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January 2005
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March 2005

Safely Automate Outdoor Lights

Until recently there were only two methods for effectively automating outdoor lights. The first, replace your existing outlets or switches with X10-controllable versions, is the cleanest, but also the most expensive and labor-intensive approach.

The second method is to throw caution to the wind and use indoor-rated X10 modules with the best weather-proofing that you can manage. This actually works pretty well, and there are lots of approaches to make the modules last longer and remain safe, while exposed to the elements. If you're fortunate enough to live in a mild climate like California, its said that a sturdy ZipLock bag that's elevated from the ground (to avoid standing water) will protect a module for a couple of years or more. (See Hack #59 - Use Indoor Modules in the Great Outdoors in Smart Home Hacks for more discussion of this and other ideas.)

But if you aren't comfortable with either approach, a new home automation kit from Black & Decker provides what looks like an even better solution. Their Freewire Outdoor Light Starter Kit includes two very interesting lamp modules that are molded directly into an extension cord. In other words, the X10 "brains" (if you'll pardon the expression) are part of an outdoor-rated power cord. What a great idea.

The kit comes with more than just the lamp modules, and you'll be able to press the extras into service for your inside lights or other project. But the real gems here are the corded modules; use them for any type of light that you need to control, and with the appropriate cautions, appliances such as fountains, radios, and mechanized snowmen.

Toolbox: Visual Thesaurus

An essential tool in my day-to-day writing is a thesaurus, and I've tried countless computerized versions. I was once a fan of Princeton's WordNet, but its knotty interface finally drove me away. I was pleased to find that Nisus Thesaurus used the extensive WordNet data, which I still really liked, but I could never figure out why its results were so much more limited and less rewarding than the original.

Still attached to the rich linguistic mine of WordNet, I next turned to Visual Thesaurus. I leeched off the free web-based interface for a while, then finally committed to the desktop app and never looked back. It is truly delightful to use; its engaging interface encourages exploration and results in many serendipitous events. That's exactly why you turn to a thesaurus in the first place, and the Visual Thesaurus is a keen example of how good computer-based reference materials can be when they break free of their paper-derived chains.

This week Visual Thesaurus 3.0 debuts, with some very nice additions. But it is all new to you if you've never tried it, so I won't bore you with a bullet list of the changes. Instead, go see if it is all that I've claimed it to be. Take the screenshot tour, or better yet, try out the Java-embedded version and experience it for yourself. If you're interested in language, hypertext, visual design, or user interface design, I think you'll find it worthy of your attention.

Happy trails, HST

Sigh. I'm surprised by the news (NYT article) that Hunter S. Thompson has died by his own hand. Apparently his fortified compound near Woody Creek couldn't keep the most insidious of his demons at bay.

There are only five writers who I would claim have influenced my personal and professional life, and now with the passing of the Doctor, only one remains living. I don't know if this makes me old or under-read, but it certainly makes me sad. The others that have shuffled off this mortal coil are Edward Abbey, Walter Gibson, and Abbie Hoffman.

Rear View Shuffle

While driving to work this morning, listening to my new iPod Shuffle, I was struck with a sudden bit of inspiration. You see, I don't often use my regular iPod in my car because I'm bothered by the tangle of wire for the cassette adapter, and the iPod sliding around or taking up room on the center console.

At first, the Shuffle wasn't much better. Then, while waiting for a green light, I realized that the shuffle's lanyard provided a great solution. I draped it over the rear view mirror, perfectly suspending the light-as-air player while the wire leading the cassette adapter gracefully hung down and, most importantly, out of the way.


The controls are easy to reach, and the Shuffle is so small that you barely notice that it's there. Just snap your Shuffle out of the lanyard and leave the string behind when you get to your destination. Try it out, you might dig it. Perhaps in the future a white lanyard hanging from a rear view mirror will be another symbol of citizenship in iPod Nation.