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He Was Right, But He Wasn't

I just got done watching the Presidential address to Congress and immediately followed this up with a quick view of the online major networks new sites. Overall I thought the speech was very good and showed the President Obama that was lacking from his press room speech a few weeks back. The one part I cringed at was when President Obama gave credit to the United States for creation of the automobile. This was no major cringe, however, because really we were the first inventors of the automobile. But then again we weren't.

I figured I would let it all slide until I saw the Fox News website article "Obama Errs in Saying Americans Invented Automobiles". Being a Republican I hate being represented by a news outlet like Fox News. Their views and misinformation not only tend to make Republicans look bad, but make me ashamed. Anyway, that is another story.

The real story is that Fox News was quick to point out, "...his grasp of automotive history suggests he could use a refresher course...The problem: The credit for internal combustion engines generally is given to German engineer, Karl Benz, who designed and built the world's first practical automobile in 1885." Frankly, that is inaccurate. Apparently, the Fox News people, Gary Gastelu and Mike Majchrowitz in particular, need a refresher on automotive history. So here ya go Mike and Gary...

As the article did point out, Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot invented the steam powered automobile in 1769. Unfortunately, that is up for debate as Ferdinand Verbiest reportedly built a steam powered automobile in 1672, almost 100 years prior to Cugnot. So maybe Cugnot didn't invent it. For sake of argument, we will stick with speaking about internal combustion engine automobiles; otherwise we wind up going back even further.

The first internal combustion engine automobile was invented by George Selden in 1877 (a resident of Rochester, NY; which if I am not mistaken is in the United States. Or maybe I need a geography refresher). Several years prior to Karl Benz' four stroke combustion engine. The problem was that George Selden's automobile was never put into production and he eventually lost his patent rights. If I am not mistaken, that would make the United States the "nation that invented the automobile." That is the actual quote from President Obama, incase you were wondering. Not built; "invented."

And now to correct Fox's quote. The internal combustion engine was invented by François Isaac de Rivaz in 1806. If you cannot do the math that is 38 years prior to the birth of Karl Benz. Not only was Benz an inventor, but according to Gary Gastelu, Mike Majchrowitz and the Fox News network, he was also a time traveler.

So was President Obama right or wrong? Well, both. It is easy to assume he was referring to internal combustion engine automobiles. Thus, he was correct. This nation did invent them. But the automobile in general, well there he would be wrong. No matter which way you assume for that particular section of the President's speech; Fox News, Mike Majchrowitz and Gary Gastelu were wrong. And I can live with that.

Common Sense. Don't Surf Without It.

It is a beautiful Saturday morning and your friend Stacy has invited you to stop by and check out her new shop at the Space Book Bazaar. As it is such a beautiful day you decide to walk the few blocks, take in the sights and get a little exercise. You head out on your way, but figure you should probably stop off at the bank and deposit your tips from bartending the night before.

Being such a gorgeous day you get a little caught up in day dreaming and wind up taking a right towards the Tenth National Bank instead of a left. You catch yourself and think that this might not be the correct street, but up ahead you see a building with a big sign that reads "Tenf Nationel Bank". Do you go in and hand them your money?

You move on down a side street when a man wearing a mask runs up to you, hands you a box and runs off. You think to yourself, "That kind of looked like my friend Bob." Do you open the package?

You continue down the side street and come out at the entrance to the Space Book Bazaar. Not entirely certain where Stacy's shop is, you start meandering around the other stalls. Just then a man jumps in front of you screaming, "You have cancer! For $19.95 I will cure you." Do you believe him? Do you pay him?

Deeper into the bazaar you wander. The sights and sounds and smells are overwhelming. Some pleasant, others disturbing. The shops are as varied as the products they offer; ranging from neatly laid out fresh fruits in proper wooden stalls, to Genuine Rolex watches for sale in tents, to who-knows-what being sold from inside a van with dark-tinted windows. Do you stop at any of the stores and go in? Which ones?

Out of nowhere a crowd of people pass around you screaming and hawking their wares; a hand reaches out towards you from the crowd and you feel the sharp sting of a hypodermic entering your arm. Then the crowd is gone. Was that a pinch or a needle prick? You can't be sure now. Do you look for a police officer? Do you seek medical attention?

Welcome to the Internet.

I am fairly certain that most people would apply a little common sense to each of the above scenarios (I would hope at least). You would turn around and go to the correct bank, you wouldn't open the package, you would pass right by the lunatic shouting about you having cancer (and certainly wouldn't pay him), you would pick and choose which shops, if any, that you would browse through, and, hopefully, you would be a might bit concerned about possibly being injected with some foreign substance and would report it. Yet on the Internet, you don't. Well, maybe not you, but most of you.

