Every year when I set up the outdoor Christmas decorations, I think I'll break down and go LED, but every year I get the same old white incandescents. They're heavy duty, according to the package, in case I want to wrap them around the mizzenmast of a ship in a gale, and they're guaranteed to stay lit if one goes out. We all know this is nonsense; after a year, one-third of the string will look like a satellite photo of North Korea at night. I can't tell you how much time I've spent looking at bulbs to see if the filaments are intact, searching for the little wire that looks like an ant's antennae.
This year, though, I tried something new: internet lights.
Sort of. You hook the set up to your home network and control them from your phone. This appeals to a certain sort of modern person who begins to salivate uncontrollably when offered the option of managing something from their phone. We would pay $19.99 for a module that sat in the toilet tank and let us flush by pushing a button on the phone.
"Why not just, you know, push the handle?" a skeptical person might say.
"Because this isn't the 19th century! Look, I can flush from anywhere. I can be away from home and flush remotely, and then get a notification when the tank has refilled and reflushing is enabled."
"Why would you flush when you're not home?" "Because I can! Look, I can network all the units in the house and flush them simultaneously, or in sequence. I can set up a schedule that automatically flushes at a certain time."
"What if you drop your phone in the toilet?" "I just go to my laptop and log in to iFlush, and I can control it from there."
The idea of being able to control things in our home electronically is attractive to the gadget-inclined because we all grew up with "Star Trek" and dreamed of a future where we could whip open our communicator and say, "Scotty! Flush the toilets!" and it would happen. So internet lights hit me right where I live.
Not that there weren't signs of trouble ahead. It's not good when the stuff in the box isn't packed tightly, there aren't any instructions and the little plastic bag marked "fuses" is ripped and empty. Someone returned it. Well. Some idiot couldn't get it to work, and I am not that idiot. I am a completely different idiot.
Since the manual was missing, I had to set it up using my vast technical knowledge. Wi-Fi is required, so let's just go to the phone's Wi-Fi settings ... ah, I found a new network with the Philips name, and joined it.
It asked for a password.
Let us step back for a second and consider this ultra-2016 moment: My Christmas lights have asked for a password. What's more, I do not know what the password is. A minute earlier, I had never even considered the possibility that my lights would have a password, and now I was in the Password Rage Zone, a maelstrom of confusion and fury that results in your inability to type what you think is the password but you don't know if it's right because you see only ********.
I stomp inside. Wife asks, "What's wrong?" "Don't know the password for the lights," I mutter. Most of my technical laments are muttered, and she hears me say things that must sound like "the parrot is not VPN-compliant" or "the router won't recognize the rutabaga cupcakes," and she figures as long as Netflix works, whatever.
An online search reveals the default password: 12345678. I enter this, and — huzzah — everything is connected. And now there is a big, wide, gaping door into my network; down the street I see a black van with Russian license plates cruise to a stop and an antenna rise from its roof. I feel like I should get a megaphone and shout out my banking account routing numbers.
But the lights work. And they're pretty cool. I can set them to any color I want. There are dozens of preset patterns, and I settle on green-and-red, glowing. Because yellow-and-pink wave-motion glowing really doesn't have the holiday effect that you might think.
End result: $137 to emulate the look of a $19.99 string. But I can control it from my phone!
I expect that some night, my wife will come home from work and ask why the lights aren't on, and I'll shrug: "Not my fault. Network's down. It's not just us. Outage maps show that lights are down all over town." Well, unless you have old-style lights. They're still working, of course. But isn't there something cool about knowing your lights don't work because the internet's down?
It's one thing to be able to flush the toilet from your phone, but the ability to flush money down it as well? I love the 21st century.