New Honeywell Round Thermostats Suck: Do Not Buy

I ordered one to use as a mechanical, low-voltage thermostat for my electric heating after I converted it to low-voltage control. It came up on my Amazon product search, and had what seemed to be a decent rating of 4.2 out of five stars. That, plus the appearance of familiarity with the product (I have lived in homes with older versions of them before) prompted me to choose it.

Big mistake! Turns out it’s not a mechanical thermostat at all; it’s an “intelligent” (I use the term very loosely here) electronic one, complete with a printed-circuit board hidden inside. It’s just disguised to look like a traditional mechanical thermostat.

If Honeywell had properly engineered such a design, there would be no problem. But they did not. Look at the actual written reviews for it on Amazon’s product page and you will see something unsettling: a large number of one-star reviews, with those bad reviews rated as being the most helpful.

For further amusement, go to the HVAC-TALK site, feed “Honeywell CT87” into the search box, and you will be rewarded with some archived discussions of this model by HVAC professionals. The general consensus is that they are junk and should not be installed.

The main problem is apparently how the firmware emulates a traditional mechanical thermostat’s anticipator (a tiny electric heater inside a thermostat that “anticipates” the tendency for heating systems to overshoot past the set temperature). It assumes a fixed and unrealistically rapid rate of temperature increase when the heat comes on. It works OK if it’s barely cold enough to need to run the heat, but as the outside temperature drops, it gets less and less accurate; you have to set the thermostat ever higher to get the same inside temperature. This has apparently even caused frozen and burst pipes for some homeowners!

To make a shitty product even worse:

  • They have an internal, undocumented lithium battery that will die within a decade, degrading performance further.
  • They have an undocumented power-stealing design that is incompatible with some systems.
  • The case design, in contrast to the traditional Round case, has poor air circulation which makes for poor sensitivity.
  • The temperature-sensing thermistor is mounted directly on the circuit board, making its sensitivity to air temperature worse yet.
  • Their circuitry is unreliable and prone to failing entirely within a year or two.

Honeywell Round thermostats didn’t used to suck; in fact, they used to be the most popular thermostat out there, and would last decades. That was when they were mechanical. But that design used mercury switches and ended up getting banned*. Instead of choosing to go with a mechanical magnetic snap design, Honeywell chose the electronic route, and badly botched it.

* For good reason. Mercury is toxic, so old mercury thermostats should be recycled. Instead, they generally end up in the trash, causing toxic waste problems.

What’s infuriating is that this has been a problem for most of a decade, and Honeywell is still selling these defective-by-design pieces of junk, apparently because I am not the only one suckered by their retro appearance into believing they are simple, mechanical, and reliable.

Caveat emptor!

Using Your Cell Phone in Canada for Less

If you live in the USA, it’s easily possible to use your cell phone in Canada, but the most straightforward way of doing so (roaming) is unfortunately very expensive. Virtually all U.S. cell carriers consider any sort of international roaming to be a high-end feature. Either you will pay an exorbitant fee per day or per call to use it, or you will pay an exorbitant fee (i.e. at least $50 per month) for a high-end plan that offers roaming without such extra fees.

If, like me, you’re a cheapskate who has traditionally received cell service via a discount plan like TracFone (which doesn’t offer international roaming at all), the prices are likely to make you say “Ouch!” They sure made me say “Ouch!”

For years, I stuck with TracFone despite living in a state that borders Canada, and just put up with being out of cell coverage range whenever I was in Canada. Recently, however, I moved further north, to a county that borders Canada directly. The closest big city to me is now Vancouver, so if I want to do big city things, odds are I will be traveling to Canada to do them. Furthermore, my parents are getting evermore elderly and frail, so it is getting evermore unacceptable to be without cell service.

My solution? Forget about roaming, and just buy a discount cell plan from a Canadian carrier. I did some research, and subscribing to the least expensive plan by Public Mobile increases my monthly costs by less than half the amount that any option for purchasing the right to roam in Canada would. Public Mobile is basically Telus’ discount brand, which is important because cell coverage in rural areas of Canada is often quite spotty, and Telus has the best coverage in rural B.C.

