Unnecessary Automation

Sorry, there are not many interesting pictures in this entry, namely because people tend to freak out when you start taking snapping photographs in public bathrooms (you’ll see what I mean if you read this entry) But don’t fear! If you want pictures, check the entry right above this one, which I posted like 5 seconds after this despite the dates being different.

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Well, not really a good morning. Why, you ask? You see, I am currently sitting in the middle of Starbucks at 9:30 am on a Sunday.

“Why Panda, I know you! You love Starbucks! Why is this such a bad thing?” long time readers of the pandablog might ask – and rightfully so. I do love Starbucks. So normally this would be a good morning indeed, seeing as how I have a cup of my beloved steamed-milk-and-caramel-masquerading-as-coffee in front of me.

automation

This picture is clearly not relevant to this topic but it’s the scene at my desk as I was typing it up

But you see, I am at Starbucks today not out of a love of fake-coffee, but rather out of necessity. Starbucks, you see, has a working sink and flushing toilet.

Does not my house have a sink and a toilet, you might ask?

Why yes, yes it does. But notice the lack of the preceding key adjectives. A working sink. A flushing toilet.

You see, gentle readers, I woke up bright and early this morning fully intending to go to Narita-san for Setsubun (i.e. the place where a sumo wrestler smacked me in the face with a sack of beans last year), but opened my window to find a torrential snowstorm and howling sub-zero winds.

I then got a really lovely surprise when I went to my bathroom to discover – oh how lovely! All my pipes have frozen and I have no water!

It is incredibly fortunate that I decided to try and brush my teeth before using the restroom, because that way I found out that the water was frozen and not running before I tried to flush a full toilet. The other way could have been . . . messy, to say the least.

So anyway, I did what any person would do when faced with my situation (unable to shower, brush teeth or use the restroom). I threw my computer and toothbrush in a bag and trudged off to Starbucks to use their restroom, brush my teeth in their sink, and then spend 8 hours hanging out and writing a blog entry, hoping that somehow magically my water is going to be un-frozen when I get home. Which given the frightening way the snow is piling up at the moment, does not exactly seem likely.

Oh and I hope my pipes don’t burst and make me come home to a kitchen covered from ceiling to floor in ice.

*gulp*

At any rate, this unfortunate turn of events does have one silver lining; chiefly, it provides me with a nice segue into today’s post topic: Unnecessary Automation.

I am not a luddite by any stretch of the imagination, but lately I have noticed a disturbing trend of things that have no business being automated being, in fact, automated. Unnecessarily so. Like toilets. Yes. Let’s talk about toilets. Working toilets. Evil, automated, working toilets.

1. Automatic Toilets

It’s no secret that I have had my issues with Japanese toilets in the past; however, it’s usually the old pit-style toilets that are the culprits. But these days there’s been a movement within the high-tech toilets industry to try and “anticipate” your pooping needs. And this needs to stop.

Let me back up a second, in case you’ve never seen a high tech Japanese toilet. Generally manufactured by the world’s largest toilet & bathroom fixture maker, TOTO, some of the most luxurious commodes in the world are made right here in the land of the rising sun and bean paste. They have features that we cannot even conceive of back in the west – remote controls, heated seats, automatic washlets and bidets, odor neutralisers, self-cleaning bowls, “white noise” to cover up the sounds normally associated with using the restroom, and much much more. Now I am very much a “simple is better” guy when it comes to toilets – as long as it’s not a hole in the ground I’m chuffed. I never use the high tech features of the modern Japanese toilets, except the heated seat feature in the winter. Otherwise, these high tech toilets and I exist in a sort of cold-war-esque faux-peace: they don’t mess with me and I won’t mess with them. We can both engage in our necessary business in a brief, professional manner, and then go our separate ways afterward. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked, and for a while we both managed to co-exist relatively without incident.

But recently the toilets have been breaking the delicate balance of power.

The other day I walked into a public restroom, and turned around to shut the door. No sooner had I closed the latch than behind me I hear an ominous mechanical sound.

