Dealing with the Hidden Complexity of IoT Home Automation

The dream of automating a range of home systems is very close. Today you can turn every light switch, light bulb, fan, window blind, door lock, garage opener or air conditioner into an internet connected appliance, with the ability to turn on or off from your cellphone. And you can turn any wall socket into a remotely controlled on/off or dimmable device allowing any kitchen appliance to be controlled in the same way. There are ways of controlling your audio and TV devices from your phone as well, so it seems reasonable to assume that home automation is here. And yet, these devices and systems are still quite clunky unless you go to an expert company such as Crestron (who are today the rolls Royce of home automation both in terms of quality and price).

The challenge is that all the available home automation devices come from different companies, and so use slightly different methods of control. This means that without a lot of experience the average installer will create a complex system that is hard to control.

Convergence is on the way, with the likes of google, amazon, apple etc. starting to provide platforms for consistent control. But these systems are still for early adopters who are willing to live with significant limitations.

Controlling your light switches from your cellphone or by speaking specific terms sounds fun, but wait until your parents come to visit and can’t turn off the lights at night, you will quickly realize the limitations of the current technology.

Some companies do provide switches that look like classic wall switches and allow for more advanced workflow to be used. For example, a switch can be used to turn on a series of lights at specific levels of brightness, while double clicking the same switch could perform a different task. You may even choose to place light switches in different locations that turn on the same lights to different levels of brightness, so for example the switch your TV watching chair turns on the lights to TV watching levels and the one by main room door, turns on the light as bright as they will go. This would mean to the “uneducated” user the lights will work as expected, but to the “educated” user you can setup lights to work subtly as you prefer.

Not all home automation vendors offer all of the levels of subtlety I’m describing, but some do.

There are (of course) a lot more levels of complexity associated with home automation, even within the products of a single vendor, you may find that not all devices work the same way, and quite a lot of research is needed to choose exactly which components to use.

To provide a simple example of what I’m talking about, consider that most home automation light switches require three wires, a live, a neutral and an earth. If your house was built before the 1980’s it’s quite likely that your wall switches don’t have neutral wire, and this would mean that you are either are facing a major electricians bill for rewiring or you will need to specifically chose a home automation vendor that has light switches that work without a neutral. These devices to exist (for example Insteon have these as an option), but depending on your light fixture these switches may not work with certain kinds of light bulbs, or may not fully support dimming. There are ways around all these problems, but it takes a lot of investigation to work everything out, and if you don’t know what you don’t know, then you won’t find it out until you have an issue.

Home automation using modern IoT devices can provide a level of luxury that you will love, but it is still not simple and low cost. It can be low cost and complex or it can be high cost and simple. Alexa, Siri and Google have started to offer some interesting directions for future automation, but as of today they are in their infancy.

I haven’t even broached the subject of security yet, but suffice it to say that there are significant security issues with any device that is continually listening to every word spoken and is sending it across the internet to be processed looking for spoken commands. There are also issues with having every device in a house containing a processor and connected to the internet. Everything must be continually secured, and this takes experts working hard to keep ahead of hackers.

The world has changed around us, and IoT now means that millions (or even billions) of previously simple devices are now internet connected and can provide information and can allow remote control.  What damage can someone do my remotely controlling a light switch? Who knows; But if every light switch and every light bulb contains a microprocessor connected to the internet, that is a lot of processing power that if combined could be formidable. Already we have seen distributed denial of service attacks (DDOS) using a massive array of distributed home automation devices. And I can think of dozens more potential ways that IoT devices can be used for bad. Security will continue to be critical.

My advice – don’t enter home automation lightly, either use an expert or plan on becoming an expert.

 

 

 

 

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US healthcare Makes Me Angry

The US has possibly the worst healthcare system in the world. Some may not agree, but here’s how I calculate the quality of healthcare:

  1. Is the population kept healthy?
  2. Is healthcare affordable?

Simple really, but for the US the answer to both questions is a resounding NO!

Let’s put the affordable healthcare act (ACA aka Obamacare) to the side for a second, and just look at the basics of US healthcare. Firstly, it is a for-profit system, which means that the system itself is designed to make healthcare as costly as possible, and where possible to provide the least amount of service, as these are the parameters used to maximize profit.

In the US, healthcare services are considered an exception to the normal rules of contract law. If you buy a product or service and at a point of no–return in the buying process the vendor sticks you with crazy last minute terms on a contract, the fact that the contract is not equitable is considered to have made the contract invalid, and yet when you enter a hospital for treatment, the hospital, your doctors, and a plethora of ancillary service staff are able to decide not to accept the payment from your insurance company and instead bill you for anything they like and you will be asked to sign this contract prior to them cutting you open to fix what is broken or you will die. There can be little doubt that an operating table signed contract is the ultimate form of stress and duress, and yet it is normal in the US. A whole industry exists to sue patients or their surviving relatives after medical operations, and anyone who has had even the smallest procedure must spend the following months fighting lawyers to protect themselves from health induced bankruptcy.

