Friday, May 25, 2018

One Earth Designs

So the kids had been doing quite a lot of research on the designs of solar cookers and would review things as they were getting their presentations ready.  Near the end of the 'season', they discovered that one of the companies, One Earth Designs, who made big solar cookers for developing countries was now wrapping up a Kickstarter to get a portable, lightweight version of their much larger version made.  It was basically the manufactured version of what the kids were designing.

Excited, the kids and us coaches started trying to track down the company - amazingly it had grown out of Harvard and MIT and so we found someone we knew who knew Catlin Powers, the CEO.  Catlin was incredibly generous with her time and responded to an email from the kids and arranged a conference call with them.  She was in China at the manufacturing line at the time.

The kids explained the problem and the dangers to the Sherpa people and this amazing opportunity to get their prototype to Antartica in three weeks to do the type of testing others needed to see to be convinced.  Her system could actually be the one that could go to Mt. Everest.

Catlin did one better - she offered to hand carry production unit #1 back to the USA a week later and send it to us to make Nick's flight to Chile to meet up with his planes to Antartica.  We were over the moon!  This was changing from a nice project that the kids did for the competition to maybe even coming up with a solution that could be implemented to save lives on Mt. Everest in the next year!

We had to wait for months for the expeditions to get back from Antartica, but the pictures and data were worth it!!  It melted water at altitude and at -15 degrees, beyond the conditions at Mt. Everest base camp!  In one of the pictures, the person aligning the solar cooker to melt ice is an indigenous Sherpa gentleman working in Antartica before going back for the Everest season.  The report back was that they all wanted to try it more!





During this time, Catlin was able to take her product on Shark Tank and get a $500K investment from Mark Cuban!  Quite the story on their project.  Right now they are getting ready to talk to the Everest exploration contacts when they get back from the Everest season (April-May).  It would be an amazing full circle if next year we send one up to Everest for trials.  If we can reduce the amount of propane used - it will save lives.

The kids putting together the SolSport cooker after it came back from Anartica

Posing with the SolSport in the yard - we might just do a cookout before we send the unit back to Catlin!


Wednesday, May 23, 2018

An Amazing Robot

Their robot was a brick that could accept complicated mechanisms like hats that were put on top.  It had gears embedded in the top surface that were connected to the motors below and if there was a set of gears in the attachment, they would link up and the two motors below could drive them.  It was super compact and the wires were well managed.

We have a system that they use to design the base robot and the attachments that gets all the kids involved and divides up responsibilities so all the kids creativity and work is involved.  The solving of the board with a series of 'runs' the robot makes takes months of work - especially to make the robot work the same way every time.  Its Legos, you know!  They try all kinds of ideas to look for lines, reorient the robot against a wall, and generally all kinds of ideas to help the robot get back on track with the natural deviation off the trajectory that being a plastic machine engenders.  Since the robot has to go eight feet to the other side, just a few degrees off its heading can get the robot stuck somewhere.  That is what takes so long.

But think about it, by insisting that the robot performing the same task exactly and being fault tolerant (just like in the metal robots), we are teaching the kids to be detail oriented and to think of all possible avenues for failure and to come up with a solution.  Exactly what you want in a future doctor, autonomous car designer, or pilot.  After what happened this year in the metal robots - I said to someone that I would definitely fly in a plane these kids designed as I know they care about exploring all avenues.

That's what it takes to win the competition because when you get there, you find the event staff have almost always built a model wrong, installed one wrong, and that the tables themselves have holes or knots in the wood that make the robot go over a bump and veer off course.  We simulate that by putting stuff under the matt, putting a book under the corner to make it off kilter and not declaring victory for our robot until we have either taken the stuff off the table and turned our table (so variations in the plywood surface are somewhere else) and gone to a different team's house to run our robot on their homemade table.  That's why they haven't lost a robot game at any competition in four years.

So the robot did amazingly at competition and they won the robot performance award for top score at the qualifier.  But it wasn't good enough for them - the first run just never ran well enough on all the different tables (you have five runs, switching tables) and so back at home the next morning, they threw away four months of work on that run and totally redesigned it and its attachment - and got it running and trained with it in two weeks.

