Wednesday, December 12, 2018

My Favorite Picture

This is how FIRST announced on their official channel the winners.

There have been three hugs caught between these two fine young men - one of agony and two of joy - and they all had tears.  And their relationship started back in middle school with a simple - "you know Rob, you're dyslexic like me"... "No I'm not".... "Yes you are".

We all bet they start their first company together.  I hope some day to frame it and put it on their company's wall.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Event Finals

FIRST's goal is to be the sporting event of the mind.  The vision is to make doing this so cool that kids will equate it with the kind of reverence as March Madness for College Basketball.  That is the reason for the loud rock music, the impressive guest speakers, the huge venues and the cheering crowds.  When do nerds get that kind of respect?

This event was moved to Detroit and the biggest crowds ever came the five days - over 40,000 people watching and there were deafening cheers and rock concert music.  Then the finals were moved to the NFL stadium.  Only a few members of the team and coach were shipped over in limos and our equipment loaded onto semis in a huge coordinated move during a five hour break.  It was no break for us.

Never thought this would happen.  
While the event awards were happening in the main venue, our partner got that field of theirs back to the venue as the practice fields had been removed while we were doing the eliminations.  Our teams were chosen because they were like us - and took our lead.  Never, ever ever think you are ready.  Work to the last second.  There is always a screw that can be tightened, a motor that can be checked, a test that can be done.  The kids are totally in control and we just sit back and enjoy watching this extreme display of the will to win.  Now think of this - the parents have run back and loaded up a 200 piece field from the top floor of a hotel and gotten it to a major convention center and reset it up in about 30 minutes.  OMG.  And the kids used it for about an hour to reprogram their autonomous programs to work in concert together better as well as surprise changes that a team might not know (defense, etc).

When we got to the stadium - we immediately noted that the static problem was epic.  We couldn't cross the competition area without seeing arcs.  It was a result of the dry air and the covering on the astroturf - no way to ground anything.  So immediately all the teams were playing with the sparks - but on our side, we knew the entire shoot out was going to hinge on this.  Our friends Gluten Free were the captains of the other side and one of their partners was our partner at Worlds last year.  They were super formidable and my son, as the captain, decided our mindset was the underdog and we had to fix the static problem.  The lead up to the finals was a few hours and the finals took soooo long with 45 minute breaks between matches as rock stars sang, luminaries talked (GM's CEO was there as well as head of the Air Force), Obama beamed in a message and T-shirt cannons were used to pump up the crowd.  Our kids didn't let a minute waste.

There is a robot there inside all those bodies working
feverishly - making sure no metal can accept a shock
If they weren't off in a corner discussing every concept to game strategy and legal defense moves at different points in the match (you will never see the moves we see in the video where our team steals blocks out of the mouth of the competition and backs into their path to cost them seconds - all of that was planned) then David and Rob were inspecting their partners robots with them and covering any exposed metal and protecting the wiring even more.  We had chosen them both because they had demonstrated not only great performance but humility and a willingness to collaborate.  I can't say that our friends on the other side were as focused as a three team group.

Woodie Flowers MIT Emeritus and former
PBS host - cofounder of FIRST
The stadium filled up and I was amazed at the poise and focus of my team.  I mean their faces were on no less than 7 jumbo trons - two half the height of the stadium.  I loved those pictures - never did I ever think my two boys would play on a NFL field and be on the jumbo tron for tens of thousand screaming fans.  When it was over - they let out the confetti.  Magical.

When you watch the video - know that in the last match it became obvious to our friends Gluten Free that they couldn't catch up and so with about seven seconds left, they mounted the final position and put down their controllers, ceding the match.  If you look close in the bottom of the frame - the captain stuck his thumb out saying to our side - you got this, congratulations.  What a humble and gracious move.  We were so sorry they had to loose for us to win, those boys are a class act.  We are rooting for them this year.

Two world champions, the runner up all around award winner
and two other MA teams - many of these kids went to
schools together and have moved on to college together
And to ice the cake - our Lincoln, MA friends - the ones who were huggers... they won the runner up all around award for the World.  What a thing.  The three teams got the three highest awards at the same time.  (And the Boston Globe refused to publish a story - just shows how there is such a bias against smart kids and for high school sports still).

The captains of our two partners - well they discovered in the summer that they were both attending Georgia Tech and they decided to room together!!  And our captains?  Well - they are in London right now together at the same international semester abroad for Northeastern.  They will come back to Boston in a week to join the other two Brainstormers at Northeastern.  Two others are rooming together at University of Massachusetts Lowell and the rest are at Tufts with kid who made the documentary.  In London are several other World's teams FTC kids.  I have told the kids for years - be humble, be nice, be helpful and be honest.  You will know these people in your careers for a very long time as the engineering world is small.  One told me recently he now understands why I always said that.

The focus of the kids for every last minute was incredible.  My son's last
pep talk just before they took the last match.

