Category Archives: friends

R2AK_FullCourse_Map

Racing an amphibious Kinetic Sculpture … 750 miles to Alaska?

“Inconvenience is only Adventure Improperly Construed; Adventure is Inconvenience properly construed”. -G.K. Chesterton

I used to think The Grand Championship Kinetic Sculpture Race (GCKSR) in Northern California was the most ambitious and inspiring event I’d heard of,   especially irresistible to type-2-fun loving,   artist-tinkerer-engineer-adventurers.     There, people race over a 50 mile course in human powered vehicles they’ve built themselves,    where the course includes a mile in the Pacific Ocean,    ascending and descending steep sand dunes,   crossing the Eel River,     and – if that weren’t enough –   judging each other on how inspiring and excellent is the ART that they, and their vehicles, comprise.  There’s something irresistible about such an insane specification, with so many conflicting challenges needing to be overcome to build, and propel,  a vehicle over such a course.   Inventors and adventurers (and generally the sorts who delight in problem solving)   thrive on such implausible and difficult tasks.   A tough-mudder for the mind, and body, and workshop, all.      Thinking of Chesterton’s Quote on the kinship of inconvenience and adventure,  the Kinetic Sculpture Race seemed like a perfect way to “Creatively Inconvenience Myself” in the pursuit of adventure and a context in which to invent wonderful things.

“For the Glory” is the tagline of the Kinetic Sculpture Race  –   a cheer and sentiment which inspires years-long passion projects by avid tinkerers.  Such a mantra might well be the rallying cry also of those who do another,  unrelated race: the “Race To Alaska”.    This 750 mile ocean race (often abbreviated as “R2AK”) starts one week after the Kinetic Sculpture Race,   and goes by Inland Passage along the Pacific Coast – by water – 750 miles to Ketchikan AK.    The only rules are that no motors are allowed,  and two waypoints set the rough outline of the course.   First prize is a hefty $10K.   Second prize is a set of steak knives.   I don’t think there’s a third prize, and yet people do this daunting and bold trek in Paddle-boards and Kayaks,   even when the chances of ‘winning’ in such vessels,   where carbon fiber sailing rocket catamarans are competing on equal terms,  are vanishingly small.   Obviously,   this is an opportunity for exploration under the rubrik of a race,  and with the benefit of the camraderie of a few other hardy souls following similar goals,  but which is a fundamentally personal challenge.   These racers know the same Glory spoken of by Kinetic Sculpture Racers.

An idea of outlandish ambition has entered my mind, and taken root.  I am entertaining the delicious engineering challenges of making a vehicle which is light enough to be human propelled over land,   and at the same time be seaworthy and efficient in the water.     The additional constraint is actually helpful for the design,   of an efficient amphibious craft.  The Race I’m building for only begins in Arcata;   it will end in Ketchikan.  To do it, I’ll need to build an amphibious,  human and wind powered, vehicle that can move as efficiently as possible over each of the following terrains:

All Terrain means:

  1.  the Northern Pacific in high winds up to gale force, with tidal currents up to 15 knots and steep waves.
  2.  glass-smooth protected waterways with zero wind
  3.  paved roads
  4.  steep sand dunes and slippery cement boat ramps
  5.  rocky river shores

There have been several times in the past,  where I’ve undertaken things which at the time seemed bold in the context of my comfort zone at the time.    Month-or-two long self supported bicycle tours and hiking trips across deserts in summer and snow-capped high mountain passes, mainly.     Consistently,  each stretch of my sense of what is possible,   what risks endurable,   has quicky become clear as  seminal,   epoch-defining rites of passage;  intensely rewarding in the moment and over much longer views, both.   Intensely rewarding in physical and mental health and vigor.       Each time such trips have begun,  the flood of recognition, of joy, has inspired me to ask:  how did I let it get so long!   Don’t wait so long to do this again!   And it has been a while since my last adventure. This has been a period of incredible growth, and I find myself better poised than ever before to undertake something grand.    My engineering skills have never been greater,  and I’ve recently,   finally,   acquired my own CNC milling machine (a beautiful early 1990’s Bridgeport),  and can make sophisticated and strong parts out of metal in the comfort of my own home, at last.  I have a community of mentors to talk to,  and a recent success at work has granted me more independence and autonomy than previously,  with which to take a month or two for a grand epic adventure.   To the toolkits of a mechanical and electrical engineer I’ve recently added also initial forays into carbon fiber and fiberglass composite construction,   and I’m excited for bringing to bear the full force of my creativity and craft to build a vehicle meeting my needs for these races.

And so I begin here a thread of documentation,  detailing the engineering thinking and progress towards realizing a vehicle capable of both the Kinetic Sculpture Race, and the Race to Alaska,    in May and June of this year,  2019.

