Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Grandchildren of the Okies Go Home

In Wisconsin I pay a fair amount in taxes.  In general I think the place is run pretty well although as a fiscally conservative sort I can see a few areas where the state government could do better.

Things are much more difficult in places like California, where high taxes, governmental inefficiency, and in the opinion of some, restrictive environmental laws are making it difficult for businesses to thrive. 

It was not always thus.  Back in the days of Dust Bowl and Depression California was the shining El Dorado sought out by impoverished Okies fleeing hard times.  It didn't always work out as they thought it might; Woody Guthrie once wrote a poignant ballad about how California might not welcome you "If you don't have that Do Re Mi".

I am told that successful entrepreneurs are now leaving a business-unfriendly California in flocks.  No doubt some of them are the successful grandchildren of the Okies.

Is it time to re-write the Woody Guthrie classic?  With due apology to a great American talent:

Do Rei Me
2012 Edition

Lots of folks back West, they say, is leavin' home every day,
Beatin' the hot old dusty way to the California line.
'Cross the desert sands they roll, gettin' back to that old dust bowl,
They think they're goin' to a sugar bowl, and here's what they find
Now, the police at the port of exit say,
"You're number fourteen thousand for today."

Oh, if you got the do re mi, folks, if you got the do re mi,
Why, you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.
California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see;
But believe it or not, you won't find it so hot
If you got the do re mi.

You want to buy you a home or a farm, don't do the smelt no harm,
Or take your vacation by the mountains or sea.
Don't swap for a hybrid car, don't stay right where you are,
Better take this little tip from me.
'Cause I look through the want ads every day
But the headlines on the papers always say:

If you got the do re mi, boys, if you got the do re mi,
Why, you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.
California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see;
But believe it or not, you won't find it so hot
If you got the do re mi.
Its actually difficult to know how Woody would view our politics.  He was certainly an Old Line Lefty and would be consistent in favoring higher taxes on "the rich".  But there was a strong sense of individuality and a respect for work ethic in his lyrics.  And as to idling agricultural land for smelt, well you have to recall that Woody Guthrie was for a time employed in helping publicize hydroelectric projects in the Northwest.  As the man said:

     "Your power is turnin' our darkness to dawn, roll on Columbia roll on"

Further into the Robotic Abyss-The Advanced Class

With the final bits of debris from Machines Behaving Badly re-entering earth's orbit I can stand down from helping 24 kids built small robots out of servos, and old plywood, and styrofoam.  And give myself a few well deserved days off before starting up the Advanced Class.

I have done the basic class for 12 years now, on occasion running two classes in one year.  But the Advanced class is a different breed of cat.  This is year five, so it corresponds to my dropping out of the conventional working world and becoming a freelancer.  As such it is driven by my curiosity and sustained by my flexible schedule.

I have a privacy policy that means I do not show photos of my students.  But I can make exceptions here and there, as middle school kids change so quickly that pix from a few years back no longer resemble the lads* in the least.  Also, the two projects I am highlighting made some local TV and newspaper coverage and are in theory already out there somewhere.

This is SUMO a 30 pound combat robot built from Barbie Jeep gearboxes, old cabinet parts and a snow shovel.  We took it to a competition at the Mall of America and actually won a few matches.  A final-post combat-photo:

This was rather fun.  I also do some MC work at these things which would surprise anyone familiar with my default "taciturn" mode.  Immediately on conclusion of the event I got on a plane to go digging in England.


Here is a happy bunch of roboteers with a lunch delivery rover.  Basic parts include somebody's old red wagon, more Barby Jeep gearboxes, a linear actuator from a satellite TV dish, an old music stand and a small wireless video camera.  In theory this allowed delivery of lunch to the Assistant Principle while the kids were at a distant "Mission Control" (note the tv behind them).  Kind of like the Mars Rover that inspired it.  In practice the range of wireless video cameras is rather limited in a building full of brick, metal and EM noise.  We also needed to make the machine a little narrower, we dinged the office door frame on the way in.  oops.


