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M.I.A.

I have a total of two courses and two CLEPs remaining for my degree. The CLEPs I really don't take into consideration, only because they are entry level courses that are a byproduct of having changed majors; Precalculus and Intro to Business Law. If it were not for the CLEP exams it would be frustrating to have to take each as a class, so thank the universe (FSM) for small favors. So basically, two courses remaining.

Although I have not checked to be certain, I believe the next graduation for my college takes place in June, which would mean I need all credits into the school sometime in early May. Both of the remaining classes I am taking with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as part of their independent study program. These are self paced upper level courses, which is a very good thing for me provided I can force myself to work on the class. The bad thing being I need to allot time for credit transfer.

To that end I had given myself a set schedule of four weeks per class, the first of which (Operations Management) I began at the beginning of March and have unfortunately fallen a little behind schedule. One week behind to be exact. Five weeks for a 3 credit hour course would not be bad still, except it throws my entire time table off schedule (remember the graduation above?). So I have been working overtime in an attempt to get back on schedule.

And that has not been going well with the distraction of the You Design It project. Fortunately for me, the cosmos loves me and has ensured that the parts I need to progress further with the hoverbot will be at least another week in arriving. If I push myself just enough I should be able to complete everything on time (and under budget), and that is exactly what I will be doing for approximately the next week. So please excuse the lack of entries as I continue to be Missing In Academia.

It's All About Perception

I spent the majority of my time this past weekend divided between cutting and gluing straws, and completing the first section of my Operations Management course. There were a few other tasks thrown in throughout my two days of rest, which ultimately resulted in a very productive weekend. A lot was accomplished that needed to get accomplished.

I also made time to relax, which, laced with the recently absorbed chapters on service management from my textbook, brought about some reflection on the IT service industry. More to the point, the role of management within the IT field, and in particular the roles I have played throughout my career. In the forefront of this is a short coming of mine (and most in the field) that I have been endeavoring for some time to overcome.

Information Technologies is a very behind the scenes service field; it is something that is rarely noticed save for when a system stops working. If the people performing the work within an IT department do their jobs correctly and efficiently most of their fellow employees will never even know they are there. I have always related the IT field to the people in the nuclear missile silos; you know they exist and you pay them well to be there, but you almost never see them and hope you never have to use them in an emergency.

Although the wording might be different, this is the general view most senior managers have for the IT departments within their companies; and it can lead to problems. If you work in the industry, you know there is far more going on behind the scenes than simple break fix. Technology initiatives created and put into place by IT service personnel save thousand and millions of dollars for a company each and every year. A good department will pay for itself in savings through these cost and time saving projects, a great department can save a company more with the right projects than all other cost cutting strategies implemented by a company combined.

Throughout my career I have been part of many major cost cutting projects within various organizations; from team projects implementing new technology, to developing simple applications that can automatically manipulate data, to upgrading existing processes and procedures that make them more efficient. And I never was bothered when during each company meeting an administrative assistant would get an award for saving the company $1000 by purchasing pens in bulk, while the IT department was ignored after saving $50,000 through one of its latest projects. It is what was expected of us.

Then I became a manager and suddenly it bothered me. I am not sure if my perspectives had changed with taking on more responsibility or if it was something else entirely, but my people deserved better than that. They deserved the recognition they had earned, to be seen as the valuable employees they were, the people who earned the salaries they were given and, further, deserved raises, not the first thrown up onto the chopping blocks when it was time for layoffs. Only, that is the way of the Information Technology field. Or at least how it was.

Times have changed for many corporations. Smart executives who have learned to leverage technology to the benefit of the company are bringing with them an understanding of the departments that previously went unnoticed. These companies are still far from the norm, but their numbers are growing and the reason is something I should have learned a long time ago: Marketing.

