Mist Eclipse

Today was an opportunity to see a partial eclipse here in the Netherlands. Unfortunately the weather gods were not smiling. Much of the country had cloudy skies.

Here in the Achterhoek, there were not only cloudy skies but heavy mist. So in a sense, we had not only a missed eclipse, but a mist eclipse. When I took the dogs out for their morning walk, we were surrounded by mist; not a chance of even a glimpse of the sun. We went for a walk in the woods at around the time of the eclipse. It was very noticeable how it became much darker during the maximum coverage of the sun by the moon, and then the day returned to normal brightness as we returned home.

Therefore, even though I was not able to observe the eclipse directly, I certainly had indirect evidence that something was afoot. In addition, one of our outside motion sensors (part of our Home Automation installation) has a light sensor. The readings from that today clearly show how the light from the sun was obscured during the moon’s transit:

Domoticz 25

Posted in Astronomy, Science | 3 Comments

Home Automation Revisited

Back in January, I wrote about putting my toe into the waters of Home Automation. As I said at the time, there’s a bewildering array of products and standards out there. Over the past couple of months, I’ve been taking a look at some of the HA solutions out there, and I think I’ve landed on one that seems to fulfil my requirements pretty well.

I had decided back in January that my solution would be one that used Z-Wave, and that’s still the case. I’ve been able to purchase Z-Wave HA devices from several different manufacturers, and they interoperate as promised. I’m satisfied that the choice of Z-Wave is a good one for me.

As I said in January, there is a wide range of possibilities in the choice of the controller for a HA system. I could buy an off-the-shelf unit such as the Fibaro Home Center 2, the Zipato ZipaBox, a VeraEdge controller, or a HomeSeer controller. Or I could buy just the controller software, such as HomeSeer, and install it on a PC or a Rasberry Pi box.

In the end, I decided not to purchase an off-the-shelf unit. Fibaro still seem to be struggling to deliver a stable version of their latest software for the Home Center 2, and not being able to trial the other hardware products meant that purchasing one would be a gamble. It seemed to me that a better approach would be to trial a software solution, using an existing computer.

I ended up taking a look at the following software solutions:

The first two are commercial products, the rest are open source projects, funded by donations.

For my testing, I purchased a variety of devices:

With the devices installed, and included in the ZWave network (registered in the ZStick controller), I connected the ZStick to a variety of software controllers in turn…

HomeSeer has been around for a while. That means it’s comprehensive (it can control a wide range of devices using a variety of standards), and it has a wide range of third-party add-ons. However, it still strikes me as being expensive: $249.95 for the basic version of the controller software and $199.95 for the UI designer software. If I were to go with HomeSeer, it would probably make more sense for me to buy the basic (linux-based) HomeTroller Zee controller at $199.95. I installed the trial software of HomeSeer version 3, and used it for a week or two. It worked, and the diagnostic information was copious. However, the interface struck me simultaneously as being rather basic, and yet somewhat complex in places. I decided not to proceed further with HomeSeer.

I admit I only took a cursory look at both Charmed Quark and OpenHAB. I found both difficult to set up, and got the impression that I would spend more time fiddling with them than using them. OpenHAB, in particular, seemed aimed at programmers and developers, rather than end-users at this stage. As a result, I moved on.

HomeGenie is also something that will delight programmers and developers at the moment. Nonetheless, I was able to get it up and running very easily on Windows, and it works well. Here’s the “dashboard” that I see for the devices I currently have in my HA network:

HomeGenie 06

It’s primarily the result of the efforts of one developer, and he’s done a very good job. It’s still at a fairly early stage, so, for example, if you want to develop automated control of your devices, you will find yourself very rapidly at the limit of what the built-in “Wizards” are capable of, and have to turn to grown-up programming to get the job done. That’s all very well, if that’s your thing, but it’s really not what I want to do any more. I made a donation to the project, because I appreciate what has been achieved, and I hope it continues to develop. There’s a small (around 350 members) community forum where ideas are exchanged and bugs highlighted for solving. I could certainly make use of HomeGenie, if there were not other, and for my purposes, better solutions available.

