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In an Era of ‘Smart’ Things, Sometimes Dumb Stuff Is Better (nytimes.com)
362 points by Dangeranger on Feb 25, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 331 comments

Many years ago (just after I left for college) my parents decided to build a brand new house. The plan was to include a computerized lighting system where every light was individually addressable and all "light switches" were actually banks of 4 to 8 programmable buttons. The possibilities were endless! What could go wrong?

I asked my parents to use a regular light switch in my room. You know the kind that I am talking about - it goes on and off, closing and opening an electrical circuit. It would have been less expensive and (in my opinion) more reliable since after all, it's just a few pieces of metal. I joked that "when everyone else's lights are flashing on and off at 3AM, I'd like to remain asleep". My father accused me (his resident technologist) of being a Luddite and they went on their merry way, finishing construction and installing a fully-computerized lighting system.

A few months after they moved in, I got a phone call from my father that started something like this: "Please don't say 'I told you so' but I have to tell you what happened at 3AM last night..."

(they flipped that house, and when they built their next one, it had regular light switches)

I totally get the spirit of what you're saying, but to be fair a good reliable automated light-system would have an analog fail-safe that allows you to operate the lights normally in case of a malfunction of the central system, meaning that you just turn off the central system, and all the lights keep operating as normal lights that are not connected to it.

But also, centralized light systems are not new. Many corporate facilities have been using these for years and they rarely fail.

Maybe the problem is that your father just picked the wrong vendor/system.

That more or less describes how Philip's Hue works.

If the hub died, the smart bulbs can still still be operated using the regular light switch. If the bulb is in standby (smart "off") just flip the switch twice to turn it on. Then it will act like a regular bulb until the hub returns.

Hue only has one big defect with regards to this... If there's an electrical outage and the smart bulb is in standby, when power is restored the bulb will turn on. Meaning if power goes out and is restored in the middle of the night the lights could suddenly turn on full brightness.

And as an aside, the nice thing about smartbulbs as a concept is that they require zero re-wiring or specialized wiring. So if the manufacturer of your bulbs went out of business or you wanted to change vendors, just replace the bulb and your work is done. Simple.

I have a couple dozen Hue lamps, and they regularly “reset” to full bright white, presumably after a flicker in power that is otherwise imperceptible. It happens on average once every couple of weeks, and is quite annoying! I wish the lamps had a nonvolatile memory so they’d return to their previous color and intensity...

(I still love them and am happy I have them rather than regular LEDs though.)

I suppose they aren't designed for places with unreliable mains power. The auto-on behavior is just a good first approximation of the behavior most people want.

If you are going to deploy "things" that don't work the way that a traditional device does then you might want to completely mitigate the behaviour or put up with it. A UPS or multiple UPSs are indicated here.

You could go the whole hog and install enough UPS for the whole house and a backup generator.

Yes let's install a whole house UPS so the light bulbs work right...

This has been suggested many times and, as far as I can tell, Philips decided the current behaviour is best safety-wise (consider e.g. if your last preset had 1% intensity).

But it's the least smart thing to do. They could at least put an option in the setting to maintain settings after brief power outages.

We had a power flicker last week in the middle of the night and suddenly our bedroom lights were on 100% and our Echo was loudly complaining that the internet was gone. At 3am.

Which is why smart things are dumb. You can't just program features, you have to program context. And context rapidly becomes non-trivial. So you either have a dumb object that no one expects to act intelligently, or you have a smart object that tries to act intelligently but fails because it's not as smart as a human, and humans are random anyway.

For smart lights you need "Return to previous state, and then see if the state was on a timer. If it was, wait until you get an NTP answer (i.e. the Internet isn't down) and set up the state requested by the timer."

Which is fine unless the previous state was a party, it's now daylight, and all the bulbs are still different colours.

Or someone was adjusting the lights and accidentally set them to 1% instead of 100% when the power went off.

Everything becomes an edge case. The most useful solution requires an intelligent default with timer support, with some awareness of what's happening in and around the house.

And it still has to allow for user overrides, because some people - like my partner - sometimes want the lights on during the day, even when the room is bright.

I think you are over-thinking things.

I also have analog switches and dimmers in my house. If I have the lights at the lowest setting when the power goes out, that's where they are when the power returns. If everything was on full when the power goes out, then that's where things will be when the power returns.

Why should smart things work differently than what a lifetime of experience has lead me to expect?

Then reset it after three on/off cycles within 3 s, or something.

But surely the controller iwll sort this out when it gets back online a minute later?

So that everything comes on (annoying enough) but switched off within the minute?

If not that is just outrageously bad and imo ruins the product completely.

Three on-off cycles in rapid succession is exactly what you get in non-urban electrical systems when a tree falls against a wire. The local breaker detects the short to ground and cuts out, then resets after a few seconds on the chance that the tree has continued it's fall to the ground. If there's still a short, it repeats, and after the third or fourth short->cutout (depending on the local utility settings), stays off on the assumption that the tree is well and truly hung up on the line and will need a crew to fix it.

It's pretty common occurrence in many locales where I've lived.

To me, this is the right thing to do. Safety aside, it "does the expected thing" if I flick the switch off and back on again.

And lights coming back on at full intensity after a power outage? Pretty common in analog houses as well. Who thinks to turn off a light that isn't on?

In analog houses, restoring the power means "lights come back as they were prior to outage". No state is lost, no matter how you spin that.

Agreed. I have been woken up from a power outage this way. We should be able to specify the default behavior when the power to the bulb is turned off. Maybe if you flip it on and off quickly within 1 second it will turn off. Or if the power is turned off to the bulb and the bridge is still on, the. Assume it was turned off. It’s not hard to come up with an OPTION for people to choose. I hate that there’s no choice, but I love my Hues.

There are a few comments under here about lights that default to "ON" after a power loss. I'm not clear why manufacturers didn't spring for a few bytes of Flash memory on the device to store last state. If my BIOS can maintain the ON/OFF state of my computer after a power outage, I'm not clear why my light bulb can't.

The default setting after a power cut can be configured for Osram Lightify bulbs.

A friend of mine has Hue lights in his bathroom. The fact that they operate like normal lights when the power is interrupted is the only reason that guests have any chance of succeeding in using the bathroom without instruction.

He doesn't have a motion sensor? He could also potentially install a humidity sensor for cases like showers.

See, now then you have to provide instructions to guests to wave their arms around vigorously when the lights go off mid shave!

(Just like we have to do every 30 mins in the office when there's 3 or fewer in.)

yeah, waving your arms around wildly when the lights suddenly go out is practically instinctual for many people now :-)

See, now it starts to become weird again. I just want the lights on in the bathroom, a motion sensor is an unneeded expense.

I don't think they want to mount anything on the walls, since it's a rental, but that does sound like a good idea. Smart bulbs seem kinda useless to me, but a three-way light switch with on/auto/off might actually be really nice.

This is so complicated. Especially for a bathroom where there is likely only one entrance, you're no more than 5 steps from the such at any one time and you only need to operate the lights when you enter/leave.

Yeah, and robots with laser eyes scanning for people sitting on the crapper...

I've seen televisions have that issue. They can come back on in the middle of the night. To me, this makes sense for a lightbulb. If your failsafe "backdoor" expects it to be wired to a switch, you would turn that switch off in the event of a power outage. What else would it do when the power comes back on?

One thing I really like about "smart" things, when the power is out at home I can check my phone to see if power is restored. I guess that's similar to calling your home to see if the answering machine is back on.

While I love my hue bulbs, I have two main gripes (beyond cost) which have kept me from replacing all the bulbs in my house:

1. As good as they have gotten, they still aren’t nearly as instantaneous as a good old fashioned switch. Yes, there are ways to mitigate this, from having it decide when to turn on to alternative controls. But that latency really gets to me sometimes.

2. The system not recalling last state. If you are worried about not being able to default to lights being on, you can make it so that a quick toggle resets it. But I can be convinced of other options/opinions here.

In general, I think the import point is how smart/dumb an object it is. It is more important how “rock solid” it is, and simple to use. I love the mantra “don’t make me think”. Devices should become “invisible” for the task you care about.

> Hue only has one big defect with regards to this... If there's an electrical outage and the smart bulb is in standby, when power is restored the bulb will turn on. Meaning if power goes out and is restored in the middle of the night the lights could suddenly turn on full brightness

I guess the reason you have to flip the switch twice, is to prevent this problem. Then, if you get an outage during the night, it should continue to be off...

A power outage looks exactly like flipping the switch twice.

> Meaning if power goes out and is restored in the middle of the night the lights could suddenly turn on full brightness.

I'm sorry but this is unacceptable. It's what keeps me from adopting Hue in my own home.

My lighting system literally has one job, if an advancement of this technology can't keep analog reliability, I don't want it (That's a bug, not a feature).

Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of Hue, color changing bulbs, ability to remote control, ability to dim, etc. is awesome, but maybe should stay in a switch format if loss of power can't be handled correctly.

You could potentially pair it with Home Assistant to restore the state of the lightbulbs to 'off', and ensure Home Assistant has backup power in case of an outage (it takes a while to boot on an RPi3 at least).

>Meaning if power goes out and is restored in the middle of the night the lights could suddenly turn on full brightness.

That's the same with regular bulbs, so...

Dimmable, color adjustable bulbs (assuming they exist)? Oh. Didn't think so either: an analog dimmer will resume operation right where you left it, no spontaneous resets to 100%.

No, regular bulbs without a dimmer. Like 99% of households use.

Indeed. Then it's restored to previous state (which could be "on" or "off"), not reset to "always on." Even my computer's BIOS could do that ("on power restored, turn on if that was the previous state, otherwise keep off") in 2000, is the smart lightbulb dumber than that? That's a very unfortunate level: smart just enough to be annoying, but not enough to be useful.

I've never had regular bulbs that were off turn on after a power outage.

Our office has something like this: dimmable meeting room lights that are controlled by a single rocker switch.

Since the only UI is "hold the switch down for longer or shorter periods, or press it repeatedly", and there are no written instructions and no discoverability, nobody can reliably work it and we routinely hold meetings in the dim half-light.

Well that's your own damn fault for not RTFM! (Had that system at an office: it came with a manual of ~200 pages, but nobody wanted to learn the special variant of Morse code that the lights understood. Somehow we found the commands for "full on" and "full off", and the manual was abandoned. Seriously, 200 pages on operating a light? Technology making lives easier, riiiight there.)

Same here, except sometimes lights will brighten and dim randomly during meetings.

It's like living in Clamp Tower from Gremlins II.

It would be fairly natural to have a small three-way switch onto each light to select between "central control", "override on" and "manual override off", in that order.

That way, you wouldn't have to shut down the entire system.

It would, but it would also be expensive.

Adding a switch changes the assembly process, requires extra firmware and testing, makes manufacture more complicated, demands localised labelling (unless you can work out a symbol system which maybe 50% of users won't get), and requires changes to the manual.

No doubt. This is why I think we need some sort of mandatory class-based reliability certification for a society of increasing IoT reliance. Not mandatory as in "you need to certify as at least class 3" but rather "you need to certify as some class of your choosing and clearly mark this on your packaging." The certification process should probably be cheap and flexible too. Maybe even let manufacturers self-certify the lower classes with heavy fines for abuse.

That way, it would be more clear to the customer why the product with the physical stops and manual overrides is more expensive.

Heh, once upon a time (and this was back in 1996 or so) my parents built a house too. They opted to put an expensive "Hunter" branded ceiling fan in every room. There were no controls on the fan itself, but on the wall where a normal light switch would be, there was a plate with two small buttons. One was for the light on the fan, and one was for the fan.

Each button could be in 4 states: hi, med, low, and off. To get from one state to the next, you had to hold the button for about a second or so. Simply holding the button an less of a time would automatically put the state in 'off' (which would drive you mad in it self). My parents were cheap and rarely used the A/C (in Texas!). I would normally leave the fan setting on medium over night. But that normally meant I would be awoken at 3am to the lights on the fan being fully on....

I once stayed at a nice hotel in Bangalore with a computerized lighting system controlled by a LCD with no switches. I just kept the lights off the whole time, I couldn’t figure it out and it was so cumbersome to use anyways. Light switches are an essential luxury!

The way things work in Bangalore, the best thing to do is to call the front desk every time you want to turn the light on or off.

I definitely wouldn't use any kind of technology that doesn't gracefully fall back to working as an uncontrolled "dumb" device. Z-Wave switches are at least pretty good at this, disconnecting my hub turns them back into normal light switches.

My pet peeve is an even lower level of technology - having multiple light switches for a single light, for "convenience" means that you sometimes click "up" to turn off a light, and sometimes "down" depending on which switch was used last. The logical state and the physical state didn't sync. I found that incredibly annoying and impossible to memorize.


You have no clue how that deal went down, and you had to jump to your own convenient conclusions to arrive at your judgement.


I agree with your sentiment that not telling the full truth and not giving one owns full assessment is easily equivalent to lying, but the way you brought up that point is not okay.

We don't know how the deal went down, so we shouldn't accuse them of wrondoing. The wording of "flipping the house" is not enough evidence. In the face of that, any accusations can be rejected by everybody, and many rejected your accusation by downvoting.

Great article, I totally agree.

One area that I feel is also a "sometimes dumb stuff is better" that the article left out, is that (at least for me) hardware controls are almost always superior (tho certainly less flexible) than software controls. There's no better example than the physical keyboard vs. the soft keyboard. Recently I had to purchase a replacement stove, and I am amazed at how much worse the UX is on this stove than my old one. I don't want to slide my finger to determine heat intensity, and select which burner that applies to by pressing a soft button corresponding to the hotplate. Just give me a physical knob for each hotplate please. The UX there is excellent.

A more painful example is my Ford truck. Almost everything inside of it is software powered, and the bugs drive me insane. At one point my GPS/stereo touchscreen hit some bug, and the only way to "fix" it was to pull over at a rest stop and power cycle my truck (turn off, then back on again :facepalm: ). That is maddening. As a software developer I understand that bugs happen, but as a consumer I just can't tolerate that kind of stuff in my vehicle.

Without question tech has brought us nice things, but with complexity comes bugs (both security-related and non), and with bugs comes software updates (which themselves sometimes introduce bugs in something that was working fine before). Internet-connected things can also be a nightmare for security and privacy. Truly, sometimes the "dumb" version is much better (and way cheaper too).

Similar problem in an aeroplane, the Boeing 787 would fail if it had been powered on continuously for 248 days: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/may/01/us-aviation...

You don't really think it would be necessary to turn off your plane then turn it back on again, but here we are.

I've probably told this story before.

I was on a turboprop flight about to depart the airport when we come to a stop and the pilot says that they have a problem with one of the bits of avionics -- I think he said it was for navigation, and that a mechanic was being driven over to swap it out.

This isn't unexpected per se; my knowledge of avionics is that a lot of design goes into making things easy to change out. If you can just swap the chunk that's not working out the plane gets into the air much faster and the electronics can be examined at leisure.

So we're sitting there about fifteen minutes, and the pilot comes on and says "Well, the mechanic says we should try powering down the plane and powering it back up before we exchange it."

They do so. It seems to take a good bit of time, probably five minutes. The pilot comes on and says "Well, that didn't work, but the mechanic wants us to try one more time."

Once again, everything on the plane shuts down, we sit there in the darkness, and then the plane starts back up.

The pilot comes on and says "We're all good now, so we're going to leave the airport."

I felt a bit nervous the whole flight.

Ha, 248 days is the point at which a 32bit signed int wraps round if counting in milliseconds.

I believe it needs to be a 10ms tick.

And I thought the car analogy was bad. Imagine hearing that excuse at 30,000 ft. (or being the pilot and having to give it) as all the lights in the cabin go off and the actuators stop working (would the turbines stop firing?) "Have you tried restarting it? Maybe boot it in safe mode." Loved the bit at the end 'Operators will perform periodic power cycling at scheduled intervals until incorporating a software update.'

Sad that this story's "thought experiment" https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16393740 from 8 days ago may be the future, not a joke. Sorry you couldn't drive to work, we're pushing an update to your car by the middle of the week.

Don't joke. On my first trip flying anywhere ever, on the first leg of the return trip, an AA flight from Austin to St. Louis, we had to abort takeoff while the front wheel was up because all of the on-board computer systems died simultaneously.

I've never been in more of a white-knuckle situation in my life, including the time a tire blew while landing at IAD. We then sat on tarmac for close to 3 more hours while they replaced the computers and we took off again in the same plane.

On ground standing still and at 30,000 ft height is probably the safest times for the generators to fail. Plenty of time to fix. Imagine this happening during take-off or landing?

Unfortunately physical controls are significantly more expensive to make - we're talking a whole extra dollar or five on the BOM price here, which turns into several times that at retail. Capacitative sensing is cheap and plastic membrane buttons are cheap. They're also easier to waterproof.

Touchscreens in vehicles just seem like an accident waiting to happen.

Finally someone mentions this, everyone seems amazed about Tesla’s big iPad, where you control everything in your car, I haven’t tested it yet, but for me having controls that require taking my eyes from the road sounds like a really bad idea, regular buttons give you touch feedback so you don’t need to look, why is everyone so obsessed with touchscreens?

Because not enough people have read Bret Victor's "A Brief Rant On The Future Of Interaction Design"


The Design of Everyday Things already talked about this in the 80s, it's depressing how little his suggestions have been accepted.

