Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 21 Apr 03 12:47
Inkwell welcomes Brad Stone, author of the new book _Gearheads_ (http://www.gearheadsthebook.com/), in which he covers the history robotic sports. Steven Levy says "On the surface _Gearheads_ is a book about robots - fearsome, heavily armed, and in some cases highly illegal machines, and the talented mechanical artists who build them. But secretly, it's also a deeply moving narrative about dreams, and how they're dashed." Brad Stone has been writing for Newsweek since 1995. As a general assignment correspondent for the magazine, he covered the 1998 Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa homerun chase, the infamous serial killer nurse case in Indiana, and the jury deliberations in the Timothy McVeigh trial. Since 1998, as the magazine's Silicon Valley correspondent, Stone has owned one of the best perches in the nation from which to cover the boom, bust, and rebirth of the high-tech economy. He has covered the Microsoft anti-trust trial, the Napster saga, the contentious HP merger with Compaq, and the proliferation of digital consumer devices. In spring of 2000, Stone reported in Newsweek on a new kind of entrepreneurial activity whose focal point was north, not south, of San Francisco: the increasingly visible sport of robot competitions. His investigation into the Bay Area origins of the enthusiastic community of robot builders and artists led to the writing of Gearheads. Stone has also written for Wired, More, and the Sunday Telegraph magazine. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, attorney Jennifer Granick, their cat, Mr. Boodles, and a variety of expensive and largely unnecessary robotic appliances and toys. David Nunez (http://www.davidnunez.com) leads the discussion. David lives in Austin, Texas, where he specializes in connecting the computer technology industry with education, encouraging students to explore robots, multimedia, and computer games as sexy introductions and gateways to careers in engineering and IT. As Information Technology Cluster Director with The Capital Area Training Foundation in Austin, David facilitates relationships between high tech professionals and educators and works closely with multimedia, software, networking, and computer manufacturing companies in the Austin area. He encourages their collaboration among each other and with the K-14, post-secondary, and workforce development communities in Central Texas. David is a member of the EFF-Austin Board of Directors, where he conducts programs that help students probe the ethical and social implications when developing and using technology. He also does community outreach and new-member recruitment, and he's secretary of the organization. More pertinent, David is EFF-Austin's liaison to the Austin-based Robot Group, and is planning a revival of Austin's infamous Robofest in a mission to delight the public with technology using both geeky and artistic demonstrations of technology. As a member of The Central Texas National Engineers Week Steering Committee, David's responsibility is to help manage recruitment of engineers to work with students on engaging, hands-on projects (with names like "Gumdrop Dome" and "SLIME!")that demonstrate principles of Physics and Engineering. In his spare time, David is learning to build his own robotic art in his dark, twisted, dungeon of a garage.
David Nunez (davidnunez) Wed 23 Apr 03 13:00
Welcome, Brad... and welcome WELLians. My personal email is email@example.com - I'll welcome your offline questions and feedback at any time in these two weeks... However, please feel free to jump into the conversation, here, at any time, folks. ---- Brad, I'd like to start with a standard "Why did you write this book?" question. In particular, I know that you've written extensively about Silicon Valley and tech+business+legal+culture stories (ex. Microsoft antitrust suit), and there is such a strong element of all four of those in this book. However, could you please share what is about the Robotic Sports/Art/Combat story that appeals to you, personally?
Brad Stone (bradstone) Wed 23 Apr 03 18:07
Thanks David! I first got involved by attending all the local BattleBots and FIRST robot competitions in the year 2001 for an article in Newsweek. They were exhilerating, heart-pounding events, in different ways. At FIRST (Dean Kamen's competition for high schoolers) you just fed off the energy of the students. At BattleBots, the whole thing was an amazing spectacle: the destructive 300 pound robots battling, the roaring crowd, the vibrant community of tech and art-loving people from all walks of life... But I probably would have lost interest after the article if it hadn't been for meeting Marc Thorpe. He was an ILM model maker for the Star Wars flicks, and the founder of robot combat. His event in the 90s was called "Robot Wars." But he got into bed with the wrong investor and ended up enduring years of litigation, bankruptcy and sickness. I saw it as a great American business tale, and in fact it mirrored alot of what was going on in Silicon Valley at the time in terms of founders losing control of their beloved creations. So thats what got me interested in telling that story in my first book... and of course, there were all these weird, brilliant characters (like Mark Pauline, the founder of the art group SRL, and Dean Kamen). I thought it could be a rich narrative. Brad
David Nunez (davidnunez) Wed 23 Apr 03 19:42
You're right. The story behind the scenes was often more bombastic than the noise and drama of the robots, themselves! (although I imagine nothing was noisier than Mark Pauline's pulsejets on bots like the Running Machine!) "Losing control of their beloved creations" might be a theme for many people involved in these events. Marc Thorpe especially seemed a tragic figure whose creation grew up too quickly for its own good. And then there's Mark Pauline and Survival Research Labs (SRL)... Gearheads opens up with some vivid descriptions of the utter chaos of a live SRL show. SRL is world-renowned for their art happenings and has obtained quite a bit of fame even outside the geek world. Unlike the other builders and promoters in the book, Mark seemed to WANT his art to get loose and out of control while he, and only he, held onto the reigns for dear life. In fact, he never, throughout the story that unfolds in the rest of the book, chose to give up that power over his artistic vision to investors and television producers. What is it about Pauline and SRL that allows his artistic vision to enjoy some mainstream success while avoiding the pitfalls of commercialization?
