Sandy, remind me about that New Year's resolution @sms

Rael Dornfest’s Sandy, an email and sms-based personal assistant (whose name, I should confess, was inspired by Sandy Torre, my executive assistant at O’Reilly when Rael was CTO here) has just added what I think is a killer feature. Rather than setting Sandy to send all your reminders to email or SMS, you can now ask Sandy to route reminders (and other data) to email, SMS, or even twitter, on a per-item basis.

You ask Sandy for help via email or SMS, sending her a short message like “Sandy, remind me at 9 am tomorrow to call Mike.” Previously, that reminder would be sent to you via your pre-set mechanism (mail or sms.) Now, you can add “@sms,” “@email” or “@twitter” to have your reminder sent via that channel. I get most of my reminders sent by default to my email, but sometimes I really want to get them on my phone!

Sandy has a fairly rich vocabulary of tasks you can ask her to help out with, but the four core primitives are “remember,” “lookup,” “forget,” and “remind.” @ tags act as modifiers. In addition to the channel modifiers mentioned above, there are also time-based modifiers like @daily, @weekly, or @monthly. (Sandy also recognizes dates and times.) @todo and @done are also predefined tags. You can create any of your own tags simply by prefixing any word with an @ sign. An * turns an entry into a bulleted list item. So, for example, you might say to Sandy:

  • “Remember Bill’s phone number is xxx-yyyy.”
  • “Lookup Bill’s phone number @sms” to get that number back via text message
  • “Take out the garbage Monday night at 9 pm @weekly @sms” to get a reminder on your cell phone at 9 pm every Monday night.
  • “Remind me about my New Year’s Resolutions on January 15th * Leave ten minutes earlier for meetings * Reach out to friends I haven’t talked with in a while * Show appreciation before rushing to improve on an idea @monthly” to be reminded of your New Years’ resolutions on the 15th of every month.

Even better, if you ask Sandy to remind you of something, and cc someone else on the message, they’ll get a reminder as well. This only works right now for email, I think, as there’s no way to cc someone on an SMS message. I’m not sure what happens if I tell Sandy to remind me by SMS but all she has for the other person is an email address.

If you get something wrong, Sandy will respond with a message telling you she’s confused. She also lets Rael and his team know about it, so they can help teach her how to do the right thing in future. There’s a useful cheatsheet as well as a more extensive guide to Sandy’s vocabulary online.

FWIW, one of the really interesting things about Sandy from a Radar perspective is the exploration of conversational interfaces. I know Rael has been very much influenced by The Jack Principles, but I still see him feeling his way, and having to learn, with Sandy, just what kind of conversation works best.

Disclosure: I am on the board of ValuesOfN, Rael (and Sandy’s) company, and an investor.

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  • I really don’t see Sandy going anywhere. Mainly for the same reason most of these little tools that require their own little cheat sheet and lingo guide seem to have little traction…. they’re just too difficult to remember for the every-day person.

    Until they can get a decent natural language parser that doesn’t require me to learn their own little lingo and syntax, the only audience is going to be a fairly small geekish audience. The second I see some service showing me neat things I can do once I go and read some set of rules on how to use it, I move on. I’m just too lazy to learn stuff when I take a look at their guide and see obvious cases for better language parsing instead.

    Consider their @biweekly thing…. why?? Why can’t they figure out how to parse, remind me to take out the yard debris every other Tuesday evening? Then of course consider that the entire point of Sandy is to get a mock secretary… which people still have despite computing because they don’t want to remember computer syntax, they want someone that really knows what they said, and what it means.

    I have no doubt things like Sandy could be popular in the future… but to get a really widespread audience, they need to know how to work with what I said without requiring me to have a lingo guide and cheat sheet just to use it.

  • Ken Williams

    @Ben: Personally I think it’s very cool actually. I have experience with another very-dumb assistant which I think Rael has also used: purl, an IRC bot that just remembers little factoids and regurgitates them when asked for. It’s very useful. IRC is a poor experience when the bot breaks.

    The debate between NLP and a custom lingo happens all the time. It’s similar to what people said when Palm eschewed traditional handwriting-recognition and made us learn Graffiti. But generally Graffiti was both faster and more accurate than other “smarter” recognizers.

    I agree that it will be nice when NLP catches up to what people want to use it for, but often it’s not there yet, and it can be frustrating when vendors foist it upon us anyway.

  • Ben,

    It’s quite easy to learn Sandy’s vocabulary. You don’t really need the cheat sheet. In fact, most of my interactions with Sandy are in plain language. Here’s this morning’s:

    Sandy, remind me tomorrow at 7:45 am Company X board call

    I just tested your proposed language and will let you know tomorrow if it works.

    Rael started out with ambitious natural language goals, and in fact, most natural language stuff works. But it turned out that having some keywords as a fallback is very helpful.

  • I could see Sandy going about as far as Stikkit did, i.e. not very. It suffers from the same shortcomings as Stikkit, in fact, as pointed out by Ben above. Just my opinion.

    This is software aimed at an audience of exactly the number of people who work at “values of n” and write in this blog, and no more. And the audience they should be aiming for are Mac-user-types. Who won’t want to learn that kind of a syntax.

  • Raymond,

    As it turns out, Rael says that some of Sandy’s primary adopters have been soccer moms. It’s gotten a fair amount of traction from the same folks who are fans of lifehacker.

    As noted above, you don’t need to use any complicated syntax. It’s gotten progressively simpler, in fact.

    How hard is it to say “Remind me to take out the trash tomorrow?”

    If you are technical enough to want to sometimes get the alert by phone rather than email, and want to add @sms, why does that take away from the simplicity? Even Mac users can write AppleScript if they want. But they don’t have to.

    As Larry Wall said about Perl, you want to make easy things easy (Sandy does) and hard(er) things possible.

    I was initially hung up about some of the more difficult things Rael was trying to get Sandy to do, but once I realized it was easy to use for truly trivial things, I now use it all the time.

  • Nat

    Why isn’t the already useful and very promising Logilab Narval used by such tools?

    Disclosure: I have a friend there.

  • Narval is a free software project we launched back in 2000. It is available from our web site. People interested can get the latest version and ask question on the mailing-list.