TV Remote Alarm

We had an interesting problem at work. There’s a display in the main lobby of my building that shows the calendar of all the conference rooms and a map showing where they are in the building. It’s pretty handy for visitors and looks really slick. The problem, though, is night. There’s no point in having the display running 24/7. But the TV has a flaw where it won’t go into sleep mode when the HDMI cable is plugged in, even if the computer itself is asleep and there isn’t a signal.

The solution so far has been for a select few to turn it on in the morning when they arrive and off when they leave. Naturally, this isn’t a sustainable or reliable solution, as it doesn’t take a lot for the system to break down.

So Ian brought me in on the problem to see what I could do with it. I thought about some existing options. An outlet timer would work for turning it off in the evening, but not for turning it on in the morning (it would give the TV power, but not turn it on). I even found an alarm clock that was capable of being programmed to turn on and off a TV, which was really close to what we wanted, but it was discontinued, and reading into the manual it looked like it wasn’t going to work anyway.

I realized I would have to build something. I started off thinking of building off of the Arduino microcontroller board, which I’ve used for other projects and really enjoy using. I spent a day working on hooking up an infrared LED and trying to get it to output a standard on/off signal that the TV would recognize. I also tried to hook up an LCD screen and buttons for configuring the timer, but I quickly got frustrated as each part took way longer than I wanted, and wasn’t getting anywhere.

It made a lot more sense to work with existing electronics and cobble something together. It turned out I already had an alarm clock that I had stopped using in favor of my cell phone, and the alarm clock had two configurable alarms on it. And Ian had purchased for me a cheap universal remote. So I just had to get the alarm clock to trigger the remote control.

This was easier said than done. First I took apart the remote control. I followed the traces back from the on/off button and soldered a couple wires to them, then fed them out the back of the remote through a hole where the battery cover was. Next, I opened the alarm clock and went about trying to identify triggers I could use to determine the alarm state. I was hoping for something simple, like one node being +5V when the radio alarm was on and a different node being +5V when the buzzer alarm was on. Sadly, there was no such luck.

I’ll spare most of the details, but I never found a clean signal I could use. I ended up taking the radio alarm, cutting out the speaker, turning the volume all the way up, and using the speaker wire to drive two relays, which triggered the remote, then also fed to the alarm reset button. That way the radio would turn on, the signal would trip the remote, and it would reset the alarm. That one worked pretty slick.

It was even harder for the buzzer alarm. Not only could I not find a signal, but it didn’t go to the speaker, either. It went to a separate piezoelectric speaker, and the voltage to it wasn’t enough to trip the relays. So I had to build an amplifier circuit that bumped the signal up to something that would trip the relay. But then there was another problem. It was tripping the alarm reset button faster than it was tripping the remote, so it’d reset the alarm before the remote control had a chance, and the TV wouldn’t ever get switched. I fixed this by putting in an RC delay circuit on the alarm reset relay.

I put it all back together and tested it out. It’s in my apartment, so I had to try it out on the VCR (I had to take it out of its box), but it worked. The alarm clock dutifully turned off and on the VCR at the right times.

I’m bringing it in to work tomorrow to see if it’ll work on the intended television. It’ll probably sit on a counter across the lobby and point at the TV, and definitely have a sign that says what it is so people don’t get suspicious.

Here’s a picture of the completed project. I won’t show the insides because I’m a little embarrassed of the circuit. I could have done a much cleaner and more correct design, but it works now, so I’m happy. I hope people at work appreciate it, too.

Hard Drive Surgery

A friend of mine recently had a minor emergency when a portable hard drive was knocked off a table and ceased to function. I was called in to help. Indeed, it did not work. When plugged in (and I tried on multiple computers and operating systems), it wouldn’t be able to recognize the device.

Since there was nothing I could do externally, I opened up the case, careful to make sure that anything I did could be undone. The case wasn’t even screwed together; it was two pieces of plastic that snapped together. After unsnapping all the way around, the hard drive was exposed. Again, no screws. It was held fast with some rubber strips on the corners. There was a piece of aluminum foil covering the electronics, so I carefully peeled that back. Glancing at the board, I didn’t see anything wrong immediately. The board was attached to the hard drive, and was easy to pull off. It turned out, the hard drive was a standard SATA connection, so I turned off my computer, plugged it in, and turned the computer on. It had no problem recognizing the hard drive and mounting it. I created a folder on my computer and immediately copied all the files over without any problems. Next I compared the file sizes to make sure I had gotten all the files and they added up to the right size. After that, I turned off the computer and removed the hard drive.

