Monthly Archives: December 2011

Over-engineering and how it makes people’s lives worse

There’s an acid test that we as engineers should always subject our creations to: do they make life better for the end user? “Better” is perhaps quite difficult to quantify, but you can always approach the problem from the opposite direction and see if you’ve made things worse.

This is something British Gas’s man clearly failed to do when fixing my grandparents’ central heating recently. I don’t know the full details of the problem, but I do know that their thermostat was broken, so he installed a new one.

Fair enough, but it turns out that the iron march of progress has changed a thermostat from a knob with some numbers on it to something ‘smart’:

 

 

Central heating thermostat, circa 1990
Before

 

 

Wireless super-blingy modern thermostat, circa 2011
After

 

And how does the new wireless thermostat make life worse for my nonagenarian grandparents? Let us count the ways:

  • Because it’s wireless, it has batteries in it which need replacing every so often. This is achieved by opening a flimsy plastic door on the bottom of the unit which is fiddly to access once it’s wall mounted, then scrabbling on the carpet as the batteries fall to earth. It also means the thermostat will mysteriously stop working once every n months until someone younger sorts it out for them, since there’s no way they’ll hear a low-battery beep or spot an indicator on the screen.
  • Since it’s superglued to the wall just inches away from the hot water tank it controls, the only advantage of wirelessness is to save the drilling of one hole and the running of a six-inch bit of cabling – and even these could presumably have been avoided by replacing the original thermostat instead of leaving it screwed to the wall but not doing anything.
  • Instead of reading the numbers round a knob, you see them on an LCD display which is not backlit and not very big, thus making it perfect for people with poor eyesight to see in a not-very-well-lit hallway.
  • Pressing the middle of it resets it to a pre-programmed ‘preset temperature’ (“ideal for the poorly sighted”, the manual claims with no sense of irony) – an unnecessary recipe for confusion if you knock the middle by mistake
  • It doesn’t go ‘click’ as it passes the current room temperature like an electromechanical thermostat would, so you have to read the screen instead
  • By default the display shows the current room temperature, meaning you can’t tell without adjusting the knob what temperature the thermostat is currently set at

Somewhat more subjectively, I think it’s more likely to malfunction than an electromechanical device with two moving parts, and presumably it has to fight for spectrum with all surrounding cordless phones, WiFi units and garage door openers – let’s hope the base station does something sensible in the face of losing contact with the unit.

Well done, lads. Another triumph of engineering.

2011 summarized

  • It’s been a very busy year
  • Still working for CFL and enjoying it very much
  • Now living in a much nicer house (not damp! luxury!)
  • Still helping balance the books for St Columba’s

Oh, and let’s check on the outcome of that 2011 geek wishlist

  • That Debian Squeeze will release in Q1 2011

Granted, and all my machines have been upgraded.

  • That I’ll discover a J2EE Servlet Container which isn’t totally horrible

Tomcat 7 is a considerable improvement over its predecessors.

  • That some kind of reconciliation between the JCP and Apache will occur

Nope.

  • That Java 7 won’t be delayed forever

Partial victory: it’s arrived, but most of the interesting new features will only be in Java 8.

  • That Python 3 will get adopted faster than PHP 5 or Java 1.5 did

Probably still to early to say.

  • That we’ll finally see some major UK ISPs offering IPv6

Not a sausage, as far as I’m aware.

Merry Christmas all.

India diary, day 10

In June/July 2010 I spent ten days travelling in Rajasthan, India with friends; this is my diary of the trip (full list of entries here).

Got up at 9.30 and boarded my taxi to the terminal. Cheeky driver actually asked for his tip, but what the heck, he carried my case for me; better than London!

In the airport; bit of an anticlimax now it’s all over; found an Internet kiosk and caught up on ten days’ worth of e-mail (it’s much clearer when you see it all together how pointless 95% of it is). Gave the last five minutes of my time to an American chap anxious to close a deal…

Flight to London took off dead on time and served an excellent curry half way through. My reaction to the slight turbulence over Russia (wheee! isn’t this exciting; look at all these people looking queasy) led me to believe I was a little out of it, probably a combination of jet lag and being cooler than I’d been for a week.

Landed Heathrow after 7.5 hours (ahead of time!). Took three hours to get back to Oxford, what with being at the back of the plane, hundreds of French schoolgirls in front of me at the E.U. passport control lane (why can’t we have a British lane? Or does asking that make me a racist?), and getting across Oxford from the coach stop.

Collapse into bed and work in the morning; it’s a hard life.

Note to my loyal readers
Sorry it’s taken so long to write this all up. I’m a lazy busy man, you know. Expect to read about 2012’s holiday some time during 2014, and a very Merry Christmas to you all.

India diary, day 9

In June/July 2010 I spent ten days travelling in Rajasthan, India with friends; this is my diary of the trip (full list of entries here).

Rose early to find the storm over and a nice pleasant day forming outside.

Walked into town and went to see an old palace, a throwback to the British empire, now a museum of sorts.

Enjoyed a farewell drink and slice of cake with my travelling companions, then got a taxi out to the airport with K. He departed promptly to spend a few more days with his grandparents, leaving me alone as the only white person in the airport (and probably within miles…).

Bought a Robert Ludlum novel from the tiny airport’s tiny bookshop and settled down to wait.

Eventually caught my connecting flight up to Dheli, where I managed to procure a taxi to an airport hotel and fall asleep.

India diary, day 8

In June/July 2010 I spent ten days travelling in Rajasthan, India with friends; this is my diary of the trip (full list of entries here).

Today, we drove back as far as Jodhpur, where we dismissed our driver at the airport; there was a slight argument as he tried to gouge us for a bigger fee than originally agreed, but having a native speaker with us put a stop to that.

