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What if your house is too ugly to be smart?

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A smart-lit bathroom mirror, in an elegant bathroom. Where did this woman get this robe!

The high-tech, connected homegoods of the future would look terrible in a lived-in place like mine.

Maybe you’ve encountered the idea of the “smart home” and wondered if it’s for you.

We hear about it plenty, and Ori, a company that came out of an MIT-funded research project in 2014, is the one making headlines for it this week — asking us to ask ourselves if we can have this fantasy of a home that is smart. Ori’s robot furniture is not on sale until next year, but you ought to think about it in advance, and and next year, if you are ready for robot furniture, you can buy a “Pocket Closet,” which is a robotic cube full of hidden compartments, including a secret desk, and a “Cloud Bed,” which is a robotic bed that can Transformer itself into a coffee table and a couch.

Having watched the GIFs of them doing their thing several dozen times each, I have to admit they are impressive, like YouTube videos featuring kangaroos that carry themselves just a little bit more like people than you might expect.

They’re also a little uncanny, in part because they’re advertised in pristine renderings of apartments that feature floor-to-ceiling windows, white counters, dozens of right angles, and nary a stray object or trace of human life.

I am interested in a future in which small homes in overcrowded cities are more livable and people who might not be physically equipped to haul their furniture around all the time do not have to. Yet something I think about every time a large new smart home device or otherwise high-tech piece of furniture hits the trade publications and gadget blogs is would this look bad in any house that doesn’t look like it could also be a Muji store? Would this look really bad in, for example, my house?

Nobody cares and nobody should, but my house is hideous. It’s what they call a good deal in a great location: It’s a creaking, disintegrating three-bedroom apartment with two roommates, two cats, a boiler that breaks like clockwork each November, windows that are itching to fall out of their frames, and hardwood floors coated in a hearty, nearly sentient layer of grime that I don’t know if I’m technically or emotionally equipped to deal with.

Obviously, some of this is specific to my status as a 25-year-old living in an expensive city, but a lot of it is not. Most homes I’ve been inside — whether in New York, the suburbs, or a farm town — are also shabby. They are lived-in, as in full of stuff that doesn’t look new anymore, covered in stains that don’t respect “elbow grease,” and pockmarked with failings that aren’t so much impossible to address as they are non-urgent to address.

In his 2014 essay “The American Room,” journalist Paul Ford used YouTube videos as a window into the homes of the 100 million Americans who live in the suburbs and noticed much of the same. The houses were beige and ugly, built from the same cheap, AutoCAD-generated architectural plans. In response, he wrote, “You could judge those rooms and say that America has a paucity of visual imagination, that we live in a kind of wasteland. Or you could draw another conclusion, and note that America might be a little more broke than it wants to show. The painfully expensive 2,000-square foot home is furnished with cheap big sofas and junk from Target.”

Where, in homes like these, do you put robots?

 Mirror
A smart slab that teaches you how to be fit.

Seriously, where do you hang a 40-inch vertical display with a personal trainer inside it? Taking our cues from the item’s promotional image — the type usually sent to members of the press in a folder labeled “lifestyle imagery” — the personal trainer slab is appropriate to hang on a blank white wall in an apartment that has nothing in it except three plants, a light fixture, and a glass coffee table with two magazines on it.

It’s hardly differentiable from the bright-white home in Canary’s smart security camera promotional images, which is displayed in a foyer decorated with little other than an animal bone and a copy of a hardcover catalog of specialty paint finishes. A weather-checking, text-displaying block of wood released by the Japanese touch-sensor company Nissha last year is, apparently, at home only when it’s hung in a room so well-kept you can set a full French press directly on top of the freshly made, platform-raised bed, trusting that gravity would never be so rude as to allow a drop of coffee to hit the spotless comforter. And that’s a block of wood, not even a washer-dryer that talks to Alexa.

 Nissha
Smart block of wood, stacked-slate wall treatment.

