The Fox in the Henhouse?

According to a news story in the Guardian, none other than Nigel Farage has been appointed to the Advisory Board of the Dutch Green Business Group.

This does seem to be a rather ill-thought out decision for a company supposedly proud of its “green” credentials.

Farage has a long history of climate warming denialism. I doubt that this particular leopard has suddenly changed his spots. And now he is to act as a “spokesman” for the company? The mind positively boggles.

Addendum: It just goes from bad to worse.

Posted in Nature, Organizations, Science | 1 Comment

It’s A Sin

That’s the title of a five-part TV series written by Russell T. Davies. Spanning the years 1981 to 1991, and set in London, it charts the impact of the AIDS crisis on a group of friends.

It is, quite simply, a stunning piece of work, a masterpiece. A strong cast, inspired directing, and RTD’s writing combine to give explosions of joy, horror, and homophobia.

Watching it together with Martin brought all those times back to us. The friendships we made, the friends we lost, the callousness of Thatcher’s government, and the homophobia in British society, fanned by the tabloid press.

RTD’s writing draws upon all of this – there are references to the infamous Section 28 legislation, and he puts the word “cesspit” into the mouth of a policeman in one scene that directly references the utterance by the then Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, James Anderton, who said that homosexuals, drug addicts and prostitutes who had HIV/AIDS were “swirling in a human cesspit of their own making”.

As well as the wider references, RTD has drawn upon his own memories of the friends he knew to create his central characters. The character of Jill Baxter is modelled on his actress friend Jill Nalder, who herself plays the role of Jill Baxter’s mother in the series.

As I say, watching the events unfold brought all the best and the worst of those times flooding back. These days, while HIV/AIDS is not the automatic death sentence that it once was, it is still not something that should be treated casually. I hope that the series will be watched by the younger gay generations to learn something of what we went through and the awakening of our political action.

It struck me that RTD and his team have produced a work that completely fulfils Lord Reith’s directive to the BBC that its programming should “inform, educate and entertain”. The irony is that it ended up, not on the BBC, but on its commercial rival, Channel 4…

Posted in Entertainment, Health and wellness, History, LGBT Politics, Society, Television | 1 Comment

An Embuggerance

Last October, I noticed that a lymph gland in my groin was swollen. That was the beginning of a roller coaster ride of scans, surgery and biopsies. Come Christmas Eve, I received the news that Prostate Cancer was present, and in January, heard that it had been joined by Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.

The good news is that the Prostate Cancer is at an early stage, and only active monitoring is called for. The bad news is that the Lymphoma needs a combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy – and I start treatment this coming Friday; six cycles of treatment, each lasting three weeks.

It’s going to be a bumpy ride – the seatbelt is fastened.

The Dutch Health Service – doctors, nurses and healthcare workers – have all been very good; caring and competent. I’m optimistic about the outcome.

Posted in Health and wellness | 6 Comments

“Let Them Eat Cake”

While Boris Johnson has claimed that the post-Brexit trade deal allows Britain to “have one’s cake and eating it“, it is becoming abundantly clear that this is not the case.

The latest twist is that British exporters to the EU are being encouraged by the UK government’s Department for International Trade to set up companies in the EU to circumvent border issues and VAT problems.

Far from having one’s cake and eating it, this sounds more like Marie Antoinette’s apocryphal response to the news that starving peasants could not afford to buy bread.

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Putin’s Shell Game and Navalny’s Gamble

This is quite an extraordinary video. Alexei Navalny documents Putin’s elaborate arrangement of shell companies and what the money is being spent on.

Navalny must be a very brave man, deliberately walking into the lion’s den by returning to Russia, and then releasing this video.

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America’s Kristallnacht

I have to say, I am rather impressed by this video of Arnold Schwarzenegger, California’s Governor, addressing recent events in the USA. I didn’t think he had it in him, but I am happy to stand corrected.

Perhaps the events in the Capitol on the 6th January will prove to be a turning-point, and bring about a return to building democracy instead of tearing it down.

However, I share the fears of Francine Prose when she writes that anyone shocked by the events has ignored a lot of warning signs. As she says:

Throughout the 6 January attack on the US Capitol, as journalists and politicians expressed their stunned astonishment, one couldn’t help wondering: hadn’t they heard about the hundreds of people, some of them armed, who stormed the Michigan state capitol building in April, objecting to Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order? Had they forgotten that a young woman was killed during the August 2017 Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, Virginia – a neo-Nazi event that Donald Trump declined to unequivocally condemn? Had their interns not been keeping up with – and informing their bosses about – the popular Twitter feeds and Facebook pages of far-right hate groups and extremist conspiracy theorists? Had no one explained that the Proud Boys’ T-shirt insignia – 6MWE – means “Six Million [Jews] Weren’t Enough”?

