Back, on a New Server

Better service, less money.

One of the things that has bothered me for some time now is the slow response time of this blog. It just didn’t seem to load as fast as it should.

I knew it wasn’t my connection — I have wicked fast Internet here, as I’ve reported (i.e., bragged about) elsewhere. It was definitely the server.

In the past, every time I’d call to complain or look for a fix, I’d been told it was because I was sharing a server with 20,000, 50,000, or 80,000 — it depended who I spoke to — other websites. That’s because I had a cheap plan. I don’t make money with this blog and I can’t really justify spending a lot of money to maintain it. Recommendations often include using a caching system, but although I’ve tried that several times I haven’t ever seen an improvement. I’ve also turned off a lot of the plugins I used to use, hoping to speed up performance that way. I never see a difference.

I called again yesterday and spoke to someone else. (He was a “sharing with 50,000 websites” guy.) He recommended a different service. When I asked what it was and what it cost, it turned out to be a better shared system — it had the word “cloud” in its name, so it must be better, right? — for less money than I was paying. Switching was a no brainer. He could do it for me with no effort on my part.

I asked how long the site would be down. A few hours, he told me. I asked him to schedule it for the middle of the night. He agreed he would. I thanked him and we hung up.

This morning, when I checked my site at about 7:30 AM, it was down. I was not a happy camper. Another phone call, another person. I was on hold a long time. I’ve learned to keep that time productive by putting my phone in speaker mode and carrying it around in my shirt pocket until the person comes back. I washed some dishes, made a second cup of coffee, and folded laundry. She returned and said that she’d spoken to the migration people and they’d told her that they’d been doing a lot of migrations that weekend — an obvious bullshit line they feed people in my situation. There was no problem with my site. It was just taking longer than expected.

I suspected that it was either queued up improperly or the sheer size of the site was giving the migration software/people grief. This site currently has 2,375 blog posts, well over 8,000 comments, and at least 4,000 images. The database alone occupies nearly 29 MB of server space; the other files that go with it occupy another gigabyte.

I told her I’d call again if it wasn’t back up by noon. Then I thanked her and hung up.

I got to work doing other things. I’m packing for a trip and today’s challenge was getting my kayak on top of my truck camper, the Turtleback. It was actually a lot easier than I expected to get it up there — using my truck as a lifting platform — but it took a while to fasten it down in a way that I wouldn’t have to worry about scratching the camper’s rubber-coated roof. (The last thing I wanted was a leaky roof.) By the time I was finished at 11:30, the only thing I wanted was a snack and a nap. (Seriously: when the days get short, all I want to do is sleep. That’s one reason I head south in the winter.)

So I treated myself to both.

When I got up around 2:30 PM and checked the site, it was back up. And it loaded so quickly that, for a moment, I suspected that it was loading a version cached in my browser. So I loaded a different page. That came right up, too.

Anyway, judging from the stats bar graph, which shows hourly activity for the past 48 hours, it looks as if the site was down from around 6 AM to 11 AM. Not exactly starting at midnight per my request. Whatever.

Curious about my results, I loaded pingdom.com, a service that can check a Website’s speed. Although my speed was noticeably faster, I didn’t get a very good “grade.” I can only imagine what my grade must have been before the change.

Speed Test Results
Okay, so my Home page was graded D, mostly because of under-the-hood issues I could probably fix by making changes to plugins, etc. Again. Looks like a spring cleaning project to me.

Still, I’m not complaining anymore — at least for a while. It’s faster and cheaper.

And I’m happier, despite today’s downtime.

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.

Online Advertising Blues

Or how to lose half a day in front of a computer.

I am the owner of a small business, Flying M Air, LLC. I do just about everything for the company except maintain the aircraft: schedule flights, preflight the aircraft, fly, take payment from passengers, manage the drug testing program, work with the FAA, meet with clients, negotiate contracts, arrange for special events, hire contract workers, record transactions, handle invoicing and receivables, pay bills, create print marketing materials like business cards and rack cards, etc. I also handle the online presence for the company, including the company website, Facebook, and Twitter.

