Sunday, January 24, 2010

Online House Updated - Home Automation

Fueled by many cups of 1/2 Caff coffee (hey you have to cut down when you get old), cold and wet weather and a huge need for an update, I've spent my spare time in the past week or so updating our Online House and home automation system. The house can be visited HERE and the descriptive history is found HERE.

We've had an "automated house" since way back in the 80's when I had an old VIC 20 computer turning lights on and off. The next step up was in the 90's when we moved and I purchased a JDS Timecommander Plus system. The new system provided much more capability and is still the stable work horse for our system. When we moved to our current house in 2000, the system moved with us but the installation was half hearted. It worked fine and spent the past 10 years doing it's job but needed to be cleaned up and some new features added and some broken features fixed.

I feel I have somewhat accomplished that... but there is plenty more to do. The biggest need was to get a better mobile phone interface. The house has had mobile access for a very long time when "WAP" and "WML" were the only thing a phone understood. With the advent of the new smartphones and the iPhone that world changed and a much better interfaced was needed. The iPhone can handle the main site but it is still not optimized for small touch screens. The basic screen is shown at the right and allows access to most all the features and information the house provides. This interface will continue to get updated as ideas pop up and time allows. For now it is much easier to use from anywhere in the world to not only know what is up in the house but to control things as well.

Some of the "new" features... although planned all along, just not implemented, are the integration of the HVAC units so I know when and for how long each unit runs. Not a big deal but nice to know for cleaning filters and maintenance issues. I also re-integrated the washer and dryer that had to be removed when new units were purchased. Another fix, not new feature, but a handy item to have the system tell you when the machines are done across the speakers instead of waiting for that high pitched beep that I can hardly hear anymore...another getting old thing I guess.

On the new side all new paging and email routines were added to keep me updated even if I am not looking at the house remotely. Items such as burglar alarm, garage door opening during the day, motion detection when there should be no motion, phone calls, etc were added. A new routine to speak the current weather forecast was added that gets the Yahoo weather RSS feed, breaks it down and speaks it on command. Handy sometimes. I also added some bluetooth based proximity sensing. The system knows when I am around the server and can act upon that. Nothing really programmed in yet but the capability is now there.

The biggest thing added was putting the house on Twitter at Yeah, I know... WHY? Because I can? Because *I* like the idea. There are only a couple houses I could find that have done this and with my work on @ShawneePD and @ShawneeFD it was so easy to do... so WHY NOT?

I also updated the basic look and feel of the control pages replacing icons from the old clipart versions to new, more modern looking ones from across the net. I also changed the color theme "back to blue" because that is what I like.

But what about security?
That is the biggest question I seem to get and it *IS* a valid one. With all that information out there couldn't someone figure out when you are home or not and break in. Sure they could... just like they could your house by simply counting cars or watching the house. Of course THAT is what all the automation is about. Webcams that capture pictures, motion sensors that know when someone is there, burglar alarms watching windows and doors, and more that will not be listed here. So yes, it is a concern but the house has been online since 1999 doing it's best to protect and serve.

Of course there is always the watch dog... no, not THAT one...

For more information about Home Automation visit the Wiki or visit

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Reflecting on the "Oughts"

Ok, I know - it should be "naught" but "ought" is how I've always heard it. With that out of the way it actually surprised me that we are at the end of a decade. I guess it shouldn't have - I pretty much remember the end of the 60's and the moon landing, the end of the 70's as a party haze, the end of the 80's as a career building time, and the end of the 90's as the end of the world as we know it. At least the Y2K EOW (End Of World) was a nothing.

I do remember 2000 more distinctly as I would guess most do. I remember as a kid in the 60's and 70's how OLD I would be at the end of the 'century'... the 2000 wow factor. It came, it went, and nothing happened. I remember being 'on call' on 12/31/1999 in case the world did end, like I could really have done something about it.

So now we are at the end of the "oughts"... or "naughts"... whatever. Where did this decade go? Still odd how time is relative and you don't know it until you get older. I can remember 1st grade, 2nd grade, 3rd, 4th, 5th, then 6-7th... and then it becomes "middle school", "high school", "college" and all of sudden it's the 80's, 90's, and now the "naughts". I guess soon it will be "B50" and "A50" - BEFORE I was 50 years old and AFTER.

