It’s that time of the year for packed arenas, where the fans cheer on the players who compete intensely. No, I’m not talking about NCAA basketball. I’m talking about robot soccer, sponsored by First (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).
What is the mission of First?
Our mission is to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.
On Saturday, I attended part of the all-day competition involving 35 high school teams from the Midwest. The competition involved thousands of individual participants and spectators, who filled up much of St. Louis University’s Chaifetz Arena. I had an extra incentive to attend: my nephew was competing as part of the team from University City. “U City” made the semi-finals even though they were a rookie team—congratulations Nephew!).
Talking to my nephew and his father prior to seeing any of this with my own eyes, I had a difficult time understanding the rules of the competition (“FRC” = First Robotics Competition). I did understood that the teams of high school students (ages 14-18) spent considerable time and energy assembling and programming their robots to compete. These robots parts are quite expensive—around $10,000—but corporate sponsorships (Boeing is a prominent sponsor) and fund-raising enable these robot purchases. I understood that the students themselves did all of the hands-on work, training-up their robots to (hopefully) excel at both the autonomous phase (the robot tries to recognize the targets located over the goals and then tries to move the ball into the goals) and the controlled phase of the game.
Until I witnessed the competition, though, I wasn’t prepared for the advanced technology, the excitement and intensity. At the arena, I learned that there were two goals at each end of the field, and that the humps that the robots need to navigate looked formidable to my non-robot eyes. I learned that during each part of the competition, three teams form an alliance against three other teams. Prior to the competition, each of the teams had carefully customized its robot so that it was able to navigate the field, to score points and (I didn’t know this either) that it could attempt for 2 bonus points by hoisting itself up a “tower” on the field prior to the buzzer. If you want to know the technical requirements of the competition, check out the detailed Robotics Competition Manual.
Many matches were played Saturday. I videotaped parts of several of the matches, as well as the sorts of things that occurred between matches, assembling excerpts to give you a flavor for both the competition and the pageantry. The competition was both fun and energizing to the participants—you could see it in their faces and body language.
The real value of this program, of course, is educational. The biggest congratulations go to all of the students from across the United States who have made a substantial time commitment by participating in this program, learning a great deal real-world information about robotics in the process. As these students become adults, one can only assume that many of them will make good use of this hands-on robotics training.
Robotics has come a long way in the past few decades and there is no reason to doubt major additional progress. Maybe in a few decades, the First competition will have advanced to the point that the participants won’t any longer build soccer-playing robots; instead, they’ll design a new kind of robot that does the work of designing and building those soccer-playing robots. . . .
There are dozens of thoughtful answers that could occupy you for an entire day. The answer offered by cognitive scientist Joshua Greene caught my attention. Here’s an excerpt:
Have you ever read a great book from before the mid 1990s and thought to yourself, “My Goodness! These ideas are so primitive! So… pre-Internet!” Me neither. The Internet hasn’t changed the way we think anymore than the microwave oven has changed the way we digest food. The Internet has provided us with unprecedented access to information, but it hasn’t changed what we do with it once it’s made it into our heads. This is because the Internet doesn’t (yet) know how to think. We still have to do it for ourselves, and we do it the old-fashioned way.
Back in 1974, when I bought my first car (a green 1969 Ford Fairlane 500 – see inset), my limited income as a teenager required me to do most of my own maintenance. That included such things as oil changes, as well as brake jobs, replacing a carburetor, and many other parts. I purchased a big manual for my car and spent some long nights in the garage making lots of mistakes and learning from many of them. I also remember the feeling of being self-sufficient and frugal.
After I got my first full-time job, I drifted away from working on my own car. Until now. Seeing a $27 oil change sign from a distance, I pulled into Jiffy Lube. Only after I pulled in did I notice that this was a special price that didn’t apply to me because it wasn’t 7-10 am. Then, after the Jiffy Lube guy treated me rudely and then told me that my oil change, using basic 5W30 oil, would cost almost $40, I blurted out, “Forty dollars for an oil change?” The Jiffy Lube guy protested, “That includes topping off your windshield washer solution and cleaning your windshield.”
