Home automation personalization

We have a set of home automation devices. We also have devices that group them together so they can be used in ways that are personal to us.

For example, when I say “Alexa, turn on the Den”, the high-hat lights in the den turn on, as do two lamps. The wall switches only make the high-hats turn on/off. But by using Alexa, I can add different lights to the group, and turn them on/off or dim/brighten them, even though they are connected to different switches or circuits. It’s possible to connect every electrical device in the house, and turn them all on/off with a single voice command.

Our entertainment center is also personalized. If I say “Alexa, turn on ESPN” the TV, cable box, and receiver turn on, and the cable box is tuned to the correct channel number.

While this is great, it’s also a problem. Voice commands are as difficult to remember as passwords. If you don’t use them often, it’s easy to forget them. A forgotten voice command is useless.

Also, I can set up as many easy-to-remember voice commands as I like, but that doesn’t mean anyone else in my house will remember them, or know they exist. People come to my house and have no idea how to turn on TV or turn off the lights. I need to spend a few minutes giving them instructions, which they often forget a minute later.

Logitech and Philips sell buttons that can be set to control devices. The buttons can be programmed to do multiple things (one button can turn off all lights in the house, or turn on the entertainment devices, or whatever). I think buttons are easier to use than voice controls, but seem like a step backward. If you are going to use multiple buttons, you might as well go back to using 3 remote controls to work your TV.

I don’t know if there is a solution to this. But it’s funny that the more personal we make our home, the more incomprehensible it becomes to everyone else.

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Home Theater as Alexa’s voice

This project was easier to do than I thought and used some unused tech devices. Now I direct all sound from the Echo Dot to my home theater speakers via bluetooth. And I can switch it back to the Dot’s speaker just as easily.

This also allowed me to listen to music instead of the football announcers while watching the game.

I outlined 10 steps below because I wanted to be as clear and complete as possible. But it really wasn’t that hard. If you are already familiar with the Alexa app and the Harmony remote the whole process takes 10 minutes or so.

I used the following:

  1. Amazon Echo Dot
  2. Harmony hub remote
  3. Audio/Video receiver (“AVR”)
  4. Logitech bluetooth adapter
  5. Wemo smart plug

I happened to have the bluetooth adapter and smart plug sitting in a drawer. I think you can get them for about $50 combined on Amazon.

How does it sound? Better than the little Echo Dot speaker. It’s good but not great. Audio quality is subject to the limitations of the bluetooth adapter.

Steps:

  1. Use the Alexa app to choose your music services. Alexa uses the Amazon music service, Spotify (paid service) or Pandora. Maybe others. To listen to a Pandora station, or create a new one, say Alexa, play XXXX on Pandora.
  2. Set up the Wemo smart plug according to the directions. You’ll need to give it a name. For the sake of this example, lets call it Den Plug.
  3. Set up the Echo Dot to control the Den Plug. You might need to enable a Wemo skill before it will work. I didn’t but my son did. Either way it’s easy to do.
  4. Plug the Den Plug into a wall outlet or power strip behind your AVR. Make sure the Den Plug is turned on.
  5. Plug the bluetooth adapter into the Den Plug, and use RCA cables to plug the bluetooth adapter into the back of the AVR. For the sake of this example, lets say it’s plugged into the SA-TV input.
  6. Pair the bluetooth adapter with the Echo Dot. Press and hold the button on the bluetooth adapter until the blue light starts flickering. Tell the Echo Dot “pair bluetooth”, or start the pairing process from Settings in the Alexa app.
  7. Create an Activity using the Harmony app that turns on the AVR, and sets it to SA-TV. For the sake of  this example, lets say the name of the Activity is Turn On The Stereo.
  8. Disable the Harmony skill via the Alexa app, and re-enable it. You should see your new Harmony activity listed. Save the changes.
  9. Tell Alexa to discover devices. When that is done, open the Smart Home category of the Alexa app, click Devices, and you should see Turn On The Stereo as an available device.
  10. In the Smart Home Category, click Groups. Create a new Group. For the sake of this example, lets call it Stereo. Choose the Turn On The Stereo and Den Plug devices. Scroll to the bottom and press Save.

