Stepping Stones

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To celebrate our new raised garden beds (and to get out feet out of the mud). I cast the hand prints of all of our family in 12″ x 12″ stepping stones.

Smart Garage

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I’ve been looking to start another Arduino project for some time, but I have been waiting for a ‘real’ problem to tackle before I began….  and then the outdoor keypad for our garage door opener died. Yippeeeee! This is the ‘real’ problem I was looking for. Unless I have my car keys with me to open up the car and to click the opener in my car, I have no way to get into my garage when I’m out for a bike ride or walking my boys to and from school. Two of  my boys are still in a stroller, and since this is the rainy season, the time to act is now. This is a problem that I needed to solve. Arduino to the rescue!

I finished a similar project about a year ago, where I used an Arduino with an Ethernet Shield to create a web enabled failover switch for some of the phone circuits in our datacenter.  I used a very similar setup here. This time however, I wrote the interface using JSON so that I could build an iPhone app to control the garage door and several of the lights in and around my garage. The iPhone App is still a work in progress, but the system itself is online; only the UI is still rough around the edges.

Now, I have all my front yard lights controlled by a cron job on one of my Linux servers. And I can open my garage using any web browser, mobile phone, or even my Kindle. All costs considered, I probably paid three times what it would have cost to just replace the dead keypad. But that’s not how I roll.  I was able to add new functionality, and enjoy a few cold evenings soldering relays in my garage! I <3 Arduino and the Maker movement!

Charge Only MicroUSB Cable

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I’ve been using either Verizon, Sprint, or AT&T’s mobile broadband service for over five years. I’m now on my fourth technology iteration and I have a hard time remembering what it was like when Internet was only available at home, office, and the café. I refuse to return to those dark ages!

Until recently I used Verizon’s first generation of MiFi hotspot, the Novatel 2200. It’s a great little device that did exactly what I wanted it to. When I needed it to be a WiFi hotspot, it was a hotspot. When I was on the road and needed to charge it via my laptop’s USB port, that worked perfectly as well. Recently however, my company upgraded me to the newest MiFi hotspot, the Novatel 4510L. For the most part the new device is faster, shinier, has better reception… it goes to eleven!

The problem is, and I consider this to be a design flaw, is that when you plug the device into a PC, with the USB cable provided, it will only charge the device. The 4510 will neither operate as a WiFi hotspot, nor will it operate as a USB connected modem. I learned this the hard way last week when I spent most of the day at the green mermaid coffee shop waiting for the mechanic to finish my car repairs. As it was a crowded day in laptop land, I only managed to get access to a single power outlet. When the batteries on my MiFi hotspot were nearly tapped, I had to resort to swapping between the laptop charger and the MiFi charger every hour to make it to my car pickup.

Armed with a soldering iron and heat shrink tubing, this was an easy hack. A USB cable has four wires; two for power, two for signal. If you cut open the cable and clip the signal wires, then you effectively create a charging cable. Based on a support forum thread at Verizon Wireless (http://bit.ly/pBqf1h), I also learned that you can trick the 4510L into thinking it’s attached to its AC charger if you additionally short the signal wires on the MicroUSB side. So, I closed the circuit on the green & white signal wires on the MicroUSB end of the cable. Important: The signal wires on the host or USB A end of the connection must remain open or you risk shorting out your USB port or damaging your computer.

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Typical USB cable color coding: Red +5v, Black, GND, White Signal+, Green Signal-

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Tie the power wires together, solder & insulate. In order to trick the Novatel 4510L into thinking it’s connected to its AC adapter, short the signal leads on the device or MicroUSB end. Be sure to leave the signal wires on the host end of the cable open. Insulate all of the wires with electrical tape or heat shrink.

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Finished product. I only made the cable 6″ long so as not to add to the rats nest of cables that I already keep in my backpack.

[Update 2011-08-16 10:06 PDT]: According to Verizon Wireless, the shortcoming of not being able to charge and operate the Novatel 4510L while plugged into a PC USB port is a design constraint and not a design flaw. Many PC USB ports fall short of the 500mA power spec and do not provide enough energy to both charge the batteries and power the MiFi radios. My MacBook Pro happens to have enough juice (http://bit.ly/niXKgJ), so I feel it is safe to operate with my hacked cable. You may want to check the specs on your laptop’s USB ports before you proceed.

Hiding the Wires

I hate cords!  As a gadget freak, it feels almost heretical to make such a statement, but there you go. I try to hide the wires that race to and from my computer equipment whenever possible. They are unsightly, they are a tripping hazard, and all they ever seem to do is to collect dust.

In effort to keep all of the little electronic doodads that turn my home office into mission control out of sight and out of mind, I mounted them all to a piece of peg board and then hung it off the back of my filing cabinet. The doodads stay cool, there are very few wires left over to trip on, and it is easy to troubleshoot when things go wrong.

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At our last house, I was able to use a small corner of the garage, where I built a telco cabinet that had all of the phone, TV, and Ethernet cabling running through a central location. My electronic doodads where mounted on the wall beside the cabinet where they remained cool and out of the way. The problem is that my garage was also my workshop, and I was constantly blowing sawdust out of the nooks and crannies after a day puttering.