It came home to a few of them while we were in Detroit.  One wanted to visit UofM as he was a junior and another was trying to get off the wait list.  So I arranged a tour of the vast project team facility.  It is super impressive and houses the formula one team, hyperloop team, solar car team and many others.  We were being given the tour and had our team shirts on.  As we rounded one corner a student there stopped and said "oh my God - you are The Brainstormers!, we are rooting for you this week!".  We were stunned.  He said lots of them had been in FIRST over the years and had watched us at competition and were keeping up with our videos over the season and had planned on coming to the finals - hoping we would get to them.  As we left, I reminded the guys - reputation matters.

This competition is so much more than learning to program and build a robot.  As one parent said to me a few years ago - "it's everything school should be".

Below are two videos - the final match (one of the announcers used to live in Lexington a decade ago) and the summary video by FIRST released to the media gives you a feeling of the competition that takes over an entire city for a week.  If you have kids or grandkids, think about taking them to see it sometime or a local event.  Maybe they will be inspired to try it.  And yea, my kids are in it.

Pictures often say it all.  Now Pick Up Your Controllers Teams

Monday, December 10, 2018

A World's Documentary

2 Bits and a Byte in our basement working during spring break
before we all left for Detroit
In the most amazing twist of fate, the two teams whose fates had been intertwined for so many years - us and our local high school -were getting ready to go to Worlds, we were doing a lot of work together.  Our local high school team, 2 Bit and a Byte were using our field for changes as it was spring break and the school was closed.  The captain then told us he was going to do his school project for a film class as a documentary of their Worlds trip.

So imagine this - our fates have been linked for years.  They carry our stuff to the Worlds on their bus every year.  And we will win the World Championship and our friends are making a documentary for school!

David working in the Marriot ballroom
on our mini station - we have to move
that 200 pound cart of tools and robot around
everywhere we go.
Well - you will have to watch it as well, we show up in it quite a bit.  It is a great record of not just what happened but what the experience feels like for these teams.  You can see the work in the hotels, the boring travel, the affection between teams, and how big this is.  The world championship is played in the Lions stadium and the Astros park.  And there are 30,000-40,000 spectators, jumbo trons and news crews.  That is pressure for these kids.

All these top teams in the ballroom late into the night every
night of competition
The booth - we have always been low key, focusing on the
work instead of decorations
There are more back stories to this video - moments not captured.  How every night after competition the teams go back to the hotels, eat fast and start working.  Often you bring your field if you can get the hotel to rent you a conference room.   If you get one, you often invite teams that might be advantageous to you to come and work in your room.  The three MA teams have been helping each other like that for years.  This time, we were downtown across from the venue so they were far away and a Pennsylvania team called BrainStem had a ballroom at the Marriot and was having all the top teams come to use it with them.  They ran a mini-competition every night between the two divisions which no one was allowed to film.  A lot happened in that room at night and it was exhausting.

Our animal costumes
Our booth was decorated with a cute display of team photos from all the years and one of every one of August's T-shirts through the years.  Kinda nostalgic.  The kids had always been the least 'decorated' kids out there, preferring to stay focused instead of doing costumes and crazy hats which are encouraged in FIRST.  But this was it and so they decided to buy animal onezees and dress up for Worlds.  They competed several days in them and I loved that they were trying to add some enjoyment and soak up the last feelings of their FIRST adventure.

The Lexington MA team and Lincoln MA team we had competed with so fiercely and friendly for four years were in our division - and while they would be continuing on, we were retiring.  Amazingly we had one match together.  Us against them as a combined team.  Before a match, the
The goodbye hugs that interrupted the
competition flow.  What a moment.
announcer introduces the teams quickly and then they go 'Red alliance ready (thumbs up), Blue alliance ready (thumbs up) and then count down and go.  But this match was different and we were so stunned that we had to borrow the only pictures anyone got of what happened.  As soon as the announcement of teams started - their side put down their equipment and walked around the field and individually hugged each of our kids goodbye in a show of three way respect.  It stunned the audience of 5000 and the announcer.  I don't know what to say other than it was an amazing moment.

We went undefeated - it was mindblowing.  That meant we would be the #1 captain and could pick two teams to be our partners having the 1st and 5th choice.  As soon as it starts to become clear you will be a captain, teams come around and start promoting their team and trying to show their robots capabilities.  There is so much to this 'dating'.  As the final choices are early the last morning, you have all night to talk to teams and maybe work together to see how your robots perform.  So it is super stressful for both sides.  You are trying to look at film to see if their claims are true, figure out what capabilities you need in a partner set and do you work well together - i.e. will they follow directions.  You need to have several back-ups because the other captains might choose your choice before you get to the 5th pick.  So this goes on all night.  Our guys had evaluated many teams and had given suggestions to several to improve their performance - mostly centered around the electrostatic discharge to their robots which would temporarily or permanently disable the bot during a match.  That happens and your team will likely loose the match.  We had distinguished ourselves by mastering the electrical system and this problem so the kids went around to their potential partners and told them what to fix that night.  Next morning at 7am, they would meet all of them on the practice fields and put them through testing.  This testing consists of us driving around a lot and building up charge and going over to touch their robot and see if it stops running after being zapped.  Some teams follow directions - the Lexington team facetimed David at midnight running around the hotel in celebration of the fix he had suggested working.  When you see the video of the kid in the elevator exhausted thinking they might not play that day - that was the next morning as we hadn't committed at midnight.  We were still keeping our cards close to the chest.

