Intelligence Inside

Written by Bill Leebens

Way back in Copper #26 I wrote “The IoT is Not For Me”, in which I bemoaned the unnecessary inter-connectedness of every damn thing from cars to refrigerators and dishwashers. As I mentioned then,  I really have no desire to awaken in the middle of the night to the sound of all my appliances running amuck, courtesy of some e-school hacker up all night wired on Red Bull and bravado.

Even though my ancestors built some of the earliest railroads in the US, and the fact that I’ve spent my life studying and working in tech fields, I may be a bit of a Luddite. I just don’t like devices mucking about in my bidness, unless I specifically ask them to do so.

When I was in racing, I was deeply involved with Corvette tuners and racers at the time that the C5 series launched (for non-motorheads: C5 was the fifth generation of Chevrolet Corvettes, starting with the 1997 model year. Previous gens: C1, 1953-62; C2, (Sting Ray) 1963-67; C3 (Mako Shark-inspired) 1968-82; C4, 1984-96—there was no ’83). Aside from dozens of obvious mechanical and structural improvements like the LS-1 engines, hydroformed frame-rails, and carbon fiber springs, the C5 sent shock-waves through the automotive aftermarket because the programming of the onboard computers contained more than a million lines of code.

C5 also marked the onset of OBD-II, the second generation of onboard diagnostics, which could retain data on the car’s running characteristics forever—in theory, proving that you violated speed limits and performed numerous other antisocial acts. For many old-time racers and motorheads, this was all scary stuff, and marked the beginning of cars that could make numerous decisions without the driver’s input. The idea of a third party being able to learn what you’d done in your car, or even shut it down remotely, was completely antithetical to the independent nature of racers and hot-rodders.

And guess what? It still is, and onboard computing, hacking, and GPS have only made things far scarier in the last two decades. If you have a GM car with OnStar—well, the FBI has used OnStar to bug mobster’s Cadillacs, and it has been used numerous times to kill the ignition of stolen vehicles. Useful—but what happens if someone decides to shut down your perfectly innocent car in rush hour traffic? And let’s not even think about that whole autonomous vehicle thing.

The C5 marked the turning point in American performance cars and in the high-performance automotive aftermarket. While new cars had progressively moved from old-school tech like carburetors to integrated fuel and ignition management systems, chip-tuning had mostly been the domain of import car afficianados. The C5 offered far more tuning capability to the experienced coder or chip-burner than anything previously offered in America, and coupled with an initial shortage of aftermarket performance engine parts—very little interchanged from the traditional small-block Chevy to the new LS-1— it became evident that “tuning” now meant “programming”.

As you can imagine, a generation or two of motorheads who grew up adjusting the jets of a Holley or setting the gap and dwell of  ignitions—were lost. For those like me who hated carbs and fiddly ignitions, the new ways were a godsend. But….

We’ve now had, let’s say, two generations of folks who can look under the hood of a car and can maybe identify the air filter. Maybe. Everything else is a mystery, hidden under plastic covers and shrouds. While extended maintenance intervals are a blessing for most motorists, the lack of frequent involvement with the car has resulted in drivers and owners who are incapable of diagnosing a problem, much less fix it. Starters and alternators are buried beneath the engine, plug wires no longer exist, and it’s often not clear exactly how the air even gets into the engine. What all that stuff is, is just a mystery. It’s a good thing that stuff mostly adjusts itself.

Does any of this sound familiar, audiophiles?

You’ll notice that the vinyl revival didn’t really catch on until streaming and downloading had largely replaced the CD; I’m convinced that aside from its arguable audible advantages, LPs came back because they offer tangible physical interaction and require the user to take an active role. Computer audio—aside from the often-baffling set-up procedures—asks the user to pick a track on an iPad and adjust volume. While many users find the simplicity of operation just what the doctor ordered, others like to do a little more in the way of heavy lifting—and have you had to move boxes of albums lately?

Similarly: with tube electronics one can point at various elements of the devices and identify them: power transformer, smoothing choke, regulator tube, input stage tube, power output tubes, output transformer. Just like you used to be able to do with a car. Aside from the sonic characteristics, might this be a reason for the popularity of tube amps among hipsters and newbies?

Beyond that: devices with actual, physical on-off switches will operate in only two states: on, or off. They will indicate which state they are in, if only by position of the switch. They will not run through endless boot-cycles or self-diagnostics. They will give the user at least the illusion of being in control, and with some sense of understanding what the device is, and how it works. They will not decide that one’s software has expired or that one’s credentials need to be updated.

And how about the latest dystopian decision which prompted this rant in the first place?  Contrary to industry practices and quite possibly against most consumer-protection laws, Sonos has announced that users must agree to their new privacy policy, or their Sonos devices may “cease to function”. Like that euphemism? It’s like the pharmaceutical ad disclaimer, “fatal events have occurred”. So—you bought the thing a couple years ago, and they can now impose new rules upon you, and make that thing you bought NOT WORK?

So much for the benevolent little device that brings music to your whole house. Sorry, Sonos: ex post facto rules are always wrong, and are monumentally stupid for any company that actually hopes to stay in business. Way to prove that whole truism of Silicon Valley = Arrogant + Uncaring,  Sonos.

High Five!

[In case you wondered: the guy pictured at the top of the page is Ray Kurzweil. In addition to being a leader in the theory and design of cybernetic systems for decades, he’s also been one of the leading voices warning of the potential dangers of nanotechnology and biotechnology, two areas that scare the crap out of me. In other words, Ray might be a bit of a Luddite, just as I am. My kinda guy, that Ray—Ed.]

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