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Alexa Out The Window

Posted on October 22nd, 2018

Dave!As I've undoubtedly made very clear here on my blog... my entire home is run by Alexa (Amazon's "Echo" voice assistant). I don't touch light switches because I just tell Alexa to turn stuff off and on. I don't adjust the thermostat, because I can just tell Alexa to change the temperature. She also turns the television off and on and changes the channels for live TV. She plays my music. She manages my shopping list. She tracks the weather and can Google questions for me. She is everywhere in my home from my garage to my living room to my kitchen to my bedroom to my bathroom. There is no part of my home that I can't reach Alexa, and she does absolutely everything for me.

Most of the time.

Sometimes she decides that she doesn't understand me, and it drives me insane...

ME: Alexa, turn on stair light.
ALEXA: I don't know the device "star light."
ME: ALEXA, TURN ON STAAAAAAAARE LIGHT!
ALEXA: =plays acknowledgement tone=
ME: ALEXA, WAS THAT SO HARD YOU $#@&!%#& #!$#@#?!??
ALEXA: =plays acknowledgement tone=

This is so stupid. I don't have a "star light" and I guarantee you I am not saying "star light" when I talk to her. You would think that she would learn that I am actually saying "stair light" because I've corrected her a hundred times, but no. I should look into seeing if there's a way of listing alternative names to a device so I can just enter "star light" as an option... but I'm too lazy.

And just this morning I wanted to listen to Haerts, which is pronounced "Harts" by the band (Hearts). Getting Alexa to understand is an exercise in frustration...

ME: Alexa, play "Wings" by "Harts."
ALEXA: Playing "Wings" by Heart Cardio.
ME: ALEXA, STOP!!!! YOU $#@&!%#& #!$#@#?!??
ME: Alexa, play "Wings" by "Hurts."
ALEXA: Playing "Wings" by Ruan Hurtgen.
ME: ALEXA, STOP!!!! YOU $#@&!%#& #!$#@#?!??
ME: Alexa, play "Wings" by "HAIRTZ".
ALEXA: Playing "Wings" by "Hurts."
ME: ALEXA, WHAT THE FUCK?!??
ALEXA: =plays acknowledgement tone=

At this point, I'm wanting to take Alexa and throw her through the fucking window.

If I had wanted "Heart Cardio" don't you think I would have fucking said "Heart Cardio?" If I would have wanted "Ruan Hurtgen" don't you think I would have fucking said "Ruan Hurtgen?" Why in the hell is Alexa ADDING SHIT to what I'm saying? And why is it that she doesn't understand Haerts as "Hurts" WHEN THAT'S WHAT SHE FUCKING CALLS THEM?!? This shit makes no sense.

And then there's this fucking bullshit...

ME: Alexa, play "Always" by Pet Shop Boys.
ALEXA: Playing "Always on My Mind" by Pet Shop Boys.
ME: ALEXA, STOP!!!! YOU $#@&!%#& #!$#@#?!??
ME: Alexa, play "Always 2017 Remastered Version" by Pet Shop Boys.
ALEXA: Playing "Always on My Mind 2013 Remastered Version" by Pet Shop Boys.
ME: ALEXA, STOP!!!! YOU $#@&!%#& #!$#@#?!??
ME: Alexa, play "Always 2017" by Pet Shop Boys.
ALEXA: Playing "Always 2017 Remastered Version" by Pet Shop Boys.
ME: ALEXA, WHAT THE FUCK?!??
ALEXA: =plays acknowledgement tone=

Don't get me wrong... Alexa is utterly amazing. I rely on her for So. Many. Things. and can't imagine going back to a life without her in it.

But come on. Amazon needs to do a hell of a lot better than this mess.

A good start would be to STOP ADDING FUCKING WORDS TO WHAT I'M SAYING AND JUST DO SPECIFICALLY WHAT I AM ASKING FOR. Also? It would be really great if what Alexa says matches what she understands. If she things Haerts is pronounced "Hurts" then fine. But when I ask her to play something by "Hurts" and get something by "Ruan Hurtgen" so I have to say "Hairtz?" That's just fucked up.

And if you were to tell the 1980's me that I would be bitching about my voice assistant not playing the correct Pet Shop Boys song I asked her to, I think my head would have exploded... so there's that.

But right now? I am left wondering if Alexa would break through the window... or weather she would just bounce off it. Because I really don't have the money to go replacing windows.

Or Alexas.

UPDATE: THIS! ALL THIS! I FEEL YOUR PAIN, ADORABLE LITTLE GIRL!

=dies of cuteness overload=

   

Automation with IFTTT

Posted on September 14th, 2018

Dave!Every time I mention my various home automation projects, I get emails with questions. After mentioning "IFTTT" while talking about my new Google WiFi router system, there were people asking about it. So I thought I'd go through ways that I use IFTTT so I can explain better.

And so...

Let's start with smart lightbulbs.

There are a lot of programmable LED multi-color lightbulbs out there. Probably the most famous brand is Philips "Hue" bulbs. They are very cool lights with a lot of capabilities and incredible flexibility. But they require a "Hue Hub" in order to operate. This is just silly in 2018, so I ignore them.* Maybe if I start changing all my lights out, I'll switch to Hue where having to buy a hub makes more economic sense.

