Friday, March 30, 2012

The Birthday Blog Post From Space

March, 1964 was a good month.  But I am perhaps a bit biased.

For anyone that has been following this blog, it is no secret that I have a serious love of anything related to space exploration.  It's my birthday and I am going to totally date myself by posting National Geographic images from the month I was born.  I can't think about my birthday without thinking of growing up during the space race.

The excitement of space travel and technology development was the flip side to growing up with the Vietnam War, the Cold War, duck and cover, and its close cousin Mutually Assured Destruction.  I grew up in an era where all of this was shiny and new.  Everything smelled like the future.  Well, except for cars before emission controls.

This has an interesting resemblance to the 1954 kids book version of the the space suit.

This is something of a hybrid between the Soviet and U.S. approach to landing.  Interesting concept, but probably just as well that was all the idea amounted to.

I am still amazed by rockets.

This was actually at the beginning of the article.  The article contains a detailed foldout of the various pieces of Apollo space craft.  The LEM was pretty well thought out five years before we actually got to the moon.
Coming home.  Really, the whole thing is just amazing.
It's funny that I still think of us getting to the moon in terms of "we" and "us".  Certainly, there is some national pride and I would not have wanted the Soviets to get there first.  But I tend to think of actually getting there as an accomplishment for our species.

As much appeal as I find in human space travel, I am still excited by our collective activities in space exploration.  Four years into the Great Recession, it is hard to comprehend the amount of money it would take to lift people and all the stuff they would require to Mars. From my perspective, we need some really good targets before we take the next steps.

We are doing some incredibly good science between our robotic and remote sensing servants. As of March 19, 2012, we have collectively cataloged 762 extrasolar planets including one water world.  Just this week, we learned that Mercury is a really strange place. NASA Messenger Findings

Although our family mourned the loss of the Mars rover Spirit, Opportunity is beginning its ninth year of its three month mission.  Its much larger cousin, Curiosity, is in route to Mars loaded with a comprehensive laboratory tools.  Curiosity won't be dependent on solar power.  We'll see what lessons have been learned on reliability in design.

Although the NASA shuttle program is no more, the International Space Station has been continuously inhabited for over 12 years and zips by overhead every 90 minutes or so.  The U.S. crew members are licensed amateur radio operators.  Beyond having access to high powered transmitters for remote control quadrotors, talking with the ISS crew is the coolest thing I can do with my new FCC Technician license.

Granted, my kids have a space cheerleader at home and friends bound to be future software, computer and robotics engineers.  Although human space flight is a big deal for them, they are equally excited about everything else going on in space research.  At some point we'll probably try out the crowd sourced SETI Live program.

For me, space is all about inspiration.  I'm thankful for the pioneering work that has gotten us this far.  I'm also excited for the future of space exploration.  When we decide to go, it will no doubt be to someplace incredibly interesting.  Maybe one of our emissaries will get to say hi to Spirit in person.

 More space stuff:
 Amazing kid space ephemera:
If you like toy LEMs, you will love these great examples:

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Call Sign

In addition to being vintagetechobsessions, I now have an HAM Technician's license with the call sign


The gingercat will catch up soon enough.  We'll be considering radio options and will most likely start with a relatively low powered mobile.  I have to admit total Nerd excitement over the potential of using a 1 watt transmitter to control a quadrotor at long distances.  This radio thing may turn out to be fun!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Mysteries of Resonance and Balance

Violins at KC Strings.  The ones in the foreground didn't make the cut.  Shhh... not too loud.  We don't want to hurt their feelings.
Typed on an Olympia SM3 on Patapar Onionskin

We have had the privilege of spending time with passionate people during the dating process.   One of the co-owners of KC Strings turns out to be a friend of a friend.  He spent time with us last weekend.  Passion is an understatement.  Apprenticed at age 12, he has been building violins for over 30 years and obviously loves what he does.  The violin "speed-dating" process was constructive with input from one of his staff members a couple weeks back and him more recently.

The KC Strings violin on top may be the lucky winner.
I had a chance to chat with the owner of Beckmann's while Hannah was trying out instruments and bows.  It is a smaller shop with a very intimate connection to the work space where old instruments are restored and new instruments are built with loving care.  One thing he told me is that violin makers don't really retire.  They just build slower until they can no more.  He absolutely loves his job.
Or perhaps one of the violins from Beckmann's will be the chosen one.  This is Hannah playing in the shop.  It is an intimate space.
Wand... I mean bow tuning area at Beckmann's.

