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.

Where I Bleed For Baltimore City Schools

Hilda Jones: Everybody should donate to the blood bank. What type are you?
Melvin Jones: Oh, the quiet type. I go to bed at nine o’clock, see a movie now and then, read some books, play checkers…
Hilda Jones: No! I mean what kind of blood have you?
Melvin Jones: Red.

Sailor Beware (1952)


Today, despite it being my last vacation day for the time being, I went to the Puzzle Palace to donate blood.

I’d made the appointment awhile back, not realizing that it was also going to be a day that I wouldn’t be at work. Ah well, what are you going to do. Fortunately I’d set the appointment as being first thing in the morning, so the rest of the day would be available to me (even if I was working).

I nicked this artwork from the Frederick Red Cross. If my blood drops all looked like that, it'd be pretty cool. Also pretty creepy. Donating blood is a goodness, it’s an act of kindness, it’s a mitzvah. And the Red Cross Blood Services people are glad to have you come by and make the donation. Some quick facts:

  • A single pint of blood can save three lives.
  • Every two seconds, someone needs a blood transfusion.
  • 5,000,000 patients need blood every year. That’s just in the United States.
  • Less than 38% of all people are eligible to donate blood. If you’re giving blood, you’re special!
  • Making you more special: only 3% of eligible donors actually give blood.
  • Despite what they say on that HBO Show, blood can’t be manufactured. It can only come from donors.

OK, lecture over. The bottom line is, they usually go to some effort to make you glad you came. However…

…I’m on a phone list somewhere, so if it’s been awhile since I’ve donated, the blood bank will call and ask me to come in and donate. There are blood donation centers all over the place, so location-wise they’ve always been pretty convenient to me. The bad news is, when I make an appointment over the phone, it’s rarely kept. I’m treated like any other walk-in. So my expected one hour “door-to-door” time is usually two hours, or occasionally even three, which is totally crazy. Therefore, when the call comes, the conversation usually goes like this:

Blood Bank: There’s a critical shortage and we need your help blah de blah…
Me: I’m happy to donate; find me a blood drive please.
BB: Oh—well, uh, there’s a donation center in White Marsh and they’re open—
Me: No no, you don’t understand. When I go to the donation center, they don’t keep the appointment. Find me a drive, please.

Some of them are surprised by this, but they do find a blood drive and I go wherever they send me, which is its own brand of fun.

Baltimore City Schools has a drive every few months, and unless there’s a good reason I can’t, I’m usually there to donate. Oftentimes there’s practically a welcoming committee there, and you’re shepherded through the process and generally pampered, where they bring the beverage to you while you’re still bleeding out into the tubes. And usually someone from Central Office is around to make sure all is well and to give out some random token goodies, like some pens, or Post-it notes, or some such. This would be in addition to whatever the Red Cross happens to be giving away to the donors that day. It’s not a big deal but it’s a touch of nice.

What's fun about this photo, to me, is that so many self-portraits on the Internet involve a truncated forearm looking back toward the face. This is the reverse angle. I'm SO artistic! Today, however, was a little different. When I got there, they were still setting up a little bit; that’s okay, it’s early. Then the computer they use to check people in and do the health survey got a little wonky with the person ahead of me, then there was some other weird wait and I wound up being the only guy in the actual donation area while a half-dozen people piled up behind me. And at the end, the person taking my blood ran through the usual perfunctory speech in a perfunctory manner and pointed the way to the table at the end of the room. So I sat there alone, munching the chocolate chip cookies and watching them get other people started on their donations. Beverage? There was none. Nobody offered me one, nobody told me where one could be found (I’m a big boy; I can get my own if you tell me where they are). And nobody from Central was on hand.

Which is fine, given that I am, after all, on vacation and don’t need to talk any more shop than I have to.

Cheesecake Factory

Nick Smith: Playing strip poker with an exhibitionist somehow takes the challenge away.

Metropolitan (1990)


"Sexy Girlfriend" When you spend as much time tethered to a computer as I do, for as long as I have, you get to see a lot of things on the Internets. One of them, go figure, is pornography. There are plenty of times when you do a web search for something and accidentally find something else. Some of you may remember the recent search I did for an old girlfriend only to locate an adult film star with the same name.

This one is titled "My Wife" Others of you are familiar with the rule that, if you can think of a given perversion, there’s already porn of it. And believe it or not, it’s often pornography that sets the rules for different video standards, such as VHS vs. Beta or Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the reason that JPGs became more popular than GIFs on the Internet.

But I’m not here to talk about pornography, specifically.

"Pic8" What amazes me about these websites and newsgroups and whatever else is the sheer volume of material. Not just the number of pictures but the number of women who are willing to pose for this sort of thing. All of the pictures on this post, for example, I found on without looking too hard. And—AND! it was through researching this post that I discovered a couple of sites dedicated to aggregating sexy pictures of women that appear on Flickr. No, I won’t tell you what they are. You’ll have to ask me really nicely. 

