Posted in Blog

The Truth Behind My Love of Alexa: I’m All About That…Backend System

You may have seen in one of my last posts that I made reference to all of the actions we can have Alexa do in our new den. Our Amazon Echo and its Alexa has even been one of my Friday Favs.

When I make these types of posts, my husband likes to remind me that I’m oversimplifying how it works. Sure, to me, I just tell Alexa what to do and she does it. If I ask that she locks the doors, you hear the lock turn. When I ask for the den lights to turn on, all of the lamps in the room illuminate. I can even ask Alexa to vacuum. She’s the best listener in the house!

There’s actually a bit more to it. I figured the best way to explain it was to go right to the source and interview my husband. Here’s our exchange.

You say that I oversimplify how Alexa works. Why is that?

The Echo is just one component of a larger ecosystem I have configured in our house. It’s all centered around running an open-source home automation interface called Home Assistant, which runs on a Raspberry Pi.

Through that software, I have configured our smart-enabled devices. We have smart-enabled locks, some lights, and multiple light switches and outlets. I also integrated devices like our Amazon Echo, home alarm system and sensors, our HVAC (via Google Nest), and the garage door. I even tied in my 3D printer, but that’s just a glorified toy. With a more recent Home Assistant update, even your car is connected.

By having all of these devices connected through Home Assistant, you can tell Alexa to do a bunch of things in our house.

Sounds complicated. How did you figure this all out?

I mostly figured it out from friends and coworkers who run similar setups. I also researched different smart-home software that’s out there. I went with Home Assistant because I wanted a solution that (for the most part) was completely self contained and not reliant on “The Cloud.”

While Home Assistant also has documentation on how to integrate the services so you can use the Echo to issue commands, with our setup, we can still control the house via the Home Assistant Apps on our smartphones or via its web interface if our Internet connection ever goes out.

If I didn’t have you, could I figure out how to set up and use a software like Home Assistant?

Yeah! It requires a lot of reading, trial and error, and willingness to write some computer code. I had to write some code to connect Home Assistant to Amazon’s Alexa and to connect to Google’s Nest API. I also had to modify several configuration files within Home Assistant itself to tailor it to suit our needs.

You also set up automations. What are automations, and how did you set them up?

Automations are additional smart-home functions built on top of your infrastructure. They are basically a bit of code that says if this happens, then do that. In our case, I use the Home Assistant interface to identify the smart-enabled devices I want to control like lights and locks. I can use any of the items connected to Home Assistant for an automation, including the various sensors attached to the alarm sensors or our phones’ GPS.

Combining all of that, I have to think of the logic of what I want created. An example is our bedtime routine. Since our bed is a smart-enabled device, I wrote an automation that says if we are home (based on our phones’ GPS locations), in bed, and it’s after a certain time in the evening, then turn off all of the lights, set our HVAC to our desired nighttime temperature, and lock the doors. A simpler automation is turning a hallway light on at sunset and off at a desired time. Another automation we us to help conserve energy is to use motion sensors that turn off lights if there’s no movement after 15 minutes.

Is our family being tracked by others because we’re using Home Assistant?

Yes and no. Home Assistant is locked down. The connection to it is encrypted, and I only have your account and my account allowed to access it. Any attempts by others to access it are logged. If there are abnormal attempts to access the account, I’m notified.

But your phone is tracking you. Therefore, it can be assumed your cell phone manufacturer and the carrier is tracking you. Most apps that you use are tracking you.

How have you mitigated the risk to our network?

To isolate and secure our home network, I’ve set up subnetworks. We have a home network, guest network, and smart-home device network. I have limited what our devices have access to on the smart-home device network. That’s done via our router’s firewall rules and port forwarding policies.

This way, if a smart-enabled device like the TV or Echo was to be compromised by a botnet or some external nefarious actor, it mitigates the risk of compromising our trusted devices like our phones and laptops that stay on our home network.

In short, smart-enabled devices like smart bulbs are cool and useful, but they also shouldn’t be inherently trusted. Most manufacturers don’t focus on securing smart-enabled devices. They just want them to work quickly and easily for consumers.

Ugh, it’s so complicated.

You can make a home automation system simple or secure. I aim to make the system as simple as possible, while maintaining a certain desired level of security. You have to do a risk analysis and determine how simple you want it to be and how much risk you are willing to take.

How would you recommend someone get started if they wanted to use smart-enabled devices or automate their home?

