Sunday, October 13, 2019

Thank You Prof. Flowers

Professor Woodie Flowers
One man can make an enormous difference if
he dreams big.
I want to tell you all about a good man who made a difference in the lives of millions of people over decades.  That seems like an overstatement, but it isn't.  Just yesterday at a reunion of college buddies multiple generations were sharing personal stories of this man and his creations with great enjoyment and laughter.  At the time, we didn't know it was likely his spirit rocketing around the world touching everyone he had touched one last time on his way to heaven.

Almost on cue, my snapchat alert went off with messages to me from my older robot team - telling me he had just suddenly passed away and how sad they all were.  Messages rang out around the world at light speed.  Not on the news networks, but on the highly interconnected network of kids, parents, students, and engineers whose lives were somehow touched by Prof. Woodie Flowers.

Woodie Flowers was a professor of mechanical engineering who was tasked with teaching the MIT course "Introduction to Design and Manufacturing" in 1974.  Known at that time as 2.70 (the number system to name courses), he injected his desire for hands on learning into the course by introducing a robotic design competition with a new challenge each year that was the culmination of the students learning.  By the time I was a student at MIT between 1986-1990, it had become legendary and the biggest sporting event of the year.  An elimination tournament in a lecture hall that was packed beyond fire code with hundreds of students cheering and broadcast on closed circuit across campus.  In 1990, it started being broadcast on PBS and he was asked to host Scientific American Frontiers on PBS - bringing his fun demeanor to a large audience.  Soon after he joined forces with Dean Kamen to form the FIRST robotics competitions using the concepts from his 2.70 invention to inspire kids to enter technical fields and gain skills not normally taught in school.

We almost never saw him without his
signature shirts - he walked around
with a set of sharpies so kids could
autograph him at events. He didn't
want to give autographs - he wanted
theirs as they were the stars.
I think you know why he has touched millions - at this writing, a half a million children from 6 to 18 years old around the world are registered and working as teams in this year's competition.  This year will be the first year that we don't see Woodie at the World Championship.  He has attended every one since its founding.  It will be profoundly sad.  Woodie would wear a new shirt to each visit and the kids would autograph it for him - he must have had closets of button-down shirts with the signatures of thousands of kids who revered him.  It would be a fitting tribute to him to display them all together.

The only time he wasn't in his signature shirts was the last day of the competition - when he would change into a tuxedo to give a speech about something he really cared about - Gracious Professionalism.  He insisted that FIRST teach and incorporate good citizenship, fair play and honest
work into the competition.  I think he knew that high stakes can make people take ethical short cuts and he felt that while he might not be able to stamp it out, vocalizing it and making it central would speak to the better in us all and inspire us to try hard to make the right choices.  I have seen many, many examples of these values and have seen how the constant drumming of good ethics have influenced the decision making of a group of children.  He gave a framework that allowed us coaches to make it central to our own teaching.  It made me tell my kids that no matter what, they were to keep their 'noses clean', be helpful, be respectful, and if they won to be humble.  Woodie understood that the community of people who get engineering degrees is actually very small and their paths would cross; be a good citizen when they first meet you and somehow that would come back to you later.

Woodie in his tux, talking to thousands of high school students about
being ethical in everything they do
Today, as I drove back from that reunion of my MIT friends, I got a text from my son super sad to hear of Woodie's passing.  He was sitting in the passenger seat next to the former captain of another Massachusetts FTC team that we competed against for four years.  They had become good friends after going to college and had gone hiking for the weekend.  That wasn't the only relationship to have grown out of living the values that Woody espoused, my son had been toured around many universities by former competitors and had done the same for others when they needed it for his university.  Once when I took a few of the kids around the University of Michigan and they had their shirts on, engineering students stopped us - they had watched us on YouTube or seen us in former years.  They wished us well for the Worlds that year to the shock of my kids.  That was GP in action.  I know for sure that in the future business deals will happen, hiring will occur, and all the other things that happen from good relationships will for these kids.  Thank you Woodie for installing GP in FIRST so these kids could be friends instead of enemies.

Moments before we won the
World Championship I had the chance to
thank him.
Woodie was wearing his signature tux when he stood next to me and our other robot parents rooting on The Brainstormers to win the 2018 World Championship.  We took the opportunity to thank him for going beyond his MIT teaching and doing the exhausting work of turning his concept into a world-wide competition for children.  I am glad we did.

