Safari Day 1 in Masai Mara, Kenya

Friday morning we flew from Nairobi to the Masai Mara wildlife preserve. We stayed at the Little Governor’s camp.

We hopped into trucks, and headed to the camp. We saw zebra, gazelle, and warthogs on the way.

When we got to the camp, we needed to cross a river, so this kind gentleman pulled us across using a rope.

We then had a short hike up to the camp.

Looking back at the river we’d crossed.

And when we arrived at the camp, we had the customary Kenya tea and relaxed watching God put on a show right at our camp.

The tents and tables were situated next to a pond that was a constant show of various different wildlife. They’d appear on one side, walk across, then disappear out the other side.

When Ron and Tom arrived at their tent, it was discovered that the twin beds were actually a single king size. Tom looked at me and said “You know, Ron. What happens in Kenya stays in Kenya”.

Day Three in Matete, Kenya

Wednesday we again had breakfast at the hotel before traveling back to the ADP. Sister Grace lead us in morning devotionals, followed by tea.

We then visited an education project; the Kivaywa Primary School, a school with many RC / WASH interventions.

We were welcomed to the school by approximately 1,000 cheering and waving children, and met by the Head Teacher.

In addition to touring the school, we participated in a Swahili lesson. Side note: we were surprised to lean that the Kenya national language is not Swahili, but English.

Each of the classes then performed for us, either singing, or reciting, or dancing. What a wonderful experience.

We were both delighted and saddened to visit the single classroom for handicapped children. We learned that up until recently, handicapped children did not participate in school at all, and were often just abandoned. Primarily because of the efforts of World Vision, many now were attending school, but there is a lot progress needed in this area.

After lunch back at the ADP, we again ventured out, this time to the Matete Water Users Association office. We met with the management committee, and learned all that had been accomplished. This included expanding the water distribution network. The small fees charged by the co-op, and the efficient management of it actually provided sufficient funds to allow sponsoring three girls. This provided their school fees and uniforms. Without this help, these teenage girls would have instead been sold by their families into marriage.

Our Second Day in Matete

Tuesday morning, following breakfast at the hotel, we returned to the Matete ADP for morning devotions and of course a tea break.

We then visited the Balibayo CBO for a presentation of the CBO and the donors to understand how they manage the over 4323 RC in the AP.

Following lunch at the AP, we split up met with our sponsored RC at their homes. Shelley and I sponsor 3 children, so WV arranged for all of them to meet with us at one of their homes.

This was a fun afternoon, getting to know the children and their families. We exchanged gifts, were treated to locally grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables, and of course more tea. We exchanged gifts, and then were given a tour of the family’s farm. It was truly amazing how much was being done with a fairly small amount of land.

Afterward, on the way back to the hotel we stopped by the Webuye waterfall.

Our First Day in Matete

Monday morning we had breakfast at the hotel, then were picked up and driven to Matete.

Upon arriving at the World Vision ADP office in Matete, we were greeted with much singing and dancing and ululating. We then had introductions and welcoming remarks from Florence, the AP manager.

Grace then led us in a morning devotional, followed by a presentation about the World Vision Area Program.

We then had the first of what would become many tea breaks.

Following tea, we met with some of the program’s beneficiaries and learned first hand how their lives had ben changed.

Following a fresh, local lunch, we traveled to two of the farms that have been agents of change to the community, having been trained by World Vision Kenya.

Traveling to Matete, Kenya

We arrived in Nairobi, Kenya Saturday evening, having left Austin on Friday

afternoon with stops in Atlanta and Amsterdam. We were met at the airport by Samuel, and stayed overnight in Nairobi at the EKA hotel. 

We arrived in Nairobi and were greeted by Samuel (pronounced Sam-Well) and Ronnie.

Sunday morning we attended church at Citam Karen  in Nairobi.

We did some shopping after church in Nairobi at the Utamaduni Craft shop and toured the Kazuri Bead Centre factory before flying to Eldoret to spend the night at the Boma Inn Hotel.

Our World Vision Trip to Matete, Kenya

Our church has been working with World Vision since 2011 to help the people of Matete, Kenya. As part of that effort, my wife and I have been sponsoring three children. That work has been going very well, and God has done some pretty amazing things in transforming the lives of the people of that area. My wife and I have been hoping to join one of the mission trips over there to actually meet the children one day.

Well, about six month ago it was announced that the next mission trip to Kenya later in the year would probably be the last. Things had progressed so well with the people there that it might be time to look at helping a different area. So my wife and I decided that we better figure out how to make this trip, or else we might never get a chance to do so.

So we signed up, paid our initial deposits for the trip, and shortly afterwards I was laid off from my job of seven years. At that point it seemed like the logical thing to do was to drop out of the trip. So we did so, hoping that I could find a job quickly enough to get back onboard with the trip. So I started some intense prayer, asking God for what to do, where I should be looking for work, and whether I should continue with the trip or not.

After two and a half weeks of more dead-end job leads and no job offers, I was sitting in church Sunday morning when I suddenly had this strong feeling that God wanted me to get back on the trip, and to trust Him to provide the means to do so. So I did. We were fortunate that there were still airline tickets available, and we were able to catch back up with the rest of the group.

Shortly after that, my wife read an article online that said that H-E-B was one of the best companies in America to work for. There was a link in that article to job posting, which she sent me. So I followed that link and applied. Well, it was all just a whirlwind after that. H-E-B was opening a new office in Austin, and was looking for folks like me. There was a quick series of interviews, and I was hired within less than two weeks.

God is good, all the time. I’ll be blogging about our experiences in Kenya in the next few posts.

