Friday, December 31, 2010

Your Plastic Maid Who's Fun To Be With

No, this isn't about an inflatable sex toy. It's about a robot. I'm paraphrasing Douglas Adams who wrote, in his seminal work, "The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy",

"The Encyclopaedia Galactica defines a robot as a mechanical apparatus designed to do the work of a man. The marketing division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation defines a robot as "Your Plastic Pal Who's Fun To Be With."

For Christmas, I got my wife (according to the late Mr. Adams) a "plastic pal who's fun to be with". Gee, now it sounds as though I got her a sex toy, doesn't it? Seriously, though, I got her a robotic floor cleaner, also known as a "Roomba". I suspect that this thing must actually have been created by the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, because it sometimes really does seem endowed with their infamous GPP (Genuine People Personality) feature. Since Roomba's purpose is slanted more toward cleaning than friendship (it's hard to foster a meaningful relationship with a talking Frisbee®), it's more of a plastic "maid" than a plastic "pal", but it is still fun to be with (at least it is for lonely, friendless geeks like me).

Roomba has become popular enough that, by now, most people need no explanation as to what it is but, in case you do, Roomba is, as I said, a robotic floor cleaner. It's a plastic disc on wheels, approximately 12 inches in diameter and 3 inches high. It cleans all types of floors including hardwood, laminate, vinyl and also carpeted, even adjusting itself for pile height. It can be programmed to clean at specified times, up to seven times per week. When it does its stuff, so to speak, it cruises the floor, looking for dirt and navigating around obstacles, before returning to its base to recharge.

Roomba derives its name from the words "Room", which it navigates and cleans (at least the floor part) and "ba", which is a sound that sheep make. Hey, it makes sense - at least, to the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation1.

Before continuing, I should point out that Roomba, like most technological contraptions, comes in various models. Ours is a model 550, which is one of the newer 3rd Generation (3G) models. Features and behavior of other models may vary.

Roomba's cleaning tools include a vacuum, a rotating brush, a rotating squeegee wheel (you know, with the rubber fins as opposed to brushes) and a sideways-rotating brush for cleaning along walls or base molding. The vacuum isn't very powerful, somewhat comparable to that of a hand-held DustBuster ®, but it's augmented by the brushes, which act to loosen dirt from the floor and carpets and also to sweep it under Roomba, into the vacuum's suction range.

Watching Roomba navigate the floor is almost worth the price of admission in itself. It starts with a criss-cross pattern designed both for covering the maximum possible area in its search of dirt and also discovering walls and obstacles. When it hits an obstacle, or "sees" it with its infra-red (IR) sensor, it backs away, pivots, and heads off in a different direction. When it finds a wall, which I assume it recognizes as a straight-line obstacle that seems to go on in the same direction for a ways, it turns itself so that its side-rotating brush is facing the wall, and then runs along it in order to clean the floor perimeter. It "sees" when the floor suddenly disappears in front of it, and therefore will not go tumbling down the first set of stairs that it encounters. Most amusingly, its dirt sensor, aside from simply looking for dirt, also detects especially heavy concentrations of dirt. When such a concentration is detected, a little blue Filthometer2 light comes on, and Roomba spirals over the spot in two or three tight circles in order to give it a specially thorough scouring.

Roomba does take considerably longer to clean a floor than one would take doing it manually with a vacuum cleaner or mop, owing to its having to navigate the room and find all the dirt but, since it's relieving my wife and myself of that chore, it can take all the time it needs, especially if programmed to clean the floors during the day, when everyone is away at work and/or school. The only one whom it might annoy is the cat, and we don't much care what she thinks. Besides, as the video below demonstrates, the cat might not mind it as much as one might think either.

The above video also demonstrates one of the many ways in which you can "yank Roomba's chain" so to speak. I can just picture its robotic brain thinking "There's some cat hair on the floor. Got it! Better go back to check. Hey, I missed some! Got it that time. One more pass... D'OH! More cat hair? What gives???"

Roomba's instruction manual (yes, I actually do read those) recommends that it be confined to a single room, but it will do multiple rooms on the same floor if given free range. Of course, on its maiden voyage, I decided to really put it to the test and gave it free access to most of our main floor, including a carpeted living room, a vinyl kitchen floor and hardwood hallways and dining room. I kept it out of the bedrooms, or it would still be working. If it got into my daughter's room, it would probably disappear, never to be seen again.

