Stronghold – Preview

“Let’s check the robot’s camera feed.”

Click. The robot blinks to life. Eric waits at the programming laptop for the wireless connection.

“Hey, this motor isn’t plugged in.”

Click. The robot goes dark. Thirty seconds pass.

“How are we supposed to check the camera without power?”

“Oh yeah. Eric, we turned off the robot.”

“It’s ridiculous how we have to relearn the same lessons every year. We should write down what went wrong and go over it at the beginning of next season.”

“Connor, we did that this season, and look what happened.”

“Oh yeah. But, like, the arm outside of the robot. Every year we have one and every year it gets broken. We even made this year’s arm from quarter-inch steel, and it still got destroyed. We shouldn’t be extending outside of the bumpers.”

Twenty feet away, Tory and Gavin work feverishly to attach new aluminum arms to extend outside the bumpers.

“Gavin did a terrible job taping these wires. I can do better.”

Connor grabs the scissors and cuts through the delicate encoder wires taped inside.

“Henry, that motor is already attached.”

“What?” Henry asks, tugging it from the robot and snapping the data cable.


When we bought our house there was a rose bush in the front yard. I’ll call it was a bush, because I hear that’s what roses come from, but it resembled a tree. It had a single stem that was about eleven feet high. It gave us a few of roses the first summer, and also scratched me every time I tried to mow near it.

I talked to other people about pruning it back, and they all agreed that was an excellent idea. It would help the plant produce more roses, instead of wasting so much energy on maintaining a ridiculously long stem. I was no gardener, so I was a bit reluctant to do the work myself, but I was a homeowner now and everyone told me “There’s no way to over-trim a rose. They’re very hardy plants.” So, during the winter, I cut the stems to what I felt was a more reasonable length.

The plant hasn’t produced a rose in three years.

Sign Language

I’ve heard a theory that parents can learn sign language. In fact, that it’s easier for them than spoken words. Seeing as I’ve had almost no luck teaching them to speak or understand proper words, I decided to give it a shot.

The trickiest part, so far, has been deciding what signs to teach them. I need to cover all the important concepts, but the parents aren’t smart enough to handle many new things at once. I decided to start with a few simple signs that even a parent should comprehend.

One concept the parents have trouble with is knowing when I’m summoning them. To address this deficiency I created a simple gesture where I extend one hand and turn it so the palm is upward. I’ve been combining this with words as well, in the hopes they’ll get the connection, and also because sometimes they aren’t looking at me, if you can imagine such a thing. If they do not respond immediately, I open and close my fingers to indicate urgency.

Once they have been summoned, I need to convey additional information. For example, if they are to pick me up, I will extend both hands upwards. They’re a bit slow on this one, so I am often forced to grab their hands and pull before they get the message. Still, I think they’re making progress.

If I require food, I make an opening and closing motion with my mouth. Conveniently enough, this makes a popping noise which can be useful for getting the parents’ attention, though it occasionally inspires them to mimic the sign. It can be hard to get them focused again after that.

If I want a toy that is out of my reach, I make a sign by extending my hand towards it and making a gripping motion. The parents are still a bit slow on this, and I am often reduced to getting the toy for myself. Even when they do notice the sign, they have a bad habit of retrieving the wrong toy. I have created a sign for this as well, where I place the toy in my hand and then wave my arm back and forth rapidly, releasing the toy at some point. Then I have to start from the beginning.

The final sign I’ve been trying to teach the parents is when I wish to be placed in my crib. At first I tried placing the back of my hand to my eyelids, but I think that was too subtle for them. Recently I’ve taken to adding an additional sign that they cannot ignore. I will extend both arms to the side and wave them rapidly all around. Time will tell if that’s still too subtle.

Have any of you babies out there tried sign-language with your parents? What signs did you use, and how successful were your parents at picking them up?

Stronghold – Day 1

The Krypton Cougars utilized a bold new strategy for this year’s robotics competition, and arrived at the arena with a machine that was neither mechanically complete nor programmed. I wasn’t in the arena the first evening and morning, with its flurry of activity, but I was kept in the loop via text message. The first problem brought to my attention was an old friend from previous seasons. Once our robot’s radio was configured for use with the field, we could no longer connect to the robot from our laptops.

This doesn’t seem to impact other teams. Perhaps they prepare their computer properly ahead of time, or maybe most teams just don’t do much programming after their robot is configured to go on the field. It stood directly in the way of the Krypton Cougars’s bold plan, however. In a stroke of brilliance, the team mounted a second radio on the robot, one for the field and another set up like we had at home. They stacked them, to make reading the signal lights as difficult as possible. Before each match, they would unplug one radio and plug in the other. After each match, they reversed the process. I’d like to say this arrangement didn’t cause them any problems, but that would be very misleading.

Having solved their radio difficulties, they were free to complete their robot. While driving toward Philadelphia the morning of the competition, I received a text message informing me that the arm on the front of the robot could move up, but never down. After walking the programmers through common troubleshooting steps, I asked them to describe the blink pattern on the affected motor controller. They reported that when the arm wasn’t moving it showed red lights, blinking in sequence: A limit switch was being triggered.

