Feeling bitter about batteries

I’m not sure when this happened, but lately all the companies that make disc batteries (AKA watch batteries, or coin batteries) are making them bitter. (No, not better, bitter.)

That is, they are coating the batteries with a substance that has an unpleasant taste. The intention, apparently, is to discourage morons and children (now there’s a fine line of distinction) from eating batteries.

I am not making this up. The craze about eating Tide Pods (if it was real, which I’m not so sure) was understandable, to a degree. The pods look edible, but batteries? C’mon. Who looks at that and thinks to themselves, “Mmmm, I’ll put that in my mouth.” (Rhetorical question; see “morons and children,” above.)

Sure, kids don’t know any better. So parents, you should do as generations have done before — keep small non-edible items unreachable until such time your kids can be taught to be less stupid. Problem solved.

Now, if battery embitterment is new to you, you might be thinking “Geez, Gordon, what’s the big deal?” Here’s the issue: The coating prevents the battery from working! You have to wash off the coating — using rubbing alcohol — to allow the battery to make electrical contact with the device in which you’re installing it.

If you’re aware of this, it’s a pain in the ass. But if you’re not aware of it, you’ll think the new battery is dead. And then you’ll discover that every single battery in the expensive package of batteries is also dead. But they’re not, they’re just broken by the coating.

So now you know better. Thank the morons, shitty parents, and nanny politicians for the situation.


A reliable keypad door lock from Schlage

I’ve recently installed two Schlage BE365 PLY 626 Plymouth Keypad Deadbolt locks, and I have to say, they’re fantastic. Installation, while intimidating, was quick and simple.

The first lock replaces an Emtek E3020 EMTouch Electronic Keypad Deadbolt that had stopped working. The reason for its failure was its construction, but frankly it never should have been installed where it was. (I didn’t do it.) The lock was installed on a set of French doors, a situation for which a motorized lock is not suited. That’s because the alignment between the doors is too variable and, as anyone who has lived with French doors knows, frequently requires nudging to get them to align for locking. The Emtek lock, with its internal plastic parts, just couldn’t handle the variable resistance of moving the cylinder.

The Schlage model that I replaced it with is a manual lock. The keypad controls engaging the chamber, but you move the cylinder by hand. This allows you to feel when the doors need a little jiggle to align. (Additionally, the Schlage is constructed of metal, so it is sturdier.)

There’s a nine-volt battery that powers the keypad, which I expect to last longer than the one in the Emtek because it’s not running a motor that moves the cylinder. Other advantages of the Schlage, to my thinking anyway, is that it is less expensive, doesn’t suffer from Z-Wave or other home automation hassles, and thus doesn’t have a weird app that you have to deal with. (I’m looking at you, Rachio sprinkler controller.)

Sure, by going with a manual lock, I forgo being able to lock the door with my iPhone and any form of remote control or notifications. Furthermore, the Schlage lock only supports a finite number (19) of passcodes. The appearance of the lock is also a bit dated. But none of that bothers me when the trade-off is a sturdy piece of hardware that “just works.”

I like the Schlage lock so much that I installed a second one in the garage. The benefit of not having to fumble with keys when carrying groceries is heavenly.

I bought mine from Amazon, after checking local hardware stores and discovering a stock of an overwhelming number of connected, motorized locks, but none with the advantages as I’ve outlined.


What YouTubers can learn from Buskers

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After largely dismissing and avoiding YouTube for years, I have begun watching it more often lately. Perhaps I was late to the party, but I think there are finally some good “content providers” that aren’t a complete waste of time.

But I’m still annoyed at how many of them devote excessive time to begging for “likes and subscribes” in every video they produce. Not only is it viewer unfriendly, it’s demeaning and wrongheaded. And, frankly, the hamhandedness with which it’s usually done is worse than a protracted PBS pledge drive.

Because of this phenomenon, most YouTube videos are proof of The Wadsworth Constant: “the first 30% of any video can be skipped because it contains no worthwhile or interesting information.”

The people making the videos believe they’re begging for their own benefit, but the master being served is Google. Sure, by increasing your “likes,” your video might get suggested to more viewers. And if enough of those people decide to subscribe, your video might become eligible for playing ads, but those are literally the crumbs from Google’s table. Make no mistake, you are a serf feeding the King while being allowed to keep a few of the crops for yourself. (I feel the same way about the user recruitment schemes used by Trip Advisor and Yelp.)

But setting that aside, the main issue I have is that video creators are making their pitch at the wrong moment — that is, right up front. How do I know if I “like,” or want to see more, when I haven’t yet watched it? It’s as silly as the NYT website that immediately pops up a subscription offer before I’ve had time to read the first paragraph of an article. The right time to hook me is when I’ve completed watching, and presumably enjoyed, the content.

Street performing, a fine tradition with hundreds of years of experience, has solved the puzzle of when to ask an audience for money. YouTubers should learn from the busking tradition and ask for clicks when attention — and presumably appreciation — has peaked. (YouTubing is essentially digital street performing, right?)

