This is at least my third run on writing about my thoughts on Donald Trump. I’ve gotten tripped up on there just being too much to say, with something new every day. It’s easier, with him out of office (no longer my boss!) and no longer a flowing cesspool on Twitter. I certainly hope his time in the driver’s seat of anything more dangerous than a golf cart is over, and a retrospective is appropriate.
I believe that Donald Trump is a disgusting human being who came to power by exhibiting some of the worse tendencies of humanity. Before he was elected President, he was an ostentatious, egotistical, boorish braggart who lied, bullied, and generally made the world a worse place. As President, he took all those things to the next level, and did immense damage to the country I most love. He somehow became the darling and idol of the evangelical right wing of the nation while pouring gas on xenophobic, misogynistic, racist tendencies that used to be at least hidden from plain view.
He lost the 2020 election solidly. He claimed, without offering any convincing evidence, that there was voter fraud causing him to lose. This undermined the national trust in the election process, directly attacking the foundation of a democracy (or a democratic republic). The best evidence he seemed to have was simply that it was impossible that he could lose. His supporters made up more specific claims, but again without any compelling evidence that could hold up even in courts primarily appointed by him.
Sadly, the majority of voters and states turning against Trump in the election did not apply to the Congress and Senate races, significant evidence against corruption in the election itself. If Democrats hacked the machines, or faked ballots, to cause Trump to lose, why wouldn’t they also take down the down-ballot Republicans? Was the corruption by anti-Trump Republicans? If so, was the same corruption there four years ago pro-Trump, and should Hillary Clinton have had Trump’s term?
From the lead up to his 2016 election through the present, Trump has been very effective in the art of bullshit. His communication is full of lies, but they are lies without any respect for the truth. The Washington Post counted 30,573 false or misleading claims he made in his presidency. Often, his lies were obviously false, or easily disproven. But the point of bullshit isn’t to be believed, but to be heard, and to drown out other voices. By maintaining a constant barrage of bullshit, he was able to keep Twitter, the news, and the internet full of himself. He made truth seem irrelevant to any discussion, instead “winning” by the emotional impact of his repetition, his attacks, innuendo, contempt, and pride. He is an artist of sorts in his manipulation of media and debasing of communication. It’s not an art I enjoy or respect.
I don’t, of course, attribute the total death toll of COVID-19 on Trump. His complete lack of useful leadership and consistent downplaying and disruption of a helpful federal response to the pandemic caused the needless death of tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of Americans, but whoever was in office, there would have been a spread and many deaths. The United States could have done much, much better in its response with effective government and leaders who set the nation a good example in working together and caring for each other, rather than polarizing, and championing the idea that not wearing a mask is sign of freedom, rather than self-centeredness. Operation Warp Speed was one of the better things to come out of his administration, and helped enable even the vaccines made outside the program. But managing the wait and the lockdown was a debacle. That was the primary reason he did lose the election, and his reaction to losing the election lost the Georgia Senate races, and thus the Senate.
The Trump administration was actually rather good for NASA, and for space exploration overall. The aggressive push to return to the Moon, the appointment of Jim Bridenstine as NASA Administrator, and Trump mostly staying out of the way except for astronaut photo ops, was good for the Agency. I don’t think Space Force needed to be a branch of the service, but the functions it serves (and has been serving as part of the Air Force and Army) are important. Pence actually seemed to care and pay attention in his position at the head of the National Space Council. Unlike many of the other federal agencies, there wasn’t a parade of different leaders, or no leaders, many with no qualification, and more than a few actively hostile to the purposes of the agency (e.g. Betsy DeVos, champion of taking public education fund for private schools, for Education, David Berhardt the oil lobbyist for Interior).
What most aggrieved me about the Trump administration is the intense loyalty, and in some cases idolatry, that he garnered with the Christian right. His trademark has been to trample simple decency, the idea that to be strong is to be brutal rather than kind, empathic, or, well, nice. The seven deadly sins are pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth. It seems to me a pretty good description of the Trump brand, though I will concede that he keeps busy, even if it’s just golfing. His sloth shows mostly in being unwilling to read or listen to anything of substance, and that’s more pride than sloth. He seems so far from the ideal of Christian leadership I learned growing up, so far from any idea of a Godly man. And yet, I see the burning anger and devotion in those who have become his disciples, somehow in the name of Christ, ready to destroy the country to save it. Though Christianity is not the path I’m on anymore, I always had respect for the integrity of those who consistently held to the teaching of the Bible. That many have embraced the kind of bullshit that builds dictators and fuels genocides makes me sad.
