Friday, March 27, 2015

After School Special 2015

Back in the 1970s one of the Big Three Television Networks - ok it was ABC but close enough - started a program called "After School Specials".  It was aimed at school children who were just getting in the door and gluing their eyeballs to the glowing screen. It tried to help them deal with life's difficult issues.  Divorce, depression, self esteem, etc.  The Specials were earnest, heartfelt and damn near unwatchable even to that less than critical audience.

They lend themselves so readily to parody that a recent domestic problem brought back the late 70s vibe in a disturbing, vivid flash....


"What's wrong Billy?"

"Uncle Dave, Mom has been acting kinda different lately.  In the mornings she is really crabby for no reason.  And later in the day she's falling asleep all the time.  What's wrong with her?"

"Billy....I'm afraid that your Mommy has lost somebody very dear to her."

"Gee, do you mean Mr. Nichols who lives down the hall?  I don't like him very much, he's over here all the time, and he smells like black licorice, and he's always telling jokes that Mommy says aren't very funny."

"No Billy, we're still stuck with that worthless loaf.  I'm afraid your Mommy has lost someone much more important to her.  Someone almost as important to her as you are."

"I don't understand Uncle Dave."

"Billy, I'm sorry.  Last week Mr. Coffee died."

"........oh.......but Mommy loved Mr. Coffee."

"I know she did Billy.  And sometimes when grown ups have to get along without something very important to them, like really strong coffee, they get unhappy.  Just like kids do."

"But Uncle Dave, can't she find another coffee maker?"

"Billy, your Mommy should be proud of how smart and how strong you are.  Of course she will find another coffee maker.  And if it is not quite the same as Mr. Coffee, it it is not quite as good a helper for her in the morning, well, sometimes even Mommies have to be strong.  I know it will all turn out OK if you are understanding and don't make loud noises too early in the day."

"Uncle Dave?"

"Yes, Billy?"

"The other day when Mommy was really sleepy, I showed her my Report Card, the one one that had a couple of C minus grades on it.  She didn't even seem to notice.  I liked that.  Is that wrong of me?"

"No Billy.  But be careful, that trick won't work once she gets a new coffee maker."

"Uncle Dave, what am I going to do next quarter when the Report Cards come out?"

"Billy, let me tell you about Mommy's other friend.....Chardonnay"

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Short cuts to learning Italian - An Orderly Garden

Planning a trip to Rome involves a close look at the map.  When people of different, albeit overlapping, interests journey together this becomes important.

So, while I spend my time taking in a variety of ancient sites I try to locate nearby things that my wife might enjoy.  Gardens for interest.  There is a huge rose garden overlooking the site of the "Circo Massimo", and on the way to Castle San Angelo we go right past the "Orto Botanico".

This sent me down another side trip into the world of etymology, this time looking at how Latin, Italian and English intertwine.

Orto is "garden" in Italian.  It immediately made me think of this:

Ortho Weed B Gon.  It is some kind of hideous poison that promises to make your green growing stuff look great.  They actually make a wide variety of garden products under the "B Gon" banner. My personal faves are Ortho Mole B Gon and - honest to God - Ortho Snake B Gon.  Eve could have used a can of that stuff.

So, does the company name Ortho relate to the Italian word Orto?

Alas, probably not.  Ortho comes from Greek, not Latin.  It means "straight, true, correct".  Hence orthodontia meaning straight teeth.

Orto on the other hand comes from the Latin "hortus" for garden.  That root also gives rise to horticulture.

So an appealing theory on interconnection of words appears to be simply a matter of coincidental sounds.  Even though a garden free of weeds, moles and snakes would be a more orderly place.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Domus Alumina ?

In conversation the other day it came up that a neighbor's house was in the "Queen Anne" style of construction.  The opinion was offered that like as not Queen Anne would turn over in her grave knowing that the place had been covered in aluminum siding.  "Not so", I insisted.  "Aluminum was once a substance so rare and valuable that an abode covered in it would be an extremely impressive place.

In fact it would go beyond Regal and out into the rarefied category of an over the top, ridiculous and ostentatious display of wealth.

I would put such an edifice almost up there with the Domus Aurea, the Golden House built by the mad Emperor Nero as an expression of his megalomania.  Nobody is even sure how big the damned thing was, it is now largely buried under later buildings.  Some say 100 acres, others say 300.  The private lake for the estate was so big that it was later drained as the site for the Colosseum, which actually got its name when a colossal statue of Nero was moved there from the Domus Aurea, being towed by a team of 24 elephants.

But I digress.  The Domus Aurea was so named because it was covered with gold leaf.  Pricey stuff to use as as a large scale decorative accent but no doubt very impressive in the sun light.  Without knowing how thick the leaf was or how big the Domus was, or how much other stuff (ivory, mosaics, semi-precious stones) was used you can't put a price on it.  But as to a house covered in aluminum....

First off, Queen Anne could not even imagine such a thing.  She died about a century before aluminum was purified into a usable form.*  Of course it was known as a salt, alum, still handy for making pickles and such.

