Way back in early 2000’s I was playing around with home automation and had varying degrees of success. That system was pre-smartphone, so it ran on your computer and used a clever plug that transmitted signals through the wiring in the house to all the connected devices. I ran it off an old iMac I’d salvaged from somewhere and used the latest version of the software, but it was still glitchy (that was the last CRT computer I owned). It worked OK but I was never really able to build a solid case for investing hundreds of dollars into the gear and software, so I gave up on it.
These days Apple has HomeKit, which is an out of the box automation framework that hooks up to a whole fleet of (relatively inexpensive) peripheral gear. I spent $20 on two smart plugs last week and gave them a try. They are simple on/off switches, so they act as slightly smarter versions of the plug-in light timers we already own. They took all of a minute to register with HomeKit, and I quickly had a light in the living room hooked up to one. With one tap on my phone, the light turns on and off. But this kind of sucks, because I can’t just walk into the room and turn on that smart-connected light without a cellphone, and we don’t live the kind of regimented life where timer-controlled lights make sense. They’re great for when we travel, and I’ll probably swap out all of the old mechanical timers this year, but I can’t think of a use case for these plugs other than that. (I’m not buying an Alexa or HomePod to voice-activate anything, before you ask).
Now that I know it works, I’m going to explore some of the more expensive options for automation—maybe a system set up to control the door locks, for example, allowing us to open the door without a key. But what I’d really like is to replace the thermostat with something programmable from somewhere other than the keypad; our Honeywell unit is about 15 years old and takes three hours of button-mashing to program every time the batteries die. The trick is to avoid the larger monopoly ecosystems; Google bought Nest back in the day and Amazon just bought iRobot—so now Bezos knows how much lint is under our couch. A couple of years ago I picked up a cheap Wyze camera for the house to see what Hazel was doing in her spare time but recently found out their system had been hacked and wide open for several years. Glad I only used that camera for the weeklong demo period.
Meanwhile, we bought a Nest doorbell cam for Bob’s house to keep an eye on things remotely, which I installed on Sunday. The physical installation went fine but trying to set it up through his phone revealed that the Verizon rep completely fucked up his account setup, so that they were sending his bills to Pennsylvania and shut his phone off for nonpayment. We’re sorting that mess out now.
I got an email a couple of weeks ago from Vaer, the folks who made the Field Watch I’ve been wearing for most of this year. They send me a newsletter once every couple of weeks, which I usually don’t read, but this one was a little different; they were offering a deal for owners who’d previously written a review of their watch tied to the opening of their Amazon storefront. They basically dangled two watches in front of me for a sizable discount and expected me to just walk away.
I was ready to, honestly, but when I realized that one of them was a diver offered with a 38mm case size, I got very interested. It’s a solar-powered automatic with a black face and bezel, and from all the pictures I saw, I thought it looked pretty good. They have a couple of other bezels I like just a smidge better—but the more I went back to the open browser tab, the more I liked it. I figured I’d try it out and if it wasn’t to my taste I’d send it back, so I clicked the button.
In the flesh, it’s a very nice watch. It’s taller than my Ollech & Wajs—the Timex I tried was the same height—which has been taking some getting used to. All of the other watches I own are very thin, with the exception of the Todd Snyder Timex, which is also the widest in diameter. This sits up on my wrist, but the relationship of the bezel to the crystal isn’t as severe as the Timex, and the proportions are more carefully considered. The diameter is perfect. It fits the size of my wrist without feeling like I’ve strapped on a dinner plate. The movement is silent and fluid.
I was on the fence when I first unboxed it. I thought it was too tall. I hemmed and hawed and finally showed it to Jen for her opinion. She immediately liked it. She commented that she likes my field watches but said looks like an adult going-to-town watch, which I agree with. She thought I should keep it, and so the decision was made.
One thing that definitely needs to happen is a replacement watchband. The two Vaer shipped with the watch are chunky and, to be honest, pretty ugly. The strap shown on the O&W is my current favorite: a mustard-yellow NATO strap that’s got a light pattern and looks great on both this and the field watch. I need a couple of 20mm pins and a new band.
And clearly, I’ve got to have the crystal on the Ollechs & Wajs polished or replaced.
My Airpods Pro have been making terrible crackling noises for the last couple of weeks, something I didn’t notice until I was in the Scout listening to a podcast with noise cancellation turned on last weekend. Once I heard it I couldn’t not hear it, and I realized it was worst in my left ear. I made an appointment at the Apple Store and stopped in Friday morning to have them look things over. The tech verified they were covered under the replacement program, took them in back, tested them, and returned with two new earpieces (I get to keep my beat-up case, sigh). I know I’m a low-key Apple fanboy, but it’s service like this that keeps me loyal.