Turning a blind eye to the transgressions of Trump and his supporters during the past four years made the events of the 6th January inevitable. That particular horse bolted the stable a long time ago.

Posted in News and politics, Society | 5 Comments

Sedition

With the recent events in Washington, I needed to laugh to stop crying. Thank you Randy Rainbow.

Posted in Humour, News and politics | Leave a comment

The Robots Are Coming

I don’t know whether to be amazed or terrified…

Posted in Computers and Internet, Humour, Science | 1 Comment

Taking Back Control?

So the Brexit deal has now been approved by both the UK Parliament and Brussels. True to form, Boris Johnson is claiming it as a great deal: “Having your cake and eating it“. This is, of course, a shameless lie – but when did we ever expect anything else from Mr. Johnson?

Far from “taking back control” as the Brexiteers have long espoused as their goal, what we appear to have got in its place is the EU-UK Partnership Council and its raft of committees.

credit: Anton Spisak

So far from being “free from the yoke of unelected bureaucrats and the tyranny of red tape”, it would seem that even the post-Brexit world requires proper management of the EU-UK relations and trade. What a surprise. Oh well, it will give the Brexiteers the opportunity to continue to moan endlessly about the vicissitudes of Brussels.

The draft agreement requires careful analysis, which I am certainly not competent to do. For that, I point you towards Chris Grey’s excellent blog as a starting point on what will be a long and frustrating journey. And those frustrations will not be felt in trade alone, but affect politics and society in both the UK and EU. This is not a cause for celebration.

Addendum: from where we stand, it seems to us far from “taking back control”, Britain has been taken over by gamblers, liars, clowns, and their cheerleaders.

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Home Automation Re-revisited

Introduction

Five years ago, I posted about my first foray into the realms of Home Automation. Then, after evaluating a number of HA systems available at the time, I chose Domoticz as the basis for my system here at the Witte Wand.

Domoticz has served me well over the past five years. It’s an open-source project, run by volunteers, that has grown in scope quite considerably, and with that have come some growing pains and project management issues. The last Stable release (March 2020), for example, broke many people’s production systems. When a new Stable version is released, Domoticz notifies you that it is available, and puts an “Update” button on the main Dashboard. Seeing that, many people just clicked the button, without reading the Release Notes. Big mistake. The developers had changed the underlying version of the Linux operating system from the previous version, and the new Stable release did not work on the old Linux. The result was a lot of very unhappy people.

Fortunately, I had learned to be cautious, and did not click the button. But it did mean that I had to build a completely new version of my Domoticz system from the ground up before I was able to move to the new Stable version, several months after it had been released.

That experience made me take stock of whether I wanted to continue using Domoticz, or move to another Home Automation system.

Looking around, I found another open-source project: Home Assistant. It seems to have started at around the same time as the Domoticz project, and the founders of both are Dutch. I have the distinct impression that the Home Assistant project is the better-managed of the two, an impression that is also shared by the author of this comparison article. For example, he writes:

Home Assistant
Home Assistant has split up their platform into several projects: Documentation, GUI, Hassio (the OS system) and Home Assistant itself. There are plenty of developers that develop the system but also review work of their peer developers. There are strict rules to maintain also the documentation of the commits. This is very professional and well managed open-source project.

Domoticz
The small group of developers is doing great work and every commit is checked / reviewed by Gizmocuz (the founder of Domoticz). But there is no control of the documentation and the actual commit is not always tested very well. When using the beta version you have always the latest features and it can took a while before the beta’s are integrated into the main stable branch. A lot of users are running the beta but are not helping the developers.

I decided to see if I could reproduce my current Home Automation system using Home Assistant in place of Domoticz.

My Domoticz system runs on a Raspberry Pi model 3, using an SSD for storage (in place of the default MicroSD card). I did this because Micro SD cards don’t like the constant read/write cycles of databases – and since Domoticz has a database in it, I decided to use an SSD instead. At the time, this was a project in itself. However, with the introduction of the Raspberry Pi model 4, the Raspberry Pi Foundation is moving towards full support of SSD devices, including as a boot device.

The Hardware

So, I bought an RPi4, a Pimoroni heatsink case, and an M.2 128GB SSD card in a USB enclosure:

I followed this guide to install Home Assistant on the SSD, and to use it as the boot device for the RPi4. All proceeded according to plan, and I had a working Home Assistant platform ready to test my Z-Wave devices on.