All of these instruments start their lives as blocks of wood.  It takes a skilled hand to build something meaningful.
 This blog isn't always about vintage technology.  But at some point I will do an entry about Hannah's current violin.  It is nothing special  being a catalog violin from a known maker.  However, the maker, Daniel Moinet, and the location and period, Paris, 1944, lend it an interesting back story.  We're thankful to a good friend of the family, Adela, who gave this to her in fifth grade.

By the way, Hannah is the product of public schools with additional instruction.  Unlike some kids that started Suzuki in Kindergarten, she first started orchestra in fifth grade.  We're fortunate that the Olathe school system is committed to its music programs even after almost a decade of cuts to overall school funding.  Got to shout out to them an Olathe Youth Symphony.
Secondary work bench at Beckmann's.
 Most of the violins Hannah tried out were made in the last ten years.  While that isn't vintage technology, modern violins are built upon design principles perfected around 300 years ago.  Other than a few power tools, most of the shaping is done by hand, one wood shaving at a time.  I very much enjoyed talking with the makers.

Finish collection.

The inner sanctum of violin and viola building at Beckmann's.
Hannah finally kicked off her blog with a post towards the beginning of the Great Violin Hunt at

Addition:  I decided to include some links for both shops.  The information about design principles on the KC Strings site is very enlightening.  Disclaimer:  We are working with these builders on selecting violins from store inventories.  They both create concert grade instruments that cost over $10,000.  Our 8th grader is a long way from there - thank goodness!

Anton Krutz on geometry:
Anton Krutz Bio:
Ken Beckmann Bio:
NPR Story on CAT Scanning a Stradivarius:  NPR Stradivarius Story

Friday, March 16, 2012

Olympia, Typewriter of the Jungle

You can read more about me (and bask in my photographic glory) at

P.S.  Grandfather Simplex still hasn't been reassembled.  So many Olympias, so little time.

Monday, March 12, 2012

My Girls Scouts and a Very Special Birthday

Today marks the 100th anniversary for the Girl Scouts of America.  As there are three Girl Scouts in the Lair of the Nerd, and many more in our lives, this matters a lot in our family.  It is a great organization trying to find its way in the 21st century.

I've enjoyed seeing the Spousal Unit's birthday post and the new beginnings for Nerd Topics by none other than Gingercat.

Both posts offer a much more personal perspective than I could provide.  So I will share a few images from our Girl Scout's lives.

The local service unit turned out in force for the Old Settler's Parade last fall in Olathe to observe the 100th anniversary.  That's over 500 Girl Scouts!

And there's Claire (aka gingercat) right at the front of the parade.

Girl Scouts isn't all about the cookies, but they are delicious and help keep the troops and camps funded.
I've enjoyed watching my scouts grow up.  We've sold cookies together and I've helped prepare for more than one campout.  I've even survived eight years of annual father/daughter dances.

Just for the record, I didn't just take photos.  I even won a princess ring for best 80s dancing!

Anyway, Happy Birthday, and keep on scouting!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

FIRST: A Day at the Kansas City Robotics Competition

Claire (aka: gingercat) loves showing off her swag.  This is the collection from an hour and a half in the pit area.  Teams swap and give goodies away.

One of the best things about FIRST is that competitions and the pit areas are free and open to the public.  As long as you are wearing safety glasses, you can wander around and talk to the teams about their robot designs.  The kids love to show off their bots.

A slice of life in the pits.

Tech inspection.  Robots are checked for weight and regulation equipment.
Before I go any further, I have to recommend my Spousal Unit's blog on the subject at
She is not a techie and will approach this from a different perspective.

Moving on...

The work doesn't stop with building robots.  Each assembly and sub assembly must be documented with CAD software.   The team has to build a website and create promotional materials.  Some of the teams go all out doing community outreach programs as well as promoting STEM to girls.  The latter is important given the number of engineers and designers we need to have this be a country of makers.

OK, that's enough of the semi-political advocacy for my girls.  Now we are ready to rumble!

You might want to watch the overview video at FIRST Rebound Rumble Animation on Youtube

A FIRST round always starts with an autonomous task with plenty of points to be grabbed.  The robots are programmed and loaded with sensors.  This year, they had to navigate into position and shoots baskets without hairless ape intervention (except for the little used Kinnect option).

The real action starts during the driver phase.  Each robot typically has two drivers and someone watching the clock and the field.  Microsoft donated Kinect systems to FIRST this year.  One of the regional teams opted to use one for hybrid control of the robot during the autonomous phase.

The parts kit includes the same batteries, PLC and I/O system.  Some of the motors are standardized as well.  There is a weight limit and a parts cost limit of $3,500.

