Oh heck with it, I have a couple more drink’s worth in this Sailor Jerry’s bottle, and nothing compelling to get me out of bed tomorrow morning, so here goes a summary of the FIRST Champs, because exactly zero people asked for it, and I am nothing if not willing to provide y’all with Exactly What You Don’t Want To Hear. AND I am tired and out of sorts, which always results in the BESTEST blogging….
As has been noted, YZ’s FIRST team won the Chairman’s Award at the Midwest Regional in Chicago, and the CA winners all get their tickets punched to attend the Championships, as the Chairman’s is considered the jewel of FIRST awards, the teams that best exemplify the mission of FIRST. Which, to remind people like mikey who like to focus on the hardware, is about spreading the word and inspiring the next generations of engineers and STEM geekazoids. AND it is the second time they’ve won it in three years, as well as winning a Judge’s Award at the Duluth Regional, the first time they’ve won two pennants in a season. Am I proud? You guess.
So I drove down on Wednesday afternoon. I worked in the morning, and ignored all the phone calls because there is NO WAY they were going to anything but delay me. Heck, last time I was leaving from my office, the phone call I took was from Von bailing on our date, so you can see. The phone has never been my friend.
I had to chase down YZ, because he needed a phone cable that he forgot. I got a series of increasingly desperate texts with a declining power status until I was able to negotiate the horrible terrible aggravating suburban frontage road sprawl hell and hand it off. Then I moved on to our room. After dropping my shit, I got a bottle of wine and then went to a strip mall Messican restaurant where I obtained a margarita the size of my skull and calmed down a bit.
The next day was mostly initial matches of the Lego Leagues and the the FIRST Tech Leagues, pit day for the FRC, and a bunch of conference presentations, where I spent most of my time. I saw some guys who built a Robot In Three Days, a CAD presentation from PTC, some advice on building a team that can sustain itself, and some guidance on how to plan a project that will rise to the top of the competition. All very good and all very inspiring and kind of fun. My favorite part was in the sustainability workshop, where two young men in the front row started the question period with the MOST important query “How do we get girls to join our team?”
Then I bought some swag. Yes I did. Shirts, a water bottle, a phone coozie, a special bag…I stopped short of this year’s book or a custom shirt. I DID, however, buy a denim workshirt that makes me look like Dean Kamen, cuz I hope it gives me the Midas touch that island-owning motherfucker has.
I walked through the pits of the FRC teams for a bit, talking to a few teams. SO MANY good ideas, SO MANY smart and talented and geeky and wonderful kids….I can tell you that if you ever go to a FIRST event, every single person you meet will be the loveliest person you have ever met. The whole shebang is so chock full of cheerfulness and nice people that even exceed the bounds of Minnesota Nice. even in the face of mechanical gremlins, that you can’t HELP but be overwhelmed with good cheer and fellow-feeling. and the geekery.
look: in the stands, members of the UPS team left purses, camera bags, and backpacks with iPads in them in the seats, more-or-less unattended and NOTHING HAPPENED.
The geekery and robots are just the sheen, though. [AND WONDERFUL SHEEN IT IS] the real purpose of FIRST is hinted by the overwhelming collaborative spirit. Everybody there wants every other team to do well; every team will help another team out without hesitation, even if they will be on opposing alliances on the field in just a few minutes. And when they come off the field, they will help the other teams recover from the damage of the match. In the Wisconsin Regional, we had a match where we were designated blocker, and another team was supposed to keep us from doing that (they did a pretty good job, too) and it was very rough and tumble; afterward, one of the mentors of the second team came over and apologized to us for playing hard! Another time, we were working some defense, and pushed another robot halfway across the field, burning out two of their motors. After the match, we sent a couple of team members over to see if we could help them make repairs (they were fine).