Brad Stone (bradstone) Fri 25 Apr 03 14:58
David, hmm, that's a tough one. I'm not so sure how really mainstream SRL got in the 80s and 90s. Certainly people in the art, technology and robotics worlds knew of them, and as Wired was celebrating the intersections of those fields in the 90s, its readers did as well. To the extent that SRL enjoyed mainstream success, it was because its shows were true spectacles and completely unique. No one forgets the time they show up in the dead of night to an abandoned industrial lot, get their eardrums blown out and nearly die in a hailstorm of flaming animal carcasses... As for how Pauline was able to avoid the pitfalls of commercialization, it's simple because he avoided it. Whenever anyone approached him about using SRL photos or video, he refused and went after them if they did it anyway. Filmmakers asked him about using SRL bots in their work and he demanded ridiculous control over their projects in return. He simply had no interest in that stuff. And he's stubborn as a mule. In the book I try to juxtapose Pauline with Marc Thorpe. Pauline enjoyed being the bad guy outside of mass culture. Thorpe adapted some of SRL's ideas, scaled them down and opened them up to garage tinkerers. He wanted to generate a mass phenomenon and build a business on top of it. Unfortunately he got roasted in the process, partly because of his own naivete... Incidentally, I really grew to like and respect both guys during my research. At the Gearheads book party a week ago at Fort Mason, they were reintroduced to each other after nearly 10 years and buried the hatchet which resulted from their financial dispute in 1994. brad
David Nunez (davidnunez) Fri 25 Apr 03 16:19
It sounds then that Mark and Marc had different missions, as well... One was pure art and politics while the other was taking the geek mainstream and making some $$$ to boot? When you met last met with them, how were these guys interpreting the progress in accomplishing their missions through their chosen medium, robots?
Alex Mead (vamead) Fri 25 Apr 03 17:06
I appreciate Jon L. sending review copy, which I devoured over last 2 days. This is a delightful and insightful book with a lot of deep issues at its core. Here is nascent review, with some beginning thoughts: The belligerent prehistoric primates confronting each other in Stanley Kubrick's "2001 - A Space Odyssey" are initially just screeching and raucously jumping up and down to intimidate each other, but it's all sort of comical -- no one gets hurt. Then, perhaps influenced by the presence of a perfect black cuboid that ominously appears (coming from whence, some higher race of beings?), one primate picks up a massive dessicated animal femur, which we see will make an excellent club, and we know the course of prehistory is about to change -- Weaponry has been invented. Zoom forward 100K years and we see the results of coevolution of weapon and its bearer, high technology man exploring space in vast complex machines, some of which have their own synthetic intelligence and self-awareness. Kubrick's powerful 1968 film continues to resonate with us, decades later, as a testament to our composite and conflicted nature, rooted in the belligerent primate, but also striving toward subtle states of feeling and awareness, felt in the movie's music and those strange, incomprehensible final sequences, musing on life, death, and the unknown. So, we may not particularly _like_ the fact that some deep primeval stratum within us revels in combat, seeing our enemies routed, overrun, dismembered, bloodied -- hearing that "our troops" have taken the enemy city, blown their leader to bits! If we're thoughtful, we may be a little embarrassed to admit that we can spend countless passive hours watching the sanitized rituals of individual physical combat (fencing, boxing, or wrestling) and the even more abstract ritualized forms of group combat (football, baseball, soccer, polo). Really, aren't we loftier creatures than that? Could we really be amused by watching two mechanical devices, being remotely controlled by their "Gearhead" human builders, thrash around and try to destroy each other? Good grief! And could this sort of thing remotely be called Art? What sort of pathological minds would assemble a bunch of steam-shovel size machines to hurl flames and 2x4 lumber at each other, mangle each other and everything in sight, and subject their audience (those oh so edgy onlookers) to real physical hazards? Shouldn't we at least _try_ to cultivate our higher, socially responsible natures, and encourage our youngsters to learn about technology in ways that foster constructive creative thinking and cooperation? Yeah ... I suppose that's right; but you know the kids (and some of us 50-something kids) really love watching those battling robots try to destroy each other; and when one gets mortally disabled, the 8-12 year olds collectively chant for the "house robots" to push the unfortunate victim into the "pit" where flames will finish him off in good style! So much for the innocence of youth! If you're not making sense of all this, then you've clearly not watched the televised Robot Wars (from the UK) or Battlebots (Comedy Central) series that have enthralled a significant audience here and abroad. However, author Brad Stone, Newsweek writer and techno-enthusiast, has been drawn into this world of motorized mayhem, and in his just published "Gearheads - The Turbulent Rise of Robotic Sports," gives us a fascinating inside look at the people who created this strange entertainment -- and at their powerful opposition, characters like millionaire inventor Dean Kamen, who detests the destructive bent and the cheap exploitative feel of these TV competitions. For the