A Knife in the Dark

I have happy memories associated with Little House on the Prairie and the other books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Some people seem to consider the books to be “girly” or fluff, but I think them to be a great read both for what they are and for the memories experiencing the books with family.

I was about five or six when my mother read the series aloud to me and my older sister.  The things I remember most from the story are 1) the kids using the pig’s bladder as a ball and 2) the snow fort and subsequent snowball fight.  But what I remember best was that while my mother was reading about the struggles of the Ingalls’ family, my father would quietly appear in the doorway behind her and mime the story–somehow even the most somber of stories was hilarious when depicted in that manner.  When my sister and I would burst out laughing, my father would disappear behind the corner before my mother could turn around.

A few years ago, while visiting my parents, I stole those same books (which technically belong to my sister) to share with my children.  We spent a few months of after dinner reading time working our way through the series.  The kids found the stories interesting and entertaining.

In order to carry on the tradition of silliness, and also to make sure everyone was paying attention, I would occasionally slip in a little bit of extra content.  Typical favorites would be to add “A Ghost in” at the beginning of a chapter name and/or append “of Doom” to the end.  So while reading These Happy Golden Years and not long after advertising “Sleigh Bells of Doom”, I read out the chapter title “A Knife in the Dark”.  Nobody believed me until I displayed the actual text.  So now that chapter (or at least the title) is probably the family favorite and best remembered both for the ominous tone and for the memory of disbelief.

Some may say that the “Little House” books are for girls, but to me they represent fatherhood.  For the stories about about the fathers in the books.  For the stories acted out by my father.  And for being a father with children dubious about a chapter entitled “A Knife in the Dark”.

Watching the Eclipse

Apparently if I were to drive about 21 miles southwest from where I live, I could experience eclipse “totality”. Instead, I’m going to stay home and be satisfied with 99.3% coverage of the sun.

Like most people, the family procured eclipse glasses.  We also pointed the telescope at the sun and directed the view piece onto paper.  Viewing it on the paper made it easier to see the actual movement.







Another interesting thing we observed was that the sun shining through the trees created slivers of light shaped the same as the mostly obscured sun.

Back in 1984, when I was about the age of the girl child, I remember seeing an eclipse in Montgomery, Alabama.  I hope the kids have happy memories of today.

Let there be light (part 3)

In Let there be light (part 1) I played with Phillips Hue home automation and in Let there be light (part 2) I tried out the WeMo Light switch.  Both solutions work well where they are used in my home.  In this post, I’m going to compare the two and mention some things I like and dislike about the different approaches.


Retail for the Phillips Hue starter set (a hub and two bulbs) is about $70 and an Amazon Dot costs $50 so it would have cost $120 to do Boy #1’s room, but Amazon had a Black Friday deal and so I got everything for $90.

The WeMo switch is around $40, so that paired with a Dot would normally be $90, but I managed to save $20 on the Dot during a special promotion so my actual cost was $70.  Had I gone with Phillips Hue (even without needing to purchase another hub) I would have had to spend about $14 for each of six bulbs meaning it would have been $84 without the Dot.

The WeMo switch is a cheaper initial investment.  Also, assuming that switches last longer than bulbs, I think maintenance costs will also be lower.


The installation of the Phillips Hue doesn’t require messing with any wiring which is nice, but it does require setting up the hub.  The hub needs power so it has to be plugged into an outlet and it also requires a physical (wired) network connection.  Putting the bulbs in place is just like changing an ordinary light bulb.

The installation of the WeMo switch is just like swapping out any other light switch.  The switch does require having a neutral wire (not to be confused with a ground which is optional)–since my house has the neutral wire it isn’t an issue, but some homes are wired differently.

If you already have a hub in place, it’s definitely easier to screw in a new light bulb than to install a new switch.  It is also safer and requires less skill.  However, having a hub does mean one more device in the home that requires power and a physical (corded) network connection.  I think Phillips could have done better and put everything into the bulbs and not require the hub at all.