VREEEEEEEEE!!

I whip around, startled. For some inexplicable reason, the toilet has automatically lifted both the lid and the seat.

“What the . . . ?”

I figure I must be hallucinating things. Maybe the seat was, like, up from the beginning and I just didn’t notice. I push the seat down and then close the lid.

Like most of us, I am sometimes prone to silly, irrational fears. In the case of public toilets, I have this fear of dropping something in them as I’m getting ready to use the bathroom. Like, as I turn to take my coat off and hang it on the hook on the back of the door, I’m afraid something might fall out of my pocket into the bowl. Or that I might drop my gloves in there. Or my wallet. So on and so forth. Thus, to prevent any unfortunate mishaps, I make a habit of closing the lid on the toilet until I’m actually ready to sit and do my business.

Back to the story.

After forcing down the seat and the lid, I turn back around and begin to shrug off my coat. Suddenly, as I’m one-sleeve-in-one-sleeve-out:

VREEEEEEEEE!!

Even before turning around, I know what it is. I move to face the toilet, and find it sitting there in quite defiance, lid and seat raised straight up to the sky.

“Oh . . . now it’s on bitch

I reach up and slam the lid and seat down; I can feel the mechanical resistance of the motor as it struggles to oppose my motion. I secretly hope that I broke it with the force of my hand – that would teach it a lesson not to mess with a panda that needs to poop.

I begin to unbuckle my belt.

VREEEEEEEEE!!

RIGHT BEFORE MY EYES the toilet lid, followed by the seat, slowly levitate back to the “up” position.

“ARE YOU ON CRACK!?” I shout, my words (and anger) reverberating through the tiny confines of the stall.

I reach over and slam the lid.

*slam*

VREEEEEEEEE!!

*slam*

VREEEEEEEEE!!

*slam* *slam* *slam*

VREEEEEEEEE!!

*slam!!* *slam!!* *slam!!* *slam*!!

. . .

. . . . .

. . . . . . . . .

VREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!

I slowly slump down in the corner and let a single tear trickle down my cheek, defeated.

Okay, so perhaps I hyperbolise. But the point is, that was a really frustrating experience. First of all, though perhaps this might fall under the category of TMI (Too Much Information) for all of you, dear readers, I had to do #2, not #1 at this particular moment. You need a toilet seat to sit on when you do #2. So why, pray tell, did the automatic toilet INSIST on raising BOTH the lid and the seat . . . !? Mistar Toilet, I am very well aware of what kind of business I am about to engage in – why don’t you leave the question of whether to raise the seat up to me? Hmm? Because unless there’s some sort of special mind-scanning toilet technology people have come up with unbeknownst to me, I’m pretty sure I’m still the most qualified individual in the toilet-panda relationship to make the decision about whether I will need the seat up or down. I mean, you KNOW you’re going to be wrong like 50% of the time, right mistar toilet? Plus, I mean, this is a guys bathroom – there’s urinals right outside the stall, so why would you assume that people who come into the stall are going to do #1 more often than #2?

Not to mention the unease I felt as I sat there, physically forcing the seat down with my weight as I tried to do my business (a task made no easier by pumping adrenalin left over from the epic struggle I had just engaged in. Have you ever tried to use the bathroom whilst pumped up on adrenalin and rocking the “fight or flight” instinct? It’s like . . . weird . . . !) all the while wondering uneasily whether the seat was about to fling me up at the ceiling or not in mid-business. I mean, how strong are those mechanical motors anyway?

After I finish, I stand up and try to flush the toilet. Only . . . there’s no handle. Just a little black glass sensor mounted towards the metal back of the seat with a sign next to it:

[wave hand to flush toilet]

automation

I reach over and wave my hand.

Nothing happens.

I wave my hand again.

Again, the bowl stubbornly refuses to flush.

*wave wave wave*

. . .

. . . . . .

. . . . . . . . . .

VREEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

*sigh* Yeah. The toilet seat raised. Another tear trickles down my other cheek.

