15 minutes or so (you choose), JD turns on the 3g and another sync is activated. JD turns it off again shortly afterwards.

I approach “It’s a Grind” the coffee shop I frequent which has free wifi. JD knows where I am (cell towers) and turns on the wifi as I enter the shop. It attempts to log on but the Cafe has changed their password (again). The lack of data throughput is a trigger and JD turns off the Wifi again.

Juice Defender is indeed Ultimate.

FlightBoard, by Mobiata

Flight board is a really simple concept. Pick an airport, choose departures or arrivals, see the equivalent flight board. As someone who travels all the time this really simple app is excellent and serves me well.

Yes you can Facebook or Twitter about your flight and all of that shite, yes you can shoot a flight over to FlightTrack (slightly more useful). You can access delay data etc. The point is, at any stage during your travel journey, you can look and see if the flight is delayed, if there’s a gate assigned, if flights just before or after yours have been cancelled.

TeamViewer

I got out of the hardware sales/support business years ago, for good reasons. However I am doomed to support my immediate (and extended) family’s computer needs for the foreseeable future, and as such this is easiest accomplished through remote control. I enabled this for years through the paid tool GotoMyPc, but a while ago I finally went free with TeamViewer. It offers all of the functionality I need (Remote control, File transfer, VPN, Chat, etc) and not only has Android support – but has it in a way that is actually usable on a smart phone (something GotoMyPC has yet to do, even badly).

Skype

Skype pretty much sucks. That goes for the PC experience as well. I’ve used a dozen different VOIP solutions over the past 12 years or so, all mostly as a means of avoiding Skype – to make cheap calls also – but mainly to avoid Skype.

Whether it be the bloatware that Skype is on your machine, the restrictive private protocol that offends my open source sensibility, or just the fact that when you agree to install Skype you agree to potentially become a Skype supernode, routing calls to and from people you’ve never heard of, chewing up your bandwidth, Skype pisses me off.

But there are so many people on Skype, we’re now so far beyond the point where I can choose not to use it.

Skype is now beyond early days on Android and it shows. Finally we have Video. It took them long enough (ages after the iPhone). Finally you can also exit Skype and not have it running in the background. It’s still a confusing interface for what is essentially a simple need – but it works.  Damn it.

Volume Ace

One of the great features of Android is it’s flexibility. It’s clear from extended use that a great deal of thought went into the development of the back end. And the operating system is a documented open source development which allows apps to take full advantage to deliver a better (educated) user experience.

But it does make things complicated at times. Take volume.

It sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it. In fact there’s two buttons on the side – volume up, volume down – what could be simpler that. But which volume?

When your phone is ringing – these buttons control (and leave set) ring tone volume. When you’re talking with the handset against your head, they control that volume. When you use the speaker phone, they control that volume. When you’re listening to music, they control that volume. When you’re being told what to do by turn by turn voice navigation, they control that volume. And so on. At last count I was up to 9 different volume settings. If you want overall management of all these volumes – if you want profile management of them depending on where and when you are – how do you manage it all? Volume Ace.

Apart from giving you fine detail control of these volumes – Volume Ace lets you save configurations as pre-sets (Quite, Night, Loud, Meeting etc) controlling both volumes and vibrate, and you can access these presets with two clicks off a widget on the desktop.

Car Locator

Edward Kim has made a fortune out of Car Locator and it’s easy to see why. As someone who arrives back from a week away in Sydney/Los Angeles to a large staff car park with no markings whatsoever (goddam I hate Melbourne Airport non-Management) – remembering with my fatigue addled brain where I parked my car is a real hassle.

This little gem lets me press a button when I park; then when I return, I run it again and it leads me to my car. The sonar mode (it “boops” faster and faster as I draw closer) is a little kitch, but you can turn it off.

There’s lots of other tricksy bits built in but essentially it does very well what I need it to do – locate my car.

K9 Mail

Ok, so the built in gMail app on the Android operating system is awesome. Since Google insist on updating it regularly, there’s just no reason whatsoever to look for any alternative. Then there’s the built in app for your other POP3, iMap and Exchange mail … therein lies a different story.

So after a short, dissatisfying play with the provided software, I went hunting for something else. I swear it was not my penchant for Dr Who that lead me to settle on K9. It does POP3, iMap, Exchange (although not in a way supported by my company – but that solution is below). It’s open source, supports PGP – and most importantly handles multiple e-mail accounts – at last count I’m watching 11 e-mail accounts on my phone – brilliantly – using K9. Push mail, notifications, a breeze. Enjoy.

Touchdown Exchange Mail for Android

Ok, first a warning. This app is not your typical $4.99 app – you’re up for about AUD $20. The trap with this software is that you get 30 days to evaluate it, after which you’ve found you can’t live without it – and you’ll have to pay the $20.

If your company allows exchange sync through their firewall, I recommend this app. Although exchange sync is native to android, I couldn’t wear the draconian imposition of a security policy on my phone. Sure – secure the app; but the phone? What if I don’t want a full password on my phone, changed regularly, the ability for the company to delete stuff off my phone, etc. Stuff that.

Touchdown does email, calendar, tasks, contacts, global address book, etc. Push notification (or not) etc. Very clean interface, updated regularly.

Winamp

I should firstly point out that I HATE iTunes. There, that’s said.

Winamp is a full circle kind of thing for me. I suspect that I was the last person on earth to actually pay for Winamp just before they started distributing free about 10 years ago. They’ve since gone Pro, but I never forgave them back then for taking my money and then turning around and making Winamp free. I wrote to them and asked if I could have the current Pro version free, but unfortunately not – the company who sells it now is about three companies down the road since back then. Can’t hurt to try.

The reason I’ve come back to Winamp is that the pro version on my desktop – apart from managing about 2 terra-bytes of music – allows me to sync playlists and artists/albums wirelessly through my home network to my android phone. Did I mention it was wireless? The Winamp player on my Nexus works well and is pretty enough. The lock screen took me a while to figure out and letting it take over my headset occasionally gets me in trouble. But it’s wireless. Enough said.

Handy Sh!t : (HandyConversionsHandyCurrencyHandyCalc)

Ok, so you’ve got to have three things on your phone. Something to do Conversions. Something to do Currency. And a Calculator. I managed to find all three from the same source.

I have to say, there’s something seriously cool about these apps. Something mesmerizing. I can’t quite put my finger on it. The Conversions and Currency work well enough – the currencies update and you can add your own conversions if you’re trying to work not just in Bhat, Pounds and Euro’s but also Galactic Credits. They’re clean and pretty to look and the the interface is easy to work with.

But the calculator is seriously weird. It has some very cool stuff in it – graphing, solving quadratic equations, fractions, Algebra, you name it. I was once a real maths student with a  real calculator at Uni – a HP48 that I loved and knew backwards. When I came to Android I was pleased to be able to install a HP48 emulator for a while – at least until HandyCalc came along. At some point, I’ll learn to use it properly. Then watch me go.

 

Perses, thy name is Ken …

At some point over the last few years, I have apparently encountered Perses, the ancient Greek God of destruction and have inherited his curse. Actually this is an imperfect syllogism, because while some of the things I touch these days certainly do turn to crap – they’re all basically computers. Unfortunately the Greeks seemed not to have had a God of Destruction and Chaos of Computer Hardware. I may nominate myself …

It was not always this way. My first computer – somewhere back in the early 80’s – was a Commodore Pet. It had a tape drive, filled half my desk, and came with almost no software at all. As fascinated as I was by it – if I wanted it to do anything at all, I had to write the programs. Because of my fascination – I did. I pummelled away at this thing day after day, night after night. A family friend bought me a book and I learned how to program in BASIC. A few months later that became limiting, so I investigated the memory map of the Pet to expand my repertoire. That inevitable lead to programming in machine code. Eventually I pulled the machine apart, but not before I had moved on my second computer.