In our new house, the garage is too far away from the current phone and cable runs and I have neither the time nor the budget to run new lines (including Cat6) throughout the house. While I do have a closet in our home office, the space is too valuable to put up a gadget board within. The current fracas between the U.S. political parties over the debt ceiling pales to the negotiations I would have to initiate with my wife in order to take over the corner of one of our closets. So, this is plan B. I enlisted my well travelled, sturdy IKEA filing cabinet which was already on casters from back when it doubled as a saw horse. I tacked the pegboard hooks onto the backside, lashed the electronics to it, and then stuck it in a corner of my office under the window. Everything should stay nice and cool, and more importantly, the doodads should remain out of sight.

This is not an original idea. I first saw this post on Lifehacker a few years ago where the person mounted some pegboard underneath his desk. I’ve used the same technique at client’s sites, but I was always concerned about heat buildup when the devices are mounted underneath a massive object such as a wooden desk. I was afraid that the heat would not dissipate, so more often than not, I would mount the devices on a wall in a closet or utility room; somewhere where the heat could rise and be carried away by the air currents in a room. My filing cabinet is right under the window. So, even if the window is closed, there should still be some convective currents that will keep the air flowing past the doodads.

The Most Read (& Loved) Book in my House

The Star Wars Craft Book, by Bonnie Burton is catnip for 8 year olds! My son sleeps with it under his pillow! It goes with him wherever he goes.  He uses it as a conversation starter almost every day! My 4 year old son is right beside him reading along and fantasizing about making his own Millenium Falcon bed. Our 10 month old 11 month old twin boys will surely benefit from this book if the binding does not disintegrate from extreme wear and tear before their first birthday.  While we’ve already created several of the projects within, my two oldest boys have made it their mission to build everything in the book before the end of the summer.  A lofty goal, yes, but certainly one that we can put a sizable dent in over the next 7 weeks.

Granted, my wife and I are huge Star Wars fans, so our children have no choice but to be fans as well. And yes, I do take pride in DIY, geeky, crafty, makey things. So, you can argue that I am Audience0 for this book and that I am biased. So be it, but I do think The Star Wars Craft Book truly has something for everyone. It’s easily one of the best $15.00 investments in “family time” I’ve ever spent.

Thank you to the Author, Bonnie Burton, who spent so much time creating terrific resource! I’ve been a fan of her’s since the days of @Sock. Here are some pictures of our first project out of the book, The Wookiee Birdhouse:

Decker's Wookiee Bird House

Decker & his Wookiee Birdhouse

Don’t Fence Me In!

Sorry kiddos, but we built you a cage. But not just any cage! A room sized playpen with an entire wall designed to help you pull yourself up to standing and allow you to practice walking!

So, what really has happened is this: We moved to a new home earlier this month. We now have a formal dining room for which we have no furniture. With a young family under our roof, we do not intend to buy a dining room set until our kids are much, much, much older. In the meantime, we’re going to use the dining room as a play area for the boys. Linus & Keelan, currently 10 months old, need some boundaries. As we had a missing 4th wall, I decided to build a fence to separate the dining room from the living room.

Our design constraints and my results

  • $$$ – Do not spend more than $200. Once I return the can of stain that I did not need, my total should be approximately $135.00. I constructed the fence using #2 Pine & birch dowels, all from the local big box lumber yard. Hardware, sanding paper & glue came from my neighborhood hardware store.
  • Child safe – The fence should meet or exceed guidelines of no gaps greater than 4″. The fence should also have a non-toxic finish as our little guys will use the ballisters as much for teething as for climbing. I standardized on 3″ spacing on all of the ballisters and floor-to-rail height; small enough to keep baby noggins from passing through, but large enough not to pinch pudgy baby thighs between the rails. I found a really nice “Salad Bowl Finish” from Rockler Woodworking. It’s food-safe when cured, so I think it’s as good as we’re going to get for a satin natural wood color finish.
  • Aesthetics. All of the store bought baby gates I’ve found are fugly! Plus, in order to cross the chasm of 11 feet, we would have had to buy some monstrous accordion fence. No Thanks!. I chose to build it myself, creating a solid wood railing that spans the entire length of the opening between our living room and the play area.
  • Temporary & easy to disassemble – When the fence comes down in two years, make it easy to return the dining room to its original state. To do this, I used a simple eye-bolt to eye-bolt hinge to attach the railing to the wall. It’s a simple matter of undoing four bolts to remove the fence when we need to. When we’re ready to return the room to its original state, I will have just 4 small (1/4″) holes to patch and paint… that’s assuming I don’t have any other kid-sized holes in the wall to patch at the same time. I plan to reuse the fence as well! While large, it should fit nicely in the garage rafters where I plan to use it store our camping gear.

Time

All in, it took me a day and a half to build and glue it up. I spent another two days putting on 3 coats of food-safe finish.

Things I might change next time

  • I built the rails very beefy (1.5″ x 3″) in order to keep the fence from sagging across its 11′ span. If I did it again, I would probably drop it to 1.5 x 2.5″ to make it look a little more slight.
  • The eye-bolts and hardware on the ends are shinier than I anticipated and draw the eye to the corners. I may paint them to try to get them to blend in.

Weather Station Installed

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Tonight, I completed the installation of a weather station at home. One of the reasons why I got into amateur radio a couple of years ago was to experiment with packet radio (APRS) and to set up a WX node on one or more public weather networks. Tonight, I’m on the Citizen’s Weather Observer Program (CWOP) and Weather Underground. I’m hoping my wife will warm to the idea of having the sensor array on the back fence. Her initial comment was:

“Now all the folks walking on the trail [behind our home] will know who’s house is the geekiest.”

My thoughts exactly!

APRS/CWOP:


Station Info: KJ6APE-10

Weather Underground: