A 90% solution…

Since moving into this house, I’ve spent a decent amount of time pondering home automation, or more specifically how the home’s systems can work for me rather than me working for them. Some things are fairly straight forward – like heating and cooling. Even there, though, I’m using my fancy wifi-enabled, sensing thermostat as a simple programmable controller. It turns out the location of my thermostat in the main hallway didn’t get enough passing traffic for the thing to ever get a proper sense of when I’m home versus when I’m not. It also never really grasped my version of what constitutes a comfortable indoor temperature. It ended up being more useful to build my preferences directly into the program and then lock it in rather than hope the smart system would smarten up. My phone gives me a reminder on Sunday evenings to tweak the plan to account for planned schedule changes in the week ahead. The trend leaders would roll their eyes at this version of “automation,” but it works for me.

Lighting is the other bit of the puzzle that I’ve opted to keep dead easy basic. The new automated lighting systems can let you manage “scenes” throughout the house. It looks slick as hell on HGTV or YouTube. It’s also a thousand miles beyond what I need my lights to do. My favor of simplicity is driven by a single factor – I’m fanatically committed to my routine. That means most of my needs are met by old fashioned mechanical timers rather than connected fixtures. It doesn’t cover a few things like the task lighting in the kitchen or the overhead lights in the bathroom, but overall lights start turning on five or ten minutes before I get out of bed in the morning and then proceed, switching on and off room by room, as I go though the day. True automation, would gain me the ability to fine tune things a bit – and control light sources other than lamps – but I can’t see how that additional utility would be worth the cost of making the transition.

When it comes down to it, I don’t generally need fully connected, internet of things home automation. I’ve survived 43 years of my toaster not talking to my refrigerator and I don’t see much gain for enabling them to do so… and I’m old enough to be absolutely horrified at the thought of my front door lock being controlled from somewhere in the cloud. Maybe if I get the chance to build a last and final house, I’ll bring in more automation – things that make sense when built in from the ground up. For now, I’m leaning hard into my routine – and accepting the 90% solution priced out at $25 opposed to an “automation” solution that could easily have run to the thousands of dollars. I might never have a properly automated home, but I’ll have one that operates “just so,” and that feels like the real goal here.

Monday being Monday…

I’ve made a lot of hay on this blog by posting about other people’s fuck ups. It only seems fair that I call myself out with the same level of snark. 

You see, today I was trying to do something that should have been very simple. All I needed to do was spit a few reports out of a database, pretty them up a bit in Excel, and then pass them on. Well, the database in question was throwing errors, the info I needed just wouldn’t download. Fine, I say to myself, if I can’t automatically run a report I’ll just go in and copy/paste the information manually.

That, friends, is where the morning came off the rails. As it turns out, what I did wasn’t so much copying and pasting information into a report as it was overwriting about fifty line items in the database itself with duplicate information. Whoops.

The IT shop says they can (probably) revert all of the fields I jacked up back to their previous versions. I’ve been going about the day just pretending that they’re right… because if they’re not, I have no idea how the hell to go back and manually re-create everything that was there before I took a scythe to the data. 

In conclusion, I’m an idiot and Mondays are stupid. 

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. RFID. Rolling our RFID at access points was supposed to make getting to work faster and easier while reducing the manpower required to make sure everyone showing up is actually supposed to be there. Over the last two weeks of the roll out period, seven of ten attempts to use the fancy new “no touch” pass system failed to function properly. It didn’t work and ended up being about two times slower than it would have been if I’d have used the regular access lanes. EZ Pass makes it work on the interstate at 70 miles an hour for anyone with a transponder from a dozen different states, but we can’t seem to figure it out in a limited deployment under controled circumstances at five miles per hour. To quote General Beringer in War Games, “After very careful consideration, sir, I’ve come to the conclusion that your new defense system sucks.”

