Friday, November 30, 2018

Barbie Jeep Robotics - Part Three

I've spent many years now, an entire generation if you must know, exploring the crazy frontiers of robotics education.  How complicated a project can you take on with how low a budget and with how crazy a batch of middle school students?

This year I think I have finally located the outer limits.  

Modifying Barbie Jeeps is actually a complicated task.  The wiring needs to be done properly (kids are not good at crimping and soldering), and if you do any mechanical alterations you will be working in cramped quarters and with lots of constraints.

It can be done with a small, motivated group who are willing and able to work together.  With a larger batch of, shall we say, Free Spirits.....the amount of actual teaching as opposed to crowd control has started to tip.

The section working on Ninja Jeep has nevertheless made progress.  I don't always have time to line up good pictures so I missed the shot where a half dozen kids gave a "thumbs up" the first time the Jeep powered up and ran.  But here's what I did capture.

A reasonable coherent control box.  

The kids are big into flashy lights.  The front police style light and the rear strobe lights work great.  The rear wheel motors are wired into the control system. We have three sessions left to remove the front wheels and convert to 4 wheel drive.  If that effort fails we just put some kind of roller skate under the front and go with what we've learned.  A few actual good decisions were somehow made on the design and layout of this beast.  And we have a buzzer/horn that we'll add next week.

The other class section has the advantage of fewer excitable members, and has two students that I've worked with on advanced projects in the past.  They also have fewer build sessions.  I figure it will be a wash.  So lets get underway with Princess Jeep....

Or not.  We dug out the innards of the other Jeep and found...problems.  The wire gauge was not big enough to handle 24 volts without heating up.  And one of the gearboxes had stripped gears.  Efforts to get access to this resulted in glitter everywhere, frustration and no success.

So we'll abandon the Evil Princess Jeep and have both classes work on the Ninja.  They are at this point mostly interested in bling and a functional water cannon so we'll try to oblige....

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Forgotten Brewery Caves - St. Cloud Minnesota

As a starting point for this one here is a picture:

It is from a 1949 newspaper article that is referenced in THIS more recent bit by a local media outlet up there, WJON.

In said article it offers several theories including brewery cave, sewer line and storage for river boats. The latter is implausible.  Warehouses were built from cheap and abundant wood and the river boat era in St. Cloud was quite brief.  Sewer line makes a little sense but the fact that this is on or near the site of an early brewery is telling. And who would make an 18 foot wide, 15 foot tall sewer main and not have an abundance of side passages and maps that show same?

On my first pass through this story I was prepared to "call" this as a probable brewery cave.  What you can see in this picture certainly looks like one.  And St. Cloud had several breweries in this general neighborhood.  But with my coffee cup in hand on a Saturday morning I took a closer look at early maps.  And began to have doubts.

It is difficult to even tell where this picture was taken.  The article references 5th Avenue North between 1st and 2nd Streets.  This is approximately the location of the City Water Department in the 1880s.  The Cathedral High School gymnasium mentioned is actually at the intersection of 4th St. and 6th Avenues North.

This is roughly the location of a creek that ran through this part of town in the 19th century, probably the location mentioned in the article as being the site of a storm drain construction in 1899.   

All three breweries were along the creek.  Here's two of them:

The one on the right is the Enderle Brewery referenced - I think incorrectly - in the article.  The third brewery was just a bit further downstream, closer to the river and really not far at all from the current location of the Cathedral gym.

This section of the map copy was a bit fuzzy, sorry.  But notice that as the creek runs past the Balder and Weber City Brewery it goes underground.  The notation is COV'D RAVINE.

I've decided that the tunnel uncovered in 1949 was probably a section of this covered ravine, either the part already enclosed in this 1884 map or presumably an extension of the tunnel in 1899.  Perhaps the City Water works was the ultimate destination? 

