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Sunday, September 30, 2018

Hacking and Hiking (Bay Area Summer 2018)

non-technical: suitable for any reader

Hello world! I kind of vanished since my last blog post in June; but that's mainly because I've been so busy with work and adjusting to life in California.

This summer has been an incredible experience, I lived with a group of 8-9 individuals in the SoMa HackHouse and we became a pretty core social group.

It made the summer fly by unfortunately, and the sad part is that since I'm doing an 8 month internship, this group of friends departed. I'm looking forward to seeing them again soon though, given full time offers are being provided to them (hopefully all!). We may all get a place together.

August rolled around and I moved into another hackhouse nearby (literally next door, they have these places everywhere in SF). I'm now living in a place that accommodates 16 nerds, and quickly made another group of friends.

Friends from Home

While I'm in SF, I've been trying to meet one new person each week. The objective is just to hear other perspectives from people I wouldn't likely speak with. A couple of weeks ago I talked with a homeless gent on the street, and last week I met with a startup founder. I'm meeting a lot of people out here, but I've not forgotten about my roots. My CSSA friends flew out in mid August and together we hiked Yosemite!

Here is my attempt at summarizing the event via some of the photos we took. This is a rough overview of what such a trip may look like, for anyone else interested in doing this hike.

The Permit Lottery (3-4 months earlier)

We applied for the permit lottery. This lottery is strictly required to hike the summit of Half Dome as the park limits a maximum of 225 day hikers and 75 backpackers each day. A lottery entry costs , and allows you to pick up to 7 preferred dates (we applied back in spring, and were looking for openings in late August). If you win the lottery and get a spot, you can fit up to 6 people on a single permit, each of them having to pay 10 bucks for entry. You can find the details here. Since 7 of us were trying to go, we had to win two permits that fell on the same day. Thankfully we applied earlier enough to make it happen!

The month before

We created a checklist of all the items required and made sure to double check with each other that everyone had the required items.

In terms of essential items, you should make certain you have the following:
WATER: You need at LEAST 6 litres on you for a day hike, whether this is Clouds Rest or Half Dome. Don't underestimate how much water you'll need.
Dried foods/fruit: Bring lots of foods that quickly deliver energy. I liked having dried cantaloupe, mango, and Cliff Bars.
Sun Screen: Bring enough to apply multiple times throughout the hike, you should be reapplying sunscreen every couple of hours in full.
Sleeping pad: This isn't a sleeping bag, it is a mini inflatable raft that you put underneath your sleeping bag that ensures you aren't sleeping directly on the ground. It gets cold at night, so even with a sleeping bag alone, you could freeze.

The Yosemite Hike Begins! First Day

We all met up in SF and picked each other up in a big Van (road trip style!) and head off to stay at North Pines campground in Yosemite Vally. We arrived by nightfall, set up our tents, and went to bed.
Us making breakfast at around 5:45am Saturday morning
It was a fascinating experience because the whole drive into the valley we couldn't see the mountains or our elevation, only a dim lit road.

yosemite camp ground
The sun came up and we could finally see the camp site!

The morning reveals the mountains right next to our campsite. 

We began our Clouds Rest hike on Saturday Morning, beginning our ascension at around 8am.

The beginning of the hike is primarily forestry for the first couple of miles. 

Always apply sunscreen! Every couple of hours.
As we gained elevation the forest began to dissipate
bye trees
We reached the beginning of the Cloud's Rest summit. You can see the terrain narrowing, but you can't yet see the elevation. 

Walking forward for a minute begins to reveal the elevation. Right now the hikeable surface is still >30 ft in width; but if you're not one for heights you'll begin to feel your stomach sink.
Take a few more steps, and

BOOM. 9900ft elevation with drop off on both sides, and about 10ft width of hikeable surface. This is called very narrow ridge, can you guess why?

Another picture just to really paint the image of how narrow this was. If you were to fall to your left or right you'd tumble down. 

The view from the peak

We reached the summit at around 12:30pm 

This is why I practice handstands. 

By ~1:45pm we began our descent and reached base by ~5:30pm. The total hike was around 9 hours.