The simplest solution, which doesn’t require Home Assistant, is to buy a smart bulb from your local hardware store. They go for as low as $10. Try using that with whatever app they tell you to install on your phone. From a security perspective, though, I’m not a fan of IOT [Internet of Things] devices.

What advice would you give to someone interested in learning more?

This hobby can be a money pit. First, sit down and determine what items you want to be able to control in more ways and then what do you want to automate. Once you know what you want to do, then you can look into what technologies to buy to perform those actions.

You may want to Google home automation solutions. While you’re reading, determine what skill level you are comfortable dealing with. Check out the software or interfaces available. There are several out there, and even some that aren’t free. Home Assistant is free, but there are others out there that may be more to your liking like Smart Things and Home Seer. Find what works for you.

Photo by BENCE BOROS on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

Our Den Reveal!

Back in January we tackled our latest home project to convert the main floor’s front room from a children’s playroom to a family den (sans TV). I hinted at our progress a while ago, and now that we’ve lived in this space for a few weeks, today’s the day for the reveal.

Basically, we started with a mess of toys and clutter. (This is an old photo of everything cleaned up. This was never the regular look. Ha!)

Before: As the playroom

And now we have a cozy family space for impromptu game nights, nightly readings (currently Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), and adult conversation after the kids are in bed. Even the dog has enjoyed it because she can monitor the front of the house out the window while lounging on the couch. She doesn’t even get up to woof half the time anymore.

After: The new den!

So what did we do to make this look happen? Well, besides a lot of reorganization in this room that rippled to other rooms and closets, not too much.

  • We painted the walls Owl Gray. The trim was refreshed and painted a shade of ivory to match the rest of the house.
  • I ordered furniture for delivery, including the bookcases (Ikea), blue chairs (Ikea), black side table (Ikea), nested coffee table (Amazon), and rug (Costco). We brought up the couch (La-Z-Boy) from the basement.
  • I largely shopped the house for many of the odds and ends as well as items to start filling the bookcases. Having the games on display adds to the vibe of the room and also encourages the kids to pick one up. I’ll play a board game any time over video games or imaginative play.
  • My husband set up the bookcase lights. He also linked all of the room’s lights to our Alexa, so we can control them using our voice. Alexa turns individual lights or the whole room on or off, and she can even dim the lights to a given percentage. You could set timers or routines too (like whenever you’re in bed the lights shut off or when you arrive home the lights come on), but we haven’t done that for this room.

That’s really about all we had to do. After living in the space for a while, I can attest that I love it. It was a good move for our family. I find that everyone else in the family follows me around the house, so if I come here after dinner, they follow. The set up of the furniture in one corner of the room (rather than filling the whole space and leaving large gaps between furniture) encourages conversation and makes gameplay easier. The coffee table frequently becomes a place to play cards. And by having a nesting coffee table, we can have drinks on one and the game board or puzzle on the other.

There are many evenings where I retreat to the den after the kids are in bed to listen to a podcast and cross stitch or read a book. Without a TV in the room, I’m not tempted to zone out in front of it. I’ve finding that my TV viewing is more intentional, which is my preference. All in all, I’m a happy camper.

Posted in Blog

Striking the Right Mood In Our Alternative to the “Formal Living Room”

I’m a huge fan of making mood boards or vision boards for rooms before I redecorate. I’d like to say it’s for some sophisticated reason, but the truth is that I need to “see” something before I know whether it works or not. Since we’re in the process of redecorating around here, I’m sharing the mood board for our den that I made in a PowerPoint slide.

This room is technically supposed to be the “formal living room,” but seeing as we’re not really entertaining right now and these types of formal spaces are out of vogue anyway, we are going with a den. To me, a den is a space to unwind with family or maybe even escape to get away from others for a while. I want to use this room to play games and do puzzles with the kids, grab a book from the shelf and read in relative quiet, or escape to have a drink with friends. There’s no TV, but rather cozy places to chill out without a screen.

Okay, so I want this room to be all the things.

We’ll see what we can make happen.

Before we got serious about painting the room, the space was the kids’ playroom. It worked well for many years because the toys were largely contained, and I could easily keep my eyes and ears on them. This was a great solution with early walkers and destructive toddlers.

