About A Robot

This is a story about a robot. Actually, it’s a story about a new house, nine cats, and a robot.

When we got our new (old) house, we knew that we wanted tile floors. Even though the humidity isn’t as bad in Central Texas as it is near the coast, it’s still pretty high. And we have cats. A lot of cats. Which, as any cat owner knows, means hair and puke and other misadventures. So, carpet was out.

The house we found has tile in most of the main floor, but the bedrooms had carpet. So, before we moved in, we ripped out the carpet and put in “wood” (vinyl) flooring “boards”. Easy to install and clean.

Just sweep and mop! Except, I’m an extraordinarily lazy person. I make excuses about my excuses not to do something, especially something as mundane as cleaning a floor. Which really isn’t that good, considering the amount of cat hair our babies generate. In technical terms, it’s an assload of hair. Tumbleweeds of hair.

I did some research on cleaning non-carpeted floors and ran across a cat group. They had tried a number of things, but one that seems pretty successful was the Neato Robot.

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Unlike the iRobot, which just knocks around into things, the Neato is laser guided. It makes a map of the objects in the room and then follows that map. (It does have bump sensors for objects out of its view — too low.)

The other thing that sold me on the Neato was the price — I could get a high-end model for the price of a mid/low range iRobot. And, here is laziness coming in again, it has a pretty good sized dust bin.

We’ve had it for about 4 months now — long enough for me to give a proper review.

Long story short, it does a pretty darn  good job of keeping our home floors clean. It picks up a LOT of hair. And I do mean a LOT. Not perfect — it does blow tumbleweeds around sometimes — but very good. Whenever I clean the bin I’m always amazed by the amount of crap it picks up.

Downsides? It will take more than one charge to clean our modest 1500 square foot home (it’s actually cleaning less than that, as we have one room closed off). The good thing is that when it runs low on juice, it just docks, recharges, then starts up again. But that takes a while.

Because we have a lot of obsticles around, it does take time to clean. I think about an hour to do most of the rooms — but that’s an hour of machine time.

It’s not the quietest thing in the world, but it’s a vac, so you can’t fault that. The bin still needs to be cleaned at least once during a vac session, but, to be fair, we have a lot of cats and they generate a lot of loose hair.

It’s pretty rare for it to get stuck somewhere. The Neato is good at getting itself out of problem areas, but once in a while it beeps to get help (it also alerts you if the bin is full).

One thing it does force us to do is some “pre cleaning”. We have to pick up any rope-like toys that might tangle in the revolving brush. And we put away the snack trays or any other light furniture (it will push around some light stuff, especially if it gets stuck on the item). This is actually a good thing, in a way, as it forces us to maintain a certain level of non-messiness. Keeping crap off the floor is good! The Neato is also the reason why I designed all of our bookshelves to be 6″ off the ground — so it can clean under them.

Cleaning the Neato is a breeze. The bin is easy to empty. The filter gets some shop vac action to keep it clean (I do this once in a while, not every time). The brush/roller is extremely easy to remove and clean. Far easier than any traditional vac.

Spending hundreds of dollars on a robot vac seemed pretty crazy to me at first. But, I thought about it. Opportunity cost. The time we save not having to vac/sweep will pay for the robot within a year. That’s a pretty good return on investment. Plus, we don’t have to handle a task that we don’t like.

What about the cats? Amazingly, after a few runs, they get perfectly used to it. Doesn’t phase them a bit. They either follow it around, seeing where it will go next, or just hop up somewhere and take a nap. I has very glad of that — I didn’t need a house full of paniced cats!

DSCN4636 (Small)P.S. This blog posting was typed in my living room, on my recliner, on the antique AlphaSmart 3000. Cats can jump on my lap and I don’t worry about them screwing up my work or me dropping a laptop. I’m not typing this on the AS to be cool — but because a certain little kittie of mine decided that my chair was the ideal place for a nap. The things I do for my babies.

In Praise of Uni-Taskers

TV celebrity chef, Alton Brown, is not a fan of what he calls “uni-taskers” in the kitchen. Those are devices which can only be used in one way. Think: cherry pitters and other gizmos.

