All posts by Brad Gibson

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Baby steps in Home Automation – the Chamberlain MyQ Garage Mini Review

You would think an Electrical Engineer specializing in building science would have a house full of home automations toys. But no, that would be wrong.

I do have a programmable thermostat and have had one for years but it stands alone and does not have any interconnectivity. A programmable thermostat is the key area where any home owner can make a significant difference in terms of energy savings. No wonder the people at Nest started with a thermostat.

I have had an occupational interest in Zigbee and Z-Wave for a few years. Originally, it seemed like Z-wave was targeted at the consumer market, while Zigbee trended more towards the commercial sector but that is changing now. In the home, both of these protocols, and others, have largely been the province of professionals and keen hobbyists. If home automation is really going to take off it has to be as simple as making a few adjustments and installing an app.

Which brings me to this; the Chamberlain MyQ Garage Universal Smartphone Garage Door Controller. Knowing that I didn’t leave the garage door up after driving away appeals to me, so I thought I would take a look at the feature set.

Here’s a rough description of how the system works:

1) The hardware component consists of a door sensor and a hub unit. Mount the door sensor on an upper garage door panel and the hub on the garage ceiling near the garage door drive unit. The hub uses wifi to access your local network and is also able to transmit a homelink code to your garage door drive to raise and lower the door. The hub detects the door open/closed position using the door sensor. It also contains an audible alarm and LED warning light.

2) Using the Arrayent server back-end, the hub connects via the internet to a private account that you set up with Chamberlain. The API for Arrayent is here. If you have an iPhone or Android phone you can use a free app to monitor door status or remotely send a signal to open or close the garage door. Remote closing could occur with someone in the vicinity of the garage, so the hub sends an audible and visual alert for 5-10 seconds prior to activating the garage door to meet UL325 requirements. This, along with the door operator’s obstruction sensors, allows for safe remote operation. Safety is extremely important; it’s why I chose to go with an integrated product and not a DIY solution.

Installation per the manual is easy but I installed the door sensor in the cold with the included adhesive backed velcro strips and am not confident that it will hold in the long term. My suggestion is to use the alternative, and included, mounting screws for the sensor. The hub mounts to an included bracket easily and quickly. You need AC power nearby to power the hub from a small power supply brick, which explains the suggestion to mount it near the garage door drive unit.

When you first power up the hub, it initiates a bluetooth pairing session. Grab your phone, pair and accept the transfer of wifi settings from the phone to the hub… But wait — and you won’t find this in the manual — My phone uses wireless N and I discovered that the hub uses G because, after repeated tries, I continued to receive connectivity errors. An alternative start-up procedure turns the hub into a wifi hub that you can connect your phone to. Using Safari on my iPhone, I browsed to an alternative set-up web site. That’s when I saw that the hub was only seeing wireless G access points. Luckily I run a separate G router at home in order to connect “old” devices. Once I got the hub connected to the correct router, the MyQ unit wanted to — of course — download a firmware upgrade.
(Has there been a device shipped in the last 2 decades that ever shipped with stable firmware?) The download timed out twice and indicated a failure but the status lights suggested otherwise. Low and behold, after a restart, the firmware update did take and I was ready to start using the unit. Getting reliable wifi into the garage may be a problem for some people, so I strongly suggest that you test signal strength and usability in your garage with your smartphone before purchasing the MyQ. You may discover that you will need to augment or change your wifi set-up before utilizing the this garage door controller.

Your Chamberlain account info must be entered to start the app. Thankfully, the software contains a checkbox to remember your login. The app allows the door to be opened or closed from the touch screen. Additionally, alarms — also called events — can be set up to either provide a notification or email when the door is opened or closed. These events are logged and sorted by date and time. This info is useful if you have allowed third party access to your door through a keypad, for instance.

At about C$140.00, I am satisfied that the Chamberlain MyQ Garage works as advertised. The system does utilize a remote server service but it is free to use. The MyQ system is not Z-wave or Zigbee compatible out-of-the-box but I’m okay with that for this purpose-built application. It is possible to add other MyQ devices but I’m not planning to go in that direction. I’m going to play with Z-wave inside the house. Before that however, my next project is to set-up an older MacBook as a motion detector and security cam.

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Technology and modality: The iPad as Platform

When something is made to sit in the middle of a table, it’s hard to see it as anything other than a table center. For years, PCs have occupied prominent places on our desks. Desktop PCs cannot move around so their modality is fairly singular.

What is modality? As always, you could go to a go to a place like this and look up “modality”. For the purposes of this post, modality will refer to how something is used; as in a procedure or method.

Let’s get back to the PC. Over time, desk-top PC architecture got unified and repackaged. That’s why “luggables” and subsequently laptops were created. Few imagined putting a PC in your pocket. For years, neither the use case nor technology were available to make it happen.

