Duncan Wilcock


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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Ecobee - An Internet Thermostat at My House

Ecobee - Internet Connected Thermostat
A few months ago, I decided I really wanted a thermostat that I could remotely control from my iPhone.   I tend to be home on an irregular schedule, and what I wanted to do was just leave it cold at home and just turn the heat on an hour or two before I knew I was going to be there.

Anyway - long story short - I bought one and recently installed it, and I have to say I'm pretty thrilled.  This one is made by a company called Ecobee - based in Toronto.  Here is a photo of it installed at my house.

Controlling it from my phone from across town!
So what's so fantastic about it?  Well - for me it's the fact that I can control it over the internet, so I can turn the heat on before I head home. Here's what it looks like on my iPhone:

Why is This So Fantastic? 

Did you know that in North America, about 50% of our carbon-footprint is from energy spent heating and cooling our homes?  Better insulation is the first priority of course, as is more efficient heating and cooling technologies, but the sense of control this gives me is very satisfying. And as the biggest slice of my carbon-footprint, it's the most important part to tackle.

Now, if you are a bit of a measurement geek like me, you'll really like the charts the Ecobee records in the background.  Here's a chart of my house for the past 3 days:

The dotted red line is the set-temperature - you can see I was playing with it a lot on November 25th.  The   medium-dark blue line is the actual indoor temperature, and the red blocks on the bottom show when the furnace was actually turned-on.  As a bonus, the black line is the outdoor temperature that it gets for my location from the internet (and uses in it's when-to-turn-on-calculations) and the light blue line is the indoor humidity.

The Nest Thermostat

Now before you run out and buy an Ecobee - and I do think it's a good product - I want to mention the Nest thermostat .  A recently released product from a team of people who used to work at Apple, including Tony Fadell - one of the key guys behind the iPod and iPhone.

All things being equal, I would have bought one of these, but there are several obstacles to buying one in Canada.  First, it was released in the US-only, and that was only a month or two ago to heavy demand so delivery is now quoted in February.  I bet it's a fantastic product, but I didn't want to wait until winter was half over.

In addition, I got so excited by these I set-up with BC Hydro to conduct a "technical trial" of Ecobee thermostats at my small-industrial workplace.  Because I was ordering several thermostats for work, I ordered one for myself as well.

If you're keen for more info and where to buy an Ecobee thermostat, here is a detailed blog post of one guy's experience installing one.  The easiest way to buy one is to contact your local heating contractor or order one online from Alpine Air in the states. Depressingly, I found it was less expensive to order this Canadian product from a retailer in the US and pay duty and shipping, than it was to buy it from a local heating supply store. I'm looking at you Sinclair Supply.

The Nest Thermostat also promises to be cheaper (about $250) than the Ecobee, which via Alpine Air would cost you $465 delivered.  Initial reviews of the Nest are good, but it's a new product, so all the kinks may not be worked out.

Update 19-Dec-2011:
Here's an uh-oh for the Nest thermostat, where Ecobee's two-piece implementation may be superior.

Update 2,  2-Feb-2011:
I'm definitely pleased with my choice of the Ecobee.  While I remain curious about the Nest, I have read reports - including the previous update - that highlight the benefit of it being a more mature product that has been on the market for 2 or 3 years.  For instance, I was surprised to learn that the Nest doesn't have a "smart-recovery" feature that most programmable thermostats have had for sometime.

Also worth mentioning in this update - there is a new & cheaper version of the Ecobee due to be available in April.  I still want to try out a Nest, especially their online interface for comparison.  Get in touch if you have one and want to compare notes - my email is: duncan@wilcock.ca

Update 3, 24-May-2012
At work I've managed to cut our heating bills by over half - 55%!  We're thrilled and a little surprised, stay tuned for a blog update with some detail on how we did this, or get in touch and I'll be happy to tell you more about it.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Book Recommendation: Steve Jobs Biography

No, you probably won't be surprised that I've read it.  Yes, it was good, and yes I recommend it.

At times it felt like a history of Apple, which in a way it is, since the two subjects are so intertwined.  It was a trip down memory lane in a lot of ways for me, memories of the Apple ][ that my Dad bought way back when.  Not surprisingly, it linked together a lot of that history for me in new ways.