While I do agree with him when it comes to the kitchen, I’ve found the rule less effective in other areas of my tech life.

We currently live in a world of the all-in-one device. Ten years ago we had a bunch of different devices. Today, you can find most everything in a single “smart” phone. And I think that’s a problem. A problem of focus.

I’m singling out the smart phone here, but the same is true for the always-internet-connected PC. But the phone exacerbates the problem.

Over the last couple of years I’ve found the ability to focus to become increasingly difficult. In the past, I’ve been able to sit down to a task and knock it out in a couple of solid hours. Time would pass quickly and I got things done. Now, it’s just a bunch of 5 minute bursts of work.

I was really getting worried about my inability to focus. Do I have some middle-aged deficit disorder? Just growing old and senile? What the heck was going on?!?

But I took a step back and looked at the situation. Was I having trouble focusing in all areas of my life? Well, no. If I had a non-internet task in front of me, I still retained my focus. Preparing a meal? Yep, I could get that done with not much interruption. Reading a book? I go through about two books a week. So the ability to focus was still there. Diluted, but still there.

Looking deeper, I analyzed those things where I found distraction / lack of focus to be strongest. In results which will surprise no one, I found that I’d dick around most when my tasks were less than desirable. You know the “have to do” versus “want to do” stuff.

“Have to do?” Where did those things come from? And how are they different from “want to do?” Is cleaning up the house a “want” or “have”? Well, it depends. If I wanted the house to be organized because I want to play with my toys, it was a “want”. Guests coming over? It’s a “have”.

Work is the same way. When I’d say yes to things that don’t really benefit me — that I don’t care two shits about — they become a “have”.  And those always seem to suck-suck-suck.

It’s my own damn fault for saying yes to things. It’s one of the most important things that one can learn: to say no. True, being an independent consultant, it’s hard to say no to work. But at what cost did I say yes? To get a short term monetary gain, but to sacrifice my long term goals? That’s not a good idea. Every time I’ve ignored my gut and said “yes” it’s been bad. Never worked out without a lot of pain. Just say no.

Enough navel gazing. What about the uni-taskers I was talking about? Let’s take an example, reading.

As I mentioned, my ability to focus on reading is un-impaired. And why? Because I only read real stuff in two formats: print or Kindle. Both are uni-taskers. Can’t dick around much on a Kindle. And a book is a book.

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If you are a reader, you need a Kindle. Nothing more to say. It’s a fantastic device and has me reading more than ever. Since I’m a cheapskate, the vast majority of books come from the library. For a $120 device I’ve probably spent $20 in content — the other hundreds of books are from the library. Not what Amazon wants to hear, but they make plenty of money off me as it is. And with tools like Calibre (free, and extremely useful), due dates are a thing of the past. I read at my pace, DRM fiends.

Music is another thing I use uni-taskers for. Sure, Amazon Music (and other streaming services) is handy — and I pay for it — but when I listen to music I want to listen to music. I don’t want to navigate. I don’t want an app to crash. I don’t want pauses. I don’t want notification beeps. I don’t want suggestions. I don’t want to be directed to purchase something. I want music.

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So, I stick with CDs and LPs in the living room. Amazon is there, too, but only if I’m browsing around for new stuff, or can’t find the media. And at my workspace? An “ancient” Creative Nomad Jukebox. It’s one of my favorite thrift store finds. Load the music up, press play. Easy navigation. And no distractions.

One of the projects I’ve been thinking about is Twine interactive fiction. Think: Choose your own adventure. But writing on a computer? Ugh. It’s not going to happen. There are just too many distractions.

First, you have the Internet, the great time-sink of history. Second, I’ve usually got work e-mail running on my PC. Hard to get away from that, as much as I’d want to. (I’m actually considering whacking e-mail. It’s value to me is close to nothing.) Third, though I like the good mechanical keyboards I have, I just don’t like typing into screens — especially first drafts — my desire to edit as I go is too great. (That may be fine for blog posts, but for creative writing, not so much.)

