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An Open Letter to the iRobot Corporation

Dear Roomba (that is, the company, not the individual robot):

My house is dusty.

I have been using your Roomba product for a few years now.  I am very happy with it.  Every night at around 2AM, my little robot fires up and sweeps the floors of the entire first level, excepting the bedroom in which we sleep.  As a result, I have relatively clean floors most of the time.

It is a clever little machine.  Watching it work, pivoting around, avoiding obstacles, still entertains me from time to time, when I happen to be up at 2AM, which I often am, because we have dogs.  It seems like you must have spent many years perfecting the algorithms that drive the little beast.

Yes, it does occasionally wedge itself under a piece of furniture or get itself fouled on a curtain or a sock.  I remember with horror the time it go a hold of a roll of Christmas wrapping ribbon.  I have to remember to keep the powder room door either all the way open or all the way closed, else the robot will manage to close that door and spend a couple of hours cleaning just the powder room, until it shuts itself down.  Once a week, I empty the bin of a fair amount of dust, dirt, and bits of dog food. Once a month I give it a once-over and remove bits of hair and string that have gotten trapped in the moving parts.  All is good.  I am still very impressed.

But my house is dusty.

Wikipedia – which is never wrong, except for political issues – says you have been making these things since 2002.  Surely, you have spent over fifteen years improving the product, as well as making some other products, like floor moppers and pool cleaners.  But one has to ask out loud, how much improvement has there actually been.  Yes, I am sure my 2015 model is way better than the 2002 model. but is the 2018 model really much better or much different than mine?  I mean, what have you been spending your time on the last few years?

If you go on YouTube and search for robot or robotics, you can see some pretty sophisticated machines out in the world today.  Some of them can do standing back-flips and keep their feet.  There are dog-like robots that trot along and open doors.  There are manufacturing robots, of course, and surgical robots and we are all now seriously talking about self-driving cars.  They will soon, seemingly, have a robot that can comfortably change adult diapers.  The possibilities seem endless.

So why, exactly, is my house dusty?

Yes, other than the fact that I am basically lazy – which is why I am your customer in the first place, lest you forget – why have you not come up with some robot that can use soft feather-dusters or air jets or ionizers or neutron flow reversers to knock the dust off of my furniture and picture frames?  Wouldn’t that be the logical next step?  With all of the improvements of robotics over the last few years, why haven’t you come up with this obvious Roomba companion – one knocks the dust off the furniture, the other sweeps it off the floor.  I know there are important issues here, from a property damage point of view, but that is why you guys are paid the big bucks.  You can figure out how to scrub the kitchen counter later on.

Henry Ford sold the Model T for twenty years, and very nearly sunk his company as competitors created improved products for their customers – history says that it took the intervention of his son Edsel to push the company forward.  If your engineers are of a similar, comfortable, any-color-so-long-as-it-is-black state of mind, maybe it is time for new engineers – the colleges are full of them and the young ones come pretty cheap for a time.  Just look at what Musk has been doing with rockets in the last ten years.  Just look what Google has been doing with cars.  Just look at what Amazon has been doing with, well, everything.

Surely you can dust my house.

 

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Categories: Business, Technology

To Speak Freely

This is a test. It seems to me that many bloggers are using voice to text.  I just want to see how that works on Windows system and I want to see how easy it is to edit afterwards.

When I speak to my computer, I see a small text box in the top left corner, and all the text appears there. I then have to click on a box that says insert and it is added to the browser editing screen.  Or I can just say “insert.”  This seems to work OK, but I have noticed some small errors. Part of this is my fault -I tend to stammer a little bit while thinking of something to say. Sometimes it just gets a word flat wrong.

But it seems like a real time-saver, and it will only take me a couple of moments to go back and correct the small errors. So I may well do this, both while blogging and while writing. I just need a room to myself.

 

Categories: Oddities, Technology, Writing

Turn of the Century

No, no excuses, just haven’t written in a long time.  Last night, when I wasn’t sleeping (large Coke at the theater, late dinner), Carousel of Progress entered my head and spun in there for some time.

If you are not familiar with this Disney attraction, it debuted at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, then was moved to Disneyland for several years until it was moved to Disney World in the 1970s.  It is presented in a carousel theater – that is, the outside ring of theater seats revolve around a core of six stages.  The first and last stages are used to load and unload, welcome and thank, the audience, leaving the other four stages to tell a story.