It has been an interesting decade - We watched the USA start out this century with great confidence, take a sucker punch and get mired in very difficult to "win" wars. We watched email spam grow from a minor annoyance to nearly 85% of email being moved around in bits and bytes. We watched the Internet go from a cool thing to use to a must have to survive in today's connected world. We watched trying to send data through a cell phone to the world go from 9600 baud to 1mb and the internet in your palm.

I personally watched my 69 Mustang rebuild project sit... and sit... and sit.. and then finally start, and then stall, and stall... I'm running out of weekends in my life here. But I still let building a one off go kart, making numerous Lego 'stop motion' animation films, and an 88 Turbocoupe and 85 Mustang SVO take my time.. but I did enjoy it.

We moved to our current home in 2000 so it's easy for me to divide the 1900's with the 2000's - they really are like two different centuries in my mind. I wasn't that crazy about the move but am glad we did now along with picking up the acre lot next to us to keep us from being blocked back in like in town.

So the "oughts"/"naughts" are gone and the 10's/Teens are upon us. What will the next decade hold? Personally it holds watching our son start driving his 91' Mustang GT (and praying he isn't as stupid as I was back then in my 69), watching him graduate and get through college (please, please get through college), and winding down my career. Where did that lifetime go?

I am *IN* the technology business but honestly can't imagine what tech changes we will see in the next decade. I'm sure we'll see the cloud take over our apps, more and more power in our pockets, likely direct connections with our feeble brains with more bio-tech integration and the complete move to everything digital.. it's pretty close already.

Is the future bright - sure it is! There will be twists, turns and tarnish on the bright future but it will be bright... and challenging. I hope to see a few more of these decade things pass by... ok, at least two or three.

Happy 2010 and here's to the 10's/Teens!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Future is Cloudy

That is for sure... how "cloudy" is still an open question...

That is "cloudy" as "in the cloud" for the future of Information Technology. It's only a matter of time and economics. When it's cheaper to outsource your IT needs to hosted "in the cloud" solutions, individuals, business and government will "follow the money". Things like security, control of your data, privacy, etc will be secondary considerations.

In Nicholas Carr's The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, much of this is explained and is compared to the early days of electricity. There is a striking resemblance to the history of power, generation, and use and the path that Information Technology has taken over the years. It's a good read even if not totally perfect in regard to the future.

We've watched computing technology go from huge rooms with staffs of hundreds, to mini computers small businesses could afford with dumb terminals, to islands of smart but standalone PC's, and through to client/server configurations that mixed in the best of both local power and server power. Now applications are running on machines anywhere in the world and available from any connection, once again requiring very little end machine power.

The switch will not be overnight but little by little, app by app, solution by solution. Today, using web based email such as GMail is the easiest and most effective way of handling the most common "app" of the Internet. In the not too distant past, you had a desktop program that you had to configure to use whatever mail server was provided by your company or Internet Service Provider. Now you can use Gmail or other webmail solutions from any machine, anywhere in the world without an app. You can brand it under your own domain and few will every know the difference.

I used to scrounge around for an old version of Word so I could have a word processor on my home computer, one that I used maybe 5-10% of it's power for the actual writing I do. Today, Google Docs provides an efficient, effective word processor along with a spreadsheet program, presentation options and even form capture abilities... without any cost as an individual user.

Even in personal productivity using the Getting Things Done paradigm I wouldn't even consider an application that ties me to a single computer or hand held device. Not when I have options such as GTDAgenda or TaskWriter available to me. Available again from any computer or the trusty iPhone that is always in my pocket... and much easier to manage than a physical binder or notebook.

As cloud computing does take over, local IT staff need to be re-thinking our jobs and what added value we already have, and what other added value we can provide to insure the future of local IT support. Will all IT Departments be gone in the next few years from corporate or government America? Not likely but they WILL be redefining their role in the enterprise.

The days of managing the endless technical nuances of servers and desktop operating systems, keeping systems patched and secure, and making sure everyone has the latest version of their word processing and email program is quickly coming to and end. Soon local IT staff may be more concerned about keeping their Internet connection solid and making sure the local wires are in good shape... or not with the expansion of wireless solutions.

How long will it be until super thin clients running on expendable hardware that connect wireless to a cloud company's freely provided router that is remotely supported and managed without anyone being local? No long I would image... Not long. Actually it's already here in one form or another.

Hello, I'm a recovering Systems Administrator and looking for a job... might not be too long for that.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Life of Busy

Been busy lately? I would bet nearly everyone would say "yes" to that one. At least about everyone I know. Busy has been double busy for me lately for various reasons: Doing Interim Finance Director position on top of my CIO position during budget time for the Muni I work for, mother's knee replacement surgery and recovery, new puppy in the house that is still learning the ropes, yet another car project that I wanted but didn't really need, patio cover project on my mothers house, the list goes on and on.