When the robot was designed, I hoped there would be limit switches at the top and bottom limits of the arms, both to avoid the arms moving beyond their expected range and to allow us to recalibrate the position periodically. The team had wired limit switches to the motor controllers, but attaching them to the robot had been left for some future date that never materialized. Instead, the limit switches were bundled up and dropped into the interior of the robot. The solder on one limit switch had been poorly applied, and the wires disconnected. Rather than fix the switch, the team tossed the loose wires in with the rest. Deep inside the belly of the robot, these wires had managed to cross, creating a short-circuit that was being read as a closed limit switch. Once these wires were separated, the arm moved downward with ease.

Kelly and I arrived at the high school shortly after noon. The parking lot was crowded, but we eventually found a space far from the school, where we unloaded our lifetime supply of baby gear and braved the bitter cold. Once Kelly and Miranda were safely in the arena, I headed for the pits.

By this time we had already had our first match, where our robot had put on a notable performance by spinning counterclockwise for the entire length of the match. While this had provided the spectators with much needed amusement, our team felt it was not a viable long-term strategy. There are many reasons why a robot might drive in a circle, but to continue doing so without input is rather unusual. We hypothesized it was caused by a sensor on the drive base not returning the correct speed. Rather than investigate the nature of the failure and correct it, we opted to turn off the sensors on the wheels and hope for the best.

This strategy was immediately successful. Without its sensors the robot drove in a straight line. Since the robot no longer knew its own speed, it went full force at all times, much like the students driving it. In fact, they were so excited by their new-found driving capabilities that they forgot the rules of the game and racked up twenty-five penalty points in their next match.

Up to this point in the competition, the robot’s arms had been restrained with bungee cords until they could be tested. Spurred by their success, the team removed the bungee cords. During their next match, the shooter arm, now free of the bungee cords, ran into its own bumpers, ripping the shooter wheel sensor from its mount. The team decided they didn’t really need a shooter wheel sensor anyway.

The next step was to fine-tune the motion of the arms. The pickup arm was too weak to lift the portcullis, so the programmers tried to increase its power. After a few changes, the robot stopped working entirely. The team frantically looked over the robot, testing every possibility. Network connectivity was good. The motors had power. The roboRIO was turned on. All the wires were still connected. Yet no commands were running on the robot. “What did you change?” asked a mentor in frustration.

“Nothing. Just numbers in the config file.”

“How could that cause this?”

It couldn’t, of course. The numbers only controlled the shooter system, yet all systems had stopped responding to controller input. Finally, after exhausting all other avenues, I asked the programmers to show me, rather than tell me, what they had changed, just in case, somehow, their configuration changes were responsible.

We worked through, line by line, until we came to a removed line:

#include "ControllerMap.h"

“Why did you remove that line,” I asked in shock.

“We decided it didn’t look right,” they answered.

“Please put it back. It is what tells the program how to turn button presses and joystick movements into commands.”

With the program back in working order, the team returned to the field to destroy more sensors. Within a few hours, all our sensors except the light sensor in the center of the robot were broken or disabled. Mechanical failures stacked up as the team drove with a reckless abandon better suited for the last match of the world championship instead of the first day of our first district competition.

Soon, though, the drive team reported a seemingly non-mechanical issue. “The arms aren’t moving. We don’t know why.” The programmers pored over the code, but nothing seemed amiss. The drive base continued to work as normal, but the pickup and shooter system were unresponsive. When the programmers left to grab food, I picked up the driver station.

“Did no one notice that the second controller isn’t showing up?” We tried unplugging it, plugging it into a different port, and even forcing a USB rescan, but the laptop continued to report that no second controller was present. The controller was dead. While a team mother rushed out to purchase a replacement controller, our team begged for a spare controller, and soon found a team willing to sacrifice a controller for the cause.

Reinvigorated, the team returned to the field. The robot, now nearly completely blind, was entirely dependent upon its drivers to keep it safe. The drivers, however, had other, more important considerations, and smashed the pickup arm into so many obstacles that it eventually broke free from the robot. Thrilled by their clever modification to the design, they decided they hadn’t needed that either.

Cancer Captions

Showbread recently released their final album, and with it, an experimental movie based on their previous album, Cancer. As expected, the movie is a bit of a head-scratcher. It takes a few viewings to pick up on what is going on (I still don’t understand a lot of it, but I think that’s the idea), and I imagine it would be even more confusing for those who don’t already know the music.

Additionally, the movie’s core characters make up a punk rock band that frequently screams their lyrics in unintelligible fervor, which makes things even less approachable for “outsiders”. In the hope that I could show this movie to friends without having them miss the lyrics, I took some time to subtitle the movie. I’d like to make these captions available for others who are also interested in showing Cancer to the uninitiated.

I used FFmpeg to add the subtitle file to the movie. It is available for Mac, Linux, and Windows, though I only know that my instructions work on Linux. If you need to change something on another platforms, leave a comment about it and I’ll update my instructions accordingly.

  1. Download the caption file to the same directory as Cancer.
  2. Go to that directory in your command line (terminal)
  3. Run the following command:
    ffmpeg -i Cancer.mp4 -f srt -i -codec copy -c:s mov_text Cancer-subbed.mp4

    (If your files have different names, make sure to update the command appropriately.)

  4. When watching Cancer in your favorite media player, turn on captions.

And that’s all there is. I hope this helps someone. Enjoy.