In the Carousel of Progress, the story is technology in the home, shown in snippets of under five minutes each.  Each chapter is hosted by the father of the house, the family dog at his feet.  He lauds his world to the audience, telling us how wonderful life truly is with all these state-of-the-art appliances.  He calls out to members of his family, who are spread throughout the house, each with their own story to tell.  Although the family appears very similar in each scene, the dog’s name seems to change every time, so maybe they are not supposed to be the same people – which only makes sense, with twenty years between chapters.  These chapters break down as:

1: Turn of the century, maybe 1907.  Pre-electrical home technology: kerosene lamps, coal stoves, ice boxes, hand pump at the sink.

2: Middle of the Roaring 20s: Electricity, cables strewn all over.  Lighting, fans, irons.

3: Post-war 1940s: a much less transient-looking use of electricity: modern kitchens, radio, early TV, Formica counter-tops.

4: Today.  Naturally, today has changed a bit since 1964 and the attraction was updated several times to try to keep up.

The ride was originally sponsored by General Electric, so the focus is naturally on electrical gadgets, but a few other things are noticeable, not the least of which are fashions in clothing and furniture.  Through the show, one is allowed to view slices in history, at twenty-year intervals.

Except. of course, it isn’t.  Twenty years, that is.  The gap between scenes three and four started at twenty years, in 1964.  Fifty years have now gone by and that gap is now seventy years.

Which is why I am telling you this.  This long-time bastion of Tomorrowland has long been a favorite of mine and that of many others, but it must be of less and less consequence to the younger generation.  This theater tells a tale of time travel, but most of the story it tells is in the relatively distant past.  Do the differences between 1905 and 1925 really resonate with an audience looking back from today?  In 1964, it was all well within living memory.  Today?  It has been a century.  No matter what updates are made to the final scene, the rest of the show must give the appearance of sameness.

As the attraction loses relevance, it will also lose ridership.  There have long been rumors of its closing and, were they to come up with a good replacement, Disney probably would.  I would not like to see that happen.

So, what to do?  I see two possible courses, beyond replacement:

1)  Go retro.  Put the final scene squarely in 1964.  There are three networks on television, Beatle haircuts are considered shocking, Lyndon Johnson is in the White House, Walt Disney is in Burbank, and Viet Nam is not quite seen as anything of major importance.  Let people see the ride mostly as it was originally presented in 1964 and draw their own conclusions.  Still, while many would be curious to see the show in this configuration, I do not know how many repeat customers it would bring back – and it does little to address the relevance issue.

2)  Increase the gap.  Ax the second scene entirely.  Go from 1907 directly to 1947.  Forty years!  Scene three becomes 1987.  Scene four remains “Today.”  Increasing the gap to forty years, I think, would increase the relevance of the ride, as the scenes would show a much clearer evolution of home technology, easily distinguished:

1:  Scene pretty much unchanged, 1907 shows the pre-electric home.

2:  1947 shows the electric home.

3:  1987 shows the electronic home.

4:  Today shows the connected home.

Increasing the gap makes the change much easier to see and gives the show a much longer lifespan.  If the show is still running in twenty years and the gap between scenes three and four is then sixty years, it probably won’t seem as noticeable as the seventy-year gap they have today.  Somewhere in the middle of the century, they can retool the ride again with fifty year gaps.

The reason Disney probably won’t do this is, of course, money.  Going retro would not cost them too much, but increasing the gap changes every scene but the first one.  Since, I assume, they are still using the original ride system, we are talking about either making massive changes on an analog system or ripping it all out and replacing it with their latest digital systems.  General Electric sponsorship is long gone and Disney is reticent to change their attractions if they cannot get a sponsor to pay for it.  Still, the final scene of the connected home would allow for a fair number of soft plugs should, say, a Google or an Amazon wish to make a go of sponsoring it.  And after fifty years, Disney should have a more than a few good clues on how to greatly enhance the presentation itself, while leaving enough of the original show to please the Disneyphiles.

Not only has this show been a crowdpleaser for years, the function of the ride itself has allowed it to be a haven of sorts on crowded park days – a ride you can get into fairly quickly, sit down, relax in the air conditioning, and enjoy a show for twenty minutes.  That the show is really good is just icing on the cake.  It deserves to be saved.  It really deserves to be given a new lease on life.

