Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Tour of Suzhou, China


Sunday was our only full day off, so we went on a guided bus tour of Suzhou. Considering the experience it was a R300 well spent. We saw many of the sights that has made Suzhou famous.

We started out at the Lingering Garden which has been around for over 400 years. We had a really good English-speaking guide who explained a lot about the meaning behind the various symbols. For example, in one room there was a square marble slab next to a circular marble slab. The square resembled the Earth as it was still considered flat in those days and the circle resembled the sky. Together the represented harmony. Unfortunately there was just too much information to remember it all, so I'll leave you with the pictures (many more here):

Our team: Marco, Andre, Asief, Eugene, Graeme and Stephen

That bottle of coke cost about R3 :-P

Plenty bonsai trees

We then visited this fresh water pearl factory shop, which sold pearls for almost nothing. This stopover wasn't actually part of the usual tour and was a treat offered by our guide as he really enjoyed our group. Unfortunately I don't know enough about jewellery to go buying on my own so I didn't get any as cheap as it was. This is where I started meeting a couple teams for the first time. Here's a snapshot of the mayhem at the shop (it was bad enough before we arrived!):

We then had some lunch, which wasn't so great. The Chinese really try to hard to serve us Western food, but they just don't know how to do it properly so they should stick to what they do best! It was buffet, but check out these evil Chinese tactics:

Suzhou is famous for many things, mostly for it's gardens which we had already seen one of. Another thing it's famous for is producing the best silk in China. The next place on our agenda was the No. 1 Silk Factory. There we got to hear the life of a silk from the birth of the silk worm to finding the thread of the cocoons to making the final product. It was a very interesting experience watching the hard labour involved and how the workers worked together with the machines to produce the silk thread from the cocoons.

At the end we had some time to look around in their silk shops. They had such an abundance of silk products for sale, all so cheap, that it was very difficult to decide on what to buy. In the end I only bought a queen-size silk duvet for about R700, which comparing to the price of a feather duvet in South Africa is damn cheap!

Baby silk worms chowing on mulberry leaves

Threading eight silk strands together

Finding the thread of the cocoons

Reading design on punch cards to knit silk fabric

Workers producing a silk duvet

Our next stopover was the Humble Administrator's Garden. It is the largest of the gardens in Suzhou and is one of the four most famous gardens in China. As much as I loved the gardens, we spent so much time in the first one that by the time we got to this one I, along with many others, were getting a bit tired of seeing what was for us mostly the same thing. I would have definitely have enjoyed them more had I seen them on separate days as the heat was also getting to us by now.

Below is the inside of the entrance to the garden. This door is made of steel on one inside for strength and wood on the outside for beauty. The level of detail in the carvings is mind boggling. The inset towards the center of this image is a fully detailed sculpture.

Inside the garden, with four viewing areas. Each viewing area was designed for a different season, for example the spring viewing area was located to take advantage of viewing the blooming of the flowers. There is another viewing area where he would go to drink his tea and see the four moons:
  1. The moon in the sky
  2. The reflection in the water in front of him
  3. The reflection in the mirror behind him
  4. The reflection in his cup of tea

The Grand Canal of China is the longest canal in the world, stretching all the way from Shanghai to Beijing for a total distance of roughly 1,770 km. The canal dates back to the 5th century BC, so it was an amazing opportunity to get to take a boat ride down a part of it as the final part of this tour of Suzhou. It lasted about 45 minutes (no we did not cross the entire length of the canal!) and the rocking of the wakes made us very sleepy after the long tour. We got to see some very nice sights, including some ancient temples.

The boats we rode in. We had to take two as the group was too big.

View from the boat as we crossed the canal

By the end of the tour we were completely knackered. It started out at 11:00 and we got back past 17:30. It was really well worth it though as we got to see everything Suzhou was famous for: the gardens, the silk, the canals and the fresh pearls.

There was just one thing left for us to do at the end of the day and that was team registration. Unfortunately we had just missed the last bus provided by the RoboCup organisers so we had to pay a whopping R2 to catch a public bus. Thankfully one of the volunteers came to help us decipher the bus schedule and get us onto the correct bus or we would have stood no chance. The registration process was fairly painless, besides us having to sign our lives away 17 times. This was the first opportunity we got to meet our German team members from RWTH-Aachen.