These away competitions go either 3 or 5 days and so the last night when the stress of the last day is upon all their shoulders, I give a speech at a big dinner to remind them of why we do this and what they mean to each other.  It centers them.  Last year, the seniors gave tear-inducing speeches in return.  So the pressure was on and we actually recorded the kids doing it in Detroit.  No dry eyes - my husband was brought to tears by one boy who described finding us and what that meant to him and said "it wouldn't be a surprise to anyone that I wasn't a winner in Middle School, and you turned me into one".

Some teams tried to suggest a old trick that had been pulled on us two years - say you are broken so no one will pick you and then let the team you want pick you.  Very dirty.  Our guy refused when a team suggested it - the kid said 'you mean you would rather loose (thinking that they were the best choice) than do this?'.  Our kid said "Yes, and we have lost before and are fine with it".  We obviously didn't pick them.
Andy running this field and evaluating
teams as potential partners.  Must have been
hard for those guys to take this little kid
giving them the once over and doing
what he asked them to show.

When I arrived that morning at 7:30 am to the convention center - each one of my top drive team had a practice field with teams running around trying out their changes.  This picture of my 7th grader made me laugh.  You can tell he is holding the cards and is seriously evaluating that team of 17yr olds.

So we choose the BrainStem team from PA as our #1 choice and were thrilled when the Lexington team was available to us at #5 pick.  They were loosing hope that they would be picked and absolutely freaked out in the stands.  Our fates were now combined yet again.  And remember - it was a choice to hate each other or let bygones be bygones.  It was the right choice.

A story for the ages.

More tomorrow about the backstory of the event finals.  What made the difference.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Getting Ready for Worlds

So we had made it through and now they were working to perfect that aggressive autonomous program where the robot would be able to find the cubes and put it in the box.  Now remember that most of the team had done all of this while keeping all A's in AP classes in school and doing totally overwhelming numbers of college application essays.  It was tough.  So now the kids were in the time frame of acceptances and running around the country trying to make their final decision on colleges.

So the weekend before Worlds I was in Ann Arbor with my son at the campus visit weekend for University of Michigan.  In the morning, we were waiting for the session to start and he got a FaceTime request from his younger brother who was home with the robot running programming testing to discuss some changes.

What happened next was a microcosm of what this team is about.  Rob - the other team captain was in Florida and texts and joins on FaceTime on David's phone.  So there are two open FaceTime streams in my hotel room.  Andy has his phone on the field floor and is allowing the two boys to watch - David direct and Rob who is looking at the screen through David's phone.  He would run the robot - tell them what he was seeing.  David had the code up on his screen and would make a change and use this cloud based version control system used by all professional programmers called GitHub. Once he committed his changes to the cloud, Andy would download them in Massachusetts and load them on the robot and run it again so they could all see the results.  This went on for over an hour.

On the computer is Massachusetts, the phone kid is in Florida and we are in Michigan.  They are programming and debugging the robot from three states.

They don't take no for an answer.  All the seniors are in different states on the last weekend to do work?  That doesn't matter.  We will work on the robot remotely and collaborate across three states.  It just blew my mind so I had to take a picture.  This is one of the reasons they win.  They 'do whatever it takes', which is a line in a song by Imagine Dragons that all robot teams like to use for their robot reveal.  But these guys really take it to another level.

I recall how many of you who I have met through the years have asked if the kids 'really want to do this', implying that I am forcing them to work on robots.  You can't make anyone do this kind of thing - it comes from the inside.  You can guide them and enable them, but you can't make them.  They have to want it.  And they wanted it.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

The Reveal

So teams do this thing on YouTube called 'the reveal'.  Often before Worlds, they want to advertise to other good teams what their robot can do so they might be picked as a partner in the elimination rounds.

We have done it too - but this year was special.  All season the kids had a feature that no one could figure out.  They could pick up blocks that were at a diagonal and no one else could.  It was killer.  So we had been very protective of that secret and it was a big reason I wasn't blogging because the kids around the world had been doing things like sending people in the region (even as far as NH) to meets or scrimmages we were at with long lenses!!  I couldn't risk posting a picture in our workroom and someone seeing it.  They would talk about it in some social media streams including analyzing video shots from FTC sites and pictures and posting them thinking they knew the secret.  It was super crazy.  So we didn't release our reveal until a day before Worlds started.  There were lines in our booth to understand the trick and do the head slap as it was actually so simple.  The best innovations are.

The kids also did a really cool thing.  As our team was all graduating at once, they ended their reveal with a montage of their years in FIRST.  I cry everytime I see it.  It starts at 3 min 49 sec.  And at the end - they passed the baton to their younger siblings in a gracious move.  They gave them their name and trusted them with their legacy.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Off to the Super Regional

So after the MA state championship the kids made a radical change to their programming and installed some sensors to make it happen.  It was controversial on the team.  If we could pull it off, it would make us super competitive with Gluten Free and we had been jostling with them all season.
Deciding to entirely tear down the robot 48 hours before the
super regional to try to fix the electrical system

But sometimes those changes can be devastating, adding something to the system that throws the electrical system off.  And it was a spectacular problem.  Our control board - a $150 item kept frying randomly.  They would track down what looked to be the problem and rewire that and would get it back up for a day or two and back to the super challenging programming and it would fry again and they would find something else.  I would federal express a new board overnight and as it started adding up in costs and they couldn't get it to stop we were getting really, really worried.

