Keeping a Remote Eye on Things, (Fairly) Easily and (Fairly) Inexpensively

I had been mildly interested in wi-fi cameras and other minimal web-enabled security/automation items for a while-besides keeping a lookout while away, how much fun might it be to spy on the cat??  I had looked at Iris and Smarthome components when I was browsing the area DIY box stores.  A turn-key system had a lot more appeal, rather than building something from scratch. Iris looked the most intriguing, but the reviews at that time were mediocre and you had to pay a monthly fee to get the most out of it.

Then last fall Costco made me an offer I couldn’t refuse-a starter kit from Insteon that had the basics of what I needed, at a great price.  This kit included the network hub, a wi-fi camera, a couple of control switches for outlets, a motion detector, and a couple of open/close sensors.  I didn’t really want to be so connected that everything turned on and off as I left a room, adjusted the atmosphere, or cooked dinner for me while I was at work, and I didn’t want to have something with ongoing costs associated.  The reviews were decent, there is no ongoing fee,and so we were off.

The hub was quite easy to hook up to my home network,insteon4 and all the components connected effortlessly except the wi-fi camera.  Since you want to have more interaction with it and be able to view video, it is more complicated-more on that later.  Insteon has apps for iOS, Android, and Windows which allow you to control your devices and group them together in “scenes”, where they work together to accomplish a desired task.  There is a PC interface available as well.



Multiple cameras can be added to the system.  If you don’t insteon3want your cameras to end up linked on one of those sites where you can click and see inside peoples’ houses, be sure and change all the passwords from the defaults.  Set up involves adding ports in your wireless router configuration, and if you want to have the highest level of remote control through the web, you can forward the port and establish a URL for your system.  This was the most involved part of the process for me, and some was trial and error.  After a few months using the system, I felt that the external URL wasn’t useful to me and I discontinued this option.

At this point, I am making the most use of the camera.  The camera can be set to send an alert upon sound and/or motion, and it can be scheduled to react at the times you desire.  It also has audio capability that can work in both directions.  I also like to have lamps on timers, and open/close sensors on remote doors and windows.  I haven’t really explored making a lot of scenes to this point, where components interact with each other. Insteon defines a “scene” as multiple devices responding to memorized states.  For example, a dinner time scene turns on the dining table light, dims the kitchen lights to 10%, backyard lights turn off and the thermostat adjusts to 72º. Since a component can be part of only one “scene”, I can’t have the same light go on at a certain time of day, and also be triggered by the motion sensor at night, for example, so there are some limitations.


Insteon has an increasing variety of components you can add to your system, including locks, thermostats, LED light bulbs, wired wall switches, and outside cameras.  Several kits are available so you can choose a bundle that meets your needs.  You can tailor the system to be as simple or complex as meets your needs.  They are also working on increased interoperability with other systems, per this recent article on cnet.

The website has helpful videos and documentation, and I’ve read good reviews of the telephone support.

So if you are looking to dabble in home automation and security, without spending a fortune, Insteon lets you start small and add on as needed.  There is a lot of information available at, and several helpful articles a

Have you tried Canva?

My favorite new tool is Canva, a graphic design tool that makes it super easy to create images for social media, flyers for sharing, and cards for printing. You can choose from free or $1.00 templates, photos, or icons to create images or PDF’s that you can download or save in your design stream.  Check out some of the images that I have created to publicize our Pet Therapy Study Break, Afternoon Tea, & other messages for Twitter and Facebook posts. One nice feature of Canva is that you can choose the size of your image to fit perfectly into posts on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram as well as headers for social media and email. Canva also offers helpful tutorials on design plus inspiration from cool designers to follow on Instagram. Join the over 2 million members on Canva and start creating your own super designs.


GOOD LUCK2sunshinegood luckMolly3

How I work: Peggy Kain

Location: UAB Sterne Library

Current gig: Electronic Resources Librarian

Current mobile devices:   iPhone, iPad and Dell Laptop

Current computers: A Dell computer at Sterne.

One word that describes how you work? Methodical — and a smidge adaptive.  I am constantly multitasking – whether it is renewal of databases, management of electronic resources, or working to resolve an access issue. I’m methodical because I try to carefully go through making sure all of the t’s are crossed and i’s dotted for all projects. I’m adaptive because I must be able to switch gears on a moment’s notice if an issue arises with users’ access or questions about a resource. Being methodical also helps me keep track of what I was doing before the access hiccup occurred.