Facebook is a horrible place to hold cogent discussions. In general, our social media veneer is thin and shiny, not a very accurate representation of what is beneath.
One of my intentions for my blog is to have a place to put my thoughts out for, at the least, those who know me and care to see where I’m coming from mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. By writing it down, it also gives me a chance to put some structure into what’s in my head, and so better examine it myself.
I’m tagging the series “Credo,” Latin for “I Believe.” It could also be “I Think,” or “I Know.” I’m not primarily talking about faith, though I’ll touch on that, but more circling around truth. We are living in a time of bullshit unprecedented in my lifetime, to the benefit of some and the detriment of most. It’s not easy to know what is true. But some things are. I’m not a person of hard certainties – I’ll admit that the universe might all be a simulation that’s indistinguishable from reality, or God may have created it all 6000 years ago with fossils in place, or 30 seconds ago with memories in place – but there are some things that I’m pretty sure of to every degree of certainty that practically matters. I’m an engineer, and that’s both good enough, and as good as it gets.
I was brought up in the Church of Christ, a conservative Christian church somewhat to the right of the Southern Baptists, best known for not allowing musical instruments in worship and for being the only ones going to heaven. My mother was devout, and I came up that way, too, serious, studious, and attentive. My father didn’t go to church, or at least only visited very rarely for special occasions. But he was always respectful. My siblings toed the line of attendance until they were out of the house and didn’t have to, but weren’t all that into church. The Church of Christ tradition included questioning, discussion, and respect for a well-crafted argument or proof that I still respect very much. In college at Tennessee Tech University, I kept the Church of Christ foundation while participating in and learning from Baptist, Methodist, Intervarsity, and Catholic student groups. Out of school, working for NASA, I eventually felt “called” to examine the foundations of my faith. I didn’t find convincing answers on the primarily Bible-based faith I was raised in, or in other variations Christian or non-Christian. I’ve ended up a part of the local Unitarian Universalist congregation, which is welcoming of those who don’t have answers or a particular set of beliefs, as long as they adhere to some core principles, one of which is, “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” These blog posts are my search (and documentation of said search) for truth and meaning right in front of God and everybody.
You are welcome to follow along, and to comment either here or on Facebook. Facebook, for its many faults, is where my friends tend to be. Any comments here will stick around, and will be moderated to keep them respectful and constructive. Facebook is transient and is Facebook.
 Another Church of Christ tradition is to insist that the Church of Christ isn’t a denomination, but credo it actually is, certainly for the purposes of having a pretty good idea what you’ll find on a building with that label, but without an “International” in front or a “Scientist” after.
 assuming He, She, It, or They read the internet, or my mind, or all of history, or something
Sometime in the 1980’s, I think it was in the Tennessee Tech University library, I came across a book about racism. It was a thin tome, written by a black author for a black audience, as I remember. It said that only white people could be racist.
I remember it over 30 years later because of the emotions of anger, righteous indignation, and defensiveness it sparked in me. It seemed unfair, unjust to say a problem could be all on one side of a conflict. Clearly, a black person could fear, distrust, or misunderstand me just as much as I could them, right? And, based on those things, I could be discriminated against based on how I looked as a white man in America, as much as anyone else?
Forward to 2020, I recently read White Fragility, a book by a white person writing for white people about race. The message was gentler, and likely more nuanced, but contained similar description of racism as being a cultural construct that acts for the dominate race against the “other.” In the America of my experience, that’s white vs. black specifically, and people of color (or whatever counts as non-white) in general.
With over 30 years to settle in, the concept was no longer radical or personally challenging in the same way. But in reading, I could remember my younger self’s affront, and as a contemporary reader I still felt annoyance and frustration with the language available to discuss the topic. A key point of White Fragility is that difficulty in discussing racism is a facet of racism. I’ll write more later about some of the more important topics from the book, but here I’m struggling with the English language. I feel the need to marshal my words before tackling the topics.
