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Using “Home Automation” to improve security – 2

Well, I tried it out!  I ended up controlling 3 outside lights (two sets in front, 1 in back), and 3 inside appliance plugs (2 lamps and 1 boom-box radio).  The outside lights were set to go on at dusk, followed within a few minutes with inside lights and radio “noise” going on.  Then at 9:30 PM the inside lights and radio went off, while at dawn the outside lights went off.  The sequence repeated while we were on vacation for 10 days …

Hard to say if “it worked” as a deterrent, but there was no sign of any problems… ::grin:: …

Using “Home Automation” to improve security…

The idea of automating your home to improve your home living experience is not new.  We have all used timer devices to turn lamps on and off at certain times of the day and night, either because our schedule of use for that appliance was well known, to replace a repetitive predictable manual step, or to simulate that there is someone home.  The later is what I wanted to do, at least in the near future, so that when I’m traveling or on vacation, inside and outside lights will go on and off in a predictable manner, just as if I was there.  I wanted to add an element of uncertainty as well to make it appear less automated and more as if a human were moving around and turning things off and on.  And finally, I wanted to manage this with my Debian Linux server.

So I decided to get “X10” devices for my house.  X10 devices are addressable, communicate through the power system of your home, and perform simple functions like “on”, “off”, “dim”… These devices and others similar can also use RF (radio frequency) to communicate — but I’m not there yet.  Just getting a simple system going to turn on and off lights or appliance in accordance with my programmed schedule will be fine for now.

I purchased several components from eBay to make this work:  a CM11a controller, 3 appliance controllers, and 3 replacement wall switches (all X10 programable).  The Linux application to make this work I chose is called “heyu” and is available as an open source program at  Some experimentation proved that I had a major problem to overcome before this will work across my home – apparently mine (and most) houses have a “split personality” when it comes to power, or at least power that can be used for communication using X10.  Most homes have 220/240 Volt 2 phase power coming to thier home, and it is then split into two 110/120 Volt lines and destributed across the house.  The result is there are two power phases working across the home, and depending upon where you plug in that CM11a controller, you will only be able to “talk” to the X10 devices that are in the “phase” associated with the wall socket you plug the controller into.  Luckily, I was able to find the group of outlets and switches in my home that included the wall switches controlling the outside lights I really wanted to be able to work with in conjunction with some key inside lamps.  So by re- positioning my server to the living room and replacing the outside target light switches and adding inside plug in modules for the inside lamps, I had control! 

The next step was to add scripts and controlling scripts, and put them into a “schedule” which I chose to do using a Unix/Linux “cron” job — a traditional approach to scheduling tasks on a Unix based server.

Now all I need to do is take a vacation … hmmmm … well at least I have my outside lights turning on and off when I want them.  The future? Purchase and install a X10 Phase Coupler, which will allow me to communicate to X10 accross the entire home.  Then, improve the HA (home automation) interface (I think I’ll eventually replace the command line driven “heyu” with a browser based powerful “Misterhouse” program); and add some more interesting sensors (like motion sensors) and create cascading event based tasks (like if a person is detected at the front door, announce a voice alert throughout the house that a visitor has arrived).  The potential and possible improvements for a self-security system are most intriquing and that is where my next steps will probably take me.

More iPad: Using Scrivener and Pages…

As I said in earlier iPad posts, I am looking for a nice way to link the iPad as a remote writing tool to the Mac (at home) running Scrivener.  Through google (our good friend) I looked for existing solutions and found several – initially the most promising involved using SimpleNote on the iPad, and Scrivener on the Mac (presumably in a home or office).  This looked promising, and used the cloud for information exchange (a built-in proprietary feature between the two apps), however it appeared to me that the iPad would require cloud connection to use SimpleNote (so you would require a WiFi or 3G connection “always on”), and I really wanted an editor on the iPad that could be stand-alone and save files as needed on the iPad for future upload.  So the search continued… and I found a similar solution using Elements on the iPad.  This solution used Dropbox as the “cloud”, since Elements is really a Dropbox based text editor.  Again, while this works as does the SimpleNote based solution,and I do have, while rudimentary, a stand-alone editor I wanted to use on the iPad, it does require use of a third-party tool in Dropbox that needed to be installed on both Mac and iPad.  And frankly, while I’m certainly NOT an Apple snob (I use Microsoft based systems extensively at work, I host a Debian Linux server at home, and I own a Mac, iPhone, and now an iPad), I wanted to find a solution that would use the Apple iCloud as my common connector, and I really wanted to use my iPad Pages app as the iPad based writing solution.  Pages is a big leap forward as a text editor on the iPad compared to most editor apps, and it can be easily configured to connect to the iCloud. 

