On The Road With Fred D'Ignazio
More Ways Computers Made Me Smarter After Only Thirteen Years Of Daily Use
Last month, on the occasion of my third anniversary as a COMPUTE! columnist, I recounted some of the blessings computers have brought me: Cuisinart-brain thinking (the ability to process facts by slicing them, dicing them, and mixing them together); an algorithmic lifestyle (applying patterned thinking to problems of everyday life, such as how to turn off an unfamiliar shower faucet in a hotel bathroom); lightning-fast logic (like the time it took me only 24 hours to realize I was wearing a name badge upside-down); and new-found mechanical aptitude (as evidenced by my futile attempts to open up a new portable computer until rescued by my seven-year-old daughter).
But the blessings don't end there. No, 13 years of working with computers have enhanced my life in other ways as well. For example...
Blessing 5: I've Become A Whiz With Robots
My family and I live an "Erma Bombeck lifestyle.’ That means our house is a mess, our lives are chaotic, and we struggle through each day doing our best just to cope.
But last week was even worse.
Last week a film crew from the PBS program The New Tech Times descended on our house to shoot a profile of me and my family (and our 14 robots and 23 computers), and a robot product review.
The film crew arrived Thursday morning and spent the entire day taping program segments all over the house. They filmed in my study, in the dining room, the rec room, the hallways, and in our bedrooms.
At one point, late in the day, my wife Janet came into the house and gasped. She had absolutely forbidden us to shoot in the living room, yet there we were, complete with a dozen robots, giant, aluminum umbrella reflectors for the camera lights, and thick, snakelike cables draped over our new couch.
In total despair, Janet dashed into the room, and swiped up the Christmas cards that had been sitting over the mantelpiece for at least seven months. "I can see there are no wives and mothers on this film crew," she muttered as she stalked out of the room.
Earlier in the week, to get ready for the program, I had panicked and gone "over the top" (as the English say), and tried to get everyone in my life into the show. I had my mother fly in from Pennsylvania to show how she and Catie have become computer pen pals on The Source. I had helped my five-year-old son Eric set up cubbyhole "offices" under his bed and underneath my desk in my study so he could show how he uses a portable computer to do "gobbledygook processing"
I had organized two dozen neighborhood kids to try to teach one of our robots how to skateboard. We had bought Topo the robot a black cape and programmed him to breakdance with Eric, to the tune of Michael Jackson's "Beat It." We had enlisted the teachers and students in a preschool and two high schools to show how they were programming computers and robots and playing with them. And I had even managed to persuade Olga Pagenhardt, the 70-year-old director of Roanoke's "Programs for Retired People," to be present to show my concern for senior citizens and computers.
To get to all the schools and other sites for filming, we formed a caravan of vans and cars, loaded with people, cameras, computers, and robots, and we wound our way, in a big hurry, around the streets of Roanoke. Robots sat on car seats and on the floors of the vans, and peeked out of every window at fellow motorists and passersby. And each time we turned a sharp corner, a robot would tumble over and lose an arm or bend an antenna.
The house was literally crawling with robots. We had a HEROjr, we had a Talking Topo, we had a F.R.E.D. (Friendly Robotic Educational Device), a Maxx Steele, a Big Trak, an Armatron, and eight little crablike robots that bounced and hobbled their way across our kitchen floor.
The robots were the center of the show, but they were so finicky they almost caused me to have a nervous breakdown.
We had a HEROjr, for example, for two weeks before the program. He worked perfectly, he visited the kids at the preschool a couple of times, and he was a lovable addition to our family.
Then, inexplicably, he ceased to function.
To bring him back to life, we tried human-to-robot resuscitation. We tried pulling off his head, taking off his clothes, and everything else we could think of. But no luck. He was in the Robot Happy Hunting Ground, and we couldn't bring him back.
That's just when Topo the robot decided to become a problem. Topo, too, had been A-OK for over a month. Then, in quick succession, he suffered memory lapses, his infrared "eye" stopped working, and, worst of all, his recharger disappeared. Anybody who has ever hung around with robots knows how serious it is when a robot can't find his recharger.
Wednesday afternoon, the day before the TV film crew came, was the worst. Topo wasn't working. HEROjr wasn't working. And we had just gotten a shipment of little robots in the mail, and the most important little robot was broken.
