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Entries about places we visit, or ideas about travel
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04 October
2012

Well, today at the BTS meeting I learned about the carnivorous Croatian sea sponge. What could sound less threatening than a sponge? Well, this one takes advantage of it's docile reputation by eating you!! (Assuming, that is, that you are less than 8mm long.) It lives at depths of about 17m, probably in caves although a similar (or identical) sponge can be found at much greater depths (like 700m).

"A particularly interesting discovery was a deep-sea cladorhizid sponge of the genus Asbestopluma ... macrophagous and “carnivorous. It passively captures prey such as small crustaceans (up to 8 mm long) on its filaments provided with raised, hook-shaped spicules. Capture is followed by intense sponge cell migration, extracellular digestion, phagocytosis, and intracellular digestion by archaeocytes and bacteriocytes – the whole process taking up to 10 days. The strange sponge was described as a new species, Asbestopluma hypogea . "

(From an interesting article:
Habitats in Submerged Karst of Eastern Adriatic Coast – Croatian Natural Heritage
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2525830/ )


By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
23 November
2012

In the last couple of weeks I visited and gave talks at Dalhousie University and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT). It's a treat to be able to zip in to nearby universities and see what's going on, and tell them about what we are working on.

UOIT was quite a hike from Toronto, but luckily my host Faisal Qureshi was kind enough to pick me up at the train station. Since I flew in to the Toronto Island Airport, took a ferry boat to the mainland, took a bus to the GO train, and boarded inside a subway station, and then took the train to Oshawa, it means that I used almost all normal modes of standard transport to get there. The only thing I seem to have missed out on was a horse ride. UOIT is one on the newest universities I have visited recently (with perhaps the exception of Education City in Doha). It's a great space and seems like a very energetic campus, at least based on the glimpse I saw of the Computer Science area and Faisal's lab.

Dalhousie;s building was more reminiscent of McGill's McConnell building where my own lab is, unfortunately for them. An older mid-20th century pragmatic design rather devoid of big glassy atria. The group I met was similarly energetic though, and they have access to some amazing facilities for marine robotics. Some of these facilities belong to DRDC-Atlantic and they are stupendous.

This week I didn't leave Montreal at all, perhaps for the first time this Fall. While these trips have been great, it sure will has been nice to be home every single day.


By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
25 January
2014

Last week I was at a beach-side restaurant in the Caribbean in the evening, and a baby turtle walked in. (It sounds like the beginning of a joke.) While I was staring at it in astonishment, another one walk in behind it.

I walked out and found a whole bunch of them, mainly heading for the restaurant/bar. They were being attracted by the lights which were brighter than the almost-full moon. I spoke to a local guy on the beach to assure that releasing them was the right thing to do, and then started scooping them up.

The restaurant staff provided an old cardboard box and with the help of Nick and some friends who had phones with bright displays, I collected about 15 or 20 (and also saw the hole they had been coming out of). Only a small fraction of them (maybe none) were actually heading for the sea as they were supposed to be doing. Although I was wearing my best clothes and had stuff in my pockets, I waded thigh-deep into the sea to release them, saw them swim around me a bit, and then head off into the ocean. It was amazing!


-----

Background

The problem this experience highlights is that baby turtles use light (from the moonlight on the water) to find the sea. Artificial lighting near the shoreline, however, causes turtle hatchlings to wander inland. They are very vulnerable to predators, dehydration and other risk factors. Some areas have legal prohibitions on beachside lighting, but as yet it seems that Barbados is not one of them. In fact, as indicated in the link below, the turtles in over half the nests in Barbados have trouble getting to the sea. Red lighting is also more "turtle safe" since they are not as sensitive to it.

http://www.seaturtle.org/mtn/archives/mtn93/mtn93p18.shtml

http://www.widecast.org/Resources/Docs/Eckert_and_Horrocks_2002_Beachfront_Lighting_Workshop.pdf

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
26 April
2014

Almost every conference, especially academic ones, provides badges for attendees. After many years of conference attendance and organizing, I have developed some rather strong opinions about that otherwise obscure topic. Here are my thoughts on good conference badging approaches.



Example Badge: why is the banner and date on the top taking up 1/3 of the badge? We already know why we are here.
Example Badge: why is the banner and date
on the top taking up 1/3 of the badge?
We already know why we are here.
(Click to expand)




First, let me make a couple of observations on why we have badges. The primary purpose of a conference badge is (1) to allow participants to recognize one another, (2) remember each other’s names to facilitate conversation, and (3) help remember people for subsequent follow-up. At least at academic conference, the function of (4) validating that somebody paid his or her registration fee, although important, is secondary. Lastly, the registration process (and sometimes the badge) also serves to (5) record payment and registration for additional optional events like a side workshop or meal.




Based on the idea that name-recognition is the primary function of the badge, the name needs to be large and prominent. After the name, what people care about is the institutional affiliation (university, company, etc). The rest hardly matters. Thus a badge with 8 lines of text including a restatement of the name of the conference, the the date and other useless crap is really sub-optimal (meaning it stinks).





Sample Badge
Sample Badge

Badges worn too low, basically saying

"I don't care about meeting you"





Let's just consider how little space the important stuff uses, and what could be done. The badge below is from an event we organized, but due to the rush and limitations of the layout process name name is a ridiculously small part of the area.



