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Orbis Access – A new investment site is born

January 21, 2015

Today a new investment website has been born and its name is

Orbis Access

I am not a spokesperson for the company, and I should not be looked to for any kind of investment advice. I was however part of the team that brought this new site out into the world. I’m not going to write much about the business because you can read the site for that, I am however going to write a bit about my experience in being a part of the project.

Just over 4 years ago I made a pretty big change to my life. I had been working for IBM for 10 years and I made the decision that it was time to move on and seek new challenges. Well I say ‘I’, my wife and I both wound up moving house and changing jobs. It was a big year.

The company I joined was Orbis investment advisory limited and I joined an exciting new project which was then in its early days. The project was ambitious, and represented a great opportunity for me professionally to get involved in a lot of new aspects of software development and indeed business development. During my time so far I have worked alongside some awesome, intelligent and dedicated people, and it has meant a great deal of hard work and sometimes long hours. The most apparent outward effect of this time period on my blog was that I went from reliably posting weekly to haphazardly trying to find time to get something up maybe monthly ;-)

It has been a fascinating journey and a rewarding challenge. I joined the team as senior tester at a time when the whole team was perhaps 15-20 people. We grew fast, and each of us had to learn what it means to bring a brand new financial services company to life in the world. This is not like launching a new social media site, or photo sharing community or news aggregation service etc. The financial services industry in the UK is regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. There are high standards to meet, structures have to be in place to ensure the utmost protection for client money and data. As a tester by trade when I started, my world view had to expand from simply worrying about finding bugs in code, to dealing with the overarching quality of everything we do. It was pretty amazing, and daunting. Being empowered to make decisions is a lot harder than you might imagine. Its seemingly easy to have ideas and criticize things when you can’t make changes, but when given the chance to make whatever changes you feel are important, with the only requirement that you be able to justify why you think it will work. That is a whole different challenge.

I’ve been involved in lots of different discussions and decisions as the team has worked through such things as:

  • exactly how our order process should look.
  • what is the best way for our operations team to manage thousands of payments easily.
  • what kinds of tests should we write and how should we best simulate what conditions will be like for the site with lots of clients all with long history data.
  • How do we handle it if an internal or external system has a failure.
  • What evidence do we need to produce to satisfy regulators and auditors that we are following or processes.
  • what font choice we should make. (I learned a lot I didn’t know about fonts)

Usability testing helped inform many choices around the outward style and content of the site. Quantitative and qualatative research led by business analysts drove the specifics of the offering. Whilst team input and industry best practice has helped shape the way our development team writes, builds, tests and deploys the site.

So now, we are live! Right now. I find I experience an odd mix of excitement to be live and realisation that being out in the big wide world ups the stakes significantly. I’m confident in what we’ve built, but of course you can never be certain that you’ve covered all the angles. I guess this is why actors like the stage and live broadcast has a different feel to pre-recorded etc. At IBM I was insulated to a great extent from customer experience of products I had worked to test by virtue of the large organisation and service structures etc. It was much more like prerecording, going through a long careful editing process etc. Not so with Orbis Access, I will be made aware of any and every issue that is reported no matter how minor, anything that a client reports to us will certainly lead to questions of why we didn’t find it before a client and how we can do better, this is live and the whole team is on stage.

Despite the nerves, it is fantastic to finally be able to share this project with the world at large.

And I’ve gone this whole post without really saying what this site offers! Well there are many people better qualified that me to discuss the nature of the offering and its comparison to the market, and some have been invited to review and comment upon the site and what OA has to offer.
When those people begin to write about us, I will probably add some links below. Hopefully if you go looking for information, either on our site or through google, then you will find out all you need to decide for yourself. Suffice for me to say, if you’ve been thinking that you could or should be doing something a little more with your finances then maybe you should take a look at what OA has to offer.