I have never understood those people who say they are 'bored' or bored with life. My concern is I will not have ENOUGH life to get to the things I want to do. I joke that I can't die because I have too many projects to finish still. Maybe that is the curse of having too many interest. I swing through the wide ranges of three car projects, web development, an automated home, MX motorcycles, chopper and old bicycles, small robotics, video editing, brickfilming, home repair and expansion, and a vast other array of things that are just darn FUN to me. Too many interest, too little time I suppose but dang it I am going to have a good time while I'm here.

The big challenge still is motivation - the old problem with when I have TIME, I have little INTEREST and when I have INTEREST, I have no TIME. Right now I am really interested in getting further along on the '69 Mustang and the '85 Mustang SVO but work calls heavily and other projects and duties hang in the way. I'm sure as soon as things settle down I will have more time and then I will have moved on to something else that peaks my interest at the time.

So what's the answer? Make more time? Guess that is another hobby - time expansion modulation or something like that. My talk to myself is just to 'enjoy the journey' even if the physical ends never get there. Oh the challenge of a 'hobbyaholic'. (I'm sure someone, somewhere has trademarked that word but I'm using it anyhow)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Twitter and Productivity?

Is Twitter Productivity an oxymoron? There are several posts in the blog world about Twitter and it's drain on productivity. I am seeing a different take on it myself - but of course, like any tool, it's all based on how you use it. Sure, Twitter can be a productivity drain - if you sit there and constantly monitor your friends and @reply all the time and turn Twitter into "Chatter" instead.

However, I've seen a different slant with it myself. Although my following is quite minimal, I've found I can use Twitter to put a little unseen pressure on myself that whatever I tweet I should actually be doing. One can use that to your advantage if done correctly. Instead of tweeting "I am eating breakfast at Tiffanys", I can tweet "Working the @Computer list" and I have set some pressure on myself that I need to either do or keep doing that post. In fact if I will tweet what I SHOULD be doing at the moment, I have a tendency to go ahead and actually follow up on that.

I have used that in reference to my weekly reviews before - I tweet "Working on Weekly Review" and feel at that point I better be doing that. Of course it's not like some follower is going to come to my house and make sure I'm actually doing that but if you play it right it's a helpful TwitterCoach for me.

Silly solution? Likely, but if you have any principles in regard to "what you say vs what you do" it can be a simple but effective tool to help Get Things Done in your world. Of course you are making a huge assumption that your followers are actually reading what you tweet - but some things are left better unknown than known.

Keep on Tweeting...
Image by ChrisMetcalf

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Dealing With 50

This month I end my era of being a "40-something". It's on to the big Five-O and on to bigger and better things... or I'm just getting old, it depends upon how you look at it.

As with most people getting here has been a blur. I still remember thinking as a child what it would be like to see the year 2000, the turn of the century. Something that not all generations get to experience. 2000 came and went and was highlight by the Y2K fear instead of the magic, or lack thereof, watching 1999 roll to 2000 (or 1999 to 1900 if Y2K was your thing).

Looking Back
Like most people, your past life experiences filters your perspective on life itself. I feel very fortunate that my life experiences have been mostly positive and my luck has been good. Especially since I really never had the vision of what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go in the past. I think I worked hard at the jobs I've had from car hop to now and was lucky to have bosses that gave me opportunities. Looking back I can't imagine me as a fifty-something giving a twenty-something some of the major projects that I had the opportunity to work on including long range plans and designs that may still affect people today. Time slips by for sure and before you know it it's all over.

I obviously have more interest and hobbies than I could ever expect myself to accomplish in one lifetime but I don't plan on giving up the battle. Between home automation, web programming, pushing technology and automation everywhere I go, personal robotics, rebuilding cars, bikes and motorcycles, making stop motion movies, computers in general and just making sure I live life day by day and enjoy my family and friends, time can get away from one.

So what's next?
  • Retirement? - Not for another twelve or more years for me.
  • AARP? - Already a member, they let me cheat or something at 49.
  • Aches and Pains? - Already have them.
  • Gray Hair? - Getting there.
  • Get Smarter? - It's getting much harder to do that.
  • Maturity? - Nah, never grow up.
  • Get Rich? - Still trying to figure that one out
  • Keep Living?
Yeah, that seems like the best option - Keep Living. I think I'll keep doing what I'm doing but also keep improving what I'm doing to make sure those around me and myself included enjoy every minute I have left in this lifetime.

