VEX Robotics World Competition Promotes the Best of Tech Community Values

This past weekend (4/23-27/2018) The Robotics Education & Competition (REC) Foundation held is annual VEX Robotics World Competition in Louisville, Kentucky.  Thousands of middle school, high school and college students, representing hundreds of the best robotics teams in the world descended on the Kentucky Exposition Center for three days of intense rivalry.  Yes, with teams from over 40 countries, including China, New Zealand, Germany, Australia, and Mexico, this is truly a world competition.  Last year, a team of Syrian refugees was given a warm welcome and tons of support.  This year Puerto Rico was the focus.

Make no mistake about it, the competition was fierce, going well beyond building a great robot, also encompassing sophisticated strategies, social game play and a deep understanding of the game rules so teams can decide how to gain an advantage by bending a rule to the breaking point.  Each match was played with two two-team alliances, assigned for the qualification rounds and then chosen for the remainder of the tournament.  Successful teams know how to work with their alliance partners and ultimately ally with other teams which complement their strengths and weaknesses.

However, all this intensity is saved for the field.  Universally, teams want to beat each other on the field, not off it.  The degree of collaboration off the field is remarkable.  Teams help each other out, trade parts, discuss coding techniques and even post robot designs online.  After the day’s competition, bull sessions go on long into the night.  Gender is irrelevant.  To a person, they are nice, respectful, smart, out to have fun and have zero interest in their parents’ advice.  Adults are there to pick up food, root from the stands and chauffer the teams from hotels to the Expo Center.

I attended with my son’s team for the second time this year and was once again blown away and inspired by these young people setting an awesome example for the rest of us.  If you have children with a STEAM orientation, I highly encourage you to check out VEX.  It has some attributes that make it stand apart from other robotics organizations, including a dedication to creating a level playing field for teams from any socio-economic background.  One of the top teams this year consisted of three first-timers who worked in a barn where they hand-filed components and produced an amazing and beautiful robot.

On top of it all, they put on a well-coordinated, polished and high-spectacle event with incredible production values.  The game MC’s, referees, judges and volunteers are professional, efficient and keep the energy high.  The final event in the Freedom Dome feels like a WWE production, complete with lasers, fire effects, giant screens and pulse-pounding music.  Each and every student is made to feel like a rock star!

I credit Paul Copioli, Karthik Kanagasabapathy and the rest of the VEX Robotics and REC teams for promoting an environment that is not only serious and challenging but also fun and welcoming for all!  Keep up the great work!

My Fitness Adventure

(Above:  Isabelle and I circa 2001/Me 2017)

Anyone who knows me would be shocked to read this post.   Up until a few years ago, I was never interested in fitness.  Oh, I would occasionally control my eating, cut back on sweets or Coke (still my favorite drink), things like that, but I am a foodie, which makes cutting back on dinners out and desserts so difficult.

Exercise was anathema.  I hated (and still hate) going to the gym and admired joggers from a distance always thinking that there was a snowball’s chance in hell that would be me.  My peak weight just before my divorce began in 2009 was about 178 lbs. (I’m 5’ 7”).  I had a 35” waist size, 17” neck and wore either extra-large or large shirts.  I had no idea how heavy I was.

The end of my marriage was somewhat traumatic and I rapidly lost about 25 lbs.  The upside was that I learned what a difference 25 lbs. makes.  Waist size about 31, neck shrunk and I was down to medium and large shirts.  Unfortunately, while I somewhat watched what I ate, I still did not have a good diet and didn’t exercise.

By 2013, I was back up to the mid-160’s.  That’s when I met Teri.  She taught me how to eat well and enjoy it, so my diet changed significantly for the better.  We started to cook our own food on Sundays for the week ahead and developed a menu with both liked:

  • Broiled chicken with a particularly good spice mix I found online
  • Whole Foods rotisserie chicken (naked is delicious!)
  • Broccoli and/or asparagus for a main veggie (recently added Brussels sprouts into the rotation)
  • Steamed green beans for a snack
  • Fruit from a farmer’s market. We particularly enjoy the many varieties of pluots (plum-apricot hybrids) which are available in the Spring, Summer and Fall.

Other than the cooked food, I also snack on carrots, nuts and raisins (very limited) and a small amount of sweets (cookies or chocolate) after meals.

On weekends, we go out or bring in food once or twice (often sushi) and I try to use portion control to manage my intake.  Lunch on Sundays is usually egg white scramble with mushrooms, onions and left-over chicken.

In spite of my improved diet, however, my weight didn’t change much.  Depending on how I ate (curse you November and December!), I ranged from the lower- to upper-160’s.

So, late in 2013, at nearly 49 years old, I decided to <shudder> exercise.

