A robot at the London Olympics?

I just came across the news that the iCub robot has been nominated to carry the Olympic torch:


Interesting, more so for what it reveals about our field – robotics is ever so slowly breaking out of the laboratory and creeping into the popular sphere in a way (akin to 3G phones being teenage girls’ accessories more than geeky technology) that suggests real progress. I must admit some scepticism about the iCub actually running a few miles with the torch (I didn’t know it had much in the way of locomotion or serious manipulation, yet, the last time I looked), but that is a minor point in the grand scheme, I suppose.


Geek meets chic

I liked this video showing how Radiohead’s House of Cards music video was made:

Many of us roboticists have seen these Velodyne sensors, and their early cousins – the SICK laser scanners, that can generate dense range maps (my colleagues at UT-Austin had one of these as part of their entry to the DARPA Urban Challenge), and some of us tend to take such data for granted. So, it is worth being reminded that such data, used deftly and with an artistic eye, can open whole new doors!

PS: Thanks to my colleague, Mark Wright, for forwarding this.

You think you’ve got a helpful thesis advisor?

I’m about 18 months into my job as a faculty member, with student supervision responsibilities. I don’t have many pretensions about my abilities and I suspect that my first few students clearly see that I am still very much learning how to teach (hopefully, lack of special skills in this area are compensated by more personal attention).

So, today when my friend and former lab-mate, Shilpa, sent this joke to our advisor and other colleagues, I found it especially funny and reassuring – even the best of them were sort of quirky:

In Munich in the days of the great theoretical physicist Arnold Sommerfeld, trolley cars were cooled in summer by two small fans set into their ceilings. When the trolley was in motion, air flowing over its top would spin the fans, pulling warm air out of the cars. One student noticed that although the motion of any given fan was fairly random — fans could turn either clockwise or counterclockwise — the two fans in a single car nearly always rotated in opposite directions. Why was this? Finally he brought the problem to Sommerfeld.

“That is easy to explain,” said Sommerfeld. “Air hits the fan at the front of the car first, giving it a random motion in one direction. But once the trolley begins to move, a vortex created by the first fan travels down the top of the car and sets the second fan moving in precisely the same direction.”

“But, Professor Sommerfeld,” the student protested, “what happens is in fact the opposite! The two fans nearly always rotate in different directions.”

“Ahhhh!” said Sommerfeld. “But of course that is even easier to explain.”

– from Absolute Zero Gravity

Ig Nobel Prizes 2008

Here is the list of winners. As the citation says, these are “For achievements that first make people LAUGH then make them THINK”.

I greatly enjoyed reading the paper titles. I was trying to pick a favorite but its just too hard – they all sound so cool! Still, the following two made me particularly curious:

A Comparison of Jump Performances of the Dog Flea, Ctenocephalides canis (Curtis, 1826) and the Cat Flea, Ctenocephalides felis felis (Bouche, 1835),” M.C. Cadiergues, C. Joubert, and M. Franc, Veterinary Parasitology, vol. 92, no. 3, October 1, 2000, pp. 239-41.

The Role of Armadillos in the Movement of Archaeological Materials: An Experimental Approach,” Astolfo G. Mello Araujo and José Carlos Marcelino, Geoarchaeology, vol. 18, no. 4, April 2003, pp. 433-60.

BMW Welt and Museum

During my recent trip to Munich, I got the chance to visit the recently opened BMW Welt and Museum. This is a spectacular and very impressive building, e.g., see this picture:

I got to admire and occasionally sit on a whole variety of vehicles ranging from the M6 roadster to several performance motorcycles. Moreover, the museum had some very cool displays – everything from James Bond’s Z4 to a concept model of the Z9. It was also really interesting to see some of the oldies – an early motorbike that completed the Paris-Dakar rally, engines as they have evolved from just after WWII to now, the BMW formula one car… lots of history, very elegantly presented and explained.

In the BMW Welt area, I saw the hydrogen car on display. The lady from BMW told me that it will still be at least a decade before something like it hits the streets. Still, they were serious enough about the idea to display it in their main showroom! Based on that display, and the conversation with this lady who explained it, it became quite clear that the success of these sorts of ideas depends so critically on external factors such as availability of hydrogen refuelling stations in remote places, safety and customer-friendliness of the systems required to store such materials in the pumping stations and on the vehicle, the econo-politics of the supply chain behind this fuel and the more conventional fossil fuels, etc. etc. This is way more than ‘just’ an engineering challenge. Compared to all this, even a company like BMW is just a small player!

All in all, a rainy day well spent.