Robot Judges

Dr. Dick Solomon: This planet has crossed the line. Assemble the giant robot!
Sally Solomon: Um… we didn’t pack it. You wanted the room for your exercise bike.

–Third Rock From the Sun, “Assault With A Deadly Dick” (4/30/96)


Recently, Wife and I were recruited to become judges at a robotics competition.

This is me, chatting with one of the students as part of our judging. My judging partner took the pictures.

The Baltimore City Public School system got a Title I grant to provide some extra learning for some of our students. One of the programs that was developed from the grant was a robotics program, which was held at several middle schools and middle-level classes in K-8 schools throughout the city. At the end of the program, the students brought their creations to the State Fair grounds for a competition. There were two grades of prizes to be won: one for the competitions, and another batch of judges’ prizes, based on construction, innovation, a team’s willingness to support other teams, and so on. A couple of prizes were also given out to teachers whose participation was obvious and outstanding during the competition.

So for six weeks, inner-city kids who had probably never dreamed of doing something like this worked on designing, and building, their own robots for competition. Some students took it upon themselves (or the teacher went the extra mile to teach them) and actually did some programming of the robots. (Because six weeks is a relatively short period of time for something like this, they weren’t expected to program their own robots for this event.) Let me tell you, we were looking at some motivated, focused, enthusiastic kids.


The robots were controlled by remotes each of which had about ten buttons and two joysticks on them, and every switch had some kind of purpose. In the picture here, you can see that the were supposed to pick up the plastic rings and place them over goal posts. They could also get points for hanging off the bars on the ladder in the middle of the playing field. If the robot could reach the green bar, extra points.

As the competition neared the end, students were expected to pair up with another team and their robot for the final showdowns. Consequently the students had to think about their robot’s capabilities and whether they meshed well with their selected partner’s robot. Some robots are good at offense (e.g. scooping up a ring and putting it on the post); others are good at defense (e.g. running interference or removing rings from posts, which is a legal move).

So over the two days, Wife and I (and about ten others) interviewed kids, interviewed teachers, watched the gameplay, then went to a separate building and deliberated for hours over the different prizes. Some of us were interviewed by the Baltimore Sun (I was one of them, but none of the judges’ quotes were used—although my picture did appear in the print edition), a few of us (not me) were interviewed by local TV reporters, and the final robot showdowns, and the awarding of prizes, were all aired on local cable TV (Channel 77, if you have Comcast and live within City Limits). Even Wee One got in on the action, volunteering as one of the people who would re-set one of the playing fields following a match.

It was exhausting, but incredibly fun and I’m hoping that we can do it again next year. My only regret is that none of the robots looked like this:

My micromechanism thanks you, my computer tapes thank you, and I thank you.

Because that? Would have been cool.

Techno Boy to the Rescue

Haley Graham: Elite gymnastics is like, the navy seals, only harder. There are like 2000 navy seals, there are only like, 200 elite gymnasts. Guess that’s because there’s kids who’s rather have a life than spend 6 hours a day training tricks that could kill you. Don’t be fooled by the leotards people, the things gymnasts do make navy seals look like wusses. And we do them without a gun.

Stick It (2006)


Wee One chose not to do her Extended Cheer season at the local recreation council; instead she’s participating on a team called Charm City All-Stars. It’s a more rigorous program than the rec program, which is good for her cheerleading skills. On the Parkville Rec team, she wound up teamed up with some very inexperienced girls, which wound up making it tougher on the coaches and the more experienced girls, who wanted to move on to some of the new moves and instead wound up rehashing some of the old ones. This isn’t a complaint specifically; it’s just the way it goes sometimes when you have an inclusive program and only so many participants. You could have two very small teams or one decently-sized one, assuming you have enough coaches. It’s a problem either way and I don’t envy the people in charge of making the decisions. Anyway, Wee One is at Charm City All Stars this winter.

