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Slow Progress

Posted 2011.06.19 20.36 in Computers/Internet/Technology

I’ve been working now and then on my Next Project. It’s slow going but there is progress happening.

This weekend I added a power supply (boring) and a radiation sensor (interesting). The radiation sensor is basically a geiger-muller tube detector. Instead of making audible tick sounds, I modified it to flash a blue LED whenevever it detects ionizing radiation. The counts are tabulated by the MCP’s microcontroller and available as a cumulative counts per day or current counts per minute.

What else can it do?

  • It is a remote display and remote control for my Thermostat.
  • It controls the lights in my aquariums.
  • It monitors the temperature in my aquariums.
  • It controls my Game of Life display.
  • It monitors and displays outdoor weather conditions.
  • It notifies me of activity on my home file server.
  • And now it monitors ionizing radiation.
  • It allows me access to all of this information and all of these controls both in-person and via network.

So I can monitor and control any of this stuff from my iPhone, iPad, at home or at the office, or anywhere.

The main board is an Arduino Mega. It’s using an Ethernet shield and an XBee shield. The radiation sensor is next to the Arduino. The display is a ks0108 glcd. More geeky goodness will be coming next week.

My Next Project

Posted 2011.05.27 23.32 in Computers/Internet/Technology

 

The Humble Thermostat

Posted 2010.12.12 12.46 in Computers/Internet/Technology

I’m a big fan of the Thermostat. They’re clever, and all they want is for us to be comfortable.

Even the simplest mechanical ones are really little robots, whos only goal in life is to keep you comfortable. You tell them what you want the temperature to be, and they dutifully turn the furnace (or A/C) on and off all day and night so that your house remains in your comfort-zone.

The programmable ones of course take this to the next level – with a programmable, you don’t even have to tell the thermostat what your desired temperature is. Or rather, you tell it once, what temperatures you prefer throughout the day and the week, and from that point on, it keeps you comfortable. It’s like magic.

What else in the home works so hard to keep us comfortable, yet asks for nothing in return? The only thing that I can think of that comes close, is a chair or a sofa.

Despite all this, however, I’ve been starting to want more, from my thermostat…

The first seeds were planted several years ago. I saw a programmable thermostat that came with two remote controls. It was outrageously expensive, but there is an undeniable appeal to the thought of being able to crank up the heat without getting out of bed, on a cold winter night. The cost, however, was beyond my means at the time. And by the time I could afford it, that unit was no longer available.

Then last year, the local utility company sent out offers to get a thermostat that you could program over the internet. It sounded like a good idea, but at the time, I did not persue it. They sent the offer again this  year however, so I did investigate.

Their unit is a normal programmable thermostat, that has an RF receiver in it – basically a numeric pager unit. This allows one-way communication, so you can send commands to the unit but not retrieve any information. It’s free, but you have to give up some control: they’ll give it to you, if you agree to let them turn off your air conditioner if the demands on the power grid are too high.

Still, it looked hackable so I filled out the application. They never got back to me; I figure its because I use so little power that they’d never recoup their costs of giving it to me.

Finally, last week I spotted a thermostat at Canadian Tire that came with a remote control. It wasn’t too costly so I grabbed it, with the intent of hacking it. It was a Noma model, which I think is CT’s house brand? Whatever. Let’s look inside!

Aside from the generally poor construction, here’s some things to note: The unit uses RF communications, at the 915MHz band. Comms are one way only, with data going from the remote to the base. This allows the base to display the temperature info from wherever the remote is, but the remote cannot display the temperature, mode, current function, or anything else, from the base. The remote allows you to override the base to a maximum of +/- 6 degF (3degC). Finally, both the remote and the base use a cheap thermistor to determine temperature.

So, it’s not perfect. The one-way comms is a real limitation I think. An additional pisser is that you can easily hack into the comms on the base (since the RF is on a daugher board) but on the remote, it would be much harder as none of the communication lines are accessable (damn those black blobs.) So anything you hack in, is easiest to add at the base, meaning you lose the remote aspect – or have to roll your own remote anyways.

Indeed, when I tried to use it as it was intended, it didn’t really work well anyways. It’s a novelty, but not really a very good thermostat. Verdict: Fail.

So what is it that I really want?