Domoticz is another open-source project, and while it is primarily led by one developer, there are others actively involved, and the community forum is large (around 3,270 members) and active. Domoticz and HomeGenie are similar in many ways, but there are a few differences, which can be both strengths and weaknesses, depending on where you stand. Here’s the Domoticz dashboard:

Domoticz 18

The strength of Domoticz is its maturity; it already has solutions and support for a lot of hardware. In particular, it supports the reading and display of data supplied by our “Smart Meter” for our gas and electricity consumption. With the simple purchase of a cable, I was able to connect our smart meter to the Domoticz system and get real-time graphs of our energy consumption. Here’s what I see for our electricity usage:

Domoticz 16

It not only records our consumption (blue), but also the electricity generated by our solar panels (green) that is returned to the electricity grid. Gas consumption can also be tracked:

Domoticz 17

HomeGenie, at the moment, does not have this connection to Smart Meters built-in. The programmatic interfaces are there, and such an interface could be built, but I’m not the one to do it.

For me, the strength of HomeGenie is that it is a complete solution, in that the developer has written software to control Z-Wave devices directly. Domoticz, on the other hand, hands off the control of Z-Wave devices to another piece of software, developed by a separate open source project: Open-ZWave. That means that there is the chance of issues arising out of effects caused by the fact that there are two different software components developed by two different groups. I’ve already come across an issue with my Z-Wave sensors, which may be caused by a bug in Domoticz, a bug in Open-ZWave, or some combination of the two.

Nonetheless, I can live with that issue, and the quirk that the Fibaro wall plugs don’t always show the correct status in Domoticz. There are two reasons for this:

  • The fact that I can track our energy consumption directly in Domoticz (as shown above), and
  • the fact that Domoticz supports Blockly for building automation programs.

Think of Blockly as Lego for programming. It’s wonderfully easy to use, and I’ve already programmed the motion sensors on the driveway and by the front door to turn on the outside lights if someone comes along during the hours of darkness (which have been defined, using Blockly and a “virtual device” in Domoticz that I defined: IsDark):

Domoticz 19

Domoticz 20

So for the moment, I’m going to stick with Domoticz for our Home Automation system, with HomeGenie held in reserve as my fallback position.

And while I tested both on Windows, both Domoticz and HomeGenie are available for the Raspberry Pi. I’ve also stuck my toe into the waters of using a Raspberry Pi, and Domoticz is currently running very happily on it. But that’s the subject of another post, I think…

Posted in Computers and Internet, Consumer Electronics | 7 Comments

Goodbye, Facebook, and Good Riddance

Let me put my cards on the table; I’ve never been a fan of Facebook. However, it seems that most of our neighbours are avid Facebook fans, so after holding out for years, I decided that I’d open up a Facebook account in November last year, primarily as a means of being kept up to date with what was happening in my neighbourhood.

Even after I signed up, I rarely accessed my Facebook page, and contented myself with batting away the many, many Facebook notifications that appeared in my email inbox or on my Windows Phone. My prime channel for revealing my thoughts to the (largely indifferent) world has remained this blog.

Then today, out of the blue, I got a notification from Facebook that I’m restricted from seeing the profiles of people that I don’t know for one week:

Facebook 01

Er, excuse me? I don’t make a habit of trying to see the profiles of people that I don’t know (I have tried looking up two old friends since I joined), so why the restriction?

Well, sod this for a game of conkers. I don’t need Facebook, so I’ve deleted my account. Goodbye and good riddance.

Posted in Computers and Internet | 2 Comments


Terry Pratchett has left.

Posted in Books | 1 Comment

Visits to Dystopian Realms

My bedside table has a small pile of the books that I’m currently reading. I tend to switch between fiction and non-fiction books, but I noticed yesterday that I seem to have been on a run of fictional dystopias.

9780340921609It kicked off a few months back with David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, which I enjoyed, but which I thought was less impressive than his Cloud Atlas, or The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. The Bone Clocks uses the device of having different characters tell their story in the first person, and the main character’s voice and wisdom develops from that of a teenager to being an old woman over the course of the novel. I liked hearing the different voices (Crispin Hershey, the English novelist, is not a million miles from a caricature of Martin Amis), and Holly Sykes as the central protagonist is beautifully portrayed. There are explicit references to characters from other Mitchell books (I recall that he said, in an interview, something along the lines of that he’s writing one meta-book). If there’s a weakness (for me) in The Bone Clocks, it was the “An Horologist’s Labyrinth” section, which rather came across to me as in the style of Denis Wheatley’s “The Devil Rides Out” – a rattling yarn, but with rather over-wrought language.