Post-hike pic
We were able to come back and rest for a night; but Half Dome was up next

On Sunday, we relaxed around the North Pines campground.
Sean still climbing even though today is supposed to be a rest day.

Half Dome

Monday morning we began hiking Half Dome, we were on the trail by 4am!

Kind of felt like a scene in the blare witch project

The sun began to rise a couple of hours into the hike 
Half dome has three parts: Mist Trail (the route we chose), followed by sub dome and then finally half dome. This is a shot of mist trail.

Half Dome can be seen off into the distance! SOON

By ~9am we approached subdome. This is a portion preceding half dome, and the last region in which you can comfortably rest.

Sub Dome is surprisingly steep from a first-person perspective
After completing Sub Dome, we had a clear view of Half Dome (there is no Full Dome). Two metal cables run up the 400 ft wall.

It's hard to describe the feeling at this summit. Images don't truly put into perspective just how steep it was, and how exhausted we were by this point. 

We reached summit at around 11am!

We head back down the trail. I took an easier route with Kat and Julia instead of going back down Mist Trail because I had somehow consumed 7 liters of water throughout the day and we starting to feel dehydrated. 
Beautiful scenery on the way back down! I was also thrilled that there was a small pond I could swim in, which lessened the impact of the heat.
We returned back to the campsite just short of 6pm. Within 30 minutes Kat and Julia went from looking like they hiked for 12+ hours (which they did), to looking like they were just about to receive Oscars

I slept really well that night, and the next morning we departed the camp site at around 6am. I arrived back at work just shy of 11am and resumed my post at Cruise!
In retrospect I should have taken an extra day off; but the autonomous vehicle revolution can't wait!


As fall is now falling,  I'm going to focus my time on summarizing the things I've learned and some of the reflections I've taken on myself these past few months. Those posts will be coming up soon in a mini-series! There has been so much to think about while in the Bay Area that I felt it was suitable to let my thoughts percolate for multiple months before even trying to summarize what I've been experiencing.

Back soon with a new series! To all of my friends active in classes again, best of luck! I'll see you come Winter time.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Robot Magic Gets 3rd Place Best Overall Publication in IEA-AIE

non-technical: suitable for any reader

It was a pleasure to meet new friends and colleagues from around the world. I'm glad I was able to share some of the robot magic! We still have a long way to go before we reach robust consumer robotics at scale.
Thanks Dr. Jacky Baltes, , Vlad Samonin, Dr. John Anderson , and Dr. Meng Cheng Lau for all of the help along the way! It has been a fun project.
I'm now back in San Francisco. Didn't have time to originally put this post on my blog since I had been handling some deadlines at work and a side project with a couple folks.

Monday, June 4, 2018

International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA 2018): Brisbane, Australia

non-technical: suitable for any reader

The work I did as part of the RISS 2017 program  was extended into mid September and submitted to ICRA. My colleague Gabe and I had set ICRA as a primary goal during our internship which motivated us each day to push out our maximum effort. We were delighted to hear the good news  around January.ICRA: The International Conference on Robotics and Automation, is one of the largest conferences for its domain. Hundreds of researchers, investors, and other professionals are travelling to Brisbane Australia this year to participate in research, business forums, and competition.

At a typical conference there are different levels of talks:
Plenary: The whole conference gathers in a large stadium-like environment.
Rodney Brooks gave a plenary talk at ICRA this year. He's a pioneer in robotics, founding companies like iRobot (the Roomba) and Rethink robotics

Three plenary talks were given throughout the week.
Keynote talk: Keynote speakers give a smaller talk; but focused on a particular area, and it encompasses the focus of the conference in that area. Andrea Schoellig, a professor from the University of Toronto, gave a Keynote talk on Machine learning for safe, high-performance control of mobile robots. There were roughly 18 Keynote talks given in the week.

Workshop/Tutorial Talk: There were a collection of tutorials hosted throughout the week, each focusing on a varying and more narrow topics. I attended the workshop on Informative Path planning and Adaptive Sampling along with the workshop Swarms: From Biology to Robotics and Back. There were over 25 tutorials happening (some full day and some half day) totalling 200 talks.