Prof Flowers with the current captain
of The Brainstormers back in 2017 on a
flight back to Boston after an exhausting two
weeks of being super famous
Of course, Woodie lived near us.  The year before as we trekked through the airport in St. Louis I got a text and heard kids yelling that "Woodie is at the gate!!".  He was riding our plane back to Boston.  He saw our kids with their 2nd place throphy and they asked him to sign it and he gladly did so.  As an adult I could see he was exhausted.  This was the second week long World Championship and he must have been about ready to fall over.  So it was to my surprise that as we got on this Southwest flight that the last two seats were one next to Woodie and one next to another FIRST person I knew.  I placed my youngest son next to him and whispered to leave him alone because he must be exhausted.   But instead, Woodie engaged my son, a very decorated First Lego League guy, on the trip home and insisted on a selfie on my son's phone.  Inspiring kids with the last bit of energy he had to give...

With all my talk about robotics and the good it did my kids, I received a message from one of the casketeers a few years ago.  She said she was on a cruise to Antartica and met one 'Mr. Flowers' with his large camera and told him about this needlework teacher and her robot team.  He got around!

Woodie was known to ride his
unicycle - here inside the main
hall of MIT.
Now back to his early days and that story that delighted us all who remembered his early days and made several of our current robot kids fall on the floor with laughter - it must have been his spirit coming through the room to make us all remember this moment.

I wish I had the picture - if my friend finds it, I will post it.  It goes back to 1987 and my friend Todd was a beloved aero-astro TA as a junior.  He was goaded by my husband and more friends to take 2.70 - because of course those Aero Astros should be able to do just as well as those mechanical engineers!

So it came time for the challenge to be released.  It would be a tug of war between two robots with a rope tied between them.  Each student was given a cardboard box full of rubber bands, small motors and a few other things.  The rules - you can use everything in the box, including the box.  Creativity in strategy was highly encouraged.  Think outside of the box!  (Sound familiar?)  They were given five weeks to come up with and build their robot.

So my friend decided he would build a forklift and quickly drive out and pick up the competitor and drive him back to his side, dragging the rope with him to win each match.  Unfortunately there were only two motors (part of the devious nature of this competition) and he would need both to drive the wheels and be able to turn.  So the suggestion was made to Todd to build a transmission.  We all pointed at each other in the retelling yesterday, accusing each other of being the one with the 'bright idea'.  Of course none of them were Mech-E's.  They were all computer scientists.  Ha ha.  So Todd spent weeks trying to build a transmission out of rubber bands and cardboard and managed to make a robot that couldn't even move.  It was dead the day of the competition and would be a huge embarrassment to him as all his recitation sections would be in the stands watching him fail.

So he, being a funny guy, struck on inspiration and showed up with a paper bag on his head, safety glasses and a tiny paper bag on the robot.  As he said this all my current robot kids fell on the floor, peeing their pants laughing as he described standing there to boos and his robot slowly being dragged across the competition field with its little bag of shame on it.  I am sure Woodie had a great laugh at this.  There is a picture - I think it ended up in the MIT newspaper.  Todd says he has it.  (This video was that year, I am in the first third of the audience... not knowing that I am viewing the nucleus of something that will take over the life of the young man sitting next to me and myself thirty years later.  Todd is working on his cursed robot at 3 min 40 sec in).



Of course my son composed himself and said 'Uncle Todd, you were disqualified - the bag wasn't in the box'.  Again screams of laughter across the room.  Now you have to understand that 'Uncle Todd' is the main 'driver of spaceships' for JPL and the voice of its mission control during launches - on TV all the time.  The kids know that he recently was tasked with keeping Voyager alive - human kind's only spaceship outside the solar system - yet in college he couldn't make his 2.70 robot move!!  Endlessly hilarious and very human.  I like to think that Woodie's spirit was with us in this moment, a famous 50-something NASA engineer telling a funny story about Woodie's course to a group of 14-year olds (who had brought their current robot to the get-away to work on!) who were spending all their time working on his biggest legacy.  Connections across generations - all because of a good man who had dreams and the audacity to act upon them for the benefit of students around the world.