Other Aspects

  • Manual switch: With the Phillips Hue bulbs, the existing light switch can function normally, but if you use it to dim the light, that becomes the new 100% for the bulbs.  Also, if you turn it off, than the bulbs are unable to work at all via voice control.  The WeMo switch works as one one expect and doesn’t have any conflicts with voice control.
  • Dimming:  The Phillips bulbs allows dimming, but the WeMo switch is only on or off.


Overall, I like the WeMo switch better than the Phillips Hue bulbs.  However, there are two reasons why I’m not adding many more switches to my home.  The first is that the switches do not support multiple switches controlling the same circuit (ie they cannot work as three way switches)–compared to all the functionality already crammed into the switch, it seems to be as though it wouldn’t be overly complex to add support for that.  Also, the switches do not have dimmer functionality.

Let there be light (part 2)

My bedroom has two light switches and both of them are in awkward locations.  Because of the double door entry, access to one switch requires maneuvering around and behind one of the doors and it’s actually easier to walk across the room and use the switch in the middle of the far wall which is not near anything.  This does mean that the room must be traversed in darkness when entering or exiting.  A similar ill illuminated jaunt is required between the switch and the bed at night.

For years I have joked about getting a Clapper for the light.  However, when I tried to persue that I learned that they don’t seem to make Clapper hard wired light switches, only outlet devices for lamps and other things that use a plug.  Seeing the convenience allowed to Boy #1 with his voice activated lights, I decided to enact something similar.  Since the master bedroom has a ceiling fan with six separate bulbs, I didn’t want to go with a Hue like we did for Boy #1 in Let there be light (part 1).  Instead I decided to try the WeMo Light Switch.

It took awhile to get the switch installed, but it wasn’t particularly difficult.  Most of the time was spent running back and forth to the circuit breaker and testing wires to figure out which was which–part of the complication was that I was replacing a 3-way switch with a regular switch.  Also, the wire colors weren’t what one would normally expect.  Once the switch was in, it worked like a switch should–I could use it to turn the lights on and off.

After the switch was installed, I then had to configure it to work with Alexa.  It was similar to what I did for the Hue, so it went quickly.  Again I was happy that I didn’t have to create a new account or do anything too quickly.  I was expecting more difficulties, so I was pleased that things went smoothly

Anyway, as I approach my dark bedroom I can now turn on the light with a voice command.  And when I’m nestled in my bed, done reading for the night, and ready to sleep, I can just bark out some words and have the light go out without the necessity for a mad dash.

Let there be light (part 1)

Boy #1 has a loft bed and so it is awkward for him to adjust his light from bed.  With his birthday and Christmas both occurring in December, it seemed a good time to invest in new toys to solve the problem (and provide me with some entertainment).

For his birthday, Boy #1 was pleased to receive an Amazon Echo Dot.  The Echo has been a fixture in the kitchen for nearly two years so he understood the capabilities of the gadget.  After setting it up and pairing it with his Bluetooth speaker (also a birthday present) the music emanating from his room now sounds better than a slightly tinny cellphone speaker.

For Christmas, Boy #1 received a Phillips Hue starter set (containing a hub and two bulbs).  While light bulbs doesn’t sound like the best of presents, he quickly (and without assistance) realized the potential of integrating the Dot with the bulbs and having voice activated lights.

The setup of the Phillips Hue set wasn’t too difficult.  The biggest surprise for me was that there was no need to install any Hue app on my phone nor did I need to enable the Hue skill on the Alexa app.  After putting in the bulbs and plugging in the Hue hub (to both power and network) I just had to tell Alexa to search for devices and it found the bulbs.  Then I used the Alexa app to create a “group” and add the bulbs to the group.  After that the lights could be controlled by voice.

The boy seems to like the new setup.  Not only can the lights be turned on and off, but also can be dimmed via voice control.  Also, if necessary, the dimmer switch can still be used.  In this case, I think the Hue worked very well in solving the problem and in part 2 I will describe how I used a different implementation to solve a similar problem.