After all that, what happens when you say “Alexa, turn on the stereo”?

  1. Den Plug turns on, giving power to the bluetooth adapter
  2. AVR turns on and switches to the SA-TV plug
  3. Echo Dot will pair with the bluetooth adapter
  4. Now all sound from the Echo Dot comes from your home theater speakers

When you want to return sound to the Echo Dot itself, simply say “Alexa, turn off the stereo”.

Why is Wemo needed? Because the Logitech bluetooth adapter is designed to be paired at all times. As long as it has power it will pair with the Echo Dot. If you want to unpair you must cut its power, which is what Wemo does. You won’t need to manually re-pair the bluetooth adapter again. The next time you use the Alexa command to turn it on it will pair with the Echo Dot again automatically.

Unfortunately there is no way to use the home theater speakers as Alexa’s voice while watching TV with sound, because bluetooth audio only works through a specific AVR input. If your TV audio flows through the “Cable TV” input in the AVR, you won’t be able to hear audio from any other input.

To return to watching TV with sound, use either of the following commands, which shut power to the bluetooth adapter and returns Alexa’s voice to the Echo Dot.

  1. “Alexa, turn off the stereo”. This shuts off the Den Plug, cutting off power to the bluetooth adapter, and also turns off the AVR. Or …
  2. “Alexa, turn off the Den Plug”. This shuts off the Den Plug, cutting off power to the bluetooth adapter. The AVR remains on to be used for watching TV with sound.

More than you probably want to know – In order to watch TV while listening to music I had to do the following:

  1. An HDMI cable is connected between the cable box and the TV, using HDMI2
  2. I have an LG TV. It uses a tech called Simplink, to direct audio down from the TV to the AVR via ARC (Audio Return Channel) on HDMI1. The AVR calls this channel its “TV” input.
  3. Turn off all my devices.
  4. Say “Alexa, turn on the stereo”
  5. Turn on the cable box and the TV
  6. Change the TV to HDMI2

Why can’t I just turn on the TV and then say “Alexa, turn on the stereo”? Because when the TV is turned on first Simplink sets the AVR input to “TV”. When the AVR input is changed by the Alexa command, Simplink reverses it back to “TV”. This prevents me from hearing the Echo Dot.

But when I use the Alexa command first, Simplink doesn’t override the AVR. Why? I don’t know, but it works.

Google Wi-Fi – LAN IP address

shopping

Update: I am very happy with the performance and coverage of this system. After the initial headaches described below there were no other problems, with one exception. We have a Roku Stick attached to one TV. It kept losing connection, although the wifi in the room was fine. The Google Wifi router lets you create a Guest Network (as many other routers also do). I created one, protected it with a password, and connected the Roku to it instead of the main network. It’s been problem free ever since. I don’t know what caused the issue, some sort of conflict with another device most likely, which was resolved when the Roku was isolated on the second network.


Original post:

Google makes a mesh network router system. You can use one as a basic router, or set up several to spread wifi around your house, eliminating dead spots. They sell them separately or in sets of three.

This post is a warning, because setting up Google Wi-Fi is billed as “simple”, and it may be. But it depends on your home setup.

All routers have a local area network address (LAN IP address). Most of the time the address is 192.168.1.1. (It doesn’t really matter what that means, for the purposes of this post.) In order for devices to get on the home network and talk to other home devices, or access the internet, the router gives your devices unique addresses, based on it’s own. So your smart phone might be given an address like 192.168.1.5, and your smart tv might be given 192.168.1.20, and so on.

The router assigns the addresses to whoever needs them, and usually devices don’t need the same address all the time. The router gives out addresses whenever a device needs it, and makes sure two devices don’t get the same address. But … some devices need a consistent address all the time. These are called Static IP addresses.

Google uses 192.168.86.1 as its LAN IP address. That means all devices that connect to it are given addresses that start with 192.168.86. But if you have devices with Static IP addresses from an old router whose LAN IP address was 192.168.1.1, there is a good chance they won’t work once you replace your old router with Google Wi-Fi.