Thank you for everything Prof. Flowers - your legacy of creativity, hard work and gracious professionalism will live on inside millions.


Monday, October 7, 2019

The Difference between Embroiderers Yesterday and Today

Five Senses casket in Tent Stitch.  Linen
is currently not made anymore so can't
sell this design with a casket.
The caskets in progress by my students and my Harmony casket have been attracting a lot of attention lately, so of course I am getting quite a bit of email.  Most want the tent stitch casket that I can not provide at this point (There is a tent stitch Trinket box still available) because the linen for it has been used up.  (I still have enough remnants to make about 40 of the Silken Trinket boxes).

When I suggest that the stumpwork casket is open for registration - I always get back this answer:
"I am afraid that it will be too much for me to do stumpwork"
It was shocking this weekend as I got that response from no less than a half dozen people who I am sure weren't sharing emails.  

So here we go - a bit of my stitching philosophy which is wrapped up in my life story.  The sentence I keep getting is part of a pattern of comments I get often that really get me going.  As you well know, I am not a well behaved woman... so I keep making some history.

Small Silken Trinket Box in Tent Stitch - 
I grew up in negative town, USA.  A place that told kids they didn't have anywhere to go and weren't good enough.  That had double effect for me as I was dyslexic and wasn't remediated (meaning no one sat me down and painstaking taught me phonics for years to rewire my brain).  If you hadn't mastered reading, you weren't good for other stuff.  Somehow between my parents and my own stupidity I stopped listening to them somewhere around 4th grade.  I did the unthinkable - I tried things that people told me I couldn't do or that I wasn't good enough to do.  As time went on, those who told me I couldn't or wasn't good enough kept at it but I started proving them wrong.  I developed a pretty healthy distain for formal education - which is hilarious as I went on to get a doctorate.  But actually the engineering fields are a place to thrive if you ignore the standard wisdom of "can't or not good enough".   I don't have a lot of love for "the right way to do it" - what I do have is respect for is "If you want this effect, this technique may get the best result".  That doesn't stamp out innovation and creativity.

So the mantra became "I'll try it" vs. "I need to learn it (usually from someone else who is an expert)".  I became largely self taught - often by examining the embroideries up close myself with a magnifier.  I don't have Royal School Credentials, I am not a Master Craftsman, no City and Guilds...  I will admit that I had some mentors who pushed me hard in Japanese embroidery but I never finished beyond a few levels.  I took the lessons and said "I'll try it".   I bought books.  Lots of them - mainly for the pictures as reading is still hard.

Looking at the historic embroideries very carefully taught me some VERY important truths.

Most historic embroiderers sucked.  Really.  They did a poor job at it.  They violate every RULE that a 21th century embroiderer is taught.  Why?  Because most of them were middle schoolers.  Know a middle schooler who is an expert at anything or follows the rules????  Nope.  It was her class project - a badly paper-matched volcano and her parents loved it.  But those elementary and middle school girls stitched with gusto and it shows in the raw creativity behind it.  But today we look at their samplers and their caskets (almost always as a tiny picture in a book) and we swoon and since we never get up close to them - we IMAGINE how perfect they must be.

"They were experts"

Nope, they just TRIED IT.  And often pretty badly to be honest.

So we get to my massive problem with 20th century embroidery.  I am going to say some things here that will ruffle some feathers - please don't take it as a direct criticism of an organization - I have no problem with what several organizations are doing and applaud them highly for their outreach and continuation of the craft.  What I have a problem with is the fall-out that is unintended by what they are doing and I just wish they would realize that and do a little to mitigate the fall out.  They don't intend it, it is the naysayers that create the problem and often the demons are inside us all.  I am talking about the dominance of our formal embroidery teaching institutions (there are several) such as the Royal School of Needlework, Lesage, Hand and Lock, and the Japanese Embroidery Center in our collective psyche.

These institutions are very, very important commercial embroidery houses - and that says everything.  They have moved into the hobby embroidery market for several reasons, obviously because they care about the teaching and extension of the craft but also in order to make up the shortfall in the need for custom embroidery by church, custom orders, and couture and thus stay afloat by making money from the hobby embroidery market.