Farmer Giles of Ham

Tolkien BooksI have long been familiar with Tolkien’s The Hobbit and also The Lord of the Rings, but remained mostly ignorant of his other works apart from a 1982 print of The Silmarillion which somehow ended up in my collection.  This past Mother’s Day my wife received a couple volumes of other Tolkien tales and I noticed in one that among the “other books by the author” it listed The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and was intrigued enough to order it in a volume combined with Farmer Giles of Ham.

When the book arrived, I took a quick peek and immediately selected Farmer Giles of Ham as the next after dinner read aloud book for the family.  Upon completion, the family unanimously agreed that it is a terrific tale.  I think what made it so great for the entire family is that the writing is very Tolkienish, but it’s an easier read of a fantasy story (perhaps more a fairy tale) as compared to the more well-known stories involving hobbits and elves.

The story certainly contains a sufficient quantity of elements to hold the attention of all ages:  An unexpected hero going on a quest, knights, a magic sword, giants, dragons, battles, and a talking dog named Garm.  There was also the unconventional inclusion of a blunderbuss.  There are no spoilers here, but it can safely be said that the story is both amusing and entertaining.

In true Tolkien fashion, all the key players have clever names; often both a formal “book-Latin” name as well as the common “vulgar” name.  Even the the book title is referred on the title page with the lengthier “The Rise and Wonderful Adventures of Farmer Giles, Lord of Tame, Count of Worminghall and King of the Little Kingdom”.  These names tend to be more pompous and less serious than what I’ve seen in other works by Tolkien.  While the reasoning behind the names is explained when appropriate, the descriptions do not seem to require as many lengthy history lessons or descriptions of lineages as compared with that with which I was previously accustomed.

The writing style is elegant, but also accessible.  Tolkien puts words together in clever combinations that not only tell the story, but also contain wit enough to make reading alone pleasurable even were there no plot.  I did find the tone less formal than is typical.  Also, I think the words used are a little easier–I think I understood all the words and only had trouble pronouncing a few.

While not at the same literary level as The Lord of the Rings, Farmer Giles of Ham is a fun, accessible story.  Many people (especially younger readers) stall when reading Tolkien for the first time due to the immensity of Middle Earth and the history and culture that is described between (and occasionally even during) the action scenes.  For those who have started and failed or those that want a more gentle introduction, at under 80 pages Farmer Giles of Ham may be just the thing.



A refrigerator that sings


Unlike Talkie Toaster, the Samsung Family Hub Refrigerator is a real product and it has some interesting features.  The product page lists features such as:

  • Food Management (knowing what you have)
  • Family Connection
  • Entertainment
  • Apps

It’s not until the “More features to love” section that there is any mention that this contraption can keep food cold.  Perhaps that ability was considered obvious, but it’s interesting that the main purpose of the device is the last thing listed even though it does have some innovative cooling functionality such as FlexZone(TM) which lets you use the bottom right section as either a freezer or a fridge and a “Triple Cooling System” (apparently there are three separate evaporators to better maintain temperature and humidity).

I’d take the Family Hub Refrigerator if someone gave it to me, but I’m not going to rush out and buy one for $6,000.  I think most people could have equal smart-fridge-satisfaction by purchasing a similarly sized high-end fridge for thousands less and then slapping a Triby on the door.  Still, I think it’s worth looking at the “smart” features.

So the fridge doesn’t really sing, but it can stream music from Pandora or TuneIn.  From how frequently the Amazon Echo is used to play music during chore time, I concur that it’s nice to be able to easily play music in the kitchen.  However, this is a problem already solved in multiple ways and I’m not seeing the benefit of shoving that capacity into a refrigerator.  I certainly know of no relationship between music and food cooling.  I suppose it is possible that the size of the fridge could be used to improve sound quality (a big woofer in the bottom or using the full width to separate speakers for a better surround sound), but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.  Something I see useful in some situations in a first world problem sort of way is screen mirroring–it can mirror your TV so that when you run in from the other room to grab a snack you don’t miss what’s going on in your show.

