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.

Friday, March 2, 2012

TED - Ideas Worth Spreading (in pen *)

* This is where you find out why I type and use a keyboard.

My Spousal Unit, MEK, and I had the distinct pleasure of attending a live simulcast (that was redundant) of Wednesday's sessions at the TED2012 conference. This event was hosted by the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art and sponsored by a local web design firm, VML.

So, what is TED and why did I actually take notes?  TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design.  It is a fusion of ideas from creatives that are placed out on the web for our mutual benefit.  TED talks are fast paced "Ideas Worth Spreading".   A TED or licensed TEDx conference is synergy in action.

From past experience, I knew just how fast TED goes.  In theory, I could just look all the talks up on after the fact.  However, with a maximum length of 20 minutes and a few 3 minute talks interspersed, there can be an awful lot of content thrown at an audience in the course of six hours.  TED features some of the best minds and best speakers on the planet.

These few pages just barely skim the surface of a TED event.  If you read any of this and something catches your eye, dive into the TED website  It's one of the best ways you can possibly waste time.

As for February 29th, the new director at the Nelson, Julian Zagazagotia, encouraged the audience to always do something extraordinary every four years with our extra day.

REWIND >>>>>>> Back to the first page for some commentary....

The first thing you will notice is that my handwriting is horrid and always has been.  But I can actually read my own writing this time, so I will count that as progress.  Bonus:  After the introductory talks, the other 27 pages of notes were done in an almost completely dark auditorium.

The opening speaker was Scooter, the Muppet.  Scooter talked about the tangible vs. the digital - felt vs. pixels.  My favorite line that pretty well sums up TED:
   "TED is like the Academy Awards for Nerds."

Yep.  And next, the director of the Defense Applied Research Projects Agency (DARPA) carried on the Nerd theme:  "You should be nice to Nerds."  She used the history of flight as a narrative to talk about technology; including technology oriented towards defense.  Latest projects:  a Mach 20 glider/jet and a woodpecker sized robotic hummingbird.

One of the guiding precepts for DARPA:   

What would you attempt if you didn't fear failure?  What would you attempt if you could not fail?

She also delivered one of the better inspirational lines of the day.  DARPA was founded after the surprise launch of Sputnik with the mission of "preventing strategic surprise".  Some of their work and grants are pure research to push boundaries.  Many have defense applications.  It is a heavy responsibility and sometimes overwhelming.  On one of those occasions, a coworker sent an email that said: 

     "There is only enough time to iron your cape, and back to the skies with you."

The next great idea comes from a research group at MIT that is working on commercialization of giant batteries to help buffer the electrical grid, have a place to put daytime energy production and assist in distribution of power in major metropolitan areas.

The lead researcher enlisted young, smart scientists in need of PhDs to get the practical applications down.  Conceptually, the cycle is similar to what happens in aluminum smelters, but at much lower temperatures and with abundant natural materials (local dirt).

So where are they now and where are they headed?  Today, a pizza box diameter cell stores 1 kilowatt hour.  In construction, they have a bistro table sized cell that will store 4 kWh.  Within two years, these will be stacked in modules.  With an investment by Bill Gates, among others, they are on their way to a shipping container sized battery that will store 4 megawatt hours ( MWh).   This is huge.

Best line:  "We choose to work on grid level storage, not because it is easy, but because it is hard."

Next up:  Robots.  Robot quadrotors, to be precise.  As a bonus for you James Bond fans, the talk featured a video of a squad playing the theme on actual instruments.

Let's just hope these little guys don't get hooked up with Tesla/DARPA death rays.

Go here for the Bond video:  UPenn Quadrotors playing the Bond theme

And go see Vijay Kumar's TED talk at

Next up:  T. Boone Pickens on energy policy.

T. Boone Pickens is not a shy man.  Every wildcatter has to have a strong ego, but this is one geologist with brains and charisma.  I have to give TED credit for bringing up difficult and controversial subjects.  In this case, he is concerned with national security and points out that oil is

     Dirty, Expensive and Theirs (as in countries that don't particularly like the U.S.)

Factoid:  There are 12 aircraft carriers in the world (counting the Russian scrap heap China is bringing back to life).  Eleven belong to the U.S. and at any given time 5 of them are in the Gulf region and 5 are in rotation ready to go back.  More here:  WIRED Danger Room on China's Carrier

And now for a dose of historic irony:  100 years ago, our choice was between oil and whale oil.  We chose oil because of the same rationale listed above.

Having made a huge play in wind energy and losing $150million in the process, he is looking short term at what is next.  His answer is what made wind unprofitable to start with:  natural gas.  Because of increased exploration and hydro-fracking, the price of natural gas dropped from $9.00 per MCF to $2.40 today.

He's crusty and brutally honest in admitting that this is a bridge to some unknown energy source of the future.  However, he firmly believes the bridge needs to be used now before more of U.S. blood and treasure (and GDP) flows to OPEC.

Wrapping up:  An update on past annual TED prizes.

A TED prize is awarded to a worthy idea or project that needs human capital to grow.  The first couple caught my eye. 

The Encyclopedia of Life is dedicated to Global access to knowledge about life on Earth  A TED talk in 2007 got this project off the ground.  The goal is to create a page for every species on Earth.  This started as a concept in 2007.

This deserves its own line:  at year five, they are up to 1.9 million species.  Amazing.

In order to make this happen, the founders had to talk scientists into giving away their work to populate the pages.  That was hard at first, but community sharing brings dedicated citizens into the mix.  Trading data to help fuel conservation is worth it.

Hence a quote from this talk repeated again:  "Science is changing."

Which brings me to the end of this blog entry, but not the end of the TED session.   The science is changing theme continued with an update on SETILIVE   Remember that movie with Jodie Foster?  No, not the creepy taxi one- the one with the search for extraterrestrial life.  Would you enjoy doing that?

Here is your chance to help crowdsource science.  SETI is listening and you can help classify portions of the radio spectrum.  If you flag something interesting, they will turn the Allen Telescope Array back to the source.  Right now, the SETI program is focused on exoplanets and especially those in the "Goldilocks zone".  Did you know that NASA just reported on a highly compressed water world?  We live in interesting times.

     "Science is changing."

That's it for tonight.  I hope you read this far and you give TED a chance.  Do some keyword searches and just bump around in there.  Let me know if you find something really cool you just have to share!