(You might wonder how I have the skills to do all this stuff. The truth is, I have a BBA in Accounting and lots of business training from college. I also wrote books about computers for 20+ years, including several about building websites and using Twitter. Sadly I never studied helicopter repair.)

Today, I lost half a day to marketing and related online chores that were mind-bogglingly time consuming.

You see, I scheduled an event with a local resort, Cave B Estate Winery & Resort in Quincy, WA. Cave B is one of the destinations I take people on winery tours, although I admit I don’t go there very often. For the same price, folks can go to Tsillan Cellars in Chelan, which they seem to prefer. Cave B has a better restaurant and a more interesting atmosphere in a beautiful place. Tsillan Cellars is also in a beautiful place, but it’s a bit touristy for my taste. I actually don’t care which one I fly to since I can’t drink wine at either one. I just like to fly people to wineries.

But the new manager at Cave B Resort is very eager to get the helicopter onsite as an interesting activity for guests. So we set up a 6-hour event there for Saturday, July 2. I’d land in the field as I usually do and offer 15-minute helicopter tours of the area for $75/person. While that might seem kind of steep, it’s pretty much in line with my usual rates. Besides, the folks who stay at Cave B aren’t exactly cheapskates. (I just looked into booking a room for my upcoming birthday and decided that it was a bit too rich for my blood, at least this year. I think I’ll settle for a spa day.)

Setting up this event required me to complete a bunch of tasks on my computer:

  • Tour Flyer
    I threw together this flyer based on a template in Microsoft Word.

    Create a flyer in PDF format that could be used at the resort to let guests know that tours were available that day. I cheated: I used one of the Templates that came with Word 2011 (which I’m still using on my Mac). I already had pictures; I just had to put in the text and make it fit. It took about 30 minutes to complete and I had to make one change after sending it to Cave B’s manager. They’ll print it out on a color printer and, hopefully, put one in each room on Friday.

  • Use Square‘s item feature to set up an item for the tours so I could easily charge passengers for the flights and sell them online. I’ve been experimenting with online sales lately as a tool to get impulse buyers to buy in advance in certain predetermined time slots. So setting up the item also required me to set up the time slots and then create an inventory feature to prevent me from overselling a time slot. This took another 30 minutes or so. This had to be done before I finished the flyer so I could include the URL in the flyer.
  • Use bit.ly to create a custom short URL for Flying M Air’s online store. No one could remember the regular URL; maybe they can remember bitly.com/FlyingMAir. This took about 5 minutes. Of course, this also had to be done before the flyer was done so the URL could be included.
  • Tour Announcement
    Here’s the top part of the web page I created to announce the special event.

    Create a “blog post” on Flying M Air’s website (which was built with the WordPress CMS) to announce the event, provide details, and include the link for buying tickets. Once the post was published, I had to go back and add a featured image so it would appear in the slideshow of items at the top of the Home page. I also had to add an expiration date so that it would stop appearing as a “special” on the site after July 2 at 5 PM. Doing all this took at least another 30 minutes. My WordPress site is designed to automatically post a link to new items on Twitter for both Flying M Air and my own personal account, so at least I didn’t have to fiddle with Twitter.