Cape Town to Suzhou

Now that I'm back in chilly Cape Town my plan is to blog about the experience I had in more detail. Things were just too intense up in China that I didn't get enough time to jot everything down. But that's a good thing. :)


We had an early morning flight leaving Cape Town for Johannesburg on BA. They're starting to build like mad at Cape Town's airport, so our gate was a temporary marquee which was something new to me. It was a short 2 hour flight, followed by 3 hours in OR Thambo International Airport. The building at Cape Town's airport in minuscule in comparison as they've been building for the past 2-3 years here. Luckily we weren't affected much by it, but as much as I travel this place looks new to me every time I pass through!

Team minus me at OR Thambo

The remainder of our flights were all with Emirates, which I had previously heard only good stories about. I've flown many airlines before so I was all too eager to test them out. We already had a good experience with them giving us excellent accommodation rates in Dubai, but they also tried screwing us over after cancelling our Dubai to Shanghai flight by trying to give us a 21 hour stopover in Dubai, which we blatantly refused in favour of passing through Johannesburg.

During check-in for our flight to Dubai I could immediately tell who from our group were infrequent travellers. Some were all too eager to go to customs to register their laptops and such, something which I have only ever done once before. As you will discover towards the end of this post it was pretty useless even under extreme conditions. Finding a place to eat was also an interesting endeavour as no-one could make a decision as to where to eat. We finally ended up going through passport control to the gates and ate there, where the food was limited to a single cafe and hence expensive. I stocked up on some snacks which later proved useful.

When we finally got around to boarding the next flight I was amazed at the size of the engines on the new Boeing 777-300. Being a new plane it was nice and clean inside, but best of all was the on-board entertainment system. It was by far the best I have ever experienced with over 500 channels to choose from, and best of all was it was turned on before we boarded the plane, while other airlines usually only boot the systems up after take-off. The 7 hour flight was extremely comfortable and by flight standards the food was decent.


We landed in Dubai just after midnight on Saturday morning. Compared to the weather we left behind in Cape Town, the heat here was intense even for daytime weather (and this was at midnight!). It was a taste of what was to come for us when we were to return here 10 days later. The airport here was one like I have never experienced before. It was so packed with people, many of them sleeping, that it looked like a refugee camp. Remember that this was now 1 in the morning. We had a quick bite to eat before boarding our next flight. I had chicken wings which had some crazy spices I had never tasted before.

Our next flight to Shanghai lasted about 8 hours and wasn't as comfortable as the previous one. The seats were designed for use with leg rests, but they had to since remove them as it was discovered they would amputate both feet in a crash. With the feet of any reasonably sized person dangling above the floor, our feet were completely swollen by the end of the flight. At least the entertainment system was the same as on the previous flight, even though I slept through most of the flight.

After the trainee customs officer took a while to inspect my passport we finally went through to collect our luggage and met up with the RoboCup volunteers who organised a bus to Suzhou for us.

Continue reading Arrival in Suzhou, China.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Leaving China

We leave China this evening and spend four nights in Dubai before heading back home. This trip has been one hell of an experience and truly bolsters my feeling of China being the most amazing country I have visited. I was in Shanghai in 2005 for the ACM ICPC and I had an awesome time. This really is one of the few places I'd love to return to.

We ended up having only two matches, both on Sunday. Like everyone else, we had many serious issues with the robots. They were breaking, overheating, camera channels randomly swapping. The API provided (NaoQi) by Aldebaran was chowing CPU and RAM and what made matters worse was that when CPU usage hit 100% the robot went through an emergency shutdown and collapsed. We drew both matches 0-0, but the teams we played were ahead of us in their gameplay as bad as we all were so we got knocked out.

We went out to Shanghai on Saturday so we missed the quarter- and semi-finals. More on what happened there later, it was an awesome experience. The finals were held yesterday and honestly it could have been made a little more exciting. I was expecting huge crowds, but the problem was there was simply insufficient space for them as the fields were too close to on another. The Aibo final was first and the Northern Bites from Bowdoin clinched what may have been the final Aibo league.