So lets pretend that my neighbor instead had a Victorian style home and figure out the worth of a "Domus Alumina" in the late 19th century.

There is a story that claims Napolean III of France gave a dinner party in the 1860s.  The most important guests got aluminium cutlery.  The B-Listers had to get along with gold.

The most precise measure of aluminum's worth in the Victorian era comes from a lofty, if less aristocratic source.  When the Washington Monument was completed in Washington DC in 1884 they made a special capstone for the great obelisk.  It weighed 100 ounces (2.8 kg) and was the largest piece of cast aluminium then in existence.  At the time one ounce of aluminium cost the equivalent of one day's wages for a worker on the project.  If one extrapolates the cost of the same worker's salary today it means that aluminium was then worth, in current value, about $300 an ounce.

Pigeon spikes?
My neighbor's house is a good sized place.  Using some quick math from home building sites I would say it would require 3,000 square feet of siding.  It takes about 1/3 pound of siding per square foot and at 16 ounces per pound and at our 1884 price.....

It worked out to $5,280,000 worth of aluminum!

Of course in the early 1900's newer refining processes made the price plummet, but still a time traveler would be impressed by the Domus Alumia.  Why, they even have a container out on the curb filled with empty aluminum cans.  And they are throwing them away!

Behold the Neronean Splendor of the Domus Alumina !
* To be fair there are some fascinating tales of Roman or even Chinese discovery of aluminum.  Per Dr Beachcoming these can end badly for the far sighted inventor!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Building a Beer Cave

 When you study beer caves you soon learn to detect various "types", various methods of construction.

The ideal set up of course would be a cliff with a natural cavern that you can simply expand and move into.  Next best would be an area of what is called "St. Peter sandstone", a type of stone that can be easily worked but which becomes quite solid once exposed to air for a while.

But what to do if you are starting a brewery where there is no handy cliff face?  My special fascination is with the smaller breweries, the "also rans" that sprang up in little towns across the Midwest.  Deep in a text regarding the history of one of them I found a discussion of how to build a beer cave, or cellar if you prefer, in uncongenial settings.

 Making Brew Cellars
 ...The earth in the selected location was usually excavated down several feet to where the dome of the cellar would start.
...Then the earth would be dug/scraped away in the form of a dome,over which carefully shaped limestone blocks would be fitted together, using the earthen dome as a form.
...At the top of the dome carefully fitted keystone blocks were put in place to form a self supporting structure.  
...Earth was then packed tightly on top of the limestone dome to the desired depth. 
...The earthen ‘form’ inside the limestone dome was then removed.
...End walls and doors were built.
...Limestone mortar was sometimes utilized but in general the limestone blocks of the cellars dome were shaped so accurately that they were self supporting and mortar not needed or used.
...Not only brew cellars were made in this fashion but merchant and home cold storage cellars were constructed by some settlers, as were bridges and culverts

This perfectly describes a number of "caves" I have seen in my wanderings.  Here are some examples:

Sometimes bricks, sometimes limestone blocks.  Sometimes it was the entire structure, other times just the entryway.  These "beer cellars" were not always the ideal solution for a small brewer, but did serve as the best available option in many places.  I suspect that most of them did not provide ideal temperature control even when stocked with ice from local lakes.

Since these were clearly less durable than solid rock caves they are harder to find and are easily destroyed by later building.  I think that in cases where a brewery existed and no traces at all of a cave are to be found, that this sort of thing is what was once present.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Arcadia Wisconsin

Arcadia Wisconsin is one of those out of the way little spots that manages to somehow attract a fair bit of industry.  It is home to Ashley Furniture, a rather large outfit.  And it also has a big "Gold n' Plump" chicken processing plant.  This sits on the site of a brewery that operated from the 1872 to 1949.  In 1910 it was a modest enterprise, a single building under three stories tall.  And only three employees.

The site has been extensively altered with a large area of limestone hillside sculpted out to make room for the factory site.  Take a look at the Google Earth view of the place:

                                                  Gold n' Plump

And in the parking lot right next to where trucks make deliveries I found what I think is the remnant of a cave from the Arcadia Brewery;

It has absolutely nothing to do with brewery caves but the Gold'n Plump company deserves kudos for some really fun ads a few years back.  Military Chickens!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Frozen in Time.

Today an in depth photo survey of a marvelous 19th century brewery.  Alas, I shall have to invoke the infrequently required "ambiguity rule" regards its location.  My rationale for this is at the bottom of the post.

The basics are a familiar tale.  A brewery was established on this site in 1860.  It burned in the late 1860s and was re-established in 1871.  It lasted almost up until Prohibition but apparently in a declining state for its later years.  When it went out of business the brewery must have just been abandoned.  To my eye it shows scant evidence of later use and indeed it is in a rather rural location where few commercial alternative uses suggest themselves.

It makes a very interesting time capsule....

A photo I have seen circa 1900 shows the brewery as three connected buildings. Here you can see the surviving walls from all of them.  The central building was a three story, mostly brick structure that extended back onto the bluff to the left of us.