One of our original playroom setups

Now that the boys are 5 and 7 years old, though, I don’t need to hear and see them constantly. Honestly, I could go for a lot less noise and fewer LEGO pieces underfoot on the regular. Moving the playroom to an upstairs bedroom (with a door!) has given us this space.

My husband graciously agreed to support this redesign and move of rooms, thank goodness! We’re currently in the middle of the project having moved the playroom and painted the den. Now we’re waiting for furniture to be delivered, and then I’ll add the finishing touches. Now we’re getting to the fun part of the project! I’m sure I’ll share photos when we’re all done.

Posted in Blog

Friday Fav: Costco Bookcase

It’s January, which means it’s that time of year again that Costco removes the Christmas trees and replaces the floor space with furniture. I spotted my Friday Fav there again this year: the Bayside Furnishings room divider/bookcase. And, it’s been on sale (in store only) for $99.99 rather than its older price of $129.99!!

I know, it’s a piece of furniture. I shouldn’t be so excited, but I just love it! It is hefty, versatile, and provides larger storage bins than those I see often at Ikea or Target.

We originally bought it for our townhouse to store baby toys in the living room. When we were staging the house to move, I took out the storage bins and turned it into a nifty dining room buffet table.

It moved to the playroom when we moved to our house, and I picked up an extra one that year to use as a credenza in my office. Now, both of them are flanking the TV in the kids’ playroom.

If you are in the market for additional storage, then check it out at Costco warehouses. It will likely be unavailable and out of stock by the end of the month.

Happy Friday!

Posted in Blog

My Kids Share a Bedroom and I Don’t Feel Guilty About It

We live in a neighborhood where many families have three to five bedrooms and enough space for each child to have their own room. Even though we are lucky enough to have four bedrooms plus our not-technically-a-bedroom, guest room space in our basement, we have our boys sharing a room. When people learn this tidbit, I sense their surprise or curiosity about why we’d make this choice when we have the space for separate children’s rooms.

Well, there are several reasons. First, when my boys were little – maybe two and four years old – they wanted to share a room. Well, let me rephrase, the four-year-old munchkin was adamant that he not be left alone.

As I pulled the younger son’s crib into the room, I explained. “Here, kid. I made you a brother. You are no longer alone.”

My older son was happy, my husband and I were happy, the two-year-old didn’t care, and we all slept well each night. All was right with the world.

A second reason we made this change is because I was a fool. I worked from home 5 days a week and somehow thought it would be a good idea to share my workspace with the family space on the main level. The kids were in daycare or school all day, so I could work without them underfoot. It would be fine…until I had to work an evening or weekend or the boys decided to pull out every item in my desk drawers. Oh, what a naïve and silly woman I was!

That’s when I converted one of the bedrooms into my office. If you’re keeping track at home, that means one bedroom for the boys, one for my office, another is the master for my husband and me, plus the guest room in the basement. That leaves one more bedroom, which we recently turned into a playroom. I love it! We had the playroom in the “formal living room” space, and I was tired of it always being a mess and noisy. Now that the playroom is in a bedroom upstairs, when the playroom is a mess, I can just close the door.

I’m sure there are still some out there thinking, “But, why, Stephanie, would you force your kids to share a bedroom? Surely you could make something else work.”

Yeah, I could and maybe I will in the future when my kids are older. I refuse to feel guilty about this choice for several reasons.

First and foremost, everyone in my household is happy about our living situation.

Plus, I have to share a bedroom (and a bed, mind you!) so my children can share a room too.

There is also great learning to be had when you need to learn to compromise and share a space. I remember the struggle I saw in myself and others freshman year of college when people who were forced to share a dorm after living in their own rooms for so long at home. I have no problem with my children working through this life experience before they leave the nest. There are certainly a significant number of children, now adults, who shared their bedrooms with one or more family members and turned out just fine. No one is being hurt or emotionally scarred here.

Additionally, I absolutely love having my office (with a door!) where I can have my own private space. This is something I’ve learned that I need to maintain some semblance of sanity. It has the added benefit of helping to create boundaries with my work-from-home situation. When I leave my office, I’m off the clock. When I’m in the office, everyone knows I’m in work mode (and they mostly respect that).

Ultimately, I live by the philosophy that everyone needs to make choices that work best for them and their family. I certainly won’t be judging anyone else’s choices. You do you, don’t hurt others along the way, and all will be well. I’ll do the same.

