Construction: Home Automation

How I’ve embraced the Internet of Things.

On May 20, 2014, I began blogging about the construction of my new home in Malaga, WA. You can read all of these posts — and see the time-lapse movies that go with many them — by clicking the new home construction tag.

One of the best things about designing and building your own home is the ability to include features that are fully customized for your own individual needs. I built my home with home automation in mind, but what I still find surprising as I look back on what I’ve done is how easy it is to retrofit a home with automation features.

I thought it was time for me share some of what I’ve learned while setting up the home automation features of my home. This is not intended to provide readers with everything they need to know to set up their own system. Instead, it’s an overview of what I’ve done and why and what it’s cost me. As you’ll discover, it’s neither difficult nor expensive to get started.

Oh, and one more thing: if you’re looking for a “buyer’s guide” or detailed analysis of what’s available or even step-by-step instructions for setting up a system or devices, you won’t find it here. This is just an overview of what I did and why I did it. Use it to get some ideas for your system or needs.

The System

Wink App
The main screen of the Wink app on my iPhone. Each icon represents a type of device; tap the icon to access the actual devices.

Let me start by explaining what I wanted from my home automation setup.

I was very interested in setting up certain things that could be turned on or off when I wasn’t home. For example, the very first thing I thought about was having floodlights on my deck that shined down onto the concrete driveway where I land my helicopter. Although I very rarely fly after dark, if I was out flying and got delayed until after nightfall, I wanted the ability to turn on the floodlights from my helicopter so I could clearly see where I had to land without relying on my landing lights.

So in this example, I have a few components. On one side are the actual floodlights and the light switch that turns them on and off. On the other side is the Internet and my mobile device (smartphone) that communicates with it. What I needed was something in between the two sides — a device that made it possible for my phone to talk to the light fixtures.

That’s where the home automation system comes into play. It forms a sort of bridge between devices and a smartphone. It connects those devices to the Internet so your phone can talk to them.

When I began looking into this — about two years ago now — there were already quite a few options. There are even more now. I needed a system that met the following requirements:

  • Affordable. I’m not rich and I don’t want to pump a bunch of money into a system — especially one that might be out of date in a few short years.
  • Well supported. I wanted a system that had been around for a while, seemed to have good customer service, and looked as if it would be around for a while longer. That ruled out any brand new providers or ones that didn’t seem to add many new devices.
  • Wide variety of devices. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Being able to connect the most things to the system? Well, I didn’t need a lot of things, but I did need certain types of things.

I also discovered that different systems used different communication protocols. For example, Wink, which is the one I wound up with, supports ZigBee and Z-Wave enabled devices. So any device that supports these two protocols should work with Wink. But a device that doesn’t support them might not be supported by Wink. I really can’t explain it any better than that. (And you can learn the difference between these two protocols here.) My advice: make sure the devices you want to use are supported by the system you select before you install a system. While there’s nothing stopping you from having multiple systems, wouldn’t you rather have just one?

Wink Hub
The original Wink Hub connects wirelessly to my network.

I chose Wink because it met all my criteria and was available for sale in Home Depot, which is where I bought almost everything to complete the living space in my home. Wink offered two (now three) main communication devices: the Hub, which is a sort of router with no visible interface, and the Relay, which is a touchscreen device you’d mount on the wall. The Hub was cheaper and I really didn’t see the benefit of a touchscreen, especially when I’d likely use my phone to interact with the system. There are now two different hubs, but I don’t see enough benefit in the new version (Hub 2) to make it worth upgrading. (If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.)

I should make one thing clear: some devices require the Hub (or Relay) while others don’t. For example, my Quirky + GE Smart Window/Door Sensors require the Hub but my Ring video doorbell does not.

Once the whole thing is set up, you add devices to the Wink app. You can then control them in a variety of ways as I discuss here.

The Floodlights

Remember my example with the floodlights on my deck and driveway? That’s actually the first component I installed.

I wired the light fixtures like any other fixtures: two fixtures each having two bulbs with their wires coming together to one switch. These were standard Home Depot fixtures and floodlight bulbs; nothing special.

Leviton Smart Switch
This light switch looks like any other Decora switch, but it does not toggle.

What’s special was the wall switch. I bought a Leviton DZS15-1BZ Decora switch. (All my living space light switches are Decora style.) The back side of the switch is a lot bulkier than a regular light switch, but that’s because it has wifi capabilities built into it. It connects to the wires like any other light switch so I didn’t have any trouble installing it. I should mention here that I can switch it out any time I like — or add other ones just like it. My point: you can retrofit to add this at any time.

Once it was wired up and I’d set up my Wink hub, I followed the instructions in the Wink app on my phone to add the switch as a device. Voila! A light switch I could turn on or off or monitor from anywhere I had an Internet connection. Yes, including my helicopter in flight. I used it not long after installation when I returned from a charter flight after nightfall. It was very cool to see my deck lights turn on as I was flying across the river to my home.

And yes, it works like a wall switch, too, although it doesn’t toggle. Tap to turn it on, tap to turn it off.