There are advantages to being a volunteer, and to having no formal training in Education.  It gives me the freedom to do a class, or not, depending on whether I get an amusing idea for one.  This was the year it almost did not happen.  But 'round about Christmas I thought, hmmm, might it be fun to take two full sized Kiddy Cars, put them under remote control and have a Grand Prix Race through the middle school halls at lunchtime?  Well, yes, yes it would. 

So we did.  Two Jeeps, similar power and electronics, variations in mechanical drive control.  Each unit had to have a few silly gimmicks.  One had a confetti cannon made from an old portable vacuum cleaner.  The other a water sprayer from a standard automotive windshield wiper squirter.  We raced at each of the three lunch periods.  The unit with tank steering prevailed 2-1 over the less efficient machine where we just kept the original steering wheel and drove it off a pulley.  (too much slop in the steering, kept hitting walls.  oops redux.).

And of course at the finish line the same Assistant Principle got sprayed with water and/or confetti.

I have briefly posted on the 2011 project  Robotics April Fools.

Ah, and for 2012 I have an interesting project in mind.  The course announcement encourages students to show up prepared to work hard, and to spend some time staring at vending machines......

*One female student in the Advanced class in its first four incarnations.  Probably the best student I have had yet.  She will go far.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Verne Gagne, Paladin

A few months back I went to a wedding in Minneapolis.  It was an upscale event, with a very engaging bride and groom.  It was held at the Calhoun Beach Club.

At the reception I surveyed the assemblage of mostly young hipsters and wondered how many of them knew what the place was formerly known for.

All Star Wrestling.

Saturday morning television was a ritual when I was growing up.  Cartoons for the first few hours then perhaps the Creature Feature horror movies.  But often as not we would opt for All Star Wrestling, a curious Morality Play broadcast every week from the Calhoun Beach Manor.  (The independent TV station that produced the show had studios there).

The straight arrow Paladin of this curious world was Verne Gagne.  He was a local lad, twice NCAA wrestling champion.  He was also at this time middle aged and balding.
His public persona as a "nice guy" seems to have been true.  My fourth grade teacher Mrs. Wagner was a great friend of his, her husband had been his college coach and young Verne actually lived on their sofa from time to time. 

And we needed a nice guy to cheer for, as the world of wrestling was infested with low characters such as:

Baron Von Rashke!  Although he played his part as a German he was actually from Omaha, Nebraska.  Here he threatens with his signature hold "The Claw", which incidentally became a staple of living room carpet 'rassling with my boys as they grew up.  The Baron later worked as a substitute teacher at Nicollet Junior High School in Burnsville, Minnesota.  One assumes he had very few discipline issues.

Here's another baddie:
Mad Dog Vachon.  This guy was notorious for biting, gouging with unspecified "foreign objects" and so forth.  I seem to recall seeing him literally foaming at the mouth during interviews.  Of course in real life Maurice Vachon was a very nice guy.  A friend of mine used to play racquetball against him.  He says Mad Dog talked continuously.  You just couldn't shut the guy up.

The cast of characters for All Star Wrestling was indeed rich and varied.  A few went on to greater things, Jesse Ventura and Hulk Hogan come to mind.  Others were then and now nearly anonymous.  There was one guy who was always put up against opponents he could never hope to beat.  He was invariably introduced as "The Very Capable Kenny Jay".  But hey, I see he actually has his own Wikipedia entry!  Capable!

All Star Wrestling was essentially an infomercial.  Verne Gagne was on pitching a tonic called Geri Speed.  Supposedly this is what kept him in peak physical shape even though he was just a few years younger than my dad.  In retrospect the name seems ironic, suggesting Geriatric amphetamines, but at the time it was played entirely straight.

Mostly though the Saturday morning All Star Wrestling program existed to encourage folks to come out for the real events held Saturday nights at the Minneapolis auditorium.
We knew, even as children, that the results of the TV matches were pre-ordained.  As to the auditorium bouts, well, I never went to see them but I understand they were spirited competitions.  And if Right prevailed after a tough struggle, or if  defiant Evil carried the day on its way to an eventual downfall, well that's just how the Universe was set up.  It was pure Milton, with lots of sweat.

The Calhoun Beach Manor is now an upscale place with luxury apartments and various bar/restaurant/event businesses. 