I admit defeat. I pull up my pants, thrown on my jacket and then leave. Yeah. I was that guy, the one who leaves the toilet unflushed. But gentle readers, it sure wasn’t for lack of trying. The toilet wouldn’t flush . . . ! I TRIED. I TRIED DAMMIT!

But that toilet wasn’t having any of it.

There are some things in life that should not be automated. Toilets are one of them. Computers and logic boards – let alone mechanical motors are all things that in my opinion, should never be part of the toilet equation. People of the world, we can make our own decisions about whether or not to raise the seat. We don’t need the toilet to try and figure it out for us. People of the world, what is wrong with having a physical handle instead of a wonky IR sensor to flush the toilet after we’re done?

I’m just saying, yo. Unnecessary automation.

2. SCV – “Speed Controlled Volume”

It’s not, however, just toilets that are victims of this frustrating trend. Another major offender is the automotive industry. Take, for example, the stock radio in your average, modern car. Nowadays they all come with something called “SCV” or “Speed Controlled Volume” installed. Basically the volume of the stereo is linked to the speed at which the car is currently traveling – the faster you drive, the louder the volume gets automatically.

Now I understand the principle behind this – you increase the volume to compensate for increased road noise. The only problem is that while road noise might (theoretically) increase linearly, music is by its very nature dynamic. So you might have, for example, a song with very quiet passages next to very loud passages (I often listen to techno music where this is common place); the difference between the two is not normally a problem if your radio is set, for example, to a moderate level. At this setting, loud is loud, and quiet is quiet, and all is good. But when the stupid SCV starts to meddle with things, that’s when it all goes “pear shaped”, as my british friends would say.

The following chart should illustrate what I mean handily:

SCV at 20mph SCV at 40mph SCV at 60mph
Radio Volume [|||.......] [||||||....] [|||||||||.]
Quiet Passages quiet medium loud
Loud Passages loud painfully loud I’m bleeding from the fricking ears…!

See what I mean?

I understand why some engineer thought it would be a good idea to make a radio that automatically increases the volume to compensate for increased road noise at speed, but if said engineer had just sat and thought things through a little bit more – or you know, actually tried out the feature he/she designed – it would have quickly become evident to them why rather than a useful feature, SCV is actually nothing more than a prime example of “Unnecessary Automation.”

Car engineers of the world, in this case I’m afraid I must suggest to you the life motto of my favourite lovable, huggable plush pig mistar monkokuroboo: simple is best. You don’t need fancy (and ineffective) SCV features on your radios – just insulate the car better so that road noise doesn’t even enter into the equation in the first place. I mean, if Lexus can make a car that is remarkably quiet even at 65mph, I’m sure you can come up with some padding or something that will at least obliviate (alleviate?) the need for SCV at 40 mph. At least that way I won’t start a conversation at a normal decibel level when I’m pulling on to a highway entrance ramp and end up screaming at the person in the passenger seat a-la- rock concert a few seconds later when the radio decides it needs to try and give my internal organs an acoustic massage just because I was driving 40 mph.

3. Automatic Anything (except transmission) in Cars

But I am not done with cars just yet. There are two more aggravating examples in the automotive industry I want to deal with: automatic windshield wipers (turns on when they detect rain) and automatic headlights (turns on when they decide it’s dark enough).

Let’s start with automatic windshield wipers. This is an idea so dumb I cannot even fathom who came up with it. First of all, the little rain sensor that detects water to tell the automatic wipers turn on is really small. So sometimes it might be raining like enough droplets to disturb your view out the windshield, but not enough to hit that little sensor and trigger the windshield wipers. Which is not bad, but the inverse case is aggravating – when just one or two drops hit the glass – not enough to obscure your vision as perhaps it was just a little splash from a passing car or something – but it happens to trigger an oversensitive auto rain sensor, which freaks out and thinks its raining and so it triggers your windshield wipers. The result? Those ugly gross streaks you get from dragging dry rubber windshield wipers across your windshield when there’s no actual rain. Yeah. Nice.

