One Day Summarizes Everything

December 11, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Yesterday was the last regular day of the fall semester, and the events of the day have an eerie sort of encapsulating symmetry about them, if you look at them from a certain angle.

The first order of business was the robot competition in ECE 101.  This was held in the big lecture hall in the new wing of Barrows (the same room where ECE 100 seminars were held), and consisted of a showdown in the 4×4 maze for the four teams whose robots had performed best in the preliminary rounds of testing, which were held in the week’s regular lab sessions.

The rules of the ECE 101 robot contest are fairly simple: The robot has to navigate a maze based on 12-inch squares without any outside intervention.  The robot that is consistently the fastest over three complete runs wins.  Grounds for disqualification include manual intervention by the robots’ builders, any attempt by the robot itself to circumvent the structure of the maze (extremely unlikely given the nature of the robots’ construction), and contact with the maze walls.  Keep that last rule, particularly, in mind for the next thing I say:

It may give you some indication of how well the robot Let’s Call Him Matt and I built performed in the preliminary round when I tell you that it ended up being dubbed Harvey.

So, uh, we weren’t participating in the finals.  We did get it to move (the reason it wouldn’t turned out to be a programming problem in one of the header files that was so abstruse even Andy was impressed with its subtlety), but could never find the sweet spot for the sensor gain settings that would lead to any useful navigational abilities.  We ended up just running out of time – the Wednesday lab ended without Harvey having logged a single successful run in the 4×4 maze, and neither of us was able to attend the optional evening session or the Thursday afternoon lab, so Friday morning came with us never having gotten on the board at all.

Regardless, it was fun to watch the finals, and the performance of the robot that won overall was impressive.  The winning team received "production" robots, based on the same design we used for the ones we built in class, but based on a grown-up printed circuit board instead of a forest of Wire-Wrapped pins in plain perf board – not really much more practical than a trophy, since the ECE 101 Maze Robot’s practical usefulness potential is rather limited, but certainly something with more engineering cred when displayed on a shelf.

In the afternoon, I finally managed to deliver my fourth and final speech in CMJ 103 for credit, having done one dry run with it in Zay’s* office on Wednesday evening.  The second run was necessary because the visual aids were unavailable the first time, and it took us quite a lot of fiddling around to line up a room with a working projector.  We did finally get it done, though, and I had the curious experience of delivering an impassioned persuasive speech to an audience of one in what may be the oddest classroom on campus: 44 Dunn Hall, also known as "the airplane".  This gets its name from the fact that it is a curiously long and narrow room that’s been set up as a sort of miniature lecture hall.  It’s got four columns of seats arranged two-by-two with an aisle in the middle and a projector screen at one end, and the entrance is in the middle of one of the long sides, making entering it feel uncannily like boarding a commuter flight.

Even stranger, an hour later after delivering that speech to no one but Zay in a basement room resembling a small airliner cabin, I was on the other side of campus in a big lecture hall, one of the proper auditorium-style ones, delivering it again to a couple of hundred people.  This was because, as I previously mentioned, I’d been selected as Section 003’s delegate to the Oak Awards, a competition among the many (this semester, eight) sections of CMJ 103.

This was… a profoundly weird experience.  I mean to say, performing a set of prepared remarks in a semi-darkened theatre-like room, with my parents sitting at opposite sides pretending not to have noticed each other – it was like being a high school drama nerd again, except there was actually money on the line.  First prize at the Oak Awards is a $500 scholarship.  (And bragging rights for your instructor, who can thus force all the other CMJ 103 instructors for the semester to acknowledge that her kung fu is best.)

I was up second, which I thought was slightly odd since I was representing Section 003, but fine, no problem there.  My slides (or, well, it was actually a PowerPoint presentation, but it contained no clever inter-slide effects, not one single bullet point, and only one font, so my conscience is clear) had been provided to the MC ahead of time, and apart from not being able to control the room lights – which screwed up my planned attention-getting device a little, since it involved simulating an electric blackout – there were no technical problems.  I retired to my seat secure in the knowledge that I had done the best I could do and resolved to let the chips fall where they may.

The other seven speakers were a very mixed bag.  There were two civil engineering students, a nutrition and food science major, a pre-vet biologist, and a couple of others I don’t remember offhand – and one guy who actually was a communications major, who I figured might be trouble?  Except he had that rising intonation thing going on?  That the kids do these days?  Where everything sounds like a question?  Even when it isn’t?  And I may be revealing myself as an ancient fuddy-duddy here, but I just couldn’t take him seriously as a potential rival after that point.

Personally, I think the most interesting one of the seven was the guy who presented some well-reasoned and cogent points in defense of the thesis that recycling paper is a counterproductive waste of time, effort, and energy resources.  Well, I say interesting.  Two of the others were plenty interesting, but not in a "hmm, you know, he’s got a point" way; those would be the two who denounced, respectively, evolution and the Apollo 11 mission photos as scientific fraud.  (The latter actually caused me to facepalm involuntarily, which got me kicked chidingly in the ankle by one of my colleagues in the competitors’ corner.  I suppose it was a bit rude of me, but coming as it did directly on the heels of the evolution speech, I just couldn’t help it.)

So anyway, I won.

(That wasn’t a very dramatic buildup, yeah?  However, it’s roughly equivalent to the way the MC announced it after the judges deliberated.  I’d never seen an award announcement where they started with first place before.  It rather dampens the drama, I have to admit.  Also, while I’m proud of the achievement and the $500 will certainly help next semester, I’m a little disappointed that there’s no certificate or anything.)

So there you are.  In the same day, I – ostensibly an engineering major – failed to even make the finals of a technical competition held as part of an engineering core course, but swept the field and retired covered in glory in a liberal arts competition held in conjunction with a core humanities course.

That, I think, summarizes my whole Weltanschauung nowadays.

On the other hand, I’m not quite done with Harvey yet.  Any further work on the project won’t be useful for credit, since the class will be over on Monday, but I’m hoping to keep fooling with it over break anyway.  It just annoys me to leave the thing unfinished.

This weekend: prep for finals.  I have two, one in ECE 101, the other in MAT 122.  Confidence is moderate for both of them at this time – except I’m not sure when/where the MAT 122 one actually is.  I think the time/place I have in my appointment book is actually the final for MAT 122-0001, the Regular Course with the same prof as the online one I’m really enrolled in; the Office of Student Records claims the one for MAT 122-0990 is on a completely different day, but doesn’t say where it is.  Must email Prof. Zoroya and get that cleared up.



* Her name is Lindzay, making her the first academic instructor I’ve had who prefers to be known not just by her first name, but by a diminutive form of her first name, by her students.  But hey, whatever makes her happy.

  1. Dave Van Domelen
    December 12, 2010 at 12:23

    My experience with Communications majors has been that they can’t communicate very well, either in spoken or written form. It’s one of those majors that gets picked by people who have no real academic interests but are told they can’t major in beer.

  2. Darker
    December 12, 2010 at 12:53

    Kudos on the speaking award, and I totally understand the desire to keep fiddling with the robot. :)

    Strangely, the one other prof I can think of who goes by a diminutive(ish) form of their first name is… my dad. (At least, while he was teaching.) Admittedly, it’s the shortening he goes by socially as well, so less odd.

  3. Peter Eng
    December 14, 2010 at 16:16

    Considering the amount of time you’ve put in to writing for nothing more than the acclaim of your peers, the need to chase the idea, and the occasional international controversy, it’s not surprising that you came out well in the competition. You were building your communication skills before you were in journalism.

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