These pictures are (mostly) not professional models, they’re girls posing for boyfriends or whatever. But the fact that they’re willing to pose for the pictures, and that they’re willing to put them up on the Internet where literally anybody can look at them, sends an interesting message.

"Heather and Amanda" This is going to sound kind of sexist (and by “kind of”, I mean “incredibly”), but given the fact of all these pictures, and given what women will go through before going out for an evening with the makeup and the hair and the skimpy outfit, it seems pretty clear that, despite their protestations of objectification and such, the fact is that women rather enjoy being looked at and admired. Naturally, they’d prefer we didn’t gawk at their breasts when we’re supposed to be engaged in a conversation, but the bottom line is that when men don’t notice the way women look, it bothers them more than when they do. And what the hell: as Robert Heinlein said, there are no ugly women; it’s just that some of them are more beautiful than others.

So here’s the Social Experiment part of this post.

I’ve had a girlfriend or two (OK, two specifically) pose for photos for me; in both cases the pictures are long gone so it’s not as though they have to worry about the pictures surfacing here or anywhere else. However, this leaves me with a stunning lack of homemade cheesecake pictures from people who know me one way or another. So ladies, this is your opportunity to get a little naughty and be sure that someone will be appreciating that which you have to offer. If you want to participate, then simply send a photo of yourself, in whatever state of dress/undress you like, to me at claudecall (at) hotmail (dot) com. Your picture will not be posted, nor will it be commented upon unless you specifically request it. Just know that they will be gazed upon and admired from time to time. Think of it as an early birthday present to me (first week of February). 

I may do a follow-up post to discuss the responses I get (if any) but again, I plan to write only in the most generic sense. Your privacy and confidence will not be violated. 


Dr. Hackenbush: [Taking a pulse] Either he’s dead or my watch has stopped.

—A Day at the Races (1937)


No, it’s not a typo.

HANDLS is a long-term medical research project which is being done by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Aging. It stands for “Healthy Aging in Neighborhoods of Diversity Across the Life Span”. (Ooh, look! Web Site!) And, as it happens, I’m a participant in the study. Recently I was given a physical exam as part of the study.

Let me turn back the clock a bit. About two years or so ago, I was approached by the HANDLS field reps. They asked a few questions, I gave a few answers, they took that information back to their office, and Presto! I didn’t qualify for the study.

A few weeks ago I got a call from them: “Do you remember taking a survey, blah blah blah?” I said I did, about two years ago and several miles away. Apparently I was screened out the first time around, but the standards they’d originally set were weeding out too many people, so they recalibrated and both GF and I were screened back in.

The first stage was another field interview. Someone came out and asked a bunch of questions about our health history, everything we’d eaten the day before (“Yeah, but how much salsa was on the chips?” would be a typical question), how much did we make, how long have we lived in thus-and-such location, and so on. We were ready for the next step, which is what happened this week.

GF and I, having fasted since late the night before, made our way to the Bayview Campus of Johns Hopkins, where we immediately got lost looking for the building. (Low blood sugar will affect your cognitive functioning, after all.) The building itself is part of NIH and, as a government building, we needed to be escorted absolutely everywhere. Our first stop was an office where we signed away our lives and gave them all kinds of medical history information: when were we in the Emergency Room last, what did our grandfather die of, etc. Then it was off to…The Trailer. Under escort, of course.

HANDLSmobile The trailer is fifty feet long and has several rooms in it. My first stop was in the room at the far left (as you see the photo). In there, they took a urine sample and drew no fewer than nine vials of blood. Nine! If I wasn’t anemic going in, I was by then. They also took cheek swabs for DNA testing. After that I was sent to the extreme opposite end of the trailer and my blood pressure, height and weight were measured. Happily, I’ve lost 12 pounds since April 12. At this rate of loss, I’ll be down to my ideal weight by this time next century. Okay, not really, but at this rate it will be about a year or so. Come the Summer of 2010, I’ll be hitting the beaches without fear of rescue workers trying to drag me back into the surf. Woo Hoo! After that, of course, is when they give me my breakfast, a fried egg and sausage patty on a hamburger bun, with a fruit cup on the side and a juice box of Apple. Laissez les bontemps rouler!

At this point I change into a hospital gown and it’s back to the first room, where I’m measured in all kinds of ways, both traditional (waist, hips) and odd (length of arms, length from chin to navel). Then I lie on a table and some clamps are attached to my neck, my wrist and another sensor is placed atop my femoral artery. My blood pressure is taken again (several points lower, ’cause I’m lying down) and these sensors are put into action, apparently measuring my blood flow. Apparently, the sensors can tell how well the blood is flowing by calculating the differences in the timing for my pulse at each location. The closer together they are, the better. Ideally, they should all pulse simultaneously. I don’t know the specifics, but apparently I’ve got pretty good arteries.