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without? Excel spreadsheets and pivot tables. I use these to manage, analyze, review, track, and basically oversee all aspects of electronic resources and the library statistics I am responsible for maintaining. This April, as a part of a panel of superhero electronic librarians, I will be presenting at the Alabama Library Association Conference on using Excel spreadsheets to manage electronic resources.   I am also quite attached to my electronic and print calendar. I had migrated away from maintaining a print version of my calendar a couple of years ago, but I learned the hard way what can happen when a computer misbehaves.  Since then, I maintain an electronic and a print copy of my calendar.

What is your workspace like?  Generally, I have one pc with two monitors. Most days, I will also have my iPad open and running. On my pc monitors, I will have multiple windows open in a partial screen view.  There are usually Excel spreadsheets open on both monitors along with a different Internet browser open on each monitor.   I use the iPad mainly to monitor email, or when needed, troubleshoot an access issue.   On some days depending on the project(s) I am working on, I will substitute a laptop or my iPhone for the iPad.

PK workspace

I am constantly multitasking throughout the day. And while much of my work is done on an electronic device, I still incorporate some print. A pad of paper is an essential element of my work. I use it to jot down notes, reminders, identify place holders in projects, list the names of people/vendors I have spoken with, etc. Once a pad is full, I will set it aside for future reference.   The writing seems to provide an avenue for me to explore concepts that I can return to and revise/revisit as needed.

Of course, my workspace would not be complete without a hot cup of (preferably) peppermint tea and animal crackers.

What is your best life hack? Walking – whether it is indoors or (preferably) outdoors. I find that just getting up and moving helps me organize my thoughts, make lists, and develop strategies to resolve or troubleshoot issues.   You could say that walking is my form of meditation.

What is your favorite to-do list manager? Generally, I rely on Outlook and the note feature on my phone.  Many times rather than make a list, I just send myself an email and/or set a reminder on my calendar. I have tried Evernote and a couple of other apps but have not been happy with their performance.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without? My standalone KitchenAide mixer; it is incredible! I am an avid baker; this has made it so much easier to prepare multiple recipes at one time. This year for Christmas I received the ice cream attachment. So now for dessert, it is no longer just plain cake, but cake and ice cream.


What do you listen to while you work? A couple of years ago, I discovered a public radio station that is hosted by the University of Kentucky, WUKY.   They offer three live feeds; the two I enjoy are the all jazz station and one that offers a mix of music/news. Generally I will listen to their “rock & roots” show through lunch and then switch to jazz.

What are you currently reading? I generally like to read what I term “beach books” before bed; the genre I have been reading lately is mysteries.   At the moment, I am reading two books; one by Harlan Corbin and one by Patricia Cornwell (the Scarpetta series). I find these to be easy, relaxing reads; that I can pick-up/put down without feeling the need to stay up all night and finish.

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? I have always considered myself to be an introvert; but a guess a little bit of both. I enjoy people but am not fond of being in the limelight. I am outgoing when it comes to work; negotiating with vendors, etc.   I have been known to be quite stern with vendors when it comes to resolving an issue concerning resources the University is paying for.

What’s your sleep routine like? I use my cell phone as an alarm clock and during the work-week have it set for 5:30. But generally, I am up every morning between 5 and 5:30, even on the weekends. I try to at least be in bed by 10 and I may read for a while before falling asleep. I have always been a morning person; no matter what time I actually fall asleep, I am still up and going early in the morning.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?  It is okay to stop and take time to relax. There are days when I “go” from the time I hit the floor in the morning until the time I go to bed at night. I am still learning that it is important to take time to relax and recharge.

The Weird Joys of Home Automation

Alexa was delivered to our house on December 9, 2014. She’s small, thin, black, cylindrical, and sits on our china cabinet, and waits for someone to say her name.  She’s always listening.

“Alexa, play Nirvana.”

Shuffling for…Nirvana

“Alexa, what’s the weather tomorrow?”

            Tomorrow, in Birmingham, you’ll see…

“Alexa, set a timer for 25 minutes.”