And sadly Verne Gagne is suffering from advanced Alzheimer's dementia. 

Johnny Weismueller, who had the same diagnosis, retained some vestiges of his earlier self, still belting out his signature Tarzan yell at the care facility where he spent his final days.

Perhaps Verne Gagne also has a few faint echos of his once mighty "scientific wrestling" technique.  Tragically he injured a fellow nursing home resident in 2009, knocking the fellow over and breaking his hip.  The poor man died of his injuries.

Investigating officials declined to press charges, as The Champ was felt to be incapable of understanding the nature of his actions.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Helicopters and Explosions!

For all the criticism that our public servants suffer I think the occasional tip of the hat is in order.  While traveling recently I encountered the following poster at an interstate rest stop:
Those of us who have become inured to the somnolent drone of the bureaucrat salute you, anonymous sir or madam.  This is a direct, eye catching and to the point headline.  And because at least 50% of the audience, I'm thinking all of the men, will want to know more...

As to the advice at the bottom to not gawk, well, we will all do our best.  But, but.....it's Helicopters and Explosions!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Sissyphus MD

2 am.

It's always 2 am when the potentially bad arrives unheralded.  In this case it was a middle aged woman having an allergic reaction.

These come in varying degrees of severity.  At the mild end you have a few hives and an anxious patient.  This is not all bad, as adrenaline is the first line drug for allergic reactions.

But this was at least potentially a bit worse.  Wheezing and swelling of the lips, of rapid onset.

Well, the lip swelling was not quite this severe

We started out OK, with decent vital signs.  There is a standard litany...IV access, antihistamines, steroids, adrenaline.  Maybe a fluid challenge if the blood pressure was trending low.

But in the ER you always have to be prepared for the best and worst case scenarios.  So we moved the patient to the trauma bay, the place where we have all the tools.

There is a sort of checklist in these situations.  Plan A is that the medications work and everything returns to normal.  Plan B involves intubation in case the airway threatens to swell shut.  Various later letters of the alphabet involve ever more invasive measures, ultimately ending up with things I have not actually done on humans, but have demonstrated a fair degree of proficiency in with sheep and dogs in a lab setting.

But tonight at least fortune smiles upon us.  Quick administration of drugs holds things stable.  Oh, at one point the wheezing got a bit worse and I glanced over to where the intubation equipment stood ready, but a breathing treatment of bronchodilators relieved matters considerably.

In a rural ER there is little middle ground.  The folks who do great get fixed and go home.  The folks who do lousy get shipped out with dispatch.  But this lady lingered a bit.  Sometimes the only thing to do is wait, and the only place to do it is the one location where we would have a fighting chance if things went bad fast.

That means a patient sleeping soundly in the ER at 5 am, waiting for the medications to finish their work.

And they did.

All went well.  In a small clinical setting patients are often very appreciative.  She expressed her thanks.  I shook her hand and said it had been my pleasure.

As the sun rose at 6am I called her friends, the ones who had dropped her off and subsequently been sent home.

It took them a while to turn up I guess, and at 8 am when I pulled out of the parking lot I looked in my rear view mirror.

There was my patient.  Standing on the curb waiting for her ride.  Snowflakes swirled down around her.  Her lips were now back to normal size and were pursed around a cigarette as she took a deep, and apparently satisfying drag.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Fishing with Pirates

Perhaps my post on reviving the concept of Privateers to deal with Somali pirates was a bit hasty.  I mean, it would certainly work on paper.  My concept was that a private group-likely former servicemen and women-would outfit some refurbished World War II LST for the task.  In this I probably was not ambitious enough, as I understand that the United States Navy actually has a large inventory of warships available in the so called " Mothball Fleet".  Here for instance is a rather nice assortment anchored out in California, with the crown jewel on the far left clearly being the 45,000 ton battleship USS Iowa!

You would not only be safe from pirate attacks, you in all likelihood would not even notice them.

But there is a problem.  The Somali pirates do not fight fair.  When they encounter one of the numerous naval vessels patrolling the area they simply toss their weapons and boarding ladders over the side, pick up their fishing poles and try, probably with minimal success, to look innocent.

