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Automation

We’re only here for a finite time.  That time is precious.  We spend far too much wasted time checking up on things to see if there’s anything new.  That’s why we automate things, to save time and effort.

We all have automated devices, even if we don’t look at them that way.  Washing machines, dishwashers, apps on mobile phones.  We don’t want to waste time checking our phone all day, so we use notifications.  We don’t want to wash our clothes or dishes ourselves, so we use washing machines and dishwashers to do the work for us.  The question is, where do we draw the line?  With houses, offices, servers, PC’s, smartphones, vacuum cleaners and even cars being automated the line keeps moving.

For me, my line is drawn far away from most people’s.  I take things a step further, I like automation.

I use automation tools on my phone, computer, tablet, watch etc.  I like the fact that my computer knows how long the dishwasher takes and turns it off at the right time, sends a message to my phone which in turn forwards that message to my watch to let me know when to open the dishwasher door, just so the crockery dries itself.  I like the lights turning themselves on when it gets dark.  I have NFC stickers throughout my house which enable the phone to perform various tasks.  I like that my calls and texts are automatically backed up to my Google account for me, so I can keep track of who I called, who called me, and when.  I love smart notifications, apps you can configure to link obscure items to your phone or tablet.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’m getting overloaded with messages all day long.  This is simply about having the right information at the right time. This then enables me to disregard or act upon what I receive.

So, how can you set things up?  First of all decide on what you want automated and why.  My own inspiration was the Orange Automated Home which featured in their magazine, boasting levels of technology which at the time was admirable.  Since then a number of high tech, fully automated homes have been featured as newer technology is developed.   Since reading the article I wanted to own my very own automated home. Building Management Systems are now used to automate offices across the globe.  The thing is, once you start automating things you get the experience and imagination to automate so much more.  You end up looking for ways to help you.  

I currently use Homeseer to run the house, an automated alarm system to keep it secure.  The PC’s have EventGhost with the AutoRemote plugin for two way notification and control.  This allows me to be notified on my phone/tablet when the computer does something I want to be told about without having to sit at the computer.  [This is particularly useful if you have kids with their own (albeit really old) computer.]  Our smartphones use NFC, Tasker, Secure Settings, AutoRemote and Pushover to perform multiple functions with little or no input. [Useful if your bairns use your old phone].  Finally my watch links to the phone so that the most important information is brought to my attention without the need to keep taking out the phone.  Because of the way all these things link together I only have to look at my watch to know the PC or the house has done something on my behalf.  Web sites, files and even clipboard contents can be pushed from the phone to the PC (and vice versa).  I know if my son has my old phone turned on or not, whether he’s playing games or reading ebooks on the Kindle app, and we can lock / unlock / track / take photos / reboot the phone remotely.

One web site that really helps is IFTTT (If This Then That).  It works on logic principles, if (for example you get an email) then do (insert action here) for me automatically.  I use IFTTT when awaiting deliveries (amongst other things) to keep me up to date by using smart notifications on my phone by linking the tracking number to Pushover.  I don’t have to keep checking the tracking web site on the off chance that something had happened, I’m not wasting time. There are all sorts of ways IFTTT can help you.  If it’s going to rain that day you can have the weather report sent to your phone before you wake up.  You get the idea.

If you’d like to know more about automation, please feel free to comment below or get in touch.

Links:
Home automation hardware
Smartphone automation – Android
NFC tags

 

Medication

Medication can be great, it helps you get better and can help you cope with pain.  The trouble is, almost all medication has side effects.  It can colour your urine, make you constipated, induce seizures, get you stoned and if it’s not yours it can even kill you.

Some medication must be taken at certain times of the day.  I have one tablet at midday, and again at midnight.  I have some tablets which need to be taken around 9pm, while others are taken as and when needed.  The trouble is, all of my tablets have side effects, some of them quite severe so I’ve found a solution.  No longer can I forget to take my meds.  No longer can I wonder if I’ve taken them and take them twice.  While the solution is a little over the top, it’s a solution, and one that works well for me.