Roomba admirably, navigated its way around table and chair legs (no, we didn't bother to do it the courtesy of putting the chairs up on the table) as well as other obstacles. A number of times, it temporarily got "trapped" between a myriad of legs, but it always eventually found its way back out again. It did tend to revisit areas where it had already been. I'm not sure whether it was simply double-checking for missed dirt, got disoriented, or simply liked certain areas for whatever reason. Only once did I ever see Roomba get so completely stuck that it needed help. That was when it blundered under our Christmas tree and got hopelessly tangled in the tree skirt. After four or five unsuccessful attempts to extricate itself, it finally emitted a plaintiff "Error! One left." (yes, Roomba talks too) and simply stopped. I'm still somewhat mystified at the meaning of "One left". One what? One more error? Was it warning me that if I let that happen one more time, it would go on robotic strike and stop cleaning our floors? (This is where the GPP feature comes into play!) My wife and I have agreed to leave Roomba off until after the Christmas tree is down, just to be safe.

One of these days, I intend to unleash both Roomba and my voice-command R2-D2 simultaneously, and let them "duke it out" for floor supremacy. Of course, Roomba is at something of a disadvantage, since it lacks Artoo's "electro-arm" for zapping its antagonists.

Roomba has a base to which it returns when its job is finished or when its battery is in need of recharging. The base plugs into a standard electrical outlet, of course, and emits an IR signal to help Roomba to find its way "home". Finding an appropriate place for the base was a little problematic for us. It needs to be in a fairly open, accessible area. If you wedge it into a cubbyhole somewhere, Roomba may have trouble docking with it, even if it does find it. Of course, it needs to be within reach of an available electrical socket. Finally, it needs to be placed against a wall or other heavy object, because it's very light. Without some sort of brace, Roomba tends to just push it away when it tries to dock.

Somehow, we had some trouble finding a spot that satisfied all of the above criteria. I also added an extra criterion of my own. I would have preferred the base to be in some inconspicuous spot, rather than having Roomba sitting out, as if on display. Unfortunately, "inconspicuous" and "easily accessible" seem to be mutually exclusive terms. At one point, I hit upon the "bright" idea of placing it under the couch. I figured that, at the designated time, Roomba could come out from under the couch, clean the floors, and then quietly disappear back underneath the couch, out of sight and out of mind. Aside from the fact that our couch has legs so short that Roomba didn't actually fit underneath it, the other problem with this idea is what happens if Roomba fails to dock properly for whatever reason. Its battery would eventually die and there it would sit, under the couch, gathering dust (but not in the intended manner), forcing someone to crawl under the couch to rescue it. Even if it unerringly found its dock every time, its dust bin, which is fairly small, needs regular emptying and its brushes need regular cleaning as well. Again, one would have to crawl under the couch in order to retrieve it for maintenance and cleaning. No, hiding Roomba under furniture is not recommended.

Should you be considering getting a Roomba for yourself, the final, and most important, question is, of course, "Does it work?" or, rather, "How well does it work?" My conclusion is this: Roomba is a good maintenance cleaner. It's designed to pick up light dirt before it develops into heavy dirt. Can you throw out your vacuum cleaner after getting a Roomba? No. You'll still want to clean your floors manually every so often, but those cleanings will be fewer and father-between, not to mention easier.

Here's a more serious video of Roomba in action:

1 There is no such organization as the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation. Roomba is produced and marketed by iRobot Corporation. But if they don't sue me for misappropriating the credit for their product to a fictional robotics company, I won't tell Arthur C. Clarke that they stole his book title for their company name.

2 Filthometer is not an official term used by the iRobot company that produces and markets Roomba. I made that up myself, but it does seem appropriate!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve 1968

In Austria, where I was born, Christmas is celebrated on Christmas Eve, as it is in many European countries. Presents are opened on the evening of the 24th, friends and relatives visit each other and the festivities go on late into the night. Christmas morning is almost anti-climactic.

Even after immigrating to Canada in 1965, my family continued to observe the Austrian tradition of celebrating Christmas on the evening of the 24th. It made for some amusing cultural encounters, such as the time when one of the older neighborhood kids tried to shatter my youthful innocence by telling me that there was no Santa Claus. I, still being a Believer, refused to listen.

"Oh yeah?" challenged the boy, "Why do you think your parents make you go to bed early Christmas Eve?"

"They don't," I replied matter-of-factly. "In fact, we usually stay up late on Christmas Eve."

"You mean you're still up when the presents are placed under the tree?" asked the incredulous boy.

"Sure we are," I replied with a self-satisfied smile. My interrogator was at a loss for words.

In Austria, it's the "Christkind", or "Christ Child" that brings the presents. Santa Claus does not figure prominently, although St. Nicholas' historical significance is recognized earlier, on the 5th of December. However, my parents had reconciled the cultural discrepancy by explaining to me that, at Christmas time, St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus, became the Christkind's helper. I didn't bother elaborating upon this to my elder acquaintance, because I had learned, by that time, that Canadian children didn't know about the Christkind, and I wasn't inclined to enter into the long explanations and elaborations that would be required to enlighten the poor fellow.

