Monthly Archive for January, 2005

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Home automation is fun!

I’ve always thought X-10 home automation was a very cool thing, and wanted to get into it. It’s so damned easy to install! You don’t have to replace all your wiring, or anything. And it’s evolved way past the clunky-looking plug-in “lamp modules” that they used to stock at Radio Shack. Now, you can just replace your actual wall switches or outlets with X-10 versions, and instantly they can can be remotely controlled.

They are a little bit pricey, and installing them does require some comfort with house-wiring, and knowledge of the safety aspects of it. But it’s not difficult to do.

This stuff is so easy to install, and so cool, that I’m amazed that it’s not easier to find. Home Depot should have an entire isle devoted to X-10 products. I’m sure they’d sell a ton of it, once people realize what it does, and how easy it is to set up.

The potential for hacking with X-10 is tremendous. There are wireless remotes (IR, RF, or both) that can interface to X-10. It is possible to control motorized window coverings with X-10. It can control appliances, heating and air-conditioning, and swimming pools. It can tie in with a security system. You can get interfaces to send/receive X-10 control signals with a computer, which just opens up incredible possibilities. You can do amazing things in a home-theatre, if you have the time, skills, and budget to pull it off.

When shopping for X-10 home-automation, things can be a little bit confusing. The term “X-10” means two different things. First, it is the name of the communication protocol, by which the transmitters and receivers communicate over the AC wiring in your house. Many companies make equipment compatible with this standard. Second, it is the company name of one particular manufacturer of X-10 products.

The “X-10” company is one of the most annoying companies on the Internet today. We’ve all seen their popup ads on the web, pushing tiny cameras for “home security” (where “home security” apparently means protecting yourself from nubile young female burglars who break into your house to take a shower.) They are also spammers (or at least used to be, and I haven’t forgiven them yet), and their web-site itself is a garish yellow nightmare. It’s like the web version of those awful fast-talking TV mail-order ads (“But wait! That’s not all! If you order now, you’ll also receive the amazing Titanium Power Knife, able to saw through steel pipe, and still slice a tomato this thin!”)

On top of all that, the X-10 company doesn’t make the best X-10 stuff anyway. Leviton makes very good X-10 devices, though they are a fair bit more expensive than the X-10 company.

So, don’t buy from the X-10 company. I’ve specifically avoiding including any links to their site here, because I don’t want to help boost their Google rank, or send any business their way.

When I bought my pickup truck, I made sure to get the HomeLink garage-door opener option. This consists of three buttons on the overhead console. Each button can “learn” the code transmitted by the remote unit that came with your garage-door opener, just like an learning IR remote for your TV and stereo. I programmed the first two buttons to open two of my garage doors. But HomeLink buttons also have their own native language, so to speak, which they’ll speak if you don’t teach them something else.

It is possible to interface the HomeLink buttons to an X-10 system. The HomeLink website sells a “Vehicle Interface”, which receives the wireless HomeLink signal, and transmits an X-10 code. This then allows you to control something in or on your house from your vehicle. Very cool!

When I bought this house, there were outside lights over the garage doors, and a string of low-voltage lighting alongside the driveway. These are controlled by a mechanical timer switch in the basement. It’s always been frustrating, because the dumb mechanical timer doesn’t track sunset times as the seasons go by, so the lights are always coming on too early or too late. Also, there are wall-switches in the front hall, which are wired in series with the timer. That means that the switches can turn the driveway lights off, but they can’t turn them on unless the timer-switch does too. A three-way switching arrangement would have been more convenient.

The low-voltage lighting beside the driveway has actually stopped working. They were powered by a 120V cable that ran under the driveway. That cable has died. I think it was improperly installed. First, it was regular indoor cable, not approved for direct burial. And it was probably not buried deeply enough either, especially for under a driveway. So, it stopped working, and I’m not going to tear up my driveway to fix it now.

There were actually a lot of things wired improperly in this house when I moved in. I think the previous owner of this house did alot of wiring himself, and didn’t know what he was doing. It always amazes me that some people will do their own house-wiring, and never even stop to wonder if maybe there’s a reason why one wire is black, and the other is white. And what’s this bare copper one for, anyway?

