Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Solar Buoy

My family has a place in Georgian Bay, Lake Huron.

It's remote, and fairly primitive. The entire area is solid rock, occasionally covered by scrub brush and pine forests. The area itself is a deep lake broken by numerous islands. Occasionally a spire of rock is completely surrounded by deep water.

Marking these rocks is a completely DIY effort. Some islands in the area have fairly decent markers.

Our island is not one of them. The vast majority of our markers are empty 1 liter to 1 gallon bottles, with rope. I don't know if they're weighted or actually secured to the obstructions they mark. They seem to stay in place, despite the hard freeze that occurs every year.

Some of these markers are small enough that they're virtually invisible during daylight glare. Forget about trying to see them at night. It's just not going to happen.

For many of the visitors, this isn't a problem. They know the waters like the back of their hand. These folks tear through the area at top speed, and some could possibly do it blindfolded and survive.

I, on the other hand, am not that daring yet. I think I'm a pretty good boater, but I definitely lean on the side of caution. There are times when I'll put someone in the bow of the boat to warn of unmarked obstructions.

I've been going to the island routinely for four years now. One of the things that strikes me is the pure beauty and nature of the area. Anything man-made is the exception to the rule, and it is very easy to keep a "Green-Mind" while I'm up there. I decided my first year to make my Islander Projects as green as possible.

While in Canada, we saw some cheap solar garden lights (Less than $3 at WalMart). We picked one up to mark the path to our camp from the opposite side of the island (we do a fair amount of late night partying). Looking at the light started the ball rolling for a solution to marking shoal hazards around the island.

I wanted a cheap, solar powered solution, with the ability to program the (potentially multi-colored) light pattern. In terms of buoy, I wanted a 4-6" PVC pipe, with a solar collector on top, a battery, and a BlinkM LED in a sealed enclosure.

I hit Home Depot yesterday, and grabbed one of these guys:

Mine was just under $10... Your mileage may vary.

I disassembled and opened everything up as much as I could. The whole thing is basically a solar array, a 3.2V Lithium Battery, and a circuit board. I wasn't able to figure out how to completely disassemble the unit to get at the pieces-parts I wanted, so I grabbed my Dremel.

I cut the sucker:
If you cut along this line, you will miss the circuit board while still preserving the reflector and lens assembly. Take caution to avoid the wires. I then did an additional cut to create a channel to free the wire from the upper connection hole. This allowed me to get the circuit board removed, and I was left with a small, intact system comprised of a solar cell, circuit board and LED's, and the battery.

I fired up the soldering iron and removed the LED's. Thankfully the LED's all use the same ground and power lines. I didn't want to spend too much time figuring the circuit out (later, ok?). I marked which side of the LED's were notched (in the top view of the board, the sharpie scribble in the bottom of the picture is supposed to be an "N").

I then cut one of my breadboard wires in half, so I would have two easy female sockets to supply to my BlinkM.

The images are from the ThingM website and SparkFun.

There are a bunch of cool things about the BlinkM LED module. First, the cost is pretty low at ~$13. The next is the form factor. These things are pretty small. Third is the well integrated multi-color LED, with the stand-alone microprocessor to control it. You can program the LED patterns, and then just supply power. The system will blink, fade and change color, however you have programmed it.

All of this makes it perfect for this project. The cheapie solar array, battery and board will store power, and then supply power to the LED's when the light level goes down. From there, the BlinkM just does it's thing. ThingM has even provided a very easy graphical programming tool for the BlinkM's

I used the breadboard wire to connect the power to the solar array, so that I could easily remove the BlinkM to program it. Once it is programmed, I just hook the power up to the board. The "notched" side of the LED's is the negative feed. You can see in the circuit board picture (Picture #3) above how I soldered the wire (again, you do have some options here).

I tried the system out, last night, and it lasted all night. I didn't really do a formal test of the charging time versus discharge time, but the LED was blinking away this morning after being in the dark for 12 hours.

I need to figure out how to mount this thing. Clear four inch PVC pipe is hideously expensive. I think I'm going to look for a clear Pelican case or Otter Box. That still remains to be seen. I also want to work a switch into the BlinkM connections so that I can re-program these things if I need to.
Finally, I'm going to get a $3 solar light from Home Depot, and compare that one. If I can get the same (or similar) performance for less cost, I'm all for it.

There is one possible upgrade, and that is to a BlinkM MaxM. These things put out an insane amount of light, but I think I'd need to upgrade the power. As it stands, this thing is completely kit-bashed, with no real original circuitry on my part. I think I would have to actually do some circuitry work to get a BlinkM MaxM running off of a solar charged battery.


Malibu Solar Powered Flood Light $10 Home Depot
BlinkM Module $13 SparkFun Electronics

Enclosure: TBA

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Open Source Wine Rack

I don't get to drink a lot of wine in my own house.

I'm poor.