By this time I was working part time in a flying school where I commenced my second encounter with studied obsolescence, the Sharp Mz-80B. This graduated me to floppy disk drives (the 5¼ inch kind, not the 3½ inch size we eschew now). Still programming in BASIC I was now developing software for a business – transaction processing, accounting, aircraft maintenance tracking, student training records – a heady experience for a teenager of stand alone, single use software development, one that I was destined to repeat again and again over subsequent years.

The Commodore Pet was launched prior to the ubiquitous IBM PC, whereas the Mz-80B was launched as a reaction to it.  Like many machines of it’s ilk – including the various Apple machines – it was all but destroyed in the open source developmental stampede that was to become the IBM PC compatible series. After my initial dalliance in IT obscurity, I progressed through the x86 PC Compatible series during subsequent years – beginning with the original IBM PC itself through various clones (who had the money in those days for the real thing?) with 286, 386, 486-DX, Pentium I/II/III/4.

By the time I reached the Pentium 4 I was flying for Emirates, living in Dubai. My spare time was filled with building machines for myself and others, ranging from the basic word processing machine (not as much e-mail/browsing in those days) through to top of the line machines – a few for gaming, but mostly for those who had to have the best of the best so they could … e-mail and browse on it.

I dabbled with various cutting edge technologies (read: latest unreliable obscure fads) ranging from over clocked processors, RAM and video cards; fast /wide SCSI; power line networking; early AGP video cards; you name it. I turned my own machine around generally every six months, passing it on as I upgraded components and at times replaced the entire machine. I regularly read my way through Byte magazine, and later Boot magazine.

The point of this diatribe is – for a long time I knew what I was doing with hardware. In parallel I’ve also spent a lot of time developing software. Most of this development work has been tied to one database or another – whether it was the DOS based Advanced Revelation (which I still have very fond memories of), DBASE II/III/IV, all versions of Microsoft Access and a few others.

Does this sound like a Resume? You can tell I have a history of IT hardware by the conglomeration of esoteric cables in storage in my roof and by the fact that I remember what almost all of them do.

The End of the Beginning.

The beginnings of my hardware devolution were tied to the increasing time I spent with software. Most of this work was for Emirates, in one way or another. As I slipped behind the hardware technology that was driving the software I was developing, I would turn to my friend Steve. I remember one particularly frustrating afternoon where I spent literally 6 continuous hours tearing down, rebuilding, testing, and tearing down again a machine that would manifest a hardware fault about 80% of the time during a Windows 2000 install. I dropped the machine in to Steve, who returned it the next day, having removed an errant staple from the PCI slot. Unbelievable.

Sometime later, after several such incidents, Steve dropped in for a coffee and told my wife Meg that any time I was observed to be picking up a screw driver, or God forbid opening the case of a computer –  she was to call him. He would drop what he was doing, day or night and come over before any real damage could be done. He believe this was a more efficient use of his time than tidying up afterwards. That I would suggest was the death knell of  personal involvement with hardware. While I tended to restrict myself to upgrading my own machine, when the steam was rising from my ears and my blood pressure could be determined from direct visual observation of my carotid artery, Meg would call and Steve would come, at times saving both me and my machine from a glorious mutual destruction.

This Week.

This brings me to my current desktop. As a gamer of old, despite the fact that I work exclusively off laptops now, I still keep a desktop capable of running some decent games. There has been something of a lull over the past two years as my job with V Australia kept me more on the ground and a whole lot busier – my casual 2am gaming after returning from a trip abated, although I’ve occasionally found the time for some casual gaming with my kids now that each have their own laptops. Until recently we would regularly indulge in some Battlefield, some Call of Duty or the odd round of Left For Dead. We use to play a lot of WarBirds, but once Lewis started to out fly me (at 14 yo) , the fun just wasn’t there …

But now my desktop is dead. Although only lovingly constructed (at least I assume it was, because having spent weeks determining the specs I got friends in Singapore to put it together – Steve, I’ve learnt my lesson) three years ago,  the motherboard is now fried. Being a Shuttle PC this means the case, power supply and motherboard are all throwaways. Consequently I’m knocking around with a hard drive, some ram a processer and other odds and sods, but no gaming computer. I won’t be replacing it anytime soon – my financials don’t currently support the level of investment required to replicate gaming performance.

