Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Q-Tip Conundrum

I am by nature a simple person. I like to wake up, taking deep breaths when I go out my front door, enjoy a cold beer in a warm pub on a stormy night with my wife and generally derive enjoyment watching life happen around me. Ya know sunsets, ants mulling about, birds chirping, and other simple shit.  I try to eat when hungry, sleep when tired, and well you can fill in the rest. Most of my problems extend from being immersed in a complex world. Want proof? Did it take you more than a second to find the “You are here” icon on the map in your closest shopping mall? How many numbers more than three digits long are you required to remember to function in everyday life? Why is Red, Yellow, and Green not the same as a flashing yellow or flashing red? Did you ever feel like a rat in a maze when you attempted to find a bathroom in a municipal building? It’s all complex monkey logic right?

As humans we deal with these complexities in one of two ways. Some of us tend to just write these things off as circumstances and parameters beyond our control whose nexus with reality is spawn of the great chaos within our Universe. Others, like me, dedicate a small portion of the human brain’s processing abilities to understand and map out; why things are they way they are and if they are efficient enough to satisfy my immediate distaste for having to deal with monkey made obstacles to begin with. If, for whatever reason, I have to dedicate more than the allotted brain capacity to analyzing a complex situation, I inevitably multithread said analysis in the back of mind which quickly ferments into literary outage, of which I shall illustrate here. 

Case and point.

Q-Tips!!! Aside from being a pretty awesome record scratching DJ, it is also the name of a cotton swab first invented in the 1920’s whose name understandably changed from “Baby Gays”.  Because let’s face it, being a kid growing up in South Jersey during the Reagan years I really didn’t want to swab my face or insert anything gay into my ear. Notwithstanding name changes, and labeled warnings I have used these things in various incarnations through the ages and have come to the stark conclusion that the Q-Tip brand cotton swab is by far the best.

Although, it clearly states on the package NOT to insert them into your ear, I have been doing this merrily for the past thirty-five years to keep my ears clean. As a result Q-tips have been a staple in my medicine cabinet ever since. So an ample supply is a requirement for happy monkey existence.

Now on to the issue. By what order of magnitude do the great minds of supply chain, inventory, and retail management conspire against this consumer to place Q-Tips in an area that is relatively invisible to all but the most scrutinizing of eyes? I admit that my vision is bad, my glasses thick, and people in China often get a cold chill up their back as if being watched by a guy who can see directly through the planet at them. But really, I am not so blind as to not be able to locate a blue box covered in vacuum formed plastic with little cotton laden sticks inside.  Against every form of a man’s intuition, if there is such a thing, Q-Tips are never where they SHOULD BE!

I check near the cotton balls, NOPE. I check near the medicines, NOPE. I check near ear based things, NOPE. I actually stormed out of Wal-Greens two nights ago in a cotton swab fueled rage, sat promptly back in the car, and cursed the Universe with fists in the air. My wife wanted to know what was wrong with me, and I told her. She then asked, “Did you check the make-up or baby isle?”

“What?! Why on EARTH would Q-Tips be there?” I screamed.

“Because that is what they are used for.”, she replied.

I was completely baffled. Ok, I understand that a woman can use Q-Tips for makeup and the like, but what the hell could a baby or its mother honestly do with these things? I have NEVER seen anyone use a Q-Tip on a baby. I started to feel like I was on another planet. Everyone I ever knew EVERYWHERE, used Q-Tips to clean their ears. WHY do they not place these in an area where ear related things reside. The company is covered. They label their product. I mean, is there some sort of back room Q-Tip cabal in secret association with companies that produce ear flushing products?