Besides, I have too many projects. I won't be able to pass on until I'm 100 or something at the rate I am accomplishing them!

Live Long and Prosper - Sounds like a plan.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

15 Seconds of Fame

Just thought I would share my 15 seconds of fame for this year... well, maybe it's up to 30 seconds now.

After blogging here about some ways I have used Twitter at a local government LINK and LINK, a newspaper story followed LINK which then was followed by a couple TV news stories in the Oklahoma City area. As any government employee knows, many times "good" press is hard to find so it's always worth sharing it when it happens.

Both OKC Fox25 LINK and News9 LINK have now covered the activity which has helped spread the awareness of the Twitter features. Interestingly enough, both stories were different enough that they did not seem overly duplicated... or maybe am just biased. :-) Additionally we were mentioned in a story about Law Enforcement agencies using Twitter LINK.

With Twitter gaining public attention the timing was right and having had the application in place since late November 2008 it worked out well.

Like the rest of the world anymore though, you blink and it's on to the next thing - I had my 15 seconds so now we're off to another adventure.

Full links of the coverage:

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Working in Government

Working in Government is different. I've spent 18 years in government one way or another and I can personally attest to the differences between government and private enterprise. Many are good, many are bad but it is different.

While working in government you always have a mission, a very important one in fact, of providing critical services to the Citizens of your city/state/tribe or nation in one way or another. Unlike private entities where the almighty dollar (or Yen, Euro, Peso, whatever...) is the driving factor, government has a clearly defined goal of helping those you work for and are one of. Sure businesses have owners and stock holders but again the dollar is the driver. They have customers as well which is the closest connection to citizens in a government but it still is different, the customer is the means for the dollar. In government, the customers, i.e. citizens, are point of your existence. Governments have citizens that literally depend upon you and your job as a government employee for their living standards, their safety, their water, sewer or even their life.

It seems a large number of the general public seem to think that "government workers" sit around all day long and just waste their taxpaying money but from eighteen years I've seen much different. Sure there are the time wasters, but I would imagine any business you look at has the same situation. There is also silo building where one department has deemed themselves more important to the mission than others and try to force issues one way or another. But overall, if your average citizen could spend a day or two shadowing a public servant, I believe they would be satisfied with what happens every day just to keep your city, state, nation or tribal government running. Is there waste in government operations? Sure there is. Is there waste in the corporate world? Just look at the current 'bail out' efforts.

It still irks me when some friend, family member or stranger makes the blanket statement of "the government" did this to them or "the government" did that to someone. Inside I'm thinking, "Hey, I may be THAT GOVERNMENT" that you despise and you have no clue what you are talking about.

More on Change

Recently I commented on 'change' and the point of insuring that Good Change is what is accomplished when change is demanded. If 'change' is presented as a platform it works quite well for those promoting themselves since each one of us then creates our very own image of what that 'change' may be. Our vision of the change may, or more likely may not, reflect the intent of those pressing for 'change'.

Over the years of being in Government I have seen many 'changes' - most elections rally on the 'need for change' platform during the campaign process. Many have no clue what they are going to change but we just 'need change'. I have watched great talented individuals with wonderful abilities in government be forced out because 'change' was demanded only to see the 'winners' of such battles later realize they have no clue what to change.

It is true that either you "change or you die" or "you grow or you die" - I work in the technology field so change, growth, and technology death is a daily occurrence. You truly due change or die in this field. But when people demand 'change', they need to define what change they want or they will be right back where they started and everyone will be demanding 'change' again.

Worth it...

To me, all in all working in government allows me to go home after work with the thought that I helped in some small, large, or medium way, to make things better for the citizens of the government I work for and not some top executive or stock holder wealthier. That in itself is a satisfaction that cannot be measured by any stock ticker.

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Monday, February 2, 2009

Tweeting Local Government: Revisited - Results and Tools

Having discussed using Twitter in a local government operation before and now having things running for a few weeks I thought I would follow up on the subject. I setup the Twitter accounts for the local municipal government, the City of Shawnee, Oklahoma, automated some of the postings using various pieces of our website, found some online tools that make it easier to review/manage the accounts, and have just watched the activity. Nothing awesome or wonderful to report but steady results have followed. I thought I would follow up on how I accomplished what we've done so far and the tools used. There should be a local newspaper story in mid-February which I hope will increase the local awareness of what we are doing and help participation.