How did this happen? Damned if I know. Last week I turned it on as I usually do and this one last time got very little in return for that investment of kinetic energy. Just the continuous orange light of death on the front. Somewhere along the way the motherboard absorbed too many electrons for its own good, as evidenced by some warped capacitors along one edge.

Last Month

Six weeks ago I pressed the power button on my corporate laptop – a 6 month old HP Elitebook – to receive the same response. Since it was the company’s machine, I took it into IT support. Two weeks later – and one visit from the HP service rep – it was returned, with a newly replaced motherboard.

“Your motherboard was fried”, he said.

“How” I asked.

“Dunno – it just happens” he said.

“How often ?” I asked.

“Basically Never”, he said.

Enough said.

Last Year

When I left Dubai I realised I would be downsizing in my own personal IT, largely as a result of more than halving my salary for the privilege of working in my home country. Before I left I purchased a Linksys NAS200 – a single box with 2×1 terrabyte SATA hard drives in a mirror array, sitting on my network router. In short this box allowed me to store and access material from any computer on my home network, and through the internet if I’m away from home – with the secure nature of two mirror-image drives should I suffer a hardware failure.

As I’ve moved through life my natural eclectic nature has resulted in collecting a substantial amount of information from those various airlines and airline departments with typically lax security. As it’s grown I’ve become quite protective of this information, hence the mirrored RAID array, which means my data is stored on two physically separate drives. I’m covered, I thought. Who knows, I might want to start my own airline one day, although probably in Second Life, rather than the real world.

And then one day almost 8 months ago I turned it on … you can guess the rest. The box had failed – but the drives were ok, and because I’d been smart and mirrored them, I had two copies of everything. Of course that’s when I found out that the box in fact runs Linux, with a particularly old and obscure version of the Linux file system that Windows never supported (or any other Linux file system for that matter) and neither will UBANTU, KNOPPIX or any of the other of the Linux systems I (or anyone I can find in Geelong) have to hand. I still have hopes of one day recovering my data. No virtual airline for me anytime in the near future though.

Most of the last Two Years

When I left the Middle East I used some of the frequent spender points I had accumulated to purchase a HP Wireless Scanner/Printer. With so many computers in the house (at last count there are 7, plus 4 iTouchs and two mobiles with wifi) I figured being able to connect and print to it wirelessly would be a real boon. Had I ever got it to work, I’m sure it would have been. I’ve banged my head against that damn printer for 18 months. I could never get it to reliably print wirelessly from my desktop sitting next to it – let alone ever print from any other computer in the house. My original choice has been vindicated in the end though – when I upgraded all our machines to Windows 7 – each and every one is printing wirelessly to the printer, with no effort at all.

I could go on, but won’t. I could talk about taking a bottle of half frozen water up to the bedroom one night, sitting it beside my bed and waking in the morning to find that condensation had killed by 4 month old Nokia e71 mobile, but I won’t. I’m starting to yearn for a simpler life without technology – perhaps a Mac?

Do you have any technology horror stories? Significant portions of your life spent beating yourself against technology? I’d love to hear them.

– – – – – – – –

Follow Up.

– My laptop is still with me, although with a new motherboard. When the motherboard was replaced, the strip of metal along the top of the keyboard that contains the power button and controls for sound, wifi, presentation, brightness etc – was damaged. Every now and then I can’t turn it on, or I can’t turn it off. However by this point we’re in a committed relationship now, so we’re persisting.

– I eventually found a friend who knew something about Linux (which quite frankly is too hard to find given the supposed “rising popularity” of the series of loosely cobbled together homebrew projects that is the Linux eco-system) who recovered all my data. The drives I re-used, the Linux Box is now a door stop in my son’s bedroom.

– I never successfully printed/scanned with the L7780 – until Windows 7 came along. After that, it was easy. Quick Vote : how many people believe that Windows 7 more than made up for Windows Vista; how many believe nothing could make up for Windows Vista?