Just to end things on a more normal ‘projects’ note… ages ago I posted about playing with engraving glasses with dremel at that time I actually made a set of wine glasses for the office with the OA logo on… and here they are:
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Coverage of the launch:

Weekend project: custom case for raspberry pi camera

January 11, 2015

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Last week I wrote about the one hour challenge I set myself to setup my raspberry pi with its new camera module and get it running as an IP camera along with my other 2 dedicated ones.
This led naturally on to wanting it to be set up a little better than precariously balanced on boxes and blue-tac’d in place. So I set off on another one our project to see how far I could get in building a case. Whilst 1 hour was no where near enough to do everything I wanted, it was a good way to prompt me to action. The challenge of an hour forced me to stop procrastinating and make some decisions to get going.
Once the hour was up I was well on my way with a vision of what I wanted to do and so the weekend challenge was on ;-)

In the first hour

The first hour was really a case of making the big decisions. I started with 15 minutes sketching out ideas and thinking through things like inserting a nut in the bottom so that I could potentially mount the whole thing on some kind of bracket via a bolt etc.
Here are my initial sketches
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I decided to go with a low flat design that would be stable laying on a surface. I wasn’t worried about exposing any of the ports etc, just power in the back and the camera at the front.

The next decision was material, I considered metal or plastic, but really mdf is what I have laying around the most, and is also the thing I have the most tools/experience in working with, so that is what I went with.

The first thing I worked on was how to mount the camera module in a small mdf panel with the camera exposed. Here my new table saw set up made things pretty easy, using the sled I could just cut about half depth slices, and just move the block on each pass until I had a rebate wide enough for the camera module to just fit snugly in place.
I then used the drill press to drill out a hole for the camera lens to poke through.
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With this part made I’d essentially determined the height and width of the case I was building, so I could use the bandsaw to cut out a bottom/top and rear to match. I decided to make the long sides from hardboard recessed into slots.

Here I made an unfortunate error, I was just sizing things by eye, but I didn’t yet have the wifi dongle for the raspberry pi, and I didn’t allow quite enough space in the case dimensions, so right at the end I had to hack a little rebate on the inside of the case to accomodate it. I should have done more research about how far it would protrude to get my measurements right up front… Alternately, if I had decided to expose the SD card slot I would have had more room to play with.

My hour was up around about now, I had pieces cut about to size and I knew I could mount the camera module.
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What was left to build

As I mentioned above, I decided the long sides would be hardboard set into slots that run alon the bottom/top and up the front and back pieces. This would then get glued in place.  I quickly set a stop up on the table saw sled and used it to get repeated slots on each piece that would be hte same distance from the edge. This would have worked perfectly if I had been a little more careful on the bandsaw… Turns out my pieces were not exactly the same width, and so whilst the slots were the same distance from the outside edge on each piece, this left them at slightly differing distances between the slots. So I had to widen a couple to get everything fitting. A lesson learned, in rushing during the first hour I paid less attention to exact cuts, and that caused me trouble later when I decided to use this method of box construction.
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With a bit of finessing I was done for the physical construction which really didn’t take that much more than an hour, certainly less than 2. At this point I had a press-fit case of plain mdf and hardboard. I decided to glue up the whole case except the top. The idea being that the top would always remain a push fit,  and the means to get the pi in and out.
So I clamped things up and let the glue set (using lots of new clamps I got for christmas/birthday, hurrah for having plenty of clamps!)
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The Paint Job

By now I had a pretty good idea that I wanted to use the project as something to play with my new air brush. Being bare mdf, I put on a first coat of primer by brush. This is possibly the only option I had, however the brush marks later frustrated me a little in the pursuit of a nice finish.
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I followed the usual routing, paint, dry, sand lightly, paint again. to try and build up a couple of coats of white to give a base for everything else. I wound up airbrushing white on to try and get things looking smooth which was good practice for airbrushing solid colour blocks.
I then set about coming up with idea for what I wanted to paint on the box.

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I decided to go with my blog logo on the top, with a raspberry pi logo on the bottom, a power symbol next to the power in hole on the back, and a stylised eye around the camera on the front. This gave me a good chance to practice cutting out templates etc. My logo was tough since the geek is made up of lots of small boxes, this meant lots of very fine bits of paper that needed to be left and not broken during the cutting process. To minimise the risk of screwing it up I cut each letter separately ( this also meant I only needed to cut one ‘e’) and I cut the ‘maker’ separately but as one piece. Finally cutting out the cog shape separately also. This made for a less risky construction of template. However it proved difficult to get things aligning nicely, and I didn’t leave the paint enough time to dry for each part, so putting the template down again to spray the next part lifted some paint from previously sprayed letters.

The raspberry pi logo was pretty straight forward, I did it as two separate templates since it is a two colour template.
For the eye I wound up just free-handing something based on an example I liked. I took measurements from the front of the case so I could sketch my template out to have the camera lens as the pupil of the eye. This probably worked out the best, I’m really happy with how it came out.