  • Create a new event on Facebook for the Cave B Tours. That meant using pretty much the same photo, description, and link I’d put in the flyer in a Facebook form. Because Facebook requires a “Category” for each event and they’re not very creative with the category names, there’s now a “Festival” at Cave B that day. (Sheesh.) This took at least another 20 minutes.
  • Share the event with my friends on Facebook. Why not, right? Five minutes.
  • Post details on Cave B’s Facebook page for the event. I got lazy and put in a screen shot of the flyer. 5 minutes.
  • When I realized that I could probably sell the flight to and from Cave B that I’d have to deadhead for the event, I created a “Be Spontaneous” special offer on Flying M Air’s website, offering up the roundtrip flight for half price: $272.50. That’s less than my cost and a real smoking deal for anyone who wants two great helicopter flights and six hours at Cave B. (I’m thinking lunch, tasting, and a hike.) This took about 30 minutes.
  • I also had to set up an item in Square for this offer so I could make it easy to charge for or sell it online. No special URL was required, but I did have to put the link to the item in Flying M Air’s online store in the special offer post. Twenty minutes.
  • While I was fiddling with my website, I checked the Special Offers category and discovered a whole bunch of expired offers. So I recategorized them as Expired Offers. Then I spent some time adding a subscription form to the Special Offers page and made sure that page appeared in the slider at the top of the Home page. Anyone who subscribes automatically gets new posts by email; this is a great way to learn about special offers as they become available. I know I spent at least an hour on this.

Of course, while I was working on this, I was also taking calls from a potential client (in the U.K., of all places), texting back and forth with photographers that could help me close a deal with her, and writing reminders for the other things I needed to do at my desk: order wall mount display cabinets from Ikea, choose a garage door opener option (after researching the three options), and send out invitations for a outing on my boat the next day. So I wasn’t 100% focused on the tasks at hand.

I was only mildly surprised when I looked up after that last task and saw that it was after 1 PM.

The whole morning was shot. (No wonder I was hungry.)

But this is typical when I sit in front of my computer — and is why I spend a lot less time in front of my computer these days. Business tasks need to be done and I’m the one that has to do them. It’s a fact of life and I’m not complaining. Just trying to point out that marketing a business isn’t as easy as putting up a website and waiting for the phone to ring — especially with so much social media to deal with.

Nine Years on Twitter

Twitter LogoAn unexpected anniversary.

This week marks the 10 year anniversary of the social networking site, Twitter. It’s been getting a lot of press and there are a lot of tweets from Twitter highlighting events throughout its history. I read through a bunch of them yesterday and remembered more than a few.

That got me thinking of how long I’d been on Twitter. I went to my profile page, and saw that I opened my account in March 2007. Almost exactly nine years. But what day in March? Had I missed my anniversary?

I Googled “Twitter anniversary date” and discovered Twitter Birthday, a site that exists solely to tell you when a twitter account was opened. I put in my user name. And I discovered that my account was opened on March 20, 2007. Exactly nine years before.

Twitter Birth Certificate
My Twitter “birth certificate,” retrieved exactly nine years after my account was opened.

Over the past nine years, I’ve been very active on Twitter, posting more than 57,000 tweets. I’ve formed good friendships with many people from all over the world that I’ve met on Twitter, including Andy Piper (the first person I ever followed, who now works for Twitter), Miraz Jordan, Ruth Kneale, Barbara Gavin, Shirley Kaiser, Michael T. Rose, Mike Muench, Esther Schindler, Jonathan Bailey, Chuck Joiner, Mike Meraz, Greg Glockner, Daniel Messier, Bob Levine, Ann Torrence, Bryan William Jones, Patty Hankins, April Mains, Debbie Ripps, Pam Baker, Terry Austin, Kirschen Seah, Jodene, Amanda Sargent, Ryan Keough, Steven Pass, Bill Evans, Derek Colanduno, Derek Bartholomaus, Bonnie Pruitt, Arlene Wszalek, Marvyn Robinson, and others.

I’ve met several of these “virtual friends” in person, including Andy (who lives in the U.K.), Shirley (California), Esther (Arizona), Mike Muench (Florida), Mike Meraz (California), Daniel (Arizona), Ann (Utah), Bryan (Utah), Patty (Maryland), Terry (Texas).

Barbara (Massachusetts) and Jodene (Washington) have gone on helicopter rides with me and Amanda (Washington/Louisiana) has actually flown my helicopter in Washington while I was tending to some divorce-related business in Arizona.

