Some thoughts on smart home technology

A couple of Months ago we visited IKEA and saw the IKEA Trådfri smart lighting system. Since it was relatively cheap we decided to buy their starter pack and enough bulbs to make the recessed lights in our living rooms smartlight. I got it up and running and had some fun switching the light hue and turning the lights on and off from my phone.
A bit later I got a Google Assistant speaker at Google I/O and the system suddenly became somewhat more useful as I could control the lights by calling out to the google assistant. I was also able to connect our AC system thermostats to the google assistant so we could change the room temperature using voice commands.
As a result of this I ended up reading up on smart home technologies and found that my IKEA hub and bulbs was conforming to the ZigBee standard and that I should be able to buy further Zigbee compatible devices from other vendors to extend it. So I ordered a Zigbee compatible in-wall light switch from GE and I also ordered a Zigbee compatible in-ceiling switch from a company called Nue through Amazon. Once I got these home and tried to get them up and running I found that my understanding was flawed as there are two Zigbee standards, the older Zigbee HA and the newer Zigbee LightLink. The IKEA stuff is Zigbee LightLink while at least the GE switch was Zigbee HA and thus the IKEA hub could not control it. So I ended up ordering a Samsung SmartThings hub which supports Zigbee HA, Zigbee LL and the competing system called Z-Wave. At which point I got both my IKEA lights and my two devices working with it.
In the meantime I had also gotten myself a Google Assistant compatible portable aircon from FrigidAire for my home office (no part of main house) and a Google Assistant compatible fire alarm from Nest for the same office space.

So having lived in my new smarter home for a while now what are my conclusions? Well first of all that we still have some way to go before this is truly seamless and obvious. I consider myself a fairly technical person, but it still took quite a bit of googling for me to be able to get everything working. Secondly a lot of the smart home stuff feel a bit gimmicky in the end. For instance the Frigidaire portable air conditioner integration with the Google Assistant is more annoying than useful. It basically requires me to start by asking to talk to Frigidaire and then listen to a ton of crap before I can even start trying to do anything. As for the lights we do actually turn them on and off quite a bit using the voice commands (at least I try to until I realize my wife has disconnected the google assistant in order to use its cable to charge her phone :). I also realized that while installing and buying the in-wall switches are a bit more costly and complicated than just getting some smart bulbs it does work a lot better as I can then control the lights using both voice and switch. Because the smart bulbs can not be turned on using voice if you have a normal switch turned off (obviously, but not something I thought about before buying). So getting something like the IKEA bulbs is a nice and cheap way to try this stuff out I don’t see it as our long term solution here. The thermostat we haven’t controlled or queried once since I did the initial testing of its connection to Google assistant.

All in all I have to say that the smart home tech is cute, but it is far from being essential. I might end up putting in more wall switches for the light going forward, but apart from that, having smart home support in a device is not going to drive my purchasing decisions. Maybe as the tech matures and becomes more mainstream it will also become more useful, but as it stands it mostly solves first world problems (although of course there are real gains here for various accessibility situations).

Been a little quiet

So I been a little quiet on the blogging front due to a combination of a lot of things, not the least becoming a dad for the second time :)
Amelie with Aliyan

Hope to pick up pace with some blogging on our plans for Fedora Workstation in 2016 soon :)

Hating on the Internet

So George R.R. Martin has spent quite a bit of time over the last week, and even a more energy, on responding to this thing called Puppygate. Which not directly related got some commonalities with last years gamergate story.

Yet, what strikes me skimming through a plethora of online discussions is that we seemed to have perfected name calling as an argumentation technique on the Internet. And since the terminology jungle can be a bit confusing I thought I should break it down by putting together this list of common names, so that you know which one you are ;) Trying for a tongue in cheek summary here, but if I fail at least you know what names to call me!