There are 535 points on the board.  They had designed in 460 points as what they could get done in four months.  The hope was to advance to the Worlds and then take the next four months to get the rest of the 75 points within the 2 min 30 sec they had to run the robot.  Seeing that the German 17-year olds were only putting up 340 points at their championships - we knew we were doing really well.  Here is a video of the night before competition when they got several perfect runs in a row.  The second run shows that driving team is even smother and had excess time left over at the end plus overlays of the methods used to keep the navigation of the robot on track.


As a casual observer, you might notice that there were two different driving teams - this isn't the norm.  Also the kids were all clustered around the table while it was running, each doing a different task such as being the ref, score keeping, time keeping and generally watching closely to see if the robot made a mistake so they could diagnose.  These are all techniques we use to make every member of the team highly tuned.  It is hard to design or program if you aren't up on the details.  And by all driving on the team - they all have to hold themselves close to the level of the best driving team.  In other words - be a team and be 'all in', not a hanger-on and on the team in name only.  You can also see the general affection - and remember - this is the night before the state championship that they are hoping to win.  Preparation, preparation, preparation makes for lower stress.  That was the eighth night in a row they were there after homework was done.

The mechanisms that they developed this year were truly inspired.  I love this one as it is the idea of one of the girls and there were five versions of it until this last one and I think four kids were involved in the building and perfecting of the versions.  It has to flip the manhole cover and keep it in the circle - it was a task that almost no teams attempted.  The big problem was there were two manhole covers and so somehow this device had to go over the bridge in the middle of the field - but it had to be close to the ground to flip the cover.  So the kids devised a 'drawbridge' like system that if they lifted an arm in the back it pulled on strings that would lift up the manhole flipper while they crossed over the bridge.  No matter what, when crossing the bridge the robot would get wonky so they programmed a series of moves to look for lines to square the robot up again and get back on heading.  It was incredible.

This is a video of the mechanism.  One thing we use extensively is the slo-mo video function on their phones.  One kid will film the robot doing something that isn't working all the time so they can then see the action in slow motion and figure out why it isn't working.  They use this really effectively to fine tune their programming and mechanisms - this was an example for the judges.

At the state championship, they had the top three scores of over 100 robots.  They didn't make their 460 because one of the main models wasn't built correctly on the tables.  Ours was - we have a dad who is a master lego builder (an official and rare title from Lego).  He examined ours and realized what was off.  But we still had a score that put us with the top five teams in the world at that point.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Old White Linen

For those following needlework vs robotics, the new Old White Linen arrived and it is now on the shop website. I have heard from many that the story of how things get made is interesting - so a bit of explanation on this one.

With the size of the industry and market, a weaving of 800 yards of especially fine linen can last a manufacturer 10 or more years, selling pieces off the shelf to distributors, etc.  The Montrose Linen that I fell for and have used up in the Casket courses was on the shelf and not-purchased for 20 years.  We used it up in 8 years.  So you are getting the drift that a production run can last a long time, especially for the really good stuff (think obscure) on the edges.  This is the same for the silk threads we use too (think about the times you have complained about a dye lot change...well that dye lot change may be the overturning of stock that is 10 years old - so dyes and environmental laws have changed during that time frame).

So last year we were getting to the end of the beautiful 73" wide Old White Linen that was 40 count and originally made for ecclesiastical work (not tons of turn over there!) and table cloths.  It had a great hand, soft color and was both even weave and tight so counted and embroidered work could be done on it.  That is RARE.  We got down to the last 100 yards that had been damaged by the finishers (they put on sizing) and there were small spots on it.  So we bought it and started cutting out the spots to get to the big pieces, saving the odd sizes to be cut further into smaller pieces for samplers for kits.

Then word came that the linen manufacturer - looking ahead at retirement - was out and was making one last run of white (not old white) to fulfill the demand anticipated for the church until the planned retirement.  Ugh.  A planned end.  And right when I had two new classes waiting for more of this linen.  The word also came back that since the last running of this type of linen about 15-20 years ago, the flax fields had shifted from central Northern Europe (Belgium) to southern Eastern Europe (Slovakia/Romania) and that the staple had changed and it was far harder to make this kind of linen, so they wanted to phase it out and didn't want to go to the trouble of making more of the Old White (likely believing that there wasn't really a market to tap it before they retired).

