Smarthome / Insteon Customer Support

A week ago today, I was up at 6:30am as normal making lunch for my youngest to take to her pre-school. Typically, when I get to the cooking phase I ask Alexa to turn on the “counter” lights, allowing me to see the stove top without using the high wattage incandescent lights in the hood (aside: I must see if I can get LED replacements for those yet). Somewhat surprisingly, she sat for a few seconds and then said that the Insteon hub the lights were connected to wasn’t responding. That happens sometimes, and I get the Alexa app to search for new devices again and it sorts itself out. Only my phone was still upstairs, so I walked over, switched the lights on myself and forgot about it.

Later in the morning, after the kids were both at school and I was back home working, I popped into the kitchen and asked Alexa to turn on the ceiling lights in the room. Again, she said the hub was not responding. I launched the Insteon app to see what it thought, but it reported the same thing. Next stop, the master closet upstairs where all our internet stuff lives (that’s where the internet comes into the house & where the patch panel is for the phones & Ethernet cabling).

When I got there, the light on the Insteon hub was out. Unplugging and reconnecting did nothing, so I unplugged it and as I did so I caught a whiff of the unmistakable aroma of burnt out electronics.

Taking it back down and popping the bottom off the box, it was very clear that the capacitor, and perhaps the diode, right next to that transformer in the middle of pic were not as they were meant to be (and the underside of the board also showed signs of something getting hot).

In the past, this would have been a simple repair job, but with multi-layer circuit boards and the possibility of damage to the tracks inside the board which I can’t see (and can’t trace easily), I thought it was probably time to order a new one. The only problem with that is that the setup for these things is stored in the device, and not the cloud account. So, swapping the hub is painful. You have to repeat the setup of every switch, socket and I/O controller around the house from scratch.

So, I tweeted and went back to work. In the tweet thread I included the pics of the burnt PCB.

Quick Response

Very quickly I got a response from their social media team:

I’m used to getting fast responses from companies on Twitter, but not normally ones that are that positive. A few DMs later, and a phone call from them (made within a few mins of me sending the number via a DM) and they had set up a shipping label for me to return the unit for repair. Hopefully, retaining all the config (he thought the memory would be unaffected and they could just transfer it to a new unit).

The replacement unit is due to be delivered by USPS today all being well. That is astounding and I have to say that, while I was not that impressed that it failed, I am totally impressed by their customer service. Easily the best service I have received from any company I’ve bought electronics from.

Internet of Things

I do not know whether the cause of the failure was just time or whether there was a surge that killed it (all the other gear is connected via a surge suppressing power strip, but the Insteon hub needs a direct connection as it talks to the devices around the house over that A/C connection (and, apparently, surge suppressors can also attenuate the communications frequency signals).

One thing that is clear for Internet of Things devices: being cloud backed is essential. I’m not sure what the technical hurdle is with the Insteon system, but being able to get the house settings saved either locally or, better still, into the cloud account that is already associated with the device, seems like an essential. Electronic devices can fail. Whether it is power supplies burning out or other things failing, none of these consumer grade devices last forever (for what it’s worth, even the military grade stuff failed sometimes!). That is not a big deal if a new part can be plugged in to replace the old one with little to no setup pain. We’re not there yet, and I suspect it is not only Insteon gear that does not do well in this regard.

Security

The flip side of that, of course, is that those cloud accounts are potential security issues waiting to happen. Whether it is the data stored in the cloud, or the protocols used by the devices themselves to communicate with the cloud service and, via that service, with remote devices like mobile phones. Somebody being able to mess with the lights in my house would be annoying, but not the end of the world. Somebody being able to interfere with things like smart locks would be a different matter.

MacBook Pro Crashing on Wake

Last week I let my mid-2012 13″ MacBook Pro apply the latest update for Mac OS High Sierra, version 10.13.4. That, it seems, was a mistake.

Ever since that day, when I close the lid and let it sleep for more than a few minutes, it will crash on wake up. The only errors I see in the system logs are regarding com.apple.preference.displays.MirrorDisplays not starting properly. Looking online for the error message [“com.apple.xpc.launchd [1] (com.apple.preference.displays.MirrorDisplays): Service only ran for 0 seconds. Pushing respawn out by 10 seconds.”], I found a number of places reporting that it has been happening to them in various releases of High Sierra. In all the cases I saw, the errors are in the logs and the computer fails to wake up from sleeping.

This is what happens when I open the lid on the laptop after it has been asleep for a while:

Bug Filed

Apple’s Twitter support team were not very helpful on this, so I filed a bug report instead, attaching screen photos and other information as requested. So far, I’ve heard nothing back from that, though that is not uncommon (Apple are typically silent until the ticket is fixed).