The final section, “Sheep’s Head” stepped back from the pyrotechnics of “An Horologist’s Labyrinth” and redeemed the book for me. This is where the dystopian society is portrayed – the Endarkenment – as it is named in the book. We return to Holly as a woman in her seventies, living in 2043 in a world where the chickens of energy-guzzling, resource-stripping and climate change have come home to roost. Darkness descends, but there is a glimmer of light as well.

beteNext up was Adam Roberts’ Bête. This was dystopia all the way down, but at times very funny with it. It opens with something that is almost straight from Monty Python – a farmer is about to kill his cow, but the animal insists on discussing his right to do so with him. The tale is set in a time not too distant from our own, where artificial intelligence computer chips have been embedded in some livestock by animal activists. The story is once again told in the first person, by Graham Penhaligon, the farmer. He’s irascible, unsympathetic, a Victor Meldrew sort, yet I couldn’t help but warm to him. Roberts has some amazing, and outrageous ideas (wait until you meet the lamb!), but the novel remains very believable. And the ending is a whole new beginning…

9781408819708I followed that up with Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam. This is the third in her trilogy of dystopian novels that began with Oryx and Crake, and continued with Year of the Flood. I read Oryx and Crake a few years back and enjoyed it, but I haven’t read Year of the Flood. However, I came across MaddAddam at the Deventer Book Fair last August, so I picked it up for a song and added it to the pile of books to read.

I have to say that I don’t think it’s one of Atwood’s best works. Where Oryx and Crake resonated, MaddAddam fell flat for me. Yes, there’s a sense (right at the end) of how books and writing will be an important driver to the future post-human society of the Crakers, but most of the book is taken up with providing the backstory of a few characters that I assume were introduced in Year of the Flood, and waving the bogeymen of the Painballers in the reader’s face.

9780553418842Now I’m on to Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. You might think that this is a strange choice, given that I’m an atheist, and the book’s protagonist is an evangelical Christian minister recruited to do missionary work. It’s true that I view all religions with the utmost suspicion, and I simply couldn’t finish Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (an elderly Congregational minister writes to his 7-year old son). However, Faber also wrote Under The Skin, which engrossed me with its strange atmosphere and other-worldliness.

I’m still reading The Book of Strange New Things (I’m at the point where Peter has just met with a member of his new flock), and the book of the title is, of course, the Bible. Already there is no doubt in my mind that this is a book that I will finish and find just as thought-provoking as Under The Skin. I don’t know yet whether the society of Peter’s new flock is a dystopia or a utopia, but it’s already clear that the society that Peter has left is painted in dystopian hues.

Next up, a change of pace and subject matter; Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass; an exploration of the history of moral thought as it has developed over three millenia, across the world’s cultures…

Posted in Books | 3 Comments

Wolf Hall

The BBC’s six-part adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels (Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies) drew to a close last night. What a wonderful six hours that was! Mesmeric, with acting of the highest order from all concerned.

If I have one small carp (a tiny goldfish, really), it was that the director’s insistence on shooting night scenes lit only by torchlight and candles, whilst artistically correct, was not well served by the lenses that they used. It’s a pity that they couldn’t have got hold of the lenses used by Kubrick for Barry Lyndon, that might have helped a bit with the gloom.

Posted in Television | Leave a comment

The World’s Most Important Operating System

I was saddened to learn today that Bill Hill died of a heart attack back in October 2012. Bill was a Scotsman who started out life as a newspaperman and became a typographer, but ended up working for Microsoft.

In this short video clip Bill explains why the world’s most important operating system is not Windows or OSX or Linux or Android. It’s Homo sapiens 1.0. It’s an operating system that first booted up about 100,000 years ago, and has never yet had an upgrade.

There’s more videos of Bill available here. A memorial, of sorts. RIP, Bill.

Posted in Books, Computers and Internet, Nature, Science | Leave a comment