            Setting a timer for…25 minutes.

As I do with most of the tech that my husband, Brian Moon, brings into the house, I met his description of Alexa with a slow blink and raised eyebrows. But after living with her for a week, I like her. When I cook, I ask her to set a timer for me so that I don’t have to stop whisking to grab my phone to wake up Siri, or mess with the unreliable timer on our 1970s-era oven.

If there’s a draw back to Alexa it’s the way you have to talk to her. I feel a bit rude and demanding, but she accommodates politely with her sophisticated accent. Every time I tell her to set a timer when I put food into the oven, I say thank you to make myself feel better.

We introduced Alexa to our friends on New Year’s Day. My friend, Janet, had the best reaction. She looked up in the direction of the voice and blue light, and with something like a Poltergeist warning uttered, “Oh my God, it’s happening.”

Xbox, Meet Us

I’ve had about 32 years of experience in turning the on the television, but now I have to ask the X Box—“X Box, On”—and still I have to press a button. It’s known Brian since he installed it, and now it knows me since I took to the time to properly introduce myself by registering my face.

The Xbox encourages you to build a relationship with your TV. It signals hello by chirping and popping up a message from Brian’s mii that says “Hi Brian!” I can tell you that he’s completely delighted every single time. Me? I think it’s an odd choice to have a cartoon version of myself saying hello to my human self, and so I feel like a mean girl…”Whatever, Xbox…Hey.”   But the whole thing is completely entertaining. I laugh at Brian over his delight, and he laughs at me about my judgment.

I asked Brian how he feels when the Xbox welcomes him to the living room. He says, “Well, I can say that I don’t feel any emotion related to it. It is more about convenience and seeing a glimmer of what could be possible with technology.”

Real Implications & Connections

I was helping a UAB School of Nursing class with an article appraisal assignment and the topic was Ageing In Place. We explored ways that technology could help the elderly stay in their homes longer and more independently. We discussed studies on the use of home monitoring devices, the use of video surveillance, and other seemingly intrusive gadgets. How we introduce technology to our everyday lives is becoming more and more culturally relevant to how we care for our loved ones and ourselves.

Whenever Brian introduces these things to our lives, I immediately think how unnecessary it all is. Then he goes out of town, and I send him a text that it’s cold in the house. Because I know that he can control the thermostat with his phone, I wait on the sofa, in the living room where the Xbox just said hello to me with a bit too much enthusiasm, for the sound of the heat to come through the vents. He texts back, “Better?”

Dare I ask? “Alexa, play a love song.”


Safe Pregnancy & Birth App for Remote Health Workers

Mobile health or “mHealth” applications featuring targeted text or video messages to frontline health workers and patients in resource-poor countries have had mixed success so far owing mostly to the limitations of the technology and economics in scaling up pilot projects. The mHIFA Working Group recently updated a review of existing projects, highlighting some of the more successful ones.

Foremost among them is the Safe Pregnancy and Birth app from Hesperian Health Guides. As judged by the Working Group’s criteria of “Significance of the Health Problem,” “Appropriateness of the Targeting,” “Value of the Information,” “Ease of Assimilation of the Information,” “Availability of the Application,” and “Technological Accessibility of the Application,” the Safe Pregnancy and Birth app provides short, easy to follow, step by step instructions (illustrated by simple drawings) of pregnancy and birth health issues.


For example a lay birth attendant in a remote location can get simple instructions on how to check the baby’s position in the womb or non-medical techniques for strengthening labor.


The app is freely downloadable to iPhones (or iPads and other Apple products) as well as Android devices. For now, the information is available only in English or Spanish, but the producers welcome offers to translate the information into other languages. The Working Group noted the app’s focus on action-oriented instructions and ease of navigation.

Mobile health applications are still proving their worth, but apps such as this one definitely help to make the case for continuing the effort.

Inbox for Gmail: a better way to manage email

Almost everyone already loves Gmail but what if you could make it better?  InBox transforms your mail from the familiar home screen to a more organized, color-coded interface.

Create this magic on your desktop, tablet or phone by requesting an invite (see below) and downloading the app.  I love that I can try it out and still get back to the familiar if needed.  In other words, I can use both at the same time.