Driving to and from St. Mary’s County yesterday, I wore them almost the entire day, and I’ll say this: the difference was astounding. It could be the old ones were very broken, or they put new firmware on my replacements, but the noise cancellation was ten times better and the sound was improved.
This is the first weekend in a long time where we’ve been home. Like, in our own house for two days. Jen has been socked in with work for several weeks, and a lot of it has come to a head, so we thought we’d take a break from driving south to Lexington Park and stay around the homestead. I’ve had a lot of things around the house piling up in our absence, so I took the opportunity to knock a couple of them out.
The first thing was replacing two basement windows that were original to the house. I’d ordered replacements back in March and they finally arrived about a month ago; I’ve been waiting for a solid weekend to tackle the project. Pulling the old windows was pretty quick work—they were only held in by two sets of ancient brass hinges and a hook and eye latch. I cleaned up the wooden surrounds, cut and installed baffles, and slotted them into place. With some careful carpentry the inside baffles got nailed into place, and they got caulked tight. Now we can have open windows and enjoy fresh air in the basement! A miracle.
The second project is one Jen has been asking about since last year: painting the garage to match the house. I started out by scraping the west side and got it ready for paint. After cleaning both my guns and consolidating the remaining paint, I filled the compressor and sprayed out the west side and half of the driveway side before running out. I’m going to have to repair some of the plywood on the front side and do a lot more scraping overall, but it looks pretty good so far.
Finn has been binging a new videogame for the past month, and has been asking me to play with her. It’s a survival/exploration game called Ark, where you land on an island teeming with dinosaurs and have to learn how to gather food, build tools and shelter, and tame those same dinosaurs to help you advance. She’s been playing on her iPad, but I can’t load it on my phone and squint at tiny menus. I saw that it was available for the Xbox so I ordered a used copy on Amazon and installed it on the console. From there it demanded a 100GB update, so we waited days for the console to choke that down (it puts itself to sleep after an hour, so I had to constantly keep it awake) and then two more updates before we could play.
Once that was done, we picked up our controllers and started a new world together. And found, very quickly, that it was almost impossible to navigate in 2-player mode. They split the screen horizontally, so the top half is one character view and the bottom half is another, but they didn’t change the menu system to fit that resolution. So when you go into the menu system (and half the game is spent here) it’s still the size and shape of an iPad and you have to squint at tiny little icons smushed into the narrow space given. It’s like looking at the menu bar of Word 97 through a peephole: impossible unless you know exactly what you’re looking for. I tried for several nights but found it almost unusable.
She then found a new game called Albion and started playing that. Seeing that it was available for the Mac, I downloaded a copy and tried it on my 8-year-old laptop, which slowed to a gelatinous crawl, cooling fans struggling to keep the processor from melting. I thought about it for a day or so and decided I’d pull the trigger and finally buy the iPad Pro I’ve been looking at since they were released. Playing games with Finn was a big part of the decision, but the other reason was that I want to work in Procreate with the Apple Pencil and learn how to illustrate with the system. I bought a new 11″ unit with the Pencil and picked it up at the local Apple Store this past week. The early review is very favorable: playing Albion on it is easy and fun! We spent a couple of hours on Friday getting me set up in the game and understanding how not to die. Now I have to catch up to her character level.
This is the first device I’ve owned with Face ID, and it’s very slick. The Pencil is fast and responsive. I bought Procreate and started fooling around in the program but it’s going to take a lot of time to sort out how I use it and get the most out of it. Getting used to the way the brushes and pressure work is an uphill battle, especially for someone as picky about the tactile feel and orientation of scratchboard tools as I am. I’m going to start out trying to mimic what I know and love, and then see where the app takes me.
I’ve been using a spare MacBook from work for the last 2 years as an email machine. It came back to me from a former employee right after COVID hit, and I figured I’d flatten the drive to use it while I wasn’t in the office. I went to update it yesterday afternoon to 12.o Monterey and it wouldn’t let me get past a prompt for Jamf, an enterprise nannyware application that I don’t want my personal information sitting underneath. I could attempt to use my wheezy 15″ MacBook from 2008, but older software is getting harder and harder to support—older operating systems, browsers and email clients don’t support modern encryption, which makes things difficult on a day to day basis. For example, our twelve-year-old server in the basement, topped out at OS 10.7, can’t load and display email on Apple’s native client. So it’s looking like I’m in the market for a new laptop for the first time in a long while, something I wasn’t planning on.
