08 April 2012

FIRST LEGO League

Towards the end of 2011 my three nephews competed in the South African finals of the FIRST LEGO League (FLL).  I haven't yet exercised my bragging rights as their uncle, so here goes.

The FLL competition consists of several aspects, but the highlight is arguably the final phase where a robot constructed from Lego blocks have to complete a few tasks on a themed track.  In 2010, for example, the theme was Body Forward, and the track included tasks to assemble parts of a body, emulate certain body movements, and so on.  Given that 2010 was the year of the Soccer World Cup it was particularly apt  to get a model of a human leg to kick a tiny soccer ball onto goal posts on the track.  Research about the theme (outside the world of robotics) and a presentation on their findings is just one other facet of the competition the teams have to complete.  But, in 2010, disaster struck my nephews' team when the robot forgot its program and wandered aimlessly across the track.  (It happens when a robot with volatile memory loses power for a moment...)  So, let's not blog further about the 2010 competition.

In 2011 the competition was a different story!  This time armed with robots with non-volatile memory my nephews were members of two different teams that tackled the theme Food Factor.  The 'older' team (from 2010) called themselves De Bearz.  The 'younger' team therefore decided they had to be 'cubs', but never agreed on spelling.  So, the team's kit used every combination of De/Da and Cubs/Cubz (with and without spaces between the two words) somewhere.

Much of the competition takes place outside public view where the teams, for example, have to present their research to the judges.  The robot runs are open to the public and take the form of a typical sporting event.  The robots' actions are displayed on huge screens so that spectators can clearly follow the runs. Two members of a team are allowed to touch the robot (under certain conditions) while it is completing the track; the rest of the team act as cheer leaders trying to cheer their team (or their robot?) to victory.

The first picture shows De Cubz in action on Table B.  (Other teams are competing simultaneously on tables A, C and D.)  The clock is still at 230 indicating that this particular run has not yet started - the full two minutes and 30 seconds for it remain.  The two members at the corner of the table are the ones who will be handling the robot under the watchful eye of the judge standing towards the other corner of the table.  The nappies the team members wear are part of the team 'uniform' they chose to indicate that they are only cubs at this point.  My nephew, Paul, is the one holding the De Cubz sign as part of the cheering squad behind the white line they are not allowed to cross during the run.  (Should I have publicly admitted that the person holding the sign is family?)


And the run starts! Eight seconds into the run some members cannot bear looking.  (Pardon the pun...)  Others seem to be rather concerned.  And a few are just focused on the task at hand.


With just 33 seconds remaining, and adrenaline levels elevated, it seems the team is excited about what their robot is doing...


In the next picture the other team, De Bearz, are setting up their robot while a judge is looking on.  My nephew, Francois (centre), is exercising his divine right to touch the robot.


And they seem to be off to a good start!


But sometimes robots do odd things.  Even the team's mascot looks sad.


Long story short: De Bearz' robot did not loose its mind again and performed quite well.  They have much to be proud of.  And the newcomers, De Cubz?  They shot past their senior fellows and finished second in the competition!




My nephew who has remained invisible thus far is Karel - the fifth person from the left in the row at the back in the picture above.  He was team mentor for De Cubz.

Now it's off to Germany for De Cubz to represent South Africa internationally.  (The team who finished first will also participate internationally, but I never claimed that this blog post would be unbiased - so I will not say more about them.)

If you are like me you only have one burning question remaining at this time: Is it possible to take those trophies - built from Lego blocks - apart and build something else with them?  Sadly, the answer is no.  Somebody glued the blocks together to make the trophy endure...



Let's hold thumbs for De Cubz in Germany.  May they make South Africa proud!

08 January 2012

The Panasonic Leica 25mm f/1.4

The Panasonic Leica 25mm f/1.4 m43 used with available light indoors.  Taken wide open at 1/60 sec on a Panasonic G2.  Looks promising!

Blanc de Noir

26 October 2011

The Jacarandas are blooming

It's that magical time of year again when Pretoria dresses in purple.  Legend has it that if one of these blooms drops on your head while you are on your way to a year-end examination, you will perform well in the examination.  To the students then: May you all be showered by blooms this year!