So in a bold move to keep my embroidery going, I ordered 400 yards of the white that was on the loom at that time (knowing that they couldn't adjust after warping up to make more).  It was a purposeful move, throwing a wrench into the works.  They already knew they had a dependable 'market' for that huge weaving run and it would last them as they wound down.  Their choices were to   refuse the order (unlikely), make a second run in a few years which would be inefficient as it couldn't be as large and not know if the flax would be there, or bite the bullet and make me a run of my own in the color I wanted.  Either way, I would get a linen supply and if the calculation was right, in the color I wanted.  The only downside was having to buy and hold on this end.

A week went by with no noise and then - a call from my distributor.  The manufacturer was asking if they made another Old White run, how much would we want?  Of course we went nuts planning for five+ years and adding on top of that.  We made it worth his while and ordered a ton, way more than the original order.

The upside for everyone is that we have the linen again!  The downside is that the width is now standard (54") and not a shock - the price went up after decades of holding.  Now a full yard is needed to lay out a casket on the linen to make it fit.  I am offering it in full yard (for caskets) and 1/2 yard (for mirrors).  In any case you will have left over for mistakes in tracing or for some other yummy projects and it will be in the right color to match.

I call this a 'hair on fire' moment.  Pretty much almost every two months we have one of those moments where the messages back from the manufacturers puts your hair on fire.  I never know what the emergency of the moment will be.  We have survived plant fires that destroy equipment and those long term shelves of inventory, instantaneous retirement of craftspeople, so many surgeries for irreplaceable personal, companies who get us to the prototype run phase of manufacturing and then decide to NOT make our stuff after two years of work, businesses attacked by ransom viruses, companies trying to sell and retire, natural material supply changes, environmental laws, royal weddings causing schedule changes, random fluctuations in what is popular putting 'runs' on threads or fabric, and many, many more oops moments than I can detail.  And that doesn't even begin to encapsulate the messages back about minimums to turn on a piece of equipment or reconfigure to make some item which requires 10 different colors to get them to do.  Gulp.  As a product engineer, I understand what they are saying and there are so many spreadsheets to try to figure out what else could be needed to keep that one color in production that I need (or want).  Just this week I called a distributor to order Anchor thread and was told that my order of 600 skeins of one color was below the minimum for the manufacturer to ship to them.  Ah, ok....another 'hair on fire' moment...

A very long time ago I realized that I would need to pay myself less and 'bank' capital so I could stockpile inventory when needed to get through these 'hair on fire' moments.  Imagine just being able to say "sure, I will buy a 10 year supply of linen" just to have it made.  Yea... it is a juggling act and any rational business person would say no and let let it go out of production.  You should hear my husband when I make the mistake of telling him anything.  He is ruthless and wants to see his wife work less - and so spouts the kind of stuff that keeps any normal retail business going.  "Have seasons, keep inventory variety small, discontinue colors and threads, fire sale them and move on".

That ain't happening I tell him.  This isn't normal business (it's passion).  So sorry about the price change of the linen and its size change.  But we have it...and it isn't extinct yet.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Making Robots Too

So things were going well with the project, we had a topic that the kids were really interested in and some mind-blowing experts and the results were working out.  We were also working on the robots too.

My clean room without metal robots suddenly had a lego
table in it again - what the heck??
In the spring, while at Worlds, our youngest son was there and unbeknown to us was watching the live stream of the Lego competition that was in a different venue.  They beam in the other competitions so we can watch at each venue.  We were all wrapped up in the fact we were winning our division and he was getting mad at the live stream.  He was mad as his score in the Lego robot game in December at the state championship would have been 12th in the world without the extra four months he would have spent on it.  So his team was capable of winning it all.  That chapped him, to tell you the truth.

All summer - he got to work by himself and sometimes
with team mates, resolving the game with a different
concept.
When we returned home, he got out the Legos and called over a few buds.  My husband and I were wrapped up in the controversy over how our division ended and getting caught up on work.  I walked downstairs late one day to find that the entire Lego table was set up (that means the kids got all the wood out and rebuilt it - a mean feat for adults!) and set up the competition field.  Ahhhhh - what's going on kids???

He had found the robot reveal video of the German team that won the entire competition and it had a five second movie of the robot being built in a digital designer program.  He realized that if he put it on pause, he could advance it through the screens of the video and see how they had designed their robot.  He sat there with his next door team mate and rebuilt the entire thing.  Then they studied their video of their winning run.  Then they modified it - improving it with ideas of theirs.  They spent a few weeks programming it and basically re-solving the challenge they had done already in the fall.

