A cunning yet nefarious smarthome plan involving Samsung Smartthings

Being woken up at dawn by blood curdling screams isn’t the best way to wake up but when it’s something you’ve planned and it’s worked perhaps better than you had any right to hope for, well it’s a mixed feeling of success and chagrin!

Anybody that know’s me will know I love a gadget or a bit of tech. I’m often mistaken for someone working in IT* as I tend to obsess about that sort of stuff to an unhealthy degree. Consequently when I got a Samsung Smartthings hub last year on an Amazon Lightening Deal, I had more planned for it than the sensible.

The sensible in this instance was to set up a virtual thermostat in our summer house. Our summerhouse is a concrete and wood affair and has an under the counter freezer in it. It’s useful for pizza and ice lolly storage but it’s not a certified outdoor unit, so we have to ensure that the environment is kept within the tolerable operating limits. With my Smartthings hub, a wireless Xiaomi temperature sensor, and a smartplug, an oil filled radiator gets turned on when the ambient temperature inside the shed drops below 6 degrees. It’s only a 15 watt radiator, so it doesn’t get hot quickly or use endless electricity but it’s quite handy.

So that was the boring reason I decided to get a Smartthings hub but there is so much more you can do with them, and there is a lively community who integrate third party apps and sensors into Smartthings.

Being a tinkerer who has more imagination than ability, I set out to do something funny with my Smartthings hub that ended up in screams and me and my wife being woken up at just gone six in the morning. I think I’ve been forgiven but only time will tell.

As well as the temperature sensors, Xiaomi also make motion sensors. Battery operated stick up motion sensors to be precise. And they’re cheap. They’re a little bit fiddly to connect to the hub but once they have been connected, you can use a straight forward menu to trigger an action:

There were a few extra conditions I added. The routine was only live between 5am and 6:30am, the time that the kids would normally creep downstairs and start watching telly, even though they were under firm instructions to stay in their rooms until 7am and read a book if they couldn’t get back to sleep.

And so the morning after I’d set the routine up, the blood curdling screams occurred. You see, Fifi had sneaked down at 5:40am to watch some telly, only to trigger the Smartthings routine, which blared out Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells at her. You may know this better as the theme from The Exorcist .

The kids haven’t seen the Exorcist, I’d like to make that clear, but the music is probably the second most spooky bit of music I know after the main theme from Suspriria by Goblin. It must have taken about half an hour to calm Fifi down afterwards but at least the point was made about not going downstairs to watch TV before dawn!

If you fancy having a play with Smartthings, the hub is £59.99 from Amazon, and the Xiaomi sensors can also be had from Amazon (although if you’re willing to order them from China, they’re a lot cheaper, but will take a lot longer to deliver).

 

*that is until that somebody asks me for something particularly technical, then I tend to come unstuck and dispel the myth rather promptly. Although, like most of the IT professionals I know, Google is my friend.

The kids are now fully fledged thinking machines in their own right

WAR games, in more peaceful times

It’s funny when you realise your kids are completely able to be certifiably clever in their own right without taking the lead from you. It’s unsettling in some respects that they don’t need prompting but also liberating and makes you proud. Both the boys have done things this week that on their own merit a slap on the back but when you take them in the wider context of how they’re both growing up, make you think, gosh, they’re really ploughing their own furrow now.

Firstly the boy, now in year 8 and newly enthused to study and put the effort in after a near disaster in a maths test he didn’t prepare for properly prior the Christmas, did something in a science pop quiz that was quite brilliant. His team won the quiz, which in most situations would have been the achievement. Not this time though, because he named his team “Going to die old and alone”. When his team won, the teacher had to ask, “Who’s going to die old and alone?” to howls of laughter from the whole classroom, teacher included. Pure rank genius, and something I’d have been proud to achieve.