robot warriors, however, the last 7 years of developing this sport have been anything but entertainment! For the "bot" builders and their odd-couple bedfellows, the businessmen who have financed the conversion of the builders' garage hobby into a mass media event, it's been an exhausting 7 years war -- a nightmare of conflicting values and destructive legal battles borne of business naivete and belligerent personalities. Stone's diligent research shows us that the temperaments and goals of creators like Marc Thorpe and Mark Pauline just don't fit at all into the jungle of the popular entertainment business. We can't escape the impression that the prolonged destructive butting of heads between the handful of men at the core of this activity has undermined and exhausted the vitality of the whole movement. [enough for now; probably to be continued...] alex mead, denver, co
Brad Stone (bradstone) Sat 26 Apr 03 07:59
Alex, thanks for the kind words! Dave, both Marc and Mark are onto side projects right now. Pauline is getting hitched in the fall, and is planning some grand theatrical display of robots for his wedding ceremony. He feels pretty happy with SRL's twenty-five year history of trouble-making. Thorpe is working with SimCity creator Will Wright in an east bay warehouse developing robot-themed TV show ideas. I think he feels like some of the early Robot Wars fulfilled his vision of grand performance art, but that ultimately the project was a disaster, because it led to such hardship for him and his family personally... brad
David Nunez (davidnunez) Sat 26 Apr 03 17:14
Something that Thorpe clued into pretty early was the concept of community among the robot builders. Could you please talk a little bit about how the early robotic competitions helped foster a fledgling community among otherwise garage-bound geeks?
J Matisse Enzer (matisse) Sun 27 Apr 03 10:28
And can you say something about how these artists supported themselves finacially throughout their careers, and what their future prospects for making a living through their art is? Good thing? Bad thing?
Brad Stone (bradstone) Sun 27 Apr 03 10:38
It's true - the various engineers, weekend tinkerers, and computer coders that coalesced around Thorpe really did become a community. At first, they met only once a year, every August, to compete in Robot Wars. So they were friendly with each other, but not much of a family. Then two things happened. The Internet became a mass communications medium in the mid 90s, and most of the Robot Wars participants were early adopters. And Thorpe ran into legal trouble, so the participants needed some way to keep in touch with each and stay updated on events. They started checking in with each other every day on the robot-building chat rooms and bulletin boards, and that's when that core group of builders started to look alot like a real community. Similar dynamics are at work with other robot events. For example, each year, the high school students around the country affiliated with Dean Kamen's US First competition swarm a set of online forums at chiefdelphi.com. When they gather for their regional events and the annual national finals, they all already know each other, even though the group of participants turns over every few years. But attending the robotic combat events really seems like intruding on a community that has been together for a decade... that's probably because all the intrigue brought them closer together. brad
one man's astrolabe is another man's sextant (airman) Sun 27 Apr 03 19:45
"Slam, bang, grease the engine. Throw out the throttle and give it the gun." From a child's story book. THis book is a great read. And a great book to reread again during the summer after escaping on vacation from the digital media world but suffering withdrawals of the adrenlin rush among the placid playas or the white noise of the ocean. In a media world flooded with digital effects GEAR HEADS is a mastery of the word-picture-movie starring violent robots in contrast to their owners who have their own fights to fill the dull space between contests or art displays as the case may be. Jules Verne would have written the book as fiction. Brad Stone goes a step further though showcasing the technology while carefully noting the human relationships going on and the emergence of a globally connected community through the Internet. I found the legal wars fascinating with the ruthless music exec-investor taking the wannabee entrepreneur to the cleaners while the crafty engineer in Dean Kamen looks to organize the whole industry, all the while the original artist attempts to keep things pure. We are plunged into a world of people playing out pledges and plans in a plot to be king of the mountain only to be betrayed by politics without violence which is best left to the robots themselves, the alter ego slaves of the silent violence in a world of art, science and business. The demise of animatronics by digital effects relegates the animators to a WWF-like world of robots and lawyers. As ILM cast of the cogs and sprockets of a passe technology, the animatronic robots are given new powers and new masters in a world reminiscent of Mad Max meets the Terminator. It will be interesting to see where robotic sports leads in the next ten years. Wherever it leads, it certainly won't be boring. Question: The first and last pictures of Thorpe show someone who has clearly aged most likely from all the stress. What are the years on those pictures? Brad, the book focuses more on the people providing key insights into the good, bad and ugly behavior. However, the lawyers and their actions seemed rather droll and matter of fact asi f they were just weapons for the most part. Was the legal stuff mostly dull?