I thought it would be cool to be able to control the outside lights from my truck. So, I bought the Vehicle Interface, and plugged it in inside my garage. So now I can press that button, and transmit an X-10 code. That was years ago. But there is nothing yet to listen to that code. And there the situation has stood, for the last few years.

But now, at last, I’m getting off my fat ass, and making some changes. I have placed an order with one of the major home-automation outlets on the web, SmartHome.

I ordered a pair of X-10 wall switches, to replace the manual switches that control the outside lights. And I will bypass the mechanical timer in the basement. That way, the HomeLink button in the truck will always be able to turn on/off the driveway lights.

In addition, I’m also getting a Leviton photocell/timer controller. It’s a pretty cool device. It will generate an X-10 ON signal at sunset, and an OFF signal some configurable time later. So, the driveway lights will automatically turn on at sunset every day too. This particular device is intended to mount on an outside octagon box on a wall. I have no such boxes available. Instead, I will just mount it on a loose octagon box, run a power cord out of the box, and set the assembly in a window, plugged into a nearby outlet.

Since I was doing an X-10 order, I decided to think about other parts of the house I can do at the same time. I have bed-side lights in my bedroom, plugged into outlets controlled by a switch on the wall. I can’t turn them off from my bed. Annoying. Sounds like a job for X-10! I ordered three more switches, to replace the regular switches in my bedroom, so all the lights will be remotely controllable. As an added benefit, they’ll be dimmable too (most X-10 switches are dimmers as well.) To control it all, I ordered a small X-10 controller that will fit nicely on my bed-side table. It can control up to eight things.

One last-minute thing I added to my order: the gas fireplace in my bedroom can also be X-10 automated. Gas fireplaces controlled by a wall-switch are usually using low-voltage wiring. In fact, the power to operate the gas-valve is usually generated by a thermocouple heated by the pilot light. Very low voltage. This has the added benefit that if the pilot light goes out, the power to open the gas-valve goes too, so the gas automatically shuts off, preventing a potentially disastrous gas leak.

Two control the fireplace, you can use an X-10 Universal Module. These will receive X-10 control over the AC lines, and close a relay contact. Hook the relay to the low-voltage control wiring of the fireplace, and you’re good to go.

At first, I thought I wouldn’t be able to automate the fireplace, though. The Universal Module, like all X-10 receivers, must be connected to the AC wiring to receive the signals. I thought there would be no AC wiring in the fireplace (since it’s all powered by that thermocouple). Turns out there is, though. When I moved in, there was a switch on the bedroom wall, beside the fireplace switch, but I couldn’t figure out what it was for. I just figured out that it’s there to control a blower in the fireplace. But there is no blower in this fireplace. The switched AC from the switch goes into the fireplace, but doesn’t connect to anything. But I can use it to connect the Universal Module. I just have to make sure to leave the blower-switch turned on all the time. I’ll probably remove the switch entirely, and connect the power inside the wall box.

So, this will be pretty cool when it’s done. From one small panel on my bedside table, I’ll be able to control all the lights in my bedroom, including dimming, and control the fireplace too. How sweet is that?

Some updates

I updated my kegerator page with a bit more detail. Namely, the actual part numbers for the Danby kegerator drip-tray, and the name of the parts supplier that I bought it from.

I also updated my project studio page, with some of the new toys I’ve added recently. To whit, Cubase SX3, a Mackie Control Universal, a Presonus Central Station, and an inexpensive ART SLA1 100W power amplifier (driving an old pair of Paradigm Titan bookshelf speakers I had lying around).

More copy-protection ranting.

This whole End of the World Party episode has got me thinking more about this stuff. Was the CD I bought actually defective?

Notice I said “CD”. I was under the impression I was buying a Compact Disc. It sure looked alot like a Compact Disc, and was displayed in a rack containing many Compact Discs. But, when I realized that it was copy-protected, I looked closely at the disc and the packaging. Nowhere on it does it say it is a Compact Disc. This is good for them. If it did, I would have much stronger case for saying it is defective. This product does not, in fact, comply with the published specifications of the Compact Disc standard. That is why it will not play in a DVD-ROM drive (nor, presumably, a CD-ROM drive.)