Lest it come as a surprise at the end, let me say that I do recognize that systemic racism is a real thing, that it is baked into our culture, that it supports the status quo and keeping the powerful powerful. It’s hard to talk about for various reasons. Part of that reason is that English is a mess.
I remember the heat of my indignation at the idea that racism could only be pro-white. In a theoretical sense, it’s not strictly true. But there is a strong, valid point. I prefer the term systemic racism to get the meaning across that we are talking about the cultural construct that doesn’t depend on individual thoughts or actions. It’s fair to ask if there is any other kind of racism; I know that young me could have argued the point for hours, distracting from ever getting to any substantive discussion. Certainly, there is plenty of prejudice of many flavors, including racial prejudices and bigotry based on racial perceptions. But systemic racism requires a system, a culture, that is bigger than personal opinion or belief.
So, systemic racism is the cultural construct that skews power and privilege to one group and away from those not in that group based on race. In America, systemic racism favors the white “majority” and particularly disfavors those considered black or African American. Majority is in quotes above because:
Whites aren’t necessarily over 50% of the population in many areas, and aren’t very far from being in the minority nationwide
However many whites there are, white in America is the baseline, or “normal” (normative?) state of being
A minority is, technically, less than 50% of the whole. In the context of racism, though, minority is a synonym for non-white. Because black is the most non-white of options, minority is often a euphemism (or dog whistle?) for black. However, it sometimes includes gender, sexual preference, or other non-race-based categories.
Multicultural in the US essentially means something other than mainstream white culture, and sometimes black, so is more or less a synonym for minority, but relatively exclusively to racial, ethnic, or national origin.
I defined systemic racism as a cultural construct that skews power and privilege to one group and away from those not in that group based on race. Obviously, there are (and could be) other cultural constructs that skew power and privilege to one group and away from those not in that group. It would make logical sense to have a clear taxonomy of these cultural biases. But, given that clear taxonomy doesn’t necessarily benefit those with the power and privilege, there is some cultural sense in keeping the language turgid.
The suffix “-ism” points to a distinctive doctrine, theory, system, or practice, so it’s definitely more general than what I’m trying to get at. Sexism is a cultural construct that skews power and privilege to one group and away from those not in that group based on gender, but optimism is not a cultural construct that skews power and privilege to optimists over non-optimists. There are lots of “-ists” who practice some “-ism,” but we aren’t terribly consistent about usage.
Homophobia is the most common term for the cultural construct that skews power and privilege to cisgenderheterosexuals and away from those not in that group based on sexual or partnership preference. Googling finds heterosexism as a term, but it’s certainly not in common usage. The area of sexual preference is a semantic dumpster fire; LGBTQIAP does not roll trippingly off the tongue. Homophobia should literally mean, “fear of the same,” before you even get to the problem/discussion of whether fear is the root of the cultural construct.
Religion is the other biggie for skewing power and privilege to one group and away from others based on it. That one actually varies by location as to the group being skewed toward, and in the current case of China, Communism is the group skewing against any religion.
The point of this “-ism” section is that there are parallels to racism that result in institutional or systemic discrimination. And also share some problematic semantics.
Defining systemic racism as a cultural construct based on race, what is race? Race is a cultural construct based largely on apparent physical similarities and differences. There was a lot of work in the 19th and early 20th centuries to define race scientifically, without a lot of luck. Genetics hasn’t really helped. There are genetic differences that vary with populations, and there are genetic variations that are unique to particular lineage, some limited (or once limited) to a particular population or isolated community. But there is significant diversity within populations, and in most cases there has been a lot of genetic sharing across geographical and cultural boundaries.
Africa has more genetic diversity than the rest of the world combined. I would expect that any (and every) African-American is more genetically similar to me, a white American, than to the least-similar African one could find. Especially since the majority of African Americans have white ancestors (the average African American has 24% European ancestry according to 23andme data).
Despite any underlying scientific reality, though, race is a defining component of life experience in America.
Identity Politics vs. Color Blindness
Identity politics refers to political activism or coalition based on any of a large number of identifiers, race being a primary one. Identifiers can be unique or combined. The connotation is self-identified group(s) advocating for the group.
Issue politics and party politics are obvious alternatives.
Controversy over identity politics is that involves people self-identifying into identities that have often been marginalized or stigmatized, that it has the potential to reinforce stereotypes and cultural division, that it may encourage cultural fragmentation.
The flip side in the racial context is a call that we all be color blind, ignoring the existence of any structural racism in the belief that if we don’t see it, it will go away.
There is some truth that constant focus on a problem can keep the problem alive, by putting more energy into the system. And there is danger that an identity group can potentially become self-generating or self-protecting beyond any valid need or point so that it becomes self-serving (NRA, I’m looking at you). Victims can become bullies.
For the topic of systemic racism, though, I don’t see a danger there any time soon. Though a color-blind society is a noble long-term goal, pretending systemic racism doesn’t exist serves to prolong, rather than reduce, its power. That certainly is how it’s playing out in gutting of the voter rights protections.
Equity and justice require recognizing the sources of inequity and injustice and addressing them. When that happens the energy in groups formed by identity politics will recede, maybe without the identity going away. I know some very Irish Irish-Americans, but their politics aren’t focused on Irishness. It doesn’t need to be.
“Defund the Police”
As a slogan apparently intended to be incendiary this succeeds, but not in a productive way. The point is to open discussion towards reconsidering the ongoing militarization of the police, and the long-term scope creep of American police forces. I personally believe that we as a society need to be dedicating more, not less, to many components of what has become policing; community mental health and drug recovery program first response are on top of the list.
From a language point of view, I give “defund the police” a flunking grade. It has raised awareness and caused discussion, but in a divisive rather than constructive way.
Speaking of Systemic Racism
As a white person in America, it’s hard to talk about systemic racism. The only word we have for people who benefit from systemic racism is “racist,” which is right up there with “Nazi” or “baby killer” for stopping a conversation in its tracks. Clearly there is a continuum from an “out” Ku Klux Klan leader or Proud Boy to the woke and ashamed Liberal, and from all of those who are very aware to of racism to the big middle who either don’t know, or pretend not to, that any benefit exists. Saying all those people are racist isn’t very helpful or accurate. It’s uncomfortable to consider that we may have inherited a benefit that we didn’t earn or deserve. So options include choosing to believe that we do deserve it, they don’t deserve it, there is no benefit, or it just has nothing to do with us. Or feeling bad. Or changing the subject.
But, the fact is, there is a benefit to being white, to being in the majority, in America. The chance of being killed by police is 2-3 times higher if you are black than if you are white. Death by COVID 19 is 2.1 times higher for blacks than whites. Black men in America earn on average $.87 for each $1 white mean earned (though for a given job with similar credentials, it’s $0.98 per $1). The incarceration rate is over 5 times higher for blacks than whites.
The reasons aren’t simple. COVID 19 isn’t bigoted. But reasons start with the American legacy of slavery, and have continued generation by generation with the construct of race being reason enough for a continued divergence of opportunity and benefit, baked into how things work. That’s systemic racism.
It’s worth figuring out how to talk about systemic racism, and how we can get over it as a system and as a culture. Like wearing a mask during a global pandemic, the difficulty is worth the reward, a reward that will benefit those who have the deck stacked against them more than the rest, but will ultimately benefit everyone. My hope is that, if systemic racism went away in America, instead of part of the community having “white privilege”, everyone in the community would have “just nation privilege”, and that would be even better. Talking is going to mean coming up with some better language, I think. Currently it’s hard to talk about, even if it weren’t hard to talk about.
 Or just “cis,” indicates those whose gender identity matches the gender assigned at birth.
It is, in general, my belief that the sitting President has the right to nominate a new justice on the death of a sitting justice of the Supreme Court, per the Constitution.
The President … shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint … judges of the Supreme Court…
It is the President’s Constitutional duty and privilege to nominate a replacement, and it the Senate’s Constitutional duty to offer advice and consent, ultimately accepting or rejecting the nomination in a timely manner. Rejection should be a rare thing – their duty is to consent, unless there is a higher duty not to.
With the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that means that President Donald Trump should has the right to nominate a candidate, and the Senate to consider that nomination.
I have a short memory, with more holes than it used to have. President Obama’s appointment of Merrick Garland to the court seems like ancient history. But these current events bring the memory back. After the death of Antonin Scalia, President Obama nominated Garland to fill the vacant seat on March 16, 2016, with nearly a year left in his second term as President. The Senate, led by Mitch McConnell, refused to consider the nomination, abdicating their Constitutional responsibility to provide advice and consent to the sitting President. This was a clear violation of McConnell’s (and the rest of the Republican leadership’s) oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, an abuse of power only thinly veiled behind the stated belief that a vacancy during the last year of a President’s term should stay open until after the election, and left to winner to fill.
I’d mostly forgotten my anger in the fog of time, under the unrelenting barrage of abuses of power coming from the White House and Senate since then. But the removal of the thin veil, as McConnell has casually shrugged off his own precedent, committing to go forward with a vote on whoever President Trump may appoint, has reminded me. Cynical, unprincipled power with no pretense of honor or decency in pursuit of the goal of accumulating more power, is playing out, with the full support of nearly half of my nation, and a large majority of the Evangelical Christian community that was my heritage. It shocks me and saddens me.
Cheating, lying, and rigging the system have always been part of politics. But I have really felt that honor, patriotism, and the ideals of justice, freedom, and equity, have been a strong counterbalance in America. Instead, the ideals have been buried in a mulch of bullshit so thick it’s hard to see anything clearly except fear, outrage, and confusion.
I’m afraid, I’m angry, and I’m bemused. If the Democrats plan the same kind of procedural games that McConnell did to Obama to save the Ginsburg seat – I’m ambivalent. It doesn’t seem right, but it does seem fair. Not honorable, decent, or just, but fair. Is even fair too much to ask for?
I’m going to send some money to McConnell’s Senate challenger, and of course I’ll vote here in Alabama. My signs are out. I’m doing what I can to get out the vote here in North Alabama. I see little chance of any of those contributing to change in Alabama or McConnell’s Kentucky, though. Perhaps there will be a landslide in November? And perhaps the loser will concede? I have some hope, but little confidence. And, whatever the outcome, I’m still concerned for the division, not just in opinion but in observed reality, and what it means for America.
About a year ago, we bought and started renovating a new house. Since renovations were pretty major, including a pretty thorough overhaul of the two-wire electrical, I wanted to integrate modern “smart home” integration.
There are several automation routes out there. The consumer leaders are Amazon, Google, and Apple, with Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri/HomeKit for voice interface, respectively. There are dozens of different protocols, methods, apps, proprietary protocols, and services that all may or may not play together. If you play across the different ponds, there is an array of bridges or gateways to make one service work with another. It’s a mess, and the market is changing quickly.
My wife and I are heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem, with iMacs, iPhones, iPads, an Apple TV, and an Apple Watch for me. Apple’s HomeKit lags Amazon and Google in the number of devices and services that are compatible out of the box, but that’s largely because of Apple’s focus on security. I really don’t want to invite either Alexa or Google Assistant to be listening in my house all the time; I trust that Apples interests align with mine on security much more so that Amazon or Google. So, I chose to go with HomeKit. Here are the heuristics I went with on our architecture:
Everything should be HomeKit compatible to the extent that all basic function should show up in the Apple Home application
Everything should be controllable without the need for an app. That is, all lights should have a light switch, powered outlets should have a switch, locks should have a key, the garage door should have a remote.
Be mindful of security. If someone in China can turn the porch light on or off, that’s not a big deal. But if someone local could unlock the front door or open the garage door, or someone in Russia can watch a camera in the house, that is a big deal.
Value-minded, with the realization that often the cheapest options my be selling you to someone else.
Here’s where I ended up.
We put a wiring closet in the center of the house. Our current provider is AT&T, with gigabit fiber coming into the closet, using their WiFi hub. So far, that’s worked fine to reach all devices that need WiFi all over, and even just outside, the house.