EFB Adventures

EFB as installed by Boeing in the 777

My airline is currently looking at various options for an Electronic Flight Bag (EFB). Originally meant to come with our spanking new 777-300ER’s, they didn’t – for a variety of timing, manufacturing and political reasons. Thus we have an exceedingly handy clip/chart holder and a neat little cupboard where a hundred thousand dollar EFB should be. Hopefully all the cabling necessary to install an EFB at some point is somewhere behind that cupboard.

Accordingly I’m on my way to Singapore to the Airline & Aerospace MRO & Operations IT Conference which is featuring a variety of EFB solutions. As well as a plethora of vendors touting their wares, we’ll hear a couple of airlines speak about their implementations, notable among them Cathay Pacific. Despite the obvious cost saving, flight safety and business process efficiency cases that can be made in favour of EFB on the flight deck, most low cost airlines have been slow to embrace the technology, instead looking at deploying it primarily in the cabin and potentially spilling it forwards through the flight deck door as if by accident. H shouldn’t think our airline won’t be any different in this regard.

Hardware.

The original hardware paradigm for the EFB was manufacturer specified, part of the aircraft and of course, incredibly expensive. Whether limited by the hardware selection or the certification process, EFB in this form has in fact been quite limited in the software it could run, often restricted to Charts, Manuals and Performance Calculation – strictly flight deck centric activities. Enabling the various communications and reporting tools now expected by today’s airlines never seemed to be a priority for the major manufacturers.

The GEN-X replacement for Manufacturer EFB

Following this has been a move towards airliner specific tablets (see the GenX device) which while far more cost effective and intriguing from a flight deck use point of view, are still aimed squarely at the flight deck and therefore missing the point as far as today’s growing low cost carriers are concerned. Tablet devices built specifically for aviation use fail to benefit from the accelerated hardware and software development that accompanies wider use consumer devices such as the iPad, or the coming Android tablets. That said, anything to be used on the flight deck comes with a significant regulatory and certification requirement, which can be prohibitive for a consumer device. Devices such as the GenX typically come with STC’s and other type specific approvals that can make line introduction far simpler than the alternatives.

Software.

EFB software has developed since the initial implementation of electronic access to airport and en-route charts. The movement away from the limited Linux and compromised Windows implementations (often both running on the same device in separate partitions) with third party software restrictions hasn’t exactly been a move to an open platform, but through the insistence of a few airlines, thick client access to Documentation and Manuals, technical defect reporting for the entire aircraft, linked onboard aircraft systems for the purposes of communication and data transfer and aircraft performance calculation are a few of the flight deck specific applications in use. Aft of the flight deck door there are a variety of customer service and cabin crew task specific activities on tablets, ranging from tactical seating re-allocation, dealing with flight delays and re-scheduling, bar and duty free tracking, and more. As more airlines enable broadband internet onboard, these devices will benefit from subsidised internet access enabling Company communication whether synchronous such as Instant Messaging/eMail or asynchronous Company Reports, Training Forms, etc.

One notable candidate for the consumer tablet EFB crown is UltraMain who are attempting to provide the entire gamut of airline needs from the Cabin through to the Flight Deck. As well as in place cabin apps they have also developed a eReporting module for general data capture use. Will this software have the flexibility to record training data? That’s something I’ll be looking closely at over the next two days.

Interface Needs.

Personal tablet devices – mainly iPads – are rapidly becoming common on flight decks as flight crew deal today with an ill considered rush towards the electronic implementation of paper manuals used for study and reference. While for the most part, the evidence is anecdotal – the technical competency and procedural awareness of crew in the airline industry has not come through electronic documentation process unscathed. Quick access to documentation – especially a decent search and find feature – is becoming crucial as many airlines have ceased providing any paper documentation to pilots, leaving the few paper manuals onboard unfamiliar to pilots who would have previously been intimate with the printed rules and procedures that define the modern flight deck. The transition of PC to Tablet has come with sacrifices in the interface that can make it difficult finding information – an unacceptable compromise.

iPad vs Android.

