Monday, March 14, 2011

FIRST Robotics: Building Community Through Competition

Anyone who thinks being nerdy isn’t cool has never attended a FIRST Robotics competition.  Last week I had the privilege of attending such an event with my son and his robotics team, 801 Team Horsepower, and what I witnessed not only impressed me, but simply blew my mind.

FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is an organization that wishes to foster in today’s youth an interest for science, engineering and technology skills, while building life skills such as self-confidence, communication and leadership.  Each year FIRST devises a game in which teams can compete.  Each team must design, build and program a robot that can best accomplish the goals of the game.  This year’s game, called Logo Motion, required teams to score points by placing inner tubes of different shapes on a variety of pegs and using  “mini-bots” to climb to the tops of a poles.

The particular event I attended was a regional event held in the arena of a local college campus.  Sixty teams of varying sizes attended the event.  A typical team consists of students representing multiple schools (including homeschooled students) and their mentors (teachers, parents, and members of the science and technology community).  While most of the teams were based in Florida, a few came from other states and territories, including Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Alabama, California, and Puerto Rico.  The competition lasted three days, with one day of practice and two days of competition.

Now, in high school I was a member of the marching band and attended many football games.  I have to be honest.  When it comes to team spirit and overall energy/excitement, this robotics event easily put any Friday night football game to shame.  For starters, teams adopted unique nicknames, such as RoboCats, Purple Haze, Children of the Swamp, MARS (Mega Awesome Robotics Systems), Nijaneers, Knight & Nerdy, Krunch, Megatronic Maniacs, Radioactive Roaches and my personal favorite, Exploding Bacon.  Each team wore team colors, dressed up in costume, dyed their hair their team colors or expressed their team spirit in any number of other ways.  They had their own unique cheers and engaged each other in “Spirit Challenges.”  (We got spirit, yes we do.  We got spirit, how ‘bout you?)  Mascots?  Yep, they had ‘em.  Horses, moose, ninjas, pirates, tigers, bears, featureless purple people and a multitude of other colorful characters could be seen roaming the arena.  Popular music played constantly and everyone was encouraged to participate in crowd wide games and activities.  (Though they did have trouble starting the “Wave”.  They can build working robots, but they had difficulty raising and lowering their hands in a sequential manner.)  And when the matches were played, the excitement multiplied!

But as you watch these kids and learn about them you begin to realize that the actual competition isn’t what’s important to these teams.  The competition is second to something much more lasting:  Community.  The FIRST community.  Each team’s local community.  The world community.

What became evident to me was the sense of family these teams had.  When they got together they didn’t view each other as the enemy.  Instead, they saw each other as friends who haven’t seen each other in a long time.  I wrote earlier about Sprit Challenges, but just as common was one team encouraging another or participating in that team’s cheer.  Team Krunch didn’t win the Team Spirit award, but in my opinion they should have.  They came to the event with signs in the shapes of various letters and numbers.  Throughout the three days they would honor other teams by spelling out that team’s name or number (often through creative methods of altering the individual signs to create the necessary symbols).  Another way community was built among teams was in the pits.  If one team needed assistance with programming or a tool to fix a robot, other teams were willing to lend a hand.  In fact, my son’s team, Horsepower, lent their spare mini-bot to another team whose mini-bot was damaged, thus allowing that team to compete more effectively.  It was about helping for the benefit of all, not hindering for the benefit of yourself.

During the awards ceremony I learned how a sense of community went beyond the confines of the individual teams’ schools and spilled into the neighborhoods these students live in.  Many teams were involved in community projects, such as mentoring younger students interested in the sciences, helping in nursing homes, raising money for charitable organizations, giving blood, serving meals to the homeless and the list goes on.  And the teams didn’t take time off from their community service during the regional event, either.  Team Exploding Bacon circulated piggy banks to collect money for the Red Cross’ efforts in helping Japan recover from the recent disasters they endured.