That doesn't mean I don't like to drink wine. Far from it. I love wine.
Initially, I hit upon the perfect wine drinker's racket: Family
My father and my sister are both wine drinkers. More to the point, they're getting better and better at being connoisseurs. They're getting really good at picking wines.

So, do the math:
I like wine - I'm poor + (Sister + Father like wine * (Good at Wine)) = Profit!

Well, ok, not profit. Drunkards never profit (or so I'm told). But I'm certainly better off than I am without.

My parents are splitting up and they're having to sell their house. I won't get in to the massive insane bummer that this is (It's huge).
However, the silver lining is that we had to empty the basement.
Which is where the wine was kept.

As a result I received a couple of boxes of wine, and no where to keep them. I looked for a wine rack:

Ninety dollars???? Are you insane? I'm poor! I just need to keep my wine off the floor (You can cry over spilt wine).

I went to Home Depot and bought $15 worth of wood. No tools.

It actually took me longer to do the calculations than to actually make the wine rack. I needed a wine rack that could hold small bottles securely, but still manage to hold the big bottles of ripple that we occasionally get. The bottle diameters range from 2.75" to 3.75".

I bought several 3/8th inch wooden dowels, and a bunch of 2"x2"x8' non-treated (dry) wood. After some quick math and experimentation, I found that I needed to cut the wood as follows:

Dowels 3.75"
2"x2"s 12"

On all four vertexes of the 2x2 I drilled 3/8th inch holes one inch from the ends (a total of 8 holes). I marked the 3/8th inch drill bit one half inch away from the tip (the real tip) with a Sharpie marker, and drilled the vertexes until the mark just disappeared.

Two parts. That's it.

Some caveats: A table saw really helps. Cutting the wood took no time.
A drill press really helps. My drill press is pretty crappy. It has a fair amount of shimmy to it, making it difficult to drill precise holes. It still really helped.

I made a jig to drill the wood. Drilling the vertex of a 2x2 is a difficult proposition. Cutting a short section of 2x2 from vertex to vertex gave me two pieces of wood. Putting those two pieces on to a thin piece of plywood, next to each other, and gluing them, gave me a sturdy method for holding the wood as I drilled into the edge.

However, the slightly variable hole axis was planned into the build. I knew my drill press wasn't up to drilling the exact same hole, over and over. With the holes drilled to the exact same size as the dowels, there would ordinarily be some looseness to the fit of the dowels in the holes. But with the holes being at a slightly different angle in each of the 2x2's, the dowels locked right into place when the rack was put together.

I did glue the wine rack together. It might have held together without doing this, but there are some pretty nice bottles of wine on the rack. At least one collectible bottle, and one bottle with a lead sealed cork (yeah, lead sealed). I really didn't want to risk a break with these bottles, as I really feel that they belong to my family.

Build time was quick. The current wine rack holds 24 bottles of wine. It cost $15 to make, and is easily expandable. I'm probably going to double to quadruple the size of it. The materials are cheap, and I could easily stain it to match my eventual house.

I wrote about this because of the low part count (two), and the fact that anyone could do this, if they just considered the math behind the build. Well, I did the math for you (follow the directions above, and you can have the same wine rack).

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

WiFi Sniper Rifle

I'm working an insane amount. Between the hospital and school, it doesn't leave much time. I stuff that time with the consulting work, and efforts on a new project to make a fair amount of money.

This post is about none of that.

One of my classes last semester was Wireless Network Security. It seemed to me that like many security problems, this was one of access. To top it off, because many people (and still some organizations) use shoddy security, if you can just get access, you are on the network. I've sat in a couple of dining rooms and offices showing clients how quickly their network can be compromised by not using their security tools correctly.

I'm also getting ready to go on vacation in the wilds of Canada. I'll be honest, I like my internet to be readily available, wherever I go. The last time I was there, we had some issues with signal and antenna aiming. I've been thinking about that problem ever since.

I had some parts lying around the house. Specifically for this project I used only a couple of real parts:
1x 802.11 2.4GHz "25dBi" antenna (Supposedly it works on 5GHz as well, I haven't tried)
1x 802.11n MIMO USB adapter, with two removable antennas
1x AR-15 Lower Receiver with handle (Airsoft Surplus, no modifications needed)
1x Removable stock
1x Cheap Bushnell Scope w/mounts
1x Short length of P-rail to mount the scope

I also used some PVC piping (1 inch, I think) to act as a pillar for the antenna, lower receiver and scope to attach to. I made a small acrylic block and secured it to the PVC pipe as a connection point between the PVC and the lower receiver. Various screws, nuts and some scrap wood were used (The scrap wood was planed to fit in the butt of the PVC, to further secure the PVC to the lower receiver. Another plug was fit to secure the pistol grip to the lower receiver).