I wrote a book with Miraz (New Zealand) and was interviewed once by Marvyn (U.K.) for his Inspired Pilot podcast and multiple times by Chuck (New Jersey) for his MacVoices video podcast.

I’ve also used Twitter to keep in touch with people I already knew from my personal and business life. And organizations that tweet information that interests me. Those lists are too long to recite here.

Twitter has changed my life in another important way, too. In 2009, I authored and recorded the first of several video courses about Twitter for Lynda.com. This turned out to be a real contributor to my income with impressive royalties year after year as the course was regularly revised. (Sadly, I no longer do this course for Lynda and can’t recommend the current version.)

I blogged about Twitter and my relationship to it. My very first post about Twitter concerned then presidential candidate John Edwards using Twitter way back in 2007 to attract voters. That’s not a big deal today, but it was huge back then. Another post from 2007 titled “Reach Out and Meet Someone” covered my thoughts on social media and meeting people online. I felt as if I needed to explain it — it was that new. I also blogged “Four Steps to Get the Most Out of Twitter,” which, nine years later, is still valid. You can read more of my posts about Twitter by following the Twitter tag.

Nine years after joining Twitter, I’m as enthusiastic about it as ever. While it’s true that I’m not thrilled about some of the changes I’ve seen — notably the preponderance of “promoted tweets,” the Moments feature, and the algorithm now used (by default!) to sort your timeline — Twitter has remained unique enough to make it an important component of my social networking efforts. It’s still my “water cooler,” the place I turn to get social when I need a break from my daily activities.

While I lot of people just “don’t get” Twitter, I’m pretty sure that I do. And I expect to be using it for a long time to come.

You Can’t Go Back

A note in response to a bulk email from an old colleague.

It may be hard for some blog readers to believe, but for a while in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was “famous.”

My fame was limited to a group of people who bought my books and read my articles about using computers. I started writing in 1991 — as a ghostwriter for a John Dvorak book — and was soon writing my own titles. I learned early on that if you couldn’t write a bestseller, you had to write a lot of books. So I did. And then, in the late 1990s, two of my books became best sellers. Subsequent editions of the same book continued to be best sellers. For a while, I was making a very good living as a writer. At the computer shows where I was a regular speaker, people actually asked for my autograph.

I’m not an idiot. I knew that my good fortune could not last forever. So as I continued to write, turning out book after book and becoming well known in my field, I invested my money in my retirement, assets that could help extend (or at least securely bank) my wealth, and something that I thought would be a great hobby: flying helicopters. I learned to fly, I got hooked on it, and I bought helicopter. I started my helicopter charter business in 2001 — it was easy to fit flights in with my flexible schedule as a writer — and bought a larger helicopter in 2005. Building the business was such a struggle that I honestly didn’t think I would succeed. But fortunately, I did.

Mountain Lion VQS
My most recent book was published back in 2012. I don’t call it my “last book” because I expect to write more. They likely won’t be about computers, though.

And it was a good thing, because around 2008, my income from writing began declining. By 2010, that income began going into freefall. Most of my existing titles were not revised for new versions of software. Book contracts for new titles were difficult to get and, when they were published, simply didn’t sell well.

Around the same time, my income from flying started to climb. Not only did it cover all the costs of owning a helicopter — and I can assure you those costs are quite high — but it began covering my modest cost of living. By 2012, when I wrote my last computer book, I was doing almost as well as a helicopter charter business owner as I’d done 10 years before as a writer. And things continued to get better.

I was one of the lucky ones. Most of my peers in the world of computer how-to publishing hadn’t prepared themselves for the changes in our market. (In their defense, I admit that it came about quite quickly.) Many of these people are now struggling to make a living writing about computers. But the writing is on the wall in big, neon-colored letters as publishers continue to downsize and more and more of my former editors are finding themselves unemployed. Freelance writers like me, once valued for their skill, professionalism, and know-how, are a dime a dozen, easily replaced by those willing to write for next to nothing or even free. Books and magazine articles are replaced by Internet content of variable quality available 24/7 with a simple Google search.