The fabulous St. Peter sandstone from which classic brewery caves are usually fashioned is not common this far north.  I read an explanation somewhere that the Mississippi River has been eroding a deep valley for geological eons.  The point at which the leading edge of the erosion is has of course moved.  In the puny span of time that is our history it has sat right at St. Anthony Falls in downtown Minneapolis. Downstream....steep cliffs of St. Peter sandstone.  Great for brewery caves.  Upstream, flat boring landscape.  Brewers often had to make do with lesser structures and/or above ground ice houses.

That having been said, there is a mention in Land of Amber Waters, that the earliest brewery in town - Kramer and Seberger - had brewery caves on the riverbank between 3rd and 4th street (probably South, it was not located near the other breweries).  As always, don't let the fascination of exploring lead to anything foolish.......

Monday, November 26, 2018

FIRST Robotics Begins - Fall of 2018

In theory FIRST robotics springs to life each year in early January, runs frantically through the six week build season, takes a few deep breaths between Bag 'n Tag day and competition, then goes dormant again.

In practice teams who hope to do well work year round.  As a coach I feel a bit inadequate when I hear about teams gathering for elaborate off season work sessions, building complex practice projects, etc.

But the resources, time, money, human, are finite and you have to work with what you have.

We did a few sponsor visits last spring, then tossed together a Parade Bot, but by and large we are just now firing up long dormant circuits for our 2018/19 campaign.

One sub team is working with a local sponsor to design and fab "ultimate pit equipment".  Sure, there's no competitive advantage to lookin' good at tournaments, but neither does it hurt......

Assorted team members have helped with middle school robotics classes last spring and on an ongoing basis this fall/winter.  One brave soul has even signed up to help me with an upcoming FIRST Lego League tournament where I will publicly demonstrate my ignorance by serving as MC!

And we have at last started weekly meetings.

We are for the next few weeks confined to the downstairs work area.  Our main workshop one floor up has been taken over by "The Spirit of Christmas".  This is a great bunch of Santa's Helpers.  And they do superb work providing gifts to kids who might not get any.  So I won't grumble or "Bah Humbug" but we do have to work around them.

This work space is actually where the team got its start four years ago.  Lots of memories came back.  But I had forgotten how hard it was to take decent photos in a stark white area with fluorescent light and lots of natural illumination coming in through the windows.  This is the only half decent picture I took, and I only captured 8 or 9 of the roughly 20 kids who turned up on a Sunday afternoon to start thinking about robots.

Friday, November 23, 2018

You certainly are, ya stinker....

Just a kid who was having fun rolling a brown bean bag chair around.  His spontaneous quote:

"I am a Dung Beetle".

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

My Pal Bear

On the far side of the alley lives a gigantic dog named Bear.  He is a good dog.  He just wants what dogs want.  Well, most of what dogs want, he was wearing the Cone of Shame recently after a little trip to the Vet.

He wants people to come by, to scratch his ears, to tell him that he is a good dog, and when possible, to throw something for him.

I try to oblige.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Barbie Jeep Robotics - Part Two

Oh, another picture of the Robotics Engineer Barbies.  Just because...

Our second "Barbie Jeep" is a bigger unit.  This seems to be a Toyota/Disney cross promotional item.  

The geometry of the front wheels here is going to make conversion to four wheel drive prohibitively difficult.  Have a look at the undercarriage of this beast:

It might be possible to put a linear actuator on the front steering unit to turn the wheels.  As always the speed of the mechanisms is an issue.  We hope to have a Grand Prix race through the hallways of the Middle School and crashing into too many walls is not appreciated.  I do have a 12 volt actuator from a satellite dish that might be fast enough if overvolted to 24v.  Or I have on occasion just put caster wheels under the front, raising the front wheels a half inch off the ground and making them entirely decorative.

They seem pretty concerned about post market modifications.  

I like this control device but it has to go.  I have not examined it in detail but suspect it toggles the power between 6 and 12 volts.  The glitter details are nice.

I like a challenge.  Would it be possible to get this baby up to 30 miles per hour?  I'm thinking no.  I don't have electronics that can go over 24 volts.  