Savvy IT leaders have not only learned to leverage the resources of their departments, but have also made a concerted effort to promote those resources to others within the organization. These leaders make certain that every project, every cost saving endeavor, and every time cutting process is heard about by every employee within the company, not just senior management. It is something we should have been doing all along, because in the end it is all about perception.

Unfortunately for most of us in the IT arena, myself included, marketing is something we have never been very good at, or at least never saw a reason for. It is, however, a skill I have been working to hone, and will continue to work at. After all, I spent the majority of my time this past weekend divided between creating the base propulsion structure for an autonomous mobile robot, and enhancing my managerial skill-set through further study and education.

You Design It - Hovercraft

The voting is in, the chads have been incinerated, and Florida has been disqualified; but we have a winner in the form of a hovercraft robot. I have been doing some research on aerodynamics in general, as well as specifics on hovercraft and duct fans; and I think I have a pretty good idea for the basic engine platform. Being the geekiarch that I am, I will be going with a sci-fi twist on the design for the platform and have already ordered some of the parts and supplies that I will need.

It would figure that the one part I could acquire right away would lead me straight into the Maxim Maxim; I knew it was too easy. Damn polypropylene plastics. Who would have guessed that it is nearly impossible to glue? So now I am on a hunt to the distant reaches of the universe, crossing galaxies only observed by John Crichton in Farscape, to find an available polypropylene glue. Good times.

While we all wait for me to find a suitable bonding agent, parts to arrive and the base platform to be built, I am in need of further guidance. We know how the robot will move around, but we don't know what it is supposed to be doing. So I am looking for comments and feedback on the primary purposes of our new hover robot. Basically, we just need a job function for the hoverbot. I started a thread over at the Society of Robots on the topic, so you can post replies there or comments here to give me ideas.

If we get a few good ideas I will open another round of voting to determine one or two main goals for the robot. Until then, I am off to find a worm hole that will lead me to some glue.

Fight for Flight

Voting is up for the method of flight our robot will be using and will remain open until Friday evening. For the record, Animalistic should technically be termed Ornithopter. Compared to the other methods listed, ornithopter is a word far less common in a person's vocabulary and I did not want to accidentally skew the voting because people did not know what a choice was off the top of their head. Thus, I went with Animalistic, it seems suiting enough.

In other related news, my brain is abuzz with ideas for each of the methods of flight. Despite my desire to work on other things over the weekend (studying for my college exams), some part of my brain keeps interjecting ideas into the forefront. Not one to let my conscious brain be overruled by another section, I pushed the thoughts to the back of my mind and returned to studying. For all of thirty seconds. And then I began searching the Internet for information, parts and supplies that I would need to accomplish whichever method of flight wins the voting.

Despite my need to finish my Operations Management course, it seems I will be studying aerodynamics this week. Damn brain. Anyway, happy voting.

You Design It - Flight

It would seem that we will be building us a flying robot. Of course there are several forms that flight could take in this context, so we will have to jump right back into another poll to figure out where we will go from here. Seeing as I have not managed to complete an antigravity device as of the time of this entry, I can think of five possible flight systems that our robot could use. One of these systems I will not be including in the upcoming poll, however, but I will explain more on that below.

Fixed Wing - your a-typical airplane style of flight. Forward propulsion is provided through propeller or jet engine structure, with lift coming from wing design (airflow over/under the wings pulls the object into the air; the forward momentum provides this airflow). This is the method of flight that I will not undertake, as high speeds are generally required to provide the robot a means of getting off the ground, which would require sensory devices that are out of the price range for any hobbyist (remember, the finished design should be relatively easy for a hobbyist to duplicate). This style of flight also has limited applications that fall into surveillance and weapon delivery, neither of which really pertain to a hobby level robot (there are better ways to annoy cats).

Rotor - think "helicopter" and you have the basic concept of rotor produced flight. Fast spinning blades provide downward airflow and thus lift for the vehicle. Steering can be accomplished a variety of differing ways from tilting the primary rotor, to using additional rotors, to modified flaps. A robot utilizing rotor-produced flight has the potential for a good development platform.