Online Suggestions

While I was researching online, I did find a couple of suggestions that had worked for a few people at least. The first is simple, just make sure the option in the display settings to show the AirPlay icon on the menu bar is unchecked, like this:

That made no difference in my case, so I looked at the second suggestion. This one is more involved, and requires rebooting into recovery mode & disabling the system integrity protection feature so that system files can be modified:

  1. Boot the system into recovery mode (restart holding Command + R while it boots)
  2. From the menu bar, launch a Terminal application
  3. Type the following command to disable system integrity protection: csrutil disable
  4. Reboot back into regular Mac OS
  5. Edit /System/Library/LaunchAgents/com.apple.preference.displays.MirrorDisplays.plist, commenting out the line <string>Aqua</string>
  6. Reboot back into recovery mode
  7. Open the Terminal and enter the following command: csrutil enable;

This did not work for me either. My next experiment is to comment out that entire plist file and see whether that makes any difference. I will update with the results of that experiment (and, of course, any information I get back in response to the bug report I filed with Apple).

Update 1 (April 17, 2018):

Commenting out the entire file did not resolve the issue. Still crashes the same way each time it wakes up from hibernate (short sleeps still appear to be OK).

Public EV Spaces

One of the things about driving an EV that I noticed very quickly is that the ideal locations for “refueling” infrastructure are totally different to ICE cars. Gas stations are just not the best places for charging stations, and even with the very high speed chargers that some car manufacturers are talking about, I don’t think they ever will be. Instead, the best places are the places (apart from at home), seem to be public parking lots. These are places where EVs spend enough time to pick up meaningful charge, while their drivers are doing something else.

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Books to Read Whenever

I was shared a link to an article with the title “33 books everyone should read before turning 30” and, aside from being more than a few years too late, most of the books on the list didn’t appeal to me whatsoever. The only one I have read, I wouldn’t necessarily include on a list of must read books.

It got me thinking though, what books would I recommend people read, whenever? My list is nowhere near as long (just 8 books, and some authors I like to read).

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App Idea: EV Charging Valet

As the owner of a relatively short range EV, being able to plug in and get a charge from public chargers can either be handy, or in some cases essential. There are places we go where taking the EV would be risky unless we could get a charge while we’re there (and some where we wouldn’t get home without a charge). At least here in the SF Bay Area, EVs and plug in hybrids are now common enough that finding a public charging space empty is rare. When a large shopping mall has only 2-4 EV spaces, the chances of finding one empty when you arrive is essentially nil.

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SF Car Show, 2017

For a number of years now, we have visited the annual San Francisco car show to check out the latest in car tech. It’s not a big show on the circuit, and we’re certainly not expecting any big reveals, but it has been a fun day out for us and the kids (especially the kids, who love climbing into all the cars).

This year I’m sad to say I was a little disappointed. Not with the show’s organizers (although two of the Moscone “security” staff were rude to us before we had even entered the show floor). It was the car companies themselves that disappointed me.

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Smartmeters: Radiation & Other FUD

Our local, city owned, electricity utility has been working on a project to upgrade all our electricity meters to smart meters. For those that have not heard of these before, a smart meter is essentially the same as a modern digital electricity meter (so none of the moving parts of the classic electricity meter) with the addition of a radio that allows it to send data back to the utility periodically.

In most cases, they record the meter’s value every 15 minutes and then upload blocks of data to the utility periodically.

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UPS: More Excuses, Less Deliveries

[Updated November 21, 2017; see below]

Back in August 2016 I wrote about UPS and the repeated delivery failures I was seeing. Things have not really improved this year at all. My most recent UPS failure was a tablet ordered for work that we needed quickly, so I paid extra to get 1-day shipping (ordering on a Friday with a delivery expected on Monday).

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Common Networks

Those who have been following along here (or on Twitter) might recall all the strange issues we were having with Comcast’s internet service, specifically abysmal performance during the late evenings. For most of that time, and it was over a year I was trying to get them to fix the issue, they were sadly the only option we had for internet access. They had previously priced our city owned cable TV & ISP out of business, and then bought the customers. While that was happening, AT&T decided to simply drop out of providing internet service to the almost 500 homes in our neighborhood.

Then one day a friend posted information about a new wireless ISP starting up here in Alameda: Common Networks. I signed up to be on their waiting list immediately. Not long afterwards I was surprised by the email requesting information & selection of a date to install. They were still in beta at the time and suggested I keep Comcast as a backup for a little while, but with just one brief outage in the first two months they were easily more reliable than Comcast. Not to mention being faster. Here’s a speed test result from my phone:

Latterly with Comcast I was paying the same as Common charges, but getting max 25Mbps down and 5Mbps up.

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