The other detail that I neglected to elaborate upon was that the Christkind, and his helper, Santa Claus, always appeared in our living room while my sister and I were shut out behind closed doors, with our mother. Early in the evening, just after supper, the door to the living room would be shut, and my mother would stay with us while my father waited in the living room to greet the Christkind. Unlike our uncouth Canadian neighbors, we Austrians were not so rude as to go to bed and leave the Christkind or Santa Claus or whatever benevolent visitor chose to enter our homes to simply deposit gifts and then leave, unwelcomed and unthanked. No, it was only right that father, the head of the household, should be there to welcome our guests, offer them the refreshments that we had set out, give them a full report regarding how good or bad we children had been since the previous Christmas, and then see them out again with the appropriate thanks. Just before leaving, the Christkind would ring a bell, signalling to my mother, my sister and myself that all was ready, and then would swiftly make his escape before we could enter the room to see him.

The Christkind brought everything; not just our presents, but even the Christmas tree! That's right. Believe it or not, every December 24, in the early evening, after dinner time, I would watch my father shut himself up in our plain, unadorned living room and, when that magical bell sounded, between one and two hours later, he would again open the door to reveal a fully-decorated tree with presents beneath it. In retrospect, I have to admire the man's fortitude. To set up and decorate a Christmas tree by himself, on the very eve of Christmas, with two impatient children waiting just behind the next door, it's a wonder that I don't recall hearing him curse at the Christkind and his helper.

One of the most memorable Christmas Eves of my childhood was December 24th, 1968. That was the evening that the astronauts of Apollo 8 accomplished the first manned lunar orbit, and it was the first time that a human being saw our Earth from the moon's perspective. I remember the broadcast appearing on our old black and white television as we celebrated Christmas that evening and dreaming, as only a six-year-old boy can, of what it must be like to fly to the moon in a rocket ship.

1968 was not a great year, for the most part. The war in Vietnam had reached its apex and American troops took heavy losses during the January Tet Offensive. The American public increasingly questioned the justification and ethics of that conflict. In April, Dr. Martin Luthor King was assassinated on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. In June, Senator Robert Kennedy was likewise assassinated.

None of that registered on my six-year-old radar. I knew nothing of Vietnam or Dr. Martin Luthor King or American politics. But I did know about rockets, and astronauts, and space, and I watched in wonder.

As the crew of Apollo 8 watched the distant Earth rise above the moon's horizon, the three astronauts, starting with Bill Anders, and followed by his crew-mates, Jim Lovell and, finally, Commander Frank Borman, read from the book of Genesis. The passage must have seemed appropriate to them. Borman ended the transmission with these words:

"And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with goodnight, good luck, Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you; all of you on the good Earth."

NASA later had to defend itself against a lawsuit launched by Madalayn Murray O'Hair, an atheist who took exception to the reading of biblical passages by the astronauts and who, in this blogger's opinion, completely missed the message behind the transmission. For the first time, men had literally removed themselves from all borders, cultures and beliefs and looked upon our home planet, and saw that we are one species, living together on one planet. From lunar orbit, no national boundaries were visible. No evidence of mankind itself was visible. All of our reasons for hating, fighting and killing suddenly faded from significance.

Our world today is, in many respects, similar to what it was in 1968. Once again, America is embroiled in not one, but two foreign wars. Once again, countless American soldiers have died as a result and, once again, people increasingly question the justification and the ethics behind these conflicts. The September, 2001 attack on New York's World Trade Center has seriously shaken America's self-assuredness. Fear and paranoia over terrorist threats, some real and some imagined, have caused a rift between Islamic and Christian cultures. International travel has been significantly hampered due to security concerns. Peoples' privacy and civil liberties have been eroded in the name of national security.

The world economy has been shaken by the 2008 Wall Street collapse. Joblessness and poverty are on the rise and entire nations stand at the threshold of bankruptcy. At the same time, the gap between the richest one percent and the rest of the world continues to widen.

We now face a new threat which has never before been seriously considered; the threat to the health of our world's climate and the natural systems that sustain us and give us life. We see increasing evidence that our habitat is changing for the worse, but we seem unable to mobilize ourselves to counter this trend. Some argue that we can't justify the expense involved, some insist that the responsibility falls on others, and some continue to deny that there is a problem at all.

