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Reblogged:Two on Smart Homes and Two Analogies

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A Friday Hodgepodge

1. Arthur C. Clarke is known for having once said that Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

A case in point might be an unmaintained home automation system simulating a haunted house:
I was called to an elderly lady's home to "un-haunt" the building. See, her husband had recently passed away; he done "all of the cool things" to make the home smart. Unfortunately too smart. The wife could not operate the devices in her own home.

She had the tenacity to handle living in a dark house. All the time; she just gave up on the lights -- she couldn't figure it out and lived like this for an entire year.

She finally called for help when lights started randomly turning on and off. She believed it was the spirit of her late husband, but after some diagnostics, we found some cross-channel noise from a home further down the block. Whenever this neighbor would come home, he would turn on his lights via his home automation. About 75% of the time, it would turn on our lady's lights too. In her bedroom. And the neighbor worked 3rd shift.

I spend the next two days removing all home automation devices and, as she put it, putting in "turn the light on and off again" switches.
Of course, from the standpoint of people being used to technology doing things like this, few people really think this is magic: Even the widow from the story above eventually called someone in to help, and was probably not worried about her lights coming on randomly after lower-tech light switches had been reinstalled.

2. In keeping with my "lag and leap" approach to new technology, I have steered clear of home automation so far, but that doesn't mean I am oblivious to it -- which is how I encountered the above anecdote.

That said, it is easy to see how one can throw one's hands up from the whole idea and run away pretty early into the entertaining and thought-provoking essay on the subject titled, "The Midwit Home: Less Automation and Less Agony."

I love this essay and can't wait to use some of the advice once we're in our new place.

Why? Because the author clearly understands the big problems and annoyances that exist in the current state of the market in home automation and suggests things one can do NOW -- with well-tested technology that is easy to use and won't turn into a piece of expensive trash if a business goes under, its manufacturer deems it "obsolete," or a subscription lapses.

His example is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the following is a good sample of what you'll get:
Say you have Clapper-activated lights in your bedroom, but you do a lot of sleep-clapping. Well, you can plug the lights into a Clapper, and the Clapper into an outlet timer. That's basically an AND gate.
I like the way the author thinks: There can be a happy medium between the hassle (when it really is one) of using the light switch or going with trendy ephemeral tech that spies on you, makes you pay to do simple things, and doesn't work with other things you own.

3. When accounting for how long something takes, it can be helpful to have a set of ready analogies. That's what you get from a post at Technical on the "soft orders of magnitude" that computer tasks can take:
  • The task completes instantly.
  • There is a short pause, maybe 1-2 seconds, but then it's done.
  • There is a long pause, maybe 3-20 seconds, that you have to wait.
  • Time to check your email / messages / notifications while you wait.
  • Time to refill your water.
  • Time to work on something else for a bit.
  • Long enough to go to lunch.
  • Long enough to go home for the day.
  • Long enough to go home for the weekend. (I've never worked on anything with a task this long, thankfully.)
The last one reminds me of such a task back in grad school.

For part of the data analysis for my thesis project, we relied on code from a collaborator. Naturally, right as I was in the thick of writing my thesis -- and getting married! -- we learned that there was a bug, and I'd have to re-do that analysis for every single experiment I'd done.

Fortunately, I'd automated such tasks so that it was a simple matter of replacing the call to his old code with a call to his new code and writing a script to do this for all the data.

I figured this would take about two weeks, so I started the ball rolling, got married and went on our honeymoon, and then came back and picked up where I left off, but with my data correctly analyzed.

4. I haven't thought through this obligations-as-different-kinds-of-balls analogy, but it strikes me as clever:
Image by Yi Liu, via Unsplash, license.
My life has glass balls, plastic balls, and bouncy balls. Glass balls can't be dropped or they'll shatter -- but there aren't very many of them, it turns out. Plastic balls can be dropped, but once you miss them, they are dropped -- you have to bend over and put in effort to pick them up again.

Bouncy balls, on the other hand ... not only will they survive being dropped, but they'll pop right back up for me to handle tomorrow. The friend texting to see if I want coffee? The museum exhibit I had plans to visit today, but that's still in town for another month? The laundry sitting in my hamper? If I ignore them too long they might stop bouncing and become a dropped ball. But I'll get several chances at them before we hit that point. A lot of things in life are bouncy balls, it turns out.
I am inclined to think it can be useful for short- to medium-term planning.

-- CAV

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