The best review of the biography that I've read was in the Guardian, by Jean-Louis Gassée, one of Apple's senior executives in the 80's, and featured this outstanding paragraph:
The arc of Steve's life is the stuff of legends: abandoned at birth; raised in Silicon Valley; an acid-dropping, ashram-dwelling college drop-out, hacker, and co-founder of the most iconic of personal computer companies; fired at age 30; re-inventor of animated movies at Pixar; the struggle to create the NeXT big thing; the return to Apple in the most stunning turnaround the industry had ever seen; reshaping the music industry; building a world-class retail network in his own image; re-inventing the smartphone industry and grabbing half of its profits; and, finally, after 30 years of false starts, making tablets a reality and grabbing iPod-like market and profit share as a result. An arc that saw the unmanageable hippie become the head of one of the world's best-managed companies. And he died just as he reached the pinnacle.

It was a very interesting and enjoyable read, and I think even more interesting will be to read it again in 20 years or so.

Update 2-Dec-2011:
I still enjoyed the book, but agree with this criticism by Thomas Q. Brady and John Gruber.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Another Good Book - Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Touching, funny, romantic, great writing, and with a happy ending, I thoroughly recommend it.

Here's the synopsis:
When retired Major Pettigrew strikes up an unlikely friendship with Mrs. Ali, the Pakistani village shopkeeper, he is drawn out of his regimented world and forced to confront the realities of life in the twenty-first century. Brought together by a shared love of literature and the loss of their respective spouses, the Major and Mrs. Ali soon find their friendship on the cusp of blossoming into something more. But although the Major was actually born in Lahore, and Mrs. Ali was born in Cambridge, village society insists on embracing him as the quintessential local and her as a permanent foreigner. The Major has always taken special pride in the village, but will he be forced to choose between the place he calls home and a future with Mrs. Ali?

Friday, July 29, 2011

Blogging for Work

I've been enjoying blogging again here and realized that it could be a useful thing to do at work as well.  I've been running a facebook page for work for about 18 months (fb.me/gillinghamcabinets), and twitter for 6 months (@GillingCabinets), but found there were issues I wanted to write about that needed more than 140 characters.

If you're interested in what I have to say about kitchen cabinets on Vancouver Island, here's a link to it:  www.gillinghamcabinets.com/blog  I'm particularly pleased with how the Home Depot vs Gillingham Cabinets article turned out, and the Metabox, Tandembox and Dovetail Drawers article as well.  If you wan to see all the posts I've written there (some of the other sales staff are writing posts as well) this author link is pretty handy.

I hope you enjoy reading my stuff as much as I enjoy writing it.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Limitations of Find my iPhone

iPhones, iPads & iPod Touches have a very handy feature called Find my iPhone - once set up you can look up where your device is on a map, even send it a message, make it beep, or remotely wipe it if it becomes unrecoverable. Sounds great, but there are some limitations to it, so it isn't quite as perfect as you might otherwise hope.  In a nut - I think it's much more suited to when you lose your phone, and less suited for when your phone is stolen.

Not that losing one's phone doesn't happen.  My brother (the one with 5 kids) lost his brand new christmas-present-android-phone for 3 months before finding it in one of the kid's shoes, and my mother is currently on day 6 of her searching for her trusty feature-phone, and no - this isn't the first time.

But if your iPhone is stolen, all they really have to do is turn it off and/or take the sim-card out, and your iPhone is pretty much gone for good.  A smart thief who just wants the hardware will do just that, and at the earliest opportunity push a series of buttons to do a factory-reset to wipe all the settings on the phone, after which it will no longer be find-able using this app.

Here's the most complete description of the limitations I've found, even though they are a bit buried in the text.

The ones that stuck out for me were:
You have already initiated a wipe of the iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. The device will not appear on the page until it is reconfigured with your MobileMe account information.
So if your iOS device is wiped, you won't be able to find it again with the the "Find my iPhone" system - wiping your phone is an irreversible process.  That prompted me to turn off the "Wipe phone after 10 unsuccessful attempts" option I had turned on in the passcode security settings.
iPhone: Your cellular service has been terminated by your wireless service provider.  If you contacted your service provider to report your device lost/stolen before locating/wiping your phone, and they deactivated your SIM card or account, you will no longer be able to locate, display a message on, or remotely wipe your iPhone.
Watch-out for that one - it would be easy enough to do in a rush to avoid stolen call charges.  If you call your network company (AT&T, Rogers, Telus, Bell, Verizon, or whoever) to tell them your phone is stolen, and they suspend or cancel your account , "Find my iPhone" isn't going to work very well for you either.

