OBD-II and You

OBD-II.  Stands for “On Board Diagnostics.  Two”

Every car sold in the US since 1996 is required to have an ODB-II port located within two feet of the steering wheel, right there inside the cockpit.  You’ve been driving right along for years and it’s been there under your nose this whole time!

The port is mostly used by mechanics to diagnose a lit “check engine” light or other problems under the hood.

Mostly it hasn’t been of much use to the people who, you know, own the cars.  Until now!


Automatic is a bluetooth dongle for your ODB-II port.  Sure, it can diagnose problems, but it can also stay plugged in while you drive, sending a constant stream of data to your smartphone to help you improve your driving habits.  It also does some other stuff.

They’re taking pre-orders now.  Just $79!

Finally, a home alarm system that isn’t total ass.

Before you even check the proposed specs of the as-yet-unreleased Scout Alarm system, read their mission statement. It’s like they’re in my head!

Here’s what home alarm systems in 2013 do not need, but insist on delivering:

  • An installer
  • Wires
  • A monitoring service
  • A monitoring contract (3 year minimum, usually)
  • A landline and/or 3G requirement
  • Monthly payments of any kind
  • A wall-mounted control panel that requires 12v of in-wall power

Here’s what they do need:

  • Self-installation kit
  • Instant notification of a tripped alarm via text, email, or phone call from the system, not from a third party
  • Remote, free, self-monitoring tools
  • Web-based setup and configuration

Today the home alarm industry caters to alarm system distributors and dealer/installers.  Bottom line is that if you own a home, the alarm manufacturers won’t even talk to you – you’re too far down the food chain for them to sell to.  They make no recurring revenue from people who choose to self-install or self-monitor, so there’s no real incentive for them to make systems easy to install, configure, or use.

The end result of having so many people involved in the sales chain of a home alarm system is astronomically high prices for hardware that hasn’t changed a whole lot since the 80s.

There are a few companies making baby-steps toward modernization, and no one’s been more visible in that area than 2Gig with their GoControl system:

2Gig Go Control

2Gig’s GoControl is one of the most beautiful alarm systems out there.  It looks great and is easy to use once installed, but the setup process is insanely complicated (check the manual) and to do any sort of remote monitoring or control you need to pay alarm.com, vivint.com, or any number of other monitoring entities upwards of $50 a month.  That is just an insane amount of money, and it makes me want to grab people and shake them.

You can buy GoControl systems and accessories from rogue dealers on eBay and at a few sites here and there, but the only official way to buy anything made by 2Gig is to go through one of their dealers, which honestly in this day and age feels pretty consumer-hostile.

If you think that’s an over-exaggeration, check out 2Gig’s latest contest as a great example.  They’re giving away $10,000 to the one lucky dealer who finds a golden ticket in their product box!  That’s awesome!  But what about the homeowner that bought the winning system?  What do they get?

They get dick.  They get to pay a guy who just won $10,000 a minimum of $50 every month for the next three years.

Iris Keypad

Lowes’ Iris system is a little better and puts some minor power into the hands of the homeowner.  While Iris carries no external monitoring requirement, most of its best features are held hostage behind a $9.99/month subscription fee.  Its keypad is straight outta 2005, and instead of just being a “really good alarm system” it feels like Iris is trying to be a “really good home automation system that can also maybe be a decent alarm.”

So that brings us to the crowd-funded newcomer, Scout.


Scout’s system was clearly designed with the user, not the salesman, in mind.  It looks like Scout will likely beat Nest to market on this, but I do have some concerns about their approach.

  • Despite the three fascia options, every component is kind of ugly.  Even glossy renderings can’t save them from looking like Radio Shack project boxes.
  • Sensor plates appear to be too large (wide) to attach to any window or door that has rounded or low-profile window casings/moulding around them.
  • Open/close sensors are enormous and battery life is stated at 6-12 months, which means they’re probably using AAAs or AAs.  Most wireless alarm sensors these days use replaceable lithium ion batteries that last three to five years before needing replacement.
  • Scout’s keypads use RFID key fobs to arm/disarm the system which isn’t a horrible idea, but there are no buttons to control the system if you lose your magical key.  You’ll also have to physically give someone a fob instead of a code if you want them to be able to access your home when you’re not around.  (Or hope they have a smartphone?)
  • There’s no display to show current system status.  I don’t think homeowners are ready to rely on a browser or smartphone for this.  I’m not, anyway!
  • With no buttons on the keypad there’s no way to specify if you want to “arm home” (enable only door/window sensors) or “arm away” (enable all sensors), unless there’s a separate fob for each function.  You’ll need to start keeping your car keys on your bedside table if you want a control pad in your bedroom.

Despite all those shortcomings (some of which I’m probably wrong about) I’m still super excited by what the people at Scout are doing.  I really want them to succeed because they’re trying to fix, from the ground-up, an entire industry that has been horribly broken for years.

Most importantly, I hope it gives the big guys something to think about!

Making Nest better

I’m a huge fan of the Nest thermostat. I installed one about a year ago and it’s been humming right along since then.

But I’ve been thinking.

The Nest is pretty smart. It can be even smarter.

As powerful as it is, the Nest is hindered by its inability to collect temperature data from more than two locations: the outdoor temperature from the zip code in which it’s installed, and the indoor temperature from the hallway (or room) to which it’s tethered.