YIKES.  I think I mentioned before how this competition can inspire kids.  We stepped away from the kids and just let them go.  Sometimes failure can be a huge motivator.  And truthfully, my kid would rather watch sports or youtube or play games on his phone that come up with an independent project of his own, unlike his brother who always has five or six projects in play.  When given a problem to solve that is competitive - he is all gusto.  But without a goal like that, he isn't sure how to fill his time.  So this was quite a turn of events and we decided to see how far he took it.

Pretty far as he toyed with it most of the summer learning more advanced techniques and ideas.  He studied championship teams on you-tube all summer and tried things out.   When they started out the real Lego robotics season - it was like they had made a huge leap forward and now seemed like they could compete with the Europeans.  In the USA, the age for the competition is capped out at 14.  In Europe it is 16.  The difference is because the metal division is too expensive for their schools (parts get shipped from the USA).  But Lego is made there so they can be 17 at the day of Worlds and still be competing with the 9-14 year old Americans.  So the Europeans almost always win the world robot championship in First Lego League.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions

How can you follow up on an expert like David?  Well, lets try the owner of one of the main Antarctic logistics companies!  During the filming of the NOVA on Shackleton's expeditions, our mom introduced the author of the book to the owner of the logistics company who would be handling keeping the film crew alive.  Well, they are married now, live in the area and are a really lovely family.

From the ALE website showing the filming of the NOVA film

So we hosted a fest with his favorite BBQ take out and Nick of Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions gave a overview to the kids of what getting to and living in Antartica was all about.  How they support the researchers, explorers and film makers with water and food and how they deal with the international treaty to keep no waste on Antartica.  The kids poured over their regulation filings he shared with them for data.  Check out their website - it is just so cool!  By the end of our night - the dad who was an wanna-be Everest climber and I were jumping up and down wanting to schedule a trip to see the penguins.  Nick was very fun to be with.

It was an amazing night to learn about how they melt water and that their main problem is how they really need to condense water out of the grey water so they can haul the sludge away.  Could our solution be modified to do that??  Nick suggested that if the kids came up with something rugged that they wanted to try out - well, the plane was leaving January 5th for the Antartica season.  Perhaps he could swing doing some experiments for them.  Even cooler - he hires many of the experienced Sherpa from Nepal to work for him in Antartica so they would get firsthand experience with the concept we were trying out.

OMG - did he just suggest taking the kids experiment to Antarctica????

Back to work with the Solar Death Ray trying to prove out condensing clean water from dirty pasta water to recycle



Wednesday, May 16, 2018

A Brief Needlework Interruption

Please will the embroidery elves just finish this overnight!
It is nice outside and I want to go out and play
Can I just complain about my needlework for a moment?  Who was the idiot who thought she should make TWO caskets in one 18-month period while making the instructions available every month??  That means that the panels HAVE to be done so the instructions can go up on time.  Did that masochist realize that meant embroidering on a deadline every month for more than a year??

Yea, it really seemed like a great idea about 15 months ago.  I have spent this week trying to get this panel done and really thought that 'today was the day' that it would be all done and I could move on to the instructions for the Harmony piece and charting this one.  I can already tell that it won't be done today and that has made my mood very sour as my body is getting so sore sitting in this chair!!

Ok.  Complaint over.  Each day I have a theme of the day in my video watching.  It has to be something that I am interested in, which means almost always a history or science documentary.  It also has to be something that doesn't make me cry - so no chick-flicks!  Crying gets in the way of progress.  Also needs to be something I don't have to watch to understand - again, the focus is on progress!

Well, in celebration of our new American Princess (I know she won't be a princess in title) I have been watching royal family documentaries for a week.  Can't watch The Crown season 2 as I will look up too much.  But I did stumble onto something today on PBS that was an 'ah-ha' moment of interest to the needlework world.  There is a cheesy Royal Wedding Watch program every night on PBS with Meredith Vieira.  Well last night's episode was all on 'what to wear' and of course they visited the Royal School of Embroidery to talk about 'if' they were working on Megan's dress and talk about Catherine's.   But go to 27 minutes into the episode and they start talking about Harry's garment for the wedding (speculation)!  That is when it is revealed that William and Harry don't just reach into their closet of ceremonial uniforms and grab one - they have one made for the day!!  They visited a North London tailoring operation which is working 24-7 right now making suits and uniforms for the wedding for guests, officials, royal staff and the royals.  And you guessed it - they are covered in gold braid and bullion, purls, etc.