Finley did a great job at school last week so I treated her to something new and interesting: we rode down the street (it was cold, y’all) to a store called Trax on Wax and went record shopping. At some point last year, Finn found a purple standalone record player at the thrift store and excitedly brought it home. She hasn’t had anything to play on it since then, and she mentioned getting some vinyl in the car ride home from karate last week. She had an idea of what she wanted to look for before going in—I made sure she listed a couple of options before we got out of the car— knowing exactly what would happen: we got in the store and she was immediately overwhelmed. I reminded her she was looking for the first Black Sabbath album (no shit) or some Beatles. I had a couple of ideas as to what I wanted so we split up and started digging. I found a good copy of Steely Dan’s Aja but she struck out on Black Sabbath, so I walked her over and showed her how to pick a good album within her budget. We chose The Early Beatles and I treated her to her first LP.
I’ve got a pair of turntables sitting in the basement: Dad’s old Scott XXX and a Technics SL-DD33, which I got from our visit to the Mildew House, along with some CCR and Elvis records. The Scott is a bargain brand unit probably sold at Sears or K-Mart back in the day, with an integrated stylus and a very basic speed adjustment. The Technics is a much higher quality unit, with a heavy slab platter, a weighted, balanced tone arm, and a direct drive motor. The stylus on the Technics is also cartridge-based, allowing for worn out needles to be replaced. The needle was trashed when I got it, so I put a replacement in my Amazon cart. In its place I hooked the Scott up to my basement receiver and played my first LP in probably 25 years. There’s a reason audiophiles use Aja as a test record: the signal from the Scott is weak and carries a strong hum; I also think the motor is going out because I could hear the speed oscillating slightly. So I’ll replace the stylus in the Technics unit and figure out which receiver to hook it up to. Then, I’ll start building a small library of classic jazz.
We had guests over for a lovely dinner on Saturday night, and I figured I’d set up some soft jazz in the background for mood music. I’ve got an iTunes library with a real nice jazz collection that I’ve spent years curating. For a long time, all it took to work was to have iTunes running as a shared server and the AppleTV would pick it up on the network; I could scroll through the shared media from there and play that through the head unit into the speakers. So that’s what I did.
But Saturday our AppleTV didn’t see the server; an app is supposed to pop up called “Computers” and from there the library is visible. But I didn’t see that. I checked the connections and realized the AppleTV was on the wireless network, so I hardwired it: still no luck.
Thinking it could maybe be that the ancient version of iTunes 10 I’m running downstairs (the server is a 2008 model and maxed out at OS 10.7) isn’t compatible with the AppleTV, I figured I’d bypass that and started hunting for old laptops from that era which could still talk to it. I’ve got an ancient Powerbook G4 running 10.6 in the basement, so I dug that out and booted it up to see if I could access the shared library. Success! I moved it to the den and balanced it on the receiver, then plugged an iPod input to the headphone port. But from there I got nothing; I guess the mini headphone jack isn’t compatible with that port.
The receiver has a big Spotify sticker on the front, so I checked into that as an option. For some stupid reason it needs an app on your phone, which is a ridiculous situation and one I can’t use anyway—I’m still on the free account and it requires a paid subscription. So I just tuned into the local college radio station and we suffered through some hair metal.
This morning I did some sleuthing and happened upon a random comment on Apple’s boards which led me back to iTunes on the server to check whether I was still logged in to the iTunes Store: I was not. (How I ever got logged out remains a mystery). I logged back in and presto! the server popped back up on AppleTV.
Waaaay back in 2007 I traded an inoperable Powerbook 100 for a working Powerbook 160, which was a welcome upgrade allowing me to open and view legacy files from my early days of design. The 160 worked for a couple of years and then died around 2013. I did some reading at that point and replaced the PRAM battery, hoping that would fix things, but it had no effect so the unit went back in the box. At some point recently I learned that there are inexpensive power supplies available for early Powerbooks, so I got one on Amazon for $10 and tried it out. Amazingly, I was greeted by the comforting early Macintosh startup chime, and the screen lit up for a brief moment before going dark, and then all of the pixels on the display smushed over to the right side of the screen.
Clearly there’s something amiss with the display, and from what the Interwebs say it’s a pretty common thing for the capacitors on passive-matrix grayscale monitors to fail, leading to these issues. I contacted a guy who streamed a repair live to see what he’d charge to fix it; we’ll see if he gets back to me.
Update: there are several videos on how to disassemble and recap the display online; given that I don’t have a lot of winter projects lined up, this is something I’ll tackle myself. I’d need a sharper soldering iron and the proper solder, but this isn’t anything I’m particularly scared of. The problem is that several of the capacitors aren’t in stock at Mouser or Digikey, so I’ll have to revisit this project in the summertime.
I also think I’ve got an old Powerbook Display Adapter in my antique computer bin somewhere; I’ll have to dig it out today and see if I can hook the unit to a monitor for testing.