There should be some way to feed Nest temperature data from as many different locations in a home as possible. Without that data, all you’re really doing is effectively controlling the climate of the area immediately around the Nest itself. While Nest brings to the table a lot more than a standard programmable thermostat, this is one vestigial limitation that it hasn’t (yet!) managed to shake.

I’ve got a vision for Nest and came up with some illustrations that maybe they’ll take to heart. Probably not, though. I emailed them to a few people at Nest and while I haven’t gotten any replies, they haven’t bounced back either…

I’m not the best at UI/UX design (to which 350,000 screaming DreamHost customers can attest) but I think these get the idea across.

This is the Nest Egg:

Meet the Nest Egg

It’s a simple, plug-in thermometer. Minimal power drain. You put one in each room that you want your Nest to know about.

Eggs monitor temperature and humidity, and they report them to your Nest base every 30 seconds or so using either Wifi or HomePlug.

That’s an Egg’s only job.

As far as your Nest base station is concerned, an Egg is just a room full of temperature.

Without an Egg (or something like an Egg) right now there’s just no way for current Nest hardware to capture additional data about various zones in your home.

But why would it need all that extra data? This is why:

Egg control added to home.nest.com
(click to enlarge)

“House Average”. That’s what it’s all about.

Now, instead of knowing the temperature in the immediate area of your Nest, you’ll have access to a zoomed-out snapshot of your entire home’s average temperature at a glance.

And, instead of commanding your Nest to modify the temperature of a limited sensory area, you can now direct it to look at your house as a whole and work to modify the climate in a much more meaningful way.

For most people, that’d be more than enough of a performance gain to justify the added cost of the Eggs.

Some people might crave even more control, however, and for that there is a new “Eggs” icon within the management interface…

Five little Eggs, all in a row...

This is where it really gets interesting. Here you can view the current temperature of every Egg in your home. You can even direct the Nest to turn on your HVAC system until any single Egg reaches your desired temperature, irrespective of Nest’s programming or of your home’s current average temperature.

In homes like mine with two stories and only one thermostat, this is key. Temperatures between floors and between rooms can vary wildly, and this fine level of control would make the Nest even more valuable.

Maybe you want it to be 70 degrees in your bedroom when you wake up every morning. With current Nest hardware (or with any thermostat) there’s no way to guarantee that that will happen. You can only guarantee temperatures that the Nest can sense, and right now I’d guess it’s blind in 75% to 95% of most homes, making only educated guesses using the two temperature data points to which it has access: that of the zip code outdoors, and that of the Nest’s single location indoors.

Captions spell it out

After a brief initial learning period, the Nest would know which temperature trends to expect across Eggs. The Master Bedroom might run about 5 degrees warmer than the Office in the mornings and 7 degrees cooler in the afternoon. Each Egg’s slider would move relative to the others.

What I’m ultimately after here is a way to give Nest users the freedom to change either a home’s average indoor temperature, or a way to adjust the temperature to serve the needs of any one specific room.

Viewing an active system

I realize that this approach adds a layer of complexity for not only Nest’s engineers, but also for its users. It certainly has the potential to make a homeowner’s programming job a lot more challenging…

That’s why Eggs would be an entirely optional add-on accessory. Don’t want to shell out the extra cash for one? No problem. With or without Eggs, the Nest that you’ve got on your wall today will continue to operate as it always has (smartly, but still mostly blind) for years and years to come.

However, if you’ve got a large home or even just an average-sized home with inconsistent indoor temperatures, Eggs would radically change the way you use your Nest (for the better!) and could fundamentally change way people think about what thermostats are, how they work, and how we interact with them. The original Nest already did something like this – to great effect!

But there’s no need to stop there.

Nest shouldn’t be just a single product. It could be the start of an ecosystem. And while Nest Labs hasn’t really launched anything beyond V1 and 2 of the Nest itself, it’s certainly got the right name for a larger product line. Eggs could just as easily be called Sparrows. (And, in fact, that’s probably a better fit!)

Maybe some day I’ll tell you all the great ideas I’ve got for what a Nest alarm system would look like.

The entire home alarm industry is what I would characterize as “consumer-hostile” and is ripe for a disruptive revamp. I could go on and on about the state of the home alarm system industry, but the Internet’s already got enough angry people so I’ll can it for now.

Thanks for listening, pals!

UPDATE: I lied.  I couldn’t shut up about alarm systems, either.


Overview is “a short film documenting astronauts’ life-changing stories of seeing the Earth from the outside – a perspective-altering experience often described as the Overview Effect.”

It’s free to watch and only runs for 19 minutes or so. Check it out.

Carthay Circle Sessions

The Carthay Circle Restaurant at DCA might be the best restaurant at the resort. The food is much better than Club 33, but that’s not saying much… Food is definitely on par with Napa Rose, but Carthay Circle looks much fancier on the inside. It’s just a great experience all around!

I’ve been trying to track down a copy of this soundtrack CD, but it keeps selling out.

Circle Sessions

It’s $17.98 in the parks. Close to $50 on ebay.

It just hit the Amazon MP3 store today for $7.99, so I grabbed it with the $8 of mp3 credit I’d been sitting on for the last few years.

I’ve never paid for MP3s before, but was pleasantly surprised to see that everything was tagged correctly, album art was embedded, and evidently Amazon encodes at 256kbps CBR. Good for them!