Posted in Blog

Christmas Cookie Recipes

One tradition my family loves to partake in during the holidays is cookie baking. Who are we kidding though. I’m the baker, and my family taste tests. These cookies become desserts for the month and gifts for family and friends. Here are links to the recipes for the cookies I made this year.

Chewy Peanut Butter Cookies – These are a classic cookie and one of my husband’s favorites. They always make it into the yearly rotation.

Grinch Cookies – These cookies are delicious and extremely easy to make! I love their presentation too. I found the heart sprinkles at Walmart when I couldn’t spot them in my local grocery store.

Nestle’s Chocolate Chip Cookies – This is the standard issue recipe that’s one of my favorite cookies year round. I love them warm and right out of the oven, and I like them chilled right out of the refrigerator.

Oreo Truffles – These are a fan favorite, even if they aren’t technically still in cookie form. Over the years I’ve learned a few tricks for making these truffle candies. For instance, you can also add flavor the the Oreo filling by adding a teaspoon of vanilla or an extract like peppermint. Hershey’s chocolate bars melt best. I have a Little Dipper warmer that came with my crockpot that is PERFECT for melting the Hershey bars before dipping the Oreo filling. I end up making three batches of this deliciousness to share every year.

Whoville Cookies – These pinwheel sugar cookies remind me of reading Dr. Suess’s The Grinch with the kids. The red and green don’t have to be equally distributed or a perfect pinwheel. Actually, the more off they are the better!

Cream Cheese Butterflies – Butterflies aren’t Christmasy to me, but they are a Christmas cookie my husband grew up with and always loved. Here’s a close recipe to the one I use, though I substitute the lemon zest for orange zest and use a bit of red food coloring to make them pink.

Reindeer Bellybuttons – These are the easiest “cookies” to make that only require pretzels, Hershey’s kisses, and M&Ms. I usually grab a bag of kisses from Costco plus two bags of mini pretzels and a large bag of M&Ms from the grocery store. I have learned the hard way though that you need to read the pretzel bag closely. Don’t get the unsalted pretzels for this treat!! You need the salt to play against the sweetness of the chocolate.

Dipped Gingersnaps – Every year I have to add and try a new cookie, just to change it up a bit and see if I can find a new classic. This year I made the dipped gingersnaps. They are….okay. I think I would have liked them better if I used a different oil that the canola oil it calls for here. I’m also not personally a huge fan of white chocolate. They were worth a shot, but I won’t be making them again.

That’s it! Though that’s a lot! Eight different cookies was a commitment, but I spaced it out this year doing one cookie a day and then dedicating one weekend day to making the remaining.

Happy baking!

Posted in Blog

Gift Wrapping Hacks

As much as I like to give my husband a hard time about the fact that I do all of the wrapping for every gift our family gives each year while he only has to wrap mine, I secretly kind of love it. I squirrel myself away in the basement, watch cheesy Christmas movies, and spend time alone. These days, that feels like an even more special treat!

Over the years, I’ve devised a few hacks for wrapping gifts. I share them here not to convince you to adopt any of them, but rather just to share some ideas. I recognize that most people are significantly more laid back than I am and don’t see the need for these tricks, and that’s totally cool. You do you!

  • Once I wrap a gift, I completely forget what’s in it. This gets dangerous when wrapping gifts for our parents because my husband and I refer to both sets of parents as mom and dad. Our labels can get confusing quickly! My trick? If my husband’s name comes first in the From section, it’s a gift for his parents. If my name is listed first, then it’s a gift for my parents.
  • We have the common Christmas tradition to give our kids new pajamas every Christmas Eve. To not lose these gifts among the others, I put a star on the To/From label.
  • Santa still visits our home every year, and he always seems to have different wrapping paper than we use. He must be a bit egocentric because his wrapping paper always has pictures of himself on it. He also makes sure to always write in capitalize letters than look completely different from anyone’s handwriting in our house.
  • This year we won’t be spending the holidays with family like we normally do. Our families have been generous and mailed gifts to our house instead. I’m hoping we can video call with them on Christmas day to virtually celebrate instead. So as I wrap gifts, I make sure to use different wrapping paper for each family. This way I’ll know at a glance on Christmas morning that all of the gifts with snowmen paper should be saved to open when we can connect with the grandparents.
  • Hands down the best, reasonably priced wrapping paper that I’ve found is at Costco. It takes years to use it all, and the paper is thick.
  • Tags, ribbons, bows, gift bags, etc. are all picked up at Walmart Dec 26th when all of their Christmas stock is at least 50%. I pick up everything I need for about $10. I then store it away until the next year. I like buying everything at once because I can coordinate items and pick products that will match my wrapping paper.
  • Have you ever been in the situation that you don’t have enough wrapping paper to completely cover a gift? Try the diagonal wrapping method! For that trick and others, see this video from But First, Coffee.
  • Never trust the box of any gift you open from me. I reuse them every year. Shoe boxes are great for stashing awkwardly shaped items like socks and underwear (staple Christmas gifts in our house).