Brad Stone (bradstone) Sun 27 Apr 03 22:28
Airman, keep the praise coming! It is much welcome and needed in the author's to-be-expected post-book crisis of confidence. The first photo is of Marc in the ILM shop from the early 80s. I believe he was working on a robot for the flick "The Explorers." The final photo was from January 2002, at a lawsuit victory party at the house of video game designer Will Wright. My wife took that photo, by the way. So, a span of 15 or so years. I'd agree with your assessment about stress (and sickness) though, as I think Marc would as well. As for the legal stuff, do you mean was it boring for me to research? Not at all - I saw the dispute between Thorpe and Plotnicki in metaphorical terms, an artist versus his investor. I was truly fascinated by all the devious legal strategies both deployed over the years as they tried to separate their lives. If you mean: was the law itself behind the dispute dull?... then i'd say yes - there were no novel legal issues at stake in the fight over Robot Wars. It was basically a question of whether Thorpe had broken his agreement with Plotnicki and was secretly supporting the Roski family, which was starting a competing business, BattleBots. As you say, lawyers and arguments were merely weapons in a battle between cultures (the gearheads versus the NYC music men) and people who didn't like each other. The ruling irony of the book - what made it appealing for me to write - was that the exotic brand of havoc in the ring was a mirror for a more common, and much more violent and destructive, brand of warfare behind the scenes... brad
David Nunez (davidnunez) Mon 28 Apr 03 08:21
So... since you mentioned Plotnicki... he definitely came across as the villain in this story. Unlike Thorpe, he definitely did NOT embrace the community and in fact effectively drove wedges between his production company and the builders. Could you please relate some of the ways the builders banded together to face these challenges? Also, I think it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on how businesspeople/investors should relate to, support, and partner with geek communities like the robot builders?
one man's astrolabe is another man's sextant (airman) Mon 28 Apr 03 12:23
Brad Howard Rheingold speaks of book publishing the equivalence of having a baby. So having the post-partum blues as your baby is delivered to the world is to be expected. Egos lived vicariously through machines and lawsuits! I noticed that most of the characters were guys with few exceptions. Is there a glass ceiling for gearheads? And what does the future hold? What does the commercialization hold for in the future? Where is the military going with this stuff? And how do you get an invite to one of the informal, illegal and outrageous events ?
