Saturday, November 19, 2005

Long time no blog

I haven't disappeared as far as I know.

There has been lots going on. I installed a heat pump at home, which works well. Considering that computers have been around for a few decades, and embedded control has become ubiquitous, it is surprising to see how long it has taken for someone to come out with a simple, reliable, adequately featured thermostat for heat pumps. There are a few special requirements for economical operation, but the most important feature is simplicity. This isn't a complicated application; when it's warm, bring on the cooling, and visa versa. Throw in a little anticipation or integral control to smooth things out. Have a way to schedule occupied and unoccupied temperatures. Permit easy override of everything. Allow (for heat pumps) lockout settings based on outdoor temperature. There have been thermostats on the market that did all of this, but damned if I'm going to install something where my clients call me on Saturday morning asking how do I get this to warm up, or why is it blinking at me. Been there, done that. Honeywell came out with a touch screen thermostat, reasonably priced, with enough screen real estate to lay things out logically so almost anyone can work it. And it can be set up non-programmable, or simply put, if you want it warmer, press the up arrow. Finally, in my opinion, something that rivals the old mercury bulb thermostats.

Where was the breakthrough? Very simple. Start with a clear understanding of what the thing is for. It must control temperature very well. Oddly enough, most control products have the feel of having been written by computer specialists, not HVAC control specialists. Throw in cheap, largish screens, a flair for simple design, and you have a winner.

Actually, building control products are universally awful examples of digital progress. Buggy, unreliable, requiring constant maintenance and fiddling, barely capable of doing what they are installed to do. The only reason they exist is the lack of viable alternatives, along with aggressive sales organisations prone to exaggerate (lie). If this situation sounds vaguely familiar, it isn't. Microsoft products are paragons of excellence compared to hvac control software products. There are two or three products that I will install, only after experience has shown me that they work, work well, will be working next year, and that I won't have to go back to adjust things over and over again.

We had an interesting call this week from a refrigeration rack control company. The local grocery store which we service was renovated, and the controls were upgraded. A rep from Texas (or somewhere equally remote) phoned to let us know that if we changed anything we would be notified by email of the change, and if we had any issues, we could call somewhere or another for help. My boss, who is a curmudgeon much of the time, informed the helpful person that if there was a problem we couldn't fix from the software side, they would find their hardware/software package in a pile in the corner, and that they could send someone from Texas or somewhere equally remote to fix it if they wanted, and no, we weren't going to play telephone tag with some semi-literate incompetent to sort out a bug in their product. Oh. I suspect the remote monitoring will last a month or two, time enough for the store manager to be roused from sleep because some stocking clerk left the freezer door open. Side cutters are an amazingly powerful equalizer.

You see, from where I come from, a qualified technician is paramount, not secondary or a cost center, I really have trouble getting excited about what Shuttleworth, or Suse, or anyone for that matter thinks about KDE. This whole thing about a free desktop isn't about some higher up, or even some sales guy, or some large organisation deciding strategy. It is about developers, programmers and qualified users solving problems for themselves or someone who pays them. If someone figures they are powerful enough to dictate the direction of free software, they will be successful only if they are in fact following those doing the work, those solving the problems. It is useful to remember how bad everything was before free software. I am constantly reminded of this when I use HVAC control products.

I enjoyed a week in Montreal visiting my family. My daughter, 4 sisters, 1 brother, Mom and Dad, plus nephews, brothers and sisters in law all live within an hour of each other. Very enjoyable time visiting family. I installed Ubuntu for my brother in law. Quite amazing how easy the install is. The only nit I had was a somewhat confusing way to designate into which partition should the OS be installed. Previous installs allowed one to set the partition as 'Installable', but here it had to be set as '/root'. It installed to Gnome, and everything worked fine. I didn't have time to install KDE, but he will be running Kontact and a few other KDE apps.

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