Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Point Five Club

For me working the ER is not actually a new experience, it is more returning to my roots.  Back in Med School days we all did ER rotations, and I seem to recall doing a few extra and enjoying them quite a bit.  If you want to see some action, go to where the action is.

In one urban ER I rotated through there was a special room set aside for the dangerously intoxicated.  Not the kind that were drunk and mean, the kind who had consumed so much alcohol that they might stop breathing.  They had a special room with the then novel innovation of a video camera keeping them under continuous observation.

The was called the Point Five Club.  Let me explain.  In theory if your blood alcohol is 0.5% you will die.  If you are a binge drinking college spring breaker this is very true.  I in fact have seen comatose teens down around 0.4%.  But for the "experienced" drinker, which is much of the regular ER clientele, 0.5% might not be a problem.

Still, a potentially fatal alcohol level earned the patient a special berth, and for reasons unknown it was felt that the resident or medical student who took care of the patient deserved a bit of recognition as well.

So outside the observation room there was a clip board.  If you found a patient with a blood alcohol of 0.5% or more he (never saw a she..) would be put into the observation bay until sobriety put the hammer down in a few hours.

And....you got to enter onto the clip board your name, the patient's name, and a few clinical observations.

My favorite was: "Alcohol level 0.52%.  Singing Home, Home on the Range.  Knows all four verses."

Ah, long ago times.  Back when intoxication was still a little humorous and medical confidentiality rules were much laxer. 

This was thirty some years ago, so I am quite sure that none of the Point Fivers I cared for are still living.

And for future reference any "war stories" I tell will also be of non-recent events, and will have sufficient details blurred or altered that nobody would identify themselves or others.

Please have a happy but safe New Years Eve.  I don't want to see you professionally.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Post Holiday Stroll

It has been unseasonably warm in these parts, ideal weather for walking off some Holiday calories.  A few recent sightings:
Here we have the two great secular interlopers to Christmas slumped in post holiday torpor.


Difficult to even say what this started out to be.  Having seen quite a few of these sad deflated entities around town I can only conclude that they run off of little blower fans that are hooked into the same circuit as the strings of Christmas lights.  Odd that the Midwestern aesthetics that objects to lights on in the daylight hours has no problem overlooking something that resembles the Wicked Witch of the West, post dousing with water.


Investigators from the NTSB have reached the crash site and have recovered the black box, incongruously wrapped in gaudy paper and with a ribbon and bow around it.


These are not quite the "Zombie Pumpkins" I ran across the other day, but are still an interesting bit of cultural evidence.  Something like 75% of Americans enter and exit their houses from the garage, so rotting vegetables on the front steps really don't get noticed much.  I am a bit surprised that local critters have not nibbled on these, we have no shortage of squirrels, raccoons and so forth.  I even had a bear wander down our street a few years back.


He's holding a candy cane so I suppose this relates to Christmas somehow.  Almost by default, as there are to my knowledge no holidays in which monkeys play any significant role.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Animal tracks preserved for the future

Cat tracks in a sidewalk near my house. 
Dog track from a roman tile recovered from the Whitehall villa north of London.

Some things never change.

And I guess it is a fairly common phenomena.

Here is another example from Vindolanda, 1st Century AD.  Darn, I never find the cool stuff.
Photo credit: Will Higgs

Sunday, December 25, 2011

We are slightly amused.

(Note: This is a special "Boxing Day" present for Dr. Beachcombing.  His site can be linked from here, and is a daily parade of strange and quirky history.)

Earlier this year I posted  here on the aggravation of, well, computer cooties.  I was careful to only describe the problem, not to mention anything specific.  I am still of the opinion that sinister foreign based search engines seek out words and phrases and latch their little cyber mandibles onto them.

And it appears there is some truth to this, although it is not always a particularly malignant situation.

Bloggers are naturally curious as to where their audience comes from.  So it was interesting when both spouse and I noted recently that our respective blogs were starting to see visitors from an odd internet suffix.  This is, or can be, an identifier of origin.  We are all familiar with the "dot com" suffix, but there are also country codes such as "dot au" for Australia, "dot ca" for Canada.  I am not typing the exact format here, because I was quite leery of the "dot tk" traffic I had been seeing.  Where was it from and what did it mean?

