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
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. 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!


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...

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Free Energy - The Sun

So the kids were gaining knowledge about melting snow and they found some amazing facts that would aid them in coming up with a solution to melting snow on Mt. Everest.  You need 4 liters of drinking water a day minimum and burning fuel at the first base-camp is super inefficient because of the altitude and oxygen concentration in the air.  It takes four hours a day of continuous burning of the canisters to melt the drinking water for the next day for one person.

When you think about that - this is really a big logistics problem.  If you were up and done in a few days - that wouldn't be that bad.  But realize that the climbers have to acclimatize to each new altitude jump at a camp for weeks meaning that the entire climb takes two months.  That is a TON of fuel needed.

Sheet metal cutting.  Only a partial box of
band aids needed as we bought
cut-safe gloves
We would think that some means of melting would be inefficient compared to a flame, but in fact this isn't the case.  So would a means of using solar energy help?

The kids got into high gear and started researching solar electricity generation and using concentrated solar rays - solar ovens.  I love it when something like this comes up because there is no better way than to build and test things.  There isn't anything out there on melting snow or ice with solar collectors and in effect, we were talking about building a 'Solar Death Ray' that looked like the planet killer from Star Wars.  They got really excited (you know - you really just have to know how to present science to kids to get them jumping up and down - talk their language).
Yet another Solar Death Ray under construciton

So began our fall of "THE SOLAR DEATH RAY" construction projects.  And we built many of them.  You can imagine what our yard looked like.  Yes, many neighbors had to stop and ask if we were phoning ET.

We explored ideas of making Pringles cans into hot dog and marshmallow cookers as prototypes of water bottles that could melt snow while climbing in the day (failed - but the squirrels really liked our outside offerings in the strange smelling split open cans).  And our kids loved the late Friday night trip to the grocery store to get marshmallows and Pringles (they affectionately call my SUV "the swagon" and loading up as a squished group for field trips is beloved).  Apparently they thought we needed to try the scientific variable of different Pringle flavors as if the following taste test would affect the reflectivity of the inside of the cans.

We made huge ray domes from math calculators online.  And any time you need to make a trip to Home Depot and buy really big stuff and figure out how to get it into your car and yet seat six kids - well that is a day full of laughter.  We are a hilarious sight in a hardware store - a middle aged woman and a half-dozen kids talking death rays and picking up wacky stuff (like air ducts) and trying to figure out how to modify it to be what we want.  I have become accustomed to accosting the staff at the local electronics store and hardware store with weird requests with a gaggle of kids.

Finally ready for outdoors testing!
They knew from their online studies that that conventional solar cookers needed to be parabolic in shape and huge to be energy efficient.  But that carrying them over the ice crevasses would be impossible.  So having them be collapsable or segmented was needed.  We tried parabolic photographic umbrellas, making big segmented ones, making ones that went together with velcro, etc.  We went through a lot of metal duct tape!! Finally we needed a control to make sure that we could really melt snow and bought a metal parabola mirror from Edmund's scientific to do tons of tests - assuming with a real manufacturing facility we could make one that was built on the mountain.

Of course part of the outside testing with a huge parabola that can melt ice is to see what else you can light on fire.  Yes... I be the cool coach.  Some of our stuff could burn through wood and it was used to light the tinder for the fire pit.

The testing got underway in the cold fall and we learned a few things - we could melt the needed 4 liters ice in just two hours with the solar cooker and forgo the two pounds of mixed propane fuel A DAY they need because our system was reusable.  And importantly the chipmunks really liked our 'control ice pot'.  That was a pot of ice on the ground in the same sun to make sure that it wasn't just regular melting that was doing the job (it wasn't).  We did time lapse photography to measure when the ice actually melted in our device and often the chipmunks took a dip or drink in our control - pretty hilarious.

So now we had proof at sea level and cold weather - we had data on weather conditions for the Everest climbing seasons and they were matching up well.  So time to bring in some experts and learn more now that we had the beginnings of a viable idea.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Mt. Everest

Mt. Everest and extreme mountaineering, exploration or research - now this was COOL.  The kids sat straight up and wanted to look into this problem.  And we had just the rolodex for it.  Our mom on the team had been involved with a NOVA called "Everest: The Death Zone" and a NOVA called "Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance" about Antartica so she knew all the experts involved.

The first thing was to have the kids watch Everest: The Death Zone in a big movie night, complete with floor pillows and lot of popcorn.  It was real and gruesome in the way that really got a bunch of boy's attention to the problem.  I could tell they were hooked.  If you want to watch it, here it is from YouTube.  It was fascinating and if the kids were interested, we would get them talking with the filmmaker and first American to summit Everest more than once, David Breashears.  He also directed the IMAX film Everest.  

Mixed fuel canister
for boiling water for
So we had to figure out why drinking water was a problem and what current solutions they were using and why a better way was needed.  And truthfully, it isn't so easy to come by that info!

