Wednesday, February 10, 2016

On the Extreme Persistence of Memories

How far back can you actually remember something?

My recent mutterings about clarity of memories got me thinking on that question.  My premise was that stressful events helped lock in details of memories.

I do remember 22 November 1963, the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated.  The Principal came around to each of our classrooms at Lowell Elementary school.  He stood near the doorway to the room and told us.  There was an American flag above the door.  Every morning we pledged Allegiance to it.  Do grade school kids still do that?

But that was a couple of years after we moved to our new house.  I have a few memories of the previous house.  Since I started school at age 4 I can push memories back to age 3.

Maybe memories is over stating things.  I can recall scenes, something like little video clips.

Circa 1960 the Baby Boom was the dominant social theme.  Kids were everywhere.  Our neighborhood had the usual pack of small folk dashing about in the back yards of the block.  I remember one slightly chubby kid.  I recall that we had a never used brick barbecue in our yard.  It had a square ceramic chimney.  I have a mental image of this kid getting stuck in it.  Now, no kid would climb down a chimney head first, so my image of pudgy legs kicking in the air is no doubt artifice.  My dad came and helped him out.  In my memory my father was always wearing a white shirt.

Here is another moment in time.  I am up earlier that the rest of the family. I go padding down to the kitchen.  I open the refrigerator.  It is of course white and has the rounded corners of that design era. It has bright, stark white light inside and is humming contentedly to itself.  My height lets me see the bottom racks better than the top.  I grab a tub of cottage cheese.  I don't remember getting a spoon but I must have.  I dig in, take a healthy bite and...yuck.  The stuff had gone bad.  I associate this memory with the birth of my youngest brother.  Eisenhower era dads were somewhat hapless in matters domestic. Perhaps my mom was in the hospital or home and recuperating.  On the basis of this experience I did not eat cottage cheese for another two decades.

At the risk of some slight, if undeserved, embarrassment I think I can push the memory frontier back to age 2.

We lived in a duplex.  My parents owned it.  Upstairs lived a woman named Kay.  She was a nice lady who would give me candy.  I remember walking up to her door and knocking on it.  I had a little leather pouch that was just the thing for putting candy into.  Kay answered the door.  I recall, gosh blushing a bit here, that she patted my bottom to make sure I was dry.  I sincerely hope that I am remembering far back enough that I was in diapers.

I don't remember if I got any candy that trip.

Monday, February 8, 2016

On the Clarity of Memories

I wonder how much of what we experience in life is either not perceived at all, or is remembered only briefly.  Phone numbers, inter twined small town genealogies, what I had for breakfast. The kind of information that I either don't need to have available to me, or that can be quickly referenced by my smart phone or my smarter wife.

But sometimes there are moments of clarity; occasions when you see, hear and perceive more than usual.  Often they are times of stress.

Scenario One.

It is two generations ago.  I am in college and getting ready to take the MCAT, the standardized test that Medical School admissions folks look at with such great interest.  I have no memory of studying for it - nowadays I strongly suspect it is standard practice to do extensive prep.

But I do recall the early evening before the test.  I think it would be spring of my Junior year.  In any case it was a day with the pleasant warmth of Spring.  I walked over to the banks of the Mississippi river on the University of Minnesota campus.  There are steep limestone bluffs there and if you walk along a little path down below you are soon in an area where you can have solitude.

I had along a book of  Tolkien poetry and remember reading one of his early efforts that later mutated into the Hobbit, a piece called "The Hoard".  I had a black marker pen with me for some reason and I amused myself drawing little runes on flat bits of rock and setting them up in a row. Rather ritualistic now that I think of it. Down in a river valley you get an interesting juxtaposition of stimuli.  There is a steady hum of traffic and urban activity, but you can't see any of it.  It seems to be a combination of sound that travels over the surface of the water and vibration that comes up from underneath you. The limestone where I sat was dry, warm, lit by a sun that was just starting to dip down to a descent that would give me full illumination.  I was calm and relaxed.  Justifiably so as it turns out, I did very well the next day.  Not too long after that I was starting my First Year studies in a stark, modern building atop the same cliff.

Scenario Two.  A few months back.

It is generally true in medicine, and particularly so in Emergency Medicine, that problems are rarely the fault of one individual.  Multiple small mistakes cumulatively add up to a crisis.  The patient, the EMS crew, the triage nurse, they all have roles to play.  But in the end it is my job to put all together and deal with it, because ultimately it is my responsibility.  And make no mistake, doctors are fallible.  Did I spend too much time on that other patient because it was a charming, cute kid or an uncharming,demanding drug seeker?  Was my mind on something else when a crucial clue was briefly offered up to me, only to be replaced by a whole different set of information on another patient?