So imagine my surprise today when one of my former colleagues from the old days sent me — and likely countless others — a bulk email message announcing a newsletter, website, and book about the same old stuff we wrote about in the heydays of computer book publishing. To me, his plea came across as the last gasp of a man who doesn’t realize he’s about to drown in the flood of free, competing information that has been growing exponentially since Internet became a household word.

I admit that I was a bit offended by being included on his bulk email list simply because he had my email address in his contacts database. But more than that, I was sad that he had sunk so low to try to scrape up interest in his work by using such an approach. Hadn’t he seen the light? Read the writing on the wall? Didn’t he understand that we have to change or die?

So after unsubscribing from his bulk mail list, I sent him the following note. And no, his name is not “Joe.”

The world’s a different place now, Joe.

After writing 85 books and countless articles about using computers, I haven’t written anything new about computers since 2012. I’m fortunate in that my third career took off just before that. Others in our formerly enviable position weren’t so lucky.

Not enough people need us as a source of computer information anymore. All the information they could ever want or need is available immediately and for free with a Google search. There are few novices around these days and only the geekiest are still interested in “tips.” Hell, even I don’t care anymore. I haven’t bought a new computer since 2011 and haven’t even bothered updating any of my computers to the latest version of Mac OS. My computer has become a tool to get work done — as it is for most people — a tool I don’t even turn on most days.

Anyway, I hope you’re managing to make things work for yourself in this new age. I’m surprised you think a newsletter will help. Best of luck with it.

And if you ever find yourself in Washington state, I hope you’ll stop by for a visit and a helicopter ride. I can’t begin to tell you how glad I am that I invested in my third career while I was at the height of my second.

Maria

Is it still possible to make a living writing about computers? For some of us, yes. But we’ll never be able to achieve the same level of fame and fortune we once achieved. Those days are over.

On Addictive Games

I get sucked in, too.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, most computer-based games are a complete waste of time.

They require you to sit pretty much stagnant and, though keystrokes, mouse clicks, or finger swipes, manipulate what’s going on onscreen, 12 to 18 inches from your face. You can spend hours doing this and not even realize how much time has gone by. And, if you get sucked in badly enough, the game moves will invade your unconscious, causing you to dream about them or even just think about them when you’re away from the game.

Desktop Computer Games

Solitaire on Windows is a perfect example. How many hours have you or a friend or family member wasted looking at that green background, dragging virtual cards around? I’m fortunate in that I was never a Windows user and wasn’t tempted. (Macs come with Chess, which is far less addictive for most folks.) But I’ve seen that screen enough times to know how addictive it apparently is.

I’ve seen other people hooked on computer games. My mother plays something with colored shapes that she apparently has to match to clear off the screen. (Is this Candy Crush? I never asked.) Even when I visited for two weeks at Christmas 2012, whenever she was out of sight during the day, I’d track her down in the little TV room at the front of the house, playing this obnoxiously noisy game with the volume turned down. It looked kind of juvenile, like something a 4-year-old might play.

I tell people that I don’t play games on my computer. For the most part, that’s true. I don’t have any game apps installed on my desktop or laptop computers (other than the aforementioned Chess, which I’ve actually never even opened on any of my current computers).

Of course, that doesn’t stop me from playing Web-based games in my browser. More on that in a moment.

Mobile Games

I do have games on my iPad — although I have far fewer now than I did.

I was hooked on Words with Friends, a Scrabble-like word game you can play with others via the Internet, for well over a year. At one point, I was playing eight games at a time, sometimes two or three of which were with the same similarly addicted person. I finally got burned out and simply stopped accepting new game requests. Then I deleted the app from my iPad and haven’t looked back.