Finally, the career a student chooses may have an effect on the global community.  I can think of few fields that have more potential to change the world than that of science and technology.  Advances in robotics, programming and engineering can help the lives of people all over the globe.  The science and technology industry realizes this and fully backs FIRST teams through means of sponsorships.  Names such as Harris, NASA, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Honeywell, AutoDesk and others were listed over and over again as sponsors of teams and the event itself. (Even JC Penny got in on the action.)  In addition, these companies have provided over $14 Million in scholarships through the FIRST program.  These companies are targeting these students and marketing themselves to them, hoping to hire them in the future.  How many NFL teams show an interest in a high school football game, let alone invite every player on the field to come play with them?  I’ll let you answer that one.

I am proud to be a parent of a FIRST student.  If you have a child that shows an interest in mechanics, engineering, computer programming, electronics or just having a positive effect on their community and the world, I would strongly advise that you seek out a FIRST team in your local area.  From what I can see, it is an experience that will help them throughout their lives.  Check out FIRST at:

http://www.usfirst.org/

And here's a small taste of the competion from a Horsepower point of view.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Pink Floyd For A New Generation

Growing up I remember the release of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and listening to that album over and over again.  I never saw the group perform it live, but from what I’ve heard (and seen on YouTube) it was spectacular.  One particular song that was visually stunning was the album’s climax, “The Trial”.  Throughout the concert, a giant white brick wall stood, towering over the performers, at the back of the stage.  For “The Trial”, it becomes a giant screen on which is projected the animated story in Imax fashion.  (The sequence is the same as was shown in the movie version.)  At the end of the song the entire wall comes crumbling down onto the stage.  Entertaining and spectacular!

Also, entertaining, if not as spectacular, is another “live” performance of “The Trial” which features Sesame Street’s Elmo as the Judge, a couple of teddy bears as the Schoolmaster and the Mother, and other dolls and action figures in various roles.  I am talking about the performance posted on YouTube of 4-year-old Tristan singing the song himself while acting out the parts in puppet show fashion.  Tristan begins by introducing the toy actors and explains that he will be telling the story of a trial.  Next, this cute boy starts singing the classic Pink Floyd song.  At first he mumbles a lot of the words, pauses often and you have to listen closely to figure it out, but bear with it, for the real payoff comes in last minute and a half of the video.

The first thing that came to mind as I started watching this video was the beginning of the second verse.  In the first line, the lyrics contain the slang term for excrement.  Was this boy actually going to sing that line accurately?  Would Tristan’s mother actually post a video of her 4-year-old cussing on YouTube?  Well, when the time came there was a convenient skip in the video which picks up midway through the line, after the word in question.  Way to go Mom, using your “Movie Maker” skills to keep the mystery alive.  (Doesn’t matter.  We know you said it, Tristan.)

As mentioned before, the highlight of this video for me has to be when Tristan sings the part of the Judge.  He picks up a karaoke microphone, which gives his voice a booming, reverberating quality.  He becomes really intense as he sings about his disgust with Pink, eventually turning his vehemence toward his brother Dylan, who falls backwards as Tristan glares at him, yelling “Tear Down the Wall!”  Each repetition of the command sends Dylan squirming as he tries to retreat further and further into the carpet in an effort to back away from “Judge” Tristan.

There are many other gems, as you can see for yourself in the video below, like Tristan singing the chorus (“Crazy.  Toys in the attic, I am crazy.”) or brother Dylan interrupting the show halfway through.  Next up, I would like see Tristan sing “Young Lust”.


In Bachelor News . . .

This week the moment I’ve been waiting for finally happened on ABC’s The Bachelor, Michelle was sent packing.  Almost from the beginning, this girl was nothing but annoying.  She believed that she was the only girl for Brad and that she couldn’t see anyone else with him.  Sure, you would expect every contestant might think that, but Michelle had a way of expressing it that just oozed with arrogance.  Furthermore, she was manipulative, sneaking time with Brad when she should have been minding her own business.  And what did she use this time for?  Listing out to Brad in what order he should eliminate the other girls.  And the annoyances with Michelle go on, as you know if you’ve been watching this season.