Usually this is easy to fix, because routers often let you change their LAN IP address, so you can switch it back to the same address that your old router used. But Google won’t let you change the LAN IP address.

I have a few devices with Static IP addresses – 2 ethernet switches and a server. Also my Ring Doorbell and Chime probably use Static addresses because I had to reset their network access. For the Doorbell, I had to remove it from the wall.

This issue is likely to affect very few people, I’m sure. But if you think this might be a problem, change your Static IP addresses before you switch routers. I didn’t do that, but instead I did the following:

  1. Reset an extra switch back to 192.168.1.1
  2. Plug an ethernet cable into a LAN port (not the WAN port) of the switch
  3. Plug the other end of the cable into the ethernet port on my laptop.
  4. Turn off wifi on my laptop
  5. Connect the device with the Static IP address to the switch via an ethernet cable plugged into a LAN port in the switch
  6. I was then able to access the device via Chrome by typing the Static IP address in the address bar.
  7. Change the network settings of the device to a Static IP address that begins with 192.168.86.

It was a pain in the butt. Setting up the router for home wifi took a few minutes. Setting up my switches and devices took a couple of hours, until I figured out how to change my switch settings and determined which devices needed to be dealt with. All that time could have been avoided if Google simply let people change the LAN IP address.

By the way, I am happy with the performance of the Google Wi-Fi routers so far. I bought them because my cable provider ramped up the internet speed beyond the capability of my old Apple Airport Extreme router. The new Google Wi-Fi system gives me better wi-fi coverage and can tap the full speed of the service.

Plant-Based – the urge to watch videos

The last time I ate plant-based I spent a lot of time watching vegan and plant-based documentaries and youtube videos. It was my main connection to other plant-based eaters, since no one I know is plant-based. After a while I stopped watching, having absorbed about as much information as I needed.

But it’s been awhile so I started again. The first documentary I saw was called The Marshall Plan. The whole movie is free on youtube. It’s a documentary about the town of Marshall, TX that embraced plant-based after its mayor had success using this way of eating to treat his prostate cancer. It’s an amazing story. But not necessarily a great documentary.

A lot of “documentaries” are really sales pitches, rather than unbiased, unvarnished examinations of the dietary evidence. One of the things that irked me about The Marshall Plan was the splicing of Rich Roll interview clips among clips of Marshall residents, which made it seem he was a resident as well. Rich Roll is a well-known podcaster and plant-based speaker. Maybe he’s been to Marshall, TX, since they often invite speakers. But he’s not a resident, he’s from Los Angeles, and he started his plant-based diet well before the mayor’s plant-based initiatives. But if you don’t mind the fact that it’s a little amateurish and not unbiased, The Marshall Plan tells an interesting story.

I also watched a speech on youtube by Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller) that he gave to Google. He wrote a book about his 110 lb weight loss by adopting a version of plant-based diet. He talked about how moderation and portion-control don’t work for most people. I completely agree. In fact, about 10 years ago I lost weight following a portion-control plan from Walter Willett of Harvard Medical. I lost weight but was hungry every minute of every day. I don’t think any weight loss plan can be successful if you need to constantly battle your own body. In fact, portion-control is such a terrible way to live that it makes me wonder if those that recommend it are serious, or are just trying to induce people to give up the attempt to get thin.

Penn also said that people who lose weight fast tend to keep it off longer. My personal experience is that whenever I dieted I lost weight fast. I also gained it back fast when I stopped. Maybe it’s true for other people, but the speed of weight loss hasn’t had any effect on whether I stick to the plan.

He also said that it’s easier for people to make a major change in their diet than a small one. I completely agree with that. One of the objections my family had originally was that the plant-based way of eating was too radical. But that was what allowed me to completely break from the unhealthy diet I’d been on. Going back to it now is like slipping on an old coat that fits me perfectly. There is nothing “radical” about it to me now, but only because I spent 2.5 years doing it before.

When Penn did the video he’d been 17 months on the plan and said he still felt great. I remember feeling the same way. I quickly got used to being thin with no health issues. But it took a long time to get used to feeling good.

