Wednesday, August 18

How many LEDs are in your life?

When the lights are out and I’m ready to drift off to dreamland, the house is suffused with a blanket of tiny lights. The LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) that adorn nearly everything that you can plug into an electrical outlet announce their presence. Just about every consumer product manufacturer loves to use these diabolical decorations to show that their product is plugged in and doing its duty. For example, to live with an iRobot Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner, you have to put up with three of the green glow-ers: One on the power brick, One on the charging dock, and The Big Bright One on the vacuum cleaner itself. All are the cruddy green color that has way too much yellow in it, the Cheap Green, as I call it. There’s a better green? Yes! Apple uses it on my Time Capsule, the one-terabyte backup disk and WiFi router combo. Its single, subdued green light is mellow, tasteful, rich, organic, soothing—something Apple engineers probably had to work on for years in order to please their aesthetic sensibilities.

The most jarringly garish appliance is my HughesNet HN9000 satellite receiver modem, with its FIVE count ’em FIVE super bright blue LEDs. They could illuminate a football stadium in a dense fog. Not only that, but two of the lights BLINK! Constantly! Why? Who knows—maybe it’s to show the user that something is happening, as if you couldn’t tell by looking at your computer screen and seeing that your Internet connection is working. I cover that beast with a large brown paper grocery sack with appropriate cooling vent slits cut into it, but still there is a suffused ominous blinking blueness that soaks through the bag.

Some indicator LEDs serve a useful purpose. For example, when I’m recharging my digital camera’s batteries, the charger blinks to indicate the state of charge: two blinks for a half charge, four blinks for a full charge. That makes sense. But why does my multi-outlet plug strip have to glow at all? Why does the paper shredder glow green when it isn’t doing anything, and red when it’s jammed. I know it’s jammed—I can see and smell the smoke! Why does the rice cooker have to tell me it’s either cooking or simply warming? I can tell by the noise it’s making—it either gurgles or hisses or sits quietly. The kitchen either smells like there’s something cooking or it smells like the rice is ready to eat. Don’t manufacturers realize we have more than one sense? Does the triple-plug adapter I plugged into an outlet to increase its usefulness have to glow orange? If my coffee grinder doesn’t grind, toaster doesn’t toast, and microwave doesn’t heat, can’t I figure out that the adapter isn’t connected even if it lacks a glowing light?

Blinking lights of various colors are not necessary to have a fulfilling life in the Twenty-First Century. Back in the mid- Twentieth, when I was a kid, we had one phone in our house. It was wired into the wall and you couldn’t move it to another room. It had a rotary dial. It didn’t light up. Nothing lit up. Well, the big wooden console radio in the living room had a backlit tuning dial, but it had to glow in order to be seen. The glow of the vacuum tubes inside didn’t show, but it had a Magic Eye that did! What a nifty thing! It was round, about the size of a quarter, with a dark dot in the center surrounded by a green arc that closed into a circle when you were exactly tuned to a radio station. When we turned out the lights and the radio was off, the house went dark.

The wonderful Magic Eye!

Okay, you can see I’ve had my fill with ubiquitous LEDs. I hope they’re only a passing fad. Now I’m looking forward to the next Big Improvement to our lives—it’s kind of retro, which is a fad in itself: A house that becomes dark when you turn out the lights!

Magic eye photo: Wikipedia


建枫 said...

生、死、窮、達,不易其操。......................................... ........................

Pete S. said...

As anyone can plainly see, the light on the multi-outlet plug is not an LED, but a neon bulb! You can tell by its color. I noticed this all by myself as soon as someone called my attention to it.

For this application, a neon bulb is a much better choice than an LED since a neon bulb naturally runs on high voltage. An LED would either waste about 1.2 watts if a resistor was used to reduce the voltage to 2 volts, or require complicated electronics to reduce the voltage without wasting power.

Tom Hurley said...

Great work, Pete S.! I knew you’d spot my little deception of intentionally putting a neon bulb in with the LEDs.