"I give up!" I cried. "I hate robots! I never want to see another robot! Get them out of my sight. I'm going back to bed"
Then Eric came to the rescue.
Eric had just come home from school and walked in on my tirade. In his own breezy, take-charge manner, five-year-old Eric barged into a kitchen filled with computers, robots, and adults, sat down at the table, and began fooling with the broken robot.
A moment later it beeped!
Then its lights came on. And it beeped again.
Then it began jerkily moving around the kitchen table. It crawled. It stopped. It lurched. It stopped. It looked like a tipsy turtle ambling across a fishing boat in high seas.
When I saw the robot work I grabbed Eric and gave him a big kiss and a hug. "I don't believe it," I said. "You fixed it. How did you do it?"
"I just pushed the buttons," Eric said. "Do you have any more robots I can fix? "
Eric's dramatic rescue of the robot turned the whole day around. Within minutes we had found Topo's recharger, and we had lined up a new HEROjr to arrive before the TV crew showed up the following morning.
Eric and I sat on the kitchen floor having little robots bounce, jounce, and try to run up our pantlegs. Once again I was happy. Once again I felt like Fred D'Ignazio, Robot Tamer Extraordinaire.
Blessing 6:1 Can Spot A Shortcut A Mile Away
Last spring, I took several computers and robots with me to London, England, to teach a "Robotics Literacy" course. I described my adventures in the October 1983 issue of COMPUTE!, in my column "There's A Robot In My Room"
In that column, I told how I tried to make a HERO robot I had taken with me into a robotic alarm clock that would wake me at 5:30 a.m. each morning so I could prepare the lectures for my students before class.
I went to extreme lengths to get HERO to become an alarm clock. I positioned him perfectly, right beneath my bedroom window. I wrote a program in hexadecimal and loaded it into HERO by punching the buttons on top of his head. I activated his light sensor, so he could look out the window and watch the sun coming up, then wake me just after dawn. The sunlight was supposed to trigger his light sensor, which in turn would trigger HERO to start talking. "Good morning, Fred. Time to wake up. Get out of bed, you sleepyhead," he was supposed to say. "It's 5:30 a.m."
And he did say it. But he didn't say it at 5:30 the next morning. He said it at 11:00 p.m. and again at 11:45 p.m. The second time he said it, I was sound asleep. And I was not happy to be wakened—especially by a robot.
Of course it was not his fault. I had programmed his sensor to be so sensitive to light that even the tiniest amount of light would set off his robotic alarm clock. The first time he went off, his sensor had detected my bedside reading lamp. The second time, it responded to the headlight of a passing truck.
After these two experiences, I lowered the sensitivity of the sensor, went back to bed, and happily slept through the night.
The next morning I heard banging on my door. It was my colleague at the robotics course, and it was 8:30 in the morning. I had overslept by three hours.
Why hadn't HERO awakened me? Later in the day, when I had had time to get dressed, teach a course, and grab a late breakfast, I calmed down enough to realize that I had now erred in the opposite direction. This time I had set HERO's sensor too low. It was now so low that only a supernova would turn him on.
When my article appeared in COMPUTE!, I received dozens of nice letters. The readers loved my stories about living with robots, and they wanted to know more about the robotics literacy course.
Then, one day, I received a letter from a nine-year-old boy. He had enjoyed my article, too, he said. But he had one small question. Why, he asked, if HERO had a clock built inside him, couldn't I have written a little program to have HERO check his clock, and at 5:30 a.m. start talking and wake me up?
I wrote the boy a letter and answered his question simply and truthfully. "I didn't think of it," I said.
I showed my wife the boy's letter. That's when she christened me "Do It the Hard Way, Fred."
I wince when I admit it, but it is a perfect nickname. After all, I have spent thirteen years programming and working with computers and robots. I have been on intimate terms with machines of all sizes and personalities. But am I any smarter? Have computers made me a quicker, more logical thinker?
Judging from my experience with HERO in London and from all my other experiences, the answer is no. And it took a letter from a sharp little nine-year-old boy to make me realize it.
"Put your heart and soul into computing," I advised him in my letter, "and, one day, you may be smart just like me."