I mean, in interaction design is certainly is. It's just that outside of the design world, not enough people realise that there is more to design than graphic design, and that there is more to design than just adding some pretty chrome at the end of the whole development phase.

Yeah, I have been wondering this for a long time already. Can it be that the new people fresh out of school is taking over the design departments everywhere and they grew up with iPhones?

Because they're cheap.

I had a discussion the other day with someone who designs large, moving machinery. His preference is for the actual controls to be physical switches and knobs that are easy to user and learn. He relegates touchscreens for setup & configuration.

> I don't want to slide my finger to determine heat intensity, and select which burner that applies to by pressing a soft button corresponding to the hotplate. Just give me a physical knob for each hotplate please. The UX there is excellent.

This drives me nuts as well. I'm the guy going to appliance stores and testing the knobs of every range just to see if they've managed to fuck up even that simple interface.

And some manufacturers have. :-(

You want to be able to turn the knob directly to max from 0, without having to go all the way around, but some have a stop in place so you can only turn it in one direction. Absolutely maddening.

> You want to be able to turn the knob directly to max from 0, without having to go all the way around, but some have a stop in place so you can only turn it in one direction. Absolutely maddening.

At first I was thinking, "Well, when there's a stop in place, that's usually because that plate has one of those turn-briefly-to-11-and-let-the-knob-spring-back-to-10-in-order-to-activate-the-outer-area-of-the-plate" but then I realised how terrible of an interface that is, too! It took me years to figure out, and I have taught it to so many people since, who wish they knew about it earlier...

But what is more important than going from 0 to max, in my opinion, is being able to go in the opposite direction. When I'm holding a pot full of boiling water in one hand and stirring something with my other hand, I want to be able to turn off the plate really quickly.

Doesn't the stop make it easier to go back to 0? Sure you have to turn it more, but you don't have to worry about accidentally going past 0 and leaving the stove on.

That's another advantage of the mechanical knob: a large detent at "zero". Provides both tactile and acoustic feedback. So, no worries of turning past zero.

Exactly, you solve the safety issue with a "groove", so it snaps to 0, and so you get tactile feedback that you did hit 0. Boom, done. No need for annoying stops.

Unless, of course, you view the increase in force required to turb past zero as a sort of soft stop.

This safety feature is far more important than being able to go all the way to max instantly.

But it could definitely be a one-way catch for quick turn-off:

___ _____

0 \_| Max

With the traditional analog controls, the knob is adjusting the spring tension of a thermostat via a screw, so going "below" 0 doesn't really make sense (it would be "more off than off"), and likewise in the other direction too.

Microwaves are the fucking worst. My workplace recently got and LG with hidden capacitative buttons, which don't work half the time, and require various combinations of holding and tapping in unintuitive orders to set anything. A shame because its magnetron is one of those nice inverter-based ones, but I'll be damned if I can figure out how to set the power.

I would pay thousands for a high-powered inverter microwave with two physical dials: power (measured in WATTS, thank you, not percentage), and time.

You can get microwave ovens with knobs, although the power won't be in watts because they don't bother calibrating the power output that closely (and it varies slightly with line voltage and use.)

The only such ones I've found have been under 1000 W, which is too low for me. I appreciate the speed of 1200 W or more models, but those inevitably cheap out on the UI.

Commercial models have a dial and high power, but I haven't found such a one where you can control the power, which is a must for oatmeal and such.


Large and not cheap, but it's 1500W and has 5 power levels.

Thanks for the link. I seem to have cast my net too narrow, as Google turns up this: https://www.webstaurantstore.com/14351/commercial-microwaves... which has quite a few high-powered with dual dial controls (though it's not clear which are inverter-based). Some have instead two columns of buttons, one for power, one for time, which is a design I hadn't considered which does also seem easy to use.

I've found Sharp to have the most intuitive UI, and would probably never buy any other brand. Unfortunately, I'm stuck with a GE microwave built in to my apartment kitchen, but Sharp was what I was used to for many years. You enter a time, you hit "start" or "timer" and it counts down. Other brands seem to have UI designed by Martians - I could write a book on the ways they are screwed up.

The ikea-branded range hood above our stove has touch controls and they drive me nuts. The vapors of the stove deposit on the control surface and cause the “buttons” to malfunction. Sometimes it will switch on full blast by itself and sometimes it will refuse to turn on. The workaround is to wipe down the control surface regularly.

Oh, and every 6 months it crashes and I have to unplug and replug it to make it work again.

You've bought the wrong hood then. IKEA has models with nice clunky physical switches.

> At one point my GPS/stereo touchscreen hit some bug, and the only way to "fix" it was to pull over at a rest stop and power cycle my truck (turn off, then back on again :facepalm: ).

be glad you even have this option.

in my car, sometimes android auto freezes in a way that it will never recover from. this would be a minor annoyance if I could just reboot the thing while driving (and why not? it shouldn't hook into anything essential), but I can't do that. worse still, I can't even hard reset it by power cycling the whole car. the damn thing goes into sleep mode or something and maintains the broken state. only way to fix it is to turn the car off and then wait n minutes for the system to finally shut down.

This is what I don't get about the obsession people have with Tesla, in particular the Model 3. The interface in those cars is inferior and distracting. When I'm driving I need an interface I can operate from muscle memory.

The controls in my 1985 Saab C900 is almost ideal. Everything important at eye height. Direct manipulation analog controls with an immediate and tactile result.

Computers should be here to assist and get out of the way. Wiz-bang fancy too often takes precedence over pragmatism here.

You might be surprised to learn that Tesla has steering-wheel buttons, like other cars.

I'm aware of this, and aware that they can be configured to control things that the touch screen also controls. But some steering wheel buttons are not enough.

Honestly, a giant attention sucking touch screen in the centre of the car is the opposite of the direction manufacturers should be going.

The power cycling the car to get the stereo to work isn't limited to Fords unfortunately. I have a "dumb" smart radio and the BT is so bad between my Google phone and the car that I've had numerous glitches some that require power cycling the car, which is insane. I honestly cannot believe something that works flawlessly in nearly every other situation is so screwing in the car, what I wouldn't give to have my aux connector in again.

I work in embedded software, and Bluetooth is the worst. Hardware and software are crawling with bugs. I like to say it's the most unreliable technology in wide use.

What you see is after all the workarounds that some poor application developers had to implement.

That's what happens when you try to design a unifying interface for everything.

Frankly I'm amazed Bluetooth works as well as it does.

WiFi is an example of an almost everything interface that mostly works, though. But it's a different approach because it leaves application interfaces variable, so less big design up front. Its main functionality gap is, of course, low power and very low cost hardware.

That said, I still don't understand why Bluetooth is still flaky after over 20 years of opportunity to improve it.

> WiFi is an example of an almost everything interface

And the gap between almost everything and everything is huge.

I like the phrase I heard a few years ago from friends that played MMOs: “92 is halfway to 100”. Diminishing returns is a painful thing.

> what I wouldn't give to have my aux connector in again.

Your head unit probably has an aux connector in the back, either 1/8" or RCA input as part of video input. You can run a long 1/8" male-male wire from there out to the bottom of the dashboard (what I did on my most recent swap, can't lose the cable this way), or run a 1/8" male-female to an accessory knock-out cover or cut out part of the dashboard. I paid for a higher-quality Kenwood unit, and the Bluetooth, while actually managing to connect (not always the case in my experience, even for factory units), does have problems with interference that sometimes cause sound to drop out for 1-2 seconds. This is as bad as the worst CD-skip-on-hitting-pothole. Bluetooth IMO is complete garbage for car audio.

The Bluetooth in my car worked reasonable well for a couple of years until one day it stopped working entirely. Thankfully it has an aux connector (and I'll never buy a phone without a 3.5mm jack).

> Bluetooth IMO is complete garbage for car audio.

Amen. I get a lot of stuttering and random disconnections that drive me insane. Also that's a terrific tip regarding the aux input. Definitely gonna check that out.

Especially with vehicles, I wonder if the designers actually use their creations at all, or they do but ignore all the problems and simply replace it with a smug feeling of having designed something so complex.

I have an old car. All electromechanical controls with obvious functions and very pleasant tactile feedback. I don't have to take my eyes off the road to manipulate any of them. IMHO that's how driving should be.

Re: power cycling, I noticed a similar problem when I reviewed Ford/MS’s SYNC system 10 years ago: if I pressed the phone button without a phone linked, I would be locked out of the sound system until I turned the engine off and on again. What?

See point 8: http://blog.tyrannyofthemouse.com/2008/07/setting-sync-strai...

Close all windows and open them again. Oh my..

EDIT: http://wdell.com/humor/stalledcar.html

Sometimes the reason manufacturers are going digital is not just to be "smart", albeit it is a nice selling point for them to state it that way. Its actually sometimes cheaper to use digital parts instead of physical parts for certain components.