Stay tuned for regular updates after the Thanksgiving break.  We'll designate this unit as the Barbie Princess Jeep.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Barbie Jeep Robotics - Part One

With our silly Machines Behaving Badly combat robot event behind us I have a new opportunity.  The schedule is different this year, I get the kids for another month.  What a marvelous opportunity to do something even sillier.

I have secured a couple of those battery powered kiddie cars that are generically called "Barbie Jeeps".  Barbie by the way is totes into Robotics these days, recently her maker Mattel came out with this version"

Robotics Engineer Barbies!

Over the next month I will put out regular updates on our conversion of the "Jeeps" to remote control and the addition of assorted electronic and mechanical enhancements. But lets take things at a reasonable pace.  I'll introduce one of the Jeeps today, with projections on its conversion, and save the other for the next post.

With the seat taken off, this is a "Ninja" Power Wheels unit.  I think it has great promise.

"CYCLE SOUNDS" OK, we keep those.  12 volts...hmmm...I know for a fact that these can handle 24 volts without difficulty.

I've modified a few "Jeeps" in my day.  The difficult part is always the front wheels. As usual, these are unpowered and attached to a steering system.  If you are using tank steering on the rear wheels to turn the machine this is a problem.  One solution is to just lock the steering in place.  But then it turns poorly.  Another solution is to lock the steering AND add two more motor/gearbox combos, one for each front wheel.  This gives you four wheel drive.  I think we have enough clearance to do this here.

Here's the back wheels.  Fixed axle but each wheel is hubbed to a gearbox such that it rotates independently.  Nice little gearboxes too....when this machine has finished its mission these will be recycled back into weapon motors for three pound combat robots in the 2019 Machines Behaving Badly Event!

In future postings I'll refer to this one as Ninja Barbie Jeep.

Irrelevant but interesting side note.  I needed a place to store these Jeeps for a couple of months.  My son has a nice shed and let me park them there.  Unfortunately the shed has a bit of a "varmint" problem.  So oddly this Jeep came back to me smelling of skunk and with a bullet hole in the right front bumper.....

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Indiscreet Mathematicians???

I've been busy lately.  So much so that my previous exploratory strolls about campus have been reduced to brisk walks as I hoof it to get to class on time.  This is by way of an apology for photo quality.  When I'm in a hurry and using my antiquated phone in place of my camera, I may capture interesting things but the images will not be works of art.

Hmmmm.  What's this?  I had not suspected the existence of a Math Club although I suppose it should not have surprised me.  

But for a real eye opener, check out the detailed view of the bottom of the poster.

"Discrete Books".  Sounds rather saucy, no?  I've obscured the contact name and email on this because they don't deserve the kind of inquiries that the world of the Internet is capable of generating.  Naturally I had to check this sale out....

Pondering the implications of Human-Computer Interface....

And more on the subject of Human-Computer Interaction.  One hopes profoundly that it has nothing to do with The GUI Guide....

Those approaching this not with admitted mathematical ignorance might already know that there is a branch of higher math theory called Discrete Mathematics.  I rather suspect that it is not anything naughty but my attempts to understand even a brief description of it left me none the wiser, so I suppose it might yet be so......

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Machine Behaving Badly 2018 - The Year Our Motto Was Wrong

A few more thoughts on the Machines Behaving Badly event.  It was unusual for two reasons this year.

Firstly because exactly one week earlier our community had suffered a tragedy.  A hit and run driver had struck and killed three girl scouts and one adult leader as they were picking up trash along a roadside.  This happened at high noon on a sunny day.  They were wearing Hi Vis safety vests.  The man involved deserves every bit of the severe consequences that will be forthcoming.

I thought this might put a shadow over our day.  Ours is a small community, nobody is more than one or two links away from these families who suddenly lost so much of their futures.

But to my surprise it seems people are better than that.  The lesson that came out of this was that you should appreciate every moment with your child.  The fun and silly ones, the mundane every day ones, even the ones where your kid is being difficult as middle school age children so often are.  Maybe the larger numbers of kids shaking hands, and of parents seeking me out to say thank you reflects this.