I knew that she wasn’t going to end up in the final two.  What I wasn’t sure about was just how long she was going to last.  Every week I hoped would be her last, yelling at Brad (well, the TV actually) when he kept her that he was an idiot.  Finally, Monday night he wizened up and let her go.  For once, I actually wanted to hear what Michelle had to say.  I was all prepared for her tirade.  I wanted to laugh as she chewed Brad out to his face.  I wanted to see her spew her insults in the limo.  But what did I get instead?  The silent treatment!  Other than a “No” here and there to Brad’s invitations to “talk”, Michelle didn’t say a word.  In the limo she laid down and stared blankly into space.  I felt ripped off!  I felt cheated!  Where’s that crazy woman when you want her?

In post show interviews, Michelle has stated that she and Brad did talk and that she wished him well, but the producers of The Bachelor decided not to show that conversation on television.  In past seasons I would have believed this statement and earnestly defended it, simply because it is most likely true.  But this season I want to play the role of the naive viewer who believes everything I am seeing is as it happened and am holding out hope that Brad will find true love and live happily every after, just like all the other bachelors and bachelorettes before him.  (Well, one, at least.)  So, in that spirit I say . . .

Boo, Michelle!  Go home!  We’re glad you’re gone!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

House Hunting

I have always prided myself on my research skills and have often been surprised at some of the things I am able to find out.  Sometimes I like the challenge of finding information that is obscure or buried deep.  I had the opportunity to do exactly that over the past couple of days.

Hopie and I enjoy watching several reality television shows and one in particular follows the lives of several people who live in an area she is familiar with.  As a way of introducing a particular character, the show often presents a shot of the front of her house.  Hopie always liked this particular house and wondered what part of town it was located in.  So, we decided to go on the hunt.

This past week the show shot several scenes in the neighborhood that surrounds the home.  From the scenes we could see the type of architecture in the neighborhood and a playground that had some easily identifiable equipment.  However, we needed more.  So Hopie kept her eyes open for any signs or text that might give us a clue as to where this neighborhood was located.  If you watch any of these shows you know they go to great lengths to blur out anything that might be used to track someone or result in legal issues.  Still, we were lucky enough to find an unblurred street sign in the background and freeze the scene.  The sign was partially obscured, but we were able to make out “ewis”.  I assumed the name of the road was “Lewis”.

Next we went to Google maps and typed in Lewis and the city we believed it was located in.  The search produced several results, such as Lewis Ave., Lewis LN, Lewis St., etc..  We clicked on each one and, using the aerial imagery provided by Google, tried to see if we could identify any parks.  One hit not only showed a park, but also listed the park’s name.  Next, we dragged the little person icon onto the street to access Google’s street view.  This is a handy tool that gives you a 360 degree view the surrounding area from street level, as though you were actually standing right there.  Panning around we looked at the park.  The equipment looked similar to what we saw on the show.  Next, I tried to position myself in relation to the “Lewis LN” street sign to match the camera angle in the show.  Both Hopie and I agreed that this was definitely the neighborhood.

So, we had the general location.  Now we needed the specific house.  We started by pulling up the Property Appraiser’s website for the area.  Searching by street we could pull up all the addresses and some basic information about them, such as owner.  We thought this was a long shot, but we perused the information for the four or five streets near the park.  As we suspected, none of them listed a name that was familiar to us.  The next step was good old fashion “footwork,” but with a modern tech twist.  Hopie began to walk the streets looking for a house that matched the one we saw on television.  She did this by clicking in the Google street view window and panning around.  Eventually, she found it.  Now that we knew where it was, we could go to sites like Realtor.com and Zillow to find out some information about the residence, such as when it had been bought and sold, for how much and what it is currently worth.

Is there any point to this or any lessons to be learned?  Not really.  Hopie and I were just proud of our results and found the whole thing interesting.  And if you ever wanted to some of your own “House Hunting”, we though we would give you some helpful hints.

Happy researching!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Please, Groundhog, Please!

Next week is Groundhog Day.  According to legend, if the groundhog (in this case, Punxsutawney Phil) exits his burrow and sees his shadow, he will immediately retreat back into his den, thus predicting another six weeks of winter.  Living in Central Florida, I for one am hoping that the rodent sees his shadow.  The longer the weather stays cool, the better.