For this, you’ll need:

Dropbox
First of all, create a folder and a text file in Dropbox.  It doesn’t really matter what they’re called, but I’ve kept mine as \Reminders\Meds.txt as I use the Reminders folder for various things.  Once the text file is created, go to the Dropbox app and favourite it.  The file should then have a purple circle with a white star at the bottom right.  This is done so that the file is available when there is no network connection.

File Manager
Use your file manager to go to SD Card (internal if available) \Android\data\com.dropbox.android\files\scratch\Reminders you should see Meds.txt (or your variation if you’ve changed the names).

Tasker
Once confirmed, you can load Tasker.  I always have Tasker’s Beginner Mode unticked to ensure all of the options are available (Menu, Preferences, UI).

  1. I started by creating a variable called Meds (Vars, +).
  2. Then created a Profile called Meds Day which was time based, from 12:00 to 12:01,
  3. and created a Task called Medication.  The Task has the phone say “It’s time for your medication” – Misc, Say, using the Alarm stream so that it’s independent of the Ringer/Notification volume.  This is also pushed to my watch using an app called Pebble Notifier (amongst other things, the Pebble saves me stopping the wheelchair in order to get my phone out).  Using Task, Wait, the phone waits three seconds before Variable Set changes the variable Meds to 0.  I later arranged to have the buttons on my watch display the options ‘Meds Taken’, ‘Dismiss’, and ‘Meds Taken’, courtesy of PebbleTasker.  (I needed to add the Task ‘Meds Taken’ before I could do this).

You can also create the Profile Meds Night (for example) and link that to the Task Medication. By selecting set times you can create as many of these as you’d like.  If you wanted specific medication mentioned, simply repeat the steps two and three and name them appropriately.

Next, I created a new Task, named ‘Meds Taken’.  Using Variable Set the variable %Meds is changed to the value ‘1’. PebbleTasker then changes to the default options and a message is flashed on the screen (Alert, Flash) acknowledging ‘Meds Taken’.  The date and time are updated in the file (File, Write File) Android/Data/com.dropbox.android/files/scratch/Reminders/Meds.txt with Append and New Line ticked.
By doing this I am able to keep check of when I’ve taken my tablets and the file is automatically synced with Dropbox on my other devices.  In the bottom right corner I’ve also added an icon resembling a tablet, this was necessary for me to create a shortcut from the phone’s home screen.  It’s so much easier tapping an icon on the phone than going to Tasker just to change a single variable.

Meds Taken

Of course, life gets in the way sometimes.  It’s not always convenient to take tablets exactly at the intended time.  With this in mind (learned the hard way), I created a nag system:

The creation of a Profile and Task, each called Meds became my nag system.  The Profile is set every twenty minutes throughout the day, starting at 00:10 to ensure I had time to take my meds before it started nagging me, but sufficiently apart so I didn’t become annoyed with it, especially if I was somewhere that I couldn’t take my meds. The Task simply says “Have you taken your medication yet?” (Misc, Say) and has PebbleTasker open the options for ‘Meds Taken’, ‘Dismiss’, and ‘Meds Taken’ again.

Meds Taken

[Note, the other band on my wrist is an NFC tag which, when scanned, shows my name, NHS number etc.]

The whole process has evolved over time to include and exclude various aspects.  If in future any changes are made to it, I’ll post in the comments.  Of course, because Tasker is a one-off payment, hopefully it won’t incur any further costs.

Android

It’s no secret that I’ve been a fan of Nokia and their smartphones since they were released.  I’ve had Nokia phones since January 1996 and a smartphone since the N-Gage was released.  When Nokia saw that the developers stopped coding for S60 Symbian they had a decision to make.  Despite contradicting rumours they opted for Windows Mobile instead of Android.  They made the decision to take my business elsewhere so much easier.