Which leaves our naval officers with little to do beyond asking them how the fishing is.

As it turns out that is actually a very relevant question!

If you are of a certain vintage you might remember this 1960s poster:
It is still mostly true, but as it turns out war can actually be very healthy for fish populations. 

One of my blogging pals has a grandfather still alive and kicking at age 96.  He ran a fish and chips business and tells tales of how enormous the codfish were in the immediate post war period.  It makes perfect sense if you think about it.  The fishing fleets of all the maritime nations were either in port due to threat of enemy action, or were actually drafted into service as naval auxiliaries.  Leave fish alone and they grow like crazy.  This parallels other experiences where human misbehaviour makes fishing impractical such as Giant Hungry Fish at Chernobyl!

So I was not surprised to find with just a little nosing about, a tale of how fishing has been great in Kenya, just a bit south of Somalia, since the pirates chased the commercial fishing fleet off.  Fish coastal Africa.

Some people who want to think less badly of the Somali pirates indicate that they started out as local fishermen who were simply defending their livelihood.  When civil society collapsed in their country there were supposedly unscrupulous commercial fishing vessels that showed up offshore and grossly over fished the waters while operating under flags of convenience.

Well, maybe.  And if the pirates are just honest guys doing their best in a troubled time I think it would make sense to see if any of them want to go legit and start running sport fishing charters.  It sounds like the fishing would be fabulous.  And I suppose if there was any trouble with unrehabilitated pirates, well, old habits would take over.  I could see them tossing the poles over the side and pulling the machine guns out from under the seats!

Monday, January 23, 2012

The theater at Alexandria

Alexandria is my favorite city in Egypt.  It is a center of ancient learning, and has always been sort of the equivalent of St. Petersburg-a window to the outside world.  You would expect it to be the most modern of Egyptian cities and at least psychologically that is true.  But in terms of the infrastructure of a modern city they have a problem.  Every time they try to excavate for something new they hit stuff like this:
Ancient ruins everywhere.  This is the largest archaeological site in Alexandria, if one somewhat inexcusably ignores the fascinating underwater archeology in the harbors.  The big pile of red brick in the background is the remains of an extensive bath complex.  The seating to the left is modern, built into a slope that is packed with shards of amphorae and samian ware.  This structure is designed to allow modern day theater goers to have as a visual backdrop, this:

This is a very pretty little theater.  Thirteen rows of seating survive, there were probably three more in antiquity giving a cozy venue for about 800 spectators.  For this reason, and because it seems to have once had a supported roof, it would technically be more proper to refer to it as an Odeon.  But since the locals insist on calling it a theater I will not be argumentative.

It dates from the 3rd century AD and appears to have stayed in operation to the end of the Byzantine era.  Various sections have been rebuilt after the earthquakes common to this part of the ancient world.

In my discussion of the Odeon at Lyon I suggested that the productions presented were high brow stuff, musical performances and lectures.  But some of the graffiti at the Alexandria Odeon appears to relate to political meetings, wrestling matches and to the Blues and Greens, fractious sports enthusiasts whose passions for chariot racing often boiled over to riot and mayhem.  Odd that even at the heart of the ancient world's most storied center of learning there was an element of the rude proletariat.

The theater has a marvelous acoustic "sweet spot".  When you stand there and speak quietly the echo comes back with perfect fidelity, giving you the disconcerting experience of having yourself whisper directly into both of your own ears!
If the Odeon proper has a surprising low brow theme directly adjacent to it are a row of structures that perhaps preserve the theme of ancient learning.

These miniature theaters are felt to be "auditoria".  Basically classrooms where a teacher would stand atop a raised platform while students sat literally at the feet of the master.  They date from the 5th and 6th centuries AD and suggest that the entire complex had an academic purpose at that point in history.

Who knows.  If this was the classroom of ancient Alexandria perhaps the Odeon served part time as the equivalent to our college football stadium!

Addendum:  A bit tattered from long use as a bookmark, here is my entry ticket for the theater complex:
Egyptian banknotes are rubbish, but their tickets are rather nice!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Machines Behaving Badly....Brief report.

