Fun with a Roomba

So I purchased a Roomba at the Woot off the other day. After I bought the condo, a good friend of mine (who also lives here) mentioned the device, but didn’t know the name. Being the consummate geek that I am, I knew he was talking about the Roomba, and furthermore knew that they had several flavors of it now. And the fact of the matter is that he was right, it seems perfectly suited for this place. So when I saw one at the Woot off for only $120 (+$5 shipping), it seemed like a good idea. In fact, I think it turned out to be one of the best bargains ever.

The one I got is a “Discovery 4296” which is nothing more than a word with a number, really. The thing is basically an automatic sweeper. With hardwood or low carpets/rugs (not shag) it’s clearly perfect. Basically it sweeps the floor with rotating brushes and sweeps the crap into a bin, whereupon you dump it. It’s particularly good with hair and other small debris, like the weird pebbles that keep falling out of my ceiling. It also does a decent job of dust in general, although it tends to throw it about a bit. But it seems to get it after a few passes.

One thing I do not like is the bin. It’s too small, and it’s positioned wrong. The upshot of this is that you have to use it every other day, and you have to be *extremely* careful when emptying it. The first time I emptied it, I dumped a large amount of crap onto the floor. Takes some practice, so expect it.

Naturally, being a geek, I’m interested in the algorithms involved. It has a few. They probably have technical names, but here’s the lowdown:
1. Roaming – It roams off in some random direction for a long distance. This is the primary way that it cleans the center of rooms. However, when you consider it, the center areas of rooms don’t tend to be the dirty ones.. It’s the edges that build up the mess. So it has…
2. Edge finding – I think the manual calls this wall roaming. It tends to do this a lot, however I’ve seen it walking the edge of my rug as well. Which is actually a good thing, as those edges tend to pick up debris too. Finally, it has:
3. Spot cleaning – This is an interesting mode. You can force it by placing it somewhere and hitting the “spot” button, but in normal “clean” mode, it will wander around and occasionally switch into this mode. A blue light labeled “dirt detector” comes on, and it runs around in circles for a while, eventually heading off in some random direction.

Few other things:
– Home base – If you get the model with the home base charger, then after it’s satisfied with the area or low enough on battery, it will go home and dock for charging. This can be forced as well with the remote (if you have one). Watching it dock is a lot of fun for your average geek, because the way it does it is clearly via two infrared beams on either side of the dock. It hits them, and turns away from them, back and forth, hunting, until it finds the home point. Very clever.
– Virtual Walls – These are similar, just infrared transmitters (each takes 2 D-cell batteries!) that shoot out a beam which cause the thing to act like it hit a wall and turn. It will follow the beam just like it follows walls. The beams are a bit wide, so put them back a bit inside doorways and such.

The primary way it knows about things is hitting them. The whole front piece, about 140-150 degrees or so, is a movable bump mechanism. When it hits something, this pushes in and the thing stops and turns around some seemingly random amount, or just a bit in edge finding mode. It also appears to be able to sense distance from any wall, because in edge finding, it will follow a wall very precisely without touching it at all, which is weird, because I can’t find any obvious sensors there.

As far as cleaning goes, the one I got is basically a sweeper/vacuum. Works great on hardwood, decent on low cut rug/carpet, probably would not work on shag or similar. The gist of it is that it has a side sweeper to pull in things, a front sweeper to push things up, a rotor brush to pull things in, and a ramp to force things into the bin. There’s also a spinning mechanism inside which might produce some very minor vacuum effect, to get things “over the hump” of the bin and keep dust inside. The bin is on the back, and it sucks. Pick the thing upright before removing the bin. You’ll see the method after 1 spill, trust me.

The docking station does not work particularly well on hardwood floors. It slides, and the Roomba drags it around while trying to disengage. Put it on rug or carpet. I ended up putting it on some carpet samples underneath my bar area. Speaking of which, the dock *MUST* be in an area where it has a pretty good view of the room. Otherwise the Roomba will not find it. So forget a closet or something, it must be in the main area, somewhere.