I said, “No thanks.” I decided to remind myself what it’s like to slide under the car and get oil on my hands, and to do physical work, a welcome change from my desk job. I drove to the local O’Reilly Auto Parts store, where I bought enough oil and oil filters for three oil changes for $40. O’Reilly told me that they would happily dispose of my used oil at no charge. I also bought a gallon of windshield wiper fluid, an air filter and some new wiper blades for a fraction of what Jiffy Lube charges. Jiffy Lube specializes in telling you that you need these sorts of things and then gouging you for them. If you don’t believe me, check the Jiffy Lube web site — what does it tell you when a big company doesn’t have the balls to tell you how much they will charge you for standard services until they have your car hostage?
Back at home with a case of oil in my trunk, all I had to do was find my old jacks (a hydraulic jack for lifting and a stand jack for safety), plastic oil pan, funnel, oil filter wrench and a few other tools. None of this is expensive stuff, in case you’re interested in joining me in the Jiffy rebellion. BTW, my Jiffy Lube story is not unique.
One hurdle: it took me about 10 minutes to locate the oil filter on my ’98 Saturn SL-2 (It’s deeply buried under the back of the engine, requiring me to crawl way under). Because it got dark while I was working, I pulled out my trouble light and that made it official: I was now reliving my teenage years and enjoying it immensely. Take that, Jiffy Lube! Added bonus: I now know exactly what kind of oil is really going into my car and that the right amount is going in. Another bonus: Next time I give one of the cars an oil change, I’ll give my daughters a little lesson about car maintenance–a passing of the baton. Yet another bonus: In less than the time it takes to drive to Jiffy Lube and back, I will have changed my own oil without burning any gas.
Changing one’s own oil is not a big deal. But saying no to old expensive habits and getting back to a simpler, cheaper and self-reliant way of life, one step at a time, can be a big deal.
I’ve long been an advocate of the FireFox browser. I’ve used it since it was first announced, and rarely use IE for anything but testing web designs and browsing Microsoft’s own non-W3C compliant web pages.
One of my reasons is that Internet Explorer has major vulnerabilities via its ability to directly run ActiveX code on the machine of users without asking permission. That is, it is a hacker’s pipeline into your operating system.
Well, a few weeks ago, a Microsoft Update quietly installed the .Net Framework assistant into any FireFox browser it found. Shoved that narrow shiv of vulnerability right into the heart of the generally more secure FireFox core. When it was noticed, the savvy segment of FireFox users were outraged. Not just because it was done, but because it was done in such a way that it couldn’t be easily removed! Sure, it would let FireFox users see those rare sites dependent on ActiveX, but it would also let hackers run ActiveX on your machine!
When I found out, I first Googled to find a way to remove it using regedit and about:config (two dangerous powerful tools). But a week later, updates by Microsoft and FireFox made it easier to remove. If you have it, remove it.
Here’s one of the articles about it from ZDNet, a generally Microsoft friendly environment. This article also contains removal instructions that assume you have recent updates.
btw: If you didn’t know. FireFox spell checks all blog entry fields as you type. And you can add nifty customizable Make Link tools for easy creation of links in comments to blogs and such. Just highlight text on a page, rt-click and Make Link to copy complete link code, ready to paste.
I’ve recently bought a new laptop, and have been battling Windows Vista for a week to get it to run some of my clients’ apps. I had considered paying an extra hundred dollars to retrograde my system to XP. But I figured that the future is coming, so I might as well get a handle on it.
Then tonight I saw a commercial:
Did I hear this right? Microsoft is practically admitting the Vista nightmare is drawing to a close. The last clause is, “…more happy is coming”. When my free upgrade to Windows 7 comes, I hope it solves some of my problems. But I doubt it.
Gordon Brown issued an unequivocal apology last night on behalf of the government to Alan Turing, the second world war codebreaker who took his own life 55 years ago after being sentenced to chemical castration for being gay.
Describing Turing’s treatment as “horrifying” and “utterly unfair”, Brown said the country owed the brilliant mathematician a huge debt. He was proud, he said, to offer an official apology. “We’re sorry, you deserved so much better,” Brown writes in a statement posted on the No 10 website.