Tens of thousands of dollars a night for hospital stays are normal billing rates, and bills will explicitly list every single cotton bud and sheet of toilet paper at incredibly high prices, and while insurance companies may well negotiate significant discounts on the parts they cover, the patient is expected to pay list price for their responsibilities. And there is little advocacy available to help patients unless they choose to hire their own legal team to fight back.

Any company that is used to providing products or services to the US government is very aware of the standard clause in all contracts that states the US government will always be charged the lowest price for a product, wherever it is sold. But of course, this does not apply to healthcare products, where vendors can charge whatever they like with impunity. Every countries healthcare system in the world (except the USA) negotiates centrally, dramatically reducing the cost of products (drugs, devices etc.) as well as standard services. The US has no such central control on healthcare products, and so the costs in the US are exponentially higher. It doesn’t matter if it’s over the counter, Medicaid, Medicare or through insurance, the costs are much higher in the USA than anywhere else in the world. It makes no sense. Oh and (of course) the US government has made it illegal for someone in the USA to buy their drugs form abroad, because that would be free and open and we can’t have that!

Malpractice and medical mistake lawsuits in the USA also pay much higher payouts than anywhere else in the world, which drives up medical malpractice insurance, which in turn drives up healthcare costs. And there is a whole sector of the US legal marketplace focused on healthcare related class actions, pushing up the costs of healthcare related products with most of the costs going to just the lawyers.

Education costs much more in the US, and medical degrees are long, and so the loans doctors and nurses carry are very large, meaning they must earn a lot more to pay them off, again driving up healthcare costs.

Everywhere you look in the USA, healthcare costs are higher than anywhere else, and the whole ecosystem is designed to move money, not to provide quality and length of human life (the primary goal of healthcare).

While every other western country focuses on making and keeping people healthy as a way of driving down healthcare costs, the US does not. Doctors do not visit patients and preventative healthcare is seen as a cost to insurance companies and so is much more limited than anywhere else, so the population is generally less healthy than anywhere equivalent.

Drug development processes in the US are very similar to the rest of the world, but are used as an excuse to drive up costs. While the drugs and devices used may cost a lot less in the rest of the world, the US population is in effect subsidizing everyone else’s use of these products. Why you ask, because the US government has been paid by the healthcare industry to allow this to happen. There are no poor politicians in the USA, their salaries are not that large, and yet they all are wealthy, I wonder how that happened?

And then you have the ACA. A start at trying to change the healthcare in the USA. It started by putting controls on insurance companies to mean they couldn’t stop insuring people when then become ill, or refuse them cover because they had previously been ill, and provided a number of mechanisms to get more people insured. But it didn’t fix the for-profit nature of the US healthcare industry, and so made little long term sense. Ideally it would have been a start and would have gone through year after year of improvements, until it become more workable. And yet it was an easy task for healthcare companies to pay for access to politicians and push a for-profit agenda, which they have done incredibly effectively, to stop any real change that would drive down the overall cost of USA healthcare.

Healthcare in the USA today is more expensive and less efficient than anywhere else in the Western World. You can still go bankrupt from the cost of healthcare if you or anyone in your family becomes seriously ill.

People in the USA still die daily from curable conditions due to lack of available healthcare. If you are rich it may seem great, but if you are rich, healthcare everywhere in the world will be great. If you are not rich, the US system becomes a drag on your life and your family. Sick people will pay anything to not be sick, and the US system exploits this.

The frustration is that the amount of money involved is far too great for anyone to not want to take a slice of that action. Donkeys, Elephants and everyone in between has shown absolutely no interest in fixing this massive problem, just shuffling a couple of the pieces and trying to make it look like they are just good enough to vote for as opposed to the other person. The republican fixation with repealing Obamacare seems to be much more about earning their paychecks from lobbyists than providing a viable long term solution. And while the democrats talk a better game, they have shown no real interest in solving the underlying financial problems associated with healthcare.

The GOP make a very good point when they say that a country should run in the black not the red, but they also have no plan to make it happen. Cutting federal spending, just means that state spending goes up, and cutting state spending just means city spending goes up. So the family living in the burbs still ends up paying more every year. Anytime anyone suggests that healthcare companies make too much money, every politician’s head explodes with paid-for anger.

