[vcf-midatlantic] MARCHIAN invasion of Trenton

Herb Johnson hjohnson at retrotechnology.info
Sat Mar 25 14:20:04 EDT 2017

Herb Johnson:

>> Evan is correct, in his reportage that I said his and Jeff's robotics talk was more
>> technically informative, than my discussion with a student and faculty-member of their
>> $40K demonstration robot. I could not get those persons, to describe the programming
>> interface to their tower of plastic and motors. Evan showed a BASIC program with peeks and
>> pokes. The 20th century won that "battle of the 'bots". Am I a judge? I worked on robotic
>> system interfaces to minicomputers in 1975.
Neil Cherry:

> I find great humor in this. Evan who learned on his own (with help, but still) knew more
> about the technical details of his project than the students did of theirs. This says
> good things about Evan.

This is amusing but don't take my remarks too far. I'm sure a 2017 
engineering student knows a lot that I don't know. I'm sure a professor 
of electrical engineering knows a lot I don't know. Read what I'm 
saying. I said "I could not get these persons to DESCRIBE the 
programming interface...."

My casual understanding from discussion, is that the college's robot was 
obtained a few months ago. And the plan is to work harder on it, in the 
summer. So it simply may not have been familiar to either party. And the 
student may have been intimidated by hard questions; and the instructor 
may not have had time to look at the programming features.

All that said, my point was that neither person could DESCRIBE in a 
technical way, what their robot could do at the program command level. 
It was sold as a development tool, not just some pick-n-place robot. I 
asked the question a number of ways, and couldn't get a straight answer.

The most direct inferences are 1) they weren't prepared for technical 
questions or 2) the robot did not come with a clearly defined "API" or 
applications programming interface or 3) the robot wasn't well documented.

The instructor said something about supporting the "Robotics Operating 
System" which is "open source" but could not (or would not) inform me 
further. I've heard of it:


and so I go to the Web page. The home page points to "features" which 
are listed as:

     Standard Message Definitions for Robots
     Robot Geometry Library
     Robot Description Language
     Preemptable Remote Procedure Calls
     Pose Estimation

Creee-IPES! What a bunch of gobble-gook! I'm an engineer, dammit, not a 
linguist, or a choreographer! It's nice to know I can pass messages, 
that will help me in homeroom to send notes to my buddies and that new 
girl. But - what can I move, what can I sense, what can I *see* through 
this ROS, for this robot?

The page talks about "poses" and "graphical interfaces" and 
"diagnostics", "data logging"....(sigh) I'm aware of these issues and 
methods, I understand you can write a MS-degree thesis by playing with 
this stuff. And I see their "testimonials" from PhD's and grad students, 
and one "hobbyist".

This goes to my "thesis" - anyone can pose a problem as a thesis, you 
know. My thesis is this: it's worth preserving 20th century (early) 
vintage computing, because the technology of the era is simple enough to 
grasp at a fundamental level. Therefore, it's accessible to those of 
modest skills, or those looking back at forgotten technology.

More important, this technology solved problems and provided access to a 
class of computing and control technology. If another generation of 
devices, or another class of technology, comes around - why not see if 
THOSE solutions will work for those NEW devices and technology? Or see 
if the same problems were already solved, or not solved - learn from our 
mistakes and successes?

I don't expect personal computer collectors to have these goals and 
these considerations; they have personal reasons and interests. But some 
of us have this perspective.

So - if you aren't a grad student or scholar, which robot is going to 
teach you something? the robot with the operating system and 
message-passing protocols and pre-established methods? Or the robot that 
you say "move this joint motor" with "peek(12379)" in a FOR loop?

You can argue you are peeing away your time with primitive coding. But 
I'd argue you are pissing away what you might learn about control and 
sensor problems, if you only use a graphics interface and script 
messages about tasks. Not much difference between some game-design 
avatar and a robot, at that level.

20th century versus 21st century. Engineering design versus product 
design. These are old tensions. And as they will occur again, this old 
stuff is worth preserving, to show how we dealt with these conflicts, 
the last few times they occurred.

Herb Johnson

Herbert R. Johnson, New Jersey in the USA
http://www.retrotechnology.com OR .net
preserve, recover, restore 1970's computing
email: hjohnson AT retrotechnology DOT com
or try later herbjohnson AT retrotechnology DOT info

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