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29 June

It was a hard few weeks for me, so a trip to the Montreal fireworks competition was a very welcome refresher (it has performances one or twice a week for the next month of so) . We found a new viewing location where we could readily feel the big "booms", and it was quite a thrill. Thanks Montreal!

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
07 September

This summer I spent some time in the San Francisco Bay area and visited Google's Mountain View "campus" where I went for a drive in one of the self-driving cars. The fact that Google has developed a small fleet of cars that can drive themselves completely automatically has been widely reported. These cars drive themselves on city streets, highways and across bridges completely automatically finally delivering on a widely anticipated vision of the future. For the time being, a human driver is always required at the wheel to take responsibility for the car's actions and assume control in case of emergency, but there is no doubt in my mind that once these cars enter the mainstream it will not be many years before the prospect of a human assuming control on normal streets will be regarded as an antiquated risk to safe driving.

For my drive, which I shared with a couple of friends and colleagues, we had two Google staff members in the front seat. Their job during our drive, as for the drives they said they take every day, is to both supervise the car's behavior and to log and observe any anomalous things that happen on the road or in the car's behavior. For example, during our ride a cyclist's bike fell into the road nearby. The car handled it fine, but the staffers made notes in the log that would allow them to inspect the data later and carefully analyze how the car handled the event.

The car is still experimental and very exotic. One of my former students who work at Google was rather jealous of my opportunity. No doubt, all the Googler's will get their chance some time soon. On the other hand, the experience is very conceptual and rather anti-climactic. Other than chatting with the computer science staffers that are involved, you are just driving around on what feels like a perfectly unremarkable car ride (except for some technically interesting live data displays the software engineers have).

It's not clear yet how the robot car will enter the mainstream, but at least 9 different US states have already added legislation that allows robot cars to operate on their roads (with a human supervisor at the wheel). The cars have safely driven over 500,000 miles by now, and they have done so with an essentially perfect safety record, which is better than comparable human drivers.

It will be interesting to see if any Canadian provinces take this plunge in the near future, but I rather doubt it since I suspect the required legislation requires the intercession of Google legal staff, and Canadian's are still waiting for Google Voice to come to Canada almost a decade after it's availability in the USA. Moreover, the challenging weather that Canadian's face for most of the winter certainly don't make this a great location for initial introduction. More generally, it seems unlikely that the self-driving car will first appear as a product for the ordinary consumer, due to it's very substantial cost and the importance of a positive initial reception.

Among the advantages the self-driving car will offer include the increased mobility it will offer physically or visually impaired people, the promise of a much safer driving experience, the ability to carry heavier traffic loads on existing roads, and reduced fuel consumption due to more efficient driving behavior. Whatever the path to commercial introduction is, the robot car has really arrived, it's really working now and it was a thrill to get to drive in it.

Google Self-driving Car
Google Self-driving Car
(Click to expand)

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
15 November

The Canadian Robotics Today workshop sponsored by Mathworks and NSERC

On the advice of a couple of the board members for our robotics network, I tried organizing a new workshop on robotics to build bridges to and between robotics companies that had no prior history of substantive interaction. While I have organized various kinds of meetings and events in the past, this one posed some novel challenges. This was executed with the help of my staff (Isabelle) and one of my students (Travis) who did all kinds of things to help the event move forward.

Most of the large-scale organizing I have done before has been related to a pre-existing communities, for example organizing one year's incarnation of an annual conference. Even when I have previously organized a new kind of meeting, the constituency has always been developed first (for example by creating a new organization like the field robotics network, where our first meetings already had a set of members who were expected to attend). This time, the focus of the workshop was to initiate the creation of a new community, and so doing the required outreach and organizing was far more demanding and unpredictable than I had experienced before.

I know that for our big conferences a lot of people register late, but since most academic conferences that I participate in are based on reviewed papers, we always have an estimate of attendance from the number of accepted papers. In this case, there are no papers and a few weeks before the workshop the attendance figures looked pretty worrisome. Now that the registrations have picked up and things are on track I am eagerly anticipating the event and some excellent discussions and keynote speakers, but for a while there I was losing sleep over how it work out. Of course, the kind of anxiety and uncertainty can be a spur to activity and creativity, and there are few professional activities I engage in that don't have at least some measure of fear and anxiety associated with them, even if it's just giving a lecture in one of the classes I teach. Too much stress, of course, can be destructive, exhausting and counter-productive. I think a typical academic, at least at the universities I know well, is constantly on boundary edge between the productive levels of incentivizing stress and the excessive overloading kind.