Door Sensors

Security, for Peace of Mind

Reading about my the security features of my home automation system, you might get the idea that I’m paranoid. Am I? I’d like to think that I’m not. I’d like to think that I’m just interested in keeping an eye on things, especially when I’m not home.

During my off season, which is seven months out of the year, I travel quite a bit. Even two of the months I’m “working,” I’m based part of that time in California. So although I have a very reliable house-sitter (with a Doberman!) and neighbors who keep an eye on things during my long trips away from home, the house is empty almost as much as it’s occupied. While crime is not an issue where I live, it is somewhat remote. (My city-dwelling friends would argue that I live in the middle of nowhere.) It just seems to make sense to install features to keep an eye on things when I can’t be around to watch them myself.

Another thing I set up very early on were the door sensors. I bought four Quirky + GE Smart Window/Door Sensors, which are now marketed as Quirky Tripper Smart Security Trigger. These are two-piece units that you can place on doors or windows.

I used them on doors. One piece goes on the door itself and the other piece goes on the door frame so it lines up with the other piece when the door is closed. They don’t have to touch. When the door is opened, the sensor triggers. I set this up so it would send me an alert on my phone any time the door opened. I can also check the app from anywhere to see if the door is open or closed. Each door has a name, so I always know which one was opened.

Obviously, I did this for security reasons. I’m the only person who lives here. If a door opens and I didn’t open it, I want to know about it.

Motion Sensors

Motion Sensor
I use motion sensors like this to monitor activity around my shop and garage.

My security setup also includes motion sensors. I use the GoControl Z-Wave PIT Motion Detector, which has a built-in temperature sensor.

Like the door sensors, the motion sensor also works with Wink and will alert me when it senses motion. It’s very sensitive — it can pick up my 7-pound dog, Penny, and has, in the past, sensed a mouse.

Thermostat

Thermostat
This is the one I have. It was installed about a year and half ago; they have a lot more spiffy looking ones now, but I can’t imagine that they offer more features.

When the HVAC guys got around to finishing up my heat pump system — that gives me what we used to call “central air” as well as heat — I made sure they installed a wifi enabled Honeywell thermostat. This thermostat is programmable with up to four time periods a day and up to seven different programs a week. Since my life is not “scheduled,” I have it set up for the same programming each day and fine-tune it when I’m around or leave.

Like the other items I’ve listed so far, this one works with my Wink app. But it also has its own app that can be used independently of Wink. I’ve played around with both and have decided that I prefer the Honeywell app, so that’s what I use.

Thermostat
Adjust the thermostat while still lounging in bed? Check.

Because it’s wifi enabled, I can control it from anywhere with an Internet connection. So yes, I can adjust the thermostat while I’m still lying in bed. But I can also adjust it from SeaTac, when I want to bring the heat (or air conditioning) back to a comfortable temperature before I get home from a trip. Likewise, I can set it to a more economical temperature while I’m away, if I forgot to adjust it before leaving. And I can check the temperature at any time to make sure the system is working right. It has alert capabilities, too, as you might imagine, but I don’t use them.

Smart Plugs

Because not all lights or appliances have wall switches, there are smart plugs. A smart plug is a wifi enabled outlet that you can plug into any outlet. You then plug an appliance into it — a lamp, a coffee maker, a neon sign — and turn that item on. When the plug is turned on, it sends power to the appliance and it goes on.

Smart Plug
Smart plugs like this one make it easy to automate any device.

I bought iHome Smart Plugs to play with this feature. The first one I set up was to be able to turn on a neon sign I bought in Quartzite last year. I hung the sign on the rail for my loft, far out of reach. With the signed plugged into the smart plug, I can turn it on from my phone. What’s really cool, however, is that these smart plugs also work with Apple’s HomeKit and Siri, so I can turn the light on or off with a voice command. (It’s a real hit when I have friends over for dinner or drinks.)


Frivolous? Guilty.

I also used one of these to help circulate air in my loft. Because two of my HVAC vents are up on my loft, the warm (or cool) air sometimes gets “stuck” up there, especially on very warm or very cold days. I set up a fan and attached it to one of these smart plugs, then set up a schedule for the plug to turn on in the morning and turn off in the evening. This made it possible to get the air circulation I wanted without having to climb the ladder to the loft to turn the fan on or off.

So yes, the plug, when used with my Wink system, can be programmed to turn on or off at any time. And that schedule can be overridden at any time. From any place. Kind of cool, no?

Video Doorbell

One of the toughest things I had to do when wiring my home was to find and install a hardwired doorbell. Why? Because people apparently don’t use hardwired doorbells anymore. They seem to prefer wireless ones that have a push button outside and a door chime somewhere inside. But I wanted a wired one and I finally found the basic one I wanted. And then I had to figure out how to get the silly thing properly installed so I had electrical power on the wall outside my front door. (Hint: when you switch the wires, the doorbell rings continuously.)

Ring Doorbell
It was not easy mounting this on a corrugated metal surface, but I managed and it isn’t going anywhere without my building attached.