Ned (now a heady 8 years of age) managed to win a laser quest tournament at the local soft play with a score higher than his three nearest competitors added together because he’s the sort of cunning genius that will  probably crash international currency markets in 10 or 15 years time. All the other lads ran off at speed to hide and shoot each other, Ned ambled out slowly, then turned back and spent the ten minutes of that round shooting the targets on the three unused vests repeatedly, building up an unassailable lead whilst not getting shot himself. The bunch of dad’s on kids party duty were universally impressed with his cunning, and I was too.

And so it begins…

The last month has gone a little something like this:

  • mad frenzy to get all work done before Christmas;
  • mad frenzy to wrap all remaining pressies up before Christmas;
  • mad frenzy of Christmas;
  • Boxing day, in a bit of a mad frenzy;
  • All the illness
  • New Years Party (ON DUDES!)
  • Littlest’s 8th Birthday
  • Back to work
  • Back to school

Of course the proper grind starts this week, I was back to work in the Phoney Work period last week- the roads were still unclogged by parents on the school run and commuters- so there were no classes or extra curricula lessons. I could come and go (almost) as I pleased. Today I had to drop the eldest off in the rain on my way in and have to rush back to feed them all before taking the two eldest to music lessons.

Come the weekend it will be almost like the ten day break had never happened. I’m still not very well, I managed quite a lot of sleep over the weekend, rather too much for someone who isn’t ill:

The next day I’ve got scheduled off work is mid/late February, so I think a few more nights like I had at the weekend are probably in order.

Almost everyone had the hump by the end of the break as nobody got to do much of what they wanted to do- I wanted a day out at the seaside but we were all too ill, wifey wanted to swap a couple of cabinets over but we were all too ill, we wanted to go and see the new Star Wars movie but, yes, we were all too ill, and so and and, cough cough cough.

New Year’s resolutions fell by the wayside in a helter skelter of illness but there is one thing I’m sure to be fit enough for, and that’s my first session in the Shape Up St Albans fitness campaign. No, this isn’t something I’ve blagged as a blogger, it’s a course run by Watford FC Sports & Education Trust for blokes of a certain age, weight and BMI. Sadly I smashed all the numbers for a place, and I’m looking to try and get myself going again. Last year was difficult for me in a number of ways, and a lot of sitting around and comfort eating occurred. Hopefully this will kick start me and mean that at some point in 2020 I can once again go back to weighing myself in stones rather than KGs (stones are too depressing at the moment). I like being fit and active but don’t so much like the process of getting from being unfit and lazy to being fit and active. Wish me luck!

The 20’s are coming and I think we need to look to the 1920s for inspiration

The 10’s started off well for us- Fifi turned one, Ned came along, I did some pretty cool stuff on the blog. They ended badly though- mum had a prolonged illness and passed away mid October, and since then we’ve had a series of firsts. First Christmas without mum, first grandchild’s birthday without mum, and so on. We’re interring the ashes on her birthday in February, so hopefully that will give me some of the closure I feel I’m missing. For someone who was terminally ill for most of the second half of the decade, mum went really quickly in the end. In typical mum fashion, her last communication to us all was “Sorry, I meant mortarboard” a realisation that saying to my wife she could just picture her graduating in her motorboat wasn’t quite what she meant. I’d have loved a note or a card left for me afterwards to remember her by but that wasn’t mum’s jam, so all I’ve got are the memories and as the time passes, the more recent memories where she was struggling and in pain are replaced by the bittersweet memories of my youth and earlier adulthood.

As we head into the 20’s on the back of an overwhelming Tory election victory, record food bank use and the prospect of a no deal WTO Brexit later this year (click here to see why no deal is likely), you’d be forgiven for thinking that we have little or nothing to look forward to. But for us the 20’s will be a decade where all our kids will turn 18, and we’ll both hit 50. As well as a decade of privation it’s going to be a decade of personal growth and exploration for us.

Much like the 1920’s, the Roaring 20’s as they were known, began with excitement (a post war boom in this instance), we can have our excitement and growth. I think the difference is, the Wall Street Crash and Great Depression of the end of the 20’s was somewhat unexpected. We can at least expect the worst and provision and provide as best we can for it.

