Monthly Archives: March 2008

Sneaking Out of the House to Build Robots

My favorite story from the whole FIRST Northeastern Regional competition was revealed in the delivery of the “Woodie Flowers” award. Woodie, you see, is the MIT professor who founded FIRST with Dean Kamen of Segway fame, after starting the legendary 2.70 and later 6.270 robotics contests at MIT. In many ways, Woodie was responsible for my attendance at MIT, just as he has now been responsible for inspiring tens of thousands of aspiring technologists across the US through FIRST.

So in thanks and recognition, the Woodie Flowers Award is granted to the team mentor at each regional and final First contest that best exemplifies Woodie’s spirit of contribution, teamwork, and inspiration.


Woodie Flowers and Elizabeth Carruthers

This year’s recipient, Elizabeth Carruthers from the Columbus School for Girls, had a great story. As a high school student, her parents weren’t all that supportive of the time and energy that FIRST demanded, so she had to sneak out of the house to work on her team’s FIRST robot.

She was so committed to the program and her teammates, that when her parents caught her sneaking out, she told them that she was just going to “parties with her friends,” which turned out to be okay with them. You see, they wanted her to be socially well-adjusted, and feared seeing their daughter turned into a nerd.

Given that she has now gone on to a technical undergraduate program, and returned to mentor her old high school’s FIRST team (an all-girl’s team, at that) into the regional finals, (a remarkable accomplishment that takes MANY more skills in communication and leadership and interpersonal relationships than just the technical ones) I’d say she’s VERY well adjusted!

Congrats, Elizabeth. Our nation need more inspirations like you.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Education, Engineering, Robotics

Shuttle and ISS

NASA

Leave a comment

Filed under Astronomy

Data Visualization for US Politics

With the end of the primary season coming up this summer, I expect a resurgence of the talk about “red and blue states” that dominated the 2004 election as we approach the direct engagement of the Republican and Democratic parties. This morning, I stumbled on a great site by Michael Gastner, Cosma Shalizi, and Mark Newman from the University of Michigan that uses very nice cartographic representations of the last election results to better visualize the electorate.

Popular publications such as USA today published many maps of this sort showing the winner’s party by county.

But this graphical representation fails to take into account either the population density, electoral votes by county, or how close the vote was. If you process the map topology and scale each county to represent electoral votes, and color the vote results as a continuous scale from red to blue with even results represented as a mixed color of purple, the result is much more interesting.

Rather than the stark red/blue divide of the trivial map above, a more representative view of our nation deemphasizes sparsely-populated geographies with little economic impact and highlights those regions driving tomorrow’s economy. We also look like a much more homogeneous purple nation in this view.

Interestingly enough, in the economic-political view, the most politically homogeneous regions are the blue counties where economic development is the strongest.

Check out the whole site here.

1 Comment

Filed under Graphics, Math, Politics

Time-Lapse Video of Retreating Glacier

For all you climate change skeptics, check out this time-lapse video of the Columbia glacier near Valdez Alaska from National Geographic (click through for full res version.)

From the Nat Geo page:

This remarkable image sequence captures a series of massive calving events at Columbia Glacier near Valdez, Alaska. Composed of 436 frames taken between May and September of 2007, it shows the glacier rapidly retreating by about half a mile (1.6 kilometers), a volume loss of some 0.4 cubic miles (1.67 cubic kilometers) of ice or 400 billion gallons (1.5 trillion liters) of water.

The time-lapse was taken as part of the ongoing Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), an ambitious project to capture global warming-induced glacial retreat in the act. Beginning in December 2006, photographer James Balog and his colleagues set up 26 solar-powered cameras at glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, the Alps, and the Rocky Mountains. Each unit will take a photograph every daylight hour until fall 2009.

In 2008, Balog’s team began to return to each of the camera sites to collect images. In the end, they will have more than 300,000 images to analyze and stitch together to produce more dramatic videos like this one.

This kind of multiyear effort, says Balog, is necessary to “radically alter public perception of the global warming issue.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Global Warming

Most Children Left Behind

Just last week, I had a chance to hear a presentation by Alfie Kohn, one of the more (in)famous progressive education proponents, on the perils of emphasizing achievement and performance over engagement in a subject. Besides being an enthusiastic and engaging speaker, Alfie made a number of great points that really resonated with me regarding the damage a national obsession with standardized testing and assessment has wreaked on the quality of education at large. (We coincidentally follow most of Kohn’s recommendations in how we operate the WISE labs and programs…)

His central point on this topic was that by focusing so much school and parental attention on HOW students are doing instead of on WHAT they are doing and WHY, the very effort assessment has a now reasonably well proven effect of focusing the student’s attention on external validation from teachers and grades instead of on the actual subjects under study. The result, according to the many cited research articles, is that students lose intrinsic motivation and interest in the very subjects around which we really hope to instill a lifelong love of learning. It didn’t take much effort to extend the notions not only to grades and class rank, but even further to parenting techniques and practices as well.

And of course, the “No Child Left Behind” legislation, already the whipping boy of education Illuminati nationwide, took a severe beating in the process. One of my favorite moments in his talk was when he impersonated our current President and Senator Ted Kennedy complete with accents in their “misguided support in passing the law.” It didn’t take much looking around online to find pretty strong independent evidence in support of what Mr Kohn has been saying for years on this topic. My favorite articles came from Rice University and the NY Times.