When you talk about stovetops, the tradeoff between price points on a unit from physical / digital controls is generally if it uses a built in thermostat or not, and the need for more advanced features (built in timers, etc). Its fairly common for kitchens to use purely manual driven knobs that open on/off gas valves on the economy scale since they are reliable and work. For home use stoves, since it also doesn't go through as much abuse compare to a kitchen stove, manufacturers will veer towards digital controls to offer more features and selling points.

My ranges have knobs but my oven is controlled by a seemingly simple set of 4 buttons and a 4 digit disply on a basic circuit board. Just at that vey low level of computerization, the cost to fix a problem goes from $10 to $300.

Car “infotainment” systems are the worst. I drive a VW and the touch screen is maddening. Transition animations are too long and involved, which is frustrating because 99% of the time I just need to force connect Bluetooth and that button combination is muscle memory by now. But every time I have to wait for the stupid interface to do this 3D flip. Oh, and if I skip ahead in Spotify with the on-screen controls, it doesn’t pull the new track data until the next track plays automatically, so it’s always out-of-sync.

I would say that usually the dumb stuff is better. People are sometimes surprised (since I work in IT) that I am against putting too many functionality in stuff.

First example: in my experience, there is nothing better than a blackboard for explaining a subject. I have never seen a blackboard that does not work. I also have never had a smooth experience with a smartboard (for starters, it has to boot and the projector has to be on and connected which just takes some minutes), and I have rarely had a good experience with whiteboards (usually the markers just don't work well, and there's no way to see that beforehand, so you end up trying a lot of them).

It also irritates me intensely how often it is assumed that you're always connected to the internet. Games nowadays not only have mandatory updates, but also require you to be connected. I used to play games once a week with a friend, and the experience just sucked. Call of Duty almost always had a multiple gigabyte update waiting for us, so that we had to wait half an hour to play (even though we didn't play online). It has happened multiple times that the internet didn't work, and we just had to find something else to do.

Then, smart TV's have some of the same problems too. I have had some new experiences since my roommate bought a 4k monstrosity with ambilight (which only purpose seems to be that ensure that no-one can concentrate on something else when the TV is on). I have never had to wait multiple minutes to turn the TV on before. I have never had a TV crash on me before. I have never been confused by a remote control before (the remote control has a button with a triangle symbol to go to all apps, and some other buttons with symbols I have never seen before, and there are two different places with apps - some of them are the same while others can only be found in one place). The TV also boots with the sound very loud, and I have to wait until the TV is fully booted until the sound can be adjusted. Which in practice means that I can't watch TV after my roommate goes asleep at 9:30.

We recently purchased a TV and chose one based on the lack of any Smart TV functionality. It boots in 5 seconds and doesn't try and join botnets. The future is stupid.

Yep the whole internet of things isn't my cup of tea either. I'm not letting my TV iniate an outbound connection without permission.

Security is a nightmare and I don't want to be profiled by anyone.

I recently brought my first smart TV. I tried to avoid it, but the cheapest not smart alternative was more than twice the price.

But you know, except for a "do you want to update now" nagging that made it unusable for the first 2 hours after I plugged it on the net, and a immediate "please accept this EULA so we can display ads" that I declined, the smart features have been nice since then.

I am still wary of a future "we are shutting down our servers, this TV will be no more", but not of much more.

Which features are available that you find useful? I'm surprised any are turned on if you declined the EULA.

I decline a EULA. Basically the one offering ads. I don't think it's necessary for anything actually useful.

It's very nice to connect to the TV by Bluetooth. It's nice to plug stuff there and browse the web too, but does not make all that difference because there's a Kodi machine just under it (right now I'm not sure I will keep the computer).

I'm getting worried I won't be able to find a dumb TV when I need a new one.

It's called "computer display" nowadays; the so-called TVs only have extra a RPi compute module and a DVB tuner ;)

TVs are also much bigger and cheaper and have multiple inputs and an IR sensor for remote control.

I use the remote control for one thing on our TV: volume. That’s just because all the sound goes in there via HDMI then off to an amp with no remote control.

I got a new TV last week. The problem with a preference for simple is that the best model bang/buck was a smart tv. I managed to crash it with only the remote controller last night.

Do you still think it was the best bang for the buck when you factor in the crash and how slow it is in general?

Depressingly, yes.

Which one was that? Sounds great.

IIRC, schools are now veering away from smartboards (since they always break, high upfront cost and maintenance, low value) and instead veering towards TVs with a seperate see-through touch overlay on top of it. The cost is significantly less, since TVs with various types of inputs (HDMI, VGA, etc) can be bought cheaply since they are manufactured in bulk. There's also less maintenance since the TV and overlay are not electronically connected in anyway, therefore less moving parts. When a TV goes bad you just dump it out and buy a new one, etc

I've never understood the need to be always connected to the internet for gaming. Especially if its a single player game, I prefer to have steam just run it offline, but I guess the counterargument for game companies is DRM (they want to validate whether you purchased the game or not).

I do IT all the time and I am always against putting too much functionality in everything. People don't appreciate the simple things until they have to repair it themselves. I never bought into smart homes, TVs, amazon echo/alexa products, etc. I just don't see the need to automate these things that provide little value in the long run.

Per article, my rule of thumb is to always resort to the simplest, dumbest thing possible to validate whether or not I actually need the high tech solution. A good example of this, not mentioned in the article, is a pomodoro timer (a timer designed to work on 25 minute work periods). You can download a slew of apps to do this on your PC. Or you could just buy a miracle cube timer off amazon for like $10. Another good example is a todolist. You can find hundreds of these apps that integrate everywhere that it doesn't need to be. I resort to just using sticky notes and shove them in my wallet / keyboard to remind me of tasks I need to do.

The pomodoro example is interesting because the technique is named for a ubiquitous mechanical kitchen timer :)

You're right about blackboards but they make a hell of a mess with all the chalk dust.

The game updates situation... eesh. So many times when I've got maybe 20 minutes free to play a game and it wants to spend 10 of them downloading updates. One of the reasons I've come to love retro console gaming is that nonsense doesn't happen with PS1, PS2, Xbox, or Wii games.

For a lot of things dumb is often better and more reliable, especially at home: lights (though I do crave a master switch by my back door) and door-locks spring immediately to mind.

I haven't seen motion activated taps - the kind you see in public toilets - creeping into homes yet, but it's only a matter of time. Those things have always seemed pointless and overcomplicated to me, so if I ever move into a house that has them they'll be getting pulled straight out. What happens if you have a power-cut? I assume they'll keep working for at least a while, but sooner or later I imagine they'll run out of juice, and then what do you do?

The motion activated taps in public bathrooms are to prevent people from wasting water, not for convenience.

Motion activated things on public spaces are there so everybody does not have to place their dirty hands on the same surfaces. It's a public health issue that does not make sense at all on private or even semi-private spaces.

While hygiene may be a auxiliary benefit if it were really about hygiene they'd give you more than a trickle of cold water.

A normal amount of warm water encourages people to wash their hands correctly. I have to sit through around five on-off cycles to get a good hand washing.

Makes sense, although I have to ask: are they a net saving in waste water and processing versus resources required to manufacture them (or price)? They've been around a long time now so I can believe they would be.

They also make sense from a hygiene perspective, the less (humid!) stuff everyone touches, particularly after they washe their hand, the harder it is for bacteria to spread.

I hate those things: like everything Dyson makes they're noisy, ugly, overpriced, underperforming crap. I must admit to being slighly joyous at finding they're also something of a health hazard: sort of the icing on the cake of a terrible product.

If you can believe it, the Dyson Airblade V is even worse: it dries your hands by the clever trick of blasting the water from them and spraying it liberally over your trousers along with the wall and floor beneath the dryer whilst making enough noise to wake the dead. Total junk.

EDIT: And don't even get me started on the stupid Airblade tap/hand dryer hybrid. What a travesty of innovation. Got large hands? Prepare to confuse the thing as it can't decide whether to douse you in water or blow a hoolie. Talk about a solution begging a problem.

I would bet money that the motion-sensor toilets are not cost effective in the long run. I have seen way too many of them in some kind of malfunctioning or non-functioning state, and I don't think just any random plumber can work on them until/unless they learn specific manufacturing details, which involve electronics and sensors (not your typical plumber stuff).

I would never spec these in new construction unless they were the kind with a purely mechanical flusher incorporated as a failsafe.

A few years ago I was at a university whose motion taps and motion paper-towel dispensers were battery powered. There was one time I went into a bathroom and most of the sinks were dead.

> I have never seen a blackboard that does not work.

I have. It looks like a normal blackboard that doesn't have any chalk nearby. Smart boards are generally worse, but their chalk doesn't run out or disappear.

If your blackboard "malfunctions" (runs out of chalk), it's obvious to a new user what the issue is, and how to fix it (borrow some from so-and-so down the hall, or send someone to buy a pack).