Over the phone, I describe these images to Tristan Bridges, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, who has written about the “myth” of the bachelor pad (made up by Playboy to sell ads!) and is working on a book about the phenomenon of man caves. He says it’s not unlike the motivation to invent the idea of the bachelor pad in order to sell things that go in a bachelor pad: “Sometimes, to sell people something that they don’t actually want or need or have any context to value, one thing that behavioral economists will do is provide context to people to make sense of it, so they can justify spending more than they would imagine.”

I also describe the images to Michelle Janning, a professor of sociology at Whitman College and author of The Stuff of Family Life: How Our Homes Reflect Our Lives. She makes a guess as to what these clean, elegant minimalist staging sets and renders are meant to connote: “Being able to have emptiness in a home, you have to be able to afford this in the first place. Minimalism is only affordable to the affluent, because if you don’t have a lot of resources, you’re unlikely to get rid of stuff. You need it.” Nothing we didn’t know instinctively, but it’s nice to have it laid out for us in repeatable words!

Most people have a “real mismatch of things” in their homes, Bridges says, but companies are trying to sell you something to put in your house they are first trying to sell you “on the idea that everything will match and it will be connected.”

I also ask him about my real concern, which is that someday the people who have the means to live in smart homes will have a completely different vocabulary around basic household items, creating this bizarre, uncrossable gap between the rich and the people who still have to brush their own teeth. How will we even talk to each other? One of us won’t remember what steel wool is!

 Meural
Meural’s smart art canvas, and an all-white room no one has touched.

“If the smart home wins, and some people have smart homes and the rest of us have dumb homes, it will radically alter the rhythm of daily life,” Bridges agrees, making really no effort to be comforting. “If you don’t have to clean or make food, that contributes to what I guess you can call ‘time inequality.’ As in, people with smart stuff get more time, and that would allow them to exacerbate other kinds of inequality.”

Janning tells me what I am complaining about is nothing new: “Clothing works this way. Cigarettes worked this way. If you buy this product, your life will be one of amazingness. That’s not that weird, to have it be a mismatch between a product and the places where people actually put the product.”

But I am also not wrong. “This is a little bit different,” she says. “It’s not just a new table in an old apartment; it’s this amazing high-tech piece that seems so different than the cracking lead paint from 1927, or whatever. The gap feels so much wider.”

 Panasonic
This Panasonic fridge will come to you when you call it.

Here are some things I would maybe consider putting in my house if it were the prototypical backdrop of a connected home, aesthetically inspired by a close-up photograph of Gwyneth Paltrow’s front tooth: A smart canvas that displays a library of famous artworks. A smart oven that can cook prepackaged Whole Foods meals. A multi-room smart lighting system from Philips Hue. A smart fridge with a 29-inch touchscreen. A vanity that connects to Spotify and pulls up my Pinterest boards and tells me the weather and my upcoming appointments as well as what is wrong with my skin.

These objects are expensive, obviously, and that’s the first reason I don’t buy them. But many of them aren’t cost-prohibitive in the strictest sense: If I made an effort to save up $250 for a modestly smart smart mirror, I could do it. It would just feel ludicrous and possibly criminal to hang it in a bathroom that, on a good day, still has mold spots on the ceiling and a shower that hasn’t been updated since the ’90s. Another reason I don’t buy smart home devices is that I don’t feel they would measurably improve my quality of life, which is what tech is supposed to be for and is increasingly not convincingly for.

So rather than a connected thermostat that will send me a push notification informing me that it’s cold in my apartment and I should consider checking my windows, I think I’d just like ... some new windows.

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jad
21 hours ago
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I mean, sure, but the sentence that most resonates with me is this, right near the end:

"Another reason I don’t buy smart home devices is that I don’t feel they would measurably improve my quality of life, which is what tech is supposed to be for and is increasingly not convincingly for."
skorgu
23 hours ago
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Since I'm also too ugly to be smart, it'll be fine.
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$6.7 Million Embezzled from the County

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Montgomery County prides itself on its good government reputation. So it’s a bit of a shock to hear from the Washington Post that a county employee managed to steal $6.7 million:

A local official embezzled $6.7 million from Montgomery County through a years-long scheme of diverting county money meant to grow local businesses, federal prosecutors said in court filings unsealed Friday.

