Category Archives: Technology

WeMo Update

So a while back, a looong while back (since I only post every six months, you know, it was like three posts ago), I wrote about my issues with WeMo. I never really did anything about my problem, because Google did it for me. It’s funny, actually, because my gut instinct when I run into a wall with technology is “I can program something to fix this.” I don’t know if that’s a healthy reaction, but it’s what comes to mind most often. My issue is I have two problems when it comes to programming something:

  1. I never finish anything.
  2. I never have enough time.

So going back to my previous post about WeMo, I wanted to make something that could access my WeMo’s, have a web interface, see stats and graphs of usage, group WeMo devices together for easier control, and have this functionality both inside and outside my house.

Believe it or not, that was about two and a half years ago I posted about this.

Not much has changed, actually. I don’t have a web interface and don’t have better stats and graphs. But what did change is I got a digital assistant – Google. And I learned that much of the other stuff doesn’t matter. Let me explain, but first…

I don’t want this to be a “Google Home is great and wonderful!” type post. The fact is, what I’m doing with it is probably the same that I can do with Alexas. Siri, well, that’s another story. And I think Cortana lost all her lives. But between Big Alexa and Google, I’m pretty sure the feature set is about the same today.

Anywho, what I quickly learned about my Google Home is that it let me do exactly what I wanted as far as grouping. You create “rooms,” and can then add smart devices into it. Here’s the cool thing: you can mix smart devices in a “room,” so for example I can have WeMo outlets, Phillps Hue Bulbs, a Nest Thermostat, and a Chromecast, and Google will interact with them together. It’s really quite nifty.

I use “rooms” in quotes because a room can be pretty much anything. Like I have a “room” called “Christmas Lights,” which consists of WeMo outlets around my house. Then when I ask Google to turn on my Christmas Lights, it’ll turn on the random outlets spread throughout my house.

Changing topic slightly to digital assistants, I recently made a comment (MP3 / YouTube) that was read out on one of my favorite podcasts, DTNS, about how I can include in a room a Google Home device. By doing that, I can now ask that specific Google Home to “turn on the lights,” and Google is smart enough to turn on just the lights in the room it is located in. That’s pretty nifty in my book. I would assume Alexa can do the same thing, I just don’t have familiarity with it. I do have other thoughts about digital assistants, but I’ll post about that at a later time. I’ll try not to wait 6 months!

And finally, I made mention of using a Raspberry Pi to use as a link between my smart home devices and the outside world. The Raspberry Pi would have been ideal because it’s a low-powered device and I would be able to program it like I could create a program for any PC type device. But as it turns out, my needs changed. And I now have a full fledged PC running in my office closet that is used for a Plex server. I’m really excited about this nifty free program, and am looking forward to posting more about it as well in the future.

WeMo MoWoe

So thanks to the Christmas season, I found myself in the Home Automation market.  And I decided to start with WeMo.  Now please don’t see this as an endorsement of any kind, since there are literally hundreds of products out there that do the same thing, and some may even be much better at it than WeMo.  But for what I was looking for, WeMo did what I wanted and then some.

First, some background:
I like Christmas lights.  A lot.  And by a lot I mean 4,670 of them this year.  That doesn’t include the hundreds inside either (like the ones on the tree, the banister, the little decorative trees and the like).  My problem – not enough electricity on a single outlet.  And because there isn’t enough electricity on a single outlet, I needed a new way to control how they turn on and off if I want to use more than one outlet (which I did!).  I needed something that could do the job with some relatively synchronized timing.  In other words I didn’t want to see half of my lights on and the other half off for 20 minutes.

Enter “Smart Outlets”
So the easiest way I could find to do this was using Smart Outlets.  They all seemed to fit the bill, but WeMo had a couple of legs up for me:

  1. They had an in-wall Smart Switch which I really liked.
  2. They had an easy to use Android app.
  3. The outlets and switches could be automated using sunset and sunrise as conditions.
  4. The outlets could track energy usage.
  5. They have a product called WeMo Maker which lets you create your own WeMo integrations with other devices, like a Garage Door Opener.