Walking around, you see kids all jazzed up on competition and adrenaline and still being polite when they bump into you in their enthusiasm, because they are moving fast. The are wearing team shirts and capes and flashing hats and funny glasses and wild pants and one time YZ was wearing a plastic skirt. While it’s not a 50/50 mix, girls are far from rare, and there are teams from all-girl schools. At the championships, there were teams from Greece and Spain and Israel and Mexico and Canada and Australia and Netherlands. And all of them, kids and mentors and parents spoke the language of Geek. And the language of Optimism. And the language of Brotherhood (and Sisterhood).
ON THE SECOND DAY (sheesh, this is turning epic) Wife Sublime showed up by the end of the day, Just after UPS (the Ultimate Protection Squad, natch) finished their last qualification match of the day. She had spent the morning with OUR team, doing a Take-Your-Kids-To Work demonstration at GE, with our two most recent robots, which shot basketballs and launched frisbees. By the time she got down (it’s about a 6 1/2 hour drive from Milwaukee to St. Louis), we watched one match, then we both needed a drink or two, so we walked down to Laclede’s Landing to a brewpub for some good stuff. and then we were very tired.
The next day was a long day of going through the pits and watching UPS in their qualification matches
As mentors for another team, one of the things that impresses us most about YZ’s team is that they never sit still. Never give up; never surrender. After each regional, they keep working on their robot to alter and improve it. This year, their initial concept was a robot that could climb the jungle-gym pyramids on the field, scoring at the top; since that never worked exactly, they started working on a defensive blocking strategy and by the time they reached St. Louis, they had a pretty good shooting apparatus. Pretty good hell; in one match, their alliance totaled 60 points, of which they were responsible for about 50.
The competition at the championships is fierce, no matter how good natured. For a reference, in most regionals, matches ranged in 40-80 point range. Sometimes 100 points. In the Championships, almost every match had at least one alliance scoring 100 points. In the elimination rounds, there was almost always an alliance that scored over 200 points, and in the finals, almost every match had both alliances scoring over 200 points.
On Friday evening, Wife Sublime bashed her hand climbing over the seats in the stands, for which she yelled at me even if I was two rows away. At first I bristled, but then remembered my role as husband, and accepted my blame as we went to the City Museum to see a bunch of weird shit. It had a very nice display of terra cotta by George Elmslie and Louis Sullivan, concurrent and after Frank Lloyd Wright left Sullivan’s firm.
Saturday was the best day for UPS fandom; they had great matches, and lots of parents and friends to cheer in the stands. A couple even brought the relevant letters from the Wisconsin Overpass Light Brigade so we could dance around with UPS in lighted festivity.
Unfortunately, out of 100 teams on the Galileo Field, UPS didn’t quite rise to the level of being selected for the 24 teams in the elimination rounds, so Wife Sublime and I, in recognition of the harsh and bitter realities of the demands of Real Life, were forced to bail and head back through the rain.
But. Here’s the but and the thing and the takeaway and whatever you feel like saying about this whole episode.
The Championships are the culmination of immense amounts of hard work by kids. (and the Mentors, too) but in the end these are kids who build real robots, solve real engineering problems, work under real deadlines, and develop real problem solving and creative skills, and are rewarded with real success and cheering crowds. AS THEY SHOULD BE AND AS FORETOLD BY THE PROPHECY.
I always start the season by saying “we won’t have enough time, enough money, or enough people. Welcome to real life.” They laugh, but by the end of build season they know what I mean.
The thing about kids doing this is that they have no preconceptions about what is possible, or more importantly, what is impossible. One of the toughest things to work through are people who already know the answers they want, and what is ‘impossible”. These folks were convinced humans could not survive traveling faster than a horse, that travel faster than sound was impossible, that heavier-than-air flight a pipe dream, that traveling to the moon nothing more than a fantasy, and that polio would never be conquered.
Sometimes, all it takes for a barrier to be broken is for a person that doesn’t know there is a barrier.
Goddammit, but I believe in these kids. I am bitter and cynical and old and exhausted, but I fucking believe in these kids. If you came and saw them, i think you would too. I invite you to come and see them.