Hacking for Parental Sanity

This is one of a series of “classic posts“. Resurrections of old posts that I enjoyed writing, and you might enjoy reading.

There is a company somewhere in Asia that manufactures small speakers. Small piezoelectric speakers that can put out a surprising amount of noise. I would one day like to visit this company, and spend a little bit of time pressing each button on all of my son’s noise-making toys that no doubt contain the spawn of this hellish company. Small demons no less, screaming nauseating 8-bit music at the top of their lungs.

More than once I have worried about my son’s hearing. One such toy is a cartoon-like telephone. Apparently designed to be held to the head in a similar manner to Dad’s cellphone. This would be fine if the little phone didn’t pump out something in the region of 70-80dB of noise (I’m not joking – louder than conversation, and approaching a food blender in volume).

Thankfully I am not afraid of hacking. In fact hacking electronic devices can easily be a life and sanity saver. Hacking these noisy little beasts generally falls into two categories, named in suitable serial-killer chic as Muffling and Exterminating.

The Muffling hack is useful when you have a toy that is designed around the sounds it makes (e.g. the toy cellphone in my case), and also has a bit of space inside it. The approach I take is to find some decent compressable material (e.g. lightweight foam or dacron), open the toy, find the baby demon speaker, and wrap the fucker in a couple of layers of your material. You can usually then stuff the speaker back in its original location, and close up the toy. I find this technique can knock an easy 20dB off a noisy toy, making it comfortable to listen to at an arm’s length.

The Extermination hack is a more robust hack for those toys that are just plain obnoxious, and have no place emitting the noises they do. My example is a cool little firetruck that drives along and pops up a water-cannon. Great, except it also screams “Matchbox to the rescue!” at 80dB, which would be supremely ironic for a firetruck if it weren’t manufactured by Matchbox. The hack is simple: open the toy, find the speaker, and detach one or both wires from the speaker. A hard yank will usually do the trick (and is very satisfying), but you could use wire cutters or a soldering iron if you are a poof want to do it right.

There is probably a third hack that involves reducing the volume of the speaker through passive electronics, possibly by soldering a resistor in-line with the speaker. I shall leave that as an exercise for the reader. If you have any other suggestions (not counting the impact-with-concrete hack), then feel free to comment.

Update: Dan Rutter has a good writeup (second question down the page) on how to use electronics to quieten these offensive toys.

Unfair Competition

Here’s a very interesting set of circumstances that highlights the absolute atrocity that is broadband internet provisioning in New Zealand. We are moving house in a couple of weeks time. I have booked the telephone line move with Telecom (NZ’s monopoly phone line provider), and then asked about shifting our ADSL connection. They told me to go and talk to our current ISP about it.

So I called our ISP (ihug) and spoke to a technician called Tim. He told me that ihug have to wait for the phone line to be moved before they can even request that the ADSL service is moved; after which time it could take up to two weeks to move the ADSL connection. I confirmed this with his supervisor (Guy). I told them this is not good enough, and that I would consider switching to a different ISP if they couldn’t sort this out. They didn’t seem to care (even though I’ve been with ihug for 8 years). In their defense, they say that it is the only option they have, because they can’t put additional requests on a phone line once one is already in the queue – in this case the phone line move.

So, next up I called xtra (Telecom’s own ISP) to ask if I join xtra whether they can provision ADSL on the same day. The answer (from Eva) was yes. If I switch to xtra prior to the move, then they will guarantee that the telephone and ADSL switch happens on the same day.

Now, is it just me, or is this an abuse of Telecom’s monopoly power? Why do they get the right to book both phone and ADSL move on the same day, while other ISP customers have to queue up like animals?

iPowerWeb Sucks

Update: Because this post is attracting a few hits from the obvious search term, I thought I’d post a little followup. Since I left iPowerWeb about 9 months ago, I have been exceptionally happy with A Small Orange. Sure they’ve had the odd glitch (2 that I can think of), but they are always resolved quickly and easily. The forums are massively helpful, and my request for SSH access yesterday was actioned inside of 5 minutes.

Additionally, NameCheap.com are a fast, easy, simple domain name provider. They offer easy access to all aspects of domain and DNS management, and my name transfers went very smoothly. Summary: A Small Orange and NameCheap.com are a perfect replacement for iPowerWeb, who suck.