In the meanwhile I buy GoSund "Smart Life" bulbs which do not requite a hub. They connect to WiFi directly. There are quite a few bulbs that connect directly, but the Smart Life bulbs are cheaper than most. Also? I have a half-dozen other Smart Life products, and find them reliable and easy to use.

But most important? Smart Life products support IFTTT.**

For those unfamiliar with it, IFTTT (If This Then That) is a free service which allows you to create all kinds of triggers to control IFTTT-enabled devices. There are scads of triggers. Scads upon scads. And the number of things you can do with the triggers is vast. Want to get a text every time the International Space Station flies over your house? NASA has a trigger you can connect to a Text Service to do that. Depending on which IFTTT-enabled devices you have, you could have just about anything happen every time the International Space Station flies over your house!

But anyway...

Where I live they pick up your garbage every Thursday morning. But EVERY-OTHER Thursday, they also pick up your recycle bin. I can never remember which Thursday is which when I set my garbage out on Wednesdays, so I decided to have my driveway light turn blue on days before recycle days using IFTTT.

It sounds simple, but the cheaper Smart Life bulbs don't have a lot of capabilities within their own app (which I use to turn outside lights on at sunset and off at sunrise). To do what I want to do, I have to use IFTTT and get creative to makes sure that things work reliably the way I want them to.

Every day at 11:00am, I have IFTTT set the Driveway Light to 100% Green at 100% Brightness (but leave the light itself off). This is the default color I choose because I support the Greenlight a Vet Project. I do this to be absolutely sure that my light is set to default every day in case I have to manually mess with the color for some reason. This also puts my light back to default the day after it goes Blue for Recycle Day...

IFFT Set Driveway Light to Default Green Color

I don't use my Google Calendar for anything EXCEPT a reoccurring event every-other-Wednesday at 1:00pm called "Recycle." Every time that event happens, I have IFTTT set the Driveway Light to 100% Blue at 100% Brightness, then turn it on. So when I come home from work I will have a reminder that I need to set out my recycle bin (in addition to my regular garbage). And when my neighbors see my blue light they know to set their bin out too...

IFFT Set Driveway Light to Blue Color on Google Calendar Event

And that's that. It really is this simple, and creating your own "recipes" for triggers and action is easy. If you want some tips on how to do all that, then a YouTube search will result in a lot of videos showing you how.

   
And another thing I've done with IFTTT?

I have my television on 90% of the time I'm home. Even when I'm not watching it, I like the background noise while I work. The first thing I usually do when I get home? Tell Alexa to turn on the television. But now I don't have to. When I come home and my iPhone connects to Google WiFi, the router automatically triggers IFTTT to have my Harmony Hub turn on my television. It's on when I walk in the door***...

When iPhone Connects Turn on Television

   
Yet another thing I've done with IFTTT?

I have a "Ring" smart doorbell. Thanks to Ring, I can answer my doorbell and see/talk to anybody who rings it no matter where I am. Problem is? I made the mistake of replacing my awesome Ring doorbell with a Ring Pro, which is a pile of shit. It disconnects from WiFi at random times for no reason at all. Even now that my Google WiFi Mesh provides plenty of signal, it's still disconnecting. And of course the piece of shit doesn't reconnect automatically. I have to remove the cover with a special screwdriver, press a button, then run through setup again. And the problem with that? How do I know when the doorbell drops WiFi?

Well, thanks to IFTTT, I have my Google WiFi router text me when my Ring doorbell goes offline...

When Ring Doorlbell Disconnects Text Me

   
I used to use my iPhone's location services to create a "fence" around my home. That way when I arrive or leave home, I can trigger events. But location services, while more accurate than ever, are still not entirely reliable. What is accurate and reliable? My iPhone connecting to my Google WiFi mesh network when I arrive home.*** Which is why I now use that to tell my house that's I'm coming or going. IFTTT then triggers things like setting my smart thermostat to either "Home" or "Away"...

Ecobee Controls on IFTTT

   
The possibilities are limited only by your imagination... and how many IFTTT-enabled devices you own... and what IFTTT services are available. The numbers are growing every day. Heck, even Dominoes Pizza has linked their Pizza Tracker technology to IFTTT! Have your garbage disposal turn on when your pizza goes in the oven... then have your garage door open when it's out for delivery...

When iPhone Connects Turn on Television

Regardless of how much home automation you have, there's still a lot of useful stuff you can o with IFTTT. For the longest time the only action I had was triggering Alexa to call my iPhone when I couldn't find it so I could follow the ring. That's magic right there.

   
*Also? There's some wacky hoops to jump through to get them connected to Alexa I think? I dunno. Whenever I "discover devices" with Alexa, I get some kind of warning for Hue stuff.

**Well, kinda. The ability to change bulb colors with the GoSund bulbs is kinda messed up right now... but I'm assured they are working on it!

*** I also have an IFTTT trigger to set my SONOS to a low volume so I don't give my cats a heart attack on days I was blasting music the night before.

**** Speaking of my Google WiFi mesh network... the sucker got range. When I was walking home from work today I had my phone out so I could see when I first started getting signal... it was here...

WiFi Range

Pretty great, right? My old router had 1/3 the range.