Now sure, not everyone is going to watch all the way to the end (particularly if it’s 30+ minutes long, another sore point for me), but if someone bails out early, are they likely to want more in the future? Letting viewers go who are walking out early is not likely to be hurting your subscription numbers.

I don’t know if YouTube provides statistics to publishers that would help find the best moment for the plea. Do people leave your video in the middle by clicking a suggestion in the sidebar? Are they closing the window? Does the browser lose focus while they watch, implying they are no longer paying attention? All of those measures could be used to pitch “subscribe” to the people who will be your best audience.

There are some YouTubers who get it right. JP Coovert, for example, makes his pitch towards the end of his videos, after he’s provided valuable information. It’s the perfect time to ask for reciprocity. Mary Spender also consistently includes compelling and well-timed pitches. (Not surprisingly, given that she’s also a busker.)

YouTubers, follow their lead, please.

(Photo by Tania Alieksanenko)


The secret to reliable remote control of your smart home

As I’ve described here and in my classic book on home automation, Smart Home Hacks, no system is flawless. But ff you’re depending on your automations to control and monitor your home while you’re traveling, there is an easy, albeit messy, way to help you recover when communication failures inevitably occur.

There are, most commonly, three things that can cause the dreaded “offline” response from your remote home: crashes, software updates, and ISP disruptions. For now, let’s focus on the first two.

Aside from egregious and user-hostile automatic updates, such as those deployed by Hue, failed communications can often be resumed by rebooting the uncooperative device. But if your home automation system is offline, how do you reboot it from afar? The answer is the strategic deployment of a redundant control mechanism.

First, figure out which components of your system are either critical, such as cameras, or linchpins that affect other devices, such as hubs. Each of these components should be plugged into a power switch that you can control independently of your home automation system.

For example, I have a HomePod mini that serves as the automation hub for my system. If the HomePod stops operating correctly, my entire HomeKit network is no longer controllable. If the error is bad enough, another hub on the network will take over (an Apple TV, for example). But it’s possible for the HomePod to be operating normally, except for accepting remote commands. (This is a real-world example, which happened to me after the iOS 16.1 software update.) That’s why my HomePod is plugged into a Wemo switch. See the photo below, where I’m using a bulky first-gen Wemo switch that I’ve had for over a decade.

homepod mini and a wemo switch gordon meyer

Using this permits to me to turn off power to the HomePod via Wemo’s independent remote control system. Then, after waiting a few minutes, I turn the Wemo switch back on, which restarts the HomePod and (hopefully) resolves the problem.

In addition to Wemo, some other devices that provide independent remote control that I’ve used are Meross and Switchbot. It gets a little pricey to add a $20+ switch to each of your critical devices, but the peace of mind it provides is worth it, and if you need to use it, you’ll be glad to have it.

Of course, if your Internet connection is down, you won’t be able to reach the independent devices either. So, in a future post, I’ll describe what I use to reboot my network automatically when it goes offline.


Dealing with people who won’t stop talking

I wish I had read What I Learned About Interruption from Talk Radio when it was published in 2017. Back then, I was still spending several hours a day on conference calls, and sometimes struggling to get a word in edgewise.

Part of the issue is that telephone conference calls are not full-duplex, by design, so that when one caller is speaking the microphone of all the other callers are ignored. This makes it technically impossible to interrupt a speaker, except during pauses in their speech.

But the situation is greatly exacerbated when a speaker never takes a fucking breath.

Many of my colleagues were guilty of this. Oh, not on purpose, they just had the habit of drawing out their last word (or saying “ummmmm”) between sentences, or while they were thinking. This vocalization prevented others on the call from saying anything (which sometimes, was only me, as everyone else was in the same room). I wish I had a dollar for every time this happened during weekly staff meetings.

I’m hopeful that the pandemic — which put everyone in their own audio space on a conference call — helped teach people to be more polite and allow time for others to speak. But somehow, I doubt it.



Troubleshooting an IR remote control

The other day, my Sonos Playbase speaker stopped responding to the volume control buttons on my Apple TV Siri Remote Control. Here’s how I eventually resolved the problem.

The source of the issue proved difficult to diagnose because infrared is (of course) invisible light. I couldn’t determine if the Sonos was no longer seeing infrared signals, or if the remote was no longer sending them.

  • I quickly determined that I hadn’t added any new nearby electronics or LED light bulbs that might be interfering with IR signals. A lesson I learned from a confounding situation several years ago.
  • Using the Sonos app, I temporarily re-programmed the Playbase to respond to a TV remote it had not been previously trained on. When I was able to successfully do so, this established that the Playbase’s IR receiver was working.
  • The Apple TV remote was still able to control the Apple TV, but that uses an RF connection, not IR. (Sadly, the Playbase is IR-only.) But this confirmed that the remote’s battery wasn’t dead. I recharged it anyway, under the theory that perhaps the light emitter had grown too dim. This didn’t resolve the problem.
  • The next step was to reboot the remote. Yes, that’s a thing. After doing so, the problem was resolved. Yay!

If you have a remote control that suddenly and inexplicably stops working, I hope these steps will help you in solving the problem.