Why did I want power there? Because I knew that at some time in the future, I was going to install a video doorbell. It took a while to find the one I wanted, but I eventually wound up with a Ring doorbell. This is a really cool device. It combines the features of a regular doorbell — push the button and the chime I’d already installed chimes — with a video camera, intercom system, and motion sensor. Basically, if someone drives (or walks) up to my home, I get an alert. I can then use the video camera to see who it is and start a conversation with them — even if they don’t ring the bell.

And it really does work! I recently answered the door and chatted with the person standing there — who I could see — while I was driving my truck in town.

Although Ring can connect to Wink, it’s much better when used with its own app, which lets you configure it and interact with it. And this is the only device I pay a subscription for: I signed up for the cloud recording feature so that every time Ring senses motion, a video clip is automatically stored on Ring’s server for future reference. (Needless to say, I have many recordings of me letting Penny the Tiny Dog out to do her business.

The Router

Right around this time, I started having trouble with my Internet connection.

I get all my television service via Internet streaming with Roku. After installing Ring, I noticed that television shows would often get interrupted and need to reconnect to continue streaming. It was very annoying.

Rural Fiber Rocks
Rural fiber rocks.

At first, I didn’t make the connection between the Ring installation and the Roku problem. I did a speed check and saw that I still had the wicked fast Internet service I always had. After restarting the router and anything else I could think of and the problem not going away, I figured that the junky router my ISP had provided had simply gone bad. So I did the lazy web thing and got on Facebook to ask my friends if they could recommend a router. During the conversation that ensued, I got a router education and discovered that several of the devices I was installing — the Wink hub, Ring, the thermostat, the cameras (see below) — were talking directly to my router, along with my desktop computer, laptop, iPads, iPhone, and Roku. The router couldn’t handle the traffic and was partially shutting down when I watched TV.

ASUS Router
The ASUS router I bought to replace my crappy ISP-provided one. Wow! What a difference!

My friend Tom, who is extremely knowledgeable about these things, recommended a specific model of ASUS router. It was well over $200 — a lot more than I wanted to spend on a router. But I understood that I needed more capacity and I also now understood how much each model could handle. So I settled on an ASUS RT-AC66U Dual Band router. This would give me a 2.4GHz network like I already had plus a 5GHz network and even a guest network. I set it up with the home automation devices on the 2.4GHz network and my other devices, including the Roku, on the 5GHz network. And I plugged my desktop mac directly into one of its four Ethernet ports, thus removing it entirely from the wifi network. (I don’t know why I didn’t do that in when I set up my old router; they’re sitting right next to each other.)

What I like about this router is how easy it is to set up and monitor connected devices. While I assume my old router had some of this capability, this one just seems to make it more obvious. And it handles my current load — about 20 devices — with ease. No more Roku streaming problems!

Garage Doors

My home has four car garages, each with its own door. When I wired the garage, I included outlets over each garage bay for the future installation of garage door openers. But because I didn’t need garage door openers, I didn’t get them installed right away.

I finally got around to it this past June. The installer offered me three options ranging from $325/door to $425/door. (Do the math on four doors: ouch!) All three options were for LiftMaster doors — that’s the professionally installed version of Chamberlain.

Internet Gateway
Smaller than a deck of cards, this device plugs right into my router and makes my garage doors accessible from my iPhone.

I did some research and learned that although all three options were wifi enabled, the most expensive one (model 8550W) had a built-in “router” of sorts and was all ready to be connected to the LiftMaster app. But the other two models could be added to the app with the purchase of a single small device called an Internet gateway. The differences between those two models was chain (noisy) vs. belt (quieter) drive. As I told the installer, if my garage door opens and I’m not the one opening it, I want to hear it. So I went with the cheapest of the three models (model 8365) and spent an extra $50 for the Internet gateway, which I installed myself by simply plugging it into a wall socket and my new router.

LiftMaster
The LiftMaster app shows a status screen for each garage door, which I can name. Tap the picture of the garage door to open or close it. (Looks like my Honda is being neglected again.)

(And no, I was not about to install the garage door openers myself, even to save a few hundred bucks. There really is a limit to my DIY skills.)

I absolutely love my smart garage doors. I can open or close them from anywhere, check the status (is a specific door open or closed?), get an alert when one opens, and even set up a robot to check the status of the doors at a specific time of day and automatically close them all — in case I forget to close them myself. Of course, they all do have the usual remote controls — one for each vehicle that lives there — and a central control area just inside the door that leads from my entrance vestibule to my garage. And there’s even a keypad outside one of the doors that, when the proper code is entered, will open a specific door or close them all.

The only thing that would make the setup any better is if the garage door openers washed the cars while they were sitting idle in the garage.

Smoke/CO Detectors

When I first started working on the inside of my living space, I was excited to buy a pair of Kidde Wink-compatible smoke detectors. To me, this was the best of all worlds: a system of smoke/carbon monoxide detectors that would “talk” to each other and alert me about hazards no matter where I was.

Trouble was, the smoke detectors were battery operated and they didn’t have a hardwired version. The building code requires hardwired smoke detectors. So I had to buy the old fashioned kind and install those to meet building codes.