It works much the same in non medical crises too.  A situation you think is under control is not, and you are at the "purple and gasping" stage of things.

You have to dig in and deal with it.  Figuring out how things went awry has to wait.

I find myself again sitting on a rock.  I am having a very direct conversation with somebody whose job it was to manage a problem.  Said individual has gone on vacation and is not sure when a critical deadline is.  And expects that everything will work out somehow.  And has a dodgy cell phone connection.

This time is is not Spring but Fall.  The weather is as I sit is changing from still and humid into a cool, breezy day with storm clouds swirling like angry jellyfish overhead.  A nearby factory has a retro noon hour whistle and I hear it sound, sending rising octaves up into the charged atmosphere.

I'm in a little park and in front of me is somebody's failed project, a sort of "water garden" that was once supposed to high light native plants but is now just a muddy puddle with weeds.  Probably it got that way due to some combination of distraction, diversion of resources, maybe some kind of blight or fungus, hard to say. The plants look sad and ill.

This being Wisconsin there is a brief whiff of brewing beer that brushes past me.  Hops and malt doing their subtle, aromatic dance.

What I am hearing over the phone does not make me happy.  How long has the "patient" been slipping into distress?  What really is the underlying condition here?  How much time do we have before Full Code, an event from which so very few recover in a decent state?

I take a few deep breaths, the air around me having cooled considerably during the half hour chat. A few pleasantries are exchanged of course, but it is time for direct instructions, repeated several times. This must happen.  It must happen by this point in time.  I must be given confirmation that this has happened.  I must have this confirmation by this point in time.

It is not me at my best.  I am in default mode a mildly introverted guy whose take on the world around him is mostly whimsical.  But when I must do so I can throw a switch and go into Emergency mode.  I can be Direct.  I can ignore extraneous input when necessary.  I can be bossy.

If you live your entire life this way you will not have many friends.  But in the unusual circumstances of an impending Code Blue it is not only acceptable but necessary.  I have never had a patient that I have pulled back from the brink ever complain about it.  I consider such griping unlikely but in theory it could happen.  I simply regard is as far less probable than a patient I let die coming back to tell me what a kind and gentle bedside manner I had when they were blue and gasping.

I am musing on allegory this week.  Those few who know the back story will understand and should not feel a need to comment. The land of Allegory can be a difficult place but also a whimsical one.  I find myself, crisis now past, still sitting on a solid rock, and still smelling the faint hints of brewing beer, a Promise of better times ahead with my treasured friends and family.

Friday, February 5, 2016

FIRST Robotics Progress Report Four

Well we got a little off track.

There are so many fussy little things to consider in this business.  For instance, after we tore apart the proof of concept version of our robot and rebuilt in metal we noticed something odd.  Forward and reverse were backwards.  The software team offered to fix this on their side but after a bit of head scratching we figured out that when we cut the frame down and rebuilt it our 30 inch by 30 inch drive base simply had the front and back panels put on in reverse.  Simple fix, just switch the red and black wires going into the drive motors.

We also lost a day to.....snow.  Yes as a school related activity when school is cancelled we don't meet.  As a consolation the blizzard was pretty wide spread so one assumes most teams we are competing against (and in FIRST fashion cooperating with) also had to stand down for the day.

But work goes on.

Problem.  Drilling aluminum makes nasty little shavings.  You must have your electronics elsewhere when you are creating this sort of debris as it will make expensive things like speed controllers go up in smoke.

Solution.  Turn the robot over.  Kick it a few times.  Run the dust buster.  Wipe the inside clean with paper towels.

In our new Dark Age so few kids know how to use even simple tools  I enjoy turning them loose with a new one.  "Have you ever operated an angle grinder before?"

We have not actually used our shop capabilities fully yet, but have started to fabricate a few parts with our CNC mill.  This fairly simple hub needed to be made because I did not get around to ordering the pre made version.  So, lets make us some...

I mentioned our electronics.  They are competition ready and mounted on a board that is easy to drop on and off the robot thanks to some easy quick connectors going to the battery and motors.

So overall things are going well.  Except, well except for the bumpers.

For safety reasons all robots are required to have bumpers of specified size and construction. Because you have to be able to change "team colors" quickly you need to have one set in red and one in blue. There is no creativity in their design or construction.  It is a tedious task to build them.  And sometimes bored workers do less than perfect work.

We have had no end of problems with these darned things.  In part it was because we built them before we had a clear idea of the exact size of the robot.  Kind of like buying clothes before your child is born I guess.  They were sloppy work and our attempts to fit them with what looked like a clever mounting system....just fell apart.

I think tomorrow the old bumpers go into the dumpster. I shall laugh gleefully while tossing them.  If the kids are supposed to learn things perhaps one thing to learn is that on occasion a project can get so messed up that the best thing to do is scrap and start over.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016


It's good to learn a new word from time to time.  And recently one of my archaeology pals gave me a swell one:  Saggar.