By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
03 July

I've been laid up with a a miserable cold/bronchitis this week and found myself listening to the NPR show RadioLab. It's a radio journalism show, but it has two unusual quirky features: a lot of the reportage it in the form of questions and answers with a mildly addled co-host, and there are constant audio interjections during the show. I have listen to the show now and then with mild interest and only mild annoyance at the affected style. Well, if you listen to a couple of shows back-to-back, or you are not feeling great, the show is just unbearable. How did the editors of this program ever concludes that inserting hundreds of audio interjections into a program would be appealing? Is this some test of the future of interstitial advertising?

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
26 March

Competition-worth attractive and functional hard-boiled eggs.

My family, of Polish descent, celebrates Easter as one of the big holiday of the year despite the fact that we are all atheists. A key element of our Easter tradition is to eat colored eggs, and to precede the meal with an egg-cracking competition. Each person takes and egg and pairs of people gently tap their eggs against one another. The first egg to crack loss and the winner compete with one another until only one egg survives.

Colored eggs. The brown ones were colored by
using onion skins, the rest with commercial egg dyes.
(Click to expand)

Here are a few tips to competition-worth attractive and functional hard-boiled eggs.

The eggs should be hard-boiled. There are 3 ways to do this (in additional to crazy new-fangled approaches like steaming them).

1) If boiled water is used (as opposed to steaming), it means the eggs should be boiled for several minutes. If you start with cool water, put the eggs in, heat it fairly slowly, and then the eggs cool in the water, then the amount of time actually boiling is only a minute, but the cooling period in still-hot water needs to last 9 to 15 minutes (15 is for extra-large sized eggs). Putting the eggs in the water before it gets hot lets them warm more slowly and reduces the chance that they crack due to thermal expansion of the egg and the air cavity.

2) An alternative is to get the water boiling first, then lower the eggs into the hot water and let them boil briefly, and then let them cool in the water for the same length as time as above.

3) My own approach, however, is to put them in cool water as in method #1 above, let them boils for 7 minutes and then cool them rapidly in cold water which may allow them to peel more easily.

Despite years of speculation, we do not have a consensus yet on whether the pointy of the round end of the egg is stronger with respect to our competition. I am a pointy-person, but I have sometimes been beaten by a round-ender. It' hard to do any controlled study since every egg is different, but that makes the game more fun. ( Notably, there is real scientific analysis on idealized egg shapes that suggests the pointy end has greater rigidity and this should stand up better, but it might not apply to real eggs [see reference below].)

The Ph (acidity) of an egg apparently effects how easily it is peeled. Eggs what are more then 4 or 5 days old are more easily peeled after being cooked (they apparently have a Ph of over 92 which is the key value according to other sources). I don't know (yet) how this effects their robustness in the competition.

Egg shells are made primarily of calcium carbonate embedded in a protein substrate. The protein and an underlying collagen layer also help the egg hold together.

Boiled eggs go well with home-made horseradish. Making good strong horseradish is itself an interest undertaking. It is truly incomparable to the insipid store-bought stuff. Be prepared to cry -- a lot.

Egg-tapping and egg-cracking culture

Louisiana has a regulated egg knocking competition. According to this article, this custom is carried out in several Cajun communities throughout South Louisiana. In Marksville, there are cash prizes for the winner. The article suggests that some people believed that boiling the eggs in coffee grounds made them stronger. I've tried that and have not see a difference, but I wasn't rigorous.

Wikipedia this kind of contest is alternatively known as egg tapping, egg fighting, egg knocking, egg pacqueing, egg boxing, egg picking, or egg jarping, although no authorative source is given. It suggests the practice is or was popular in England as well as many other regions.

This reference suggests that some people think boiling the eggs in onion skins makes them stronger. I don't buy it.

Hard code shell science

The energy required for fracture of an egg shell for the narrow pole is greater than for the broad pole, but there might also be systematic differences in shell thickness as well as curvature.


The hen's egg: Relationship of mean strain energy at shell fracture to shell compression speed, the nature of the compressing body and the location on the shell of the point of contact
(full article requires subscription or payment).

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
31 July

My son, Nicholas Dudek graduated from Concordia University with a degree in Computer Science this summer! Congratulations, Nick! A gang of our family members attended the event including Natasha who flew in and then had to return to California almost immediately for Dmitriy's MSc graduation a coupe of days later. My mother Stephanie and Fred managed to be in town, especially since my mother had been looking forward to this for a while. Nick was in fine form and (of course) great spirits, and the whole family had a little celebration afterwards.

Nick with his

Nicholas Dudek in his
graduation regalia

Dudek Family

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
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