Sample Badge
Example annoying badge:
why is the name so small, and surrounded
by so much white space?
(Click to expand)


Sample Badge
Preferred badge layout

make the name big and clear.
(Click to expand)




Keep in mind that people need to read these things from a few feet away while standing and chatting. Moreover, you often need to do it while pretending they remember the person's name and as if you don't actually need to read the badge to know who you are talking to! Naturally, the person who wears the badge needs to put is someplace visible for this to work out. There are always these people who think it's cool to wear the badge on their hip or belt, as shown above. This seems like a singularly affected (as in pretentious) and it makes them hard to recognize or remember by name.

While we are on the issue of where to wear the badge, note that there are at least 3 common ways to affix a badge to a person: a clip, a pin or a lanyard. These days lanyards have become very popular for some reason. In fact, many places including my own university sell souvenir lanyards! Really? Are these the last resort for people who can find absolutely nothing useful to buy for $2? People presumably like lanyards because you don't need to make a hole in your fancy clothing, and you can carry an arbitrarily heavy little pouch of paperwork around your neck, which some conferences provide instead of a badge. Well, for most men's clothing the little hole is not much of an issue, and the clip (instead of a pin) solves the problem quite nicely. The big problem with lanyards is that the badge hangs so low that it is inconvenient, or even embarrassing, to look at it to determine the person's name or affiliation. Scroll down to the 2nd image on this page to see an example of the problem, and not how the author had to select clothing specifically to assure a lanyard look good. Of course, the problem becomes still worse if the badge is poorly designed. I prefer a clip since it which won't damage a T-shirt by making a hole, and it can go on almost anything.




Sample Badge
Sample Badge

Badges that are positioned to make it awkward for men to read them
without seeming politically incorrect.
Lanyards almost always assure this.

(Photos by Tendenci.org and from
www.flickr.com/photos/howardlake/6427901531 licensed under Creative Commons Share Alike license).


If this too long an article about a silly minor issue? Maybe, but hundreds, or even thousands, of people can be inconvenienced at a single meeting by the wrong badge design, and their ability to network is degraded.


By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
21 June
2014

The International Conference on Robotics and Automation 2014

The International Conference on Robotics and Automation took place in Hong Kong the week before last and with a few of my students I was able to attend (and we present four papers on our work). Each year this conference gets bigger, and this year there were over 2,000 attendees, which is probably symptomatic of the growing importance and impact of robotics today. There were 19 parallel tracks meaning that for any single attendee there was a good chance there was more than one talk of interest going on at any given moment. On one hand this is bad, since it make it impossible to hear all the relevant talks. On the other hand, it was a lot better than squeezing all the talks into a smaller number of tracks and giving them insufficient time to present the results gully. In short, given the growth in the field, I though this was a good compromise.

Computational and algorithmic issues continue to be the key, and perhaps even growing, theme in robotics, as opposed to the also import issues of mechanism design, dynamics etc. There were several nice talks (and papers) on using computer vision to address issues in robotics. Vision and robotics used to be joined together under the once-ill-defined umbrella of artificial intelligence. Those areas separated into different communities well over a decade ago, but as each matures the links are begging to re-emerge. It is about time to see the areas coming together again. In fact, I think there is a sound argument to be made that vision and AI are both best regarded as sub-fields of robotics, which is the amorphous umbrella that captures humanity’s efforts to replication human and biological capabilities with all the sub-themes interacting. Thus, vision in the context of robotics is become more and more important and mature. Underwater robotics is also a theme of growing prominence, as is the combination of sensing and manipulation.

Hong Kong 2014 ICRA trip
Hong Kong 2014 ICRA trip
(Click to expand)
http://www.dudek.org/blog/blogpics/hong_kong_buildings_2014.jpg
Hong Kong buildings on Queen's Road




While in Hong Kong I had a chance to do a tiny bit of sight seeing, including a great trip to the Mainland China city of Shenzhen. Shenzhen is a key industrial center, and the place where many of today’s consumer electronics are fabricated. The abundance of electrics manufacturing, development and prototyping was really impressive. I have often observed that Silicon Valley (where I once lived) has good resources for electronics prototyping and technology development. In Japan, however, the popular level of access and appreciation to such activities is much greater, and in a big department store one can find real beakers, test tubes and soldering irons beside the toys, dresses and dishware (then this is good quality scientific material, not just kiddie-toy stuff that one finds in Montreal). Well, at least for electronics Shenzhen takes this trends to a far far far higher level, with a plethora of devices, tools, resources so tremendously available and accessible that any comparison with North America is almost laughable. It was cool, fun, impressive and maybe a bit frightening. As for the regarding to items and ideas that are supposed to be protected by intellectual property legislation, that’s also an interesting story.

All in all, Hong Kong and Shenzhen combined a top robotics conference with a very educational little outing to where the consumer electronics world has its nexus. In addition, I got to see a few great sights and eat some delicious (and sometimes challenging) food.

Recovered phone circuit boards, possible for use in bootleg clones
Recovered phone circuit boards,
possibly for use in bootleg clones
(Click to expand)
Shopping in Shenzhen
Shopping in Shenzhen
(Click to expand)



By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
07 September
2014

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 |    
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