The router has four wired Ethernet connections. I put an 8-port Ethernet switch in the closet, with Cat 6 going to Diane’s office (2 wires), my office (2 wires, plus another 8-port switch), the TV in the “window room,” our primary living area (3 wires, plus an 8-port switch), and one back to our bedroom.
The idea is that any required “smart home” hubs should go in the wiring closet. In practice, they are a bit more distributed. The Apple TV, the primary HomeKit hub, is attached to the TV, in the main living space, a Raspberry Pi that I use for homebridge, is in my office, the myQ Home Bridge is in the garage, while the Lutron Caséta hub is in the wiring closet. The Pi may eventually move to the closet.
Our network is divided into a home LAN for trusted devices, and a Guest SmartThings WiFi, where I”m putting devices I don’t trust to directly access the crown jewels. More on that later.
For overhead lighting, I went with the Lutron Caséta (https://www.casetawireless.com/) line of in-wall switches and dimmers, with LED lighting. For the primary living area, we used inexpensive LED can lights grouped together in reasonably-sized zones. These switches use their own, proprietary wireless communications to a central hub. The dimmers work with the original 2-wire electrical wiring, while the Caséta on/off switches require a dedicated neutral wire. Most everything is dimmable.
Going with smart switches, rather than smart bulbs, was a major architecture decision. The smart bulbs give more choice for things like color, and the ability to move a particular light from one group to another if it makes more sense. But, at this point, smart bulbs are a lot more expensive than dumb ones, and with smart bulbs, your wall switches (if any) are network devices that communicate to the central hub. I’m happy with having lights that work just fine, even if our in-house network is completely shut down.
With the Lutron switches, every installed light is controlled by a physical wall switch. Additional switches (e.g. 3-way switches) are using the Lutron wireless protocols to control those physical switches. They have ~10-year batteries in them, so that will eventually be an issue. Especially if Lutron were to go belly up, or abandon the technology.
The Caséta switches are much more expensive than dumb switches, and on the high end for smart switches. HomeKit compatibility does come with something of a premium. Pluses are: an established brand, a US company, device traffic isn’t on WiFi, and traffic is limited to the property, other than what goes through the gateway.
I ended up with about a dozen dimmer switches, about half that many on/off, and still have about 9 dumb on/off switches for areas that aren’t yet automated, such as my office, the laundry room, and the bathrooms.
I like the lighting setup pretty well. I wish the dimmable cam lights we chose went dimmer; at their dimmest they are still fairly bright. Our foyer and undercounted lights don’t go completely dark, even when off, due to current leakage from the switches. That’s really okay on the undercounter, but annoying on the foyer. On the list of things to eventually fix.
The house has three exterior doors, plus a garage door. That’s a lot easier to deal with than the seven exterior and garage door (plus two more on the back studio, and three sheds…) at our former home!
For the front door, and the door between our kitchen and garage, we went with the Schlage Sense door set. It provides a keypad and deadbolt keyhole on the front, as well as access through the Schlage and Home apps. You can set and enable access codes, and have different codes for different people. This was especially handy in that we could set up a “worker code” for contractors during renovation, and have the code active only during normal working hours. You can go back to see who coded in, and when. The Schlage app is required for setting and managing codes; HomeKit lets you open and close the lock, including as part of a scene or automation. A weakness is that you can’t tell from the lock whether or not the door is closed, though if the lock can’t successfully extend you will get an alarm. Home Depot occasionally has a pretty good deal on the set.
The back door is an Andersen patio door, keyed the same as the other doors. I haven’t seen any smart locks compatible with the Andersen door system yet.
We bought a LiftMaster “smart” garage door opener through the installer, with the requirement that it be HomeKit compatible. Annoyingly, the LiftMaster 8355W did have the Chamberlain/LiftMaster myQ smart functionality, built in, with WiFi connectivity and an iPhone app, but we had to buy another device, myQ Home Bridge for another $70 to get HomeKit compatibility. We would have been better off with a dumber opener plus the Home Bridge for less confusing setup.
Chamberlain and LiftMaster are both part of the Chamberlain Group, a US company. Their garage door openers are essentially interchangeable, as are the Craftsmen openers the sell (sold?) through Sears. Chamberlain is their DIY product, while LiftMaster is sold through contractors. The software is identical and interchangeable.
