Archive for: November 2015

UT Austin Villa programs soccer-playing robots

IMG_0332UT Austin Villa’s robots recharge before playing a soccer match. Photo by Danielle Vabner.


By Danielle Vabner

Innovation is the name of the game for a group of programmers at the University of Texas at Austin. Located in the Computer Science Department, The Austin Villa Robot Soccer Team is faced with a seemingly impossible task: programming robots to move, speak, and play soccer.

The team is made up primarily of graduate and postgraduate students. Each member is tasked with a specific aspect of programming: Motion, Vision, Simulation, and Behaviors are just some of the categories that make up a robot’s ability to move and kick the ball.

Each year, their efforts culminate in a robot soccer tournament, in which they compete abroad against other teams. The team’s Nao Robots participate in the Standard Platform League, which has taken them to Singapore, Mexico City, Eindhoven, Holland, and most recently, China.

Sanmit Nervakar, a Computer Science PhD student, is in charge of Vision. His responsibilities include making sure the robots can recognize important objects based on their color. According to Nervakar, the team will soon swap out the currently bright orange ball for a more realistic color. This, he said, will present its own set of programming challenges.

“[The robots] can be really frustrating, but really rewarding when it works,” he said. “Having your code actually produce something physically, you connect with it more.”


Jake Menashe, who works on Localization and Vision, said that the team is an extension of the Learning Agents Research Group. Menashe said that as a team of computer scientists who conduct research, they are able to use that to their advantage when programming the robots.

“We use robot soccer as a platform for exploring general problems for learning and robotics,” he said. “All of these areas of artificial intelligence play a role in making a robot, and soccer is just a nice platform for us to do that.”

According to Menashe, the goal is to make sure that the robots are fully autonomous, and can perform all basic functions on their own. This process, which involves in-depth coding and programming, does not happen overnight.

“We devote about half a year to working on them, generally,” Menashe said. “It’s a pretty big time commitment.”

This intensive time commitment means that the team members spend a lot of time with the robots. According to Nevarkar, once they are finished, each one is given a name.

These names are usually based off of well-known cheeses. Alison Brie, Mikey Mozzarella and Gouda Daniels are just a few names that the team has come up with. Through months and months of hard work, The Austin Villa Robot Soccer Team still manages to have a sense of humor.


Scare for a Cure: Blood, Sweat and Fear

By: Estephanie Gomez, Estefania de Leon, Raylee Elder, and Karla Pulido

Blood, Sweat and Fear
By: Estephanie Gomez

The black night sky engulfs a run-down ghost town. Screams fill the October air. Guests laugh as they walk towards their cars, clothes stained with red. This isn’t your average charity event. This is Scare for a Cure.

Scare for a Cure is an Austin-based nonprofit that creates an interactive multimedia haunted adventure to raise money for local cancer-related charities and organizations. The program officially began operating as a 501-C3 charity recognized by the IRS in 2007, but the program began to ride the success of spooks and scares for charity years before.

Jarrett Crippen, co-founder and president of Scare for a Cure, began hosting haunted houses in his own home since the age of 16.

“I’ve always been crazy neighbor that did the over-the-top haunted house, Christmas decorations and any holiday, really,” Crippen said.

Crippen brought this spirit to his current neighborhood when he started his own family. He set up a haunted house every Halloween, and as it expanded, he began to ask for small donations, like a can of food, as the price for entry. According to Crippen, by 2005 the haunted house had grown so much that it had “taken over the neighborhood,” to the point where he had to find a new location for the haunted house. This growth led Crippen to create Scare for a Cure as a legitimate charity.

In the span of four years, Scare for a Cure moved from Crippen’s backyard to Elk’s Lodge to a ghost town in Manor, Texas where it currently remains and haunts today. With the expansion of the program, Crippen set his philanthropic sights higher than a can of food. Scare for a Cure partnered with the Breast Cancer Resource Centers of Texas, raising $5,000 for the organization in 2007 during its first official year of operation. In 2010, Scare for a Cure donated $20,000, and this year, Crippen plans on raising $35,000.

The partnership with the Breast Cancer Resource Center came after weeks of scouring through local charities.

“Everyone I called was more than happy to give me an address to mail the check to, but there was no partnership element to it,” Crippen said. “It was disheartening.”

Minutes into his phone call with the BCRC, a coordinator asked to meet with Crippen to see what the center could do to help. According to Crippen, this was the kind of symbiotic relationship he was looking for.

Phyllis Rose, director of volunteer services at the BCRC, has worked with Scare for a Cure since 2008 and sees everyone at Scare as family.

“We’re a beneficiary of theirs, but we consider them much more than that. They’re involved in every step of the way in everything we do, “ Rose said.

Similarly, Rose coordinates groups of BCRC volunteers to help out at the haunted event wherever they can in the event’s long process.