For years people have used the excuse of computers being intimidating as a rationale for not applying common sense. Instead they say, "I didn't know," and are strangely happy with that. When the Internet was new that was an excuse. Now? Well now you shop, bank, date, and look at nude people performing all sorts of strange acts on the Internet. You are no longer intimidated by it. That excuse is gone.

Common sense applies everywhere. Not just on the streets. Not just at work. But on the Internet as well. That is what makes it "common", instead of street-smarts or business savvy. You do not need to be a technical genius to apply common sense to computers and the Internet. All you need is... Drum roll please... Common Sense.

This has been a public service announcement. We now return you to your regularly scheduled blogcast.

Let There Be Light

Somewhere in all humans, whether it is buried under layers of the subconscious or right at the forefront of the mind is the desire to create. For some this means making babies, for others it is writing or building bridges or cooking, and for some it is robotics. Throughout our lives, most of us will create across a variety of fields, but we usually find a special area or two that we are passionate about. Obviously for me one of those fields is robotics.

When I talk to people who are wishing to get into hobby level robotics I invariably try to steer them towards starting with solar robots (solarbots) or BEAM Robotics. There are a number of reasons for starting with solarbots over any other style of robotic platform that I use in an attempt to persuade entrants towards the "Light Side" (get it? Pretty clever huh?) of the field. Outlined below are a few of the more prominent reasons:

1. Variety of Skills Used - a big reason for starting with solar powered robotics is the number of different robotics based skills that are used and learned when building a robot of this type. In my opinion, basic electronics and soldering skills are a must have for any hobby roboticist to possess, and while these skills can be learned with mcu (microcontroller unit) based and battery operated robots, solarbots are less complex in design and thus easier to grasp the basic skills from. I have also noticed that most BEAM/Solar roboticists tend to understand what they are building better than those who use other platforms.

2. Simplicity - as I just stated, solarbots tend to be far less complex in design compared to their battery operated and mcu-based cousins. Simplicity means easier to understand and easier to complete. I have seen far too many people entering into the robotics field who try to build something complex in nature, only to wind up falling flat on their faces and abandon the project (and the field) entirely. Completing robots stirs up desire to build more robots and that keeps people in the game.

3. Costs - not always a problem, but robotics is not a cheap hobby. With $50, a bunch of scrounged components, some free time and a little scouring the SOR Forums you can build the $50 robot depicted at Society of Robots website. For under $10.00 and a free afternoon you can build a solarbot. Solarbots do not use batteries and generally do not use mcus (two of the three most expensive components for a robot), thus are much less expensive. Again, completing robots stirs up desire to build more robots.

4. Efficiency - solarbots are powered by the sun. Solar cell technology sucks (in the range of 20% efficient). Robots of this nature must be very efficient in order to operate, which teaches roboticists great methods of producing energy efficient designs. You will thank yourself in the future for learning how to get the most out of the energy available.

After going through my spiel the majority ignore me and take on a momentous robot building task, which they plan to have wash their dishes, mow their lawn, bring them beer and provide intellectual conversation. As a result, few complete their robots, fewer still stay with robotics. I equate it to trying to run a marathon before learning to crawl. It is what it is.

Don't get me wrong, solarbots are not the only place to start and be successful in robotics. Many people have gone different routes (I started with a step-by-step robot some 24 years ago). Either way, the moral of the story is to start simple and understand what it is you are doing. In case you are persuaded towards solarbots, there are many great places on the web to help get you started with solar robotics, two such places are Solarbotics.net and the BEAM Robotics Wiki.

The reason for this long introduction is that this is the place where I will start the Evolution Project. Solar power. In the beginning, life on Earth consisted of simple creatures that harnessed the power of the sun (or volcanic heat vents) to survive. The simplest of life forms; and thus the simplest of artificial life forms. 'Let there be light.' And there was light.

The Evolution Project

Before I really begin to delve too deeply into what I am terming The Evolution Project, I thought I should come up with some sort of definitive goals or objectives, as well as rules and guidelines for those goals. And what better day to write down some scientific methods for an evolution project than on Charles Darwin's 200th birthday. Before this morning I had no idea that it was his birthday, but coincidence is a mistress I have learned not to question too much. As I have mentioned, I love serendipity.

As per the basic ideas outlined in my Thinking Evolution entry, I believe starting small and building in pieces is essential if we are ever to make great progress in the field of robotics. Granted, serendipity always seems to play a role in discovery and some people will make leaping strides purely by what would seem to be accidental in nature. It happens all the time in scientific pursuits. However, for this project I want to understand what is happening as it happens and not have to look back to figure out the "Wow! How did it do that?" stuff. Thus, the previous guides outlined will be applied.

The question is, "What really is the goal of this?" Obviously something to do with robotics and evolution, but what? Well, let us strip away the robotics part and instead go with something else. Something grander. How about two somethings? Sure, why not...Life and Intelligence?