Yes, I’ve tried social media blocking software. I’ve tried internet blocking software. Neither has worked for me. Mainly because when I sit in front of a PC I think “work” (the things I “have” to do, not what I “want” to do). So I need to get away from the screens.

So, I’ve once again dipped my toes into 10+ year old technology. No, I’m not a hipster, so I didn’t get a typewriter — plus, I can’t survive without backspace and arrow keys. But I did get a AlphaSmart.

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It turns on instantly. It constantly saves. It does only one thing — allows you to type text. Originally designed for school use, they were discontinued years ago and area only available used. (Got an excellent condition one on Amazon for about $30.)

In today’s world, it’s about one technical step up from a typewriter. Even its way of transferring files to a PC is a hoot: You connect it via USB, it emulates a keyboard, you hit “send”, and it “re-types” your document into whatever window is open. It’s like watching Zork or Hacker type text. (Look ma, I’m running at 1200 baud!)

I had looked into to the Hemingwrite (now Freewrite), but too spendy for my modest uses. This blog post sold me on the AlphaSmart: It’s a piece of junk, but great for writing! If you are crazy enough about writing to get one of these, be sure to get the 3000 model — it has USB and emulates a keyboard on the PC. You don’t need any software. I connect it to a Windows 7 x64 machine without a problem. Be sure to set the “Send Speed” to “4” so you get the blistering 1200 baud.

You will not be impressed with this device, and it really really only does one thing. But for what it does, it does just fine. It allows you to focus on writing. Added bonus: It was designed for kids, so it’s pretty darn tough. It has cursor keys. A decent keyboard. And it runs about 300+ hours on 3 AA batteries. Definitely  a niche tool (unlike the Kindle or Nomad). I call it a “first draft” writing tool.



Fun Tech Learning Resources

Those who know me know that I’m not the World’s Biggest Fan of formal education. Too much pounding square pegs into round holes and whatnot. So, I’m always looking out for interesting ways to teach without the rote learning and boredom. Here are a couple of resources that might be of interest.


Those of us born in the pre-cell-phone days will recall the Choose Your Own Adventure (a trademark of Bantam) books — AKA CYOA or Gamebooks or Branching Plot Novels. I’ll use CYOA because everyone does.

The neat thing about these books is that you get to choose a path. Reading and interaction. Don’t like the one path? Go back to the decision point and try another. An interesting way to teach consequences to actions without being pedantic.

There are a number of tools out there that allow you to create your own — for consumption in a web browser. The best mix of free-and-easy is Twine. (www.twinery.org) You get a GUI with boxes. Each box holds text. You add decision points/links which ties the story together. The focus is on creating content, not programming — but it does — surreptitiously — teach some programming.

It’s very easy to use — a parent and young child can get the hang of it pretty quickly. Once you’re done, the result is an HTML page that can be viewed on any browser. There are plenty of Twine How-Tos, so I won’t recreate that wheel, just do some Google searches.

Personally, I prefer their “older” desktop version (1.4.2) versus their re-worked Web-Only version (2.0.4). If you accidentally refresh on the Web version, or your browser refreshes (like Android browsers love to do) then you lose work. Desktop version just seems safer to me.

One thing I’ve been searching for is a way to get Twine into an Amazon Kindle. Twine produces Javascript-heavy HTML, which is fine for browsers, but won’t work in MOBI formats. Haven’t had any luck yet, though. (There are other CYOA tools out there that say they can convert to MOBI, but they charge you $10 per conversion.) I’m thinking of either writing a conversion program, or my own version of Twine that natively outputs to HTML or MOBI-friendly. We’ll see if I have the time.


Scratch is a programming language which should probably be CS 101 in all schools. Colorful user interface. Lots of programming without writing code, etc. Good for all ages, really. Check it out here: https://scratch.mit.edu/

Scratch has evolved from a desktop based tool that interacts with a “Scratch Board” (for Input/Output) to a pure web-based environment. I regret the demise of the Scratch Board, as it allowed you to have physical pushbuttons and whatnot, but the web tool can run on any browser (and works great on Chromebooks), so there’s something to be said there.