This process includes coming up with a different theme each year, creating characters and their dialogue, making costumes, and designing and building up to 38 different sets and stages. According to Crippen, this begins in January. As a completely volunteer-based organization, most volunteers see the long process as a labor of love; they are there because they want to be.

Christina Wang, a volunteer in the costume department, said she went straight to a volunteer tent and asked to sign up after her first experience as a guest in 2011. According to Wang, the costuming process usually begins in April to be able to deal with problems down the line. However, she regards these challenges as “cool” and as an outlet for her sewing creativity.

Crippen estimated that he himself spent at least 2,500 hours working on Scare for a Cure outside of his day-job as a police detective for the Austin Police Department – a job he spends about 2,080 hours on. Although the event is time consuming, Crippen said he couldn’t imagine life without it.

“There are times I feel like Scare [for a Cure] is a fast-moving train that I can’t just jump off , because it’s so overwhelming, it takes up so much of our lives…but as soon as [it’s] over, I’m ready to dive back into it head-first.”

Photos by: Karla Pulido
Edited by: Estefania de Leon

Austin’s Got Moves: Local Clubs Preserve City’s Dance Culture

By: Shadan Larki, Marisa Martinez,  and Brianna Walker

From Palm-Heels to Pirouettes: How one man’s passion for dance transformed his life — and a local dance club.

The Ben Hur Shrine serves as the Austin headquarters for the Shriners Fraternity. A centuries-old brotherhood, The Shriners are known for their namesake Shriners Hospitals for Children and have called the locale home for the past decade.

However, the brown brick building on Rockwood Lane houses much more than just the Shriners. On Tuesday evenings, the Shriners office closes and the reception room next door becomes the Austin City Dance Club, a non-profit, social dancing organization that offers lessons in West Coast Swing, Country Two-Step, Cha Cha, Nightclub Two-Step, and Hustle.

“Austin City Dance Club follows a model that is different from some other clubs and studios: we pay our talent well. Our bottom line is non-profit, so we don’t worry about being wealthy,” said club ACDC instructor President and Co-Founder Mike Topel.

Austin City Dance Club doesn’t require a membership to get “in the swing,” but signing on does boast some perks. The ACDC offers membership discounts and a special rate for students.

“Our classes skew younger than some of the cities I visit. Its appeal is that younger people have lots of puppy-like exuberance. Older crowds tend to have more money, though…so we trade cash for energy sometimes,” Topel said.

The organization attracts high-level talent instructors to lead their group classes.

“All of our instructors are internationally recognized superstars. Believe it or not, that’s a big deal,” Topel said. “Our instructors visit the rest of the world on a nearly weekly basis; they’re constantly perfecting themselves for an international audience, and constantly experimenting on our local students with some of their freshest stuff.”

Topel is no stranger to life on the road either, so far his 2015 docket has included roughly 20 national competitions, and appearances.

But it hasn’t always been international stages and standing ovations for the Swing, Latin, Country, and American Social dance instructor.

“I danced for the first time at a high school sock hop. I was horrible,” said Topel. “But I got significantly better at a pre-college getaway in 1984 when Prince and Michael Jackson were big and I had a little more inspiration to draw from.”

Topel also counts James Brown and Bob Fosse among his influences. But not all the dancers he watched were pop stars.

“My earliest dance memory is the Lawrence Welk show, and watching my grandparents Foxtrot, Waltz & Polka to some happening bands,” Topel said. “I graduated to [watching]  American Bandstand in the 1970s, then eventually Soul Train.”

By the 90s, Topel found himself no longer just a bystander to dance, but practicing the craft as well.

By 1991, country line-dancing became the thing, and friends and I jumped on that,” Topel said. “Things went downhill from there. As in now I had an addiction I couldn’t control”.

Seven years later, Topel traded his cubicle for a studio and was dancing and teaching full time.

“The best part of teaching is directing the emotions and memories of the students in a class,” Topel said. “Everything learned is reinforced with humor and constructive positivity.”

Topel also holds a second-degree black belt in martial arts and brings that discipline to the dance floor.

“I learned movement control in the martial arts. Learning a routine, basically. That set me up for learning dance sequences,” Topel said. “Plus, a good amount of time was spent on flexibility, strength, stamina and balance.”

Martial arts training also gave Topel an unexpected dose of teaching experience.

“My head instructor insisted on having the black belts teach and trained us in teaching techniques. Also [it taught me] how to learn with an open mind and to take criticism well.”

While being able to take criticism is something Topel values, he says his best students are the ones who aren’t afraid to push back.

“No students stick out unless they heckle me,” Topel says. “And then it’s game on. Really, the only thing that sticks out to me is if the student is engaged or annoyed enough to see me as a punching bag and take a couple of pokes. That person will be somebody someday.”

