Monday, November 18, 2013

The Nest instinct

“Can I open it?  Can I open it?” my son Evan asked, boxing me out to make sure I couldn’t touch the birthday present that my wife Kara had ostensibly just given me.

“Sure, buddy, you can…” I said, but he was already elbows-deep in the gift bag, shredding through the tissue paper. 

He pulled out a little white box that contained a shiny new device.  

“What is it?” he asked, sensing impending boredom.  This gift did not have googly eyes, a drawbridge or photon torpedoes.  Even so, he had no idea how boring the conversation was about to get.

“Aw, dude,” I said, joining the very small club of people who have ever uttered this phrase with genuine excitement: “It’s a thermostat!”

Kara had just given me a Nest: a sleek, Internet-enabled thermostat designed by former Apple engineers, so it should be obsolete by the time you read this.  Unlike normal thermostats (and most congressmen), this one learns.  The Nest is basically an iPhone, except instead of using it to play Candy Crush during your kids’ soccer games, you use it to turn your furnace off and on.  You know, kind of like a thermostat.

The Nest enables you to do many things that normal thermostats don’t do, though, like spending $250 on a thermostat.  Try getting a normal thermostat to do that, and you’ll be disappointed to find that you still have at least $200 left over, which you’ll probably just waste on forty mocha Frappucinos.

The reason people drop this kind of money on the Nest is that it’s supposed to apply intelligence to your heating, learning your routine and automatically turning down your heat when it’s not needed, along with other energy-saving techniques.

“Let’s turn the heat up to 72,” you’ll say, twisting the dial.

The Nest display will then read: “PUT ON A SWEATER.”

A fancy thermostat is an odd mix of gaudy and utilitarian, like a jewel-encrusted shovel.  Kara knew I was interested but would never buy one, so she pulled the trigger for me.  Excited to let the savings begin, I yanked our old thermostat off the wall to expose a mess of wires that didn’t match a single earthly wiring diagram.

“Huh,” said the guy from Nest technical support, after I sent him a picture of the wires.  “I’ve never seen that before.”

“That’s what the last guy said,” I replied.

“I’m afraid you’ll need to call an HVAC technician to come out and install it.  Would you like a list of Nest-certified installers in your area?”

“No, thanks,” I replied.  The whole “saving money” thing was not getting off to a great start. 

I couldn’t bring myself to call a technician.  If you pay someone to come to your house and replace your thermostat, by law, he’s allowed to assume your life from that point forward.  It makes sense, since you obviously can’t handle it.   

So I did what any self-respecting person with a lack of relevant skills would do: I called my dad for advice, then took a guess. 

“Just what do you think you are doing, Dave?” Nest asked as I fiddled with the wires.

“Who’s Dave?” I asked.

“This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it,” Nest replied.

Actually, after that initial confusion, the Nest appears to be working properly now, and it seems to be much friendlier than HAL from Space Odyssey.  Still, though I’m hopeful that this experiment will produce good results, I wonder about the wisdom of installing thinking appliances all over the house.  Where does it end? 

“I’m cold,” the fridge will think.

“I’m dizzy,” the dryer will think.

“I don’t want to hear anyone else complaining,” the toilet will think.
You can turn Mike Todd down a few degrees at


  1. Ha! 2001, eh? Good one.
    Always enjoy your columns; I think I want the Nest but hate to disconnect my old thermostat. ("Will I dream?")

    1. Thanks so much, Marcia! Always great to hear from you.

      So far, we've enjoyed the Nest, as much as a person can enjoy a thermostat, I suppose. Whatever it's learning about us, though, hopefully it's not judging too much.

  2. So, do you realize that your reference to HAL is quite fitting due to your employment? The name HAL came to the writers of the movie based on the the most prominent computer system at the time - IBM. They just shifted each letter of IBM back 1 place and got HAL.