The Rice/UT study was particularly sobering, not just for its striking revelations surrounding the duplicity of the Texas public school system’s reporting, but because it was this very public school system’s approach that was used to promote and establish the model for the national NCLB legislation. In the study entitled “Avoidable Losses: High Stakes Accountability and the Dropout Crisis” McNeil, Coppola, and Radigan of Rice University basically stripped the clothes right off the emperor.

Until recently, the GOP held out the “Texas Miracle” program as a model for national education reform with improving scores and an astonishingly low dropout rate of less than 3%. According to this paper, however, when researchers actually investigated how many high school students actually graduated within 5 years (not even the hoped for four-year tenure) the answer was a horrifyingly low 33%. Yes, 33%. I’ll say it again, because I didn’t believe it the first two times I read it either. Fewer than 33% percent of entering public high school students in Texas graduate within 5 years.

Needless to say, this doesn’t quite match up with the public accounting of dropout rates the state has been touting for the last few years. When challenged, the state sheepishly admitted,

“The discrepancy between the official dropout rates, in the 2 to 3 percent range, and the actual rates can be attributed to the state’s method of counting, which does not include students who drop out of school for reasons such as pregnancy or incarceration or declare intent to take the GED sometime in the future.”

Duh. As if they didn’t know that their purposefully and carefully chosen metric diverged so widely from the stated goals of the program. “Oh. You mean you want us to count ALL the dropouts?” And the real results?

“A new study by researchers at Rice University and the University of Texas-Austin finds that Texas’ public school accountability system, the model for the national No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), directly contributes to lower graduation rates. Each year Texas public high schools lose at least 135,000 youth prior to graduation — a disproportionate number of whom are African-American, Latino and English-as-a-second-language (ESL) students.

By analyzing data from more than 271,000 students, the study found that 60 percent of African-American students, 75 percent of Latino students and 80 percent of ESL students did not graduate within five years. The researchers found an overall graduation rate of only 33 percent.

“High-stakes, test-based accountability doesn’t lead to school improvement or equitable educational possibilities,” said Linda McSpadden McNeil, director of the Center for Education at Rice University. “It leads to avoidable losses of students. Inherently the system creates a dilemma for principals: comply or educate. Unfortunately we found that compliance means losing students.”

In the effort to improve scores, MOST children, 67% of them in fact, are being left behind. My personal belief has been for years that we KNOW there is a problem already, and more testing will not fix the problem. Further, it won’t even tell us anything we don’t already know. In reality, the effect is even more damaging than I could have possibly imagined.

This was exactly one of the key points Mr. Kohn was making writ large across an entire state with unforgivable effects on the lives of millions of children across the nation, particularly impacting minorities. Don’t take my word for it, and don’t think I have even begun to cover all the deleterious effects of the assessment obsession that Kohn describes with heartrending insight. Read the whole report here.

If all of the references on Alfie Kohn’s site and the Rice/UT report weren’t enough to really depress you, or if maybe the paper was a little too academic for you, check out last week’s article from the NY Times entitled, “State’s Data Obscure How Few Finish High School.” It basically exposes more of the same sort of accounting fraud. Here is the acompanying graphic from the article.

Graduation Discrepancies

This educational assessment disaster is yet another very good reason to strongly consider replacing the current republican administration so that we might quickly halt the spread of this cancer that is strangling our nation’s future.

Even more importantly, don’t be fooled that the testing is good for your own kids, much less for the minority kids down the street.

Leave a comment

Filed under Education, Politics

Live 3D Graphics With Excel

Every time I get a chance to watch one of our finance folks over at MobiTV wield a spreadsheet, I learn some new tricks. Those financial analysis folks steeped in the arcane features of Excel seem to be able to make the software package produce ever more astounding and useful models of increasingly complex systems.

But this one takes the cake. Check out this really cool implementation of a 3D graphics rendering engine. IN EXCEL! Peter Rakos over at Gamasutra outdid himself.


This image and video pair shows the rendering system using a simple display that colors the native Excel spreadsheet cells as the calculations are being performed.

This image and video pair shows the same program using the Microsoft Office Graphics Abstraction Layer to do the rendering instead of using writes to the spreadsheet cell.

Even better, some of the spatial layout and cell computation models of spreadsheets turn out to be very useful in designing and presenting very compact and elegant representations of the rendering pipeline. This design and layout in the 2-D spreadsheet grid is massively easier to see and understand than all the simple linear text files that I coded up in my college graphics course. It also makes the interrelationships and cell/function dependencies immediately obvious, and debugging is trivial with live previews of the calculations while the program is running. High cool.

“The yellow color marks the user-defined parameters and green color indicates the engine-calculated values. Numbered areas contain the following data:

  1. Parameters of the perspective projection
  2. 3D coordinates of the objects’ points (relative to their center)
  3. Shift and rotation matrix (further details can be found e.g. at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3D_projection)
  4. Parameters of the rotation
  5. 3D absolute coordinates of the points after the shift and rotation
  6. 2D coordinates of the points after the perspective projection
  7. Screen coordinates of the points
  8. End points of the objects’ edges
  9. Formula of an element in the shift and rotation matrix. Simplicity and compactness are clearly visible.”

    Now I don’t think anyone currently expects this to evolve into a real 3D simulation system, but it does point to some very interesting 2D layout programming paradigms that might very well turn out to be VERY useful in developing more complex software. It wouldn’t surprise me if the professional code development environments evolve towards this sort of thing within the next few years. And of course, 3D environments are just a step away.

    And I have a whole new animation tool for my next presentation!

    Check out the whole post here.

    1 Comment

    Filed under Computer Science, Graphics

    Earth As Seen From Mars

    Leave a comment

    Filed under Astronomy