The event went well.  By cracking the whip and keeping things moving we ran something like 40 matches over a slightly long four hours.  Above is a view of the arena as robots are going in.  We had two arena cams shooting the entire event (note laptop perched on arena), so hope for some edited down footage of the action within the next week.  (?)
Above is one of our three pit areas.  Full field of 24 robots.
Brackets were a complex matter.  Note the steady progression through the winning ranks by a robot named "Chuck Norris".  Because, hey, Chuck Norris never loses a fight.  (and didn't).
The staff at Robot Hospital.  Either my focus or their energies were a bit fuzzy when I took this picture.  Both most likely.  They did quite a few operations today, wheel transplants the most common.  In one rather energetic match one robot lost one of his two wheels while his opponant lost both!
Towards the end we had three or even four robots at a time mixing it up melee style.  It reminded me of middle east politics.

Highlight of the day for me was a kid in the one pound weight class.  He had spend a lot of time working on his machine and practicing his driving.  After winning a match or two and being on the brink of another victory he got pushed into a spinning hazard and ripped to shreds.  He was near tears.  But he rallied, slapped his machine back together again and fought on.  He made it to the final match, with first place on the line.......and got ripped to shreds again.  But he was happy with second place, and seems to have enjoyed the ride getting there.

Hope to have some rather jaw dropping video coming in a bit, but off for three days of out of town work so it will be a little while.

Thanks to the dedicated volunteer help, to the enthusiastic kids and their families.

Friday, January 20, 2012

How to Run a Combat Robotics Tournament

This is admittedly a rather specialized topic.

I have been doing student robotics tournaments for over a decade now, and have had various degrees of involvement in larger robot events "back in the day".   At the present time the last big combat robotics event is Robogames out in San Francisco.  There are a variety of low profile small robot events and some really excellent non combat venues such as FIRST robotics and Vex.  For the younger kids there is also LegoLeague

I imagine the things I have learned (mostly the hard way) over the years could help people involved in such endeavours. 

So here goes.

1. Always start your event precisely on time.  Failure to begin on time always starts a chain reaction of further delays.  You must be ruthless but fair.  If a kid has a non operational machine he can be bumped into a later bracket.  He can be given some extra help.  But nobody stops an exact High Noon start to Machines Behaving Badly.  It is after all the traditional time for a show down.

2. Batteries.  Lots of batteries.  And battery chargers.  And battery testers.  Of all the "oops moments" when a competitor is instead revealed to be an inert paperweight, failure to keep an eye on battery power is the least excusable.  I tell students that one of the secrets of success in life is always showing up on time and with your batteries fully charged.

3. Volunteer help.  I have four or five veteran helpers who are gracious enough to turn up every year.  I have a Cage Boss who puts the robots in and out of the enclosed arena, making sure they are powered on and off appropriately.  He is good at his job.  You can tell, he has all ten upper extremity digits.  I have a Bracket Master.  He has some sort of advanced Electrical Engineering degree which enables him to change things around on the fly.  All kids get at least two fights in, and those who get the axe early are kept around to drive our bracket-filler "Victimbots".  I have a play by play guy who gets to put his English Major to its sole meaningful use.  I have a couple of Robot Hospital surgeons armed with glue guns and a sense of humor.  And I have often drafted spectators for minor jobs like time keeping.
Because sometimes even Robot Hospital can't save you.  Yes, I know the sign is misspelled.

4.  Have a rational, which is to say vague, judging system.  My cage boss, announcer and bracket guy are the judges.  They confer after a match that goes the distance.  Their word is Law.  There are no published criteria for the event, its just the opinions of three guys who have seen hundreds of robot fights.  On close calls I make the announcement myself, with a few preliminary compliments to both drivers/robots.

5. Final rounds should be final.  For the championship round we have no timer, no judges.  Both robots get freshly charged batteries.  Mad Max rules.  "Two bots enter.  One bot leaves."

6. Give the competitors a quick pep talk just before the event starts.  (11:50 on my time flow-sheet).  A few bromides about enjoying the sight of dismembered robot parts flying about.  More fun if it is your opponent, but pretty fun even if it is you.