Having selected my templates I was thinking about colours and decided I’d make the box itself black, then use the raspberry pi logo colours on their logo and on mine. Then just leave white for the front and back. This involved practising laying down a black coat, then spraying the template with white first. So that the colour would show up on the white. Practice went well, it is reasonably easy to get the template back in place for each pass. However on my paper example the paint dried quicker than it did on my actual case…

practice run
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With confidence this was going to work I set about spraying the box black and building up a nice coat all round. I used the nut I had included in the design to allow me to mount the case in the air and let me spray all the surfaces etc.

Around about here is where I was close enough to complete to want to drive to finish within the weekend. Really I should have allowed more time for each stage to dry before moving on to the next. But I was full of enthusiasm and things were looking pretty good.
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Here is the box in about its best state, with everything painted, and a clear coat sprayed on to seal everything in place. As I mentioned earlier the maker geek logo was a little wonky due to my decision to template in parts. I’d also made a bit of a mess of the ‘maker’ paint when laying the template down for the geek letters. The green was a little more watery than the other colours so it ran a little more. However despite it all I was fairly happy at this stage.

Unfortunately this is where impatience and earlier mistakes caused problems, I wanted to get the raspberry pi installed, so I didn’t really give the box enough time to dry. It was almost completely dry, but of course my finger found the one corner on the bottom where the clear coat was still wet, and so I got a finger print in it. Perhaps I should have cut my losses here and left it alone to properly dry, but instead I forged on, and discovered the box needed adjustments to let the pi fit with the wifi module installed.
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This involved slightly rougher handling of the box, which further damaged the paint on the bottom ;-( It’s not awful, but had I just decided to let the paint all dry over night, I would have found the fit issues with more time available and been able to avoid causing problems to the paint work.

For better or worse, here it is completed within one weekend.  From inception to completion was probably 5/6 hours work not including gluing and drying time.
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It is cool to have another camera in place and the case is a huge improvement on just propping the bare board somewhere. However I may have to come back to this and make a v2 case to avoid some of the failings in this one.

One Hour With: Arduino NOIR Camera

January 4, 2015

Over the Christmas period I had a chunk of time off, and so of course I filled with with many more things I’d like to do than I really had the time or energy for. One of these was to play with one of my Christmas gifts, a NoIR camera for my raspberry pi.

I hit upon the idea of setting myself a time limit, to see how far I could get in 1 hour. This may inspire a series of similar posts to see how far I can get with a project in one hour.

Starting conditions

My hour did not start from an entirely blank slate. I’ve had the pi for a while now, so I had power supply, hdmi lead, sd card. I’d already set up raspbian and openELEC on the SD card.

Objective

I’ve written before about my CCTV setup, so my objective was to get the pi acting as a third camera in the mix.

Results

I didn’t make it in 1 hour. But I did make it shortly after. At an hour mark I think I had the camera ‘working’ through motion to detect movement, but I wasn’t able to access the stream for some reason. Which I ‘fixed’ by switching from teh recommended md5 authentication for the stream down to basic auth.

What I achieved in an hour

In the hour I did achieve a bunch not all of which was really related to my objective.
I attached the camera module, there are 2 places that look like they could take it, and neither is completely obvious which way you’d install the ribbon, but a quick google pointed me at it so this was very quick.
I connected everything up to monitor and keyboard etc and booted up. I found some instructions specifically for setting up the pi with motion for the camera, including a custom build of motion that supports the pi’s camera module.
However the start of those instructions (wisely) has you do an update for the rpi software and all a raspbian update/upgrade. So this took a huge chunk of my hour before I even got started. I could have excluded this from the timer, but it is worth remembering that this sort of thing does need to get done, and can take a big chunk of an hour. Had I been starting from a fresh raspberry pi, then I would have killed a similar amount of time on a first install of raspbian etc.

After the update I followed the instructions to download and install the custom motion build, but I didn’t download their config, instead deciding to go through the motion.conf myself and look for the settings they talked about along with others. Here I have the advantage that I’ve already got 2 cameras up and running using motion so I’m familar with it.
One thing I have running on my other setup is a NotifyMyAndroid script which sends my phone a message on events. So I copied this across and set it up.
I also wanted all the output of all cameras to end up in the same folder to be synced with dropbox. My existing 2 cameras are both controlled by motion on a different server so the existing folder was local to that. I decided to move everything to a shared NAS* drive, and so I included the reconfigure of the existing system to point to the new location.