They really get into the work
The programming guys were trying to build this system where the robot would know exactly where it was on the field and automatically pick up block and find its way back and deposit them during autonomous.  The game required 1 block pre-loaded to be deposited to get points in autonomous.  A small fraction of teams would drive blind into the pile and pick up one or two more and be able to get some of those in the box autonomously.  Gluten free was able to do two trips - getting between 3-6 in the box.  We were working to match that and increase the success ratio to a more guaranteed two trips and 4-5 in the box.  And all this would happen in 30 seconds.

Working with the designer of the control system at REV
Robotics to figure out this sensor-control system problem
But our electrical system kept frying.  I started teaching the boys how to do extreme failure analysis - map out all the changes and electrical failures and try to see a pattern.  We called the company who makes the electrical board and I led the kids through talking to them - make it their problem I said.  Show them you know your stuff and ask them to let you break the warrantee and open the case.  We sent them electrical measurements from the raw board.  It was a quandary.  The company kept Fed-Ex shipping us new boards - we spent $1000 on them.  There were a certain number of ports and as each one fried we had to use another until the board was useless.  So they had a test matrix on the white board for the programming - choosing how to test with the number of ports we had.  We were running out of time and how many boards were at the company.

And then the kids knew they had to do the terrible option - tear every bit of wires out of the robot and replace and rewire the entire bot.  That was a 8 hour job for two people.  And it was 48 hours before we were to leave for the Super Regional.  While they were doing that the three programmers (including the 7th grader) were all on spring break and they mapped out a complex master program that would test the system as soon as the robot started in the match and decide how healthy it was (i.e. getting the right readings from the sensors) and then send it down an execution path using the set of healthy sensors to do as many of the autonomous tasks it could.  This is called controlled system degradation and it is a very sophisticated concept.  I.e. don't let the spaceship blow up - limp it back to base before the astronauts die.  It forced them to write and test five autonomous concepts (each one would be a good team's entire program) and stuff it into one and allow the system to decide which one to run based on the electrical system health.  They were still writing it in the hotel the night before!

My youngest and Gluten Free after they set the World Record
Now once the wiring was all fixed, my older son sighed relief and went to school while my youngest
was going to run the software test.  And of course - it fried.  I could have cried - they weren't going to make it and they would lose the super regional and likely not make it to worlds.  It was a crushing blow I thought.  They texted him at school to deliver the bad news.  We were leaving at 3pm.  He told his brother to change a set of sensors to a different type and start recalibrating all the programs.  We let the company who made the boards know that they needed to meet us in the booth on the first day with a new board and they promised to go over the system.

In the end - it was their sensor they made.  We all figured it out because my youngest put his iPhone on the ground and filmed the robot as it moved off this structure called a stone in slow-mo.  This new sensor had moved position and was hitting the stone sometimes.  Static was building up on the field and was transferred to the robot by the sensor which didn't have a cover.  When the control electronics received enough shocked, its resistors burnt.  Yes - the company has totally rebuild and released the sensor for this season based on our kids research.
David and Rob.  The last time they
hugged like this, Rob was consoling
David as he wept over the
controversial loss at Worlds.  This was
for joy.  Friendships like this don't come
along often in life.

I was in the booth when the kids explained to the judges the problems they had had and how they had designed this  autonomous program to determine the health of the electrical system and run a different program strategy using different sensors to get points.  They were gobsmacked - just amazed.  As many of them were engineering VPs for major aerospace companies their minds were blown.  At one point the Raytheon guy shook my guys hands and told them they didn't need to go to college.  They were already fully baked and were needed at the job sites.

And the robot worked.  There are two divisions, 72 teams there and we were on the same side as Gluten Free.  This time we were able to become partners in a funny proposal again.  And yes - it was a dream team.  We started setting World Record after World Record.  In a mind-blowing semi-final match, we set the world record and lost in a controversial calling of some 300 points in penalties.  This ticked the kids off and other teams made it an internet meme who were watching world wide.  So they went out on the next match and set another world record.

They won the entire super regional and it felt sooooo good after coming in second several times and those two weeks of nail biting over the electrical system.  On to the Worlds for one more run for the Gold and it was going to be tough.

We won three engineering awards and in a funny twist, this took so many spots for advancement that the next spot for advancement kept going down the list farther... until it got to the local high school team who had been sad in the stands.  Their bad luck had kept following them and while we knew the robot was great, it had a problem that week.  But they were going to Worlds.  And that was prophetic.
We did it.  Those few weeks were so tough for these kids.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Vermont Championship and a proposal

Before the MA state championship, we went to the Vermont state championship to try to get one of their two spots to advance to the super regional, knowing that MA would leave someone behind because it is such a competitive state.  That is how we had advanced the year before and the MA teams realized that it was a real advantage if they could be on the wait list for VT.  They don't have enough teams to run a championship and so depend on out of state teams to have a championship at all.  But it is a long drive - 4 hours away from Boston.

