Attention conservation notice: 1800 words on how-to instructions for Nest products, leading into some thoughts on being afraid of things you don’t know how to do, leading into some thoughts on needing a mentor, leading into an idea for a bartered mentoring scheme.

Me, I’m not so good at the handyman stuff. Which is something of a shame, because I’m sort of the landlord-in-residence at the apartment that I rent from my friends. But the smoke detectors needed to be upgraded: the existing ones start screaming when the wind blows the wrong way, and the Nests promise that you can silence them easily when all you’re doing is burning some toast (they call this the “Nest Wave”; they’ve recently remotely disabled it).

Marco Arment doesn’t think the Nest Protect solves any real problem, because “If your smoke detector has too many false alarms, moving it is going to be a far more effective upgrade. And if you cant move it, you probably also cant replace it.” It’s a fair cop. It’s even fairer to note that the existing crappy Kidde smoke detectors already had a “hush mode”, which was supposed to do what the Nest Wave does. My only hope here is that a higher-end product, from a company that seems to want to establish a relationship with its customers, is more likely to deliver on the promise.

Add to this the fact that everyone who owns a Nest thermostat loves it, and that (I assume) there are increasing returns to owning more Nest devices: if nothing else, the Nest smoke detectors can communicate with each other wirelessly. Altogether, it seemed like there were good reasons to go all-in on Nest products: I bought seven of the smoke detectors and one thermostat.

Before I go into the handyman aspect of this, which is the whole point of the post, let me just note that the thermostat is beautiful. It’s packaged with the same loving care that Apple puts into their products; the product is elegantly simple (again, like an Apple product); and it has a remarkably pleasing weight.

Installing the thermostat was really quite easy. The basic gist of the installation routine is just

  1. Pay attention to which color wires go into which marked terminals (Y1, G, Rh, etc.). Take a photo with your phone.
  2. Turn off the power to your house, so that you don’t die. (I think I could have just killed the power to the furnace, but I didn’t know for sure.)
  3. Remove the old thermostat.
  4. Put the new thermostat base on, and level it with the handily included bubble level.
  5. Plug the wires into the appropriate terminals.
  6. Put the new thermostat on the base.
  7. Turn the power back on.
  8. Go through a little dance to configure it.

Nice short, straight, perfectly vivid segments of wire, not much at all like what I encountered
It was basically painless. The only pain, really, was that I had to strip some wires. The wiring diagram from Nest (included at right) suggests that your segments of wire will be perfectly straight, will be cut to exactly the lengths you need, and will have the appropriate lengths of exposed copper. Mine did not meet these criteria. The first couple times I tried wiring it up and turning the power back on, I got the dreaded error 24, which seemed to mean that I hadn’t wired things up properly. This has to do with the Rh wire, apparently. I gather that the ‘h’ stands for ‘heating’. Unsure what the ‘R’ stands for. Now that I’ve played with this stuff, I would like to understand more about what I just did. If anyone has any books you’d recommend here, do let me know.

In any case, I had to shorten some wires so that they’d make nice straight segments. Then I had to strip the shielding off the ends, so that they’d conduct when put in contact with the terminals. With that done, everything went smoothly.

The Nest UI is really cool. One of the screens showed me which wires were connected to which terminals, thereby revealing to me that my Nest wasn’t ready to control the apartment’s air conditioning. (Maybe it was the Y1 wire? I forget.) So I took off the thermostat, killed the power — probably excessive, but still — stripped a bit more shielding, put the wire back in, put the thermostat back on, and voilà: the device showed me that it now saw a wire where it expected to find one, and told me on another screen that it could now control the A/C. Brilliant.

Putting in a smoke detector was even easier, though it was exhausting to bend my head back to look up at the ceiling and screw a bunch of stuff in above my head; I now know exactly how Michelangelo felt.