The options available were Android, Blackberry or iPhones.
iPhones were ruled out as they only allowed apps to be installed via iTunes.   I’d used iTunes before and unless you used a Mac it operated in the same manner as a virus.  The rigidity of Apple soon put me off.  I’m grateful.
Blackberries operated much the same as Symbian with good options, more businesslike and the push technology was appealing but I was concerned they may be heading the same way as Symbian.
Android were becoming more popular which to my mind meant that the developers would be there to stay.  I’d heard nothing but good things about Android, they offered custom ROMs, full touch screen phones and most importantly were open sourced so people would undoubtedly be releasing their own apps and ROMs.

Following advice from a good friend I opted for the HTC Desire, a decision which resulted in much ranting at the phone as it ran out of memory within an hour of being fully charged.  My previous phones, X6, N96 etc. had given me the option to install apps directly on to the internal storage.  Not part of the app but all of it and I nearly gave up on Android there and then.  Thankfully I upgraded early to the Samsung Galaxy S2 and I haven’t looked back.

I now use an S2, S3 and a Nexus 7 tablet.  I’ve been using Android for a few years now.  I thought I’d offer some tips if you’re just starting out or want to try out some recommended apps.

Rooting
There are hundreds of sites that explain what this is and how to do it.  To save you searching for them, it just means that you get full access to the system files on the phone.  If you use Windows on your PC you may know about Users and Administrators.  Rooting removes a restriction to upgrade you to an Administrator by removing the block in the phone which prevents you from accessing essential system files.  It can be risky, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing as you can turn your phone in to a paperweight.  If you want to use all of the apps available to you though, you’ll need to root it.

Essential
First of all, get yourself a decent virus killer.  Even if you never need it, it’s a good idea to have one.  These days virus killers don’t just kill viruses.  If you’ve rooted your phone (see above) then you can get access to firewalls, block annoying calls/texts and even change the permissions of apps.

Avast: Avast is a virus killer on steroids.  Assuming you’ve rooted your phone (or had someone do it for you) you can access all of its features.  Virus Scanner, Anti-Theft, Privacy Advisor, Application Management, Shield Control, SMS & Call Filter, Firewall, Network Meter.  Without wanting to go in to all of its features, you can block annoying calls and texts, stop apps from accessing WiFi and 3G, and most importantly install an app from Avast that will let you track down your phone if it gets lost or stolen.
[This app is free]

Android Assistant: This is a Swiss Army Knife of apps.  It monitors your phone, advising you of free memory, battery life, phone and SD card space, running processes and has several tools.  You can control volume, tweak settings to extend battery life, clean cache (temporary files), clean the system, file manager, batch installer/uninstaller, edit apps that start when the phone does (this will extend battery life and speed up your phone), see battery usage, system info, move apps to the SD card, backup and restore apps, and see which permissions your installed apps have requested.
[This app is ad supported but there is an advert free version for around £1.20]

Team Battery Bar: It’s one of those apps that’s so simple but so useful.  It simply colours the top of your screen with a line indicating your remaining battery life.  Irrespective of what you’re doing, watching a video, playing games, it is always there.  If you have some time to kill but don’t want to drain all of your battery, this little app will keep you right.  It’s fully customisable with different colours available and you can edit the percentages at which it changes colour.  E.g. Red 0-33%, Yellow 34-66%, Green 67-100%.
[This app is free but the pro version is only around 60p]

WiFi Manager: Unless you use hidden WiFi networks you don’t really need this app but it’s useful to have.  If you do use hidden networks then it’s essential.  As you might expect it finds WiFi networks around you, saving the ones you have access to and marking them as favourites.  If the network is hidden your phone or tablet may not always recognise it, WiFi Manager finds it and connects.  It also has useful widgets showing you if you’re connected, which network you’re connected to, signal strength and IP address.
[This app is free]