As to the where-here.
This is Tokelau.  It is described as a "Non Self-Governing Territory".  Basically that means it is three specks of coral atoll with a supposed population of 1400 if everyone happens to be home.  It is, when anybody notices, under the general supervision of New Zealand.

The history of the place is odd.  You get the sense that there are centuries of monotony, just waves crashing on the beaches, then the outside world stumbles in and does something weird.

The Royal Navy visited a few times in the 1700s, either by accident or in 1791 when in search of the Bounty mutineers.  There seemed to be no permanent inhabitants, and the few natives present gave the Westerners a prudently wide berth.

The U.S. Navy ship Dolphin paid a call in 1825.  Apparently on this basis the United States would later claim the island under Guano Islands Act of 1856.

Yes, there was such a thing.  Bird droppings were a strategic resource back then, extremely valuable for the manufacture of fertilizer and high explosives!  The Guano Act reads in part:

"Whenever any citizen of the United States discovers a deposit of guano on any island, rock, or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other Government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other Government, and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same, such island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States."

I am pleased beyond expression to report that the Guano Act is still on the books, and was invoked in a recent attempt by a colorful entrepreneur to obtain a Caribbean island for free! But Your Honor...it has guano on it!

But back to Tokelau.  In 1863 pretty much the entire male population was carried off by a class of villains I had never before suspected- "Peruvian slave traders".  Polynesian immigration and various European and American "beachcombers" made good the problematic shortage of Y chromosomes.  I am assuming that the term beachcombers is a euphemism for shiftless, libidinous beach bums, as you can see from the photo that there is not enough island to fully occupy even one beachcomber.

Britain claimed the islands in the 1870s.  America did not seem to notice.

There really just isn't much there.  No port, no airstrip, no arable land.  There must not have even been much guano.  It currently has the smallest economy of any "nation" on earth.  Its annual revenues from sales of stamps and copra are about that of an average American convenience store, the balance of public expenditures being made up of financial support from New Zealand.

So they were very receptive when a Dutch fellow with the marvelous name of Joost Zuurbier came along and offered to buy the domain name straight out, giving the micro nation a cut of the advertising revenue from such sites.

Not surprisingly the "dot tk" sites became very popular with folks who wanted to keep their real location secret.  It is not unlike the practice of flagging cargo ships under Liberian registry, few questions are asked and the regulatory environment is "flexible".  A few years back it was estimated that "dot tk" sites accounted for ten percent of the "questionable" sites on the internet.

Now it is a bit less toxic.  I still suggest you steer clear, but as an experiment I set all three of my protective programs to maximum shielding and actually took a look at a couple of the tk sites.  They appear to be the usual counterfeit designer handbags and software packages that you should under no circumstances down load.  Caveat Mus (Let your mouse be wary).

I think I could block this suffix from my site. I probably ought to really.  But I guess I feel a bit, well, wistful.  Its cold and snowy  outside and that beach looks so inviting.  And do I feel badly for the local lasses, what with all the menfolk being hauled off by those darned Peruvian slave traders. Ah, to have been a "beachcomber" back in the day...

And heck, I suppose there is even a minuscule chance that somebody from Tokelau is actually a devoted reader!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Galaxy Quest is really a Best Case Scenario

We are nearly upon the night when the Magi followed the Star, so matters astronomical have been on my mind.

The Kepler space probe continues to amaze me.  Recently it "found" the first potentially earth-like planet.  Dubbed Keppler 22b it is only twice earth size and well within the habitable "Goldilocks" zone where water exists in a liquid form.  Note that Wisconsin in the winter only marginally qualifies.

All pretty exciting stuff, but sobering in a way.

I vacillate between thinking I was born too late (missing the Age of Sail) or too early (I would so enlist in Star Fleet!).  All I can do is look at the various star maps and dream of visiting exotic new worlds.  Take for instance the star Mu Arae.  It is a G5 star only 50 light years away.  It is known to have four planets.  And as we speak the theoretical inhabitants of the Mu Arae system are tuning up their equivalent of SETI and receiving this transmission:


May you steer by true stars in the year ahead.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Zombie Pumpkins

Photographed on December 22nd!
If you could get this look for Halloween you would really have something.  By Christmas it is at best commendable composting.