Some garbage collection on Everest.
The kids started looking up websites for Everest climbers, books, films, and scouting REI.  The dad who brought up the topic admitted he was a closet junkie for high altitude mountaineering videos and kept bringing us stuff with hints of what we were looking for.  And the experiments started at the house with melting ice with the jigs they take up the mountains.  They learned that Everest is covered in garbage, mostly these fuel canisters used to melt drinking water.  A side issue is that the leftover propane mixture leaks out of the cans and is mixing with the snow and with global warming, more of it is getting into the drinking water supply for the indigenous Sherpa population at the base of the mountain in Nepal.  So we knew immediately that we had a "human water cycle" problem that was affecting more than just the mountaineers.

What we didn't know was the scale of the problem yet and how interesting it was to become - that was to come later.

For the same reason that dead climbers are left where they die on Everest, garbage is left too.  It has become a massive environmental problem (water contamination) and religious problem (Mt. Everest is sacred) and so there is some limited collection and removal going on.  But while that at face value seems - yeah, so what - what you don't know until you study the problem is how freaking dangerous that is.  To get to where things are being left - you have to do this:

Which means you have to carry that garbage out over this.  And not once.  Nine days of walking, climbing and holding your breath.  This picture says a great deal.  This is how stuff gets in and out.  Remember that, it becomes important to the problem the kids selected.

Thursday, May 10, 2018


Touring our second treatment plant
While the older team was socializing all summer and supporting the team mate as his mother was fighting cancer, the younger kids were getting serious about their research project and looking for a topic.  This year, my next door neighbor got involved.  Her son has been on the team but she hasn't had lots of time.  She had just left her position at NOVA to write a book and so had the flexibility to help out which was great!

The year's theme was Hydrodynamics.  That's a mouthful of a topic and was a bit hard to get our arms around at first.  From the brief info they had given us (the full description comes out in September), we knew it had to do with the human water cycle - water that humans use for consumption, cooking, bathing, or manufacturing and how to get it or use it better.

Learning a ton about valve systems, flocculation, turbidity,
and other chemical engineering
This is the part of the year that is the hardest - learning enough about the topic to find a problem to solve.  The kids started brainstorming and watching videos to learn.  Nothing like having a NOVA person on your team - contacts and knowledge where to find videos!  So we started with the NOVA on the Flint water crisis.  The kids were engrossed and we stopped it over and over again.  That led us to tour the Cambridge water treatment plant and we ended up in the control room with the guys manning the system after the tour talking about problems and 'if we could' solutions.  Up at our annual weekend away, we took pond water and tried treating it and measuring turbidity.  The kids found some possible methods using light scattering and maybe some cheap ways to measure downstream so plants could tune their treatments faster.  Once they had some concepts - it was off to another treatment plant, this time on a river system, to check to see if the ideas were viable.

BTW - we know a lot about water treatment now and how it isn't a one sized fits all solution but unique and uniquely built for every watershed.  Crazy!  But we found out that the problem we had thought we could solve had a different unique solution that had been implemented.  Crud.  Back to the drawing board, and truthfully the kids had expressed over and over that while water treatment was obviously really important.... it was kinda boring.

Ok.  Back to brainstorming.  We started looking at lists of crazy ways people were harvesting water in deserts, in drought racked California, and ways to desalinate.  Things like fog nets to condense fog to water crops.  There were some crazy ideas to make shower nozzles that cut you off after a short time when showering and one to put turbines in the pipes so when you flushed - you charged your phone.  Ok - that one got shot down after some big calculations and one 'what happens if the phone falls into the toilet thought experiment'.

During one of the random brainstormings, we got into a giggle fest.  We had a new girl on the team whose father had brought them from India just a year before.  We had met him randomly and just as randomly robots had come up - come to find out in his spare time he is a LEGO master builder, had started a non-profit which ran World Robotics Olympiad and First Lego League for all of India.  He had designed the WRO lego game and ran the international contest two years before hand and had a daughter on the Lexington FTC team.  I slyly asked him - got another younger kid??  Yes, in fact he did and she had tried FLL once in India but wanted to be an artist and have nothing to do with robotics.  I told him I am an artist and like robotics - bring her over.  And so I convinced her to give it a try again, that we are fun and like art too.  She is great and to his credit - as much as we would have liked the mentorship - he was smart to stay away this first year so it was her and not her dad's thing.  She is totally hooked now and looked up at me from the computer one day and exclaimed that CAD work is just being a digital artist!

So anyways, the kids start getting into the idea of harvesting water.  She had a totally different perspective because in India and most of the world, your drinking water is delivered and you must do things to keep the staid water safe.  She got on the idea of harvesting snow for our US drinking water at each house.  The giggling came when she kept talking about a snow butt.  It took a lot of figuring out to realize that in English english - butt was a collection barrel.  It took us quite a bit of talking to convince her that while it was feasible - that the US system was so convenient right now it wouldn't take commercially as people would rather turn on their taps.  That was when a dad walked in for pick up and heard us talking about melting snow and turned us onto a really cool problem.

