Archive for April, 2010

Quotes, Chemistry, and Repair

Monday, April 26th, 2010

Random quotes

Here are a couple of quotes that caught my ear this week. I do not recommend that you try to draw any deep conclusions from these.

  • “He had a powerful intellect, but it was powerful like a locomotive. It ran on rails, and was hard to steer.” Description of Mustrum Ridcully, Archchancellor of Ankh-Morporks’s Unseen University in Lords and Ladies, by Terry Pratchett
From the philosopher/mathematician Blaise Pascal, who is a fascinating character:
  • “God is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere.”
  • “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.”

Household chemistry

Recently, my friend Craig had done some rather strenuous yard work, and his Lady introduced him to the curative powers of soaking in the heptahydrate form of magnesium sulfate, also known as Epsom Salt. I have since tried some myself toward the same end. It is the only chemical I am aware of that lists not only internal and external uses, but also fertilizer uses. Seriously. Not only does it soothe tired muscles, it also apparently fixes what I will euphemistically call digestive slowness, and helps your tomatoes grow. There other more specialized uses in the medical field, but I think I will stop there. Check it out.

Repair redux

Anyone who has observed me repair anything knows that I have a technique that works fairly often. Oh, I certainly employ the more formal techniques you might expect, observation, analysis, data collection, hypothesis, testing, conclusions, not to mention the usual (?) amount of ranting and cussin’ (which is like cursing, but milder, e.g., “heck” is where you are “darned” if you don’t believe in “Gosh.”) But the thing that works most often is the simple ploy of just taking apart the offending device and putting it back together. Of course, there is some skill in knowing how deeply to take it apart – if you get down to elements and molecules, you have probably gone too far.

A couple of Saturdays ago my relatively new gas powered lawn mower quit. Yes, I know I recently showed a picture of the push mower I inherited from my Grandmother. And I do use that one most of the summer in the front yard. But the back yard grass is taller and tougher, and even when I was younger I couldn’t cut it (metaphorically or literally) with the push mower. So I use a small gas-powered mower in the back yard, and I finally had to replace my old one last year. Hence my dismay when the new one quit.

It started quitting (!?) in the middle of the first cut of the Spring. It worked fine for about 4 rounds, then quit. I could crank it, and it would idle fine, but as soon as I pushed it into the uncut grass, it would die completely. It died so dead that I expected an electrical problem, or possibly a medical one, rather than a fuel problem.

So I first tried more fuel, mostly because it’s easy. Wasn’t that. Then I checked the major electrical components, and didn’t find anything wrong, although the automatic shutoff looked a little squirrely. At this point, it was late, and I was tired from other yard-related exertions, so I parked it in the shed to see if it might heal itself. (Hey, it happens!)

But not this time. Same error mode the next time I tried to finish cutting the yard. So I first looked at the governor mechanism. Besides a small piece of tree-debris I found, there was no apparent problem. Then I took the carburetor apart and cleaned everything out. There was a little dirt here and there, but nothing that looked like a real failure cause.

Then I did some experimenting with the wiring on the automatic shutoff. To be specific, I bypassed it to see if the mower would continue running. This involved the use of a clamp on the shutoff bar (because it also tries to brake the flywheel, which I didn’t want). With the clamp in place, I could manually stop the motor without having to perform any Cirque de Soleil contortions, or endangering my typing finger.

But after all of that rigging, it still stalled out under load. Finally, I restored all of the shutoff wiring, stowed the clamp in my pocket, and took off the cute little red Troy-Bilt plastic cover (again!) so I could watch it run.

To my surprise, it cranked, and ran fine. I finished cutting the yard, replaced the plastic cover, and parked it in the shed.

Who knows if it will run next time. Maybe it’s that cute platic cover (although that seems unlikely.) Maybe it will run fine for a long time.

But I have now amended my Standard Repair Method, which formerly read, “Take It Apart and Put It Back Together.”