Our mechanical son was fascinated by the fragments of teenager abused pumpkins after Halloween.  We tossed the punk busted punks into the compost bin out back.  He would later grab our neighbor lady by the hand, walk her over to the nearest window, point out back and say "Goken!"

This was his first real word, and a foreshadowing of many later adventures involving battlebots, home made cannon, an extensive basement workshop, and more.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Mysteries of France-"Oi"

My translator program suggests this means something like "rat pack oi".  Or if you change the spacing a bit it becomes "riot yourself".  I wonder which it is?
The asylum where Van Gogh was treated was big into hydrotherapy.  Which seems to mean putting you in a small tub you could not get out of, then pouring hot and cold water on you.  Van Gogh remained crazy.  But could this treatment room have inspired that annoying pharmaceutical commercial?

Why would a Chinese man be telling French people to disobey?  And doing so in English? 

Provence is very popular with English speaking folks, Brits in particular.  So I guess English makes sense here.  But the message seems rather mixed.  Or is this a reference to the existential Camus novel?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Touring the Traboules

Visiting the traboules of Lyon is a little like a treasure hunt.  You can start with a map such as this that will show you the basic layout.  But there are something like 400 traboules in Lyon and they are not all on the maps.  Some are easy to find and to access, others not so much.  We confined our search to the old section of Lyon, the area around St. Jean cathedral.

You start with promising looking doors:
I am reminded of the quote from "Young Frankenstein" which involved a similar door:

Dr. Frankenstein:  "What knockers!"
Inga:  "Oh, thank you doctor."

The time to visit is morning.  The understanding between the city and the property owners encourages access, but you will have less luck in the afternoon and almost none in the evening.

Some doors will be wide open, just stroll on it.

A sealed over well in a secret courtyard

In other instances the door will be locked, but there will be a keypad and a button.  Push the button, the door sometimes unlocks for you.  And sometimes not.  In certain cases you can be pretty sure the inhabitants have an "open door policy"
Then there are people who do not want you bothering them.

Sometimes we would simply attach ourselves the tail end of a tour group, some of whose guides had entry codes to otherwise inaccessible traboules.  Once we just smiled and sidled in with the mail man!

The appeal of traboules is a little difficult to explain.  I think a person from a big city might look at them and just see dimly lit passages and hallways, only noting that in a lot of places they have remained undeveloped, with peeling paint and dingy colors.

But this shows a poverty of imagination.  If you can't appreciate the serene calm in the middle of a major city; if you can't enjoy five hundred years of architectural quirks; if you can't imagine the ghosts of Resistance Fighters and petty thieves and of young French lovers on their way to forbidden assignments...

Then you might as well stay home and watch the antics of the Kardashian sisters.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Traboules of Lyon

Traboule is a word I had never encountered until we started planning a trip to Lyon.  It is a contraction of the Latin transambulare-to walk across- and is used to describe small passageways that run between and within buildings. 

Apparently when medieval Lyon was reorganizing in the post Roman era, the streets paralleled the two rivers.  Access to water was difficult, so the traboules were created.  These were needed for both commercial purposes and in some instances to fetch drinking water.

The heart of Lyon is medieval, and while it is claimed that some of the oldest traboules go back to late Roman times I saw no evidence of structures that old.  Perhaps they follow the same route.

We made a point of seeking out and exploring traboules, they have a fun, slightly spooky vibe to them.  Here are a few pictures.  Tips on visiting, including the etiquette so far as we could figure it out, next time.
A typical traboule

staircases winding upward

The local limestone is full of fossils

They are generally found behind whopping great doors like this.

A shadowy woman of mystery in the traboules of Lyon

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Machines behaving Badly

Robots are starting to take shape.

A basic bulldozer type pusher.  Just needs some side armor.

This is a lot of middle schoolers with power tools.  12 kids each doing something potentially problematic!  But they are good about safety glasses, and do seem to heed one of my frequent exhortations:  "Hey, no humans fighting.  Only robots."

No, loosely wrapped duct tape is not an effective way to hold your robot together. Since re-done in more sturdy fashion.

