Steve's blog

Beware the Sucker Holes

Posted by Steve on Wed, 02/04/2009 - 12:43pm

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.

ISY99-iLast 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You know, I can understand why a paper manual might be out of date, but a web site?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?

My house "blue screened", or The Confessions of a House Geek

Posted by Steve on Sat, 01/24/2009 - 8:27pm

I had my first Insteon home automation device failure this week. Unfortunately, it happened to the brains of the "automation" part -- the software/hardware combination that executes the timers that turn the lights on and off. Specifically, the culprit was the PowerLinc device that bridges my house to the USB port on my computer which runs the timers.

2414u Here's the little sucker. At 70 bucks, it's not like changing a lightbulb. Okay, I was pissed about it, especially as it's only a little over two years old. But, fact is, I was never happy with this automation set up. For one thing, it requires leaving a Windows box on 24/7 for the timers to work. And the HouseLinc software I was using must have some memory leaks in it because once I removed it from my computer it seemed to gain an extra half a processor.

What I really want is an Insteon driver for Linux/FreeBSD that would let me build my own timers in Perl, which I could run under Unix cron. That's what I did with my former X10 automation layout, which was decidedly more hobbyist-friendly than Insteon but decidedly more flaky as well, which is why I got rid of it. I spent a couple of hours Googling for open source alternatives to no avail before winding up back at the SmartHome web site.

It was there I noticed a couple of new Insteon products. One was a relatively inexpensive home automation controller that runs from a smart phone. It got 4 out of 6 on my Coolness Meter but it was functionally less than I had with HouseLinc. True Geeks don't downgrade.

Steam Radiator Air Valves 101

Posted by Steve on Tue, 01/13/2009 - 12:46pm

As I was just opening my eyes this morning I heard a steady hiss coming from downstairs. Anyone who's got single pipe steam heat knows the sound, especially early in the morning when the boiler is working hard to warm the house from its overnight setback temperature.

That's the sound of pressure from the steam displacing air inside the pipes. It's normal. That's what an air valve on a steam radiator is supposed to do. But if it's loud enough that you can hear it a floor away, you've likely got a problem. It often means the valve is stuck open.

I went downstairs and saw that my glass exterior doors inside the mud room were completely fogged up, in fact dripping.

DIY in the Nuclear Age

Posted by Steve on Sun, 01/11/2009 - 9:59pm

There are lots of reasons to fix up an old house: to restore it to its former glory, to flip it for profit, to gain a sense of satisfaction from a job well done.

Well there's an even more important reason according to the Federal Civil Defense Administration and the National Clean-up, Paint-Up, Fix-Up Bureau. Watch this compelling video, then get those plastic slip covers, people!

More old pictures of my house!

Posted by Steve on Sun, 12/28/2008 - 11:07pm
This summer, as I was standing on the sidewalk talking with a neighbor, a nicely dressed couple, Dorothy and Alec, stopped their car and were staring at my next door neighbor's house. He rolled down his window and said, "that was my grandparents' house until the 1930s".

He had spent a lot of time in the house when he was a little kid in the '30s. Betsy took them on a tour of her place, much of which is still original, and you could tell he was having flashback moments as he recalled the things he used to do in the house and what the neighborhood used to look like. He told several cool stories about what it was like here during WW2, the Liberty ships jamming the harbor waiting to be loaded at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, the trenchcoated G men on Second Avenue looking for people taking photographs of the troop deployments, etc.

They sent Betsy a photo of my house taken in 1936.


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