The revised method now adds, “If success is not achieved, Repeat.”

Additional research will be required to determine whether twice is the maximum number of dis- and re-assemblies necessary, or whether perhaps the Third Time will sometimes be The Charm.

Watch for the results (and more Capital Letters) in a Science Journal near you.

Robot Soccer

Monday, April 19th, 2010

You probably already know that the FIRST (but not the first) Robotics Competition was held in Atlanta this past weekend. According to their web site, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), “was founded in 1989 to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology. The Manchester, NH not-for-profit designs accessible, innovative programs that motivate young people to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math, while building self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills.” Those sound like noble goals indeed.

This year’s event included several LEGO League competitions (kindergarten to age 16), and, for older teens, the Tech Challenge and Robotics Competition (ages 14-18). NASA streamed the competition over the internet, and I was sucked into the Breakaway Robotics Competition for about an hour Saturday morning. Only my strong personal commitment to yard work and marital happiness were able to draw me away.

The game I watched, Breakaway, is a form of soccer played by wheeled robots. The field of play is a rectangle divided into three zones by transverse bumps, with goal openings at each corner. A game begins with six robots and 12 soccer balls positioned on the field. For the first 15 seconds the robots operate autonomously, trying to propel soccer balls into the opposing goal by using cameras to detect the goals, each of which features a large, visible target, and the balls, which are standard, size 5 soccer balls. After 15 seconds, the human team members step forward to take over manual control of the robots to implement advanced strategies (usually, anyway) using standardized control stations at each end of the field. The manual phase lasts two minutes.

The games are scored more-or-less like soccer, with a couple of robotic-friendly extensions. A point is accrued by propelling a soccer ball into a goal. In addition, to allow the robots to show off, two extra points are granted for each robot which is NOT touching the field of play when time expires. The field design includes two towers which may be used to lift the robots, either by driving them onto the raised tower platform, or by robots grabbing the superstructure to lift themselves off of the field. An extra point is awarded for a robot manages to get itself supported by another robot. (Would that be a “sugar robot?”) Penalty cards are given for rule violations, which may result in the deduction of points. Robots who yell at the officials are subject to being powered off. (OK, I made that rule up.)

Each team designs and builds its own robot based on a kit of parts and a collection of techical specifications provided by FIRST. Many teams even build their own version of the field of play, to test their designs and practice strategy. For each Breakaway game, the competition is between two Alliances, each consisting of three Teams.

The matches I saw were competitive, and the teams and spectators were enthusiastic. While all of the robots were based on the same mechanical, electrical, and pneumatic parts, the operational designs varied, and the cosmetic treatments varied even more. Some designs were clearly superior to others, showing that engineering was a key factor.

Frankly, I was impressed by the level of technical sophistication, and perhaps even more by the level of enthusiastic participation. Anything that can manage to unite 20,000 students, mentors, volunteers, sponsors and fans in an endeavor that “inspires young people’s interest and participation in science and technology” seems well worth the effort. I’m already looking forward to next year’s FIRST competition!



Monday, April 12th, 2010

The Greatest Human Being You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

In 1944, the Rockefeller Foundation began work with the Mexican government to improve agricultural development. Norman Borlaug, a Norwegian farmer and wrestler from Wisconsin with a degree in plant pathology, accepted the leadship role of the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program in Mexico. Through innovation and experimentation he described as “mind-warpingly tedious,” he developed wheat hybrids that not only resisted devastating, famine-causing diseases, but that also increased crop yield.

Norman Borlaug’s work started what has been called the Green Revolution, improving food production in Mexico, India, Pakistan and other developing countries. His work is credited with saving the lives of more than a billion people who would have otherwise starved to death.

In 1970, Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In his acceptance lecture, he said, “When the Nobel Peace Prize Committee designated me the recipient of the 1970 award for my contribution to the ‘green revolution’, they were in effect, I believe, selecting an individual to symbolize the vital role of agriculture and food production in a world that is hungry, both for bread and for peace”.