   

Mesh Wifi After the Fall

Posted on September 7th, 2018

Dave!Last night as I was hanging up my laundry to dry, I slipped on a patch of wet floor and fell. Hard. No idea where the water came from. Twisted my ankle... ripped the toenail off my big toe... blood everywhere... scraped up my leg... slammed my elbow into the door frame. It was a mess. And as I was laying there in agony, I called my cats to please help. They just sat there on the cat tree and stared at me.

The peril of living alone, I guess. I'll probably end up dying while Jake and Jenny watch. I really need to find out if Alexa can call 9-1-1 for me so I can call an ambulance before I pass out and my cats eat me.

But, when it comes to bad news, that's not all!

I really don't have any extra money to spend right now because I bought a bunch of stuff I shouldn't have. New clothes and camera gear for my upcoming trip. New books and movies that were on sale. New kitchenware. A couple new tools. It's a non-stop parade of extravagance up in here. The good news is that I'll have it all paid off by mid-October and can end the year back on track.

At least that was the plan until my router died on Wednesday.

Since I don't exist without the internet, I rushed to Amazon to see if there were any cheap deals on a decent router. There were. Sweet.

But then...

As I was browsing I ran across the Google Wifi Mesh Router...

Google WiFi Mesh Router System

The reviews were stellar so I decided to research it a little bit. After a half-hour of fun-times Googling reviews on Google WiFi I had a 3-Pack in my shopping cart. $257 later* and it was ordered.

And let me tell you why.

The average US home is 2,687 square feet. Mine is smaller... around 1500 square feet. That's twice as much as I really need now that my mom is gone, but I have a room for guests and plenty of space for the cats, so it's all good. You would think that since my home is smaller and two-story that a single WiFi router would cover everything just fine.

You would think.

And to a certain extent it does.

But a reliable signal cant seem to make it from the fiber box at the back of my house all the way through my main floor and garage to the security cameras at the front of my house. This causes occasional drop-outs which can be annoying when I get an alert from the security system that motion has been detected and I can't use my cameras to see what's going on.

Also... my Ring Pro doorbell drops its signal way too often despite there being a straight-shot from the back of my house to the front door. That never happened with the original Ring doorbell, so I have no idea what's happening. Ring probably just used cheaper components to make the newer models and it requires a stronger signal.

I tried a WiFi extender, but could never get it to work very well. I was having to reboot it once a week.

And so... mesh WiFi.

Instead of one router with WiFi serving the entire house, mesh networks spread the signal out to nodes throughout your home, eliminating dead zones. I've got the node with the fiber connection at the back of my house... another node above the stairwell in the middle of my house... and a final node in the garage at the front of my house. They all work together to blanket my entire home with sweet, sweet WiFi goodness. Kinda like this...

Google WiFi Mesh Router System
Not my house, but you get the idea.

But wait, there's more!

Google has done some very smart engineering to make WiFi setup and management so much easier. First of all, you have just one network name to worry about. This has always been true for mesh networks because the system switches you to the node with the best signal automatically... just like a cell phone does as you drive around. But where Google takes it further is that your 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks also have the same name! If a device is getting good signal from the faster, but less powerful 5GHz band, it will use that. If a device needs the stronger signal on the slower 2.4GHz band, it will use that. And it's all 100% automatic. This right here was where I decided that Google Mesh WiFi was for me. You don't have to decide anything. You let the nodes and your devices figure it all out.

Setup was laughably easy.** It's literally a matter of plugging it in, scanning QR codes on your nodes, and naming your network (I used the same name as my old one so I wouldn't have to go around reconfiguring all my devices). I had the extra step of authenticating the new router with my ISP, but it was no big deal. The only irritating part was that I have fiber which doesn't have a modem, but the setup assumes there's a modem and made me wait around for a modem reboot that I never had. What a waste of time.

Turns out all the reviews were right. Google's Mesh WiFi system is amazing. Speed tests shows that I'm getting better speed than I ever got with my old router. What's really strange is that a single node with no antennas sticking out had pretty much the same range as my old router which had ugly antennas sticking out everywhere! And once all three nodes were set up, I get full bars on signal absolutely everywhere. Even in my driveway and to the edges of my yard!

And this makes for some intriguing possibilities when it comes to my home automation obsession, because Google WiFi has IFTTT (If This Then That) integration and can trigger IFTTT actions or be triggered by them. I just added two actions in minutes... one to prioritize bandwidth on my Ring doorbell when it senses motion... and another notifies me when my iPhone connects to my Google Wifi. This second one is just a test right now. What would be cool would be if Nest allowed IFTTT actions to adjust image quality on Nest Cams. That way I could have all my cameras use max bandwidth and best image quality whenever I'm out of the house, then go back to normal quality when I'm home so I can use my bandwidth for other things...

IFTTT with Google WiFi

IFTTT Alert with Google WiFi

Another thing I absolutely love about Google Mesh WiFi? The cool tools it has built in! Before I had fiber internet, it was a real struggle to balance device bandwidth... especially since I had no idea how much bandwidth each device was using. This became less of an issue when I got fiber, but it's still nice to know how much bandwidth my cameras are using so I know what quality picture to broadcast. With Google, this is a piece of cake. Open the app, find the device you're curious about, click on it, and the upload/download bandwidth is displayed. Simple. After a few hours of poking around, I found that I could increase the picture quality on some cameras without causing problems for any other devices.

