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» DIY Techno-hacks

My God!
This question was made for me!

To start with I made a quadrafilar double-helicoidal anttenna from a load of old coax and some drainpipe so that I could pick up the polar-orbit sats to predict my own weather as I couldn't rely on the TV - not that I had any special reason to predict the weather at all.

...but that wasn't enough.

I was always pissed off that I had a remote control to unlock my car doors all at once but not for my house....so.....when some pikeys smashed our remote-control barrier down at work to get to some scrap metal (to be honest, they could have just asked and they could have had it, it was a pain in the arse to get rid of most of the time!) I took the remote keys - they look exactly like car remotes.
I took out the slightly smashed electrics and bought a couple of magnetic door slots and little plastic box to host the electronics, a quick wiring in and voila! Home Central Locking. Comes in bloody handy when you're struggling with shopping etc...

However, the "Techno-DIY" bug had set in by then and this simply wasn't enough.

I'd been running a MythTV server for some time, so after buying a cheap network camera on ebay and mounting it in the ceiling in the porch, editing the menu xml files on the MythTV frontend, I could flip the TV picture to the porch when the doorbell rang and after shorting one of the remote controls and wiring it into a USB relay/switch I could open (or at least unlock) the front door by pressing a button on the TV remote.

Still, it seems my geekyness was not sated. I wired the lights into the USB relay (I'm making this sound more simple than it actually was and not being an electrician had to learn the hard way - many a bolt was had!) and the amplifier. Of course, there were lights on all three floors. Luckily, I have PCs everywhere and they are all networked. So a couple more relays and a quick TCP server written in Python and viola again! I could then control the lights, amps and TV's in all the rooms.

Shortly after that was completed, a couple of touch-screens had gone at work - they're used in a factory that gets quite dusty and as such they don't last all that long. They were in the skip. One would power up but had a milky white screen the other wouldn't start at all. One swapping of the internal psu, and wooohooo, one free touch screen.

I had an old 800mhz mini-itx board laying around so made a quick case for that, but for some reason my OS of choise would simply not install - funny chipset or some-such thing. So, Windows XP went on the bugger. I then wrote a nice looking front-end for it in C#, and so now I could simply touch buttons on the screen to turn everything on and off.

So, to cut a long story slightly shorter I then had a machine sitting idle for most of the time.....and a couple of omni-directional mics that had been aquired years ago from a relative that used to work for the BBC. Wired those buggers in, wrote some voice recognition stuff (using the MS Speech SDK, I'm not THAT geeky!) and then I could say "front room, lights, on" and on they would come, etc... Had to train the voice a fair bit to get it accurate, but it all bedded down properly in the end!

Still, the windows...I actually had to get off my arse and open them manually...and te curtains.

A quick trip to Homebase and 2x12v Handheld drills for 7 quid each and I now have 12v variable speed motors! Drilled the bay windows through, extracted the motors from the drills, and about 2 weeks later (lots of problems with getting that to work) I could open the top windows of the house via, either my mobile phone, my TV remote, by speaking - "Top window, left, close" or by touching the touch screen button. Still...that required human input...not geeky enough, STILL!

I seemed to remember I had an Arduino board laying around after some mis-guided project from a while back. Sure enough, a quick search turned it up...along with light sensors and humidity sensors. A quick C program in 'Wiring' and when it got dark, the windows would shut. Starting to rain, the windows are open and I'm at work? No problem, first hint of rain and the windows close, and then notify me that they've done so.

One night a few months after this, I discovered that despite all this crap, I'd forgotten my keys and couldn't get into the house. I finally managed to enter the place, but not until a lot of trouble had passed. So, the next day I installed "[email protected] (trixbox)" on one of my machines that were running 24/7. I set up a free SIP (in) phone number and an extension number that only I knew. I set up the automated voice response that we've all become so familiar with, "press one for this, two for that, three to unlock all doors, etc...". So now, this can never happen again. If I forget my keys, I simply phone the house up, dial the extension number, then press the appropriate button that kicks of the script that talks to the pythin TCP server and the relay that is wired into the old remote control clicks and the door becomes unlocked!

To the chagrin of my misses, this 'DIY-project' still isn't finished...I don't think it ever will be.

I think she wants her dining room table back - currently, and for the last few months anything with electricity for blood has been taken to pieces and remains in the electric graveyard she used to call a dining room.

Still, the curtains are next.

PS. I think she's quite pleased with the air-con unit made from an old coolbox and old Dell server fans.
(Thu 20th Aug 2009, 14:34, More)

» DIY Techno-hacks

Somehow forgot this....
...I suppose we've got so used to it, it doesn't seem out of the ordinary any more.

I mentioned in my other post about the two touchscreens that I managed to make a good one from. It seems that the ailments they suffered are quite common in these models and as such, I found another three in the skip. The same problem as the last two, and the same resolution. I now have one in the kitchen.