So with all that in mind, I set out to WeMo-ify my home.

Setup was pretty simple, although I struggled setting up my first outlet because of some sort of incompatibility between the app and my phone’s WiFi settings or OS.  The trick – turn on Airplane Mode, then turn on WiFi, and then the app worked beautifully.

After I got everything up and running, and I was happy with how it worked, I tried to group the two outlets together… only to find that’s not a thing.  You can group “Smart Bulbs” together, but not outlets.  And while this doesn’t impact me, apparently after you group “Smart Bulbs” together, you can’t control them independently.  That’s a bummer.  But alas, IFTTT to the rescue!  I think…

For those of you not in the know, IFTTT stands for “If This Then That.”  It’s a pretty cool free service since it lets you integrate random networked technologies together to make them do interesting things.  For example, when I open my Smart Garage Door, turn on the Outside Lights.

The problem with IFTTT was similar to my problem with WeMo though, you can’t really group things together, and you can’t string multiple conditions together (or at least I think you can’t – not natively at least).  So for example, I can’t say “When I Open My Garage Door” AND “It’s Before Sunrise” THEN “Turn On Outside Lights.”


To pour salt in the wound, the WeMo outlets I bought, called WeMo Insight Switch (Why do they call them a “switch?”  Could you make it any more confusing?) can track energy usage.  Awesome, right?  No.  Because the app is so anemic in functionality, it can show you some basic stats and email you a CSV file of information on a schedule.  No pretty graphs.  No usage tracking.  Nada.  Lame.


So here’s what I’ve done – thankfully I can use IFTTT to turn everything on with the push of a button on my phone.  I have it set up to turn on all my outlets.  If I buy any more than the current two outlets though, they too will be triggered by this IFTTT button.

Bummer again.

But the WeMo app does let me create a schedule and lets me identify the things I want turned on at sunset (or even a set amount of minutes before or after sunset – nice touch WeMo).  So that’s how I am controlling my two separate Christmas light outlets.


But I want more.

A. I want an interface that’s easily accessible and faster than the WeMo app.
B. I want a web page I can log in to to see and control everything.
C. I want to see more statistics, charts and graphs.
D. I want to be able to group anything together and control it as a group, but still retain the ability to control it individually.
E. I want to be able to do all of this from both inside and outside my house.

Thankfully, I’m a programmer.  And thankfully, WeMo is pretty open to letting people tinker with their stuff, thanks to a system that is pretty much web based that lets you pass commands back and forth using some SOAP and XML.  Now in full disclosure, they have discontinued their SDK, but that was really only for Android and iOS app developers.  They also don’t let you do stuff to WeMo devices remotely – they claim it’s a security risk to their cloud.

The game plan?  Well, it’s still early on, but I think I can use a Raspberry Pi and either home-grown programming or this controller API humorously named ouimeaux to accomplish my dreams.  And if all goes well, this might be something I could actually sell to others, a cloud service perhaps… but lets not get a head of ourselves.

Step one would still be to mess around with ouimeaux and see if I can get it to bend to my will.  Then I would look in to purchasing a Pi and seeing what’s possible.  I would also want to carve out some space on my web server to act as a front-end to all of this, since I wouldn’t want to open up local ports on my router in order to issue commands from outside my WiFi – especially if I begin to market this to others….

We shall see what comes of all of this… probably nothing initially, but it’s definitely a project I’d love to play with.


A Mid-Year Roundup and Windows 10

Hello July of 2016!  I said in December I wanted to post more than once in 2016.  Today I make that mark a reality because today I posted my second post in 2016.

I know, lame.

Anyway, I have some time to myself (sort of) and I just thought I should give my tumbleweeds a shake here at the Sidewalk.