Both of these things are very difficult to define overall, and subject to plenty of debate. Life in particular does not even hold a complete definition, it is subject to change based on who you ask (much like what makes up a planet. Poor, poor Pluto). The overall answer to what is life is similar to another controversial subject and the rulings made by judges on the subject: porn. It is difficult to define, but I know it when I see it. The same can be said for the definition of life.

There are a few hard and fast rules that most scientists agree on when it comes to whether something is alive or not. I will use some of these rules, but seeing as I will not be using all of them I really have no justification having a goal of creating life. Despite all my strengths, I fall short of anything close to god-like (Just don't tell my ego I said that) and so we will say "Artificial Life".

The intelligence part, while not so heavily debated, is another one of those words that falls into the porn category for definition. You might think the obvious thing to do is go with Artificial Intelligence, but I am not. Artificial is fake, or in this case mimicking. I do not want to create something that mimics intelligence; I want something that displays it. That possesses intelligence of its own. I might not be able to create true life out of electronics and machinery, but I can create intelligence. Or at the very least will strive for that.

Now for the formalized goal. Drum roll please. The Evolution Project will be a progressive selection and building process of artificial life forms, such that each new generation should be superior to or better able to survive than the previous; with the ultimate goal of one or more generations of Intelligent Artificial Life Forms. Good goal. Simply, I want to make an Intelligent Artificial Life Form.

Onto the definitions and guides. The Artificial Life guidelines that I will be using will be taken straight from what Wikipedia considers a consensus of the characteristics of a life form, and I will add or subtract from these characteristics to accommodate the artificial portion.

1. Homeostasis: Regulation of the internal environment to maintain a constant state; for example, electrolyte concentration or sweating to reduce temperature. (Pretty self explanatory and something not all species need to do. We will take this one and add: ) as needed to survive.

2. Organization: Being structurally composed of one or more cells, which are the basic units of life. (We are not dealing with cells, but electrical and mechanical components. Hence the artificial part. Instead: ) Being structurally composed of one or more logic circuits, which are the basic units of electromechanical life.

3. Metabolism: Consumption of energy by converting chemicals and energy into cellular organizational components (anabolism) and decomposing organic matter (catabolism). Living things require energy to maintain internal organization (homeostasis) and to produce the other phenomena associated with life. (The only part here that does not apply is the decomposing organic matter. We will add that the artificial life form must be capable of deriving its own energy under its normal environmental conditions of its own accord. If you have to plug it in, it can not be an artificial life form, however if it can dock itself into a wall outlet and draw power on its own, then it is like you or I going to the fridge for food.)

4. Growth: Maintenance of a higher rate of synthesis than catabolism. A growing organism increases in size in all of its parts, rather than simply accumulating matter. The particular species begins to be multiplyied and expand as the evolution continues to flourish. (Obviously single cell organisms don't always grow, but the evolution part we will hold onto.)

5. Adaptation: The ability to change over a period of time in response to the environment. This ability is fundamental to the process of evolution and is determined by the organism's heredity as well as the composition of metabolized substances, and external factors present. (As defined, adaptation depends on characteristic number seven. By calling it Intelligent Design and with some experimentation, I will be providing the evolutionary adaptation. At least for the beginning.)

6. Response to stimuli: A response can take many forms, from the contraction of a unicellular organism to external chemicals, to complex reactions involving all the senses of higher animals. A response is often expressed by motion, for example, the leaves of a plant turning toward the sun (phototropism) and chemotaxis.

7. Reproduction: The ability to produce new organisms. Reproduction can be the division of one cell to form two new cells. Usually the term is applied to the production of a new individual (either asexually, from a single parent organism, or sexually, from at least two differing parent organisms), although strictly speaking it also describes the production of new cells in the process of growth. (Until nanotechnology has progressed to the level that nano-devices are capable of rearranging compounds at the molecular level, this is something that needs to be skipped. Also of note, the primary reason for reproduction is to continue the species; but if a form of life existed that did not die, would it have the need to reproduce? Over population would become a huge issue if every part of a life form could be repaired or replaced and the life form could live forever. I think evolution would cause the loss of reproduction for such a species.)

Once you strip off characteristic number seven and add the few caveats, I think this will work for our guidelines of what constitutes artificial life. The intelligence part I will define myself:

Capable of making complex decisions based upon a response to external stimuli, prior experiences or both; combined with the ability to accumulate knowledge of said decisions and experiences in an effort to improve upon current and future decision making responses.

Basically, I will know it when I see it.

This is the Evolution Project. These are my goals and guidelines. It will take time and patience. It will take learning on my own part. It will be fun.