Not surprisingly, it doesn't work when the device is switched off:
Your device is powered off (for example, the battery has run out). You can still send a message to, issue a Remote Lock request, or initiate a remote wipe of your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, and it will be received once the device is turned on and regains its Internet connection.

So "Find my iPhone" isn't the perfect tool for recovering a stolen iOS device, even though I think for many people - at least for me - that is the use case that first comes to mind. An informed thief will just turn the device off and wipe it at the earliest opportunity.  Still, there are plenty of anecdotes online of people recovering stolen iOS and Android phones with the help of this (or similar on Android) software, so in some cases it may help with a stolen phone.  Moreover, from examples of my mother and brother - recovering a lost phone is a not-insignificant benefit for many users.

The spy vs. spy sex-appeal of tracking your stolen phone sure gets the blood pumping, but I'll bet the balance of benefit between recovering lost phones vs. stolen phones is weighted pretty heavily on the side of lost phones.

Friday, June 03, 2011

A book I like: How Risky is it Really

I read this book last year, after a strong  recommendation from Bruce Schneier.  It's a very digestible examination of how humans perceive risk: how we get it right, how our feelings of risk originate, and when they are likely to be inaccurate.  Best of all, it isn't preachy or judgemental, it's an impartial examination that has informed my thinking ever since.

Here' s a link to some excerpts from the author's website.

Specific examples that stood out for me are:

An additional 3000 people died on US roads after 9/11 because more people drove themselves rather than fly in airplanes.

We spend a great deal more on curing cancer than we do on curing heart disease, even though heart disease kills many more people than cancer.

The book provides a framework for understanding why we have made these types of choices, but leaves it up to us to decide if our reasons are nonetheless valid.  In summary: I recommend it!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Impact of HST Uncertainty on the Construction Industry in British Columbia

This is a follow-up post to the BC Stats post I made a few weeks ago, that shares one of the remarkable things I observed:  The dramatic drop in housing permits that happened after then Premier Campbell resigned.  The chart at left tells the story:  It's an indexed plot of residential housing permits issued in the months along the bottom.  In Purple is BC and in Black is all of Canada.  the red line is baseline of the index - set to 100 in July of 2008 - before the recession hit.

See that big drop in the purple line in November 2010?  Premier Campbell announced his resignation November 3rd, and my interpretation is that most builders in BC thought "uh-oh - the HST could get killed after all" and decided to hold off on permitting plans to see what would happen.

The HST has been causing a lot of uncertainty in the housing market, because in the previous GST/PST system, a lot of construction services for installed goods were subject to GST only (at 5%), but now are subject to a full 12% - resulting in an effective price rise for the end consumer of around 7% for many construction projects.  Because of the uncertainty, some people are holding off on these purchases and plans.

Personally, I'm in favour of the HST as a tax, despite it hurting the industry I'm employed in, however - I'm not in favour of the uncertainty of whether it will stick around or not. Although it does make for an interesting chart.

Monday, April 04, 2011

In Praise of the Standard Beer Bottle

It's green to drink beer that comes in standard bottles.  The industry standard beer bottle (ISB) is reused around  15-20 times, (depending who you ask) and that's much more efficient than being smashed up, melted & re-formed into new bottles - as happens when bottles are recycled.

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. -  Reuse comes before recycle.

A lot of the the craft beer and micro-brewery beers that are so popular at the moment - particularly among the hippie crowd seem to come in large - funky lookin' non-standard bottles that aren't as easily reused, and so are less environmentally friendly.  That bothers me - hippies are supposed to like green choices.

Vote with your dollars - buy your beer in standard bottles.

Monday, March 28, 2011

iPad 2

Yup, I joined the iPad club this weekend. I can't say I thought I would ever be "one of those people" who lines up for an Apple product, but consider this a confession.  The timing worked out well for me - just after work - and here in Duncan, BC there weren't the kinds of lines that may have been found in bigger cities.  Still - it was impressive to have a few units here in our sleepy little town on launch day.

So - what do I think of it?

Actually it really is pretty fantastic.  There are lots of things to like about it, but I'll limit myself here to my top 3 things.