Looking forward to it again. Hopefully only another few months away.

 

 

Back to Plant Based (again, again)

I’ve said this twice before, but I am back to Plant Based again. I was a successful whole-food plant-based person for 2.5 years, having lost 60 lbs and regained my natural weight and my health. Then, like an idiot, I went back to eating the old way almost 2 years ago. I regained all the weight, although strangely not the health issues. I made an attempt at going back to plant-based twice before, but it didn’t last.

So what’s the difference this time. For one thing, I have stuck with it for 3 weeks. Not a lot, but longer than the last 2 times. For another, I really am committed to it. About the only things I am doing different this time is I plan to be a little less strict. If there is nothing compliant to eat a restaurant, screw it. I’ll just eat the best thing I can find.

My family took it in stride. No one said to me “you are getting too fat, go back on the diet” and no has said “oh no, not the plant-based crap again.” They’ve said nothing, other than when we go out to eat. When we choose a place they say “but what are YOU going to eat?”, even though I always tell them not to concern themselves with my diet.

The reason I gave it up after 2.5 years was that I was sick of being alone. I hated eating different meals than everyone else, hated how hard it was to find food I could eat at restaurants, hated people making a fuss over me or going to extra trouble at family gatherings. It was easy to SAY “I don’t care. I am slim and healthy and that’s all that matters.”, but in the end it’s NOT all that matters.

And that hasn’t changed. What’s different is I am sick of being overweight. My clothes hurt again, and either I go up another size or I lose weight. The only thing I know that works is plant-based. It’s the only way of eating I’ve ever done that doesn’t leave me hungry, and consists of lots of food I like to eat.

The funny thing is I didn’t give up eating plant-based because I needed/wanted to eat meat again. It tastes good I guess, but I don’t crave it and I didn’t miss it much. I don’t like cheese other than mozzarella, so it’s not something I miss on this plan.

The effect of going back to plant-based has been the same as the first time. I felt better right away. Removing a lot of the salt from my diet meant I lost water weight immediately. I am not weighing myself so I don’t know what I started at or what I weigh now. But my clothes fit a lot better than before, after only 3 weeks.

In terms of food shopping and preparation I feel like I never stopped. It’s nothing new to me, I did it for 2.5 years. I know what I like and what I don’t. As long as a eat a variety of different things it doesn’t matter if I avoid stuff I hate, like kale or sweet potatoes, and eat bok choi and white potatoes instead.

So, what about the future? At some point, probably 5 months from now, I will have regained my weight – about 150lbs. What then? Will I stick to it or not? I can’t say. I was foolish for stating “This is my way of eating now” the last time.

I’ll just do the best I can. At least I know this works. All I have to do is stick with it and I’ll be fine.

 

No surprise – Chevy Bolt is not selling well

Update:

I wrote the post below on 7/20/17. I included Bolt sales thru June 2017, which totaled 7,600. For July to September Chevy sold another 6,710. Monthly sales have grown each month since February. Beginning June 2016 the Bolt’s monthly sales were greater than the Prius Prime, Toyota’s plug-in hybrid. The fully electric Bolt sold more than 2,000 cars each month for August and September.

So the title to this post is not right. It should be “Surprise! People are buying Chevy Bolts”.

I don’t know if Chevy has any unusual deals that are moving cars, or whether there really is demand. Tesla is having trouble getting cars off the production line and they have a long wait list. So if you want an EV right now, with a 200 mile range for about $35,000, there is only one car you can get: the Bolt.


Original Post:

When the Bolt was first released I wondered why anyone would buy one.

Well, it’s been 6 months and Chevy has sold a whopping 7,600 of them, and has shut the factory that makes the Bolt and the Sonic.

Meanwhile, Tesla is about the start shipping the Model 3. The Model 3 sells for the same price as the Bolt, gets about the same miles-per-charge, but looks fantastic and is a state of the art vehicle. As of May 2016 Tesla said they received pre-orders for 373,000 cars. I think they took a $1,000 deposit per pre-order.