We caught an internal flight south to Udaipur, southern Rajasthan; this was definitely the smallest plane I’d ever been on (two seats either side of the aisle). It was diverted to Ahmadabad owing to bad weather over the landing strip at Udaipur (anxious moments – we hadn’t b0thered with malaria medication as we weren’t supposed to be going outside the low-risk zone), but we eventually hit the tarmac in Udaipur just in time to catch a taxi into town before the gathering storm broke.

From the taxi, we watched the wind blowing the debris from the side of the road everywhere, before locating a cheap and cheerful hotel. By this point it was raining heavily, with the temperature down to a blessedly manageable 30 degrees (but the humidity way up).

A decent dinner by candlelight (owing to the storm having knocked out the power) – definitely the oddest setting in which I’ll ever recount how I once met the Queen – then bed.

India Diary, day 7

In June/July 2010 I spent ten days travelling in Rajasthan, India with friends; this is my diary of the trip (full list of entries here).

The morning after our camel ride, we woke up on our camp beds in the desert, feeling surprisingly refreshed.

After breakfasting on bananas and cake, we set off back to the city on our camels. We galloped the last quarter of a mile, much to my dismay as I bounced up and down in the saddle and kept landing heavily on my gentleman’s area.

We were then dropped off at the hotel, promising to come in to Mr Dessert’s office in town later to sign his testimonials book (which we didn’t. Apologies if you’re reading this, Mr D, but comfort yourself with the thought that I’m hearby recommending you unreservedly to my global readership of two and a half).

We had a nice lazy day at the hotel by the pool (apparently droughts aren’t a good enough reason to upset the handful of tourists wanting a swim), enjoying the colonial throwback presumably responsible for the flat screen TV having BBC World
but not CNN – the first western TV channel we’d seen all week.

We made a brief sortie into the city in the worst heat we’d experienced so far to be shown round an old merchant rest-house, then beat a hasty retreat back under the air conditioning.

India diary, day 6

In June/July 2010 I spent ten days travelling in Rajasthan, India with friends; this is my diary of the trip (full list of entries here).

Day six of our epic trip, and we’re off on the third leg, travelling north to Jaisalmer, on the edge of the desert near Pakistan. It’s apparently likely to be even hotter up there, but I’m not convinced that’s possible.

On the upside, everyone’s feeling better and we ma   de good time, arriving in mid afternoon.

We left the car on the outskirts and caught a couple of rickshaws up a very steep hill and through some impossibly narrow gaps, arriving at the offices of the very Indian-
named ‘Mr Dessert’, who we’d been recommended to by someone who’d visited the region last year. We booked ourselves on his camel safari, leaving at 4pm that day and returning the next morning, with a night sleeping under the stars in the
desert in between. It cost the princely sum of 1000 rupees a head – not bad for a trip which turned out to be laid on just for us [the only white tourists crazy enough to be there in the off-season heat?].

The icing on the cake was finding a decent hotel for the next night, which booked us in at half price owing to the off season and agreed to take care of our bags.

We were driven out to the camels, pausing en route to visit an abandoned village. The story, we were told, was that 100 years ago, the prime minister of the state, who was a very bad man with five wives, visited the village and demanded the mayor’s daughter be his sixth wife. The mayor refused to let her go and was given an  ultimatum – hand her over in 24 hours or we destroy the village. So the entire  population upped sticks and fled overnight, and the place has been abandoned ever since.

Whatever the truth of it, the village was definitely abandoned (apart from the old man at the entrance charging RS10 per head to look round!).

We rode out into the dessert on our camels – stopping to see the sunset and arriving at the campsite at 7pm.

Our guides were great – one of them mentioned to K that he’d had no formal education and learnt his (pretty good) English entirely from 20 years of looking after tourists on this trip.

We had a very tasty meal at the camp – no idea what it was, as we’d been forbidden from using any lights in order to avoid attracting mosquitos, but it was delicious. Our camp beds under the stars were just the thing, and we all passed a good night
apart from being disturbed initally by the local stray dog howling at the moon.

All of the above was in no way spoiled by noticing that in the middle of the dessert, my mobile phone had three signal strength bars – more than it does in many areas of Oxford. Clearly the architects of the dreaming spires just didn’t think of the radio waves we’d be trying to get through them 500 years later.

Day six of our epic trip, and we’re off on the third
leg, travelling north to Jaisalmer, on the edge of the
desert near Pakistan. It’s apparently likely to be
even hotter up there, but I’m not convinced that’s possible.

On the upside, everyone’s feeling better and we made good
time, arriving in mid afternoon.

We left the car on the outskirts and caught a couple of
rickshaws up a very steep hill and through some impossibly
narrow gaps, arriving at the offices of the very Indian-
named ‘Mr Dessert’, who we’d been recommended to by
someone who’d visited the region last year. We booked ourselves
on his camel safari, leaving at 4pm that day and returning the
next morning, with a night sleeping under the stars in the
desert in between. It cost the princely sum of 1000 rupees a
head – not bad for a trip which turned out to be laid on just
for us [the only white tourists crazy enough to be there in
the off-season heat?].

The icing on the cake was finding a decent hotel for the next
night, which booked us in at half price owing to the off season
and agreed to take care of our bags.

India diary, day 5

In June/July 2010 I spent ten days travelling in Rajasthan, India with friends; this is my diary of the trip (full list of entries here).

I was quite ill today and spent it in the hotel feeling sorry for myself. Still; I had company – K also feeling pretty ropey. Happily we were both feeling a bit better by evening and resolved to press on in the morning for the third leg provided we felt no worse.