Over the last several years I've been dealing with various stages of disability thanks to ALS. My goal is to share solutions and review various products/tools/devices that I have found particularly helpful.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Punch Winter in the Face

This is a little something I actually should have written about last year...

There's no doubt that winter can really cramp your style and encourage a healthy dose of cabin fever. But, from time to time you will still have to get out of the house and in the deep cold, that can be treacherous to say the least. In my case, if my hands get cold which can very easily happen and happen quickly. I lose whatever remaining dexterity I have. My hands ball up into little claws and I can no longer do things like turning doorknobs.

But that's not really even the worst of it. Snow and ice is notoriously difficult to walk on, especially for those with balance issues. So last year I was still using my walking cane which we discussed back in "finding a good shillelagh". But in winter holding onto the cane can be a real problem.

my hands are starting to take this shape
Regular gloves don't provide the wants to each finger and to be a real pain in the butt to get on as my fingers are starting to claw inwards. I can no longer straighten them.

Mittens are even worse. Yes they are warmer, but does nothing to keep my fingers from rolling into the palm and the mitten seems to actually help keep my fingers rolled towards the palm. Very warm, but my hand becomes functional only as a club. I can't grab hold anything at all. What little remaining dexterity I had is now completely gone.

This led me on a quest to find technical climbing gloves. Also known as three fingered mittens.These are literally a cross between gloves and mittens.

These were rather difficult to find. Most retail stores don't carry them, they're more of a specialty item. What's great about these is that they allow you to keep just enough dexterity to better hold onto your cane. As you saw in the previous article about finding a good shillelagh  I had a T-shaped handle and this was extremely difficult to hold onto mitten's as I couldn't get my index finger to the opposite side of the shaft of the cane. Gloves were no better as they were big and bulky.

The ones I found were by OR and made from PrimaLoft. Making them extremely warm And the fact that the index finger is free means I can properly grab and hold my cane.

The nice thing about it as well as if I am ever outside without my cane, I'm not obligated to put my index finger in its own pocket. I can keep it with the rest of my fingers and wear them like a regular mitten. As a matter of fact, we had a cold snap last week were dropped to -40°C with the windchill. We unfortunately had to walk a fair way away to get to our Jeep and there's no way my hands were very warm by the time I got there as I can't access my coat pockets. Not to mention that if I happen to slip with my hands in my pockets, I have no way of protecting myself and a fall.

So this is exactly what I did. It worked out great. Got there with toasty warm hands.

Unfortunately, since last year have had some changes in my hands which makes holding a cane near impossible for me anyway. I can no longer fully close my hand properly, several tendons have constricted. But even so, these are very good quality mittens and I still use them as required. That said, these are well worth looking into as an alternative. Especially if you are still walking with a cane or other walking aid and need to go out in the blistering cold.


  • great alternative to gloves or Mitt's
  • primaloft is very warm
  • much better for grabbing a T-shaped cane
  • hard-to-find. Not in most retail stores.
  • A bit expensive for gloves at about $100 Canadian. They do however come with a lifetime guarantee
Cost: about C$100

Monday, 21 January 2013

Snapdragon Buckles

1" snapdragon buckle
I like my grab it pack  No. I love my grab it pack  That said, it is equipped with the standard slide clips and as we've mentioned before, with the loss of the ability to pinch this isn't really working for me anymore. I just can't release the clip. So after doing some research online I came across a very interesting, military grade quick release by ITW Nexus called a snapdragon buckle.

Instead of pinch, the intention of these is to be a quick pull on a tab or a loop which releases the buckle. Far quicker and easier than slide clips.

2" snapdragon buckle
The problem is, these are fairly hard to find because at the moment most of them are designed for military supply. So unless you need a box 1000 of them, it's a little tricky to find where to order them from. I however got little bit lucky. I searched on the Internet and the supplier lists and fortunately there was one relatively local who is willing to help me out. He sold me 5 2 inch buckles and 5 1 inch buckles.

So with the help of my rehabilitation facility, I added some buckles to my grab it pack (a 2 inch buckle for the waste, and a 1 inch buckle for the leg strap) and a 1 inch buckle to my shoulder bag. Overall I'm pleased with how well this works for me. Check out the video below. I should however first point out that when I release the shoulder strap, I'm usually sitting down. 

Now, as I mentioned these are military standard product meaning they are very strong and durable which can make releasing the snapdragon a little bit challenging. Especially for the 2 inch buckle. In my case I found the amount of force required to release the 1 inch buckle the one-inch to be just fine. I did however have to have the 2 inch buckle modified. This was done by my father who simply took a file to it and poured down the plastic teeth on the inside of the buckle and on the mail portion of the buckle reduced a bit of the profile, and rounded the edges a bit too reduce the amount of purchase between the two pieces. Only took him about 10 min. And since then the 2 inch buckle works absolutely beautifully.

So the big question is: "where do I get me some?"