Then CMU with Georgia Tech played against the NUManoids team from Newcastle in Australia. There were some rather humerous points in the game, but neither team did anything special so they went to penatlies, but not penalties in the normal sense. There was no goalie -- a single robot was placed in front of the goal with the ball in front of it and it had to score as quickly as possible. CMU/Georgia went first and completely screwed up unfortunately, but eventually got the ball in the goals about 3 minutes later. Newcastle, on the other hand, walked up to the ball and kicked for goal in seconds and clinched the first Nao league. The president of RoboCup who is from CMU had some amusing moments.

We've all had an amazing time here. Not only is the location awesome, the venue awesome, but so are all the people. I never knew one could get so many Germans in one place outside of Europe. They were great fun and I really look forward to meeting most of them again in the German Open in Hamburg, April next year.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

RoboCup is Happening

RoboCup has been getting seriously hectic, leaving little time to blog about the event. I'll fill you all in in much more detail after the event, but here's a quick summary for now.

As our robots were shipped to our German team members three weeks ago, we only got to see them on Monday for the first time. Yes, it's been a long ride since the expected arrival of April 2008, but at least we can be rest assured we're not the only ones with such issues. Receiving them so late has resulted in a massive on-site rush to get the things just to walk, but we finally got it right this morning at about 2am (kick and such follows easily!)! Today we can put the vision system to the test, which we expect to produce good results. Our behaviour for this year is really simple, as without decent motion there's little point.

The robots have been seriously breaking to pieces all over the show. They did a tally yesterday and out of 60 robots only 25 are in reasonable working condition (we have 2 of 4). The Aldebaran workshop is so bad they wouldn't let me take a photo, but I tell you I would not want to be one of their engineers! They've been very friendly and helpful though as RoboCup is really the only reason they're still developing the robot, which they aim to release to the public next year.

This is one of our German team members Tim Niemueller working on his RoboCup@Home robot. Their robot cost about 60,000 euros to build and that's just the physical components. They have been champions two years now and although they had a problem with their main board they have high hopes to pull through victorious once again and speaking to the other teams this is quite likely.

We hope to enter the Small Size and RoboCup Rescue leagues next year, which is what part of our delegation is here for this year. Here's an example of how the rescue robots look like:

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Chinese Breakfast

Chines breakfast...interesting stuff:

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Arrival in Suzhou, China

After more than a full 24 hour day of travelling we have made it to Suzhou, China for RoboCup 2008. The flight from Johannesburg to Dubai was great as we flew the new Boeing 777-300 on Emirates and the entertainment system was excellent. The flight to Shanghai was an older plane and the seat was raised too high when the seat was pushed back so our feet were dangling which was awful. Customs was surprisingly a breeze, especially after all the emails that were flying around about how we would have to pay X and do Y before we could get Z.

Once we got past customs we were welcomed by an impressive group of RoboCup volunteers who organised us a special bus with a team from Winnipeg. This was the first time we hit outdoors and my word was it a surprise! We heard it was hot and humid, but this was like walking into a sauna!! Taking photos was hopeless as the lens steamed up instantly:

The bus ride was a long 3 hour trip to Suzhou over what I swear must be the most damaged (i.e. bumpiest) roads I have ever travelled on. Add that to the fact that Chinese are possibly the most daring drivers in the world (where else would a scooter try cut off a truck?) and it was a most interesting ride. We eventually arrived at our hotel in one piece. At a measly 37 euros a night for three people it's an awesome hotel:

The first thing (after turning on the laptops) was to run for the shower. The weather is really bad, although we'll get used to it soon. We then went out for supper, which for most was an experience! I had some Chinese duck, which once you got past the bones and the immense spiciness was really good. The others, however, did not have such a good experience. Noodles with large quantities of oil and very little meat. It's all really cheap though, with the meal for six of us costing about R100 with drinks. The RoboCup volunteers spotted us and told us they would show us back to our hotel, even though we were literally on the same block and could see our hotel from where we were sitting. Crazy helpful Chinese, it's what I love about this place!