Hover - floating on a cushion of air would be the best description for this method of flight. While in the strictest sense, hovering might not qualify as a method of flight, for our purposes it will do as the physical robot is not in contact with the ground below. A hovering robot could make an excellent development platform.

Hot Air - No, not your boss. Using lighter than air gases or heated air (heat rises) in a "balloon" provide the lift, while directionality is produced through propeller and flap combinations. Great for taking sensor readings as a result of the general slow movement, but limited task capabilities.

Animalistic - a.k.a. Icarus flapping his wings. Wing design combined with the upward and downward folding (most creatures' wings fold on the down stroke) motion provides both lift and directionality for this style of robot. Weight becomes very critical in this undertaking, thus limiting the robot to specific tasks as opposed to a development platform, but it would be interesting.

Those are the choices that come to mind for methods of robotic flight. If there is a method not listed that you think should be there, please post a comment. Otherwise, voting will open up Monday, March 10, 2008. Have an uplifting weekend.

It Is Time

All things in moderation. A pretty good slogan to live by; the only problem, determining what the correct level that qualifies as "moderate" is. Extremists tend to hate moderation, whether it is the political arena, sports fanaticism, consumption, or anything else. For example, people opposed to alcohol consumption generally refuse to acknowledge that a person who consumes one (and only one) alcoholic beverage per day lives a longer, healthier life. It is a stress reliever; and I am sorry to all the health nuts, physicians and medical journals who are trying to sell you something with their skewed statistics, but stress is the number one contributing factor of illness in the world, and the second leading cause of death (dying being number one, topping the charts at 100% of all deaths).

Skewed stats aside, I tend to do pretty well with moderation. I understand that the moderate quantity of hemlock is zero ("It's all natural, so you know its good for you." yea, right), while quantities of breathable air should be pretty high (too high is hyperventilating, which again becomes bad). The one thing I have a problem with is cigarette smoking. My name is Andrew Maxim and I am addicted to cigarettes, and yes I see the irony of following "breathable air" with "cigarettes".

Like most smokers, I really can not pin down the reason I first started smoking. Peer pressure, being young and stupid, the quick buzz that you get (up until the point that you are hooked). Who knows? I even retired from smoking a couple years back (retired as opposed to quitting, because no one likes a quitter), and could not tell you why I started back up a year later. What I can tell you is what I missed while I was in retirement.

There was a newspaper article I had read online some years back that discussed the social group of smokers, and the writer was dead on. I searched the Internet for the original article to share it, but unfortunately did not have any luck. So I will have to paraphrase. Basically, the article discussed how the group, collectively known as "smokers", was one of the only social groups worldwide that transcended all other biases, stereotypes, genders, races, religions, political affiliations, et al. It is one of the only groups you can walk up into, without knowing a single person, and have the feeling that you belong.

On my recent trip overseas, I spent four hours in the Miami airport smoking area chatting it up with two people I had nothing in common with besides smoking. Try that with another social group. It is also one of the most generous of social groups, in relations to the commonality that brings them together. Walk up to 10 people in a bar and ask them to give you a drink, unless they are attracted to you and hoping to score, you are not getting that drink. Walk up to a smoker and "bum a smoke", and you just made a friend.

That is what I missed when I had retired last time, and is what I will miss when I retire (quitters never win, and winners never quit) this time around. It is something I know I need to do, and something I know I am able to accomplish. Whoa onto the people around me for the first four days or so as I bring my cigarette smoking down to the moderate level of none, but it is time. Wish me (and those around me) luck.

You Design It - Locomotion

When it comes to designing a robot you can just jump right in and start building or you can figure out what it is you want to accomplish with said robot and design from there. The second method is generally preferable, although building for the sake of building sometimes can lead to new discoveries. For the You Design It project we pretty much have to go the route of figuring out what it is we want to accomplish first.