Some time ago, I used to work for a large insurance company in London that needed a way of tracking documents throughout their building. To cut a long story short I wrote a program that used the barcodes on the document folder to update a database and as such the whereabouts of every document could be known with a click of a mouse. Whilst I was doing this, I was writing bits of it whilst working from home and as a consequence of this, I had a couple of barcode scanners at home. A few years later and I had left this employer, but I had accidently (and I mean accidently) forgotten to return the barcode scanners, and as such when I moved house I found them again.

This lead me to thinking....if only I could have a database of all the barcodes in the world (or commercial products), I could scan all my shopping into the fridge, larder etc... and I'd know exactly what I had at any one time.

And so it began.

Touchscreen duly screwed into the wall with newly-made wooden brackets, I set about finding an open-source database of UPC barcodes. This being the new-world of teh interweb, this didn't prove all that difficult to find (http://www.upcdatabase.com/ if anyone is interested). Luckily, that very generous chap has a download page where I could download (or indeed, setup a weekly cron job to run a script to download the latest and enter it into my database) all the barcodes.

...and this I did.

I then wrote a nice little frontend - VB.net this time, I don't know why, I suppose I wanted to see how it worked - in which each time a barcode was scanned it would search the database and if it didn't exist it would pop up a screen sking you what type it was - i.e. Meat, Tinned Peas, Tinned Spuds Fresh Peas, bog roll, toothpaste etc... and once pressed on the touch screen it would write it to the DB and remember for next time. Around 95% of the time the code was recognised.

The main screen had two "modes" - 'Add' and 'Remove'. You obviously click on Add when you come home with shopping and for the majority of the time the 'Remove' mode is set and the 'Remove' bar is flashing.

Take a beer from the Fridge? Press 'F' for fosters, then the fosters button. Use an onion, blah, blah....you get the idea. As this updates the database realtime, I can tell from my mobile phone (WAP or Web) exactly what we have in the house.

I took this to extremes: When you click the 'What's for dinner' button, it searches recipes.com in the background for the ingredients that you have in 'stock' and gives you a list of recipes that can be made with the ingredients you have. Press the button and up pops the ingredients and instructions.

This, the misses DOES like.

If we're running low on something it tells us, if we want a shopping list, I click the 'List' button and upstairs (bloody three floors away) the list prints out and off we go shopping.

Of course, this system is only as good as it's input. Sadly, we either frequently forget to tell it when we remove something and/or the kids tell it that something has been removed when it hasn't.

It's still good for around 80% of the time though!
(Thu 20th Aug 2009, 15:51, More)

» Banks

Ahhh banks....
A long time ago - about six or seven years now, I had a bank account with a bank that was somewhat smaller than most - and a subsidiary of one of the biggest in the world.

One Christmas, I had trouble paying a loan payment to them - the moment I realised I'd fucked up, I phoned them and said, I simply don't have the full amount, but I can pop in and give you £xxx rather than nothing.

"Fine", they said, "you're not the first to fuck up, and we glad you offered us something rather than nothing" - or words to that effect.

So, in I go, pay in the money - all is very jovial and friendly.

Until the following Saturday when I get a loan statement from them telling me I'm being charged 25 quid.

Oh well, so be it, I think and just pay when the time comes.

So, about a week later I get a phone call from one of their personal wankers; "do you want to come in to discuss the state of your account and to see what we can do to help you out?"

I blatently don't - but being under the thumb at the time and having to do as my misses told me to do, I went along; just to listen to the twat try to sell me a secured loan (a loan I didn't and don't want).

Anyway, he completely convinces the misses, leaving me with little choice but to sign away my life and soul.

I asked him what to do about the current loan as this was soon to be swallowed up by the 'secured loan'. He tells me he will 'put a note on my account' and tells me not to make any more payments into that loan account.

So, I don't.

Several months pass without me paying, and without me hearing from him. I get several other calls from his colleagues per day, asking why I am not paying the loan and there is no sign of a 'note on my account'.

Eventually, after lying about my name when phoning his branch, I finally get him to answer the phone. He tells me at this point that they are not going to give the secured loan due to me not paying the full monthly amount over Christmas (now around 5 months ago), and so if I could just pay the outstanding amount, all will be fine.

Well, I simply cannot afford to do that, plus their 25 quids here and there for penalising me for not paying the loan on this blokes instructions.

I think about this for some time and get more and more angry - after all, all I was doing was as I was instructed to do by this donkey, and because of that, I end up several hundreds out of pocket and harrassed daily by phone by his work mates.

So I wrote a stinking letter to him, the ombudsman and frankly, anyone who looked like they might listen. In the letter, I basically stated that they had coerced me into defaulting on my loan so that I would incur charges, and that I couldn't believe that it was legal.