Byung Il Bang, the former chief operating officer for Montgomery’s Department of Economic Development, pleaded guilty to wire fraud and making a false statement on a tax return at a hearing in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Md.

He is set to be sentenced Feb. 2, and agreed in court to seek treatment for a “gambling addiction.”

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jad
22 hours ago
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I hope this means we as a county get to stop pretending to take Steve Silverman (former director of this department and the county's biggest booster of corporate welfare) seriously ever again.
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By Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon in "When will there be enough women in Congress? When there are 535" on MeFi

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>> This myth of people "just not wanting to work" is bizarre.

> So much. And it's disingenuous not to include unpaid domestic work as "work," because people are certainly not sitting around eating bonbons all day.


I don't want to work.

Like, okay, this is not what the article is about, but it gets me angry in the blood when people pretend like working for pay is an inherently worthwhile thing. It's not. It's some garbage. It's ruining most of our lives in one way or another: either we have to work for pay in order to get food and shelter, and so we waste the best hours of our days, the best years of our lives, and the whole world's carbon budget doing worthless shit for people who don't deserve our obedience, or else we have to work for pay but the shits with capital don't want our work, at which point we starve to death in the cold.

And then we wind up conflating worthwhile things, like housekeeping and childraising and aging parent care, with worthless things like work, pretending that these good things that we don't get paid for are in some way commensurable with the trash we have to do for money.

If you think you want to work for pay, if you think that if you were free that's what you'd freely choose to do with your life, then you may want to consider what factors in your environment gave you that ridiculous idea. And if you think that everyone wants to work for pay, then listen, sibling, you've got a severe case of false consciousness. And that sort of thing can metastasize into full-blown terminal bootlicking if you let it.
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jad
1 day ago
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US travel ban blocking students from presenting their research

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At an academic conference, the question “where are you from?” can have many meanings. “For anybody who’s in science, that’s a complicated question,” says paleontologist P. David Polly. “Where are we now, where did we get our degree, where did we grow up, where did we get the other degree?” For many people in science, the list of answers will span multiple countries.

Because of this international culture, science is feeling the effects of increasing restrictions on international travel. At last week’s Society for Neuroscience (SfN) meeting in San Diego, a research poster drew a lot of attention: the bulk of the poster was grayed out, covered instead by a message from the author explaining that, as a citizen of Iran, she had been unable to enter the US to take part in the conference. “Science should be about breaking barriers,” she wrote, “not creating new ones.”

Tightening barriers

Leili Mortazavi, an undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia, ran into the same barrier. When her work was accepted for presentation at SfN, she started the visa application process, but when she arrived at her appointment, she was told she was “ineligible to apply” because of her Iranian citizenship. “I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a visa application or a background check,” she told Ars. But the current situation is one of “excluding everyone based on their place of birth and not caring if the reason for their traveling is legitimate or not.”

The “travel ban” restricting nationals of seven countries from entering the US has gone through various versions, the most recent of which was upheld by the Supreme Court in June of this year. But restrictions have been tightening for some time, with the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of December 2015 making entry to the US tougher for citizens of seven “countries of concern”—including for people holding dual citizenship. The problem extends beyond those seven countries, says Polly; the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) has been having "more visa permission issues, regardless of whether you’re from the travel ban countries or not."

Mortazavi’s advisor, Catharine Winstanley, considered withdrawing the entire lab from the conference in protest. But Mortazavi was concerned that this would have contributed much more to “disrupting the communication of science,” Winstanley said. The lab eventually settled on having a video of Mortazavi presenting her work playing on an iPad alongside the poster.

No trip to brain Disneyland

On an individual level, the ramifications of being blocked from attending a huge international meeting like this are substantial. The SfN meeting is “brain Disneyland,” says neuroscientist Matthew Leavitt. “You can gorge forever on all manner of fascinating stuff and still not have seen the majority of it.” For Leavitt, an early career researcher, annual attendance to the SfN meeting has played a crucial role in helping him form relationships with other scientists, including one individual who served on his thesis committee.