Item 1 – some free time.  So back in December I posted about a large project that’s been consuming most of my time.  It still is.  But thankfully it’s at a point where I’m adding features instead of squashing bugs.  This gets me back in to a groove, a happier state, where I can develop and see my vision play out instead of sifting through thousands of lines of code trying to find the variable where an end user has discovered if you enter the exact string “10001110101” the programs causes the server to crash.  (I kid, of course – but you get the point).  Give me feature requests every day.  But I don’t want to hear that the report didn’t print correctly – especially when the problem is you forgot you don’t have a printer at your desk.  So that makes me happy.

Next up on the docket, Windows 10.  I jumped in.  I knew it was getting close to being time a few months back – I had been running it on my laptop for about a year and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to hold off on my desktop PC.  My desktop, which is a new(er) Dell 9020, I had shipped with Windows 7.  And while I like to explore new technologies, changing the OS on the machine I derive half my livelihood on didn’t sound like a smart move.  Update horror stories aside, Windows 10 just doesn’t feel as polished like Windows 7 did.  Windows 7 I felt had the stability and possible longevity that Windows XP had.  But Microsoft has other ambitions – to unify everyone on a single OS for phone, tablet and desktops, while building an App Marketplace like Android and iOS that works on everything.  That’s ambitious.

Don’t get me wrong – Windows 8 was a mess.  So much so that Microsoft wanted to jump two versions in front of it.  That, but also they wanted the last version of Windows to be a nice round number.  Oh stop gasping.  Look at Apple – they did it too – and in fact they’ve cemented it now by changing the name of their OS from Mac OS X to simply macOS.  But getting back on topic, Windows 10 is light-years ahead of Windows 8.  But I have three main gripes:

  1. Notifications.  I get it, this is how we interact with all our mobile devices, so why not our desktop?  And to be honest, I am starting to like notifications a lot more compared to the pop-up bubbles in Windows of yesteryear.  But Microsoft doesn’t know how to use notifications themselves.  Case in point: about once a month I get this:
    So I click on the notification and I’m brought to my profile screen in system settings.  Nothing there says anything about my credentials need to be updated.  Furthermore, why would they?  They haven’t changed.  My security settings are all the same.  Why do I need to update them?  I then click on the Manage button on My Account and Edge opens up a web page at Microsoft where all my profile details are posted.  No login.  No password verification.  No alert of any kind that something needs to be updated.  What the heck Microsoft.
  2. Settings.  I had this complaint with Windows 8 and – while its better – I still find it awkward.  You want to adjust some network settings.  You click on the Network icon in the system tray and whala – a link to your network settings – great.  Except… it’s a page with about 5 links on it.  Each link I click on brings be to the old school Control Panel counterpart.  If all we’re doing is linking to the Control Panel pages…. why don’t I just go through the old Control Panel???
    I get it – there are so many dialogs and options and settings that redoing all of that takes time.  But guess what – Microsoft is a big company, and they have the manpower to make this right.  There’s no excuse for a year after it’s release to still have this type of half baked OS.  I’m sorry Microsoft – I expect more from you.  You can do better.
  3.  Edge.  Oh Edge.  See, I’m a purist when it comes to my browser.  I don’t want to add browsers to my computer when my computer comes with one.  When I open up an Android phone, Chrome is there.  I use that to get online.  I’m not going to download a different browser when the OS provides a perfectly good option.  And, as much to your dismay, Internet Explorer was an absolutely fine option (the later versions, like > 9 – before that you had Windows XP and Internet standards be damned!).  Seriously, most people who switched away from IE 11 did so because “that’s what everyone does” and “no one uses IE except to download a different browser.”  But for daily use (and coming from someone who designs websites for a living) it worked just fine.  IE 11 in fact worked so well with the typical standards that after designing a site and previewing it solely in IE, and then looking at it in Firefox and Chrome when done it came out perfectly.  Seriously.  It wasn’t a bad browser.  It’s biggest fault – it was Internet Explorer.  And IE has had such a bad rap that Microsoft’s only hope to stay in the browser game was to “make a new browser.”  Unfortunately for me, and much like the rest of Windows 10, it’s half baked.  I get it, its stripped down so it can be fast.  But fact of the matter remains that it’s most notable feature is the Web Note feature which lets you draw on a web page so send to people.  Do you know how useless that feature is?  Seriously, I clicked on it once – just now – and still don’t know why I would use it.  Oh, and while I’m complaining, seriously Microsoft why is it that you added and promoted this great feature with Windows 7 about pinning web sites to the task bar from IE, a feature that I use religiously, and have since taken this away with Edge.  That doesn’t sound like it would be that difficult to copy over that functionality.  But I doubt that’ll come anytime soon.  I was probably the only one still using IE to notice that feature.


