Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Ninja's Progress

Someday, this will be me
I have finally passed an important milestone in my ninjutsu training.  After 2 or 3 years (I don't actually remember how long it's been), I have at last earned my next belt: solid green.  For many, this particular rank is just one more step along the way to black belt, and not even really worth mentioning.  But for me, this is a huge deal.

My Old Belts
In a Box
When I earned my green/white belt (my previous rank, for those who aren't familiar with our ranking system), I had been divorced for just over a year and had just started dating my wife.  At the time, I was only able to see my kids for an hour at a time under supervision, thanks to the vicious lies my ex had been spreading about me. I had also lost my home to foreclosure and had to move into a cheap apartment closer to work - 50+ miles away.  This made attending class at my home dojo in Ann Arbor on a regular basis somewhat difficult.  In short, life was happening all around me, and as I left Quest with my shiny new green/white belt, I just kind of ... knew .. I would have to find a different path if I wanted to progress further.  As it turns out, I wouldn't train again for a long time.

The intervening years weren't necessarily difficult. Like life in general, they had their ups and downs. I got married again, had a baby, moved a couple more times, and changed jobs. I've paid off most of my debts, including the ones left over from my previous marriage. I've fought and (mostly) won a drawn out custody battle in court and finally have something that resembles a fair arrangement for my kids. The court system seems to finally recognize that my ex has been lying to them all along (took them long enough, though), and I'm starting to finally see some improvement in my relationship with my older kids.  My wife broke her ankle a couple summers ago and had to recover from corrective surgery while caring for our newborn daughter - that was a trying time for all of us.  I still don't think "difficult" is the right word to use - perhaps "busy" will work.

During the whole time, I became frustrated with my inability to continue my training. I even tried starting over in a different martial art at a school close to home. It just .. didn't "do it" for me, and I quit after 3 months.  I struggled (and still do) with staying motivated and many times failed to make training even a concern, let alone a priority.  My health suffered, too .. I went from being in the best physical shape of my life to what is now probably the worst. I'm currently only 5 lbs down from the most I've ever weighed in my life. I feel like I'm getting old and perhaps nearing that "mid-life crisis" everyone talks about when a man reaches middle age - if I'm not already smack in the middle of it.

DING, level up!
Shout out to my awesome Sensei, too!
But .. a few months ago, I was able to start training again under my awesome sensei, Joel Iverson at the Art of Life Sanctuary in Detroit (shameless plug), and I've managed to stick with it.  As I've chronicled before, it's been tough at times. I've felt like giving up more than I'll ever actually admit.  I've had to overcome the frustration that goes with realizing I've forgotten so much of what I had learned before. I've learned the value of self-discipline the hard way - by not having any and reaping the consequences.  I still have a long way to go, too - 5 more belts before my first black belt, and I don't plan on stopping there.  Today, I will tie around my waist the first tangible token of my recovery and progress as a developing ninja - my first new belt in close to 3 years.

To me, this belt symbolizes many victories. It reminds me of everything I've had to overcome and adapt to over the last couple of years in order to earn it.  My sensei at Ann Arbor once told us how he was more proud of his white belt than any other (and he was a 3rd degree black belt at the time), because that was the one that started everything - that was the belt he had to overcome the most obstacles in order to earn. Today, I understand what he meant.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Fixing the Otterbox Echo Phenomenon

I recently purchased an Otterbox Defender case for my shiny new Galaxy Note 2 from AT&T. I like it a lot - it's durable, sturdy, and the holster doesn't break off all the time like those annoying $6 cases you can get from that site that begins with "Am" and ends with "azon."  But .. there's always a but.

As soon as I installed the case and made a phone call, the person on the other end complained that they were hearing a loud, obnoxious echo of themselves speaking. This basically rendered the phone useless for what is supposed to be its primary function: making actual phone calls!  So, I went immediately to Google to do some research.