Set up was confusing, and getting it all going again after a change in WiFi password was a bit of a nightmare. However, everything seems to work fine once set up.
One other annoyance is that the opener has a light in it that comes on for a while when you open or close the door. You can turn on the light from the installed switch, too. But there is no way to control the light from the myQ or Home app. How hard would that have been?
Overall, not thrilled with that piece of things, but fairly confident they at least have incentive to keep their connectivity secure. And there is no other choice with HomeKit integration, at least per what is listed in Apple’s canonical list.
I bought the RingVideo Doorbell Pro, based on their June 2016 announcement of compatibility. Now it’s 2019, and still no compatibility. Over a year later for me, over 2.5 years since the announcement, and they still say they are testing for release Real Soon Now. One suspects the acquisition of Ring by Amazon may have had a negative schedule impact.
Frustrating, but the Ring app isn’t bad. We purchased the doorbell through Costco, who provided the first year of the Ring account in the list price. I just renewed for another year for $30. Without the account, you can’t review any of your video.
The Ring Video Doorbell Pro is designed to replace an existing doorbell. I had to actually replace my transformer, but not the wiring or bell, on my existing doorbell. The doorbell detects motion, and will a minute’s worth of video (with audio) at each detection. You can set the sensitivity of detection, and map what areas of the field of view of the camera you want it to pay attention to. You can also schedule the motion alerts, to avoid lot’s of notices when the year is being mowed, for instance. You can also sleep your notices for up to a couple of hours.
When someone hits the button, the doorbell in the house rings, just as you would expect. A notice also shows up on devices with the Ring app. In the app, you can view the video live, and even hit the button for a two-way audio chat (they can’t see you!) with the person at the door. The video is recorded, as well.
You can also use the app to look at live video any time you like.
The services are convenient. I don’t consider the video outside my house to be highly sensitive, although the audio at my door could be picking up speech inside as well as out. Recent reports show that Ring hasn’t been particularly careful to protect what they capture and store, which is troubling. So I don’t strongly recommend Ring for a doorbell to work with HomeKit, but don’t have any good alternatives. August officially backed out of previously promised support. Robin, a company from the Netherlands, has announced a $600+ HomeKit doorbell that’s now on Apple’s official list, as Ring used to be. Netatmo, a French company, announced the Netatmo Smart Video Doorbell at CES for delivery in the second half of 2019, in the $250-$300 range, with access to your own video to your own storage without a monthly fee, though they don’t appear on Apple’s list. That’s promising, but for now there is a real gap in the doorbell and video camera area with HomeKit.
Besides waiting on Ring to get HomeKit integration, there is the possibility of using IFTTT to detect motion or a ring. More on hacks later.
There are numerous smart plugs available with HomeKit compatibility. They tend to be pretty expensive. The cheapest are about $20 in bulk, and can easily run up to $75 each. So I went a very different way that, at least at first blush, seems to violate my guidelines. But I got close enough for my comfort zone.
I picked up several small round smart plugs from the Smart Life ecosystem on Amazon. The price runs about $10/each (I see a 2-pack for $18.99, a 4-pack for $33.99 right now). These are produced under license to Tuya, a Chinese company. Hardware is produced by dozens of Chinese companies, with very similar design. The Smart Life app is available for free on iOS.
I bought two branded CNXUS to test out, and ended up getting four EFUN and two TanTan plugs as Christmas lights started going up.
Setting them up requires providing your WiFi SSID and password through the app, to allow them to connect. I have to assume that means that someone in China has the information, and can quite possibly see all the traffic on that network segment. Not great. To combat the security threat, I created a separate Guest network on my router, where the untrusted devices go. There, they can spy on themselves, and report when my Christmas lights go on or off.
Smart Things also work with IFTTT (If This Then That), and US online service that connects different Internet of Things service together. To bring in HomeKit, I’m using an open source program, homebridge, IFTTT, and Smart Link, to make the switches show up in the Home app. More on that later.