The other thing that was different is perhaps only apparent to the small number of people crazy enough to organize and run events of this sort.  Something very strange indeed happened.

You have to know that in the history of robot combat events the only one that always starts on time, at exactly High Noon, is Machines Behaving Badly.  Well this year when I showed up hours before the event I already had a half dozen Minions busily working to get things ready.  At 11:45 everything was ready.

I turned to a couple of my pals from The Old Days and we discussed whether one could actually start a robotics event AHEAD OF TIME.  There was a concern voiced that this was so fundamentally impossible that we might set off a disturbance of the Time Space Continuum that would tear the very fabric of Reality.  I mentioned this possibility in my lead off comments to the audience.

The event flew along.  Assorted parts also of course flew.  And were then rapidly re-affixed at Robot Hospital so that the action could continue.  Most robot events have approximately 30 percent of the event time actually involving action in the arena.  We seem to have attained an impossible percentage somewhere around 55%.  I mean, you have to take at least a little time to load the next match in and to sweep the debris of the previous one out.

The fabric of Space Time groaned a bit but we all survived.  The robots, not so much.

Onward to the next phase of the robot class, stay tuned for Barby Jeep Nonsense.

Major Thanks of course to the large crew of experienced Minions who not only accomplished the impossible, again, but did so with a quantum leap in efficiency in the Fall of 2018 the year that our official slogan actually proved untrue.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Machines Behaving Badly - Fall 2018

Another year of Machines Behaving Badly is complete.  Once again the small, flimsy robots made of plywood, styrofoam and unrealistic expectations squared off against each other.  Fun was had.  Debris generated.  Things learned.

I've been at this a long time.  This was our 18th annual event, a full generation.  And at least one year we ran it twice.  That is ample opportunity to observe, to see the things that change and the things that stay the same.

The concept of the class is deceptively simple.  It is a fun little idea and it looks as if it is easy to throw together a simple machine.  But when the urchins are absorbed with this idea you can sneak in some learning.  How to solder wires.  Why "center of gravity" is an important concept.  The correlation between speed and torque.  Why hot glue is called that.

Some things are learned by actual lecture style instruction.  Others are learned by dedicated trial and error, building and rebuilding a machine using what you learn from each iteration.  Some things are best learned on the day of the tournament when the robots face harsh reality.  The official motto of Machines Behaving Badly is:

"Oh my.  That could have gone better."

A good bunch of students this year, only one or two whose level of middle school behaviour pushes the needle into the red zone.  They have worked hard by the standards of the day.  Of course every year they know less about how to things, anythings really, that do not result from their moving finger tips across the screens of their phones.  This is a screwdriver.  No, we use the other end.  This is a hot glue gun. Before you grab it, can you tell me why it is called that?

Sometimes I get a feeling that H.G. Wells had it spot on.  We are going to evolve into gentle, non technological Eloi.  Perhaps I will in distant future generations be remembered and revered(?) as the creator of the Morlocks.....

Enough musings for now.  I actually get to keep this bunch of students for a while longer.  We will be doing various things with Barbie Jeeps.....

Pictures from the 2018 edition of Morlocks, oh I mean, Machines Behaving Badly.

We had a full house for the event.

The robot below had an ambitious spinning weapon...big strips of flexible lexan with a large, mean screw on each end.

Here it is in action.  It did pretty well until it stripped some gears that could not be replaced.  

We had a record number of girls in the class this year, all very good competitors.  Their robots were sometimes a bit better decorated, as with "Sparkle Raider" seen below. 

"Brick Flipper" had not only a cool name but an interesting weapon.  It is the low rpm, high torque motor from a paper shredder.  In theory it could snap the mouse trap on another robot and then just lift them clear up in the air.  In practice it was not always successful. 

And of course we had the FIRST robot on hand, along with four of the team members who have been helping with the middle school project.  Here "Mr. Clamps" is carrying a defeated robot off to Robot Cemetery!