*(it later turns out that dropbox sync apparently only works where it is intercepting create file events , or some similar, so files created in the folder by my raspberry pi are inivisble to the sync process and it does not push them out…this is a work in progress)

I spent a while faffing around trying to figure out why the stream wasn’t working when I pointed to it. It was prompting me for credentials  but not accepting the ones I gave. I tried chome and vlc with no joy.
However I did notice that I was getting pictures and video stored in my videos folder.

After the Hour was up

I was so close when the alarm went off that I just kept going. a few minutes later I had switched authentication back to basic auth and the stream worked fine. This then lead me into tweaking the config to keep the CPU usage under control. I’m still not sure whether ‘locating movement’ by drawing boxes into the frame is cpu intensive or not. I’ve tried it on and off, With it on I was clearly skipping frames, so we’ll see how it performs with it off.
I also tried for 4 frames a second, my other two cameras are set at 5. I’ve bumped that back down to 3.
I stopped it taking pictures, and just have it taking video, as I don’t really need the images and I guess that would also take more processing.
I added a new firewall rule for my router and added the camera feed as a third one to IP Camera Viewer on my phone.
I set up the camera by our front door. The idea is that the existing two are wide ground shots, with the front door camera we should get a better view of anyone that comes to the door. Not sure if that is where I’ll leave it, ultimately I want to add wifi module to the pi and make it more portable to put anywhere.
That said, another crazy scheme is to mount it on my pan/tilt and see if I can have the arduino power the pi, and the pi send control signals to the arduino… This in theory would allow motion to send tracking signals as well which would be fun to try.

Well into hour 3 or 4 of playing around I had decided to try and make the whole set up more robust. My existing system relies on vlc to transcode the ip camera’s h264 stream into something that motion supports. Then some scripts to allow motion to trigger more vlc sessions to record hi-res streams when events happen.
This has been very flakey as the vlc sessions tend to terminate after certain amount of failures, also it was all kicked off by me in terminal sessions so anytime we rebooted I’d have to remember to go set things going again.

So I dug into more vlc settup and found a way to start vlc as a daemon service using init.d and start-stop-service, and passed in my setup of two channels as a single vlm.conf file. This meant running just one process that kicks off both channels, and it means a nicer start/stop mechanism for the webcam transcoding.
This also meant that I realised motion has an event fired when it loses connection to a camera, so I could use that to trigger it to force a restart of the webcam service and hopefully allow it to ‘self-heal’ when things go wrong. We shall see whether this increases reliability.

The remaining 2 problems I know of are… Dropbox sync. I need to come up with some way to make dropbox aware of the new files placed by the pi. My current hope is that a local user ‘touch’ on the files might work. If so then I might have an event triggered that executes a remote command on the primary dropbox machine to touch all the files. If that doesn’t work… well I guess I’ll just have to think of something else. UPDATE: this worked, a remote touch of the files got dropbox to notice them
The second problem which I’ll try to investigate is that I often use a private vpn on our primary server, but after periods of inactivity it seems to stop working, requiring a manual stop/start to behave. This means that after some time the system stops seeing the outside world at all and the sync fails. So I need to come up with something that will keep the connection more reliable.

In all my ‘I’ll just do this for an hour’ snowballed into much of the day spent tweaking my setup. However I justified this as starting the new year with things ‘working’ It also spun off into my finally upgrading XBMC to KODI and getting the remote app on my phone working again. :-)

Wood burning stove

December 26, 2014

Over the last several weeks we have been completely redecorating our living room. I’ll post more about that later. The centre piece of this refurbished room is a nice new wood burning stove.
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The room previously had a large, ugly, fireplace with a gas fire.
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The house has central heating so it is probably more a question of aesthetic value to have a fire at all, and I’ve had my eye on a wood burner for some time. I’ve had a chimenea in the garden for a few years and really like what that adds to a summer evening enjoying the garden. So this is the obvious extension, a nice wood burning stove for the chilly winter evenings.

At this point everything is finished, and I’m happy with the stove, and the room in general. But it has been quite the journey to get this far, so I wanted to blog about the experience.

