I’m pretty sure that William Butler Yeats was not writing about my home automation system when he wrote that poem, but recently those words have been uncomfortably appropriate. For the most part, home automation is even more fun than flying model helicopters; not only can you chase the cat, but you can open the door as he runs in feline panic across the front hallway, and then lock the door behind him and watch him with the security cameras as he stalks around the yard, looking for a way back in. (For the cat lovers among you, please note that this is a hypothetical example; I haven’t actually done this. I’m just pointing out that it’s possible.)
However, when it goes bad, it’s much worse than just picking up a few parts off the floor and patching a small hole in the wall. Over the course of the last few days, I’ve been involved in what could be described as a “home automation Chernobyl.” As it turns out, most of the problem was caused by errors I made when I first began to install the system over a year ago. Without realizing it, I had built myself a house of electronic cards, and it only took one simple failure for almost all of it to come tumbling down.
I first began to become interested in home automation after a discussion with a colleague at work a couple of years ago. His description of the process and the outcome was fascinating, and it had all the right elements to capture my attention: cool electronic gadgets to buy, the necessity of taking things apart and putting them back together again, a reason to buy new tools (can you believe I didn’t have a network tester or an RJ-45 crimping tool?), and the remote possibility of a workable system when I got it all put together. He sealed the deal for me when he showed me his system on his office computer, and told me that if he wanted to, he could turn the lights on in his master bathroom from where we sat. If you feel the need to ask why this is necessary, you clearly don’t understand and you should go off and do something else now.
I was particularly prone to influence, since I had begun to realize that my SCUBA diving days were probably over, and I was in search of a gadget-filled, equipment-intensive new hobby that didn’t place my own life or someone else’s at excessive risk. Coincidentally, we had this discussion just a few months after I had started taking a dopamine agonist, so without knowing it I was just itching to become obsessively involved with some new avocation. Life isn’t all about Fudgsicles and helicopters, after all.
The next 18 months were filled with shopping trips to my new favorite online store (smarthome.com – kind of like Disneyland for technogeeks), replacing perfectly functional light switches, power outlets, and junction boxes with computer-controlled equivalents at 10 times the price, and vastly overengineering my home network just for the fun of it. In equal measure, I’m both proud and ashamed to say that I have as many terabytes of data storage as I have pairs of shoes.
Then came the control software; then the security cameras (eight of them – how else can you know where the cat is?); then the electronic door locks; then the touchscreen control panel, then the energy management system; then the computer-controlled landscape lighting. My colleague had warned me that this would happen; I wish I could blame it all on the dopamine agonist, but it might’ve happened anyway.
I have gained some expertise since those early days, but unfortunately I never took the time to go back and correct the mistakes I made during the early installations. I also work slowly, so I can barely keep pace with all the new deliveries that come to the front door. So, when the lights in the kitchen began to inexplicably flash whenever we opened or closed the garage door, when any light in any location in the house turned on or off, or when I locked the doors at night, I begin to suspect something was wrong.
Any competent network engineer anywhere in the world can quote the mantra of network troubleshooting – “check the physical layer first.” By the same token, the hardware guys always point at the software guys, the software guys always point at the hardware guys, and everybody claims that ” it must be a distant end problem.” I had no one to blame but myself, since I was both the hardware guy and the software guy, and the most distant my end could get was my wife’s home office. So, I ignored the mantra, flipped a coin, and it came up “software.” I might as well have flipped a coin that said, “idiot” on one side and “moron” on the other.
To someone who’s really not a professional software engineer, software maintenance is like pulling on the loose strings in a sweater. You just can’t resist, but pretty soon you just end up with a pile of yarn at your feet. The carefully constructed software infrastructure I had built over a year and a half was soon in little strings all around me, and the kitchen lights kept on flashing.
So I flipped my coin again, and instead of it coming up and saying, “bad switch, Bad Switch, BAD SWITCH,” I thought that it said, “powerline interference.” Off on another wild goose chase I went, unplugging things all over the house to see if the lights in the kitchen would stop flashing. No luck. By this time I was desperate enough to try the first thing that I should’ve tried – I replaced the switch that was causing the problem. Magically, the kitchen light stopped flashing, but unfortunately the kitchen light was the only one that was still working in the house.
There’s a term familiar to all home automation hobbyists–WAF. It stands for “wife acceptance factor” and it’s a measure of just how much nonsense your spouse is willing to put up with before she throws a shoe. My wife has been the soul of restraint for the entire time that I’ve been building this little project of mine, because when it works it’s actually kind of cool. She also likes data storage and bandwidth nearly as much as I do, and as a network security geek, she’s not quite even with me yet but I hear footsteps. I only occasionally hear her walking around the house muttering, “…can’t turn a damned light on in this entire place.”
However, this latest incident has used up my goodwill. She’s made it known that SHE HAS HAD ENOUGH, and it’s time to move from prototyping to production. At least I now have the opportunity to do it right, from scratch. I think I’ve got it fixed now; just one more little tweak…
The wheels have come off in a number of ways over the course of the last 2 or 3 months, and not just with my home automation system. I’ve been going through a “long, dark night of the soul” with respect to this infernal disease, and feeling a bit sorry for myself. I’ve been ignoring some of my obligations and responsibilities, and have been neglecting my relationships while, as my wife’s grandmother once phrased it, “I’ve been sittin’ and stewin’ on my stool of do-nuthin.” If you’re one of those I’ve been neglecting, I apologize. When you get me, though, you get it all, and some of it ain’t pretty.
A good friend recently reminded me that “should” can be a poisonous word – it creates unrealistic expectations and excessive pressure. I’ve been feeling like I SHOULD always be the “Noble Sick Guy” that remains optimistic and serves as a paragon of inspiration. I’m not up to it, though – not all the time. PD isn’t a sprint – it’s more like a long-distance relay through the rain and mud, and sometimes I’ve got to let other people carry the baton. I don’t like it much, but it’s one of the things I’m having to come to terms with.
On the positive side, though, it’s given me a chance to see how others have risen to the challenge and picked up the baton when I’ve had to set it down for a while. I’m proud and humbled by how my friends and colleagues have jumped in to pick up the slack in our volunteer work – thank you. I’m not gone, I’m just resting for a bit.
I’m proud and humbled by other friends and my family, too – they treat me with concern and consideration, but without too much of a kitchen pass. They remind me that I still matter, and that I’m still more than this damnable disease.
I’m most proud of and humbled by my wife,. She’s picked up the baton that I’ve had to set down for good, and she runs with it every day through challenges and frustrations of her own that I can’t imagine, with fear and concern for our uncertain future and for me. She’s closest to me, and though she sees how I’m changing, and she’s always there. She herself says she’s no Florence Nightingale, but I don’t see her that way anyway. She’s fiercely protective of those she loves, and will walk through fire for them without fanfare and often without a lot of credit. Not Florence Nightingale; Joan of Arc, maybe. I swear I’ll get the lights back on sometime this week, honey.