Once I got my Certificate of Occupancy, however, I could make changes. I didn’t remove the approved smoke detectors. Why would I? They were already bought, paid for, and installed. Instead, I just added the two smoke detectors to my home: one in the garage (where I honestly think everyone should have one) and one up on my loft. I then connected them to each other wirelessly and tested them. Not only did they both go off, but they gave me the alert I was hoping to get on my phone.

Smart Bulbs

Smart Bulb
GE Link smart bulbs put wifi into the base of a light bulb.

My most recent automation acquisition was a pair of GE Link light bulbs. These are energy saving LED lightbulbs that are wifi enabled. They can be added to my Wink app like the smart plugs or light switches.

The benefit of using a smart bulb instead of connecting the light fixture to a smart plug is that you can easily control the bulb manually. If you use a smart plug between the wall and the lamp, if the plug is disabled, there’s no power to the lamp. With a smart bulb, there’s always power to the lamp; it’s the switch on the lamp or the bulb itself that controls whether there’s light.

Like the smart switches, smart bulbs can be controlled with the app or on a schedule. They make it very easy to set up light timers on any kind of light.

Interconnectivity

One thing I didn’t mention here is that devices accessible through my Wink system can talk to each other and work together. This is done through the creation of “robots.”

For example, I can have a robot that monitors my Ring doorbell between sunset and sunrise and turns on my deck light if it senses motion. (I already have the deck light monitoring when I come home so it turns on the light when I pull into my driveway.)

While an example like this is great, Wink doesn’t have the ability to set times for an activity to end after a robot started it. So if it did turn on the deck light, it would stay on until either I turned it off or another robot did. I’ve put in a feature request to Wink to add timer-based functionality — for example, turn the light on for 15 minutes.

Cameras

I didn’t talk about my live video cameras, mostly because I don’t consider them part of my home automation system and they don’t work with Wink or any other system. I have three different cameras (not including the one in Ring and my weather cam), one of which was installed before my home was built! I keep trying new ones but don’t seem to find one I really like. At this point, I have enough of them. They provide additional security and a way to keep an eye on my home when I’m not around.

Suppose I’m on a day trip out of town somewhere and I get a motion sensor alert. I can use the cameras to see whether there’s someone around who shouldn’t be. If there is, I can use one of the cameras to talk to that person if I want to.

Tip of the Iceberg

This is the tip of the iceberg as far as capabilities are concerned. There are automatic watering systems, sensors for all kinds of things, even a device that tells you when it’s time to buy eggs.

And I’m sure I’ll be expanding my little system as time goes on — although I can keep track of my egg supply without a computer.

Have you set up any home automation at your place? If so, please do take a few moments to share your experience or advice with readers. My experience is limited to what’s here. You can add value to this post by sharing what you know with others.

On Keeping a Neat Desk

And conquering clutter.

I am — or, hopefully, was — the Queen of Clutter. And I’ve always hated it.

The Clutter

The clutter seems to come into my home with me. Sometimes it arrives by mail or UPS or FedEx in the form of junk mail, bills, account statements, and items ordered. Other times it arrives in my car or Jeep or truck in the form of items bought at a store or given to me by a friend or family member. Other times, I have no idea where it comes from. It just seems to appear.

My procrastinating nature — and yes, I am a confessed procrastinator — causes the clutter to pile up on any horizontal surface readily available. That included my dresser, night table, kitchen table, and desk. I would go through the piles periodically, pull items out — for example, a bill or a letter — to deal with them, and then keep piling. When the piles needed to be hidden to neaten up a room, they’d be shifted to a pile elsewhere, sometimes in an empty box that would be piled with other previously empty boxes. The situation was completely intolerable and embarrassing, to say the least. And I know I’m not the only one who was bothered by it.

My desk and office seemed to be the ending point for most of the shifted clutter. In my Arizona home, I had a huge L-shaped desk where I often had several computers and monitors and printers set up. Back in those days, my primary source of income was writing books about how to use computers and I wrote several a year. The huge desk gave me plenty of space to work and accumulate clutter. The rest of the room, including the floor, was for overflow. It was so awful that after a while, I preferred working with a laptop at the kitchen table than in my own office.

Fast Forward to Today

It’s been more than three years since the last days I worked in my home office.

These days, I’m putting the finishing touches on a new home in a new place. My living space is considerably smaller — half the size, in fact — but I don’t have to share it with another person. And it has a simple floor plan with just two rooms, a bathroom, and a loft. Rather than having an office in its own room, I’ve given myself a small corner of the great room, just under 4 x 7 feet, for my office space.

I had a second desk when I lived in Arizona. I’d bought it on sale at Pottery Barn in Phoenix and set it up in the bedroom of the Phoenix condo I lived in for a short time. When I moved, I brought it and its matching file cabinet to Washington with me. It has since become my primary desk while my big, old L-shaped desk became a workbench in my shop downstairs. It fits remarkably well in the small space and looks rather nice there, too.

I became determined not to let it become the resting place for the same kind of clutter I had in Arizona, and, so far, have done very well.