So this year it was full of the best teams in MA and NH.  That means for such a small state it was a preview of the eliminations for the World Championship and that was kinda overwhelming for the staff.  In the end, we went up against a team we really respected - a pair of brothers in NH.  They had already won their state and so had qualified but edged us out for the #1 captain spot by only 5 points out of 1000.  That meant that we couldn't be their partner for the eliminations as the way advancement went, the winning team partner wouldn't advance.  So they begged us as they knew together we would set the world record that day.  But their father/coach realized we couldn't say yes and we respectful let them know before the public selection show.

When the broadcast 'selection show' happened, the captain actually took the mike and asked us to be their partner, even bending on one knee as a proposal - something they knew we had to say no to and we had told them - it was quite embarrassing as the crowd booed when our captain said no (And someone put it up on youtube with the title 'betrayal').  The kid had even written a poem to ask us.  But Miss Vermont was there and came over and hugged the kid in a show of fun sympathy.  In the end the matches were incredibly close and we barely lost.  That was the only championship we lost all year.  And the story of Gluten Free and The Brainstormers wasn't over yet...

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

New Team Mate

During the entire early season we had discussed with the older team that after Lego was done, we wanted them to mentor the younger team and transfer their knowledge so when they went into the metal division they would have the knowledge.  We had envisioned that maybe many of them would join the team to shadow them to learn what the others did.  But when they decided to do that crazy month thing - it was the perfect way to mentor them intensely.  And so they did.

The two brothers again - now wearing the same shirt
But then they took it one step farther.  I asked them to put the issue of the kids joining them to rest before they went out to dinner one night.  When they came back - they had made a decision.  They told me they would invite my youngest son to join them officially and make him a Brainstormer.

This was right after they had finished that crazy month and they had been really impressed with him - he had always impressed them and had to go to all their competitions as we couldn't leave him home alone.  In fact for years he had been their best 'scout', informing them of which teams had which skills and letting them know which teams would be their best partners or the best strategy to run with them on the field.  Now it would be official.
Collecting the MA State Championship
Trophy - he was the driver

And not in name only - no shadowing.  The head programmer said that he had to be a full team mate - that meant he would be let into the code, would have to pull his weight, drive and everything.  I had tears in my eyes.  This was their last year in robotics and they just told me that they were going to let this 7th grader on their team and affect their chances of winning or loosing on their last run for the gold.  I told them what character I thought they had.

Andy was more than thrilled.  He poured his heart into it.  My husband started teaching him Java and
he took over tons of the testing of the code and running testing protocols on the robot.  The brothers drove every morning before school and with so much practice the two boys became a formidable driving team.

We went to the state championship I talked about before (when we pulled the local high school along to the championship and thus moved them on to the super regional).  The guys let Andy collect the State Championship trophy - becoming the only kid to ever win the robot game in MA in both levels in one year.

Getting ready for the Finals Matches of the MA State Championship.  The Seniors and the 7th grader.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Robot Revolution and The Brainstormers Compete

The state coordinator did me a favor and allowed us to change our second qualifier for The Brainstormers to the same one Robot Revolution was going to - the purpose was for the older kids to effectively walk them through the process, to support them.

Getting ready to go to competition, their robot was looking
Moving to the competition field in their new quarter zips
with the FTC number on it - a reward for working so hard
Now there were some rumblings.  It was likely that Brainstormers would finish first and thus be able to pick a partner for the eliminations.  As my strategy son starting thinking - they realized that they could ride that all the way to Worlds.  In fact, we knew another team in another state that had done that with their junior team.  But John and I realized fast this was a no-go.  We got the kids together and told them they had to earn their spots the hard way.  The kids on these FTC teams are there for four years and would remember everything if they got a free pass.  If The Brainstormers picked them as a partner - it had to be because it was the only plainly obvious choice to everyone in the room.

So we went to the competition and it was the second most fun competition I have ever been to.  My youngest team had no expectations - for God's sake they had started building four weeks before!  And the oldest team was ranked #1 in the world and had already qualified for the state championship.  They were there to get practice.  The field was full of teams we knew well and the storyline spread fast through the bleachers - to the point where the audience was actually cheering for our team of midgets, they were becoming fan favorites that day.

I was shamelessly taking photos as they came up against each other - can you imagine that?  Both my teams across the field from each other in the only mathematical way that could ever have happened.  of course, The Brainstormers won.  Then Robot Revolution went up against the local high school team... yes that one in the earlier posts, also one of the top in the state.  In the end of the qualifying rounds we realized that their performance was in the top 20% - that if they hadn't gone up against the two top teams in the state, they would have been one of the four captains!  OMG.

So Brainstormers were Captain #1 and true to form, they chose the local high school team as their partner as it was the obvious choice instead of their siblings.  Several coaches actually came up to me bewildered - why didn't they pick Robot Revolution and thus automatically pass them on to the state championship.  I explained why and they shook their head telling me they didn't know if they could have been so principled.  But that stuff matters and we all know it does.  But in a huge shock - they were picked by a different team.  And as my husband says - that meant more to them as it was on their merit, not relationships.