Our first step was to identify a company to install our stove. Normally I try to do everything I can myself. However with a stove you need it to be installed by a Hetas registered installer so that you can get the appropriate certificate for the purposes of building regulations etc. On more than one occasion I found myself wondering whether it would have been easier if I just got myself hetas certified to do the work…

We spoke to a couple of different local suppliers, the one we ultimately chose was grange farm stoves. They are based not too far from us and I had spotted their sign on our way to Duxford one day. We popped in to the showroom and spoke to Michael who runs the business.

Things did not start well as my wife and I both noticed that whenever she asked a question, he addressed his answer to me. I’m normally not that attuned to such things, but it was so apparent that he was really talking to me, not to us. However we wrote this off as unrelated to the companies ability to install stoves.
A warning sign for the complexities to come was that he provided the name and details for ‘his installer’ but insisted that we make arrangements by calling him at grange farm, who would in turn make arrangements for Rhys the installer to come round and survey the scene.
It later became clear that Rhys runs his own stove installation business, Moda stoves, which we could have contacted independently.

In any case, Rhys came along and surveyed what we wanted doing, and talked a little about chimney liners. Our existing chimney has a clay liner, the house itself is only about 30 years old so the chimney is a relatively modern construction. However the recommendation for ‘efficiency’ is to have a chimney liner installed. What I found throughout was that no one could really put any figures to ‘efficiency’ in terms of a new liner compared to an existing clay liner. The cost difference is not insubstantial and as a more decorative feature than a serious part of heating the house I was interested by just how inefficient it would be without. Ultimately it didn’t matter as removing the existing fireplace revealed the existing liner didn’t start for 5/6 feet from the ground and so a liner is what we got. I still wonder a little about whether this is legitimate or merely snake oil. It is hard to know as a consumer what is real and what is just a line to sell you more stuff.

We did get quotes from more than one place, but Rhys seemed to know what he was talking about and so we proceeded. Another slight oddity was grange farm insistence on being paid half up front then in full 3 days before final installation day. Typically with building works I’ve always been invoiced after the job is done. I brought this up as unusual, and was essentially told I could take my business elsewhere if I didn’t like it.
I asked a couple of questions in an email, including some regarding timescales for installation etc along with this query and I felt the response I got was about the least professional email I’d ever received from a business. Had I not been worried about the timescale of the project getting done before Christmas I probably would have walked away then. But instead I let it pass, and smoothed things over. Ultimately Graham phoned me to assure me of his fine upstanding nature and trustworthiness etc etc and why I would be fine paying in advance. He neglected to realise that the implication was that he wouldn’t trust *me* to pay up, but I needed to trust him to do the job. Ultimately we agreed on a deposit and set things in motion. I guess in some ways I perpetuate the problem by not walking away. He’ll never learn how to actually handle customers in a professional way.

That was pretty much the last dealing I had directly with Grange farm, despite their protestations that things go via them, from this point on I was talking with Rhys about dates for the various phases of work.

The first phase was the rip out of the existing fireplace, and capping off the gas. I was quoted about 90 pounds for a gas engineer to come with them and cap off the supply. However, after several days they were unable to confirm a gas engineer. None of their usual people were even returning their calls. This was explained as gas engineers busy doing higher value work such as boiler installation. Ultimately in frustration I said I would make arrangements. I brief search led me to Matt Pope, a local registered Gas engineer. He was able to confirm his availability and came along, on time, and capped the supply for 35 pounds. He did everything I expect of a contractor. He arrived when he said he would, he did the job he was asked to do in a timely, no fuss manor and he invoiced me when the job was done. I recommend him to anyone local to Royson.
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With the gas tapped off, the removal of the fireplace proceeded a pace and we soon had a bare wall and hole where the old fire had been.
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At this point it is worth pointing out that this phase was not completed by Rhys. It was completed by Lee, someone who was also independent, he gave me his card and was not shy about revealing that I could have come to him directly and he would have been able to provide all the same stuff and the same guarantees at a lower price, since he doesn’t operate with the showroom overhead of grange farm. This was refreshingly honest, but really not what I wanted to hear at the start of a job I was committed to with Grange farm.
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The first phase was always about determining whether there would be sufficient space to open up the chimney to set a stove in side. There was not and this informed the next part of the design, to brick up the old hole with a flue running through into the chimney such that the stove would sit in the room against a flat wall.
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So phase 2 saw Lee and his sidekick return to attached a ‘T-Piece’ in the chimney, open up a soot door from the outside to allow a sweep to work from there. And to brick up the hole with the flue sticking through.
This was a point where communication confusion was an issue. Rhys had suggested running 2×45 degree bends from the back of the stove up into the chimney as it would make it easier to sweep. Which sounded reasonable. However Lee proposed the idea of the T-Piece with an external soot door. Meaning that a sweep would not even need to come into the house to do the job. As someone that is out at work a lot, the idea of not even needing to be home was appealing. So we went with that. Later when Rhys came to inspect the work he commented that it was a little tight and that sweeps would almost certainly complain (but apparently they always do).  In any case I feel that the external soot door was the preferable option. We shall see whether it causes any sweeps a problem.
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Phase 3 was another separate contractor, a plasterer, come to skim the whole wall, covering the newly bricked up space and ensuring there was no join. He came and did the job which was ok. The result was nice an flat, but a little messy around the plugs and the wiring for the wall lights. Not bad, but could have been better. The plaster required 2 days to dry, and we were running out of time before Christmas and before our carpet was due to be fitted.