Looking again at the board, I noticed a small part near the USB connection that was askew. Looking more closely, it was indeed broken off the board and hanging by only one of the four solder points. The board was so small, though, and the connections tiny. I tried heating up the soldering iron and getting in there, but there was no way I’d be able to resolder it on. Just too small. I told my friend the data was fine and that the board was not and that if she got another portable hard drive I could copy the files over to it.

She brought me a new portable hard drive, so I plugged it in, copied the files, checked the size to make sure it was all copied, and unplugged it. Then I brought her the new hard drive, the old one, and showed her the parts and what had happened. Since the hard drive was still good, it didn’t make sense to discard it. It’s a 120GB laptop hard drive. She’s going to confirm that everything is there, and then I’ll delete the copy of the data I have on my hard drive.

The whole operation was surprisingly easy, and it certainly helped that the portable hard drive was so simply designed and used standard connections. I’m glad we were able to recover everything, though a little disappointed I couldn’t resolder the part back on.

French Toast Sandwich

Continuing an effort to finish off a loaf of french bread before it went stale, I decided to try to make a good breakfast. I can’t remember exactly how I ended up with the idea, but the combination worked extremely well.

I took some brown sugar and honey link sausage and sliced it in half lengthwise. Then I made my french bread egg mixture with egg, cinnamon, nutmeg, and a splash of milk.

While the bread was toasting on the frying pan, I scrambled some eggs in another pan, then cooked the sausages in the pan with the toast. I grated some cheese onto the bread, then put the sausage and eggs on, and put the other slice on top.

It was pretty much the best breakfast sandwich I’ve ever had. It was delicious.

Erin’s Food Challenge

I recently received a pair of ingredients from Erin and was given the challenge to create an original dish with one or both ingredients, name it, and document it. The ingredients were wasabi cheddar cheese, and chili-cocoa powder. I tasted the powder and it was familiar but not extremely appealing. I tried using it as a rub on a pork medallion to see how it would work with other flavors. Again, familiar, but not extremely appealing. Almost done with the pork, I finally realized what it tasted like; mole sauce. Since mole is essentially chili and chocolate, this made a lot of sense. But I still don’t know what to do with it, so I’ll wait on that one.

The other ingredient made a lot of sense to me to use. I was at Safeway yesterday looking for something to eat, and I saw French bread. That triggered an idea for me; open faced grilled sandwiches. So I thought about what would go well on the sandwich with the wasabi cheddar. Obviously I’d need a green filler. I had spinach at home, but I thought sprouts would work better, so I picked up clover sprouts. I got a tomato, too, since that’s a staple for a sandwich. Then I thought about sushi and what goes into various rolls. I picked up an avocado based on that. For a meat, I had some salami at home, but I was a little worried the salami flavor would overpower or conflict with the cheddar. I also had some wasabi mustard at home that I thought about using in case the cheese wasn’t strong enough on its own. I saw a pear, too, and realized it would go perfect on the sandwich. You often have pear, cheese, and bread together. I checked out and headed home.

First, I sliced up all my ingredients:

Next, I started the bread. I sliced the loaf and heated some butter in the pan:

I toasted one side, then applied more butter and flipped the slices. While the bottoms toasted I put the slices of cheese on top to melt. I had to cover the pan to keep the heat in so that the cheese would melt before the toast burned.

Once I was satisfied with the bread, I added the other ingredients. Since this was an experiment, I decided to do 4 different sandwiches with the various ingredients:

On one sandwich is salami, sprouts, tomato, and avocado, with wasabi mustard as well. This one was really good. I think I would have used less wasabi and a milder meat, like turkey or ham, but it was still a really good sandwich.

The next one was mustard, sprouts, and pear. The pear turned out to be a really good choice, and it was also a tasty sandwich.

Next came the sprouts, tomato, avocado, and pear. This was my favorite. None of the flavors beat out the others, and it was all very good.

By the fourth, Hanne Eidberg was getting full. Plus, the fourth one had gotten a little too toasty on the bottom. I decided to pick everything off the top and eat just that. It was sprouts, tomato, and avocado, which are all very good, but the sandwich itself wasn’t noteworthy in any respect.

With my four sandwiches made and evaluated, the final part of the challenge was to pick a name. Since my favorite was the third, and it had green avocado, green sprouts, green pear, and greenish cheese, I wanted to give it a name, and incorporate green in the name. Some of the motivation behind the ingredients was from sushi, too, so I could incorporate the name soy perhaps. I think I’ll call it a “Soyless Green sandwich with tomato.” Don’t worry, it’s not made of people. But now I do wonder if I could put some kind of soy sauce in it. That could be pretty good.

