In a first for me, the APEC 2014 micromouse contest returned to a previous venue. This year we were back at the Fort Worth Convention Centre, Fort Worth, Texas. Since my last visit, I discovered a number of interesting things to do in the area and was looking forward to the return visit. Of course, it is never that easy.
I should have known things were not going to work out too well when, soon after booking my flight, I started to get a cold. That soon developed into flu and all my plans for preparing the mouse went away. I spent several days building up some strength and gathered my belongings for the trip. I had never felt so unprepared for a micromouse contest. Derek Hall and Jim Chidley were taking the same flights as me so at least some of the time could be spent catching up and waiting time at airports would be much better.
We went out a couple of days early. I wanted to visit some local attractions and Derek and Jim were looking forward to a day at a theme park. The long flight from London Heathrow to Atlanta (Delta 85) was quite comfortable since the aircraft was less than half full. I saw one passenger change seats at least four times. Towards the end of the flight, she went back to each of her previous perches because she had lost something! I had a good pair of seats by a window and was settled in nicely. What I had not considered was that this was a daylight flight and I was on the South side of the aircraft. the window shutter soon became uncomfortably warm so I switched to the other side and had a very relaxed flight. There were so many unclaimed seats that I saw several cases where one of a couple would wander back, pick out a row of three, have a couple of hours sleep and then wander back to join their partner.
When we landed at Atlanta there was quite a delay since it was our port of entry and we had to go through customs as well as take our bags and put them back into the system. Thus, the apparently generous 2 hour layover was soon eaten up and we got to the second flight just in time to be among the last to board.
It was while going though immigration that I discovered that a bottle of water had leaked in my carry-on bag and my laptop was very wet. Dead, in fact. Not good – and I fretted about it all the way to the hotel. It was nearly midnight by the time I checked in and I was tired and reasonably sure I would have to consider buying a new computer if I wanted to get code into my mouse. Fortunately, it is an older macbook pro and I could open up the case and prop it up on the desk to dry out overnight.
Next morning, it still was not dry so I set up a hairdryer to blow warm air over it from a distance while I had breakfast and pondered my options. It was still not dry so I wandered down to the new Radio Shack store on Sundance Square to see what they had. there was a reasonable computer that would do the job for $400 but, being Radio Shack, they were short of many essentials. A couple of hours later and everything seemed dry enough but still I could not get it to work. Harjit Singh was due to fly in on the Saturday and he offered to bring a second computer with him so that was now plan B with anew computer from Radio Shack coming it as plan C.
After a while, it became apparent that the problem was in the keyboard and trackpad. I took the machine down to the hotels business centre and plugged one of their keyboards and mouse in and all seemed to work fine. Now that I could use the machine, I could search for a solution. Turns out that the problem was a sticky left shift key. Since the keyboard could only generate upper case letters I could not type my password and so I could not log in. Many others reported a similar problem which was a bit of a puzzle. I found out where the keyboard connector was, took the machine back to my room and took it apart once more. On the keyboard connector there were some mineral deposits and a small amount of corrosion. This I attacked with a clean toothbrush and, to my great surprise, the machine seemed pretty well back to normal. The trackpad would not register clicks on the left side but everything else was fine.
So – that was most of the first day gone. I let Harjit know that I would not need a backup machine and Skyped Derek to see how their day had gone. They had a good day on the roller coasters but were now in some trouble since Derek’s laptop had gone into a permanent lockout and he was having to rebuild everything from the recovery disk he had (luckily) brought with him. It was not going well for team GB.
Still full of leftover flu and quite drained from all the excitement of the day, I went to Jakes for a beer and burger cure. It was great – so long as you are not a dietician and I went to bed early but hopeful that all would be well.
Saturday was a quiet day. I decided to rest up rather than take advantage of the new bike hire scheme in the town and went for a walk around. This time I discovered a Walgreens (in the UK, think Wilkos and a pharmacy), a convenience store and – too late to join in – Segway tours of the town. Another visit to Radio Shack seemed in order to let them know all was well. They were sympathetic and quite keen to help the day before. Thunderstorms were forecast for the afternoon so I had lunch at he Corner Bakery and went back to the hotel to wait for Harjit to arrive. After catching up on each other’s news, we went down to the nearby Thai restaurant for dinner and retired early. the next day would be Sunday and the chance for all-day maze practice. I badly needed that since I was still feeling rather unwell and not really up to much work. My planned two extra days had evaporated into repairs and poor health. Ah well. Tomorrow is another day.
Remarkably, I overslept a little on Sunday and got to the contest room to find Dave and Harjit already setting up the maze. While we were dong this, some of the support staff were wandering about and, as usual, we explained what we were up to. I was talking to one guy in particular and said I would show him my mouse. He took it right out of my hand which was a bit of a shock since one normally at least asks. However, I got it back unscathed and was putting it back in the box when I knocked it on the floor myself. It seemed OK until the guy pointed to the floor and asked “what is that?” that turned out to be one of my wheels. On closer inspection, it was in several pieces. Outwardly clam – I hope – I searched around for the pieces while wondering exactly what I was going to do about it. The wheel material is 3D printed and seems fairly plastic and resilient. It seems that a shock load will make it fracture just like toffee. The breaks were clean and the fractured surfaces smooth and glassy. On the upside then, they should realign well, on the downside, I had no idea what adhesives might be best or how I would realign the pieces.