Many of the "standard" toys for a router are also included. Like a firewall, NAT, DNS, WAN, PPoE, and device prioritization. But there are a few things missing for advanced network configuration. Things like being able to decide what IP block to use. Out of necessity, my non-cloud security cameras all have static IP addresses at the back-end of the 192.168.0.X block (instead of getting IPs dynamically like my cloud cams do). But Google WiFi uses the 192.168.86.X block and I found no way to change this. Which meant I had to reconfigure all six cameras in an IP reservation I made in the .86 range. Such a pain in the ass. Another pain in the ass? There's no web interface. You have to use a phone app. Which would be fine if the app were stellar, but it's really not. It's "serviceable," and that's about the best thing you can say about it. At the very least they should have an option to display IP addresses instead of just MAC addresses on your device list. It's rage-inducing to have to open every device just so you can see its IP and try to figure out what all the "Unknown Devices"*** are so you can name them.

And speaking of devices... when you run a speed test on all your devices, or click on an individual device to get more information... you can see which node the device is connecting to...

   
Google WiFi Device Hub Connect

For the most part, each device is connected to the node closest to it. But not always. My Harmony Television hub is connected to the hub upstairs... instead of the primary hub that's right next to it. No clue why that is, but I'm guessing Google WiFi has its reasons. So long as everything works, I'll choose not to worry about it.

So far the only thing that's given me pause over the whole Google Mesh WiFi experience is being forced to tie everything to Google. Believe it or not, the main node has to be connected 24/7 to your Google Account to even function. What the hell? I'm guessing the excuse is that your settings are stored in your Google Account in case you ever need to replace or upgrade your system. Which is bullshit, of course... why not just be able to download a backup? I have no idea if this means Google is tracking all my online activity, but it wouldn't surprise me. I haven't investigated migrating my Nord VPN account to run from Google WiFi, but I should probably do that.

In the end? Very happy with Google's mesh router system. It's weird to me that Google is now occupying problem-solving space that Apple used to, but the system is priced very well, is easy to set up, works automatically to give you the best possible WiFi, and seems to have solved some nagging problems I was having.

Can't help get me up off the floor when I fall, but it can't do everything.

   
UPDATE: Welp. All of a sudden my iPhone could not connect to the internet but my MacBook could. I called up the Google WiFi app but couldn't connect to the Google WiFi router, which was odd because my MacBook still had internet. Just as I was ready to start screaming, my MacBook also lost internet. Then the Google WiFi router restarted on its own and everything began working again. I hope this isn't a regular occurrence, because that will drive me batshit crazy. Also? Here is where only allowing connection via an app can really screw you. It would have been nice if I could have logged into a web interface while my laptop was still able to get internet so I could try and figure out what was going wrong. Also? WHERE IN THE HELL ARE THE LOG FILES?!? I have no idea what happened, and without log files I'll probably never know.

   

*Regular price is $300, but Amazon had the three-pack on sale for $257 plus tax as of this writing. SCORE!

**The only hiccup was that my "smart outlet" lost its internet connection during the transition, which caused it to power-cycle the Google WiFi router as I was adding nodes. Oops. Had to force-quit the Google WiFi app because it got stuck in a loop so I could start over...

Google WiFi App Error

This was my fault for not making sure my outlet was plugged into internet after I got the primary node set up... but Google needs to fix their app so it doesn't get stuck like this. You can't escape the error dialgue no matter how many times you press "OK" because it just pops back up again.

***It drives me insane when device manufacturers don't put the name of their devices... or, at the very least, their company name... in the networking table along with the MAC address. How in the hell am I supposed to know what all these "mystery" devices are on my network? Sometimes you can get a clue by looking up the MAC address owner, but not always. This results in my having to pause the device's internet access so I can try to figure things out that way. Doesn't always help, which means I'm running around the house turning devices on and off in an attempt to figure out which devices are what.

   

“Alexa, take out the garbage.”

Posted on July 5th, 2018

Dave!This morning I went to brush my teeth and forgot what I named the light above my bathroom sink. It was all "Alexa, turn on the... uhhhh...

Now, before you think it's insane that I can't remember "Bathroom Light" you have to understand that I have two bathrooms. The downstairs bathroom has "Bathroom Light" (above the sink) and "Shower Light" (above the shower). Since you can't give two different lights the same name, I had to call the lights in the upstairs bathroom names that are kinda esoteric. The light above the shower is "Spa Light" and the fan above the shower is "Spa Fan." The light above the bathroom sink that I couldn't remember is "Throne Light." "Throne" as in "Toilet" because my bathroom has a toilet in it, I guess (hey, it sounded better that "Toilet Light" at the time). I would have named it "Sink Light," but that name was already in use for the light above my kitchen sink.

So... yeah... couldn't remember "Throne Light."

Rather than set my toothbrush and toothpaste down, then try and remember which of the three switches controlled the light above my bathroom sink, I did was any home automation addict would do.

"Alexa, turn on ALL LIGHTS!"

You do not get to judge me for turning on every single light in my house so I didn't have to brush my teeth in the dark.

