DARPA Urban Challenge has Started

The national qualifying event (NQE) forDARPA’ s Urban Challenge started today in Victorville, CA. The Urban Challenge is the current incarnation of the DARPA Grand Challenge autonomous car competition. Unlike the previous challenge, which was an off-road race, the current challenge takes place on city streets with traffic. The Austin Robot Technology team (ART)  made it to the NQE and is now trying to qualify for the finals, on Nov. 3. ART’s AI is being directed by UT Austin CS professor (and member of my thesis committee) Peter Stone, and AI development is being headed by my good friend and former labmate Pat Beeson. GO ART!

DARPA will be webcasting the finals, but unfortunately, I can’t find any sign of a scoreboard for the NQE which will be going on until Wednesday. Georgia Tech’s Sting Racing team is running a blog, though.

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Tracking the San Diego Fires on Google Maps

KPBS in San Diego has created a great tracker for the San Diego fires using Google Maps. It’s very impressive, and for those of us who are on the other side of the country it’s much easier way of seeing what’s really going on than listening to the lame, repetitive coverage on cable news. The annual meeting of Society for Neuroscience is scheduled to start in San Diego in just over a week, and I know that attendees from all over the world want to know what’s going on. The network and cable news has been surprisingly vague about the actual location of the fires. Apparently capitalizing on tragedy by reporting live from burnt-out neighborhoods is more important than actually informing us about what’s happening. The Harris fire is about 10 miles from downtown at its closest point.

BTW, to get a real view of the extent of the fires, download the KML file (link in the upper right on the Google Maps page), and open it in Google Earth — zoom in on San Diego and change your camera angle to do virtual flyovers. It’s stunning, and the number of residential streets inside the perimeter of the Witch Creek fire is astounding. It’s very sad.

Update: Here is another good Google Maps view, with slightly different information.

Update: Another blog is also wondering what’s up with SfN. There’s no info one way or another on the web. There’s still a week until the first pre-conferences start. That’s a long time in a situation like this. I assume the conference organizers will wait until the last minute to make a decision.

Screw USAirways, PIT should woo JetBlue

Over lunch I was reading the latest in the saga of USAirways slow pullout from Pittsburgh International Airport. Apparently, the CEO of USAirways wrote letters to Senators Spector and Casey after Spector made some harsh comments about USAirways on a recent visit here.

Yawn. USAirways is obviously leaving. It’s time to move on.

The article includes some speculation about Southwest Airlines adding some flights here, but so far it’s just that: speculation. Every time I hear about Southwest in Pittsburgh, I think, what about JetBlue? JetBlue’s hub is at New York’s hopelessly overcommitted JFK International. Their terminal is cramped and overcrowded, and JFK can’t handle all the air traffic it gets, causing JetBlue’s evening departures to get bumped down down the queue in favor of big international departures. It’s a mess. I flew in and out of JFK on JetBlue on a summer trip to Europe (connecting to Olympic Air), and I never want to do it again. Both flights were delayed by hours. It’s too bad, because there’s so much to love about JetBlue as an airline: nice, clean comfortable new planes, great in-flight entertainment, free WiFi in their terminal, and a generally “with it” mentality.

PIT’s midfield terminal was designed to be a hub, and is far nicer than JetBlue’s terminal at JFK. For flyers not originating or terminating in New York, who cares where the hub is, as long as it gives easy access to the same general region? JetBlue could improve their service immensely by routing a portion of their flights through Pittsburgh with its relatively uncrowded runways.

The big question is whether local government has the backbone to offer a truly competitive incentive package. My guess is, probably not, but I can dream.

Old Lady to Comcast: Stop, Hammer Time!

This is all over the blogosphere already, but I have to mention the story of 75-year-old Mona “The Hammer” Shaw. After being treated like crap by her local Comcast customer service office, she returned with a hammer and started destroying office equipment.  Hasn’t everyone wanted to do that to their cable company at some point?  I have one word for her: DirecTV.

It’s a good thing she didn’t have to go to a Sears service center in Pittsburgh.

Maybe the Port Authority is Foundering Because Their Service Sucks?

Or maybe it’s just the one bus line that I ride regularly? I ride to Pitt every day on the 44U, the direct-to-oakland “university” route that runs to Bridgeville, but principally seems to serve Mt. Lebanon and Dormont. If the service on this line is any indication of the overall level of Port Authority bus service then it’s no wonder they can’t make any money.

I rode the 44U to Pitt as an undergrad in the late 80’s. When I started riding it again from Dormont in February of this year, I was astonished to learn that, with the exception of one extra afternoon run, the schedule is unchanged in 20 years! I can literally catch the bus at the exact same time as I did 20 years ago, and I often feel as if I’m riding on the same actual buses that I rode on 20 years ago. Ridership is obviously up — after all Oakland is a Keystone Innovation Zone and a key part of our regional revival, right? You’d think that would mean adding more trips and better service, right? Wrong! Well, okay, they added one extra afternoon trip, leaving Oakland at 4:35, but it barely accommodates the extra riders.

How do I loathe the 44U? Let me count the ways: Read the rest of this entry »

Great UT Computer Sciences Movie

I just learned about the new promotional video for the UT Austin Computer Sciences department. It gives some great shots of the UT campus, and a nice promo of the department, and the study of Computer Science generally. Highlights: The hilarious man-on-the-street interviews asking “what is an algorithm,” and appearances by my fellow UT AI-Lab/Neural-Networks grad students Nate Kohl and Igor Karpov, showing off the robot soccer lab and the NERO video game, respectively. Oh, and Prof. Calvin Lin saying “research is is the funnest part of CS.” Heh.

It’s not on YouTube yet, but it should be.