The big difference besides the cleaner home page is that mail now works more than ever as a to-do list.  If you use your inbox in that way, you will love InBox.
Options for handling messages in InBox include:

  • Pin–move to the top; stay in front of me; you are important
  • Snooze–need to deal with this but not today; go away until I am ready to do something with you
  • Done–finished with you, go away
  • Bundle–you all go together

Get InBox by sending an email to request an invite.  Mine came right away, they don’t seem hard to get.

It has taken some time to get comfortable with the new interface.  For me the hardest part is seeing that I have a new message, that just does not seem as apparent as I’m used to.

I have played with my bundles to make them more useful (moving messages in or out to “teach” Google which are appropriate) and that has helped.

The hardest part of it for me is the lack of a delete button.  I know that it isn’t actually doing anything different, that deleted messages are still THERE but with InBox they seem in the way more.

I don’t know yet if I will stick with InBox but it is worth trying out for sure.

Of course Lifehacker has a great post about using InBox, How InBox by Google works, and How to Use it for More Productive Email.

Try it out.  Let me know what you think.

How I Work: Tracy Powell

Locations:  Home base is Lister Hill Library at University Hospital (LHL@UH), in the West Pavilion

Current gig:
  Associate Professor and Clinical Services Librarian

Current mobile devices: Samsung S5 Android phone and IPad Air

Current computers:  One Dell and one HP at work, HP all-in-one touchscreen at home

One word that best describes how you work: Proactively




What apps/software/tools can’t you live without: 

  • Excel-much of my work life is in spreadsheets
  • Outlook-I have one calendar, and it’s electronic and synced everywhere
  • Yahoo Messenger-makes communicating with distant colleagues so easy!
  • remote desktop-because I am frequently away from my desk

What’s your workspace like?

Cozy and deceptively organized. Since the LHL@UH is a unit of both UAB Libraries and UAB Hospital, I use two different computers, one on the university network and one on the hospital network; I share a wireless keyboard and mouse between them.  I also have a large flatscreen television on the wall that can do TV or be a monitor, for working on the hospital’s on-demand patient desk compressededucation system.  Things that I am currently working on, or that are on the list to be worked on, are on my desk or cabinet in stacks.  Things don’t get filed until I am completely done with them.  I keep a lot of stuff because I refer back a lot, and seem to always need something shortly after I’ve deleted or disposed of it.

What is your best lifehack?

Do the worst, least-favorite stuff first.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager?

Paper lists.  Every so often, I mark things off and condense multiple lists into a new master one.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without?

My husband and I have become very fond of our Google Chromecast for streaming to the TV.

What everyday thing are you better at than anyone else?

I am able to juggle multiple disparate priorities.  I am also good at seeing the larger picture and planning ahead.  I work in a rapidly changing environment, managing a campus unit in the hospital and a clinic unit, so keeping up with it is a challenge!

What are you currently reading?

Not much, but I do have a growing pile of books, list of online books on my nook, and magazines from my daughter’s college that I am going to get around to reading eventually.

What do you listen to while you work?

I’m in a small quiet space with the door open most of the time, so I don’t listen much, but when I do, it’s usually old rock on Spotify.

Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?

An introvert. I’m much more comfortable in small groups than large crowds, and greatly appreciate down time.

What’s your sleep routine like?

I’m up shortly before 5 am on weekdays, so I need to be asleep between 9 and 10.  On the weekends, I usually get to sleep till 7-a luxury.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Maybe you ought to think about going to library school.

Meet Browzine™ Turn your tablet into your e-reader!

Keep up to date with your scholarly reading with Browzine™, a new way of browsing and reading your favorite journals from many major publishers on your iPad, iPhone, Kindle Fire, Android Tablet or Android phone. BrowZine is free. All licensed content is provided via UAB Libraries.



Get started in two EASY steps:

1.  Download the free Browzine app for your device.

2. When installed, choose University of Alabama at Birmingham as your university library. Use your Blazer ID/password when prompted.


Why use Browzine?

  • to scan the complete tables of contents of scholarly journals and read articles optimized for mobile devices
  •  to get one-click from journal tables of content to the PDFs of the articles you want to read
    • save specific articles for later reference and offline reading
    • create a bookshelf of your favorite journals for easy, fast access
  • to receive on screen notifications when new issues of your favorite journals are published

Other features:BrowZine_Article_Export_Options_iOS

  • Find journals by searching or browsing a title list, or by using a Browzine bookshelf chosen by subject.
  • Annotate or print articles by opening them in your favorite apps like Good Reader or iAnnotate.