I am reminded of a story on Slashdot some time ago, about Phillips (one of the original creators of the Compact Disc specification) suing a record company to prevent them from calling their bastard product a Compact Disc. Good for them.

But not good enough to save me this hassle today. Should record companies be allowed to sell this product as if it were a Compact Disc? They did put a little “Copy-protected” blurb on the back, very small. Is that enough? It wasn’t enough to make me aware that I was buying a shiny $18 beer coaster. I thought it was a Compact Disc. Seems more than a little bit deceptive to me.

Not wanting to interrupt a good rant, I will continue with another thought that has returned to my mind. Here in Canada, a law was passed some years ago, which adds a $0.21 levy to the cost of blank CD-Rs. This money goes to the Canadian Private Copying Collective, who will, presumably, give some portion of it to Alanis Morisette and Bryan Adams. A similar law recently passed in Germany.

So, here’s the situation: you are guilty. You have been tried and convicted of stealing copyrighted music, and you have to pay a fine. There’s just one problem here… what if you’re really innocent?

Defenders of this law will claim that it’s all about averages. Some people use every blank CD-R they buy to copy music, some people (like me) use almost none of them. But what do I care? What does it have to do with me that some guy down the road has a library of 500 stolen CDs? What does it have to do with me that it’s almost impossible to find and prosecute the true copyright pirates? We have lots of unsolved crime. How many murders are unsolved every year? Shall we go out and arrest 5 or 6 random people for murder every year, just to balance out the average?

This has created a state of injustice in the world. Any good, right-thinking, freedom-loving person abhors injustice. Injustice must be corrected. Since you’ve already been convicted of this crime and been duly punished, it’s too late to fix the injustice at that end. The only way to correct the imbalance now is to actually steal some music. So, it is the moral duty of all justice-loving people in Canada to go out and steal some music. Only then will justice be restored.

How much to steal then? Lets see… assume an average cost for a legally purchased CD of about $18 (they cost around $1 to manufacture, by the way). At $0.21 per blank CD-R, that works out to 85.7 blank CD-Rs per CD. So, you are morally obligated to use one out of every 85 blank CD-Rs you buy to make a copy of a copyrighted CD.

I’m glossing over some details here, of course, like the fact that other people besides those represented by CPCC are entitled to a cut of your music-buying dollar, and they aren’t profiting from this injustice. But the point stands. Just make sure it’s an Alanis Morisette or Bryan Adams CD you copy, though, otherwise you’ll be creating more injustice.

End of the World Party Pooper

I bought the new Medeski Martin and Wood CD today, titled End of the World Party (just in case). I’ve heard some of the sample tracks on the web-site, and it rocks pretty hard. Very rich palette of keyboard sounds here, lots of “voice chorus” Mellotron, bass-heavy analog synthesizer sounds, and of course the usual Hammond and piano.

Rocking good tunes, I was looking forward to hearing them fully. But now I’m bitter, and shaking my fist at the world. Why? Because I can’t play the stupid thing. It’s copy-protected. My laptop would not even recognize that a disc was present.

It plays ok in my truck’s CD player, but that doesn’t cut it for me. I want to play it on my laptop, rip it into MP3s, and add it to my large collection of MP3s (every last one of them legally ripped from CDs I legally purchased, by the way.) But I can’t. The disc is useless to me. Back to the store it goes.

To their shame, HMV refused to take the disc back. They say it’s not defective. In a sense, they are right. In another sense, they are wrong. The disc was designed to be defective.

But it was not a complete waste. They did let me exchange it for another disc. I was in a hurry, so I couldn’t take a lot of time. I picked up The Best of Triumph the Insult-comic Dog DVD. Everybody on the Internet remembers Triumph from his hilarious riffing on a group of unsuspecting Star Wars geeks. I don’t have enough comedy in my DVD collection anyway.

Instead of paying solid cash for this defective piece of shit, I’ll just have to go find the tracks on BitTorrent or something. I tried to buy it legally, but I was unable to. So, great work there, guys. Are you happy now?

I’m sure somebody has been able to rip the album, or at the very least, redigitized it (with imperceptible loss of quality) from the analog output of a CD player. The analog hole has not been plugged yet. And never will be, I’ll wager.

Canon 580EX revisited

Took it back to Henry’s yesterday. They exchanged it, no problems.

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