If your smart blackboard malfunctions, it's not obvious what the problem is (power loss/issue? Software bug? Something else?) and you definitely can't borrow a few ounces of chalk from your neighbor to fix it.

I have also seen uneraseable chalk boards, and boards where the chalk wouldn't adhere.

Besides, the chalk powder is a great health hazard, and the sound is a great distractor. There's a reason everybody switched into white boards, and it's not because of novelty.

About smart boards, they are great for remote conferences, and for mixing pre-made content with writing. I don't think they are worth the hassle (unless you do remote conferences a lot), but they are not all downsides either.

"chalk powder is a great health hazard"

Nonsense. Some individuals with pre-existing breathing conditions may have those conditions exacerbated by inhaling chalk at unusual levels, but to say that chalk powder by itself is a great hazard is nonsense on stilts.

> their chalk doesn't run out or disappear.

Unless they're stuck in an update loop, or the power is off, or sometimes the internet is down.

>Meaning if power goes out and is restored in the middle of the night the lights could suddenly turn on full brightness.

No, they just add 200 other failure scenarios of their own...

I got a Nintendo Switch lately and was overjoyed to see that its prompts to download and update offline games are skippable.

PlayStation does the same. It advises that you can skip the update if you don’t intend to use networked features.

PlayStation can also do auto updates if you leave the console in sleep mode rather than turning it fully off. When I start up my game I just get a notification that an update has been applied rather than a prompt asking whether I want to wait for an update or play offline.

Debian does the same. You are free to pick and choose what to update and even look what changed before applying the update. And the best is, you can change the update or create an update yourself!

Are there any popular distros that don't let you skip an update?

Fail to update Arch at your peril. All packages are built against the latest versions of libraries, so you quickly find that programs from the repositories don't work until you update.

Well, Android doesn't let you skip updates of specific parts. It's all or nothing.

The sleep mode is really nice too. I've been chalking these improvements up to the fact that it's also a mobile device.

WRT whiteboards - the problem is ironically enough the users. They try to be frugal with the markers, using them as long as they can. I did too, until I did some introspection and realized what I was doing.

Once I had that realization, and identified how cheap replacement markers really are, the moment it starts to crap out it's tossed and replaced from a backup container sitting nearby.

I'm also biased against blackboards, having gone through school with them. I was all-too-frequently chosen to go bang the chalk dust out the erasers, becoming coated from tip to toe in said dust. Too much hassle for the value. Not to mention the need for a deep cleaning of the board periodically, though I guess it shares that with whiteboards.

> I was all-too-frequently chosen to go bang the chalk dust out the erasers, becoming coated from tip to toe in said dust.

Our teachers had a small bucket of water and simply cleaned the sponges themselves, if we had to do it it was fun rather than a health hazard.

> Not to mention the need for a deep cleaning of the board periodically

Again wet sponge technology comes to the rescue, plus window cleaning thingies to get the blackboard to dry before the next lesson. That school was ass backwards in so many ways, but even they didn't manage to mess up using blackboards.

> the moment it starts to crap out it's tossed and replaced from a backup container sitting nearby

How does all that plastic compare to some colored chalk and water though? What's involved in producing colored chalk versus producing whiteboard markers? It's a honest question because I have no clue, but of course the implication is that it seems likely to me, not having looked into it at all, that chalk is way more environmentally friendly.

I also think the skill ceiling for chalk, and the possible range of styles, is greater, so to speak. But I never really saw gifted whiteboard use, and did have some teachers who had beautiful handwriting on a blackboard and used little tricks to make neat graphs or images, who had a real sense of craftsmanship if not artistry about it, so I'm probably biased in the other direction.

A very interesting data point. I don't think I ever saw someone use a sponge and water on a chalkboard in all my years. I mean, it makes sense, but I never saw it in action.

Perhaps it's because the drying time would have been too long, since most teachers would be re-using blackboard space constantly throughout a single class period.

I can certainly imagine that the environmental impact of blackboards is overall lower than whiteboards, but even given the sponge-and-bucket method, I'd have to say that whiteboards fall on the "easier to use" side of the equation; something that's hard to dismiss when we want minimal friction when writing something out on a board.

So I got Sony super-duper 4k HDR with some chip that makes the colors better. I hook up my Sony ps4 to it. Every time a game launches, the tv fully shuts off. Not standby mode, fully shuts off, requiring a reboot through that stupid android tv screen. Good job, Sony.

A large part of this is shitty engineering and product development. These products could be made so much better, but they suck instead.

You'd need tremendous amounts of engineering for all those not to suck. And engineering that's done by really experienced people. Too bad that people desiging the "smart" part are from the same IT industry that thinks 3 or 5 years of experience qualifies as "senior".

Can I quote you from another post?

> It's not really that difficult to learn six languages to a level of using them professionally. I've seen it happen. [1]

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16458513

Oh, of course you can quote me. Though you should also explain how is this particular quote of any relevance here.

I believe using a language "professionally" means being senior. Which is different from having a profession where you use said language.

On the one hand you're arguing you can't become "Senior" in 5 years, but at the same time you can become professional with 6 languages with little effort.

Your definition doesn't make sense. I've been labeled a "Senior Software Engineer". Does that mean that any time I write code in any language I'm using it professionally, while people who have been paid to write the same language for years but don't have senior in their title aren't using it professionally?

How about "Senior Pascal Developer". Does that make sense?

Professional: "a person who is expert at his or her work". Are you an expert with every language?

> people who have been paid to write the same language for years but don't have senior in their title

Are they experts with the language / framework / tools?

> How about "Senior Pascal Developer". Does that make sense?

So are you saying I should have a different job title for every language I use?

> Are they experts with the language / framework / tools?

So you agree that being proficient in a language is a separate issue from job title?

From Wikipedia:

"A professional is a member of a profession or any person who earns their living from a specified professional activity."

Also from wikipedia, the second sentence:

"The term also describes the standards of education and training that prepare members of the profession with the particular knowledge and skills necessary to perform their specific role within that profession."

Also from wikipedia, the second paragraph:

"In some cultures, the term is used as shorthand to describe a particular social stratum of well-educated workers who enjoy considerable work autonomy and who are commonly engaged in creative and intellectually challenging work."

Can we please stop this nonsense now?

The paragraphs you've pasted say absolutely nothing about the seniority of said professionals. And there is no indication that we're using the term as the described shorthand.

You can be a professional developer that is on junior level.

"Professionals have standards"

True, but it is also the price to pay when you use technology. You can't test everything. The TV, for example, is a new model from a big, quality brand (and in general it works well). Likewise, Call of Duty (the game that requires internet even if you play offline - not sure if this holds for all games in the series) is not a small title. So if these products by big companies have that shitty engineering, then most products with the same functionality probably will have similar problems.

From what I've seen while working for large companies, the problem is most likely incompetence and/or quality not being a priority.

It’s important not to excuse the business decisions behind that incompetence: someone knew about the problem and figured you’d buy it anyway because of marketing or everyone else cutting the same corners.

Again, from my personal experience, most of the time the decision maker doesn't know there is a problem or that it could possibly be improved.

Or rather "fixing the problem would take time and money. Nah, just ship it."

Not really. Usually the developers and mid managers are doing this to themselves, they say something like "we can't tell him or he will fire us" and the decision maker is not aware of any problems. What happens when I step in is that I tell them what problems do they really have and most of the time the decision maker really wants to fix them and isn't going to fire anyone (except for the incompetent mid-managers that caused these issues).

Just got myself (an expensive Nobo) glass whiteboard for brainstorming my side projects and, with all the technology, laptops, tablets and gadgets I'm constantly surrounded by, it turned out to be a very fun and useful thing to have. There's something immediate about it that motivates you to do quick brain dumps, where it's always at hand's reach and it takes zero time to erase anything so you don't feel too committed.

// Blackboard in this case would have been be far less practical as everything around it would be eventually covered in chalk.

I'm going to verbatim copy a conversation I had on twitter a few weeks ago[0], because it seems particularly relevant, and I want to credit whomever is behind the algoglitches twitter account with coming up with the term "formerly fixable objects":

@JobvdZwan: My mother called me the other day asking why I "installed Bing". Because she does not grasp that software can modify itself, it did not occur to her that Firefox itself switched after an auto-update. In this light it makes sense that family members blame you for "breaking" their computer if you helped them out months or years before: if you fix, say, a door, it will not spontaneously change after that. But fixing a computer is not like fixing a door.

@algoglitches: Interestingly doors will probably be computers a few years from now cf https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/09/you-a... . We will refer to them as "formerly fixable objects" and they will produce their own glitches.

@JobvdZwan: Did you just make up the term "formerly fixable objects"? Because that should be a term.