Well, you can judge me, I'd just prefer that you don't.

It's not my fault that Alexa is not location aware and can't understand commands like "Turn on the light in the room I'm in." Maybe one day she will acquire such smarts, but she's just not there yet.

I'm just happy I can tell her to lock the front door downstairs when I'm lying in bed upstairs and all of a sudden remember that I forgot to lock it after I took the garbage out.

   

Security Blanket

Posted on June 19th, 2018

Dave!I have no idea why I'm so addicted to home security. Probably because it goes hand-in-hand with home automation. But probably not because my home has anything worth stealing in it. I mean... I do have a nice camera and some Sonos speakers, so there's that, I guess... but my television and electronics and other stuff are all old. With the exception of my cats, there's nothing I really care about in my home.

All my furniture is IKEA, for heavens sake.

And yet...

My home is totally blanketed in home security.

I have window, door, and motion sensors everywhere. I have a cloud-based security camera system... and a local battery-backed-up security camera system (just in case the power or internet goes down). I also have door-locks with intruder protection.

For somebody with not a lot worth protecting, I sure have a lot of security. Too much security.

Which is why it would be crazy to keep updating it.

And yet...

I just did. Again.

Over Memorial Day there was a sale on better security cameras, so I went ahead and bought them. Then tonight I finally had the time to install them. The video quality is amazing. A considerable leap over what I had.

Sure it's overkill, but I have cats to protect!

Or so I keep telling myself.

   

A Waste of Time and Energy

Posted on March 26th, 2018

Dave!One of the best benefits of having a "smart home"... other than being able to tell Alexa to control everything... is being able to have a better handle on how your home works. One of my obsessions this year has been to lower my energy bill. This was actually an easy expense to tackle, because the majority of my power goes towards my furnace. During the colder months of November through February, it accounts for 55% of my bill. No other expense comes close (the second largest energy consumption is from my water heater at 7%). So it's easy to see that reducing the heat will reduce my bill at the most expensive time of year...

2017 Power Bill

In January of 2017, my utility bill was around $93 for electricity...

January 2017 Power Bill

   
So I made some changes to my thermostat program. Last year my temperature was set at 72° when I was awake and 68° when I was sleeping or away at work. A lot of this was an attempt to keep my cats comfortable, which was kind of silly once I realized my cats were perfectly happy hanging out in the catio in 34° weather.

This year I set my temperature at 68° when I was awake, 64° when I was sleeping, and 62° when I was away at work. And just in case my cats wanted some warmth while I was gone, I had low-energy heating pads, self-warming pads, and my stereo receiver for them to lay on. The result on my power bill was pretty dramatic. Instead of my graph topping out at 4,000kWh, it now topped at only 3,000kWh...

2018 Power Bill

In January of 2018, my utility bill dropped to around $67 for electricity...

January 2018 Power Bill

   
That's a 28% savings. Granted, $26 doesn't seem like a lot... I'm lucky that power is fairly inexpensive where I live... but I'll take it. If I lived in a region where power was expensive, 28% would be a huge amount.

Over the course of the winter I've saved nearly $85, which is real money. My goal for the year is to save $150 over 2017. Once April arrives, I'll be turning the heat off and coasting on $17 power bills until June or July, then I'll adjust my air conditioner temperature a bit and see what happens.

Two years of this and my energy monitor will have paid for itself! Score!

   

Good Bye HomeKit

Posted on March 7th, 2018

Dave!I have spent the past 35 years falling in love with everything Apple. It started with the Apple ][ personal computer and continued through the Macintosh then continued right up through the iPhone. I jump head-first into whatever Apple releases, and I've loved it.

But recently things started to change.

After waiting way, way too long for Apple to release a new "Pro" Mac, they came out with a steaming turd in 2013 which looked pretty, but was overpriced and lacking the things that pro users need. Then... THEN... they did the exact same thing with their MacBook "Pro." And it keeps going... they standardized on an expensive Thunderbolt peripheral port, then abandoned it... they developed the brilliant MagSafe power adapter, then abandoned it... Apple TV can't stream worth a crap, even in its 4th generation model, and the remote is horrific... their mice are built to pit and deteriorate... the list goes on and on, and it's nuts.

And the software side isn't much better. MacOS X has developed so many problems that it feels as though it's been abandoned. They dumped Aperture, their photo cataloging software, after luring people into adopting it. They screwed up iMovie so much that a once-joyful program to use is a frustrating joke.

But the final straw for me was HomeKit.

I've long obsessed over home automation, so when I bought a home where I could install home automation devices, I went full-throttle. Apple had been developing their own home automation ecosystem, called "HomeKit," but it was tough to find any devices. And so I held off until HomeKit devices were released.

Then it happened. Schlage released "Sense" HomeKit-enabled door lock. So cool!

Until I got them, that is.

The locks are great, but the HomeKit functionality is garbage. It never works reliably, and half the time I can't even connect... despite having AppleTV's within 6-feet of them (HomeKit uses AppleTV as a hub). But that's not even the half of it. After all my waiting, HomeKit was laughably incapable and feature-poor. Tons of devices weren't supported... or even available if they were supported.

