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May 28, 2006

Trip to the Flat Land

Filed under: Books,Commentary,Holidays — Bob @ 7:59 pm

Eileen and I spent the last 10 days in the mid-West of the USA visiting relatives. My mom lives in Michigan while Eileen’s folks live in Indiana and has aunts & uncles in Ohio. We flew out a week ago last Friday on United Airlines from Vancouver to Detroit via Denver. United has figured out that we’d pay a bit more money to sit in more comfortable seats. They’ve invented a new section titled Economy Plus. The seats themselves are the same as the rest of the plane but you get more leg-room for $44 per seat, each flight. The trick is to check-in early – you can only purchase this “upgrade” when you get your boarding pass (we did it at the electronic check-in machines) otherwise you take your chances. Glad to see the North American airlines starting to find interesting ways to improve the travel experience as well as improve their bottom line. British Airways has been doing this sort of thing for years with good success.

The USA looks pretty much the same as I remember, but the complaints are new. We heard plenty about the outrageous price of gasoline and also about how illegal immigrants were ruining the country. Oh my. The gasoline thing is especially funny because nearly two-thirds of the cars on the road are SUVs (we counted). Eileen says the number of SUVs purchased each year in the USA continues to increase, although I was unable to find a reference that supported or denied that claim. Gasoline was something like US$2.80 per gallon, which would equate to CDN$0.82 per litre. For comparison, here in Vancouver its CDN$1.20 per litre, or about US$4.11 per gallon. We laughed so hard we snorted.

The immigrant thing was more sad than funny, its a hot-button issue that most people don’t really think too carefully about. The economy of the USA is dependent on the immigrant work force in ways that probably can’t even be predicted. For example, immigrant workers keep the cost of farm labor low, thus making it possible for domestic farms to remain competitive with imports. Food costs remain low and many people (illegal immigrants as well as citizens) are employed. The low cost of food means the general cost of living is lower for everyone. Low cost of living means higher discretionary income which is usually spent on luxury goods which further fuels economic growth. If you eliminate the low-cost labor on those farms, will it negatively effect the entire economy? Maybe. I don’t really know, and I don’t think its entirely predictable.

Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t think illegal immigrants are preferrable to legal immigrants. It’s just that the current situation is complicated and perhaps making hasty decisions and drastic changes isn’t wise.

I’ve been reading Collapse by Jared Diamond. The subtitle is How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed and it discusses (with incredible detail) a number of factors that can lead to a particular society such as Easter Island or the Norse in Greenland to completely fail. Its well written and very interesting. This book talks about how societies become entangled in their own history, location, habits, and neighbors in interesting ways that sometimes turns out quite bad. And sometimes it works out ok, but it is very hard to predict the outcome ahead of time with any certainity. I think about the current situation regarding immigration in the USA in similar terms.

The other sad part of the immigration debate is that people seem generally unaware of the need for immigration in order to continue the existing standard of living for retired people. By 2011 there will be more people retired than working. The number of people retiring each year will continue to rise, leading to a significant problem where the taxes paid by those still working will be insufficient to pay for those who aren’t. The existing population in the USA and Canada (and probably other places) isn’t increasing fast enough to offset those who are retiring, and without working immigrants to make up the difference the government sponsered retirement funds will collapse.

The trip wasn’t completely doom-and-gloom however. My sister came to my mom’s house with her two-year-old daughter to visit from North Carolina. I hadn’t met her daughter before so that was really great. My mom is doing well too, and Eileen’s folks are getting along just fine. We also caught up with some friends and spent a couple of hours walking around the campus of Michigan State University where Eileen and I met. The campus there is really beautiful and the day we went was bright, very sunny and warm.

05-25-06_1903.jpgThe other thing we noticed – the place is flat by comparison to Vancouver. Some parts are so flat you can virtually see into next week. This terrain leads to tremendous wind storms and quick changes in weather. We sat on the back deck of her aunt’s house and watched a thunderstorm come in over the horizon. Within minutes the wind was whipping around and the rain was pouring down in bucketfuls. It rained and thundered for a half-hour or so then stopped. I grabbed a picture with my phone, it seems to be clear enough to demonstrate all points.

Tomorrow we’ll go back to the office and try to catch up from being away.

May 16, 2006

Western Canadian Robot Games

Filed under: Robots — Bob @ 8:16 pm

I spent last Saturday at the Western Canadian Robot Games in Calgary, Alberta. This was the 16th annual event but I had never been to it before. My friend Dave Hylands has been going every year for I think the last four or five years and always suggested I attend. He was right, it was a lot of fun.

I took some pictures (not great quality, but whatever). Find them here along with a short description for each one. The crowd was reportedly smaller this year than last but it was still well attended. The setup was very professional and the hosts were well organized.

I entered three robots: a linefollower, a minisumo and my walking metal hexapod. Eileen says it looks like a bug so I call it Metal Insect – got any better suggestions, leave me a comment. My linefollower did ok but not great. My minisumo didn’t do much better, its really starting to show its age against the tiny fast wedge robots. But the Metal Insect did catch quite a few eyes and was awarded Coolest Robot by the judges. I really was very proud as I spent quite a bit of time giving this robot some personality.

An annual tradition at the WCRG is the Solarbotic’s Barbaque afterwards. Dave Hrynkiw and the rest of the Solarbotics crew host a big dinner every year. It was great to spend another few hours talking about robots while quaffing beers and chowing down. I got to meet Dan Gates in person- he joined Solarbotics recently and is already busy creating new designs for them.

I’m definitely going back next year, I had a great time. I’m already planning a new minisumo robot, and I hope to have my Robomagellan robot working.

May 8, 2006

Fun With A RAZR

Filed under: Commentary,Software — Bob @ 9:08 pm

clgif_v3_1.jpgI bought a Motorola RAZR phone the other day to replace my aged Ericsson T28. I’m not a “phone person” nor a “gadget person” but I do like to have a mobile phone. I long ago figured out that its worth paying more for the convenience of small, thin, light electronics.

What has really surprised me is the subculture of people who “hack” these sophisticated phones. Sometimes its about removing the software locks set by the carrier, other times its just about changing the skins or uploading new games. Some sites offer alternate firmware to download to your phone. Try googling for “hack mobile phone {brand name}” and you’ll see what I mean.

I think this is sort of like hot rodding cars. When I was a teenager it was very cool to enhance a car in interesting ways. Replacing engines, transmissions, suspension, etc. was not at all unusual. Custom paint with multiple layers of clear coat was standard. I’ve heard that car mods are still popular but nothing like it was. Now its all about firmware tweaks or bolt-on wings or such. I miss days of the big fat tires with expensive chrome wheels and super-thin pin stripping painted by hand.

I guess I’m getting old. Sigh.

PCBs Arrived Today

Filed under: Robots — Bob @ 8:39 pm

pcb thumb.jpg A few weeks ago I wrote about getting some printed circuit boards made for my robot projects. They arrived in the mail today and they look pretty good.

I also received my Digikey order of parts last Friday. That company is excellent to to work with – a pretty good website with a good search engine, links to data sheets, good prices and easy shipping options (basically a flat fee using Purolator, Canadian duty already included). My only complaint is their search engine doesn’t use permanent links – the link expires after a few minutes so its hard to send a link for a part to someone else.

I’ll probably start assembly tomorrow or Wednesday. Probably will have one of the boards done by the time I leave for the WCRG Robot Games on Friday night.

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