We finished off the day with a short walk around the area. It takes 40 minutes to get to the city center by bus and that's without traffic, so we skipped that option for today. That should give you a good idea of just how large the city is. Tomorrow we have the day to ourselves with registration from 17:00 to 19:00. Unfortunately though, breakfast is bright and early in the morning at 06:00-08:00.

I'm uploading all photos up here.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

ICFP Programming Contest

The 11th ICFP Programming Contest is underway in less than 48 hours. Last year my team took 2nd place. Unfortunately a number of things are preventing a repeat performance, with the number one problem being that I am flying over to China for RoboCup when the contest begins. Bruce and Carl are, however, forming their own team up in the UK where they'll hopefully win it for us. There's also the UCT team of Max, Keegan, Julian, Richard and Timothy who's sole aim is to pwn Bruce and Carl.

If you haven't heard of the ICFP Contest before, it's an annual contest run alongside the International Conference of Functional Programming with the aim to provide a language neutral programming problem and recognise the winning teams' languages. It's a 72 hour long marathon contest with almost no rules (anyone can compete, etc.). Last year's problem was to "implement a 2-stage virtual machine that executes a DNA-like string to produce an image. Then, given an input string for this machine, find a prefix that when added to this string yields an image as close as possible to the given target image." This year's organisers all have PhD's in computer graphics...me suspects something!

In closing I'd like to say that I very much disagree with the rule limiting teams to five people. It is almost always true in these contests that having more than five people is actually worse so that removes the reasoning of making it fair for all. The reason we had such a large team last year was to have a more enjoyable time together and it truly was a most enjoyable experience. It brought ten of the top students at our university together to work on a well-defined goal over just 3 days. It was awesome! If this rule continues I fear we have lost the opportunity for a repeat of that amazing experience. Competing for fun without submitting is not an option as that removes...well, everything! Consider this as my plea to the organisers of the 2009 contest to relax this restriction.

Monday, July 7, 2008

South Africa Google Gadget Competition

Google are starting a Google Gadget competition in South Africa, pitting UCT up against Wits. Here's another chance for us to show our dominance at UCT. The competition was first run in East Africa, and now we're getting the next one. The prize includes a trip to the Google engineering office in Zurich for a dinner with the Google SA team.

Gadgets are interactive mini applications built using HTML, with JavaScript, Flash or Silverlight for dynamic behaviours that live inside a web page. Think of them as Facebook applications that can be used on any web page. Practically anyone can add a gadget to a website they have built, but many are used on iGoogle. Millions of people worldwide use iGoogle every day. Just look at the collection of existing gadgets ranging from a simple clock to the Google Talk gadget. More info is available here.

David Harper from Google is giving a presentation of the competition at UCT on Thursday 24 July (date and venue TBD). The other important dates are:

July 21, 2008 Registration open
August 15, 2008 Registration close
August – October, 2008 Students build gadgets
October 31, 2008 Gadget submissions due
Mid-November 2008 Winners announced

I've created a Facebook group which you should join to discuss the competition further if it catches your interest:


Some more info directly from Google:

We're looking for the next generation of gadget developers in South Africa and to reward the university in South Africa where outstanding creativity meets state-of-the-art technical skills. This year we will have one university in Johannesburg and one university in Cape Town compete against each other.

Students who wish to participate to the contest will register and submit their ideas for what they think will make a great gadget from July 21st through the submission form below. Each proposal should explain what the gadget does, who would use it, and why it will be successful, as well as adding some details about how the gadget will work.

Students will then have until October 31st to work on creating the gadget. The deadline for submitting a fully-functioning gadget is October 31st. We'll communicate the link through which students can submit their gadgets at a later point in time.

After the deadline a committee, composed of Google engineers as well as some preeminent tech personalities from South Africa, will judge the gadgets.

The overall winner together with some runners up will win some of the following prizes: A trip to Google engineering offices in Zurich, Switzerland, dinner with Google SA team, visibility and PR. All will receive an iGoogle gadget certificate.

The winning university will be publicly announced by Google and will also receive an iGoogle gadget certificate.

If you have some technical skills, and are enrolled in a Bachelor's, Master's, or PhD course in 2008 at the University of Cape Town or the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, we would love to hear your gadget ideas. Please submit your gadget idea through the registration form below.