Who knows, following on from a year when the eldest played in front of 3,500 at a local music festival, the 20’s could see our family put together a band that could play the modern equivalent of the gin joints and jazz clubs. I just hope that prohibition isn’t introduced at any point- I don’t think I could do without the odd jar and the idea of operating my own moonshine operation isn’t particularly appealing!

Mourning the death of musical literacy

This week has seen a couple of depressing things happen. Firstly the musician Billie Eilish admitted she had no idea who Van Halen were. Secondly people got cross at her for not knowing who Van Halen were. And thirdly, people got cross at the people who were cross with Billie for not knowing who Van Halen were because Van Halen aren’t culturally relevant today.

In short: a lot of people are cross for a lot of different reasons, some to do with Billie Eilish, some to do with Van Halen and some just because they enjoy being cross.

Of course the comments condemning and mocking Eilish for not having an indepth knowledge of Van Halen are wrong. When Gareth Bale recently admitted he didn’t know who the British Prime Minister was but could name the 10 ten ranked golfers in the world, we rolled our eyes and wrote him off as another disconnected thick footballer. The fact Eilish is a woman undoubtedly saw her receive much more grief for her confession that a bloke would have but that’s not what I’m really interested in to be honest.

I’m not expecting every person who either likes listening to music or works in the music industry to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of 70 years of popular music but much like movie making is informed by what has gone before it, so too is music. An appreciation for other genres and time periods can only ever be a boon surely?

I’ve watched Billie in concert on the BBC’s Glasto coverage and although she’s not my cup of tea, I can see that she gave an extraordinary performance that should be applauded. There are plenty of forms of music I don’t like, I’m not a fan of grime, R&B, Nu metal, an a lot of modern pop but that doesn’t mean I know nothing about them. Considering I’m an old school rock fan (think Zep, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath the Who, Pink Floyd, old Fleetwood Mac, branching out into 80s metal), I still love a bit of 60s psychedelia, 50s rock and roll, the new folk revival and some good old fashioned country. In the 90s I got into ambient and dance, good music is good music, pass me another Chemical Brothers album. Oh, and the best gig I’ve seen in the last couple of years was Grandmaster Flash- he was phenomenal.

So I’m sad.

I’m sad that Billie hasn’t heard of the original drummer turned guitarist (waaaay before Dave Grohl made it popular), and popularised the two handed tapping technique in the 1978 song Eruption (Guitarist magazine readers voted it the second best guitar solo of all time once). I’m sad that people think they can lay into her for it but I’m equally sad that others think the best way to stick up for her is to say Van Halen have no relevance today.

In a world where Spotify and Apple Music make it easy to skip songs on an album by an artist you love, the chances of people listening to stuff they don’t know or have any real interest in seems staggeringly remote. That also makes me sad.

I tend to find new music (or rather, music that’s new to me) from a huge variety of sources. Some of it is down to Spotify suggestions, but mostly it’s long involved tangential investigations into more or less entirely unrelated subjects on Wikipedia or Google that lead me down some very esoteric paths.

For example last month I listened to the KLF’s Chill Out album a few times and eventually thought, I wonder what actual throat singing sounds like outside of the sampled world of the KLF, so I did some digging and ended up listening to Achai by the Alash Ensemble, a traditional Tuvan Throat singing group. I’ve been mesmerised and it’s probably my most listened to album of the last few months.

I’ve also recently discovered the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, and they’re great. There are a couple of tracks that you’ll probably have heard at some point on the telly in an advert or somewhere- Jollity Farm, the Urban Spaceman and Canyons of Your Mind are pretty well known. It can be something as simple as wondering where an ad on the TV sourced it’s music from.

I tend to drive the kids up the wall with the sort of music that gets put on in the car but they do get exposure to a very wide variety of music as a result. I’ve never felt prouder than the moment when we were in the car driving to Cambridge and Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus came on the radio, the kids all sang along word for word. They hadn’t even heard the Depeche Mode original, rather they’d heard Johnny Cash’s cover version on the only CD in the car on endless repeat whenever we went out of decent radio reception.