[0] https://twitter.com/JobvdZwan/status/962328161429151745

Soft touch "buttons" vs regular mechanical buttons.

Soft touch buttons are the bane of my existence. With most buttons, there's no feedback as to whether or not the button has been pressed. It's also difficult to develop muscle memory so you can you use the buttons without looking. For this reason I can't stand typing on an iPad's screen keyboard. Also the reason turning on a modern TV involves me dragging my fingers all over the bottom hoping I hit the power button.

The extreme of this is newer Macbook touchbar. Vim is a nightmare to use. Did I even press ESC? Can't tell.

Another great example: http://www.homecrux.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/GE%E2%80%...

After Apple ruined the podcasts app in iOS 11, I switched back to my old way of listening to podcasts: download on the computer and listen on a Sansa Clip+ player (with Rockbox on it).

Especially the first few days were pure delight. A player with.. hardware buttons! I can skip tracks, jump back and forth, pause, everything without even looking at the thing! Several years of using touchscreen-smartphones for this had me totally forget how it is to use an MP3 player with physical buttons. Really, I didn't expect at all how much I'd love it. I've now gotten used to it again and going back to anything touchscreen-based is not an option at all anymore. And on top of that the joy of knowing that there's no ad-company tracking how/when/where I'm listening.

I have nothing against your solution, but for those of us who prefer not to have to carry and sync another device, you can get (wired) headphones with volume + skip buttons for just a few bucks.

My only experience with the Clip+ was as a runner, but I switched away from my phone because I was terrified of breaking it. But the downsides of the Clip+ drove me back to my phone and a good, hard case for it.

- had to hook it up to my Windows computer and download songs instead of just making a playlist on Apple Music or queueing up podcasts in Overcast

- if the sun was out, I had to hold the Clip right against my eyeballs to make anything out

- no 30 second skips, no chapter selection

And honestly, I'm not sure why you'd give up on the phone altogether without researching other podcast apps. Overcast is the best.

Note that I'm using the Clip+ with the Rockbox [0] replacement firmware, which adds features such as configurable skip lengths, etc. Without Rockbox, the thing isn't nearly as good :-)

> And honestly, I'm not sure why you'd give up on the phone altogether without researching other podcast apps. Overcast is the best.

I looked at them, didn't find a single trustworthy one. Overcast is a good example of that: it's often recommended, but it wants me to make an account, which is completely superfluous and probably just a way for them to collect data about my podcast habits. No thanks. I only want podcasts, I don't want a cloud service to go with it.

[0] https://www.rockbox.org/

Just FYI, the creator of Overcast is a notorious anti-advertising and pro-privacy curmudgeon, and he even wrote Skeptic's FAQ for people put off by the account thing: https://overcast.fm/skeptics_faq

It's very much worth it.

I have a Ford Fusion 2013, AC and radio is controlled with those soft touch buttons, man I hate those buttons, I don’t want to take my eyes from the road just to change the radio! I don’t get why the obsession about putting “touch” functionality to every single damn thing, they don’t provide a single UX improvement.

> they don’t provide a single UX improvement.

They don't (well, soft touch radio/heat/AC/etc. buttons). And in my opinion, this is one place where some more safety regulations really are needed to force a return to physical buttons.

But they _do_ provide an additional line item in the list of "comparison specs" to show a check-mark for their car and no check-mark for a competitors product. And that is the reason for the 'race' to add touch screens for everything that used to have a hard button. Look at our car, it has so many more "features" than theirs....

That, and the fact that a single touch screen can replace a whole host of hard buttons, eliminating the design, tooling, manufacturing, shipping, and assembly costs associated with all the old hard button devices.

I moved from a cheap Toyota Yaris to an expensive Subaru Legacy.

Not only do I have a touchscreen radio, but the climate control section is a large array of buttons, with the exception changing the temperature with a knob.

Every single fucking action I need to perform in that area requires that I take my eyes off the road. Want the heat on my feet instead of my face or the windshield? Then I need to press up/down and iterate through the air directions. Need to increase/decrease the air speed? Find the left/right arrows and press them. Oops, I pressed the Defrost button which turns on the windshield vents full blast! Oops, I pressed the "Auto" button which does... something. No fucking clue what that button does.

As shitty as my old Yaris was, I had a knob for air position, another knob for speed, and a button right in the middle of the knob for rear defrost. The knobs were huge and clunked into place. After a week in the car I knew exactly what to do without ever looking down, and I miss it dearly.

And my touchscreen radio takes like 10 seconds to boot and it warns me never to look at it while I'm on the road or some bullshit. If I need to change stations I need to look down and find the touchscreen buttons. I'm all mad thinking about it now, wish I could return the car just for this shit.

And in my opinion, this is one place where some more safety regulations really are needed to force a return to physical buttons.

...I've always wondered, if it weren't for some regulations, would manufacturers replace the steering wheel, pedals, and gearshift with a touchscreen? That would be really scary. The value of the feedback of physical controls can't be underappreciated.

> I've always wondered, if it weren't for some regulations, would manufacturers replace the steering wheel, pedals, and gearshift with a touchscreen?

Sadly, I suspect the answer is yes, some maker somewhere would do just exactly that.

Tesla did that. It’s called “auto-pilot”.

Still a remnant of the hype about certain Apple products, it seems.

Huh, downvotes. Seriously, I was there, working in a related field at the time of the iPhone and iPad hypes, and that was exactly when ill-advised uses of touchscreens popped up everywhere. They became the thing every product needed to have to be perceived as modern.

Just to remind you how hypey it was, "tablets will replace PC-type computers for most consumers in the next few years" and "world's first iPad DJ". I wish I was making up the last one.

Considering the number of touchbased phones and tablets sold world-wide, compared to traditional PCs, I think the hype was understated.

No. There was little replacement of PCs, and tablet sales stagnated pretty quickly. https://www.statista.com/statistics/269915/global-apple-ipad...

Smartphones are something else, they are the most useful computers given the limitation that they have to fit into a pocket. Touchscreens make good use of available space there, that's all.

Yes I would like a Starship Enterprise-style computer in my house. Who wouldn't? But it has to be the the ad-free version that works for me. It won't monitor the activities of my family and then sell the anonymized data to selected third parties. Then supply the de-anonymized data to government agencies and school boards at the drop of a hat for 'safe-guarding' or 'anti-terrorism' purposes.

In the meantime I recognise that there's some health value to getting up periodically to flick switches.

> Yes I would like a Starship Enterprise-style computer in my house. Who wouldn't?

I wouldn't. What's the point exactly? Take smart lights, what are they for?? When I enter the room I switch lights on, when I leave the room I switch lights off.

I'm not sure when I would need to switch lights on while already in the room. I never stay in the same room for so long that the sun sets while I'm still there not moving.

At night in the bedroom there are switches near the bed (attached to the wall, which can't get lost, contrary to a remote, and don't need sound, contrary to voice control).

My point is, we tend to accept technology even when it doesn't solve any problem we are actually having.

What if it were inexpensive, kept the physical controls and actually worked well?

I'm not in any rush to automate lights, but there are lots of people that would appreciate things like an "arrival mode" for their lighting, where lights switched on when they arrived at the house. Not really a big deal, but say you have poor night vision and reduced mobility.

Agree for reduced mobility, but re:poor night vision, I can do most things in my home in pitch darkness, as well as open the door from the outside: selecting the proper key from the key ring in my pocket, "feeling" the keyhole and inserting the key without looking at anything. Whenever I change the key cylinder I verify I can still do it with the new key.

This used to fascinate my wife. Now it just upsets her, she thinks I'm showing off to the kids. I'm not; I'm training for when the sun dies.

I can do the same. Although the 'open' or 'lock up' door in total darkness skill never fascinated my wife, ever. I always got the "just turn on a light..." whine instead.

> an "arrival mode" for their lighting,

Which can be obtained with a basic 'motion sensor' light switch for one critical light near the door, with no need for internet connectivity or smart-phone apps.

Turning lights off remotely is nice when you intended to go back to a room, but got ready for bed instead. You could turn it off with an app or a voice command, but instead you have to get up and walk to the far side of the house to turn it off.

Having to get out of bed and go turn the switch off with your hand builds character.

> When I enter the room I switch lights on, when I leave the room I switch lights off.

There have been more than a few times in the last month where my hands were disgusting enough (pets, kids, etc.) that touching light switches, knobs, etc. meant I had to retrace my steps with cleaning supplies.

You still have elbows, a nose and a chin to switch the light on/off.

And how do you use a remote with greasy hands? You have to clean that afterwards.

I use them when I can, but motion sensors in public bathrooms don't have this issue. Well designed public bathrooms don't require you to touch anything in the room. A similar setup at home would be beneficial to households prone to biohazards, which most are in different seasons of life.