A more ambitious design.  When completed the Barby Jeep gearbox will spin that rusty bicycle chain at about 800 rpm.  In theory.  In practice the complicated robots are often finished at the last minute, and their drivers get little opportunity to practice driving them.

Hmmmm.  This is an odd contraption.  I am suggesting he relocate the wheels towards the center of mass.  Otherwise it will be essentially an immobile Victimbot.

Somebody shot video of the our 2008 tournament, which we refer to as Machines Behaving Badly.  Here are a few spliced together minutes of the action.  Seeing this after a few years I can promise that the mayhem in 2012 will be up a couple of notches, as both the arena hazards and the robotic weapons have escalated, as technology so often will in times of conflict......

 machines behaving badly 2008


Note:  In the first clip there is a rather complicated looking machine with a 360 degree spinning blade.  The body of the robot was made entirely out of popsicle sticks!  I assured the kid that it would explode on first serious impact.  He and I were equally pleased to have me proven wrong.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Mutant Rabbit Cafe

This is the sign outside a rather bohemian art gallery/studio/cafe in Minneapolis.
The sign at first glance says "J  Lace Like This".

But if you look closely enough you can see some "ghost letters", and also that the J is actually a broken N.

So the message originally was "no place like this".

True enough, gigantic horned rabbits looming over a bleak lunar landscape.

My opinion is that one of the artists with gallery space in the building cooked this up.  Maybe he or she had run up a tab at the cafe.

It is a truncated version of a saying you saw on signs in small town cafes.  The full version should read:

      "There is no place like this place, anywhere near this place, so this must be the place".

Oh, and the mutant rabbits?  If you are from the Midwest or Great Plains states you should certainly identify them right away as Jackalopes

Here is a more conventional version that has been hanging around our house for a while...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Doctor's Waiting Room-Ancient Egypt

Physicians make lousy patients.  So we try to avoid the medical and dental systems whenever possible.  It's really just best for all concerned.  But every once in a while exceptions must be made, and I have actually had to spend a little time in the dreaded Waiting Room of late.

Back in my clinic days I would amble about after hours, doing dictation with a hand held recorder when all the patients had left.  I would wander through the Waiting Room, culling out stuff that should not be there.  All kinds of things would sneak in, religious tracts and so forth.  Pharmaceutical reps were notorius for stuffing the magazine racks with disguised advertisements.  Really, the last thing you want a patient to be clutching in their hand when they are called back is a glossy "Scrofula Today" publication that extols to high heaven the virtues of a spiffy new drug that is ten times more expensive than the standard treatment but has little to no advantage.

What is left after the culling was bland stuff.  Newsweek when it was a real magazine.  Highlights for Children.  Whatever publications the local high school band kids are hawking at a ludicrous discount as part of their fund raising ventures.

And things have not changed all that much.  Here are a few pictures I took under very adverse photographic conditions at the Egyptian temple of  Kom Ombo.  One half of the temple was dedicated to Haroesis, "The Good Doctor", and our guide assured us that the paved hallway where I took these shots on a brilliantly sunny day was the area where the ill would wait to see the priests, who would hopefully heal them.*

Hopefully, as my reading suggests Egyptian medicine was a little heavy on the therapeutic use of crocodile dung.

It is assumed that those patiently waiting were there long enough to carve this graffiti.
Lets hope this fellow was there to get a mole looked at.  If he actually had a hole in his lower chest ancient treatment would have a low probability of success.
A reminder that a good stretch of Egyptian history was under Ptolemeic, Roman or Byzantine rule.  Kom Ombro for instance is mostly of Roman vintage. So the official language would have been Greek.  I assume an early pharmaceutical rep carved this.  Does it say "Kofu's Celebrated Dung for Scrofula"?

Abe Lincoln with a dueling sword?  Or if you look at it another way, somebody balancing a pitcher on their head.  Maybe it is Serapis, although his usual headgear does not seem to feature a handle.



Ah, but this one I recognized right away!


Why, its the Trojan Rabbit from Monty Python's Holy Grail!
------------------------------
*The attribution of Kom Ombro as a place of healing rests heavily on the interpretation of a carving that appears to show the emperor Trajan, in his role as "pharoah", presenting a set of surgical implements to the god Haroersis.  Haroesis was a manifestation of Horus, the Romans being big on this sort of multiple versions of established deities.

