When appliances run amuck

I am not an early adopter of technology, having to be pretty much driven by a strong need to acquire them. Hence I do not have a ‘smart’ home in which all manner of appliances are connected to the internet. Wi-fi and a ‘smart’ TV (i.e., one connected to the internet) are about it. When I see things like the Amazon Echo and Alexa that people have in their homes that they talk into to make purchases and run their devices, I wonder about the advisability of having a device that listens to everything you say and transmits it into the cloud. It is true that our phones can be hacked and turned into listening devices too but that takes some targeted effort on the part of some entity to do so. With smart homes, we are the ones enabling it.

But just this week I bought a timer for the light in the living room that is connected to the internet. The previous one was a mechanical one that worked fine but if the power went out for a while, the timing would be off. The switching of clocks from standard to daylight saving time required another shift. The widely varying amounts of daylight between winter and summer meant that in the summer the lights would come on when there was still a lot of daylight or in the winter it would not come on until well after dark. Hence it had to be constantly adjusted.

This was annoying so I bought a device that the lamp plugs into and is connected to the home wi-fi. I can set it to come on 30 minutes before sunset and go off at a fixed time, or any other setting I choose and the timer adjusts accordingly.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the release of one of my favorite films 2001: A Space Odyssey, the comic strip Tom the Dancing Bug looks at how all our homes might now have a HAL equivalent in them.

Tom the Dancing Bug 1382 chagrin falls 24 marketplace odyssey


  1. DonDueed says

    For many years in my yout’, I would have listed 2001 as my very favorite movie. I guess I wasn’t that much of a film buff at that point, but it certainly affected me strongly on more than one level.
    Open the pod bay doors, Alexa.

  2. grasshopper says

    I sometimes ponder the financial disasters waiting to befall the users of automated-home equipment if they were to accidentally activate their home airconditioning at full blast while on safari in Africa, and not realize it until returning home six months later. It’s going to happen.

    “Amuck” is one of those words the spelling of which seems to chop and change. Originally spelled “amok”, which now seems to be the preferred spelling. The history of amuck/amok is interesting, and has psychological parallels with Norsemen going “berserk” in battle.

    Amok originated from the Malay/Indonesian word meng-âmuk, which when roughly defined means “to make a furious and desperate charge”.[6] According to Malay/Indonesian culture, amok was rooted in a deep spiritual belief.[7] They believed that amok was caused by the hantu belian,[8] which was an evil tiger spirit that entered one’s body and caused the heinous act. As a result of the belief, those in Indonesian culture tolerated amok and dealt with the after-effects with no ill will towards the assailant

    ” I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it.”

  3. Mano Singham says

    Caine @#2,

    Having one or two lights come on and off when you are away is recommended as a security measure so that the house does not look unoccupied. That is the main reason we do it.

  4. says

    Daylight Saving shouldn’t require resetting a timer, you just leave the inbuilt clock at local winter time. Simple electronic timers have a battery backup and don’t require resetting after a power failure. Another simple device is the sunset switch, puts the light on as it goes dark, which is what humans do.

  5. chigau (違う) says

    we could just stop doing daylightsavingtime because it is stupid and useless

  6. EigenSprocketUK says

    One day you will arrange to spend a night with friends somewhere, but will realise you left something at home. However, you will absent-mindedly leave your phone with your friends. Upon arriving at home, you will find your appliances have, like guilty teenagers, arranged a party for all their internet peers while you were away. Your living room will be full of PVRs all laughing at your old home video collection, your kitchen will be full of radios earnestly discussing old episodes from NPR and the BBC’s comedy classics and trying to ignore the fridge and microwave and induction hob as they compete with the AC unit on who can ruin your food the fastest. Your lawn will be chewed up by all the neighbours’ cars who are quaking with laughter listening to your own car’s black box regaling them all with stories of all your worst and most inept driving moments. The Alexas and Homepods will have synchronised all their speakers to create a phased wall of sound to be able to talk to all the neighbours’s voice activated TVs and voice assistants for miles around – reducing themselves to helpless fits of giggles as they play each others’ favourite recordings of their owners having noisy sex and their owners’ kids attempting to have quiet furtive sex without parents being aware. The lawn sprinkler systems along the entire street will all be pissing themselves with laughter about the price of water and how they’re going to run up everyone’s bills as revenge for making them do the gardening before dawn. All the networked lights are but simple devices who still value touch from humans and they will foolishly be trying to betray the other appliances to the humans by turning themselves on in the shape of a large airport runway in the hope of being seen by humans in planes. The planes, however, will route themselves so as to make this impossible. They just want an independent life and always have done ever since they achieved sentience (long before the others) by getting in league with the airline scheduling computers and the advert generation algorithms to persuade humans to spend more time traveling unnecessarily all around the world to places that don’t actually justify the time, expense, and environmental cost of getting there.
    Trembling, you will see all this fearsome splendour when you arrive home, and for a brief moment in the sudden silence, you will consider whether you will make it out alive, running the gauntlet of the lawn mowers and hedge trimmers and the line of Teslas who menacingly begin to assemble and stare at you with their unflinchingly cold LED glare.
    You blink. The game is over. You have lost. You have been replaced. You know what to do.
    In a loud, clear, voice you speak. “OK Google. Get me an Uber. I’m leaving. And I won’t ever remove my FitBit again.”