There was no way I would keep up with going to a gym, so I had to design a routine that I could do at home.  I bought a doorframe-mounted pull-up bar and started with a basic set of exercises:

  • 5 chin-ups
  • 5 pull-ups
  • 10 push-ups
  • 20 sit-ups
  • 30 crunches
  • 30 bicycles

3-4 days/week, I did that routine 3 times with a 3 minute break between sets.  Over time, I was able to ramp up to 4 sets with 10 chin- and pull-ups, 20 push-ups, 40 sit-ups (20 to the sides and 20 straight) with a 2 minute break between.

It worked!  To a degree.  My weight dropped into the mid- to upper-150’s.  Unfortunately, in March, 2014, I somehow injured my left elbow.  Hurt to exercise, so I stopped and the weight came back on.  My elbow felt sufficiently recovered by the end of May, so I restarted the exercise and added daily walking to my routine.

By August, I was back where I was before the injury, but slowly over the rest of the year, in spite of my dedication to eating well and exercise, I returned to the low 160’s.  It was frustrating because I was working hard, increasing my walking and adding more repetitions to the exercises and continuing to cut down on sugar, but nothing moved the needle.  I assume I replaced some fat with muscle, but I couldn’t see it on my body.  I spent 2015 stuck, but I kept with it.

In February, 2016, I realized something had to change, so I went online and researched more exercises I could do at home.  I found a cross-fit exercise called a “man-maker” or “Spartan maker (scroll about half-way down the page).”  Looked simple enough.  I decided to replace the push-ups, crunches and bicycles with the Spartan makers.  You’ll notice that the website indicates 5 reps.  “Ha!” I thought.  I was replacing 80 crunches, bicycles and push-ups.  I was confident I could do way more.  I bought 5 lb. dumbbells and tried it out.  I barely made it through 5.  In fact, I could only do them 2 out of the 4 sets.  They are much harder than they look.  Within a week, I was able to add them to all 4 sets, but even now I only do 6/set.

It worked!  The weight melted off.  Within a couple of months, I had surpassed my 155 goal and was rapidly heading into the 140’s.  By, August, I was in the low 140’s!  Waist size 29, small or medium shirts and a 15” neck size.  Probably my slimmest since before college.  Woo hoo!

I have plateaued in the low-mid 140’s, but this time the muscle development is visible, so I’m satisfied.

I have found that I need to regularly increase my exercise in order to maintain my weight and muscle.  My morning walks progressed to where I added several hundred stairs and am now actually jogging.  I used to walk about 2 miles, but now I run a little over 3 miles and do more than a half-mile of stairs (if I run where there are no stairs, I go at least 4 miles).  The exercise routine is about the same, but I replaced the plank with a medicine ball exercise called the rock and roll up.

There are definitely times I want to skip or shorten a routine/jog, but I am doing my best to keep it up.  My biggest motivator is when the numbers on the scale begin to inch up, though a close second is the Apple Watch.  I am determined to close those rings as many days/week as possible!

My current routine:

  • 5-6 days/week: Run/walk 3 miles
    • On Universal Lot: Run 3.0 miles, Walk .3 miles, Stairs .5 miles
    • Home Neighborhood: Run 3.8 miles, Walk .3 miles
  • 3 days/week: 4 sets, 1.5 minutes of rest between
    • 12 wide grip pull-ups
    • 6 Spartan-makers (12 lb. dumbbells)
    • 12 chin-ups
    • 12 rock & roll-ups
    • 12 regular pull-ups
    • 40 sit-ups
    • 12 neutral grip pull ups

A User-Friendly Ticket Experience

Anybody get tickets last week for Coachella?  Anybody?  Bueller?

I didn’t and neither did anyone I know.  Now, that’s OK.  Demand far exceeded supply and pre-sales were strong, so everyone isn’t going to get tickets.  My beef is with the process.

In case you haven’t purchased tickets lately, this is how it works.

Promoters announce a date and time that tickets will go on sale to the general public.  Shortly before that moment, anyone who wants tickets opens up the app or website and waits, cursor or finger poised over the appropriate button.  At precisely the designated time, thousands click, more or less simultaneously.  Most then get a spinning wheel of death of one form or another and wait while the lucky few start buying tickets.  When tickets are sold out, which can take minutes or hours, the page is updated and those out of luck have to move on to Craigslist, Facebook, StubHub, or wherever and try to purchase tickets on the secondary market.

Not the ultimate in user-friendliness and since tickets usually go on sale during business hours, a disruption of the work day.

Ironically, this is actually worse than the old days when we would line up at the ticket booth and hope we get to the front of line before they sold out.  There is no strategy, no getting there days early and camping out, no hope of industriously gaining an advantage or even a business opportunity (like those people who, for a healthy fee, will wait in line for you to score a new iPhone).  In other words, it is completely luck of the draw.  This, again, is OK.  I have no problem with a random process, but why, with all the technology available at our fingertips, do buyers need to hover over mice, phones and tablets at an exact time just to try to get tickets?