Brain Dump

For some strange and unknown reason, the world did not stop with my lack of posting for the past however-long-it-was (huge blow to my ego there), likewise my life continued on even without posting about it in a blog entry. I figured I should take the time to dump out a quick entry to cover some of what I know has to be on everyone's minds.

First, and most importantly, my daughter was accepted to Johnson and Wales University (N. Miami Campus) in the Food Management (Culinary) program. I can not express enough how proud I am of her, not only for getting into a top university for culinary arts, but for following her dreams of becoming a chef. There have been a few hurdles here and there since she was initially accepted, but she has continued on despite these obstacles. So everyone join me in saying, "Yea Phaide!"

As to the subject of my own higher education, that has been a waiting game and will continue to be such until sometime after Feb 21, 2009. Despite having submitted my application and all required paperwork back in November, I am a distance learner candidate, which puts me into the part-time student pool. Apparently CMU Heinz College has been up to their eyeballs with applications and has been following their admissions policies that go: fulltime early admissions candidates (those who apply before Dec 1), fulltime regular admissions (application deadline of Feb 1) and finally part-time candidates. Therefore, I must wait and be patient for all of the fulltime applications to be processed before I find out if I have been accepted or not.

On the robotics front, I have started my robotics evolution project, but that will be covered in a separate entry. The "You Design It" project is still being worked on, slowly but surely. Currently, there is a small lack of funds to progress too far on either of the robots. Rest assured, they will continue at some point once income goes up; most likely between the "I no longer have to live on oatmeal" and "I can buy that new plasma TV" financial phases. The evolution project is still at a very inexpensive phase (basically left over parts that are floating around) and as such, will keep me active in robotics.

In the mean time, I thought I might share a few of the pictures from the "You Design It" VTOL robot (the hoverbot is not cosmetically ready for a photo-op). Enjoy.

VTOL Wings Half Covered
VTOL Carbon Fiber Wing
VTOL Carbon Fiber Wing

I Bit My Tongue Off

I started this blog a year ago for a variety of little reasons, but mostly I started it to write. It was to be my outlet in a way that only yelling from the roof of a building at the top of your lungs could be. I get thoughts on my brain and I need to let them out, much in the same way that we all get cravings for a particular food and you just have got to have it.

Just like how other foods do not taste as good until that craving has been satisfied, writing about other topics while something is swirling in the back of my mind doesn't hit the spot. Only with a food craving we have to eat. We get hungry and, whether or not we can get that Lobster Bisque, we know we have to eat and so we do. Well, I don't have to write. There are no paid banners or advertisements that I have to think about keeping a readership coming back to the website for. There is only the time it takes me to put up an entry and the costs to maintain a web-space. Nothing to force me to write; except the outlet of thoughts and ideas. And that is what iamwhen is here for.

The problem is that this whole Internet fad (Trust me; it won't last more than a year or two. Really.) is open to the world. Everyone from everywhere can read what I write tonight or tomorrow or even what I wrote a year ago. That has been a problem for me because HR personnel and hiring managers have passed over people due to what they find with a simple Google search during the hiring process. The things they have found aren't "tear down the government, communism forever" or even "I like having sex on my desk at the office" kind of stuff, but rather a photo of the applicant in a bikini on their myspace page. Stupid things like that.

If a simple photo taken at the beach can mean the difference between "You're hired" and "Don't call us (and we won't call you)", what would my view that Creationism should not be taught in schools do for my chances at employment (especially working in the South)? What about all my other views on things that some might find even more controversial?

So when Georgia invaded the breakaway nation of South Ossetia and we (the United States and most of the world) condemned Russia for kicking their ass back across the border straight to the Georgian capital city (similar to what the U.S.A and U.N. did to Iraq when Iraq invaded the nation of Kuwait), I bit my tongue. When the Presidential race was underway and politics were on everyone mind, I bit my tongue. On and on I bit my tongue, until finally I became mute.

I couldn't get any words to come out except those things I worried about voicing, because somewhere, someone in HR or some manager will ignore 20 years of industry experience, world class training and certifications, miles of recommendations, and a mind accepted into MENSA; and instead decide that I should not get the job or the promotion or the raise because they disagree with my opinion. And that was the problem. Because we live in a world where that does happen.

Well, screw them. If someone is that much of a moron to see that their opinion is wrong (because it disagrees with mine) and thinks that a difference of opinions or a spoken point of view matters more than ability and experience, well then they are someone I do not want to work with, for, or around. That is my stance and we'll see if it works better than the previous "silence is golden" one.

A little crazy glue and my tongue has been reattached (I might need some duct tape until the glue dries); and I will once again be posting my mind. Regardless of what topic is on my mind. And hopefully voicing those thoughts that swirl around in the back of my head will once again allow me to write about topics that I feel passionate about (robotics) instead of opinionated on (Palin? Really? I mean, REALLY?).