My Domoticz installation uses an Aeotec Z-Stick Gen5 Z-Wave controller. The first problem I encountered was that apparently this device doesn’t work directly with the new RPi4 model. I would either have to perform surgery on the controller, use a USB hub as an intermediary connection, or purchase the new Aeotec Z-Stick Gen5+. I decided to get the new model of the Z-Stick. Using Aeotec software, I migrated my current Z-Wave network from the old to the new Z-Stick.

Z-Wave Support in Home Assistant

Home Assistant already has an integration for Z-Wave, but I noticed that the team had announced a new Z-Wave integration project in February this year. This is currently in beta. Which to choose? It seemed to me that there were pro’s and con’s for both:

Original Z-Wave integration:
pro’s

  • stable
  • well integrated into HA

con’s

  • only supports version 1.4 of OpenZwave. Newer Z-Wave Plus devices may not be supported out of the box.
  • Restarting HA forces restart of Z-Wave network

QT OpenZwave (beta) + Mosquitto (a message broker):
pro’s

  • uses version 1.6 of OpenZwave
  • touted as the future by the HA project team
  • the developer apparently works on both the QT OpenZWave (beta) project and the OpenZwave project itself
  • runs in a separate Docker instance so the Z-Wave network runs independently of HA itself.

con’s

  • It’s a beta; lots of unfinished bits, particularly in the UI integration with HA.
  • the Z-Wave admin tool is crude, but it works.

On balance, I decided to go with the Beta, since this was more likely to support newer Z-Wave devices, and is supposed to be the future for Z-Wave in the Home Assistant world.

I have thirty Z-Wave devices in my network. Aside from the controller there are devices such as smart wall plugs, switches, remote control, smoke detectors and a siren. The test would be to see if this network could be successfully migrated across to Home Assistant and then managed as a production system, with the ultimate aim of retiring Domoticz in favour of Home Assistant as the platform.

Moving to Home Assistant

I booted up Home Assistant for the first time, and waited until Home Assistant had got the latest version downloaded and set itself up ready for the Onboarding Step. This involved setting up the initial administrator account and telling HA where it is located. All very straightforward and well-described in the documentation.

The next step was to add and configure the integrations that I needed to use Z-Wave.

On the HA web-based interface, I clicked the Supervisor button, followed by the Add-on Store link. From the list of official add-ons, I chose the OpenZwave (beta) and the Mosquitto Broker:

These are required for support of Z-Wave. Once added they appeared on the Dashboard screen (here shown together with some additional add-ons I included for testing)

Clicking on a module shown in this dashboard gives access to the module’s documentation, configuration and module logs.

Configuration was fairly straightforward (after a couple of false starts), and the Z-Wave network was read from the Aeotec Z-Stick and after a few minutes of messages being passed between the OpenZwave beta and the Aeotec Z-Stick controller, the following appeared in the OpenZWave administration tool:

Actually, the details of the smoke detectors took a day or so before they were filled in. They spend most of their time “sleeping” and only wake up every 24 hours. So it took time for the new Z-Stick to discover the devices fully.

And as you can see, this is a separate administration tool – the beta does not yet have full integration of the administration into Home Assistant itself.

Nonetheless, the contents of the Z-Wave network was now fully available to Home Assistant, and I could start adding devices to my Home Automation Dashboard.

Here’s an example of what the current Dashboard looks like. This will likely evolve over time.

You’ll notice that besides the Z-Wave devices, there is some additional information being shown, e.g. the Weather here at our location, rubbish (garbage) collection dates, and electricity use.

This is being fed by additional devices and services supported by integrations in Home Assistant.

On the Home Assistant web-based interface, I clicked the Configuration button, and then chose Integrations from the list of configurable items:

On this screen, I added the necessary integrations. For the support of Z-Wave, I had added the OpenZwave (beta) and the MQTT (the Mosquitto message broker) integrations. This screenshot shows them added, along with some other integration modules that I have added.

There are currently over 1,700 integration modules available for Home Assistant, including a module for Roon (but that’s another story…). Suffice it to say that Home Assistant is able to integrate a wide range of devices and services into a unified environment.

Automation in Home Assistant

The whole point about Home Automation is that it should take over the control of common tasks for you. For example, turn on the house lights when it gets dark.