I can understand that for a public restroom the motion sensors are a good addition. For a home setup, what do you do when you sit in the couch, or at your desk. Do you wave to the sensor every five minutes, just to leave the light on? I cannot imagine I would ever want that.

Well people can do what they like, but I'd enjoy the public restroom setup in my bathroom, especially if it is a half bathroom (toilet and sink but no shower or tub). It probably makes sense in kitchens, garages, and utility rooms. Living rooms and bedrooms shouldn't run on motion sensors, at least not always.

Both flat and regular light switches allow for the use of elbows or, in a pinch, noses.

> I wouldn't. What's the point exactly?

If the smart house/ambient computing stuff ever works as described, it will be really useful for people with disabilities.

Then there's the ST:TNG episode "Contagion" where the crew spends the entire hour futzing around with the Enterprise's computer only to come to the conclusion of "let's reboot it!"


Was it running a Windows update ;-) : "do not power off your computer" = "tough tits if you were packing up your laptop to go home matey, one of those soi-disant 'updates' is actually a virus scan, which will take hours if you're lucky, or I might just bork the whole frickin' thing, we'll see..."

No one's going to build this for you. If you want an assistant built around your needs... start building. AI is not going to magically make a piece of software work the way each and every person on Earth would like, but making one for yourself is far more possible. :)

"anonymized data"

That's if you're lucky. I don't want to sound paranoid but if there are sensors in your house its only a matter of time before someone wants to use them.

I think this is kinda possible - if you hook up a raspberry pi with a bunch of relay switches. I think there's a speech-recognition project from Mozilla that's actually trained on the pi.

I vaguely considered it - but honestly, what's the point? Light switches are excellent tech. I think I'll go for a home computer the day somebody makes a roomba that can pick up trash, and clean the bathroom. Before that, all the really time-consuming stuff has to be done manually anyway.

For speech recognition, in android, you can use google now, then with the app tasker you can send the recognised text to your mqtt broker and from there it's easy.

I'm doing that with some relays and LIFX bulbs using Openhab.

That solution fails the stated requisite of not monitoring you.

This is an interesting voice assistance project that does not rely on calling out to third-party services:


That's exactly what I was thinking about, actually!

I would absolutely never install a non open-source monitoring device in my house - and I frankly think it's insane that people pay money to do so. It's really nice to know that when this technology matures, and becomes the kind of thing everybody has, I'm not going to have to be a luddite.

There is two projects that make a step forward the privacy direction: Mark II [0] and Project Things [1] by Mozilla. There are of course not as developed as the big ones, but it's refreshing.

[0] https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/aiforeveryone/mycroft-m... [1] https://iot.mozilla.org/

I think the advantage of "dumb" devices is that you can fully understand how they work, at least at a level of abstraction that covers all possible functionality you care about. For smart devices, you can't fully understand how all of them work, so you have to trust that they understand correctly what you want them to do and are actually attempting to do it. Or if you can't trust it, you have to spend time and effort verifying it. And you also have to trust (or verify) that they're not doing stupid/malicious things like punching holes in your firewall or leaking your personal data.

In short, you can simply use a dumb device, but you have to manage a smart device, and that requires much more mental bandwidth.

This is definitely how I view the "dumb" vs "smart" automation. Complex things are hard to reason about, and as much as you might claim they "just work" that's only true until they suddenly don't, and then you can't fix them easily. Simple things are easy to reason about. They may not always work, but at least when they don't it should be pretty obvious why. I bring this up a lot in my "why the Linux Desktop sucks" rants, but it sadly applies to a whole lot of technology. So many complex systems introduced to solve non-problems or problems created by the complexity in the first place.

It's enough that sometimes I want to just give up computing and live in a cave.

That's a good point about using a device vs managing a device. We need more "dumb" devices that have optional layers of smart enhancements. Best of both worlds would be my preference for replacing things like a kitchen timer or light switch.

I have done some neat hobby automation projects, and I have some thoughts:

1. With some more work it wouldn't be so, but when the power goes out it is like rebooting Jurassic Park to get my sound system back the way I like.

2. The proprietary power grab is worse than any video format war or chat program territory battle. I've tried to DIY as much as I can, but Google Home is a no go for DIY. I can emulate on/off Phillips Hue stuff for Alexa Scenes but for Google Home you have to go through the net.

3. I can't ask Alexa to do anything when the (rare) internet is out, but I can control everything fine with my phone or IR. Most automation projects seem to require outside the firewall stuff.

4. Would be cool if I could come up with a port knocking thing for Alexa Skills to talk back to the LAN with some kind of reliable security and encryption... But Skills seem to be only available to call out insecurely or to a running EC2 instance say but I don't have a free tier account being an early adopter of EC2.

5. In general, the products I will buy are ideally LAN only. Maybe that's unrealistic like a non smart TV?

My favourite "smart" dumb device has got to be single sensor electronics. The automatic hallway light to be exact. It's a piece of plastic with a photocell and a LED.

So long as it has power (but a battery backup would be simple enough) it never fails to turn on "if this, then that". Daylight savings, changing seasons, solar eclipse.

It's never a device I have to think about.

And at home depot they sell $80 IoT light bulbs demanding a property app.

...and what no one giving us this "progress" ever seems to realise is how often it is slower.

For instance our Whirlpool microwave - touch sensitive digital and achieving 5 or 10 minutes takes much longer and more clicks than our old one (no 5 min button, but the Panasonic's touch keypad didn't much like damp hands). Setting power or grill is especially unfriendly and rarely succeeds at first attempt. First microwave had a rotary control, now the preserve of absolute bottom of range rubbish, time setting always took one touch and under a second.

I find it's affecting my choices of cars though. Touch sensitive "improvement" of anything basic (heater or fan for instance) is a big negative mark for me as chances are I could formerly achieve it without taking eyes from road, but now I need to look, and you don't want everything on the steering wheel!

> First microwave had a rotary control

Reminds me of the old "ha-ha-only-serious" joke about how a computer scientist would design a toaster:


Unfortunately some people interpreted it as a plan for the future.

Most toasters have a thermostat or photocell instead of a timer, so even the simple design is an example of complicators gloves.

A simple timer is under complicated - if you cook two slices in immediate successionm, the second slice will be burned as the coils will still be hot. As I understand it, a good quality toaster will have at minimum both a thermal switch (like a bimetallic switch) and a timer, which only starts when the toaster is hot.

I don't see how a simple thermostat with no timer can do the job by itself.

About the microwave: it seems to be purely American thing. Here in the UK even high-end very expensive microwaves have rotating knobs for setting the time and power. I've seen those monstrosities with a million buttons on the front but they are certainly rare.

It seems to go in cycles... Ten years ago I bought a microwave with a digital knob, and it was fucking fantastic, because if you just turned the knob it increased the time, but it had acceleration built in, so it went in small increments at the start, and larger later. But it was completely deterministic, so you developed muscle-memory for "30 seconds" or "2.5 minutes", and it was so fast to use.

Five years later we moved and I had to buy a replacement, and I found one model that had a digital knob, all the rest had the idiotic keypad instead.

Not just an American thing... At home I got a bare bones one with 2 mechanical knobs (even the "ready" sound is produced mechanically I think). But right now I'm standing in front of a sophisticated one in a Taiwanese home, it has 18 buttons marked with Chinese characters and various numbers or ranges of numbers that make no sense without a reference manual. No symbol, no knob, no useful color coding. I'm unable to operate it without help... Makes you feel like a child needing help from an adult :)

Likewise when shopping for a new hi-fi receiver, the most important feature I wanted was a physical volume control knob.

Grr. The old Denon bookshelf hi-fi had an analogue pot with slow motor tied to remote control, and infinite fine adjustment when using knob directly. After it died we just bought the current equivalent without exercising enough distrust.

The volume is now digital, so we have a choice between "too loud" or "too quiet". Turning the knob gives the same too coarse steps. No motor is required, saving Denon a few pennies and costing them a customer next time around.

The FM tuner (much better quality than DAB hereabouts), uses the digital stage somehow anyway, so analogue transmissions gain about a half second delay. As we often have the same radio station going in more than one room, this can be really annoying.

There are varying levels of cynicism with which to view the smart home stuff.

On the plus side, smart home automation is great for those with mobility issues or disabilities, the elderly. It also could save a lot of energy globally.

On the other hand, a lot of things just don't need to be smart, and making them smart often means that they are not directly servicable by owners. When something breaks, you need a whole stack of knowledge about software to figure out where it went wrong. A lot of us here might have that knowledge, but even then it's a giant hassle. It seems insane that in the future it might require arcane knowledge of Python, bash, and Linux to get your lights on. That's some kind of fail.

The most cynical view, which I sometimes dare myself to consider, is that all of this smart home/internet of things is just another bubble where hardware manufacturers are pushing their chips into literally everything because they have to keep making more money...somehow.