As Android tablets begin to proliferate, the strengths and weaknesses of both platforms will be exposed to the airline environment. Apple’s locked down tablets will not lend themselves to airline in house software development with quick development cycles for targeting software development solutions required to undergo approval by Apple, and developed software made available through the internet to the devices. The hardware itself without a card reader or USB port and the software without an accessible file system will seem at once both secure and extremely limiting. Conversely the Android operating system can be locked down through administrator level operating system software, while allowing the freedom of USB, a card reader or Wifi access to a file system.

That said, Android is currently suffering from a degree of platform fragmentation the iPad is not exposed to. While much has been made (or over made) of the Android fragmentation issue – in part it’s endemic to the degree of freedom Google has given to hardware manufacturers. While a single hardware manufacturer (iPad) significantly limits choice, forward and backward compatibility is typically guaranteed for at least one hardware development cycle. Developers deploying iPad apps today can probably expect to enjoy distribution on next year’s iPad 2 with little or no modification required – as next years iPad 2 developers can expect their apps to run on this year’s device. While the introduction of iPads into the cabin as IFE devices as much based on availability and a play on public perception of the desirability of the device as suitability, the iPad will continue to make a compelling case as the competitive Android tablets reach the marketplace.

All that said, Google have recently stated that Android fragmentation will be a thing of the past with the release of Android 3.1 (the “Ice Cream Sandwich” release – don’t ask) which will be a common operating system across both Tablets and Smartphones. In fact this won’t solve anything, there will always be legacy hardware that phone manufacturers will refuse to support with the latest release of Android – because they want you to buy a new phone.

Speaking of In Flight Entertainment, I’m sitting in an economy seat on a Singapore Airlines A380, exploring the IFE solution at the moment. While the screen is large, it’s not touch screen (capacitive or otherwise) which reduces interaction to the clumsy, seat attached phone-like device that was so cool in 1996. The picture is dim and washed out, but comes with an RCA video input so if my laptop had a decade old video out port I could watch my personal content on that washed out screen. No idea how I’d hear the audio though.

It has a USB port to connect a thumb drive, although not an external hard drive, even one separately powered through my laptop’s USB port. It can view PDF’s with a clumsy software reader that is streets behind my pocket smart phone, let alone the iPad. I can watch video off the thumb drive, although what format it supports I can’t begin to guess, since it won’t recognise the AVI, MKV, MP4 or M4V files I copied across to my thumb drive. There was a time – say about 2004 – where this technology would have impressed me, but not now. It’s the kind of technology that looks good on paper, but the execution is fatally flawed.

The Future.

Despite Apple’s head start, Android’s implicit design strengths will make the tablet arena a fascinating place to watch over the next few years. Aviation will bring a unique flavour to this face off, perhaps a microcosm of the battle brewing in the corporate world over the replacement of RIM’s Blackberries. As aviation explores and implements both Android and the iPad in the aircraft, the strengths and weaknesses of both platforms will be exposed. Watch this space.

The Apple Experience

Ok, so if you’ve read some of what I’ve written in the past, you’ll know I’m not actually pro-Apple. Let’s get that right out in front, so we can move on with what I want to say.  Because what I want to talk about is a recent Apple tech support query which was … downright pleasurable.

That’s right, you heard me – pleasurable. And no, I haven’t lost my mind. Remember – it’s all comparative. If you’ve ever rung Optus tech support with an internet issue, you’ll understand what I mean when I say the bar is pretty low.

Let me explain.

I went through the iPhone decision at the beginning of 2007. I bought one from the Apple Shop it New York (I mean, if you’re going to by an iPhone anywhere, it has to be from the NY shop, just for the kudos).

After using it heavily for several days, I decided that while as a portable platform it was excellent, as a phone it was crap – and I went back and bought a 32GB iTouch as well. I kept the iPhone, returned to Australia and sold it for slightly more than I paid for it. Another IT first.

So we’ve had an iTouch in the family since early 2007. I say in the family because another thing I subsequently discovered is that the iTouch/iPhone was a crap PDA as well. Crappy calendar, no tasks, iTunes (read crappy) sync, etc  – although certainly much improved by the App Store of today.