The other thing that irritates me about these windshield wipers is that quite naturally, I am alarmed when big metal rods and blades start flying across my field of vision of their own accord without consulting me when I am driving down the highway at 90 kph. That freaks me out. I’m zoning, chilling with the music and focusing on the rhythmic highway traffic flow when out of nowhere WAP WAPP WAPPPPPP, oh look, my car is alive and possessed by satan, my windshield wipers are freaking out and furiously beating for no apparent reason. Nothing in my car should turn on or move without my explicit intervention, okay? Why is this so hard to understand? (except, for, as noted, my beloved automatic transmission. You’re okay buddy.) Just give me an on/off switch and a little twisty handle to set the interval for the intermittent settings and we’re golden.

Now let’s deal with the auto-headlights. Dear headlights. I like you. You light up the road at night and keep me from driving into ditches (except for that one time, but now is not the time or the place). But please, please, please leave the decision of when and where to turn you on to me. See, sometimes I have a nice reason why I don’t want you turned on even though you happen to think it’s dark enough outside to merit your contribution. Perhaps my friends, I am fleeing from a mass murderer on the highway and I think that it would be beneficial not to advertise my position with bright xenon spotlights. Or more plausibly, perhaps I am sitting in a parking lot in front of a convenience store waiting for my friend to finish up inside and it’s cold out so I have the engine on to run the heater, but I’d prefer not to blind every single person within a 30 meter radius inside of the front glass of the store windows with my headlights.

The worse part is, because of this unnecessary automation on the part of the designers with the headlights, they have now moved the headlight controls to some random and totally hidden spot buried behind/underneath the steering column, because they figure you will never need to use it. Remember when the headlights had a clear and dedicated button or switch you could easily find at a glance? Push it once and lights are on. Push it twice and they are off. Easy, right? Nowadays though, with modern “automatic” headlights, if you want to turn off your headlights when they decide they ought to be on, you have to like reach underneath your steering column with your left hand and push some three button dip switch combination whilst simultaneously yanking out and pulling upward on the signal indicator stalk while twisting the end cap counter-clockwise 243 degrees and inputting the Konami code with your thumb on a tiny hat switch mounted on the end. You might also have to sing a small chant too, I’m not really sure, as I’ve never managed to actually turn off automatic headlights that wanted to be on. Never once.

*weeps*

4. Automatic Sinks

Now that I’ve ranted on about cars, I realise there is one more thing I meant to mention from my little bathroom adventure above. The automatic bathroom sink.

Like so many cases of unnecessary automation, the idea behind automatic bathroom sinks probably sounded like a good one at first. But if the designers had just thought things through a little more carefully they would quickly have realised that appearances can be deceiving.

I believe somewhere I read that automatic faucets are designed to

a. prevent mischief (since pranksters can’t leave the faucets turned on)
b. be more hygienic (since your hands don’t need to touch the handles)
c. save money (since the water only flows when your hands are under the faucet)

All noble goals, I suppose. Too bad it doesn’t work.

So back to the story above, after I finished doing my business and admitted defeat, exiting the toilet stall with a few smattered tears on my face (always guaranteed to stifle any conversation going on in the men’s room when that happens), I went to wash my hands. Of course there is no visible handle, just this large, ominous looking bluntly curved hewn piece of metal jutting out over the porcelain sink. Oh great, an automatic faucet.

automation

This is not the sink in question as the soap and water dispensers are separated but it’s the sink in the only deserted public restroom I could find to snap a picture of (since peeps freak out when you whip out your DSLR in the middle of a crowded bathroom)

So I stick my hands under the faucet only . . . the water doesn’t turn on. What the frick. And herein we have the biggest problem with automatic faucets – trying to get them to turn on requires you to finagle your hands into the weirdest of contortions to find that magic spot and configuration where the faucet decides it feels like turning on the water for you. The motions involved – the waving, fluttering, splaying of fingers, jutting and twisting of hands, wrist and arms – look much like what I imagine casting a black magic voodoo spell would resemble. And the worst part is, once that miserly faucet decides you have stroked it in just the right spot, you can’t move your hands from that position lest the flow stop just as abruptly as it began. Unfortunately this makes it rather hard to actually wash your hands as motion happens to be an integral part of that undertaking.