This was a unique design and was foolproof as long as no opposing robot ran bumping interference.  That is legal in certain zones in the field.

Here is the amazing thing:  Each team started with the same box of parts, rules and specifications to create a practice field.  From there, design diverges as each team prototypes and builds their robots in six weeks.  They then crate the bot and ship it.

Of course they don't do this alone.  There are teachers, sponsors and mentors.  We talked to one team mentor who mentioned that their school is just outside the gates to the Fermilab.  Yeah, that Fermilab; the one with the particle accelerator.

There were a few catapults and many driven wheel shooters.  Some had turrets that could be rotated as needed.  We saw many different ball grabbing designs.

On top of all the other engineering challenges, the balls were made of Nerf like material that degraded throughout the competition.  Hardness, texture and friction changed as they went along.

Can you believe that every one of these machines was designed and built by high schools students in six weeks?  Bear in mind that almost all of these kids are in AP heavy programs.  It's fair to say that the bell curve is skewed two or three standard deviations in the arena.

Engineering is serious work, but so is Gracious Professionalism.  Teams cooperate.  They share parts in the pits.  The kids spent six very long weeks building their bots and then live in the pits for almost three days.   They are competing for the same scholarship dollars.  For the most part, they are loving every minute of it.

More about Gracious Professionalism and its partner, Coopertition are found on the FIRST website at

While the goal is to bring up the next generation of engineers, the teams are still in it to win.  This year there were two teams that absolutely dominated the field.  Here they are in a four minute pit stop between the semi-final and the final round.  That's just enough time to swap batteries and check all of the electrical connections.

Terror had two names this year.  Introducing the Bomb Squad and Team Titanium...

So now it is time to prep and shoot.

And shoot some more. 

To say that the Bomb Squad was a shooting machine would be somewhat redundant, but seeing an elegant design in action is inspiring.  Team Titanium was no slouch, either.  But I think that the Bomb Squad sucked up more balls and made more shots.

This was not the final round score, but you get the idea how this Red Alliance did overall.

We walk into Hale Arena each year to watch the regional competition and cheer on the local teams.  I remember the first time as I looked around and said "I smell nerd."  It's like being at home except a lot louder and with more and better technology.

Claire wants to go to the local high school that has an engineering program and a mature FIRST team that has been to the world championships twice.  If she chooses to follow through and makes the team, we'll miss her during the long, sleepless build weeks.  But we'll know she is in good company.

COPYRIGHT NOTICE:  All photos are copyright Dwayne F. of vintagetechobsessions (just like what's in the exif).  Please ask before using, be polite about attribution and do not use for commercial purposes without explicit permission.  Of course the Blogger platform does not provide a means to lock down  my intellectual property, but you wouldn't want to find a fleet of quadrotors floating around in your bedroom, would you?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Remembering Ralph McQuarrie

In marking the March 3rd passing of Ralph McQuarrie, I did not have to look far for an example of his conceptual art.  The above image came by way of a generous gift of Star Wars memorabilia from a fellow Typospherian.  You know who you are - thanks again!

The cast above includes one of the intermediate renditions of Darth Vader as well as the young Dirk/Luke Starkiller/Skywalker.  At one point, Han Solo was even more of a major character as you will see below.

In the words of Threepio, "I'm backwards!"  I can't bring myself to try this iron on transfer, but I have been happy to see many fine Star Wars t-shirts at Target and through the Thinkgeek catalog.  However, I will never look as good as this crew.

It would be impossible to overstate the influence and creative vision of Ralph McQuarrie.  Envisioning the Lucas Star Wars universe could not have been an easy task.  Even the lowliest, or in this case amazing, bit of Star Wars kitsch would not have been possible without him.

In rummaging through my Star Wars collection, I came across another image that carries on the T-shirt theme.  This comes from Stephen Sansweet's "Star Wars Scrapbook' The Essential Collection".  Interestingly enough, the guy in the logo below is not Dirk Starkiller or Luke Skywaler, it's Han Solo as envisioned by Ralph McQuarrie.

I'll never look this good, either.
And here is the story behind the first logo for The Star Wars; also from Sansweet's book.
 We also own signed lithographs of the conceptual art from the run down the Death Star trench and the Millenium Falcon in Docking Bay 94. These were impractical for scanning, but images abound on the web.  Not surprisingly, everything Ralph McQuarrie has gone up in price on ebay.  While these are not particularly rare, they have been reserved wall space in our family room for years.

This last image seems appropriate.  Ralph McQuarrie created special announcements and a beloved series of Christmas cards for the Star Wars empire.   He has moved on, but will always be revered among the Star Wars faithful.