Rather than presenting a million different possibilities on what our completed robot will do, we will start with the method of locomotion, which should help us narrow down our possible purposes. For the sake of simplicity, I am presenting only the basic forms of locomotion that I can think of; some of these will require further decision making to determine the actual method used, sort of subclasses.

Stationary - a robot that does not change location on its own. A few examples would be robotic arms, tracking turrets and outdoor plant watering robots.
Wheeled/Roller - motor/servo driven wheels provide movement for this style of robot. This is the second most common method of robotic locomotion (stationary being the first).
Walker - the third most common form of robot movement involves a given number of legs rising and falling, or gyrating to push forward on wheels like a roller skater would. This would include bipeds as well.
Flyer - a robot capable of some form of flight or another, including hover-style motion. Limited hobby applications and more complex 3-Dimensional environment, but pretty cool stuff.
Swimmer - above and/or below water surface robotic motion that would present a variety of differing options on method of swimming. Like flying, this form of locomotion has limited hobby applications and a more complex 3-Dimensional environment.
Slitherer - snake like ground movement, which also presents the possibility of enhanced climbing capabilities within a larger 3-Dimensional environment.

Voting for the above topics will be enabled sometime on Monday, March 3, 2008. If you can think of a method of locomotion not listed above, please post a comment to let me know what I missed so I can include it. Keep in mind that teleportation is not a theoretical possibility at this moment. Bending space and time for warp propulsion is out of the realm of any hobbyist, instead think of something you would like to learn more on. Remember, the end result is to be a tutorial that other hobbyists can learn from and duplicate, not an experiment in complexity (although I do like making complex things simple). Happy voting.

You Design It

I have two little interrelated quirks when it comes to projects, the first being that I need to be challenged, the second that I work best when taking on multiple projects simultaneously. The less challenged I am, the more projects I attempt to undertake (it keeps the voices in my head busy). This is no different when it comes to robotics, which has had the side effect of keeping me from building new robots. I have even managed to come up with several very challenging robotic ideas, but lack a real incentive to undertake the task.

This is one of the reasons that for the last few years I have been inventing and theorizing rather than building. It has definite bonuses in keeping my mind busy and presenting ongoing projects, but until each new invention comes to fruition or each theory produces something I am in need of, I will be slow in designing and building new robots. And I miss that.

To fix this I came up with a novel idea and presented it to the forum members over at the Society of Robots, you can view the post here. Basically the idea is to use this blog to continue to motivate me to build a specific robot; self motivation is after all one of the founding reasons for this blog. The idea is for you, my four readers, to create the overall design of the robot I am to build. It works like this:

Step 1. I present a design topic on said robot, listing the available options as I see them. An example being method of vision choices: (a) Black and White (b) Color
Step 2. For three days I will accept additional suggestions (via comments) related to the specific design topic, for instance if the topic is method of vision as listed above, you might suggest I include Infrared or Ultraviolet as choices.
Step 3. The design topic is presented as a poll or survey with the options I have come up with or you have suggested (within reason, asking for x-ray vision would be out of my price range EVER and thus not included as an option choice). The poll will stay open for a week or so to allow everyone to vote on the chosen design principle.
Step 4. Where applicable I will post an entry on the design choice decided upon including my theories on the topic, maybe some history, possible implementation methods, etc.
Step 5. If further options are available on a given design technology we will return back to Step 1, otherwise I will get to work building the given robot part and document it along the way. Once I have completed the piece, I will create an entry detailing what I did and how I did it, so you can follow along.
Step 6. We move on to the next part by going back to Step 1.

When all is said and done, we should have a working robot that you helped design, and more importantly, helped motivate me to build. The completed project will then get wrapped up and edited into a nice tutorial that I will post someplace here, as well as submitting it back over to the Society of Robots website. Obviously, there will be some design decisions along the way that I will just make, but for the most part it will all be up to my loyal readers, you, to design it.