Category Archives: house

Housing and home technologies – anything related to the “machines for living”.

Time Capsule

Airport Time Capsule

Airport Time Capsule

Continuing to troubleshoot our persistent home networking problems: while we have got a high pile of various routers, last several years the heart of the network has been Asus RT-N56U dual-band model, which was awarded as the fastest router available in 2011. It was a slim device, and after I updated the firmware to the Padawan version, there was also more than enough room for tweaking. However, the constant connection failures and speed dropping finally pointed towards the life-cycle of our router coming to an end. The router has been located in very narrow space, without cooling, so it should not have come as a surprise that its components have started failing after a few years.

The selection of a router for a home where there are a fair number of connected devices (smartphones, tablets and computers are just one part of them) is a tricky business. I wanted to have a  802.11ac model, but otherwise I kept on reading and comparing various options. According to specs, speed and configuration options, the current top model of Asus, RT-AC87U, was for a long time my number one choice. However, the actual user reports were a rather mixed bag: there seems to have been various bugs and issues with both the software and hardware of this, 4×4 antenna configuration, dual band ac model. And I have come to learn that I have less and less time and patience for tweaking tech — or at least, I want the router and network infrastructure to “just work”, so that I can use the Internet while tweaking, testing and playing with something more interesting.

The conclusion was to get yet another Apple product, this time AirPort Time Capsule (2 TB model). It does not reach quite as extreme speeds as the RT-AC87U, but then again, there is limited support for hardware that is capable of reaching its theoretical 1,3 Gbps top speeds. I am increasingly relying on my Macbook Pro Retina also when at home, and we are actively using several iPads and other Apple devices, so having the full Apple compatibility, while not a “must”, was a nice bonus. The user reports about the new AirPort Time Capsule have been overwhelmingly positive, emphasising its robust reliability, so I am interested to see whether this router lives up to its reputation also as the backbone of our household. So far, so good. All our devices have succesfully got online, and the speeds are close to the 100/10 Mbps maximum, also in Wifi, when close to the AirPort. And the Macbook is now making its automatic backups in the background, which is nice.

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XBMC in Raspberry Pi

Raspberry Pi

Raspberry Pi

My Raspberry Pi had arrived while I was at the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit, and I got finally some hours to test drive it. As far as contemporary PC hardware goes, RPi is of course seriously underpowered little plaything. On the other hand, when you compare it with to some other devices (like smartphones, embedded systems), it does not look so bad. The principal reason for its development should also be taken into account (promoting computer literacy, encouraging tinkering with hardware and software tools, helping kids learn to code). I have been looking for some time for an affordable and functional HTPC system for serving media in our living room, and thus my first test drive involved setting up RPi as a media center PC. The Raspian “wheezy” distro that they recommend on the Raspberry Pi Foundation website was too slow and unresponsive for my taste to do anything. I tried also Raspbmc version of XBMC media center, but I could not get it to install any addons at all. So finally I did find a place that instructed how to install OpenElec, an embedded operating system that has been built to run XBMC – from a Windows PC (http://www.squirrelhosting.co.uk/hosting-blog/hosting-blog-info.php?id=9). Now XBMC was getting online, updating itself and installing addons nicely. It also booted up decently in c. 20-40 seconds.

It turned out that the major issue for me finally was a network infrastructure related one: we did not have a LAN socket in the corner where our TV set is situated. I tried to learn about WiFi USB dongles that could run out of the box, plug-and-play style with the OpenElec/XBMC, but it would had been necessary to know the exact version of chipset and firmware to make sure whether the USB dongle in question would work, so I decided to stay with the wired Internet/Ethernet connection instead, and added another layer to the (rather instesting) network topology of our home by setting up a Powerline Ethernet bridge (using two Zyxel PLA4215 units). While I was at it, I also got a powered USB 2.0 hub (a basic Belkin thing) and wireless keyboard-touchpad combo for comfortable sofa-based media surfing. The latter was a Logitech Wireless Touch Keyboard K400, which is a rattling, plastic thing, but has two important benefits for me: (a) it is cheap, (b) it has an inconspicuous power switch hidden on the side. Anyone with one or two (or, indeed, three) hyperactive toddlers in the house can witness why these are good things. I have already e.g. a broken Logitech diNovo Edge lying around somewhere. Surprisingly, everything seemed to work after a couple of system reboots.

As to the actual use of the OpenElec/XBMC/Raspberry Pi system, I have not yet much experience to share. I can say that the software is still buggy and occasionally rather slow. It is difficult to say what the system is doing when the playback or a menu does not open immediately, whether it is buffering data or whatever is going on. Attempting to stop the playback of a HD video file can suddenly jam the whole system to a complete halt. But yes, I can play music, videos and watch photos in a full HD screen from multiple sources, from both local network and from various online services in a more or less satisfactory manner. There seems to be much potential and room to explore further in this surprising little system. One can only hope that the energy of the community does not die out, but the development of software continues far beyond this early stage. It is, after all, really early in the evolution of Raspberry Pi ecosystem, as some developers have not yet even received the unit they are waiting for. Much of the OS distributions and applications are thus more at ‘alpha’ rather than even ‘beta’ stage at this point. But taken that, this is really entertaining little playground to experiment with, and to fool around.

OpenElec XBMC running on Raspberry Pi HTPC

OpenElec XBMC running on Raspberry Pi HTPC

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Garden working

Garden working by FransBadger
Garden working, a photo by FransBadger on Flickr.