Categories: Technology Tags: , ,

A Little Cross

So they put in this new Walk sign on our crosswalk.  To explain, our company lunchroom, which many refer to as Panera Bread, is across Montauk Highway from us and we must, perforce, cross this major road for food at regular intervals.  We have had the standard Walk/Don’t Walk sign with the usual idiot button for years.  Now the powers that be have replaced it.

The first thing that happens is that, when you tap the flat arrow button, a disembodied voice shouts at you to “Wait!”

No, really.  It shouts.

Then, as you wait for the light to change, it keeps shouting – ordering – “Wait!” at about ten-second intervals.  This is a “slow” light, so this shouting can go on for some time.

Finally, when the light changes and the sign turns to “Walk” (or is it an icon – can’t remember), the voice says something about crossing Montauk Highway, by name, but exactly what it says is difficult to know because you are already halfway across by the time it finishes it’s sentence.  Meanwhile, a steady beeping is coming from the opposite side of the road – to keep you focused, I suppose.  There may be a countdown timer running too, but the road is really too busy for me to watch anything but traffic; just because the thing *says* it is safe to cross does not mean that it is.

Okay, I suppose the device was put in for the multitudes of blind people known to inhabit Hampton Bays and needing access to Panera Bread, but whatever highway department is responsible must think these blind people are all deaf as well.  It is loud and distracting, which is the very last thing you should want in a culture that sees traffic lights and lane markings as challenges.

I, for one, resolve never to use this loud, electronic pip-squeak again.  It will be safer for me to cross the street if I can focus on whatever it is my fellow citizens are actually doing, versus what they should be doing.  There is probably some traffic engineer, somewhere, who thinks he is saving lives with this thing.  Like most engineers, he is really just pissing people off.

 

Categories: Pet Peeves, Technology

The Driving Factor

Haven’t been here for awhile.  Brain tired, not sure why, and spend most of my free hours playing with trains (insert long explanation here).

There has been a lot of talk in the news lately about self-driving cars.  Google and others are trying to perfect the idea.

You can see the future: climb in the car, tell it to take you to work, then sit back and read until the motion stops.  In a city, you wouldn’t even need own a car, there would be fleets of automated taxis, just push a button on your phone and one stops in front of you within a minute.  Cross-country trips would take less of a toll on your mental health, assuming fuel costs are low, and you could even sleep through the trip; New York to Los Angeles in two days.  Accidents would be rare, traffic better (because these beasties can drive safely at high speed, bumper to bumper), along with the lower pollution that comes with more efficient roadways.  Please read the many articles coming out on this subject – some of what they are demonstrating is truly amazing.

Yet I have a problem with this future.  No, it really sounds great, especially for those of us approaching our Golden Years.  Having a car that can drive us around sounds really good.

The problem is, I do not see a path to this future.  At some point, along the path, there will be the halfway automatic car.  First there will be a version of Cruise Control Plus, able to take over in controlled conditions, like freeways, but not really safe on the streets with driveways and pedestrians and kids playing stick ball.  Then there will be the better and better versions that can handle more and more of the load.  Then there will be the version that can handle every possible scenario – until it can’t and those stories will make national headlines, but by then the buy-in will be such that people will still use and trust their cars, just like they get on planes today.  Finally, they will produce the fully automatic car, one without any manual controls, just get in it and tell it where to go.  Of course, the jokes just write themselves, like the call to tech support because the car won’t move and they tell you to – wait for it! – close all your windows and open them again.

But to get to all this, you need to get through that first step, the Cruise Control Plus.  How is that going to happen?  Don’t know what I mean?  Imagine this conversation on the sales lot:

Salesman:  Of course, this wonderful car comes with the latest version of Cruise Control Plus.  Just get it out on the freeway and let it drive itself.

Prospect:  But I could still drive it myself, right?

Salesman:  Of course, sir.  But why would you want to?

Prospect:  Uh, well, how fast would it go?

Salesman:  The posted speed limit, of course.

Prospect:  The posted limit!  But nobody drives the posted limit.  Why can’t I set it faster?

Salesman:  Well, we’d love to, sir, but there are liability issues, you understand.

Prospect:  But I can set my current cruise control over the limit?

Salesman:  Yes you can, but that is a choice you make yourself; you are still in control of the car.  If CCP is driving, it has to obey the local limits, because it is in total control, or so the insurance companies tell us.

Prospect:  So I am going to be letting this car drive me around, while everyone else buzzes past me?

Salesman:  Well, you can read a book.  You probably wouldn’t notice.  Or care.