I sent a picture to a friend of mine. I think I need to do this with all of my kit-bashes from now on. In the past he's typically been working next to me, when I do these things. He frequently says things like "Are you sure you want to....", or "Hey man, that's not real smart....", or "Is something burning?"
In short, he's the safety cut-out for many of my projects (Despite the fact that he literally has an entire self-inflicted injury category named after him).

His first reaction "Dude! (He's 37 or something) Dude! Is that a railgun?"

So I disappointed my best friend, but again, he probably saved me some grief by showing me a big problem.

This thing looks just like a firearm. More to the point, it's a scary firearm that will make everyone twitch if they see it. Not exactly the kind of thing you want to hang out with on a hill, and point at random dwellings to get an idea of its range.

Now, as an aiming device, this thing is going to be great. I'll be able to visualize my target antenna, and then slowly move the system around to get the best signal. However, I already recognize the difficulty of typing while shouldering the "rifle".

To combat that (and the scary pointing issue), I'm working on a tripod mount for the antenna and PVC assembly. Once the signal is established, I can disassemble the stock and lower receiver around the antenna/PVC assembly, which are secured using a stable tripod.

This is going to work really well in the Wilds of Canada (It sounds cooler when I capitalize it), and at home, I probably won't need the extreme range features of the whole build. I may look at a method of just securing a hand grip directly to the PVC. Then it's going to look like I'm aiming a giant linear antenna, instead of a railgun.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Sick and tired

I didn't understand what this meant until recently.

I've been tired before. I've had some times where I've been exhausted. Seventy-two hours on the job will do that. Insane tactical medicine evolutions will tax you as well.

I've always measured how tired I was by my ability to keep going, should I absolutely have to. Sure, I've been sick. I've been tired, but push comes to shove, I can still get my butt in gear.

A couple of weeks ago, I just got sick. It started out pretty subtle, no big deal. A little abdominal pain and some GI symptoms. Then it accelerated like a bullet, and just chopped my legs out from under me.

I was exhausted, and sore. Muscle and body aches plagued me in waves, as did this incredible lethargy. People who know me, know that I'm typically pretty gung-ho, and type A. I'm always doing something. Hell, when I'm not feeling well, I typically get involved with a project to keep my mind off of things.

Not this time. It was an effort just to sit up, and at times I'd just collapse in on myself, I was so tired.

It did give me new understanding though. I can better appreciate when a patient tells me they're so tired that it's an effort just to get water.

Hydration and eating were a constant issue for me. I just couldn't get the energy to keep going to the fridge, and I had no desire to eat (To the tune of 15lbs of weight loss).

All this, and we really didn't know what was going on. Sure, we had the symptoms pinned down pretty well (I really like my doc and her medical team, they cut right to the chase), but the differential diagnoses were legion.

This was really bizarre to me. Sure I knew the process in the back of my head, but I've never personally experienced that. When I've been sick before, it's been a sore throat, or the flu, or pneumonia (all of which were child's play compared to this). This time, I was just sick, really bad, and I had no idea what the real cause was.

I had occasional fevers that seemed to only underline that I was sick. I went whole days without them (I think). I actually got work done with the fevers. I wrote several hundred lines of code to get the basis of one of my projects done. Probably at the cost of a day's rest

A couple of weeks into it, I had a mini-freak out. What if this was forever? What if I'd gotten some bizarre chronic condition that wasn't going to go away? Holy crap! I still didn't know what was wrong with me! Three weeks?!

Wiser heads prevailed, and I was talked down from my lethargic hysterics. I'm really thankful for my family, and especially my girlfriend, Angel. She was incredibly helpful in keeping me fed and watered. Pretty much like one of the animals, actually. At least I felt that way at times. It was pretty depressing at times, but mostly incredibly comforting.

Thankfully, my panic only lasted about two days. At that point I went the whole day without having one of those bouts of exhaustion. The next day, I felt practically energetic. My joints weren't really hurting, and I felt like I could do things.

I wanted to get back to work. Bad. Real bad.
Three weeks was a really long time to be away from the department, and three weeks of cabin fever had jumped on me like a rabid elephant.

Turns out it takes more to get back to work than to call in sick. I spent three days on the phone trying to arrange a return to work. Drove me crazy. A week later, and I'm still making phone calls. GRRRR

But I am thankful now for the increased understanding. I never really contemplated being that exhausted, that lethargic, that out of it. I get it now.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

100MB Went Fast

I've got 5MB left, and I think I recycle on the 14th. I've been deliberately trying to reduce my 3G usage, to stretch it out, but I think this is the last day.

Not bad, but not great. When finances pick up, I think I'm going to have to try one of the paid packages (I think the next step is 20GB, a huge change).

I'm still loving this little laptop, and it has occupied a niche in my life. It's become my quick "go-to" laptop, when I need information, notes, recipes, etc. It's almost always within reach, very quick for these applications, and easy to use (I'm still having problems with the right-click, though).

I'm trying to figure out how you know when to publicly talk about a project, or try to develop it for a business. There's so much open source work being done out there, but I have so many bills to pay....