Cutting the Cord-Sling TV (Coming soon)

I’m sure I am like most folks who love the convenience of satellite or cable television but absolutely despise the amount I pay for it. I’ve seen my bill creep up from the lower $60’s to the higher $90’s. It seems they nickle and dime you for almost every feature… Local $10 more, HD there’s another $10 and lets not even talk about the premium channels. All for only watching maybe two or three channels 90% of the time. The only reason we haven’t “cut the cord” so far is there were essentially no options for watching live sports.

Sling-TV-logo At this year’s consumer electronics show they introduced Sling TV, created by Dish Network ironically. No satellite or cable subscription needed and for only $20 and a broadband connection you can get ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, TBS, Food Network, HGTV, Travel Channel, Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, ABC Family and CNN. For anther $5 you can add a kids package Disney Junior, Disney XD, Boomerang, Baby TV and Duck TV or a package with LN, Cooking Channel, DIY and Bloomberg TV. Expect more “mini” packages to come including sports channels. So far its available on tablets, laptops and streaming devices including Roku and Amazon fire with more options to come. Sling will also offer video on demand, pause-rewind-fast forward and a 3-Day Replay feature.

I’ve signed up for early access and I’m already making plans for the future. Installing an antennae for my local channels (free channels), even with paying for Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Sling TV I will already have cut my satellite bill in a third. I expect this market to keep changing and the cable and satellite providers will keep feeling the pressure from people like me who are tired of paying for tons of channels they don’t watch but are willing to pay for the few that we do. It’s going to be an interesting time.

Gadgets for Geezers?

The 2014 holidays have passed. However, even if not in time to resolve the perennial question of what to get Grandma for Christmas, this Technology Gear Guide from AARP is a useful resource for devices designed to ease daily tasks for older adults. And, since the elderly population in growing – it is estimated that by 2050, those over 65 will make up 20% of the population in the United States (see Lowsky, Olshansky, Bhattacharya & Goldman, 2014) – it is more likely than not that readers will have at least one or two older adults in their families (if they’re not actually approaching old age themselves, as this poster is).


What are some of the gadgets reviewed in the AARP guide? One is Vitality’s GlowCap for prescription bottles ($79.99), which sets off a reminder alarm when it’s time to take the medication. It even sends “buddy” reminders to family caregivers!

Along the same line of annoying but necessary devices are the various alarms helping Dad find his ever-wandering set of keys. The Where’s My Keys? locator sells for $24.95 on Amazon and comes with multiple colored key fobs and a central unit. Then there’s the similar Click ‘N Dig for $19.95. According to the review, the “piercing” alarm will assist even those with hearing loss in finding the elusive keys.


Speaking of hearing, the search for better hearing aids may be advancing with such smartphone enabled aids as Re Sound LiNX. They’re pricey however, at $2400 per earl. Audicus digital hearing aids are more affordable at $599 per ear. One hopes at that price the tinnitus-like whine emitted by most conventional hearing aids will be avoided.

Older adults frequently experience difficulty sleeping. The fitness trackers that monitor sleep patterns can help identify exactly how much sleep they’re getting, so that they can adopt better sleep habits. AARP reviewed both the Polar Loop ($109.95) and Jawbone’s UP24 bands favorably for comfort and usefulness.

For older adults with Parkinson’s and other movement disorders, Liftware ($295) is a special type of utensil that helps them eat without spilling due to involuntary tremors.


Then there are the Big Brother devices for caregivers of older adults at risk of falls or wandering due to dementia. For the latter, the GPS Smartsole shoe insole $299) has a tracking chip that works with various smartphones, computers and tablets. Then there’s the Lively activity tracker ($34.95 per month) that comes with sensors which can be attached to key spots such as the bathroom or the door, sending signals to family members or caregivers about the individual’s movements. It can also track medications and send alerts via phone or text about any falls or other emergencies.

So, if technology has not yet enabled us to stay young indefinitely as the science fiction movies promised, it is working on making the difficulties of old age more manageable for older adults and their loved ones.