7. Make it a family friendly event.  We often put a notice in the middle school newsletter and something in the local entertainment weekly.  Families turn up.  Malice filled younger siblings get to operate the arena hazards. 

8.  Move it along.  Three hours of full on action-in which I strive to have actual combat happening for 40% of that time-is better by far that five hours of desultory intermittent activity.  Nobody wants to stare at an empty arena.
Kind of like the Obelisk from 20001
I pride myself on being ready for all foreseeable contingencies at my robotics events.  That just leaves the unforeseen to deal with. 

Robotic mayhem begins at noon tomorrow, so this is the Eve of Destruction.  Brief posting after the event, but I will then be out of town for several days, so detailed info and video later in the week.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

It's like they don't care that I know

There is a great line from the movie "Chicken Run" in which the doltish Mr. Tweedy engages every last one of his limited supply of grey cells, and after pondering long and hard comes to this conclusion regarding chickens:

[Whispering to himself] "They're organized. I know it."

We had a recent similar experience at our house, although Spouse bears no resemblence to the venomous Mrs. Tweedy. 

We were in the kitchen minding our own business when one of the squirrels that I suspect of being part of an ongoing surveillance detail was noticed high up in a tree where he thought we could not see him:
Sipping on coffee to keep warm. 

They're organized.  I know it!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Sheesha and Graffiti

A few odds and ends from our trip to Egypt.
You may recall the prolific scrawlings of The Great Belzoni.  But he is far from the only European to take chisel or ink to ancient structures in Egypt.  It seems rather gauche to us, but slapping the equivalent of "Kilroy was here" to indicate that you were the first Westerner to see something was once considered a form of exploring.  Now the graffiti has become a part of the historic record.  There are extensive websites devoted to this topic: http://www.travellersinegypt.org/archives/2005/01/graffito_graffiti.html

Here is a quaint image:
Note the pyramids of Giza in the background.  At times it is difficult to tell the officials from the hucksters.  Wandering around the less touristed back side of the pyramid complex we encountered an officer in full uniform who in very friendly fashion offered to show us the inside of one of the subsidiary tombs.  Once we had seen it he stood astride the exit with palm outstretched looking for baksheesh before we were able to leave!
Here is the picture that once dredged up off the internet will put paid to any nascent political career I might be considering.  But it is nothing illicit.  Puffing on a waterpipe full of some kind of flavored tobacco is a major social pastime in Egypt.  I seem to recall it was referred to as "sheesha".  Not a habit I have any notion of continuing.

My son juggling by the Nile.  We did not see much in the way of street performance other that a couple of rather unenthusiastic snake charmer guys.  I got the impression that you had to have the permission of somebody-maybe the police, maybe the street person guild-to do stuff in public, so he kept his practicing to private spaces.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Twice Across the Nile

The adage is "when in Rome, do as the Romans do", but when in Egypt you should probably do a few "tourist" things.  I drew the line at riding a camel, but it was very worth it to climb around inside one of the Great Pyramids at Giza.

So, when there was an opportunity to go hot air ballooning at Luxor we figured, why not.

You get up very early and board a little shuttle boat to cross to the far side of the Nile.
And have an early morning cup of tea.  The coffee was a bit too much like Nile delta mud for my palate.

Then a quick van ride to an empty field at the edge of cultivated land.  About a dozen hot air balloons were firing up for the day, which is really a rather spectacular sight.  But from long habit I always scan the ground beneath my feet, and was amazed to see that we were standing amongst scattered pottery shards.  I suppose they might have been "new" (that's Roman era in Egypt), but they sure looked like the stuff we had been seeing excavated.  Temptation spoke to me, but all the shards stayed in Egypt.

I had never been in a hot air balloon before, and was very surprised to discover how little sense of motion there is.  You look away for a minute, then look down and see...

yikes! how did that happen?

The balloon was operated by an energetic fellow who called himself "Captain Meemo".  He wore a uniform that looked appropriate for the captain of a Caribbean  cruise ship but seemed to know his stuff.  The entirety of our pre flight training involved telling us to get down to the bottom of the basket when landing.  Safety lecture?  Liability waivers?  Nah, things will be just fine, Inshallah.