After this a full day had gone by, with me scratching my head. It just didn’t make sense. So I went on with my business. It was Monday, and I needed to load up on healthy lunch and snack items for the week. As is typical for a Monday, a co-worker and I hit up the local supermarket. Because my Q-Tip supplies were rapidly depleting, its product placement conundrum weighed heavy on my feeble monkey brain. I had some time, and decided to do a little exploring. I checked all my recent haunts on where I thought a Q-Tip might be hiding. No dice. I then drew a deep breath and ventured into uncharted territory, the make-up isle. Sure enough, I found a box of Q-Tips, with a woman swabbing her eye on the box. I then ventured into the baby isle. Again, a box was found, however this one had a lady’s finger holding a Q-Tip anxiously waiting to swab a baby’s eye. The product placement was completely alien to me. The questions just flooded into my mind.

Is the market for babies and women that big that it deserves a spot in TWO places?

Is the market for cleaning ears so small that it does NOT warrant a spot?

Do women and babies ONLY swab their eyes with Q-Tips?

Why have I lived forty-two years and never noticed any of these things?

I stood speechless in the baby isle, left alone in a world now strange and alien to me. I felt as if a camera was quickly panning away from me, through the roof, and beyond the parking lot. Up into the sky, past the clouds. Above the air and so desperately far away from our planet. Cold and alone, remote and distant from our Sun. Only one thing actually made sense to me now. This entire exercise of me coming to terms with my environment could have been completely forestalled if Q-Tips simply kept the name of “Baby Gays”. Thanks Johnson & Johnson. My wife will now be in charge of this purchase, for the sake of my mental fortitude.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Soap Struggle

For about six months now there has been a constant struggle in my only functioning bathroom. Now before you go thinking anything weird or disgusting is going on, allow me to explain. I am generally a clean person and I like to have clean hands. I’m not obsessive about it; I just know that when my hands are dirty I should not go around mucking things up with my cruddy paws. Being a tinkerer means that they tend to get dirty a lot and as a result I end up washing them frequently.

               In the beginning there was a bar of Dove soap sliding around the top of the sink causing soap scum to gather at an alarming rate. This required a frequent cleaning of the sink which I doled out to one of the subordinate house mates. Once this command was handed down it caused furrowed eyebrows to ensue and before long a squirt container of soap appeared on the sink in a proactive attempt to keep it cleaner, longer.

               All was well in the Kingdom of Sinkdom for a time. The effortless washing of hands graced our humble home. Squirt after squirt provided a sort magic that warded off illness and odor alike. Then one day I went to wash my hands and gave the pump a nice tap to get a healthy squirt into my awaiting hands. With great force a liquid shot over my grasp in an arc not unlike a shell of artillery landing a target that soon became my shirt.

“What the Hell?!?” I cried out.

               I picked up the bottle to inspect it and noticed that someone had replaced the contents of the container with water because it had run out of soap. “Why is that even and option?” I thought.


               I cleaned myself up and headed to the store later that evening. Into the beast (Wal*Mart) I entered to look for a decent buy of pump soap. I approached the soap area and predictably like every other product, there was a wide selection. Anti-bacterial, scented, moisturizing, I even thought I saw flavored in there somewhere, but that would be silly, right? Surprisingly they were all expensive, however standing in a Wal*Mart amongst an array of cruddy people, I would venture to suggest that soap might just be a valued commodity.

               While I stared down my nose at all the other patrons in the soap isle I came to a revelation. I already had a pump, so why not just buy a refill for it. I searched around a bit and sure enough I found a “Great Value” brand of soap refill. Furthermore it was priced incredibly cheap. I snatched it up as if the wall of them was the last one on earth and headed to the checkout.  Do I even have to say anything about Wal*Mart checkout lines? I didn’t think so.

Once home I triumphantly filled up the pump and took it for a test squirt. All seemed well, even though the soap was a little thicker. It still shot into my hands with a labored soapy burp. However it took a little longer to wash off. No matter it was something I could live with. I vanquished the thought of ever going back to using bar soap on the sink. Never again would the thin veil of soap scum grace the surface of this part of my bathroom!