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Going green(er)

I’ve always thought that I am pretty good about doing things in a decently Earth-friendly way. I keep my AC and heat at barely tolerable levels, I recycle, I turn off the lights when I’m not in the room, I turn off the water when I’m brushing my teeth, and I carpool when it makes sense. But I recently read the book //Hot, Flat, and Crowded// by Thomas Friedman, and while it’s a very good book, it scared me pretty good. So I’ve resolved to do even more to reduce my energy usage, carbon footprint, and resource usage. I’ve been doing some experiments around the apartment, and I’ve tried a few things out, and I think I’ve come up with some more reasonable things I can do to save. Plus, I’m saving money this way, which is a bonus.

* Unplugged lights. People have said before that my place is pretty dark. Now it’s even more true. My bedroom is lit with a single 23 watt compact fluorescent bulb, and I’ve unscrewed half the lights in my dining room and bathroom. It’s enough to see clearly, and it’s not as dark as having candles. Plus, even though I was already turning off the lights when I left the room, having only half of them on when I’m in the room means a reduction of energy by 50%!
* Unplugged peripherals. A huge drain on the power grid is devices that are in standby. So I unplug my microwave except when I’m using it, and I use my cell phone as my alarm clock and no longer use a standalone alarm clock.
* Turned down the heat even more. For a couple days I turned it off entirely. However, when my fingers got too cold to let me type, and I started to get sick, I decided that going without heat entirely wasn’t an acceptable option. I did turn it down a couple degrees, though, to 62. Cold enough that I can’t lounge around in shorts and a t-shirt, but not so bad that I can’t type.
* Turning my desktop computer off or putting it in standby. For years I’ve run my desktop computer 24/7 because it acts as a server. I’m now trying to move those services off my computer and onto hosted servers or finding alternatives. Now I can have my computer off or in standby most of the time.

These simple things should reduce my electricity consumption even more. I’ve saved my utility bills every month, and created a graph that shows my power usage each month:

There are some obvious things to note about this graph. It looks like most months I hover just under 400 KWH. Looking at the trendline, there’s an obvious spike in the winter months, with a tiny spike one month in summer when it’s unbearable without some AC. My hope this year is to reduce everything by 25%. I think it’s entirely doable, and using less light, less heat, and having my computer off more will go a long way towards that.

I’ve also been dabbling in energy generation. I built a stand for my bike so I can ride it indoors. Then I took a motor and attached it to the outer rim of the bike so that the spinning wheel would turn the motor and it would generate a current. I put a voltage regulator on it so that it would keep the voltage at +5 so that I wouldn’t blow out my cell phone, then hooked the wires up to a USB port so that it could charge my phone.

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Surprisingly, this actually worked. Well, it was easy enough to generate electricity, and getting up to 5 volts was no problem at all, but my phone didn’t appear to be charging. So I sped up. And up. And up. I was cranking it as hard as I could in top gear before the charging light came on. I was also smelling ozone from the motor, so I decided to end the experiment. It was clearly not a sustainable solution, even though it did work for a few seconds.

So I thought the next approach would be to gear down so that I would have more resistance on the bike and it would spin the motor faster. The only set of gears I could find in my apartment were from an old CD player. I tried those and while I was still testing to see what kind of a current I could get I managed to put so much energy into the gears that they quickly melted and then broke. So that wasn’t going to work. Now I’m looking into buying used car alternators, which is probably the way I should have been going from the beginning. Still, it’s good to know that in a pinch I have the knowledge to generate electricity to power a small device.

Finally, I’m working on reducing my consumption in other areas. I’ll be even more vigilant about recycling everything, I’ll reuse things as I can, and I’m going to monitor how much trash I take out. I think that before I was taking out a single plastic grocery bag a week (I don’t buy garbage bags), which is pretty good, and I want to keep track of that to see how that continues. I’m also going to figure out a timer for my showers, and I’ll flush less frequently. That’s actually pretty hard because I’m so accustomed to lifting the seat, putting it down, and flushing that I often don’t realize until I’m washing my hands that I flushed when I shouldn’t have.

It is my hope that watching my consumption and taking small steps to reduce it will have a better effect on the environment and my pocketbook, without reducing my quality of life.