This meant that I painted the wall before and after work every day for a few days. Up at 6am, coat of paint on the wall, go to to work all day, home by about 7.30, paint the wall again before dinner. So that the wall was all finished ready for the ‘final install’

For this Rhys himself came. Unloaded the granite hearth, and the stove. Took some measurements… and declared that the flue was 25mm too high as it came through the wall…

Option 1 was: break out the wall, reset the flue, re-plaster. This was never a serious option. But he stated it none the less.
Option 2 was: take the hearth back to the stone cutters and set some feet on it and some strips of granite to form a box on the bottom to raise it by 25 mm.
Rhys left with intent on option 2, and later confirmed he would be back the following morning hot from the stone cutters to finish the job.

And so I had to work from home again for the work to finish.
But Rhys did not come, Lee came, and the hearth had not been adjusted. Lee took measurements and said that of course it was that high, since the plan was always to set the hearth on a bed of concrete that would both level it and raise it to the right place. So lack of communication between the two parties cost a day for no real reason.
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30 minutes later Lee was proudly cleaning up from setting the hearth on concrete, just prior to setting the stove in place. At this point I looked at it and clearly saw the hearth was not centred on the flue. And so I asked ‘Is that hearth centred?’ (See above) This caused Lee to get out his tape measure, and check the distance from each side of the hearth to a mark on the wall. He made a show of nudging things over a few mm and declared that yes, it was centred…
I then pointed out that I had no idea what the mark on the wall was for, but it was most certainly not centred on the flue. For the first time Lee took a step back and realised that the hearth was quite clearly about 3 inches too far to one side (which you can see in the photo below). And so they started again.

To be fair it didn’t take long to correct the mistake. However this was definitely one of those times that i felt maybe it would have been easier for me to just get myself registered to do the job.
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So finally. I had a stove installed. However… there was supposed to be a decorative ‘collar’ around the flue where it entered the wall, which they didn’t have. And there was supposed to be a ‘multi-fuel grate’ for the stove, which they also did not have. They did ask if I’d ordered the multi-fuel option, and I confirmed that yes, that is what was on my quote and apparently after checking they found that I was supposed to have one.
Out of time, with carpets due on the Monday, I made arrangements with Rhys for him to come Monday morning with the last parts.

Monday afternoon, after carpets were installed, I emailed to find out what was going on, the response was ‘I didn’t realise it was Monday’ It’s not clear whether he didn’t realise the day was Monday or didn’t realise he has said he would be around on Monday. But in any case he suggested 8.30am Tuesday. Accepted this and he acknowledged ok.
9.30 Tuesday I phoned Rhys to find out what was going on, he said “I didn’t see a response from you with a time” to which I pointed out he had proposed 8.30 and I had accepted it. So he said ‘I’ll be with you in about 45 minutes’
2 hours later… I finally get a call from someone else that worked for Rhys, who was lost trying to find the house. He turned up 5 minutes later and finally finished the job. Grate installed, decorative collar stuck to wall.
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And so it was done. and like I said at the start, I’m happy with the result and very happy with the room overall. However I don’t think I would recommend any of the parties involved to a friend. Perhaps it is just that I so rarely use tradesmen that I’m just not used to the associated problems. However I feel I have fairly low bar. Tell me when you’ll do something and do it at that time. Don’t make mistakes that it takes me to point out. Bring all the things required to do the job. etc etc. I’m very happy that the job is now done, and I can go for a while without relying on other people. However I know that when it comes to new windows/doors I will once again be at the mercy of others to hopefully do things when they say they will.