Vehicle Specification:

1. Design and build a seaworthy boat which will be transported to the race site in 135 days, May 25th 2019.   This boat will be able to carry me and necessary supplies to live for at least 1 week between resupply points in the coastal wilderness of British Columbia and Alaska

2. The boat will be able to be powered and move as efficiently as possible on both land and water.   Power sources will include sail,   oar,  and pedals.    Motors powered by solar panels are out.   Fuel-burning non-biological engines are out.

3. The boat will Be, and carry, Art.   My best idea of this at present is musical: the boat is a thin shell not unlike a cello body.  It will be sonourous if excited into vibration by strings.     I am an excellent improvisational cellist.  I have performed on sailboats before and been delighted to see the bobbing heads of seals come to visit and listen,   and I would have more of such experiences.    Ideally I will instrument the boat with hydrophones and frequency shifting electronics so that I can maintain a constant awareness of the soundscape of the waters I travel over,    whose inhabitants include whales,  seals, otters, dolphins,  and much more.     At intervals,  I will intersperse the sustained exertion with musical explorations of my mood, and my settings,  and any collaborators I can find to riff with – hopefully including a few marine as well as other terrestrial bipedal mammals.

4. The boat will be able to be propelled up a slime-covered common boat-launch ramp slope of 6% grade under human power without exiting the craft. Reconfiguration, if necessary, must be accomplished in the water.

4.  The boat will be able to be propelled along a level paved road at an average speed of at least 7mph,  and ideally 12mph,  under human power alone. (Sets rolling efficiency and wind resistance maximums.)

5. The boat should weigh less than 300 pounds,  and ideally closer to 200 pounds,   unladen.

6.  The boat should be tough and not brittle, and redundantly buoyant.   The boat should be tested for collision endurance against blunt rocks and submerged logs, and all practical measures taken to increase it’s survivability in such an encounter.

7. The boat will ideally have autopilot when under sail.  (I am a robotics engineer after all).   Autopilot should be able to tack to maintain course in high aspect ratio coastal inlet passages.  Autopilot should self-diagnose all anticipatable failure modes and in particular detect implausible sudden shifts of position that may indicate invalid data due to mountainous interference.

8.   A GPS-enabled physical pointing device will be built as a smart compass.  It can point directly at things.    GPS pointer will be able to  pivot around 3 perpendicular axes of rotation, so that if distances are sufficienty remote,   the pointer will be seen to be pointing below the horizon due to the curvature of the earth.

…   more to come …

Talking to Strangers: Lou Fischer

BuB motorcycle
The BuB streamliner motorcycle, piloted by Chris Carr, reached speeds in excess of 367 mph with a 3 liter, 500 horsepower turbocharged V4 engine on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

I was bicycling by starlight in the middle of the desert at midnight, 20 miles from anywhere in the middle of Goblin Valley Utah,  in late August.   Crossing deserts during the night is necessary when the daytime shade temperature is between 110 and 120F   (but there is no shade) and ground temperatures reach 150F before noon.  But it is also a treasure to ride in the desert at night:   the skies are the clearest of anywhere on the continent.  One day before the August full moon, I was riding by star and moon light alone.  Nobody was on the road. Cars would pass maybe once every half hour or two, and when they did, I could see their headlights ten minutes away, hear their roar minutes away.  I’d been riding this way, solo, for a few hours,   racing towards Moab Utah and Arches NP trying to arrive on my birthday and see the full moon rise over these incredible landscapes,   when I saw a parked car on the side of the road up ahead,  lights off, with it’s trunk open,   and a fellow standing next to it.

I should mention that,  when asking locals about what to expect,  before crossing the 100 miles of open Mojave desert a few weeks back,  from Joshua Tree  to the Colorado river,  multiple independent sources repeated several times “It’s where people go to bury bodies”,  or “Ever seen ‘the Hills have Eyes’?”.

But I saw his camera tripod, and no bodies. I had also benefited previously from a trucker who stopped and shared an ice chest of gatorade with me in the middle of the Mojave desert; here was an opportunity to pay it forward. And I was curious.

He certainly did not expect a jovial Gordon “hello, howdy! Are you okay, need any water?”.      Not when the loudest thing he’d likely experienced for his last hour was the click of his camera shutter,  sand underfoot, and what night creature sounds as occur in August, in the deep sand and sagebrush desert, at midnight. I tried to mitigate his shock by speaking from a respectful safe distance of 50 feet or so.

To say he was “Startled” would be an understatement.  We were in one of the most desolate places in the country, after midnight, in the dark. He’d probably felt himself the only person for miles,  ten seconds prior.  Bicycles riding by starlight are stealthy!  I saw him reassure  himself (discretely) of the location of a bottle of bear-spray on his hip,  his countermeasures.   I had sympathy for this;  I had done similar before hailing him.  We were both assessing each other. And then we talked.