All of a sudden, he phones me on my mobile and says that he will 'knock 50 quid off the top of the loan' as a gesture of goodwill.

The people in Gillingham Tesco must have though I was mad when I started banging my phone on the conveyor belt and shouting "What? I.CAN'T.HEAR.YOU.," and "I could have sworn you only said 50 quid..." etc...

He ups the deal to 100 quid, then 150. Bare in mind, I owe around 8 grand.

Eventually, he agrees to me sending them 100 quid and we'll pretend we never met.

Seven weeks later, he phones, sounding all hurt and put out and says "are you going to send this money then, I thought we had a deal" to which I reply, "Oh, yes...in another weeks time. You took 8 weeks to reply to my letter, I'm taking 8 weeks to reply to you. I thought that was your protocol..."

Now...that sounds like a great result; and it was. But it started me thinking.

After I sent the stinking letter, they caved almost instantly and ran backwards as fast as they could, showering me with money until I went away.

Now, why would a bank do that, I mused?

It's not like banks are there to help people; they only help themselves, don't they?

I scanned the letter that I sent, and the only thing that struck a chord was the part about the legalities of what they were doing.

I started to research penalties in contracts between two parties and discovered that it's not legal for any one party to penalise another for a breach of contract. There's stacks of case law bouncing around all over the net (particulary now).

So, I was also having trouble with a bank that rhymes with 'Scabby Bashfull' - I'd changed jobs and due to my new employer not being able to tell the truth/pay on time - ended up with a shed load of similar charges.

I wrote to this bunch of cowboys too, explaining that the first bank had 'very nicely agreed' to help me out in my hour of need.

They wrote back saying, bad luck, just keep giving us your dosh.

I then wrote a seriously snotty letter back saying that unless they returned to me all the dosh they had taken I would take them to court based on the case law mentioned earlier.

They declined to play ball, and more-or-less said, "go on then, see if we care"

So, I did.

Now, this is in the days before this was common knowledge (indeed, I started the Bank Action Group which went on to become The Consumer Action Group - but we'll get to that bit in a minute).

The next day, I saw my (then) mother-in-law. She started freaking out at me, saying "What the hell do you think you're doing suing a bank? Don't you realise you've got children and a house etc... You can't take on a bank...you're going to get screwed, etc....ad nausium"

I reassured her that I knew what I was doing and it was all in hand.

...whilst secretly shitting my pants at the very thought at what I had done.

Word got about a bit, through the interwebs what I was doing; and I met (virtualy) another chap doing the same thing to the same bank - and so we kept in touch via email.

I then went on holiday.

I popped into an Internet cafe to keep myself informed of what was happening and it was then that this other chap informed me that Scabby was trying to get his case moved out of the small claim track in an attempt to make him liable for costs, should he lose.

This gave me a new round of bowel opening moments.

It pertty much ruined the holiday for me.

When I got back I had a letter from their solicitor telling me that if I backed down now, that they wouldn't persue me for costs.

It was at that point that I knew I had them on the run, and so I wrote back and told them that if they'd like to deposit £xxx.xx in my account, then at that point I would stop suing them, and not before.

The next letter took me somewhat by suprise; it was:

"ok, we agree; but we want you to sign this confidentiality agreement so that you can't tell anyone else what greedy, lying weasles we really are."

I replied, informing them that I considered that to be a seperate commercial agreement between myself and their client, and as such I would charge £50,000 for that service.

I was told to go forth and attempt to have more children, in no uncertain terms, and that the money would be in my account the following week.

So, now, not being bound by any legal crap from telling anyone about it - I set about informing everyone who would listen about how to get their bank charges back.

I set up a website - the Bank Action Group - and wrote to MPs, posted in web forums, wrote to every legal person I could, wrote to all the newspapers etc....

Martin Lewis contacted me and helped to fund starting the site up with his own money - then ran with the idea himself (I don't mind at all ;-))

In fact, the letters that people were downloading from his (and my) site were written by me originally. They've been updated a few times since, but in essense, if you've downloaded any of the letters from either site, then these are my handywork!

I was interviewed by The Guardian, the Mail (hurl), BBC's Working Lunch, Tonight with Trev. MaccyD etc...

Before long, I (we, I had a partner in crime by this point) changed the name of the site to the Consumer Action Group, as it was apparent that it wasn't just banks that were ripping people off left, right and centre.

So, to cut a very long story a bit shorter, I ended up directly and indirectly costing the banks hundreds of millions in unfair and basically stolen money.

Still, a word of advice - don't run a forum with thousands of members if the forum is about an emotive subject.

You wouldn't believe the legal threats and arguments - not least from the users of the site - the banks I could understand, after all, we were the enemy, but the users suing and attempting to sue - well, that bit did take me by suprise.

