Home Automation

[TLDR: it is still very early days and you are likely to get frustrated 🙁 ]

We just completed (August 2019) the renovation of a 1980’s house near Cairns that was in dire need of some love and attention. It is now on Airbnb if you are interested. If you are interested in the horrible before and lovely after, you can find that at our builder’s site on Facebook.

Since it was a complete inside renovation, we decided we would like to use some modern facilities, including:

  • Smart lighting, that could be turned on and off remotely, dimmed, colour changed etc.
  • A smart lock, that could be programmed and opened and closed remotely if needed.
  • Smart irrigation, that would water the garden when required and comply with local water restrictions.

I did some research, obviously. I discovered that you need a home hub and there are two main technologies and many different companies offering hubs (the main ones being Google, Amazon, and Samsung).

We had smart lights installed in the living areas and main bedroom, but not everywhere as the price is $15 for traditional downlights and $50 for smart ones. We chose Amazon Echo Plus as a home hub as well as smart speaker, and a Yale Assure SL lock. They are all supposed to work together, which they do to a point. We chose bHyve watering controllers combined with some older technology for controlling the irrigation.

However, the technology is all very new and there are a lot of bugs. Issues we faced:

  1. Turning lights on and off with Alexa worked about 30% of the time. She is extremely sensitive to how you have named and grouped your lights, and also very sensitive to the Internet speed you have.
  2. While the Yale lock is “in theory” remotely programmable, the truth is you need a ton of technical skill and the remote connection is still not reliable.
  3. The “smart irrigation” is quite binary. If you go completely smart and rely on their smart watering, you have very little control and can’t be certain it won’t water when local restrictions don’t allow you to. I have opted for controlled irrigation in the times I am allowed, and if I know it has been raining a lot I turn it off. The nice thing is that I get a message when the watering has been done.

I expect these things to get better over time, but for now don’t believe those fancy ads you see on TV. If you would like some advice on home automation, I can give you an idea of what is realistic, and where NOT to spend your money. Contact me here.

Hosting for Small Businesses

[TLDR: Sometimes it is quicker to start from scratch with a web site, and I have recent experience building an attractive one using new WordPress hosting options. Contact me for more info.]

I look after the Waitarere Beach web site for the local real estate agent. It’s main function is to display the beach webcam image, but over the years various people have played with it. As a result it was full of old stuff and there were some problems with very old content (such as houses for sale from years ago) still appearing in search indexes.

I was away for a while and arrived back to a call for help….the web site wasn’t working, and all people were receiving were strange WordPress errors.

I have no idea what happened. Perhaps the hoster updated WordPress and the theme we were using wasn’t compatible. Perhaps the site was hacked – I have no idea who had access to passwords for the site or how they had been used.

[Sidebar: I know what I am doing having worked with web and FTP sites since the mid ’90’s, but it is easy to make a mistake and a web site I maintain was hacked after I logged into FTP unsecured in a hotel room in the USA once. So be careful how you log in, using https or secure FTP if you can, and never use unsecured connections in places like hotels.]

Anyway, as I tried to get to the bottom of the problems, I realized I had no hope of fixing the site:

  1. The web site used a basic Linux option from one of the traditional telephone companies.
  2. Their web site management tools are awful, making diagnosis difficult.
  3. WordPress was way out of date and the only options they had for upgrade were one full version out of date.
  4. I had no idea who had configured what over the years. It actually turns out that both WordPress and the basic web server were running, which explains why old files were still being served and show up in Google.

I took backups of the old site, the most important one being an SQL backup of the WordPress database. This is where all the text is kept. I also backed up the wp-content folder which contains all the images.

Then I went looking for better options. One of the local hosters has a WordPress only hosting option, which we chose. Advantages are that they kept the software up to date and all we have to worry about is the content. We signed up, they had a great discount for 10 years (at a cost that would have given only 5 years of traditional hosting from the telco), and the new site was up and running in 4 hours. Take a look and contact me if you need something similar.

Recommended Reading

Every so often, Bill Gates publishes his reading list, which is always pretty interesting. They are also usually pretty high-brow, which is ok but not perhaps what everyone is looking for.

I have my own humble list, but they are books I really think are essential:

  1. The Barefoot Investor – this is an Australian book that gives very sound money advice. It is very practical for Australians but the general lessons are applicable (with some research) anywhere. Vital reading for everyone from 15 to 90.
  2. Factfulness – a book to help you read and think past the vested interests that are killing our ability to discuss world issues and solve them.
  3. The Driver in the Driverless Car – describes our future based on technology innovation. Parents need to read to guide their kids, and kids need to read to understand where the careers of the future are. Spoiler – it is not being a driver.

I found each of these a relatively easy read and hope you will too.

Passwords and Security!

I just finished registering some new tools this morning, and like nearly everything these days the company asked me to set up a logon for their site. I now have 603 logons (more or less) for different sites. I suspect most of us have many, perhaps not that many.

I was asked for a password. I thought it might be useful to people to know how I manage this. First of all, I have a few rules:

  1. I try not to reuse passwords on different sites. We see so many examples of sites being compromised, I want to eliminate the risk of say my power tool company being hacked and giving up a password for my Internet Banking.
  2. I use complex passwords, usually 16 characters including upper and lower case letters, numbers, and special characters. I get these randomly generated so there is no pattern to guess.
  3. I don’t write the passwords down anywhere someone might easily access them.

So how do I manage 600 or so passwords? I use 1Password. There are a number of tools like this, this one has a family plan that lets five family members share a subscription. 1Password runs on computers, tablets and phones, which means you always have your (encrypted) passwords and other key personal details with you. I have a recovery code printed in my safe at home, which also means that my estate could access all my information when that is necessary.

The best thing about 1Password is that it can automatically fill in a logon form on a web site, so you don’t need to remember those hundreds of passwords, and you can even use biometrics (like fingerprint) to open 1Password.

I really recommend using this process to minimize your risks of being hacked.

Networking at the Beach

We moved to New Zealand from Singapore at the end of 2017. I already knew Internet access in New Zealand was more expensive for less speed than I was used to in Singapore. What I didn’t know was that when our subdivision was built, our section was bypassed by the then Telecom New Zealand and we had no access to wired Internet. Fibre won’t be coming here for quite a while, and Chorus (who now look after wiring for Internet) quoted us more than $8000 to install copper wiring!!!!! Needless to say I declined.

For a year we have been surviving with a small 4G hotspot from Spark which costs $45 for 4GB of data. This was ok while we were traveling a lot, but not a good long term solution.

When we came back last November, we discovered Skinny Broadband. We signed up and have been using a 120GB plan since November, and we are really happy. It is quite fast (not as fast as fibre), comes with a fairly capable router that can be configured and extended, and best of all has no contract. For beach users who aren’t here all the time, this means you can stop the service when you are away and restart when you are back (in monthly increments). Skinny use Spark 4G but with compression to speed things up, and you can buy 60GB, 120GB, or 240GB. We are using 120GB which has worked well for us so far.

Contact me if you want some advice.

Starting a new local business

I retired from the corporate world in November 2017, and moved to Waitarere Beach from Singapore.

Since moving here, I have been really impressed by the quality of the local businesses that I have been able to use, particularly local tradespeople, like the plumber and electrician.

Supporting local businesses is something I really care about, and when a few people asked me for help with their web sites or technology, I decided it make sense to start a small business to help others with their technology needs.