Of course by now your keen eyes quiclkly spotted the cave entrance which we shall return to presently.

Here the central brick and stone main building adjoins a rather shoddy looking structure to its north. I think this was the coopers shop, where they make barrels for the brewery.

Notice how much of the cave entrance is silted in.  The metal fence probably had been placed over the entrance at one point to slightly deter visitors.  This cave extends back from the southernmost of the three brewery buildings.

It appears to line up with a doorway in the front of the building.  Oddly the photo puts a smaller door and a window here.  I think the doorway was later enlarged.  On into the cave...

This is a fairly big structure.  I wonder if the reported capacity of the brewery in its prime, 1500 barrels a year, might be an underestimate.  There are some interesting features to this cave.  It did not seem, well, rock solid, so exploring all the way to the back seemed imprudent.  But the dark rectangle on the light patch at the far end is probably a doorway into another silted in chamber.  And off to each side about half way back there was this sort of thing:

Certainly side passages.  Probably for beer and more than half silted in.  In theory they could also be smaller chambers for ice.  This is a clear archway so it is not simply a cave in.  But the most interesting feature of the cave was up above....

Here a passage allows beer kegs to be lowered down from above.  Some sort of elevator system must have been used, perhaps that slab of 140 year old wood was part of it.  There is even a rusty metal fitting on the board.  A section of roof has fallen in on the other side.  The upper end of the shaft connects to the back part of the central brewery building...

Oh yes, there were a few signs here and there.

The brewery also had some outbuildings.  What do you make of this one?

I think this was the malt house.  You can't brew with plain old barley.  It has to first be "malted" heated slowly over many hours to activate enzymes and make the sugars available for fermentation. The area on the left looks to have niches for furnaces.  The area on the right, behind the rusty grate, was probably grain storage.  It certainly is newer than the cave and brewery structures..

Notice again just how much dirt and debris fills in underground spaces over time.  Being on a hillside accelerates this process.  Down the hill a bit farther, next to a pleasant little creek, we find one last building.

Beer does not deliver itself!  So most breweries had wagons and teams of horses.  This looks like a barn to me.  I understand that this brewery did try bottling for a while but this appears to be a larger structure than would be needed for that.

So there you have it.  The preserved remains of a brewery from circa 1870 (likely parts of it used the framework of the earlier, 1860 brewery).  The only thing missing would be the brew master's house which I expect was somewhere on the hill up above.

So why a "no locations" post?  Well I do not want people to get into trouble.  Not legal trouble, sure, but even more emphatically, not into physical danger.  This site was easily accessible but there were unambiguous No Trespassing signs all about.  If you were asked to explain your business there it would be difficult to claim ignorance.  And something about the tunnels bothered me.  This is clearly a rather large cave system with much of it filled in over time.  If somebody got the bright idea to excavate it I think cave ins would be a distinct possibility.  So just take this as a brief time travelling experience, back to a brewery locked up around the time of  Prohibition and slumbering on for almost a century in a quiet patch of woods.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Short cuts to Learning Italian - A little help from The Godfather

You should exercise a bit of caution on sources when setting out to learn something new.  It would not do for instance to use gangster movies as your sole source for Italian language and culture. But it is also fair to say that information you collect from multiple places tends to reinforce itself, so a few snippets of Italian that I recall from the book and movie The Godfather seem fair game.  Sure, Mario Puzo made a lot of stuff up, but I assume that being raised in a family of immigrants the man could speak Italian.

A few words and their possible utility.

Capo.  In the book it was a title given to a lieutenant in the crime family.  It means head and comes from the Latin caput.  In Rome we will be staying a few hundred yards from the Pons Fabricus, known locally as the Ponte quatto capi.  The bridge of the four heads is so called for the ancient depictions of Janus who ups his game a bit, not looking just forward and back but to either side as well.

At one point in the movie the term sfortunato is used.  It means "an unlucky guy".  I actually have learned the word sfortuna, which means "bad luck".  My better half was once accosted by a pesky street hustler in Paris with a "found" gold ring.   They always want to give it to you and expect a donation for their generosity.  I plan on widening my eyes, pointing a slightly shaking finger at the cheap trinket and saying "Sfortuna. Male, molto male!"

If in doubt about what to order in a Ristorante one can always just say "cosa consiglia?".  This means "what is your advice?".  It combines the cosa from Cosa Nostra with the fictional title of Advisor, or Consigliere held by Tom Hagen in the Corleone Family.

The're absolutely sure on that?
And finally the peculiar phrase "pezzonovante" turns up twice in The Godfather.  It is used  to indicate a "big shot" of some sort.  Literally it translates to "a 90 piece" and indicates a gun of very large calibre.  Calling a weapon a "piece" sure sounds like cheesy Hollywood gangster talk but in fact is a very old construction.  Long ago a shotgun would have been called a fowling piece, and we still to some extent use the phrase "artillery piece".  For me it is less helpful to know how to say the word for ninety - I am not planning on buying anything that pricey when over there - but the other half of the phrase could come in handy.  "Una pezzo pizza, per favore."