I finally watched a Roomba dance its funky dance.

The iRobot Roomba 550 we affectionately named Butler spent a half-hour cleaning the 4 downstairs rooms of a home, sucking up an impressive gob of dust from the previous night’s party.

Hello, Roomba
Hello, Roomba!

I finally watched a Roomba dance its funky dance.

The iRobot Roomba 550 we affectionately named Butler spent a half-hour cleaning the 4 downstairs rooms of a home, sucking up an impressive gob of dust from the previous night’s party.*

As I watched Roomba, I realized I’d forgotten…

How much we are inclined to anthropomorphize technology.

How we’re wired to perceive complex reasoning where only simple behavior exists.

How important it is to have users on your side!
(Roomba was occasionally bumbling but always so helpful — looking everywhere for last night’s crumbs, remembering which area needs more attention, and just generally “doing his best.”)

First Impressions

The design of the unit is clean, sleek, and functional.

Roomba in Motion across the rug
Roomba in Motion, scooting across the rug

The “wall following” behavior is particularly clever and plays to the strengths of the round unit.

Object detection mostly works (it’s supposed to slow down before a bumper-kiss), but it was blind to some antique table legs on our test run, threatening to knock over some photo frames and antique china.

Its motion is smooth, and it successfully un-stuck itself from the curtains.

I loved watching it ultimately find “home base” by IR and dock with it, 2001 Blue Danube style.

But I worried..

  • About non-techie users having to choose a “home base” location. A sleepy Roomba needs to locate its home, but a resting Roomba is hardly showpiece décor.
  • About long-term battery wear and life.
  • About how often you’d need to empty the dust out of his bowels, and what happens if you forget to do so.
Roomba Cleaning Patterns (from the manual - click for .pdf download link)
Roomba Cleaning Patterns (from the manual .pdf)

Navigation & Hackery & Papers

Roomba uses behaviors like spiraling, wall-following and room crossing (as explained in the image, right, from the manual) to create its not-quite-completely-random walk.

And below, check out this very clever 30-minute long-exposure photo (found at SignalTheorist via Botjunkie) that reveals the Roomba’s “Lovely, Inefficient” cleaning path.

Roomba Path Long Exposure
Roomba Cleaning Path – Long Exposure Image

This brings us inevitably to the hacking. iRobot, to their credit, encourage you to hack Roomba!

Martha, whose Roomba apparently can bring her beer (wait… what?!), recommends the book Hacking Roomba. Here’s the book’s companion website.

Is anyone still using Microsoft Robotics Studio for stuff like this?  (ah, the memories of dancing Lego robots.)

In the meantime, with my head full of Roomba, it’s the perfect time to re-read some of iRobot Founder Rodney Brooks‘ seminal papers, like Intelligence Without Representation and Elephants Don’t Play Chess.

Because Elephants these days apparently can clean living rooms!

*the dust was left behind from the previous night’s party, in an otherwise impeccably clean home (i.e. not mine)

The Unfolding of Language

Deutscher's The Unfolding of Language

When Stephen Fry laments “it is a cause of some upset that more Anglophiles don’t enjoy language,” it’s as if Michael Phelps were to lament that not enough people enjoy water. So when Stephen wholeheartedly recommended Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language, which he characterized as more playful and engaging than books on similar subject matter, I was hard pressed to say no. It’s taken me ages to find time to get into the meat of this book (strictly my own fault), but now, about two-thirds of the way through, I wanted to offer it my wholehearted recommendation for anyone who is even remotely interested in language and its origins and evolution.

Deutscher’s prose is indeed playful and accessible, his examples thought-provoking, and his subject matter fascinating: what are the forces that shape and transform language?

Deutscher mentions more than once that “These days, there are no systems of communication which are in the process of evolving their first words.”  He’s right, I suppose, but only on a technicality.  Last week I was taught the basics of a computer scripting language I’d never worked with before. Surely the constructs of some arbitrary scripting language represent one of many “artificial” systems of communication which are in the process of evolving their first “words” (and tokens).

I am writing this now as Deutscher transitions in the book from talking about the destructive forces which are applied to language (which favor economy, expressiveness, and analogy), into the constructive ones which enable new linguistic richness to blossom. Metaphor, apparently, provides many of the raw materials for new grammatical elements.

With that observation under my belt, and aspiring to be a creative force in the universe, I suddenly feel a bit better about my obsession with admiration of Roger’s Profanisaurus (a dictionary of profanity that originates in the pages of the UK’s Viz magazine, which derives cleverness and vulgarity in equal measure from a playful, multi-layered cocktail of metaphor, rhyming slang and other wordplay).