The silly bit is that I’m now paying more for the right to use my cell phone in Canada than I do for the right to use it in the USA, but that’s more a function of what a screaming deal TracFone is than what a raw deal Public Mobile is. Canada’s cell charges tend to be high simply as a result of Canada being large and sparsely-populated, which results in fewer users having to bear the costs of maintaining a large network.

There are some catches, however:

  1. Calls to my U.S. number won’t follow me into Canada; my Canadian service plan comes with its own separate Canadian phone number. For me, that’s a minor drawback: I can simply tell anyone who has business being able to contact me to use my other number when I’m in Canada. For someone whose career depended on always being available at a given number, it’s not so minor a drawback.
  2. I had to install a SIM card from my Canadian carrier into my phone. In my case, that was a minor issue, as my phone has two SIM slots in it. If I had a phone with only a single SIM slot, this probably would have prompted me to buy a new phone (which would easily pay for itself within a year from the savings it would enable). I definitely would not want to fiddle with swapping SIM cards each time I visited Canada.
  3. If you have a phone you purchased from a cell carrier, you are most likely shit outta luck: most phones sold by carriers have been deliberately crippled so as to not work on any other carrier’s network (I purchased my phone from an electronics retailer, and purchased a SIM card from TracFone separately).
  4. If you are a Verizon customer, you are probably shit outta luck. Verizon uses a nonstandard technology that other carriers do not use, so many Verizon phones could not be made to work on any other cell network even if they were somehow unlocked.

One final thing: if you go to the web sites for most Canadian carriers and attempt to order a SIM card from them, you will discover that they absolutely refuse to ship such things outside Canada. My solution was to wait until my next trip to Vancouver and visit a London Drugs outlet (they sell Public Wireless SIM cards). Once you have the SIM card, Public Wireless will happily let you register it to a USA mailing address, and associate it with a USA credit card.

I think there’s a few entrepreneurs importing Canadian SIM cards and offering to ship them to US addresses, for a fee, but the key here is for a fee. Being a cheapskate, it was easy enough just to wait until my next trip to Canada and buy one in person. I then went to a nearby coffeehouse with free WiFi and used my phone to register itself for service. It was activated and on Telus’ network within an hour.

The Shoes Start Dropping

Today, Boeing announced that they will “temporarily” stop production of the 737 Max.

Note that I put “temporarily” in quotes. I predicted last April that the only lasting fix for the 737 Max will involve the scrap aluminum recycling industry, and I am sticking by that prediction. It may take an ill-considered recertification of that aircraft, followed by the loss of more lives, to seal its fate, however.

Yes, It’s a Cult

Many cults have their members dress distinctively in public. Here’s one stereotypical example from the 1960’s:

How is that fundamentally different from this (snapped recently on the ferry one afternoon):

Answer: it’s not. Not so far as I can tell. Both expect you to turn over your life to the cult. With cult religions, it’s rituals and faith-based beliefs in things that cannot be proven. With cult employers, it’s the cult of high technology.

Both cults expect you to devote your life to the cult, wearing the clothing the cult provides, and devoting your “free” time to activities the cult approves of, generally ones that support the cult’s mission.

And I think that, in addition to my age, is really hurting my employability. I have my lifelong interests, and I’m not interested in putting them on the back burner in the name of prioritizing any cult’s interests (no offense, geeks, but role playing games and science fiction simply don’t interest me). I’ve developed my own idiosyncratic sense of personal style, and I’m not interested in changing it in order to become a human billboard for some business. I regard social networking as a baleful influence on society, and participate in it only reluctantly, under an assumed name. I firmly believe that what I choose to do in my unpaid hours is none of any employer’s business.

If you value your personal liberty, you don’t belong in a cult of any kind. It’s just that simple.