2. Human feelings. Its been a year since I made the decision that any further treatment for Winston was really just me staving off the inevitable while making him suffer for my own benefit. I’m just now getting to a point where I can look at pictures or the occasional video of him without becoming a blubbering mess. Feel free to ignore me if my eyes still happen to get a bit misty from time to time. Sigh. Human emotions are dumb and I’d like to have mine removed, please.

3. Finding “no.” I am a professional bureaucrat. Over the better part of two decades I have learned many useful tips and tricks. One of them, most assuredly, is how to use process and procedure to slow progress on an ill advised adventure to a bare crawl. Believe me when I say that I know how to run out the clock with the best of them. Sometimes, though, a project is going to take wing no matter how ill advised or badly developed the concept. It’s such a high priority to someone that it’s going to happen. Once a special someone is committed on that course of action, what I need the master bureaucrats to do is fall their asses in line and manufacture ways to find yes instead of laying down every possible hurdle. I see what you’re doing. I know those tricks, So please, get the fuck out of here with that douchbaggery just this one time.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Squeakers. The level of noise in my house is probably more subdued than most. There aren’t kids screeching or multiple adults knocking around. The television or a webcast is usually running in the background just to provide some ambient sound. Maybe that’s why the sudden onset of every imaginable style of squeaky toy for dogs has left me slightly twitchy. Even with that said, I’m prepared to declare that dog toys with squeakers in them are absolutely tools of the devil, conceived in Hell itself and delivered by Amazon. If they can make whistles that only dogs can hear why can’t they rig toys to squeak in the same range? If feels like a wholly undeserved slice of the large and growing pet toy market.

2. Home Depot. Amazon has me trained, I suppose. I put in an order and two days later it ends up on my porch. Home Depot has a lot to learn from that model. I ordered something last Friday and it’s still sitting at the “order received.” A call to their customer service line gave me the stock answer that items usually ship in between 7 and 10 business days. I did, however, arrive home to find the item sitting on my front porch… even while a day later the tracking still says it’s just an “order received.” Hey, I’m happy to have it so I can get it installed over the weekend, but how the actual fuck is that an acceptable model of fulfillment in the internet age?

3. Lighting. I’ve gotten on board with some aspects of an automated home. I love my Nest thermostat. I love my security system – and it’s various environmental sensors that keep an eye out for smoke, carbon monoxide, and unexpected water in the basement. I’ve toe touched into the broader world of automated lighting – mostly using individual programmable switches and timers for various outlets and fixtures. It’s a system that works well enough given my somewhat fanatical adherence to routine. Still, there are some things I’d like to automate that are a little more involved and others I’d like to have a finer level of remote control over. This has led me down a deep and growing rabbit hole of home automation tools and systems… and into a growing awareness that doing what I want to do is going to be a not inexpensive effort. There’s more than a small part of me that wonders if the old mode of “flip switch, light turns on” isn’t really good enough. Of course then there’s the other, larger part that wants to exert detailed control over my environment that’s almost surely going to win the day. In this case, I suspect lighting is just the catalyst for a much larger and deep rooted annoyance.


If you love sausage, it’s probably a good idea to not spend much time dwelling on how it’s made. Assholes, lips, and nostrils it may be, but somehow they work well together when conjured with the right mix of spices and applied heat.

It occurs to me that most things in the office are kind of like sausage. The end result usually turns out well enough, but taking a deeper look at how the gears are meshing behind the curtain is rarely a good idea. As I mostly just want good tasting sausage likewise I just want my automated work processes to be actually automated. If you have to spend hours talking about how many times an actual human person has to touch an allegedly automated procedure, chances are it’s not quite as automated as you think it is.

I don’t even to think that the money we pour out each year to build these magical systems that need dozens of people to manually intervene in order to give the illusion of automation. Seems better to just admit that automation is hard, expensive, and we just aren’t very good at it. Give me a routing slip, a clipboard, and an hour of walking around time and it seems like I could get the same results at a fraction of the cost as the high maintenance process designed and maintained by a small army of software engineers.

If you’re going open up the kitchen and let the world see how you’re making the sausage, don’t be surprised if more than a couple of them lose interest no matter how good you promise it’s going to taste once it’s cooked.