Online tools used...
For those notices that need to be sent out at a later date such as notices for Commission Meeting broadcast, planning sessions, or general reoccurring news and information, we use TweetLater lets you manage multiple Twitter accounts and schedule future tweets across one or more accounts. TweetLater will also scan for any @Replies to your accounts and send hourly notices which allows you to be notified of replies but not have to constantly monitor the feeds. If you want to follow all those that follow you, you can enable the auto-follow feature that can also send a welcome to the follower. At this time we are not following those that follow us from the 'big brother' feeling it may present to some. As our follower base grows, we will poll in the future to see what their opinion of being followed by the ShawneePD, ShawneeFD, of Cityof ShawneeOK are and make changes if applicable. I have not figured out if TweetLater has an API to allow feeding/posting scheduled tweets automatically from outside of their website but we can work around that for now.
I use to get a full overview of the followers and any friends we are following on one page. The Friend / Follower layout works fine for me and the interface is easy enough to use. Plus the WallTrak is just kind of fun to play with.
For real time monitoring of the City of Shawnee accounts, works well. It allows the monitoring of multiple Twitter accounts and the ability to Tweet across one or more in real time if desired. Splitweet auto-refreshes every minute or so and tracks 'brand mentions' and @Replies making it much easier to manage multiple Twitter accounts. Splitweet has a fun interface that is laid out well and easy to use. If you manage multiple Twitter accounts it can be quite useful for real-time activity.

Now on to the custom tools used...

CADCom - Computer Aided Dispatch Communicator

"How are are you posting those Police and Fire calls?"

That is a common question about the service. This is accomplished by a custom portion of the Shawnee Twitter engine developed in-house. It actually is a simple internal Active Server Page (ASP) that reloads every minute, checks the CAD database for new calls, checks to see if the Twitter accounts are to Tweet those calls and then sends the Tweets if needed.

The CADCom application was originally developed to allow Police, Fire, City employees and citizens to sign up for localized call notices through email. The user selects which call types to be notified, what time of day to be alerted, and an optional location center and radius to be alerted if the call was in that area. The application has not been pushed out for public use yet even though it was written years ago but should see the light of day in 2009.

By setting up the ShawneePD, ShawneeFD, and CityofShawneeOK twitter accounts up as CADCom 'users', and adding the bit of code that says Tweet these calls instead of emailing them the solution was born.

Integration with News, Agenda, Jobs postings
With the open API that Twitter provides, it makes it quite easy to integrate with web site code and we have used that to our advantage to automate postings. News releases that are posted by City employees to the front of the website can automatically Tweeted for the main City account with the headline and a link back to the front page. When Minutes or Agenda documents are posted to the website the information is Tweeted as well allowing citizens to easily follow what is available without having to manually check the RSS feed or the site.

We already email out job posting notifications but will add Tweets of the openings in the near future since the process is quite simple once the PostTwitter() function was built. With this function in place we can actually Tweet out anything of importance from the websites and will be reviewing and developing more solutions as they are uncovered.

Another feature that will be added in the near future is a basic 'Tweeting Page' for employees to post Tweets to the various accounts directly from their desktops. This avoids having to share the account passwords and allows Police, Fire and other employees to post short bursts of information from their desktops.


There are the basics of what I have done in regard to Tweeting Local Government for the City of Shawnee, Oklahoma. Even without the custom code that auto-Tweets activity, local governments can use the free online Tweeting tools to keep their citizens better informed with little effort and no other costs.

Citizens should challenge local governments to look around at the options they have to help keep their citizens better informed and use those technologies whenever they can.

-Stephen W Nolen

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Change: Be Careful What You Wish For

Change - that seems to have been the key word throughout the whole US Presidential campaign. Time for Change, the need for Change, we must Change. The new site promotes "Change has come to America" so it appears we are going to see "change".

I feel like we all need to remember that we should "be careful what we wish for" when asking for change - Change is not always the answer, GOOD change is the answer, but change can be very bad as well.

Any Change must be thought out carefully to insure it is correct change. Change for the sake of change is never been a pleasant experience and at the level of power the new winds of change are blowing, BAD change can be catastrophic.

Will we see 'change' in America? - I am sure we will - Will it be Good change? or Correct change? or Positive Change? Only time will tell but let's all hope and pray we see the right type of change in 2009 and beyond.

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