  • If you don’t think the world economy is working perfectly you are a Communist
  • If you are not in favor of free immigration you are a Racist
  • If you think women have achieved any level of equality today you are a Misogynist
  • If you are critical to any part of the Christian faith you are a Christian hater or taking part in a War on Christmas
  • If you think anything is well in the world today you are a Straight White Male
  • If you are against any Israeli policies your an Antisemite or Neo-nazi
  • If you feel that gays, women or ethnic minorities are not having their voice heard on an equal level you are a Social Justice Warrior
  • If you are critical of any part of the Quran or Islamic practice you are an Islamophobe

I am sure there are a lots more, these are just a collection of some I seen recently. So while I think there are real issues behind many of these examples I think sadly the Internet seems best for turning anything into a binary question, which surprisingly turns out to not be a super method for finding common ground, and as it turns out if you can associate a name to these things you can turn them into binary questions even faster!

Not that these things are specifically tied to the Internet, long time since I last saw any kind of political debate that felt like there was any time or interest in bringing out the nuances into the discussion; We do live in the age of bumper sticker politics after all.

Anyway, enough musing about the sad state of public discourse :)

Bye bye Slicehost

Finally closed my slicehost account today and deleted my slice. I set it up a few years ago to host and some misc other sites I was planning. I also hosted my own private email server on it.
In the end I think it just ended up being an overkill solution for what I really needed, but I thought it was a good experience to run my own server on the net. Anyway, Slicehost got bought by Rackspace some time ago and I kept getting these emails telling me to migrate to Rackspace and the rackspace priceplan. I took it as the kick I needed to get a hosting setup more suited to my actual need and save quite a bit of money in the process. So now the site is just hosted on my domain registrar as a simple website and the email I moved into Google Apps. At this point I am just happy I don’t have to fiddle with postfix and dovecot config files anytime in the forseeable future :)

While the DNS records etc. gets updated you might have some issues with the Transmageddon website, but it should hopefully be sorted before Monday.

New Transmageddon release should follow shortly after that.

A day in my life with the GNOME Shell

So I have been using the GNOME shell for quite some time now, and I guess like any desktop experience it has its ups and downs, but at least I think I reached a stage where my remaining quibbles with the GNOME Shell is related to how it works as opposed to irritations caused by me being used to something else. One thing I keep asking myself is if GNOME Shell has in any way made me more or less productive, my guess is that the change has been mostly productivity neutral once I got used to the new setup.

That said I have some smallish irritations with the GNOME Shell, the biggest being that the menu system feels slow, it feels distinctly slower than GNOME 2.x to click into Activities->Applications->Category to get to the application I am looking for, especially if I haven’t done so in a bit and the icons have to be pulled from disk. Also the fact that the categories is on the right side of the screen means a long mouse journey across the screen to get to the categories, and then a long mouse journey usually back towards the left side of the screen to click on the application I want. Ok, so this is not an operation I perform every 5 minutes, but still it feels a bit to laborious for what it is.

The other frustration I have is with the notification dock at the bottom of the screen, but I suspect this is mostly application issues. Like for instance gtimelog seems to have a different behaviour if you click on the text or the icon, and with the icon being so small I sometimes overshot, which causes the irritation of having to move a ‘long’ way back to due the neighbouring icon having expanded. Other small irritations includes the the Banshee icon saying ‘notify-sharp’ instead of Banshee and getting a ton of notification messages on the status bar as peoples IM client set them to offline/away etc.

Hmm, actually having written my irritations down I do feel they feel rather small and insignificant, yet if someone sees this I hope these items will be improved upon for future versions.

Also I do think that the system menu should offer shut down/restart by default, if I hadn’t seen someone mentioning it on IRC some Months back I am sure I to this day wouldn’t have realized I could press ‘alt’ to get shutdown/reboot to appear in the menu. I know there is an extension now, but it is such a basic operation that should require knowing ‘secret’ buttons getting an extension.

Is the United States government solvent?

When George Bush responded to the US downturn by sending everyone a check with some money my first thought was that it might not be the right approach to solve the current issues in the US economy. My reasoning is that I think that the main problem the US face at the movement is that the federal government is heavily underfunded and that the world markets are starting to doubt the strength of the US economy due to the extreme level of debt the US has acquired. So splashing out money to stimulate consumers might alleviate things a little in the short term, it made the underlying problem of US state finances being horrendous bigger. While this problem was not completely ignored by analysts at the time, it was mostly mentioned as a byline. In fact I think that if I hadn’t been searching for mentions of it I might have missed those mentions all together.