The problem comes in that the style of embroidery taught comes direct from their mission - to teach a group of people to a skill level where their embroidery is indistinguishable from one another.  That is their bread and butter.  There is only one way to do anything in Japanese embroidery because otherwise you could tell how many people stitched that Obi or Kimono.  The Royal School wouldn't be the Royal School if Kate Middleton's wedding dress had a mis-mash of skills all over it - it must be uniform.   The same with Hand and Lock and Lesage for Haute Couture work.  It is all about commercial production of big pieces by many hands in a way that no one knows how many did it.

And that is the problem with how the average stitcher interprets it - they don't know that the real background story is commercial embroidery commissions.  Their stuff looks perfect because it has to so others will pay thousands for it.  Instead stitchers think that it is "THE RIGHT WAY".  And unless you have decided to ignore the "You aren't good enough" thoughts and outright comments, you look at things and decide that "it will be too much for me".   What that is really saying is "I don't think I can live up to that level of stitching perfection because I haven't been studying for years".  This has also rubbed off from all the City and Guilds, and Master Craftsmen programs, and classes by the Japanese Embroidery center and Hand and Lock (and it goes on) where it is a single minded pursuit of PERFECT.  For some of those programs that is the point, to become a master at it.  Sure, I don't have a problem with that - what I do have a problem with is the thousands of women who think they can't because they can't live up to that level.

I can not tell you how often I get an email from someone who wants to take a class and they actually give me a run down of their 'credentials'.  Such and such class from such and such organization.  I kid you not.  I almost want to hug the lady and say that it will be ok - I don't have any of them myself.  That she can reform...it isn't too late to realize that she 'can'.   I can help her with a 12-step program and soon she too will be carefree trying new threads and techniques and inventing some herself - and enjoying herself with new creativity.  I couldn't care less about what credentials she has - all I care about is that she wants to try it.  Ok - it does help if you can thread a needle.  But that is my highest bar because that is pretty hard for me to demonstrate from here.

Screw perfect.  If I had waited to be perfect I would be dead.  My brain is not wired to be perfect - it is in fact very imperfect.  I will never read well.  Period.  I am over that and I use other skills to get through the day.  I will also need an editor badly for formal books. Again, not perfect and that won't hold me back from teaching and writing.  I am often scared and put things off because of it, you bet I do.  But then after a day or so of that, I resolve to pull on 'my big girl undies' and go out there and TRY.  I do things that scare me (ok, I did back off that clift climb this summer - that was just crazy crud).

The other thing that I think of when I get that phrase in an email is - geez, they must think I am a horrible teacher that they need to come knowing how.  I am not sure what drink those 17th century girls did that magically turned them into stumpwork doers.  It was their first stumpwork project (and if you could use a magnifier you can tell!  My advice - do the back first.  ha ha).  Yes, this will be your first stumpwork project and yes in places you can tell or you can use a drawer in it to place the leaf you screwed up or the petal that didn't work out, and then move on to version two of that which will be so much better.  I can't take my teaching projects online and publish them into a book because I use too many pictures to show how something was done - too expensive to publish.  I also often include the whoops stuff - often because it shows how to fix it, what not to do, and that I (the expert) am human and am trying too.

One grade-A dog butt that has nothing to do with the presentation topic.
Good lordy...
Recently I had the opportunity to show two videos of my robot team the night before the first competition when they were nine to a new coach who was lamenting the progress of her new team of 9-year olds.  She was thinking it would be a one time thing as they just weren't making great progress.  By the time she had watched the kids spend 5 minutes practicing a 2.5 minute robot run, falling down on the floor, grabbing the robot and breaking it, standing monotone giving a presentation, giving each other rabbit ears, realizing that one boy had stuck a picture of a dog butt in the presentation and hearing my plaintive instructions in the background being totally ignored - she was absolutely crying on the floor laughing.  That is when I turned to her and said - nine years later that hot mess was the World Champions.  They went from sucked to something because they wouldn't stop trying.  I never choose my team kids for skill - I only choose them for heart.

And really, if I can turn a bunch of fart-joke boys into World Champion roboticists - why can't I teach you to do stumpwork?  :-)

In the awesome words of Auguste Gusteau from Ratatouille - "Anyone can Cook"

...if they try.