Intellectual Property Stupidity

So, I recently modified two existing software tools a bit and connected them together with a shell script to make a tool to extract individual TrueType fonts (.TTF files) from a TrueType font collection (.TTC file).

And the Property Rights Über Alles crowd immediately took offense, because this is a tool for “piracy.” Purportedly, simply because I am extracting files from what amounts to an archive I am creating an unauthorized derivative work, in violation of the copyright on the fonts.

I say bullshit. The fonts were in TrueType format before my extractor operates on them, and they are in TrueType format after it does. All that changes is what was a single file becomes multiple individual files. That’s it.

Really, now: If this “violates” the “terms of the license,” then you can’t even install software (including fonts) legally in the first place. Because how do installers work? By extracting files from archives, that’s how!

On top of that, just how are glyphs rendered? By reading the information in font files, copying it into memory, and doubtless in many cases normalizing it into a standard form in the case of software that supports multiple font file formats. That, too, is the dreaded and forbidden act of extraction. Worse yet, it is followed by the modification of the extracted data, producing an unauthorized derivative work (according to the property rights über alles crowd)!

It gets worse: the internal coordinate system in font files has nothing to do with the coordinate system on a screen or a printed page. Multiple scaling (multiplication) and offset (addition) steps must be performed in order to render text at the desired size and place. And if you print the text, or render it into a PDF, yet more transformations are performed on that raw data. And I haven’t even gotten into all the transformations that must happen if you send your text to a printer.

The biggest difference really is, the files from my extractor linger indefinitely on the filesystem, instead of being fleeting data in main memory somewhere. Even that’s not completely unique to my case, however: PDF documents contain stored fonts in a persistent and transformed form.

PDF documents must contain font data, in order to serve their intended purpose of being “softcopy hardcopy” that remains true to their intended format everywhere they go. If they didn’t have embedded fonts, they would fail in this purpose on any computer that didn’t have the needed fonts present. The fonts in PDF documents are transformed both to save on space, and to limit the utility of the embedded fonts for piracy.

As in the case of PDF documents, my extracted font files shouldn’t matter, and I doubt it does. Unless I distribute the extracted fonts (and I don’t plan to), they are private, internal data used by a few applications on my computer, nothing more.

That so many people are apparently incapable of seeing this just points to how divorced from reality the status quo has gotten when it comes to property rights.

No Surprise

In the least surprising news development since the Sun rose at the forecast time this morning, it turns out that Alexa and Siri are, in fact, home eavesdropping devices.

George Orwell was an optimist. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, everyone had a telescreen in their home because the government forced them to. In today’s USA, people agree to it because advertisers have convinced them it’s personally convenient.

New Software Won’t Fix the 737 Max

Disclaimer: I am not an aircraft engineer. But I am a software engineer, one who looks at my own field with a critical enough eye to see how software is often used inappropriately, and I see the signs of the latter all over the place in this latest story.

The original software didn’t fix its fundamental unairworthiness, so why should new software be able to? The problem with the 737 Max isn’t that it has buggy software, it’s that it should never have been built in the first place. Its safety should come from its airframe being compatible with its engines. It can’t come from a software-and-sensor kludge that tries to compensate for an unsafe physical design.

In an article in today’s Washington Post:

Boeing said it would take about an hour for technicians to load a software update for the planes. The company’s software fixes will change the way the MCAS receives information, requiring feeds from both outside “angle of attack” sensors, rather than one, before it is triggered.

The system will also have more limits on how often it will engage, and Boeing will make changes that prevent the anti-stall feature from angling the plane’s nose too far downward in its attempts to correct for a possible stall.

Let’s take the fix of requiring both sensors to concur. We know the angle of attack sensors are unreliable, because they sometimes falsely indicate an excessive angle of attack. Being unreliable, it seems reasonable to presume that they also sometimes fail to indicate an excessive angle of attack. So this “fix” will actually fix nothing. It will merely trade one form of unsafe behavior for another.