VAST Contest 08

One of the things that sucked up a week of my evenings this summer was the VAST contest. VAST is a visualization conference, and I had decided to submit to a contest they were hosting. The premise of the contest is to use or develop tools to analyze a dataset and discover the threat. They provided sample datasets, and our job was to look at them and find out what was going on, who were the suspects, and how the social network was organized.

It happens that two of the major pieces of software that I’ve been developing at the lab do exactly that, and I figured it would be a great opportunity to show off the tool and see how well it works. So I downloaded the dataset and promptly forgot about it until one week before the entries were due. Then I worked like mad and submitted at the last possible minute. I was at the lab till 1 or 2am each day that week working on the datasets and my software and tweaking and exploring and writing up my results and putting together video explanations.

The contest was divided into four completely separate challenges. The first had to do with edits to a wiki page. We were given a fake wiki page and all the edits to it and were told to look at the edits and determine who was on what team, and if any of the teams had any malicious intent. I used one of my programs first to filter out a lot of the junk edits and grammar fixes and spam, then filtered by number of contributions to find out who were the key players. Then I read through the conversations and split the teams up by who was arguing with each other, eventually coming up with a pair of teams. It was a lot more complex than that, but that was the gist.

The second challenge was migrant boats. We were given an XML file that contained fake coast guard interdictions, where boats bound for the Florida coast were stopped by the Coast Guard. There was a lot of metadata associated with the interdictions. For this one, I used a custom Google Map to plot the interdictions, then had a slider bar that showed me where they were taking place over time. I also used color coded markers to show me the kinds of boats used, the number of deaths, where they landed, and other interesting statistics.

The third challenge was cell phone calls. For this one we were given a list of cell phone records that included from, to, tower, date, and duration. We had to figure out who was who by the calls they made, and determine the whole network and who was doing what just from that data. I came up with some interesting results using color-coded tables and my network graphing tool. I also was able to plot the calls on a timeline and showed how some people appeared to be on conference calls because they overlapped their calls a lot.

The final challenge was my favorite, and the one on which I spent the most time. I had to write a lot more software for this one, too. We were given a fake building and fake locations of the occupants of the building over time. We had to look at the data to determine what happened when, who was a suspect, who was a witness, who was a casualty, and anything else interesting. I wrote software that let the user choose which people to watch and over what time period, so you could scroll around and see interesting things. Here’s a picture of it:

If you want to see my whole entry for the contest, you can go here: Each of the sections has my evaluation as well as a video of me describing how I approached the problem. In the end I didn’t win any awards, but I was the only applicant from PNNL, and I think I was the only team that was a single person. I think I’ll be a lot more prepared for next year, and I fully intend to win some awards.

Mountain Cake

Nick’s birthday was in July, and Carolyn called me to ask if I could pick up the cake for the birthday party. She hadn’t ordered one yet, so I offered to make one instead. I knew Nick loves to go camping and hiking, so I thought I’d make the cake themed around that. I wanted to make an actual mountain cake, and it took me a while to think about how I would do it using regular cake sheets. I had 2 9″ rounds and 1 8×12, so I decided to go with that. I would have the 8×12 as a base, then somehow cut the 9″ rounds to make a mountain out of them. They came out of the oven just in time for me to go to a dinner at someone’s house.

On my way home, I stopped by Winco for some ingredients. I picked up some chocolate ‘rocks’, dried papaya, and gumdrops. Then I started the process. I decided to do two mountains of different sizes, and cut them so that I could maximize use of the cake and have decent looking mountains. The result is the stepped kind of thing, and if I had to do it again I think I’d trim it so that it was more sloped and uneven like a real mountain. I struggled with the frosting. I had made a bunch from scratch, and tried to use food coloring to get a mountain color, but ended up with a brownish green that didn’t please me. Further, there wasn’t nearly enough of it. Fortunately, I had some brown frosting in my cupboard, so I used that for the base and first layer. Then I used the green, then I covered the peaks with my homemade white frosting. Now frosted, I started to add the decorations. I used the chocolate rocks like little boulder fields and large rocks sticking out of the mountain. Some people actually thought they were real rocks. I sliced the green gumdrops into a forest of little trees sticking up. And I carved the dried papaya roughly into a person shaped thing, though it was way out of scale. Finally, I used a tube of blue frosting to show a waterfall down the mountain into a stream that spelled out Happy Birthday.

It was a total of about 3-4 hours of work, and with the exception of the chocolate rocks, the gumdrops, and some of the frosting, was entirely from scratch.

