Mentoring for FIRST Robotics – Non-Guilty Pleasure.

For the last six months, I’ve been mentoring over at Walpole High School for the robotics team, the Walpole Robo Rebels. It’s been a great experience.

FIRST,, is an organization that believes we need to teach our kids how to deal with real world challenges, but that we can let them have fun while doing so. They started up the First Robotic Challenge, or FRC, back in the mid-1990s.

The FRC program challenges the students to build a robot designed to play a game, in only six weeks. The game is different every year, and is revealed at the start of the 6-week build season. The game is about 3-minutes long and is typically played with several other robots built by other FRC teams.

These robots aren’t little toy robots. The dimensions vary a bit from year to year, but not by a lot. This year the robots were allowed to weigh up to 120 lbs and stand up to five feet high. They race around the game field at speeds up to 16 mph.

The point is to give the students a challenge that is seemingly impossible, and then help them meet it. That’s where the mentoring comes in.

The Walpole High School program is run by Dustin Scott with lots of help from Fred Hink and Paula Fontaine. We’re fortunate to have a great mentoring crew of almost a dozen individuals. Most of us have engineering backgrounds, but that’s not a requirement. Running an effective FIRST program is a big job and the more hands you have, the better.

This is my rookie year, and I’ve probably learned more from the other mentors and the students than I’ve taught. But I’ve made some great connections with some of the students and made fast friends among the other mentors.

This is more than just sitting around trying to build a robot and eating pizza. It requires a lot of commitment by the students, the parents, and the mentors. We all give up a lot of time. The students have to put in at least ten hours a week in the computer lab if they want to go to the tournaments. The mentors often put in as much or more time.

This year, the hard work paid off. We have a good solid robot which has been nicknamed the “Ten-ton Hamster Wheel of Doom” by the announcer at our first event.

Things didn’t go smoothly. By the time the six-week build season ran out, we weren’t entirely done. We had a robot that could move around and pick up the 24″ diameter balls that are this year’s game pieces, but we couldn’t shoot the balls over the 5″ truss in the middle of the field, or up through the high goal at the end of the field.

For the two weeks between the end of the build season and our first event at WPI, we worked on building a shooter mechanism that would have the required punch, fit in the space required, and not exceed our weight limitations.

For most of our first day at WPI, we didn’t have a shooter. But we still did reasonably well. We finally got the shooter working that night, but didn’t have a lot of time to tune it. Then, during a practice match, someone inadvertently dry-fired the shooter, and it imploded. We left WPI ranked 25 out of the 50-some robots with a record of 5-7-0. We also won the Industrial Design Award sponsored by GM.

One of the great things about the events is that you get to meet the other teams and see how they’ve gone about solving the same problems you’ve had to face. We discovered that several teams had found a way to use pneumatic cylinders to drive their shooters. While we went home with a broken mess of metal and plastic, we also went home with a new idea about how to build a shooter that would work.

In the two weeks before our next match, we built a brand new shooter, tested it, and mounted it on the robot. (Even though the robots are bagged between events, there is a rule that lets you unbag the robot and work on it for up to six hours in the week before your next event.)

Our second event was at Northeastern University where the new shooter served us well. This time, we qualified for the finals and weren’t knocked out until the semi-finals. We were ranked 5th with a record of 10-7-0. Here, we won the Excellence in Engineering Award sponsored by Delphi.

Unexpectedly, we qualified for the New England FRC Region Championship. We had to scramble, but we got all our arrangements made and took our ‘Hamster Wheel of Doom’ to Boston University, where the event was hosted.

By this time, the kids were really pumped. We hadn’t really expected to do quite this well this season, and at this event, they got to see, and in some cases meet, Woodie Flowers and Dean Kamen, the heart and soul of the FIRST program.

We did really well, rising to rank 2 by the end of the qualification matches. Sadly, we got knocked out in the quarterfinals, but we ended up with a record of 9-4-1. We also won the Gracious Professionalism Award sponsored by Johnson & Johnson.

Because we did so well at New England, we got invited to the World Championship in St. Louis. No one, at the beginning of the season would have predicted we’d go so far. We were down to the last $3000 dollars in the bank. We seriously considered not going, but, as one parent put it, if we weren’t going to go to the World Championship when we were invited, what message did that send to the kids? So we undertook the Herculean task of raising nearly $25,000 in three days along with making travel arrangements, finding a nurse, and the dozens of other things that had to get done.

I’m delighted to say that the team is going. We’re sending four mentors and over a dozen kids to St. Louis. We’d have loved to send everyone, but there are limits to what even this team can accomplish.

I’m really proud to have been part of this program this year and I intend to do the same thing next year. These young people are going to be the movers and shakers of their generation. They are the ones that will deal with the problems we’ve left them. I feel like it’s our responsibility to help them however we can.

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GOP Learning Disabilty

Apparently, the GOP can’t learn from its own mistakes. Instead of admitting that they screwed up, the ultra-conservatives in the party are doubling down and trying to spin the whole fiasco as if it was Obama’s fault.