Lessons from my Sister

My sister was a corporate banker with Citigroup for a bunch of years. I remember visiting her a few times at her office on Wall Street in Manhattan. The one thing that always amazed me was how neat and clean her desk was. There was never anything on it that she wasn’t working on at that moment. And, at the end of the day, it was always completely cleared off.

I was jealous of her ability to do that and, for a long time, thought it was beyond my own capabilities.

I’ve since realized that it isn’t that tough. The trick is to never let anything accumulate on the desktop. And the best way to do that is to make sure that at the end of each day, the desktop is completely cleared off.

Getting Things Done

Getting Things Done
This is the latest edition of Allen’s book. I wonder if this edition takes advantage of more computer-based organization tools.

For Christmas back in 2006 — I know this because I searched my blog posts for the first time I wrote about it and it was nearly eight and a half years ago — I got a copy of David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done. This book was written to help people conquer clutter, fight procrastination, and get more done. In other words, it was written for people like me.

I read about halfway through it. It proposed an organizational strategy that used lots of paper and folders and labels to organize the clutter into manageable tasks. I admit that I wasn’t too keen on that part of the book — in my mind, it just created more clutter by adding to the piles of paper. But it also provided a good strategy for dealing with incoming paper — the stuff of future clutter. There was a flow chart and I found it so useful that I made my own version of it in a drawing program, printed it out, and hung it on the wall over my desk in my RV.

Getting Things Done Flowchart
Here’s my version of the GTD flowchart.

Of course, this cannot completely solve my clutter problem. “Incubate” is what causes clutter on my desktop. “Reference material” is another source of clutter — that paper has to be stored somewhere. I have a file cabinet with just two drawers and will likely use one to store stationery items like letterhead and envelopes. And I know from experience that any reference material I think is worth keeping is seldom referred to in the future. In reality, it’s “deferred trash.” I can’t delegate anything, either. I don’t have employees or a partner — which is a good thing, believe me — so I have to handle everything.

So, as you can imagine, this is of limited use to me.

The Joy of Scanning

I’ve discovered that the absolute best way to keep clutter at bay is to scan the documents you think you need and store them on a backed-up computer hard disk as PDF files. And that’s what I do now.

ScanSnap Scanner
My ScanSnap scanner is portable and efficient for the volume of scanning I do.

I’ve got a little ScanSnap portable scanner that can take as many sheets of paper as I need it to. I’ve created a date-based filing system on my computer with consistent naming conventions. It works like a charm — when I take the time to scan. The key, it seems is to scan something as soon as it hits my desk and then destroy the original paper and throw it into the recycle bin. No piles.

I try to avoid having to scan anything. This is easy these days with electronic bank statements and the like. Periodically, I go online and download statements, filing them into my existing system. I have a To Do list that reminds me to download for each account every three months. I tick it off when it’s done and I’m reminded three months later to do it again. The reminder stays active until it’s done; the three-month clock starts when I tick it off.

TurboScan
Some of this week’s receipts in TurboScan in my iPhone before moving them to my computer.

Receipts from traveling were a huge source of clutter in the past. But I’ve recently even resolved this with a $3 app on my iPhone: TurboScan. This app uses my phone’s camera to take photos of my receipts and then stores them. When I get home, I export them as PDFs to iTunes, copy them to my hard disk, and file them away in the appropriate folders. Not a single piece of paper comes home with me. Can’t make clutter if you don’t bring it in the house. Best $3 I’ve spent in a long time.

Back to My Desk

These days, I allow only the following items to live on my desktop:

  • My computer. It’s a 27-inch iMac that’s still going strong as it comes up on its fourth birthday. I have a 24-inch monitor I can use with it and there’s a slight chance I might bring it up — especially if I start writing computer books again. For now, the computer sits alone in the back corner of my desk.
  • My keyboard and mouse. I need these. Although my desk has a drawer that could be used as keyboard drawer, I prefer to use the drawer for small office supplies like clips and a stapler and the three-hole punch that was in the desk when I unwrapped it after the move. (A parting gift from my wasband? I doubt it.)
  • A mouse pad. The desk surface is a nice wood and I don’t want to ruin it by scratching a mouse all over it.
  • Backup hard disk. I use Time Machine to back up my computer automatically.
  • A pencil cup. It’s an oversized mug with pens, pencils, scissors, ruler, and other similar items in it.
  • Coaster. For my coffee cup or other beverages. Again, I don’t want to ruin that nice desk top.
  • Charging cables for my iPad and iPhone. I tend to keep them plugged in at my desk when I’m not using them so they’re handy when I need them.
  • USB Hub. I need the ports.
  • Tissue box. I always keep tissues nearby; I’ve had sinus issues my whole life, although they’ve been very minor since moving out west from the New York metro area.

My Office
This photo of my office was shot just moments after finishing this blog post. The only extra items you see are my coffee cup (on the coaster) and iPad (on a charger). And yes, the chair is temporary; haven’t brought my office chair up yet.