Perhaps most dismaying, to me, was the news earlier this year that President Barack Obama has canceled any plans for Americans to revisit the moon in the foreseeable future. Obama's explanation is that the priority has been shifted to sending a manned mission to Mars, but this will not happen in the foreseeable future either, and many argue that the best way to reach Mars would have been by using the moon as a staging base.

As I celebrate Christmas 2010 with my family, on Christmas Eve, just as I always have, I turn on my television set and search for some message of hope, or words of encouragement. It would do me good, this Christmas, to hear any of my brothers and sisters, wishing all a happy holiday, regardless of culture or faith, and reminding us that we are all still one family living together on this good Earth.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Digital Physiognomy

Last March, I wrote about a program for removing unsightly power lines from digital photos which I'd downloaded from Today, GOTD offered another of their more unusual software titles; Digital Physiognomy.

Physiognomy refers to the profiling of a person's character based on their facial features. In other words, contrary to the old proverb, physiognomy proposes that one can, indeed, judge a book by its cover. This pseudo-science apparently originated in India and spread from there to Iran, Rome, France, my computer and, finally this blog.

The program profiles character based on facial features. You compose a portrait by selecting facial characteristics (forehead shape and width, eye shape, nose position, ear type, hair, etc.), much like a police sketch artist. You're also given the ability to load digital portraits for reference, and even overlay them with the sketch to check accuracy. When you're finished, you have a sketch which hopefully bears a reasonable resemblance to the subject. The program then analyses this sketch and spits out a character profile.

Being a sucker for all things novel (did you know that my Star Wars name is Halan Steiz, and my hobbit name is Mungo Dogwood of Shadydowns?) not to mention all things free, I couldn't resist downloading the program and putting it through its paces.

I decided to make myself the program's guinea pig because, after all, who knows me better than I? I felt that it would be a good litmus test of the program's accuracy. Here's the self-portrait sketch that I came up with:

To begin with, although this is the closest likeness I could wring out of the program, I can't honestly say that it looks like me. Although it does reflect my features in a very general sense, the caricature that adorns my Blogger profile is a much better likeness than this. Nevertheless, here's what Digital Physiognomy has to say about The Halmanator, given the above sketch, with my own comments interspersed:

  • Bright extrovert is characterized by outgoingness, activity, and the ability to make quick decisions. He/she is often too talkative.

Bright? I'll accept the compliment.

Extrovert, characterized by outgoingness? Not really. I've said before in this blog that I consider myself to lean toward introversion. However, I can be extroverted around those with whom I feel comfortable, and I can and often do act extroverted around those whom I don't know as well, if only to mask my inner insecurity.

Often too talkative: Guilty as charged, although my wife would challenge that.

  • Predilection to shyness. Suspiciousness is possible. Poor vigor and sluggishness.

Predilection to shyness? I thought you just said I'm an outgoing extrovert! Make up your mind!

Suspiciousness is possible: Actually, no. I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, until they give me a reason not to.

Poor vigor and sluggishness: Again, didn't you just say in the previous bullet that I was characterized by "activity"? But, yes, I'm a sedentary individual who likes to sit around a lot, and I'm often slow to get moving, so I'll give you this one.

  • Irreparably pessimistic relation to life. The person feels doomed, often dissatisfied, hopeless and lonely.

Now, that's a little severe. I'm not that much of a downer! I will admit, though, that although life's been reasonably good to me, I secretly live in constant fear of seeing it all fall to pieces on me.

  • Predilection to disputes and adventures, aggressiveness and light-mindedness.

Disputes? Hardly! I pride myself on being one of the most conciliatory people you'd ever want to meet! In fact, if anything, I'm a bit of a doormat sometimes. I'm not terribly adventurous either, except when I go canoeing, I suppose.

Light-mindedness? I'll challenge that too. I spend a lot of time meditating and brooding over things. A "light-minded" individual would occupy themselves with shallow distractions (not that I don't do my share of that).

  • Egocentricity. This is usually an unripe person with low aesthetic concerns. Often has difficulty in making contacts.

I'll confess to a certain degree of egocentricity. I'm not sure what an "unripe" person is, but I don't mind being categorized as one. I've met a few "ripe" individuals in my time, and it wasn't pleasant.

Low aesthetic concerns: Well, looking around at the cluttered state of my attic office, I can hardly argue that point! I will say, however, that I can also be quite picky about how things are displayed or arranged. It just depends what mood you catch me in.

Often has difficulty in making contacts: True but, again, I thought you said I was an extrovert?

  • Frank attitude to the people. Skill to perceive others and receive criticism. Indulgent.

Oh, so we're finally saying something positive about me now, are we? Well thank you very much!

Frank attitude to the people: Yes, I'm pretty much a "What you see is what you get" sort of guy.