Taking my leave from Harjit and Dave, I set out to find stuff for repairs. First stop Radio Shack- again. Unbelievably, they had no superglue but they did have a ‘helping hands’ thing with a large magnifying glass. Next was the Walgreens that I was lucky enough to find the day before. Here I found several types of adhesive, some nail clippers, hairdressing clips and a bunch of other stuff that I bought just in case I needed it. And a collection of snacks to fortify me through the coming ordeal.
To cut along story short, it took me nearly four hours of careful manipulation and trial fitting before I got the wheel back together. I really did not think would have been possible but the clean edges meant that, when I did get the pieces properly aligned, thin superglue would wick in and bond them up a treat. Since it was not clear that the bond would hold on this plastic, I then reinforced each join with a thin piece of paper and more superglue. I soon had what I like to describe as a fibre-reinforced, composite wheel. I could not tell if the other wheels had been damaged in the fall so they all got a treatment of tissue paper and superglue. This was a trick learned years back for reinforcing model aircraft repairs. By late afternoon everything was back together but now I was afraid to run it through testing in case I broke it some more.
Derek and Jim arrived while I was fixing up my wheels and Derek had managed to get his PC working again so things were definitely looking up. The rest of the day was spent making minor adjustments. Somewhat late, I went out in search of food. That was a bit tricky since we had to arrange with the police officer on duty to let me back in but she was very helpful. I had not reckoned on the fact that, although well supplied with proper restaurants, Fort Worth on a Sunday evening is short on convenience food. Eventually I found a Pizza place for Harjit’s order and went to Five Guys for a burger since they are supposed to be pretty good. I do hope the Fort Worth franchise is not representative of the whole chain. Several times in the past few day, I had occasion to walk past and each time I was struck by the fact that a place with such a good reputation should be so empty. Well, it was good fuel anyway. Bed early, contest day tomorrow.
Again, remarkably, I slept late. This never happens on these trips but it was an indicator of how ill I still was. I took my time getting ready and decided to go down to the hand-made chocolate shop to buy a take-home gift for my long-suffering wife. Then it was back to they Corner Bakery for brunch. I like this place. I took my time over their Anaheim Scrambler, extra toast and endless coffee before making my way up to the contest venue. By the time I got there, everyone was wondering what had happened to me. Harjit had called the hotel a couple of times and was on the verge of setting out after me. Most of the day was then spent getting some gentle practice and adjusting a couple of minor parameters. At any time, I expected the mouse to fall apart but, in the end, all was well.
Curiously, there is not a lot to say about the contest itself. During the setup of the AV, a very helpful staff member named Elias hooked up a GoPro camera and recorded the entire event to a high standard. The raw footage was then post-processed by Green Ye and posted to YouTube. There seems little to be gained by re-posting here so head on over to Green’s site for the details:
As it turned out, Decimus did quite well and came 6th. The maze was long at 98 squares or so and my fastest run time of 10.13 seconds was as much as I might have hoped. If you watch the video, you will see Decimus has some extraordinary powers of recovery. I wish I knew exactly why but I will take what I can get.
Kato-san’s mouse, Tetra, did very well and achieved the fastest run time but a bad crash took off a wheel so we don’t know exactly how fast he might have been able to go.
Star of the show for pure technology was clearly MM-7A by Shinichi Yamashita. This camera mouse has been described before but he has clearly put in a lot more work and it is a very assured runner.
Green Ye’s Green Giant 4.1 shows the remarkable progress made by Green in a short space of time. He has also worked a lot on a student kit mouse, Futura, which I will write more about another time. We could not see it run on this occasion as he had to take some parts off it to fix a problem on his contest mouse.
The student entry from Portland, Microtaur, was a great first contest mouse from the four strong student team. It worked its way steadily toward the goal but was sadly misled, possibly by a sensor conflict with the start gate, and miscalculated its position so was unable to record a time.
The remaining top places were taken by mice from Lunghua University in Taiwan. The students there have produced some of the best mice in the world and show no signs of slowing down yet.
Thanks again to David Otten and the APEC organisers for making such a great contest possible.
The journey home was pretty uneventful I am glad to say. The flight out of Atlanta was a little delayed because the ground crew could not get the in flight entertainment system to work. That at least took away the temptation to watch poor quality movies on the flight back and, because I was able to get a pair of seats by a window again, I managed to get a fair bit of sleep on the flight. More significantly, nothing broke.
It has taken me two week to get this written thanks to the longest bout of flu and associated illness that I remember having. My apologies to anyone who picked any of it up and for the various videos I can be heard coughing on.
Here’s looking forward to the summer and the UK contest.