DUH.  Followed by head slap.

Yes, I put two and two together about my current frustration about the pace of my threads coming in from - you guessed it - gold thread makers.  Yea, no wonder the schedule is off.  An emergency royal wedding.  (A personal plea to the Queen - please live to be 100+ because I don't think us embroiderers can deal with the drought of a funeral and coronation!).  And it is oh-so important that the threads and fabrics be English made.  Yup...at my lecture last night when I was listening to the laminations of the lack of GST and Purls in many colors.  Well, you can blame Harry for falling in love!

In fact the industry of a handful of gold thread makers can't handle a funeral/coronation and so they have already been embroidering for the presumed funeral back in 2014 during my last tour of England.  So as you watch all those sparkly uniforms go by on Saturday morning at the Wedding - realize that many of them were spruced up or made new for this event... and that effects our materials stream!

Tricia






Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Totally Cool Experts!

You can't get cooler experts than we did this year.  Our first expert was David Breashears,  a Mt. Everest legend, author, and filmmaker.  He got on Skype with us and the kids talked with him over an hour about their ideas and the detailed expedition logistics.  He started us off with the beginning in Katmandu and how people and stuff get where they are going and how hard and dangerous it is.  We had pages of notes about every base camp, the top, the dangers, the data and logistics.  It was awesome!  At that point the kids had a real prototype they had on the table and film footage of it working.  That was when David got excited.  While the 'personal' solution we were chasing was obviously not going to work because the climbers above Base Camp 2 melted their own ice but did it overnight (they climb during the day hours) - he got super excited because our solution would work in main Base Camp and solve what was becoming a problem that had closed the mountain for two seasons in the last five years.  He wanted to see us succeed and told us the experiments he needed to see to get one of them up the mountain.  What he wanted was an array of these solar cookers at base camp to take care of the water needs of the hundreds of acclimatizing mountaineers at that point.

Then David launched into the REAL story of what was going on at Mt Everest and we landed on our real problem of the human water cycle - the danger to the Sherpa people.

High altitude mountaineering used to be something that only the most extreme adventurers did and they shared the risk with the Sherpa people they worked with.  Note they didn't share the credit - but they did haul much of their own stuff.  That balance shifted decades ago and anyone who was rich and could afford the $90,000 fees to the Nepal government and expedition companies and two months vacation to fulfill a bucket list item could get to the top.  It is still freaking dangerous and some die, but they expect a 'luxury experience'.  That means that the Sherpa people are hired to haul their stuff up to the mountain over those crevasses and cook and melt water for them.   The result is that the Sherpa mountaineers go over the dangerous ice falls 30 times a season whereas a westerner mountaineer will do it twice.  And death is all in probabilities - so a Sherpa is 15 times more likely to die on Mt Everest because they are doing the heavy hauling.  Most of that hauling is the 35 pound propane tanks for base camp.   I think the best way to describe the problem is to put here some of the slides the kids used in their research presentation:



David alerted us to the 2012 season where 12 Sherpa's died in one day and the mountain was closed because of a revolt and fight on the mountain between the Nepalese people and the westerners.  As any exploitive situation goes - the people need the money, aren't being paid for their risk, and the westerners aren't helping the situation enough.  When a Sherpa mountaineer dies, his family has to use all their resources for an expensive funeral and trying to find the body.  As their religion is one of reincarnation - it is super important and often leaves the family destitute.  It is only $8000 for a proper funeral and there is no insurance for the Sherpa climbers.  And today, they are hauling HD TVs up there for the westerners to watch while acclimatizing.  

David pointed us to a movie that was being filmed that 2012 season on Everest which was following one of the most famous Sherpa guides and it turned from a movie about his 21st accent to the top of Everest into one about the plight of the Sherpa people.  It is on iTunes and it is REALLY worth watching (hey, if you read my blog enough you get movie reviews for stitching!).  It is called SHERPA.  

We cued up movie night again and the kids were just stunned.  And a renewed vigor about solving the problem occurred - they were now very emotionally invested.  That's where our next two experts came into the story.





Watch the trailer for the movie here.  You will be able to feel the emotion of why we are done with competition this year - but we aren't done with our project yet...