It was a good bunch of kids this year.  I don't recall ever seeing this many competitors shake each other's hands after a match.  And on occasion, even before one.  Many involved parents and grandparents too.  Good to have the high school team and robot on hand so I can point and say...."There's the future".

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Guns fall Silent

In recent years I have started giving talks to a local "Learning in Retirement" group. Quite fun actually, many of them are retired University folks and I have had sizable, knowledgeable groups turn up for programs on Archaeology, Baseball, and Robotics.

On Friday I did a special program.  I discussed my adventures working on a World War One battlefield archaeology dig.  I'd asked that it be scheduled as close as possible to 11 am, November 11th.  That of course was the exact moment that the Great War ended.  Literally at the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month.

It was a good sized audience and I had a lot to say.  Of course the light hearted and the somber got inter twined.  If you followed my real time reports from the site back in May and June you will recall much that was frankly surreal.  I surprised myself a bit towards the end.  Describing the human cost of the war, the husbands, sons and sweethearts thrown away so pointlessly, I actually choked up a bit.  I've done enough public speaking to know a few tricks to get around this sort of situation, and its a good thing I did.

I talked a bit at the end about how The Great War changed the world, Western Civilization in particular.

Prior to 1914 life made sense.  You probably had faith in your King or Kaiser.  Science was making remarkable discoveries which promised better and easier lives.  Above it all you probably believed in a benevolent God who, lets face it, looked upon your Nation with just a little extra benevolence.

Fast forward to 1918.  

Half of the Great Powers no longer existed in their old forms.  Russia had collapsed into savagery and civil war.  Germany, Austro-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire all had lost their monarchies and a lot of their territory.  The new map of the world was criss crossed with new artificial borders many of which people are to this very day fighting and dying over.  Even those countries that "won" the war were weakened, their leadership demonstrably flawed.

So what was left to believe in?  Science?  It had proven equally adept at new ways to kill people.  High explosives dropped from overhead.  Poison gas to choke your fellow man as if you were fumigating rats in their burrows.

God?  To those who survived it seemed as if, in this man made Hell on Earth, the Wicked and the Virtuous suffered alike.  And frankly, if everyone ends up in Hell anyway can there even be a God?  The magnificent empty churches of Europe are another lasting scar of the war.

Hopefully we have learned a few things.  Although it can go too far a degree of skepticism is warranted when the brass bands play and the recruiting posters call one and all to the colors.  And we are in some ways less divided than in times past.  When digging Hill 80 I was standing amidst the wreckage of Europe that came to pass when alliances involving dozens of nations drew their swords.  But a century later we had volunteers from 38 countries coming together to instead draw trowels and shovels.  And for the better cause of learning and for the still better one of giving 128 lost soldiers dignified resting places among their fallen comrades instead of lying alone or in groups in the stark mud of shell holes and mass graves.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Time Capsule - Don't Try Any Tricks!

( A recurring series based on odd things that probably should be thrown away but are just odd enough to study).

My Father in Law heard that I was taking German class.  So when my wife visited he had to send home a present for me.  Lord knows why he had this, he was never in the military and his two trips to Germany were respectively when he was three years old and when my wife and I took her parents in the 1990s.

This is an official US military German phrase book.  From the serial number I have determined that it was first published in 1943 and was intended to be a help to US servicemen should they find themselves among, well, Germans.  It stayed in print a long time, this particular edition has a 1962 copyright.  This put it smack in the middle of the Cold War, in which East Germans were still the enemy.

A few selections:

In some instances the pronunciation seems a bit off.  

And some of this sounds more like Hollywood than real life.

I guess it covered a lot of things that a lost GI might need to know.  The section titled "How to Land a Plane" seemed a bit excessive.  If you are reading a pamphlet to try and figure that out then language barriers are not likely to be your biggest issue.