It turns out, a lot of people experience this problem, not only with Otterbox cases, and not only with the Note 2. I read reports of the same behavior with the Galaxy S3, iPhone 5, Galaxy S2, Motorola Droid whatever, HTC phones .. the list goes on and on and on and on.  Sidebar:  That last bit is better if you sing it like a grunge rock song.

So, what to do about this?  Well, Otterbox says it's the fault of the phone and not their case, citing numerous users of the same product that don't experience the issue.  All the carriers are either silent, or say that, since the issue shows up when you add the case, it must be the case's fault. Neither is going to do anything about it except point fingers at the other and leave their customers hung out to dry.  Thanks.  Jerks.

Not satisfied with the corporate buck-passing, I decided to take things into my own hands. I'm an engineer, after all, I should be able to solve this problem. And indeed I have. In fact, this solution highlights the fact that I am a messed up combination of engineer, redneck, and former wanna-be musician.

The Earplugs
The idea is to acoustically isolate the primary microphone (the one you speak into) from the rest of the phone, and especially the earpiece speaker.  To do this, you'll need the following materials:

1. Some disposable foam ear-plugs. The kind you squash and stick directly into your ear. You can usually find them at your local shooting range, usually for free if you spend some time on the range (which I highly recommend).

2. A good, SHARP pocket knife. No, seriously - if it's not sharp enough to shave your arm hairs with minimal pressure, then sharpen it until it is - then sharpen it some more. If you don't have a pocket knife, a good sharp scalpel, art or surgical, will do.

First, use your sharp knife to slice off the wide edge of one of your ear-plugs, making the slice as thin as you can make it. A fraction of a millimeter is all it takes.  Actually, do this twice. In order to have uniformly sized slices, I used two separate earplugs. If the earplugs you find are not the tapered kind, you can use the same one twice. What matters is that you end up with 2 thin slices of earplug foam, which you'll use to surround the primary mic pinhole of your phone.

Next, use your sharp pointy thing to cut a very small opening into the very center of each slice. This opening needs only to be 1 to 1.5mm in diameter, and it can be square or whatever shape you end up with. You just have to make sure you actually physically remove some of the material - simply poking a hole isn't enough. The material has to be able to fully expand and retain the opening.  UPDATE:  I've found that a hand-held hole punch is perfect for this part of the task. It leaves a nice big hole making it much easier to align with the mic, too.

Hole poked and Applied to Phone
note the mic pinhole is visible
Now, take one of your perforated slices and fit it over your phone, leaving the hole over the primary microphone opening in your phone as shown.

Back in the hard shell. See the mic?
Pay no attention to the
weirdo behind the phone
With the slice in place, fit the phone back into the hard shell. Make sure you can still see the primary microphone's pinhole in the phone, otherwise no one will hear you when you make calls. I found that it took quite a bit of fiddling (and some cursing and swearing) to make sure the shell closed completely while leaving the microphone exposed. If you have a Note 2 like me, you can use the stylus to finesse the foam a little once it's closed in order to accomplish this. I presume some other pointy object like a pushpin could also suffice.

Everything back on. See the mic?
Yeah, me neither. I had to re-do it.
Now, take one of your slices and fit it to the bottom microphone hole on the inner (hard) shell of your Otterbox. I had to trim one side of mine because it ran up against the porthole for the USB charger. Again, you have have to make sure that the opening in your slice is over the opening of the hard case, which is over the opening of the first slice, which is over the primary mic's pinhole. With this in place, fit the outer rubber shell of your Otterbox onto your phone. Once again, this will be tricky and your profanity skills will likely be called upon. At the end of the process, you should still be able to see all the way to the primary mic pinhole.

Finally, you're done. Make a test call, preferably to someone who's complained frequently of the echo problem. If they don't hear the echo, you're done.  If they do .. well .. please post here and let me know, and feel free to try something different. Remember - it's more likely to work if you swear at it.
Just for Fun - the finished product*
*feel the swagger
Remember, this solution is specific to the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 in an Otterbox Defender case. However, the main principle should apply to any phone/case combination. If you're reading this post, you are probably smart enough to adapt it to your specific situation, so please feel free.  Good luck!