Got reminded of my worries today when I came accross an article in a Norwegian paper discussing the Fannie Mae and Freedie Mac bailouts. The US federal government having to bail out  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac comes at the price of taking on even more debt at the federal level. And while I don’t doubt the need for the takeovers, I can’t help but wonder if by putting out one fire they have laid the foundation for a bigger one. The US defaulting on its debt would have rather overwhelming negative consequences for the world economy. And if that article is correct I am not alone in my worries, it seems a lot of the Asian countries which has up to know invested their trade surpluses into US bonds are getting cold feet and have started pulling out.

GUADEC photos online

I have been looking for a new hosting option for a while and last week I finally choose one. Based on recommendations from others I ended up going with Slicehost. Slicehost advertise themselves as being a hosting company for developers, which I learned is definitely true. It is the first time ever I had a hosting setup where I even needed to install and configure my own email server. Learned a lot about Postfix over the last weekend :)

That said their setup is pretty nice. You can choose which linux distro you prefer from a quite big list and they will automatically set up your slice with that distro for you. They also have nice webtools for configuring things like DNS. And finally they got a lot of easy to follow tutorials on how to get common server tasks configured and running. Most of them Ubuntu centric, but I found it easy enough to find the Fedora equivalents when needed.

Once the basics was taken care of it was time for me to get my photo gallery back online after a longer period of being offline. Mostly due to me not having kept the gallery code up-to-date (and thus secure) it had been disabled at my old hosting provider. So upgrading to latest version was step one. The upgrade instructions turned out to not work at all, but doing a fresh install seemed to do the upgrade job just as well, it still managed to pick up all my old photos. I am still using Gallery 1.x though, but I noticed that Fedora packages Gallery 2. So I should probably switch to that at some point as having Fedora packagers make sure I am up to date without glaring security holes is more likely to work in the long run.

Anyway, to summarize a long story, my photos from GUADEC are now online :)

I also orderd myself an Epson 350 photo scanner today after discovering that <a href=””>Epson</a> actually provides official drivers for Linux. Hopefully I will soon also get all my pre-digital photos online.

Enjoying Musical Theatre

So my mother has been visiting this week for the first time since I moved to Cambridge. Her trip here is actually quite a big step for her as its the first time she has really travelled since she had her brain surgery some months ago. And while she is still struggling somewhat with anxiety attacks I think the change of environment has been good for her.

Anyway, as part of her visit I took here into London last evening to watch Mamma Mia the musical at the Prince of Wales theater close to Leicester Square. I think it was the first musical I have seen live since I saw Phantom of the Opera as a kid. I actually ended up enjoying the show quite a lot and while I would think the cast might be a little tired of doing the show at this point it didn’t come through at all. Instead they seemed very enthusiastic and energetic. I was positively surprised how they had managed to tie the various ABBA songs lyrics together into a relatively coherent narrative.

So while I do not see myself becoming a regular on the London musical theatre track I do suggest that anyone who has family visiting them in the UK might consider a trip to the London West End as a good way to entertain their guests.

Back from Turkey

So a little later than ‘everybody else’ I am now back from Turkey. Wim and I had both decided we needed some vacation and since we where going to Turkey for GUADEC it would be a great opportunity for us to travel around and see the area. Our original plan included climbing Mount Arrarat and visiting Georgia and Armenia, but trouble getting climbing permit combined with some german tourists getting kidnapped on Mount Arrarat by Kurd sepratists got us to adjust our plans. We ended up instead travelling down to cities such as Urfa (Edessa) and Harran, spending some days in Cappadocia and finally visiting Pamukkale and Ephesos. Had a blast of a time although Wim seemed a little less enthusiastic about females of the Korean and Taiwanese variety than me. Could of course just be that ‘Hello Kitty’ panties fail to get his sap boiling :)

For anyone travelling to Turkey I think spending 2-3 days in Göreme is an absolute must. It is a charming backpacker town with a lot of the hotels carved out of volcanic rock. A little gimmicky in the sense that the locals no longer live in the rocks for the most part, but the area is something which just have to be experienced.