Poster Presentation: The last main type of research presentation at ICRA is a poster presentation. This is what Gabriel and I were involved with! Most days of the conference had separate poster sessions in the morning and afternoon. This allows for a collection of researchers to set up their poster, and pitch it to groups that come by. I'd estimate at least 500 posters were present.

Arrival in Brisbane

I departed from San Francisco on May 18th and flew to Las Angelas, then Sidney, and finally landed in Brisbane on the morning of May 20th with substantial jetlag.

Brisbane australia sunrise
Brisbane is incredibly clean. This shot was taken at sunrise. Winter is just starting in the southern hemisphere.

Brisbane Australia Park

Lots of photography opportunity here!

Conference Opening Day

The first day of the conference I met with Gabe and we attended a workshop on adaptive planning and sampling. There was an opening ceremony with indigenous dancers that gave a wonderful look into the rich cultural ancestry of Australia.
RISS Reunion! We found Yunfei, who was one of the RISS scholars in 2017 with us.

The second and third days were spent exploring the employer stands, competitions, and posters. I'm just going to dump some media here.
There was lots of entertainment going on during the day.
Looks like a massive koala-hamster (actually a wombat)

Gabe and I spent the evening with Lindsey and Chelsea, a couple of ICRA volunteers both attending local Universities in Brisbane. They were introducing us to some of the favourite snacks in Brisbane, and the wide spanning vernacular that distinguishes aussies from the rest of the world.
We tried chocolate koalas,

and Tim Tams,

both sweet desserts popular in the region. Lastly they convinced me to take a spoonful of this...


I don't really know how to describe the taste of this one... Except for the fact that I could I swore they tried to kill me.
Vegemite is a reddish black paste formed using leftover brewers' yeast extract with various vegetable and spice additives. It was popularized in Australia as a WWll ration, and now commonly used as a spread for sandwiches (think peanut butter and jelly, except instead of jelly you spread literal hell on your sandwich). The point is folks in Australia genuinely like the stuff and it does have a lot of nutrients. It's an acquired taste, that's for sure.

We met many other new friends in the evenings and got to sight see the Brisbane area. We were quite fortunate to get such a behind-the-scenes tour of Australian culture, beyond the typical tourist events.

Day 4
...and on the 4th day, Gabe and I presented our poster!
Kyle Morris, Dr. Katia Sycara, Gabriel Arpino, presenting poster at ICRA 2018
Thank you for the help Dr. Sycara, we learned a lot! 

We had quite a number of folks come talk to us about the work.
You can find our paper here if interested! I'll probably make a post in the future outlining the details of this paper as a more abstract overview.

Day 5

The last day of the conference was spent at a swarm robotics tutorial. There were some fascinating talks, ranging from modelling immunity cells in the body, to live demonstrations of ants attempting to make a home. I really enjoyed how diverse this tutorial was, and how it wound together biology and robotics so nicely.
australian weaver ants iCRA 2018
These Australian Weaver work together to pull the thin end of the leaf back over itself, and then spin silk to close the gap and make a home.

On Saturday Gabe and I took a boat tour to the Lone Pine Koala sanctuary!

This Emu was as tame as a friendly dog. It was quite amusing to have it follow me around and get up so close.
Lone pine koala sanctuary Brisbane australia
One big happy family

That night I stayed in Bunk Brisbane hostel and worked out at a local calisthenics parks.
This convenient park is wedged in between some hotels in Fortitude Vally, just off of Ann Street. I didn't have my rings with me but managed to fit in a good workout. 


ICRA 2018 was a blast, and getting accepted was worth every hour of hard work Gabe and I put in to our research. Of course, thank you so much to Dr. Katia Sycara, Dr. Changjoo Nam, Sasanka Nagavalli, and others from Carnegie Mellon's Advanced Agent Technology Robotics lab, for the valuable support! We wouldn't have made it here if it weren't for your guidance.

I'm back in San Francisco now; but I made lots of valuable connections in Australia and met many bright individuals. I'm hoping to further grow those connections from SF.

This Koala has a very powerful vibe and so it shall be the closing mood in this blog post. 

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