Two items live on top of my file cabinet, which abuts the desk:

  • A printer. Right now, I’m using the Brother laser printer I bought cheap a bunch of years ago. It’s wicked fast and does a decent job printing. I have two other printers — a LaserJet network printer and a Color LaserJet USB printer. But how many printers does a person need? I suspect I’ll replace the Brother with the Color LaserJet when I move into my new home and get rid of the other two printers. Or maybe get rid of the LaserJet — which prints great but very slowly — and keep the Brother as a spare. I don’t print very often, but it would be nice to have the option of printing in color.
  • A portable scanner. It’s a ScanSnap and it feeds a sheet at a time. A great little scanner if you don’t need to scan often. What I like about it is that I can set it aside next to my printer when I’m not using it and, because my desk is always clean, pull it out when I need it.

There are a few other things I keep out in my office area, either on the hanging corner shelves or my oversized windowsill:

  • Router. The internet comes into the room behind my desk; the router needs to be nearby. Added bonus: I can plug my computer right into it rather than use WiFi.
  • Podcaster microphone. I occasionally appear on podcasts and video podcasts and have been thinking of starting a new podcast this summer. The microphone also works well for voice recognition, which I hope to start using more frequently. It’s easy enough to reach for the mic and put it on my desk when I need it.
  • UPS. I’ve always had my computer plugged into an uninterrupted power supply. Not only does this filter the power to make it cleaner, but it prevents sudden shutdowns in the event of a power failure. I keep it on the floor and have just about all of my equipment plugged into either the battery + surge suppression or surge suppression side.

At the end of the day, before I go to bed, my desk cleanup job is simple: just make sure the above-listed items are the only items on horizontal surfaces in my office area. Anything else must be dealt with and/or put away before I go to bed. Because nothing ever accumulates, its remarkably easy to do.

Oddly enough, when I mentioned this strategy to a friend yesterday, his response was, “How you do penalize yourself if you don’t achieve that goal?” My response was: “I always achieve it so no penalty is necessary.”

And so far, I have.

Stress-free Living

The biggest benefit of getting clutter under control and keeping a neat workspace and home is that it eliminates one source of stress.

For me, having those clutter piles around were a constant source of stress. Each pile represented a huge stack of stuff I needed to deal with that I’d already put off many times for many reasons. What made things worse is that when the clutter problem got very bad on my desk, I had difficulty finding things I needed to work on and lacked the space to spread out and work.

Getting rid of clutter is the first step to increased productivity and a stress-free lifestyle. Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself.

Overqualified and Unemployable

The irony of today’s job market.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a friend of mine. For the sake of anonymity, I’ll call her Sally.

Like me, Sally spent years writing computer how-to books, turning her expertise into easy-to-understand instructions readers could learn from. Like me, she had strong selling titles that earned her a good income. She writes about more technical topics than I wrote about: mostly web-related programming. And unlike me, she stuck to freelance work as her main source of income where I grew and then slid into a career as a helicopter pilot.

A few months ago, Sally mentioned on Twitter or Facebook that she was looking for a full-time job.

A full-time job.

I thought at the time about how I’d feel if I had to get a full-time job after more than 20 years as a freelancer and business owner. A job where I had to dress a certain way every day, work regular hours, attend pointless staff meetings, and answer to a boss with his/her own personal agenda or baggage. A job where my daily tasks would be determined by someone else, without giving me any choice in the matter. A job where the term “weekend” actually meant something.

I shudder at the thought.

Don’t get the idea that I don’t work. Or that Sally doesn’t work. Freelancers work when there’s work to do. When there isn’t, we’re usually looking for work.

But these days, the kind of work Sally and I did as freelancers is getting harder and harder to find. People don’t buy computer how-to books when they can Google the answers they seek. People don’t spend money on the educational content we produce when they can get it for free online. So publishers are letting books die without revision and, one-by-one, freelance writers like us are losing our livelihood.

The reason I’m thinking about Sally lately is because this week she posted another Twitter update to say that she was looking for a full-time job. She was using Twitter to network, to put out feelers, to help her connect to someone who might be hiring. I’m sure she’s following other avenues as well.

What resulted was a brief conversation on Twitter between me, Sally, and another freelancer our age. And that’s when I learned a tragic fact:

Sally had applied for a job at a college teaching the computer language she’d been writing about for years. In fact, the college was using her book as the textbook for the course. But they wouldn’t hire her. Why? She didn’t have a Master’s degree.

Now those folks who are working to get a Masters or already have one probably think that’s a good thing. Makes that extra two years in college really worthwhile, huh? Gives you job security, right?

But does anyone honestly think they can teach the course better than the person who wrote the textbook?

It gets worse. Sally wanted to work for a local organization that has a tendency to hire young people at low starting salaries. When she applied, she even offered to work at that low salary. And she was turned down.

I know why. Young people are inexperienced and far more likely to do what they’re told instead of tapping into experience to suggest improvements as they work. Employers don’t want smart, helpful people. They want drones — bodies to fill seats, push pencils, and get a job done without questioning what they’re told to do.