The Family Hub includes a clock, calendar, photo display, and notes–all features that are on BakBoard and are nice, but the only benefit I see putting it on the fridge is that it provides screen real estate in a convenient location.  The screen can show weather information and some of the pictures suggest displaying the “word of the day” and “on this day in history” factoids.  There’s a “Family Bulletin Board” display and a “Morning Brief” as well.

What’s more interesting are the food related features integrated with the Family Hub. Since a refrigerator is for food, I think making a smarter refrigerator should improve that relationship with food.

Putting cameras inside and letting you view the contents without opening the door (or even being in the vicinity if using the cell phone app) is a good attempt to make refrigerator a better refrigerator.  My refrigerator is always more densely packed than the pristine Family Hub examples, so I’m not sure if it really is practical, but I would prefer it if my kids could look at a screen on the door instead of standing with the door open staring inside for minutes while trying to decide what to eat.

I won’t go into detail about the ability to search recipes or order groceries–I think those are fine and at least related to food, but not exciting.  The obvious missing piece is that the Family Hub doesn’t really know what’s in it, so it can’t suggest recipes using ingredients you have, nor can it automatically order something when you are almost out of it.  One video I saw mentions the ability to track the age of items in the fridge, but only if you always put the items back in the same spot–there aren’t any smarts to track item movement.

I think the main problem with the Samsung Family Hub is that it’s trying to be the hub of things instead of a thing in the Internet of Things.  I want smart solutions for things like food management, but a picture of the inside where I don’t see any ketchup only tells me there is no ketchup in the fridge and doesn’t tell me whether there is any in the pantry or garage.  The refrigerator is not the central hub of my home, it is merely one of many things in my home and any truly smart fridge will know its place–no matter how well it can sing.

What’s a Triby?

tribblesWhen I saw the word “Triby”, my mind jumped to a classic Star Trek episode and I imaged Captain Kirk and a bunch of fuzzy things.  A quick search revealed that those are “Tribbles” and that the Triby is very different, but the similarity in name grabbed my attention enough that I put forth to answer the question, “What’s a Triby?”

Last month I commented (perhaps bemoaned?) that all the fancy gadgets aren’t very family friendly.  Apparently Triby is a new product which is all about “Connecting you with the music and people you love”.  I find it interesting that music is listed before people, but it does seem to be a step in the right direction.

The core of Triby is the Alexa Voice Service.  This means that it is a lot like the Alexa on the Amazon Echo.  However, it doesn’t seem to support everything Alexa has to offer such as some music services (Spotify and Pandora) and home automation solutions (WeMo and Phillips Hue).  Even without those, the core Alexa functionality and numerous skills available (such as Nanny State) provide many features useful to a family.

There is also some “internet calling” capability in Triby.  This allows for hands-free calling.  It appears as though it is configured so that calls can only be made to/from specified contacts–this suggests that a kid could easily call Grandma but there wouldn’t be concern of telemarketers calling.

Triby goes beyond voice communication with a small display and a few buttons.  By default, the screen appears to have a clock, the day/date, weather information.  Some pictures show the Triby displaying information about what music is playing, or displaying virtual sticky notes sent from the phone app.  The buttons are shortcuts to call people or play specific stations and do other tasks like answer a call (but presumably those things can be done with voice as well).

tribyTo me the Triby looks like a toy radio for children.  It has a magnet on the back so that it can be attached to a fridge.  The buttons are also have a toy-ish appearance.  The screen is a small e-ink display–probably to reduce power consumption (the battery lasts about two days on a charge).  The neatest physical aspect of the Triby is the mechanical flag that pops out of the side when a new message is received.

I’d love to have a chance to play with a Triby, but I don’t see myself forking at $200 for one (or even the current $169 sale price on Amazon).  I think Triby has good intentions, but I’m not seeing a WOW! factor.  I wouldn’t be surprised if soon there is a new and improved Triby available that is flashier.  For now my family will continue using our BakBoard and Echo combination, but I’m glad that companies are starting to produce family-friendly tech products.