Here in the Witte Wand, Domoticz had been set up to do the following simple tasks:

  • Turn on the living room lights and the lamp in my study 45 minutes before the sun sets.
  • Turn off the lamp in my study at 23:00 each evening
  • If no-one has turned them off at night, then turn off the living room lights at midnight.
  • Turn on the pond pumps at 08:00 each morning.
  • Turn off the pond pumps 30 minutes after sunset.
  • If the temperature falls below freezing at night, turn on the pond pumps.
  • Turn on the water heater in the outbuilding at 08:00 and turn it off at 17:00 each day.
  • If the motion sensor at the entrance detects movement, send a “Someone’s here” message to our smartphones.
  • If it is dark, and the motion sensor detects movement, turn on the outside lights for 10 minutes.
  • Turn on the Hi-Fi system and speakers at 08:00 each morning and turn them off at midnight.
  • At Christmas, turn on the tree lights at 08:00 each morning and turn them off at midnight.
  • At Christmas, turn on the garden lights 30 minutes before sunset, and turn them off at 23:30.

All these automations were easily reproduced in the Home Assistant environment, using the built-in automation tools.

Conclusion

I’ve been impressed with what the developers of Home Assistant have achieved and how the project is managed.

I have migrated my current Home Automation system from the Domoticz platform across to the Home Assistant platform.

I intend to carry on using Home Assistant as the platform for our Home Automation system for the foreseeable future.

Addendum: 11 January 2021

I thought I should just add a note here concerning the OpenZWave (Beta) integration in Home Assistant. Development of OpenZWave seems to have slowed to a standstill during the last six months. As a result, there’s been concern raised in the Home Assistant Community Forum about whether this integration is, or should be, the future direction for support of Z-Wave networks in Home Assistant.

It appears now that the developer of OpenZWave is stepping back from further active development of the software, he will continue to tinker with it, at his own pace, to his own demands.

That has led the leaders of the Home Assistant project to put in place a plan B for an alternative integration of Z-Wave networks into Home Assistant.

The current OpenZWave (Beta) integration will remain in place for the foreseeable future. It works for me and many others. OpenZWave itself is software that is used by 100,000+ users; not just in Home Assistant, but in Domoticz and other Home Automation platforms.

I will continue to use it until such time as the proposed Zwave-JS integration is mature enough to migrate to.

Posted in Computers and Internet, Consumer Electronics | Leave a comment

“All We Ever Wanted Was Our Freedom…”

So it comes down to this, Boris Johnson. After years of concocting lies over the EU as a journalist in Brussels, and then as a third-rate politician exemplifying the Peter Principle, you have to recognise that you have failed utterly.

Pathetic on all counts.

Over to you, Marina…

Posted in News and politics | 1 Comment

Held To Account? No More, It Seems.

Nick Cohen writes of his despair that UK politicians are no longer held to account for their actions.

I wonder whether the UK (or the US) will ever be able to claw itself back out of the cesspit into which it has fallen?

Things have not come to the same pass here in the Netherlands as in the UK – thank heavens.

We do have to be watchful though.

The shameful episode over Childcare Benefits (where 26,000 parents have been falsely accused of benefit fraud) still rumbles on, with politicians now at last agreeing that it was wrong, but still apparently without full repayment to all those falsely accused.

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Good Riddance, Dominic Cummings

The key sentences from the Guardian’s analysis:

It is a mark of the tragicomic nature of Mr Johnson’s government that a week of infighting within No 10 dominates the news at a time of national emergency when hundreds are dying every day from a dangerous disease. Mr Cummings gets to walk away while Britain is stuck with the damage he has wrought.

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A Small Sigh of Relief

So Trump has been defeated. A good day for democracy.

However, I fear that, with 70 million people having voted for him, the US remains deeply divided, and the next four years are not going to be easy. At least we will be spared the torrent of rancid tweets and lies that have been flowing from the White House these last four horrendous years.

Many Americans will be breathing a huge sigh of relief, and will be feeling the same emotions as this CNN commentator:

As Carol Anderson writes, in the end, millions of Americans were not prepared to let democracy die on their watch.

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Vote!

Dear US citizens, for all our sakes make the change happen on November 3rd.

Posted in Music, News and politics, Society | 4 Comments

RIP Chris Killip

Chris Killip has died. He probably made his name as a photographer with his photos documenting the industrial decline in the north-east of England. But for me, as a fellow Manxman, it is his photos of the people and places of the Isle of Man that resonate the most with me, because I grew up with them.