Charm City does its training at a place called Ultimate Gymnastics, which is a pretty gung-ho name for anything. If you’re going to Ultimate Gymnastics already, you don’t have a lot to reach for. I’m just saying. They have two sessions a week of cheer practice, which is where they do the choreography and such for the cheer routines. On Friday night she participates in a tumbling class, where she learns some of the basic stunts and skills.

Believe you me, Wife and I are much happier that she’s learning in this environment. When she first got into cheerleading, she was out front for hours every day teaching herself how to cartwheel. The grass is only just so soft, so we’re just waiting for the moment when she comes in with a broken limb; said limb not being from the tree in the yard.

tumbletrack All of which leads to the fact that I’m sitting now in the waiting area at Ultimate Gymnastics while Wee One is in the gym proper, doing her tumbling stuff and such. They have this extended trampoline thing that she’s on right now, and she’s using it to do roundoffs (kind of like a cartwheel, but your feet stop together and at the same time), and who knows what else. I know her big goal is to do a back handspring independently but I don’t see her working on that specifically just now. I don’t watch her too closely when she’s in there, because she gets a little bit of a “lookatmelookatmelookatme” thing going on, and then she’s not paying attention to what she’s doing.

Windows Live Writer So here I am, banging away on my laptop. Unfortunately, I don’t have the internet access in this place, but I do have Windows Live Writer, which works pretty well until I can get jacked back into the Metaverse. This is my usual gig when I bring Wee One to cheer/tumbling practice: sit and write, and listen to iTunes (got Beethoven’s Sixth going on just now). This has given me a bit of a reputation, I think. Not the reputation for being aloof and unsociable (not that I really care), but rather for being the sort of guy who crunches bytes for a living.

A few minutes ago, another dad (the only other adult, it turns out, in the waiting area this week) walked up to me and asked me to help me with his Blackberry. Now, this guy and I have a “hi, howya doin’” relationship, but not much else. He had no idea whether or not I’d ever seen a Blackberry before in my life, but he was pretty sure I could solve his problem for him.

Naturally, I could.

Shut up.

Breakfast at St. Mark’s

A short while back, I told you about a neighbor of mine who got hit by a van. Here’s an update.

The guy’s name is Jerry. Jerry worked at Domino Sugar for the better part of his adult life. Awhile back he was hurt at work and was on disability for several months. Those of you who have been through this know that the disability benefits are only partial pay. So the money was tight in the first place.

The day Jerry got hit by the van was his first day back to work. The van, incidentally, wasn’t stolen but there remain rumors about the driver which I won’t repeat here since they do remain rumors. Right now, however, the police are calling it "pedestrian error", which means there won’t be much that the insurance companies will be doing. Not that Jerry had medical insurance, since he’d been out of work.

At this point Jerry’s prognosis is very poor. He is still on a ventilator and is showing "minimal" brain function. They’re trying to decide for sure whether he’s in a vegetative state or in true brain death. In short, the only way Jerry leaves medical care is feet-first.

The Morrell Park Community Association has rallied behind the family, however. They’re sponsoring a Pancake Breakfast to raise some money to help the family get back on their feet. The breakfast is on Saturday, April 1st from 8 am until 12 noon. There will also be donated goods and services raffled off during the morning.

The event will take place at St. Mark’s Church, which is on Wickes Avenue (behind the Dunkin’ Donuts on Washington Blvd.). If you go, you’ll be doing a hugely nice thing for some people who’ve had a rough few years. I’ll be the guy in the kitchen, looking a little overwhelmed.

Weird but Cool Fun

Check this site out:

Don’t let the fact that it’s entirely in Japanese throw you. The game is so simple that you don’t need to be able to speak Japanese. The little blue dots drift upward and then down again. Time your click carefully, you only get the one (for each of three rounds). When you click on a dot, it’ll set off a chain reaction of explosions. Your score is based on how many dots you wipe out.

So far my high score is 101 (after maybe 20 minutes of play). Have fun!

edit: did I say 101? I meant 123.