Sure sign of summer: our garden work has begun again. I have e.g. operated our overgrown apple trees with a chain saw, washed away old paint and repainted (a bit hastily) all our wooden garden furniture, plus the terrace, then delivered sand, gravel and flagstones required by various paths and other constructions that look like becoming the main garden project of this summer. Here the foundation for a swing.

Garden working

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iPeng. iPhone. Spotify. And Squeezebox.

This has been one of the most fun recent everything-is-now-connected experiences: after upgrading into a Spotify Premium account, I first did find out that Spotify has a very nice mobile client for iPhone, then that there is also a plugin (still at beta though) to make Spotify work as an online radio component in my Squeezeserver/Squeezebox setup at home (making possible somewhat more hifi experiences in our library room). The only issue was the UI, and seaching for music with our trusty old Squeezebox Classic and its rubbery remote control was not so much fun. Here stepped in iPeng, an application that turns iPhone into a Wifi remote that makes browsing and playing Squeezebox’s music collections really fun — and it suits perfectly for remote controlling Spotify, too.

The only real irritation so far has been “no player connected” message that comes when the connection between iPhone and Squeezebox is lost. I have tried to set iPhone into a fixed IP address in our router, and also limit its connection into Wifi g standard only (which should make it supposedly more resilient to disturbance), but I am not sure I have managed to crack that problem completely yet. But otherwise: it is great to notice it is possible to get things — music, services, hard- and software — to interoperate, finally, at least to a certain degree.

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Canon LBP5050n “Network Board Error”

This has been a continuing problem since I got this printer: our Canon LBP5050n network printer only works occasionally, throwing up “network board error” messages when used under Windows 7. All documents, web pages etc. first have to be opened in our Windows Server 2008 (or my netbook, with Windows 7 Starter edition and Wifi connection), where printing goes fine. I have been changing router settings, putting the printer into different configurations, but nothing seems to be helping. It might be that this is caused by the complex network topology (there are several routers in our home network), but it is still curious that sometimes I manage to print a page from even these Windows 7 workstations, but then, quickly, the damn error message comes up again and the network connection to the printer is apparently lost again. Most annoying.

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On reception and playlists


iPhone, RadioBox, Philips
Originally uploaded by FransBadger

Working today in our cellar I developed a theory that people generally fall into two categories in their attitudes towards music: the playlist people and the radio people. While the former take care to build their own playlists and choose music to match the mood, situation and company, the latter just open the radio. I mostly belong to the latter category, but it is sometimes surprisingly difficult to get the exact radio station where you want and need it. For example, I often work with media (or do house maintenance work) in our cellar, where the earth and concrete walls block the reception. In the picture you can see one work-around: take iPhone and purchase a RadioBox app (or just use a free flash player if you have a Nokia or some open device like that), then tune up those favorite Finnish YLE radio channels, and plug it into your Philips brightlight-radio-combo-device. It works!

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Harvia Figaro

Sauna enjoys a semi-religious status in Finland — there are over 2 million saunas in a country with a population of 5,3 million. Choosing details of your own sauna is therefore not a joking matter. There are several schools of ‘proper’ or ‘right’ Way of Sauna in Finland, and a passionate (or even heated) discussion can ensue when competing views collide.

I have a pretty typical sauna in the cellar floor of our house (rintamamiestalo house type in Finnish). It had been recently renovated and I had no intention of changing ventilation or lauteet (the seats or platforms). But our kiuas (the stove, or heater) was an old Narvi electric kiuas, which was small and apparently also partly broken: it would only heat the room into c. 60°C in an hour. Probably there was problems in the heating resistors. I could have tried to get the old kiuas fixed, but it made more sense to try and get a better model.

I ended up with Harvia Figaro FG90 model. It suits our particular demands which actually fuse two sauna cultures or styles: the slow and mellow, and the hot and aggressive style. Since Iki Kiuas introduced their massive stoves, the mellow school of löyly (steam or ‘spirit of sauna’ that you evoke by throwing water to the hot stones) has been gaining in popularity. I personally like a bit hotter löyly though, which has also some ‘kick and punch’. So we tried to find a kiuas that would scale from massive-and-mellow löyly up to the hot ones.

Our sauna room is 2,30 m x 2,10 m x 2,05 m in size, which means c. 9,9 cubic meters of space to heat. But you need to take into calculation also the cold stone or concrete walls and glass walls or doors (we have both) that leak the heat, rather than work as insulators. FG90 is a 9,0 kW model, so it specs say it fits 8–14 m3 saunas.

My first test run today was principally positive. At the start of the evening Figaro behaved like a slow, massive kiuas (we loaded it with c. 80 kg of stones). After another hour with the settings in the maximum, FG90 put the room into 122°C temperature, which was as far as I wanted to push it this time. That was more than what I needed anyways; 90-100°C is mostly hot enough for me, and for a slow and mellow family bath, 65-75°C is probably the optimum range.

I like the design, too. It is not as fancy as a ‘full tower model’ like Iki Kiuas or some of its clones would be, but you get a rather compact stove that is flexible in its use range, and while installed in a small to medium sauna, it shows towards you a long flank of dark Finnish stone, packed behind bars of stainless steel.

Harvia Figaro

More of Harvia Figaro (in Finnish) from here: http://www.harvia.fi/products?lang=fi&gid=991.

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