Putting together all the various ideas, I want a thermostat that is programmable and runs fine as a stand-alone unit. I also want it to be able to be accessable via remote control, but with two-way communications, so that a remote unit can at least display everything that the base unit can display, plus the remote should be able to alter the temp, maybe switch modes to hold / run, that sort of thing. Finally, it would be really nifty if it could be wired into my home network, so I could access the data and control through my computer, laptop, iPhone, etc.

The solution, then, is to build my own thermostat, from scratch!

Stay tuned, this story is not over.

Best Toy Ever

Posted 2010.11.24 23.50 in Hobbies, Uncategorized

So I was thinking about trying some electronics, to see if I could revive any interest or ability there. I got a couple kits, one easy and one hard, but some stuff was missing so I went down to the electronics supply place to get some parts. Big disappointment, most of their retail operation is now discount / surplus junk, with electronics being relegated to a tiny little cramped and mostly out-of-stock corner.

So as I was on my way out, having found almost nothing I was looking for, I saw they had some toy remote-control helicopters on final-sale discount. I figured, meh. It might be fun for a few minutes. I’m so bad with R/C cars that I’d never be able to get insurance, but maybe it’d be amusing to crash a helicopter into things for a while. And it was either that or my big bag of disappointment, so I figured I’d give it a shot.

Well! Forget about the electronics kits – this little whirly-bird is supercool!

It’s super easy to fly! It only took me 3 or 4 big wipe-outs before I was able to do complete flights, like from take-off to landing. It flies with two counter-rotating main rotors, steers by varying the speed of one of the mains, and goes foreward / reverse by tilting the nose down or back, using a small rotor on the tail boom.

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Alien Brain Worms

Posted 2009.03.31 13.50 in Life On Drugs, Pointless Blather

I’ve mentioned the brain worms, the alien remote control, and the demons before. I was talking about CAT scans and how none of the above were likely to show up. What I’m thinking about now is, how do these things come into play. And let me quickly point out that I’m using these things metaphorically – I’m reasonably certain that there are not actually worms, tiny aliens, or demons in my noggin.

Anyhow, what I’m wondering about is this: Frequently I’ll make my mind up to do (or not do) something because I know (intellectually, logically) that whatever it is I’ve chosen is the “right” thing to do. Whatever “it” is, could be I decided not to have wine with dinner, or decided not to have desert, or decided not to buy that expensive-but-super-cool technological jiggery-pokery toy. 

So I’ve made the decision, I know it’s right. And yet… there is this constant nagging, this wheeling and dealing, trying to make me change my mind, trying to talk me into doing the ‘wrong’ thing. It doesn’t let up. It is very persistent and persuasive. It even employs trickery and con-artistry at times.

What the hell is it, and where does it come from? If I make up my mind, what’s in there trying to reverse the decision? This disturbs me on many levels.

If I decide to do “A” and then “B” keeps popping up in my head, trying to entice me directly, or even trying to trick me into it… what?  What is it?! Why? I mean — why can’t I make my mind up and that’s the end of it? If “I” am trying to trick “me” then who am “I”?

I’m not talking about hearing voices – this is all just mental train-of-thought processes:

I’m not going to buy a new NNNN, I don’t need it, it’s too expensive, and I already have plenty. I need coffee whitener, I’ll just pop round the corner to the 7-11. You know, they also sell NNNNs at the 7-11. Yeah but their NNNN’s are overpriced and sucky. The NNNN’s at YYYYY are way better.  Wait, shut up! I don’t want a NNNN.  I’m going to the A&P, they sell coffee-whitener and they don’t sell NNNN. I could go to the A&P up at the other plaza, there’s a YYYYY up there and they sell NNNN. Wait no, I don’t want an NNNN. Just coffee whitener is all I need. (fastforward 10 minutes) How the hell did I end up at YYYYY? Hmm you know, these really are nice NNNN…

That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about. Just a line of thoughts running along, trying to steer me to do something that’s not ultimately in my best interest. Nothing instantly bad of course, and frequently there’s short-term fun to be had, but in the long-term, it’s not good.

Is that just me? Does this happen to other people? It makes me feel like I’m not entirely in control of myself.

Alien Brain Worm with Remote Control

But if I’m not in control, then who or what is? I’ll try and explore this more later… right now I’ve got to sneak out of work and buy some more NNNN.