So I begin my ritualised shadow boxing with the invisible air underneath this faucet trying to get the stubborn IR sensor to trip and send some water my way when all of a sudden the sink decides to pull an ugly, ugly trick. You see, this faucet did not only dispense water – unbeknownst to me at the time, it also dispensed liquid foam soap from a little jet shooter also mounted under the metal facade. And this liquid foam soap was also triggered by a little automatic IR sensor. A sensor that happened to be a lot more sensitive than the one for the water.

BZZZZZTTTTT!!!!!!!! FFFFffffssskkkkk!! FFFFffffssskkkkkkkk!

Out of nowhere a brilliant white arc shot of jet propelled soap foam erupts from under the faucet and coats my hands – hands, which as you may remember are still dry because they haven’t managed to trigger the water yet.

“Oh what the…!?” I growl. But hey, I needed to put soap on my hands anyway, so I guess sooner is just as good as later.

I keep shadowboxing the sink and finally, finally, after my hands are arranged in a perverse contortion that looks as if I’m ready to receive a birthing baby (you know, hands crossed, elbows splayed out, fingers extended), water starts to flow.

“Thank god!” I breathe, as I begin the laborious process of trying to wash my hands without cutting off the water.

Things are going well and I’m almost done washing my hands (in tiny, excruciatingly calculated motions so as to avoid moving out of the magic IR sensor zone) when all of a sudden:

BZZZZZTTTTT!!!!!!!! FFFFffffssskkkkk!! FFFFffffssskkkkkkkk!

“WHAT THE FU—!!!??”"” I yell as once again, a brilliant white shot of jet foam soap shoots out all over my almost-washed hands. I guess I must have moved wrong and triggered the soap sensor. Great. Now I have to re-wash my hands. What the frick!?

So I start to re-wash my hands only . . . suddenly the water cuts off.

“DAMMIT!!”

I start waving my hands around to try and trigger the water when –

BZZZZZTTTTT!!!!!!!! FFFFffffssskkkkk!! FFFFffffssskkkkkkkk!

“OH MY GOD WHAT THE – !!??”"

BZZZZZTTTTT!!!!!!!! FFFFffffssskkkkk!! FFFFffffssskkkkkkkk!

“AAAAAGGGGHHHHHHH!!!!”

BZZZZZTTTTT!!!!!!!! FFFFffffssskkkkk!! FFFFffffssskkkkkkkk!

BZZZZZTTTTT!!!!!!!! FFFFffffssskkkkk!! FFFFffffssskkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk!

BZZZZZTTTTT!!!!!!!! FFFFffffssskkkkk!! FFFFffffssskkkkkkkKKKKKKKkkkkkkkkkkkKKKKKKKKk!

I stand there like a fool, hands, wrists and shirt sleeves covered with soap. I look around. People are staring. I quickly start rubbing my hands together to try and play it off, you know, like I meant to do that, like I had really, really, really dirty hands and like, needed all that soap.

It takes a few minutes, but I finally manage to slowly snake my hands in, one at a time, from the right-rear corner of the faucet and find the sweet spot that only triggers the water, but not the soap. And I manage to wash my hands. It only takes 4 minutes. All the while I curse whatever “inventive” mind thought it would be a good idea to replace a traditional sink with this mechanical automated monstrosity. I never had issues like this with a bar of soap.

*le sigh*

Epilogue

Okay, my rant is over. Thank you for listening. Sorry if it was disjointed. It’s cold outside and I can’t think straight or feel my fingers. Plus I’m hungry too. What should I eat?

Now listening to: “Yellowcard – Ocean Avenue”

I’ve liked this song for a surprisingly long time, given that this is not generally my genre of music. I really dig Sean Mackin on the violin (most clearly audible right around the 2:58 mark), a pretty interesting twist on the standard punk/rock fare.