Alexa as Home Automation Integration Point

Over the past few months I’ve done a lot of experimenting with getting various home automation technologies to communicate with each other. For example, setup a Raspberry Pi to bridge between SmartThings and Home Assistant using MQTT. SmartThings in turned connected to my Harmony Hub. Then tied in my Patriot custom electronics devices via MQTT. What I ended up with worked, but seemed overly complex. I don’t even want to try to blog about how to reconstruct such a beast.

So that got me thinking about how to simplify things. I realized that the individual pieces are are fairly simple: SmartThings, Patriot, Harmony. Each of these provides their own Alexa smart home skill, and most of what I want to accomplish can be done entirely by Alexa. So it isn’t really necessary to try to bridge between each of those. Instead, I can let Alexa be the common interface to each of them.

So that’s what I’m trying now. I’ve removed the bridging pieces, and will be using Alexa to control everything. Things certainly are simpler now. I’m hoping that the recently announced support for Echo Buttons indicates a direction for Amazon that will allow other inputs to be used with Alexa. Amazon is holding to their “voice first” mantra, but we’ll see where this goes.

In the meantime, I’m investigating whether I can trigger an Alexa skill lambda handler directly from a Patriot device. I think it may be possible…

Making Sense of Z Devices (Z-Wave vs Zigbee)

As I stated in my last post, trying to understand and control Z-Wave and Zigbee devices sure is confusing.

Having looked at several different controllers and hubs, and used both Zigbee and Z-Wave lights, I’ve come to understand the major differences. But it is indeed confusing.

So here is my simplified, high level understanding and comparison of these two:

  • Zigbee devices are cheaper than Z-Wave.
    • For example, the cheapest light bulbs today are about $9 for Zigbee, and $17 for Z-Wave. That’s no big deal if you only need one or two. It is a big deal if you’re replacing a whole house full.
  • Zigbee is natively supported by the new Echo Plus; no extra hub required.
    • But if like me you already have Alexa, Dots, and Shows, you’ll still need a hub.
  • Z-Wave devices are certified.
    • What this means is that they should inter-operate more reliably, but that is probably why they’re more expensive.

Confusion factors:

  • Zigbee and Z-Wave are not interchangeable.
    • You cannot control a Zigbee light with a Z-Wave controller, and vs. a vs.
    • The SmartThings hub supports both, but Echo Plus supports only Zigbee, etc.
  • Light bulb advertisements on Amazon don’t always say which one is supported.
    • I was searching for Z-Wave light bulbs, and kept getting Zigbee bulbs that do not say “Zigbee”. It would be very easy to purchase the wrong type.

So caveat emptor.

Home Assistant to SmartThings and Back Again

How many programmers does it take to control a Z-wave light bulb?

I consider myself fairly technical, but I’ve got to say that trying to understand and control Z-Wave and Zigbee devices sure is confusing. And don’t even get me started with how complicated trying to program them has been. It all began when I decided that I needed to control a regular 120 vac light bulb in a desk lamp on my computer desk. As you can tell from all my earlier posts, I’ve done all my automation so far working with 12v DC, and prefer it that way. So it seemed like just using a Z-wave or Zigbee light bulb would be the easiest approach; no wiring required.

I did some early investigation, and saw that Home Assistant and SmartThings were a couple viable options. So I started putting together a Home Assistant system, while looking at ways for it to control either Zigbee or Z-Wave.

It just so happened that there was a Z-Wave sponsored contest starting, and applicants could receive a free Raspberry Pi + Sigma USB Z-Wave controller + choice of any Z-Wave device. So I applied, was accepted, and chose the Zipato RGBW2 light bulb. Off to a great start!

Home Assistant is an amazing open source project! I like it. I tried using it to control the light bulb via the Sigma controller, but could never quite get it working fully. Oh sure, I could turn the light on or off, but not control the RGB or 2 types of white light. Plus the darn Raspberry Pi 3 kept hanging overnight.

So, in typical programmer fashion, I decided I’d just cut out the middle man and write my own code to control the light bulb. Well, the scarcity of examples and lack of any tutorials made this a very frustrating effort. I never did get the Z-Wave bulb to respond to any of my own code. So when my maximum frustration threshold was exceeded, I decided to punt on writing my own code and give SmartThings a try.

Samsung has put together some pretty extensive, well written developer documentation. So I was initially very optimistic. I ordered a kit that included the hub plus a bunch of sensors, and quickly had the light bulb turning on and off in response to motion and doors opening. However, going from there to integrating with all my other automated lights and Alexa skills was again very challenging. I eventually was able to get everything integrated together by writing a SmartThings Device Handler and Service Manager that could together automatically detect and control my Patriot devices, but then what? In order to automate stuff, I had to write a bunch code, and organizing all this code quickly got out of hand.

In my googling about all this, I came across several posts that shared my experiences; SmartThings can control a lot of stuff, but using it to automate things required writing lots of code. Some of these posts described that Home Assistant was really good at solving that problem. I also read where the Home Assistant guy (folks?) are looking into using machine learning to establish automation rules. That’s the direction I’ve been trying to go. So maybe I’ll throw my hat into that ring.

So I’m back to working with Home Assistant. And I was delighted to find that in the several months since I looked at it before, installing Home Assistant has become simpler and easier.

There are options for connecting SmartThings sensors to Home Assistant using an MQTT broker, and I may take a look at that later. I’ll eventually want to be able to interface with Zigbee devices, and using the SmartThings hub is one option. But we’ll see.

Oh, and the Raspberry Pi hang? I finally figured out that it was caused by leaving an open SSH connection overnight. So now I exit SSH when I’m done using it, and haven’t had any more hangs.