Well the only place I found online that will sell in smaller numbers is CP-gear. However they only have 1 inch and three-quarter inch buckles in their inventory (last I looked).
You can also go the route I did, which was to find a local supplier from the IT W nexus distributors list. Give them a call, the guy I spoke to was really great and very willing to help me out. http://na.itwnexus.com/content/list-distributors

  • great alternative to slide clips.
  • Military grade, very strong
  • reasonably priced, on par with the slide clip replacement
  • military grade plastic. may require modification
  • very hard to find. I wasn't able to find any in local retail

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Home Automation, the 3rd Attempt

Introducing the "Jarvis Mod"

Wow. The Christmas holiday season can really get in the way of any plans you have for personal projects. I actually had the autohotkey script done at in early December, but all the obligations for this season and having the family around really slowed me down. Not that I am about that quickly anyway ;-)

Now I'm back to it. Introducing, the Jarvis mod for your Vera home automation system. But first a little back story.

We've talked before about how I'm starting to rely more and more on voice control for my computer. But that doesn't really help me out for the rest of my environment, so I started wondering if there was a way I could use voice to have some control over my environment. Ideally with minimal cost and using tools that are ready have.

The particular problem I was hoping to address was to be able to run my home automation system through my iPhone using Siri. I mean really, who would not want to be able to walk into their house speak a few instructions and have your environment respond to you in a similar way to what you see on Star Trek the next generation, or Jarvis (hence the name) from the movie Ironman.
Well, it turns out that there is!

Obviously, it's not going to be anywhere near as powerful as what you see in Star Trek or Ironman. However I can use Siri's existing functionality to send a message to my Vera Zwave home automation system. This is by definition a hack as it does use some digital duct tape and bailing wire to get this to work. But for my needs, it works very well. Check it out…
So how did I get this to work? As you can see from the video, I use the Siri to send a message to my computer via (a secret) e-mail. Microsoft outlook receives the mail, recognizes it and fires a rule to create a text file in a specific directory containing the contents of the e-mail. There is an auto hotkey script running on my PC which waits for this text file, parses its contents and then sends the appropriate notifications to my Z wave system.

It's probably easiest to visualize in the following chart.
The Jarvis script is at its core very simple. It is a simple text parser which reads the text for key phrases such as: "turn on the family room light". It doesn't use any fancy heuristic to figure out the meaning of the sentence. It simply looks for keywords in a sentence. In this case those words would would be "light", "on" and "family room". It doesn't care about the order, just their presence. I can however send multiple instructions via one e-mail using Siri. Each sentence is interpreted as one instruction. So I can have several sentences to fire several different devices. The script looks for the "." As a separator between instructions.

It is very easy to add more commands. Commands presently are:

  • turn on/off the basement/living room light
  • lock/unlock the door
  • run scene <scene name>

Now obviously this is going to reason some security questions. As I for sure do not want some stranger firing an e-mail to my house and operating my devices. So I do have some security protocols built in. Outlook requires the message to be from a certain e-mail which will remain secret ;-) it is also easy enough to integrate a password requirement into the autohotkey  Script. This will be a simple day password (not yet implemented) where if it is absent from the script, Jarvis will not operate. It is also very easy to detect multiple, repeated attempts.

Also, I only activate my Jarvis script when I expect to need it.

Some might also ask why I chose to use autohotkey  n this way as opposed to simply firing the instructions via Outlook. While this is possible to do via the integrated VBScript in Outlook I would have to duplicate the same code into the Microsoft speech macros to get the same functionality. I.e. doubling my maintenance requirements. Any change to one would have to be made to both. In This Way, Outlook and the speech macros simply messengers. Any changes, modifications or updates are simply done in the Jarvis script only. Also by using autohotkey  it is very easy to add additional functionality to interface with any other system running on my computer. For example it would be easy enough to add commands to start iTunes and play music over my airplay system.

Unfortunately however, this Jarvis mod has been written to operate with my z wave system and PC set up. This means that unfortunately it will not be immediately portable into your environment. My intention here was to share the methods and show that it can be done. That said I will be including the text file with some additional instructions on how to do so. You will however require a basic autohotkey knowledge to know where to make the appropriate changes to your script.

Okay, I'll admit it… I just
wanted to use this picture ;-)
You can grab the Jarvis files here: the Z wave Jarvis Mod however the Windows speech macros are not yet included. Functionally, they will be nearly identical to the VBScript for Outlook.

(Update: as of 14/1/2013 speech macros are included and functional)

I will be working on a tutorial on how to properly set this up in improving the provided instructions.

So I think it's safe to say that the myth you can't extend Siri functionality or improve on your voice control functionality is pretty much busted ;-)That being said, I really should point out will once again that this script is more of a first functional prototype or a proof of concept rather than a final product. And by definition, is not really modifying the function of Siri or any of the other systems, but extending the functionality by tying them together through another script… By definition to me, this is a hack ;-) I will be periodically updating or reworking the script.