The cat is completely freaked out by the thing, but the Roomba does not appear to mind his presence. 😀

It’s loud. Not as loud as an actual vacuum cleaner, but the Roomba takes longer. However, given that mine has a scheduling feature, I can set it to work when I’m not here. Haven’t tried that yet, might try it later this week. The scheduler is cool, built into the remote. You program the times, and then send the schedule to the Roomba and to the virtual wall units. It runs for that time and the wall units turn on at the same moment. Very conservative on battery power that way.

One thing that bugs me is that the remote doesn’t offer any easy way to really remote control the thing. You can send it commands, but they’re really more like suggestions as far as I can tell. Which is frankly too much work. It covered my living room and kitchen by itself twice before running out of power, and since I didn’t follow the charging directions, it didn’t find home base when it did so. Follow the damn directions, charge it for 16 hours before the first use. Trust me on this one.

Hacking: There are myriad abilities to hack the thing. It has a serial port, and can accept commands to move around and such, as well as provide feedback of all the sensors on it. Worth a look if you’re into that sort of thing. I’m considering building a bluetooth serial link to it and hacking it a bit. With some minor effort (okay, maybe not so minor), I could control the thing and make it work much better for my specific space. Given that the unit’s more or less “random” method works pretty well, it does seem to take a while to accomplish anything. I mean, it works, but seems inefficient. I could improve that. I browsed through the documentation on while it was working, and it’s pretty comprehensive. Worth a look if you’re the hackish type.

All in all, I’d say it’s worth the $125. Maybe $170. But not the default $220 price. Find the bargains on it, stick with those. Amazon has the remanufactured ones on the cheap (this is the same one I got). And if you’re all hardwood with no rugs/carpets, look for the one that actually mops instead of just sweeps and vacuums.

Dogfish Head Beer Tasting – Review

I had a thoroughly enjoyable time at the Flying Saucer last night. They had a Dogfish Head beer tasting event, where we got to try five different Dogfish Head beers along with a five course tasting meal to go with the beers and such.

First: By far, my favorite was the Midas Touch. It was an excellent beverage, extremely smooth. The contents of it are unusual (as with all Dogfish Head beers), and it had a flavor which I’m somewhat unable to describe. Very mellow and mead-like, but not overpoweringly so. Strong as heck (9%) but you can’t tell at all. A very complicated beer.

Second: The Festina Peche, which was not a beer that I was expecting them to have. It’s a wheat beer, but they called it a “Neo-Berliner” which was new to me. It had the most variation in flavor of any beer that night, very sweet at first, turning almost sour by the 4th-5th taste. High in carbonation (for a beer), but surprisingly low in alcohol (only 4.5%). Excellent flavor though, and I will pick it up again when I find it.

Third: The 90 Minute IPA. For those of you that know me, you probably know that I hate IPA’s. Really, really hate them. However, the 90 Minute IPA really does an amazing job of hiding the hop flavors with the sweet flavors at the start. I did discover that if you block the sweet flavors by eating some bread just before taking a drink, then it’s extremely hoppy. All the hop flavor comes out when you can’t taste the sweetness.

Fourth: Raison d’Etre. This is one I’ve had many times before, it’s a beer made with green raisins and Belgian yeasts. It’s a good beer, but many people don’t like it because it’s slightly sour flavored and very malty. Note that by ranking this 4th, I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m just saying that the other three were better. 🙂

Fifth: The 60 Minute IPA. It’s a pretty average IPA, but with a lot more hops than per normal. The hop flavor is immediately apparent as it’s way overhopped. I have to say that while I can drink this beer, I don’t really care for it much. It’s a high alcohol beer (6%) for a low alcohol price, and that’s a good thing. It’s also a much better beer than many others on the market. However, it’s very much an IPA with a huge amount of hops, and I don’t care for that style of beer myself. But if you like IPAs, you’ll love it.

Unranked: The 120 Minute IPA. Mikey was lucky enough to procure the “Golden Ticket” and thus win one of the coveted bottles of their heavy-duty IPA. We also procured a couple of other floating bottles, so I got to taste this one fairly well. The short of it is that that it’s very strong. At 18%, it’s not messing around when it comes to the alcohol. It’s also very heavily hopped, but honestly, the alcohol hides that flavor. Again, I tried the bread trick, and it worked, you can really taste the hops when the sweet alcohol is hidden from your palate. I do not recommend doing this trick on this beer however, as it tasted like I had chewed on a handful of hop pellets. It’s that strong. On the whole, however, it’s a good beer, but it’s more like a fine wine. Sip it. Slowly.