Norman Borlaug was married to Margaret Gibson for 69 years. He died in September, 2009, one of only six people to have won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal.


I ran across a description of Norman Borlaug’s work in a Wired magazine article about a new wheat fungus called UG99, that threatens global wheat crops.

I obtained other information about Norman from his Wikipedia entry, which almost reads like a novel. Here’s a sample quotation: “Borlaug said that his first couple of years in Mexico were difficult. He lacked trained scientists and equipment. Native farmers were hostile toward the wheat program because of serious crop losses from 1939 to 1941 due to stem rust. ‘It often appeared to me that I had made a dreadful mistake in accepting the position in Mexico,’ he wrote in the epilogue to his book, Norman Borlaug on World Hunger.”

The moniker “The Greatest Human Being You’ve Probably Never Heard Of” comes from an episode of a Penn and Teller television series which featured Norman Borlaug.

Passing fancy

Monday, April 5th, 2010

Last week on a downtown expressway, I was passed by a New Holland farm tractor at about sixty miles an hour. I’m pretty sure it was a New Holland – their blue is pretty distinctive. I had a good view of the hydraulics, the major frame pieces, and the tires, which were equally-sized, since it was a four- wheel-drive tractor. (It was on a big flat-bed when it passed me, by the way. I was going to wait ’til the end to mention that, but some of you tend to worry about stuff like that, so you can relax now.)

Seeing that tractor got me thinking about a past decision. I suppose it’s my engineering personality, but I don’t regret many decisions. I collect the facts, and, when the time is right, I combine the facts with my experience, skills, understanding of the situation to make the best decision I can. Then I move ahead.

In this case, the decision I’m referring to is my choice of vocation. Not long after I graduated from college, around the time I met and married my lovely bride, I was leaning toward agriculture. I actually subscribed to Progressive Farmer magazine for a couple of years. As a child, I had always loved trips to the Georgia farm country where my Dad grew up. I even liked the smells of farming, rich dirt, even the fertilizer, pesticide and animal aromas. I liked the idea of producing output that was clearly and directly useful, yea, even necessary to life. I knew the tractors and combines – not only John Deere’s famous green, but Allis Chalmers, International Harvester, Ford, Massey-Ferguson, and even the foreign newcomers such as Kubota. I marvelled at huge midwestern rigs, disc harrows that spanned scores of crop rows, pulled by all-wheel-drive tractors with eight giant tires. I revered agricultural innovation, such as 4-wheel hydraulic steering that allowed the farmer, with the touch of a button, to choose front wheel steering on the road, back wheel steering while hooking up implements, or both: axles in opposite directions for tight turns, in parallel for sloping land. Brilliant. I read about new ideas, such as organic and no-till farming, hybrids and genetically engineered crops. I read doom-and-gloom articles about the death of the small family farm, the growth of big conglomerates, and the impact of land use decisions. I even had some understanding of the economics, the number of acres required to sustain a family, and the cost of leasing land.

But the missus and I were in love with humanity and full of evangelical fervor, so we chose to live in the big city. It meant that my innovations would not be agricultural, but academic, industrial, computer, and communications oriented. It meant that our kids would learn to drive on multi-lane interstate highways in city traffic, instead of small town dirt roads, and that they would grow up playing in suburban back yards instead of roaming pastures and fields.

Obviously our lives would have been very different if we had made a different decision. But here we are. mower1With apologies to my millions of twitter followers (what can we call them? twollowers? iideacolytes?) who have already heard this, my current approach to agriculture is what I refer to as “Darwinian lawn care.” Anything that can survive being hacked to an inch high every week or two is fit to be part of the lawn. I’m not even gardening or composting at present (although I have done both in the past, and look forward to the opportunity again.) And I don’t even have a garden tractor.

As I said, I rarely revisit old decisions. Unless I am passed by a New Holland 4-wheel drive tractor at sixty miles per hour. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen very often.