On any given Tuesday night Topel can be seen greeting people at the front desk in the beginning of the evening, DJing the open dance at the end of the night and even out on the dance floor with the other dancers.

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Look & Listen: Texas Tricking Offers A Unique Way to Express Oneself

The Austin City Dance Club isn’t the only organization trying to get Austin moving.

Texas Tricking is a University of Texas at Austin organization with one mission: practice tricking in a welcoming environment. Founding member Justin Park describes what is tricking, and how people can get involved.

For more information, UT students can connect with their Hornslink page or anyone can join their public Facebook group.


Find out what style of dance you should try with our quiz here, and test out your moves at these Austin dance locations:

Use this chart to decipher your results:

Medicinal Marijuana is (Barely) Legal in Texas

Cover Photo_Medicinal Marijuana Package

Texas may not join the states that have legalized recreational marijuana anytime soon, but medicinal marijuana reform will continue to be a discussion among legislators and advocates this next legislative session.

By: Morgan Bridges, Erin Griffin, Erin MacInerney, Jamie Pross

Texas lawmakers can’t blow smoke when it comes to marijuana laws anymore.

Texas voter views have changed dramatically in the last several years regarding marijuana use and decriminalization. A statewide poll by Texas Lyceum found that 46 percent of adults support legalizing marijuana completely. 28.5 percent of those who oppose legalization stated they would be in favor of decriminalizing it instead. Only 20 percent of Texans oppose reform in every way.

“Polling shows over and over again that Texans are ready for reform,” says Heather Fazio, a spokesperson for Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy. “This isn’t a taboo issue anymore, it’s a very serious public policy issue.”

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Texas legislators will not convene for the 85th session until January 2017 but many advocates of marijuana reform say the critical planning has already begun.

“Because Texas only meets to change laws every two years, if we do not act decisively in the 2017 session, we will be significantly behind the rest of the nation,” says Jax Finkel, Executive Director for Texas NORML, an organization that works to legalize the responsible use of marijuana by adults. “Our legislators need to come to terms with the fact that this is the change that Texans want.”

The 84th Legislative Session had roughly ten marijuana-related bills proposed but only one managed to pass.

“The fact that there were that many bills is really encouraging,” says Fazio. “It demonstrates there is an agreement that laws need to be changed.”

All of the marijuana-related bills passed out of the house, and several were able to pass out of committee but due to the time constraints of the legislative system, they died when the session ended.

“For HB 507, the Civil Penalties bill and HB 557, the Research Hemp bill, the clock ran out,” says Finkel. “For HB 3785, the Whole Plant Medical bill, the Chairwoman of the Committee would not let a vote be held on the bill, therefore killing it.”

The majority of these weed bills may have burned this session but supporters aren’t letting them cash out for good.

“We had authors come on board after the hearings last sessions,” says Fazio. “Next session, we would like to see fewer bills but with more people standing behind each of them.”

As for the bill that did pass, SB 339, otherwise known as The Compassionate Use Act was signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in June therefore legalizing the limited use of marijuana extracts to treat severe forms of epilepsy.

Texas now stands among the list of 23 states who have legalized medicinal marijuana but before Texans start fearing reefer madness to strike again, they should know the strict regulations of this new law.

The act makes it nearly impossible for those needing the treatment to qualify, or find doctors willing to write the prescription since it exposes them to federal criminal sanctions. Doctors would potentially be opening themselves up to committing a felony since prescribing a schedule one drug is still illegal. Doctors in other states that have legalized medicinal use the method of “recommending” or “certifying” the drug instead.

“The primary tenets that need to be changed for this law to work are expanding the qualifying conditions, expanding the number of strains allowed and altering the legal language to allow doctors to certify patients instead of prescribing,” says Fazio.

To qualify, a patient must have intractable epilepsy and can only access “low-THC cannabis” or that containing less than .05 percent THC.

A patient can only obtain the medicine from a licensed dispensary and to no surprise, none currently exist in Texas. The Department of Public Safety is required to license at least three dispensaries by September 2017.5 pills

There are thousands of different strains of marijuana plants and the current law prohibits using the psychoactive element of the plant.

But Fazio argues “that part is very important, that’s what helps the patient from suffering from the condition. Lawmakers want to keep it out because they think patients will get high.”

Currently, the Texas law limits the use to those whom suffer from severe epilepsy but studies have shown there are countless other illnesses and diseases that could also be helped.

“We all know someone who has been affected by a debilitating condition,” says Fazio “And if there is a natural medicine choice instead, more Texans would be willing to get the government out of the doctors office.”

Texas NORML wants to see more cannabinoids available for therapeutic use for patients. They also aim to pass another bill that will offer a more comprehensive whole plant program.

