Saturday, September 28, 2013

Welcome to the Microfuture.

I just turned on and off my front porch light using my iPhone.  

Now if you're anything like me, and I like to think that you are, your immediate response would be "That's stupid." And not too long ago I would've said you were right.

But here's the thing. Our house was once owned by a crazy person with a Sarah Winchester complex, and during their time here they went on a lighting bender. It took nearly a year for us to find all the hidden timers, strangely-located light switches, and mysterious fixtures on the property and figure out their relationships to one another. I'm sure it confused the spirits at least as much as it did us, so... mission accomplished, I guess. Suffice to say that when we asked the previous owner which switches controlled which lights, he started rocking back and forth and repeating "the dark is okay, the dark can be nice..."

The light switch for the front porch lights (and for an obscure outlet way up by the front gate) is brilliantly located in the basement - which is only accessible from the outside. So to turn on the lights on the front steps, you have to first walk down those front steps, in the dark, unlock the basement door, in the dark, then feel around for the switch, in the dark. Yes, that's right, if you want to go down to the basement after sundown, the switch to turn on the light that would keep you from breaking your neck - is in the basement.

For a long time I've been unsuccessfully trying to work up the courage to undertake what would no doubt be a frustrating, knuckle-scraping, filthy, weekend-consuming job filled with nasty surprises migrating the switch up next to - gasp! - the front door. It seems like a great idea - except that pulling wire where there's no conduit, cutting holes in lath and plaster and then making it look right again, and drilling through 90-year-old sole plates are all between that dream and reality, and none of those things is really all that motivating.

Then I found this little guy for $45.

Well, that certainly doesn't look out of place...
It's called a "WeMo Light Switch" - made by Belkin - and it's actually kinda great.  First of all, installing it is as easy as replacing a regular light switch.  Second, it works all by itself - if you have WiFi and a smartphone, of course, but the point is you don't have to buy a bunch of other supporting crap just to make this thing happen.  That's the great part - it allows you to solve single problems with point solutions that are actually pretty cheap.

Home Automation has been around for a long time, of course.  There were all these proprietary systems you could buy that controlled your lights, your heat, your appliances, etc.  All you had to do was buy into the whole idea that you needed a robotic house to feed your Tony Stark fantasies, spend 5 figures or so, and then spend the next several months figuring out how to program it all - and periodically debug it for the rest of your life when the toilet wouldn't flush and the radio decided that you needed 200 db of polka music at 2 in the morning.  Upside?  Your house is this magical place that makes you feel like the master of the universe.  Downside, you turn your life into a bad episode of some kind of futuristic I Love Lucy.

I could never see myself throwing down for something like that - remember, I'm the guy who only just two years ago decided I needed a car with power windows.   My M.O. has always been trying to figure out how much I could do WITHOUT buying a gadget - cobbling together old components to extend their functionality etc.  But this little guy?  Brilliant.  I'm even considering getting a couple more of these - each one just becomes another node in the network - for the back porch light so we don't have to leave the thing on all day if we know we're coming home after dark - another common annoyance. You can also buy motion sensors and outlet controllers one at a time and join them to the system - I'm not planning on getting either at this point, but that's what's so cool - I don't have to.  The system scales elegantly from one switch up to whatever point you want, even to the point of integrating with email and social media.  So yes, you can actually set it up so that your cat can tweet everytime he goes to the sandbox.  I didn't say that you COULDN'T get stupid with this...  

So our house just got that much more Chrono-Clash-tastic - Chicken coops, and networked thermostats. Spinning wheels, and internet-ready lightswitches.  In a house where we have on multiple occasions made our own butter, I'm sitting here typing and instantly publishing this missive on a magical piece of glass.   All things considered, the future is pretty great when you can adopt it a little bit at a time.

Not to mention that, for $45 and 15 minutes' work, I can scratch rewiring the porch light off my list of unappealing home rehabilitation tasks.  Now if only there was an app that would re-caulk my bathroom next time...hello, Silicon Valley? Can you get on that please?  

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Catch Phrases to Live By

Subject to future additions and redactions, and offered here without attribution other than to say that none are attributed to me. You may recognize some - if I've misquoted, apologies are offered in advance.

1. Worry is interest paid in advance on a debt that never comes due.

2. Everything will be alright in the end. If it isn't alright, then it isn't the end.

3. If you want to hear God laugh, make a plan.

3a. A plan has value only insofar as it proves that some planning has occurred.

4. All models are wrong. Some are useful.

5. Sad designers make sad designs.

6. A designer is not a screwdriver.

7. In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice - but in practice, there is.