Skill to perceive others and receive criticism: I like to think of myself as a good judge of character, and I can take honest, constructive criticism. I'm probably my own harshest critic, and I revel in self-deprecating humor.

Indulgent: Yes but, once again, didn't you say, just before, that I have a "predilection to disputes"? I'm not indulgent enough to overlook direct contradiction, bucko!

  • Normal functionality. Patience. Predilection to study.

Normal functionality: Just a moment...

Whirrrr... click-click-click... BEEP! click-click-click... Ka-CHUNK!



Patience: Yes, but here's a funny thing. I can be infinitely patient and calm in the most difficult of circumstances, yet go to pieces and curse up a storm over some trifling inconvenience, such as having misplaced some unimportant item.

Predilection to study: This makes me sound like more of a scholar than I really am, but I am one of those people who actually reads the instructions. In fact, I learn a fair through reading, so I'll give this one the nod as well.

  • Fairness. Sometimes ruse, slyness. Usually executes his/her promises and is not capable of betrayal.

Fairness: I really like to think so.

Sometimes ruse, slyness: Only when it suits my purposes (nya-hah-ha!) But, seriously, I can be a frighteningly good liar if I want to.

Usually executes his/her promises: I'm old-fashioned enough to want my word to mean something.

Not capable of betrayal: I like the way you put that. I've never, to the best of my recollection, stabbed anybody in the back.

  • The capacity to generate ideas is possible.

I should hope that I have the occasional original thought. On the other hand, I've known many much more forward-thinking people than myself.

  • Self-confidence and self-control in complex situations. Also concerned about others' opinions.

Self-confidence: Not always, although I generally try to convince myself that I'm equal to most situations.

Self-control in complex situations: See? Didn't I say that before myself? Just don't let me misplace my screwdriver!

Concerned about others' opinions: Depends on what, I suppose. I'm very (perhaps overly) concerned about others' opinions of me. I do try to give others' views a fair hearing, even if I don't necessarily agree, and I accept that not everybody sees things as I do (which brings us back to "indulgent", I suppose).

  • Capability to influence the acts. Sometimes he/she is more exacting to themselves than others.

Capability to influence the acts: I don't consider myself a very influential person, but my daughter has proven me wrong about that. It's frightening how often I've seen myself mirrored in her, and not always for the good!

More exacting to (my)self than others: This is worded ambiguously. It could mean that I'm harder on myself than others are on me, or it could mean that I'm harder on myself than I am on others. Either is true.

  • Seldom makes jokes.

Now that's just wrong. So horribly, horribly wrong! You were doing so-so, but now you've blown yourself right out of the water!

  • Seldom will miss the chance. do what??? I really want to know!

  • Excessive sex adventures.

Once again, horribly, horribly wrong! (Unfortunately).

The program guessed, correctly, that my astrological sign is Libra and suggests that I'd make a good artist or actor.

And, look! It even came up with graphs of my most likely Myers-Briggs types. Seems it has me pegged as a likely ENTP (which, interestingly enough, was what one of my readers guessed as well). In fact, when I took the test, I came up INTP, which also came up fairly high on the probability list. Apparently, I'm nothing like an INFJ, though, which is how most authors appear to be characterized. So much for my fantasies about writing the Great North-American Blog, I guess.

The program comes with a gallery of famous (and infamous) faces, complete with profile analyses. According to the software, Adolf Hitler is hostile, clever and diligent, and would make a good military man. Before you say "Duh!" and assume that the authors simply made the profiles fit the personas, it also describes Adam Sandler as hostile, clever and honest, and says he would make a good scientist. Babe Ruth is a pessimist, diligent and volitional, and would make either a good worker or an "official" (though it doesn't specify official what). Bob Dylan is sanguine, an egoist and diligent, and would make a good physician or teacher.

One other interesting feature that the program offers is the ability to compare a sketch with others in the database in order to find faces with similar features. The people in the database whose features are apparently most similar to mine include:

Evita Perron (similar eyes and lips with an overall similarity of 35.5%)

Paul Lynde (similar nose and eyes with an overall similarity of 35.5%)

Gary Becker (similar lips and eyes, with an overall similarity of 34%)

Peter Lawford (similar lips and eyes, with an overall similarity of 32.5%)

Dick Cheney (similar lips and eyes, with an overall similarity of 32.4%)

The verdict? Well, I'm not exactly a convert to physiognomy just yet. Some of the points are accurate, some aren't, and some are just plain contradictory. A lot of them are generalizations that probably apply to just about everyone. Still, the program does make for an interesting conversation (or in this case, blog post) starter.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to have some excessive sex adventures.