Finkel says she expects to see “an expansion of the Compassionate Use Program in 2017 and that we will likely see a civil penalties bill pass. I think that Texas is more likely to have a full retail market implemented in 2019.”

The first set of rule reforms for the Compassionate Use Act are expected to be released mid-November of this month.

In Texas, many electoral decisions are made during the primary elections which are coming up in March 2016.

“Our districts often know what political party will win in advance because of the gerrymandering of district lines. This means that the most competitive and active races are actually at the primary level,” says Finkel. “Since Texas is limited in how we can change laws, it is very important that we make sure that our state representatives and state senators are educated and compassionate when it comes to this issue.”

Advocates from Texas NORML say that the election period is a great time to talk to candidates about their stances and keep the conversations going.

While most candidates publicly announce their stance on issues like education and border security, many avoid sharing their opinions about the controversial drug. Representatives seeking re-election may not be able to stay neutral about the topic anymore.


Do you have a gluten-free option?

By: Austin Hamby, Renee Moreno, Mark Roberson and Victoria Rodriguez

At Mr. Natural, they offer a variety of gluten-free foods and pastries.  Photo Credit: Victoria Rodriguez
At Mr. Natural, they offer a variety of gluten-free foods and pastries.
Photo Credit: Victoria Rodriguez

Gluten-Free: Not just a trendy food option

Gluten-free isn’t just for the cool kids. The latest dietary trend actually saves lives. For people living with Celiac disease, this diet is not simply a fad, but a necessity.

According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, the body attacks itself every time a person with Celiac disease consumes gluten. “Celiac disease is a serious genetic autoimmune disease that damages the villi of the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients from food.”


Caitlin Barry, a native Austinite, was constantly sick as a child, so much so that her doctors thought she was faking it. At the age of 17, she was diagnosed with Celiac disease after seeing a new doctor. She was relieved to discover her ailment.

“First, I was actually really upset. I had my last glutenous meal that night. Then I was also very relieved that for years I was always sick, always missing school, always missing activities with my friends, and other doctors would tell me I was making it up… or I was depressed and needed to see a therapist so it was nice to know I was not crazy and there was something wrong with me,” Barry said.

According to the NFCA, one in 133 Americans has Celiac disease. The tricky thing with the disease, as in Barry’s case, is diagnosing it.

Gluten is found in wheat, barley and rye. If the disease is left untreated it can lead to other autoimmune diseases, osteoporosis, thyroid disease, and cancer.

Celiac Disease- By The Numbers

Barry has eaten gluten-free since her diagnosis, despite sometimes craving foods with wheat, like cookies or other baked goods. But sometimes it can be difficult finding gluten free options when she travels.

“On a road trip this summer…from California to Texas, especially in West Texas, there were no places to get any gluten-free options. When I go to a restaurant and I say I am gluten-free, if the waiter asks, ‘What is gluten free?’ I know it’s not safe to eat there,” Barry said. She resorted to stopping at supermarkets and buying things like cheese and salami in order to eat while traveling.

But in the city of Austin, those with Celiac disease have several gluten-free eateries to choose from. One such place is Mr. Natural in East Austin, a vegetarian restaurant that provides many gluten-free baked good options, a rarity for non-gluten eaters.

Jesus Mendoza, the manager and baker at Mr. Natural, pioneered the Austin gluten-free baked goods market.

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Mr. Natural: A Gluten-Free Option

According to Mendoza, he has been creating new recipes for baked goods for about 10 years giving them a leg up on other gluten-free businesses.

“I remember coming up with a simple waffle recipe. It took 12 tries. You have to throw them (recipes) away most of the time. I remember one time … I put way too much baking powder and my mouth tasted like aluminum for like two hours … it’s part of making recipes,” Mendoza said.

Mr. Natural features an array of gluten-free baked goods. The top-shelf of the bakery is gluten-free and ranges from muffins to its famous chocolate donuts.

The emerging diet is not only restricted to those with Celiac disease. Many cut gluten out for dietary reasons. But some disagree over the health benefits of a gluten-free lifestyle, outside of those affected with Celiac disease.

In a WebMD article, Dr. Peter Green, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, stated a gluten-free diet could lack essential nutrients.

“For people with Celiac disease, a gluten-free diet is essential. But for others, unless people are very careful, a gluten-free diet can lack vitamins, minerals and fiber,” Green said.

Anna Fry, a private chef that often deals with gluten-free dieters, said that eating gluten-free has a positive impact when done correctly.

“My opinion is when people eliminate refined grain (including wheat) from their diet… they just feel better, and I think they attribute that to going gluten-free because they all of the sudden start paying attention to what they put in their bodies,” Fry said.

“I think if something makes you feel physically better … then that is fantastic. Do I think a lot of people unnecessarily adopt a gluten-free diet? Yes.”