Dull roar…

The dull roar of the shredder was my companion today. The previous occupant of my desk was apparently something of an old school bureaucrat; bound and determined to maintain hard copies of just about everything – emails, briefing slides, memos, checklists, and all manner of ephemera that go along with spending your life in service to Uncle’s great green machine. The reason I know this is that since I moved in a full file drawer and approximately twenty three-ring binders have been keeping me company here at my desk.

For the last six months I’ve been bound and determined that I wasn’t going to fall into the trap of picking up that mess just because I happen to be here now and he happens to be long gone. That makes about as much sense as going to the dog park and picking up after someone else’s dog. Sure, you can do it, but why would you?

Today, I hit the point of exhaustion – or maybe the point of exasperation – with needing to shuffle around that long forgotten paperwork to get to things I actually need for myself. I attacked the monument to bureaucracy with gusto and was soon rewarded with easily 2000 pages of documentation whose ultimate fate was shredding and ignoble recycling into consumer paper products. Call me crazy but chance of my being called on to produce a 5 year old email addressed to someone else about a project that has been closed out for 4 years seems to be slight at best. It’s almost as if we’d have all been better off if no one had hit “print” in the first place.

And that brings me to my point – I hate paper documents. I avoid them at all costs. When they show up uninvited at my home the first thing that happens is they get transformed into a beautiful PDF, get a searchable name, and then go into the archive for use in the future if it turns out that they’re ever really needed at all. As often as not, that’s the last time human eyes will ever look upon those particular electrons. It’s an approach that’s served me well at home for almost a decade now – virtually making the one lone file cabinet I own obsolete. Now if I could just convince the office that fully digitized documents are better for everyone…

I’m not holding my breath on having any ability to urge the behemoth to step into the twilight of the 20th century so the shredder’s dull roar will likely be my near-constant companion for the next two decades.

Of dogs and frogs…

With Winston limping around in the ranks of the walking wounded, yesterday was about as low key a Sunday as you can get. Given the ridiculous amount of joint medication, arthritis medication, steroids, and pain meds coursing through his 70 pound system, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that he seems to be making out much better than I expected. His left, rear ACL is definitely blown, though so now it’s a matter of making some hard decisions about what standard of care makes sense for a slightly overweight, middle aged bulldog. I’m going to schedule a consultation with the local orthopedic vet to get a better read on what my options are at this point. Knowing that he’s a surgeon, I’m well aware that when your primary tool is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail. I’ve done more reading about animal physiology in the last three days than I have in the last 30 years. Let’s just say that the camps are pretty evenly split on what is a “reasonable” course of treatment. I’m struggling to find the fine line between “heroic” and “fiduciarily irresponsible.”

While we’re on the topic of pets, if there’s anyone out there thinking about becoming the proud owner of tree frogs, you should think long and hard about that decision. I’m pet sitting a pair of the little buggers this week and let’s just say that for something about the size of a matchbox car that live in an aquarium, they’re an inordinate amount of work. To be fair, I have to admit, the real issue isn’t the frogs. They’re actually pretty fun to watch as long as you don’t mind laying out a nightly cricket buffet. Dialing in the automatic mister on the other hand has left me puzzled, perplexed, and occasionally saturated when I open the eclosure door at precisely the wrong moment. Even at the lowest settings, the damned thing seems to blow though a gallon of water every few hours… Which doesn’t sound like much until you remember that the tank isn’t very big and there’s nowhere for the water to go once it’s been sprayed. I now own a turkey baster for the first time in my life… Although after sucking up several gallons of frog water, I don’t think this one is destined to live in the drawer with my other kitchen gadgets.

For the record, the baster method of water removal isn’t particularly efficient, I think with a little know how and the right length of plastic tubing, I might be able to rig a siphon to at least get the job done a little faster. Or I can just give in and pick up a spray bottle if I want to go all low tech about it. Come on, tell me that doesn’t sound like an entertaining Monday night.