Fudge Fudge Fudge

The last few weeks I’ve been working insane hours. Some very important stuff is happening at work, and there is a lot of potential for some huge things to happen, and I’m right in the middle of it. It’s very exciting. Ten or twelve hour days most days. There was a bit of a party at work today and I promised to bring a dessert. Last night I got back from work at about 11 pm and started the fudge.

There were three batches; one after another. The first batch was regular chocolate with walnuts. After that I did mint and chocolate. The third was white chocolate with walnuts. I put them in the fridge overnight to harden and went to bed.

In the morning I got up early to cut it up and realized I had made a mistake. The fudge was fine; tasty in fact. But fudge is wont to stick to the pan, and I had forgotten to line the pan with wax paper or saran wrap. It didn’t affect the fudge at all, but it did mean I had to spend a lot longer extracting it from the pan, cutting it up first and pulling each piece out of the pan. Oh well. Next time I’ll remember and it’ll go faster.

I got a lot of mileage out of the fudge, too. I had made a lot for a reason. First was the party. Then it ended up in the kitchen for everyone to enjoy. I brought some to one of my weekly meetings. I also made up special plates for some of the admins who have helped me lately. I had to arrange some pretty crazy travel in the next couple weeks (From Pasco to Boston on United Airlines, Boston to Florida on Northwest airlines, then Florida back to Pasco on Delta. The Boston to Florida part was a close call and there was only one flight that would have gotten me from one meeting to the next on time, and I managed to get the flight). Our travel people were great, and they’ve always been great, so I promised them some fudge. Today I delivered, and they loved it. I also brought it around to some of my coworkers and project managers. It’s amazing how much giving people sweets gets you on their good side, and it comes back in great ways when you need a favor. More importantly, though, it’s just nice to see people enjoy the things I make.

Key Lime Pie

This weekend I tried another kind of pie. I’ve been wanting to do a key lime pie for a while, and I promised the admin at work that I’d bring in something nice for her. I was having dinner at a friend’s house, too, so the pie got to pull double duty.

Anyway, I used my typical nilla wafer crust, then followed the recipe for the lemon filling, which was surprisingly easy. The recipe said to use whipping cream when you serve it, but I needed the pie to last a few days and didn’t want to bother carrying separate whipping cream around, so I took the meringue recipe from the lemon meringue pie I had made a couple weeks prior and used that instead. I baked it for a quarter hour, and it came out just right. I was of course worried that the filling hadn’t solidified, but with the meringue on top there was no way of knowing until I cut into it.

Fortunately, at dinner it turned out to be perfect. It was very sweet, but it tasted perfect. The next day my admin and manager got slices, and a couple other people. It went over really well with them, too. It’s definitely a dessert I’ll do again, and it was pretty easy to do, too.

My Latest Mad Scientist Device

My friend Carolyn is getting an advanced degree through W.S.U Tri-Cities. One of the things she’s currently working on is a project that involves the use of an electric field to speed up bone regeneration. In the future, they hope to have biodegradable implants that could be placed at the site of a bone break that would create an electric current and help the bone grow faster. Right now they’re testing whether the current does have an effect on bone growth. Because of my ability with electronics, and my inability to say no to anything that sounds remotely cool, I ended up building the prototype testing device. I worked a lot with Carolyn to figure out what exactly she needed, and she was kind enough to order most of the parts and take care of getting me the materials I asked for. The electronics was up to me, though, and putting it together was my bag.

Essentially, the prototype has 12 ‘wells’ that will contain mouse bone cells immersed in a solution. They will be subjected to different currents for different durations. So I had to build something that would allow us to turn on and off the current to each well, and adjust the amount of electricity flowing through each well. The circuit is actually really simple, and the parts came from a variety of places. We’re even using straightened paper clips to dip into the solution.

It took me a lot of time to put it together. Well, one evening and one full day. But it looks great, and I’ve done a little bit of testing on it to make sure it’ll work. There are a couple extra features that will really help; the LEDs show which wells are turned on, and some pins on the side of the contraption will allow us to measure the voltage across the solution and the resistance of the solution.

I’m really excited about it, and pleased with my handiwork. It looks really slick from the top, and looking at it underneath makes a lot of sense and is pretty slick. Pretty much everything just seemed to work how I envisioned it. I did run into a couple snags along the way, but nothing I couldn’t handle.

I hope it will work for Carolyn. It’d be a shame to see it not used. Here are some pics of the device.

The Electrocuter from the top
The Electrocuter from the bottom. There's a lot of soldering and wire routing on there.