I immediately regretted buying HomeKit locks, and never bought another HomeKit device. And ever since then I've been dying to replace my locks, but couldn't bring myself to walk away from the hundreds of dollars I spent on them.

And then...

Schlage has released a WiFi interface which allows you to control your locks without having to use crappy HomeKit...

Schlage WiFi Interface

If your locks are set up with HomeKit, you have to reset them to factory defaults and start over again. If you don't, you can't connect them to the WiFi Adapter. Also... they will start screeching an alarm if you try, which I found out the hard way (sorry kitties).

Your lock has to be within 40 feet of the adapter (just like HomeKit, since both use Bluetooth connections). This was no problem for me, and I was able to use one adapter for both my locks (it supports a maximum of two).

Annnnnd...

It works as advertised. Once you set up a Schlage account as a gateway between the locks and your phone's Schlage app, you can control your locks remotely and see their status. Access is blazingly fast and reliable compared to HomeKit. Every once in a while I'll get a bit of a lag, but at least I can always connect.

Then there's the ability to ask Alexa if a door is locked... and then lock it if it isn't (for security reasons, you can't unlock a door via Alexa). I don't know how handy this would be, but it's nice to know it's there. Except when it's not. Because no matter how many times I link and unlink and re-link the skill, Alexa tells me the lock can't be reached... even though both locks show up in my Smart Home list. I've sent an email to Schlage customer service for help... fingers crossed.

And so... good bye to the massive failure known as HomeKit. And good bye to the seventy bucks it cost me to rectify this disaster. But, hey, at least I didn't have to spend hundreds to replace my locks!

My hope is that one day Apple will just bag HomeKit and buy out a company like INSTEON so they have an integrated home automation system that works. Heaven only knows they've got the cash. Until then, I'm just glad to be rid of that one piece of home automation that's never worked for me.

   

In Imperfect Harmony

Posted on February 8th, 2018

Dave!Remote control clutter is one of those things that most people just accept. One remote for the TV, one for the Blu-Ray player, another for the stereo receiver, another for Apple TV, another for the cable/satellite box... it's annoying, yes. But still better than having to actually get up off the couch to change the channel or change a setting. The horror.

Universal remotes have been around for a long, long time. Manufacturers have been shipping them with their A/V components for ages. My old Sony TV came with a remote which also controlled my Sony DVD player. Nice. I had a Pioneer receiver with a remote you could program for other manufacturer's gear as well as its own. Even nicer.

But ultimately just being able to control one device at a time can be a bummer. Especially if your remotes aren't multi-function where you have to use multiple remotes to do one thing. Grab the remote to turn on the TV. Grab the remote for the cable box. Grab the remote for the receiver.

Which is where the Logitech "Harmony" series of remotes comes in.

These "smart remotes," which have been around for a dozen years, can be taught how to control a vast multitude of devices. On top of that, they are also programmable, so you can chain remote commands together under a single button-press. Press the "Watch TV" button and Harmony will fire up the TV, cable box, and stereo receiver for you. It will then know to use the channel up/down buttons for the cable box and the volume up/down buttons for the stereo receiver. It's all pretty cool, and I've owned three Harmony remotes in the past decade.

But my latest one is a little different. It's comes with a "Harmony Hub" which can not only control your A/V equipment... it can also interface with a lot of your other home automation. Like, for example, Amazon's Echo, AKA "Alexa."

Logitech Harmony Hub

   
Depending on your devices, the Harmony Hub can eliminate the need for remotes completely... which is the whole reason why I bought it last year.

When I get home, I just say "Alexa, turn on the TV" and I'm done. From there I can have Alexa change the volume... change the channel... switch devices... whatever I need. The only time I'm scrambling for the remote is if I want to access shows stored on my DVR or to select something from a menu somewhere (like Apple TV). Sure, it would be nice if Harmony Hub would allow me to navigate menus via Alexa, but it really seems to be more trouble than it's worth right now. Though I'm sure that will change in the future.

There's a lot to talk about when it comes to Harmony Hub, so let's get started, shall we?