I saw if myself firsthand when I flew at the Grand Canyon in 2004; the young pilots just did what they were told while older folks like me saw places where the operation could be improved and tried to suggest them. Or, worse yet, used their experience to to make a no-fly decision when weather was an issue. Can’t have that.

So employers are turning away older, more knowledgeable, more experienced workers in favor of young, inexperienced people who might have college degrees to meet arbitrarily established requirements — even when the more experienced workers can be hired at the same cost.

What does that say about our society and values?

Stop Whining and Just Do Your F*cking Job

A Google search phrase touches a nerve.

Every once in a while, when I check the stats for my blog, I also take a look at the search engine terms and phrases that visitors used to find posts on my blog. This list is never complete — Google has begun hiding search words/phrases for privacy reasons — but it certainly is enlightening. It gives me a good idea of what people come to my blog to learn. That, in turn, gives me ideas for future topics.

During the first six hours of today, the following search phrase stands out:

i m a girl and i want become a pilot so what can i do

This is a seriously sore subject with me. You see, I don’t believe a woman should do anything different from a man when pursuing any career. The career path to becoming a pilot is the same no matter what your gender is: get the required education and training, get job experience, and move forward.

How could this possibly be any different for women than it is for men?

Women need to stop thinking of themselves as women when out in the job market. They need to stop thinking about men vs. women and simply think of job candidates vs. job candidates.

The way this search phrase was written, I get the distinct impression that the searcher was a young person — perhaps even a teen or younger. After all, she referred to herself as a “girl” instead of as a “woman” or simply “female.” That means that for some reason, she’s been taught to think of herself first as female and second as a professional. Why are parents and teachers doing this to our young people?

These days, there have been far too many whining complaints from women who are complaining about different treatment because they’re women. I’m calling bullshit on all of this. The reason you’re being treated differently is because you’re acting differently. Maybe you’re making different demands from your employer — excessive time off to deal with your children. Maybe you’re dressing differently in the workplace — short skirts, tight pants, and low-cut blouses. Maybe you’re acting differently at the office — spending too much time on the phone or gossiping about coworkers.

If you want to be treated the same as your male counterparts in the workplace, you need to stop acting like a woman and start acting like a worker.

And before you share your sob stories with me or put me on your hate list, take a lead from me. I’ve been in and achieved success in three male dominated careers — by choice — in the past 32 years:

  • Corporate auditing/finance. Straight out of college at the age of 20, I got a job as an auditor for the New York City Comptroller’s Office. I’d estimate that only about 20% of the people holding the same job were women. By the age of 22, I was a supervisor with 12 people below me, most of whom were men. Three years later, I moved into an Internal Audit position at a Fortune 100 corporation. I’d say 30% of our small audit staff were female. From there, I moved into a financial analyst position at the same company; 25% were women. I got good pay raises every year and with every promotion. (And yes, I was promoted.)
  • Technical computing/computer book authoring. In 1990, I left my full-time job to pursue a freelance career as a computer trainer and book author. This is clearly a male-dominated industry with roughly 10-20% of the people doing what I did being women. Yet I was able to get and hold a number of computer training positions, land over 80 book contracts, and write hundreds of articles about computing. I’m still doing this work.
  • Aviation/piloting. In 2000, I learned to fly and began building a career as a pilot and charter operator. How many female pilots do you see around? And helicopter pilots? I can’t imagine more than 5% of all helicopter pilots being women. It’s a seriously male-dominated field. Yet I built my company over time to the point where it generates a good amount of business, especially through summer contract work. For the past two seasons, I have been the only female helicopter pilot doing cherry drying work in Washington state.

How did I achieve such success when surrounded by men doing the same job? By simply doing my job without whining.

Ladies, take note! You want the same opportunities as men in the workplace? Stop whining and crying about how different you are. Stop being different. Focus on the work and get the job done. Do it to the best of your abilities. Be a team player.

Nobody likes a whiner. I’m sick of being lumped into a group — women — who incessantly whine about how different they’re treated when all they can do is show how different they are.

And if you think you’re a woman first and an employee second, you have absolutely no place in the workplace. Employers and clients don’t want men or women. They want people who get the job done.

November 6, 2014 PM Postscript: Here’s another blog post from 2013 that also discusses this issue, but with quotes from female pilots.

Twitter and Writing

Some thoughts on a New Yorker essay.

Twitter LogoI read an interesting essay on the New Yorker magazine’s website yesterday: “The Ongoing Story: Twitter and Writing.” It was one of those pieces that, as you read it, you realize that you and the author are sharing the same thoughts about something that you thought you were alone in thinking. As I read through the piece, I found myself wanting to highlight different passages of it — the parts of it where the author put into words what I’d been thinking or feeling for a long time.

So I figured I’d blog a little about it to store those thoughts here.

For example, the author of the piece, Thomas Beller, writes:

Most great writers could, if they wanted to, be very good at Twitter, because it is a medium of words and also of form. Its built-in limitation corresponds to the sense of rhythm and proportion that writers apply to each line.