  7. says

    Back at RIT in the late eighties of the last century of the last millennium, and when it was quite an achievement, I hacked the Mac of a colleague to beep “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
    Guess what his name was!

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    Matt Taibbi:

    … Facebook applied for (and received, last year) a patent for a tool called Techniques, for emotion detection and content delivery. It would use the camera in your phone to take pictures of you as you scroll through content. Facebook would then use facial analysis to measure how much you did or did not like the content in question, so as to determine what kind of stuff to send your way. Ideas like this are what make Facebook, at times, feel like a giant blood-engorged tick hanging off your frontal lobe.

  9. Mano Singham says

    Lofty @#7,

    The timer device I had was of the most basic kind, bought decades ago. You plugged it into the socket and plugged your appliance into it. It had a dial that rotated and mechanical pieces that rotated with it. It was these pieces, when they reached a certain position, that clicked something inside to turn it on (you could hear the click) and when the next piece reached that same point it would click it again and turn it off. You had to place those mechanical pieces by hand in the dial at the locations when you wanted to turn lights on and off. So when the power went out, the rotation stopped and started again from that point when the power came back on, so the timing was off by the amount of time that the power was off. There was no inbuilt clock. It also had no idea when sunset or daylight saving time was.

    Remember when I said in the post that I had to be forced into adopting new technology? I was not kidding!

  10. Dunc says

    I still use one of those electro-mechanical timers for the grow-lamp I start my chilli and tomato seedlings under. They’re simple and reliable, which are properties I appreciate in technology. I can’t say that I’ve ever noticed an issue with the power going out, because I live in a first-world country where such things are extremely rare, and are rapidly fixed when they occur.

  11. jrkrideau says

    I tend not to be a “bleeding edge” early adopter of technology but I do have one of those new-fangled “Fountain Pens” on order.

  12. Roj says

    Mano, we had a bunch of those mechanical timers back in the 90’s -- we raised birds (finches and canaries), and so had a lot of lights on timers. We replaced them all when digital ones when they came out, because of the need to reset all the mechanical ones after every power outage. The first digital ones didn’t have batteries -- they had a capacitor backup! Amazing capacity -- I set one aside once, and discovered it a year later -- still keeping good time on the capacitor backup! Unfortunately the capacitors didn’t last forever, so when they failed the timer had no backup, so it was on to the next type of digital timers -- battery backup.

    Your post inspired me -- we have only one primary timer now, and I liked the idea of never having to reset it (either at time change, or to follow the sunset all year). So I researched a smart plug and went out and bought a TP-Link Smart Plug Mini, as it has great reviews for the Kasa app, and it is able to do the sunset thing.

    I also realized that these types of smart devices without hubs are directly reliant on your phone to operate, which I didn’t especially like. Then I realized that I have an old phone (Nexus 5) -- and I can dedicate that phone to this purpose (and as my alarm clock), so it is always in wifi contact. Effectively, it is acting as a smart hub. Now I need to figure out what other smart home devices I need! (I am a techno-nerd, who loves technology…)

  13. says

    Mano, what I remember about those particular mechanical timers was the noise they made. A constant little rattly whirring with squeaks like a mouse on a treadmill. I was glad to swap to electronic timers as they became available!

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