SMS Backup+: If you’ve ever had an ex that stalks you, texts you with obscene messages or work for a company which audits you then you’ll want to keep a record of each text that comes in.  SMS Backup+ does just that.  It creates a label in your Gmail inbox called SMS and backs up all of your texts.  It can be set to automatically back them up at regular intervals and/or each time a new text is received.  Although I’ve never needed it, there’s a restore function as well.  Useful if you’ve just upgraded your phone.
[This app is free]

Dropbox: Most people have heard of Dropbox.  If you haven’t, or don’t know what it is, it’s an app that lets you synchronise files between your phone, tablet and PC.  You don’t need more than one device, you can just use it to back up files or photos from your phone but it comes in to its own when you have it installed on two or more devices.  You get 2GB free and can expand that by referring friends, uploading photos or by buying space.  If you want to sign up, click here.
[This app is free]

App Cache Cleaner: Cache, temporary files created by apps.  This small app can be set to clean your temporary files, cache, every so often or you can do it manually if you wish.  It frees up storage on the phone.  If you have an entry level phone this app is essential.  If you have a high end phone it’s still useful.
[This app is free but ad supported]

Fast Reboot: Simulates a reboot.  If you have a crashed app, need more memory (RAM) or want that ‘just booted up’ speed then install Fast Reboot.  It won’t shut down your phone or pull your battery for a full shut down but you won’t always need to.
[This app is free]

No Signal Alert: If you live in a poor signal area or you don’t want to miss that vital call, download No Signal Alert.  It’s a simple app that notifies you when your signal disappears.  You can customise it with different ringtones but I’d recommend a short one as once the signal gets choppy it can go off several times in a minute.
[This app is free. The pro version is around £1.50]

Tiny Call Confirm: If you’ve ever called someone by mistake or had a phone bill showing calls you’ve not made there’s a good chance you could have benefited from this app.  It simply puts an ‘are you sure?’ type option on the screen before it dials out.  Especially useful if your screen has turned on in your pocket.  There’s a pro version with more features but this meets my needs.
[This app is free.  The pro version is £2]

Recommended
Tasker: I cannot recommend this app highly enough.  It’s not free but it is definitely value for money.  It’s an app that does things for you.  Just about anything you can do with the phone, it can do for you.  It’s an automation tool.  You can have the phone read texts when you’re driving, reply to the sender that you’re on the move and will respond properly later, all based on travelling more than 10mph.  Perhaps unlock the phone when you get home, locking it again when you’re away from your router, photograph someone using the phone when they get the code wrong and uploading the photo to Dropbox.  Perhaps you want to have the phone silence itself when you have a meeting?  Synchronise files when you’re at work/home? All of this done for you without having to pick up the phone.
With the available plugins (AutoRemote, AutoNotification, SMS Backup+, etc.) this app becomes more and more invaluable the more you look in to it.
[This app is £3 but is worth every penny]

Google Sky Map: Whether you’re an amateur astronomer or just curious about the night sky, Google Sky Maps is a good start.  Stars, planets, constellations are all visible and will move on your screen as you move the phone about.  It also has a search facility to quickly show you where Jupiter (for example) has got to.
[This app is free]

Barcode Scanner: I debated whether this should be classified as essential or just recommended for a little while, it’s certainly one of the apps that I’ll install on phones or tablets.  It isn’t just for scanning in barcodes in shops to see if you’re getting the best deal.  I have my router’s WiFi code on the wall in the form of a QR code (those square barcodes that nobody understands).  It saves guests typing in the code, it’s regularly changed and is convenient to generate the QR code.  Of course with bus stop adverts, leaflets etc. now using QR codes it pays to have an app that will decode them and regular barcodes on your phone.
[This app is free]

Titanium Backup: If you want to back up apps and your data then get this app.  You will need a rooted phone but it’s worth it if you’re changing ROMs (putting on a new version of Android) or if you’re upgrading and don’t want to look up every app yourself.  The Pro version is around £4.50 but it soon pays for itself as it doesn’t prompt you to install each app and comes with more functionality.  You can upload your backups to Dropbox, Box or Google Drive automatically or manually and the ‘quick backup/install’ option is available.
[This app is free but it’s worth paying for the Pro version]