The ways that you can use a device are as important as how you interact with the device. Use describes modality, interaction describes interface. If one takes a look at Apple, it is obvious that interface simplicity and elegance are a hallmark of their designs. It is also clear that when one looks at the arc of product that has been delivered by Apple since the release of the iPod that modality has also been a key part of their design genesis. The latest generation of iPad Air and Retina Mini demonstrate the extent to which the product’s modality is being expanded.

Great product design is not just a matter of answering the question, “what problem does this product solve”. A great design provides extensibility. It allows for further creativity. It can be a platform for something else. From its introduction in 2010 to its latest iterations, the iPad has been completely re-worked to make it thinner, lighter, faster. With each iteration, these optimizations have added dozens of new uses.

So many have wondered what has happened to Apple’s innovation mojo. It is not waning, it is accelerating. To achieve the optimizations that they are delivering requires a tremendous amount of design, science and engineering effort. Is Apple defining a new paradigm of computing with each model change of the iPad? Of course not but the iPad defines an epoch in computing development.

Platform extensibility is leading us in at least 2 new directions:
1) Thinner indicates a trend toward a device that could become flexible and resemble a type of “digital paper”. At scale this could lead to screens that are in some way more like wall paper than stand-alone boxes. This is the real promise of a future Apple TV
2) Reduced weight paves the way for larger mobile screen sizes. Apple could easily ship a 13″ iPad with its available technology that weighs about the same as the original iPad.

From here, the number of usage modes for touch and visual computing grow more and more.

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Forget Productivity. Think, Change and Create Instead.

The moment you ask yourself “How can I be more productive?” you may have asked the wrong question. Forget productivity, time management and better tools. None of those things will help you. You will get sucked into the swill of self-help, activity pathos and self-loathing. It’s not a place worth visiting given our short lives.

Productivity is for corporations and economists.

Get real about yourself and think about how change really happens. Can you really lose 55 pounds in 8 days? Do New Year’s resolutions effect lasting change? Did you accumulate the sum total of your life’s experience by the time you finished kindergarten?

Things take time.

Great ideas, great minds, great bodies, great satisfaction come from commitments that are deeper than passing fancies. What you ultimately need to do is focus on actions and results. Everything worth doing can be done better. And everything done well is the result of considered thought, the exercise of the brain and a determination to practice.

Here’s a question worth asking: “How can I be more effective?”.

What’s the difference between increased effectiveness and increased productivity? Effectiveness is all about success while productivity is all about output. This differentiation is key to understanding yourself and your life. Success is not about how others measure your life after you die; you will not have the ability to care at that point. Success is about how you measure yourself and your contributions to community and the world while you are alive. Success is the true metric for satisfaction and growth. When you have achievable goals that you attain, you can rightly claim success. That gives you a new platform upon which to draw strength, comfort or resources for other goals. Productivity is all about the accomplishment of more and more tasks. Productivity serves itself. At times the dogged pursuit of productiveness leads to poor quality, waste and dissatisfaction. This in-turn leads to feelings of inadequacy, self-loathing or pessimism. Suddenly your goals are further away and your “system” has failed. You will begin to talk about how your tools failed or how you spent all of your time working on task lists rather than work.

Do you think Shakespeare really cared about “distraction-free writing environments”, the Pomodoro technique or which context list was the most appropriate to use while traveling by wagon to the next performance?

Not that he’s any Shakespeare, but I do not think David Sparks spends any time wondering about that either. He’s a real live example of a creative professional who uses tools to serve his creativity. Merlin Mann learned that the study of tools does not make you creative. If he can do it, so can you.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not denigrating or dismissing any specific task-based techniques or ideas. I use some of them myself but I do not need them. Neither did Shakespeare. Nor Einstein nor Steve Jobs for that matter. What you need to understand is that your brain, not the latest or greatest piece of software, will get you where you need to go. There are no “5 greatest tips for always performing at your best” or “10 hidden secrets that will make you rich”. Stop consuming empty thought calories and start thinking. When you do that you will realize that you have the ability to create and that is the greatest skill you can have.

Now start!

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Time Management and the Perpetual Motion Machine

I was at an airport convenience store the other day looking nostalgically at all of those things they call “books”.

And then I saw it.

A paperback with the incredible words “Time Management” on the cover. I don’t know who wrote it. I did not pick it up and I’m certainly glad to inform you that there is no link to Amazon here urging you to buy it.

Can you do something for me? It will only take 4 minutes.

In the first minute think of a number of things you can do in 1 minute. In the second minute do nothing – just sit there. In minute 3, do all of the things you thought of in the first minute. In minute 4? Reflect. What was the difference between minute 2 and minute 3? Did you “manage” the third minute better than the second? Did time transmute itself? What really got managed?

