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January 6, 2005 12:01 AM

Broken: CERN laundry

CernwasherinstsJeremy Paul Birnholtz writes:

Check out the extremely broken system for doing laundry in the hostels at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Geneva, the world's frontier particle physics research facility and birthplace of the HTTP protocol: read about it here, all the way down to the "intuitive dryer controls."


ok, i went to the page, but im not sure what exactly is broken... if taken in a certain context it "seems" that you can get your money back after washing your clothes, but i think it means that if it fails or anything like that you can get the difference of the wash back.

Posted by: Dragon at January 6, 2005 02:04 AM

Dragon, there are a few things broken:

* The R button on the card reader is not explained on the card reader. (Forcing the user to not only go back to the instructions but read a different part of the instructions to figure out what an important-looking button does is slightly broken design.)

* The detergent slot is poorly marked, if it's marked at all.

* The different wash programs don't have context-rich identifiers; the symbols aren't enough to allow the user to reliably determine what they do without significant experimentation. (Does the 40 program heat the clothing to 40 C, wash them for 40 minutes, etc.?)

* The different wash and dry programs do not have explicitly-listed costs. What happens is that you insert your card and are charged "CHF 3,50" - I'm not sure what denomination "CHF" represents, but they use a comma as Americans would use the decimal point - and then, if the program you select actually costs less than CHF 3,50, you are entitled to a refund of the difference if you claim it quickly enough. (Jeremy's explanation is itself broken: it doesn't go into any detail about how long "quickly enough" is, probably for rhetorical reasons.) An unbroken system would take payment after the user selected a program.

Repeat all of the above for the dryer (whose symbols are even less content-rich than those of the washer).

Posted by: Chris Anthony at January 6, 2005 07:09 AM

* Program identifiers: unless your Mom has been washing your clothes for you all your life (and shame on you if it is true) any grown-up would know what these are straight away. At least a European would (don't know if these symbols are non standard in the US) - it is CERN in Geneva after all.

* CHF 3,50: ',' is used as a decimal point in Europe quite widely - it is CERN in Geneva after all - so it's ok. Since it is CERN_in_Geneva_in_Switzerland, what would be a sensible guess for CHF ? Swiss franc? That would be Confederatio Helvetica since Helvetia is the Latin name for Switzerland.

Posted by: EuroTrash at January 6, 2005 10:17 AM


The symbols may be widespread in Europe, but they certainly aren't in the United States. I'm also not saying that American washers and dryers are any better - simply that the symbols used on the washing machines in question aren't content-rich, which is true. If you need to have external context in order to understand a symbol, the symbol is not content-rich.

Conversely, I wasn't complaining about "," (as a decimal divider) being broken, simply explaining it to readers who might not have understood the convention. Similarly, the fact that I personally didn't know what denomination "CHF" stood for doesn't mean that I thought it was broken or in any way strange or incomprehensible; I simply don't have a lot of experience with international currency, and decided to leave looking up the denomination as an exercise for the reader.

I'm utterly baffled at your aggressive tone. Why insult the other readers when "I don't know if these are standard in the US, but they're common in Europe" would have done the job just as well and been easier to type?

Posted by: Chris Anthony at January 6, 2005 11:49 AM

Wow Euro Trash sounds angry. Clearly I'm a broken American because I didn't know that "Helvetia" is the Latin name for Switzerland. I must brush up on my Latin.

As for the washing symbols, I think the one with the hand is intuitive enough to figure out, but the numbers wouldn't be immediately obvious. The washing machines I've used (and Mom hasn't washed my clothes for quite some time, thank you very much) have settings based on the type of material. A new one I just bought a year ago doesn't really have an option for the amount of time to run it for, so I wouldn't naturally assume that the numbers refer to time.

And no matter how you read Chris Anthony's first post, he never has any confusion about how Europeans use commas as decimal points like in "CHF 3,50"

To me, your post sounded like a retaliation simply because you think European products are infallable. You never really cleared up the fundamentally broken parts: poorly labeled detergent slot, the lack of a defined cost breakdown for using the various features (just the "estimated" cost), the layout of the instructions that puts the beginning and end steps on the left side, and the middle steps on the right (so you read in a circle instead of top-to-bottom, left-to-right)... how about the fact that operating a simple washing machine never looked so complex!

Posted by: Manni at January 6, 2005 07:30 PM

I think Eurotrahs is trolling guys. Eurotrash is name of a Brit tv show that pokes fun at the 'weird' Europeans.

Gotta love the genius 'R' button! No label to tell what it is or when to press it. I'll bet most people leave without the refund. Devious++

Manni: the numbers do refer to temps not times I believe, can't be sure though as my mom still does my washing :-)

Posted by: Bob at January 6, 2005 08:25 PM

I also like the very last instruction: "Do not close the door completely."