It is the job of the Congress to pass a budget and pay our bills, not to extort the President. When you are unhappy with a law, in a democracy, you try to persuade people to vote for you and then you repeal the law. This is high-school civics, not rocket science. (Of course, this is the same party that blamed short falls in state budgets on teachers and other public employees, rather than on tax cuts for the wealthy and pork barrel spending.)

Actually, it’s unfair to those with real learning disabilities to compare them to the GOP. Those with real disabilities don’t have a choice, the GOP does. Instead of trying to recruit candidates that actually give a damn about the country, the post-tea-party GOP has been backing anyone who mouthed the party line and preached defund-the-government craziness. Now the GOP has learned that the people they backed really believe the crazy talk.

There is a simple recipe for restoring good will. All the GOP has to do is to really start looking out for actual Americans, not just the one or two percent who are the biggest campaign donors. That means reaching out to the moderates, to the people of color, and even evil progressives. They have to be fiscally conservative, not just when Democrats are in power, but even when their own Administrations are making bone-headed decisions. They also have to realize that the world is changing and no amount of shrill language will stop it.

Most immigrants are quite conservative, but the GOP has alienated them with barely concealed bigotry. Why should anyone of color trust a party that opposes such a moderate president simply because of his skin color.

Has the GOP ever hated anyone as much as Barak Obama, the first Black President in U.S. History? Has there ever been a time when a political party has been so determined to block everything a President proposes, not because they disagree, but simply because of who he is? The GOP has repeatedly defeated bills based on their own ideas, just to keep Obama from accomplishing anything. They apparently forget that those bills were meant to help Americans.

Additionally, the GOP has forgotten two thousand years of history that teach us all that commingling politics and religion is a good way to destroy a country. Our country was founded on the principle of separation of Church and State. There may be people who are Christian than any other domination, but that does not, and should not, make America a Christian nation. Look at Eastern Europe and the Middle East, where war has waged intermittently for over two thousand years over questions of religion, some of them incomprehensibly minor to outside observers.

It’s also ironic that the GOP is trying so hard to destroy public education, the great homogenizing influence in our society. The shared experience of public high school should be something that educates our children, not just about reading, writing and arithmetic, but also about accepting others that are different. By supporting the implicit segregation that voucher programs encourage, the GOP ensures the very class warfare that they keep whining about. More resources for public education would be a great boon for our economy and help use regain some of the technical leadership we’ve lost. Instead, the GOP continues to be the lap dog of the very wealthy who whine over every penny of taxes and live sheltered lives in gated communities while the rest of the country goes to hell.

Last, but not least, you’d think that the conservatives in this country would be the first to stand up for protecting our environment and working to mitigate the effects of global warming. The wanton destruction our actions have been wreaking on the environment adds on to a tab that must be paid, either now in dollars, or later – in lives. But again, the GOP has lost it’s way and can see no farther than the next fund raiser, next quarterly report, and next election.

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Boston Book Festival

I went to the kickoff event of the Boston Book Festival on Thursday night, Writing Terror featuring Wes Craven, Mary Louise Kelly, Jessica Stern, and Valerie Plame Wilson. It was a discussion about fear and writing about fear.

The first question the moderator, Joe Klein, asked, was what each of the panelists feared most. “Eighteen members of Congress,” quipped Wes Craven. He was referring, of course, to the eighteen House Representatives who have been at the core of the fight to shutdown the government and send us into default. That got a good laugh from the audience.

During the evening, we were treated to a frank discussion about what is scary to a group of people who really have some perspective on the issue. Craven, of course, is in the business of frightening us with his movies and has drawn on fears from his childhood to power his films. Jessica Stern has written about the unsolved sexual assault perpetrated against her sister and herself when they were adolescents. She’s also met with and interviewed self-avowed terrorists, and neo-nazi leaders. Mary Louise Kelly, a broadcaster an author has worked for NPR, reporting on the intelligence community. She told us about the time she was most frightened. She was called by her son’s school. They wanted her to come and pick him up because he was having trouble breathing. Trouble was, Kelly was six thousand miles away in a Black Hawk helicopter about to be ferried into a war zone. She lost the call before she could explain and it was twelve hours before she found out what happened to her son. (He was fine. The school contacted his father, who was six thousand miles closer.) Valerie Plame told us of the fear she experienced when her CIA cover was blown by the Bush Administration as retribution for her husband, Owen Wilson, revealing that the Administration was lying about Iraq buying yellow cake Uranium from Africa. Plame was immediately concerned for her children and the assets she’d developed around the world.

I was most impressed by Valerie Plame. I knew some of her story from press coverage at the time, but I haven’t yet found the time to read her account of what happened to her. The way she was treated fills me with outrage. She spent her time as an agent in the CIA in one of the most vulnerable positions, that of a Non-Official Cover agent. If she was discovered, the government would have simply disavowed her. During her at the CIA, she worked to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. I wish I was able to say I’d done as much to make the world safer.

Most on the panel agreed that the greatest threat they could see was the intersection of fundamentalist terrorism and nuclear technology, and that they felt Pakistan was where that intersection was most likely going to happen. The government of Pakistan is ‘heavily infiltrated’ with extremists and barely holding together. Pakistan is also making nuclear weapons faster than any other country on Earth.