08 October 2011

Cat eyes


Blanc de Noir - one of our cats.  'Nough said.

07 September 2011

Graduation - September 2011

Three of my students completed their PhD degrees over the last couple of months and were awarded the degrees yesterday.  Unfortunately Wesley Brandi could not make it from the US to receive his degree in person, but Neil Croft and Wynand van Staden were present.

Neil, I and Wynand
Ah, there is something nice about these academic ceremonies that hark back to their roots in centuries past - a rare constant in a world where everything else is ephemeral.

And yes, congratulations to the three of them for persevering!

08 August 2011

I ate lunch in Rosebank today

The lunch itself was nothing spectacular - a simple dish at the Wimpy in Rosebank. But the fact that the Wimpy was not able to serve me a Coca Cola because they were out of stock (or their fountain was dry?) was a sign that this was part of something bigger. Gautrain affliction is taking on epidemic proportions and I too fell victim to it.

Let's start with the basics for the uninitiated. The Gautrain is a new high-speed (160km/h) train connecting Johannesburg and Pretoria (and the OR Tambo Airport). It therefore connects the two primary cities of the Gauteng province with one another and both with the province's (and South Africa's) primary airport. The name Gauteng is the seSotho word for place of gold, and the Gautrain is set to become the core of the province's transport infrastructure. Its gold livery was therefore an obvious choice.

The Gautrain on Rosebank station
The train has been operating on the Sandton-airport line since last year's Soccer World Cup - and everyone who has had the chance has gone for a joyride.  But we were really waiting for the Johannesburg-Pretoria line to open.  However, some unforeseen drainage problems (or rather, potential problems) delayed opening this line.  Eventually it was decided to open it, but only let it run to Rosebank in the South - one station shy of its eventual terminus at Johannesburg's Park station.  The line was opened last Tuesday - so, to ride it in its first week one had to get on it by today.  On the one hand it worked out quite well because this weekend is, for all practical purposes, a long weekend: tomorrow is Women's day and schools are closed today.

So, I decided to use my opportunity today.  Unfortunately, so did millions of others.
Waiting to board at Hatfield station
Actually the crowd control at Hatfield station was quite impressive - the sort of crowd control that would have done Disney proud.  The crowd was split into groups and groups were allowed to proceed to the next waiting area as other groups moved forward - all very smooth and disciplined.  Since Hatfield is the northern terminus of the line they even ensured that the train was not filled to capacity here, so that others could board at the following station.  The fact was that the majority of passengers were going to Sandton (for lunch), so nobody was getting off to make space for others.  I heard some mumbling and grumbling in the crowd, but this was one of the best examples of crowd control that I have yet seen in South Africa.

A train passing mine in the opposite direction at Midrand station
Not only the trains are impressive - the entire infrastructure looks good (and clean!).
Rosebank station
There was one sour note.  The bus drivers (driving the feeder buses) started striking today.  Apparently so did the spellcheckers.
What defines a bus passenger if there are no busses [sic]?
One sight that is now common, but will soon hopefully disappear is trains going to Rosebank.  One of these days they will go to Johannedburg!
Destination Rosebank
While I was not able to ride the train last Tuesday, I was able to walk over to the University of Pretoria fence to take the picture below.  Being so close, the Gautrain is bound to impact on how we do things.
Gautrain (Johannesburg-Pretoria) on its inaugural day - 2 August 2011 
Oh yes.  I forgot to take a picture of my lunch...

06 August 2011

Vacanze a Roma - Landmarks

We recently had the opportunity to visit Rome - MariĆ«tte for work and I tagged along.  It is impossible to give a brief description of the experience in a single blog post.  I have therefore decided to spend a couple of blog posts  on it.  This post just contains pictures ('postcards') of some of the well known landmarks.

The Colosseum

The Pantheon

Trevi Fountain

St Peter's Cathedral

St Peter's Cathedral

Circus Maximus

Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II

The Tiber

Pyramid of Cestius Caius

Piazza Navona