The food was delicious as well, and whoever thought of mixing the Peche wheat beer with orange sherbet is a sheer genius. Same goes for the Beef Stew and the 90 minute IPA.

The guy from Dogfish Head mentioned that they’re bringing their beers into more Memphis liquor stores. Apparently we have a 6% law I did not know about, so you’ll likely only be able to find the stuff in liquor stores and not general grocery stores. Some of their beers are well worth the extra trip, so I plan on making some liquor store runs soon and seeing what I can find.

Bought a Roomba

Bought me a Roomba today. They had a deal going on Woot! and anyway I kind of need one. The hardwood in the new condo is proving difficult to keep clean on a regular basis. Since Mandy claimed to have gotten one while at the car dealership the other day, I figured I’d give it a shot too.

BTW, if you don’t check out Woot! daily, you should. It’s good stuff. Even when the deal of the day sucks, the text is pretty good. The daily podcast is usually pretty funny as well. Worth the trouble.

Fully Integrating Google Apps for your Domain

Having two email accounts can be a pain. I’ve been using my GMail account for a long time, but I like the niceness of my domain better. It’s cleaner, overall. A bit more professional as well.

I also use Firefox with the Google Toolbar. One of the nice things about it is the little GMail icon that checks your GMail every 10 minutes or so, and shows if you have new messages. It also lets you search your email right from the toolbar. Very handy.

However, I also use Google Apps for your Domain for my email. This basically makes all my email go through Google and their GMail interface. The Google Toolbar doesn’t work too well with that.

So I got bored and fixed all that. How to do it can be found after the jump…

Continue reading “Fully Integrating Google Apps for your Domain”

T-Mobile's new killer phone feature

An article in the New York Times talks about a new thing T-Mobile introduced last week, but which few people noticed… It’s called “HotSpot@Home”, which is a dumb name, but still:

For $10 more on your cell phone bill, T-Mobile will give you a cell phone that also works over WiFi, and a WiFi router at home for you to hook to your own broadband internet connection.

The plus side to all this: When your phone calls are using the WiFi, they’re free. No minutes get used up. When the calls are using the normal cell phone network, you’re charged as per usual. It can also seamlessly switch between the two.

Think about this.. You’re at home, so your phone calls are using your own WiFi and therefore are “free”. No cell phone minutes used. Or you’re at the Flying Saucer, having a beer… The saucer has free WiFi… your phone detects that, uses it, and your calls are free there too. Walk out of the saucer on the phone and out of range, and the phone switches back to the normal cell network and you never notice it.

With a phone like this and the plan to allow it, you could probably reduce the number of minutes you actually pay for each month. If, for example, you pay for 1000 minutes but use 800 of them while at home or work (assuming you have WiFi at work), then you could switch to a 250 minute plan and save the difference.

Neat idea, I thought.

Great Amazon Deals

Found a neat post a while back that described how to mess with Amazon’s URLs to find the best deals, like everything in a category that was 90% off and such. Then this morning I found a post with all the URLs pre-made for you. Very neat.

So, here you go:

Apparel & Accessories : 90%80%70%60%50%40%30%20%10%

Beauty: 90%80%70%60%50%40%30%20%10%

Bed & Bath: 90%80%70%60%50%40%30%20%10%

Books: 90%80%70%60%50%40%30%20%10%

Camera & Photo: 90%80%70%60%50%40%30%20%10%

Cell Phones & Service: 90%80%70%60%50%40%30%20%10%

Computers & PC Hardware: 90%80%70%60%50%40%30%20%10%

Computers & Video Games: 90%80%70%60%50%40%30%20%10%

DVD: 90%80%70%60%50%40%30%20%10%

Electronics: 90%80%70%60%50%40%30%20%10%

Furniture & Decor: 90%80%70%60%50%40%30%20%10%

Gourmet Food: 90%80%70%60%50%40%30%20%10%

GPS and Navigation: 90%80%70%60%50%40%30%20%10%

Grocery: 90%80%70%60%50%40%30%20%10%

Health & Personal Care: 90%80%70%60%50%40%30%20%10%

Home & Garden: 90%80%70%60%50%40%30%20%10%

Jewelry & Watches: 90%80%70%60%50%40%30%20%10%

Kitchen & Housewares: 90%80%70%60%50%40%30%20%10%

Magazines & Newspapers: 90%80%70%60%50%40%30%20%10%

Musical Instruments: 90%80%70%60%50%40%30%20%10%

Office Products: 90%80%70%60%50%40%30%20%10%

Outdoor Living: 90%80%70%60%50%40%30%20%10%

Pet Supplies: 90%80%70%60%50%40%30%20%10%

Shoes: 90%80%70%60%50%40%30%20%10%

Software: 90%80%70%60%50%40%30%20%10%

Sports & Outdoors: 90%80%70%60%50%40%30%20%10%

Tools & Hardware: 90%80%70%60%50%40%30%20%10%

Toys & Games : 90%80%70%60%50%40%30%20%10%

More about the iPhone

I made an iPhone post earlier, and Paul pointed to it, which was cool of him and got me a lot more views than I’m used to. But I got some feedback on the topic as well, so I figured I’d go into it a little more.

First off, If you’re getting the thing for free (like through work or something), then go for it. It’s cool looking, the interface is neat, and it’s very blingy. My issue with the thing is that it’s $600 and somewhat “low-tech”. Here’s what it breaks down to: Stuff they can fix, and stuff they can’t.

Stuff they can fix via a future software update:

  • No custom ringtones. Period. It doesn’t allow for MP3’s, music tracks, or anything else. What’s in the phone is all you get. Although iTunes 7.3 appears to support selling ringtones. Look forward to rebuying your songs as ringtones.
  • The camera is 2 megapixels, but can’t record video.
  • The phone cannot send “MMS” messages. These are like text messages with pictures or video or what have you. For some people, this is no big deal. And it can still send email, so that’s something to consider as well.
  • There’s no instant messaging in the thing. It can do “iChat”, but it can’t do AIM, MSN, GoogleTalk, any of that.
  • The only “push” email it supports is Yahoo Mail. Don’t use Yahoo Mail? Tough luck. It can do IMAP based email, which excludes most email systems and isn’t “push”. Blackberries can do better than this.
  • No games. None. Zero. Zilch. Which is annoying, since they sell iPod games on iTunes that, in theory, could work on the thing.
  • It’s not user expandable. You can’t put your own apps on it, yet. Even if they fix this, it’ll probably be a purchase mechanism thing.
  • The Bluetooth only works with phone calls. So you can’t use your neato Bluetooth stereo headset and have a wireless iPod functionality.

Stuff they *can’t* fix:

  • The massive SLOW of the thing. Unless you’re able to find a WiFi access point, you’ll be using AT&T’s “EDGE” network. Which, as you’ll notice very rapidly, is extremely slow. What really irks about this is that HSDPA is available in cheaper phones and is much faster and extremely reliable (albeit only found in big cities). This can NOT be fixed with a future software update, it’s a hardware problem. Who wants to bet that the “iPhone 2” comes out just as the iPhone price drops down to “free” in a year or so? Who wants to bet that the iPhone 2 will have HSDPA?
  • No GPS. If you’ve seen the commercial with the big screen Google Maps giving turn by turn directions, then you’ll be disappointed to discover that a) the iPhone does not have GPS and so it has no idea where you are (you have to tell it) and b) it can’t actually give turn by turn based directions. You have to tell the iPhone when you make each turn. Which makes it pretty useless for this unless you have a buddy using the phone as you go. No software fix for this, the GPS hardware ain’t in the phone.
  • The thing works as an iPod Nano, basically. It has 4 or 8 GB of storage. But not all the iPod capable things will work with it. Also, because of the jack plug size, you’ll need to buy a special adapter to make some of your normal headphones work with it.

The software problems are enough to keep me from buying one until they fix them. But these last few hardware issues are enough to make me wait until new iPhone hardware appears in a year or two. Why pay extra for something worse than what I already have?

Gizmodo published a list of things you should know before getting one, so don’t take my word for any of the above.