We recrossed the Nile and looked down into the houses of Luxor.  A large percentage have unfinished sections.  We heard various explanations including the theory that taxes are paid per story so everyone just gets a permit for a small one story building and adds on slowly so that it is easy to ignore the change.  Of course, a bit of baksheesh helps that as well.
Addition? What addition?

Obviously the people running this business have the prevailing winds all figured out.  In fact, weather in Egypt is so predictable that I wonder if they even have weathermen on the news. 

We set down in a field of sugar cane outside of town.  The advice to get low on landing was prudent, you need to drop the center of gravity down lest the basket tip.  We nearly hit a donkey, but that sort of thing just can't be helped sometimes. Malesh.
Tragic news from March 2013.  One of the Luxor tourist balloons burst into flames as it came in for a landing.  19 dead, two badly injured survivors.  One of whom was the Captain, a certain Momin Murad.  I can't be sure in a land where many share few names, but I fear it was our "Captain Meemo".  Sad.  And makes our faux anxiety seem much less funny.  So much recent sadness in Egypt....

Update March of 2013:
Tragic news out of Egypt, a land of much recent sadness.  One of the Luxor tourist balloonsb

Update 30 March 2013:
Recent news out of Luxor is tragic, with one of the tourist hot airballoons going down in flames as it came in for a landing.  19 dead with two badly injured survivors.   One of the badly burned survivors was the balloons's captain, a certain Momin Murad.  In a land where  so many share so few names it is impossible to be sure, but this may well be our "Captain Meemo

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Robotics-The Home Stretch

The Machines Behaving Badly tournament is one week off.  Each of the two classes has one session left for fine tuning or emergency kludge-engineering.

A few pictures and comments:

Some weapons-off sparring.  This features the "bucketbot" with a spinning disc versus a robot with a paddle bit.  Paddle bits are deadly to any exposed wiring, but it won't even scratch a well armored machine.

Kids who are finished and have had a chance to drive a bit are then detailed to help out kids who have gotten behind.  Usually, as is the case here, this happens when they try to build something too complex for their skill level.  A little help gets them to the competition with something that runs for at least a while.
Psychological warfare.  This robot is named Ellen.  The partial word "ellion" on the front is coincidence.  I had a robot named "Amish Rebellion" that got parted out, and this is a section of its lexan top cover.

I allow, nay, I encourage kids to find ways to circumvent all rules that do not relate directly to safety.  The drive system of all these robots is just hacked servos.  But this machine has an overvolted cordless screwdriver on the back of it.  When it is fired up those drywall screws will rotate at a rapid rate, causing it to hop forward with great industry.  At least in theory.  The center of gravity is too far forward.  I told the student that if this thing got clobbered in first round beetle action he could just take the saw to it, chop off the front ramp and the screwdriver-drive and compete as a one pounder!  Heck, why not.

A very scary weapon.  When mounted it will have a spinning blade about 18 inches across, and made up of rather sharp Sawsall blades.  Most likely this will be unstable as all get out, and on first impact with anything solid the whole robot will bounce around the arena like a superball.  I am looking forward to this.  This is one of those robots that will be completed a few minutes before it goes into action.  Heh, this reminds me of my favorite quote from Galaxy Quest:  "Well, it has never actually been successfully tested."

This was built by one of my students from last year.  He kept the parts of his previous robot and built this in the "off season".  It is the corpse of an RC car sheathed in duct tape and driven by two ridiculous little hacked servos.  It might do well just by weight of sheer plastic, as the forward 80% or so of the robot could be bitten off without impacting functionality.  It has a puny little weedwhacker weapon that will break rather quickly, so he is not allowed to test it outside the arena.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Ron Paul versus the pirates

One of the chief responsibilities of our children is to surprise us. 

So I was slightly taken aback when one of my sons expressed an interest in joining the armed services.  He seemed particularly interested in having a go at the Somali pirates who have been plaguing shipping lanes off the coast of Africa.

This is a young man of peaceful disposition.  He has never to my knowledge been involved in fisticuffs.  He is squeamish about putting worms on hooks for fishing.  But when I asked him if he would be willing to fire a broadside at a ship full of pirates he said yes without hesitation.

