The Not Too Smart Home

Those that have followed me for a while know I live in a large Victorian home. And, as one would expect, we have a fairly large basement as well. If I had to guess it is about 900 square feet. Being it is a basement there are a half dozen lights spread throughout. Just simple ceramic bases to screw a bare bulb into with a short ball chain to turn them off and on. For the whole time I’ve lived in the house, if one wanted to go to the far corner of the basement they would have to snake through the dark, knowing where these lights were located, find the little pull chain, and turn on each one needed. It was kind of dangerous and so, therefore, we generally left at least a couple on all the time. It was a bit of an energy waster but it was the only logical choice.

One of the things that has improved our daily life greatly in a subtle way this year was the installation of some simple and inexpensive motion detectors into those lights. They screw in between the light and the socket. There is a simple dial to set the sensitivity level and distance so it does not go off when, say, the cat runs in front of it but still does when we do. So now, we simply walk down the stairs to the basement and the lights automatically turn on in front of us a few feet ahead we approach. Then, they automatically turn off a few minutes after we leave.

I think of this every time I see some new “smart home” product. Especially one related to lights. Because here was the sort of problem that many so called smart devices promise to solve, yet I can solve it today for under $50 (I got my detectors on sale) and a few minutes time. I don’t have to buy some fancy wi-fi enabled bulbs — I can use any bulb I want. And, the fact is, I can’t currently think of a single area of my home where I would want or need a light I can control from my phone. Or a use case that can’t be solved with technology that has already been around for years. Like the one I just solved.

This is not to say that all such technology is bad. I bought a Nest when they came out and have been happy with it. It manages the energy in our home mindfully. I barely ever have to interact with it but can get detailed reports about our heating usage if I want. It makes setting and forgetting our home temperature easy. All things that were either not available or needlessly complicated on our old thermostat. It’s a perfect example of where “smart” technology has made things better and easier. Where there was no existing non-smart product on the market that could deliver the same solution just as well or with a minimum of technology.

I think there an increasingly prevailing notion that the internet, wifi, or some other new technology automatically makes everything better. That adding more technology means convenience or ease of use. It doesn’t. And, in many cases it means the exact opposite. It means one more point of failure or one more thing to manage or one more corporation to be beholden to. In many cases, sticking the internet into the middle of things makes them worse.

What I am saying most is that I don’t want my home, or anything for that matter to be too smart. I want to be more mindful and intentional about adopting technology in a smart way. Before bringing today’s technology in as a solution, I want to make sure it is not a problem more easily solved without it. And, I want companies that consider such technology to do the same.

Thoughts On Radio3

I have recently become a big fan of Radio3. Radio3 is a linkblogging/sharing tool from Dave Winer that is designed to make it easy to share links to multiple places (So far, Twitter, Facebook, and WordPress) while at the same time creating an RSS feed and personal linkblog. I’ve long followed Dave’s work but I think the stuff he has been doing recently is really interesting. Fargo, a really good web based outliner that works with Dropbox to store your files, is another fine example of his work.

I thought I would write up a short post (spurred, in part, by a request from Dave Winer himself) to outline why I like Radio3 with a short wish list of what features I’d like to see in the future.

Why I Like It:

  • It is a simple and seamless way to share links I find interesting from my browser to Twitter (I don’t use it for Facebook or WordPress) using the Radio3 bookmarklet.

  • Through the linkblog functionality, it’s an easy way for those that wish to see just the links and commentary I’ve posted without having to wade through my whole Twitter stream.

  • In a way, this creates a “backup” of those links and tweets. That said, I already had Pinboard doing that too. But, as they say, you can never have too many backups.

  • It’s fun. Dave has invested a sense of whimsy and fun into the design. From the random sayings above the posting area to the font being used. There is a sense of casual fun while using it.

  • It has a philosophy that is stated up front. I wish more software projects would do so.

Wishlist:

  • I wish one could assign a custom domain to the link blog side of things so it felt more like “my place”. I thought what I wanted was the ability to self host it but, on further reflection, what I really want is for it to feel more like it is “my place” which could be accomplished by the above. The way I arrived at this conclusion was thinking about other services like Tumblr that I use, are not self hosted, but feel like “my place” all the same. I figured out the reason they feel like “my place” is primarily that I own the domain, control the look and feel to an extent, and minimal service branding. In a perfect world, I would have all of these with Radio3 but, if I were to focus on what I would want first, it’s the custom domain.

  • I would love if the items I shared were also stored/backed up locally in an open format like the outlines in Fargo. That would go yet another step further in the feeling-of-ownership department.

Now, a note. I realize that Radio3 has a feed and can post to WordPress and that I could, therefore, set up my own domain, install WordPress, hook up Radio3, and basically create my own linkblog that is fed by Radio3. But that seems like a lot of needless duplication to me. To be honest, the above wish list is a “nice to have” not a “need to have” as I really like Radio3 just fine as it is and believe it is worth checking out.

The Middle Path

I gave a brief review of Path when it first arrived on the scene back in 2010. At the time I just started to use it and was pleasantly surprised by it’s approach. They not only seemed generally interested in a well designed social experience but also a well restricted one. They positioned themselves around the idea that this was a digital journal of sorts that was shared with only your closest family and friends. And, to further reinforce this idea, they actually limited the number of people one could count as a “friend” on the network to 150. This number was not arbitrarily made up. It was based on Dunbar’s Number, the suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar.

Now, Path has had it’s growing pains. They made a stupid choice at one point to access and upload people’s contacts to their service. Unfortunately, this caused many users to write them off completely (and even for Apple to make some changes to an apps ability to do such a thing in the first place). The CEO apologized for it but for some it was either not enough or came off to them as not sincere. But, as one who stuck with the service, I really believe they have been actively working to change this perception. The iPhone and iPad apps (the only way to use the service, mind you) are some of the most beautifully designed and thought through ones I use. The company puts it’s values and story front and center on it’s website. In short, they have worked very hard to win back and deserve the trust of those that use it.

I still use Path pretty actively. I post something there at least once a day. Given it’s purpose and what I use it for, I’m pretty picky about who I connect with there. I really have to consider you a friend or someone I’m at least comfortable sharing more personal details with than I would otherwise share on the more open social networks. I share plenty of pics of my little girl, my day-to-day activities, my runs (it connects with Nike+), my current location, and the occasional selfie. It is the primary way I interact with some other social networks including Foursquare.

Here is how Path fits in for me. I keep the stuff I just want for my eyes only in Day One, the stuff I wish to share with a wide and indiscriminate audience I do on App.net or Twitter. Path sits in the middle of this sharing graph. It is for the stuff I wish to share but only with a selected few. I like to think of it as the “friendship” chair of Thoreau’s home.

The thing is though that I fear for Path’s health and future. Today, they had to lay off 20% of the staff. And though they recently rolled out a premium subscription model, I still am not sure if there are enough people using it and willing to pay for that to sustain them. I hope it sticks around.

But, most importantly, I would like to see and interact more of my friends there. I like it and I think most of them will too. So, if you are so inclined, I think you should give it a shot. And, feel free to look me up and reach out to me if you do.

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