That being said, one has to wonder if P. Phil is actually retreating because he sees his shadow.  Think about it.  I know if I walked out my front door wearing nothing but my natural fur and saw a large crowd of strange people staring at me, many with cameras pointed in my direction, I’m pretty sure that I would immediately turn around, rush back inside and slam the door.

One last thing.  There is no need to sit and wait for the groundhog’s prediction.  I can tell you precisely when winter will end.  This year winter will be over on March 20th, regardless of whether or not the groundhog sees its shadow.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Set A Place At The Table For Rover. The Dog Is Joining Us For Dinner.

The other day I saw a commercial for FreshPet Select Dog Food.  In this commercial your average mother grabs a large bag labeled “Dinner” from a cabinet and pours the contents into bowls that are sitting on a table in front of her children.  The voice over claims “You wouldn’t serve your family dry food from a bag.”  (Actually, in a way I do.  It’s called breakfast cereal.)  Cutting to a shot of a dog, the voice over continues, “So why feed it to your dog?”  From there the spot lets the viewer know about its brand of refrigerated dog food.  As the pet owner slices though a loaf of something that looks akin to liverwurst and serves her pet a bowl of cubed meat with peas and diced carrots, the voice over explains that the food consists of meat, vegetables and brown rice.  Finally, the commercial ends with their slogan, “Natural.  Nutritious.  Refrigerated.”

Now, I found the commercial interesting, informative and at times humorous.  However, I had one major problem with it . . . it was food for dogs!

The sense I get from the commercial is that feeding your pet FreshPet Select is closer to your dog’s natural diet than typical dog foods are.  Not currently being a dog owner, nor being to particular about what I fed my dog when I did own one, I can’t say that have a lot of expert knowledge into the real, un-advertiser tainted facts about a dog’s diet.  But as a layman it doesn’t seem to me that FreshPet is much closer to dog’s intended diet.  Prior to domestication wild dogs were pretty much carnivores, meat eaters.  Yes, one of the ingredients in FreshPet is meat, but the comparison stops there.

Let's start with the vegetables.  I can't say that I've run across many vegetable gardens tended by dogs.  When a wolf takes down an elk, I can't picture him ripping it open, then sprinkling peas and cubed carrots over the innards before digging in.  Then there is the rice.  Where would most dogs even find a rice paddy in the wild?  I guess Shar Peis, Shih Tzus, Chows and other Chinese dogs may have had the opportunity, but then there is the whole "chop sticks with paws" debacle, and I don't even want to go there.

The biggest problem I have with the whole FreshPet = Natural Diet idea, however, is this . . . where would wild dogs plug in their refrigerators?  And just suppose they do happen to have a spare outlet in their den.  Electricity costs money.  How would these canines earn enough to pay?  McGruff seems to have made it big on the police force, but I don't think your average K-9 is raking in the big bucks.  I know it's a dog-eat-dog world, but I haven't noticed a large number of floppy eared, tail wagging corporate executives.  Do greyhounds get to bring home a cut of the dog track's nightly take?  Or maybe dogs really do play poker?  Actually, here's one dog that I think has it made.


What people choose to feed their pets is entirely up to them.  I just find the whole comparison to humans a bit ridiculous.  We wouldn't want to eat their food, so that naturally means dog's were meant to eat something different, in particular, our food.  Let's flip that around.  If dog's fed us and we didn't like what they gave us, would that naturally mean that we would prefer a freshly killed deer?  I don't think so?  (Did I lose some of you there?)  Still, some people think pets should be treated as much like humans as possible.  If you are one of those, your pet has a message for you.


He would like a turn on the Xbox.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Amazing Race's Nat Has Worthy Message . . . But How Necessary Is It?

Last night Hopie and I watched Nat and Kat win the latest season of The Amazing Race. In addition to winning the million dollars and being a member of the first all female team to with the Race, Nat Strand had another message she wanted her performance to convey. Being an insulin dependant diabetic who uses a pump to help control her blood sugar levels, she wanted everyone in a similar situation to know that diabetes doesn’t have to hold you back from doing just about anything you want to do.
 