In the latter case, well. Civilization doesn't need more hucksters, even if they are selling little black squares of silicon this time around.

Maybe a large part of why hardware buttons work so much better than software buttons is that they just are there. They do not pop up whenever you enter a new screen, and usually, you can't miss them (as in 'oh, I didn't realize that bar was clickable'). They are also much more restrictive than software UI's - so the designer really has to put in effort since you can't replace the hardware interface by putting out an update.

I can't resist to draw a parallel with programming. In the early days, where binaries consisted of carefully handcrafted code, they were in the range of kilobytes. Nowadays programs are in the range of megabytes to gigabytes due to all the libraries that are statically included (and possibly duplicated). When I install Xilinx ISE (no support for anything above windows 7) or Visual Studio (both 2015 and 2017, because both have features that the other one does not contain), I have already used more space on my SSD than I'd like.

I am a big fan of the Kindle 4. (2012) It's wonderful. I use mine practically every day. It has these huge things on the side called "buttons" that you can use to turn the pages. They have a tactile feel when pressed, and accidental button presses are never a problem. It's symmetrical, so you can hold it in either your right or left hand.

It's the last Kindle made before someone got the bright idea that people would rather have a touch screen instead of buttons. Because apparently, when I'm reading a book, the thing I want to do is use my thumb to cover up the screen (you know, the thing that is displaying the text that I'm reading), and hold the device in a very specific way such that I can press the page when I need to while avoiding accidental touches before I've reached the end of the page.

Recently, they decided to re-introduce the majestic "button" feature into some of the newer Kindle models. You can get it if you opt for the premium deluxe "Kindle Oasis" which for some reason has an asymmetrical bezel and costs $250. (The Kindle 4 originally retailed for $80, which is where pricing for current Kindle models also starts.)

I love my Kindle 4. I use it every day and take it with me everywhere, and whenever I misplace it and need to buy a replacement, I find myself going to ebay to look for a used version of the old model so I can have a device with buttons.

Oh yes, that was my biggest worry when i bought the paperwhite - If i would miss those buttons too much. Even now after a year, if I could get the paperwhite with buttons, I would. It just works, you don't have to move your finger to change the page.

It's not much I have to move my fingers to change page on the paperwhite, but it's still so much more than should be necessary, the old model just fit like a glove.

(I would still get the paperwhite even with no buttons, and it has not been as annoying regarding accidental page changes as I had initially feared. And i really love the background lighting)

After reading the article, I wanted to comment about how Kindle might be actually one smart device better than the dumb alternative (paper). It's about the same size as a paperback, but much slimmer. About the same font size too. Paper has better contrast, but it's not too bad. For reading a lot of fiction, it's pretty much the ultimate option. And Kindle 4/5 are pretty much the ideal, I couldn't imagine doing anything better. Yet Amazon decided to make the new Kindle heavier, remove the great buttons and force to me to use touch screen. I use Kindle in freezing cold with my heavy gloves on, I use it in my bathroom with partially wet hands, the physical buttons just work. I'm still hoping to get a few more years out of my Kindle 5 (I bought two used ones on eBay, just to have a backup).

My Kindle 3 broke about a couple months ago. I've had it for nearly 4-5 years, worked like a champ, I had a protective case on it with an external LED light you could extend off of it to read at night. I got used to using purely tactile buttons when reading.

So I had to buy a new kindle. I looked into the Oasis, and the kindle paper white, and the voyager. I ended up going with the kindle paper white for $80, despite the fact it doesn't have tactile buttons

I actually prefer the kindle paper white. I actually find that pressing a tactile button on every page is kind of tiring with my old Amazon Kindle 3. Swiping back and forth is much easier if you do it constantly, and doesn't really take long to get used too

One of such example is when they offered us a "Smart Cup" on our Cruise (Royal Caribbeans). It has built-in chip so it know who it belongs to.

So you go to drink fountain, puts your cup in, LCD display nicely says your name (wow) and then you click which drink you wants and the cup fills in, while the display tells you from now on it remembers your favorite drink. Can't be better huh?

Five minutes later I go for a refil: "Sorry but you drank a cup less than 45 minutes ago. Please come back in 39 minutes".

I came back, but to the front desk to get a refund. Instead, I replaced it with more expensive regular cup that you could go to cafeteria and get refils of pretty much anything you want to as often as you wanted to.

This highlights one problem with smart devices. This device truly was smart, but it wasn't smart for you. It was smart for the cruise line, at your expense.

Royal Caribbean has become masterful at the nickel-and-diming of passengers. My wife and I used to cruise with them, but no more, precisely because of this.

Drink fountains used to literally be a tap that let you fill as much or as little as you want. Now they have these "smart" ones that give out premetered amounts, regardless of whether you just wanted a mouthful or have a bigger cup to fill.

A bit dumber than a “smart device”: the new AppleTV remote is a tiny touchpad that communicates with the box via Bluetooth. The problem is when this thing ends up in a cushion or gets squished under a pillow it pauses, stops, or starts rewinding the video. Compare that to a cheaper IR remote where it simply can’t communicate with the unit in those situations. Turns out line of sight is a feature for a TV remote.

The AppleTV 4 remote is, to me, the worst remote control I have ever used, with a big margin. I don't understand how this thing could ever get through usability/ergonomics testing at Apple.

> Turns out line of sight is a feature for a TV remote.

It can be, but for bad TVs you have to do "remote tai chi" to get LoS between the remote and the TV sensor from wide angles or when there are people or things in the way. I wouldn't call digital signalling better, but there are some benefits.

Often that means you have to replace the remote batteries.

With my old TV, I'd pick up the remote and just point it at the wall behind me so the beam would scatter. It was much more likely to work than pointing the remote at the TV.

Yeah, that's happened to me, too. It's small, slim size makes it fit just about anywhere. I do like not having to point it at the box however, and it means the AppleTV unit can be placed out of sight. It is a tradeoff, though.

With HDMI-CEC, your TV can receive the IR signal and pass the instruction back to the AppleTV through the wire, without having to place the unit in sight.

So that's what's going on when I've nudged the universal remote when using the AppleTV. Cheers!

The Logitech harmony remote also works over radio so it doesn’t need line of sight.

But it’s not so small that it gets lost.

I never use my Apple TV remote. It’s not practical enough.

And I much prefer mine over any other I’ve used. One of us must be wrong ;)

"One of the most common uses of Amazon’s Echo is to set a kitchen timer."

Truly worth the money. I suspect the greatest value of these things is that they seem like nice gifts. The same thing seems true of the cheaper drones.

I think the greatest value is probably in the speaker itself, most of the other features do just feel like fluff. Though personally I prefer a more “dumb” speaker I can control with my phone.

Relevant Seinfeld episode:


Jerry buys his parents a personal organizer, lies about how expensive it was, and then they want to buy more "tip calculators" for their entire condo board.

Most of the "smart IoT stuff" is built by (cheap) engineers and decision makers with no sense of IT security and reliability engineering

Also the infrastructure in a major city is usually much more reliable than someone living in the suburbs (especially in non-1st world countries). And I'm not even talking about internet, but electricity as well

See the Tesla remote unlock fiasco, people think it's a good idea to lock their car using a device which needs a recharge every day (and could break, has a higher chance of getting robbed than a key, etc), and needs access to cell towers to unlock the car? Compare this to other manufacturers where the mechanical keys will work even if the battery in the remote dies

See the bluetooth locks fiasco, you're putting a cheap and unreliable device between you and your house? Do people realize how stupid is that?!

I've always preferred tactile/mechanical controls (buttons, knobs, sliders) to the touch screens we have today. And I always trust mechanical systems over fly-by-wire systems. For example, I'm very uncomfortable with things like the Tesla's slide-out door handles, electronic locks in hotel room doors, touch buttons in elevators and GPS navigation systems in aircraft.

Smart tends to mean complex, and complex usually means more things to fail. Some things only need shafts, pulleys and gearwheels -- there is no need to bring a microprocessor into the picture...

Bad news: GPS in airplanes is the least complicated piece of kit, and most commercial aviation is literally fly-by-wire.

I can't find the plane/article but I remember reading about a military jet that is practically always in an unstable flight pattern and computers constantly adjust it to make it so the pilots can fly it normally.

I recall the main computer of the F-22 core dumping when it crossed the international dateline. And an earlier version of the F-16 flight control computer flipping the plane upside down when it crossed the equator in a simulation...

I'm pretty sure almost all fighter jets are like that - the more unstable it is the more responsive it is when turning, since responsiveness and stability are kind of opposites when it comes to aerodynamics.

Being inherently unstable allows it to be more maneuverable.

I recall reading that about the F-117, many years ago. Can't remember the source, either, and I've no idea if it's accurate.

I think that description fits anything from the B2 bomber or newer made by the US. Stealth implies on some heavy trade-offs.

The would be the F16 if memory serves me well.

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