Beware the Sucker Holes

No, that’s not a pornographic double entendre. “Sucker hole” is a term I learned from an old flight instructor. It’s a break in the clouds which beckons naive, non-instrument rated pilots to take a chance on finding clear skies through that hole only to have the clouds close in on them and leave them in zero visibility.

Last week I said I’d post my progress with the new Insteon home automation device, the ISY99-i. Lemme digress for a second. Say what you will about marketing droids, but when a company goes to the trouble of holding a brain jam to create a slick product name for its baby — like “Insteon” for example — it says that someone was paying at least a little attention to the customer. Needless to say, this wasn’t done with the ISY99-i.

I’ve been through this so many times that I knew with 89% certainty what I was embarking on. Out of the box I saw that I was going to have problems. For one, the packing slip said that there was a DB9 serial cable. In fact, it was a cable with a DB9 on one end and an ethernet connector on the other. Useless to me, or for any other purpose I could think of. And there was no manual, just a link to a web site, where it talked about an installation disk, which also wasn’t included. After a half hour of searching the site for a download I ran across a forum message saying that the ISY99-i doesn’t use an installation disk.

You know, I can understand why a paper manual might be out of date, but a web site? This wasn’t a good start. It only got worse from there.

For one, the device requires Java to be installed on your computer. My professional experience with Java includes countless crashed web browsers, broken web sites, locked up devices, bloated web servers and poorly written spyware. The ISY99-i didn’t do much to temper my dislike for Java. But that’s only after I managed to get into the software. I spent most of the afternoon trying to communicate with a dead device until a response to my “Helllp!!” message on the company’s forum told me that I had to disable my anti-virus software. What?!! Does the company really expect its customers to also invest in compatible A/V software to use their product?

The reply was correct however. I moved the installation to a disposable laptop, disabled my Kaspersky A/V software and the cryptic terminal software loaded. The screen looked like something only an old mainframer could love — like a 1994 college science department web site.

After another hour or so of fumbling around I had the ISY99-i “crawl” my house to catalog the existing Insteon devices I have here. It not only failed to find over half my Insteon devices, it wouldn’t let me enter them manually either.

(Edited) Further experimentation shows that it wasn’t the ISY99-i box that was at fault here but the included PLM modem — the device that communicates with the Insteon devices. Most of the same devices are unreachable with this device and MisterHouse too.

And no matter what I did the ISY99-i refused to link to the device panel in Windows XP. Did I mention the helpful error messages, like “Discovering Nodes; Retry!“?

That was enough. has always been good with returns and they were no less proactive with the ISY99-i. They sent me an apology and an RMA number. Back it goes.

But that left me back at Square One and no “brains” for my Insteon set up here. Without that, I don’t really have much automation here, mostly just expensive light switches with violet backlighting.

I decided to revisit some software I used a long time ago when I had X10 home automation. It’s a free, open source software package called MisterHouse. I stopped using it mostly because it was WAY more software than I needed at the time. But it supports Insteon now so I think that’s the way to go.

 +-But — of course — there was a problem. It requires a local web server to run and my FreeBSD Unix server was missing a key component to get the software to work. Its not MisterHouse’s fault. A botched server upgrade left the operating system wedged between two versions and I could find no way to back out of that. The only recourse was to reinstall the operating system from scratch, but that would mean that BrooklynRowHouse and a dozen other web sites would be offline for probably several days. Not an option.

In addition, my Dell PowerEdge server has been dumping RAID error messages to the logs and setting off sirens at 3am (no kidding) so I need to take that box down for repairs.

To make a long story a little shorter, I reactivated an old Pentium 4 box here and decided to dump FreeBSD and use Ubuntu Server 8.1, a Linux variant. Basically, I’m building a clone of the live server on another operating system. When that’s done, I’ll temporarily move all my operations to it and fix the PowerEdge. So far, so good.

If nothing else, now you know what a “sucker hole” is.


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Welcome to Brooklyn Row House

This blog is about the challenges of renovating an old (1903) Brooklyn, New York row house.

My last major renovation project was the master bedroom, most of which is about finish carpentry. You’ll find other completed home improvement projects in the Projects submenu at the top of this page.

I’m not a professional builder and don’t pretend to be. I’m just an experienced amateur raised in a family of committed DIYers. I try to closely follow local and national building codes but don’t mistake anything on this site to be professional or even accurate advice! Your mileage may and definitely will vary.

This is the third iteration of, from scratch-built to Drupal and now Wordpress. I hope you enjoy your time here.