We progressed quickly from threat-assessment  to rapport and shared enthusiasm. Two gearhead adventurers, alone in the middle of the desert at midnight talking under starlight .  We talked for over an hour.  Before I resumed bicycling,   he made me promise to message him before I arrived in Chicago, where he would host me.   He also took this picture of me,  which is one of my favorites of the whole trip:

Gordan
Photo by Lou Fischer. Gordon Kirkwood bicycle crossing Goblin Valley Utah through the night in late August.

Lou is a photography buff and documentary filmmaker, his youtube channel is “Bonneville Stories”.   Some of his work is linked below.   His brother held a land – speed record on motorcycles;  He was in town to document the fastest motorcycle in the world, the BuB streamliner motorcycle,   which reaches in excess of 360MPH  / Mach 0.5.    I often think of this encounter as one of the more rewarding “talk to strangers” lessons in good faith optimism… especially since pessimism could easily have prejudiced this introduction to nonexistence. It would have been easy to make an excuse to pass a car in a desolate area.

This story, from six years ago, came to mind in the context of two especially significant meetings this last week and next, discussing character development and education in science, technology, engineering and math with DARPA,  the Navy,   and a large private philanthropy whose director has honored me by asking for my input.  As I refine my thoughts I’m enjoying revisiting a few of these experiences which in retrospect seem like formative decision points or character building moments.    Stay tuned! 

Holy Moly, my friend and mentor was just awarded the Nation’s Highest Honor for Technology and Innovation!

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Mary Shaw is presented with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation by President Barack Obama at the White House.
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Photo courtesy of Mary Shaw

The National Medal of Technology and Innovation (NMTI) is the nation’s highest honor for technological achievement, bestowed by the president of the United States on America’s leading innovators. The recipients for this year were announced by President Obama on friday, and my most esteemed friend and mentor Mary Shaw is one of them!

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Mary Shaw is a gem.  She is a fantastically interesting, diversely competent, engaging, and modest person who I befriended and formed an immense respect for while completely ignorant  of her great eminence as Carnegie Mellon University’s Alan J Perlis University Professor of Computer Science (where she has taught since six years before I was born).  As we met she was to me simply an engaging, creative, person who’d engage in conversations over a workbench,  ‘soldering iron in hand’,  on subjects spanning LED lighting,  investment casting of custom metal drawer-pulls,  glider piloting,  glider construction, hot air balloon piloting,  critical path analysis, vortex rings, bicycling, bicycle touring, bubble blowing mechanisms,  bubble blowing while bicycle riding,  tensegrity sculpture design, math, physics, engineering, relationships, photography… everything.

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Mary introduces my puppy, Watz, to riding a bicycle.

When I proposed organizing a group bicycle ride for Bike-Fest here in Pittsburgh, for which riders would be equipped with bubble blowing equipment to produce large numbers of bubbles in the air we moved through, she and her husband Roy enthusiastically participated on a tandem.   They made the cover of the local paper,  riding that tandem and blowing bubbles, during the Pedal Pittsburgh Ride.

Mary and her husband Roy,  who I will occasionally assist as part of his Hot Air Balloon chase-van and recovery team (Mary is a pilot too,  of rigid winged gliders), are a marvelous couple.  They give a great model of what I imagine a happy seventh decade might best look like. They are frequently seen about Pittsburgh riding their tandem bicycle,  or working together at Techshop.  They ride the 330 mile Great Allegheny Passage bike path 330 miles between Pittsburgh and Washington DC every year,  revising their trail guide and publishing trip reports which have proven very helpful to other riders.  Their guide book is available for minimal cost, and their earlier trip reports can be found online.

Copyright Gordon Kirkwood 2014
Sometimes I organize giant bubble blowing flash mobs. It should not be surprising that immensely creative, intelligent, and eminent folks like Mary Shaw and Roy Weil, or Lowry Burgess, embrace these sorts of whimsy. This one was attended by about 400 people. An excellent video was produced by Ben Saks at http://vimeo.com/68497111

I found out about this award today after just talking with her Monday – she did me the huge honor of recommending me to the Autodesk Pier 9 Artist Residency,  which l have applied for –  and didn’t even bring it up.  Not that I’m one she’d brag to, but I think it’s representative of a quality I admire very much,  of understated but immense competence.

 

Mary Shaw,  Gordon Kirkwood, and Pittsburgh's new mayor Bill Peduto outside of Whimsy Engineering's office at Techshop Pittsburgh,  after President Obama's address there on the subject of innovation and entrepreneurship in America.
Mary Shaw, Gordon Kirkwood, and Pittsburgh’s new mayor Bill Peduto outside of Whimsy Engineering’s office at Techshop Pittsburgh, after President Obama’s address there on the subject of innovation and entrepreneurship in America.

 

Links:

http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/10/03/president-obama-honors-nation-s-top-scientists-and-innovators

CMU’s Shaw honored with National Medal of Technology and Innovation

Carnegie Mellon’s Mary Shaw Will Receive National Medal of Technology and Innovation

Obama taps computer pioneer Mary Shaw for National Medal of Technology and Innovation

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Shaw_(computer_scientist)