And that’s the challenge of Twitter. Sharing a complete thought in 140 characters. I wrote about that back in October 2010 (was it really that long ago?) in my blog post titled “How Twitter Can Help You Become a More Concise Writer.” After all, anyone can write a string of tweets to tell a story. But how many people can convey that story in just 140 characters? How many people can be interesting, funny, provocative, witty, sarcastic, ironic, or insightful?

Yes, it’s true: I do tweet photos of some of my meals. (Don’t we all?) But occasionally I get more serious. Occasionally I dig deeper and come up with something witty or profound, something that other people find worthy of retweeting or, better yet, favoriting.

(Ever wonder how the word favorite became a verb? I did, too. Then I asked all-knowing Google and it pointed me to this article that explains it. It shouldn’t surprise you that Twitter is involved. But once again, I digress.)

And sometimes — just sometimes — I can paint a visual picture with those 140 characters that’s as clear as a glacial stream on a spring day.

Two more passages touch upon why and how I use Twitter:

Does a piece of writing that is never seen by anyone other than its author even exist? Does a thought need to be shared to exist? What happens to the stray thought that drifts into view, is pondered, and then drifts away? Perhaps you jot it down in a note before it vanishes, so that you can mull it over in the future. It’s like a seed that, when you return to it, may have grown into something visible. Or perhaps you put it in a tweet, making the note public. But does the fact that it is public diminish the chances that it will grow into something sturdy and lasting? Does articulating a thought in public freeze it in place somehow, making it not part of a thought process but rather a tiny little finished sculpture? Is tweeting the same as publishing?

And:

I had always thought of Twitter as being a good place to work out ideas: a place to mull things over in public, and a way of documenting a thought to make it more likely that I would remember it. But is it like a conversation or is it “talking it out?” Is it a note to oneself that everyone can see, or is it, like iPhone photos, an attempt to offload the responsibilities of memory onto an apparatus that feels like an extension of ourselves because it is always in our hands? I sometimes wonder if I might ever be accused of stealing my own idea.

And that’s how I use Twitter: as a sort of running list of my thoughts and the things going on in my life. (That might explain why I’ve tweeted more than 44,000 times since I joined Twitter back in 2007. I think a lot and keep pretty busy.) It’s easy to whip out my phone or iPad and tweet something that’s on my mind — or to save a picture of what’s in front of me in a place where it’ll be forever (or at least a long time). It is an offloading of information so I don’t have to remember things.

Mr Beller wonders whether articulating a thought in public freezes it in place somehow. It does. It freezes it in the Twitter archive, which I can download for my account and search at any time. (How do you think it was so easy for me to come up with the tweets you see here? Imagine that archive in the hands of a paranoid and delusional stalker!) That makes it possible for me to go back in time, to see what I was thinking and doing on a specific date since my first tweet in March 2007.

I can’t think of any easier way to make life notes. Stray thoughts can be captured before they drift away, to be pondered at my leisure. And sometimes — just sometimes — they become the seeds for blog posts or conversations with friends.

Twitter was introduced as a “microblogging” service and that’s exactly how I use it. I assume other writers do the same.

But is tweeting the same as publishing? I don’t think so. It’s more like standing on a soapbox in a crowded park, making random remarks. Some folks who know you’re there and find you interesting might be there to listen. But otherwise, your words go mostly unheard. You can argue that the same can be said for publishing, but publishing seems to be a more legitimate form of communication. Or maybe that’s just old-fashioned thinking on my part.

Managing the anxiety of composition is an essential part of writing. One must master the process of shepherding the private into public. There are bound to be false starts, excursions that turn out to be dead ends. But these ephemera—notes, journals, drafts—are all composed in a kind of psychic antechamber whose main feature is a sense of aloneness. They are the literary equivalent of muttering to yourself in a state of melancholy, or of dancing in front of the mirror with music blasting when you are alone in your room. Both of these are best done when no one is home.

I’ve never found it difficult to write; there is no anxiety for me. That’s not to say that I don’t have false starts and wander down to dead ends. Or, more often than I’d like to admit, write crap.

There is an aloneness to all writing, including Twitter. And yes, tweets are like talking to yourself, but with the very real possibility that (in my case) 1600+ people are listening and may respond. No one is home here except me — I’ve been alone for a long time, even when I supposedly wasn’t.

Almost everybody who is a writer these days gets, at some point, a lecture on the necessity of being “on” Twitter and Facebook. It’s a tool of selling and career building. It is, for writers of all ages and stages, not so much required reading as required writing.

I also got this lecture from one of my publishers. I didn’t need to be sold on Twitter — I took to that like a bird takes to the sky. It was Facebook that I avoided for as long as I could. So long, in fact, that I lost a contract because I wasn’t involved enough in social media. Imagine that! An early adopter of Twitter with tens of thousands of tweets not being involved enough in social media.

Twitter gives writers the ability to put ourselves out there for the world to see. Does it help my writing career? Perhaps — to a point. It certainly helps attract blog readers and give me a steady stream of intelligent people to communicate with.

After five years and more than 44,000 tweets, I know one thing for certain: Twitter has become a part of my writing life.