Posted by: Chris at January 7, 2005 10:23 AM

Folks - we have got to stop responding to Dragon. He is obviously a troll who lives for posting "not broken" just to get a rise out of people. Re-read this latest post: it basically says "I can't figure out what you are supposed to do, but I don't think its broken". Note also that he's invariably the first to post - he sure spends a lot of time here for somebody who doesn't think anything is broken...

Posted by: Carl at January 10, 2005 04:27 PM

It's more like a different language on washers between European countries and US. I won't call this "broken", given that the machine is located at Geneva, as I think this is tantamount to calling a French sign in Paris broken, although I could understand why some people would.

As a kid I lived in a place with heavy European influence, and I can tell these signs are standard on washing machines (at least in my neighborhood). When I first started out in college dorms and use some real American washers (the ones that go by fabric type) I was as frustrated as Jeremy probably was. What is the water temperature for "bright colors" and "whites"? If I have a colorfast bright color blouse that says 40C in its label, should I select whites, or bright colors? The European machines labels are more consistent with the caring labels on clothes, but I have to admit that most people don't understand even half of the symbols on theirs, so that doesn't help much.

I suspect the better alternative lies somewhere in between - either the US machines gives out more details for the control freaks like me, or the European machines carry a more descriptive short phrase that allows whoever doesn't want to decipher glyphs to press a button and wash. Both are somewhat broken if taken out of context, but most European machines stay in Europe and most American machines stay in the US, so maybe this is fine.

As for the refund part, it is so broken! What is it, a rebate scheme that you have to mail your forms before it's too late?

Posted by: treviza at January 11, 2005 02:11 PM

Please help me understand the symbols. I've looked all morning on the net without finding anything helpful.

I have 12 programs on my new used all-in-one washer dryer.

The programs are coded in four positions,

- first a yellow or blue bar (WHAT DOES YELLOW/BLUE MEAN? hot/cold? dry/no dry?)

- then a picture of a tub of water with either a Roman Numeral I or II in it, (most of them are II. There's also I dash II. And some that skip this cycle.

- third seems to be the temperature range MAX, 30°-40°, MIN-30°, etc, (why is there only one MIN, program 10. Does that mean that this is the only choice for cold wash? )

- fourth there is a shower head with either five streams or three streams or skipped cycle, i.e. just a dash. I'm guessing "rinse" but what's the difference.

- last is a curlicue symbol which is either less dense or more dense (spiraled three times or two). DOES THIS REFER TO SPINNING OR TUMBLE DRYING?


1. Yellow Bar

2. Tub with roman numeral I and a black spot dash tub with roman numeral II

3. MAX

4. Five Stream Shower Head

5. Dense Spiral Symbol


1. Yellow Bar

2. Tub with roman numeral II

3. MAX

4. Five Stream Shower Head

5. Dense Spiral Symbol


1. Yellow Bar

2. Tub with roman numeral II

3. 40°-60°

4. Five Stream Shower Head

5. Dense Spiral Symbol


1. Yellow Bar

2. Tub with roman numeral II

3. 30°-40°

4. Five Stream Shower Head

5. Dense Spiral Symbol


1. Yellow Bar

2. -

3. -

4. Five Stream Shower Head

5. Dense Spiral Symbol

Program 6.

1. Yellow Bar

2. -

3. -

4. -

5. Dense Spiral Symbol

7-12 are almost the same except all marked with a blue bar instead of a yellow and all and have a less dense curlicue at the bottom of each, plus the temperatures are a grade cooler:

7. 40° - 60°

8. 40° - 60°

9. 30° - 40°

10. MIN - 40°

11. -

12. -

In addition to the program dial there is a temperature dial (wash water temperature?) and a time dial (20 40 60 80 120) drying time?)

All the dials can be pushed in flush with the machine. I am unclear whether this is important to their function. Should they be pushed in to start? Is this just for packing and aesthetics?

There are also five buttons which can be in or out and have the following symbols.

1. on/off

2. 1000 / 500 ????

3. picture of a tub (soak?)

4. crossed out spiral (again does this mean no spin or no dry?)

5. tub with 1/2 in it (small load?)

I've been trying to experiment but I'm still not absolutely convinced its not just broken. For example the first experiment it ran water all night long.

Any help is appreciated. In short, the main questions are:

What does the spiral mean?

What does yellow or blue mean?

Is I and II? a rough and a regular? two wash cycles?

Why do all the blues have low flow shower heads?

Posted by: Amanda at February 7, 2005 10:59 PM

Chris - No need to be apologetic, American washers ARE better. You didn't mention that the ones in the Confederatio Helvetia (who says Latin is dead?) are big enough to fit 2 t-shirts and take 90 minutes per load. And the sybols are nonsense - i noticed Euro hasn't explained what they heck any of them mean. After 2 years of living in Swizterland, i'm still baffled. Good luck to you!


Posted by: jim at February 13, 2005 04:25 PM

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