So that’s all I have for this evening.  I’m off for now.  But I sure hope to be back here soon to bring you more insight to my mind!

Lets bring back AIM

For those of you who are too young to know… or too old… funny how that works.  Sorry- squirrel!

Anyway, For those of you who aren’t ages 25 through 40, AIM was perhaps the most popular way to communicate in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.  Before (The)Facebook and before MySpace, before texting and Tweeting, people had conversations online.

It’s a strange concept today.  You see, somewhere along the way, people stopped listening.  But since we’re obsessed with just blurting out everything about our lives regardless if someone is actually paying attention, services like Facebook and Twitter have become increasingly popular.

Alright, I know this is a bit of an exaggeration.  In fact, I know for a fact that at least 35% of people[404 citation not found] don’t actually post on Facebook.  Take my wife (please – ha!), for example.  She doesn’t actually post on Facebook, she just reads what everyone else is posting.  And today she’s started Instagram-ing.  Sort of.  She hasn’t posted a photo yet!

I actually don’t have any social media accounts.  I had stated once at a class reunion, “By golly, I wish I conversed more with these here folks.”  (Apparently in my memory my reunion was in the deep south.)  “I should get that there Facebooks so I can talk to them friends again!”  Later, I was informed that that’s not what Facebook is for.  You don’t have conversations, really.  Just post stuff about you, and then if a friend found it worth reading, they’ll “like” it.  And if they were really jazzed by what you said, they may even post a comment.

Oh! And it’s also used a lot for posting “Happy Birthday” to to your “Friends” once a year.  Facebook should come up with a way to auto-schedule that.  It would save a lot of time!

So going back to my original problem, I think we need to talk again.  Not to 1,000 of your closest friends, but to individuals.  And if you’re really feeling ambitious, start a group chat!

Oh screw it, I’ll just sign up for Google+: The Social Network for Anti-Social People.

Dear Microsoft: Give me my Start Menu back!

So I recently posted that I was afraid of the latest version of Microsoft’s ubiquitous operating system, Windows 8.  Believe it or not, this post is coming from a laptop now running Windows 8.  You see the best way to overcome fear is to jump right in.  And jump I did.

My initial feelings – as I’ve only been playing with it for a couple of days – it’s not bad.  I get it – it’s a uniform OS design that will be on phones, tablets, laptops, and PCs.  But my testing has a twist than most reviewers of Windows 8 – I’m not using touch.  However, I am running this on a MacBook Air, which has a very generous trackpad which may give me an unfair advantage.

What I like:

Apps.  Who doesn’t like apps? And Windows 8 apps have some nifty features like being able to be docked to the side while you do other things, like work on the Desktop or open other apps.  Not bad.

The Desktop.  I was very concerned about the prospect of losing some productivity, but the Desktop is there in all its glory. If you’ve used Windows 7, moving to 8 isn’t all that bad.

Compatibility. Everything I was using in my Windows 7 life is working on Windows 8. When migrating operating systems, that’s always a crap-shoot, but so far I have yet to run in to a program or driver I had on Windows 7 that isn’t working on Windows 8.

The bad:

The App Store. Or whatever Microsoft calls it, is a little useless. There just ain’t much there.  You get the hits, Netflix, Angry Birds, and the like.  But you just get the feelings that developers aren’t flocking to build Win Apps.  That could really hurt the whole “unified OS” experience a lot.