Then there was W.E.L.D.E.R., a very addictive word game that I could play solo or against a friend via the Internet. I can’t begin to count the hours of my life thrown into that game. I suspect I played that one for at least two years, although it could be longer. (I may have started playing it when I was married, possibly as a relief to the boredom of home life with a man who’d prefer to watch TV than have an intelligent conversation.) I found it challenging and, of course, addictive. Solo play meant I didn’t have to wait for my game partner to move; I could play any time for as long as I liked. Deleting that from my iPad last year was difficult, but after a few days I didn’t even miss it.

Crosswords app
Crosswords is a digital crossword puzzle app, nothing more.

Of course, Crosswords, a true tablet-based crossword puzzle, was my first iPad game and it remains on my iPad to this day. It enables me to play crossword puzzles from a variety of sources. I could load up dozens per day, but instead I subscribe to just two Sunday puzzles: Newsday and Premier. These are big, beefy puzzles with hundreds of boxes. I don’t find crossword puzzles addictive — and that’s probably why this game remains on my iPad. It’s there when I need something to occupy my mind, but it’s not calling out to me constantly, begging to be conquered.

Notice a pattern here? All three of these games have one thing in common: they’re word games. Yes, I’m a word nerd and the kind of games I prefer are word games.

The other game that remains on my iPad but hasn’t been opened in some time is The Room, “a physical puzzler, wrapped in a mystery game, inside a beautifully tactile 3D world.” It was the rage among my computer geek friends back in early 2012 (I think) and the buzz was so loud from people I respected that I bought a copy and tried it myself. It reminded me of the classic Mac OS game Myst in that it requires you to navigate through a 3D world and manipulate objects to get clues to solve puzzles. Solving each level’s puzzles take you to the next level. These games are beautiful with creepy sound effects and haunting music, but can’t be played a few minutes at a time. They’re the kind of thing you reach for when you’re stuck in bed with a cold and can’t do much else than read, watch TV, or fiddle with an iPad game. I played through it once back in 2012 and have saved it to play through again. (My memory is so shoddy that it’ll likely be new to me.) I just need a down day when I have time to waste. And now I see that there’s a sequel: The Room Two. So now you know what I’ll be doing the next time I’m stuck in bed with a cold.

The Room
The Room is hauntingly beautiful, but can’t be played a few minutes at a time.

Wasting Time

And that’s what games are for, aren’t they? Spending time you have to waste.

I do most of my game playing one of three times:

  • Right before falling asleep. Although I have a television in my bedroom here in the mobile mansion, I never did at home and won’t in my new home. I got into the habit of reading, doing crossword puzzles, or paying games on my iPad until I’m ready to sleep. Most nights, that means about 10 minutes.
  • Overnight or first thing in the morning. When I was having sleeping problems — which have, for the most part, gone away — I turned to books or games on my iPad to get me sleepy enough to go back to sleep. I also occasionally turn to them if I wake up earlier than I want to get out of bed.
  • Stuck waiting someplace. Whether I’m in a doctor’s office waiting room, sitting in my helicopter waiting for passengers to return to the landing zone, or sitting at a restaurant sipping a martini while waiting for dinner to arrive, books and games on my iPad are a good way to keep my mind busy.

If I’m alone and don’t have anything else to do, why shouldn’t I turn to a diversion I enjoy? That’s the way I justify it. More on justification in a moment.

Web-Based Games

The other day, one of my Facebook friends, Carla, posted a link to a game called 2048. This is a web-based number puzzle game that is incredibly addictive to anyone who likes number puzzles. What makes it even worse is that it’s also extremely simple, so it has the potential to suck in people who don’t even like math. Really.

Carla warned us that it was addictive, but I clicked anyway. And I got sucked in. In the middle of the day.

That’s the problem with web-based games. Since I’m normally sitting at my computer when I’m using a web browser, I naturally discover them in the middle of the day. When I should be working.

(You could argue that I shouldn’t have been on Facebook in the middle of the day, either, and frankly, I can’t argue with you. That’s another additive time suck.)