The second fix is in fundamentally the same category as the first: like the former, it makes the system more conservative in deciding when to engage. That system was put there for a reason: the attempt to compensate for an unairworthy plane, whose airframe mismatches its engine size and placement. The physical plane will remain as unairworthy as before, only with less software compensation for it. Again, one problem is merely being traded for another.

Instead of tragedies caused by planes falling out of the sky because MCAS engaged in error, we will have tragedies caused by planes falling out of the sky because MCAS didn’t engage and they stalled.

I strongly suspect the only fix for these planes will be to scrap them and sell their bodies to recyclers, who will turn them into new metal stock from which fundamentally safe planes can be built. Those “fundamentally safe planes” will mostly be Airbus A320neo’s. Boeing’s attempt to get out of the corner they found themselves in the cheap and devious way is going to end up costing that company a lot.

Android Smart Phone First Impressions

Yes, I’ve bought one of the things, at long last. Not because I really want one to be part of my life, but because I’m thinking of being a technology assistant (focusing on senior citizens) as one of my self-employment ideas. Whether I like it or not, smartphones are one of the most common and most complex things people interact with on a daily basis, so it behooves me to familiarize myself with them before I start claiming I can help others with them.

Furthermore, the majority of web browsing is now done on smart phones, and it’s very difficult to to design a good mobile-friendly web page unless you have a mobile device to test it on.

I decided to purchase an Android, because those cost approximately 2.5 times less than iPhones, yet have about five times the market share. I expect I will acquire an iPhone as well, because I want to be familiar with both models.

Much of it is as expected. I don’t like touch screens and probably never will. The overall impression is of a device that wants to hijack my entire life and take it over. For example, it begs for email addresses then automatically configures its mail client, with notifications enabled, for any accounts you entered. So every fucking email you receive will make your phone emit a noise and disturb you. In fact, the default is for notifications to be on for every application on the phone. That’s right, the standard configuration is for the device to be as intrusive as possible. This can be defeated, of course, but it’s quite telling.

The Data Saver mode could be better. This tells applications to put a lid on the data usage unless you’re connected to a WiFi network. It’s not as good as booting them off the Internet entirely, but it’s a start. Ideally, one should be able to set apps to be in one of three mobile data modes: unrestricted, restricted, and disallowed. The latter mode should be enforced rigidly at the system level; networking calls would basically fail if it is set. Why should an app be allowed to hijack my phone service and force me to pay against my will to feed it data? Because it’s a device built on the premise of hijacking my entire life, that’s why. In a way, I’m actually surprised there’s any sort of Data Saver mode at all. An imperfect limit on network usage is still better than no limit at all.

It’s an unlocked phone. Enabling it was a simple matter of transplanting the SIM card from my existing Nokia 3310 3G to the new phone. Disabling it will be a simple matter of of reversing the SIM card transplant. I plan on doing that after carrying the new phone with me for a few weeks to better learn it.

Then the phone gets powered down and wrapped in foil or put in a metal box. Why? Because (cue scratched gramophone record), it’s a device built on the premise of hijacking people’s lives. You can’t fully turn it off with a physical on/off switch. You can’t remove the battery, either (at least not with special tools). This is standard for smartphones. As such, there’s no way of being certain it’s not being used as an eavesdropping device, unless you put it in a Faraday cage.

New Internet Service

I’ve gotten a few mailings from the phone company advertising DSL internet service. The prices seemed very attractive (about one third the existing cost I’m paying the cable company). So I called to investigate, and found out that there was basically no bait-and-switch; it would be that much cheaper. It’s not as fast as the cable company’s service, but my calculations indicated it would be fast enough.

The vastly cheaper rates aren’t even the best part. That’s being able to finally sever my relationship with Comcast, which has a very well-deserved reputation for being the most hated company in the USA. Mind you, I’m replacing them with the phone company, which is it’s typical bureaucratic and inefficient self. I’ve had to call and go through phone trees for things that there should be self-serve options online for.