1.  It feels fast.

It does.  You only have to try it for 30 seconds to notice how quickly webpages render, how fast apps switch, how effortless it is to flick content around the screen. (thanks to the whole touch thing and inertial-scrolling)  Anyone I have shown it to remarks on this almost as soon as they touch it.

2.  It's more sociable.

Something about it lying flat on the kitchen counter, or the table - lets others see what you're looking up, so that everyone has an interest in it.  Not having everyone "crowd around your laptop" is SO much better.

3.  You can curl up on the couch with it.

This is another reason it's sociable.  It feels natural to curl up on the couch with your significant other and look at things on it together. No more jiggering with a laptop & keyboard.  It's just a screen,  and that's all it needs to be.

4 - Ok one more - Garageband is fantastic.  Even I can strum chords on a "guitar," and actually sound pretty passable.   If you don't know what I'm talking about - watch the 10 minute demo in the apple keynote starting at the 47 minute mark.

I don't think I can overstate how touch opens up so many new possibilities.  After all - Apple ushered in a new paradigm for computing with the mouse & the macintosh back in the 80s, and now I think Steve Jobs has made the next paradigm - touch computing - his magnum opus.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

BC Provincial Statistics - A Free Public Resource

I've been using the BC Stats website lately for work. There's some fantastic information on there - all free to access.

Mostly I've been looking at the residential housing permits data.  There is data broken down by regional district and even by community, going back 10 years, as well as for the past 25 months.  Here is a link to the page, and then scroll down to "Construction & Housing."  Pretty fantastic stuff for assessing the state of regional markets and observing trends.

Also really interesting/useful are the "Community Fact Sheets" that synthesize data from provincial and federal sources to give a concise overview of each regional district.  The fact sheet for the Cowichan Valley is shown above,  and here is a link to the rest of the fact sheets for BC.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Byzantine History - A Great Podcast

I've been listening to a podcast on byzantine history lately. I'm about halfway through now, far enough to recognize that it's worth recommending.

Byzantine history is a gaping hole in my general knowledge, and this is proving to be a great way to absorb something of the subject.

You can get the podcast into itunes & your ipod from this link:

Podcast of 12 Byzantine Rulers

Monday, March 07, 2011

Two Predictions about Apple

I have two predictions about Apple for the months ahead, and I decided I want to write them down to make a public record of them.

First - A bigger iPad in September.

Others have suggested that Apple is going to ship another new iPad in September, with higher resolution. I think that is quite likely to be true, and I think it will also be physically larger than the original iPads. This will start to flesh-out their iPad product line in terms of price and selection.

iPad is the new flagship of Apple's product line. iPhone is still the biggest revenue source, but iPad is Steve Job's baby. His legacy to the world after his passing.

A physically larger iPad will also enable other functionality. A larger keyboard for the new GarageBand app for instance. Also think about Microsoft's Surface computer - I'm not saying it will be a full on coffee-table size, but there is certainly a use case to be considered for having a larger screen. I would guess physically it will be around the 17" range, and it might have to be a bit thicker to provide adequate physical strength for the glass. They might even start with a couple of options - 15" & 17" or so to start.

Second - iTunes Store payments via Mobile-Phone Accounts.

My second prediction is about mobile payments. Rumors are hot & heavy that NFC payments will be built into iPhone 5, and I think it's pretty likely. Probably we will be able to choose to associate the payment system with your credit card, or have the amount billed to your mobile phone account.

This is big news, and in time it could massively disrupt the credit card companies, and I'm sure they're well aware of it. Currently around 2% of every retail transaction charged to a credit card goes to the credit card companies. If Mobile phone companies charge merchants less - say 0.5% - this will be the beginning of some much needed competition for the credit card companies.

Apple probably has something clever up their sleeve to give iTunes customers a clear benefit for using mobile payments, but I haven't figured out what yet. Perhaps they will manufacture a benefit - such as fewer clicks - or else an offer a monetary benefit after a year or so.

Anyway - this is my prediction - Apple uses Mobile Payments to undercut the credit-card companies on their iTunes Store accounts.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Crowd Accelerated Innovation

One of the curators of TED Talks - Chris Anderson, has identified something he calls "Crowd Accelerated Innovation" and how it is being turbo-charged by online video sites like YouTube. I think he is really on to something.

