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September 2005

The HamsterTracker Project

In Smart Home Hacks, DanF wrote about building a hamster-powered night light. Some people think it was just a silly project, but if you read about it (website) you can actually learn a lot about electricity generation and engineering problem solving. And, it actually works!

Taking the hamster-theme to the extreme, and seeming discarding any practicality along the way, Mathijs van der Paauw offers his HamsterTracker website. There are lots of webcams, over-the-top statistics, and many other surprises to explore.

Thanks to John and the XTension discussion list for the tip.

Home automation auction

It has been a long time since I've used Mac OS 9 to automate my home and I've finally gotten around to ridding myself of the last vestiges of home automation equipment that's not supported under Mac OS X.

Yes, it would have been smarter to do this before I moved across the country, but hey, better late than never.

The items are listed on eBay now. It's tough to see some of this stuff go, particularly the fabulous Big Island YoYo telephone device -- still unmatched in functionality to this day.

Toolbox: Anthracite & Express Scribe

A quick note about two Mac applications I've been playing with lately.

Antrhacite is a "web mining" tool that lets you easily set up automated tasks that gather information from the network (or other places) and process what you find. For example, without even reading the documentation (gasp), I set up a 'bot that gets the current Amazon Sales Rank for Smart Home Hacks and appends it to a text file, along with the date and time. It was dead simple to set up, and took considerably less time than it would to write a Python or AppleScript that did the same thing. However, at a cost of $99, I really can't justify it for my own use. But if you're looking to do something similar, give it a whirl. If they came out with a less expensive personal edition, I'd certainly give it more consideration.

Anthracite Addendum: I've gotten a couple of messages about Anthracite, asking me to clarify what I said above. Firstly, if you have any interest in creating spiders that routinely gather information from virtually any source --including local data sources, the results of scripts, and so on--then it's well worth your time to investigate this application. Begin by browsing the website, then download the app and use the 14 trial. The documentation is fine, I didn't disregard it because of any problem, rather, I found the application easy to understand and I didn't need to refer to it for my simplistic purposes. This is because there are a ton of samples included with the app, and its logging window gave me enough information to figure out where I needed to adjust things. My vested professional interest in documentation aside, I'm a user too, and I don't want to read the documentation any more than I have to.

Now, a word about my comment about its price. As I've been reminded (ahem, Terry) I have been know to argue that advanced, professional applications that are targeted to smaller markets are typically, if anything, underpriced given the overhead of development, support, and marketing. Two apps that I depend on daily, Tinderbox and XTension, are examples of this. So, what I should have said, is that Anthracite seems like a worthy and useful tool (hence, my blogging about it in the first place) if you need to do data mining on a regular basis. For me, since I only have one daily use, it falls outside of my price/value threshold. If I discover more uses, I'll certainly consider it.

Next up, Express Scribe. This is a free application for transcribing recorded interviews and the like. It's obviously a Windows-port and has a lot of features of questionable value to non-professionals, but it performs its main task quite nicely. I used to transcribe a meeting that I'd recorded using my iPod; playing the recording back at about 50% speed while I typed what was being said. One important note, for some reason the only way I could get it to open a WAV file was to drag it to the application's icon in the Dock. Bizarre, but it works fine otherwise. You can't beat the price, that's for sure.

Meet the Blogger Twins

Damien Barrett is one of those guys who I seem to run into at least once a year, usually at a Mac-related conference or event. It's clear that our circle of friends overlaps a little, and we've had some fun together at blogger dinners and the like.

Damien and his twin-brother, Cameron, are auditioning for The Amazing Race. I think that's a grand idea; and they've set up a website to help spread the word and make their case. They have a short video online that's pretty entertaining, and very nicely produced (using iMovie HD, of course).

I watched the first couple of seasons of the show, and liked it, but haven't watched it lately. You can bet that if the blogger twins make it, I'll tune in and cheer them on; they seem like a natural fit for the show.

Home Automation article in Macworld

I wrote an article about home automation with XTension and Indigo for Macworld magazine a few weeks ago. It's out now, in the September 2005 issue, starting on page 64. It's part of the "Old Mac, New Tricks" feature; which includes other nifty things you can do with a spare Macintosh. I hope that you enjoy it.

Here are clickable links to the products mentioned in the article:

  • Smarthome, Inc.

  • X10 Corp

  • PowerLinc USB

  • PowerLinc Controller

  • XTension

  • Indigo