Cloud Print: Ever needed to print directly from your phone/tablet?  Cloud Print understands your frustration.  If you have a cloud ready printer you can install this and be printing in a few minutes.  If your printer isn’t cloud ready, don’t worry.  If you have Chrome installed on your PC you can go to the advanced settings in Chrome, sign in to Cloud Print and off you go.  You’ll need to ensure the PC is running to print if your printer isn’t cloud ready.
[This app is free]

ES File Explorer: There are a number of file explorers in the Play Store but this is the one I use the most.  It lets you access your Dropbox, Drive, SkyDrive, Box etc, your LAN (shared folders on your home network), FTP server, as well as your device.  There are so many functions to ES it wouldn’t be practical to list them here but it’s worth having a good play with it.
[This app is free]

Glympse: I love this app.  Put simply, it’s one of those apps that makes you think “this developer has given this some thought”.  Glympse lets you share your location without the world being able to see it.  You can share via text message or email, automatically shut down when you reach your destination or after a preset time (or both), and it will send the person/people you’ve selected a link to view where you are.  It also allows you to link to your calendar so if you’re due to be in a meeting but you’re stuck in traffic you don’t have to set up everything, just pull the information from your calendar.  We’ve used it when the weather has turned nasty – flooding, fog etc. and it gives us a little peace of mind.
[This app is free]

Worthy Mentions
Bus Scout: Every now and then an app comes along that you look at and think “This person knows what they’re doing”.  Bus Scout is such an app.  It’s simple to use, just tap on a bus stop for information about which services use that stop.  Delve further to get bus timetables.  Of course, if you’re using Arriva buses then the timetables are simply a work of fiction but Bus Scout is useful if you’re not in familiar territory.  The developer has recently added a feedback function for if your bus company retires a service or starts a new one.
[This app is free]

Pushover: A useful app for notifying you of events.  If you’ve not used IFTTT then you should take a look – IF This Then That.  In short, you can have customised notifications pushed to your phone based on your criteria.  For example, if I get an email with attachments, I want them automatically downloaded to my Dropbox; if the weather changes I want to be notified on my phone; if a new version of Android is released then let me know; if my download has finished, notify my phone; if someone bids on my eBay listing, notify my phone.  You get the idea.  Pushover saves you time and effort.  It’s not cheap but it can be very useful.
[This app is around £3.20]

GPS HUD: GPS Heads Up Display.  GPS HUD shows you your speed, date and time, address, weather and economy indicator.  If you have a cycle mount you can see how fast you’re travelling.  Settings allow the display to be flipped so you can place the phone on a car’s dashboard.  In this mode your windscreen will reflect the phone’s screen so you can see your speed etc. without taking your eyes off the road.
[This app is free but is ad supported.  The pro version is about 60p.]

Barclone: If you have more loyalty cards than you can count on one hand or your pocket/handbag is bulging with cards then you may want to take a look at Barclone.  It stores your loyalty card barcode and can show it on the screen when required.  It doesn’t just take a photograph, it will generate the barcode so you’re not getting pixelated versions when you try to zoom in.  Just load the app, select your loyalty card and choose the phone’s orientation (landscape will result in a much larger barcode).
[This app is free but ad supported.  The pro version is about £1]

Catch: Catch is what Evernote tries to be, but it works.  It boasts an automatically synced shared spaces so you can share notes with your partner, your kids or your colleagues.  You can also share individual notes across other installed apps.  They’re available on any browser via their web site and it has a Catch Sketch plug-in for Samsung devices.
[This app is free]

Wake On LAN: If your computer’s network adapter (WiFi / ethernet) supports Wake On LAN you can put it in sleep mode, save power and use this app to wake it.  It’s especially useful if you’re at work.  Simply connect to the WiFi and run the app.  Your computer will be powered up by the time you get to your desk.
[This app is free]

I hope this collection is useful.  If you know of any apps that you think should be on this list, please let me know.