This is what one looks like:

Basically a saggar is a simple ceramic vessel in which other ceramics are fired in the kiln.  They turn up pretty often in UK archaeological sites.  But while the concept is quite old, the name seems to be more recent.  The saggar protects the pottery from the damaging effects of uneven heat.  The word is said to be a contraction of "safeguard".

An alternate form of the word is "sagger".  Wikipedia lists two other definitions of this word as being a Soviet era anti-tank missile, and.....a person who wears his baggy pants down low...

Oy.  A belt, my style oblivious friend, would be a prudent safeguard for you.

Monday, February 1, 2016

In search of Medium Foot

It is really quite cold in Wisconsin in January.  So when we were out for a walk recently we were surprised to see this:

We followed the tracks for a couple of blocks before we lost them.  Quite a few of the foot prints had that odd drag mark in back of the heel.  What was a barefoot shuffling person doing out on such a frosty day?  Or was this track made by something like this?

I guess this was a fashion fad that I had missed.  Just as well, I think these are creepy.

Friday, January 29, 2016

FIRST Robotics - Progress Report Three

Going from wood to metal.

We had our FIRST robot in reasonably complete form by the time of an open house for our hosts Machine Tool Camp.  It hopped over obstacles and fired a ball more or less on target.  But after a while the pounding it took started to be too much and efficiency declined.  You can only ask so much from wood, plastic pipe and duct tape.

So the team tore it down.  It was remarkable how fast this process went.  Almost two weeks to build it up.  20 minutes to reduce it to parts.  An observer noted that it was like watching hyenas going after a carcass!

Time to redo in metal.  Fire up the plasma cutter!

As our remade robot started to increasingly resemble a tank we got to wondering just how much of an issue we would have with radio (wifi actually) reception under all that metal.  I asked several mavens and got various answers.  So I told the software team to try running the controls with the electronics inside a metal pipe.  Some useful data was obtained.

I have always liked to have a bit of wood in my robots.  Old School I guess.  And I think it also buffers vibrations to some extent.  I told the kids to paint it whatever color they liked.  A nausea inducing yellow?  Well, OK.  Here several sets of hands are crowding in to ratchet down bolts on the back frame element of the robot.

We found that the standard "kit" that rookie teams get from FIRST, while great in other ways, is not so hot regards frame building.  It took way too much time to fashion the back part of the frame.  After a team discussion we opted to go a different direction for the rest of it.  We had already decided on using EMT conduit for the sweep arm.  Heck, lets just get a heavier gauge version of it and complete both sides of the frame with one pipe bend each.  We obviously have some trimming and support elements to add on the front half of the robot, but you can see the basic shape of things and I personally think it is rather elegant.

Note the ball set in what will be the launching pad for same, also the new and better protected crawler motor mount.

FIRST updates have been weekly but if we stay on track it might be possible to have more worth showing after our long Saturday session.  

At the end of the work day we load up our cart and roll our tool cart into what must be the finest storage area any FIRST team on earth can claim.....our own walk in safe!  The building we work in used to be a shoe factory and presumably this is where the payroll was kept.  

The actual robot is getting too big to easily move in and out, so it rides up to the second floor in a freight elevator.  What? You mean all high school robotics teams don't have their own freight elevator?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


Sometimes words just won't behave themselves.  I think I have something clever figured out about the origins of a particular word or phrase, then darn it all I have to go and find out that I was wrong.

Consider the words villain and vilify.  Now it would make sense for vilification to be the process by which you define somebody as a villain.  And being clever I had a whole rant worked out tracing the word back to villa, the Roman word for a small town or in certain senses for a country estate.

It is reasonable to assume that the owners of villas in the Roman era considered their laborers to be uncouth bumpkins.  And that was the meaning that carried through from Middle Latin villanus for farmhand, into Old French as vilain and across the channel to England where it reclaimed the extra l and became villain.

The sense of a villain being crooked or nefarious is a fairly modern development.  I assume that as we became a more urban culture it got easier to assign negative attributes to rural peasants.  Its not as if quality people really had to interact with them any more.....

But to vilify, that seems to be a different thing than saying nasty stuff about villains.  The meaning seems to fit, to vilify being to "lower in worth or value".  The sense of slandering and speaking evil of came along in the late 1500s.  But the root word here is not villa but vilis. a late Latin word meaning cheap or base.  The same word of course also giving us vile.

Or so various etymological sources I referenced claim.  But sometimes with spellings and meanings mutating back and forth I have to wonder if the scholars really know everything.

Chedworth Roman villa in the Cotwolds.  I hope to visit in the spring.