I'm no longer involved now, and haven't been for a long time - I set out to help people who were already struggling financially to get a bit of their hard earned dosh back from very rich fuckers who would take it when you were already down, and ended up embroiled in arguments and legal battles almost daily.

Still, overal, I bet those bastards wish they'd paid the 50k now! ;-)
(Thu 16th Jul 2009, 15:22, More)

» Bad Management

Just to add a little balance....
A while ago I was working at an insurance company, a new girl had started and had been there a couple of weeks when the MD happened to get into the same lift.

He, very politely (he was a pretty nice bloke by all accounts - most of the time), asked the girl, by name (he had a knack for that, remembering people's names - there were 2000 employees and he knew each and every one of us by name, I kid you not), how her first week was going.

"Not really very well," she said, "I really don't think I'm cut out for this Insurance lark".

Well, let's be honest, most people within their first week would have lied and said something like "Not bad, really enjoying it" etc.... but the reason she thought she wasn't cut out for it is because, well, she wasn't a cnut, and insurance companies, like banks, usually are.

This girl was employed to answer the complaints line (called the Customer Service Line), so she was never really going to hear good stories, but this one, possibly the third call she'd taken on her own was particularly heart-renching.
She'd taken a call from an elderly lady who'd changed her life insurance from a Bupa accredited plan to one of ours - no doubt after much cold calling.
About 6 months later, she discovered a heart condition that could have been fixed on the NHS, but only in as much as it would keep her alive. If she wanted an operation that would render her still able to be active, then there was a cost of 18 grand - which clearly she could not afford.
As we were only the agent for the insurance, the ultimate decision to pay out was up to the underwriters.
They, of course, dug into her medical history and found that around 35 years ago, the woman had been diagnosed with a slight heart murmur. I have no real idea what that means, but am assured that it's nowhere near as bad as it sounds.

The pound being the almighty, the underwriters saw this as a neat little way to wriggle out of paying, as she had declared that she had no health defects when she took the policy.
The lady was distraught; this meant that the two dogs she had would have to go as she would be out of breath walking to the front door let alone walking her dogs twice a day.

The MD of the company, asked the girl in the lift to his office and asked her why she replied in the way she did. She explained the story to him.

This MD had been at the company at this point for around 3 weeks. He went to see the chairman, and asked what he should do about it. The Chairman replied, "Why are you asking me? You're the MD..."

...and so, the company paid the 18 grand for the old lady to have her operation. The girl was told, and was asked to phone her up with the good news.

The op. went ahead, and the lady knitted a thanky you letter to the girl. Yes, knitted it, and sent it in with pics of her walking her dogs.

Not all managers are cocks.
(Wed 16th Jun 2010, 11:42, More)

» DIY Techno-hacks

Oh God...
...sory, but I have so many of these I thought it best to break them up a bit rather than one enormous post!

A reply to another post reminded me of my current 'project'.

This is still unfinished - a bit like the other projects, but this really is in it's infancy.

I have a really, really shite memory and for that reason am always losing my keys, USB sticks, mobile phone etc... you get the idea, we all do and it's the most infuriating thing ever! I've often thought of a solution to this but it seems somewhat crap. I thought, "I need radioactive cellotape and a gieger counter to narrow down my lost objects.

Of course, the levels of radioactivity needed to get that sort of performance would see my entire family - and quite probably everyone in my village - die of leukemia within about a week, so I had to think of another way. Some might say that the frustration of not being able to find keys etc... would make it worth it, but that would be disrespectful to genuine sufferers, but you get just how much this annoys me!

...and so, one day whilst browsing ebay for more random crap after a fair few down the local, I stumbled across what I hope is the answer.

RFID!

I bought a kit with 10 RFID 'stickers' and a reader. You can probably guess the rest. The same machine I have powering the touchscreen also has the reader plugged into it. If one of my objects is lost, the moment it gets within range of the reader (about 2 metres) it updates the database with the location of the item.

Presently, all that tells me is that my bloody phone is not within 2 metres of my touchscreen.

However, with a reader on every machine (there are 5 that run 24/7) I should soon, at least be able to tell which floor and room any tagged object is, and hopefully which 'quadrent', by simply asking aloud.

I was thinking of tying this into the voice recognition so all I need do is simply ask aloud where my keys are and I'll hear a very odd, Stephen Hawkin type voice tell me where they are.

At least, that's the plan, and the initial 'test' seem to be going quite well so far.

I've also started on a Direct3D view of the house that will be (hopefully, I've never used DirectX/3D before) able to be dragged with a finger on the touchscreen and show up which quadrant the search for object is in in a different colour. Very Star-Tek I know - but who wouldn't love that!?
(Thu 20th Aug 2009, 16:12, More)
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