So in the semi-finals it was The Brainstormers and 2Bits and a Byte against Robot Revolution and their partner.  WOW.  Again the camera came out.  But what is hilarious is the video recording of two matches of that elimination round.  It was Goliath against David.... and the crowd knew it and knew the three teams were related - and they all rooted full throated for Robot Revolution.  And the hand gestures of good natured ribbing between brothers and sisters across the field was fun and really got the crowd going.

Before the matches - I overheard my youngest son and his team conferring.  They KNEW The Brainstormers and their strategy and they started discussing some moves that were on the edge - attack the weakness.  I got them together and gave them my speech about playing above board always - nothing shady and had to remind them of a few game rules they weren't familiar with.  I had to laugh that they were so intent on beating them but they played clean and lost with honor.

It was a good day as you can see by the smiles.

And Robot Revolution's season was done.  And we didn't know at the time - but it was the last time "Robot Revolution" as a team name would be used.

Getting ready to go head to head in the semi-finals - each brother caring for their robot.
My two teams - head to head.  My two sons each on a side captaining their team and driving
The only time they will ever be in competition together

Friday, November 30, 2018

Did Someone Say Robots?

Yes, I never finished the robot story (a big one) over the summer.  When my life and work overwhelm me I can't write and I had finished the story of the Lego season for the younger crew so it was at a good pause point.  When I was at Winterthur quite a few people complained that I hadn't finished my thoughts...

For anyone who didn't remember where we were at - here are the links from the storyline to catch up.

Robots as Life Part I

Robots as Life Part II

Beginning of Robot Year 

Lego Season and Antartica

Robot Revolution taking over the metal robot field - they were jaw set
determined to go to competiton
So when I left off, the younger team had won the Top Performing Robot award at the state championship in late December with a top 5 score in the world and had sent their project to Antartica for testing.

And we didn't win the championship. Or the runner up or the runner up to the runner up.  They were not happy.  I won't go into the details, but we adults learned a bunch of stuff from a FTC coach who was one of the judges and found that we wouldn't likely ever win the championship - a mix of things that happen in these big organizations which are unfair to kids who work this hard.  Some of it centers on how 90% of the adults who judge this stuff have never done it and so either don't understand it or think that no kid could be that good so it must have been done by the adults.  That is so sad.  She had coached the best team in Lego and was the coach of one of our two biggest competitors in the metal division and knew us and knew we coach fair so she had argued to the matt for us.  And was totally overruled by the men as they dismissed her (a MIT engineer).  And was she pissed.  The kids didn't know about this until recently.

But what they did was phenomenal the day after the state championship.  The championship was a few days before Christmas and as I said, they were not happy.  There had been some joking about how they should just join the FTC division of metal robots.  (We adults realized they were done with the Lego division) - and they took it seriously.  As in by Christmas there was a robot frame.  Holy OMG kids are you serious??  Within a week, I knew how serious they were - taking anger and translating it into hard work and working beside The Brainstormers to build their own robot for the challenge.

Now realize - they were starting four months late in a high school competition as 6th-8th graders.  Four months late.  The actual qualifier competitions had started a month earlier and The Brainstormers had already qualified for the state championship - before these kids started a robot.  I emailed the state coordinator and asked if I registered them if they could get a slot at one of the last qualifiers at the end of January.  She said yes.  So they became Robot Revolution FTC team #14106.

Two of the Robot Revolution kid learning to
drive their robot
I didn't know how long the determination would last as we were already pretty tired from the fall or even if all the families would stick to it.  The families didn't have a choice - the kids were here every weekend.  Nothing like feeling things didn't go as they should to motivate them.  So now realize - I now have TWO metal robot teams on my hands at the same time when things would usually be cooling off a little.  We talked with the kids and told them they had to design the robot themselves and were not allowed to use the same design The Brainstormers had - it was so original.  They even had The Brainstormers first prototype robot in the room.  We made them take it apart.  If you are going to do this - you are going to do it from scratch and make sure your reputation is that because it will follow you for the rest of the years.  Don't let others think you had your older siblings do your work.

And they had a working, programmed robot and went to competition with full notebook, CAD designs, and presentation materials in four weeks - something in every catagory.  They worked around the clock.


I mean just WOW.  Many high schools barely make that after five months.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Whitework Course (Update)

I know many of you are waiting to hear about the whitework course and it will be soon!  I am planning on announcing the course and taking reservations before Christmas so any of those husband's looking for an easy gift idea can take advantage of it!

I have been working for easily six months on and off on the course - buying antiques, surveying the existing examples in museums and doing some of the all important figuring of things out.  This one is a bit more complicated at the front end than it might seem on the surface.  What are the issues a teacher should consider when putting a course on 17th century whitework from band samplers together?

One of my new pieces for study.  And wouldn't you know when you spend
enough time starting with them and asking 'why'... you realize that the
all the instructions I have ever seen are for 19th century reproductions.
The 17th century stitches were different.
Well the big one is success.  We all want to be successful when doing a project and unfortunately we aren't 14-year old little girls with their young eyes and focal lengths!!  I am in the middle of the 'first decline' of eyesight and now have to wear glasses for embroidery and so have been personally experiencing the challenge of how I love fine counts and materials and yet my eyes sometimes struggle more than before.