His doppleganger - the editor of wired magazine Chris Anderson - wrote it up in a well written article in wired, (click that link to see it) - in fact I found better it better than the actual TED talk.

It refers to a video about "The LXD" - The League of Extraordinary dancers - which is worth watching for the sake of marvelling at what the human body can do.

If want to watch the original TED Talk where the subject is introduced, it is here. Don't get me wrong - it's worth watching, I was just surprised to find the wired article better than the original source material.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Women are Winning Social Networking

I've been thinking on this subject for a while, and the graphics in this TED talk did a great job of highlighting just how much that women are dominating social networking.

Women outnumber men on social networking sites by a substantial margin across all age brackets - both in terms of number of participants, as well as average time spent.

A related thought is that perhaps the tide is turning on the great "shortage of women in technology." Men have dominated computers, electronics, and video games for decades. It has often been lamented that there aren't any good video games for women and girls, and my electrical engineering courses in the 1990s were certainly laughable - more than 90% of my classmates were men.

Social networking might just be the video game that women have been waiting for.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What I think of my Mac

So I bought a mac a few months ago. I'd been curious about them for a while, and as a computer geek attracted, but also a bit reluctant to jump on the band wagon.

My reservations: They tend to cost about twice as much as PCs for the same technical specifications. These days what's important to me are mostly lightness & portability, hard-disk capacity, and high resolution on the monitor. For the past few years processor speed and memory capacity (RAM) seem to be less important to me.

But I decided to take the plunge for a couple of reasons - I've been wanting to try my hand at writing iPhone apps was a big one, as was a sense that most of the "fun stuff" has shifted to macs - like writing iPhone & iPad apps - but also a lot of the really good web development stuff, and - I'm not sure, just a sense of the "centre of gravity of tech innovation" having made a shift from PC to Mac in the last year or two. Or perhaps I've just been reading too many Apple tech news blogs. :)

I also wasn't enjoying learning Windows 7 or Vista. I couldn't find anything particularly worthwhile for me in the new OS, and I wasn't enjoying having to figure out again how to do things I was able to do easily in XP.

Anyway - I bought one of the new MacBook Airs that came out in October. It's good - sleek, light, and I really love the large, multi-touch track pad. Physical design wise, Macs really are head and shoulders above most of what the PC market has to offer. The mag safe power connector is particularly excellent, as is the nice small size of the power adapter in the first place.

But is it really worth it - that's the question that has been in my mind. I guess it's worth it to me because I'm finding out what macs are all about.

Is it really easier to use? I wouldn't say so precisely.

What bugs me about it? The lack of function keys on the keyboard does bug me a bit. But mostly it's the feeling of being "only a consumer" - part of what I understand to be Apple's philosophy is about design, and about "taking things away" that they deem unnecessary, but as a result I keep bumping into things that I want to do, and am accustomed to being able to do on a PC, but can't. It feels like wearing a straight-jacket sometimes. Oh, and the other thing that really annoys me are the and the "smug apple punks." But I'll leave that for another post.

Things I find really bizarre (and stupid) on my mac:

1. You can't turn off the start-up sound - a jarring "dong" that happens when I have to restart/reboot the computer - which is admittedly rare - but still what a ridiculous noise. Yes I've tried the "start up sound" preferences panel hack - but for some reason it doesn't work for me.

2. I also can't believe that it won't stay on with the lid closed. Yes, I've found "Insomniax" - a hack that makes this possible, and I have also come to understand that it's for a practical reason (ventilation through the keyboard) but - I still find it ridiculous. Since I use it to play all my music, I like to leave it on with the lid closed and the music playing. It's so easily configurable on windows, it just seems so strange that it's so "off-limits" on the mac.

Alright, I'll end this post here. I have a bunch more to say, especially about iMovie, but I'll break it up into several posts.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

This Blog is Back Online

After a long hiatus, I'm resurrecting this blog.  I've had some thoughts rolling around that I've been wanting to write down in longer form than are suitable for twitter or facebook, so I'm going to write some of them up here in the next while.

I scanned through my old posts, and yes - some of my views have changed in the intervening 4 or 5 years since I posted most of this, but it's still stuff I wrote - and a lot of it I had forgotten about - some of it is really pretty good (if I might say so myself)

Anyhoo.  Stay tuned.