I ran an experiment, saving a document in .doc format to the iCloud and then tried to retrieve and insert it into a Srivener project.  After saving a file to the iCloud from Pages, I went to my Mac and opened Scrivener, and started a new project using the “short story” template.  I opened the iCloud on my Safari browser, logged in, and opened the iWorks folder.  Under the Pages sub-folder I found my document uploaded from the iPad, and downloaded it to the Mac “Downloads” folder.  In Scrivener I chose File>Import and imported the file I had downloaded into a “Scene”.  Scrivener performed an automatic conversion of the .doc file into a rtfx format, but there it was.  So, the reverse experiment… I created a new Scene in Scrivener and exported it to a file in my Documents folder, again as a .doc file.  Back to iCloud/iWorks I imported the file from Documents into the Pages area of iWorks.  And now the drum roll please… I opened up the iPad, brought Pages up… and opened it to edit an existing file, and there it was – my Scene uploaded from Scrivener!

OK – all good… I think I have found my toolset for writing on the iPad and connecting to Scrivener! This also has the potential to extend my Mac-side writing, since eventually one may want to export the Scrivener “final draft” into a real word processor for final formating and completion… and iWorks / Pages on the Mac is a good solution, allowing the possibility of using the iPad directly through Pages to tweak the final novel/product as well.  The programmer in me would like to automate and formalize the process a bit, at least on the Mac side… so perhaps a Ruby project will be next steps to make all this file exchange process a bit more seamless and organized.  I’ll let you know…

Thanks to Jamie Todd Rubin and his Blog site, and some key experiences he suggested I found quite useful.
SimpleNote and Scrivener
Elements and Scrivener

Don’t you just love maps?

I follow messages in a state GIS (Geographic Information System) list-serve and in a conversation today followed the link from the message titled “Greatest Paper Map of the United States?” to this site: and subsequently to the source of the map they were discussing — quite a beauty!

I love maps – a passion with its roots springing from my early Boy Scouting days, to extensive training in the Hudson Highlands surrounding the US Military Academy, to extended field use as a Forward Observer with the US Army Field Artillery.  I love the maps for their beauty, but also for the functionality and key information that can be derived from good ones – like the kind of topographic 1:50,000 scale maps I lived by while navigating the countryside and Artillery ranges in West Germany several decades ago.  Not only were the maps key, but the now fading requirement to be expert with an Army issue lensatic compass was a carefully honed skill.  I own one today and take it with me on any bike ride or hiking adventure — and a good compass is an essential part of my car’s emergency kit as well.  While these tools have virtually been replaced with ever less expensive GPS devices, the enhanced geographic awareness one attains after achieving some mastery of compass and map, or nautical charts and compass navigation, is worth pursuing, not to mention enjoying the special beauty found in using or displaying a map or chart. 

The romance of sailing…

Anyone who has ever been on a sailboat and not felt at least a little romance must have had a very bad experience.  As a person who has been on the water over many years in a variety of sailboats in pursuit of a first place finish in a fleet of white sails, or reaching an anchoring gunkhole  while cruising on the Chesapeake, or sailing on an old large schooner in New England, or just going fast on a mulithull in a gale… they all hold a sense of freedom, independence, self-sufficiency, and the pure joy of using the wind to move through the water.  It is such a delight to feel the wind on your face and in your hair, seeing the well trimmed sail filling, the spray of wave and water as you manuever through, over, and around the waves… everything feels more alive and fulfilling.  One feels close to nature and one with the environment.  Have you ever noticed that sailing is all about the curves?  Classic sailboats especially are complex curves in motion – from their hourglass hulls to the multiple sails flying from oval spars.  It is clear why men choose to refer to boats as females – always as “she” or “her” and never using masculine terms.

Entertainment Center “Carcass”…

Why they refer to the initial frame of a cabinet as a “carcass” I sure don’t know.  But, since I’ve achieved that level of construction on my Wood Shop project, I guess I’ll use it!  Next steps include making drawers, making an adjustable shelf or two, adding coasters to the hidden bottom, adding the top and finally finishing with stain and shellac.  The details in between include covering all the plywood ends with oak molding (which I need to rip with my band saw and fit with my biscuit jointer), and making the molding for the top piece.

My iPad journey… Part 2

I have continued to play with SketchBook Pro, and successfully created a first try drawing.  This is a nice program – comprehensive tools and it works well with your fingers on the touch screen as well as with a stylus — I’m using the “JustMobile AluPen”, and I like it fine, but it is the one-and-only stylus I’ve used, so I can’t say if there are equally good ones available for comparison.  Here is my first attempt — a sailboat/dingy under spinnaker, with skipper and crew enjoying the ride.

Sailboat - created with SketchBook Pro

Sailboat - created with SketchBook Pro