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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How do we wish to be remembered (again): Vote No tomorrow

How do we wish to be remembered?

Looking back, it can be hard to imagine why people in the past just didn’t get it. Why they thought women shouldn’t be allowed to vote, and why blacks and whites couldn’t use the same restroom, or the same school.

The people that voted to supported these old ideas were not all Bad People going out of their way to work against the rights of others. I know some where my relatives, and I’ll bet that some were yours. Certainly, there were plenty of small-minded, mean-spirited people leading the charge, but they depended crucially on the passive support of numerous well-meaning folk who mostly just didn’t want to rock the boat or weren’t very comfortable with change.

Tomorrow in Minnesota we get a chance to vote on whether our state constitution should be amended in an attempt to block all future efforts to allow gays the human & civil rights of marriage, & the legal protections it affords. As you consider this amendment, it might help to ask yourself: How do I wish to be remembered? As someone who quietly stood with those who would limit the freedoms of those different from themselves, or with those who believe in liberty and justice for all?

And let us be clear: This is a human rights issue.

Sue & I have been married for over 20 years and she has been a full, equal, & wonderful partner in building our shared life. Her creativity and passion flows through our child, our home, and the experiences we’ve shared. I would hope that our community would recognize this and support her associated rights, which include critical things such as health coverage, our pension, and her right to speak for me regarding medical treatment. If, however, someone didn’t recognize her rights, she would have the legal backing of the state of Minnesota, which ensures the human and civil rights of a spouse in numerous ways.

Why should any committed couple be denied these same rights, regardless of their genders?

Which brings us back to the question: How do we wish to be remembered? Do we want to be remembered as supporting a last, desparete gasp of a group attempting to deny yet another group a basic human and civil right? Or do we want to be on the right side of history tomorrow, knowing, win or lose, that we voted to treat our fellow travellers humanely, with courage & justice?

So I urge you to Vote No. It’s a vote your grandchildren can be proud of.

I would also strenuously encourage you, for many of the same underlying reasons, to vote no on the proposed Voter ID amendment. I recommend that you check out Guante’s excellent video on the Voter ID amendment if you wish to learn more:

You might also want to check out MPR’s nice video on the huge amount of vagueness and uncertainty there is in the proposed Voter ID amendment:

So go vote tomorrow. It matters. I know that the weird math of the electoral college can make it seem like voting for president doesn’t matter unless you live in Ohio or Pennsylvania or Florida. And it can seem like incumbents have a lock on everything. But on either of these amendments, it could literally come down to a few votes. So don’t say your voice doesn’t matter. Don’t say you don’t have time. Don’t say no one cares. Instead be a voice, however small, for a more humane world.

Vote No on both proposed amendments.

How do we wish to be remembered?

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