  • You actually don't need a Harmony remote or Alexa to use Harmony Hub for controlling your stuff. You can use an iPhone or Android phone or tablet.
  • You can use either a smartphone app or a computer app to set up and program your Harmony Hub. Both are shitty, frustrating, non-intuitive, ball-busting asshole apps to use. Setting up the WiFi connection from my phone was a piece of cake because the hub uses Bluetooth to do it. No having to switch networks and all that other annoying crap... just enter the WiFi name and password and you're done. Everything after that point is a horrendous exercise in futility that left me screaming. Seriously, all the Harmony software is utter garbage.
  • Setting aside the shitty UI (which is rage-inducing all by itself), programming simple tasks is a hundred times more difficult than it needs to be. So many times I run across things that make zero sense. If you want your stereo receiver left on all the time, but use Harmony to access it for changing inputs or whatever, Harmony will turn it off regardless. You have the option to tell Harmony you want it left on all the time, but getting it to accept that option is fucking psychotic. First you go to the device. Then you edit the device. Then you select power settings. Then you select "I want this device left on all the time." Simple, right? You'd think. But then you have to tell Harmony whether you use one button or two different buttons to turn the power off and on. My receiver has one one-button toggle, so I select that. At this point Harmony will completely ignore everything you just did and not allow you to save the setting. No... you have to select "I use two buttons" EVEN IF YOU FUCKING DON'T in order for it to accept the command. Which they don't bother fucking telling you anywhere on the shitty smartphone app... I eventually found this helpful hint in the shitty computer app (even though I couldn't get power settings to work on the computer app). And don't think that you can just delete the "power off" command from the "closing tasks" list... you absolutely cannot. You have to use information from one app to do the work on another app... none of which is mentioned anywhere. Assuming you haven't blown your fucking brains out before you figure out all this insane bullshit, your Harmony Hub will then kindly not turn your stereo receiver off. And this is just the tip of the fucking iceberg.
  • If you haven't smashed your Harmony Hub with a fucking hammer and actually manage to get something programmed the way you want, congratulations. You can now use your phone/tablet or app to control whatever it is you just programmed. Inevitably you'll need to make changes though... inserting a pause between commands... changing a command... adding a command... whatever... at which point you have to use the horrendously shitty apps to do it. Once again putting your shiny Harmony Hub in danger of getting smashed with a fucking hammer.
  • Then it's time to get Harmony set up for voice control via Alexa. If you thought the Harmony apps were shit... wait until you get a load of the fucking bullshit required to get that working. Here's a sampler: You can assign voice "friendly names" to television channels. These can be shortcuts... phonetic spellings... or whatever. I have given FOX "News" the friendly name of "propaganda and lies" so if I ever want to torture myself I can just say "Alexa, turn on propaganda and lies" to see what fucked up shit Hannity is spewing. Sometimes it's critical to assign friendly names because Alexa can be stupid. When I say "Alexa, turn on ABC" Alexa responds with "I can't find a BC for this device" (or whatever). So I had to add a friendly name of "como" to get that to work (my Seattle ABC affiliate is KOMO 4). But here's the thing... every time you want to add, change, or delete a "friendly name" YOU HAVE TO DISABLE THE SKILL ON ALEXA, THEN ADD IT BACK AGAIN AND LOG BACK IN TO YOUR LOGITECH ACCOUNT TO DO SO... THEN YOU HAVE TO TELL ALEXA TO "DISCOVER DEVICES" TO ACTUALLY FIND THE CHANGES. Granted, this is all probably Amazon's fault for the way that Alexa works, but it's still not the cakewalk you're led to believe. Fine-tuning the names takes literally hours... days even... as you try to figure out what works, what doesn't work, and what works best.
  • There's so much more I could rage about when it comes to programming Harmony Hub (the fact that it keeps telling you that you need to set up favorite channels over and over and over and over again... after you've already set up your favorite channels fifty times... is enough to drive you to drink), but the take-away is this: Harmony Hub is a fantastic piece of tech marred by shitty apps.
  • Assuming your Harmony Hub isn't in the garbage from all the rage-inducing shit you have to go through to get it working with your stuff, it then works as advertised. And, I must say, that having it paired with Alexa is so brilliant. I absolutely love it. I also love the simple Harmony Remote that came with the unit (I bought the cheapest one and it's great). Using the smartphone app to control things is not as easy as you might like, but it does work.
  • As if controlling your A/V gear wasn't enough, Harmony hub can also interface with other home automation equipment. Thermostats, smart door locks, switches, smoke alarms, window shades... it's all pretty fantastic. Some things I get, like turning down the lights and closing the shades automatically when you say "Alexa, turn on a movie." But controlling your thermostat and door locks via the Harmony app is puzzling. I mean, sure... maybe some people like to have their heat turned up to 90° when they watch a movie, so it's great that Harmony can do that, but huh? It is, I guess, handy to be able to access other controls from the remote or the Harmony smartphone app without having to open a separate app... but to me adding those things just adds clutter. Harmony is compatible with INSTEON hubs, but not yet able to interface with the ISY994i hub which I use to control my INSTEON devices (darnit!). Hopefully one day...
  • If you have Z-Wave or Zigbee devices, Harmony Hub can control them directly with the addition of a small base station that plugs in and sits underneath. It will set you back $100, however.
  • If there's one thing that Harmony Hub does very well... it's get signal to your devices. I have the hub sitting on top of my media cabinet where the IR signal can bounce around the walls and reach all my equipment. I found that my DirecTV box (which is on a low shelf) wasn't getting signal all the time, so I added an "IR Blaster" (included in the bundle I bought) which plugs into the Harmony Hub and can be run to where you need it. I just threaded it through the back of the cabinet... put it in front of my DirecTV box... and now it works without fail. Nifty.
  • Harmony Hub alone retails for $100. You can also purchase it with a bundled remote for extra. Their high-end remotes have lighted displays and other tech goodness, but I just bought the cheapest remote which does not have any bells and whistles. Still, it works just fine for all I want to do. The retail for that package is $130 at Amazon, but you can sometimes find refurbs on Amazon for $80 (less than the retail price of the hub alone).
  • There is a caveat to buying stuff from Logitech. They are a fucking asshole of a company. Their previous Harmony Hub was called "Harmony Link." As of next month, anybody who purchased a Harmony Link from Logitech owns a hockey puck, because Logitech will no longer support the device. Instead they will turn off the supporting servers which will brick it, rendering it useless. So... just know that five years down the line that Logitech could decide they don't want to support Harmony Hub and brick that as well.