A solution for an outdoor speaker sound system

I needed to drive eight outdoor speakers, and clearly, I wanted remote control of their operation, and the ability to stream from Apple Music.

I could have utilized something like an Echo Link, or a Sonos Amp. But I rejected those options due to the cost (Sonos) and obnoxious assistive technology (Alexa).

What I ended up implementing is a bit of a Rube Goldberg machine, but it works well, and it did not break the bank. Here are the details:

  • A Belkin SoundForm Connect adapter acts as an AirPlay 2 receiver. This satisfies the requirement of streaming any music I desire either from my iPhone, HomePod, or Apple TV. The only downside is that the AUX output from the Belkin device is horrible, as many of the reviews on Amazon also note. Luckily, the optical output is OK, so I use that instead.
  • Because of the above-mentioned Belkin flaw, and the lack of optical support on inexpensive amplifiers (see below), a Digital Audio Converter is necessary. I settled on an inexpensive Amazon Basics DAC. It works well, and is USB powered, so I can run it from a power hub instead of using up another outlet in my network closet.
  • Audio amplification is provided by a Nubsound 100W mini-amp. It has built-in Bluetooth, which I turned off, as I prefer to use AirPlay. The amp itself is remarkably small — about the size of a Tarot deck. (You were expecting a less esoteric analogy from me? OK. About the size of two sticks of butter.)
  • Finally, I installed a Pyle Multi-zone Selector so that I can fine-tune the volume of each speaker pair. This also allows me to turn off speakers in unoccupied areas of the yard. (Because I’m a good neighbor.) A fancier solution would let me manage this remotely via my iPhone, but for under $100, this passive, no-power-required switch works well. It’s also small enough to fit, barely, on a shelf in the network closet.

Here’s a block diagram of how it’s all connected:

monodraw illlustration

The system works well, with a total cost that is hundreds less than a Sonos solution. (And cheaper than nosey Alexa, too.) The only downside is that I have to stream from a device to the amplifier. The Sonos can independently connect to Apple Music. But this is a limitation that I can take to the bank.

If you need me, I’ll be outside listening to Poolsuite FM.



Wired backhaul and Linksys Velop Wi-Fi mesh networks

The Linksys Velop MX4200 mesh Wi-Fi router supports wired backhaul between nodes. However, the information you’ll find online about how to set it up is either outdated, or confusing, or both.

When you use Google to find info about it, many of the top hits won’t help you very much. In particular, there is a top-rated reddit post from a few years ago that is filled with incorrect information (maybe it used to be accurate?) And, surprisingly, even the Linksys support site has conflicting advice. (I’m not linking to any of these so as to not reinforce their dominance in search results.)

Here’s what worked for me:

  1. Add the child as a wireless node first. Let the system perform any software updates, etc.
  2. Connect the ethernet cable to the Internet port on the child node. The device will automatically adjust its settings to use wired backhaul to the parent.
  3. It’s OK (if not, perhaps, required) to connect all the children to an unmanaged switch. Daisy-chaining is not necessary. (Apparently some managed switches cause problems, see this support article for things to try.)

You’ll know that each child is set up correctly by the way it is displayed in the Linksys management app. Signal strength will indicate it is connected via ethernet, and “Connected to” will show the parent node. (Called “Master Bedroom,” in the screenshot below.)

linksys screen shot

That’s it, you’re finished. Bravo to Linksys for making this “just work,” now if only we could clean up the bad info lingering around on the internet.

See also: How to lose a customer, the Amazon eero 6e way


Book Review: Coding Games with Scratch

This book caught my eye because, as a youth, I enjoyed learning LOGO (specifically, SmartLOGO) and Scratch is a modern equivalent of that fundamental gateway drug.

gordon meyer holding book

Scratch seems like an ideal way to introduce OO concepts, and the built-in sprites make it much easier to make a functional game without getting bogged down with pixels. The Scratch runtime is freely distributed; sort of. You must deploy your creation on their website, which automatically makes it eligible for modification (AKA “remixing”) by others. (A sly indoctrination into open source culture.)

Like all DK publications, the book is visually engaging and well-designed. The copy I read was an older edition, but I see that it is regularly updated to keep up with Scratch releases.

I borrowed the book from my favorite neighborhood Little Free Library, but you can get yours at the Amazon.


A system for aging in place

Since 2007, I’ve written several times about using home automation technology to support aging in place. And over the years I’ve heard from many folks about the peace of mind such techniques can bring to families with seniors who remain in their homes.

I’m really pleased to see that Amazon has introduced an easy and comprehensive service for this. It’s called “Alexa Together,” and for a small monthly fee, it brings together various useful techniques.

Although I’m definitely not a fan of the Alexa service overall, I like that Amazon only requires one Alexa device (placed at the senior’s home), and that the compelling nature of Alexa will help ensure it will work in this capacity. The service also seems to have some nice privacy and security features (if you’re willing to live with Alexa’s other serious flaws in this regard).

Although I haven’t tried it myself — I no longer have a use case for it — I like everything about it and encourage you to consider it when approaching the challenging and sensitive nature of this growing need.