Heck, as a fellow appreciator of the Napoleonic era Hornblower series of books he would likely be ready to clench a dagger in his teeth, unsheathe a cutlass and join a boarding party.

Also in the category of surprising his parents, he has expressed interest in and approval of Ron Paul.  And there might be a connection between these two data points.

The readership of this blog seems to consist in large measure of British archeology buffs and folks from Serbia who enjoy pictures of dogs and squirrels in silly outfits.  As they might not be up to date on American politics, allow me a brief aside for their benefit.

Ron Paul is a Congressman from the Great State of Texas.  Although he does not fit conveniently into either major political party he is running for President as a Republican.  Paul is an unusual political figure.  It is both important and very difficult to listen to his ideas.  Most politicians of our generation say things that are almost 100% meaningless fluff.  Ron Paul's ideas are about 30% genius and 70% nonsense.

Ron's idea for dealing with Somali pirates?  Bring back the concept of privateers! 

This is a very old idea, dating back to the time when navies were expensive and the world a very big and loosely patrolled place.  You just issued a special license, called a Letter of Marque and Reprisal, that authorized a private ship to arm itself and go after a specific enemy.  Often this would be a rival nation, but there is nothing inconsistent with the idea of commissioning private parties to go after pirates.

The British and French commissioned lots of privateers during their endless squabbles of the 17th and 18th centuries.  The American colonies authorized a few during the Revolution, and the authority to issue letters of Marque and Reprisal is specifically given to Congress in the Constitution.

As a business model it was reasonable at the time.  You outfitted a ship with guns and went hunting.  If you captured a suitable enemy vessel there was money to be made, as the cargo and the sale price of the ship proper became "prize money" to be divided among the crew.

Privateering slowly fell out of favor.  It was a little too easy to join the Dark Side and become a pirate when peace inconveniently broke out.  Most sea faring nations-but not the United States-signed an 1856 treaty banning the practice.  There were a few Confederate commerce raiders during the Civil War that operated under Letters of Marque issued from Richmond, then a few third tier South American nations that tried to revive the practice in the 1870s.

Interestingly the awarding of Prize Money lasted a bit longer.  The last Americans to collect any were the boarding party from the USS Omaha which intercepted a German blockade runner in November of 1941.  The US and Germany were technically still at peace, but the German ship was flying false American colors and tried to scuttle herself, so she was considered a legitimate "prize" and the men of the boarding party collected $3000 each.  But only after six years of wartime distraction and peacetime litigation!

So would issuing Letters of Marque work against the Somali pirates?  I think it might.  Congressman Paul is a Texan and knows his constituents.  Given half an excuse I can certainly see a bunch of ex-serviceman "Good Old Boys" pulling an old LST out of mothballs and giving it a try.

I can also see my son signing on.

But I am sure that the 21st century version of privateering would be tamer than that from the Age of Sail.  No doubt the crew of the Alamo Huzzah would include an on board legal counsel, a Health and Safety Officer and a couple of human rights observers.

That would come in handy.  They could play rounds of bridge on whatever deserted island they got marooned on between here and the Indian Ocean!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Signs of the Times, Egyptian Edition

Although advertising in Egypt, like everywhere else, is shifting to electronic media the dense population still makes for a great deal of simple signage for ads.  I find these an enigmatic window into another culture--one I can peer into and perhaps imperfectly understand what is going on.

Remember this guy?  When the security goons were not around our guide would speak frankly.  He said that among educated Egyptians Mubarrak was referred to as "the fat smiling cow".  Notice how dictators always appear 30 years younger than their true age.
From a box of tomatoes at a street market.  So, what exactly links a Walt Disney pirate (Smee, I think) with produce in Cairo?  I do know the odds of Uncle Walt collecting any royalties on the use of this image.  So I guess we have the piracy angle....
Just plain odd.  So, is the one armed Nordic woman in some kind of extreme gold fish swallowing competition?
This was an ad outside a movie theater.  I think it related to the feature being shown.  There are no Egyptians with hair like this.  None.  The display of intense, retro 70s funk also does not fit any current culture of which I have been made aware.