Even if half the pre-orders never materialize, that’s still an astounding 186,000 Teslas vs. only 7,600 Chevys. It makes sense to assume all the early adopters interested in the Bolt already bought theirs. The outlook for Chevy selling many Bolts is grim.

This isn’t hard to understand. If GM were going to sell a new state-of-the-art car, assigning it to their bottom-of-the-barrel division was stupid. A BMW or Mercedes or Audi buyer would not get a Chevy. But they would certainly consider a Tesla. It’s not just status – if you compare the cars, the Bolt is clearly the ugly step sister. Given that they cost the same, the choice couldn’t be clearer.

I don’t know whether to be happy about this or not. On the one hand it’s good that Chevy failed with the Bolt, because other car companies need to know not to devote resources if you don’t have a clue what will sell and what won’t. But on the other hand I want cars made better, and Chevy’s failures with the Volt, and now the Bolt, may suppress development of updated technology. Car companies don’t want to emulate Chevy and may be unwilling to risk failure by taking a leading role.

I guess the bottom line is this – if you are a car company and can’t figure out what a good car is, then get out of the business.

 

 

Moto Z2 Play – barrel distortion

Update: In actual use, zooming in to eliminate the barrel distortion is not practical. I find that it’s helpful to keep the phone vertical when I take a picture, rather than tilt it. I noticed that my wife’s iphone 6S has similar distortion when I tilt the phone to take a picture, so it may have been unfair to ding the Z2 Play for this.

So far I like the phone. It’s light, thin, fast, has a nice screen, and I really can’t think of a single negative.

Update 2: I don’t use the camera much, but I tried it on vacation and still have significant barrel distortion on the 4 edges, even when the phone isn’t tilted. All I can say is the phone is good as long as you don’t care about the camera. If the camera is important to you, you are better off taking pictures from further back, and then cropping out the edges. If that’s not possible, keep your subject in the middle of the frame to avoid distortion.

Update 3:

Don’t use the selfie camera much, but used it today. No detectable distortion. Colors were fine. Focused fast. Very good selfie phone camera. 

Original review:

Just replaced my old Samsung Note 2 with a new Moto Z2 Play. The phone is terrific, and a big improvement over my old phone in almost ever regard. The screen is bright and sharp, the web and all the functions are speedy. Overall I am very happy with it so far.

But I wanted to discuss a weird “feature”. The camera has has a single lens. It’s wide-angle, which means it shows more of what you’re pointing your camera at. It has a wider angle than my old Samsung, and wider than my Ipad.

The problem with wide-angle lenses is they are prone to barrel distortion. Barrel distortion causes the outer edges of the image to distort (stretch and flatten). So, if you take a picture of someone blowing out a candle, surrounded by family, the birthday person is likely to look fine, but the family members around them may look like they have misshapen heads.

There are ways to use this effect to make a picture interesting. A classic one is a surfer on a wave – the surfer is undistorted, but the water around him curves. But for pictures of people, the effect is terrible.

I’ve found two ways to mitigate the effect while taking a picture. 1) Use landscape mode. That way you maximize the amount of undistorted area in the middle. 2) Use the digital zoom and move back to capture the entire image. By zooming, you cut out the distorted areas of the image. The camera is capable of shooting 12 megapixel images, so even if you crop half of that to get rid of distortion you still have a large 6 megapixel image left.

You can also correct distortion after the fact if you have photo editing software with a lens correction feature. I use Lightroom, which fixes it easily. I corrected portrait mode pictures with a distortion setting of -25. For landscape pictures I just cropped out the edges.

Otherwise the camera focuses fast and the colors are fine. The images are a little over-contrasted. The camera has some “professional” settings that let you manually adjust exposure, focus, ISO, shutter speed and white balance. None of the settings help with barrel distortion though.

This phone is not Moto’s flagship phone, but I don’t think the barrel distortion is related to cost savings. I think Moto just made the wrong choice when they decided to opt for a wide-angle lens.

Other than the distortion issue, which appears to be correctable, the rest of the phone is great. I am glad I have it and will keep it despite the camera.