That’s essentially all I have in my HomeKit ecosystem so far. I did buy a couple of Wyze camera, inexpensive ($20-$25) HD camera that work a lot like the camera on the Ring. Working with IFTTT, I can turn them on or off – but don’t know how to be sure they aren’t actually recording when they say they aren’t. I have one in the Garage, to be able to remotely verify that the garage door is closed when it’s supposed to be. The other I’ve tried for various things. This is another piece of very untrusted hardware that goes on the SmartThings SSID. Neither the Ring nor the Wizen cameras currently show video in the Home app, but can be used to detect motion.
I considered smart smoke/CO detectors, but couldn’t convince myself of the value. In theory, the Wyze camera will tell me if it hears the alarm go off.
I also haven’t gone for any of the smart thermostats. It’s high on the list for further investigation.
We kept a couple of regular old ceiling fans with pull strings for fan and light operation. We added a couple more, with remote control operation. The only HomeKit options were ridiculously expensive. I hope someone will produce a reasonably-priced retrofit kit, or a compatible control replacement.
One of the benefits of Apple is the “it just works” mind set. As long as you stay in the center of the road, buy fully supported gear, and operate as intended, everything should work seamlessly together, as designed. And, it’s typically designed well for usability. I appreciate using something that is designed well, as does my wife, Diane.
On the other hand, I do have the tinkerer gene, as well. I can use something that’s pretty marginal, if it saves money, or time, or is just interesting. And if I can make it play like a good citizen, then I can share it with Diane…
There is a piece of free, open source software, called homebridge, that acts as a bridge for various connected devices. It opens a whole world of hacking opportunities, with plugins for various different smart home systems and components. Some work great, some are half-baked, some not even in the oven. It definitely lives in the linux/maker world view.
It will run on linux, or on a Mac. I bought a Raspberry Pi (a super-cheap, ARM-based linux computer for hobbyists) to build and run homebridge on, using the instructions on GitHub.
Homebridge is essentially a hub to other devices and services. You have to add your server as a device in the Home app, and agree to run it despite it not being a trusted device. By loading different modules, you can bridge in different device and service systems, such as Nest, LIFX, WeMo, Logitech Harmony, z-wave, and more.
Besides going directly to another service, homebridge will also work with a service that works with other services. If This Then That (IFTTT) is a web service that brokers interaction between your connected devices. In general, you give IFTTT permission to talk to your accounts in two or more different services, and it gives you the ability to share triggers and actions between the serves.
I set up homebridge with IFTTT to let HomeKit tell IFTTT when my Smart-Life-compatible smart switches should turn on or off. Then I configured IFTTT to talk to my Smart Life account, to forward the messages. It actually works quite well.
I can do similar things with my Ring doorbell, the Wyze cameras, and even my Tivo.
It does mean trusting yet another service. At least IFTTT doesn’t typically need your actual service credentials, just permission to access the services, so if they are compromised the bad guy can’t get access without actually controlling IFTTT resources.
I may eventually move more of the devices from IFTTT to direct connections, where that makes sense. For now, the quality of the various home bridge plugins, and what they can do compared to IFTTT, varies wildly.
It’s been fun messing around with the uber-nerdy, do-it-yourself side of things. It’s a bit like playing a computer game. It’s very definitely not for everyone.
HomeKit is a very reasonable choice for home automation for a family who all have iPhones, and don’t intend to change. It’s probably the most secure on the market, and provides all the basic gadgets you need to automate your home. But it’s going to cost more than Alexa, and there are less options in what you can buy. It’s probably worth it, if security is high on your list of considerations. What it does, it does well, reliably, and securely.
Homebridge can moderate both the positives and the negatives of the HomeKit environment, if you want to wade in. It opens many more options for things you can control, but opens your network to more risk, as well.
I’ve had fun, and so far am enjoying the automation more than being annoyed by it. That’s pretty good, I think.
I started a personal webpage in the very early nineties, and kept it up until I married in 2002. I let this site sit fallow since then, mostly keeping any personal stuff online on Facebook.
However, with the rise of Trumpism in America, I’m having a lot that I want to say, and don’t find Facebook a good place for long form thought writing, much less discussion. So, I’ve broken down and started a WordPress Blog on the site. Here’s hoping I actually have something worthwhile to say.