Squishy Circuits

Looking for a playful way to learn about electronics? A good start is Squishy Circuits. You need a handful of inexpensive components and make the circuits out of a home-made clay-like substance. It’s perfectly safe (just flour, water, salt, etc) and really helps you to visualize what’s going on.

Read more about making your own conductive dough, view a teaching presentation, and more at Squishy Circuits.

Phone Phun

So, we moved into a new house in late December. We’re on a bit of a hill, which is nice. The downside is that the cell phone towers are on the other side of the hill. So, my Tracfone works fine on the deck, but not so well in the office, where I need it. I have a Nexus 4 on T-Mobile, and that works, but the last thing I need are more phone bills.

Some background: About two years ago I got sick of paying monthly cell phone bills. I hate the phone and really only use it for business. So, I need a phone, but use very few minutes. That’s why I went with pre-paid. For about $150 a year I get all the minutes I need. (And since I just talk on my phone, I didn’t need any data.)

The problem with pre-paid, of course, is the ever-changing numbers. I didn’t want to port my number to a provider, then cancel, and have to re-port, etc.

So, I ported my primary (and quite old) phone number to Google Voice. The nice thing about Voice is that you can then set up auto-forwarding to any number/phone you want. Even better, you can have it forward to multiple phones at the same time. This worked fine. Until the new house and the flaky cell service (which is funny, given it runs on the AT&T “we’re supposed to be everywhere” network).

For the past month I’ve been making do with having Google Voice ring both of my phones. I just picked up whichever one I thought would work better. Fine, but a little annoying.

So I looked into VOIP — with the key factor being cheap. I ran across OBI, which is a device you hook into your network. Then you plug a regular phone into it. So, $40 for the OBI 100 box and $12 for a cordless phone — a cheap test, since my T-Mobile bill for the Nexus is $50 a month.

The beauty of the OBI is that it has Google Voice integration built in. So, I plug the box in, do the setup, and tell Voice to forward calls to my cells and to my Chat account. (You don’t really use Chat, that’s just how it hooks in.)

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And, amazingly, it works! My incoming work calls ring the office “land line” phone and my cells. So, if I’m out-and-about, I pick up on the cell. In the office, I pick up the office phone.

Another nice thing is that the incoming and outgoing calls, when run through Google Voice, are free. So, now 99% of my calls run on VOIP for nothing.

And if my cable service / internet goes down? No problem. Voice will just route/ring to my cell.

I’ve been using it just a short time and have been very happy with the call quality. Much clearer than any cell networks. And, I’m looking forward to getting another old school MaBell phone for the office. It’s always nice to slam down the receiver after an annoying call!

Update: One other thing I should add. You can make OBI to OBI calls directly, too, through their network. No need for Google Voice. Or, instead of Google Voice, you can choose a VOIP provider for your network. But, considering the Voice calls are free in the US, that’s the cheaper bet.

The OBI to OBI is interesting because you could set up a device and phone at someones house (assuming they have broadband). Then they can make calls to you for nothing. (You just do **9 and the 9 digit OBI device number.) Great for avoiding land-line “long distance” / toll charges.

Add Four Cups of Chicken Broth

Ignore this post if you are a purist.

So many recipes call for Chicken or Beef broth. I’ve never had the energy (or the pocket-book) to make my own. I’ve tried it, but it just wasn’t worth it. Sorry.

For a long time, I bought Tetra packed broth. Good stuff, but expensive, and it was okay.

Until I discovered the time and cost saving method to broth: Better Than Bouillon.

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Get yourself a Chicken and a Beef jar. Once opened, store in the fridge. Gumbo calls for 4 cups of Chicken Broth? Add four cups of water (filtered is best, but no worries). Add 4 tsp of this magic mix, and there you go.

It lasts forever. It’s always on-hand. It’s cheaper and easier to keep. It allows you to COOK instead of running to the store.

Chicken Pot Pie, Soup, Beef Pot Pie, Beef Stew, broth for Stir Fries. Whatever. It works for all. And is great for the times when you Just Need To Cook. But don’t want it to suck.