Robotics-Hacking Kiddie Car Motors

Doing the same thing for over a decade can get a little monotonous.  So I mix up the rules and the available supplies for my middle school level combat robotics class every few years.  This year I am banning four wheel drive in hopes of encouraging more creative weaponry.  And I am supplying them with modified gearbox/motor combinations from de-commissioned kiddie cars.  I have lots of these, we keep getting various Barby Jeeps and such donated when we do our Advanced Robotics class.

To test the theory that a modified Jeep gearbox could be made into an effective weapon, still staying under the required three pounds, I built "Mr. Ouchy".
As you can see the testing was rather...vigorous.  But the weapon performed admirably.  It was just an unmodified Kiddie Car gearbox with a polycarbonate strip attached, the latter tipped with some sharpened steel bits.  It had enough power to shred opponents.  It also had enough power to shake itself to bits, but that's kind of irrelevant.

So I have a large number of this type of gearbox:

Temporarily remove the motor and crack open the gearbox and the innards look like this:
What this gearing system does is reduce the very high rpm's of the 12 volt motor, while increasing torque sufficient to move one or more chunky toddlers down their sidewalks at a sedate pace.  At the 9.6 volts we will be using for our weapon batteries that turns out to be about 72 rpm, and with the standard sized Kiddie car wheel is a theoretical top speed of 3 miles per hour.  (OK, I realize that under load it goes slower, but also that it normally runs on 12 volts, so it is still a ball park estimate).

Of course we want more rpm's, and also need to trim weight.  So get out the band saw...

Note the icky yellow grease that fills these gearboxes.  You have to wipe all this stuff out.  So, by trimming the plastic housing down and removing the final gear in the system we get this:

It should be possible to hub a weapon arm or disc onto this, although the linkage is going to be a tricky thing for middle school level technology.  Final weight is right around a pound once the 12 volt motor is re-attached.  It now spins at an rpm rate of 240 and should still have enough torque to knock other robots around.

On the right is a variant, a Kiddie Car gearbox with the final two gears removed.  Lighter, less torque.  I estimate it runs at 900 rpm.

Will this work?  We shall see....

All of this is the sort of thing that I could have the kids do themselves, but as it involves some deft work with the band saw I decided it would be better for me to supply these components.  Their first assignment is to take them apart and reassemble them several times, then to explain to me how they work.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Robotics-Against the New Dark Age

There will be a temporary shift away from archeology for a bit.  Various odds and ends still come my way, but no major undertakings along those lines until I hit my two weeks of excavating in May.

For me winter is Robot Season.  My middle school class is up and running, a Tuesday and a Thursday section with a dozen hyperactive DangerMonkeys in each.


Cutting wheels with a hole saw.  I finally got smart enough to ask them to do this over a wastebasket!

Here are a pair of finished wheels, pink styrofoam with extra grip sand paper attached.  One is already hubbed onto the servos we use for drive.  There are quite a few tutorials on YouTube on doing this.  Hitec 422 is the easiest servo to "hack".

Here is a kid's preliminary sketch with several of the components laid out for spacial orientation.  Cordless drills and screwdrivers make good weapons.

Again, servos attached to wheels, and the various parts all trying to find a way to fit together....

Sometimes people ask me why I take a considerable amount of time to teach these classes.  I suppose I could instead be, oh I don't know, working or laying on a beach or something.  Well, first of all it is fun.  There is a little remnant of the destructive middle schooler left in most of us.

But honestly part of the reason I do this is that kids now days get almost no opportunity to tinker with things.  They don't build stuff.  The world they live in is largely defined by immaterial images on screens, generated by Chinese made printed circuit boards that you can't just rip out and play around with.  In my long ago and largely feral childhood we built go karts and dismantled home appliances and built things that would probably not be entirely legal if looked at in a certain light.

Now I have kids who literally do not know which end of the screwdriver to use.

So think of this as my lonely crusade against a technological Dark Age of Ignorance.   But the challenge at hand is not as in past Dark Ages the actual loss of practical skills.  No, in the garishly lit, cacophonous "Bright Age of Ignorance" the ability to create with your own hands is just being overwhelmed by seductive, distracting, insubstantial ether.