Here the only steps were

  1. Kill the power.
  2. Take the old backplate to the old smoke detector off the ceiling.
  3. Screw in the new backplate.
  4. Remove the old wire nuts that connect the existing black, white, and red wires.
  5. Pair the new Nest black wire with the existing black wire and the new white wire with the existing white wire, and put the new wire nuts on over the existing wires. Then put a wire nut over the existing red interconnect wire: the Nest thermostat doesn’t need it; Nest uses 802.15.4 to connect devices wirelessly. I seem to recall reading that it uses your home WiFi to connect until all the thermostats are Nest, but that doesn’t 100% make sense to me: what happens if your WiFi router is down? In any case, Nest doesn’t use the red wire.
  6. Install the Nest smartphone app and tell it that you want to add a smoke detector. It’ll ask you to take a photo of the QR code on the back of the device. After you’ve done that, it’ll tell you the ESSID of the device’s ad-hoc wireless network; connect to that ESSID through your phone’s WiFi control. (You may need to press the button on the smoke detector; the blue ring will light up, and within a few seconds the ad-hoc network will show up on your phone.)
  7. Connect the power cable (which is hanging off the black and white wires) to the Nest.
  8. Tuck all the cables away in the ceiling, and twist the Nest onto the ceiling.

And you’re done! There’s a little smartphone-app / website dancing to do here, but that’s all obvious.

I’ll admit to you that I was a little scared of installing this. What if I do something wrong? What if I disable our smoke detectors? It helped me a little that our existing smoke detectors were all but disabled, because they went off too often to do anyone any good.

As a general matter I think I’m too scared in my life of doing things wrong. This fear leads often to procrastination, which of course only makes the problem worse: you’re still scared of doing things wrong, but now you’re just going to have to worry about it for longer. And if it’s like most things in your life, the obligation won’t go away; that thing at work that you’re concerned you might fail on is now something that you might fail on after having avoided it for too long. So now you have other people thinking you can’t do it, which makes you look stupid or incapable in front of other people, which is (to my mind) worse than merely fearing your own incapacity.

You see how badly this turns out. In many cases I think I need a mentor to help me get over the hurdle: someone who will show me the ropes and convince me that in fact I know what I’m doing. Mentors are incredibly valuable; had I gone off on my own to learn Linux, without Adam watching over my shoulder, the whole bizarre Unix universe would have probably seemed too daunting to get started on, and I might have ditched it. And I wouldn’t have built the reasonably successful career I’ve been on ever since.

So it is with home-repair stuff. It’d be fun to put together a list of things I want to do around this apartment, then invite someone over to be by my side while I do them. They’d tell me things I should do differently, the corners I could cut, the shortcuts I could take, the extra little bit of hardware that, if I bought it (or borrowed it from a municipal library), would radically speed up my work. That would lower the difficulty of tasks in the future, which would lower my fear, which would mean I could do more on my own. Increasing returns! Indeed, this home-improvement coach would hopefully be someone who could tell me all the things that could be improved in my apartment that I just don’t see because I’ve not been trained. Hiring someone to train you on these things — without going to a vo-tech school, say — would be hugely great. I believe there are bicycle shops in Cambridge that do that: you can pay them $n to repair your bike, or pay them $m (where 0 <= m < n) to teach you how to repair your own.

Jeez. Writing this out puts me in a mind to construct some kind of community mentoring scheme. I could mentor people in what I know well (computer stuff, say); they could mentor me in what they know well and that I need help on, like carpentry or interior decorating or electrical work or plumbing. The first retort that comes to mind on this is "How do you know you're getting the right training from these people?" In principle you should ask the same question of Harvard or MIT professors, but those institutions are assumed to have vetted their staff properly. As for the Adams of the world, teaching people Linux … well, I knew Adam, so that solved that. In any case, the proper solution here would be Yelp for education, essentially. I teach you about Linux, and you rate how well you liked my teaching. Or maybe we find some more objective way to evaluate whether you learned what I ostensibly taught. E.g., you should be able to answer the question "how do you list the contents of a directory at the Unix shell?" after I'm done teaching you. And so forth. Combine a community mentoring scheme with a community library of tools (borrow a drill for an hour from the library, say), and you've got something really cool.

Yes, in some sense this is recapitulating the idea of "school", but in important ways I think it's different. It's a you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours kind of system. And as described, it sounds a lot like like barter.

(Is 'skill-share' a generic term for this? A moment's Googling suggests it may be.)

I dunno. I think this is worth doing. It's all in the pursuit of reducing fear.