So as I have been working on the math (making sure the bands will all work out and be in the right proportions) I have been sampling materials - linens and threads - that aren't available currently in the USA or generally to embroiderers, searching for what I want.  This takes time and quite a bit of back and forth figuring out what could be available and when!

So if I want everyone to be successful - that means offering different counts of linen for the projects
Notice that the background is not the same color as the
thread!  It makes working and counting the stitches easier for
the borders.
and finding the fabrics that will work and the right colors.  Instead of saying you must use this one fabric that you can't see - what if you could choose and try different counts?  And what would that do to the instructions and all that 'math' - how could I accommodate that?   Scale is an issue that must be considered as well.  I was talking to Access Commodities today and Lamora mentioned that when talking to the linen representative who visited about a particular product he was 'pushing,' she had to let him know that while it was a lovely product, we don't have the scale of thread that is used on it anymore available.  That was a way of thinking he hadn't considered before and something that I work on constantly - what is the scale of the thread that can be used for Montenegrin Stitch on both 55 and 30 count
fabric and look right?  Of the 20 or so linen thread weights, which work for the different stitches on different counts?  Which brands are spun consistently enough to be used for this?  Can we get them??

What needles make the work the easiest to work?  This is cutwork - so how about scissors?  I must have spent hours today just investigating scissors I have picked up across Europe for this purpose over the decade and learning what makes good cutwork scissors by measuring things so I can give guidance.  I hadn't even noticed that in all the decades I have been doing cutwork (I started at 12) I do something with my scissors that is unconventional!  I flip them over so the thinner upper blade is against the satin stitch when I cut the linen.  These are the things that make getting ready for a class take twice as long as it might if you rushed.  I like to ask the question "Why?" as I outline the lessons and then that takes me to talking to scissor manufacturers to figure out why my favorite scissors for this work are actually made for a non-fabric craft!!

And recently I decided after some input to add a historically accurate high count linen to the mix just to make my life harder and satisfy all of us who just love that!  After getting the samples from Europe  I decided to make it eye-friendly I would need to do something radical.  This is what is delaying me from announcing the course particulars and costs tonight.  I want the linen custom yarn-dyed to the antique linen color before weaving and need to send a sample of the color (which I finally found in random piece in my drawer) to them for evaluation.

Even the satin work looks better with a
old linen color.
You say...What???  Well, when you spend tons of time with the antique band samplers, you realize that a significant number of the high count ones have cream linen thread on a colored linen ground fabric!!


I like the effect.  Three of the four I own are like this.  At first you think, well... it is aged linen.  But wait, the linen thread didn't age the same way so there was contrast originally.  And when working with linen thread and fabric that match at high thread count - well, you can't see well enough to count anything.  So off to scrounge in my stash for a dyed 40+ high-count linen and try the stitches on that. Ah - yes, that does the trick and makes the same work much easier to do.  In other words, eye friendly.

So the last question to be answered is can they do it on my time frame and I should know in about a week.  That would be cool, a linen dyed specifically to make a course more eye friendly for those of us who will try to stitch as they did in the 17th century on high count linen.  And don't worry - there will be two lower counts as well!

Friday, November 23, 2018

Janet Brandt's Casket at Winterthur

Janet Brandt, Linda Eaton and Myself with Janet's Casket in the exhibit.  And yes, that is her second one on the table next to it for a short discussion being held during the opening
If you haven't been to Winterthur in the last few weeks after they started exhibiting Janet Brandt's embroidered casket - you need to go!  The entire exhibit is wonderful but the star is Janet's epic casket with all the pieces inside.

They have displayed it in such a lovely way, slightly open to see the embroidery inside as well and a few of the items scattered in the case.  The walls are painted red to highlight the casket.  Pictures of this piece do not justify it in any way.

It will be on exhibit until January 6th as part of Embroidery: The Threads of History.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Quilts of Gee's Bend Documentary

There was a small documentary about the quilters of Gee's Bend in the New York Times a week ago.  If you missed it - nice to see something about the real people behind the famous quilts and their lives.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Rare Chance to See Embroidered Jacket in USA

Embroidered bodice c.1610.  Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

There is a new exhibit that just opened on Friday at Jamestown in Virginia called "Tenacity".  It converts the role of women in the Jamestown Settlement and that time frame.

One of the amazing artifacts that they are exhibiting as part of the year long event is one of the nearly two dozen surviving embroidered jackets of the early 1600s!!  It is one that I haven't had the opportunity to see in person yet (you bet I am heading down there!) and is from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.  They have a nice blog posting with some very close up views of the embroidery.

This is a rare chance and so if you happen to be near Virginia in the next year - make sure to go see it!

Monday, November 19, 2018

Silk Wrapped Plate

I have been wanting this thread forever.  Ever since I saw it used in contrast to silk wrapped purls on trees on a big stumpwork mirror frame in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  In this type of purl, we had a plate made first and then covered it with silk thread.  The plate was then wrapped around a needle and made into this delicious thread.

It is really slow to make.  The thinness of the silk and slow process of wrapping the plate has a full day to wrap enough plate to make seven meters of the purl the next day.  That is TWO DAYS of machine time to make seven meters.  WOW.