Half Baked. I just get this feeling when using this that there are features or options that just haven’t been completely thought out.  For example, I want to turn off my device.  Yeah, I get it that laptops can just be closed or tablets have that nifty sleep button.  But I want to restart or shut down.  How… do I do… that…

The Start Menu. Give it back.  Now.  I’m not kidding Microsoft.  I’m going to take hostages pretty soon.  I get it, you have a new start screen with the tiles and it’s cool and all.  But I’ve already explained that I can’t even figure out how to reboot my laptop (I did eventually – you have to bring your mouse to the top right corner to open up the charms, then click on settings and in there is a power button that you can click to bring up a menu to reboot.  Really Microsoft?  REALLY???).  I also found out that when I install apps, I have to dig around in the Programs folder to find them after they’ve installed so I can then add a shortcut to the Desktop or Taskbar.  I later found out that they are available on the Tiles UI Start screen…. all the way at the end where I didn’t look…. and you have to right click on it in order to have windows pin it to the Taskbar.  One last final thought in my futile attempt to get my native Start menu back. In my job, I use a ton of programs.  I pin the most frequently used things to my Taskbar for easy access, but then there’s the program I use once every other month, like the Snip tool.  I’m not going to pin that, but how do I open it up without an “All Programs” menu?  Oh, here we go with the charms again.  Bring my mouse to the top right, click Search, jump in to the Tiles UI, start typing in Snip, see the program listed, jump back to the Desktop where I can now use the Snip Tool… Not a fan…

Disjointed. I don’t mind the Start Menu Tiles UI, and I get the new interface with the Apps.  I also assume that over time more and more things will be Apps and fewer and fewer things will open in the Desktop window.  Unless it’s really just work related.  But if I’m doing work related stuff, I don’t like the idea of having to jump out in to the Tiles UI to open up a work related program, which just brings me back to the Desktop mode.  This ties in with my desire to bring the Start menu back. But I just feel like there’s a lot of back and forth.  I don’t think it’s healthy.


And there you have it.  My long winded and overly complex and utterly confusing review of Windows 8.  To sum it up in one word: “meh.”

Windows 8 Scares Me

It’s an odd feeling – being scared by an operating system.  I come from a world where productivity means using a keyboard and a mouse.  Sure I have a Droid Phone and an iPad and I understand and can appreciate what touch does to an experience.  I mean, Angry Birds isn’t the same when you’re using a mouse.

But those environments were built with touch in mind from the ground up.  Now Microsoft is adding touch on top of Windows 7, and the result is Windows 8.  They did a very nice job, so don’t think I’m knocking them there.  The interface is elegant, informative, and customizable.  The tiles are essentially easy to navigate. And the concept is sound.

But now I think about my desktop that I have.  A computer in my office which started it’s life running Windows XP, then upgraded to Vista, and now 7.  It’s a Pentium D machine with a total of 4 GB of RAM.  And for what I do, it suits my need.  I love being on the cutting edge of what’s out there, even if it means dealing with a few bugs here and there.  But now I have the opportunity to upgrade to Windows 8… and I don’t wanna.

Without touch, Windows 8 seems ineffective.  Here’s a User Interface with controls designed to be touched, and here I am with my little itty bitty mouse clicking on them.  Options? Oh, I need to bring the mouse to the top right or lower right corners to bring up the Charms bar.  The what?? That’s right, the Charms bar.  What the heck is that?

Okay, well, let me just go in to Desktop mode.  And now when I go to open up this program and…. wait, now I’m back in the touch interface?  Okay, back in to Desktop, and lets go to My Computer and… hey!  Where’s my start menu??

Now listen, I’m the kind of guy who will work with a new UI just because I understand this is the future and I must conform or else it’s going to leave me behind.  When IE 9 came by default without any menu bars or command bars by default, I left it and worked with it.  Mostly everyone else I know has added their menu bar back and at the very least a printer icon.  But I want to learn to work the way it was designed to.

And that’s why I’m scared of Windows 8, because I don’t think I can work that way.  To consume content, sure touch works great – a la iThings and Android devices.  But when I’m going to develop a program or create content of some kind, I think touch will get in the way.