But, it’s still vastly better than dealing with Comcast. At least Century Link’s service options are simple, up front, and understandable. Want phone service? Order phone service. Want internet? Order internet. Want TV? Order that. Order more than one service and get a volume discount. No special “packages” that make it cheaper to order TV service you don’t need for 12 months (then you have to negotiate another deal, and it’s always confusing, and you can never just pay for what you want and leave it at that). No commitment in advance to subscribe for a minimum period of time.

Tomorrow I call Comcast and tell them goodbye. Can’t happen soon enough.

More on That in This Post

A couple posts ago, I wrote:

Part if it is that I may be moving further west and simply not visiting this particular cranberry-harvesting spot in future years (more on that in another post).

Today, it became rather more likely that I will be doing just that. At my most recent job, I interviewed for a software developer position. I was informed that there would be some on-call duty to support mission-critical software in those cases where front-line people can’t resolve the problem, but not much.

While I positively loathe on-call duty, I’ve managed to shirk it in the past by taking pains to release only well-tested software, and engineering in reliability to the code I write (e.g. designing things so that if components fail, the consequences of the failure tend to be less severe and self-healing). My code would sometimes fail over a weekend (nobody writes perfect code), but never badly enough that I’d get called to put out an emergency fix.

Such shirking works if you’re a developer (and employers love it; it means you’ve written reliable software). But for a sysadmin, it’s basically impossible: emergency response is a core part of the job. It’s one of the reasons I got out of systems administration and became a developer. One of them: I also simply find the creative aspect of designing and writing code to be intrinsically fun in a way that messing with system and network configuration parameters never can be.

Anyhow, it turns out that the position which had been advertised as a developer job (and which I had been hired for) had morphed into a systems and network administration one in the months between when I interviewed and when I was hired. Or so my boss said this afternoon, and I have no real reason to doubt him; he comes across as basically an honest guy.

I just wish he hadn’t assumed I’d be OK with that just because I mentioned having been a systems administrator in the past. I never mentioned the part about getting burnt out doing it, because I didn’t want to appear negative.

I’m resigning the position. There’s really no alternative. When I burned out on systems administration in 2002, I was so thoroughly burned out that I adopted what I call Rule No. 1: no more systems administration, no matter what. It’s a good rule, and a necessary one: I’ve come to despise systems administration so much that any stint of it I do, I’m fated to be resentful and do a terrible job. I’ll just end up getting canned for poor performance within a year, anyhow. Then I’ll have to recover from that. Better off to nip the problem in the bud and get out now. I call it Rule No. 1 for a reason.

I guess the moral of the story is that there is simply no good way to mention past experience in systems administration in an interview. Either you signal a whiny, negative attitude (if you mention being burned out on it), or you signal a willingness to do systems administration. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

At this stage, it’s becoming increasingly clear that it was a mistake for me to get a computer science degree so many years back. I’ve almost never had good high-tech jobs, and the few good ones haven’t lasted. As the old saw goes: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

So it’s time to get truly busy with the difficult process of moving on from high-tech work. What that will be exactly, I don’t know yet, though I do have more ideas than I’ve had in the past.

What I will say is that it probably doesn’t make much sense to continue living in the Seattle area:

  1. The availability of tech work is why I decided to move back to this area, and that point has now been mooted.
  2. The Seattle area has become increasingly expensive; given how my new income is going to be significantly reduced, I’m better off living someplace more affordabole.
  3. The above is particularly the case given how I don’t think Seattle is really that great a city; it suffers too much from too many decades of poor planning and lack of vision. There’s not enough large parks near the urban core, and Seattle’s mass transit is decades behind most other West Coast cities.

All in all, I’d love to live in a place like Portland, if my allergies weren’t so bad there, that is. Portland has Forest Park, and great mass transit. I can’t have both the city and nature like that in Seattle; I must choose one or the other. If compelled to choose, I will choose nature every time. Conveniently, that’s also the option that involves a lower cost of living.

So it’s likely I’ll be moving further away from the big city, probably to the Olympic Peninsula, though it’s still very early in the visioning and decision process and that could easily all change.