IPowerWeb are decidedly crappy web hosts. Stay away from them if you can. My account with them was suspended due to ‘malicious activity’, and after waiting 23 hours for a response to they question of “Why?” they simply said that file and directory security was the responsibility of the user.

They refused to inform me of what the malicious activity was, where it originated from, and what could be done to stop it. The site is simply running the latest release of WordPress, so if there is a security hole in WordPress (which I doubt) then I guess that’s something I can’t control.

On the upside, I have stumbled across A Small Orange, who in the 12 hours or so I have been with them have been most helpful. The main decider for me is the fact that they actually have an open user forum, which allows anonymous posts, which is as close to begging for abuse as you can get. However there seem to be a decidedly small number of user complaints – a Good Thing in my book.

Anyway, I’m working on getting the old database uploaded, so hang tight and hopefully everything will return in a couple of hours.

Satellite Blues

Wow. SkyTV, New Zealand’s sole Pay TV provider is totally off the air across all of New Zealand tonight. Their support lines are overloaded, and even their website appears to be failing under the load of a million angry users attempting to get information. Angry users are venting their spleens in various public forums. My digital decoder box gives a lovely informative message: “The disturbance to your viewing is due to atmospheric conditions. Your picture will resume shortly.”

Slightly more informative messages point to the fact that the satellite had a major failure 18 months ago and was switched to its backup processor:


Optus B1 had some major failures last year and was (at least until 6:50pm tonight or so) running on it’s backup processor, at the time Sky was a bit concerned but consensus was that it would probably last a few more years on the backup (the sat had a life of 10 years, from it’s launch in 1992 – we are a long way past it’s expiry date). If that backup processor has failed then the sat will be uncontrollable and then Sky has big problems, either another sat has to be moved to that orbit which would take at least 1 week, probably longer, or they need to realign everybody to a new bird. Last I heard the Optus D class sat launches which were to replace the B class birds were indefinately delayed. Sky won’t be the only thing affected, B1 serves both Australia and New Zealand tv and other communications.


Wow. I can smell the cash burning… And of course there’s the obligatory spoof auction.

Update: the official word is that the satellite failed during a positioning manouvre, and it will take 3 hours to reposition it. This is fishy because:

  1. I thought it was a geostationary satellite (ok I stand corrected, geostationary satellites need nudging now and again), and
  2. surely it would have had to be moving out of position for 3 hours in order to take 3 hours to get back into position? Why did someone not spot it going out of position earlier?

Update 2: So the service is still offline 12 hours later. I call bullshit on the ‘repositioning’ claim. Either that or the original positioning failure was actually more massive and permanent than first realised.


So Ricky Gervais has picked Audible.com as the supplier for his new pay-per-listen podcast series. What a huge mistake. I’ve never had the displeasure of listening to stuff from Audible before, so I thought I’d give it a go. First up I was asked to pay for a subscription to Audible before I could download free stuff. Excuse my French but you can go and get fucked.

I managed to get around that by following a “UK residents click here” link (hint: I’m not a UK resident) and signed up to Audible for free. “Right”, I thought “now I can download an mp3 of Ricky’s show”. No. No you cannot. You have to first download the “Audible Manager”, a ponderous piece of software that seems to simply be some glorified ftp client. OK, alright, let’s humour them a bit. Right, I’d like to download the free Ricky Gervais preview to play on my Pocket PC. The formats available are:

  • Telephone like
  • AM Radio
  • FM Radio
  • MP3

Sweet. I’d like to download an ‘MP3’ like quality version for my pocket pc please. No fuck off. You only get ‘FM Radio’ quality, which is mono and sounds like shit. If you want ‘MP3’ quality, go buy an iPod. Seriously. Audible’s compatibility list says that only Apple iPods will play format ‘4’, the MP3 quality format. I guess it must be some hacked up version of AAC then.

Profanity be damned. Audible.com is the biggest piece of shit service ever. I would happily pay $5 per episode to get an unencumbered, standard MP3 quality file of the new Ricky Gervais series, but instead I have to pay $1.95 to get the crappiest, DRMed, proprietary, barely audible version. Thanks but no.