               Days pass, and like clockwork one and then ALL the vehicles in my care needed some sort of service. So I took off my programmer’s hat and put on my mechanic’s hat and set to task. Many hours and busted knuckles later I was done, and the vehicles were back in service. The only thing left was to wash those dirty hands. I actually looked forward to using the newly filled pump. Let’s face it nothing says "clean hands" like a big healthy squirt of soap into one's mitts.
               I arrive in the bathroom, turn the water on and prepare for a smooth transition from dirty to clean. I tap the soap pump while simultaneously cupping my one hand to receive the anticipated squirt of soap.

Sputter, sputter, SPLOCK! The pump farted out and freckled the sink with no soap arriving at my hand. I press the pump lever again.

Pssssst, POP, splutter.  The flatulence continued only this time It launched a dried out soap booger into my hand.

“What the hell?!?!” I exclaimed.

Apparently the soap was drying out while in the pump, and it was now ruined. Darkness then swept over the bathroom once again and the bar soap return to the sink, sliding around the top of it like an ice-skating goblin mocking my very existence. I would need to take matters into my own dirty hands. This time cost was no issue.

I will spare you the yarn of a second soap purchase but suffice it to say I opted for one of the better soap pumps. This one not only dispensed soap, but somehow mixed it with air so it squirted a nice foamy lather into your hands. SCORE! Mike: 3 Universe: 2. Take THAT you continuously expanding realm of hidden cosmological constants!

               Many dirty hands were washed with this new soap dispenser. I even came to love it, and often thought of celebrating its one month anniversary in our home. One day I pumped some soap into my hands and a light sputter occurred, almost like it was gently reminding me, “Please feed me more soap, so I can service you master.” I remember I had the soap refill in the closet and set task to refilling the container. I topped it off and went on my merry way.

               Dinner time rolled around and it was pizza night. “Oh boy this is gonna be good!” The thought of stuffing pizza into my gaping maw made my mouth water and as a bonus I had beer in the fridge as well. Initiate frothing of the mouth! A few sparks of delight graced my corpus callosum and informed me, “You may move forward with your gluttony, but always remember that clean hands are hands that are fit to be fed with, NOW LETS GO WASH THEM HANDS!” I navigated the staircase three steps at a time, slid into the bathroom, and slapped the facet on. I briefly gazed into the mirror, and uttered, “THIS guy is gonna eat himself some pizza!” I slap the pump head, and it farted out big clumps of soap into my hand in diarrhea like fashion. I look down into my hands puzzled, and then briefly looked around the sink where similar attempts were made to dispense soap.


               So for a time I just gave up, and fell into a dispenser based depression, looking to get my foamy freak on in strange bathrooms that had foamy soap dispensers. I didn’t look forward to using our home bathroom any more, and took to washing my hands in the sink with dish detergent. Every once in a while I would be forced to use the bathroom sink to wash my hands but it wasn’t the same. It just seemed to open up old wounds. It was like the dispenser mocked me with every fluttered shot of soapy crud into my hands.

               Then about three weeks into this I was forced to use the bathroom sink to wash my hands because my wife wouldn’t allow me to touch her with mechanic hands. I squinted my eyes and turned away a bit to shelter myself from the abomination of a poorly functioning soap dispenser when to my surprise a nice lathered foamy mound of soap was in my hand.

“What the hell?! Whatever! Welcome back old friend!”

I inspected the dispenser closely and it appeared that someone had refilled the soap dispenser with the refill soap but only with a little and then mixed it with water. Apparently the refill soap is too concentrated and needed to be diluted. So it would seem a delicate balance must be maintained.

