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November 2006
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Magic Mirror for Home Automation

Wow, this is clever, geeky, and entertaining all at the same time. Themeaddicts, a company started by theme park engineers, is showing the latest, and by far coolest, home automation and security add-on. ha_magicmirror.jpg

It's a "magic mirror" in which a talking Genii-head appears and announces home events. For example, it might appear and say that the mail has just been delivered, or that a car is approaching via the front driveway. When the Genii is not present, all you see is a regular mirror. The animation and voice acting are quite well done, as you can see in the demo video at the website. (Also available, but alas not demonstrated, is an animatronic pirate skull.) Too late for Christmas this year, but there's always hope for next year! Santa, are you listening?

Automated Home circa 1950

Dean Davis, author of many useful Mac programs for home automation and a contributor to Smart Home Hacks, points out this push-button home article at Modern Mechanix.

My favorite "hack" is the system that automatically closes the windows when it rains, but there are so many clever implementations that it's hard to pick just one. The dog-proof garbage can lid is also quite a neat idea. Certainly whl the implementation of the ideas might seem quaint, it's interesting to see how many of the overall tasks remain the focus of home automators today. Including the puzzle of how to hide all the equipment from spouses and houseguests.

How I really got started in computing.

Isn't it funny the sort of things that can take you back to your childhood? I was browsing one of the many catalogs that have arrived here for the holiday season and found a neat Microcontroller Engineering Kit for kids. Just the thing that every budding young technologist needs, don't you think? As I was examining the details of the kit (100 page instruction book! Sound and Light Sensors!) I suddenly flashed back to a Radio Shack kit that my Dad bought me when I was a kid.

I had completely forgotten about it, but after some Googling and eBay searching, I rediscovered my past. (No, I didn't buy one. I'd get the modern kit, if anything.) I spent hours playing with this Digital Computer Kit, and even remember programming it do to a card trick.
c.sf.compkit.JPEG.jpgThere's no processor, you effectively create your own by hand-wiring logic using the springy terminals, switches, and flashlight bulbs. I remember one of the projects was to wire-up a binary calculator. I had no idea what binary was, but I dutifully followed the instructions, then (quite literally) had the light bulb of understanding go off once I saw the results. This kit also provided my first exposure to troubleshooting and tedious hand assembly. (Not to be confused with the tedious Assembler I'd teach myself a few years later.) The wires would get all tangled, the switches finicky, and heaven forbid if you had to turn it over and replace the batteries--you risked your entire program falling onto the floor!

I used to credit a Sinclair ZX-81, hand-built by my Dad, as what got me started in computing. But, in retrospect, it was really this kit. It was 1977, and damnit, I had my own computer, such as it was. (I also remember that none of my friends were impressed.) What a nice surprise to remember all this, thanks to a little catalog shopping. It's like a little gift in and of itself.

A Mac home theatre case-study

In today's Chicago Tribune, Dan Lewis, a Mac user from Aurora, Illinois (home of Wayne's World, by the way) talks about his Mac-based home theatre setup in the article Computers serve films on demand. He's using an iMac as a media server and a Mac mini aside his TV to provide instant access to 100 DVDs, 12,000 songs, and over 4,000 photos. The article touches on Front Row, Bonjour, and other familiar pieces. It's a neat example of living the "digital lifestyle" and points out how inexpensive it can be to put together a rather sophisticated solution, provided that you use a Mac.