But the effect is just amazing.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

How are Silk Purls Used?

Short pieces of silk wrapped purl are cut and then a needle is
threaded through with thread to tie them down with a short stitch to make
them loop up.
Silk Purls can be used in many different ways and they make amazing texture on pieces of embroidery.

They can be couched down to give a high contrast to an area or to make a really cool looking tree trunk.

One of the most common ways is to cut short lengths and make them into loops on the fabric and then overlap the to fill shapes.

Jacobean flowers were a common shape that would be filled in this way.

Silk Wrapped Purls couched and using loops to make a flower shape on a mirror frame at MET

The grass under her feet are silk wrapped purls
 in loops that are standing up 
Stuart Silk Purl Flower

I just taught this course in person at Winterthur - Stuart Silk Purl Flower - and it will be an online class after the 1st of the year.  There were extra materials manufactured and I can squeeze out a small course run for those who didn't get into Winterthur - especially those overseas.

If you have never tried the silk wrapped purls and want to know what all the fuss is about and how to use/handle them properly, this is a great small project.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Exhibition at Witney Antiques

There is a new exhibition of needlework at our friends at Witney Antiques.  Rebecca, the daughter of the late owners is carrying on the tradition of having open exhibitions of wonderful things and welcoming us lookers as much as us buyers.

The subject is "Embroidered Lives and Family Threads, Historic Samplers 1600-1900".  It is open from Nov 5th, 2018 - Saturday December 1st, 2018.  Monday - Saturday 10am-5pm.

The exciting thing is always the catalog.  It is available for £15 plus postage.  To USA is £8 and in the UK £2.50. It is available by emailing them at

Friday, November 16, 2018

New Sizes of Silk Wrapped Purls and Silk Check

Silk wrapped purls can come in many sizes and in a few variations.  These are all based on a silk wrapped wire that is then wrapped around a needle or wire as I talked about yesterday.  They can be wrapped around a triangular shaped wire that is rotating to make a check or taken and stretched and run through rollers to make laid down or silk scallop trim.  

The 17th century embroider had access to all these amazing things like the different sizes of silk wrapped purl (we now have 4 sizes!!!).

I have found the silk check in a few places on stump work in the past.  A better picture of it is below.

The ripple in the thread is due to the shape of the rotating needle it is wrapped on, you can get a feeling of that by looking down the center of the purls and see how the shape determines that.  

For me the texture difference and the play of the two are really, really cool.  I wasn't sure it would be able to be made, and when visiting some of the makers recently, I asked if it would be possible.  They still had quite a bit of silk covered wire leftover from many of my orders and so we tried it right there and then!  It worked and so I asked for all the excess wire to be made up and put it in the shop to see if you all liked it.  You did!  So I will be looking to see what makes sense going forward to carry some of this long term.  

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

How are Silk Wrapped Purls Made?

There are a few ways that silk wrapped purls are made.  The two of the three ways were very likely the method in the 17th century as they didn't require electric driven motors or machining of parts.

Denis Diderot published an Encyclopedie in France in 1751 with plates in 1772 showing how many of the materials used in the decorative arts were made.  There were detailed drawings of the machines and set ups - often exploded so you could see the separate parts.  This particular one is the gimp machine, a version of a 'rope walk' to make multi-ply cords.   The core of the gimp is rotated using the wheel with one end tied to a rotating hook.  The covering silk is on spools that are held on a frame on the man's belt (right hand side).  He collected the strands of the silk in his hand and wraps them around a small iron bar that keeps them spread. He connects the ends of the strands to one end of the core and the rotation begins as he walks along it, the silk covering the core.  You can do a few meters this way at a time.

Illustration from Diderot's Encyclopedie (1751)

In the more modern photo, you can see the frame on a leather belt and the iron bar in the hand with the strands of silk wrapped around it to keep them from twisting as they cover the core.

There is a YouTube video of this process happening below.  It is about half way through the video.  The first part of it concerns winding the silk onto the bobbins that will go on the belt and the last part shows him taking the silk gimps he makes and weaving a trim.  This particular business uses the trims as fashion accessories.

Now that your mind is blown that people would still make silk gimps this way - imagine that the belt holds silk covered wire and that it is wrapped around a wire that can be slipped out of the center.  Now you have a silk wrapped purl.  And yes, a person walks all the way along the length of the the "rope walk" as they call it to wrap your silk wrapped purls with that on their belt.  You now see how our #4 purls are made.

Larger purls like the #8 can be made this way or on a spinning wheel.  In the case of the spinning wheel the length is limited to about 12".  Here you can see Dot at Benton and Johnson making a metal bullion by this method.

The most modern way of making silk purls is just a tiny bit more mechanized and uses a electric motor versus her hand cranking and uses a very short needle instead of a long one.  The wraps of the silk wrapped purl fall off the end of the needle into a trough as it is made and can be just over one meter long.  A person can monitor a few of them being made at once - so that is the big advance!  

Now I think you really understand why silk wrapped purls cost what they do and why they are so hard to keep in stock!

(Sorry for a lapse in this story, my extra blogging time was taken up with family stuff.)