Until healthcare is considered a social right available to all and costs are controlled to make it affordable and of high quality nothing good can or will happen. And neither of the major parties have shown any sign of moving in that direction. Oh I know “socialism” is that big evil word, but insurance is a social mechanism, it demands high volume to make it work. If everyone pays in and only some need to use it, it’s cheaper per person, that’s just basic math. It’s not like there is some other type of math you can use to make it work differently.

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Home Automation for the other 99%

Those with enough money have for years had the option of creating levels of home automation to impress their visitors. Everything from automated window blinds and lights to massive display screens supplemented with hidden surround sound audio systems have been the mark of those with massive egos supported by enough free cash to pay experts to wire every inch of their show houses. These impressive implementations have been supported by custom control systems and can easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. For those living in multiple multi-million dollar houses around the world, this is a drop in the ocean.

But technology has moved on and it’s now practical for the average home owner or renter to build their own home automation system, tailored for their specific needs.

  • Multi-room cable systems connected to a single digital video recorder are now available from numerous cable companies or from the likes of TiVo.
  • Multi-room audio systems from companies like sonos or Bose, are simple to implement, and now that abode-spanning high speed Wi-Fi is common don’t require custom wiring systems.
  • Do-it-yourself stores and online outlets now offer a wide range of replacement light switch, power socket options as well as plug in control modules and even light bulbs that have integrated automation, making previously complex systems really easy.
  • Fan controllers, Automation IR repeaters and even automated window-blind motors are now available for prices not much more than their non-automated versions.
  • Room Thermostats, fire alarms and even water sensors are now all available internet connected.

So the components of full home automation are now available to the do-it-yourselfer, but is that enough?

No, it is not enough. The real power of a home automation system is to be able to interconnect all the sensors, actuators and controllers together. And that is where the millionaires their installation companies still are a step ahead.

It’s all very well to be able to replace light switches with ones that can be controlled from a remote control or your phone, but it is quite another to be able to press a single button, have the window blinds close, the lights dim, the TV turn on to your fav channel, the rooms temperature be set to 70 degrees and the sound system turn on, all when you relax in your chair.

But that is starting to become possible. Today all the consumer level automation devices come with their own method of control, and little integration, but this is changing. Companies such as Apple, Google and Amazon are starting to create integration between all the disparate devices.

There are still gaps, but it’s getting closer.

Today for a few hundred dollars you can buy all the components to pull most of your AV equipment together into a single controllable system. And for a few hundred more dollars you can interconnect your lights, light switches, fans, thermostats, fire and water sensors, A/C and heating units and window blinds together.

But connecting your AV systems and your environmental systems together are a bit more complex. It can be done in some ways using Amazon Alexa, Hey Google or Apple’s Siri, but this is still just a taste or what the millionaires can do.

The world is changing, and home automation is quickly going to become useful for the average home.

The challenge is that today’s DIY home automation choices are very poorly described. The googles/apple/amazons of the world want you to believe their latest knickknack is the way to go and want to amaze you with voice recognition systems. But these are only a small part of the solution. There are some incredibly powerful home automation offerings available, but you need to be willing to invest a lot of time to find out about them.

Here’s the best of what I’ve found over the last few years.

  1. For your TV and music the best system for total integration comes from Bose. The Bose lifestyle home theatre systems create a hub that allows all your sources (DVR, DVD, Roku, Apple TV’s etc) to be connected and a single HDMI cable to go to your TV. Then every device can be controlled from a SIMPLE single remote control that uses RF and not I.R. meaning that it can be entirely hidden from view. The Bose method of controlling devices from their single remote is the best I’ve seen from anyone. In my experience, it works perfectly and doesn’t require touch screens or complex programming. Bose pre-program their system for all the common devices you are likely to have, and it just works. Yes, Bose is expensive, and for the price there may be better sounding systems (depending on your tastes) but their systems sound great, and work simply, reliably and consistently. I’ve been using them for the last 10 years, and they just work, and despite what Bose will tell you, even their most basic lifestyle system from a couple of generations of tech back is just as good as the lastest one on sale today, there are some real bargains available if you hunt around on amazon or ebay.
  2. For lighting I use Insteon, not the most common vendor out there, but their range of devices includes everything you need to control lights, fans, blinds and AC/heat units, they are cost effective and also provide a range of remotes that mean you don’t have to use your phone to turn on the lights (but you can if you like). It works well, and the whole environment can be configured using a simple app on your phone or tablet to create any kind of macro you need, so a single switch can be made to do multiple things.

The future for home automation is clearly integration, and all the main vendors are starting to be supported by centralized control platforms from the amazon/google/apples of the world so quickly you will be able to setup systems that work and don’t annoy those who visit.

There are still gaps in what is available, but today you can automate big chunks of your home in ways almost identical to the ways millionaires have been doing for the past ten years, at a tiny fraction of the cost, and for the DIY-er in all of us, this is exciting.


 

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