Brad Stone (bradstone) Mon 28 Apr 03 13:48
David, at first, the gearheads in the book primarily banded together online to share info on the lawsuits and to coordinate underground events that could happen outside of Plotnicki's control over the Robot Wars property. Eventually, they used the online forums to coordinate an informal boycott against Robot Wars in the US, and to support its rival, Battlebots. They also shared info on when and how they could show up at court proceedings and testify on Marc Thorpe's behalf. On how investors should relate to, support, and partner with geek communities... Well, you have to start from a point of respect for those communities, and an understanding of what motivates their activities. If you start anywhere beyond viewing their work as free-labor for the amusement of others and the enrichment of yourself, you've improved on the behavior of the people I write about in the book. Brad
Brad Stone (bradstone) Mon 28 Apr 03 13:56
Airmen, the gearheads are mostly, but not all, guys. Women play a big role in SRL, and in many teams in the robotic combat and FIRST worlds. I'd guess the split is... 70-30? On the future, I'd point to DARPA's Grand Challenge, a race between autonomous robotic vehicles between L.A. and Vegas. www.darpa.mil/grandchallenge. The first event will be held next March. The army hopes that by plugging into the chaotic, de-centralized innovation of the vast community of gearheads might yield some solutions to the problems facing their unmanned ground vehicles program (which is lagging behind the aerial stuff.) That kind of event will make for great documentaries. As for real successful TV, no one has quite found the right formula yet. The sport might continue to grow quietly, around the world with small local events. Then again there are a handful of new robotic-combat themed shows being minted, so we'll see how those do. Brad
David Nunez (davidnunez) Mon 28 Apr 03 14:10
I'd like to build on all of airman's questions in (#14) one at a time.. they're all too big for a single response. Let's start with the "glass ceiling for gearheads." It seems every project described in the book has an element of "let's get the public interested in robotics." Dean Kamen's FIRST competition is of particular interest to me since it targets younger students at an impressionable age where career decisions are being made... Yet, flipping through the pictures and reading the stories, I see hardly any women (with notable exceptions of 13-year old daughters of ubergeeks) or people of color actively engaging in robot building... Why? My experience with FIRST teams at local high schools has been mixed. It's mostly boys building the bots, but there is a strong diversity in ethnic background. In the high school competitions, there is a portion of the contest involving presentation of the project; the teams must design a booth and promotional materials (websites, brochures, films, etc) about the design, build, and testing process behind the schools' bots. It seems to me that young women involve themselves more in that side of the event than the greasemonkey, bot building. Are robot builders inherently gruff, anti-social, and reveling in machismo? Surely, it takes enormous amounts of testosterone to decide that putting a sawblade or large spikes on wheels to destroy someone else's baby is a good idea? Can robotic competition enjoy a widespread market appeal in spite of non-diverse builders? What's stopping the women and ethnic minorities become more than consumers of this artform?
poking the ladyfingers in the notice board (abbess) Mon 28 Apr 03 15:32
The issue of women building robots for robot competitions seems to simply reflect the numbers of women in science and engineering in general. There's still some socializing going on that winds up with fewer girls playing with power tools as kids, fewer girls being told to pursue math and science, and so on. Plus my personal opinion is that girls often feel more social pressure to not be geeky early on than boys. I haven't read Gearheads, so I don't know a lot about what women do and don't show up in the robot contests he documents. But I can inject a bit of firsthand knowledge about the 2.70 and IDC competitions, having been part of both, and a bit about the 6.270 Lego robotics contests, too. None of these are destruction-oriented. 2.70 is part of a required undergrad mechanical engineering class, and so the numbers of women participants there is about the same as the number of women in the department - maybe 25-30% in the early 90's. The IDC was fed by students doing well in the 2.70 competition, so the numbers there would be expected to be similar, and on average I think they were. When I went to the IDC, MIT sent 8 students, and two of us were women. (as a sidenote, we were the only two women participants - no other countries had sent women, and the sponsoring organization, who provided the prizes, gave out mens watches to the first place team and tie tacks to the second place team! Fortunately, I had more use for a watch that was too big for my wrist, and we eked out a victory.) As far as I've observed, 6.270 has also had relatively large numbers of women participants, though the department of computer science still has fewer women students than the department of mechanical engineering. I guess as for more women in the FIRST competition, people like me are guilty of not having enough time to be role models. And the same goes for Junkyard Wars, which I have entertained thoughts of entering on occasion. My personal preference has always been for the more constructive competitions, where the goal is to have the robot do something besides destroy the other robots. You could always design for demolition of obstacles, instead of demolition of somebody else's work, if the spectacle of watching things break is desirable. Hence I'd choose Junkyard Wars over Battlebots. Plenty of competition just in stealing parts from the other team, without actually aiming for sabotage! I don't know if you want to make a sociological argument about this being a stereotypically female preference or not - I like watching things go boom, but if I'm going to take the time to build a robot, I want it to die doing something more productive.
one man's astrolabe is another man's sextant (airman) Mon 28 Apr 03 15:50
The other thing I noticed was the uberquest for champion du jour. Roski seems to epitomize the Viagra builder while Setrakian is not so much interested as winning but at least setting the bar higher than before demanding a response that requires a new generation. REading this book I wondered what would be next. One path opens up the arena to the world. Another path opens up the obsticle course aspect into a smart cage approach. Another road leads to tag team and group robots. Yet hidden in the last few pages are the unexpected consequences where even 1 inch of plexiglass won't stop the flying objects o art and science. One only wonders what the air quality is like in bot battle. Good work!
