COL The automatic stove told us to call its doctor

You have to watch what you say in the kitchen

We were using the automatic, self-cleaning feature on the electric range in the kitchen -- that system in which the oven door locks and the oven deliberately overheats, thereby incinerating all the melted cheese drips from several weeks of pizza. One of us tugged prematurely on the oven door after the stove had turned off its heating elements but while the residual heat was still eating the pizza cheese

Suddenly, a stream of words appeared on a little screen at the top of the stove. A sentence in lights started running across that screen telling us the stove wouldn't open and asking us to call an 800 number it provided. It said to give the human who answered a terse message. Tell him, "F95."

It sounded like something one spy would say to another spy. But we called what turned out, of course, to be the stove company's trouble shooting department and whispered, "F95."

The guy on the other end knew instantly what that meant. He said when we tugged prematurely on the oven door, the stove became alarmed. It clamped down and wouldn't let us in there where it was still too hot for us and still too cheesy for the stove.


But he said that just in case the stove was still stupidly overheating itself, we should turn off the fuse box breaker switch to that appliance for 30 minutes, turn it back on and see if the stove wouldn't let us in and function normally thereafter.

That worked. Nonetheless, when a stove suddenly starts sending you explicit messages to call its doctor -- and you didn't know your stove, or any other stove, is capable of that -- it gets a little spooky. It is another of those moments when you realize you are now living in that science fiction future the popular magazines of your youth told you would come along.

The scary part is that this model of stove has been around for three or four years. So this isn't exactly cutting-edge technology. That means other, more recent appliances in your home may have similar or superior capabilities. They may suddenly ask you to call their doctors, or to knock it off when you are operating them in some harmful way.

Such developments make a person paranoid. A stove that can diagnose itself and tell you to call its doctor is a stove just one improvement away from calling the doctor itself and either making the appropriate adjustment to fix the problem or having the repair man call you.

You're cleaning the stove (or actually, allowing the stove to clean itself). The phone rings and some guy somewhere says, "Your stove tells me you have been abusing it in ways it wasn't designed to tolerate. Listen up, Jacko: if you don't stop that, your stove will quit working."

In other words, your stove -- your square, hot robot -- has just caused its human representative to contact you and threaten you with a strike, you cheese dripping creep.

The point is that, if a kitchen appliance can contact me to tell me it needs professional help, it is only the possible absence of a wireless telephone connection that would keep it from contacting that professional help on its own and without my knowledge.

And if a stove can call, unknown to me, and communicate its ailments to a repair center, then what else can it report without my knowledge? And to whom? I'm starting to watch what I say in my own kitchen.


When I place the can of tuna fish in the electric can opener, not only do two cats come running as usual, slaves to that sound after years of tuna leftovers, but perhaps the can opener is scanning the bar code on the can and reporting to some marketer what I am eating and what brand I prefer.

And is that toaster only a toaster? Is that refrigerator keeping an eye on more than the temperature of the chicken?

I'm starting to get nervous about walking half dressed through the kitchen in the morning. You never know when opening your refrigerator who's in there watching besides the chicken.

But there is a defense. At my seasoned stage of life, having lost most of the war with gravity, the sight of my half-clothed body can be enough to cause a panicky kitchen appliance to make an F95 call and beg the home office for the mercy of far less information.

Hall may be contacted at or at 1012 Prospect Ave., Lewiston, ID 83501

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