And there you have it. The ugly truth about some really cool tech. It's a real shame that there isn't better software, because I enjoy the end result very much. It's the getting there that sucks. I do know that there are other companies who have similar devices, but I didn't research them since I had such great luck with my previous two Harmony remotes. Had I known then what I know now, I might have investigated a few other options before pulling the trigger.

   

Bullet Sunday 539

Posted on February 4th, 2018

Dave!Looking for a Super-Bowl-free Sunday? Then you're in luck, because a Very Special Wish List Edition of Bullet Sunday starts... now...

   
• G Master! Once Sony released their FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM lens, I was pretty much done with collecting lenses for my photography. It perfectly filled a gap that I needed, and 90% of the photos I take are with it. About the only thing left would be to purchase a better super-wide-angle to replace my aging 10-18mm f/4, which is not full-frame. Alas, the Sony FE 12-24mm f/4 G $1600 on sale. And I just don't take enough photos to justify the cost...

Sony FE 12-24mm f/4 G Lens

Still, it sure is a pretty lens.

   
• Curtains! My home is filled to the brim with home automation. Everything from my lights to my locks to my security cameras to my roof heat tapes to my thermostat to my alarms to my vacuums to my television to my frickin' garbage disposal are automated and can be controlled via my iPhone or by voice thanks to Amazon's Alexa. There's still things left I can automate, but the one highest on my list are my window blinds. I'd like to be able to have my home automatically open and close them based on weather and time of day... and it would be great if I could close them all on command when I want to watch a movie. Alas, automated blinds are hideously expensive. Hundreds of dollars per window. And that doesn't include the interface box and installation. To outfit even just the windows in my living room would probably approach $1000. Alas, that's an absurd amount of money to spend on something fairly frivolous.

Still, they sure are a pretty piece of tech.

   
• Speaker! Apple's delayed "smart speaker"... the HomePod... is up for pre-order. From the early review, it features the best sound of any device in its class. It can play music from Apple Music (which I don't subscribe to), interface with Apple's HomeKit (which I fucking hate), and has the Siri digital assistant built-in (a pale imitation of Amazon's Alexa, which I vastly prefer). And yet... I still want one because it can pull my music off of iTunes Match, which is where every piece of music I own is located. Alas, the HomePod is $350. And I just don't want to spend that kind of money on something that basically does what my stereo already does with a little effort...

Apple HomePod

Still, it sure is a pretty speaker.

   
• Super Carl! One of my all-time favorite tech investments is Carl the RoboVac. It's the thing I never knew I needed until I had one. Thanks to my two cats, my dark wood floors are never clean. Cat hair and kitty litter along with crumbs and dust don't get camouflaged like they would on carpeting, and coming home to dirty floors drives me nuts. But, thanks to Carl (my Deebot N79 RoboVac), my floors are remarkably clean when I get home. And now EcoVacs is coming out with an super-upgraded version, the Deebot Ozmo 930. Not only does it have far better room navigation tools, room mapping, and a built-in mop, you can also define areas you want to clean on your mobile phone. But these cool features come at a price. A whopping $599. Which is actually pretty reasonable compared to Roomba RoboVacs. Alas, it's not worth it when the $150 Carl I have now does a very good job already...

Still, it sure is a pretty robot.

   
• Cool! When it comes to future tech, appliances are late to the party. But they've been slowly trickling out... ovens you can control with your phone... washing machines and dryers that can send you notifications... that kind of thing. But the one that intrigues me most is Samsung's "Family Hub" refrigerator. Not only does it have a bunch of cool apps which bring functionality to the space taken up by your refrigerator, it also adds a number of cool (heh heh) features... like being able to see what's inside when you're at the grocery store. The starting price for all this? $3000. Alas, there's no way I'm dropping that kind of bank for refrigerator tech that's going to be obsolete in a year...

Samsung Family Hub Refrigerator

Still, it sure is a pretty refrigerator.

   
And there you have it... Bullets on a Sunday that are too rich for my blood.

   

Your Lock is Unreachable

Posted on November 27th, 2017

Dave!Honestly, I don't condone violence (well, except punching Nazis in the face, because that's what Captain America would do)... but I have a deep-in-my-soul feeling that everybody at Apple who is involved with the colossal fucking failure that is their "HomeKit" home automation technology should be executed.

Publicly.

By firing squad.

Without a blindfold.

It's the only way that tech companies are going to learn that you can't unleash half-baked, non-working, pile-of-shit tech on an unsuspecting public without paying the consequences...

Apple HomeKit Bulshit

I can run my entire home from my iPhone... except my locks. The only thing I can do with my locks is either remote-lock or remote-unlock. Because apparently anything more complex than that overwhelms HomeKit and it just goes non-responsive. My whole lock goes offline until I can get home and hold my phone next to the lock, thus bypassing HomeKit entirely.

The only thing I have that's Apple HomeKit enabled is my locks. The only home automation I consistently have trouble with is my locks. And I don't blame Schlage, because anything you submit for HomeKit has to be approved by Apple.

This is squarely on Apple's doorstep, and somebody needs to die.

And if Steve Jobs was still in charge, somebody probably would.

   

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