DIY table saw

November 9, 2014

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I wrote previously about a little project to turn my circular saw into a table saw. Last time I was just fixing the structure around the circular saw itself.
Now I have a whole table up and running.

This includes a fence and a sled. At the moment the fence still requires me to use clamps to hold it in position as I’ve not yet build a clamping mechanism into the fence itself.
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The sled I made from a peace of melamine that I came out of the kitchen cupboard I cut in half when I installed a new dishwasher. Along with some hard wood runners that sit in the routed tracks.
It runs back and forth pretty smoothly so I guess I managed to get everything fairly parallel.
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The cabinet structure keeps things pretty sturdy, and helps to catch the sawdust and keep it inside rather than go everywhere. I had some old material laying around the garage which I staple-gunned in place to catch the sawdust from coming out forwards, whilst still providing easy access to adjust the saw. I am planning on cutting a small circular hole in the back so I can always stick the hose from my dust collector in if I want to further reduce dust.
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My first little project with the new setup was to make a rack for some storage boxes in my study. Really just a few scraps squared off and to cut to length to be cross supports, then a rebate sawed out of the end blocks to fit the supports.

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It took really only a few minutes to knock up, and the table saw performed nicely. I suspect the accuracy is not that great for longer cuts. I did my best to tweak the alignments on the sled to get good 90 degree cuts, however the blade/spindle in the saw itself can rock back and forth as much as a mm or 2 over the diameter of the saw blade, so there was always going to be a limit to how precise I could make it.

That said, it leaves a much smoother cut than the bandsaw, and I feel like it opens up so useful cutting options, such as cutting out slots. Certainly useful enough for the time being. maybe one day this will act as the gateway drug to buying a full professional table saw. I guess it depends on how much use I get out of it and how frustrating its shortcomings become.

Depending on how you count, this table saw either cost about 70-80 pounds, or was free. The plywood was what was left after making shelves in the study. The circular saw I’ve had for years and rarely use as a free hand saw.

Touch-to-pay: the wearable killer app

October 19, 2014

My wallet is perhaps a little behind the times. My debit cards do not have touch-to-pay, I have a credit card with that feature, but it got rejected a couple of times and I honestly didn’t investigate why, I simply lost faith in using that method to pay.

Enter – Barclays bPay band.

I’m not sure were I heard of this now, but I did and I signed up. Barclays will send you one for free.

What is it?
Well, I describe it as sort of like an Oyster card, in so far as you manage it online, and use whatever card you like to send it money and configure ‘auto-top up’ when it drops below certain thresholds. Unlike Oyster you can use it anywhere that tap-to-pay is accepted, not just on the london underground etc. (it can be used there as well, so it is a complete replacement for oyster in that sense)

Also unlike oyster, and indeed unlike any touch-to-pay debit card. The ‘card’ here is very small, less than 1/4 the size of a debit card, and comes in a ‘band’ for you to wear on your wrist.
The band is just rubber, the magic is a card which can easily be extracted…more on that later.

For those unaware – touch-to-pay is a system that lets you pay for transactions of 20 pounds or less. So tube fares, coffee, lunch etc.

The result of this is that in places that accept touch-to-pay you can simply reach your arm out and tap the band to the reader and you’re done. This is not just faster and easier than debit cards, it is faster and easier than cash. I don’t have to get my wallet out, fumble with cards/cash change receipts and whatever I’m buying. I can just use my hands to take the goods. (I mostly decline receipts if I can for these kinds of low value purchases)

I’m aware that Apple is launching its Apple Watch, and one of the features of this is the ability to use it as the thing that you touch to reader when paying via their equivalent system. In this I think they’ve also realised this is one of the killer features that can be put on your wrist. Though personally I think the bPay band is better since it is focussed on just that, and was free…

The bPay band has 2 major flaws.

1) As yet not everywhere accepts touch-to-pay. It is very common in London, but in my home town I’ve only found 2 retailers that accept it. And of course if you can’t rely on it being taken then it diminishes the value a little. Hopefully this will become less of a problem over time.

2) the rubber band it comes in is cheap and uncomfortable.

For the first week that I had it, I just kept it in my pocket, and looped it over my fingers when I was preparing to pay. At this point it was really no different to a touch-to-pay card etc. There was the step of ‘preparing’ that I needed to take, just because it was not something I would just wear.