The power money can have on relationships

Shepherds Friendly recently got in touch with me over some interesting research it’s done into the influence that money can have in relationships. It’s interesting to see how the dynamic is slowly changing with regard to money between partners. In my parents era it was more accepted that the woman would eventually become a mother (and perhaps even unspoken that job was really something to just tide you over until you found your man) and would stay at home to look after the kids until they were old enough to be left at home.

Today I can say this dynamic is changing but the fact we’re now past the date where women effectively work for free compared to men doing exactly the same job shows how far we still have to go. In our relationship we try to be very even and very fair- we have a joint account which all our money goes into and everything else goes out of that. Yes, it makes buying surprise gifts a bit tricky but at the end of the day I don’t see that the money aspect is important because we’re a team and as long as we both work our best for the family, that’s all that matters, not who brings in what. I know plenty of people who keep separate accounts and pay into a joint account for household expenses and while I can see the pros and cons of that, it’s just not for us!

Looking at the infographic that Shepherds Friendly has produced, it is also interesting to see where views diverge on a gender basis- there are some things like how much of a part money plays in a potential partner being attractive for example that have quite a wide gap (translation: men are shallow and go on looks but women are planning for the future) but others like sharing information about salaries where the genders pretty much agree that sharing is indeed caring.

Why don’t you click on over to the infographic yourself and have a look to see whether your approach fits in with the majority, you might find one or two things that could change your mind or approach for the better!

Form an orderly queue

As the nights draw in and it’s dark pretty much all day, apart from that hour or so that the brick wall outside my office window is bathed in sunlight, everyone is getting tetchy. Against the odds, despite it being dark from around 3pm, it is now completely impossible to get the children to bed. Or rather get them to stay in bed. Last night I tucked the younger two in at about 7:30pm and went to hide in the sanctuary* for a bit of peace and quiet. In the five minutes I was in there, I must have heard four or five extra-bedroom excursions from the two I’d put to bed, along with one from the oldest, who came out purely to see what the commotion was about. This happens at the end of the day, at the start of the day we often have Ned come in at around 6ish to ask whether he can have crisps for breakfast. When we say no, it turns out it was much like a retrospective planning application in that he’s already eaten half a tube of Pringles that we thought we’d hidden well enough to be safe.

It’s unrelenting but we normally get a small window of peace when we get home from work. The older two are old enough now to come home from school on their own, so it’s only Ned that goes to after school club. He normally disappears off to put a onesie on as soon as he gets home, on the off chance we’ll ask him to go out again.

Now though, it’s like some feudal nightmare in the early evenings. The peasantry line up impatiently to petition their king and queen with lists of grievances and demands for things that must be met or there will the the slamming of the doors and the stomping up the stairs. Recently I’ve not even managed to shut the front door before the litany of complaints has begun.

It’s all so wearing and I know I’ll miss it when they’ve grown up!

 

*it’s called the sanctuary as it has a lock on the door. And if you shout “I’m doing a poo!” at the top of your voice when people try to talk to you or get into the room, they tend to leave you alone for a bit.

Blue Monday

Mum went to sleep a month ago today and didn’t wake up. This proved to be the end of her long and arduous battle with cancer- multiple myloma. It was the way she wanted to go, at home and in her own bed.

The news came as both a surprise and not a surprise. I was surprised that mum made it past Christmas, and we had been planning for this Christmas, so in that sense it was a surprise but the last few times I saw her she had been very weak. The gruelling treatment for her cancer had unearthed a latent heart problem, and other things were starting to not work properly too. Time was definitely not on mum’s side but when time runs out it is always a shock.

The past month has gone by somewhat in a blur. There is a degree of unreality to it all if I’m honest. Over the last 18 months, as the cancer’s progression and the treatment had become increasingly gruelling, I’ve found despair all too often and upset myself quite a lot. I’ve shed a few tears since October 14 but nowhere near as many as I feel I should. I don’t think it’s sunk in properly if I’m honest. Perhaps it will be the situations like Christmas, or when dad does something stupid and I think, wait til I tell mum about what he’s done now, that I’ll realise.

