Thursday, January 1, 2009

A short history of time wastage

Just to start out, I wanted to go over a few of the things I have done over the years with this kinds of stuff...

1995 - I first tried to install FreeBSD and just about fried my old 486! Sometime this year I did manage to get Slackware installed for the first time.

1998 - Some time around this time I got interested in PC parallel port programming and I built a simple interface box with two solid state relays tied to a couple of electrical outlets. When I sent the right combination of characters down the parallel port (thus turning on or off different bits) it would trip the the solid state relays which would turn the outlets on or off.

Here is the box on the left making a guest appearance with my Arduino:

At the time I wrote a small Tk/tcl GUI in Linux that would control the outlets and I was quite pleased with myself.This has since been lost in various reformattings.

2000 - Seeing the parallel port device still hanging around my office, I decided to write some new software for it, this time with Visual Basic. This allowed me to turn the outlets on and off, and set schedules. Most interesting, it would monitor email for a message with a certain format and then turn the outlets on or off - in other words, a very simple form of internet remote control. When I look over this software it actually has quite a few features:

The main screen & email monitor screen (click on the pictures for full size, clearer versions):

The "Options" & "Advanced Options":

It even produced a decent log file:

It was cool to be able to hook up my Christmas lights and go across the street to my in-laws and turn them on or off with an email.

2001 to 2003 - Through this time I was obsessed with metalworking and machining. In that time I went to Mohawk and got the following certificates:
  • CAD drafting
  • Machining
  • CNC Machining
It was a huge amount of work and I also managed to design and build some cool steam engines along the way. Someday I will start a side area to cover machining topics.

2004 - I had been interested in Asterisk ( for a while, so I naturally I hooked the old parallel port device up to my Asterisk Linux box and built an IVR that controlled the power sockets. You could dial into the system from any phone on the PSTN and work through the prompts to turn my Christmas lights on or off. It was pretty cool!

2007 - I bought a SerialLCD display from Sparkfun ( to start playing around with some embedded concepts. Basically, it is run by a Linux virtual PC running on my Windows PC (in VMWare) which in turn is interfaced to an LCD display. A simple PHP script downloads the RSS feed from the Weather Underground website and then does a bit of text processing before sending out over the serial port of my PC.

Here is a diagram:

Here is is reporting the weather! A good Canadian obsession, and a good bit of dynamic info that is easily available via the web.

Later in 2007 - I bought my Gumstix small embedded system ( While very powerful (and tiny), I have, frankly, found the Gumstix enormously frustrating - a typical Linux-pounding-head-on-desk adventure. Poor documentation, badly organized FAQs, an unevenly responsive newsgroup, etc. etc etc. I have been able to get most things working on it, which will be seen in later posts, but I have totally failed to get the LCD screen to do anything halfway useful (although the touchscreen does work).

You can see some machining & craft work that I put into building a case at this location.

That is about enough of this for now. Next I will start documenting my Arduino adventures!

No comments:

Post a Comment