I know that people think they experience time variation; heck, I think I have felt that way. You know… “Time stood still”. “Time flew by”. And so on.

Here’s the thing:

Time on earth is immutable. It does not shift or vary. Until you or I experience the twins paradox time will not be a variable in your life. Time will be a constant.

You cannot manage time. You can manage stuff like tasks, relationships, possessions… Yourself.

On the productivity graph of things vs. time, you can only vary the things axis. Anybody who talks about “time management” as if it exists, ought to be selling miracle cures, perpetual motion machines or time shares on Baffin Island. I never felt productive until I got past this concept. It’s not that you are wasting time or making the best use of your time when results go poorly or go well. It’s that you did less or did more in a period of time. People who go on vacations are not better time managers than people who don’t go on vacations; they just value vacations more.

So in the realm of hackneyed truisms; “Time marches on”. To which I would add, “… at the same rate”.

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Workflow and Omnifocus

I have been moved to action by the stuff I have been reading at MacSparky, practically efficient, Macdrifter and Brett Terpstra’s blogs over the past few months. Of this bunch, a couple of them are strong on Omnifocus. David Sparks has been a long time Omnifocus advocat and bon vivant, while Eddie has been a recent convert.

I started with Omnifocus on the Mac in 2009, added the iPhone edition quickly, then completed the trifecta with the iPad version when it was released. In all of that, I often felt Omnifocus was more of a tonic than a tool. So I cruised the forums, finding tools and scripts, downloading everything. What I ended up building was a home handyman’s equivalent of the perfect workshop. All tools and no talent.

Once I purchased Creating Flow with Omnifocus by Kourosh Dini – a must read for any Omnifocus student – I finally realized how to make the base Omnifocus programs, the add-ons, the workflows and the philosophies work for me. (I ended up using a derivative of Dini’s start date based system and the flag based system.) I was already a secular devotee of GTD – relax I am not going there – so I had a pretty structured set of contexts for personal and career life set up. Being an engineering manager, stuff in my life was already one big list of projects. Most engineers understand GTD instinctively.

A Tip

Here’s something that I synthesized from all of the collected wisdom around Omnifocus; once you get projects set up in a way that works for you in Omnifocus, take a look at the file structure on your main work machine. I created a “Projects” folder – it’s essentially my new “Documents” folder. If you establish a file structure in that folder that matches your Omnifocus project folder structure you will have a system that will complement your workflow. It doesn’t take a lot of time, just go to the Nicola Vitacolonna modified scripts in this forum entry and you will be able to build the file structure as you need to (warning: geekiness level is above moderate on this). The scripts also provide a quick link between Omnifocus, Omnioutliner and the file system. Should that kind of functionality be baked into Omnifocus? Maybe, but the power user crowd that use Omnifocus also appreciate that it is highly customizable while not being full of feature bloat.

On the Passing of Rick James

I was living in St. Catharines in the fall of 1981. My radio dial was invariably tuned to WBLK — “the House that Hound Built”. ’81 was the year of “Superfreak” and for a time Rick James was one of the biggest acts around.

James’ career was not quite the bottle-rocket that is typically portrayed. From late 50’s Buffalo, he ended up playing with Neil Young in the Yorkville scene of the 60’s. From there it was talent, ambition and drugs that fueled a career that peaked with the landmark “Street Songs”. The opening riff of “Ghetto Life” defines an era and a genre of music; it is the Jamesian equivalent of a John Paul Jones or Brian May classic, except he did it with a bass. Make no mistake, James was glitter, heavy metal, Philly Soul, P-Funk, rock, disco, glam and hair-cut. In 1981 he was a doped-up, egotistical show-man of absurdly energetic creativity. A small group of regular listeners to my radio show accompanied me to James’ Buffalo show. Of course you would expect the Buffalo show to be a tour-de-force, it was his home town. Many were there to hear “Give it to Me” or “Superfreak”, he did “You and I” and “Big Time” but the killer was the opener.

It’s dark. The band’s on stage, but no Rick James. Then boom! A blast at center stage and James appears genie-like out of no where, stroking his guitar. “Ghetto Life” starts — the riff an anthem, the crowd a frenzied bunch of funked up kids. Everywhere lights; blindingly messmerizing. Still one of the greatest concert openers I have ever witnessed; matched only in power, expectation and imagery by U2 during the Joshua Tree and Zoo City tours.

James descent to an earthly hell is well documented and was probably inevitable. With the passing of two of my former musical zeitgeists within the last year or so — Robert Palmer and now James — I’m feeling particularly obsolete these days.

UPDATE: Found this link from soul-patrol.net featuring Rick James and band from the 1981 tour recorded in Long Beach. A great bonus is the performance of Teena Marie on some of the tracks. This show was earlier in the tour and it sure sounds like it at times.