Now the only thing I need to figure out is why it took me so long and so much writing of this to finally figure this out. And in reality it is not so much the silliness or the mundane properties of these sorts of events that I find interesting so much as the daily struggle of maintaining a home these days with scarcely little time.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Roomba Hack Part I

About a month ago a friend had emailed me the following, “I have a box of junk with a Roomba in it, if you don’t want it, then it’s going to the dump.” Not wanting to see a piece of technology much less a piece of robotic technology be carelessly thrown to the scrap heap I agreed to take it off his hands. His warnings included that the battery was dead and that he wasn’t even sure it worked or not. I requested that he include all the parts he could find, and I would pick it up when we met for lunch the following Friday.

Friday rolled around and I was anxious to have lunch with a few friends as well as get my hands on the discarded Roomba. After a fine lunch consisting of a Dandan Noodle Bowl at PeiWei, we walked over to my friend’s car to get the goods. The Roomba was indeed old and had appeared to have had something spilled on it at one time or another. The box he gave me contained a Roomba, a charging station with cable, an artificial wall, and a remote control. SCORE, it looked like a complete set. I took everything home and did some research.

Serial number in battery compartment
I thumbed through some pictures to get a rough idea of what model I had. It would appear that I had either a Roomba Discovery or Sage. I managed to find a model number in the battery compartment and it looks like it is a model 4110 which is a Roomba Sage. I cleaned everything up and attempted to charge the battery with poor results. However the unit held enough charge to let me know that it indeed booted up and was at least semi functional. This provided me enough faith to invest in getting a new battery. A quick trip to eBay and twenty dollars later had me waiting around for the new battery to arrive.

OSMO II Upgrade Unit

Until then, I just had to wait. In the meantime I tried to clean things up as best as I could, and do some additional research on what it could actually do, minus vacuuming the floor. As it turns out the newer Roombas, post 2005, are equipped with an SCI (Serial Control Interface) called ROI (Roomba Open Interface) which allows a person to query and send commands to the Roomba via a small port. Models manufactured before 2005 had all the necessary hardware but lacked the proper firmware that included the ROI. A little sleuthing on the web and a check of the serial number showed that I had a model manufactured in September of 2004. The Roomba I have, has the hardware but lacks the firmware. So once the battery comes in and everything checks out I will have to either purchase or rent an upgrade unit. Unfortunately the upgrade units are in severely depleted supplies and are nowhere to be found but luckily I managed to get a hold of someone online who is willing to rent me his. I find it a bit ridiculous that an upgrade unit is needed seeing as how the serial port on the Roomba is just serial TTL data and with the right programming I bet a regular computer could load the necessary firmware, but then I guess iRobot would not be able to make money that way.

Battery day finally arrives, and I follow all the directions very carefully. Put in Roomba, charge Roomba for a day, then use. Once all that happens, I fire it up for a test, keeping my fingers crossed. The video pretty much tells it all. Yup, this one is crippled. Time to do some diagnostics. Luckily the same fella that offered to rent me his upgrade unit sent me a Roomba Service manual that detailed how to test and disassemble a Roomba. In the video above you can see when it finally gives up, it audibly alerts me with an "Uh Oh" code of four beeps. The manual says that there is a drive motor problem, but not much else. I can tell the right wheel has the issue just by watching it.

To narrow things down further I invoked the built in set of twenty-one test procedures by executing the following:

Put Roomba into built-in-test mode:
1. Power Roomba OFF by pressing the POWER button.
2. Hold down the SPOT and CLEAN buttons.
3. Power Roomba ON by pressing the POWER button.
4. Keep holding down the SPOT and CLEAN buttons for about 0.5 SECONDS until you hear a series of ASCENDING BEEPS and the user panel LEDs start flashing.

5. Release the SPOT and CLEAN buttons.

6. Continue holding down the SPOT and CLEAN buttons for a total of 3 SECONDS until you hear a second series of DESCENDING BEEPS.
7. Release the SPOT and CLEAN.

      I opt for the manual-advance mode so I can go at my own pace and stop the tests when I encounter an issue. As suspected the tests for the right wheel drop sensor failed. I am at the point now where I will need to open things up to take a look under the hood.

Stay Tuned....