And of course there are my dear LOLcats, who reflect (again in equal parts) the absurd and absurdly rapid evolution of linguistic memes as they’re propelled at the speed of the internets. Since I’m in Ireland, and Deutscher recently reflected on the necessity of the word possessing-implying “have”, here’s a somewhat appropriate LOLCat I just cooked up  – with my cap off to Jim Condron for his help with the Irish word for “flavr.” (context here for the uninitiated)

Orish Kitteh Ubserves: Deres a flavor on meh
oirish kitteh tinks: deres a flavr on meh, so dere iz.

Back to Deutscher’s book.  He spends the fifth chapter illustrating a point by employing a fictional dialogue between a cast of characters at a ‘George Orwell Centennary Conference’.  it’s a technique akin to the one I admired in Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach. Actually, that’s all I have to say.  Check it out.  Go for a swim.  And apologies to Deutscher, Mellie, Fry for this rambling but heartfelt review.

Blackberry: Bold is Beautiful

My Blackberry Bold, now a month old, is by leaps and bounds the best mobile device I have ever used.

Expressing My Bold Feelings

1. The user experience is friction-free and beautiful.

  • The blinking red light gives me one place to look to see if anything new requires my attention.
Blackberry blinking red light (a.k.a. the 'crack' in 'crackberry')
The blinking red light puts the 'crack' in 'crackberry'
  • I arrive at new communications with effectively zero friction. The new, simplified Blackberry main menu indicates what is causing the red light to blink: my business e-mail, text messages, instant messages, calendar reminders, Facebook messages.
New Front Screen on the Blackberry Bold
New Front Screen on the Blackberry Bold
  • To respond, I use the awesome trackball, and a keyboard which is arguably the fastest mobile input device I’ve ever used.
Bold Keyboard
The Bold Keyboard "experts" well.
  • The device never harasses me with unnecessary prompts.

In summary, [single indicator] + [friction-free UX] ==>  [fanaticism] + [lust] + [ADD]

All the things I need the device to do as a business user are intuitive and simple. The UX is not perfect, but it doesn’t have to be.  They have done the right things right. I understand the “Crackberry” phenomenon.

2. Phonecalls just work. Call quality and reception are solid. If you think this should go without saying, then trust me, my 5 years of Windows Mobile experience would suggest otherwise.

3. Bluetooth just works.

4. WiFi just works.  The Bold detects if it’s in range of the WiFi networks in my life (even WPA2-enabled) and connects without harassing me.  If it isn’t connected to the phone data network, the Bold syncs mail, calendar, etc, to Exchange over WiFi without additional configuration.

5. Using my Blackberry as an untethered modem (connected via bluetooth to my PC and providing Vista with internet on the train) just worked. Took less than 10 minutes to configure.  (Link to help configure this)  I weep for my data plan.

6. The processor is really zippy! It “feels” faster than any Windows Mobile device I’ve ever used or owned.

7. The web browser is not great, but it’s pretty good.  In some ways, I like it better than the browser on Windows Mobile, and I think that’s due to enjoying the trackball interface for navigation.

8. The availability of little apps that integrate platforms across many vendors – Microsoft (MSN Messenger), Yahoo (Flickr Uploadr), Google (none for me now), Facebook (RIM’s app), etc. – is very welcome.

9. GPS and Blackberry Maps – not brilliant but still pretty cool!  This is my first GPS-enabled device, so if it just had a picture of a goat that turned around when I walked in circles, I’d think that was awesome.

Blackberry full menu
Blackberry Bold full menu - clean, sleek, polished, and hidden until you need all this functionality. The icons on the top row appear on the home screen. You have total control over the ordering.

Alternatives: Windows Mobile and iPhone

Given the selection of mobile devices available from my provider here in Canada, the Blackberry Bold seemed the best and, frankly, the only reasonable option for me.

There are no Windows Mobile devices I consider worth mentioning in the Rogers catalogue, except perhaps the HTC Touch Diamond. Although the Diamond looks like it may have merit, my previous HTC Touch was such a humiliating train-wreck disaster of a device, mocked by colleagues, friends and family, and loathed by its owner, that HTC was not getting another chance.  Forget my Touch. Its passing shall not be mourned.

I should mention here that the last time I praised a mobile device, it was in fact February 2007, and I was sporting an HTC Wizard, the only Windows Mobile device I’ve ever genuinely enjoyed using.

The iPhone does not interest me as a device intended principally for business use. It has lots to recommend it, but the lack of a keyboard weighed heavily against it, and it seemed an unwieldly phone.

In Summary

My Blackberry Bold continues to delight me.  If it were to continue doing exactly what it does now for the next year, I would be extraordinarily happy with it as a business and personal communications device.

Well.. with one exception.  I hope that Bart is right, and we’re going to see Silverlight on the Blackberry some time soon. Like, say, Mix09? :)