You have to wonder if this book was updated very often.  I mean, it must have been, as there is a passing reference to Austria, a country that did not exist until after the war.  But honestly, how likely is it in Germany that you will need to report that you have been bitten by a venomous reptile!

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

World War One from Far Above

Just a few days now until I give a talk on my experiences digging the World War One battlefield site at Hill 80 in the Ypres Salient.  The talk has been scheduled to be as close as possible to the exact moment that the guns fell silent, which really should be known by all to have been: "The Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month".  To the extent that Western Civilization thoroughly wrecked itself this may indeed have been the proverbial "Eleventh Hour" to stop the madness.

Two views of the Hill 80 excavation site which is outlined.

Here is how things stood in 1916.  Things had been bashed about for 18 months but you can still see a few traces of buildings, and the saw tooth patterns of the German trench systems are stark.

And here is January of 1918.  A lunar landscape improved only by some new roads on the left and the upper portion of the photo.  These were British roads, they had captured the area in 1917 after setting off a series of mines under the German lines in an explosion loud enough to, by legend, be heard in London.

By the way, adjacent to the southern edge of the site there was a village in 1914.  It has been scourged from the face of the earth.

Of course the story did not end here.  The site changed hands twice more.  Once when the Germans launched their last ditch Spring Offensive in 1918 and again late in the war.  By then both sides were exhausted and the final time that this shell torn patch of Hell on earth got new owners it was without many additions to the ranks of the dead.  The German retreat and the Allied pursuit were in general paced to avoid excessive bloodshed. (Although a few American generals gained lasting opprobrium by launching attacks almost up to the moment of the Armistice).

Monday, November 5, 2018

Maybe I should clean the Shop Floor more often...

My robotics workshop is in the basement.  It sounds better to call it a secret underground laboratory but that is a stretch.

It is often a mess, especially during transition times when the detritus of one project comes home and the materials for a new one are being lined up.

The other day I swept the floor.  Now I do this periodically, but for some reason I saw something this time that had escaped me in the past.

The initials CM are scratched into the cement.

I'm not sure why this has escaped me in the past, I mean I do sweep the place up.  Several times a year.  

I think the reason is that the coat of battleship grey paint that my son put on one summer vacation when he was "bored" is finally starting to wear thin from much dragging of equipment back and forth.

CM probably indicates a member of the Martin family.  We are only the fourth owners of this old house, it was built by a man named Martin circa 1910.  When I started practice here in the mid 1980s some old timers still called it "The Martin House".  

Probably if I look a bit harder I'll see some mementos of my kids carved into various surfaces waiting to be discovered by the eighth or ninth owners long after my departure.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Middle School Robotics - Pre Tournament Report

Home stretch for the combat robot phase of the middle school class.  Lots of machines coming together but there are always a few that seem to go down to the wire.

The machine below is one of my favorites this year.  It has a Barby Jeep gearbox with the final reduction gear removed and a "slapper" hubbed to it.  Of course some nasty spikes will go on just prior to the tournament but I don't want to let this thing loose with too much extra time.

This kid's older brother is a new recruit for the high school team.  I really do feel like a minor league baseball manager at times.

Now that is a pretty cool creation.  But for the most part we have fairly unimaginative entries this year.  The schedule has been very tight and of course we have the usual missed sessions due to illness, sports, etc.  On the afternoon of the last build session we still had many kids at this stage:

It is in part the times we live in. Those who imagine the current generation to be tech savvy are using a very narrow definition of same that pretty much means "can play on their phones".  Actual use of real world tools?  It is a vanishing skill.  At times I feel we are not just losing that battle but have already lost it.

Ah well, we shan't go down without a fight.  And along the way those of us who remember the Old Days get to have a little fun too.  There is often a need for "bracket fillers".  These are essentially sacrificial 'bots that we toss in when an empty slot in the tournament tree turns up.  They are usually driven by audience members and are not intended to be serious.  This "Precious Moments" figurine has the words "I love you this much" emblazoned on its base.  I just had to add glowing red demonic LED eyes to complete the effect.