Some other traditions I’ve learned from others sound fun too. I know others from large families use a different wrapping paper for each family member. Others may want to rally all of the adults on Christmas Eve to wrap and drink wine together once the children are nestled all snug in their beds. I also like the notion that Santa leaves his gift out of the box and unwrapped by the tree with stockings at the foot of the children’s beds to find early Christmas morning.

Whatever you do, I hope you enjoy the magic of the season and the joy of giving. We could use a little more of both in 2020.

Posted in Blog

Friday Fav: Benefits to Staying Home During the Pandemic

It’s been an off week for me. I’m not feeling this routine anymore.

I have to admit that I’m tired.

I’m tired of being home so frequently. I’m tired of everyone else being home with me so frequently. I’m tired of only working two-hour shifts at a time so my husband and I can trade off watching the kids. I’m tired of virtual school. I’m tired of making everyone three meals a day. I’m tired of it all.

I have been trying not to complain because I fully recognize how lucky we are here. My husband and I are each able to work from home and maintain our incomes. We have access to food so I can make us three meals a day. The weather is nice, so we can get outside and do things around town and in the neighborhood. We are all healthy, and the kids actually seem to be mostly thriving in this new normal. We have it good.

The days aren’t hard, really, just the same day on repeat – a perpetual Groundhog’s Day.

My husband has kindly suggested taking some time off of work, and I see where he is coming from. Honestly, I don’t want time off of work. I want to be able to focus on my work tasks for more than 2 hours at a time. I would like to 100% focus on something for a significant chunk of time (and not have to be up at 6am to do it). I miss silence. I would like a little more separation between work and life, but that’s not in the cards for now.

So, instead, I’m going to reground myself and focus on the benefits and my favorite parts of being home so much now:

  • Our afternoons, evenings, and weekends are a lot less hectic without a ton of after-school activities.
  • I can give my kids hugs when they want them, even in the middle of a school day.
  • My husband can make dinners more frequently since he’s not commuting.
  • I always get to go shopping alone while my husband stays home with the kids.
  • I’ve far surpassed my reading goals for the year.
  • The weather has been nice since the pandemic started.
  • At least the neighborhood pool was open this summer so we had somewhere to cool off outside in the heat.
  • The kids reading levels have improved with more one-on-one attention.
  • I’ve gotten the chance to deeply explore how my children learn best, where their strengths are, and their areas for development.
  • We have been able to have more family time playing outside, watching the Great British Baking Show, and reading Harry Potter. (We’re up to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which may take us a few months to finish.)
  • Mr. 7-Year-Old learned to ride his bike. Mr.-Then-4-Year-Old finally got the courage to regularly ride his big-boy bike rather than a tricycle.
  • We tackled home projects we’d been putting off because we finally had the time to focus on them together.
  • I have been on SO MANY walks.
  • Our house has been cold and illness free since March.
  • The boys are having playdates outside exploring creeks, playing on swings, and generally running around together rather than inside playing video games.
  • My house is now REEEALLY organized.
  • I haven’t felt the need to buy the boys new clothes. Jean got a hole in the knees? Oh well, we’re not going anywhere.
  • Our senior pup and my husband are closer than ever. She’s basically become his shadow.
  • But…we spend so much time at home now that the dog doesn’t sleep at the foot of our bed anymore. She stays downstairs, I presume, to get away from us for at least part of the day. I have room to stretch my feet out now, until about 5am when she strolls upstairs to join us.
  • We’ve all become a bit more resilient in times of uncertainty and change.

Just the act of writing out the upsides makes me feel a bit better. I still miss silence and being able to write without being interrupted fifteen times. But, the only thing constant is change. I will get silence again someday, and then I’m sure I’ll lament about the absence of regular commotion. It’s best to enjoy what you have and while you have it.

Photo by Chris Ross Harris on Unsplash