Back to the other end and now, I have to undergo something called DEXA Scanning. Dexa_scanner The unit looks a lot like the picture here, but what you don’t see is that both the scanning arm above and the table below are mobile. Also, since it’s an X-ray machine, the tech runs away while the scanning is going on. So the first thing they do is take my blood pressure (again), then they make me lie on the table and position me for three separate scans. The block under the knees in the photo is for the spinal scan. This gizmo, I’m told, measures bone density. They can also measure fat and muscle in the body. They do a full-body scan, but there are also specific scans for the legs, the hips and the spine. As I mentioned, the scans involve both the scanner arm and the table to move back, forth and from side to side. Freaky!

When the scan is done, I’m hooked up to an electrocardiogram. This takes a little doing, as my chest is hairy and one of the contacts won’t stick right. The tech says, “If this doesn’t work, I may have to tape it down. Unless you want me to just shave that spot, instead.” I tell her, “I’m thinking it’s the same net effect, either way.” But she manages to get good contact and it holds long einough to get a good reading. Those electrodes come off (ouch) and another set goes on. This is apparently an ultrasound of some kind, and they listen to the blood whizzing through my left carotid artery.

The penultimate step in the trailer is in the center room, where I meet with a nurse practitioner. She spends some time looking in my ears, mouth and nose, checking my reflexes all over, taking my blood pressure TWO MORE TIMES–once in each arm–and chastising me for eating Honey Nut Cheerios every morning per doctor’s orders.Omar Her advice runs similar to the Atkins Diet, except it’s called the Caveman Diet or the Paleo(lithic) Diet. She concedes, briefly, that I have lost weight since starting on the Cheerios, so you can’t argue much with results, but still: Caveman Diet. Protein the size of your palm at each meal, and for god’s sake, don’t eat anything white. But I’ll tell you what, if the Honey Nut Cheerios does for me what it’s done for others, I’m not complaining much.

More poking and such, and it’s back to the first room, where I have to do some balancing acts, I have to squeeze a Hydraulic Hand Dynamometer to measure my grip in each hand, and I have to fold my hands across my chest, then stand and sit repeatedly ten times. Naturally, my blood pressure is taken yet again. But I’m done! With that part.

Escorted back into the building and I have to do a computerized survey. Since I have some background in psychology, I can see that the survey wants to know: 1) Am I a racist? 2) Am I depressed? 3) Am I obsessive-compulsive? 4) Am I a potential substance abuser? 5) Do I suffer from excessive anxiety? (answer: No, I rather enjoy my anxiety.)

Next step is to do a neuropsychological exam. This involves orientation to time and place, pattern recognition, memory tests and a few other things. I have to admit at this point that I may not have done well with one of the subtests because the examiner had some very nice cleavage going on and I was a little distracted.

Finally, there’s an interview where I’m asked to expound on some of the medical history stuff we wrote down all the way back at the beginning. Also, have I ever smoked cigarettes? How about cigars? What about marijuana? Ever drank? Done drugs? Ever had VD? Meningitis? Heartbreak of Psoriasis? Shingles?

And then, just like that, we’re done. Here’s a bag lunch, which is basically the Opposite Day version of the Caveman Diet. Of course, “just like that” ran from 8:00 AM until 2:30 PM. We’ll be getting test results in the mail in a few weeks, and we were paid a nice little stipend for our time. Perhaps I’ll take my stipend and buy the Brand Name Cheerios instead of the store brand. Laissez les bontemps rouler!

Em Are Ay-yi-yi

Friday, I finally got to see the orthopedist. He sat down with me and I started telling my tale of woe, and you could see the "hm, this isn’t so good" expression cross his face a few times. Then he handed me one of the "Fancy-Schmancy" (his description) gowns to put on, and he left the room for a bit.

The gown was made of plastic, and it had long sleeves with these little holes in the end that you’re supposed to put your thumbs through. So yeah: hot day, feeling a little sweaty already, let’s wrap me up in long-sleeved plastic. And, for the record, it’s the thumb loops that make the whole thing art. I predict everyone will be wearing them in the future.

First he manipulated my right leg to figure out what my "typical" range of motion is. That, he was impressed with. If you’ve seen me then you’ll agree when I say "So was I." He then took hold of the left leg and did some manipulating: "Does this hurt? How about this?", etc. Every once in awhile I’d get a pain and he’d put on that "yeah, this ain’t good" face. Finally he said that he thinks I have a meniscal tear, but I’ll have to get an MRI to be sure. Get the MRI and call him back for a new appointment.

So I call the good people at Advanced Radiology and tell them I need an MRI. They set me up for Sunday at 1:00 ("come at 12:45 so you can do the paperwork"). They’re open on Sunday? Okay! Later on, I get a call that they need to move me to 10:00 and I’m OK with that.

Sunday morning and GF decides that she’s going to take me in because sometimes an MRI disorients you a little. (It does?) We get to the place and it’s closed up but tight. The only sign indicating hours has no mention of being open on Sunday. Yeah, that’s odd.

I called them today (there are several locations so when you call it’s to a central phone number) and they sounded as surprised as I was that nobody was around. So now I’m re-scheduled for Thursday afternoon, right after school. I hope I don’t pass out on the way home. Heh.