The kids have been upset by it. To them, their Nanny was someone who used to make great trifles and lasagnes, gave them sweeties and a little bit of pocket money and generally made a fuss about them. She was ever so proud of her grandchildren and their appearance gave her a real second wind when it came to retirement.

Everyone loses their parents eventually, and if they don’t that’s the real tragedy I suppose. But it’s not easy is it?

Monday night is a rush- here’s my chilli recipe

Monday’s need to be carried off with military precision. Ned now goes swimming with a friend’s family after school on Monday, so we don’t have to pick him up from after school club but I have a 75 minute window to get home from work, cook and eat dinner and then leave to take Fifi and the boy to their respective drumming and piano lessons.

I’m pathologically against the idea of a jar of pesto over some hastily cooked pasta, or chucking chips and fish fingers in the oven, so I’ve been devising a range of quick to cook meals for Mondays (occasionally we go for jacket spud in the slow cooker but this generally meets with howls of disapproval, so it’s a worst case dinner) that can not only be cooked in under an hour but cooked and eaten in under an hour too.

First on my list is the patented Alex & Harry Lancaster university chilli from 1995. Or rather a modern variant on it.

There are two ways to cook this, both start with a 500g packet of mince (lamb or beef, we’re easy). The first method is the more straight forward in that it uses all 500g of mince. The second sees the mince split 60/40, with 40% used in chilli and the rest kept for another night to go into a spag bol or cottage/shepherds pie (there is a difference: cottage= beef, shepherds=lamb!). The reason for the unequal split comes down to the chilli having more additional ingredients in the sauce; kidney beans, black-eyed beans and maybe if you’re in the mood for it, some sweetcorn.

The key to this recipe is to make sure you don’t turn the hob up too high. It’s always a temptation when you’re in a hurry but you’ll end up with dry meat that’s hard and won’t absorb the sauce. If you let it brown gently, and then let the final chilli simmer for ten to fifteen minutes, you should have a luxuriant sauce that’s still taken you under half an hour to cook.

On a Monday I always tend to cheat with the rice and use the microwavable sachets that take 2 minutes to cook. I’m generally a bit rubbish at cooking rice anyway, and I’ve been meaning to get myself a rice cooker for ages.

If you do choose to use all 500g of mince, there will be a fairly high chance that you’ll have some leftover chilli- we tend to and that’s with 5 of us scoffing it. Chilli is one of those dishes that defies logic and actually tastes better once it’s been frozen, defrosted and cooked again, so never despair when you’ve got leftovers.

This is a meal that tends to sort the kids out prior to music but does leave them with an orange sauce-moustache if I’m not careful!

Just a normal nights dinner- homemade onion rings recipe

Last night I got home a little later than usual, as did the boy (auditions for the school play!). As Ned had Beavers and Fifi had a school opening evening visit planned (can’t believe she is in the last year of primary school- madness!), the two youngest and wifey had eaten, leaving me to fend for the boy and me. I had a forty minute window between getting back from dropping Ned off at Beavers and having to go and pick Ned up from Beavers. Not so much of a window, as a chink of light creeping in from between the curtains really.

So rather than going for the typical egg & chips that had been suggested, I had a spring onion and cheese omelette with a side of hastily home made onion rings, and the boy had home made onion rings and chips.

Onion rings aren’t difficult to make, and home made ones are so much nicer than the manky frozen ones you bung in the oven.

The thing it’s easy to forget (or not know in the first place I suppose) is by the time the oven is up to temperature to cook frozen pre-prepared food, it’s entirely possible to cook something much nice yourself on the hob. In this case, there were even some onion rings left over for Ned when I picked him up from Beavers. This is the sort of stuff I wouldn’t have in the freezer compartment even if there was room, which there isn’t, as we’ve got about 6 bags of frozen pineapple chunks in there at the moment for some reason or other I’ve never fully understood.