Over the weekend I fixed that issue.
I ordered a leather ‘cuff’ from Etsy, it is just a simple thick leather strap with some poppers so you can secure it around your wrist. Its the sort of thing that I’m fairly happy to just wear. it is comfortable and doesn’t look particularly out of place. I’m sure it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but the basic principle of customisation can be applied to anything that you are happy to wear on your wrist.

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I then hacked a flap in the back of the leather strap, I made a slightly messy job of it. I bought two so I may try a different approach on the other.

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Having cut a flap, I glued the edges back down and left myself with a small pocket in the edge of the strap that just snugly fits the card from the bPay Band.

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Now I can wear this as a matter of course, and not really think about it until I need to pay for something.

My first use was in a W.H.Smiths, which is one of the two places in my town that accept touch-to-pay, the cashier was taken by surprise when I just pressed my wrist against the reader and paid. It was the first time she’d seen anything like it. I suspect it will not be the last, as I feel the convenience of being able to pay this way will catch on.

So I had to remove the saftey guard…

September 27, 2014

As someone that spends a lot of time in my workshop, using tools and making things, these words echo in my memory.
“Well I had to remove the safety guard to get a better angle…”
Maybe my memory is unreliable, but that is how I remember my father explaining how he had caught his thumb with an angle grinder, and later a router.
I believe to this day he has some loss of feeling in that thumb, but he is otherwise intact. That he very calmly stated ‘I think you’re going to need to drive me to the hospital’ to my mum is another prominent feature of this memory.

It has served me well as a long term reminder that tools are dangerous, and before I turn them on I take a moment to think about where my hands will be, where I’ll be moving and generally considering the dangers that may exist. Sometimes I still wind up cursing myself for not thinking things through a little more, typically ‘when this force is applied what is the most likely path things will take’ is a question I sometimes forget to answer, but a hammer to the thumb will quickly remind you that forces such as those associated with a swinging hammer will not necessarily all get neatly imparted onto your target, sometimes it’s considerably easier to bounce to one side and deposit the remaining force onto a soft digit.
Another question I occasionally have forgotten to ask ‘when this spinning cutter hits this material, where will the shavings/dust/sparks want to fly? and is it at my face?’ at times like this I’m glad to be wearing my full face mask, but it’s still an unwelcome shock to have a shower of sparks flying towards your face.

Remember kids, a full face mask isn’t just an awesome fashion statement that shows you mean business, it is also a great way to compensate for failing to think everything through clearly enough.

So it is with all these thoughts in mind that I have embarked on a project to turn my circular saw into a table saw. Once again inspired by Matthias Wandel or woodgears, I previously attempted to copy his idea for a wooden latch for my bathroom.

I have previously made this same conversion in a rather quick and dirty way, I dubbed the result ‘the table saw of death’ just to serve as additional reminder that this was easily the most dangerous tool in the workshop. I held the guard open with the table top, and the table itself was very short, being constructed of just what scraps I had available at the time. It served well for a few specific jobs that were just not plausible in other ways. However it took time to set up, and adjust that made it not terribly efficient. And of course with the trigger locked in the on position, once plugged in it was running until unplugged or switched off at the wall. Before every use I very very carefully thought through the whole cut, and where I would need to move and put my feet etc. Ultimately I disassembled it, always thinking I’d maybe make a nicer job of the idea one day.

Seeing Matthias’ table saw conversion I felt it was time to try again and generally try to steal/learn from how others have done similar. I now have the space to support a much larger table and the patience to try and make a nice, safe, job of it.

That said, this is a project that essentially starts with ‘take off the blade guard because it will just get in the way….’ And whilst doing so I couldn’t help but think of my dad. One of my key goals in the construction is to try to replicate as many of the safety features of a proper table saw as I can.

I know, I could just buy a proper table saw. I know I will never ever get the kind of results from this that I could get from a proper table saw, and I know that by the time I’m done spending money on materials and time fiddling it might even have been more practical to buy a table saw. But as with so many things I do or make, it’s not really about having a table saw, I have no particular pressing need for one. It’s about *making* a table saw. And whilst my CNC router is dismantled and waiting for me to figure out a whole new build, this will keep me entertained.

Here are a couple of early pics where I’m attaching the plywood from which the rest of the structure will build.
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Matthias has had time to consider what he would do differently, and one of those was screw one of the mounts directly to the casing to get a better alignment and secure holding. So I did exactly that and I’ll see how that goes.

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