Jeepers! We’re living in the future!

We just installed a new Nest thermostat and are giddy with anticipation!

Photo of a Nest thermostat by James Britton from Flickr
Nest thermostat by James Britton from Flickr

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed. – William Gibson

The thermostat we had when we got up this morning knew the temperature in the house (or at least in the living room downstairs) and because it was “programmable” it had some inkling of what we wanted the temperature to be. On the other hand it had no idea what the weather was like or was expected to be. It didn’t have a clue that a big winter storm was headed our way until the wind had already stripped away whatever heat was stored up in the walls.

It didn’t know if we were actually home or away, so we always had to remember to fiddle with the settings before we went away at Xmas.

It didn’t have any idea how long it would take our 100+ year old hot water radiator heating system to get up to speed or expend its heat. This meant that it often overshot, especially on cold mornings leading to sunny mild days.

It’s communication skills also left something to be desired, being limited to a small, unlit LCD display and four buttons. We keep a flashlight on a table under it specifically because it’s such a pain to to see, even in daylight, and we keep the instruction manual close to hand because the strange button combinations needed to alter the programming make emacs key combinations look positively intuitive.

And we had to be right in front of it to interact with it. If we left for vacation and forgot to put it on hold, well that was just too bad. And there was no way to tell it that we were an hour or two from arrival and it would be really swell if it could start warming the house up for us so we’d come home to something more welcoming than a furnished meat locker.

This afternoon, though, all that changed as we installed our new Nest thermostat.

We now have a thermostats that’s on the Internet. It knows where we live and knows that the sun went down a few minutes. It can access weather forecasts, so it knows how much the temperature is likely to drop tonight. And we can talk to it from anywhere we’re on-line. I can’t see it from where I’m sitting, but via this laptop I know that it reads the current temperature in the living room as 72F. And I can change its settings from this computer. Or my iPod touch. Or a computer at my parents’ house in Arkansas. We can provide an ETA and desired temperature from the road on the way home from a vacation, and the Nest can combine what it knows of our house, our heating system, the weather, and our request to figure out how to make it all happen.

WeatherGrrrl and I were giddy as school kids after we installed it and set up the accounts. We’d connect to it in different ways and alter the settings, and then look at the Nest and watch it respond almost instantly, and watch the displays on other computers update in real time. We giggled like we’d fallen into some strange episode of the Jetsons or Star Trek. And the crazy thing is that it hasn’t actually done anything yet, as the temperature’s still warm enough that we don’t actually want the heat to be on. Yet we sat there dreaming up scenarios and possibilities enabled by this splendid little device, and smiled and laughed and enjoyed ourselves immensely.

While we have no actual experience to report, I can say that the packaging was wonderfully elegant (very Apple-esque), installing it was no problem even for a unhandy person such as me, the set up was easy, and connecting on-line was a breeze. Now we wait while it learns things like how to recognize whether we’re home or now and, when the weather gets cold enough that we need heat, what our heating preferences are and how our aged house and radiator system respond to its commands. Here’s hoping it lives up to half of its potential!

On a related note, way back in grad school (late 80’s?) I had to good fortune to take a seminar from John McCarthy, pioneer of artificial intelligence as a field (and coiner of the term) and the man that developed the Lisp programming language. One of the most memorable moments was a lengthy discussion of whether a thermostat was intelligent; McCarthy argued that it was, much to the consternation of many of the grad students in the room. Without cracking the lid too far on that can of worms for the moment, it’s certainly clear that our Nest thermostat is a whole heck of a lot “smarter” than the programmable jobby we took down today, which was in turn muchly “smarter” than the old analog spring thermostat that was on the wall when we moved in.

Me thinks we just installed a bit of the future, and it’s whole tons of fun!

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Ice cream by the scoop: An environmental mess

Photo of ice cream cone dropped on the pavement
“Tragedy” by Johnathan Nightingale (Flickr)

One of the happy side-effects of living in the Cities this summer is that I’ve been able to partake of locally made ice cream being sold by a number of local vendors. Morris doesn’t have a lot of options in that department (DQ isn’t really ice cream), so my ice cream habit is supported primarily by Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs from Willie’s). Here in the Cities, however, there’s ice cream all over the place, and I’ve definitely been taking full advantage :)

In the process, however, I’ve been forced to confront the unfortunate reality of the packaging mess that is by-the-scoop ice cream. I always try to order it in cones instead of cups, so the container is consumed instead of entering the garbage stream, but even that’s often not a huge help. The Wilde Roast is just down the road a piece and has a nice selection of gelato, for example, and I have been known to amble down to enjoy a little. Unfortunately, even if I order a cone, they scoop it into one of their plastic serving cups (essentially as a measuring device), then splooch it into the cone, and then throw the cup away! They also stick a little plastic spoon in my cone, thereby ensuring that I’ve ended up putting just as much plastic crap in the waste stream as I would have if I’d ordered it in a cup in the first place. And then there’s the paper wrapper on the cone, and the napkins ’cause is runs and drips, and blah, and blah, and blah…

There was once this crazy time when people sat down and ate ice cream in a glass bowl with a metal spoon, both of which could be washed. This is simply not an option at the majority of the places I’ve been getting ice cream at – even if you sit down you get a paper or a plastic cup and a plastic spoon. And I seem to remember that when I was a kid ice cream cones were a more straight forward, less wasteful deal – there was probably a lot of paper (’cause they were still a mess), but there was a heck of a lot less plastic (like, I’m thinking, none).

This, frankly, is dumb, and we can totally do better. I suspect the big problem is that plastic is too cheap due to the complex subsidy chain, so neither the cost of its production or its disposal are being properly assessed in our accounting and decision making.

In the meantime, it would be nice if I could order my ice cream in a nice (or, hell, a cheap) glass bowl with a metal spoon. Maybe I should start bringing my own, although I suspect they’d refuse to scoop into it (some sort of health regs) and I’d still end up with a plastic spoon stuck on top before I’d managed to cut them off at the pass.

There’s an Izzy’s Ice Cream opening tomorrow about a block from the Guthrie, which is just across the river from where I’m staying. It’s a very good thing (for my waistline, my pocketbook, and for the environment) that it and I won’t be together very long before I head back to Morris.

A very good thing.

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