I have a suggestion.  What about offering registration for an event in advance of ticket sales?

In order to purchase tickets with Front Gate Tickets, the site which sold the Coachella tickets, buyers need to fill out a unique profile which includes the option to save credit card info.  In addition, a buyer could easily enter the number of desired tickets, acceptable sections (if applicable) and a number of other options (e.g., an option to buy, or not buy, fewer tickets, second/third/fourth choices if the same concert/festival is offered on multiple dates, VIP if regular tickets are not available, etc.).

At the time tickets go on sale, all registered buyers could be randomly sorted and the system could automatically handle all sales with the registered information.  Users would get an email or text indicating the tickets they purchased.  There can even be an option to cancel the transaction within a short window (say, 10-20 minutes), making those tickets available to the next buyer.

Yes, this is still a random system and doesn’t prevent scalpers from hiring a phalanx of people to register unique profiles and tilt the odds in their favor, but it is about as friendly as it gets, and lucky or not, the buyers are not wasting their time staring at a screen hoping they hit the jackpot.

Goodbye 2014, Hello 2015

As most of us have, I’ve been thinking about this past year a lot the last few days.  It’s been a year of high highs and low lows for the Lesh family.  We’ve had some wonderful events, such as Isabelle being accepted into college and DJ becoming a high-schooler, and a few challenging times which I will not detail.  I’ll let that past be past.

However, at the risk of jinxing it, 2015 looks very bright.  In June, my first-born turns 18!  A huge milestone for so many reasons.  Just days later, she will be graduated from high school and just days after that, DJ will be eligible for (and presumably get) his driver’s permit (15 ½ – yikes!).

In August, some or all of us will go back to Outside Lands for the 3rd consecutive year and a couple of weeks later, I’ll be taking Isabelle to start college at Emory University.  That is going to be an emotional time for everyone.

In September, DJ starts at the Harvard-Westlake upper school.

In December, DJ will (presumably) get his driver’s license and, in case all that is not enough, I turn 50!  My father tells me he is sharpening his wicked skills and I am an easy target, so I will spend the year girding my loins for a roasting of epic proportions.

There are some more potential events, but I’m not willing to risk jinxing those just yet.

One way or the other, it’s going to be an exciting year!

My baby is going to Emory University!

Isabelle was accepted Early Decision to Emory University today.  For those of you with younger kids, there are two types of early applications to college (with a few flavors) – Early Decision, which is binding, and Early Action, which is not.  Some colleges offer both, but most just one type.

Emory was her first choice so she applied ED, which means that’s where she is going to college.  No ifs, ands or buts.  No take-backs.

She has worked hard the past three-and-a-half years, studied tirelessly for her SATs, SAT subject matter tests and Advanced Placement tests and wrote amazing essays.  It all paid off with great grades, scores and admission to the college of her choice.

Isabelle had tremendous support from her school, Harvard-Westlake, especially several of the deans who helped her craft her application and teachers who wrote her recommendations.  Thank you all!

I have to give a special shout out to Judge Michael Nash, presiding judge of Juvenile Court at Los Angeles Superior Court, for whom she worked this past summer.  He has been incredibly supportive of her ambitions and wrote a recommendation as well.  Thank you!

Words can’t express how proud I am of my girl!

A whole new adventure awaits…for both of us.

Isabelle accepted to Tulane!

My beautiful, talented daughter was accepted to Tulane University!  She’s going to college.  It’s cliché, but it really is hard to believe my baby girl will be off to college in nine short months.  I distinctly remember her first day of kindergarten, a story I tell to anyone who will listen (or in this case read).

She was in the back seat, buckled into her car seat, with her backpack sitting next to me on the front passenger seat.  I pulled up to the drop off point and simultaneously the passenger and back doors flew open.  One pair of hands grabbed the backpack while another reached in, unbuckled Isabelle and lifted her out of the car.  The first pair of hands strapped on her backpack, nearly bigger than she was, and she went running (running!) into school, backpack bouncing, without looking back.  I choked up then and still choke up whenever I think about it.

Her independence, confidence and self-sufficiency continues to this day.  I have no doubt she’s going to kill it at college!

DJ’s team (HWMS Quantum Potentials) qualify for regionals in 1st FTC robotics event

Toward the end of 8th grade, DJ was recruited to the Harvard-Westlake Middle School robotics team by a new friend.  He needed DJ’s skills to maintain the robot the team had designed but which was not doing well in competition.  DJ couldn’t help last year, but this year he leads the design/build efforts (with programming, the other major component, led by his friend).

They had a spectacular first qualifier.  They won the most points in a single round as well as the most points during the autonomous time.  It’s a complicated scoring system due to the fact that each team is randomly partnered with another team who then complete against another pair of teams (i.e., four robots on the field during each round), but in the end the Quantum Potentials came in third, which was good enough to qualify for regionals.

Impressive accomplishment for a first timer!