“It would have been an amazing opportunity for me,” Mortazavi says. She plans to apply for grad school and had been planning to use the conference to help her decide what direction she might want to take in her own research. The opportunity to network with potential advisors and employers is a major part of the benefit of going to a meeting, says Winstanley. But interactions with peers are just as essential, as are the ideas and collaborations that come from conversations at conferences.

Winstanley also points to the losses for science itself: “Science requires really innovative thought; we need a diverse group of people to come together on a problem.” It’s a sentiment echoed by Polly, who was recently faced with the dilemma of how to handle members of his organizations who were not able to attend the meeting held in Albuquerque last month. “Paleontology knows no national boundaries,” he says. “Most of what we work on spans continental and international boundaries.”

Paleontology is also a discipline that relies on a lot of data from North Africa and the Middle East. Researchers from those regions are essential collaborators for scientists from other parts of the world, he says, and meetings are paramount for forming those connections.

There are ways in which the current travel ban is “conceptually similar” to difficulty traveling between the Soviet Union and North America from the early 1950s onward, he adds. “You can see in comments made in news items [at the time] what a blow this was to science. For years, it was difficult for scientists to cross that boundary, and science lost out from that.”

The scope of the problem

It’s not clear how conference organizers can best deal with the problem. There are calls for meetings to be held outside the US, which would allow researchers affected by the travel ban to attend. But there are also scientists currently in the US on single-entry visas who would face difficulty re-entering once they’ve left, so hosting conferences elsewhere ends up excluding people, too. Despite this situation, Canada has become a major hotspot for scientific conferences; the SVP was considering Toronto for its 2020 meeting, Polly says, but “we were already too late to book any of the venues.”

Deciding which option is more exclusionary really needs data, and there’s not much of that. This being science, though, people are already starting to look for fixes. Leavitt saw the grayed-out poster and started wondering how many people had been denied access to the conference. Then he realized the question didn't need to be rhetorical, he says: "It’d be nice to see some data.” So he put together a survey gathering information on people’s experiences.

There’s not enough data yet to draw any conclusions, but he plans to keep the survey open “as long as there are individuals who are being denied access to participating in science internationally,” he says. He hopes it will serve as “evidence of the damage to science and scientists that these policies can cause.”

Mortazavi, who is in the process of applying for Canadian citizenship, is now hesitant about the prospect of grad school in the US. “I would only consider it if it’s a very significant opportunity,” she says. “I would love to stay in Canada. And even if I go to the US, based on my recent experiences, it wouldn’t be a place that I choose to stay.”

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acdha
2 days ago
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Land of the free…
Washington, DC
jad
1 day ago
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Marie Walter-Franke on Twitter

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acdha
2 days ago
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This is perfect
Washington, DC
jad
1 day ago
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Facebook hired GOP oppo firm to smear protesters by linking them to George Soros, an anti-Semitic trope: NYT

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We are watching Facebook unravel in real time. I hope.

From the New York Times, a story I can hardly believe -- had to read some grafs twice:


Excerpt:

When Facebook users learned last spring that the company had compromised their privacy in its rush to expand, allowing access to the personal information of tens of millions of people to a political data firm linked to President Trump, Facebook sought to deflect blame and mask the extent of the problem.

And when that failed — as the company’s stock price plummeted and sparked a consumer backlash — Facebook went on the attack.

While Mr. Zuckerberg conducted a public apology tour in the last year, Ms. Sandberg has overseen an aggressive lobbying campaign to combat Facebook’s critics, shift public anger toward rival companies and ward off damaging regulation. Facebook employed a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protesters, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros. It also tapped its business relationships, persuading a Jewish civil rights group to cast some criticism of the company as anti-Semitic.

You're gonna want to read the whole thing.

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skorgu
2 days ago
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Jesus christ, trigger warning for that headline photo.
jad
2 days ago
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