Prospect:  Oh, I’d care.  I don’t want to sit in a car and read, I want to get to work on time.  I want to do so as quickly as possible.  So why can’t I set the speed up, like I do right now?

Salesman:  Because CCP determines its speed from the road signs or from highway department transponders.

Prospect:  And you won’t let me juice that speed up a little?

Salesman:  Even if we did, I doubt we could let you do that any further than the next road sign or transponder.  The system is made to drive itself and respond to changes in speed limits, traffic, and weather.

Prospect:  Including construction zones?

Salesman:  Of course.

Prospect:  But nobody obeys construction zone limits!  Not when there aren’t workers present!

Salesman:  Maybe, sir, but you know, safety first!

Prospect:  Safety first.  I suppose I wouldn’t be able to get up on the tail of the guy who refuses to get out of the left lane and let people by, too?

Salesman:  Of course not!  The CCP would probably get closer than you safely could, because it can respond faster, but it isn’t designed to intimidate other drivers.

Prospect:  No?  How did you get to work today?

Salesman:  I drove.  I don’t have CCP.

Prospect:  Did you speed?

Salesman:  Um, maybe a little.

Prospect:  Did everybody else speed?

Salesman:  Um…  Probably.

Prospect:  So you want me to be the guy driving fifty-five in the slow lane?  With the Mack truck right behind me?

Salesman:  Well of course not, but…

Prospect:  Never mind!  What else do you have?  Maybe something a little sporty?  With a manual transmission?

This is going to be a real problem for the car companies.  Fourth-generation commuters simply won’t stand for it.  They will want to find a way to be flexible on the speed, but the lawyers will never let them.

Categories: Technology, Trends

The New Time Machine

If you have ever used Google’s Street View, which shows you 360 degree views taken along just about every major road in America, many side streets, and many streets around the world, they have added a new function on the latest Google Maps: time travel.

Go into street view at your favorite major intersection.  Look in the top left corner of the display for something that looks like a clock and click on it.  You will be shown a UI that will let you select any of the past pictures taken at that same spot and angle.

So, for instance, you can go to 202 West Rockrimmon Blvd, Colorado Springs and click on street view.  I used to live in this complex.  The building at this address burned down some years ago and had to be replaced.  The latest picture, which is the current default, shows the building in 2011.  If you click on the clock dingus, however, you can see three pictures from different months in 2009, the first two showing a fenced-off hole in the ground (sometime after the fire and demolition) and the third showing the new building under construction.

Leave it to Google to find a reason to need even more disk server farms, but with a little thought, you can probably think of a few ways this functionality could be useful (“I can assure my fellow homeowners that I did not, in fact, have a pink flamingo in my yard in June of 2010 and here is photographic proof from a disinterested party”).  Some really clever people are going to think up great and –  potentially – profitable uses for this technology.  Going farther down the road – so to speak – today’s children are going to be able to show their own children exactly what the old neighborhood looked like when they were young.  We will all be able to look back and remind ourselves what was in the store next to the pizza place in 2009.  It will be a boon to those doing historical research.

 

Categories: Oddities, Technology

All in the Timing

I spent most of my career(s) in exempt positions, but I am still aware how irksome it is to punch a time-clock.  It is demeaning, in some way, like somebody doesn’t trust you or something.  Beyond that, for most jobs, you really wish they could find some way to determine your worth to them other than how many hours you sit in the chair.

Still, if you are going to have a time-clock, it could at least work a little more easily and less cumbersome than the old standby time-clock, printing on cardboard time-cards.  They are difficult to line up properly and then somebody has to do the math on each day of each card and come up with an answer.  There has to be a better mousetrap out there somewhere.

Which is pretty much what we just got at work.  The new dingus, which will actually have four locations, reads a fingerprint off the employee – you can’t very well forget your finger when you come to work – and transmits the punch information to the provider’s servers out in cloud land, and then we get our weekly reports from there.

I can understand the Orwellian misgivings about giving up your fingerprint – though it is not like we are going to run them through the FBI database – but this system is going to make payroll a breeze, greatly cutting down on the Monday morning flurry of gathering data from three different systems and trying to make sense of it.  Once we have this all set up and have the kinks worked out, it should take the General Manager about five minutes to review and the bookkeeper about ten minutes to put together what she needs for the paychecks.

This is what technology is supposed to do – take mundane tasks and make them faster, easier.  It is about time.

Categories: Business, Technology