I’m not sure I agree. It would be terrible for terrorists to set off a nuclear weapon, but if they do, they will be hunted down by an outraged world. I doubt it will happen more than once and I hope it never does. It could cost millions of innocents their lives. But what we are doing to the global climate will affect everyone and has the potential to destroy our species along with most other species on the planet. In the worst case, it might destroy all life on Earth and leave our planet looking like Venus.

The use of a nuclear weapon by extremists is, so far, a horrible potential scenario. Global climate change has already started and is accelerating every day. We spend billions on fighting terrorism while trying to pretend climate change will just go away is we ignore it long enough.

Another scenario, not discussed by the panel, is the steady erosion of civil rights that is happening in the U.S. and other countries where technology makes it easier and easier for the government to spy on anyone at any time. While it might be a boon for solving crimes, the surveillance society is the dream of any potential despot. Members of Congress openly defy their constituents, confident that what really counts is the money they get from ultra-rich donors and huge corporations. They gerrymander voting districts to ensure incumbents need not worry about losing an election. Decisions by the Supreme Court have opened the flood gates, allowing almost unlimited amounts of anonymous money into the election process, turning the U.S. into a virtual plutocracy already.

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Encourage Obama and Democrats to give Republicans Nothing

The latest “compromise” that the Senate is considering would give Republicans part of what they want and set us up for another identical confrontation in February.

We’re already seeing economic effects of this confrontation. Hundreds of thousands of government workers are laid off. Fidelity and similar investment companies either have already dumped their government securities or are already in the process. Even China is talking about dumping their securities. They hold more U.S. debt than any other nation, and could cripple us for years if they decide to dump our debt. They would suffer too, but they’ll suffer anyway if the U.S. defaults, so they may figure they might as well.

The U.S. is the backbone of the world economy. If that backbone breaks, it won’t just be Americans who suffer, it will be people all over the world. We may create another global recession. If so, we’ll have handed our enemies another gold-plated opportunity to recruit terrorists.

All Americans need to wake up to the fact that what is going on is terribly dangerous. This isn’t about Obama care. It isn’t about debt reduction, it’s about power, spite, pride and envy. It’s about people who can’t stand the idea of a black president. It’s about people who are frustrated that they’ve been denied the American dream, and who’ve been rooked into believing that the party that took that dream away is somehow on their side.

The only reasonable outcome for this crisis would be to deny the Republicans everything, to demand a clean CR and clean debt ceiling bill that extends government through the summer, at the very least.

What we’re doing now is asking the hostage taker to give us his gun, with the promise that we’ll give it back to him in January. When has that ever made any sense.

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Preventing Brinkmanship

Lurching from crisis to crisis has become the norm in Washington. The radical Republicans cannot accept that they lost and that they can no longer dictate how the government will run. So they will continue to use every opportunity to manufacture deadlines that keep us constantly teetering on the edge of economic doom. The Republican message is simple: “If you won’t let us be in charge, we’ll wreck things until you do.” They’ve been playing this game since Obama got elected and there’s no sign of them letting up.

Sooner or later, probably in the next three years, we’re going to go over the edge and find out exactly what happens when the U.S. defaults on its debt. It probably won’t be Armageddon, and I’m sure lawmakers will scurry to patch the holes, but it will cause damage world-wide and the people most hurt, as usual, will be those who have the least.

It’s our responsibility as voters and citizens to stop this. The people inflicting this on us are people we voted for. They will only stop if we make it clear that they will lose their office if they don’t start behaving responsibly.

That means we voters have to act responsibly, too. We have to stop treating politics like it’s religion. Politics is the art of compromise, not deadlock. Like it or not, in a Democracy, we all get a say, so no one is ever likely to be completely happy with what happens. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.

We also have to listen to the views of the opposition. Sometimes they have perfectly reasonable ideas. It would help if we admit it when that happens. This isn’t a game. Every one of these decisions affects people. Sometimes these decisions determine who lives and who dies. Think about that the next time you’re discussing politics and start resorting to talking points instead of your own reason.

What we are arguing over isn’t even particularly important. We have to pay our bills, so it’s a no-brainer that we have to raise the debt ceiling. Obama care is the law of the land. It’s been passed by Congress, signed by the President and declared Constitutional by the most conservative Supreme Court in recent memory. The sequester is an open wound in our economy that makes our enemies chortle with glee, since it continues to put a drag on our recovery.

And that’s the real problem, lack of growth. We need jobs. We need an economy that’s chugging away in order to generate those jobs, which will generate tax revenues, which will allow us to pay down our debt.

So what is this whole crisis about? It’s about pride, spite, and envy. It’s about a party that was riding high, nearly destroyed the economy, and now can’t accept that it’s no longer the darling of most of the voters. It’s about people who put their own political ambitions above the good of the country. It’s about paper-patriots who wear flag pins but care for no one but themselves.

To paraphrase a furloughed government employee, “Only you can prevent brinkmanship.”

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