Can I have screen time?

Nanny StateScreens provide “cheap” entertainment.  By “cheap” I’m not referring to the cost in terms of money, but rather effort to participate.  It’s much easier to turn on the TV and vegetate than to go on a hike and easier to hop on social media than call up a friend and go see a movie.  Because of the ease, screens are often the go-to entertainment choice.

In my home, the kids tend to frequently want screen time not only in lieu of entertainment that requires effort, but often instead of performing other, more important tasks.  So, when a kid expresses a desire to a parental unit for permission to utilize a screen, the parent typically ascertains things such as:

  • Status of homework
  • Status of chores
  • Completion of daily instrument practice
  • State of personal space (room clean, bed made, etc.)
  • If any sanctions are in place prohibiting screen use

Even though the kids are familiar with the criteria, usually there are multiple requests made before the kid has completed everything necessary to be allowed screen time.  Each of the rejections could be deemed as a negative parent/child interaction.  I decided to offload this monotonous task and created Nanny State.

Nanny State is a Alexa Skill for the Amazon Echo.  Basically, a kid says “Alexa, ask Nanny State if I can have screen time.”  The kid then must respond to a few yes/no questions covering the items in the list above.  If the kid provides an unsatisfactory answer, the response is “No screen for you.”  If all answers are as they should be, the kid is instructed to confirm with a parent.

For fun, I submitted Nanny State to Amazon.  This morning I received an e-mail stating that “Your Alexa skill Nanny State is now live!”.  This means that anyone who owns an Echo can go to the Alexa App or http://echo.amazon.com/#skills and enable Nanny State (or click on the image and it will take you there).


Less social networking, more familial interaction

It seems to me that as technology drops in price and becomes ubiquitous that it tends to focus on the individual and neglect the family unit.  I don’t see this as a deliberate attack on families, but I do see opportunities for innovation an effort in improving technology to make things easier for families.

A phone number used to be associated with a location–dialing a personal phone number would cause the phone to ring in a home.  Today, more people are cutting the land line and only using cell phones and this sometimes makes effective communication more difficult because there is no way to contact anyone in the family, only a particular individual.  This is particularly difficult for my kids who want to call friends–the younger ones don’t have cell phones yet, but when both parents work, calling cells simply doesn’t work.

Another example is the calendar.  Traditionally there would be a calendar on the wall or refrigerator that would be used to track activities for the family as a whole as well as individual family members.  Electronic calendaring systems have been around for quite some time now, but still paper calendars seem the norm for families.

It was the calendar that got me started making BakBoard, and it seems many other people have had similar ideas.  Just today I learned about the wall mounted information display created by Tom Scott which has a calendar, weather information, and (my favorite) a countdown timer to help get the kids out the door to catch the bus.  There’s also the Wall Mounted Calendar and Notification Center which doesn’t have the bus timer, but does have some buttons to change the calendar view and to refresh the web page.  Additionally there is a simple Raspberry Pi Wall Mounted Google Calendar.

BakBoard is an attempt to try to make a gadget designed for consumption by the family rather than an individual.  It remains in a known, central location and displays information for the entire household.  However, I think the technology involved is primitive when compared to many services out there tailored to the individual.

I think the Amazon Echo is going in the right direction a device for a family rather than the individual and it is considerably more sophisticated than BakBoard.  Boy #2 uses it to listen to music while washing the dishes.  Boy #1 uses it to remind him when it’s time to go to school.  Boy #3 likes the corny jokes it tells and also adds random items to the shopping list.  The girl child can ask it how to spell words.  The caveat is that everything happens on my account.  It is possible to switch between accounts (both my wife and I have accounts but the kids don’t), but it seems cumbersome.  Also, many of the integrations are user specific.

There is a lot of room for improvement in making technology look at the family rather than the individual.  From what I’ve seen, the biggest complications are finding a good way to balance privacy and security.  Other issues include treating the family as a unit while still recognizing that the family is made up of individuals.  Since I don’t dislike my family, this is an area which I want to further explore.