The walk up dispensary of drinking water in Boston
that sells water to immigrants
On a side note - this concept of getting your drinking water delivered came up again later at the Boston Community Center.  We were there helping them with their FLL project and robot and in talking with the kids, we realized that so many were immigrants, that they all walk down the street to an local shop to get drinking water weekly.  We were astonished.  In these poor immigrant communities in downtown Boston, they think that the drinking water from the tap is contaminated like in their previous countries and so they send their kids with containers to a local place that sells water from a tap.  Of course we all know that the tap comes from the same water system!!! But they don't and so they buy drinking water from a local tap.  I was furious, if their water had lead in it from their pipes, ok - that is needed, but should be corrected by the state - but if not, they are being preyed upon.  We got the kids hooked up with a local lab to test their public housing water for free to see if the pipes were bad (ala Flint) or if they could stop sending their kids on water errands!!  We learn a lot doing this robot thing, you see, and it isn't all just technology.

So back to the dad... he is an outdoor enthusiast and overheard the talk about snow butts.  He brought up that melting snow for drinking water was a big problem for hikers.  You can't eat snow as it will lower your body temperature and it takes a great deal of energy to melt it in your body, expending needed resources - some people can suffocate melting it in their throat if fact.  And where do you have the biggest issue - Mt. Everest.

Ok, THAT got the kids attention.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Winterthur Symposium

There will be a Winterthur Symposium this fall October 19th-20th, 2018.  The topic is:  Embroidery - The Thread of History.

I will be teaching and lecturing at the symposium - so if you haven't heard about it, there may be spaces left.  The symposium is joint with a small exhibition and I know there will be a special object in the exhibition that you will all want to see!

My project is a silk purl work piece inspired by the fantastic florals from many crewelwork pieces of the time.

The symposium website is here along with the descriptions of the class projects.

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Beginning of the Robot Year

Robot season right now goes from August to May for me.  And the kids don't go away, they just hang out here using our fire pit and grill, maybe working for me in the summer, and generally hanging out or maybe doing an outreach event during June and July.  Last summer the 'season' really didn't end as the debacle of the finals of the World Championship caused the organization to deal with us all the way into the summer with conference calls.  So it was never 'over' and I was dealing with the kids raw emotions over how things had turned out.  Thank goodness that half my business is just stitching or packing boxes - so as long as I can stitch while they talk or run around here - I am still pretty productive with the house full.  And I started getting aggressive with making them cook for me if they were hanging out around dinner time - they would get excited to be handed money and the keys to the car and told to go get stuff to grill!.

Getting the robot ready at John's Hopkins for
the invitational for its post-season competition and
therapy for the kids.
In late June, we took the kids to Maryland to compete in an off-season invitational that had saved a spot for the World Finals teams.  It was made up of only the best performing teams in the world and since there was no advancement to a next tournament, it was really low key with lots of sharing, ribbing, joking and people's unstressed personalities coming out.  I hadn't considered going.  But with how things had ended, they needed it.  We went undefeated until the last game of the final when my son's migraine just took its toll.  It had been a tough day as only five of the team had made it and my son had snapped a tendon in his finger the week before so he was in a cast.

At one point in the finals a chain had come off our drive and there is a strict 5 min between matches or you forfeit.  To me these are some of the best times as it separates the teams and shows their character.  Other teams could see the cast on his finger and as he was trying hard to reach in and do the surgery - our team mates were helping as well as other kids from other teams, some yelling for needed tools and parts and others scrambling to get them.  It says a lot about you when your competitors are helping you fix your bot.

So we were the finalist again.  But their record spoke for itself - they had bested everyone and it was soul feeding to talk to others who had witnessed the Worlds matches.  The great thing was there was money prizes and we were able to donate it to our Boston Community Center group we work with for robot supplies.

Going into the fall, I wasn't sure how the older kids were going to handle things.  My son, the captain, was giving all signs that he was 'done' emotionally with it and might not want to do robotics at all.  To me it was a double sided sword, I want him to realize that life is bigger than these experiences and to be able to walk away from things and go onto better things.  I have seen people get too wound up with organizations and put too much importance into things that are actually trivial and not have perspective - and let it keep them from fully launching into life.  But at the same time, I wanted him to finish the activity that has dominated his life and he loves with his head held high and not bitterness.  And I had another six kids on the team to think about.  One of whom lost his mother and grandmother that month to the same cancer.  Having been through that before unfortunately only a year before with a different team member, I knew he and his father would need the social support that the team provided.

So we all decided to go forward again - this time with eyes wide open and without really a goal in mind other than to repair the kids.  And fortunately when the challenge for the year was announced in early September, the creative juices started to flow and they came up with an epic design right out of the gate taking advantage of their special building skills that we all knew immediately could win the world.  So onwards...