The trouble with this game is that I was pretty sure it was possible to beat and I was equally sure that there was a “trick” to beat it. Yet I couldn’t beat it or find the trick. So I kept trying. Over and over.

2048 Solved
2048 solved.

I finally got back to work. But later, I tried again. And when I discovered that I could play it via swiping in the browser on my iPad, it became my bedtime addiction. And my lounging in bed before coffee addiction.

Fortunately, after a few days, I finally beat it. I was pretty sure I had figured out the “trick,” too.

After proudly posting this screen grab on Facebook, however, I started wondering if I could do it again. Whether my “trick” was foolproof. And I got sucked into yet another round. I haven’t beaten it again.

Justification

And that brings me my friend Keith’s comment when I posted the screen grab on Twitter

You are playing games after telling everyone to stop playing games and get a life? LOL!

He’s referring to my repeated admonishment of Facebook friends who invite me to play Facebook games with them like Farmville, Candy Crush, Mega Casino, etc., etc., etc. I ignore all requests I get and, whenever possible, set Facebook so it doesn’t allow me to be invited again. I think these games are a complete waste of time and really wish people would find more constructive things to do.

And then he catches me posting game results, exposing me as a hypocrite.

No doubt about it: I was embarrassed. I responded:

YES! That’s the tragedy of it.

In my defense, it is a THINKING game. Supposedly will help ward off Alzheimer’s.

Also in my defense, I do it in bed as a way to get tired enough to fall asleep. (Not having many other options these days.) Also puzzles first thing in the morning, when it’s too early to get out of bed. I don’t do it in the middle of the day.

I do crossword puzzles, too. Same thing: last thing at night or first thing in the morning.

So I admit that I’m just as foolish as the people I ridicule for playing games and then attempt to justify it as a thinking game that’ll work my brain.

And there is truth to that. The Alzheimer’s Association’s page about Brain Health lists mental activity — specifically crossword puzzles — as a way to keep your brain healthy. While the National Institute of Health wasn’t so certain (at least not back in 2010), it certainly can’t hurt.

I justify my playing of these games by saying they help me get drowsy so I can sleep or they keep my mind active. People can justify any kind of irrational behavior to make them feel better about their seemingly stupid decisions. (Hell, I can only imagine the way my wasband has been justifying all the wacky things he’s done over the past two years so he can sleep at night.) It’s part of what makes us human.

What’s the Difference?

But are the games and puzzles I admit to doing any more brain-challenging than my mother’s seemingly mindless colored shape game?

I don’t think anyone can argue that crossword puzzles or games like The Room aren’t challenging. They really make you think. Crossword puzzles draw on your knowledge of words and understanding of puns. W.E.L.D.E.R. and Word with Friends also required good vocabularies.

But 2048? On the surface, it seems like a math game, but when you look at it objectively, it’s clearly a simple matching game — match two numbers and they become a new number. You don’t really need any math skills to play — although, admittedly, good addition skills are necessary to form a strategy and win.

So what’s the difference between that and matching colored shapes?

Damned if I know.

Avoid the Addiction

Wikipedia defines addition as:

Addiction is the continued repetition of a behavior despite adverse consequences, or a neurological impairment leading to such behaviors.

Wasting hours of every day playing a computer game does not necessarily mean you are addicted. But thinking about that game when you’re not playing it or wanting to play it more and more seems like an addictive behavior to me.

Adverse consequences? How about the ticking away of your life’s clock in a trivial pursuit?

But who’s to say that it’s trivial?

I know that time is not as important to some people as it is to me.

I’ve dealt with my addictive game behavior by removing the games I played too often from my iPad. It’ll be a bit tougher to deal with 2048, but I assume I’ll get tired of it soon enough. (Maybe just one more win.)

I guess what I’m hoping is that the folks who do spend a lot of their time playing games on their computer try to look at the time spent objectively. Is there a real benefit? What are you missing out on? Can you spend your time a better way?

That’s for you to decide. Just try to think clearly when making that decision.

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.