Distractions, Diversions, Books, Wines, Whiskeys and Other Stuff To Think About When You Should Be Doing Something Else.

Department of the Future

On the Bookshelf: The New Cool by Neal Bascomb

The New Cool

A Visionary Teacher. His FIRST Robotics Team, and the Ultimate Battle of Smarts.

by Neal Bascomb

I am not quite sure how exactly I would describe The New Cool. On one hand it is a book that explores the potential future of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education. On the other hand, it is a story about a high-school sports team that, even though they are relative underdogs, manage to come through and triumph in the face of adversity.

 I guess the best I can say is “Welcome to the world of competitive high school robotics.”

The New Cool follows Team 1717 of the engineering academy at Dos Pueblos High School, a.k.a. the D’Penguineers, during the 2009 FIRST Robotics competition from the unveiling of the game their robot would have to play that season, through the development and building process, to the FIRST robotics competitions that pit robot against robot.

The 2009 FIRST game, Lunacy, is pretty intriguing and was probably a lot of fun to play. The first video is an animated description of the game. The second is a bit of the flavor of the competition from the Team 1717 point of view.


At the risk of an editorial digression I would have to say that there are points of this book that I really liked and other points where I felt it was very much lacking.


As a story about what could, and should, be the model for education in today’s modern world The New Cool is a fantastic read. This is what education should be about, more than just trying to stuff as many facts and figures into a kid’s head so they can take some sort of standardized test, but real and practical learning that lets students develop skills that are important in life and in a career. The New Cool demonstrates that these kids are involved and excited about this competition and really invest in the work that makes it possible. More importantly they have a teacher and mentors that provide real, practical, applications for learning. Nobody is standing over the teacher’s shoulder to judge if the students are learning enough according to an arbitrary standard. That the kids are learning is evident by their failures and their successes. Yes, you learn from both.

The New Cool is a story about vision in education. It is a story about the dedication of a good teacher. Most of all it is a powerful story about kids who want to do something to learn.


Ok, as far as the story itself went The New Cool lacks an engagement with the characters. There are so many players doing so many different things that there really isn’t room to really get into the trials and tribulations that the students have to overcome. Even those the story follows most closely come off pretty flat. Underscoring this is that these are pretty privileged kids. For the most part, these are kids who have smart parents who are encouraging and involved with their children’s education. If there is a lesson missed in The New Cool it is that the involvement and encouragement of parents goes just as far as that of a teachers, perhaps farther. One chapter in The New Cool does follow a kid from a bad neighborhood, with little encouragement who does make the effort to participate In FIRST with a team called 2Train, but we never really hear back from him. Granted, unlike Team 1717, 2Train is a FIRST Team without a lot of resources that probably didn’t make it very far in the competition, but really, to participate at all and learn by trying, doing, failing and/or succeeding is just as much a victory as going to the robotics championship and that is something that deserves to be highlighted.

Dislikes aside The New Cool is certainly a book worth picking up for its forward-looking story about vision in education.

Ok, a brief editorial digression:

I wish that this really was the trend in education, but I fear it is very much against the tide of the tyranny of standardized tests and the blaming of teachers for kids who aren’t learning. A teacher can teach, but they can’t make a student learn if the kid isn’t at all engaged or interested in the material. FIRST is great for STEM education, but programs just as innovative as FIRST need to be developed for other subjects outside of STEM.

That’s the kind of vision needed in education.


Department of the Future: Mobile Manufacturing

Department of the Future: Office of Technology Forecasting

One of my favorite futurism topics is the rise of short-run, rapid-prototyped, just-in-time manufacturing. John Robb recently posted about the MPH (Mobile Parts Hospital) in use by the U. S. military and currently being adapted to serve as an MTC (Mobile Technology Complex) by U. S. Special Operations.
The utility of this sort of mobile fabber, even if it is expensive (1.5 million), is that it can produce highly customized designs on-demand. Even at that price it quickly earns its keep by short-cutting the time and logistical effort needed to produce and move specialized parts or equipment world-wide distances. Just like table-top fabbers that can produce plastic parts, the MPH can be moved to virtually any location (it is 8′ X 8′  X 20′), and begin production limited only by raw materials and available designs.
Future versions of the MPH will include a 3D metal fabrication device called a DMD (Directed Material Deposition) for Laser Engineered Net Shaping.

“A high power laser is used to melt metal powder supplied coaxially to the focus of the laser beam through a deposition head. The laser beam typically travels through the center of the head and is focused to a small spot by one or more lenses. The X-Y table is moved in raster fashion to fabricate each layer of the object. The head is moved up vertically as each layer is completed. Metal powders are delivered and distributed around the circumference of the head either by gravity, or by using a pressurized carrier gas. An inert shroud gas is often used to shield the melt pool from atmospheric oxygen for better control of properties, and to promote layer to layer adhesion by providing better surface wetting.

This process is similar to other 3D fabrication technologies in its approach in that it forms a solid component by the layer additive method. The LENS process is unique since it can go from raw material directly to metal parts, in many cases, without any secondary operations. It can produce parts in a wide range of alloys, including titanium, stainless steel, aluminum, and other specialty materials; as well as composite and functionally graded materials.”

More interesting reading about the MPH in action on the battlefield here. (PDF)


Where will we live in 2050?


From Fast Company

 America in 2050: Urban, Suburban, or Both? by Greg Lindsay (7/12/10)

“Last Wednesday night, Joel Kotkin–a futurist and (sub)urban historian–squared off in a debate against Christopher Leinberger, a developer, consultant and proponent of “walkable urbanism.” The topic: “America 2050: What Will We Build.” The pair tangled on four key issues: demographics; housing supply & demand; transport; and density. Kotkin was in hostile territory: a roomful of Manhattan architects and academics belonging to the Forum for Urban Design.”

The next forty years is a compelling time frame in which to envision the ways in which where and how we live and work will change. It is the American Way to want things both ways. We glorify the energy and connectivity of the big city as much as we desire the comfortable isolation and quiet privacy of the suburb. We want the industry of the city, and also the suburbs that teem with tele-commuters who work in their pajamas. That in mind, it is likely that the future will prove both Kotkin and Leinberger correct. However, it is likely that the city and the suburb, as we know them now, may change dramatically to reflect demographic, environmental, professional and social shifts.

I think the trend on the horizon that will come to dominate the next forty years in the trend toward decentralization and self-containment. The city may some day come to resemble the BAMA (Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis) of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and the suburb may emerge in the form of the Holon from Daniel Suarez’s Freedom(TM), or the Resilient Community Development, but within each of those structures will be a decentralization of energy production, resource management, manufacturing and business, becoming self-contained yet interlinked, hubs for economic and physical connectivity and security.