Although we enjoyed the food I think it is safe to say that neither myself or Wim will be eating salad with cucumber and tomato, sprinkled with a little lemon anytime soon. 10+ days in a row is enough for a while :)

One thing I started wondering about while travelling around was the enormous expectations by local people for what an EU membership would mean for the people of Turkey, ranging from the EU solving all minority rights issues for Kurds, Armenians and Alavis, west European living standards and salaries for everyone, to solidifying Turkeys secular traditions. While the EU will for certain help push Turkey in the right direction on these issues, I can’t help but wonder if a future EU membership for Turkey might end up being a big lettdown compared to the expectation level I experienced.

New times, new paradigms

It has been with interest that I have been seeing my friend Andy Wingo and then Alex Graveley commenting on the state of the desktop.

It is somewhat of a debate which has been had in the GNOME community for the last 3-4 years at least. The problem is that nobody is really able to come up with a compelling idea for this ‘revolutionary UI’ that people seem to want. And its not like we are alone in this situation. Nobody else is really able to come up with something earth shattering either, so while KDE4 and Windows Vista both have been blowing their trumpets like crazy lately, its not like you find anything apart from incremental refinements of already known concepts when you dissect them.

And it is not like nobody has tried to come up with new stuff. Alex Graveley has been pushing his own ideas on and off, and the online desktop is another effort who sees itself as redefining the GNOME desktop. Yet, despite Alex’s disappointment in a lack of interest, my contention is that while there are some improvements in the ideas put forward, neither Alex or the Online Desktop has so far been able to put forward a narrative which has gotten people truly sold. And expectation of great interest or unbridled enthusiasm when one hasn’t been sold on the idea is a bit much in my opinion. I think I have walked out after both Alex and Havocs talks at recent GUADECS thinking; looks interesting and I will keep my ears open to news about it, but I am not convinced this will make me rethink how I want to interact and work with my desktop.

Yet we have entered, or been in, a phase where everyone wants a new paradigm for the desktop, even if nobody can agree on what it should do or at least what it should be. So instead we pull in buzzwords of the day like web integration and online presence. Which are all concepts loose enough to be able to mean nothing and everything. In fact the whole web/desktop integration idea isn’t even very new even in the context of GNOME. I assume I am not the only one who remembers IBM’s SashXB effort many years ago, which would change the world through GNOME and Mozilla  ‘weblications’.

So maybe all the ‘small’ fixes we focus on these days are not enough to revolutionize the world of desktop computing and change market share numbers so quickly that Microsoft crumbles under our onslaught. But I don’t think such an innovation is possible, or rather if it comes along it will be so different from what we are doing today that it will not really be considered a direct continuation of the PC desktop. However I do think that we are on the right track and that while the incremental improvements we push out in every new release might not feel like something that change the computer interaction landscape, they do add up to creating a stronger and stronger argument for the linux distributors to get traction with major corporations for being open to looking at a Linux desktop migration. And to pull it down to the microlevel, for me personally the fact that I am now for instance able to pair a phone over bluetooth with my desktop and transfer files by drag and drop from it is actually a huge step forward to where we was just a year ago. Or that I am now able to plug and play a SD card into my laptop without obscure mount commands. Sure its not revolutionary, but it is the kind of things that makes it easier for me to feel good about trying to get my family to switch over for instance, as I can now know that getting them to do so will not need to mean endless support calls and frustration on both sides.

So to summarize while I can understand that with the core desktop metaphor feeling like it has only slightly evolved since Xerox introduced it can feel a bit dull and that people feel the time is overripe for something new, lets not walk off a cliff while we walk looking up trying to figure out how to travel the stars :)

Jono’s new effort, Severed Fifth

Since I am in the process of discussing people attempting new stuff I thought I should bring up my friend Jono Bacon’s latest effort, Severed Fifth. I think its a neat example of someone deciding that the current paradigms in the field (of Music) are not working and thus is doing a little experiment to try to figure out if there could be another way of doing things. Most of the time such efforts collapse into nothing, but something they do strike gold and show a path forward. Too early of course to tell if Jono will be able to strike gold here, but I do think he deserves kudos for daring to try. Even in the meritocratic free software world I think we have a tendency to focus a bit too much on providing other people with stop energy whenever the opportunity arise. So if you are interested in exploring alternative ways of organising the world of music then be sure to check out Severed Fifth.