I myself am a 42-year-old Type I Diabetic who is on insulin pump therapy. While I do agree my control could be better, I live a fairly normal life and have never felt that my diabetes was a hindrance. My father was an insulin dependant diabetic who wasn’t as lucky. His health was much more poor my mine. He lost both legs to the disease and spent a lot of time in the hospital, eventually losing the battle at the young age of 45. Still, I saw him get the most out of life when he was able. He chaperoned my elementary school class on field trips. He helped coach my little league team. He worked out in the yard, went swimming, etc.. And then there is my fifteen year old son, who is also on the insulin pump. Seeing him in his daily routine you would have no idea he was a diabetic. (Unfortunately, I think he sometimes forgets, as well.)
 
The point I am making with this family history is this: I’ve experienced Type I diabetes in various degrees of control and have never really felt, or known anyone who felt, particularly held back by the disease. Not to take anything away from Nat’s message -- it’s a worthy one and I’m sure there are people out there (especially young people who may have recently been diagnosed) who need to hear it -- but compared to other life-threatening diseases and disabilities -- such as cancer, leukemia, MS, MD – diabetes seems rather minor and relatively easy to manage with your daily routine. Looking over a list of famous people who have had diabetes (both Types I and II) – athletes, actors, musicians, politicians, writers, scientists, businessmen, etc. – it should be clear by now that a diabetic can live a full and productive life.
 
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe diabetes still has this stigma, but I haven’t seen nor experienced it myself. That being said, way to go Nat Strand! You are an inspiration to many!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Despite What You May Think, MMO’s Suck

After listening to a couple of my favorite gaming podcasts this week I have to wonder, if what these people are saying is true, why in the world should anyone be playing Massively Multiplayer Online Games?
 
The first podcast, Shut Up We’re Talking, covered the topic “Why It’s Great to be an MMO Gamer.” The catalyst for this discussion was a Massively article written by Justin Olivetti in which he listed 10 reasons it’s great to be an MMO gamer today. Some of his points were giant game selection, a variety of pay options, developers are trying new things, it’s becoming cool to be a gamer, larger player base, and there’s so much to talk about. Darren, one of the hosts on Shut Up, then proceeded to shoot down each of these arguments. More games dilutes the population. More pay options gives the game companies more of an opportunity to gouge the player. Where are the new things these developers are supposed to be trying? Gaming is still considered uncool in many circles. The “larger player base” may just be the same core group of players leaving and coming back. Finally, Darren is finding less new things to talk about concerning games.
 
So, I finish that uplifting conversation and turn on the next podcast, the Van Hemlock Podcast. In this particular episode, Tim and Jon work their way through a list they compiled of 20 things that could be improved in MMO’s. Among the complaints were traveling quests that run you back and forth between two or three locations, leveling, multiple currencies, and not all content is available to solo players. The duo had more than one issue with certain aspects of game play, such as crafting. Why do you have to manufacture the same item over and over again to gain the skill level needed to manufacture the item you really want? And shouldn’t all crafting materials be found throughout the world, not just in one or two specific areas? Groups had their own problems. The first was size limits. The other was the “Holy Trinity”, or the need to have a specific group composition (healer, tank, damage-per-second) in order be efficient. And then there was the sense that nothing you did really mattered in the world. Whatever you accomplish resets or, if you choose not to do something, there are no consequences.
 
To be fair, Darren explained in the show’s comments that, when an article is over-positive, he likes to take a step back and look at the other side of the argument. Also, Jon and Tim were making constructive criticisms in the hopes that developers might make improvement to these various mechanics in future games. Still, after listening, it sounds like there is so much wrong with these games that anyone would be foolish to waste their time with them. However, somehow, despite all these issues, I am still having fun when I play my favorite game. Does that mean my game of choice is devoid of problems? Of course not. And that’s the point. From a Gamer’s viewpoint, if he or she is having fun, all these other issues simply don’t matter. The fun is more powerful than the flaws.

So, is it a great time to be an MMO gamer? Well? Are you having fun? If so, then yes, it’s a great time to be an MMO gamer!
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