Brad Stone (bradstone) Tue 29 Apr 03 09:07
David, I'm going to stick to abbess's comments on the gender ceiling issue. I just don't know the answer to that one, but you are certainly correct that the sport could attract a more diverse base of participants. Airman, interesting point on the near-tragic accident in the very last televised BattleBots! I piece of metal from a robot was flung through the lexan roof and ended up on the lap of a woman in the crowd - who was holding a baby. Luckily no one was hurt, but the competition was cancelled soon after, and then so was the TV show. The lesson and pattern seem to be that when you unleash a competitive community of engineers and tinkerers on a particular problem, you get a roiling creative ecosystem whose solutions often - and quickly - overwhelm the expectations of the organizers. This happened over and over again with robotic combat. It will be interesting to see if something similar happens with Darpa's grand challenge, or the new breed of robot competitions springing up around the world. Brad
David Nunez (davidnunez) Tue 29 Apr 03 09:21
We missed a question from J Matisse Enzer (matisse) (#9) "And can you say something about how these artists supported themselves finacially throughout their careers, and what their future prospects for making a living through their art is? Good thing? Bad thing?" And to build on it, since several teams have access to sponsor funding, has this activity grown beyond the means of the tinkerer?
Brad Stone (bradstone) Wed 30 Apr 03 09:39
Various artists have different approaches to supporting their work. Mark Pauline told me he has a lucrative gig buying and re-selling surplus computers and other technology. I don't know too much about it, but it funds his SRL efforts. Others in the robot art community, like Christian Ristow in LA (www.christianristow.com), do special effects work. In the competitive robotics world, during the heyday of BattleBots' tv coverage, some of the top competitors did score sponsorship dollars and were able to quit their jobs. BattleBots was also paying a $1700 royalty check for every time a team's robot appeared on the show. And there were some royalties from toys and video games. But that is in a lull right now as the sport looks for other means of exposure. Let's put it this way: no one is getting rich. Brad
David Nunez (davidnunez) Wed 30 Apr 03 12:36
However, one person that DID get rich from his garage tinkerings is Dean Kamen, eccentric inventor, marketing genius, and founder of the FIRST competition that encourages students to explore engineering through non-aggressive robotic competition. I have to ask, particularly in light of the Ginger/IT/Segway media blitz and hype... what was it like interviewing the guy?
one man's astrolabe is another man's sextant (airman) Wed 30 Apr 03 14:59
Kamen was already rich though. His medical inventions alone will keep him going for a very long time. What was Kamen's motivation? Passion driven ego without any sign of mercy seemed to infect everyone else.
Brad Stone (bradstone) Wed 30 Apr 03 16:32
Oh, interviewing Kamen was rich. I interviewed Dean at the 2002 FIRST Silicon Valley regionals. He was perched on his Segway. I was galloping after him like an obsessed fan. After much badgering, he gave me an hour and we went in search of a quiet place away from the hubbub of the competition. We settled on a lounge-type room but curiously, during the conversation, women kept barging in on us. Later we realized that this was a women's bathroom of some sort. Anyway, I had a long list of question to ask Dean about FIRST and its successes and challenges. I asked him my first question about why he created the competition, and he talked nonstop for the whole hour. Now, I'm not the kind of interviewer to just sit there and nod. I tried repeatedly to hurry him up, to get him to condense his repetitive, looping anecdotes, anything so we could just move on! And he just paused at my interruption, nodded, and started again on the soliloquy. At one point, 45 minutes in, I begged him if we could move on, desperately pointing to my watch... but he was too busy spinning out the whole progression of his logic behind creating FIRST. He seemed to be enjoying reliving all the initial epiphanies that led to the competition. After the hour was up and I hadn't gotten very far, his marketing rep poked her head in and told Dean he was needed on the show floor. So, for the rest of the day I followed him around, peppering him with all my questions, as kids besieged him for autographs and photos. He's a total rock star at FIRST events, deservedly so. But this is no way to conduct and interview. Eventually I got what I needed on the founding of FIRST, Kamen's partnership with MIT professor Woodie Flowers, and their campaign against BattleBots and robotic combat... In fact the chapter on FIRST and Kamen in the book was really fun to write. Dean and Woodie are both great characters. Their motivation is purely philanthropic, inspiring a generation of Americans to get into science and technology. Its a wonderful cause. brad
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