As such my wife appropriated it in mid 2008, still has it, and she loves it. My eldest son bought one in 2008 based on playing with Meg’s, and finally all succumbed when my other two kids spent their Christmas money early this year on the 3rd generation 8GB and 32GB versions. So the good news is that anytime I want to reach over and check an RSS feed, Twitter or another of the things the iPhone is great for, I can borrow one quickly. Up until now, the iTouch’s have not missed a beat – up until now.

You see the brand spanking new 8GB plays any video we throw at it through iTunes. The equally new 32GB will not. Both of them are connected to the same computer, downloading the same videos from the same (up to date) version of iTunes, both have the same firmware version. Both play YouTube videos. Hmmm.

Apple Support.

So I rang Apple support. It took me only a couple of minutes to find a number for Oz Apple tech support. Two presses of the phone buttons and a I got a human being (I didn’t even have to use GetHuman) who’s primary language was English (American English, but I’m not about to be picky). He was polite without obsequiousness, after listening clearly appreciated (a) the level of technical competency he was dealing with; while (b) not skipping over asking me the obvious steps to make sure. The culmination of the first call was to update my iTunes and iTouch to the latest firmwares, fully admitting that this was unlikely to fix the problem,  but would establish a baseline. He then advised that I completely reset the 32GB to basic spec and try the synch again.

Which I did, without successfully achieving anything new. Still no video. Second call to support – even if just to see if lightening could strike twice. Two Rings, Two Button Presses – someone new but still someone who pulled off a good I-can-speak-English-and-spell-Apple-iTouch impression. My case number brought a quick review of what had been discussed to date. Very little covering of old ground and we were onto more discovery.

The culmination of this was returning the iTouch to Apple. Meg bought it through Amazon.Com and I picked it up in the US. I’ve bought things in different states in Australia (different stores in Dubai) and had issues with return. The Apple rep however found my nearest support store (in the local Westfield Shopping Monster) and gave me a reference number. I dropped off the iTouch and apparently I will have a replacement sometime early next week.

What the Hell?

What is going on here? If there’s one thing we’ve all pretty much grown accustomed to over the past 5 years, it’s that phone tech support no longer exists in any practical, useful form. Any time you ring tech support – particularly for a large multi national conglomerate like Apple – you’re going to be on one end of a crappy VOIP connection to Hyderabad or Bangalore (both of which I have actually been to) – and if you’re really lucky then you be further routed to a subcontracted solution somewhere in Africa. It will take 10 minutes to communicate your name, along with 5 irrelevant questions about either yourself of your equipment, before you’re subject to the scripted response of “have you rebooted your computer, the modem, your wife, etc.

I feel like I’ve traveled back into the 8o’s. Back when tech support was as often as not provided by at least technicians trained by those who built things, if not real technicians themselves. Where you spoke to someone who could not only pronounce Modem, but could spell it and probably knew what it actually stood for (Modulator/De-Modulator for those who are curious).

Although, why on earth I would want to go back to the 80’s, and if I did, why on earth I would ring tech support I have no idea. That’s like one of those weird nightmares where you dream you’re on a date with (insert your own personal fantasy) and spend the entire time asking her about her personal life and what her solution is the deforestation of the rain forests. It just makes no sense.

I have Two Questions.

Is Apple that different? My tech support experience with them is nothing like anything I’ve seen for at least 5 years. Is this the beginning of a trend back towards genuine product support and value for money – or is Apple just a stand alone player. I know from bitter experience that you just can’t get anyone at Google. Which I guess is a bad thing really – when it comes time for Google to finally reduce operating costs by farming tech support out to Bangladesh, it will be unable to – there doesn’t seem to be any. Could I have been so wrong?

And finally – do we as customers and users have a right to expect an appropriate level of either paid or unpaid tech support? It seems to me that we have given up on those rights. In the last 18 months I have called Optus, Linksys, HP, Amazon, and several others. None of those provided what I would personally consider a good (read 1980’s) level of tech support.

What do you think?

Ken