My parents had a hotel, which like many hotels on the island was open only during the Summer season, which ran from June to September. When I was very young – up until I think my eighth year – I would be sent to stay with a family in the country during the season, because my parents had their hands full with running the hotel. This was no hardship for me, because I was living in the countryside, but farming was not an easy life as Killip’s photos show. This photo of the interior of a Manx cottage could have been taken in the cottage where I lived for at least two of the seasons:

It was still common to see horse-drawn ploughs, and look at this photo of Mr. Corkhill, the blacksmith, and his son – the size of the horseshoe gives you an idea of how large the Shire horses were. To a small boy, they were gigantic, mysterious beasts, whose eyes held hidden secrets.

I remember also seeing Mr. Kinnish’s threshing and milling machine in action:

I’m talking about the 1950s. Chris Killip took his photos between 1970 and 1973. It is clear that even 20 years after I lived amongst the farming community, that things had hardly moved on at all. The Farmers Mart at St. Johns, just a few miles from where I stayed in Greeba, looks much the same as when I was around 20 years earlier.

The Manx Museum has a good collection of his Manx photos which can be seen online here.

Posted in Photography, Society | Leave a comment

A Dutiful Boy

The title of Mohsin Zaidi’s memoir of his journey to self-acceptance. There were times when I was growing up when I thought being gay and different was hard, but, believe me, it was as nothing as compared to Mohsin’s experience. That he’s made it, and that his family have made it, is wonderful.

As Russell Tovey says:

This memoir is so heartfelt, emotional and really funny. I picked it up because I wanted to know about different cultural experiences of what it is to be queer, especially when religion is involved. If you’re Muslim and you’re gay, I can’t fathom what that entails – how you corroborate that in your head, how you approach your family, friends and community for acceptance. This book is very candid and it really educated and entertained me.

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If Donald Got Fired…

A little balm for the soul at this moment of crisis…

And to my American readers… Vote! All our futures depend on it!

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The Masque of the Red Death

It all seems so inevitable that Donald Trump would succumb because of hubris, and his blatant disregard of the facts.

And it remains difficult not to feel schadenfreude and not to laugh at the Covid Joker himself. As Marina Hyde says:

God knows, it’s excruciatingly hard to chirp “Get well soon!” to this particular patient, but … get well soonish. Those of us who want to escape the cesspool Trump has helped drag the world into will wish him a better time with the virus than the one to which he blithely condemned so many of those he was elected to serve. Each to their own, but I’m against all forms of the death penalty, karmic or otherwise.

But still, it is what it is, eh, Donald?

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Fitbit: One Hand Giveth, Another Taketh Away…

My first fitness band was a Microsoft Band 2. The functions were well thought out, and it tracked my workouts at the gym very well indeed. Unfortunately, whilst the design was good, the build quality was appalling – so much so that I got through three examples before Microsoft pulled the plug on the product entirely.

So I looked around for an alternative and selected the Fitbit Ionic. While it didn’t track my workouts as closely as the Band 2, it was acceptable, and other functions (watch, timer, notifications) matched what I had with the Band.

The Ionic also had the capability to store music and play this back through Bluetooth headphones. This I found very useful – I now listen to Podcasts during my sessions at the gym. Getting the Podcasts onto the Ionic is a very slow and clunky process involving a badly-designed Fitbit Windows app and WiFi, but, OK, it more or less works.

My Ionic is now getting on for three years old, and despite a small crack in the screen in a corner, it is still working satisfactorily. However, sooner or later the inevitable will happen, and I will need to look for a replacement.

I see that Fitbit have just introduced two new models positioned as potential replacements of the Ionic – the Versa 3 and the Sense. Up until now, the Versa product line has closely matched the features of the Ionic, including music storage, while the Sense is a brand new introduction focusing more on health than fitness functions.

Both the Versa 3 and the Sense list “Music Experience” in their features, but the wording rang alarm bells in my head:

Store and play music and podcasts with Deezer, plus control Spotify from your wrist—then, use them to stay motivated with curated playlists specifically made for your favourite workouts.

Although Deezer is available as an app on my Ionic, I don’t, and won’t, subscribe to either the Deezer or Spotify streaming services. With local music storage on my Ionic, I don’t need them.

I checked the product manuals for the Versa 3 and the Sense, and yes, there was no reference to either of these products having the capability of storing local music. If you want to listen to music, you must be a subscriber to either Deezer or Spotify. That’s a deal-breaker for me. Unless this feature is restored to the Versa 3 or added to the Sense, neither are of interest to me. Judging from the Fitbit community forums, I’m not the only one.

Posted in Consumer Electronics, Health and wellness, Sport | Leave a comment